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"I am You"
The Hermeneutics of Empathy in Western Literature, Theology, and Art
By Karl F. Morrison
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The Positive Content
This chapter and the next constitute a dossier for the incredulous. Readers familiar with the language and tradition of empathy may well begin with later chapters. However, for many, the world of empathy, ways of thinking about it, and the vocabulary it requires are unknown. To provide some guidance, I have cast these chapters on positive and negative contents in a fairly schematic way. Attempting to keep the schema from beginning in categories and ending in catechesis, I have supplied numerous illustrations at most points. In this way, I hope to provide a systematic introduction to a subject that flies in the face of widespread convictions about personal separateness and, by the weight of illustrations, to assure the skeptical that the propositions at issue in this essay actually belong to a common heritage of Western culture. I hope, by schema and illustrations, to prepare a secure point of departure. At any rate, these chapters should suggest that the sentence, "I am you," was not an occasional accident of phrasing invented by whimsical writers, but rather the signature of a long and many-formed hermeneutic tradition. It had a history. At the beginning, I must emphasize that the sentence did not make its sense. Interpreters made sense of it, and they were able to do that because of their common heritage.
The sentence "I am you" is reminiscent of Vedic theology. It reflects the propositions that God (Atman) inhabits all things and, particularly, that the human soul is identical with Atman. Parallels have been drawn between Vedic theology and doctrines of Western scholars who taught that human personality was subsumed in a higher, perhaps divine, unity.
Indeed, the sentence "I am you" appears to have entered European literature at a moment, and in a place, notably susceptible to Indic theology. To my knowledge, the sentence was first used in religious texts composed in the eastern Mediterranean basin, during the second century after the birth of Christ. Some of these texts were composed by non-Christians; others, by Christians. All belong to cults that combined features of many religions and philosophies into secret doctrines and rituals. The sentence "I am you [and you are I]" appears as an occult formula or incantation expressing unity of the initiates with their gods.
The eclectic Greek culture that gave rise to these texts was open to Indic ideas, and such was particularly the case in Egypt, where some, and perhaps all, of these texts were written. In his account of early Church history, Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 260–ca. 340) asserted that, during the second century, there were many Christian preachers — "evangelists of the Word" — in East Africa and India. One of them, Pantaenus (died ca. 200), returned to Alexandria and became head of the catechetical school, a position that enabled him to form the thinking of men who subsequently laid the foundations of Christian theology. Pantaenus had converted to Christianity from Stoicism, which taught a divine immanence resembling on some counts that taught by Vedic theology. What he taught as a Christian may have been informed by resonances in his mind between Stoic and Vedic doctrines.
However, the sentence summed up ideas that had long been present in Western thought and belief, and that persisted long after the second century of the Christian era. If this had not been so, the sentence would have been yet another exotic ritual formula, imported and discarded because it had no roots in the Western tradition. There is no need to look afar to Vedism, Buddhism, or Sufic mysticism for broad structures of thought that gave meaning and long life to the sentence. Centuries of thought and experience had prepared such structures in the West, encompassing other kinds of unity in addition to that between humanity and God.
Once adopted in the West, the sentence "I am you" became a motif of those already existing structures. As such, it has persisted until the present time. To illustrate the various structures of thought summed up in the sentence, their antiquity, and their persistence, I shall consider the different strands of thought woven together in John Donne's (1573–1631) Meditation 17. After identifying those strands, I shall sketch their pedigrees in Western thought.
In Meditation 17, Donne asserted the identity of the living with the dead. "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls," he wrote. "It tolls for thee." Actually, the bell was tolled for the specific person whose funeral was in progress. But Donne believed that the bell was "passing a piece of [himself] out of this world." He adduced several reasons.
The first was sacramental. "The Church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions." By baptism, a child is "connected to that head which is my head too, and engraffed into that body whereof I am a member."
To this, Donne added metaphysical reasons. He invoked the philosophical argument that the world had, in God, its first cause and final goal. "All mankind," he wrote, "is of one Author, and is one volume," each life being an individual chapter. Death was not the destruction of a chapter, but rather a translation under God's hand, the very hand that "shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall be open to one another." Donne's other metaphysical reason was drawn from the ancient philosophical category of substance. There was, he assumed, one substance of humanity in which all human beings participated. "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. ... Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind."
Finally, Donne combined a theory of knowledge (epistemology) with ethics. "The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth." However, people who hear the bell may not recognize that it tolls for them. They may not know that the tolling of the bell is a sign applying to them at all. They may misread a particular occurrence of the sign. The identity of the dead with the living was not self-evident; it had to be grasped by processes of thought. Further, recognition was not enough. The lessons signified had to be desired and assimilated. Donne wrote, to be sure, that a man was united to God from the moment when he recognized that the bell tolled for him, but he went on to describe the ethical consequences. Recognition entailed willingly assuming the affliction of the dying to one's own profit, "if, by consideration of another's danger, I take mine own into contemplation and so secure myself by mankind my recourse to my God, who is our only security."
Thus, Donne wove together a number of strands to justify his idea of common identity. These strands enabled him to think of several kinds of personal union. Because of sacramental theology, he was able to think of believers in personal union with Christ, their common head, and of believers in union with one another through their unity in Christ's body. His metaphysical reasoning enabled him to think of personal union of man with God through the participation of effects in their causes (God being the first cause — the single Author — of the world), and of each human being with all others through participation in the substance of humanity. On epistemological (and ethical) grounds, he was also able to conceive of personal union of man with God through recognition of a common humanity and willing application of its moral consequences.
Moreover, it is evident that Donne distinguished between potential and actual identity. His theology taught him that identity inhered in the sacramental bond uniting believers in, with, and through Christ. His metaphysics taught him that identity inhered in nature, specifically in its causal order and in substances. However, these truths did not exist for those who did not know and desire them, any more than the bell tolled for those who ignored or misread its signal. Even those who perceived the grounds of union had to move in a complex process from potential to actual identity — by sacramental action repeated until death; by enduring the movement of egress, dispersion, and reunion through which the hand of God bound up "all our scattered leaves again"; by desiring the affliction that matures and ripens such people, making them fit for God; and finally by embracing misery as a treasure that brings them "nearer and nearer our home."
In fact, the web of ideas that guided Donne postulated an identity of the "I" with the "you" that coexisted with and enhanced personal separateness. This ambiguity is implicit in two paradigms of unity on which Donne's ideas centered: the biological unity of members in one body (as in the Church as the body of Christ), and the esthetic unity of parts in a whole composition (as in chapters of a book).
As we shall see, both the biological and the esthetic paradigms actually consisted of two components, the one static and the other dynamic. The static component of the biological paradigm characterized the organic assimilation of many members in one body. Its dynamic component had to do with the genetic process of procreation, by which individual bodies, in their organic integrity, joined into one to produce others, male dominance and female subordination being always asserted. The static component of the esthetic paradigm derived from analogy with the combination of disparate elements in a single artistic composition. The dynamic component concerned the processes of knowing and feeling by which a spectator, or hearer, absorbed and was absorbed into a work of art. In the event, both paradigms were perspectives on the same subject: human nature in its multiplicity and unity. From this common subject they gained their common preoccupation with the emotions (or affects) as the means of bonding and, in particular, with love, the most complex and powerful of all affects whether in nature or in art, the created second nature of human existence.
Either in the biological or in the esthetic paradigm, the identity achieved was selective. It extended to particular aspects of existence having to do with heart and mind, rather than an all-encompassing unity of the material world, such as is the case, for example, in pantheism. (These paradigms of unity also figured in theories about society, as we shall in Chapter 5.)
This partial common identity was achieved by mediation. The "I" and the "you" were separate until a mediating act was performed uniting them in the crucial aspects. This act might be a sacrament (reenacting the historical mediation of Christ). It might be the causal act of procreation by which humanity was conveyed, or the providential act of "translation" by which estrangement from God in this world was changed into union with God in the next. It might be the mediating act of recognition and acceptance by which one person desired to participate empathetically in the affliction of another, making it his own. In all cases, it was an act of understanding, that is, of interpretation. Finally, mediation was itself possible because the " I" was intrinsically like the "you" in the aspects that permitted identity. The processes through which the "I" and the "you" moved by degrees from remote to close likeness and finally to identity were mimetic as well as hermeneutic.
Donne's intellectual tradition illustrated the ambiguous coexistence of selective identity with personal separateness with a variety of metaphors. In Meditation 17, Donne himself employed the metaphor of grafting. There were many others: the drop of water in a cup of wine, the heat in a bar of iron, the grains kneaded together into one loaf of bread, the manifestation of an archetype in a copy, the kindling of many candles from one and the same fire, the harmony of voices in song, and the act of eating and digestion by which the flesh of one body was transformed into that of another. The list is a long one, but its very length may serve to emphasize the ambiguous teaching of the tradition of which Donne stood, an ambiguity that operated even when Donne admonished each of the faithful to move from likeness to identity with Christ, to be Christ's image "or not His, but He."
I have identified a number of strands of thought that enabled Donne to compose Meditation 17. It remains, however, to indicate the ancestry and the career of his reasons, the kinds of identity that those reasons made conceivable to him, and the crucial role of mediation through stages of likeness toward identity; a mimetic strategy was embedded in each of the four reasons.
Donne's thinking followed generally the division between works of the flesh and works of the spirit. The first category had two fields of inquiry — sacramental and metaphysical; the second category had only one but that field of inquiry was the most complex — epistemology.
Ideas about sacramental union were of primary importance to the biological paradigm. Several kinds of sacramental unity were recognized in classical and postclassical antiquity. The first was inspiration, or divine possession. Plato regarded inspiration as a sacred madness of which the highest form — philosophic madness — was like a continual initiation into perfect mysteries, a movement by which the soul was absorbed into the divine beauty, rhythm, and harmony that it saw, loved and imitated. The second and third kinds of sacramental unity were indeed enacted in mystery cults. Such unity might come about through eating consecrated elements, as devotees of Dionysus ate the raw flesh of a bull consecrated to the god and given his name. In this case, rituals of dedication and naming were thought to identify the god with the bull through sympathetic magic, enabling the flesh of the bull, transformed into that of the god, to be transformed yet again into the flesh of the initiate. Sacramental unity might also be achieved through rituals of personification. Evidently, when Apuleius (fl. 150) was initiated into the mystery cult of Isis, he was costumed as the god Horus, "adorned like the sun, and set up in the place of a statue, [and] the curtains being suddenly opened, I was exposed to the sight of the people." Likewise, the Jewish theologian, Philo of Alexandria (fl. 40), described the High Priest's liturgical vestments as an elaborate symbolic representation of the universe. From the moment when he was clad in that image of the world, the High Priest was obliged "to bear about the pattern of it in his mind, so that he shall be in a manner changed from the nature of a man into the nature of the world and ... become a little world himself."
Whether by inspiration, or by mimetic rituals of dedication or personification, the nature of the believer was absorbed, or transformed, into that of the divinity. The epistles of St. Paul demonstrate that these methods of personal union through sacraments entered the theology of the early Church. By the indwelling Spirit, Paul wrote, "I am crucified with Christ. Nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me" (Gal. 2:20). The Eucharistic elements, Paul taught, became the body and blood of Christ, consumed by the faithful to salvation and to damnation by those who discerned not the Lord's body (1 Cor. 11:23–29). Baptism was considered a mimetic ritual by which, being baptized into Christ and Christ's death, the initiate would also be in the likeness of his resurrection (Rom. 6:3–5). The believer personified — "put on" — Christ (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27).
Thus, well before the sentence "I am you" entered European literature, complex sacramental grounds by which interpreters could make sense of it were prepared. The ritual incantations in non-Christian hermetic texts affirmed that the believer was transformed into the divinity by likeness — by knowledge, by the god's name hidden as a charm in the believer's heart, or by the fact that the believer was the image of the god. All these grounds, anticipated in pre-Christian thought, were embedded in Christianity. However, Christianity had added a dimension of sacramental unity that was not directly anticipated: not only a primary unity between devotee and god, but also a secondary unity among believers.
Excerpted from "I am You" by Karl F. Morrison. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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