What Am I Next? Tsimsum, Soul & Traversing Space in Michel Serres’ “The Troubadour of Knowledge”

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Language can take us places. It can create an opportunity for us to leave ourselves and go somewhere we have never been. But the only way for that kind of displacement to happen is for us to identify with the text and its movements. However, not all texts will do.   A good writer has an acute sense of movement and change. This sensibility is reflected in a kind of writing that not only moves us but also gives us a kind of knowing that Shunryu Suzuki – the famous Zen master – associates with readiness (“It is the readiness of the mind that is wisdom”).     For each line to be moving, one must be ready for what Michel Serres calls “exposure” or what Jean Luc Nancy would call surprise. In Serres’ The Troubadour of Knowledge, exposure marks a sudden movement from contraction to expansion. I would aver that this articulation of movement is a figuration for the dynamic process of tsimtsum.   By articulating exposure, contraction, and expansion, Serres takes the reader through what I would call a “theology of smallness.”

In The Troubadour of Knowledge, Serres tells his reader to get ready:

Be on the alert! Watch out! A given event, this mood, a project or thought passes, requires, solicits: in this way a gap arises. (28)

The gap that occurs resonates with the notion of tsimtsum because it suggests a withdrawal and an opening that occurs between God and man.

Precisely the divergence of walking: the child goes to seek its fortune in the world, launches one foot in relation to the other foot that is set down, rooted, a root directed toward the center of the Earth even though it covers a locality. The disequilibrium free of cares, with no guarantees, with an inchoate disquiet, laughing and risky, being has just dumped the there. It is exposed. It abandons abasement and rises up. Grows and launches its branch. Jumps. It leaves what is stable and moves way. Walks, runs. It leaves the shore and takes off. Swims. It abandons habit to experiment. It evolves. Offers. Loves. Passes the ball.   Forgets its own home, climbs, travels, wanders, gets to know, looks, invents, thinks. (28)

For Serres, the “there” is the “position” of being (it is a contracted point) and there is a distance or “gap” between this position and what he calls “exposure.”   This third thing – this gap between position and exposure – invents a place that is exposed. It is not my place but the space of otherness, expansion, and life. Through this exposure, I am no longer the same being occupying the same position:

Who am I? First this stable position that cannot be uprooted. Tree or vegetable, some kind of green. What am I next? I am no longer there, I am not me, I expose myself: I am that exposure. I am toward the other step, no longer in rootedness, but at the extremities, made mobile by the wind, at the branchings, on the summit of the mountain, at the other end of the world from which I depart, in animal movements, crawling, flight, running….(30)

What, Serres asks, am I “as a whole?” He answers that I am the “totality of the volume between being-there and the exposed point, between the position set down in this place, a thesis that is often low, and exposure”(30). He calls the distance between the “low” position and exposure – which is a part of a whole or totality and he calls the “large dimension” – the soul.

The two points between position and exposure can also be understood in terms of contraction and expansion: “the low and stable point of the place or the there positioned, set down, on the one hand, and the high point, the nonplace or enlargement of the soul, the risk or liberation, explosion”(30).

An interesting counterpoint to Serres can be found in Jean Luc Nancy who sees presence – qua laughter – as an explosion of presence but fails to note that this explosion returns to a point of contraction.   Serres likens the contraction to humility and earth and the expansion to God: “God magnifies my soul; my soul magnifies God; the separation between nothing and everything – magnitude makes God and my soul”(31).

A telling thing about Serres’ reading is that in writing this way, he like Nancy, seems to only focus on the movement toward expansion and God. God, it seems, is not to be found in the contraction. Rather, for Serres, position, earth, and death seem to be synonymous. While he is right to note the space between position and exposure, he is averse to maintaining the tension. Perhaps this is because he wants to measure the “space” between one and the other so as to experience joy.

The humblest experience of joy confirms that the soul fills the glory of the skies with its song or the world with its nothingness. And the same for time: beatitude runs from generation to generation, so that the devout inhabits the unfurled omnitude of space and history.  

Accompanied by joy, experience opens this space – which goes from there to elsewhere and can go from Earth to God – for the construction or dilation of the soul, by opening up or piercing a passage, a threshold, a door, a port through which to reach one of these exposed places.   (31)

Experience “traverses these spaces.” But it comes to end in ecstasy and “creates a differential in time”(31).   Experience is – by its very nature – expansive. It goes beyond the “bestial instinct” which is “positioned” and is a “being there.”   While Serres sees the human in terms of experiences venture away from the position, his reading of humility puts it closer to death and locality.

This reading is fascinating insofar as Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik in his Lonely Man of Faith argues that there are “two Adams” – one that contracts and one that expands. Serres, it seems is more into the second Adam which, according to Soloveichik, is a figure for humanities desire to experience, know, and move more. The second Adam experiences joy but also frustration at limitations while the first Adam is local, closer to death and humility. Judaism – for Soloveichik – exists between these poles. One balances out the other and the tsimtsum creates this tension. Serres doesn’t see God in the contraction so much as in the expansion.

The schlemiel character exists between the two. The schlemiel is a small character. But while he is small in the realm of experience, he is large in the realm of goodness. The soul of the schlemiel is measured by his distance from the second Adam. Nonetheless, Sholem Aleichem’s schlemiels (Motl and Menachem Mendl) both set out for America and I.B. Singer’s Gimpel is on the move. They aren’t looking for more knowledge and experience, however. They are looking for goodness and trust. They are exposed to all types of accidents and lies but they keep on the move.   Much like Charlie Chaplin who doesn’t seem to stop moving, the schlemiel’s experience of God, so to speak, is in his narrow escape from this or that fate (on this note, Hannah Arendt calls the Chaplanesque schlemiel “the suspect”). His joy is on the run and, playing on Serres, I’d argue that it measures the space between position and exposure. His life is one non-stop tsimtsum, a theology of smallness.

When I look at Chaplin or when I read Aleichem’s Motl’s, I can’t help but hear Serres in my ear….with a comical twist:

What am I next? I am no longer there, I am not me, I expose myself: I am that exposure. I am toward the other step, no longer in rootedness, but at the extremities, made mobile by the wind, at the branchings, on the summit of the mountain, at the other end of the world from which I depart, in animal movements, crawling, flight, running

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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