David L. Miller

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Introduction: Three Religious Anecdotes and a Postmodern Ethical Problematic

I begin with three anecdotes. The first is from the Jewish tradition, and more specifically it is from the tradition of Eastern European Jewish mysticism. Rabbi Jechiel Meir of Gostynin had attended the Festival of Weeks with his teacher at Kozk. On his return home, his father-in-law asked him, "Well, was the Law received in a different spirit where you were than elsewhere?" "Certainly!" came the reply. "How do you mean?" asked his father-in-law. "How would you here understand, for example, the commandment 'Thou shalt not steal'?" asked Rabbi Jechiel in return. "Well, naturally," replied his father-in-law, "one may not steal from one's neightbor." But Rabbi Jechiel responded: "In Kozk they interpret it as follows: 'One may not steal from oneself!'" (Buber 23).

The second story, not unlike the first, but now in a Zen Buddhist context, goes like this. A layman in the audience came up and asked Master Dogen: "Nowadays, when laymen give offerings to monks and take refuge in Buddhism, much misfortune is apt to result. They become prejudiced and do not wish to relie on the three treasures. What about this?" Dogen answered: "This isn't the fault of the monks or of Buddhism, but it is the laymen themselves who are in error. This is why: you may respectfully make offerings to monks who seem to uphold the precepts, follow the eating regulations, and practice strict discipline; yet you do not give to monks who brazenly violate the precepts, drink wine, and eat meat because you consider them unworthy. A mind that discriminates in this way clearly violates the principles of Buddhism. Therefore, even if you take refuge in Buddhism, there is no merit and no response. The precepts contain several passages that caution against just this attitude. When you meet a monk, make offerings to him, regardless of his virtue or lack of it. By all means avoid trying to judge his inner virtue by his outward appearance. . . . If you make offerings and show reverence impartially, you will always be following the Buddha's will and will at once gain benefits" (Masunaga 21).

A third anecdote, again not unlike the other two, comes from the tradition of Islam. It is a portion of the beloved Sura eighteen of the Quran. Moses is travelling with an angel of Allah. The latter tells Moses to "ask no question about anything 'till I myself speak to you concerning it." As they go along their way, the "other" bores a hole in bottom of boat of a poor fisherman who, as a result, was drowned. Moses wonders about this unethical act since it is contrary to the commandments of the Quran. Next, Moses kills a youth. Again Moses attempts to intervene but is silenced by the other. Finally, the "other" restores a wall for a people that had sinned against Allah's servants by not offering them hospitality. This is too much! Moses objects at the injustice, and so now the "other" reveals that in matters of morals there are other considerations of a more complicating sort. In the first instance, the boat of the poor fisherman was about to be overtaken by an infidel king. In the second case, the youth was an unbeliever who was making life miserable for his faithful parents. In the third situation, the wall belonged to two boys who could have the treasure buried beneath it only when they had grown to adulthood (Koran 94- 96).

These three stories resonate with other moments in the history of religions. They are all instances of what in Christian theology is called the "teleological suspension of the ethical" (Kierkegaard's phrase): for example, Abraham's agreeing to slay his son in the Akedah; Jesus' saying "judge not that you be not judged"; etc. The stories also signal a premodern theological prefiguration of a postmodern secular problematic in discussions of moral responsibility. The latter- day version goes something like this (and I will give only three testimonies, but they are indicative of much, much more):

(1) In a book on irony, entitled Irony's Edge, Linda Hutcheon argues that irony is an, if not the, appropriate mode and mood of postmodernity, because of the epistemological humility its style implies, its infinite deferral of closure or final signification. But she observes that since irony says one thing and may mean another the ironist never need be responsible for what she or he is saying, a condundrum also noted by Roland Barthes. Irony as a cultural style, as Hutcheon says, puts emotion and ethics "on edge," or even pushes them over the edge (9-56).
(2) It is not literary theory or political critique, but rather Heideggerian and Derridean philosophy that leads the Roman Catholic philsopher, John Caputo, to write a book called Against Ethics, though the nature of the problematic articulated is very like that of Hutcheon. Caputo is against ethics because he fears that ethics finally turns out to be unethical. Like Martha Nussbaum, who points to what she calls "the fragility of goodness," because of the autonomy of energies and behaviors in life and because of the surprises, fate and luck in history, Caputo notes that indeed obligation happens--no ifs, ands, or buts, and especially no whys, like Angelus Silesius' rose that is without why--obligation happens, as one says in German, es gibt, or in French, il y a. "Obligations happen, like faint flickers of flesh against a black explanse, lights against a great night. Obligations happen; they happen because they happen; they happen for the while that they happen," but ethics, that's another thing altogether, and Caputo is against it (247 and passim), as is the novelist Milan Kundera, writing in his recent work, Testaments Betrayed.
(3) For Kundera, the iconoclastic and, indeed, the moral power of the novel is grounded in humor's imaginal power in a realm of suspended moral judgment (Salmon Rushdie is one of his examples, along with Cervantes and Rabelais). Kundera says: "Suspending moral judgment is not the immortality of the novel; it is its morality. The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone . . . that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil . . . creating the imaginary terrain [in the art of the novel] where moral judgment is suspended was a move of enormous significance." And Kundera believes that, along with our sense of humor, we are losing this imaginative strategy for a morality beyond morality, an ethics beyond ethics (7, and all of Part One).

I raise these three recent voices because I believe that they significantly complicate the thinking and discussion in a conference on "Ethics and the College Curriculum," a conference on "Teaching and Moral Responsibility." I offer these testimonies, too, because I believe that they represent, in a variety of postmodern discursive forms, a parallel to the complexity of ethical insight brought to articulation in traditional religious wisdom, in the anecdotes from Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam.

The question, of course, is how to go on in the face of a postmodern irony of radical global pluralism. Let me attempt to focus three motives of ethos in our contemporary situation . . . one literary, one psychological, and one philsophical.

Three Motives: Literary, Psychological & Philosophical

Phantasia as a motive of ethos. The literary dimension of ethos that I have in mind, namely, that of imagination, was elaborated by Northrop Frye in a lecture on the Canadian Broadcasting Company in the early '60s. The title was "The Motive for Metaphor," and it was subsequently published in as a chapter in a book called The Educated Imagination. Frye's elaboration of the motive for and imagination took the form of a story.

Imagine that you were shipwrecked and were the only survivor, barely managing to make it to an uninhabited desert island, say, in the South Pacific. As you wade, gasping, up onto the shore your basic state is that of naive conscious awareness, and the language appropriate to your mode of being is that of nouns and adjectives, e.g., water, sky, trees, beech, cold water, bright sky, etc. Not much time goes by, however, until your mode, and its language, shifts.

Soon you wish for things to be the way that they are not. You are hungry and do not want to be hungry. You are cold and do not want to be cold. You are without shelter and desire shelter. The word "wish" is important here, and to that word I shall return in a moment. For now it is only important to note that the mode of being has changed from conscious awareness, with its descriptive language of nouns and adjectives, to practical action, with a language of verbs and adverbs. Build a fire. Erect shelter. Go fishing. Gather berries and wood.

But there is a third mode, and this is where wishing and desiring for what is not the case comes into play. The world of imagination enters life between description and action, between nouns and verbs. I imagine another and better world. There is no special language for this subjunctive and conditional mode, but there are the as-structures of metaphorizing any and all discourses. I imagine things as-if they were as I desire them to be. This is like Wallace Stevens' "Man with the Blue Guitar" who plays things "as" they are and then they are that way (Frye 11-34).

This literary view bears upon our ethical dilemma. The logic of the moral ought and should is that the transformation of is to ought, the dynamic which moves us from consciousness to action, is made possible only by imagination, the imagining of how things are not but might be. Ethics, deep down, is imagination; it is fantasy. Moral living is poetizing. As Tilman Küchler says, alluding to the work of Richard Rohrty, in his book on Post-modern Gaming, a "rigorous distinction between the aesthetic and the moral is impossible to maintain" (2).

Erós as a motive of ethos. Similarly, a distinction between the erotic and moral is impossible to maintain, a point demonstrated in a recent work by Barnaby Barratt entitled Psychoanalysis & the Postmodern Impulse.

In an earlier work, Psychic Reality & Psychoanalytic Knowing (1984), Barnaby had noted that the revolutionary implications of Freud's theory and practice have hovered on the brink of extinction becuase of the institutionalization and domestication of the ideas and the praxis of psychoanalysis. What is radical, according to Barnaby, is the idea and the experience in a long-term analysis of the "interminable repressiveness of consciousness--the dialectic of contradiction in forming the conscious productions and reproductions of mental life" (18) This is something like saying: everything that one thinks is wrong; or, more circumspectly, everything one thinks and feels has another side. Others have said the same. For example, William Readings has put the matter this way: "Analysis is impossible [Freud though that the three impossible professions were education, government, and psychoanalysis] because the sense that a cure might have been effected is the mark that further analysis is required: a closure is always a foreclosure. . . . every dream of closure is a foreclosure, a repression, . . . a suspicion of the pretension to finality, . . . a pretension which always masks repression" (167) Gregory Jay says: "Psychoanalysis encourages us to seek the traces of self analysis where they seem least evident, where they take place in movements of displacement. . . . The argument of psychoanalysis, of course, becomes that we are not what we are--that our empirical selves are actors in a script whose authorship is essentially unconscious, both on a personal and a cultural level . . . . In self-reflection [of an anlysis] we lose our heads, or our eyes/I's" (103, 104, 119). These sayings are similar to the often-cited sentence of Simone Weil: "I am other than what I imagine myself to be."

So, as Barnaby puts it : "Psychoanalysis is a dialectical and deconstructive process of cure, as an effort at 'breaking open' falsifying closures, as well as an attempted dispossessing of the apparent reiterativity of the identiarian subject and its system" (167). In this Barnaby is calling attention to the strange ethical implication of a successful analysis. His argument is that "psychoanalysis is an ethical odyssey" but that "its ethicality is governed not by a 'setting-in-place' but by an 'unsettling-out-of-place,' out of stasis, out of enclosure, out of the ideological illusions of fixity, originality, finality, and centering, . . . which means that psychoanalytic ethicality does not establish, adjudicate, or give credence to a moral code, set of values, or specific pattern of conduct" (168) rather it is an ethos that calls into question all established ethics, interrogating the meaning of all moral codes, sets of values, and patterns of conduct, discovering otherness, other than value, fundamental ambivalence in all such normativity, just as the angel of Allah found ulteriority, an other side, in every act that seemed just or unjust.

This disturbs what Barnaby calls the "narratological imperative" (170). Though it is customarily and seemingly impossible not to think of life as a story of some sort guided by narratological structures, the metonymies of contradiction and otherness of desire experienced in analysis call into question coherence and authorship, making for a profound questioning of the assumptions of emplotment. Analysis frees associations from dominance of tradition, utopian goals, the ego's narrative, and other repressive discourses, warning always against the potential for illusion and delusion in the economy of eros and desire.

Psychoanalysis, thus, listens "not only with an other or 'third' ear' but with an otherwise otherness-- listens to the otherwise voicings coming and going from the otherwiseness of temporality and the otherwiseness of libidinality" (223). This is, Barnaby says, "a ludic labor" (183), and I might add, a loving and erotic one. For one who has experienced this felicity in a long-term analysis, it is a grace. It is what Nietzsche referred to as amor fati. Moral living in this case is not only poetizing, it is a trusting loving in the face of the aporias of iconoclastic experience, eros in the face of the gappiness in illusions and delusions of ego's consciousness. Eros is a second aspect of ethos.

Daimón as a motive of ethos. A third aspect of ethos is expressed in a saying of Heraclitus, who is remembered to have written: éthos anthrópó daimón (Fragment 119 in the Diels- Kranz numbering). The first word in this saying is not ethos, which means "custom" or "habit," and which will finally give us our word "ethics." Rather, the first word is éthos, which means "character," but also refers to a "haunt" or "abode." My supposition, however, is that there is a pun in the saying, and that all of the meanings of both words are implied. The last term in the saying is daimón, which we know from Socrates' later petition of the inner, autonomous voice, a sort of intermediate figure between divine and human, god-like, which later tradition will think of as the "genius" (genio) of a person, or, even later, the "conscience" or the "unconscious."

Martin Heidegger, in his "Letter on Humanism," noted that it was usual to translate this Heraclitean fragment as: "A person's character is his or her daimon." But Heidegger thinks, and I concur, that this translation is modern and not Greek. If éthos is a term for character which actually implies "abode" or "place of dwelling," then the word designates metaphorically the non-geographical open sphere in which a person dwells. The openness of a person's psychological abode allows that to appear which approaches toward the fundamental nature of the person and so, arriving on the scene of the human, abides near a person. The psychic abode of the human contains and maintains the advent of that to which the human in its essence belongs. This, according to Heraclitus' saying, is daimón, god- likeness. The fragment then says something like this: The human, insofar as it is human, dwells in the nearness of divine-likeness which is the daimonic (not to be confused with the daemonic) (Heidegger 1962: 296).

Heidegger retells an anecdote from Aristotle (De part. anim. A5, 645a17). A group of tourists were visiting Heraclitus' home town in Asia Minor. They wanted to see the famous philosopher at work, but were disappointed when the guide pointed to the fact that he was in his kitchen beside the stove. In response to their disappointment, Heraclitus said: "Here too are the gods."

The daimonic which makes character is to be found in the common place, not in the conventionally religious or the apparently ethical. Ethics is in the daimón of ordinary humanness. Let me call this daimonic quality "soul." Moral behavior is in the motive of soul, as it is in imagination and eros.

But how can we get in touch with this soul, the eros and the imagination so as to live it pedagogically in postmodern context? It may be that a strange and largely forgotten chapter in the phenomenology of religions can present one way of thinking this question.

The Nose Knows: A Mythological Conclusion to a Very Practical Problem

The "forgotten chapter" to which I allude has to do with the nose. Indeed, in traditional mythologies the nose and its function often shows itself to be critical and crucial. For exampe, in Aeschylus' play, The Agamemnon, the prophetess Cassandra, one of the few to know what is really going on in the tragedy, is called "a keen scented hound." She says at one point: "I scent the trail of bloody guilt." "You gasp," the chorus says to her, "as though some nausea choked your soul." She says: "There is the smell of murder." Cassandra's prophetic sense of the daimones, of soul, of the images of which present themselves tell the true story of the ethos of the house of Atreus. She knows it by her nose (Aeschylus, Agamemnon, ll. 1095, 1185, 1307-9).

Similarly, in the Kraho tribe in South America, it is said that people tried to take control of the kokrido, who are water daimones, water souls. They attempted to enslave these gods. But it didn't work. The kokridho came to the village the following night and everyone died of the smell, the smell of soul, of daimones (Lévi-Strauss 154).

Another instance comes from the Shipaya people. They say that in primordial times their ancestors greeted the wrong one of three canoes. They had been told by the demiurge to use their noses in greeting the gods. Hence, their lack of an ability to smell caused them to be overwhelmed by demonic forces. They needed a differentiated nose (Lévi-Strauss 155).

There are similar stories among other Amerindians (Carolina Catawbas, Southeastern American Creek and Cherokee, as well as Southwestern Pawnee). For example, oppossum and skunk smells are scented and interpreted as divine omens among many Native Americans. One needs a nose for hermeneutic purposes (see Lévi-Strauss 154-56, 161, 176-79, 249-51).

It was the same with Hippolytus, at least according to Euripides' telling. In the latter's play, Hippolytus says: "O Divine fragrance! Even in my pain I sense it, and the suffering is lightened. The Goddess Artemis is near this place." The god's aroma is sensed as epiphanic. Religious revelation through the nose (Euripides, Hippolytus, ll. 1391-93). In fact, the texts of the Orphic Hymns lists the different incenses that are to be burned in honor of different divinities, as if each god of the pantheon has a different aroma by which she or he is known: myrrh for Nereus, storax for Proteus, frankincense for Hermes, etc.

The mythological testimony is clear: in matters of daimon, soul, and the imaginal, not only are eyes and ears poor witnesses, as Heraclitus had said, but also so are touch and taste. Neither reason nor sense can finally help. Finally, only the nose knows. Perhaps this is related to Nietzsche's saying (1875): "Our thinking should have a vigorous fragrance, like a wheatfield on a Summer's night." Eighty-two years later, commenting on this sentence, Martin Heidegger bemoaned: "How many of us today still have the sense for that fragrance?" (Heidegger 1971: 70). A British saying of about the same period as that of Nietzsche's claimed (Temple Bar, 1862): "A noseless face would have no divinity." And Psalm 115.6 says : "They have . . . noses, but do not smell."

Nor is the Psalm the only text of living religions that insists upon the epistemic utility of the nose. St. Paul writes, in II Cor. 2.13-16: "We are the aroma of Christ . . . to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life." The Hebrew Bible lists thirty-five prescriptions indicating that to be worshipful one should make a pleasant smell unto the Lord (e.g., Gen. 2.7; 7.22; Job 27.3; etc.). A hadith on Mohammed's life attributes to Allah this sentiment: "Three things have been dear to me: women, prayer, pleasant odors" (Andrae 109). And, of course, there is the long tradition in Christianity (10th-19th century) of the odor of sanctity. As Swedenborg put it: "When the celestial angels are present, what is cadaverous excites a sensation of the aromatic," to which the mystic R. A. Vaughan added: "You must know that there is an odor of iniquity as well as an odor of sanctity" (Oxford English Dictionary, compact ed., I.1975). Certain forms of religiosity stink! As the Zen tradition has it: "Bean paste (miso) that smells like bean paste is not good bean paste!" (Shibyama 196).

Though this nasal fantasia seems to have been laregely neglected in contemporary theologies, it appears prominently still in secular literature. For example, there are the lines of Wallace Stevens regarding Crispin, who is "The Comedian as the Letter C":

. . . a river bore
The vessel inward. Tilting up his nose
He inhaled the rancid rosin, burly smells
Of dampened lumber, emanations blown
From warehouse doors, the gustiness of ropes
Decays of sacks, and all the arrant
Stinks that helped him round his rude aesthetic out (35).

As Crispin's nose helps him find his way on his journey, we might say that it is the nose that senses the stinks that help us round out our rude pedagogical ethic. Also, perhaps this is what James Joyce may have had in mind, when, in Finnegan's Wake, he wrote: "Write me your essayes, my vocational scholars, but corsorily dipping your noses in it." Other testimonies abound in literature. Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy suffered from the fact that his nose was severed by a falling plate glass window. Nikolai Gogol's story, The Nose, indicates the grotesque possibilities with the pathos of this organ. There also are Cyrano de Bergerac, Pinnochio, and--importantly--Heinrich Böll's Clown who had the peculiar mystical ability to smell over the telephone, a sort of contemporary Cassandra (see Miller 70-88).

After all, a nose is a wonderful thing! Containing little coils of arteries, ducts and blood vessels, as it does, it raises to body temperature the air that gives us life, moistening on the cilia hairs of the soft, mucous membrance a spiritus from which we would otherwise die a death of airy pneumonia. As a result of its circuitous passages, the nose enables us to smell inhaled breath, but not noxious exhaled odors of our own personal-ego breathings. It lets the fluids pass by way of paranasal sinuses, with wich it also connects to our tear's lacrimal ducts. Its olfactory receptors, unlike the buds of taste which only handle four senses--salt, sweet, sour, and bitter--detect innumerable odors, thereby differentiating the infinity which not only taste, but also sight, touch, and hearing confuse. In short, the nose warms and moistens that which gives us life, bringing it in and down, individuating spirit into soul by way of body. This literal nose warms the cold and moistens the dry. But, of course, I am not speaking literally.

Rather, I am trying to ask: What is the "nose" which warms and moistens and grounds our ethos? a "nose" that does not tell us prescriptively whether a given behavior is moral or not, but discloses to us descriptively which morality (character, ethos, spirit) we are in fact being faithful to, often unwittingly and wittlessly, as we nose about in life, including and especially in our pedagogical lives.

Whatever our ethic, whatever our moral philosophy, finally we do the best we can, nosing about imaginally, erotically, and soulfully. Finally, perhaps, only the nose knows.


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Barratt, Barnaby. Psychoanalysis and the postmodern impulse. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Buber, Martin. Tales of the Hasidim, in: Erich Neumann, Depth psychology and a new ethic. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

Caputo, John. Against ethics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Dawood, N. J., tr. The koran. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1961.

Frye, Northrop. The educated imagination. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964.

Heidegger, Martin. "Letter on humanism," Eds. W. Barrett and H. D. Aiken, Philosophy in the twentieth century. New York: Random House, 1962. On the way to language. Tr. Hertz. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Hutcheon, Linda. Irony's edge. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Jay, Gregory. "The Death of Autobiography," Genre 19, 1984.

Kûchler, Tilman. Postmodern gaming. New York: Peter Lang, 1994.

Kundera, Milan. Testaments betrayed. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The raw and the cooked. Tr. Weightman and Weightman. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

Masunaga, Reiho. A primer of Soto Zen: a translation of Dogen's Shobogenzo Zuimonki. Honolulu: Hawaii University Press, 1975.

Miller, David L. Christs: meditations on archetypal images in Christian theology. New York: Seabury Press, 1981.

Readings, William. "Canon and on: from concept to figure," Journal of the American academy of religion, 57/1: 149-72, 1989.

Shibyama, Zenkei. A flower does not talk. Tr. Kudo. Rutland: Charles Tuttle, 1970.

Stevens, Wallace. Collected poems. New York: Knopf, 1975.

Copyright David L. Miller

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