Nel pieno di una crisi sistemica, che dal 2008 soffoca – con l’economia – anche la condizione umana dell’Occidente, la disperazione si impone come problema denso di implicazioni filosofiche. Tuttavia, esso si presenta difficile da portare a tema, sia per gli aspetti soggettivi ad esso collegati, sia per la lettura prevalentemente psicologica o psichiatrica dello scoramento, propria della nostra cultura. Il mio articolo intende portare alla luce more philosophico un tratto essenziale della disperazione: il dis-orientamento nello spazio, vissuto sia sul piano della concreta esperienza (difficoltà di progettare, di agire, di impegnarsi, di relazionare), sia su quello spirituale (inquietudine, pensieri suicidari). Se il Libro di Giobbe conferma, sul piano semantico, questa dimensione spaziale del disperarsi, la fenomenologia evidenzia, come guadagno originariamente offerente, la relazione tra ambiente esistenziale (spazio come orizzonte di senso) e ricchezza/povertà dell’interiorità personale.
Global crisis and the rise of despair
The financial global crisis suffered by western countries since 2008 brought to the surface, within the fragility of the traditional market economy, a more intimate weakness of individuals. The breaking down of some traditional benchmarks, such as a job and a house, a no more guaranteed medical care coverage, the death of faith in the future in general, made life expectations more confused than ever in the recent past. However, it would be incorrect to limit the investigation to a wide range of economical-financial matters.
We wouldn’t understand why so many people are unable to see any light at the end of the tunnel or suicides have dramatically risen also in Italy, if we wouldn’t take in consideration how despair works in the human condition.
At the light of the ordinary experience of living, despair is given as a painful, totally human condition, in which nothing makes sense except frustration itself. If we put into a brackets all the subjective aspects of despair, in order to make the phenomenological reduction, we conclude that it may be said an failed form of hope, borrowing and adapting the title of psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger’s masterpiece (Three Forms of Failed Dasein – Drei Formen Missglückten Daseins , 1956). In other terms, desperation does not allow any positive expectation about one’s life. A severe cancer limits the possibility of a good life; the death of a child breaks down all parents’ expectations; an earthquake can destroy the capacity to begin again; a global financial crisis, as well as the one we have been experiencing for years sketches no source of hope. Despair is a state in which any perspective for the future is cancelled.
Despite this chronological tension – a desperate person cannot think of any perspective or solution – despair seems to be more deeply implicated to the space. Differently from hope, marked by temporality because of its orientation to the future (we look forward), the experience of hopelessness deals with the loss of the world of life: that’s what I mean and I’ll argue in my paper.
From a very intuitive perspective to feel a sense of anger and despair means to be dis-oriented and lost in the world of life: they are two sides of the same coin. In a world where nothing sounds familiar and friendly, a desperate person feels to be unable to get out from it.
Despair is something different from misfortune, so deeply investigated by Simone Weil in Attente de Dieu (1942): it is a subjective attitude to a crisis condition. A person can react with optimism to the earthquake, another one can feel broken down and abandoned. In any case, I feel this anthropological matter under estimated and I suggest that such a question has not received an adequate thematic development within the philosophical frame, despite its urgent call.
I.1 Despair: its relation with space in the experience of biblical Job
The biblical Book of Job still provides some valuable insights in order to have a better understanding of desperation, at least on an anthropological perspective.
The Hebrew word that prevails to express the notion of despair – rogez – in the Book of Job emphasizes the spatial component of disorientation and wandering around in the world of life: both concepts are symptoms very well known by psychiatry as traits of the peculiar anxiety experienced in hopelessness.
Job totally assumes his painful experience. He is a righteous man and God decided to test him, by according Satan the permission to afflict him. In spite of the calamity, Job accepts his ordeal of pain. He claims:
“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job, 1-21)
Although his complaints and the resentment toward God that arise little by little in Job’s painful claim, in a never ending call to the Creator, he does not accuse Him of injustice. No matter how he suffers. In the midst of a painful, discouraging experience he remains patient and faithful. However Job is continually tempted by despair, the landmark of his human fragility.
“I have no pace, no quiet/no rest: here is despair (rogez)” (Job, 3, 26-27)
I invite the readers to stop and reflect on the relation between disquiet and despair in a spatial frame. Rogez refers both to the state of anxiety (to be in disquiet, to tremble) of someone who is in a trouble and the sense of being lost in an unfamiliar place. However, the linguistic root of the biblical word proves that space plays the major role in the meaning or, at least, it is given as the prevalent aspect of it. The two consonants r and g are in common with ragal that expresses the ideas of foot or leg in their common use, that is basically to walk and move. Hebrew language generally translates this human act with the verb halak.
What I would like to address, now, is that halak focuses on a certain aim to which one gets, rogez on the contrary, seems to concentrate one’s attention on his/her feet, toward the ground. The person who halak does not tremble, is always steady on his feet.
On a theological point of view, despair is strictly linked to the ideas of instability. In both cases the psychological condition deals with a movement that does not orient itself to the end. In discussing whether sloth should be accounted a capital sin, Aquinas in the Quaestio 35 of the II-II Pars of the Summa Theologiae, quotes Gregory’s definition of despair. The Holy father assumes that despair is a “daughter” of sloth, a sort of interrelate condition, since “no man can be a long time in company with what is painful and unpleasant”. In his struggle against things that cause sorrow, a human being throws against end and means. Then despair is, in Gregory’s doctrine (Ethic. VIII, 5,6) is properly speaking this distorted attitude – “wandering after unlawful things” – then is the reaction against the means.
It is relevant to note that Aquinas , in the “Reply to objections 3”, sketches a phenomenology of despair as a wander around aimlessly, when he discusses Gregory’s theology.
Turning back to Job, we can easily see that his description of despair’s symptoms is really close to the theological interpretation of Gregory (Moral, XXXI, 45) examined by Thomas. On a phenomenological perspective it entails to at least two main traits of the psychological disquiet.
1)Despair is a sort of answer of the human being to a painful condition that refers to a more intimate ground of the being.
2)The aimlessly wandering of the person is the symptom of a loss: the end to which the conduct orients is no more perceived; the consequence is disquiet and restlessness.
Job lives a painful case, since he cannot move and stands apart by himself because of his condition of untouchable, nevertheless anxiety disorients him. The Book of Job is a genuine picture that explores the involvement of the human being in the world of life. As we’ll see in the following paragraphs concerning the notion of space in Guardini, Heidegger, Merlau-Ponty, the implication with reality, (the being in the world) is primarily an ontological experience. The human subject experiments that something exists and it is different from his/her subjectivity. Furthermore, this knowledge is far more complex than the cognitive activity. As Aquinas puts in evidence, this cognitive insight goes along with a pure metaphysical knowledge of the good. Being in the world gives immediately a taste of the positive component of reality: something is given (positum) rather than nothing.
The Bible, in which the story of Job is included, links the human experience in the life-space to this peculiar positive component of reality, on the basis of the faith: precisely, at the origin of the pre-moral good experienced by humans there is of the effusive good of the Creator.
Furthermore, the Bible connects the positive of the being in world with the earths, the original stuff with which the human person was born by God. This is a premise that has to be taken carefully in consideration also for understanding the sense of despair.
Before assuming a gender, before being a ish (man) or a ishah (woman), a person is ‘adam, an individual subject made by earth (‘adamah). In Latin it happens the same: homo, the neutral term for human being, and humus, the soil, share the same root. Losing the close relation to the space – not to be intended only as ground but as a meaningful horizon of the world of life – means not to be any more in touch with their proper self-identity, both on a cognitive and a moral sense. Moving from the phenomenological perspectives of Guardini, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty we realize that a human being differs from animals because of the capacity to make sense of the world of life. The Aquinas moves further, by noticing that the inclination to reality is an ingredient of the will: it inclines to act.
Job experiments despair because he is totally focused on himself, totally on his pain, afflictions and disgraces. Rooted to the ground of his discontent, unable to submit to the omniscience of God1, he cannot halak ‘aharè Adhonai first of all because Job feels not to have earth under his feet anymore.
The notion of despair, according to the biblical book, is a powerful key-term in order to read the question of whether being in the world and sensing the world plays a role in the human fulfillment. When we live the experience of hope, we certainly walk on the opposite, when we are driven in the opposite direction of self-transcendence, the possibility of dehumanization and despair arise. I should stress, here, how transcendence is related to sensing.
A question arises, at this point of the investigation. It seems contradictory the link between Job and the space: if he is attached to the earth, how is possible to consider him so distant from the space? On the contrary, he seems totally grounded in it. A possible answer can be provided by the phenomenological point of view.
Job, for being concentrated on himself and his painful condition, has totally lost the openness to what is all around him. The Biblical hero suffers from a short view about his possibilities. If we consider Job’s story from Thomas Aquinas’ theoretical lens, we can also say that closure to the world of life strongly limits his opportunity to grasp something of the positive of reality: he reduces the inclination to whatever is all around him. Out of the literary frame, we notice that phenomenological intuition and metaphysics of human act gets to a common result about dehumanization. There is an intimate relation between the human person (homo) and the world intended as the living horizon in which a living experience is grounded (humus). Despair far from being – only – a pathological situation seems to be the ordinary condition for human being in some ways detached from the relation to other subjects or too much oriented to their own self.
The relation between the ground and Job’s feet – rooted in the linguistic structure of the Hebrew language and in the narrative frame of the Biblical book – is particularly focused in the Quran, the Islamic holy text in which Job is said a prophet and called, in Arabic, Ayyūb. Putting into brackets all the religious implications, in order to sketch simply some anthropological insights about hopelessness, we can get some valuable intuitions from Quran 38,41.
“Strike with the foot, here it is a fresh bath, here is a beverage”.
The water gushing forth the soil marks the end of the afflictions suffered by the prophet. From a narrative point of view, water is perceived as a source of purification and it allows the possibility of a re-birthing (the Christian baptism does it, for instance). In the phenomenological frame in which I explore the intimate dryness that affects the human person when the relation to the world of life is (partially or completely) lost, what happens to Ayyūb is meaningful for many reasons. First of all his feet bang against, it collides with the ground: this act is intentional; Ayyūb is invited to do this; then he orients himself to action2:
Ayyūb does not only inclines to the soil, it tastes the very essence of it – some water – that’s to say, a basic component of life. Ayyūb’s feet moves, we could say, toward the source of mercy and to his own identity. We face, here, a condition exactly at the opposite of the one expressed by the Hebrew verb rogez (despair). A verb rooted in a disordered, not intentional idea of movement, both physical and psychological (anxiety).
The human individual is asked to be opened and receptive: that’s why a person has a moral sense and an animal has not. Without this attitude we couldn’t be able to prove the existence of an ethical conduct rooted inside the person and we wouldn’t face the essential ambiguity of values explored by Guardini (something “deep” or “high”, as we saw before, may be positive and negative, as we will see in the next paragraph).
In the literary description of despair disorientation in the space always reflects on a more intimate, spiritual ground. In Goethe’s Faust the disquiet of the main character of the tragedy is poetically expressed by a never ending activity: nothing satisfies Faust, who always moves towards new challenges and experiences. In Sokurov’s movie, inspired to the Goethe’s masterpiece (Russia, 2011), the incessant spiritual tension is immediately perceived by the movements of the camera, that never stops, following Faust in his strolling around the scene of the drama, without being able to rest. As the painful case of biblical Job put in evidence, it is rather intuitive that despair doesn’t know quiet and comfort, it moves us all around, without a goal. When Faust accepts to sell his soul to Mephistopheles, he cannot stop, as the damned souls of Dante’s Inferno.
A question arises at this point of the paper. Given the fact that desperation provides a disorienting relation to the world of life, what kind of space we deal with when we talk about space? Why is so crucial the role of space in making desperation or human fulfillment?
II. The world of life and its theoretical frame
Human beings make the experience of an inner link with the environment: on a phenomenological ground, the theoretical perspective I move from, the concepts of time and space cannot be taken apart from the involvement with the world of life. Phenomenologically speaking the concept of “world” is not physical – but mainly relational -: it resumes and implies the one of space. In this theoretical frame, space cannot be said only a category, in a Kantian sense3, but a sort of horizon in which human beings relate with other entities. In some circumstances, however, a person is no more in touch with the world of life and seems unable to feel the fullness of reality4. It may depend 1) on a deliberate choice (evildoing) or 2) it has nothing to do with one’s will (mental diseases, despair).
In order to prove this phenomenological intuition and to thread it on a secure ground, I’ll primarily sketch three theoretical perspectives that connect space to a wide range of meaningful contents: I refer the ones of Romano Guardini, Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, three scholars who share a common idea of the world of life as a source of sense and value.
I.2 Space and self-identity in Guardini
In his essay Welt und Person5 Italian-German phenomenologist and theologian Romano Guardini (1885-1968) reflects on the experience of value made by the human subject, moving from the being in the world. He notices that, from the very moment a toddler keeps on walking, he/she gains the first idea of “under” – by experiencing the earth under his/her feet – and begins to perceive that there is something “over” the head: birds fly in the sky, trees are higher than her/him and so on. These concepts, assumed by lived experience, are linked with a wide number of self-perceptions. For example: whatever is “under” the earth is not easy to see and to experiment; on the contrary what is “on” and “over” offers the opportunity of a clearer understanding. It follows that the first term (under) deals primarily with an idea of darkness and the second (over) is related to the one of openness. Furthermore, Guardini holds that the posture and the external stimuli allow a human subject to try out the very concept of the depth and of the highness of something.
Being in the world, in other words, gives a person the possibility to orient himself/herself and to assess whatever is given by vision or by touch. Furthermore, it can be said a sort of continuous relation with the outer world which determines identity. Space, for Guardini, is not simply something measurable but it grounds the moral sense of the human beings. The opportunity to weight up reality refers to the moral domain: the concept of space is, in Guardini’s perspective, aimed at discovering a wide number of values and their moral consistence. In any case, this experimental notion of value is blurring. For example: is “highness” a positive value and “depth” something obscure or negative? No, it does definitely does. Highness mainly expresses the idea of elevation, that is basically a positive concept, however we can find it also in the English statement “high and mighty”, that means “arrogant”. The same may be said for depth: a negative side always lies beneath the positive one. What Guardini puts in evidence in his investigation is that every space frame – when it is experienced by the human subject – gives rise to an assessment. Space, in other words, always makes sense (cognitive domain) and generates evaluations (value domain). To conclude: in touch, as well in vision or in body-centred reference cues space improves a peculiar knowledge, the one of the values6. 4
I. 3 Space and self-identity in Heidegger
In Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit7 the masterful essay of the German thinker on investigating the sense of the Being, space plays indeed a major role: the human subject, in fact, is said a Da-Sein, because of his Being-in-the-world, in-der-Welt-Sein. The one described by Heidegger (1889-1976) it is neither primarily a space that can be measured, nor an extension: it is more properly an horizon that discloses to human beings other entities; in this sense it can provide a truly experience of the world. The German philosopher investigated this idea in other philosophical works, later than Sein und Zeit, whose interest is particularly high in order to have a deeper understanding of that theoretical milestone. Between 1933 to 1935 – the thinker explored the link existing between world and spirit in the Die Selbstbehauptung der Deutschen Universität and Einführung in die Metaphysik8: Jacques Derrida, who held a famous reading about the two Heidegger texts, focused on the relation between space and sense, moving from the idea of the “lack” of the world, the possibility of not being involved with the meaningful horizon in which reality is given.
Heidegger, in the papers quoted before, poses the question of whether an animal is weltharm – poor of world – and whether a thing is weltlos – without world. It depends, he concluded, on the way they have deal with the world: as a living subject, an animal seems to be in a certain sense more implicated with the very essence of the world, a meaningful context. In any case, an animal cannot be in any way compared to a human being, because of the human attitude towards the Welt. A human individual, in fact, has the capacity to make questions and to rise always new problems. The very notion of spirit (Geist), in Heidegger’s perspective, deals with the attitude of making sense of the world. The human condition is the one of a Being-in-the-World in a way that totally differs from the one of an animal and the one of a mere object. The world is, we could say, with Derrida interpreting Heidegger, the space of spirit.
“The world is always spiritual” – geistig – wrote the German thinker in Einführung in die Metaphysik9. The lack of world cannot be interpreted as a quantitative deficiency. This perspective about the world allows us to understand why a human being can lose the relation to the world of life; a condition that Heidegger describes in the dark term of Weltverdüng, to which is strictly related the so called Entmachtung (destitution, affliction) of the spirit. Any refusal of the original questioning (alles urspünglichen Fragens) brings to the dissolution of the spiritual resources of the human being. Precisely the Entmachtung – as Derrida10 noticed reduces spirit to impotence.
What the two Heidegger’s texts bring to surface is that only a human subject can experiment the loss of the relation with the space: this disorientation it is primarily the incapacity of making sense of the world; this is a condition that not pertains to any other living entity. Heidegger’s discussion on the notion of world is interesting for our purpose because the idea of identity that moves from it is always open to transformation and is a consequence of being in a meaningful horizon of disclosure.
I. 4 Corporeal schema and sense in Merleau-Ponty’s thought
In Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) perspective’s it is the body to play a major role in the cognitive relation to the world of life. This condition is allowed by the corporeal schema – le schema corporel – that French philosopher defines as follows:
“un résumé de notre experience corporelle, capable de donner un commentaire et une signification à l’interoceptivitè et â la proprioceptivité du moment (…)”11.
The body is “an object” among other objects of the world (“l’un des objects de ce monde”); it elaborates a number of stimuli, but in no way can be considered something mechanical, as the term “schema” would seem to suggest, at least at large. A main limit of Merleau-Ponty’s subjectivity of the body, I argue, lies in its ambiguity and passivity that marks the condition of being, for the body, an object.
What makes a further distinction between the human body and all the other objects among which it is the sexual orientation that is a peculiar way to look at, to perceive, to live the world of life, to intend to the other entities. Furthermore, it is the source of two related functions – the language and the act of giving a peculiar meaning to reality12. Moving from this phenomenological achievement, Merleau-Ponty can conclude that “we have the possibility to move finally further to the classical dichotomy of subject and object”13. The world, in other terms, exists for a human subject only when he/she can give a name to the object intended. The French philosopher holds that the act of nominating does not follows the recognition of the object, because it is properly the recognition in itself14. Perception, then, is an experience both sensitive and intellectual. And, because of it, philosophy looks at the idea of sense in a more complex way, as Merleau-Ponty underlines, in order to point out how distant and new was his thought from any rationalist or idealist point of view on the world of life.
I.5 Space and sense: perspectives and limits of Guardini, Heidegger and Merlau-Ponty thought’s
I’ve briefly sketched three phenomenological perspectives about the relation between the human beings and the space. Beyond the differences, Guardini, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty have interpreted this link as a meaningful opportunity: the human subject, who is in the world, experiments the existence of something different, objects to which pertains a meaning, a peculiar sense in the global configuration of the world of life. This original experience may be said spiritual and cognitive at the same time15.
The three anthropological paths get a common result, lead us to conceive how the human body is implicated with space. This is more explicitly in Merlau-Ponty, less emphasised in Guardini and Heidegger, although all of them refer to an idea of human being as a person, an active centre of emotion, thinking and willing. I find their doctrine valuable, in order to explore those phenomena in which human existence seems to be no more in touch with reality: Islamic terrorism and mental diseases. However none of them clarify how the lack of reality originates disordered actions and evildoing in general.
How is possible to explain the moral implication that the loss of reality brings to the human agency? To say it with other words and turning back to the purpose of this paper: why does dehumanization begin when the world disappears? At this point of the investigation a further theoretical step is required towards the realm of sensing: precisely we need to know more about the making of a human act and it can be useful to dialogue with both phenomenology and classical realistic metaphysics of the person. This integration will allow us to have a better view about the implication between 1) losing the contact with reality and 2) the moral deficiency and 3) the lack of inclination to the good that the two phenomena taken in consideration bring to the surface.
Precisely, consciousness is the very center of one’s life experience, it makes us aware of being in the flow of time as well as of the world all around us. Intentionality is the presence of the object to the consciousness: all the mental life and the mental states are strictly related to a content. To say it with Husserl, I don’t exclusively think: I think of someone or about something, and so on. It comes that it is cannot be any object – for us – that is not an object of our consciousness. This peculiar being of the object to one’s consciousness is properly speaking, intentionality. Husserl’s thought highlights on the implication between the two components of life experience.
My paper was aimed at sketching a topic – despair – that commonly seems impossible to conceptualize, because of its subjective implication. What I tried to argue is that it does not exceeds theoretical understanding because of some essential traits that belongs to the human condition in general. On a phenomenological perspective, in fact, despair refers to an aimlessly movement – both spiritual and physical – in the world of life. This idea seems also at the very heart of the Book of Job, where the notion of despair is mainly expressed by a term (rogez) in which dis-orientation prevails. A further step, at this point, was required in order to thread the intuition on a more secure theoretical ground: I’ve briefly explored the link between space and human fulfillment, in dialogue with the philosophy of three scholars whose idea of space is basically an horizon that makes sense to the human person. The suggestion that the loss of relation to the world of life can provide a spiritual impoverishment opens a wide range of perspectives that ask to be taken in consideration.
J. Haughey (2002), Housing Heaven’s Fire. The Challenge of Holiness, Chicago, Leyda Press
M. Heidegger (1957), Sein und Zeit, Max Niemeyer, TubingenM. Heidegger (1966), Einführung in die Metaphysik, Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen
I. Kant (1995), Kritik der Reinen Vernunft, Könemann Verlagsgeselleschaft, Köln
R. Guardini (1988), Welt und Person, Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, Frankfurt
M. Merlau-Ponty (1945), Phénoménologie de la perception, Gallimard, Pari.
S. Weil (1985), Attente de dieu, Fayard, Paris
Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart, 1966-67.
The Glorious Qur’ān. Bi-lingual Edition, Ģağri, Instanbul, 2002
1 “The speech of God underscores the vast difference between God’s omniscience and Job’s ridiculously superficial knowledge of even natural things of God”, J. Haughey (2002), Housing Heaven’s Fire. The Challenge of Holiness, Chicago, Leyda Press.
2 In the Arabic language foot is said rgl, a word that may also refer to the human being.
3 I. Kant (1995), Kritik der Reinen Vernunft, Könemann Verlagsgeselleschaft, Köln.
4 Space and world of life, precisely, are so strictly related so that the loss of the second reverberates on the first one. I presented this investigation at the international Ihsrc Conference at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, 27th – 30th July, 2011.
5 3 R. Guardini (1988), Welt und Person, Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, Frankfurt.
6I would be uncorrected to define Guardini a relativist, on the contrary he indicates in space the first and the most solid ground in which threads any anthropology. Space participates in making a human being a sense maker: the experience of value is as original as the one of knowledge
7M. Heidegger (1957), Sein und Zeit, Max Niemeyer, Tubingen.
8M. Heidegger (1966), Einführung in die Metaphysik, Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen, pag. 34.
9 Ibidem, pag. 34
10 Ibidem, pag 69
11 M. Merlau-Ponty (1945), Phénoménologie de la perception, Gallimard, Paris, pag. 115.
12 Ibidem, pag 85.
13 “Nous avons reconnu au corps une unité distinte de celle de l’object scientifique. Nous venons de découvrir jusque dans sa ‘fonction sexuelle’ ne intentionnalité et un povoir de signification”. Ibidem, pag. 203.
14 “(…) nous aurons chance de dépasser définitivement la dichotomie classique du suject et de l’object”. Ibidem, pag 203.
15“La dénomination des objets ne vien pas après la reconnaissance, elle est la reconnaissance même”, Ibidem, pag 207