Need we guarantee “meaning”?

I just sent off a long commentary invited by the journal Society for a forthcoming symposium on the recent book Hostility to Hospitality by Tracy and Michael Balboni (Oxford UP). The Balbonis offer a critique of how institutional medicine dehumanizes both its practitioners and its patients. Their solution is a full partnership between medicine and organized religions–faith traditions, in their preferred wording. My commentary expresses serious reservations about this argument, while agreeing with the problem the Balbonis identify.

Responding to the Balbonis raised, once again, the question of what counts as meaning. For people living with specific faith commitments, meaning requires external guarantee, or what is often called transcendental guarantee. My understanding of modernity, comprising the secular turn, is that meaning can be without such guarantees. If anything, such guarantees are suspect, because they lead people to take exclusionary stances that are closed to counter arguments. It’s important to me that meaning be fully accountable to here-and-now observable effects, not to a scheme that could be called metaphysical in its non-observability.

My stance rests on how I understand Spinoza’s argument that there is one substance only, an argument that I think would be rejected by people who think and believe as the Balbonis do. My contemporary source is Bruno Latour, although I confess to finding Latour’s main book on spiritual matters, Rejoicing, to be written in his long-paragraph, no-examples style that is obscure to me, and just not much fun to read. My favourite Latour is when his love of things, material objects, is palpable. In his evocations of the lives of things, I see him pointing toward a god of creation, which is semantically different from a creator God. Although Latour himself is Catholic. But I’m not sure what that means for a mind of his subtlety. I need to read his recent Gaia books.

For the Balbonis, the big problem with medicine (and by my extension, with modernity)  is called immanence, by which they mean putting one’s faith in what is of this world; human flourishing as an end in itself, self-justifying. They oppose immanence to transcendence, which for them is beyond this world. That leads me to all I have read–only a small part of all that’s been written–on the question of Shakespeare’s religion, on which there is a full spectrum of reasonably informed opinions. The gods are often invoked in Shakespeare–they are frequently called upon in the early part of King Lear, but they don’t show up. Sometimes gods actually do make cameo appearances, as when Hymen arrives to perform the marriages at the end of As You Like It. The interesting question for me is not what Shakespeare’s own faith, or lack of it, might have been. The question is what a Shakespearean faith might be.

Northrup Frye writes about The Tempest that we, the audience, have the sense of participating in a mystery. I think that’s true to some degree in all of Shakespeare, as in Dante, Bach, Rembrandt, and a circle of a finite number of others. What’s the mystery, I ask myself in response to Frye? One way of saying it is that in participating in stories that are fully immanent, that is, of this world in all its fully embodied horror and joy, generosity and cruelty, we have an experience of transcendence, because none of these stories is only about what it is ostensibly about. Each reaches beyond the mud and blood–and other fluids–while being entirely of those immanent realities. Shakespeare’s spiritual genius was to make palpable in the material a sense of transcendence.

Whether the particular play ends in marriages or in a pile of corpses, I feel a sense of grace in each ending, even in the bitter, ugly ending of Troilus and Cressida, which seems to deny any meaning to life. That’s the most I can say, right now, as to why I disagree with those who, like the Balbonis, understand immanence and transcendence in opposition to each other. Nothing guarantees anything else, as I think Latour once wrote. Everything makes everything else possible. Immanence and transcendence are necessary, each for the other to be. “To the things themselves,” the modernist poets said. But their poems showed each thing to be something much more. Attention thus creates meaning.

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