Going Backwards, Falling Forwards: On Theologies of Contraction


I have always been astonished by the argument, made by Walter Benjamin, that it is better to go backwards than forwards. Against the idea of progress and growth, Benjamin claimed, in his reading of Kafka, that there is a greater task for man.   Seen within the framework of progress, to go backwards is to be a stupid and stubborn pre-modernist.   It is to be blind (intentionally and unintentionally) to the greatness of all things modern.   But, contrary to this view, a case can be made for why going backwards, against the wave of modernity, is the best way to keep the modern march of history and time in check. Through creative invention (in a literary sense) – which Michel Serres equates with going backwards in time while at the same time dying –life can be renewed through a heightened ethical-aesthetic sense of vulnerability and weakness.

For Benjamin and Serres, the greatest task for human kind consists in recovering or redeeming what has been destroyed, forgotten, or lost by history. It happens through what Serres calls “reserve” or contraction.   This task has, for both Serres and Benjamin, an aesthetic dimension that is based on a kind of literary and theological adventure. It brings one into a space of childhood and vulnerability. Through such a redemption, the world – which according to Serres, is based on endless expansion – can be altered and we can become “human.”   The sun will be eclipsed by withdrawal and contraction.   What I find so fascinating about this claim is that it suggests that smallness has a theological and ethical resonance.

My difference with Serres has to do with his reading of monotheism and its relationship to writing. He writes of smallness in terms of framework based on the binary of power and powerlessness; and for this reason, he associates smallness with weakness. It is a Christian and not a Judaic view of aesthetics and theology.

His view, in other words, is one of pity. Like Jesus, the artistic creator dies but, at the same time, it is “always in the process of being born”:

The child. The creator, dying, goes toward birth and childhood, in the other direction of time.   This is why the work does not use itself up and resists the monotony of history, whose flow runs toward the greatest probabilities of power, of glory, of death. Going toward childhood and birth, it is always in the process of being born. (104)

His paradoxical view of the (artistic) creator is that he is “born old and dies young, the opposite of those who are realistic.”   Serres suggests that the fundamental difference between those who hold with history and those who are creators is that the person who holds to history and the world cling to “the probable” while the creator who goes backward clings to the “improbable.” The death he speaks of consists of a loss; namely, of the realist. The death is symbolized in a willingness to risk it all for whatever may come.

The risk one takes in becoming a child is not for the sake of “power and glory.”   Serres waxes religious when he states the case. In the most direct manner, he suggests the possibility that salvation depends on risk that is not calculated (and “prudent”):

Here it is: whoever wants to save his soul accepts that he may have to lose it, and if you only want to save it, you will certainly lose it. A winning formula that is the inverse of prudence, which strains toward power and glory. The one fights in exchange, and the other throws itself into the gift and its pure hazards. (107)

For the child, existence is the gift toward which the soul must “throw itself.” But this gift is dangerous; it is “not without its hazards.” What could those hazards be?

Serres, in a literary manner, suggests that the hazards of going backwards may include a form of depression not joy.   But one doesn’t simply go backwards. One must also “hold back” if one is to become human.

If man holds back. We arrange the world for ourselves alone, now exclusively political animals, inexorable winners of the war of survival, enclosed forever in the city built without limits….The human species takes over and is going to reign, is not wary of itself, does not hold back, withholds neither its power nor its science nor its politics. The hominid must learn to hold back, must learn modesty and shame; and his language must learn understatement; his science, reserve. To persevere unceasingly in its being or in its power characterizes the physics of the inert and the instinct of animals. Doubtless humanity begins with holding back. (117)

Serres defines humanity by way of its ability to curb its power. It is an imitation of God (who, writes Serres, withholds his power).   Although he doesn’t mention Jesus’s name, Serres suggests that God welcomes all and becomes weak: He “holds back with modesty and shame”:

I see that God welcomes the gods, that he does not bring his arm down on the devil, because Satan, obviously, still takes all the powers of the world with no protests from God. I observe that he allows the angels to rag on him and the sweet crowd of saints to compete with him, that he even disappears a bit in the crush of wings, aureoles, and robes, that one can hardly distinguish him amid the palms. I discover that God is good and maybe even infinitely weak. He holds back with modesty and shame. Not long ago, he even allowed himself to be killed without reacting in any notable way.   (118)

After making this confession of sorts, stating his belief in the possibility that God may be “infinitely weak,” and pledging to imitate God’s weakness, Serres describes a new view of Creation and what we “owe” God and life:

We owe life to the restraint of God, created as we were in the margins of his restraint. We also owe life to the all that gaps left by the other living things, the Earth, the atmosphere, the waters, and the flames that, in return, owe their existence to the marginal reserves that we leave them. (119)

Our restraint, in other words, towards the earth is the expression of a debt to God and God’s restraint. This economy of debt – based on the risk of faith and on God’s “infinite weakness” – comes with a set of moral descriptions and prescriptions:

Morality demands this abstention first of all. First obligation: reserve. First maxim: before doing good, avoid the bad. To abstain from evil, simply hold back. Because in expanding, good itself, just like the sun, very quickly becomes evil. (119)

In this divinely based ethics, expansion is associated with evil and contraction with goodness.

And, for Serres, this is the condition for the possibility of aesthetic and true cultural creation: “The first obligation conditions life, creates a readiness for a sense of emergence from which novelty will come.”   By having “reserve,” by contracting rather than expanding, we not only imitate God, we also become “ready” for something new.   Aesthetics, in this sense, is prefaced by ethics and theology.

The “new,” says Serres is born out of this backward movement: “The new can be born in chiaroscuro. The gentle man holds back. He reserves some strength to retain his strength, refused in himself and around him the brute power that is propagated.” He calls this “reason.”   It does “not submit to an empire, in particular that of its own expansion.”   For Serres, one kind of reason can resist another which seeks to reproduce itself and its space (he calls this kind of reasoning, psychotic and mad):

The gentle and reasonable man can thus disobey reason, so that   margins are born around him, to provide for novelty. He invents good tidings. Finder, troubadour.   (120)

Serres argues that “good tidings” are ‘born at midnight: without sun.” By “investing our power in softening our power,” we become “human.” And in becoming “human,” “man does not bring his arm down on the weak, or on the strong, out of resentment, or even on those proved to be bad. Humanity becomes human when it invents weakness – which is strongly positive”(120).

The problem with Serres’s argument is that it really isn’t an argument. It is based on a belief that reserve and contraction is greater than expansion.   Strangely enough, Serres argues that the best proof of invention can be found in understatement. And this is sensible. The best kind of saying is a dark one and one that imitates the withdrawal of God (and “perhaps God’s infinite weakness”). By keeping in reserve and not dominating the world with our words, by letting things suggest otherness, we ready ourselves for the revelation of things that are unexpected and improbable.

The only problem with this kind of faith is that it is based on a Christian notion of contraction as good and expansion as evil.   Perhaps it would be better to say that contraction is expansion. In becoming small, we become big.   The paradox remains and so do my questions because in the Jewish tradition of Kabbalah, God’s contraction creates the space for a dialectic between God and the world; in this dialectic God can dwell and expand in the world and through the world; there need not be a contradiction between materiality and spirituality.     Smallness, in Serres reading, is a kind of pathos and has tragic resonance. But it can also have a comic resonance. That is the option which really interests me since it doesn’t premise itself on a God who is constantly in reserve or weak or beyond relation. To be sure, there is something tragic-comical in the relationship with God.   By focusing solely on contraction, this is missed.

As Gershom Scholem notes, tsimtsum in the Jewish Kabbalistic tradition is not solely about withdrawal.   In Kabbalah there are two movements – of approach and withdrawal.  By becoming small, one makes room for the other (the little other and big Other).   One exposes oneself and one’s judgment to the ridicule and laughter of the other.   I’d like to go out on a limb here and say that this is a comic kind of exposure: it doesn’t express withdrawal alone so much as a simultaneous withdrawal and exposure within a certain kind of family (audience) context. (Michael Wyschogrod reads Jewish theology in terms of a familial relation; rather than in terms of a Creator who withdraws completely from creation there is a give and take between God and his “family,” so to speak.)

There is a weakness (contraction) and also a kind of empowerment (expansion) that comes with an encounter with the God of tsimsum.   In a tragic-comic relation, there can be a moment in which one feels like a child and loses one’s prudence, when expansion seems to have been lost, and one feels like a schmuck or schlemiel (in the bad sense). But, in the end, it is not only the goodness of the comic character that redeems it; it is the family (audience) that forgives.

Jewish comedy epitomizes contraction and expansion and can be read in terms of a theology that differs from Serres’s. It need not be focused only on the figure of weakness and reserve.   There is a give and take in Jewish comedy so that when one goes backwards (and contracts), one can also, simultaneously, fall forwards (and expand).     Here, it is the give and take of comedy that can makes us human; not the pathos of reserve.   Imitating God, here, suggests a comical kind of give and take that need not take world and its expansion as evil or tragic.


2 thoughts on “Going Backwards, Falling Forwards: On Theologies of Contraction

  1. Very nice! I would love to hear more about how your position differs from Christianity. Jesus after all is both servant of servant and king of kings, so it seems like they’ve got the paradoxical sense that small is big and big is small covered!

  2. That’s a good query, Eric! Moses is depicted by the Torah/Bible as the “most humble man on earth.” And, millennia later, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav has a Simpleton in one of his most famous Hasidic stories go on to be a leader. In another story, he casts a “humble king” as a leader. Indeed, there are many common points re: smallness as greatness. However, as I note in the blog-essay, the big difference between theologies has to do with the emphasis on the correlation of smallness with pathos and suffering.

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