“Broken men, we dare to use unbroken language. We must not forget that we are speaking in parables and after the manner of men [Rom 6:18]” Karl Barth, __Commentary on Romans__, 221.
“At a gallop, the snail! We scribble while crawling in the wake of God” Helene Cixous, __Stigmata__, 39.
“We don’t have the last word: truth always has the word before, and we runt out of breath at its heals” Cixous, 37.
Perhaps Cixous is a better way to get at Barth. Or, as Barth would prefer, to get past Barth, to move beyond the signpost to stay on the heals of…Truth.
“Without End, No, State of Drawingness, No, Rather: The Executioner’s Taking Off” is an essay on writing essays. Cixous writes to capture the creation, the moment of unfolding, or “the passing (of the) truth” (Stigmata, 28). She does not seek the finished thought, the clean product or the polished idea. She does not pretend to say the last word. She writes essays. Not probings, or musings, or ponderings. No aimless wandering thought; nor first stabs at the truth. But a wrestling, or, as she says, a combat: “every drawing (is) combat(s) itself. Drawing is the emblem of all our hidden, intestine combats. There we see the soul’s entrails” (36). The essay is a drawing; it captures the combat.
We combat–what? Ourselves? Not exactly. We strive–because “truth strikes us. Opens our heart. Our lips” (29). We are encountered–we catch a glimpse, an internal sight (in-sight), a momentary vision, and we stumble. We struggle. “Truth strikes us.” We cannot draw or write a crisp thought–“how then to draw a firm footing, when our soul is merely a staggering…We all go along at the same pace, with an uncertain foot” (38). Our soul staggers along and so we fight within ourselves. We struggle along after the truth: “time, the body, are our slow vehicles, our chariots without wheels” (39).
Theologians (including myself) are often “those who seek the finished. Those who seek to portray cleanly, the most properly” (28). Barth, like Cixous, reminds us of our place–we are broken, our vision is partial, limited, fragmented; it is–we are–a collection of glimpses and struggles of faltering steps, hesitations, and approximations. We (our thoughts) are never ultimate, but perpetually penultimate, perpetually a step behind, and hence, never resting, never secure, always–questioning. Advancing through and with and in questions, or as Cixous puts it, “We are advancing backwards” (38). Advancing because struck…by Truth. Backwards because the moment–the happening or event–occurs to us, creatures.
We are encountered–and so we speak. Cixous tries to write off repentance, but the idea circumscribes her essay. The word ‘repentance’ “jumped on to my page, it spread everywhere, however much I denied it. One says this word and that’s it” (40). Why the adamant refusal to repent–“we who draw are innocent” (28)? Because the situation is impossible. She is–and we are–compelled to speak, and yet we must speak what remains beyond us–we must speak the Truth. We are struck by Truth. We “don’t have salvation: it is dealt us like a blow, we faint. We awake with a start, quick a pencil, and take down the ultimate glimmer of illumination, however much we say: ‘what’s the difference, we’ve seen our vision already,’ we never resign ourselves” (39). We never resign because we are compelled to speak, to write, to draw…furiously. Quickly. Boldly.
Yet Cixous recognizes something problematic in writing essays. The self is uncommitted. It seeks to justify its hesitancy. It knows it will encounter errors–how can it not–and wants to reassure itself: “error is not lie: it is approximation. Sign that we are on track” (29). That response should settle the question. Yet ‘repentance’ keeps invading the text. Repentance lurks because the defense might be only a justification. What if our defense is…a lie? Error is not lie, but what if we should repent of our errors? What if we should write, or worse, should have written, something other than an essay? What if we ought to dare to use an “unbroken language” (Barth)?
“When one is poorly informed, one hesitates to take a position. And there was powerful official misinformation” (Gourevitch, 139). The words of Bishop Misago, a man accused of supporting Hutu-power, of preventing Tutsis from reaching places of refuge, of calling Tutsi priests “cockroaches,” and of promising police protection to ninety Tutsi schoolchildren who were slaughtered (by those police) three days later. Hesitancy is not always a virtue. Cixous agrees; and the theme of repentance haunts her essay.
Barth, like Cixous, recognizes that we cannot comprehend the meaning of our existence. Nevertheless, both Cixous and Barth agree that Truth encounters us in our “twilight” (Barth’s phrase). The “righteousness of God in Jesus Christ is a possession which breaks through this twilight, bringing the knowledge which sets even human existence ablaze. The revelation and observation–of the Unknown God–whereby men know themselves to be known and begotten by Him whom they are not” (Barth, 226). In Jesus, we see Truth as a person (I am the Truth; In the Beginning was the Word..and the Word became flesh), and not just any person, most certainly not an ambivalent person. Jesus is a person for us. In Jesus, we see God as a person for us; we see God bearing our sins for us. We see–it hits us in a moment, like a flash. The twilight is ripped apart by lightning–we see, and yet, the vision is lost. So begins our stumbling.
Nevertheless, our stumbling is not the final answer. Though broken, we dare to speak an unbroken language. We dare–and can dare–because we know that what we say is a parable. We are free to make an error–to stumble forward along the heels of Truth–because we see that Truth is a person, and this person is for us. We repent because we know, in Jesus, we are forgiven. We are free to act, to speak boldly, to draw cleanly because we know that neither our finished products nor our struggling attempts can bear the stamp of Truth; we know this, and yet, we know that, Truth has condescended to come into our terms, to speak our language–to come in the flesh, in the form of a slave, under the conditions of our sin. We can repent for our errors and our sins because we know that our best efforts fall short–the unbroken language is beyond us–and yet, the one from outside, the Eternal Truth, has been drawn into (on the pages of) our stuttering. We stutter without shame not because we live without the need of forgiveness, but because we are forgiven. Because we are forgiven, we can live…without knowing who we are. “As soon as we draw (as soon as, following the pen, we advance into the unknown, hearts beating, mad with desire) we are little, we do know know, we start out avidly, we’re going to lose ourselves” (Cixous, 26). In Jesus, we see that this loss of ourselves is our judgement-as-forgiveness, and thus, a joyful retrieval of our (still necessary) stumbling. “I advance error by error, with erring steps, by the force of error. It’s suffering, but it’s joy” (Cixous, 29).
*I am trying to let Cixous help me rethink my last post on “Pragmatic Identity.” I’m hoping to think through a bit more clearly what it means to live from beyond ourselves, as well as to open up the possibility of this ecstatic existence being, well, joyful.*