Saturday April 24, 2010
A week or so ago, I made the final edits on an essay for a forthcoming collection on coffee and philosophy – two of my most persistent vices. The essay is a relatively light-hearted response to the philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, who wrote the following stirring condemnation of idling around in coffee shops:
The café is a place of casual social intercourse, without mutual responsibility. One goes in without needing to. One sits down without being tired. One drinks without being thirsty. All because one does not want to say in one’s room. You know that all evils occur as a result of our incapacity to stay alone in our room… Here you are, each at your own little table with your cup and your glass. You relax completely to the point of not being obligated to anyone or anything; and it is because it is possible to go and relax in a café that one tolerates the horrors and injustices of a world without a soul. (Nine Talmudic Readings 111-112)
All of which is entertaining and interesting in equal measure. Anyway, if you want to read my response to this, you will have to look it up in the book when it is published, some time next year. But whilst I was writing this essay, I was reminded of what a peculiar book Levinas’s Nine Talmudic Readings, in which this passage appears, actually is. Buried amid all the stuff that I find frankly baffling, hidden amongst the half-demented diatribes against coffee-drinking, there are all kinds of curious insights and provocative ideas. One passage that impressed me when I first read the book, eight or nine years ago, appears in the essay “As Old as the World”, where Levinas writes of how we might be separated from wrong-doing by a “hedge of roses.”
As is often the case with when I read Levinas, the image seems suggestive and powerful, even when I don’t read it in the same way, or would rather take it in another direction. Lifting this idea from the context in which Levinas discusses it (a context that, I confess, I do not fully understand, having cloth ears when it comes to religion, and having little understanding of the Talmud), I think it can be used to say something about the aesthetic dimensions of ethics.
Let me return to the image. A hedge of roses, first of all, is not a brick wall. It is perfectly possible hack or to push your way through, with relatively little effort, if you really want to. We might like to think that there is an impermeable barrier between ourselves and those acts of which we might disapprove, but the evidence is to the contrary: most of us, given the right conditions, are capable of fairly terrible things. Many of us may hold the conviction that we are not like other people who do terrible things; but I can’t help thinking that this conviction is unwarranted. At the very least, we must confess that simply don’t know how we might be capable of acting, given particular sets of conditions – a thought that should, I think, occasion a certain queasiness. So the first thing that this image does is, for me at least, it suggests that there is a kind of permeability between our everyday lives and those things that we might (and perhaps do) condemn in others.
Not only this, but the image is also one that suggests that when we cause suffering in others, we cannot help but cause some degree of suffering for ourselves – you cannot shove your way through a rose-bush without a few scratches. But, interestingly, it also suggests that these sufferings that we ourselves might experience may be relatively trivial – surface scratches – in comparison with the damage we might cause. It is a common idea in certain Buddhist circles that the so-called “law of karma” is a kind of cosmic eye-for-an-eye, and this kind of view is common elsewhere in everyday sayings such as “what goes around comes around”; but I can’t help thinking that moral consequence, insofar as there is such a thing, is a more complex thing than this; and the possibility that we may be able to come through doing terrible things with only a few scratches – even if it offends some lurking sense we might have of cosmic justice – is one that is worth reflecting on.
But it is perhaps the aesthetic dimension of the image that intrigues me the most. If the barrier between ourselves and those actions of which we may disapprove is permeable, and if the damage that we might sustain in breaching this barrier is potentially only trivial, then what holds us back? When I think of this image, I can’t help thinking that what holds us back may be, in part, a kind of aesthetic awareness, a dislike of the crassness of trampling upon the roses, and a desire to preserve beauty because, well, it is beautiful.
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