For a (Religious) Pedagogy of Freedom

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

A few weeks ago, in a parents’ meeting at my son’s religious boys high-school in Jerusalem, a couple of father expressed, each in his own way, the concern for “our boys” abandoning the religious lifestyle, taking off their kippot and not respecting the sanctity of Shabbat. They we concerned with their (our) boys not continuing the tradition of a religious lifestyle, making choices they do not agree with, and forcing them to accept a change they are not so eager to accept. This is my own, very personal response – let them go, dear parents, let them make their choices (in due measure) and fashion their own lives.

I wasn’t always as messed up as I am today. There used to be a time when God was a fixed certainty in my life, a clear-cut truth which I would shove into the faces of those who did not agree with me. When I was a child, and all the way into my adolescence, and straight into the heart of my early thirties, the feeling I had with respect to the Divine was one of presence . I can recall with a puzzling combination of pleasure and pain (something like the slight pain you feel when holding in a clenched fist something you want no one else to see or something you cherish oh so obsessively), the sense of Divine immanence, of presence, of a harmonic framework. The lymph of trees spoke out to me, it sung out the glorious work of a craftsman; and the musicality of a colorful sky would punctually give me the shivers, flooding the clarity of my sight with a blurred sense of overwhelmed emotions of being. It all felt warm – it all felt good. And equally good was the need to praise the Divine craftsman for all that beauty, for the complexity of being.

And then, at some point, it all disappeared. Gradually, like a warm blanket you have spread out on your body on a cold winter night that slowly slips off, of your bed, off your life and off your love – and it leaves you to dream your dreams with an exposed sense of sharp discomfort, and understanding, and confused wonder. This process is, quite obviously, psychological and quite common. But it is nonetheless real, crude, beautifully simple and complex at once. From Lacan’s perspective, this loss of meaning is part of a process of maturation of the individual, an understanding of his state of being:

The signifier is nothing if not inadequate: this is the meaning of the materiality of the signifier. This is what psychoanalysis, first and foremost, teaches us. And it is precisely around the question of this inadequacy (as materiality) that psychoanalysis seems always to be misunderstood and even criticized. Much of this misunderstanding, it seems, circles around the question of where this inadequacy finds itself. Is this inadequacy characterized by a certain content that is prohibited–beyond the scope of language and discourse as a social bond–or is this inadequacy itself nothing other than the most significant dimension of the signifier? This latter suggestion, at least, would support the notion of a correlation between the inadequacy and the materiality of the signifier. This inadequacy has everything to do with the way the signifier comes into “being” as creatio ex -nihilo (Lacan, Book VII 115-27). Because of this “creation out of nothing,” the inadequacy that marks the signifier–what, in a sense, is excluded in it or “beyond” the signifier–does not precede its loss. The signifier comes into being only insofar as it marks the subject with a certain lack; something of an originary or primal plenitude is lost. This, according to psychoanalysis, is always imagined as the symbiotic relationship between the child and the mother. The traumatic loss of this primal experience of satisfaction, this original homeostasis, is the price the subject must pay for entry into the symbolic and the differential relations of desire. The signifier is thus characterized by an inadequacy which is registered through the subject in two ways: First, the signifier cuts the subject, leaving a gap or lack. This lack splits the subject. The subject also registers the signifier’s inadequacy insofar as it is the signifier that is inadequate to fill in or make a complete restitution for the traumatic loss the subject suffers as its split. The signifier, that is, cannot make good the loss the subject suffers, a loss inaugurated by the advent of the signifier and the entry into the symbolic. [2] This is the constitutive failure that Freud named castration. What is lost in castration is a certain guarantee that satisfaction can be attained through the signifier. One always has a failed relation to a primary experience of satisfaction. And this failure, this cut on the body, marks the birth of knowledge and its counterpart, desire. It marks the birth of the human as desiring subject. Like Adam and Eve, exiled from the Garden of Eden as the price paid for the realization of knowledge, we must pay the price for our entry into language. (“Trauma and the Material Signifier” – Linda Belau – George Washington University)

Lacan is using De Saussure’s concept of signifier (and signified), composing the word – a dyad of langue and parole composing the human utterances. In these terms, instead of a warm blanket, Lacan imagines a signifier that leaves, or is forced to leave by the nature of things, its signified, and is thus doomed to wander, cursed to never find its way back to the warmth and comforting wholeness of Eden, where meaning is solid, clear and tangible. This process of loss is not, as John Donne said in his Anatomy of the World, an earthquake, a cataclysmic disaster that ‘just happens’ – nor is it a violent event like the Talmudic reading of the Revelation at Mt. Sinai where God uses the mountain to threaten the people of Israel into accepting his laws. The process is natural – it is the glorious (and traumatic) birth of the subject. For there to be some kind of meaningful absence encloistered in the world, the signifier must wander off, and experience the utter eroticism of solitude. To use a Lacanian / Freudian reading of this event, it may be worthwhile to look back at the image of a child contemplating his or her image reflected in a mirror and realizing that that reflected image is him / her and also not him / her:

As a result of all of the above, Lacan considers the recognition that happens in the mirror stage to amount to “misrecognition” (méconnaissance). This likewise holds throughout life for all ensuing experiences of “recognizing” oneself as being a particular kind of “I,” namely, taking qua imagining oneself to be a certain sort of ego-level self (apropos Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalysis, it always pays to remember William Wordsworth’s line, “The child is the father of the man”). The ego is not only a congealed, heteronomous object rather than fluid, autonomous subject, but also, in its very origins, a repository for the projected desires and fantasies of larger others; the child’s image is a receptacle for his/her parents’ dreams and wishes, with his/her body image being always-already overwritten by signifiers flowing from the libidinal economies of other speaking beings. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

For there to be growth, and the acquisition of understanding, there has to be a catastrophic change – for there to be meaning, there has to be distance – for there to be desire there has to be space. Presence, without a clear, prickling sense of absence, is meaningless.

Beyond all the quite standard concepts I have presented here up to this point, the subject I would like to engage at this point is the urge most parents (including myself of course) have of fashioning their children in such a way that the latter will follow the paths the former chose for themselves. If the craftsman has made a work of art, he now wants it to be in his hands and to know that it will always reflect his intentions – and it is probably more than just a need or an urge. A parent needs to know that his child will accept the lifestyle he or she has passed on to him for the simple fact that it gives him (the parent) a sense of warm serenity, a feeling of control over what would otherwise be a bone-chilling chaos raging around him and the child. Children, luckily, do not (always) respond positively to this expectation and do not (always) take on the frameworks the parent has imposed on them so graciously and lovingly, in order to clothe them, protect them from the impending lack of meaning, from the tragic realization that there is a (very messy and meaningless) world beyond that warm blanket we gave them.

It is thus necessary to let go. Just like the created universe is separated from the rest of history (the chaos of events upon which we have little, and at time no control) by an abyss of calm and silence called Shabbat, in which the active creative agent stops engaging with things and relinquishes control and rests. Just like the chaos of history is kept well detached from the word-based fashioning of genesis by the sabbatical silence, I sincerely feel that we, as parents should let go, and allow our children to make mistakes, to stumble, learn on their own and experience the traumatic pangs of subjectivity just as we and millions of generations before us have. We need to form our children’s minds, provide them with the tools to live and make decisions, but we must not control them – we must, as J.-J. Rousseau would have suggested at this point, walk with the child, at first holding his hand, and then letting go of his hand, and then (and I add my own personal contribution to Emile) we have to stop walking next to them, and continue on our own paths, looking at them go.

The separation is difficult – true. And separation is also the cause, within the child, of a sense of solitude, of chill, and the harsh loss of points of reference – and it seems to me clear that this moment of separation forces the parent to live the process he experienced in the past, all over again. But, for there to be meaning, the signifier needs to wander off, and leave the signified behind. Chaos is indeed scary, and as John Milton wrote in his Paradise Lost, can be both the womb and the grave of existence. But chaos can most certainly NOT be framed, chaos cannot and must not be bridled – the chaos of uncontrollable things in life (including children refusing our choices of life and our values) must be acknowledged in all its excruciatingly painful alterity.

For the world, the child, the word to be significant, it must be formed, uttered, and then, painfully, let go into a world of signifiers searching for meaning.

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.