Saturday, 13 February 2010

The Spirit of Algebra

1.  A saint’s body is the locus of religion, sex and cruelty.

One can say of a saint’s body what Rilke said about Rodin’s “the Muse” (the Inner Voice) 1896 – “Never was the human body so bent by its own soul.”

 A saint suspends the duality of body and soul – res corporea and res cogitans.  Even for medieval ontologists it must have been obvious that a saint in particular a martyr is not bound by this traditional split of logos and bios.  The pain of holiness writes itself directly on the saint’s body.  The saint’s body is a tractate on being where the arabesque of holy flesh undermines the distinction between theme and digression.

You cannot measure pain, but pain itself is a certain quantity.  A saint is its number.  Christ on the cross is the highest number, because his pain is the quantity of all the sins – especially the sin of holiness.  The Christ number is equal to the total of his sleepless nights – the number Pascal wanted to imitate.  He said: Jesus will be in his death agony until the end of the world.  One is not allowed to sleep until the Crucified One returns.

“Allgebra Du bist Musik: Allgebra Du bist Gott(…)Und nun liebe Mitmenschen: Die Stimme Gottes ist Menschenstimme und heißt Allgebrah.”
(Algebra you are music: Algebra you are God(…) And now dear fellow humans: the voice of God is a human voice and is called Algebra.)
Adolf Wölfli, From the Cradle to the Grave

Saint Adolf II (artist and lifetime patient in the Waldau Clinic in Berne) was the supreme avant-garde of numbers.  In Adolf Wölfli’s trans-galactic Swiss capitalist number system, St Adolf II is the “great-great-God” of his “St Adolf=Giant=Creation”, an interchangeable term for his immeasurable imaginary capital or “building fund”.  The highest number of this ‘new creation’ is “Zorn” (rage).  “Oberon” is the second highest number and already signifies catastrophes, which exceed telling.  St Adolf of the ‘new creation’ is a much higher numeral than ‘algebra on the cross’ of the ‘old creation’.  Wölfli propels his abyss upwards into countless new heavens unlike Pascal who locates his groundlessness more conventionally in the nethermost regions.

2.  The childhood of a saint need not be saint like; nothing about a saint need be saint like except the wish to be one.  I don’t think one is ever a saint without wanting to be one, because who but a saint would want to be a saint?  A saint need not be a martyr but he or she is always in some way unhappy.  One must have a talent for unhappiness, for one cannot be happy in emulation of someone (Christ or the Führer) who was the embodiment of extreme unhappiness and disappointment.  (‘God why have you forsaken me?’)  This would be insulting.  A saint is someone who chooses unhappiness willingly, wholeheartedly.  Unhappiness comes in endless variations; a saint though cannot just wait around for it to happen, he or she must attract or invent it.
Is the pursuit of unhappiness merely the reverse of the pursuit of happiness?  Does one need one’s will to do it?  Need it be a task, a work, something requiring energy or is it a strong urge towards the cessation of activity?  Illness is the most convenient state, it is an inactive activity.  Except - one must not strive to regain one’s health.

 Thérèse of Lisieux’s ‘doctrine of the little way’ merely translates the universal fact that greater human misery is composed of an assortment of little miseries, pinpricks, splinters, tormenting thoughts.   Her method is to turn this fact into a virtue towards sainthood – magnify each tiny irritation until it is ‘as big as a cross’, seek it out, don’t flee it, throw yourself into the arms of your tormenter – yourself.  You can do all these misdeeds to yourself because you are not one, not alone.  Who is then to say what your will actually is, how can there be only one will, if this other force can frequently disarm or disable you?  You live surrounded by enemies, counter wills and they are all inside you.  A saint intuitively knows how to turn the life-destroying negatives into
saint-producing positives.  This is the power of the saint’s Algebra-God.  When the first blood came bubbling over Thérèse’s lips whilst lying in bed on Good Friday, indicating tuberculosis, she felt deep joy at ‘His first call’. 

3.  What is the difference between a saint’s unhappiness and the ordinary kind?  Could it be that a saint does not indulge in the sin of Schadenfreude?  Although a saint-to-be is often befallen by ‘scruples’ – a sort of scurvy of the soul, when he or she is haunted by guilt for all kinds of phantom sins.  The thought alone signifies the possibility of sin and hence is a disguised sinful thought.  Kierkegaard calls this “the sin of despairing over your sins”. 

A saint is not pleased by someone else’s misfortune, but she is not displeased either.  Especially if the other’s unhappiness is a result of the saint’s own quest for unhappiness or even instrumental to it.  Thérèse was somehow pleased when her father suffered agonies of mental derangement and paralysis, which led to his death.  She wanted to see her parents and relatives in sickness; her reasons were of course the purest.  It brought them closer to everlasting life. Or was her father’s suffering and death a prelude to her sainthood and thus pleasing for her?  The whole family was attuned to sainthood – she and her sisters were nuns in the same Carmelite order in Lisieux, the father had tried to be a monk but was not accepted; the mother was also rejected by a convent.  One sister (in both senses) was the Mother Superior who instructed Thérèse to write her religious autobiography.  All the energies of this family seem to have been deflected towards the manufacture of generic religious pain in the same fastidious way they conducted their lace making and watch making business.

Whatever pleasure a saint-to-be can gain from the pain of others it is not extraneous to her sainthood, otherwise she is not a genuine saint.  She must leave physical existence and its upkeep behind her with all its rivalries and gratification.  A saint’s way of being as a progressive cancellation of her existence most exactly fulfils what Heidegger calls “Sein zum Tode” (being-toward-death).  Suffering and pain is a saint’s only food, so he or she would have no reason to resent any amount.  He or she chooses pain.  Pain and suffering remove a saint-to-be from the normal drives of ordinary humans.  Although finally, he or she will exchange all of that pain in a future world for the ultimate nihilism of sainthood.

4.  The law of fear has been replaced by the science of love.  “I hope that one day you will swoop upon me, and carry me off to the furnace of love, and plunge me into a glowing abyss, that I may become forever its happy holocaust…I implore you, cast your eyes upon a multitude of little souls; choose out in this world, I beg of you, a legion of little victims worthy of your Love.” (Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul)

The autobiography of Thérèse of Lisieux unfolds the potent negative egotism of “not wanting” anything, - the use of will to destroy will, otherwise known as “the negation of Will” (Verneinung des Willens).  She is stuck by a sister pinning on her scapular, says nothing, goes around with the pin in her flesh all day.  Montaigne tells a similar story about a peasant boy who hid a fox under his coat in front of a gamekeeper, while it gouged his stomach.  Burnt and unwanted food was “good enough for Thérèse”.  She never wore stockings; her sandals were tied with hemp.  Being alive was for her “exile”, loving Love, victim of Love.  Her disease has no name, she reports about spitting blood, one hour to undress, being always cold, willing to wash clothes next to the hot stove in summer, she did a lot of laundry, after a while even relishing the sprays of dirty water another nun ‘accidentally’ splashed over her face.  She was in charge of the sacristy linen.

She punishes herself for rebellious surges against the “discipline”, “sharp correction” and “voluntary penance” prescribed by the Rule of the Carmelite Order, by devising her own chastisements.  She wore a cross with iron spikes next to the skin, but gave it up when it caused a sore.  Some suggest she beat herself with whips made of nettles.  Like in any prison all objects are potential weapons or means of escape – for Thérèse escape could only be from the ‘exile’ of life.  (One wonders though as in the case of Pascal – where do the specialized instruments come from, what smith fabricated them, was there a local or central ecclesiastical production, catalogue, supplier in Rome?)  Some torture was intangible, ambient – she could not bear the noise of a fingernail grinding against the tooth of another nun.  Instead of reproaching the nun, she turns this into ‘fingernail music’ and yet another sweet funeral march.

The convent household was brutally efficient – whilst she lay in her long death struggle, her death pallet was brought into the infirmary and placed next to her white curtained bed.  She saw herself as a cheap toy of the child Jesus, a little ball he throws into the corner after poking a hole in it.  As Vita Sackville-West commented – Thérèse’s martyrdom was itself a nursery game.
She even questions if she is a “true mystic in the sense of Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross” – her raptures were “deliberate, not supernatural”, suggesting Thérèse may have suffered from a form of hysteria “closely associated with mysticism, in some cases taking the form of a transference of the love instinct (…)Psychologists go so far as to use the word erotomania.” (The Eagle and the Dove, London, 1945, p.140)  Sackville-West is “infuriated” by the mawkishness, tawdriness, ordinariness of this childish “lowbrow” sainthood, which offered ‘littleness’ as its highest virtue.  But that is precisely Thérèse’s genius of the commonplace – her invention.  She was the first ‘kitsch’ saint – the first saint of mass production.  (She was named co-patron of France together with Joan of Arc in 1944.)

Thérèse refers in her autobiography to it being the ‘century of inventions’.  She must find a “lift” (ascenseur) to sainthood, no need to climb the staircase step by step – she just has to make herself little and He will lift her up in his arms to where He is.  When describing the “bridal day” with her “divine Husband”, the day she took the veil, Thérèse evokes “a veritable rhapsody of italicised littleness” (Sackville-West).  She was “the little Holy Virgin presenting the little flower to the little Jesus.  Everything was little on that day.” (Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul)

She created the impression that any ordinary child could ascend straight from the nursery into sainthood – the ‘Lift to the Scafffold’.  She is the first generic saint – just one ‘little victim’ out of an indefinite multiplicity of littleness.  Her sainthood is a function of quantity – the quantity of infinitely progressive littleness and its infinite supply.  Is this sainthood something ‘new’ in the long history of Love – an event of Love, one of the four conditions of truth according to Badiou?  (what Schopenhauer calls “the metaphysics of sexual love”)  The amorous encounter between Thérèse of Lisieux and the Child Jesus?  A saint’s ‘Liebestod’?

She wanted all the tortures of all the saints.  When her coffin was opened, the body was not incorrupt as is told of other saints.  Even her bones were wasting away, as if the illness had gone on posthumously.  A sweet fragrance is said to have issued from her human dust, staying around the grave for months, miracles happened after her death - a paralytic child sat on her coffin and jumped off cured.

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