Is the originary hypothesis just a synonym for common sense? Forgetting about the specifics, its core is the irruption of the “vertical”/transcendent into the “horizontal”/material world; individual appetites are deferred and mutually communicated through what Peirce called “symbolic” signs, even if at this stage the “symbolism” consisted only in shared pointing at the central object—“joint shared attention” not practiced by even our closest animal relatives. It is all too easy for Michael Tomasello, one of the discoverers of this key human distinction, to dismiss the theological baggage associated with the animal-human transition as “leaders’” claiming they have “somehow been anointed by a deity” to justify their privileges (see Chronicle 519). How can what seems to us the common-sense reaction of différance to avoid bloodshed possibly require the endless variety and complexity of religious systems?
The short answer to this question is that GA’s ability to cut through the whole of human history to the originary interposition of the néant of deferral between us and the world in order to sum up what makes us human is the intellectual product of this very same history and the institutions it has built. These institutions have contributed over the centuries both to the complexity that hides the simplicity of our origin, and to the intellectual simplification that makes it possible in our “post-modern” era to formulate a commonsensical hypothesis of it. That the latter, far from being welcomed with open arms, or even disputed, is simply ignored as irrelevant, is itself a phenomenon that follows from GA’s prehistory; indeed, it can be seen as a corollary of the originary hypothesis itself.
Playing with such paradoxes is enjoyable, but only because it further defers what deferral was invented/discovered to prevent in the first place, the collapse of our cultural system back into nature raw in tooth and claw. It is preferable to examine a real-world example: the case, referred to in Chronicle 649, of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.
Thérèse’s saintliness has at first glance two distinct components. On the one hand, she was a young woman of “saintly” character: charitable to a fault, always ready to deprive herself for others, careful not to indulge her worldly appetites more than absolutely necessary. As all her canonization witnesses make clear, Thérèse was at great pains not to accept even deserved privileges or respond to slights and insults; she was infallibly kind and helpful to all, especially to those who were at first unkind to her. She had an inspiring effect on virtually everyone who knew her, even (or especially) those fellow sisters who had greeted her with hostility, seeing her as the spoiled benjamine of her family and (with two and then three older sisters also present) at the convent as well. Thérèse would never complain nor show annoyance when treated unfairly; she avoided those nuns she felt warmly toward, particularly her sisters, in order to frequent those who were unpleasant to her, not out of masochism, but in order to help convert them to a more Christian disposition.
Thérèse never refused to help anyone in need. Yet when she was (at a very young age) put in charge of her convent’s novices, she did not hesitate to speak to them of their faults, out of her duty to make them better sisters and better people. The Prioress of her convent at her admission, who was a difficult woman, said that, despite her extreme youth, Thérèse would herself have made an excellent prioress, given her excellent judgment and irreproachable and charitable dealings with all her fellow nuns.
But on the other hand, these universal human qualities were in Thérèse’s mind inseparable from her faith. Thérèse was not a trained theologian, but John Paul II named her Doctor of the Church for what he saw as her flawless comprehension of Christian beliefs, from the Gospels to later texts, such as the Imitation of Christ, which she knew by heart, or the mystical poetry of St. John of the Cross, fellow Carmelite and disciple of the first Saint Teresa. Above all, Thérèse was able to articulate the terms of Christian doctrine in such a way as to illuminate them with her own spiritual experience. She described her personal path to salvation as la petite voie, the “little way,” consisting in humbly doing her duty without calling attention to herself, and above all, in motivating all her acts by her love of the Trinitarian God, Father and Son bound together as one by the Holy Spirit.
Thérèse’s continued popularity reflects her success, unique among modern saints, in seamlessly uniting reverence for God’s firstness with the moral model of human reciprocity. Her desire to remain poor, humble, and unknown was not motivated by inverse pride or a need for self-abasement, but by allowing to God in his wisdom the choice of whether to use her example to contribute to mutual love among human beings, and thereby to their love of God. Her autobiographical text, Histoire d’une âme, which made her world-famous, was not written on her own initiative but on that of her order, and she had no part in its posthumous publication. We must consider as perfectly sincere her declaration that if the Prioress decided to throw her manuscripts on the fire, this would change nothing in her love of God.
La petite voie stands in sharp contrast to the “way” of Joan of Arc, with whom Thérèse nonetheless identified to the point of playing her role in several plays she wrote about Joan for performance at the Carmel. (Joan was actually canonized after Thérèse, these two young women being subsequently named among the nine secondary patron saints of France.) Thérèse’s sainthood has appealed both to many Catholics and to others outside a religious context because her petite voie requires nothing more than humble devotion to God as himself a source of love of humankind.
Thérèse as Joan of Arc in her play Jeanne d’Arc accomplissant sa mission (1895) [Taken by her sister Céline; Archives du Carmel de Lisieux: http://www.archives-carmel-lisieux.fr/carmel/index.php/les-photos-de-th%C3%A9r%C3%A8se-prises-par-c%C3%A9line/photo-13]
We may find it difficult to imagine that someone brought up in a highly religious family, whose parents attended the 6 AM mass every day, who appealed personally to the Pope in order to enter the Lisieux Carmel at fifteen, and whose four sisters also became nuns, ever had occasion to doubt her faith. Yet one thing that caused Thérèse considerable spiritual pain was her moments of doubt concerning heaven—not her merit for attaining it, but its very existence. We cannot interpret this as a resentful feeling of injustice that after all her efforts she might not be rewarded by God. Her fear was simply that she would be deprived of the celestial joys of union with Jesus that she had so passionately anticipated—joys at the antipodes of the celestial reward of 72 virgins promised to the jihadist martyr. This denial would mean not a loss of “pleasure,” but the invalidation of her faith in the transcendent différance that had sustained her through life, and that in her worldview sustained our entire God-governed universe.
The exemplarity of Thérèse’s sainthood, which cannot help but touch anyone with the least love for our shared humanity, embodies religion’s ultimate paradox. If we bracket the institutional aspect of her religious beliefs and consider them simply in human terms, we must admire the ethic that she faithfully followed in pursuit of these beliefs. Yet this ethic could not have been, not merely realized, but made public in such a way as to inspire others, without the institutional weight of the late-19th-century French Catholic Church.
Nothing similar would be even remotely possible today. It is noteworthy that the only comparably saintly personage widely known in the West today, Thérèse’s late namesake Mother Teresa, is admired above all for her works as a missionary and healer of the sick rather than for her personal example of saintliness, however powerful it may have been. Thérèse would certainly have admired her as she did Joan of Arc, but Teresa was like Joan a heroic figure, not a follower of the petite voie of seeking saintly perfection in the humble activities of everyday.
The Act of Oblation quoted in Chronicle 649 expresses with admirable clarity the paradox of firstness and reciprocity inherent in Thérèse’s practical ethic. Thérèse declared her desire to be a saint, but that God be “her sanctity.” Elsewhere, she expressed a strong desire to remain unknown. In our terms, Thérèse desired to be “first,” but it is Jesus, not she, who would supply her firstness.
But this allows us to understand that the paradoxical quality of Thérèse’s desire is that of language alone. In life, her self-seeking self, resentful of the sacred, is continually overcome by the process of transcendence that we call love, a sequence we can intuitively understand but whose dynamic can be expressed only in paradoxical terms. For desire must change its meaning from one sentence to the next; in order that love be the transcendence of resentment, its process can never cease long enough to formulate it as a simple proposition. In this our description is like that of Nagarjuna’s “traverser who never traverses” (see Chronicle 515), being both inside and outside the world of the sentence—except that here the paradox is not attributed to the propositional universe as such, but to our affirmation of the transcendence that permits us to be human.
We can accept Durkheim’s equation of God with “society” only if we define “society” in originary terms as the absolutely necessary solidarity of the protohuman group without which humanity would not exist. At that moment, the “brotherhood of man” was concentrated in the renunciation of rivalry in favor of deferral and reciprocity within one face-to-face hunting band. No future social group could reproduce this originary moment, whose innovation occurred in the absence of (human) memory. But the impossibility of such reproduction has been the source of the series of imperfect triumphs that has brought humanity to its present state. What Thérèse’s example shows is that what cuts through the historical detail is love—the assertion of human solidarity, mediated by the shared sacred, over resentment; love as instantiated in the sense of fellow-feeling that we regularly seek to rekindle in collective celebrations, from Seders and Thanksgiving dinners to Aztec festivals and Nuremberg rallies.
If we seek the core of our ethical problems, the element that makes humanity’s discovery of transcendence anything but a utopian solution to its problems, it is the eternal tension between firstness—the “life-force,” but mediated by the sacred center—and morality, the reciprocity embodied in our exchange of the signs of human culture. This is the tension that found its resolution in the originary sparagmos.
Adam Katz was right to point out that the whole group could not have discovered/invented the sign “spontaneously” or “simultaneously.” Some member(s) of the group must have been first to grasp the sacrality of the scenic center as significant, and the “aborted gesture of appropriation” as a sign or signifier. This recasting of the gesture was not a “theoretical” discovery, but an act performed in the interest of their own safety by signaling their non-rivalrous intention to the others. And on this occasion, firstness was of value only insofar as it was absorbed by unanimity. The sign, a gesture of renunciation, could not provoke resentment, but on the contrary, invited non-rivalrous imitation.
The Genesis story of the Fall as resulting from the discovery of “knowledge” is necessarily paradoxical, since the evolution of language makes inevitable the acquisition of “knowledge” (as contained in the declarative sentence), and the social distinctions it permits. And the attribution of this discovery to Eve’s conversation with the serpent, finding in woman’s resentment of her secondarity the source of Satan’s competition with God, is at the very least a well-conceived epistemological model.
Rousseau was nonetheless historically justified in locating the societal consciousness of the “fall of man” in the institution of private property, historically associated with the sedentary agriculture of the Neolithic Revolution. For the first time, a social order was obliged to give an explicit role to firstness untranscended by reciprocity, a moment defined in the Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité by “Le premier qui . . . s’avisa de dire: Ceci est à moi . . .”
Religion is not idolatry of the center. Its essence is the attribution of all firstness to the originary sacred, whether it be the firstness of the god-emperor or of the holder of the floor in a discussion. In practical terms, we must of course distinguish between degrees of firstness. But saintliness, as Thérèse insisted on living it, attributed to God every form of firstness, any fact that might risk being interpreted as setting a given individual above another. Such saintliness thus provides a universal model to humanity, fulfilling Kant’s “categorical imperative” that the justification of all one’s deeds, and I would add, one’s thoughts, be formulable as a “universal law,” for in no case would they violate what we call the moral model.
The sentiment that accompanies this exemplary code of conduct, whose nature would have been indifferent to Kant, or which would be in a Buddhist context the self-containedness resulting from the evacuation of the center, was in Thérèse’s world expressed as a passionate love of God’s benevolent authority. There is no point in speaking of the superiority of one ethical system over the other, but it is surely no accident that the originary hypothesis is a product of Judeo-Christian society. To capture with some plausibility the experiential kernel from which the human sprang is possible only in a context that regards both the sacred center and the resentment it arouses as anything but illusions.