08 February 2002

More about Caputo. Wednesday afternoon he led a really fun seminar comparing how Heidegger and Derrida have each responded to the Confessions of St. Augustine.

It's really amazing to what degree 20th century philosophers have continued to be obssessed with Augustine, especially the Confessions, from Arendt to Foucault. Indeed, Heidegger's Being and Time grew, in many respects, out of a 1921 lecture course on "Augustine and Neoplatonism" in which he saw a distinction between the "factical" Augustine who struggles in Christian trial and temptation coram Deo and the neo-Platonic Augustine who contemplated the divine being as the summum bonum. These lectures had followed Heidegger's previous lectures on Paul's letters to the Thessalonians, which also finds the authentically Christian life in the eschatological tension of the earliest church, awaiting the end of the world.

For Heidegger, then, Augustine's notion of struggle, the good Christian soldier, comes to be grafted together with the Socrates who stands his post (from the Apology), translating it then into more formal and Greek conception of Dasein that is called to fight the good fight in resolute self-possession.

This all stands in contrast to Derrida's reading of Augustine in his Circumfession, according to Caputo. The title here is a play on "confession" and "circumcision," for, like Augustine, Derrida is a transplanted north African, but he is also Jewish. The text of Derrida's book, indeed, involves Latin quotations from Augustine interwoven with Derrida's own autobiographical journals. While Heidegger entirely ignores the figure of Monica, Augustine's mother, Derrida takes her as central, drawing a parallel with his own mother, Georgette, both weeping mothers whose sons are born of their tears and whose deaths form an integral part of the respective texts.

While Heidegger is interested in the self-possessed soldier that is Dasein, Derrida focusses upon the phenomenology of weeping as authentic to the human experience. Where Heidegger notes Augustine's eyes (concupiscentia oculorum) disciplined to duty and not led astray by desire, Derrida notes the eyes of Augustine and Monica blinded (aboculus) by tears.

At this point Caputo turned to Derrida's Memoir's of the Blind, a book that grew out of an opportunity granted by the Louvre to leading intellectuals to gather together exhibits from among their collections. Derrida chose paintings depicting blindness, noting that men are depicted as blinded in exchange for a higher vision, whether St. Paul on the road to Damascus or the Greek oracles. Women, on the other hand, are mostly depicted as blinded by tears, particularly at the foot of the Cross. Thus, Derrida notes, tears involve a blinding that is not an exchange for a higher vision, but are a prayer for something we cannot see, for which we only can implore and weep.

Derrida thus sees Augustine's Confessions as a "great book of tears," for the weeping eye is the organ of confession, mourning, prayer, misery, and joy. This stands in contrast with the Greek (phallocentric) desire to see, to gaze upon the truth in contemplation. Derrida remains even in contrast with Heidegger's own dynamic of lethe and aletheia that is still stuck in the grip vision and sight, even if fleetingly.

This works itself out in a different assessment of death between Derrida and Heidegger. Heidegger's "being-towards-death" that is typical of Dasein remains a resolute readiness that participates in soldierly mastery and self-possession. For Augustine in the death of Monica and for Derrida in that of Georgette, however, the death in question is not one's own, but that of the (m)other. The death scene in Circumfessions is slow, with running bedsores, and an old woman's blank, unrecognizing stare. Derrida draws a connection between his own tears, those of his mother when he was ill as a child, and those of women at the foot of the cross, seeing all of these as a portrait of the human condition. And in all of this, our tears point beyond the mourning of the other, to that greater mourning that is a desire for the Other, for God.

This desire for God in Derrida is not what Heidegger took it to be--the end of all questioning, a final truth--but rather a throwing of everything into question, our own blindedness in tears (cut off, circumcised from phallocentric desire). It is not a matter of "knowing" the truth (in a Greek fashion), but desiring it; not seeing, but confessing; not possessing, but doing (as Augustine says, veritatem facere).