Soul Wonder: The Art of the Metaxu
No one, we would hope, is wonder-proof, at least not initially. Aristotle tells us that philosophy begins with wonder. We wonder at the world and at ourselves as in the world —at the very experience of being a being. Augustine’s writings, too, are saturated with the wonder that he feels the world to be. He… The post Soul Wonder: The Art of the Metaxu appeared first on VoegelinView.




No one, we would hope, is wonder-proof, at least not initially. Aristotle tells us that philosophy begins with wonder. We wonder at the world and at ourselves as in the world —at the very experience of being a being. Augustine’s writings, too, are saturated with the wonder that he feels the world to be. He questions, naturally enough, the nature of the kind of entity that has created this world of wonder.
Yet our relationship with the world can sour. Recall Wordsworth’s words (in the Ode: Intimations of Immortality) about how quickly this can begin to happen as “Shades of the prison-house begin to close / Upon the growing boy” yet he still sees “the light” before “At length the Man perceives it die away, / And fade into the light of common day.”
Does it have to be this way? Sometimes it seems that it does. The sublime can terrify us, and merely staying alive itself can make us acutely conscious of our vulnerabilities in the face of a cold and indifferent nature – “Red in tooth and claw” – as Tennyson has it (in In Memoriam). Yet, Shelley will remind us that:
True love in this differs from gold and clay
That to divide is not to take away.
Love is like understanding, that grows bright,
Gazing on many truths; ’tis like thy light,
These lines (from Epipsychidion) take us to the core of both Desmond and Knepper’s approaches to the aesthetic and, here in Wonder Strikes, how we express our feelings, thoughts, and experiences of and about the aesthetic through imaginatively creative literature. In his introduction to the book, Desmond talks about how Wonder Strikes reminds him of a “long love affair between the poetic and the philosophic” and of his own “earliest intellectual love” of “the intimate relation” between the philosophic, the poetic, and the religious.
Art, religion, and philosophy: it is “this triad” and their interrelationship that will be the focus of Knepper’s book. Helpfully divided into two main parts, Part 1: Incarnate Wonder presents us with a remarkably clear overview both of Desmond’s philosophy in general and its relevance to a theory of art and, more specifically, to imaginative literature. In Part 2, Reading in the Between, Knepper analyses some key texts, both those that, as he tells us, Desmond himself often refers to, such as Macbeth, King Lear, the novels of Dostoevsky and James Joyce. He also adds a Desmondian commentary to more unusual (from a Desmondian perspective) texts like Aristophanes’s The Clouds and Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, focusing on the redemptive power of these texts to recall us back to the affirmative qualities of the festive and of “carnival laughter.”
In part one, Knepper points out that Desmond’s philosophy “begins in wonder” and moves beyond ‘“the modern tendency ‘to focus on the determinate’ and firmly rejects the ‘many philosophers’ who would ‘dismiss wonder at the strangeness of anything existing at all.’” This is a point well-made and worth reflecting on. Our sense of the intimate strangeness of being (the title of one of Desmond’s books) is all-too-easily lost in the fury of circumstance of our everyday lives – remember Wordsworth’s descending shades of the prison-house. We are often too busy to wonder unless something strikes us. Such examples of things that strike us are “the face of a newborn child, the face of a lover, or the face of a suffering stranger.” Knepper’s examples, it should be noted, will have their literary corollaries. Indeed, one of the perhaps more unusual ways that Desmond demonstrates the connection between philosophy, art, and religion is through the inclusion of his own poetry in his philosophical works. Knepper points out Desmond’s claim “that philosophy needs not only propositions…but also poetic description” and that the latter “evokes the overdetermined richness of being,” a richness that can “saturate.” Knepper quotes Desmond:
Soul a dripping sponge
Medium of a meaning
Whose message
It cannot pinion
As it passes
This poem (which can be found in Desmond’s Godsends), of which this is a part, dramatizes the essential dynamic process of our participatory receptiveness to the world and our place in it – if we are attuned to, and reflect upon, the aesthetic potential of being. We may not be able to “pinion” these experiences, but that does not mean they are meaningless or irrelevant, and in fact it is the subsequent process of “making” art out of such experiences, that can evoke and re-evoke them. This is a very real value of art and of all genuine artistic expression and representation in whatever form.
What of the sublime? If wonder is an invitation to experience and affirm being positively, in the face of the sublime it can cause perplexity, or even terror. Knepper quotes Pascal’s comment on the too-muchness of space: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” Knepper examines Desmond, writing that he “argues that astonishment’s affirmation of being’s goodness is properly basic. Perplexity on its own obscures the worth of being” (39). This perplexity “haunts modernity” to the extent that we feel that being is not neutral but radically evil, and that this evil “preoccupies twentieth-century art and thought” and that “radical goodness receives scant attention.” Yet this is finally the confusion of our primal sense of astonished wonder, our passio essendi in Desmond’s terms, with a sort of defeated (by evil?) curiosity which leads to the frustrations of aporias that we feel we cannot transcend. Our astonished wonder need not do this. In fact, it can be “the departure point for philosophical reflection in its own right,” a way out or up (out of the shades of whatever prison-house an individual may find themselves in). Knepper makes the point, “Climbing the ladder out of astonishment rather than curiosity yields a different attunement to otherness in its singularity, excess, and contingency” (44). This is a climb that does not neglect or leave behind “the mythic narrative or image…nor does it simply use them as illustrations. It thinks with them along the way and especially at the limits of discursive reasoning” (44).
At this limit we encounter excess, the “inexhaustible richness of being,” but not necessarily in a way that terrifies. Rather, we encounter it with a sense of an otherness. We encounter excess not as a potentially annihilating threat, but rather as the source of being itself, the source that cannot simply be another source. This is where our being, existing as it does in the metaxu “in between” (as a straightforward example of this, consider our lives as between life and death) may come to at this kind of (thought) boundary, and it is perhaps where a metaxological language might be found that could attempt to express this: this would be a metaxological art, or art in the metaxu.
The medium is not the message: metaxic art would not be an art for arts’ sake. The (artistic) message might be a communication or an attempt to delineate a communication. The heteros, the overdetermined origin, the source of our coming to be: from and beyond the infinite regression of mediums that are merely mediums of mediums and so on; that lead nowhere except back to themselves, annihilating any sense of wonder that they may have been able to evoke. We are led to the nihilism of the modern world with its (to use Desmond’s phrase) “ethos of serviceable disposability” and the “distracted desires” that this inflames. Knepper will explore this fruitfully in his analysis of A Christmas Carol.
If the above are accounts of how art can transform “Aesthetics in Flesh, Image and Word” if it attends to the fullness of these encounters, another perhaps especially powerful form of experience is that of beauty and the “call” it may make upon us. In the chapter titled “The Call of Beauty” Knepper considers “the experience of beauty” to be “a particularly prevalent and particularly important instance of astonished wonder.”  If the sublime, in Desmond’s words, can strike us, as we have seen, “with a kind of violent formlessness” beauty, on the other hand, is where “form in its splendour is to the fore.” Although, of course, there may be much debate about which forms are most beautiful. After all, my favorite painting or poem will not likely be the same as yours. Nevertheless, there are probably parameters for judgement that we could agree on, although these could never be considered in any way fixed determinates.
However, as Knepper observes, “the artwork can draw us from I-it relationships into I-thou relationships” and how narratives especially “can heighten our awareness of other people.” Following Iris Murdoch, he notes that what we remember of the work of great novelists such as George Eliot or Tolstoy is not the authors themselves, but the characters they present. This is of highest importance, because it should remind us in a way what encounters with powerful art should do. They should remind us that the otherness of the person is also the otherness of the lady next to us at the bus stop, or the otherness of our own daughters and sons. We stop seeing them as an it (so to speak) and see them as a thou. They are “wholes” in themselves, as we are in ourselves, but we are all “open wholes” in relationships with each other. As Knepper says, “Literature can cultivate recognition beyond the page by dramatizing not only such recognition but also the failure to recognise” (63). But the artistic dramatization is, or could be, also an opportunity to recognize such failures in ourselves. It is this sort of dynamic interchange between “open wholes” that metaxic or a metaxological analysis of literature could bring us to focus on, and it could perhaps make us more conscious of the hidden beauty in texts and even of the hidden-but-real beauty around us. And thus, the world need not be terrifying or evil, nor need we be submerged by the ennui of everyday life if we can keep the examples of the great artworks in mind.
To turn now to some of the specific narrative artworks that Knepper examines in Part 2: Reading in the Between, of his book, and to consider, at least a little of what he, through his metaxological analysis, says about them. Knepper begins his more specifically literary analysis by looking at epiphanic texts, and I will return to these below. However, a few comments about Macbeth, a favorite play of Desmond’s, may be a fitting place to start, as an example par excellence of tragic art, and one particularly amenable to a metaxological analysis.
Perhaps one of the aspects of Macbeth that makes him especially tragic is that he has qualms. Knepper notes: “In Act 1, Lady Macbeth claims that her husband’s qualms about murdering Duncan are mere weakness.” She basically calls him a coward and “argues that Macbeth’s greatest temptation is not to kill Duncan but to be ‘afeared / To be the same in thine own act and valour / As thou art in desire.’” Knepper likewise continues to note that “Desmond argues that a true ‘yea-saying’ must acknowledge a primal goodness of being and the necessity of a ‘healthy’ rapport with that goodness.” As the quote from the play shows, Macbeth’s desire was initially to match “act and valour” in something like a metaxic balance that would have recognized both the need to act and his consciousness of others’ otherness, in this case Duncan’s.
Of course, Macbeth’s situation is (like Hamlet’s) tragically complex. The unbalancing imprecations of Lady Macbeth do, as we probably all know, undo him, and her as well before the end of the play. Knepper also draws our attention to Macbeth’s inability to say “Amen” and his self-questioning about this when he “had most need of blessing” quoting Kohler-Ryan’s observation that as Macbeth “questions himself [he] reveals how closed off he is to his moral community, how impermeable to divine communication” which is precisely the point that a metaxological analysis is most acutely able to recognise. “In this drunken dance, the vim of hubris foams” as Desmond says, and in his hubristic turning ever more egotistically inward we see Macbeth losing sense of himself as an “open whole,” a person who is a singular integrity yes, but also necessarily a part of and participant in the community, both human and divine that he is immersed in. He has succumbed to the temptations of his overcharged conatus essendi as he engages with the world, in part symbolized by the Weird Sisters in the play, and has lost sight of the fact that, as Knepper says, “Because humans are open wholes, that place is equivocal and mysterious. It is inside us [Knepper calls it ‘the depths within us from which temptation emerges’] but it is also open to influence” (168).
Knepper follows his analysis of Macbeth with an equally engrossing analysis of King Lear, and Lear’s “tragic howls and being at a loss,” which further persuasively demonstrates the effectiveness of this type of metaxological literary analysis for tragedy.
 Knepper had earlier talked about the epiphanic and the literary expressions of these “revelatory encounters in narrative art.” These too “can provide insight into encounters and relationships beyond the page…They can help readers search out the narrative shape of their own lives. Furthermore, epiphanic encounters within works of literature are often epiphanic for the reader as well. We in some way undergo the epiphany” (141). This undergoing, of course, is entirely explicable from a metaxological perspective: it is an aspect of the larger ongoing dialogue between open wholes. This is why literature fascinates and captivates us. To look briefly at one example that Knepper provides from that great novel of such encounters Ulysses: Drawing on comments by Kearney, Knepper reminds us of the moment when Stephen Dedelus leaves the National Library after his encounter with the “would-be literati” there, and after he has delivered, and delivered himself of, his own “convoluted theory about Hamlet behind. No longer striving to be an artistic genius, he is now able to see the world around him anew.” Thus ‘he is newly attuned to what Kearney calls the “epiphany of the everyday.” This transformation hinges on Stephen’s encounter with Leopold Bloom. Their meeting involves an “instant of recognition” for Stephen in which he “suddenly ‘sees’ what he had previously been blind to – the Other” and it is “that other who will lead him out of the self-enclosed, self-regarding circle of literary solipsism away, back, down out into the streets of the ordinary universe.” This encounter is epiphanic and it “transforms them both” (143). “Such encounters can re-awaken us to the other as an other” and after such transformative events the world itself is potentially a different and more positive place, one to which, like Molly Bloom at the novel’s end, we can say “yes.”
Knepper says much more about epiphanic encounters, but hopefully these “tasters” have given a flavor of what can be achieved through metaxological analysis.
In his final section, Knepper turns his attention to “Redemptive Laughs and Festive Rebirths.” If metaxological analysis can reveal illuminating aspects from tragedy to epiphany, it may be apt to do the same for the comedic. Knepper demonstrates that this can, indeed, be the case.
Moving between “tragic lack and comic excess, between weeping and laughter” Knepper will finally draw us towards what Desmond calls “affirmative laughter.” Knepper describes it thus, “This sort of laughter affirms life despite its tensions and absurdities. It offers another way of undoing the hardened conatus and returning to the passio (175). Thus, it is redemptive and Knepper provides illuminating illustrations of this from texts as diverse as Moby Dick to the “comic lampooning” of the plays of Aristophanes. Knepper reminds us too that Desmond “argues that it is important for philosophy to be able to laugh at itself” and that “This laughter keeps philosophy humble, but it also affirms the tension between ‘grounded’ life and speculative thought. It can encourage a light-footed, laughing philosophy” (175). This is where philosophy embraces the festive, to which we now turn.
Knepper talks insightfully about festive elements in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarthustra, Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and others. But here I want to say a few words about his analysis of A Christmas Carol. Dickens is a great comic writer, but the deeper aspects of that comedic element in his work can sometimes be overlooked. Not so here. Knepper sees A Christmas Carol as “one of the most marked examples of festive art ‘blasting open’ into modern life,” and that, “While this novella has a somewhat mixed legacy, it proves that we should not ask too little of art.” Knepper tells us that it could be read as the story of “the re-enchantment of Ebenezer Scrooge’s world” and that “by the novella’s end Scrooge savours the world again. He renews his communal belonging and his commitment to service” and finally “laughs a redemptive laugh that affirms the goodness of being. He enters heightened festive time” (198). Most readers may be familiar with how Dickens achieves this transformation of Scrooge, via his encounters with the Christmas ghosts and Dickens’s detailed depictions of the encounters of Scrooges past which have led to his scotosis toward others and otherness. So how is he brought back to the redemptive laughter of festive time? Each ghost reveals something that is epiphanic and revelatory to Scrooge about his life. The Ghost of Christmas Past, as Knepper reminds us, “explicitly reminds Scrooge of what his greed has obscured” and “The Ghost of Christmas Present offers the most pointed and direct critique of Scrooge’s counting house ethic” and the “The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come confronts Scrooge with the fate that awaits him if he does not change his ways.” It works! “After his night of ghostly visits, Scrooge changes his ways. He himself now embodies festivity.” Interestingly, Knepper observes that “Scrooge offers a radical example of posthumous mind. He is resurrected to the world, and now sees its worth beyond monetary measurement” (203). Perhaps we can see Scrooge as having come to understand what Shelley has told us, and that this is why “True love in this differs from gold and clay / That to divide is not to take away” and further, that this pertains to imaginative literature as well because, “Love is like understanding, that grows bright, / Gazing on many truths; ’tis like thy light, / Imagination!” to say it again, only now with the deeper understanding afforded by Steven Knepper’s  book.
I am very conscious that I have done no more than skim over the riches of Knepper’s Wonder Strikes — such is unfortunately the nature of a review. But it is a book written with a marvellous clarity of detail — in a clear, knowledgeable, and persuasive language. It provides both an excellent introduction for those not familiar with Desmond’s thought, and an equally excellent demonstration of how that thinking can be fruitfully applied to literary texts. It is a pioneering work in this field, and I fully recommend it to those both new to this kind of thinking and to metaxological analysis, as well as those more familiar with these ideas.


Wonder Strikes: Approaching Aesthetics and Literature with William Desmond
By Steven Knepper
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2022; 293pp

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