Skip to content

The Glimpse of Recognition

How much will I be changed, before I am changed? –Lucie Brock-Broido

Death alien­ates long before it hap­pens. That’s to say, all through life humans dream and phi­los­o­phize, have night­mares and con­ver­sa­tions, write macabre poems and seri­ous essays about human frailty, the end days, death—always asso­ci­at­ing the lat­ter with some final Farewell: to this world, our loved ones, our lives, our selves. Not coin­ci­den­tally, even the per­son who believes in heaven and believes him­self en route, often still finds a the­o­log­i­cal loop­hole through which to rumi­nate over his posthu­mous iso­la­tion: he will think to him­self, how will I rec­og­nize my loved ones if they’re not in human form? Or, what does “love” mean in the absence of pain and plea­sure? And, surely it won’t feel the same… In pro­por­tion with the inten­sity of our earthly desires, any Else­where seems intol­er­a­ble, and is in any case incom­pre­hen­si­ble: how will I know where I am (and that I am) with­out my sense organs? How will I love or be loved in the absence of a tick­ing clock, and the roman­tic sense of urgency it invokes? How will I tol­er­ate an eter­nity with­out human affec­tion? Will I spend my last, my ever­last­ing day, weeping—trying to weep with­out tear ducts—to some stoic God? Will I die a sec­ond death, of heart­break? And a third, of boredom?

The ambigu­ous heav­i­ness of heart one expe­ri­ences in advance of a breakup, before mov­ing away from home, prepar­ing for the death of a loved one and so on—is the psy­chi­cal antic­i­pa­tion of one’s own death: an iso­lated event she’ll undergo in utter iso­la­tion. Because it implies trans­for­ma­tion and hence loss, every major (as well as every minor) rite of passage—marriage, recov­ery from an ill­ness, rev­e­la­tion, labor—evokes and affirms our ulti­mate alien­ation. But our asso­ci­a­tion of alien­ation with “death proper” is, how­ever log­i­cal, spec­ula: in the­ory the anal­ogy holds, but how could we know how death feels? Can we psy­chi­cally expe­ri­ence it the way ani­mals phys­i­o­log­i­cally “detect” a com­ing storm? Where fear of dying has an object—soma—“fear” of non-existence is by def­i­n­i­tion object-less, pure abstrac­tion. Thus, let us call the psy­cho­so­matic counterpart—the “ambigu­ous heav­i­ness” that goes along with our mere con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of death as irre­me­di­a­ble alienation—“angst.”

The expe­ri­ence of angst, the “ambigu­ous heav­i­ness” of alien­ation that we syn­chro­nously project on the uni­ver­sal, “death”—gets lost in the par­tic­u­lar­ity of the for­mer. In other words: when I’m lying awake late at night and imag­in­ing my own death, try­ing to grasp (or try­ing not to) the “alien­ation” of non-existence, I draw from my expe­ri­ence as a mis­un­der­stood poet, whereas pre­vi­ously I drew from my expe­ri­ence as an anorexic qua abnor­mal psyche/social deviant, whereas before that I drew from…etc. etc.—while my friend draws from his expe­ri­ence as a Chris­t­ian homo­sex­ual qua out­cast, whereas before that he drew from his expe­ri­ence as a homo­phobe qua clos­eted homo­sex­ual, whereas before that he drew from…etc. etc. It’s these par­tic­u­lar­i­ties that our per­spec­tive gets caught in, pre­vent­ing us from glimps­ing the com­mon nature of our expe­ri­ence as alien­ated beings-toward-death: as to glimpse this nature for our­selves through the vicis­si­tudes of becom­ing is hard enough—to rec­og­nize it in another, through all their trans­mu­ta­tions, which appear so for­eign to us, seems utterly impos­si­ble. For there’s a dif­fer­ence between know­ing con­cep­tu­ally and under­stand­ing, know­ing imma­nently: between think­ing “you are like me because we share X” —and being struck by just how stun­ningly frag­ile, how strangely beau­ti­ful, i.e., how like myself, that lone soul.

So regard­less of the alien­at­ing (or un-alienating) nature of death/dying/non-existence, our shar­ing in the common-denominator of death is not the key to under­stand­ing and non-alienation, or free­dom. If I’m con­scious, I can see that you’re dying; but if I have a pulse, this knowl­edge doesn’t lib­er­ate me. Besides, what does it mean that we both cross life’s thresh­old alone? Do two peo­ple who’ve never been to China and who know noth­ing about China, but plan to visit the coun­try, share much com­mon ground? We’re all dying—and? It’s this existence—which indeed pre­sup­poses and is con­di­tioned by impend­ing destruction—it’s this exis­tence that we seek to under­stand each other “in terms of,” and to free our­selves within. Death enters into the equa­tion only qua object of con­scious­ness: only in terms of how we think and feel about it, how our unique and ever-changing minds and bod­ies antic­i­pate its coming.

*   * *

I’ve missed a good deal of pageantry by being born a Jew –L.B.B.

For the social­ized psy­che, i.e., the aver­age Amer­i­can: imma­nent expe­ri­ence of alien­ation, and so of angst, stems from a belief in the social con­struct known as iden­tity: a self made to endure change, but which may also get “lost” in that change—like a sheep that escapes the fold and gets devoured by a wolf, or dis­tracted by another sheep and led fur­ther astray—or so we’re led to believe. Thus identity—representation, and its opposite—misrepresentation or “iden­tity loss”: cause angst. Or do they? Iden­tity, like time, is a social con­struct: imag­i­nary. Can a cause be imag­i­nary? Or does the imag­i­nary “object” of our angst sim­ply obfus­cate, redi­rect us from, the actual cause? My sug­ges­tion is that the cause of angst is, as stated, not iden­tity as such: not the fact (nor the illu­sion) that we have hid­den in our inner­most mech­a­nisms, our sheep skins and wolf cos­tumes, our butch or femme haircuts—an immutable ker­nel of truth or soul or essence that’s uniquely our own and that can­not be com­mu­ni­cated; but rather it’s our attempt to shove into iden­ti­tary straight­jack­ets and pour into imag­i­nary molds the enu­mer­able feel­ings, thoughts, beliefs, habits, tastes, fears, and dreams that we are con­stantly evolv­ing in and out of, try­ing on and tai­lor­ing and wear­ing out and giv­ing up, that alien­ates us and pro­duces the angst that we then project on death. Stum­bling up the stairs with your addic­tion hat on, flow­ing around the city in a trance of almost unno­tice­able anguish.… (1) Angst is a symp­tom of the imag­i­nary, but no less alien­at­ing molds we strut, or rather stum­ble, around in: like the Emperor in his new clothes.

What alien­ates me, and is by proxy both the same thing and not the same thing that alien­ates you, what gives me angst, is that I can­not express my self in full—but only in moments, which them­selves seem sense­less when (mis)taken for frag­ments and so (mis)taken in iso­la­tion. I for instance can­not explain why today I am not afraid of heights, whereas I was ter­ri­fied of them five years ago. Or bet­ter yet: it’s that words can­not describe by what mir­a­cle I now enjoy food, and am no longer afraid to “take up space” with my body, whereas three years ago I’d been dan­ger­ously thin and dan­ger­ously in love with star­va­tion for almost a decade. It’s hard to “make sense” of the fact that I both prac­tice yoga and smoke cig­a­rettes; that I both pray and don’t believe in a higher power. All these facts and anom­alies, even the seem­ingly con­tra­dic­tory ones, make per­fect sense to me imma­nently: I expe­ri­enced it all: I’m the wit­ness, I lived it: I’m the proof—but so much of that expe­ri­ence was word­less, and hence a-logical—to you. It isn’t that I was anorexic and you never were, or that you are, and have no plans to recover, or that my mind is too deep, or too shal­low, or too flighty, my “nature” too eccen­tric or piece­meal for you to “penetrate”—rather, it’s that I move too fast for you to grasp me in my self-identical entirety; and I move far too fast to grasp you in yours. This is not to say that I don’t want to under­stand you, or that I’m just too busy, too wrapped up in my own trans­for­ma­tions to be mind­ful of yours: it’s just that I, like you, undergo so many changes at such rapid speeds that it’s impos­si­ble for me to fig­ure myself out once and for all, or even just once—let alone to delin­eate you and your end­less vis­cis­si­tudes. What—have I offended you? Par­don me, who are you to ask to be delineated?

We know under­stand­ing is possible—hence why you’re read­ing this essay, and why I keep writ­ing. I have seen you see your soul in me. I swear to god, I’ve seen my soul in your poem: my god in your soul. This is Recognition’s glimpse: the momen­tary expe­ri­ence of unity in dif­fer­ence, free­dom in infi­nite oth­er­ness. When I see you rec­og­nize your truth in mine, your tears in my eyes, your voice in my soul-poem: not my iden­tity, but my imma­nent expe­ri­ence of this moment, of the world-poem here and now: not the labels or cos­tumes or his­to­ries or vocab­u­lar­ies I’ve amassed through the course of my (social­ized) life, but the force and the form I right now embody: not in spite of my past, nor as its prod­uct, but as an organic part, a glimpse, of the world-poem: the becom­ing self-identical Whole.

If there is any mean­ing in this life it must be this one: this word­less recog­ni­tion, my catch­ing your glimpse through the flames, the burn­ing glare-gaze of soci­ety, the nihilo and mis­un­der­stand­ing, subjectivity’s apocalypse—when hands and tongue are tied and our eyes, for all we know, are the last sight we’ll see of the real World of Difference—a glimpse into the infi­nitely other, eter­nity if you like—but why go there? We’ll be going there so soon already. —

—Stay with me. Lay beside me, for just another moment, just until we die, here, on the moun­tain­side, here, among the trees all ablaze with dry light­ning, no—one ablaze with light­en­ing, the rest with its con­ta­gious flame of death. Tell me your name. Why do you keep your distance?

—What’s in a name? I’m singed like you, am I not? Shep­herd­less, bleating….You’re afraid that I’ll give us away? You want me to lie down and die with you, is that it? A bib­li­cal a Shake­spear­ian death—our bod­ies welded together in the shape of desire, fair Verona in an uproar cast­ing lots for our last tufts of wool? I’m leaving—why don’t you come with me? It’s not safe here—I’ve never heard thun­der like this before you should’ve seen your eyes. Why aren’t you afraid? Why do you look at me like that, my Lord, my Romeo why don’t you look at me? .…You need me to free you? From what? I see no bind­ings, you’re not bound—now come quickly, before the flame con­sumes us.….You won’t go?….Bite through your bind­ings? I’ve told you already, there are none….

*   * *

In my domin­ion, to die is to turn com­pletely, gorged with change, bound…. —L.B.B.

If you expect to “grasp” her in her total­ity, you won’t—and if you approach her this way, you do so at the expense of both of your free­doms. Hence I approach the Other with a sin­gle desire: to glimpse in her, in all her par­tic­u­lar­ity, the world-poem of which I too am part. As to the rest, all the small talk, all the non-sense, all the bull­shit­ting: what past? What iden­tity? What bind­ings? What blind­fold? What burn­ing build­ing? What burn­ing bush? You are a god, and these, your mere hal­lu­ci­na­tions. Shall I wake you from them? How shall I, if you’re dream­ing me as well? Can a hal­lu­ci­na­tion cor­rect its cre­ator? Can a dream-character wake the Sleep­ing? Touch me—I am real. Shake off these invis­i­ble, these imag­i­nary chains of which you speak—what iden­tity? What past? What name? Do you not see me? Am I, too, bound in shack­les? So I am—in your mind I am. You’re still dream­ing. When you wake, if you wake, come to my house and look again.

The glimpse is based not on the com­mon denom­i­na­tor of death—but on the com­mon denom­i­na­tor of sub­jec­tiv­ity: of being/giving self-identical expres­sion, or rather count­less self-identical expres­sions, to the world-poem, the god­head. But the result of being-incommunicable is still alien­ation, the nec­es­sary byprod­uct of which is angst. Alien­ation is how­ever only “nec­es­sary” to the extent that it’s impos­si­ble for us to tran­scend difference—no, not to tran­scend it: to rec­og­nize our­selves in it, by rec­og­niz­ing the world-poem, the god, in our own oth­er­ness, and by proxy rec­og­niz­ing the god in the alien­ated Other, and how both of our soul-poems, wildly dif­fer­ent as they are, rep­re­sent a moment, a glimpse, of the Whole. It is this glimpse of recog­ni­tion whereby dif­fer­ence is pre­served and alien­ation tran­scended, whereby the par­tic­u­lars and the uni­ver­sal sus­tain each other, whereby every­one and every poem can be understood-as-belonging to the whole, and there­fore, to each Other.

Because “glimpse” as we’re using it denotes not the length but the mode of under­stand­ing: anal­o­gous to the periph­eral, depth, color, and dis­tance modes of vision assumed by the eye—it can be ongo­ing: you and I can con­tinue to delimit one another by seeing/reading one another as moments and so as the free, irre­ducible beings we always already are. For us, every moment spawns two new indi­vid­u­als, two new poems, or rather read­ings of the world; hence it is by adopt­ing (reclaim­ing) a pre­his­toric view of self and other—which I call the glimpse—that we see through the social con­structs (e.g., his­tory and iden­tity) that oth­er­wise oblit­er­ate our abil­ity to under­stand the moment as endur­ing through change— as a melody through key change, as a skele­ton key through all doors. It is this under­stand­ing that the glimpse restores, and which eman­ci­pates us from our soul-prisons.

1. From Tessa Rumsey’s “Spe­cial Trans­mis­sions Out­side the Teaching”

Fur­ther Reading:

Lucie Brock-Broido, When the Gods Go, Half-Gods Arrive

toward a lin­guis­tic account of the soul-poem

back­stage pass: the unseen and the unsaid



  1. asphara wrote:

    Really unbeleiv­able write. What you say here is like the land­scape I see with a new sky over it, pick­ing up dif­fer­ent fea­tures of this coming-to-be but with rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent fea­tures, as the light catches things from our dif­fer­ent dialec­ti­cal ori­en­ta­tions. Because there are so many dif­fer­ences within this pround same­ness it is like hav­ing a dream and then a wak­ing testomony of my dream: yet in lin­guis­tic reg­is­ters that indi­cate some­thing of the very dif­fer­ent genealog­i­cal roots to this insight. I love the glimpse: this is not some­thing I can expe­ri­ence as a shard within expe­ri­ence because I don’t really have both extremes — iden­tity as well as self-indication: but you explain the van­tage point that I would see from this per­spec­tive — very think­ably and undoubtably so. Some­how also I am see­ing some­thing of our identity/particularity — I can think now seem­lessly between them, but I can’t say between them, and I think per­haps pre­cisely the same is with you: you are aim­ing just out­side or between aspects of the com­mu­ni­ca­ble it seems, and this is where I’m at: I think iden­tity is doing/done and recog­ni­tion is experience/experienced and this is cru­cial. Iden­tity and recog­ni­tion are dif­fer­ent modes of expe­ri­ence related to the pos­i­tive sit­u­a­tional dynam­ics of the whole: this is my inti­ma­tion, and some­how I expect this is a dif­fer­ent aspect of what your see­ing also (but I might be wrong). I try not to get to snagged up/overwhelmed by such unfold­ings oth­er­wise I’ll stop and mar­vel instead of con­tin­u­ing to grap­ple with them but the pro­found thing is this all makes per­fect psy­cho­dy­namic, dialec­ti­cal and neu­ro­log­i­cal sense to me, not to men­tion theological/anthropological: its what I mean about ‘truth tum­bling into itself like a river — this one as clear and pure as recog­ni­tion itself.

    This is not lit­er­a­ture or rhetoric! It is more then that (it is always more then that but usu­ally in-itself: this is also for-itself more than lit/rhetoric: it is prophetic or antic­i­pa­tory mime­sis I think. If I had time I’d draw together all the sen­su­ous struc­tural con­tours con­verg­ing in work I’ve come accross — it is the bold­ness and clar­ity which makes this par­tic­u­larly rad­i­cal. The lat­ter is the enlight­ened of today, with­out doubt: its hard to find such con­fi­dence and clar­ity in con­tem­po­rary analy­sis of these trou­bled times! This in itself is a cru­cial sig­ni­fier — it evokes faith (not that I’m short of it!) xx

    Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Permalink
  2. amanda_wordspinning wrote:

    Thanks Aaron! If what you say is true, then my work’s doing exactly what I want it to! (i.e., illu­min­ing the various/different aspects of coming-to-be, “as the light catches things from our dif­fer­ent dialec­ti­cal ori­en­ta­tions.” I cerainly imag­ine expressed here are lot of cultural/anthropological ten­sions with your per­spec­tive, but you’re absolutely right when you say that we’re both aim­ing just outside/between aspects of the com­mu­ni­ca­ble (per­fectly stated– sug­gest­ing it’s nei­ther incom­mu­ni­ca­ble nor “com­mu­ni­ca­ble as such.”) I also now under­stand (I think) your truth/myth dis­tinc­tion– if it cor­re­sponds with the identity/recognition dis­tinc­tion as out­lined above:

    I think iden­tity is doing/done and recog­ni­tion is experience/experienced and this is cru­cial. Iden­tity and recog­ni­tion are dif­fer­ent modes of expe­ri­ence related to the pos­i­tive sit­u­a­tional dynam­ics of the whole.…”

    This is pre­cisely how I’d inti­mate the rela­tion­ship between iden­tity and recog­ni­tion. I def­i­nitely tend to look at them as modes (as I say near the end, ““glimpse” as we’re using it denotes not the length but the mode of under­stand­ing: anal­o­gous to the periph­eral, depth, color, and dis­tance modes of vision assumed by the eye .…”) –modes, hence sit­u­a­tional– which you’ve sug­gested here as well.

    Any­way– thanks so much: your com­ments (and more impor­tantly your glimpse) are incom­mu­ni­ca­bly appre­ci­ated!! A x

    Wednesday, July 27, 2011 at 12:18 am | Permalink

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.