At this point I can say that I’m rather grateful to my colleague Vincent F. Hendricks for indirectly having participated in rekindling an old obsession of mine with philosophy with his The Power of Thought TV series on the Danish television program DK4. As any academic these days, who is forced to establish something relevant within the academia that the masses supposedly should learn from or have access to, I do American studies, which is my ‘official’ academic field, with this in mind. Hence I tend to forget old loves. Within my field I have noble aims, it should be mentioned – I’m interested in starting an American studies as visual studies consortium across universities in Denmark – but I often find that my veering off into philosophy, theology, art history, and science may seem rather dubious to those that think that American studies is social history. More than once I was tempted at work to blurt at my colleagues and actually tell the traditionalists that, yes, if I know or do history, then it’s more Judaic than American – not to mention the period: I much prefer the medieval and Renaissance scholars, mystics and exegetes, to the American Puritans.

But I play nice. Those that really care to know about what I do, get served, however, an interesting dish. But it doesn’t happen very often that I find it worth the while to spill the beans. So I keep flirting with other disciplines to myself, yet following religiously a master who knew a thing or two about bringing out the dead by forging forth the margin, by dealing with the pallor of death, namely Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav who once said: “it’s forbidden to be old.” I keep myself young by consciously diving into the ‘frivolous’ and the ‘non-serious’ in connection with work that I nevertheless get paid for. At the end of the day, it is precisely this very act of deviating by diving that attracts others to my ideas in the field of American studies. What Nahman means to say is that deviating is the very condition for the possibility of being.

So, Vincent, this one is for you.

The first thing that we have in common is obviously a love for quotes. You quote and I quote. My whole Fragment book in fact deals with nothing else other than performing the quote. That was an ambitious work whose aim was to stretch to the limit Benjamin’s vision of creating an entire body of criticism based on quotation. Easier said than done. What remains is precisely a continuation of the pursuit of untangling this enigma: what has one quote to do with another?, or what has this long preamble got to do with the philosophy of religion?

But here comes something. The above narrative, while seemingly pointless in connection with my notes on The Power of Thought series, has a point. If the philosophy of religion is interesting to consider it is because it opens a space for negotiating between nostalgia and imagination through acts of reading. Let's see how this can unfold.

The 7th installment begins with a statement from Bacon: “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” (Francis Bacon, Of Atheism).

Lars Sandbeck addresses this citation sideways by bringing in the question of age. There seems to be a relation of direct proportionality between men growing old and their interest in religion, yet not necessarily as an institution but more as a philosophy, when it tends to become a form of atheism. This induces a crisis: if you are old, you get religious, but if your religion is philosophical in kind then it cannot, by definition, settle in the epiphany: I found God. Hence the old homo religiosus par excellence is an atheist. In contexts other than the academic this interest is taken to express a truth of life: with age, one grows nostalgic, not imaginative. In an academic setting, this very fact of life becomes uninteresting, yet the question of nostalgia vs. imagination is tackled nonetheless, albeit differently in philosophy and religion departments respectively. Sandbeck points out, however, that there are 4 aspects that open for a cross-interdisciplinary approach to erkenntnis and erfahrung.

What follows here is a loose paraphrase of Sandbeck’s introductory notions. Firstly, pragmatically we can tackle the question of whatever bothers us – here, whether God exists or not – by testing the veracity or falsity of statements formulated to this effect. In other words we go with the strongest argument – so form is more important than content. Secondly, there is the emotional aspect to consider when posing metaphysical questions. Thus, insofar as the question, ‘does God exist?, tends to produce anxiety in us, we experience a crisis that needs psychological fixing. Thirdly, socially we have fantasies about others which we then project onto higher beings. The question, ‘does God exist?’ is superseded by another hypothesis: if God exists, and if he embodies all things good, why does he allow for wickedness in the world? So content takes over form, as we rely – without always thinking – on being influenced by others. Fourthly, insofar as we are able to create something that others can see as beautiful, sublime, disturbingly grotesque, intelligent, and so on, the hypothesis is that if we experience a sense of the divine in ourselves that transcends the mundane it is because we ourselves have become gods. In this capacity, the wisdom that we pass on is usually the result of having become aware of two omniscient powers that we shift between quite optionally: (1) we do what we do because we don’t know any better; (2) we do what we do because we know better. This brings to mind the wonderfully symmetrical line from Piet Hein: “Knowing what thou knowest not, is in a sense omniscience.”

On my part, I like what Franz Rosenzweig has to say: “The Good Lord did not create religion; he created the world”. In Rosenzweig's scheme religion is a human endevor, and it has little to do with God. Thus religion is not a separate reality from the world in which we find ourselves as is; as we perceive ourselves, not in front of God but more in front of, and vis-a-vis others. There was a rather moving moment in the show, which threw me off my track for a moment, but which enforces brilliantly Rosenzweig’s idea that religion, in its essence, whether philosophically articulated or otherwise, is to be found in our way of being, in our omniscient limitation. Says Hendricks: “I’m a mulatto,” inviting Sandbeck to consider the problem with whether that alone means something, and hence ponder the problem with people's naïve belief in the one-to-one relation between a concept and its reality. That was rather priceless. Sandbeck had a chance to go the colorful way, but he missed. Ah! (Maybe that had to do with his rather off-beat sense of style: he wore a pretty austere Bordeaux color, velvet, I think, jacket reminiscent of Thomas More’s clerical attire, which he paired with white sneakers, and I bet white socks). It would have been brilliant if Sandbeck had picked up on Hendricks’s gesture of invitation to read him beyond the conceptual - what is a mulatto? - and in a deconstructive way. Ah, where is Bacon when one needs him? Says Bacon on reading acts: “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man; and, therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit; and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not.” Thus it is by reading that one constructs oneself as a person, hence becoming a homo textus.

As I write this I’m listening to Bach cantatas, and particularly the one called: “Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten” (Nr. 78 BWV 78), makes me think of the value of making steps, as fast as we can, towards reading more, especially others – when and if they let us.

On the philosophy of religion, yes, the end note must be one of gratitude. Thank you Vincent, for bringing out the idea that no space is protected from reading. A quote for you: “The philosopher speaks of phenomena and noumena. Why would he not lend his attention to the being of the book or bibliomenon?" (G. Bachelard, L’activité rationaliste)


It's been a while, but I follow. I'm surprised you said nothing about faith. In your inimitable theological framework of thinking you usually have some pretty interesting ideas. Bring them on. Remember what mother said? "Faith is a religion without a roof." I think that if she were still around she would have liked you to articulate something about chimneys. Can one read smoke? Shalom.
Camelia said…
Mana, I miss mother. What an astonishing mind she had! Nobody astonishes me anymore the way she did, and I miss that. You see, she had faith in us, but the way in which she expressed it went beyond formulating it the way I just did! Faith is driven by sentimentality and as such it circumvents the kind of idealism that is bound to turn one into a cynic. What does that mean, you'll ask - but not her, because she would understand. I'm not sure I understand it myself - I'm afraid neither of us got to be as smart as she was - but I'd say this, since she had faith in us - in me: faith is the thing with plume (pardon my irresistible desire to paraphrase the great theologian poet Emily Dickinson who said: "Hope is the thing with feathers". But here, 'plume', in the sense of gazump. What you see is not always what you get. Smoke comes out of it, and yes, cheers to cultural materialism, if something is important to have then it's definitely a good chimney, not a good fire. Gosh, Mana, mother WAS a genius. I feel inspired. If this wasn't a box, I'd expand, grand style, like she would have liked it. Instead I fling to you, clever woman and all, Alisdair Gray, from his Old Negatives:

Who is all fire and wings and hearts and seed?
Has never ended, yet always starts
afresh when the wind changes?
Who gave and changes everything we need?

Who, with all water, weather, ground and spaces,
and many colored eyes of stone, leaf, star,
won't let us rest in them, but instead
drops dead, stands attentive, raves and races?

Who makes all we joyfully, painfully love march away?
and will one day help us
out in a blink, before we are at last wise,
with a present too suddenly big to hold,
think of, or see, or say?
JoBro Hater #3 said…
Very interesting page. You possibly have read Le Livre Brule/The Burnt Book by Marc-Alain Ouaknin. Ouaknin's first few pages include the same Rosenzweig and Bratzlav quotes as you use.

My guess is that you are religious in the Levinas sense but not frum.
Camelia said…
Hi Johnatan, thanks for the comment. You are right on all accounts:
1. yes, I have read Rabbi Ouaknin's book - I even quoted some texts from it in another post here, Actant Art. I love his work.
2. yes, I'm religious in a Levinasian way.
3. but no, I'm not frum.

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