The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Contained within the medieval walls of Lucca’s Santa Maria Corte Orlando is a small, grotto—a chapel—thought to be an exact replica of the Virgin Mary’s home, allegedly flown to its present location on the wings of angels. Its structure is quite complete, becoming by virtue of this, a sacred entity within another. Once a simple, austere space, the altar has grown more ornate over time, presumably as generations have celebrated and adored the Madonna Nera who sits atop a pedestal inside. (figure 1) It is noteworthy that the so called ‘black madonnas’ connect the Christian world to its Pagan predecessors as these statues are presumed to have been appropriated by Catholics in order to bridge the divide, as one religion subsumed another.
It is in this tiny sanctuary that I experienced a powerful convergence of time and history, a blending of my present self with deeply held roots in the past. Alexandre Kojève refers to this as the “trinitary structure of Being. In other words, in and by its dialectic the real reveals itself not sub specie aeternitatis—that is, outside of time or as eternally identical to itself—but as a Present situated between the Past and the Future.” (Kojève 145) In a prolonged exchange with the statue of mother and child, the external, physical world melted away and I remained connected, through a fog of narrowed vision, under her inescapable downward gaze. It appeared as though we existed in a private, ethereal tunnel. I cannot account for the time I stood transfixed, nor can I fully explain the resulting sensations. I can only now interrogate the exchange, one which brought me wholly in communion with the past—a past I had only previously known through text, image and other external encounters. In this tiny chapel, subject and object connected for only a brief period, reshaping my notion of the inanimate work of art and my relationship to it.
The Madonna Nera and her iconic physical manifestation gave to its creator a form of immortality, transcending time and space by connecting through history to all who come into her presence. Per Immanuel Kant, I brought to this exchange a priori notions of being and time, blended with my free will, thereby creating the foundation for my own experience of the other. As Karl Jaspers observes “no longer, as in all previous [philosophic] conceptions, do concepts take their forms from objects: now, on the contrary, objects take their form from concepts.” (Jaspers 91) It follows that the concept exists within Man, or as in the context of this event, me. Kant would also attribute my inability to grapple the entirety of the moment to a ‘nouminon’ that lies beyond human understanding. The abstract nature of the exchange thus exists beyond my sensory perceptions and, as such, I cannot ever hope to fully unpack its import. After all, “philosophy consists in knowing our limits.” (Jaspers 97)
The mere fact that I continue to mine for the significance of this exchange would, in Georg Hegel’s eyes, constitute my humaneness—self aware and mining consciousness—a product of the synthesis of historical events. My desire to understand, rather than purely contemplate, fosters the eternal circular quest for Absolute Knowledge in which resides the Spirit. It places my efforts in an active forward moving drive, which impacts those participating in the process. While Hegel presumed this final moment of understanding possible, its ultimate manifestation would, in his view, bring with it the end of history—a final stage of knowing that puts to rest Man’s need to search further.
What was real was both my physical presence within the space and the existence of the material statue. Less apparent was the energetic connection that was formed with the past—with its spirit and immortality. Kojéve specifies that Geist ist Zeit (Spirit is Time). Now, Spirit in Hegel (and especially in this context) means “human Spirit” or Man, more particularly, collective man—that is, the People or State, and finally, Man as a whole or humanity in the totality of its spatial-temporal existence, that is, the totality of universal history. (Kojève 138) Surely, under this lens, Man transcends time by means of his creative acts. This would reinforce Kant’s premise that our ultimate freedom lies in the ‘free play of our imagination’(Kant 149), expanding the horizons of thought and able to conjure forms that persist and live beyond earthly ends.
The being of this kind is man, but man regarded as noumenon. He is the only natural creature whose peculiar objective characterization is nevertheless such as to enable us to recognize in him a supersensible faculty— his freedom— and to perceive both the law of the causality and the object of freedom which that faculty is able to set before itself as the highest end— the highest good in the world.
By combining sense experience with innate, universal codes, the iconic statue, emblematic of centuries of history and belief, found a point of entry from her world into mine. Her appearance forms part of my collective consciousness born in the ascending progression of history over time.
The encounter with the Madonna Nera speaks to the notions of polyphony central in Mikhail Bakhtin’s writing, a plane on which a multitude of voices carry equal importance, moving a broader conversation forward through time. No longer the single perspective of a monologic narration, the past, far and near, blends with the present, creating a freer condition in which a more open ended creative expression and social representation is possible. Bakhtin, much like Hegel, predicates his ideas on the existence of the other, necessitating a community whose members carry the dialog forward. The Madonna Nera embodies the voices of the Pagan worshippers as well as those of Christian faith, existing over the centuries, evidence of a conflation of disparate beliefs. The dialogic nature of my persistent interrogation prolongs this narrative into the present. As I write, more voices enter the flow, underscoring the continuous and open-ended nature of such an exchange.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, through The Brothers Karamazov, understood the connections between humanity’s previous generations and the new as well as those that served to define each of us as an individual. In Bakhtin’s view, his “extraordinary artistic capacity for seeing everything in coexistence and interaction is his greatest strength.” (Bakhtin 30) The multiple voices, born in profound subjective experience, form a dialectical dynamic conversation. “Two characters are always introduced by Dostoevsky in such a way that each of them is intimately linked with the internal voice of the other.” (Bakhtin 254) In opposition with Hegel, however, Bakhtin’s conversation sees no end. It is the dialogic that illuminates the being while “everything is shown in a moment of un-finalized transition.” (Bakhtin 167) This position is captured throughout Dostoevsky’s great work, in which he explicitly acknowledges our interdependence, clarifies that “man’s true security is to be attained not through the isolated efforts of the individual, but in a corporate human identity.” (Dostoevsky 380)
In consideration of asserting a new theory of subjectivity, a blending of conditioning and intuition, context and imprint, I would assert that we are all that we have lived, while simultaneously carrying indelible imprints of our social and cultural heritage. History builds upon itself, and we, as its individual members, are carried forward in this evolution, marked by all that we innately know and henceforth experience. The power and significance of this view is broadened by an understanding of the human need to mine for meaning, while simultaneously belonging to community. Our position is dependent on ‘another’ or, framed in Bakhtin’s words, “from the point of view of truth, [wherein] there are no individual consciousnesses.” (81)
This position is reinforced by the aforementioned transcendental experience within the sacred chapel walls wherein I found myself in an intimate conversation with the past. This moment confirms Bakhtin’s notion that “the truth about the world is inseparable from the truth of the personality.” (78) I, the subject, brought to the object my personal narrative, imposing upon her my resulting sensory experience. The delicate balance of the mind, its freedom to conjure and think, and the physical responses to the external environment, is what makes us human. As subject, I will continue to mine for meaning in each moment, and through the material world, will define my position herein. As I do not subscribe to the possibility of ‘complete knowledge’, the Hegelian Absolute, the subject will continue in a Bakhtinian dialogic until her final moment, when in death, she continues to live in the memories of those who remain.
Bakhtin, M M, and Caryl Emerson. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. Print.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. New York: Modern Library, 1950. Print.
Kant, Immanuel, and J H. Bernard. Critique of Judgment. New York: Hafner Pub. Co, 1951. Print.
Kojève, Alexandre, Alan Bloom, and James H. Nichols. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. Print.
Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. New York, N.Y: Simon and Schuster, 1972. Print.
“To philosophize is to suffer.” Michael Smith
louise carrie wales / february 2014