The Wanderer and the Spring.  Against the Conatus Essendi.

I will be taking some liberties regarding certain complicated issues–I do not pretend that my interpretation can be final nor indeed that it is uncontroversial.  This is only an exercise in an attempt to pursue or uncover the full philosophical implications of what I am trying to understand of the marrano register.  I mean these considerations as a preface to the discussion of Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism

Most people with some formation in the history of philosophy have a notion of Spinoza’s position regarding modal existence.  Spinoza presents it at the beginning of Part III of the Ethics.  He says that everything strives to persevere in its being–conatus essendi is perseverantia in suo esse in the sense that, without the interference of external causes, things would tend to be stable in their being indefinitely.  Conatus is essence, so that my cat perseveres as a cat in a cat-like way, in the same way I persevere as Alberto in an Alberto-like way.   Accordingly, in a general sense, metonymically, a Jew would persevere in his own being as a Jew in the same way a Christian would tend to persevere as a Christian.  A medical doctor would try to persevere in his medical mode and so would a carpenter, etc.  Certainly external forces may change all of that. 

Which rather means that modal beings–everything that exists–do have a purpose, as Aristotle had already claimed: the purpose of being what they are and of sticking to it.  The larger question whether the universe as a whole is also goal-oriented–it must also persevere in its own being–must also be responded to in the affirmative.  This happens even if there is no other goal beyond persevering–the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it this way: “Spinoza clearly denies the claim that God or Nature has a purpose or plan for the universe.  The universe simply exists because it could not fail to exist.  God did not make the universe with any predetermined goal or plan in mind; instead, the universe simply follows from God’s essence in just the way that the properties of a triangle follow from the essence of a triangle.”  In that sense all final causes are nothing but human fictions–as Spinoza says. 

This notion of conatus essendi seems quite contrary to what we have inherited as one of the first words of philosophy, namely, Anaximander’s fragment, but maybe it is not so contrary.  It probably remains as a matter of interpretation.  The key issue is whether modes, that is, all things, upon coming into being, already have it in themselves to perish and move toward disappearance, or whether the disappearance is simply a matter of external forces in every case.  The fragment, in its minimal philological extension (that is, rejecting vocabulary that may have been superimposed or added to the fragment by commentators) says: kata to khreon didonai gar auta diken kai tisin allelois tes adikias.

We may translate making partial use of translations proposed by Martin Heidegger:  “Along the lines of necessity they give order and reck for their disorder to one another.”  Necessity, khreon, which Heidegger would consider the first word for being, disposes over order (diké, Fug) and the disorder (adikía, Unfug) of things.  What is the disorder, the adikía or Unfug of things?   Would it be plausible to say that the disorder of the thing is precisely its attempt to persevere?   Or is perseverance, precisely, the order of the thing?   I think a fundamental question opens up here.  Metaphysics–not yet the dominant frame of mind in Anaximander’s time–would certainly respond that perseverance, the conatus essendi, is the order of things: things come into appearance and dwell in persistence.   External forces–like death or time, etc.–eventually destroy them. 

But there is another possibility: that the order of things is precisely their movement towards disappearance, their acceptance of dis-jointure, their return to the contourlessness whence they came.  Adikía is perseverance in disjointure; diké is the fated return to jointure with the indeterminate, apeiron.  Things come into appearance and linger awhile as they move towards extinction and disappearance out of their own necessary disjointure.   Some possibly later additions to Anaximander, the same ones that register the word apeiron, also say that the disjointure of things moves towards jointure kata ten tou khronou taxin, according to the order of time. 

Heidegger seems to endorse this second interpretation in some controversial but, to my mind, decisive words in his 1932 seminar The Beginning of Western Philosophy.  There, Heidegger says:  Der Schwund fügt sich der Umrisslosigkeit. In diesem sich Fügen bezeugt er diese (gewahrt es den Fug). So wäre dann der Un-fug: Bestehen auf der Umrissenheit gegen die Umrisslosigkeit; der Fug: Rückgang in die Umrisslosigkeit. In the Rojcewicz translation: “The receding acquiesces to the contourlessness and in this acquiescence testifies to it (discerns the compliance). Thus the noncompliance would then be: persistence in contours over and against contourlessness; and compliance: return to contourlessness.”

Heidegger says that der Fug, that is, diké, order, is, not giving contours, but rather return to contourlessness, whereas adikía, disorder, Unfug, is persistence in contours.   In another passage of the same seminar Heidegger talks about the “primal experience” of being of the Greeks–their Urerfahrung.  We need to question whether such primal experience was an experience of Unfug, that is, of disorder, the disorder of things coming into existence and attempting perseverance, or primarily of Fug, that is, of order, understood as the surmounting of the disorder of things in the return to contourlessness. 

I do sense the difficulty of this.  It might even be the case that we find something abhorrent in the second possibility and that we are prepared to fight over the need to hold on to the first possibility: surely, the Greeks would have been enchanted by the coming-into-appearance of the world, not by its vanishing into endless disappearance!  How can an experience of death–the death of what is–be a primal experience?  And yet.  What do we know?  The death of what is does not deny life, does not deny appearance.  It simply puts it in a certain light . . .

Everybody knows Spinoza’s dictum: “A free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.”  This would be consistent with his notion that a free man’s conatus drifts towards immortality–perseverare in suo esse makes him ignore death in favor of a celebration of continued life.  Yes.  But what if freedom were to depend on an Urerfahrung closer to a recognition of a death drive implied in the necessity of a return to the indeterminate?   Would that make life less worthy of meditation?  Or would it make it even worthier?

It seems to me that a recognition that life is constantly moving towards disappearance, in other words, that the conatus is always already a relation to death, while it may be contrary to Spinoza, which is not a trivial thing, might qualify more properly the marrano experience.  Historically speaking, but not only historically: also phenomenologically. 

It would be absurd to claim that Heidegger or the ancient Greeks had much to do with the experience of marrano existence.  Not my intention.  What I am claiming, however, is that the marrano experience cannot be contained within metaphysical or ontotheological existence but exceeds it.  It traces something else, and it is the trace of something else.  And there is a section in Heidegger’s 1932 seminar that might give us a clue to it. 

It is the section that immediately follows Heidegger’s exegesis of the Anaximander fragments, which ends in a crystal-clear definition of the ontico-ontological difference, which is also the ruination of onto-theological thought.  That passage reads, in the English translation: “And if we ask, no doubt also unsuitably, for the genuine result held out by these pronouncements, then it is this:  beings are indeed on the basis of Being, but Being itself is not a being.  Being and beings are different–this difference is the most originary one that could ever open up.”  The notion that God might be a being would be inconsistent with the principle of ontotheology, which makes God the principle.  There is something about Being that exceeds God, that is, before the principle.  Which brings ontotheology to its ruin.

The section that follows starts with a meditation on our understanding of history.  Heidegger’s basic contention is that our relation to history, channeled today through what he calls historiology, is a form of self-delusion: we presuppose that we are more advanced, less primitive, always in a better relation to things than our ancestors.  And then Heidegger proposes an extraordinary image, the image of the wanderer and the spring.  Within the image the spring would be an originary experience, an experience that human beings had in a period that must remain immemorial to us, from which we are always already detached, separated.  The wanderer stands for historical Dasein, now marked as a being that wanders from its own beginning:

“A wanderer in an arid region must distance himself more and more from the spring at which he first and last drew water.  Viewed soberly, his distance from this spring is thereby increasing.  He leaves the spring behind, and with the increasing distance he loses his orientation; the spring in the end lies inaccessibly far behind.  Assume the wanderer then dies of thirst.  Why did he die?  Presumably because at too great a distance from the spring he no longer had a relation to it.  Yet how is the too great distance from the spring no longer a relation to it?  At a sufficiently great distance, does this relation cease to be a relation, or is the excessively great distance from the spring always still a relation to it, a negative relation but still precisely a relation and even one that is hardly inconsequential?  . . . Does not the spring pursue him more importunately the closer he comes to dying of thirst?”

Is this a romantic position?  Or reactionary?  The image allegorizes a relation to history according to which the distant wanderer dies out of an inability to turn his distance into a form of proximity.  And unworked-out or de-worked relation to the originary–that is, to the historically originary–would be a form of perishing.   Another way of putting it:  we increase our distance to the source (read, the Urerfahrung), we persevere in our wandering, and we perish from it.  Heidegger raises then the question whether it is the beginning itself that remains concealed from us, increasingly so as we wander further and further away, or whether there is a proximity, indeed an essential proximity to the beginning, since it is our beginning, that we betray by intentionally pushing away from it, by obdurately turning our sight from it.

At the end of subsection 8 Heidegger makes a reference to the first words in his seminar.  Those words were:  “Our mission: the cessation of philosophizing?  That is, the end of metaphysics; by way of an originary questioning of the ‘meaning’ (truth) of Beying.”   A retrieval of the Urerfahrung, the primal experience which is the spring of the philosophical endeavor, would also mean the restitution of a historical experience whose main thrust would not be escaping history, fleeing from history, but returning to it.  Such a return would not be a return into contourlessness–it would be a return to the experience of the difference between being and beings, which does not authorize an understanding of the human mission as merely a persevering in what one is, which would be an ontic task–albeit the task that has organized the long history of metaphysics.  What one is has now become insufficient.  The mission exceeds it. 

How does this relate to the marrano experience?  We are still some way from being able to produce an answer to that question, but perhaps Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem might help along the way.  An order is being sought which is not the metaphysical order of existence but rather an alternative to it, which requires a displacement.   We are calling such a displacement a marrano adventure.   


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