The Problem of Human Existence and Transcendence | Church Life Journal

FFrench philosopher and poet Jean Wahl lived from 1888 to 1974. He was professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne from 1936 to 1947, but with a six-year break (1940-1945) during World War II. During this period, he suffered intense persecution – loss of his job, arrest, incarceration in a Parisian prison and in the Drancy internment camp – because of his Jewish ancestry. He was, as far as his Nazi oppressors were concerned, destined to be eradicated from the earth.

Perhaps miraculously, that was not his lot. The reasons for his suffering are well known. What is unknown, even in France, is the story of Wahl, his life in prison and in the camp, his escape and his flight, first to the free zone of southern France, then to Morocco, and finally to America, which I began to tell (in the form of historical fiction) through my short story, Outside the doors. To tell this story (along with its next two planned installments), I spent many hours at the Memory Institute of Contemporary Publishing in Normandy, where Wahl’s archives are currently kept.

A few of Wahl’s writings exist in English, notably his Human existence and transcendence, which I translated in 2016 for University of Notre Dame Press. This book was originally published in 1944, during Wahl’s exile in America. If you were to open the first pages of this book, you would see the following words stand out as a sort of grave and biting statement about the European situation these days:

Circumstances have prevented the author from reviewing the proofs of this work. The publisher therefore apologizes for any errors that may not have been corrected and for the initiatives that it had to take without the author’s approval.

Circumstances have prevented the author from revising the proofs of this work. The publisher thus apologizes for errors that could not have been corrected and for initiatives that should have been undertaken without the author’s agreement.

The circumstance: the terms. What follows are a few excerpts from this remarkable little book, delivered on the eve of his trial, unvarnished, to the publisher.

The book is important for several reasons, perhaps most importantly because it contains, almost unchanged, the transcript of Wahl’s 1937 presentation to the French Philosophical Society, which constitutes its third chapter. His friend, the great Emmanuel Levinas simply called it “the famous Wahl lecture”. The ensuing debate and the letters submitted in response by the intellectual luminaries of the time are all contained between its covers.

Human existence and transcendence is a work from the heart of the era of “existentialism”. The central question of this era, as Wahl understood it, was uniquely reached, as the title suggests, by exposing the connection between our Human kind of existence (historical, mortal, and therefore incomplete, even nascent) with the excess that never ceases to disturb it (“transcendence”). Insofar as this connection truly defines us, it is also the central question of today, as of all times.


Of existence (pages 23-4)

Existence cannot be defined, since there is existence of the “I”, of the “you”, of the “him”, of the “that”. This very conjugation of the verb to exist, its repercussions in thought, prove that there is no means by which existence can be uniquely characterized. The various existences which we have enumerated are by no means identical. Even if we restrict ourselves to the [bare] existence of the ‘I’, the conjugation is repeated again: ‘I existed’ and ‘I will exist’ are not identical with ‘I exist’. One could even say that existence is more about “I will exist” or “I will exist” than “I exist” in the sense that everything I understand about myself comes either from the past or from the future. , and especially of the future. if we are to believe Kierkegaard and Heidegger: according to them, it is from the future that I constantly construct myself. Existence will then tend to be defined by regret or hope. This forces me to consider that I can only speak of existence from outside of it, from behind or from before, without ever managing to stay inside of it. I am obliged to stay at a certain distance from my existence. It is the human condition. It has been said that human existence is essentially a questioning of existence. In reality, the person questioned is silent or disguises himself when he questions himself. So I don’t think that human existence can consist in questioning oneself. On the contrary, the questioning risks making its existence disappear. Existence flees before itself.

We thus return to an idea analogous to that of Jaspers the idea of ​​failure of any questioning of existence, and even the idea of ​​failure in general.

However, I don’t think existence is only in the past or in the future. It is in act—or in acts—that the existing being is destroyed and constructed, for existence, by itself, is ceaselessly destruction and construction. And it is in the acts by which this existent not only bears witness to the past or the future, but is constituted in the very present as being that which has such and such a future or such and such a past. This is what Kierkegaard’s idea of ​​repetition means. The me, the individual as me, is the one who affixes his seal to something from the past and says: “I am doing something which truly constitutes me”. The same idea returns as an element in the Nietzschean conception of the eternal return, the idea that at each instant the existent intervenes in its existence by its “yes” or its “no” – that one can or wants to affirm oneself -same.

The problem of existence is not solved theoretically, but practically, by the feeling that one has of being able, to a certain extent, to reconcile one’s past, one’s future and one’s present.

In fact, any answer to the question of existence is unsatisfactory; the question is too general. The only word, existence, is too vague for the feeling of existence that we had to describe. When someone says “I exist”, a boundary exists between “I” and “exists” just as another impassable boundary persists between the felt “I” and the expressed “I”. Moreover, when we try to look at it, the feeling of existence escapes our gaze.

It only lives powerfully when hidden.

On the idea of ​​transcendence (pages 25-6, 26-7, 28-f)

Undoubtedly, one of the reasons why the idea of ​​transcendence is so appealing is that when we to think it, we think we think both a movement and its end [terme], which denies this movement. We are not only thinking of the movement but of its end; we are not only thinking of the end, but of the movement. To the idea of ​​effort is added the idea of ​​end by which this effort, in accomplishing itself, is annihilated. We think of something unthinkable. We awaken in ourselves, according to Jaspers’ terminology, a thought which is not strictly speaking thinkable.

As Kierkegaard sensed, it is in contact with something that denies him that a human being becomes most intensely aware of his existence. He also feels that this hard relationship we find ourselves in, this enslavement to a higher principle, is a way of escaping from a kind of impotent liberalism that he feels like a prison.

At the same time, when we speak of transcendence, we have the feeling of a secret in which we participate.

Transcendence is both a no and a yes. It is a yes that is posed to all our affirmations; it is a no which is the affirmation of something beyond all our affirmations.

If the transcendence-movement is explained by the transcendence-end, then, strictly speaking, there is no longer any transcendence.

The same is true when transcendence-as-end is explained by transcendence-as-movement.

There is therefore a tension between the movement and its end. Neither the end nor the movement must be considered as given, either one by the other, or one without the other.

A hierarchy or even hierarchies of transcendence can be designed. If one can put it that way, there is a hierarchy directed downwards, of which, let us say, Lawrence was aware when he presented the unknown God below us, in the depths of being. There is not only a transcendence, but also a transcendence.

There is a movement of transcendence directed towards immanence. Here transcendence transcends itself.

This is perhaps the greatest transcendence: to transcend transcendence, to fall back into immanence.

There would therefore be a second immanence after transcendence has been destroyed.

One could conceive of the idea of ​​transcendence as necessary to destroy the belief in a thought which only knows itself and to make us then feel our immersion in an immanence other than thought.

But if this destructive idea must be destroyed in its turn, it is never completely destroyed, it is never completely overcome, and it remains in the background of the mind, like the idea of ​​a paradise. lost whose hoped for, lamented and lost presence establishes the value of our attachment to the here below.

On the Absolute (page 44)

We said the absolute stay beyond.

But if the absolute escapes language and thought, it is less because its idea is the idea of ​​a beyond than because it is that of a below.

In the transcendent there is both the transcendent and the transcendent. But there is also the idea that these distinctions are futile.

Poetry and metaphysics (page 78)

Metaphysics speaks and says:

Poetry, older sister,
Let your song fly away
I hear you, and it’s me who speaks.

We don’t know what metaphysics is or what poetry is, but the heart of poetry will always be metaphysical, and chances are that the heart of metaphysics will always be poetic as well.

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