Closed Books Reopened


Three articles in this issue have made me reconsider works I've chosen not to read.

Take Foucault. A dozen or so years ago, I was working with my friend Joseph Mulholland, then a commissioner of parole, on ways of educating the incarcerated. I turned to Foucault's Discipline and Punish to learn more about the birth of the prison: understanding its genesis might lead to a tighter grip on contemporary reality. In the reading, however, I found that my suspicions of the text and Foucault's interpretations prevented serious valuation. Left without what I had been looking for, I shelved the book with no intention of taking it down again, except for a biennial vacuuming.

In "Sister Helen, Brother Michel: The Discipline of Love," Anne Dalke reads Foucault with far more openness - and, consequently, justice - than I did. That she finds Sister Helen Prejean's alternative vision more persuasive than Foucault's should, I suppose, reassure me. It doesn't. My "hermeneutic" led to a dead end. Hers makes it possible to profit from two sources - the theoretical Discipline and Punish and the experiential Dead Man Walking.

And then there's Thoreau. Offended by his contempt for cities, my urban soul has long resisted the seductions of his style and the attentiveness of his observation. Jerome Miller's "The Auroral Hour and the Throe of History" convinces me that there is more to Thoreau than I had let myself see, and less. Miller brings to life Thoreau's practice of presence, the experience of a wonder "that is transfixed by what is here, now, right in front of us. ..." The present is neither a means nor an end: it is. And if we let it and ourselves be, we free ourselves from the vain attempt to control the future.

But in teaching us to eschew control, Thoreau diminishes the present by simultaneously diminishing the future. "Confusing the attempt to control the future with living in relationship to it, Thoreau - and all the spiritualities akin to his - would have us withdraw from historicity." Instead, to live in the present, we must "abandon ourselves to the throe of the future that is immanent within it." Paradoxically, Miller, by specifying the flaw in Thoreau's vision, has motivated me to take my copy of Walden down from its dusty place on my bookshelves.

Rebelliousness against the gnostic and esoteric has, until now, left me unconcerned that I know so little about the Kabbalah. Sanford Drob's "The Sefirot: Kabbalistic Archetypes of Mind and Creation," has made me less casual about my ignorance. The Kabbalists, Drob says, "view the world as being comprised not of four, but of ten dimensions sefirot, and they regard each thing in the world, whether spiritual, psychical, or material, to be composed of varying combinations of these ten dimensions or structures." He sees the sefirot as empirical in the wider sense of the term: "Each sefirah represents a fundamental psycho-emotive category which is fundamental to human psychology as well as to the phenomenological construction of the world as it presents itself to experience."

I won't focus here on the individual dimensions - they are well described in Drob's article - but on the two things that convinced me that this is an essay to which I'll return many times. First of all, there is the attempt to outline the structure of the real in its complexity, to create a (meta)physics of both the tangible and the intangible. We experience the intangible every day; no understanding of ourselves and the cosmos can exclude it and be adequate. Second - and more important to me than any argument I might have with the naming or description of an individual sefirah - these dimensions emerge as dynamically interrelated. They "are continuously interacting with one another (uniting, competing, blending, breaking apart, reforming) within both the cosmos and humankind, and it is such a dynamic which lends significance and 'life' to the sefirotic scheme." Our cover, in which the archetypes are distinct yet open to one another, depicts only part of the reality; it could not, in its two dimensions, capture the spiritual energy that is at work, an energy that, more than anything else, makes Drob's insights into Kabbalistic teaching worth reading and rereading. And doing so with an open heart.


William Birmingham