Panel 5 2002

Meeting Index

Eric Voegelin Society Meeting 2002

  Ce nest pas ma faute:

The Strange Fortunes of Piety and Consciousness

in Choderlos de Lacloss   Les Liaisons dangereuses

Copyright 2002  Polly Detels


  Whenever a French and a German tale 

follow the same pattern, the German veers

off in the direction of the mysterious, the 

supernatural, and the violent, while the

French steers straight for the village

where the hero can give full play to his talent for intrigue 


--Robert Darnton [1]


If mans life is only a shadow and true reality lies elsewhere, in the inaccessible, in the

inhuman or the suprahuman, then we suddenly enter the drama of theology. Indeed,

Kafkas first commentators explained his novels as religious parables. . . . Such an

interpretation seems to me wrong (because it sees allegory when Kafka grasped

concrete situations of human life) but also revealing: wherever power deifies itself, it

automatically produces its own theology; wherever it behaves like God, it awakens

religious feelings toward self; such a world can be described in theological terms.


--Milan Kundera [2]


              Choderlos Lacloss Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782) is an epistolary novel of wicked reason and deformed consciousness, the latter a philosophical problem that appears throughout the work of Eric Voegelin. In volume V of Order and History Voegelin addressed the problem of philosophy deprived of the erotic tension of the Divine beyond as a specific property of 18th-19th-century deformation. [3] The libertines of Les Liaisons dangereuses banish the beyond and founder on deformative attempts nevertheless to preserve an erotic tension with the objects of their desires. [4] All the characters are seekers after knowledge; most of them use it to direct the lives of others.  Consciously abolishing love from the love of knowledge they assure themselves the ennui they seek to avoid, they abolish love from their lives, and, in some cases, they perish. In this novel, philosophy is absent from the stage; even so, Les Liaisons dangereuses is a philosophical novel.

Robert Darntons remark above to the effect that the French will choose busy town over bewitched and bewitching tarn illuminates indirectly much of the scholarly discussion of Lacloss splendid novel. Whether author Laclos is understood as disciple or debunker of Rousseau or Descartes, an ironic proponent of the libertine code of ethics, or simply as the neutral observer disingenuously set forth by the novels borrowed epigraphJai vu les moeurs de mon temps, et jai publi ces Lettresthe focus of criticism is directed at analysis of the society in which the novel was set. It is, as Ronald Rosbottom has put it, a novel about connections, not about individuals. [5] Mondanitworldlinessis the touchstone even for critics whose discussions center on the eighteenth-century self. [6]

 The Liaisons is such a complex and intricate work that studies frequently allude to the novels resistance to interpretation. [7] One critic has suggested that whatever his intentions may have been, author Laclos systematically and loyally served the law that is superior to all others, because of the reversals it provokes, the law of the novel. [8] The openness of the epistolary form powerfully influences audience as well as author. Elizabeth MacArthur has suggested that epistolarity provokes a particular response from the scholarly reader:

Critics tend to respond to such metonymic texts by metaphorizing them. To impose metaphor on a metonymic text is to give it a message to make it didactic, in other words to force it to say what it ought to say. Editors and critics of epistolary narratives have almost universally adopted this moralizing stance. . . . If epistolary narratives refuse the stabilizing certitudes of more closural forms, challenging received values with their disruptive metonymic questioning, it is not surprising that critics confronted with them attempt to reassert stable, meaningful order. [9]


Among those caught up in the problem of tracking the pressure exerted by form on meaning [10] some have declared that Les Liaisons can be metaphorically penetrated as a boulet creux (an artillery device invented by the versatile Laclos), which draws its force from a hollow center. [11] Other metaphorizing interpretations have included Liaisons as stage (with Laclos cast as puppeteer or ventriloquist), as a  jeu de miroirs, and even as a harem looking inward upon itself. [12] These interpretations are all solidly rooted in the figurative language of the novel itself. Critics who have not focused on the nature of the epistolary form and its structure, or on some aspect of worldliness, have emphasized the Merteuil-Valmont correspondence and relationship, individual psyches of Merteuil or Valmont, the novels intertextuality, or the novels fictional and actual readers.

The foregoing discussion should offer some indication of the extent to which a storytellers consciousness stands to be swallowed up more by scholarly debate than by vivid characterizations and plot. Nevertheless, all these critical roads lead to the intentions, and mind, of the novels author. Given that the epistolary novel is the perfect medium to camouflage the existence and presence of the novelist, Laclos will not be easy to find. [13] Searching for the author, many critics fault Laclos for ending the novel weakly. Merteuils disfiguration by smallpox, Valmonts death after a duel with one of his dupes, Tourvels death in the convent of her youth (the latter deemed implausible by the fictive publisher in the novels first preface) have struck readers as lame and lacking in subtlety. Vivienne Mylne, while applauding Merteuils silence at the end of the novel, takes issue with the smallpox that disfigures her because it invokes a punitive Providence which upsets the purely human motivation of the rest of the book. [14] A few have offered evidence that the novel is a model of libertine salvation. The focus here is on the character of Valmont and his gradual entrapment in the language of seduction. [15] His undoingand thereby his salvationis his own doing. Although it is not unusual to find parallels drawn in the critical literature between Valmont and Laclos, the novels second preface (this one by a fictive editor) problematizes a readers inclination to impute to letters the laboured manner of an author who appears in person behind the characters through whom he speaks/ La manire peine dun Auteur qui se montre derrire le personnage quil fait parler. [16] Does the editors preface foreground even as it minimizes the issue of an authorial presence, via une manire peine, that  stands more decidedly behind one character than another? [17]  

Eric Voegelin writes about the relationship between the storytellers consciousness and a work of fiction in the Postscript to a letter to colleague Robert Heilman.  The original letter was a 1947 response to Heilmans analysis of the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw. The Postscript, written years later, focused on an effort  to assess and amplify the validity of a principle that had driven Voegelins responsive analysis. [18]   This principle was, to follow the pattern of symbols, and see what emerges by way of meaning (Voegelin on James, 134). The work of fiction was to be the primary tool of analysis. As Voegelin argued, under this rubric even an authors non-fiction commentary by which he himself has indicated a line of interpretation was secondary to the meaning offered by the text (Voegelin on James, 135). Voegelins original interpretation of Jamess novella as a story of a souls closure to God, and, in counterpoint, of its roots in a cosmic drama of good and evil as an incestuous affair in the divinity, was complicated by the fact that, but for the frame of a vague garden, specific religious symbols quite evident to Voegelin were more or less missing from the language of the novella itself.  Voegelins Postscript qualified the premise (following the symbols to meaning on the assumption that the author knew what he was doing) and worked through the difficulties arising from symbolic vagueness. [19] As I perceive Les Liaisons Dangereuses, it has remarkable resonance with Voegelins understanding of The Turn of the Screw. Lacloss novel is undoubtedly a story of the souls closure to God, and I will suggest parenthetically that the theme of incest is present as well. I will begin by following symbols, as Voegelin has done in the analysis of James, and then proceed to Voegelins Postscript  as preface to discussion of the consciousness of the storyteller.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses has three principal story lines hooked to one plot. Arguably the chief strand is the liaison of the Marquise de Merteuil, a widow whose virtuous public persona masks the motto Il faut vaincre ou prir  (letter 81), with the Vicomte de Valmont, a noted libertine. These characters seem on the point of renewing a former erotic relationship via letters concerning a joint project: the ruination of a convent girl (Ccile de Volanges) before her marriage to a man they both have reason to loathe (Gercourt). The seduction of Ccile is the second strand in the plot. Merteuils and Valmonts comparable gifts for calculation and viciousness issue in an epistolary competition that sets them off from the rest of their society. Each contrivesassiduouslyto be unique. I am tempted to think, writes the Vicomte to his partner, that in all the world it is only you and I who are worth anything/je suis tent de croire quil ny a que vous et moi dans le monde qui valions quelque chose (letter 100). A less ironized worthiness defines the third principal character, the Prsidente de Tourvel. Like Merteuil, Tourvel has a reputation for virtue, but she is also known for her religious devotion and a happy marriage. That Tourvel deserves her reputation launches the third strand of the plot: Valmont plans to enhance his fame by seducing la cleste dvote (letter 44).

            Numerous symbolic complexes move through the rhetoric with which these and other correspondents fill their letters and advance their desires. The Merteuil and Valmont correspondence abounds in metaphors having to do with theater, myth, law, history, and, ultimately, war. Cciles seduction by both Valmont and Merteuil generally evokes the language of education. But for all their diverse and colliding aims, all the characters make use of religious language or symbols. This has been relatively neglected in the critical literature. Milan Kunderas measured caveat (of the epigraph) notwithstanding, I wish to pursue the strange fortunes of piety in Les Liaison dangereuses as a means to interrogate the storytellers consciousness.

In the Liaisons, religious symbols can be reasonably configured into two categories. There is a constellation of symbols that have to do with doctrine, rituals, institutions and offices: sin, contumacy, penitence, disgust with the world; sacraments of marriage, penance, and extreme unction; convents, priests, and confessors. A second constellation includes symbolizations of the Divine. There are two subcategories here. In one category are formulations of God as an inscrutable, or at least remote, judge. In the other subcategory belong formulations in which human beings substitute for, or in some way claim to possess, Divinity.  I will examine several of these and some of their entanglements at length, with primary attention to utterances and activities of Merteuil, Valmont, and Tourvel.

Merteuils use of pious language has mainly to do with the three things she holds dear: knowledge, power, and pleasure. Her direction of the erotic education of Ccile affords her all three. When its advances precipitate a crisis, appeals come both from the pupil, who is titillated by a flirtation with the Chevalier de Danceny, and from her mother Madame de Volanges whose delicate role it is to guard chastity while gathering Ccile into societys libertine orbit. Amused to find identical statements in their letters--it is to you alone that I can look for consolation/Cest de vous seule que jattends quelque consolation--Merteuil writes to Valmont, There I was, like God, acknowledging the conflicting claims of blind humanity, changing not a syllable of my inexorable decrees/ Me voil comme la Divinit, reevant les voeux opposs des aveugles mortels, et ne changeant rien mes decrets immuables (letter 63).  Later in the letter she informs Valmont that she has given up playing God and has assumed in its place the role of consoling angel (Jai quitt pourtant, ce rle august, pour prendre celui dAnge consolateur).

            Valmonts self-consciously amused mastery of a spiritual idiom, aimed chiefly at seduction of the devout Tourvel, flatters and entertains his confidante, the Marquise de Merteuil, as he keeps her informed of his progress. Given her own zeal and fervor, writes Valmont, Merteuil has amassed far more conversions than he:  if our God judges us by our deeds, you will one day be the patron saint of some great city, while I shall be, at most, a village saint/ et si ce Dieu-la nous jugeait sur notres oeuvres, vous seriez un jour la Patronne de quelque grande ville, tandis que votre ami serait au plus un Saint de village (letter 4).  When addressing Merteuil, he can be as flippant about religion as she is, even as he touches the fine theological points of works and grace. But Valmont and, as we shall see later, Tourvel take their aspirations to divinity far more seriously than does the Marquise. In his accounts of the process of seduction Valmont talks of taking Tourvel away from God and substituting himself as  the god of her choice. After spying on her prayers, Valmont writes to Merteuil, What God did she hope to invoke? . . . She will look in vain for help elsewhere, when it is I alone who can guide her destiny/ Quel Dieu osait-elle invoquer? . . . En vain cherche-t-elle prsent des secours trangers: cest moi qui rglerai son sort (letter 23). The language Valmont uses to seduce Tourvel is the language of love, laced with religious references to unworthiness, conversion, repentance, and reconciliation. Appealing both to her spiritual and profane vanity, he enumerates the wrongs she has laid at his feet:

A pure and sincere love, a respect which has never faltered, an absolute submission to your will: these are the feelings you have inspired in me. I would have no reluctance in offering them in homage to God himself. O fairest of His creation, follow the example of His charity! Think of my cruel sufferings. Consider, especially, that you have put my despair and my supreme felicity on either scale, and that the first word you utter will irremediably turn the balance.

Un amour pur et sincre, un respect qui ne sest jamais dmenti, une soumission parfaite; tels sont les sentiments que vous mavez inspir. Je neusse pas craint den prsenter lhommage la Divinit mme. O vous, qui tes son plus bel ouvrage, imitez-la dans son indulgence! Songez a mes peines cruelles; songez surtout que, plac par vous entre le dsespoir et la flicit suprme, le premier mot que vous prononcerez dcidera pour jamais mon sort (letter 36).

The foregoing epistolary speechifying has several important components. Valmont comes very close to tempting Tourvel to imagine herself not just as an imitator but as God. This is a reverse, rhetorical certainly, but perhaps indicating as well that Valmonts mastery of the situation is somewhat ambiguous. Because Tourvel is vulnerable to this kind of flattery, we find her later tumbling to the idea presented by her confessor Pre Anselme that Valmont must meet with her in person to effect what she believes will be his reconciliation to God. Tourvels willingness to place herself in such an important position suggests more than just the sin of pride. It identifies her eagerness not just to serve God but to supplant God. In fact, Tourvel is more like Merteuil and Valmont than she seems. And we might even say what they do not: that the indirect battle between Tourvel and Merteuil, which nobody wins, is rooted in the words No man cometh unto the Father but by me (John 14:6). The rhetorical device, also observed above, of abdicating responsibility and declaring ones fate to be in the power of another (le premier mot que vous prononcerez dcidera pour jamais mon sortimplication: its up to you; whatever happens, it will not be my fault), is used by nearly all of the characters in the novel and may well be its most significant unifying leitmotif.

The reasoning that Tourvel uses to convince herself (via a letter to Madame de Volanges) that Valmont is not the reprobate of legend reveals a claim to know the mind of God. When to impress Tourvel Valmont casts himself as the savior of a poor family, she wonders whether God would permit the wicked to share the sacred pleasures of charity with the good / les mchants partageraient-ils avec les bons le plaisir sacr de la bienfaisance? and allow Himself to receive gratitude for the actions of a scoundrel (letter 22 ). Tourvel concludes that for God such a thing would be impossible. Valmont must be a decent fellow after all. The implication of her belief that the judgments and workings of God cannot be inscrutable to a Tourvel either makes her faith seem very simple-minded, which is unlikely, or it complicates her status as a devout character. And as the echo of a comment by Valmont in letter 21 to the effect that the virtuous may simply have been hoarding this type of pleasure, the episode suggests again her vulnerability to the sin of pride, a sin she will later try unsuccessfully to master.

The letters are also infused with familial symbols, some of which are metaphorical. Because they eventually become entangled with the symbols of piety, it is worth looking at these. Beginning with the actual family bonds, the characters whose letters appear in the novel are related as follows: Ccile de Volanges and Madame de Volanges are daughter and mother; Madame de Volanges (and therefore Ccile) and Merteuil are some manner of remote cousin; Valmont and Rosemonde are nephew and aunt. Other family ties are the Prsidente de Tourvel and the Prsident de Tourvel (husband and wife) and, for a brief time before her miscarriage, the parental relationship of Valmont and the ravished Ccile with their unborn child. With the notable brief exception of  Valmont, and by extension the cuckolded fianc Gercourt, the reader encounters neither fathers nor sons.

The formulation of other familial relationships by characters is significant. Early in the drama of her fall at the hands of Valmont, Tourvel invokes her bonds as a defense against the seductive efforts of Valmont:

I shall never forget what I owe to myself, what I owe to the ties I have formed, which I respect and cherish, and I ask you to believe that if ever I am reduced to making the unhappy choice between sacrificing them and sacrificing myself, I shall make it without a moments hesitation.

Je noublierai jamais ce que je me dois, ce que je dois des noeuds que jai forms, que je respecte et que je chris; et je vous prie de croire que, si jamais je me trouve rduite ce choix malheureux, de les sacrifier ou de me sacrifier moi-mme, je ne balancerais pas un instant (letter 78).

To what bonds, other than connubial and religious, does she refer? Over the course of Valmonts pursuit of her, Tourvel addresses two of her correspondents as mother: these are Madame de Volanges and later, as the first correspondence falls off,  Madame de Rosemonde. Accordingly Ccile de Volanges is, for a time, her avowed sister  (letter 8). Tourvels husband, a judge, is presiding in a distant province, and while readers hear of his letters, we do not read them. [20] The putative mother-daughter relationship of Tourvel and Volanges is underscored by Volangess insistent warnings concerning Valmont. At one point Tourvels defense of him will include the comment that she could reasonably and gladly consider him a brother: Had I a brother in Monsieur Valmont I could not be better pleased/ si javais un frre, je dsirais quil ft tel que M. de Valmont se montre ici (letter 11). [21]  

The invention, by Tourvel, of these would-be relatives is an attempt to extend the bonds by which she defines herself. But for her absent husband, Tourvel seems actually quite untethered, and while she draws the notice of the worldly society she abjures, she makes a point of excepting herself from its system. Her self-styled uniqueness, and her concomitant insistence on numerous occasions that she is not like the general run of women, is an important clue in understanding first Valmonts obsession with delaying the moment of her Fall and later with rupturing the affair. Tourvel is known for devoutness. But her piety and the pride she takes in her relationships mask a deformed consciousness remarkably similar to the consciousness Voegelin identified with Jamess governess in The Turn of the Screw: a demonically closed soul; of a soul which is possessed by the pride of handling the problem of good and evil by its own means; and the means which is at the disposition of this soul is the self-mastery and control of the spiritual forces . . . ending in a horrible defeat. No less descriptive of Tourvel is Voegelins description of the mechanism whereby the governess allows her charges to become engulfed in evil: the souls vanity is tickled by the divine charge of salvation by proxy(Voegelin on James, 136, 137).

            The brief discussion of the Liaisons story and characters above has introduced provisional points of contact with Voegelins principle of submission to the fictional text. We proceed now to the question of the storytellers consciousness. The situating of Henry James and the symbolist movement more generally on a deformative continuum extending from Milton through Blake to the twentieth century is a familiar component of Voegelins approach to consciousness in history. His ensuing discussion of the consciousness of storyteller and the consciousness of the critical reader may help to illuminate the problems that critics have attempted to pursue into the mind of author Laclos.

In the Postscript discussion opens with the problem of correspondence of the Jamesian symbols to what had seemed to Voegelin an authentic reading using different symbols. For us the relevant variables of his analysis concern both authors and readers critical consciousness of reality as well as the readers ability to diagnose either (1) the authors critical insufficiency as manifested in indistinct symbols insusceptible of analysis, or (2) the readers own insufficiency in penetrating them. The conscientious interpreter, Voegelin concluded, cannot simply follow the symbolism wherever it leads and expect to come out with something that makes sense in terms of reality (Voegelin on James, 152). The critical reader must proceed to an analysis of the deformation, which is to say an identification of the components of reality that, in the story, have been eclipsed.  Framing this particular is Voegelins discussion of the historical process of deformation, in the course of which, increasingly, artists can be found whose consciousness of deformation has advanced and is accordingly evident in the work, indicating that the artist knows what he is doing. The mastery of representing satanic humanity advances historically, with, for example, a William Blake a good deal more aware of the deformation of consciousness than a John Milton (Voegelin on James, 156). A critical artistic consciousness such as Blakes can recognize and analyze the insufficiencies of Milton while participating in and documenting a similar deformation.

            The deformation Voegelin tracks in the Postscript is the deformed reality experienced by the contracted self, living in the Freedom of the Vacuum, with its numerous manifestations. It takes centuries indeed, Voegelin observes, to build the vacuum into a social force,

to live through the possible variants of dreaming, to wear down the

opacity of consciousness through the constant friction between imagination

and reality, to bring it to reflective consciousness as a structure in the closed

self, and to develop the categories by which the phenomenon of deformed

existence can be made intelligible (Voegelin on James 158-159).

The game is up, says Voegelin, in that we may now understand the deformity, but the recapture of reality is much more difficult. We must fall back on a modest, if interesting, question, where in the history of the garden do we place Jamess Turn? (Voegelin on James, 159-160).

            Voegelin then pursues the problem of Jamess dustiness, its permeation beyond characters to language, imagination, and construction,  the aesthetic mastery that accomplishes it, and the readers futile hope that, given the amplitude of his critical distance, James will  get to work on the open existence which seems to form the background to his ironic study of closure (Voegelin on James 165).  Voegelin emphatically differentiates between the ambiguous consciousness of a James, as manifested in the preference, without a reason, for the wayside dust, though the world is open for a profitable journey and that of the artist who partakes of the deformity he explores so strongly that

he cannot characterize his figures by the shadow their deformity would

cast if they were exposed to the light of open reality, but will rather become a

realist who describes a real deformation of reality without being quite clear

about the reality deformed (Voegelin on James, 166, 163).

With these relevant points of Voegelins Postscript in mind, we can return to Blakes contemporary Laclos and the eighteenth-century epistolary novel. We can also begin to ask where Laclos fits on the continuum.

Epistolarity depends above all on the idea of absence.  Letters may recount shared time or space and even, as Janet Altman has suggested, reflect an epistolary craving for the stage. [22] But letters embody, of course, the lack of these things. What does epistolarity place in shadow? In the Postscript Voegelin approaches the idea of absence through his discussion of what part of reality must be continually eclipsed to sustain the ambient deformation in which an author creates. Laclos approaches this, in the best traditions of the eighteenth-century novel, through the prefatory material. The fictive editors preface forecasts the ambiguous status of the divine ground with its nod to pious readers, those who will be angry at seeing virtue fall and will complain that religion does not appear to enough effect/ se fcheront de voir succomber la vertu, et se plaindront que la Religion se montre avec trop peu de puissance (LLd 22). The relentless religious irony of Merteuil and Valmont demonstrates that a divine ground of being has been all but banished, subsumed in what have become vestigial pieties overlaid with libertine double entendres.

Les Liaisons dangereuses is truly a jeu de miroirs, as Seylaz and others have indicated. [23] Every event has its mirror image. The most famous example of this is Valmonts desk letter (letter 48), in which a courtesans body  provides both a writing surface and a diversion from the rigors of correspondence: the very table on which I write, never before put to such use, has become an altar consecrated to love/la mme table sur laquelle je vous cris, consacre pour la premire fois cet usage, devient pour moi lautel sacr de lamour (letter 48). The recipient is Tourvel who reads nothing but the truth, for Valmont deals in double-speak. A copy goes to Merteuil, who can enjoy and admire the erotic in-joke. Valmonts libertine fear of satiation is mirrored in  letters from Merteuil, in which she reveals her plan to break with the tiresome Chevalier de Belleroche. She will make him dispatch himself by providing him with an excess of her erotic attentions: it will be physical torture for Belleroche, but the account of it will be mental torture for Valmont. Merteuils suggestion that he should hurry things along with Tourvel brings a revealing response:

having no one but me for guidance and support, and unable to blame me any longer for her inevitable fall, she implores me to postpone it. Fervent prayer, humble supplication, all that mortal man in his terror offers the Divinity, I receive from her. And you think that I, deaf to her prayers, destroying with my own hands the shrine she has put up around me, will use that same power for her ruin which she invokes for her protection! Ah, let me at least have time to enjoy the touching struggle between love and virtue.


nayant plus que moi pour guide et pour appui, sans songer me reprocher davantage une chute invitable, elle mimplore pour la retarder. Les ferventes prires, les humbles supplications, tout ce que les mortels, dans leur crainte, offrent la Divinit, cest moi qui le reois delle; et vous vouler que, sourd ses voeux, et dtruisant moi-mme le culte quelle me rend, jemploie la prcipiter la puissance quelle invoque pour la soutenir! Ah! laissez-moi du moins le temps dobserver ces touchants combats entre lamour et la vertu (letter 96).

Tourvel may want to delay the inevitable, but Valmont wants delay as well. Valmont knows that he is, in this respect, fundamentally different from Merteuil: it is, I know, he writes to her, only the finished work that interests you / vous naimez que les affaires faites (letter 96).

As Suellen Diaconoff has pointed out, there is a strain of asceticism in the libertine code: in order to thrive the erotic requires the potential of change, abrupt and spontaneous, coupled at times with deprivation. . . . it is clear that the erotic experience is not susceptible of being sustained indefinitely in routine life, but must be re-invented constantly. [24] The ambivalence of the libertine produces many ironies and odd reflections. Valmonts statement (in reference to his education of Ccile) it is only the unusual that interests me now / il ny a plus que les choses bizarres qui me plaisent (letter 110) surely also prompts his assault on the pious Tourvel, but it isto  a large degreehis fear of her uniqueness that will drive him off again. Immediately following the culmination of his pursuit of Tourvel, he writes to Merteuil. The letter is a jarring mix of detached clinical observation and rapture, in which Valmont emphasizes the need to avoid

the humiliation of thinking that I might in any way have been dependent on the

very slave I had subjected to my will, that I might not find in myself alone

everything I require for my happiness; and that the capacity to give me enjoyment

of it in all its intensity might be the prerogative of any one woman to the exclusion

of all others.

lhumiliation de penser que je puisse dpendre en quelque manire de lesclave

mme que je me serais asservie; que je naie pas en moi seul la plnitude de mon

bonheur; et que la facult de men faire jouir dans toute son nergie soit rserve

telle ou telle femme, exclusivement a toute autre (letter 125).

Such reversals cannot be accounted for solely in terms of MacArthurs reminder that epistolarity presents us with a series of unenlightened present moments. [25] In fact, letter 125 brings libertine confusion--is it repetition or variation he is after?--nearly to the level of consciousness. Arnold Weinstein has neatly set this ambivalence in the context of the whole work. The novel is

a story of individualism gone wild; more than the self as authority we see in

Lacloss epistolary novel the self deified. . . . yet Laclos demonstrates that the

relationship is concomitantly the desired or feared transcendence of self, seen as

both loss and apotheosis. These two poles define the dialectic of love and pleasure

which articulates the novel. [26]

As we have observed, given the Laclosian affinity for ironic juxtaposition, every event and even minute details can be paired, or rather completed, with another formulation that in some way reflects, opposes, or glosses the first. [27]   In the constellation of religious symbols we generally find, more specifically, a mechanism by which the reflecting event or symbol has

drained the first of its transcendent content. [28] I would like briefly to point to the most important

of these: the confession of guilt and its fulfillment in atonement and its deformative shadow, the abdication of responsibility configured in the phrase It is not my fault/ce nest pas ma faute. 

The sacraments of penance and extreme unction are prominent in the novel, if sometimes ironically cast. It is Madame de Tourvels confessor Pre Anselme who is absent when she needs him most and who arranges the fateful meeting between Tourvel and Valmont. He also administers last rites as she lies dying. Pre Anselmes name underscores his unique status in this novel as a symbol of faith seeking understanding, but for Valmont, the confessor is no more than a tool and an opportunity to regale Merteuil: I shall follow him presently to have my pardon signed. With sins of this kind, there is only one formula which confers absolution, and that must be received in person / jirai moi-mme faire signer mon pardon: car dans les torts de cette espce, il nya quune seule formule qui porte absolution gnrale, et celle-la ne sexpdie quen prsence (letter 138). When Ccile believes she must give up Danceny, she prays often for the strength to forget him (as a means, notes the cynical Merteuil in letter 51, of saying Dancenys name constantly). Cciles confessor proves a convenient scapegoat to blame for the revelation of her secret correspondence.

Tourvel vacillates continually between a readiness to assume responsibility for her mistakes and the pride and doubt that make it difficult. Before receiving Valmont under the sponsorship of Pre Anselme, she writes to Madame de Rosemonde, asking why it is that Valmonts happiness (meaning, at that time, his reconciliation to God) must rest on her own misfortune:

I know it is not for me to question the Divine decrees: but while I beg him

continually and always in vain, for the power to conquer my unhappy love,

He is a prodigal of strength where it has not been asked for, and leaves me

a helpless prey to my weakness.

Je sais quil ne mappartient pas de sonder les dcrets de Dieu; mais tandis

que je lui  demande sans cesse, et toujours vainement, la force de vaincre mon

maheureux amour, il la prodigue celui qui ne la lui demandait pas, et me laisse,

sans secours, entirement livre a ma faiblesse (letter 124).

On the brink of the actual seduction, we find Tourvel writing as if her fall had already occurred, and, moreover, distressed by the silence and inscrutability of God. By contrast, the letter she writes in her final hours (letter 161) is indeed an admission of guilt, a genuine mea culpabut it  also is an epistolary mad scene: hallucinatory, recriminating, addressed to everyone and therefore to no one.  As one critic has suggested, letter 161 embodies a state somewhat akin to the loss of consciousness. [29] Tourvel is arguably the most pious and innocent character in the novel. But behind her, even within her own consciousness of guilt and atonement lurks the shadow of ce nest pas ma faute. [30]

The idea behind ce nest pas ma faute, as we have noted, has a history in the chain of letters. It is to the epistolary polyphony of Les Liaisons as the point of imitation is to a renaissance motet. For the most part it is implicated in the writers rhetorical strategy of declaring that the future depends solely on what the recipient does, in words such as It is for you to

decide / Cest a vous de voir  (letter 62, Madame de Volanges to Danceny). Similar formulations can be found in letters 41 (Tourvel to Valmont), 94 (Ccile to Danceny), 131 (Merteuil to Valmont), and 137 (Valmont to Tourvel), to name a few. These strategies culminate, of course, in letter 153 (Valmont to Merteuil), which compels upon Merteuil the choice between peace and war.  The explicit denial of guilt, ce nest pas ma faute, appears in letter 106 (Merteuil to Valmont) and in letter 138 to Merteuil, which Valmont opens with the words I insist, my love: I am not in love, and it is not my fault if circumstances compel me to play the part / Je persiste, ma belle amie: non, je ne suis point amoureux; et ce nest pas ma faute si les circonstances me forcent de jouer le rle.

This provokes the most notorious expression of the phrase in letter 141, Merteuils response to Valmonts letter 138. Ce nest pas ma faute is most notable here as the suggestion with which Merteuil programs Valmont to sacrifice Tourvel. She begins with the story of a man who becomes a laughingstock because he is in love. A female friend provides him with the means to break with the woman who is ruining his erotic reputation. He has only to declare himself not responsible for anythinghis boredom, his deceit, the urgent call to another loverusing again and again the words, ce nest pas ma faute. Without hesitation, Valmont plagiarizes the words to destroy Tourvel and sends them to her. The break with Tourvel, and indeed the letter of rupture itself, will not be his fault. Nonetheless, he asks almost at once for the only kind of grace he understands: an erotic reconciliation with Madame de Merteuil. I am exceedingly eager to learn, writes Valmont to Merteuil, the end of the story about this man of your acquaintance who was so strongly suspected of not being able, when necessary, to sacrifice a woman. Did he not mend his ways? And did not his generous friend receive him back into favor? / je suis fort empress dapprendre la fin de lhistoire de cet homme de votre connaissance, si vhmentement souponn de ne savoir pas, au besoin, sacrifier une femme. Ne se sera-t-il pas corrig? Et sa gnreuse amie ne lui aura-t-il pas fait grce? (letter 142).

            Dorothy Thelander has argued that Les Liaisons is unified above all by the need of both Valmont and Merteuil to recognize each otherto find some kind of permanent and stable relationship. [31] In fact the theme of recognitionand concomitantly, for the two are linked, reconciliationpermeate the entire work. As we have seen, Valmont is able to trap Tourvel largely because he can make her believe that his reconciliation to God depends on a reconciliation with her. What is the link between reconciliation and recognition? For this, we  consult again Voegelins reading of Jamess The Turn of the Screw. The young governess, like Tourvel, enjoys the peace of the just soul marching on orders from God, who lacks only the sense that her righteousness is known. But when a woman dreams of someone who will know her, Voegelin writes, she may be known by someone other than she dreamt (Voegelin on James). Clearly, in the case of Tourvel, the knower she envisions is supplanted by the self-styled Deus ex Machina, Valmont.

We will recall that soon after meeting him, Tourvel was prepared to consign the dangerous Vicomte to the role of brother. Preparing much later to receive him as a penitent, she has written to her newly appointed mother Madame de Rosemonde, questioning Gods reasons for leaving her so defenseless against him:   

But let me stifle these guilty complaints. Do I not know that the Prodigal son

was received, when he returned, with more favour than his father showed the

son who never went away? What account may we demand of One who owes us

none? And were it possible for us to have any rights where He is concerned, what

rights could I claim? Could I boast of the virtue I owe only to Valmont? He has saved me...

No, my sufferings will be dear to me if his happiness is their reward. Certainly it was

necessary for him to return to the Universal Father. God, who made him, must watch

over his creation. He would never have fashioned so charming a creature only to make a

reprobate of it. . . . ought I not to have known, that since it was forbidden to love him,

I should not permit myself to see him?


Mais touffons ce coupable murmure. Ne sais-je pas que LEnfant prodigue, son

retour, obtint plus de grces de son pre que le fils qui ne stait jamais absent? Quel

compte avons-nous demander celui qui ne nous doit rien? Et quand il serait

possible que nous eussions quelques droits auprs de lui, quels pourraient tre les

miens? Me vanterai-je dune sagesse, que dja je ne dois qu Valmont? Il ma sauve,

et joserais me plaindre en souffrant pour lui! Non: mes souffrances me seront chres,

si son bonheur en est le prix. Sans doute il fallait quil revient son tour au Pre commun.

Le Dieu qui la form devait chrir son ouvrage. Il navait point cr cet tre charmant,

pour men faire quune rprouv. . . . ne devais-je pas sentir que, puisquil mtait

dfendu de laimer, je ne devais pas permettre de le voir? (letter 124)


As this passage indicates, Valmonts reconciliation to God will not, as Tourvel had hoped, let her be known for bringing him back to the fold. Instead, she will cast herself as the jealous brother in the parable of the prodigal son, (implicitly) imputing to Valmont the confession, Father I have sinned against Heaven and before thee and am no more worthy to be called thy son (Luke 15:18), a confession that he will surely never make. Her prediction that Valmont will make a fine brother has come full circle. The feast of the prodigal sonto follow when Valmont arriveswill confer the mark of incest.

            A study of the French Mother Goose tales convinced Robert Darnton that France is a country where it is good to be bad. [32] At the end of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, nonetheless, Valmont has been killed and Merteuil, now a Romanesque gargoyle with only a few jewels and no servants, has made for Holland. But Tourvel is dead. Ccile has taken herself to a nunnery, and Danceny has gone to Malta. As with Shakespeares Lear, a few characters, by no means the prominent ones, are left to sweep the stage and gather up letters. And as with Shakespeares Lear, some of them are reasonably decent people, but they arent terribly interesting. And the social realm of the libertine still revolves.

Lacloss characters operate in and sustain what Voegelin has called a satanized environment. [33] Human beings have imagined themselves as gods and as God, and the symbols of piety are murky or emptied of meaning.  If there are traces of conscienceValmonts aside to Danceny,  que je regrette Mme de Tourvel (letter 155), for examplethere is surely no question of a balance of consciousness or its recovery by these characters. One critic has described the ending as a nuclear explosion, [34] but at some level the carnage is trompe loeuil.  Having written a novel of worldliness, Laclos leaves his survivors as he found them. We are left at best to wonder why there is no transformation; at worst, with the sense that we have been thrust into a promiscuous identification with all sides. [35] And we are left with questions for a storyteller whose consciousness is opaque and thoroughly embattled by critics who impute to him a thesis novel or suggest that he is simply playing a game of authorial hide and seek [36] with characters, with form, or even with the reader. Feeling, and rightly, that the novel resists understanding, many readers have objectified Laclos from a sense, it seems, that he has objectified them. Christine Roulston, for instance, writes that in the prefatory material, Laclos provides the clues by which a seductive reading of his novel can be resisted. The effect of this is to place the readers themselves, both male and female, in the structural position of the libertine subject. . . . nevertheless subject to another form of seduction implicit in the libertine model: the seductiveness of mastery itself. [37] Is there a focus on the reader as an object, rather than a focus on the tensions to be created by the story? Is Laclos guilty of the desire to be known? It is likely that he wanted immortality for his work. There is an oft-quoted but perhaps apocryphal comment to this effect: Je rsolus de faire un ouvrage qui sortt de la route ordinaire, qui ft du bruit, et qui retentt encore sur la terre quand jy aurai pass/ I was determined to create something out of the ordinary, which would make a noise and endure in the world after I had gone. [38]

Paul Caringellas article Voegelin: Philosopher of Divine Presence tells us that in the struggle to maintain a balance of consciousness, the storytellers consciousness is in the greatest danger when it comes into the fullness of the reflective distance of consciousness, at which point  the greatest skill is required of the human imagination to keep the balance so as not to sever the tie that binds divine and human in the movement. Here...the human storyteller is most godlike, most the image of God. And here, too, he can enter into his greatest rivalry with God... [39] As close observer of a world that incubated self-deification, and as creator of  Merteuil and Valmont, who deified themselves, Laclos understood the dangers. Laclos was not the grand puppeteer that some critics have imagined. [40] But he lived in a world in which the language of piety was irretrievably deformed, and from which the symbolization of the metaxy had disappeared into the tensional system of the libertine. Although the language of the spirit was available to him, and thus to his creations, it was no longer carrying the burden of tension toward the divine ground of being. Certainly, we can apply the language of tension to Lacloss sense of what he was doing, but it seems likely that for all his acuity Laclos himself would have understood better the tensional formulations, not of faith seeking understanding, but of his eighteenth-century context. For this we might turn to the philosophes, for example Diderot on how to sustain the illusion created by the proscenium, the fourth wall, in theatrical productions. Here in the very secular language of stagecraft is advice from the eighteenth century on abjuring the desire to be known:

And the actor, what will become of him if you have concerned yourself with

the beholder? Do you think he will not feel that what you have placed here or

there was not imagined for him? You thought of the spectator, he will address

himself to him. You wanted to be applauded, he will wish to be applauded.

And I no longer know what will become of the illusion. [41]

Epistolarity aspires not to the life of the spirit; rather, all letters have dramatic aspirations, as the many stage metaphors of the Liaisons would confirm. Eric Voegelins analysis of The Turn of the Screw amply demonstrates that piety and theater dont mix. Jamess governess went beyond wanting to obey the splendid young man; she was performing for him. Lacloss Tourvel suggests that the author understood the collapse of tension that attends the confusion of piety with performance. Accordingly he could well, himself, have taken to heart more advice from Diderot  even as he so carefully crafted un ouvrage qui sortt de la route ordinaire. Jouez, said Diderot to the actor, comme si la toile ne se levait pas. Act as if the curtain never rose. [42]

[1] Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1984), 55.

[2] Milan Kundera, Somewhere Behind, in The Art of the Novel, transl. Linda Asher (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988), 102.

[3] Eric Voegelin, In Search of Order(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 54.

[4] See Voegelins discussion of  the contracted self in The Eclipse of Reality, in What is History and Other Late Unpublished Writings, edited by Thomas A. Hollweck and Paul Caringella (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 111-114.

[5] This is even more striking, continues Rosbottom, when we realize that modern autobiography, evolving from its Lockean origins, was born and developed in the eighteenth century. Ronald C. Rosbottom, Choderlos de Laclos (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978), 58.

[6] The classic study of this phenomenon as explored in Les Liaisons dangereuses is Peter Brooks, The Novel of Worldliness: Crbillon, Marivaux, Laclos, Stendhal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969). Brooks defines worldliness as an ethos and personal manner which indicate that one attaches primary or even exclusive importance to ordered social existence, to life within a public system of values and gestures to the social techniques that further this life and ones position in it, and hence to knowledge about society and its forms of comportment (Brooks, 4). Novels of worldliness are generally novels of stasis: It is typical of all novels of mondanit, writes Susan Winnett, that society emerges unchanged from the plots for which it has served as a medium Susan Winnett, Terrible Sociability: The Text of Manners in Laclos, Goethe, and James (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 17.

[7]   It is usual to find the language of defiance and resistance to interpretation. Christine Roulston has (persuasively) complicated the model by suggesting that even as the novel resists reading, the model of reading proposed by Laclos advocates a process of resistance rather than of identification, i.e., Laclos instructs the reader to resist the novel. Christine Roulston, Virtue, Gender, and the Authentic Self in Eighteenth-Century Fiction: Richardson, Rousseau, and Laclos (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998), 146.

[8] Anne Deneys, The Political Economy of the Body in the Liaisons dangereuses of Choderlos Laclos, in Eroticism and the Body Politic, edited by Lynn Hunt (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 60.

[9] Elizabeth J. MacArthur, Extravagant Narratives: Closure and Dynamics in the Epistolary Form (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 274.

[10] Janet Gurkin Altman, Epistolarity, Approaches to a Form (Columbus: Ohio State University, 1982), 189.

[11] Joan DeJean presents an extended development of the strategic analogy, which has also been treated by Irving Wohlfarth and Georges Daniel. Joan DeJean, Literary Fortification: Rousseau, Laclos, Sade (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 252-3.

[12] Suellen Diaconoff, Eros and Power in Les Liaisons dangereuses: A Study in Evil (Gnve: Librairie Droz, 1979), 56.

[13] Lloyd R. Free, ed., Critical Approaches to Les Liaisons dangereuses  (Madrid: Studia Humanitatis, 1978), 22.

[14] Vivienne Mylne, The Eighteenth-Century French Novel: Techniques of Illusion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 242. But see also Susan Winnett, Terrible Sociability, 44

[15]   Antoinette Sol employs the theme of libertine redemption to argue that Valmont takes part in two versions of the male plot, which cancel each other out: the reformed rake...and the successful libertine. . . . His indeterminacy functions as an allegory of the novel as a whole. Antoinette Marie Sol, Textual Promiscuities: Eighteenth-Century Critical Rewriting (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2002), 194.

[16] Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons dangereuses, transl. P. W. K. Stone (Penguin: 1961; reprint 1972), letter 22; Laclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (ditions Gallimards, 1972), 31. English translations are those of P. W. K. Stone. Subsequent references will be identified in the text by letter number or, in the case of prefatory material, by LLd and the page number denoting the Penguin edition.

[17]   Such critical pairings are not confined to main characters. One critic, for very good reasons,  has identified Lacloss presence in the novel with a brief cameo by a shoemaker who appears in the first letter and never again.  See Susan K. Jackson,  In Search of a Female Voice: Les Liaisons dangereuses, in Writing the Female Voice: Essays on Epistolary Literature, edited by Elizabeth C. Goldsmith (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989), 161.

[18] As the initial analysis was part of a letter from one scholar to another, this later assessment took the form of an extended postscript and both were published in Southern Review, 1971. They subsequently were included in Volume 12 of the Complete Works. Eric Voegelin, On Henry Jamess Turn of the Screw, in Published Essays 1966-1985, edited by Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990). Cited hereafter in the text as Voegelin on James.

[19]   This founding premise for criticism of a first-rate artist or philosopher appeared in one of Voegelins letters to Robert Heilman: July 24, 1956 Eric Voegelin Papers, Hoover Institution Archives, box 17, folder 9.

[20] Valmont intercepts one of them, but doesnt think it worth reading.

[21]   The French of the original is significant here. The words se montre connote an exhibition. Valmonts careful assessment of what Tourvel wants to hear, as well as what she doesnt, is on target. He doesnt treat her like other women; in secretly accepting him as a brother, she has capitulated.

[22] Altman, Epistolarity, 135.

[23] Mylne, Techniques, 238.

[24]   Diaconoff, Eros and Power, 57. Asceticism is the word applied by Anne Deneys, Political Economy, 50.

[25]   MacArthur, Extravagant Narratives, 9.

[26] Arnold Weinstein, Fictions of the Self: 1550-1800 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 181.

[27]   Altman, Epistolarity, 180.

[28]   Here I reference Voegelins terms from his essay on immortality. While the context is slightly different, there are enough correspondences in this discussion to the line I am following in Laclos that I have reproduced some of it below:

There must be a factor whose addition will change the reality of power over

nature, with its rational uses in the economy of human existence, into a terrorists

dream of power over man, society, and history; and there can hardly be a doubt what

this factor is: it is the libido dominandi, that has been set free by the draining of reality

from the symbols of truth experienced. . . . The shell of doctrine, empty of its engendering

reality, is transformed by the libido dominandi into its ideological equivalent. The

contemptus mundi is metamorphosed into the exaltatio mundi;  the City of God into

the City of Man; the apocalypse into the ideological millennium.

Eric Voegelin, Immortality: Experience and Symbol, In Published Essays 1966-1985, edited by Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 76.

[29] Peter Conroy, Intimate, Intrusive, and Triumphant: Readers in the Liaisons dangereuses (Philadelphia: Benjamins, 1987), 7.

[30] Worth noting in the mad scene is Tourvels claim that her absent husband has been kept from knowing of her transgression and returning because God, fearing that her husband will be merciful,  wants to guarantee the severity of her punishment: il a craint que tu ne me remisses une faute quil voulait punir. Il ma soustraite ton indulgence, qui aurait bless sa justice (letter 161). Antoinette Sol has observed that at its most secret level, Les Liaisons dangereuses, is about the subversion of the husbands right to legitimacy. The most stable of social indicatorsthe patronymicis shown to be an empty signifier, a receptacle for shifting signification. This novel is to be read as an attack on the infrastructure of French property and economics: if not indeed, as Kamuf has suggested, on the social contract itself. Sol, Textual Promiscuities, 176.

[31] Dorothy Thelander, Laclos and the Epistolary Novel (Geneva: Droz, 1963), 52-53.

[32] Darnton, Cat Massacre, 65.

[33] Eric Voegelin, Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme: A Meditation, in Published Essays 1966-1985, edited by Ellis Sandoz  (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 340.

[34]   Weinstein, Fictions of the Self, 199.

[35]   Sol, Textual Promiscuities, 9.

[36] DeJean, Literary Fortification, 255.

[37]   Roulston, Virtue, 148.

[38] Quoted in Winnett, Terrible Sociability, 52, from Mmoires du Comte Alexandre de Tilly pour servir a lhistoire de la fin du dix-huitime sicle in Choderlos de Laclos, Oeuvres compltes, ed. Maurice Allem (Paris, Pliade, 1951), 732.

[39] Paul Caringella, Voegelin: Philosopher of Divine Presence, in Eric Voegelins Significance for the Modern Mind, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991), 178.

[40] This is Wohlfarths phrase, although not his position on Laclos. Irving Wohlfarth, The Irony of Criticism and the Criticism of Irony: A Study of Laclos Criticism Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 120(1974), 295-296.

[41] Quoted from Diderots Discours de la posie dramatique in Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Berkeley: University of California Press, c1980), 94.

[42]   Ibid., 95.

  "an exceedingly ordinary thing":

An introduction to history and consciousness in A Book of Memories by Pter Ndas

and Anamnesis by Eric Voegelin.


  Copyright 2002 Charles R. Embry



  "A novel is an exceedingly ordinary thing:

 it wades through lived experience"

Pter Ndas  [1]


I cannot rid myself of the idea in this age of non-fiction and real news if not real TV that literature, specifically the novel, helps us understand ourselves as human beings living in the twenty-first century and heirs to our past..  Nor can I rid myself of the idea that Eric Voegelins philosophical work is first and foremost a work of literary criticism that relies upon the exercise of imaginative re-enactment and is simultaneously an imaginative articulation of his experience of that reality in which we find ourselves as human beings.  There seems to me to be ample evidence to support these assertions, especially the latter. [2]  

Literature was important in several ways to Voegelin:  he often cited the importance of writers like Stephen George, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Paul Valry as formative influences upon his thinking; he used the novels of Canetti, Cervantes, Doderer, Dostoevsky, Mann, Musil as tools for understanding the nature of modernity; and from time to time mostly in private correspondence where he could comment upon specific works as an amateur he would propose readings and interpretations of writers like Shakespeare and Henry James. [3]   Since he remarked in a December 1955 letter to his literary critic friend Robert B. Heilman that literary criticism is one of my permanent occupations, [4] it seems obvious that by studying his work we can learn not only his methods for reading texts critically, but also extend his work through the reading of literature in the great dialogue that goes through the centuries among men about their nature and destiny. [5]   In fact, in the same letter to Heilman he asserts that The occupation with works of art, poetry, philosophy, mythical imagination, and so forth, makes sense only, if it is conducted as an inquiry into the nature of man. [6]   

            If I survey the novels Voegelin used in his own work, I am struck by the fact that for the most part he sees modern novels as examinations of how writers have experienced, explored and articulated deformations of consciousness.  Indeed if we are to believe Milan Kundera, the novel has accompanied modern man since the inception of modernity; he writes: The novel has accompanied man uninterruptedly and faithfully since the beginning of the Modern Era.  It was then that the passion to know, which Husserl considered the essence of European spirituality, seized the novel and led it to scrutinize mans concrete life and protect it against the forgetting of being. . . . [7]   If one of the primary components of modernity is the deformation of consciousness inflicted upon human beings by other human beings intent upon stalling the continual delicate vacillations of reality, [8]   then the novel may very well be a literary form that was created to communicate the human experiences of deforming and deformation.  In this case, form and contentwould be inseparable. [9]   The general questions that interest me most at this point, despite the fact that I cannot deal with them here, are: Can the novel form be used to explore and articulate the experience of consciousness undeformed by adherence to rigid ideological principles or even in opposition to these ideological principles that are external to the experiences that compel human beings to write novels?  Are there novels that achieve this?  Can the novel form contain and/or rely upon anamnetic experiments similar or identical to those we find in Anamnesis? [10]   Are there such novels?  Can the novel form contain meditations on consciousness similar to that of Voegelin in Part III of Anamnesis?  Can explications and explorations of deformation in novels point beyond themselves to or remain open to the recovery of balance of consciousness? 

            Voegelins statement in his lecture-essay on the German university that the great works of literature are direct confrontations with the estrangement [from reality] they discover it as a phenomenon, they are expressions of suffering from it, they work through the problem meditatively in order to penetrate to the freedom of the spirit.  But they are not yet created out of freedom [11] leads us to think that we may be able to answer some of the preceding questions at least tentatively in the affirmative.  I have chosen in this paper to work on the storyteller Eric Voegelin, philosopher, and the storyteller Pter Ndas, novelist.  I think that the juxtaposition of these two types of storytellers, in general, and these two storytellers, in particular, is justified by the approach that each takes in their storytelling.  I focus this brief paper on how and whether A Book of Memories [12] by Pter Ndas engages the philosophical questions and meditations in Voegelins Anamnesis.  Is A Book of Memories created out of the freedom of the spirit or does it only diagnose the disease of the spirit?  And if A Book of Memories is not created out of the freedom of the spirit, does it engage us in such a way as to point beyond itself and guide its readers into the freedom of the spirit? 

            The first principle of literary criticism according to Voegelin is the critical readers submission to the authority of the writer.  Responding to Heilmans dedication of his book on Othello, Magic in the Web, to him, Voegelin writes:

The interpretation of a literary work by a first-rate artist or philosopher must proceed on the assumption that the man knew what he was doing leaving in suspense the question of the level of consciousness at which the knowing in the concrete instance occurs.  Under that assumption the interpretation will be adequate only, if every part of the work makes sense in the comprehensive context.  Moreover, the sense must emerge from the texture of the linguistic corpus, and it must not be prejudged by ideas of the interpreter.  No adequate interpretation of a major work is possible, unless the interpreter assumes the role of the disciple who has everything to learn from the master. [13]   


My first principle then, in trying penetrate to the meanings of A Book of Memories, has been submission to the master, Pter Ndas.  Although the book projected Ndas on to the stage of European literature with publications in German (1991), English (1997) and French (1998) quickly following its Hungarian publication in 1986, and although reviewers, like Jane Perlez who remarked that "His work has evoked comparisons to the poetic traditions of Thomas Mann, the sexual explicitness of Jean Genet, and the stream-of-consciousness of James Joyce," [14] have repeatedly placed Ndas in the company of the great European novelists, I cannot completely submit myself to such a master since it may turn out that he is not a master after all.  Submission to the master in the case of A Book of Memories is difficult, however, for quite other reasons: the novels subject matter and complexity its length and its themes its breadth and its beauty all require the reader to be wary of such a master.  Moreover, if I submit to the authority of the text in this case I may be seduced into silence, I will not have a paper and will, therefore, be forced into the expediency of only reading beautiful passages from the novel followed by: There, dont you see.  So I cannot submit fully to the authority of the master, and since I must exercise some critical faculty in order to avoid the aforementioned seduction, I shall begin with what must stand as a general introduction to and summary of the novel.  

            A Book of Memories is a long and difficult philosophical novel that focuses the readers attention upon the erotic sensualism of all the novels narrators as well as the relation by juxtaposition of that eroticism to the social structure and order of the family and the political order of the Communist regimes of Mtys Rkosi (1949-1953? Or 56?) and Jnos Kdr (1956-197?) in Hungary.  The novel is difficult to summarize because of its complex structure that relies upon three narrative strands that initially appear to be narrated by three different narrators.  Moreover, these narrative strands are alternated in the organization of chapters so that one can follow each story by remembering the story line three chapters back as one begins a new chapter.  In order to keep these narrative strands sorted, I assigned the letters A, B, C to the three narratives and then wrote in the Table of Contents by each chapter title A1, B1, C1, A2, etc. [15]   One must be cautious however in doing this for C6 while it concerns the characters of the C narrative is narrated by a new narrator an adult who appears as a child in the story narrated by the C strand; thus, I designate C6 as C6'.  More on this later.  The novel contains nineteen chapters which result in the following:  Seven chapters for Narrative A; six chapters for Narrative B, five chapters for pure Narrative C and one chapter for Narrative C6'.  Finally, we learn from the penultimate chapter of the novel the last part of the C narrative with the changed with narrator that Narrator A and Narrator C are the same.  If, however, we do not read the book in one night, but twice instead, as Ndas suggests we need to do, [16] we would notice from time to time in the A narrative references to earlier  episodes of the narrators life, episodes that have by that point in the novel already been recounted in Narrative C.

            In C6', the narrator, Krisztin Somi Tt, tells us that he has found the entire manuscript of the book all the chapters except his own after the mysterious death of the man we now know as the narrator of both the A and C narrations and as Krisztins friend from the first chapter of the novel.  The narrator Krisztin introduces his chapter entitled No More by writing:

            I am a rational man, perhaps too rational.  I am not inclined to any form of humility.  Still, I would like to copy my friends last sentence onto this empty page.  Let it help me finish the job no ones commissioned me to do, which should make it the most personal undertaking of my life, the one closest to my heart.

            It was a dark, foggy winter night, and of course I couldnt see anything.

            I dont think he meant this to be his last sentence.  There is every indication that the next day, as usual, he would have continued his life with a new sentence, one that could not be predicted or inferred from the notes he left behind.  Because the novel of a life, once begun, always offers an invitation: Come on, lose yourselves in me, trust me, in the end I may be able to lead you out of my wilderness.

            My role is merely a reporter.  (Memories, 592.)


            The narrator of A and C is a novelist and has been writing in the house of  Krisztins aunts in the countryside, the house to which Krisztin brought him upon finding him destitute at the Budapest airport his memoirs and his novel.  Krisztin writes that he has organized his friends manuscript after a long study of his outlines and notes, but has found one additional, sketchy chapter, a fragment really, that I could not place anywhere.  It doesnt appear in any of the repeatedly revised tables of contents.  Yet he may have meant it to be the keystone of the whole story. (Book of Memories, 681.)

            But what of the story? you may ask.  The opening chapter, The Beauty of My Anomalous Nature, is set in Berlin East Berlin we find out later and begins with a description of the last place A. lived there.  As A. begins to talk about his last place, he reflects:

Certainly I dont want to write a travel journal; I can describe only what is mine, lets say the story of my loves, but maybe not even that, since I dont think I could ever talk about the larger significance of mere personal experiences, and since I dont believe or, more precisely, dont know, whether there is anything more significant than these otherwise trivial and uninteresting personal experiences (I assume there cant be), Im ready to compromise; let this writing be a kind of recollection or reminder, something bound up with the pain and pleasure of reminiscence, something one is supposed to write in old age, a foretaste of what I may feel forty years from now, if I live to be seventy-three and can still reminisce.

            My cold throws everything into sharp relief; it would be a shame to miss the opportunity.  (Memories, 3-4.  Italics added.)

            We learn thus that the narrator is now thirty-three and writing his memoirs.  While A. is in Berlin he is also writing a novel, and when he meets Melchior Thoenissen, a poet, through an actress named Thea Sandstuhl, the primary storyline of the A narration is established.  The narrator falls in love with Melchior who is also loved by Thea.  Melchior and the narrator have an affair that ends with Melchior escaping East Germany and the narrator returning to Hungary destitute and bereft because he could not sustain a viable relationship with Melchior (and besides his visa to the German Peoples Republic expired).  The narrator, however, believes that Thea can only relate to Melchior through him and thus finds it necessary, as this conduit that binds together the relationship, to consummate a sexual liaison with Thea.

            The unsustainable relationship with Melchior does provide A. with characters for the novel that he is writing Narrative B.  Narrator B, the narrator of the novel narrator A. is writing, is named Thomas Thoenisssen and his fiance and later wife is named Helene.  Helene is also the name of Melchiors mother and there is some hint that Thomas Thoenissen, who lived in Germany during the Second Reich (1871-1918) is Melchiors grandfather.  Thomas Thoenissen, the B narrator, intersperses his own story of leaving his fiance, Helene, to go to Heiligendamm ostensibly to be able to work on his novel with his recollections of coming to Heiligendamm with his parents late in the 19th century.  Once in Heiligendamm Thomas recalls the times he spent here as a child with his parents.  He remembers, however, in a particularly graphic way, the night he and his mother caught his father and a Frulein Nora Wohlgast (a resort guest staying in the room next to the Thoenissens) in flagrante dēlictō.  It is apparent to the reader that Thomass father has, however, been carrying on an affair with Frulein Wohlgast.  The event of this recollection will later be reflected in a recollection of Narrator C.  Both Thomas's narration and the novel he is writing while at Heiligendamm are, of course(?), A.'s novel!

            The C narration, written I remind you when the narrator is thirty-three, focuses upon C.s adolescence and young adulthood in Hungary of the 1950s.  Although it is not the most important narrative  all the narratives are ultimately equally important for the novel I will devote more space to its summary and to its explication because it contains the earliest recollections in the novel and because it is the most overtly political narrative.  C.'s father, Theodor Thoenissen, is a Stalinist state prosecutor in the Communist regime of Mtys Rkosi; C. refers to him mostly as Father.  C. does not provide us the Christian names of his other family members who include his mother (always referred to as Mother), his sister, and his maternal grandmother and grandfather referred to only as Grandmother and Grandfather) in whose house they live.  For the most part C. tells us the story of his adolescence by emphasizing (1) the exploits of and relationships among his circle of friends which includes three girls Hdi Szn, Livia Sli, and Maja Prihoda and three boys Krisztin Somi Tt, Klman Cszdi (who died October 23, 1956 during the popular demonstrations in Budapest), and Prm, and (2) his relationship with his father and mother.  This story line begins with the third chapter entitled The Soft Light of the Sun, and it recounts an encounter between C. and Krisztin.  C. is walking home alone from school through the woods on a spring day when the snow is melting.   Krisztin appears in the woods and they walk toward each other.  The narrators feelings for Krisztin are apparent in the following passage:

from the moment I had spotted him behind the bushes I had to sort out, and also alert, my most contradictory and secret feelings: Krisztin! I would have loved to cry out . . . [but] saying his name out loud would be like touching his naked body, which is why I avoided him, always waiting until he began walking home with others so I wouldnt walk with him or his way; even in school I was careful not to wind up next to him, lest Id have to talk to him or, in a sudden commotion, brush against his body; at the same time I kept watching him, tailed him like a shadow, mimicked his gestures in front of the mirror, and it was painfully pleasurable to know that he was completely unaware of my spying on him; . . . in reality, he didnt even bother to look at me, I was like a neutral, useless object to him, completely superfluous and devoid of interest.

     Of course, my sober self cautioned me not to acknowledge these passionate feelings; it was as if two separate beings coexisted in me, totally independent of each other: at time the joys and sufferings his mere existence caused me seemed like nothing but little games, not worth thinking about, because one of my two selves hated and detested him as much as my other self loved and respected him. . . . (Memories, 39-40.  Emphases added.)


Krisztin had arranged this tte--tte in the woods to ask C. not to report him to the principal for a derogatory remark about Stalin that C. had overheard him make in the school toilet.  The remark increased A.s psychic burden because Grandfather had also made a derogatory remark about the plan to embalm Stalins body for public display on the same day, i.e., the day of Stalins funeral.  C.s encounter with Krisztin ends by C. shouting It never occurred to me to do it, believe me!  And in answer to Krisztins No? whispered No, not at all.  At this point C. impetuously kissed Krisztin.  While C. remembers that the kiss was very sensual it was nevertheless

free of any ulterior motives with which adult love, in its own natural way, complements a kiss; our mouths, in the purest of possible ways, and regardless of what had gone before or what would follow, restricted themselves to what two mouths in the fraction of a second could give each other: fulfillment, comfort, and release; and thats when I must have closed my eyes, in that instant when no sight or circumstance could possibly have mattered anymore; when I think about that moment now, I still must ask myself whether a kiss can be anything else or anything more than that?  (Memories, 47. [17]   Emphasis added.)


They part, C. walks home, sees a strange coat on the halltree, but enters his mothers room anyway by this time his mother who is sick with cancer (a truth that has been hidden from C. by his family) and stays in bed most of the time there to encounter a stranger who had earlier disappeared from the familys lives.  Later, we find out that the man visiting C.s mother is Jnos Hamar, former friend of his father and mother, who is returning from a five-year prison term.

            In the chapter entitled Grass Grew over the Scorched Spot, Narrator C writes that a not insignificant detail of our emotional life was the fact that, as a result of our parents political trustworthiness, we were privileged to live adjacent to the immense, heavily guarded area that contained the residence of Mtyas Rkosi and that "the whole protected area became something like a focal point, the living nucleus of all my fears.  (Memories, 270 and 271.)

            When C. refers to our parents political trustworthiness, he is referring primarily to his adolescent friend Maja Prihoda's father, chief of military counter-intelligence, and his own father, a state prosecutor, whom sometimes work together.  Maja and C. agree to cooperate with each other in conducting regular periodic searches of their fathers desks in order to determine if they may be traitors in which case they would denounce them to the authorities.  C. writes:

     We were not aware of what we were doing to each other and to ourselves; in the interest of our stated goal we didnt want to acknowledge that as a result of our activity a feeling was forming, like some tough stain or film, a deposit on the lining of our hearts, stomachs, and intestines; we did not want to acknowledge the feeling of repulsion.

     Because it wasnt just official and work-related documents that we came across but all sorts of other material that we did not mean to find, like our parents extensive personal romantic correspondence; here, the material discovered in my fathers drawers was unfortunately more serious, but once we put our hands on it and went over it thoroughly, painstakingly, with the disinterested sternness of professionals, it seemed that by ferreting out sin in the name of ideal purity, invading the most forbidden territory of the deepest and darkest passions, penetrating the most secret regions, we, too, turned into sinners, for sin is indivisible: when tracking a murderer one must become a murderer to experience most profoundly the circumstances and motives of the murder; and so we were right there with our fathers, where not only should we not have set foot but, according to the testimony of the letters, they themselves moved about stealthily, like unrepentant sinners.

     There is profound wisdom in the Old Testaments prohibition against casting eyes on the uncovered loins of ones father.  (Memories, 341.)


The letters unearthed by Maja and C. reveal that Majas father is continuing an affair thought to have been ended some time earlier by Majas mother; thus, Maja becomes an unwitting and unwilling accomplice in her fathers deception of her mother.  They also discover that C.s father and mother each have lovers they knew before their marriage, that their affairs have continued since their marriage,that their respective lovers are themselves lovers, and finally that the four of them Mria Stein and Jnos Hamar in addition to C.s parents know everything; my father and mother also wrote letters to each other in which they discussed their feelings about being caught up in this inextricably complicated foursome. . . .  (Memories, 342.)

            As an adult living and writing in a small Hungarian village, C asks:

     How could we have known then that our relationship reenacted, repeated, and copied, in a playfully exaggerated form . . . our parents ideals and also their ruthless practices, and to some extent the publicly proclaimed ideals and ruthless practices of that historical period as well?  Playing at being investigators was nothing but a crude, childishly distorted, cheap imitation; we could call it aping, but we could also call it something real . . . more precisely, for us it was turning their [Majas and C.s fathers] activities into a game that enabled us to experience their present life and work which we thought was wonderful, dangerous, important, and, whats more, respectable . . . we loved being serious, we basked in the glory of our assumed political role, not only filled with terror and remorse but bestowing on us a grand sense of power, a feeling that we had power even over them, over these enormously powerful men, and all in the name of an ethical precept that, again in their own views, was considered sacred, nothing less than the ideal, self-abnegating, perfect, immaculate Communist purity of their way of life; and what a cruel quirk of fate it was that through it all they were totally unsuspecting, and how could they have guessed that, while in their puritanical and also very practical zeal they were killing scores of real and imagined enemies, they were nurturing vipers in their bosom? for after all, who disgraced their ideals more outrageously than we? who put their ideals more thoroughly to the test than we, in our innocence? and since we also harbored the same witch-hunters suspicion toward them and toward each other, which they had planted in us and bred in themselves, with whom could we have shared the dreadful knowledge of our transgressions, whom?  I couldnt talk about things like this with Krisztin or Klman, nor could Maja discuss them with Hdi or Livia, for how could they have understood? even though we lived in the same world, ruled by the same Zeitgeist, this would have been too alien for them, too bizarre, too repulsive.

     Our secrets carried us into the world of the powerful, initiated us into adulthood by making us prematurely mature and sensible, and of course set us apart from the world of ordinary people, where everything worked more simply and predictably.

     These love letters referred openly and unequivocally to the hours in which, by some peculiar mistake, we had been conceived by mistake, because they didnt want us, they wanted only their love.  (Memories, 342-343.)

Finally, C. writes: I imagine the archangels covered Gods eyes while we pored over these letters.  (Memories, 344.)

            This texture of lies and deceptions constitute the nexus of his relationships, especially at home.  Years later C. remembered the night he stumbled home drunk on brandy shared by his friend Klman.  He fell on the porch under his grandfathers window and did not want to go into the house for although he loathed it, 

. . . it had to be the only place for me.

     Even today, while attempting to recall the past, with as precise and impartial perspective as possible, I find it difficult to speak objectively of this house where people living under the same roof grew so far apart, were so consumed by their own physical and moral disintegration, were left to fend for themselves, and only for themselves, that they did not notice, or pretended not to notice, when someone was missing, their own child, from the so-called family nest.

     Why didnt they notice? 

     I must have been so totally unmissed by everyone that I didnt realize I was living in a hell of being absent, thinking this hell to be the world.  ( Memories, 288.)

*          *            *

     If there was a way for me to know when this mutually effective and multifaceted disintegration had begun, whether it had a definite beginning or when and why this commodious family nest had grown cold, I would surely have much to say about human nature and also about the age I lived in.

     I wont delude myself; I do not possess the surpassing wisdom of the gods.  (Memories, 288.)


            This all too brief summary of Narrative C provides us crucial insights into C.s life that he experienced himself as divided, incomplete, and morally repulsive; that he yearns for fulfillment, comfort, and release proffered by his kiss of Krisztin a yearning that he will seek to fulfill through heterosexual and homosexual love affairs; that he spied upon his friend Krisztin and as well as his other friends especially Maja, Hdi and Livia, as well as his parents; and that the relationships within his family were built upon lies and deception. [18]

The final chapter of the novel, A7, entitled  Escape, merges the A. and C.  narrators.  A. resumes the story begun in the first chapter of the novel of his journey to Heiligendamm after Melchior has fled East Germany and how he was picked up by the police, taken to Bad Doberan, only to held until his papers were seen to be in order.  After he is released by the authorities in Bad Doberan and while he is waiting for a train to return him to East Berlin, he remembers his visit earlier in East Berlin to Mria Stein, his fathers former lover.  The visit was made by A./C. ostensibly to ask her whether Theodor Thoenissen or Jnos Hamar were his father.  He remembers that she told him about her imprisonment along with Jnos Hamar she too was denounced by C.s father, Theodor and about her life with Theodor after the death of his wife.  Finally, she told him how Theodor asked her to look at him out the window when he got down in the street; when she looked He shot himself through the mouth.  (Memories, 692.)  The narrator left, closed the door and ran out of the building.  He never asked who his father was.  (700)

            Although the obvious connection between Voegelin and Ndas is their emphasis upon recollection and remembrance [19] , I suggest that their treatments of consciousness and history offer foci for further exploration and thought.  In his prefatory remarks to Chapter 3, Anamnesis, Voegelin lists the assumptions which underlie the anamnetic experiments.  Two of these are important for relating Voegelins work on consciousness to that of Ndas.  Voegelin writes:

(2) that in its intentional function consciousness, in finite experience, transcends into the world, and that this type of transcendence is only one among several and must not be made the central theme of a theory of consciousness; (3) that the experiences of transcendence of consciousness into the body, the external world, the community, history and the ground of being are givens in the biography of consciousness, and thus antecede the systematic reflection on consciousness. . . . [20]

Here, I emphasize two points made in the preceding passage: (1) consciousness transcends into the body as well as the differentiated world that is external to the body; and (2) "the experiences of transcendence of consciousness" constitute a biography of a consciousness that as we will see below must always be the consciosness of a particular person. 

Voegelin then emphasizes that "the capacity for transcendence is a fundamental feature of consciousness just as much as is illumination; it is given."  (Anamnesis, 71.)  It is only necessary here to point out that for the narrators of A Book of Memories, consciousness has a content derived from the experiences of their body and of the world outside these bodies.  A., describing what was not there during his period of unsconsciousness and was there during the very brief moment of regaining consciousness, says:

my consciousness was lacking all those inner flashes of instinct and habit that, relying on experience and desires, evoke images and sounds, ensure the unbroken flow of imagination and memory that renders our existence sensible and to an extent even purposeful, enables us to define our position in the world and establish contact with our surroundings, or to relinquish this connection, which in itself is a form of contact. . . .  (Memories, 94.)


It is consciousness for A. that both enables us to "establish contact with our surroundings" and to make sense of what is happening to us.  Both Voegelin and Ndas would agree, I think, that our consciousness enables us to transcend into the world, that the body is implicated in this transcending into the world, that the residues of this transcendence we call experience, and that memory permits our consciousness to validate our biographies.

            There is also, however, something else.  A. writes:

When I finally came to on the rocky embankment of Heiligendamm, I may have known where I was and in what condition, yet Id have to say that this was nothing more than sensing existence in pure, disembodied form. . . during the first and probably very brief phase of my returning to consciousness I felt no lack of any kind, if only because experiencing that senseless and purposeless state filled the very void I should have perceived as a lack; the sharp, slippery rocks did make me sense my body, water on my face did make my skin tingle, therefore I had to be aware of rocks and water and body and skin, yet these points of awareness, so keen in and of themselves, did not relate to the real situation which, in my normal state, I would have considered very unpleasant, dangerous, even intolerable; precisely because these sensations were so acute, so intense, and because I now felt what a moment ago I couldnt yet have experienced, which meant that consciousness was returning to its customary track of remembering and comparing, I could not expect to absorb everything my consciousness had to offer, but on the contrary, what little I did perceive of water, stones, my skin, and body, wrenched as it was from a context or relationship, alluded rather to that intangible whole, that deeper, primeval completeness for which we all keep yearning, awake or in our dreams but mostly in vain; in this sense, then, what had passed, the total insensibility of unconsciousness, proved to be a far stronger sensual pleasure than the sensation of real things, so if I had any purposeful desire at that point, it was not to recover but to relapse, not to regain consciousness but to faint again; this may have been the first so-called thought formed by a mind becoming once again partially conscious, comparing my state of some things I can already feel not with my state prior to losing consciousness but with unconsciousness itself, the longing for which was so profound that my returning memory wanted to sink back to oblivion, to recall what could no longer be recalled, to remember the void, the state in which pure sensation produces nothing tangible and the mind is in limbo with nothing to cling to; it seemed that by coming back to consciousness, by being able to think and to remember, I had to lose paradise, the state of bliss whose fragmentary effects might still be felt here and there but as a complete whole had gone into hiding, leaving behind only shreds of its receding self, its memory, and the thought that I had never been, and would never again be, as happy as I had been then and there.  (Memories, 94-95.  Emphasis added.) 


In this passage it seems we have a man who as he returns to consciousness, has a "memory" just an allusion really of the peace of the void, of unconsciousness, from which he emerged into his present of time and memory, into the past of his time and memory, and therefore into consciousness.  In this allusion and in this "glimpse" I think that A. has created an inchoate symbol --  "an allusive and intangible whole" that expresses a dimension of what Voegelin calls the ground of being.  I don't think, however, that it corresponds exactly to Voegelin's use of the term, since it is more like the primeval stuff from which being things emerge and differentiate.  This longing for the whole experienced by A. at the seashore motivates both A. and C., who are after all one narrative self, to search for that wholeness in relationships.

            In discussing the capacity our consciousness has to transcend into the world and to find there others like ourselves Nebenmenschen, Voegelin was particularly pointed in his critique of Husserl's question: "How is the Thou constituted in the I as an alter ego?"  Essentially, Voegelin argues the question is a non-question and raises a problem that doesn't exist for a theory of consciousness, for "the problem of the Thou seems to me to resemble that of all other cases of transcendence.  The fact that consciousness has an experience at all of another human being, as a consciousness of the other, is not a problem but a given of experience from which one may proceed but never regress."  (Anamnesis, 72?.)  Instead, Voegelin asserts, the fundamental question is: "In what symbolic language can the other human person be acknowledged as such?"  (Anamnesis, 72.)  This is, I think, the primary problem that faces the storyteller, Ndas the novelist; and, in A Book of Memories perhaps simply as a novelist he solves the problem by creating what he calls his other selfs, what I will call his narrative selfs.  The narrative selfs permit Ndas to compare his novel with Plutarch's Parallel Lives.  In this obligatory disclaimer called "Author's Note" that all novelists must write in our historical age intoxicated on objective reality and facts, Ndas writes:

It is my pleasant duty to state that what I have written is not my own memoirs.  I have written a novel, the recollections of several people separated by time, somewhat in the manner of Plutarchs Parallel Lives.  The memoirists might conceivably all be me, though none of them is.  So the locations, names, events, and situations in the story arent real but, rather, products of a novelists imagination.  Should anyone recognize someone, -- or God forbid! should any event, name, or situation match actual ones, that can only be a fatal coincidence, and in this respect, if in no other, I am compelled to disclaim responsibility.  (Memories, front material.)


Ndas's use of the symbol "parallel lives" permits him to rely upon his own experiences and through the creation of narrative selfs who share these experiences to understand his own self.  In the essay, "The Novelist and His Selfs," Ndas states that a novelist faces 

the question of what to do with the kind of knowledge possessed by a single individual, especially when the individual happens to be me.

     Sometimes I can write a novel using this knowledge, sometimes I cant.

     A more pressing question for me, though, is whether I am able, without my imagination, to obey the Delphic oracles well-known injunction to know myself.  Can I know myself without knowing others?  Or to put it differently, is there self-knowledge which is not at the same time knowledge of the world?  And conversely, can any knowledge of the world be complete without self-knowledge? [21]


In A Book of Memories, this use of narrative selfs permits the reader (1) to juxtapose Narrator A./C. with the Narrator B Thomas Thoenissen (both of their fathers were sexually active outside the marriage bond and both catch their fathers in flagrante dēlictō), (2) to juxtapose Narrator A./C. with Krisztin narrator of the penultimate chapter and friend of A./C. (they were "ruled by the same Zeitgeist"), and (3) to juxtapose Melchior and Narrator A./C. (Melchior lived in soviet Communist dominated political systems [22] ).

Later in Part III of Anamnesis, a meditation entitled The Order of Consciousness, Voegelin emphasizes the given that human consciousness is always found in a particular human being.  He writes:

Human consciousness is not a free-floating something but always a concrete consciousness of concrete persons.  The consciousness of the existential tension toward the ground, therefore, while constituting the specific human nature that distinguishes man from other beings, is not the whole of his nature.  For consciousness is always concretely grounded in mans bodily existence, which links him to all realms of being, from the realm of inorganic matter to the realm of the animate.  (Anamnesis, 398.)


When he discussed the emphasis upon vitality found in many 19th and 20th century theories of consciousness, he emphasized that these focuses were legitimate because they created a greater balance in our views of the world of consciousness.  He states that the connection [between the body and consciousness] is so intimate that between birth and death the body not only determines, as the sensorium, what part of the world may enter consciousness through it, but also is one of the most important determinants (although not the only one) for the inner tensions and relations of relevance of the world of consciousness.  (Anamnesis, 65.  Emphasis added.)  If, however, the body is emphasized as the determinant of consciousness the result is a pneumato-pathological morbidity that deforms consciousness and ultimately results in the programs of ideologues who would remake the world in the image of their own consciousnesses.   Voegelins insistence upon the given fact of the embodiment of consciousness provides an interesting interface with Ndas. 

         Ndas insists upon directing our attention to the body.  As noted earlier, the epigraph for A Book of Memories, from John 2:21 KJV reads: But he spoke of the temple of his body.   In his novel, this emphasis leads Ndas, I think, in two directions.  On the one hand, it leads the narrative selfs [23] to include descriptive meditations on consciousness that pose interesting connections between the body and the consciousness of the particular narrative self; there are no abstract dissertations on consciousness but only elaborations of experiences of a narrative self.  On the other hand, his insistence on the temple of the body leads him into very graphic sensual-erotic descriptions of the various bodily activities in which his narrative selfs engage.  Even though I do not have time to develop the idea, I think that the sensual-erotic emphases within the novel are crucial to the truth of the novel for they link the deceptions and lies of the child-adolescent C. with the historical Zeitgeist and political regime of Rkosi through the medium of the lies and deceptions that permeate his family relationships, especially with his father and mother.  They also link the child-adolescent C. with the adult A. through the medium of biographically shared experiences. 

While the narrative selfs do not devote an inordinate volume of space to direct meditations on consciousness, they do explore, explicate, and amplify as fully as possible what it means to say that consciousness is embodied; they wade through that exceedingly ordinary thing lived experience!  In one sense, A Book of Memories, may be read as a gloss on the embodied consciousness upon which Voegelin insists.

            Whereas Voegelin says that between birth and death the body not only determines, as the sensorium, what part of the world may enter consciousness through it, but also is one of the most important determinants (although not the only one) for the inner tensions and relations of relevance of the world of consciousness, Narrator C. asserts the body, the human form, however devoutly we may expound in our Christian humility on the externality of the flesh and the primacy of the soul, is so potent a given that already at the moment of our birth, it becomes an immutable attribute.  (Memories, 166.)

            Voegelin's reliance upon the Platonic Anthropological Principle, i.e., the state is man writ large, supplies another interesting interface with A Book of Memories. [24]   Simplistically speaking, there are two dimensions to this principle, viz., (1) the constituent components of human nature are reflected in the constituent components of the state, and (2) the dominant constituent component of an individual human being creates the character of that person and the dominant constituent component in a state creates the form of government in that state.  I argue then that the characteristics of the rulers of Hungary during the period of Narrator C.s pre-adolescent and adolescent years approximately 1949 to 1958, i.e., the regimes of Mtyas Rkosi and Jnos Kdr are mirrored in the character of Narrator C./A.  Even though there is only one narration of a political event the popular demonstration in Budapest on October 23, 1956, a demonstration in which both C. and his friend Klman were swept up and during which Klman is killed Narrative C. is simultaneously the story of C. and his friends, of C. and his family, and of the political system in which they lived.

While the direct linkage between C. and the state is his father, the linkage extends to his mother and to his parents' lovers Mria Stein and Jnos Hamar.  Since that foursome is bound together by the sensual-erotic, and since that sensual-erotic bond is rooted in deception (of C.) and betrayal, I think that a primary linkage if not the primary linkage between C.'s deceptive, divided self and the deceptive nature of the state (through the deceptive family) is the sensual-eroticism that permeates the novel. [25]   In

only one narration of a political event the popular demonstration in Budapest on October 23, 1956, a demonstration in which both C and his friend Klman were swept up and during which Klman is killed Narrative C is simultaneously the story of C and his friends, of C and his family, and of the political system in which they lived.

While the direct linkage between C and the state is his father, the linkage extends to his mother and to his parents lovers Mria Stein and Jnos Hamar.  Since that foursome is bound together by the sensual-erotic, and since that sensual-erotic bond is rooted in deception (of C) and betrayal, I think that a primary linkage if not the primary linkage between C's deceptive, divided self and the deceptive nature of the state (through the deceptive family) is the sensual-eroticism that permeates the novel. [26]   In fact, a large portion of the novel itself is devoted to describing the various sensual-erotic activities through which the characters engage and relate to each other.  For example, and most important for the development of C's character, C remembers several episodes: sensual-erotically charged encounters between his pre-adolescent self (these episodes are the only pre-adolescent memories recalled by C) and his father, on the one hand, and his mother, on the other. [27]   The encounter with his father is the occasion one early morning when C crawled into bed and fondled his still sleeping father who shouted, kicked him out of bed, never touched him again, and was always on the lookout for any effeminate behaviors from C.  The other encounter with his mother seems to be a recurring one in which C sits by his mother's bed and caresses her arm and kisses the crook of her neck and her arm in the crook of the elbow.  On one such occasion, C's mother dreamily recounts a time when she was picnicking with two men (presumably Theodor Thoenissen and Jnos Hamar), and they (the three of them) could not decide to whom she belonged.  (Memories, 151-155.) 


For three years he lived with [my aunts] in this house.  In this room.  And if in these reminiscences I've been referring to him as my friend, it is not because of our shared boyhood but because during these three years we became very close.  Even if we spoke mostly in allusions.  Whether we talked of our past or our present, we both cautiously avoided total candor. . . .  But after twenty years we did return to that mutual attraction which had once transcended our dissimilarities and which we didn't know what to make of as children.  This reversion may have had to do with the fact that slowly but surely my successes were turning into failures, and that he never again wanted to be united with anyone on any level.  Not with me, either.  He remained attentive, sensitive, but shut up in himself.  Turned cold.  If I wasn't familiar with the painful reverse side of this coldness, I'd be tempted to say that he became an accurate, intelligently responding, precisely calibrated machine.

     My experiences in human relations have made me see everything in this world as temporary and ephemeral. . . .  I have never lied to myself, because I know all about the necessary fluctuations of purposeful action.  In the foregoing pages I have already prepared my balance sheet.  No loves, no friends. . . .  But in me the absence of this feeling has remained so vivid that it is all I can feel.  Which simply means that I haven't yet sunk into total apathy.  And that is probably the reason why during those three years it became a vital necessity to have the attentiveness and sensitivity of someone whom I didn't need to, wasn't allowed to, touch.  And he himself no longer had such desires.  Still, he was closer to me than anyone whose body I could possess.  ( Memories, 672-673).


            The application of the Anthropological Principle to A Book of Memories could continue with the multiplication of examples, but I shall leave it to the reader to share the fun of tracking down these examples in this complex and wonderful novel.  I forgo the continuation of my own pleasure in this enterprise in order to comment very briefly upon the consciousness of Ndas the storyteller and, perhaps, make one more point of connection with the storyteller Eric Voegelin, philosopher.  As I have already mentioned, Ndas has used the technique of other selfs in his writing.  In the previously mentioned essay, "The Novelist and His Self," Ndas has explained this.  He says

Much like my other works, I wrote my latest, lengthy novel in the first person.  It is true, though, that this time, with two cuts I divided myself into three.  I said I have at least one self to contend with, but in my imagination there may be room for as many as three personae, who will speak concurrently for themselves and for me. . . .  The first-person narrative invariably steered me toward confession, so I had to keep examining the events of my own life, and use only as many of them as these personae would allow.  In the little openings and crevices between them and my own self, imagination could freely do its work, and it did, pushing my ego aside in the process.  The logic of my own life history could remain in the dark, though its contours had to be visible.  I didn't know why things happened the way they did, but I could more or less tell what belonged and what didn't.

It was the logic of imagination and not of experience that showed me the way.  The prompts did not come from me. [28]  


The "logic of the imagination," I suggest, is the novelist's equivalent to what Voegelin has called in the work of philosophers, "reflective distance."  Although "reflective distance" is reserved by Voegelin for the philosopher's articulation of moments of divine-human encounters, and the novelist, Ndas, has simply attempted to articulate that most " exceedingly ordinary thing . . . lived experience" it is the imagination of the novelist (or any artist?) to prevent his work being relevant only to his self, for as Ndas says, the nave expression of the imagination Madame Bovary, c'est moi "is the only possible means by which the age-old need to relate events occurring between people can still be satisfied." [29]

Appendix I


Table of Contents organized by narrators

for A Book of Memories by

Pter Ndas [30]

Narrative A.            Narrator A., novelist in East Berlin of the 1970s.

A1. The Beauty of My Anomalous Nature                                         3-21         Part I

A2. A Telegram Arrives.                                                                     52-66        Part I

A3. Losing Consciousness and Regaining It.                                    94-109       Part I

A4. Melchiors Room Under the Eaves.                                           184-227      Part I

A5. Description of a Theater Performance.                                       381-450     Part II

A6. In Which he Tells Thea All about Melchiors Confession.        512-571     Part II

A7. Escape. [last chapter]                                                                  682-706     Part III


Narrative B.          Narrator B.: Thomas Thoenissen, writer of late 19th century Germany.

B1 Our Afternoon Walk of Long Ago                  21-37          Part I

B2 Sitting in Gods Hands                                   66-79           Part I

B3 Our Afternoon Walk Continued                    109-127        Part I

B4 On An Antique Mural                                   227-252        Part II

B5 Table dHte                                                 450-477        Part II

B6 The Nights of Our Secret Delight                571-592        Part III

Narrative C.            Narrator C.: a thirty-three old man with the surname Thoenissen  remembering  his growing up in the Buda of the 1950s.


Narrative C6'.         Narrator: Krisztin Somi Tt, a character throughout the C narrative.

C1      The Soft Light of the Sun                        38-52           Part I

C2     Slowly the Pain Returned                         80-93           Part I

C3    Girls                                                        127-184        Part I

C4.   Grass Grew over the Scorched Spot.        252-381       Part II

C5    The Year of Funerals                                477-512       Part III

C6'   No More                                                  592-681.      Part III

[1] Pter Ndas, "The Novelist and His Selfs," The New Hungarian Quarterly 33, no. 127 (1992): 18.
[2] In addition to Voegelins own work, others have written on Voegelins philosophy in ways that emphasize the storytelling dimensions of his work.  Among these I think quickly of Paul Caringella, Voegelin: Philosopher of Divine Presence,  and Lewis P. Simpson, Voegelin and the Story of the Clerks, in Ellis Sandoz, ed., Eric Voegelins Significance for the Modern Mind (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991), and Thomas W. Heilke, Order, Narrative, and Consciousness, in Eric Voegelin: In Quest of Reality (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999), 29-63
[3] Specifically in three letters to Robert B. Heilman, Voegelin commented on King Lear and Othello by way of providing commentary on a early draft of Heilmans This Great Stage and on the publication of Magic in the Web.  Of course, his letter on Jamess Turn of the Screw first sent to Heilman privately in 1947 was later published with  the important Postscript: On Paradise and Revolution in The Southern Review , Winter 1979.  These letters appear in the order Ive listed them in Eric Voegelin Papers, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford, box 17, folder 9, April 9, 1946; July 24, 1956; and August 22, 1956.  And in Robert B. Heilman Papers, Manuscripts, Special Collections and Archives, University of Washington, Accession 1000-14, box 1, folder 2, November 13, 1947.
[4] Eric Voegelin to Robert B. Heilman, December 19, 1955, Eric Voegelin Papers, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, box 17, folder 9.
[5] Eric Voegelin to Robert B. Heilman, August 22, 1956, Voegelin Papers, Hoover, box 17, folder 9.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Milan Kundera,  The Art of the Novel, trans. Linda Asher (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988), 5.
[8] Heimito von Doderer, wrote: People who wished to see the rigid concrete channels of their lives extended into the infinite future were in fact doing nothing but stalling the continual delicate vacillations of reality.  And the moment that vibrant equilibrium was halted, a second reality came into being. . . .  in Heimito von Doderer, The Demons, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), 1237.
[9] Eric Voegelin to Robert B. Heilman, August 13, 1964, Robert B. Heilman Papers, Manuscripts, Special Collections and Archives, University of Washington, Accession 1000-5-90-19, box 3, folder 6.
[10] Eric Voegelin, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 6, Anamnesis, ed. David Walsh, trans. M. J. Hanak, Gerhard Niemeyer, et. al. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002).  Hereinafter referred to as Anamnesis in the text.
[11] Eric Voegelin, The German University and the Order of German Society: A Reconsideration of the Nazi Era, in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 12,  Published Essays, 1966-1985, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 27.
[12] Pter Ndas, A Book of Memories, translated by Ivan Sanders with Imre Goldstein (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997).  Hereafter referred to in the text as Memories.
[13] Eric Voegelin to Robert B. Heilman.  July 24, 1956.  Eric Voegelin Papers, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford, box 17, folder 9.

[14] New York Times, September 9, 1997, C, pp. 9-10.

[15] See Appendix I.
[16] New York Times, September 9, 1997, C, p. 9, col. 5.
[17] Krisztin, the receiver of the kiss and the reporter of the penultimate chapter of the novel, recalls the kiss: What should be understood from all this is that no event in my later life could induce me to think that that kiss was really a kiss and not simply the solution to an existential problem I had at the time.  I couldnt allow myself to be caught up in dangerous psychological predicaments, I had all I could do to ward off tangible external dangers.  I came to appreciate the advantages of psychological self-concealment, and with the years I continued to avoid ambiguous situations and judgments that didnt square exactly with my wishes or interests.  Memories, 594.
[18] I am aware that the summary itself only supplies the listed characteristics of Cs life, but I felt that it was necessary for me to embellish these with details that emerge from the 680 pages or so!
[19] Even though both are engaged in recollecting, Voegelin limits his recollections to the first ten years of his life, and records only those memories of those experiences that opened to him sources of excitation leading to further philosophical reflection.  See Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis, in  The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 6, Anamnesis, ed. David Walsh, trans. M. J. Hanak, Gerhard Niemeyer, et. al. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002) 84.  In the Niemeyer translation Chapter 3 is entitled Anamnetic Experiments.  Ndas remembers the influences upon consciousness in his adolescence and young adulthood with perhaps one exception   that living in a regime and household full of lies of both the body and soul.  The End of a Family Story, by Ndas, may provide a better direct comparison with Voegelin's anamnetic experiments, since that novel deals with pre-adolescent childhood.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Pter Ndas, "The Novelist and His Selfs," The New Hungarian Quarterly 33, no. 127 (1992): 19.
[22] See pp. 206-207, Memories, where Melchior talks about the regime of lies in East Germany, while C. provides this information through the more personal medium of describing the characteristics of his family relationships.
[23] The use of the term selfs I have adapted from Ndas.  See Footnote 1 above.
[24] While Voegelin does not in Anamnesis overtly deal with the Platonic Anthropological Principle applied to the study of political forms, the principle is assumed in the work and he does discuss Platos work on human types.
[25] Ndas is not the only novelist to link eroticism with political oppression.  Two other Central European novelists who have also written creatively and imaginatively about this relationship are Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,
27 Ndas is not the only novelist to link eroticism with political oppression.  Two other Central European novelists who have also written creatively and imaginatively about this relationship are Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, trans.Aaron Asher (New York: Harper Perennial, 1996); originally published as Le Livre du rire et de l'oubli (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1979); and Pter Esterhzy in A Little Hungarian Pornography, trans. Judith Sollosy (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1995); originally published as Kis Magyar Pornogrfia (Budapest: Magvet, 1984)..
28 For a good quick look at these encounters between C and his parents, see Book of Memories, 151-171.
[28] Pter Ndas, "The Novelist and His Selfs," The New Hungarian Quarterly 33, no. 127 (1992): 20-21.
[29] Ibid. 20.
[30] I take sole responsibility for violating the creative unity of the novel itself.  I apologize only for the temporary inconvenience it may cause the reader, and, of course, the proper remedy for this analytical violation is to read (or, perhaps, re-read) the novel.

"'In-Between' Culture and Meaning: Voegelin, Bhabha, and the Intervention of the Political"

Copyright 2002 Randy LeBlanc



The emergence of "posts" in political philosophy (postmodern; postcolonial) in the last quarter of the last century suggests not a willful attempt to supplant elder ancient (e.g., virtue) and modern (e.g., property, self-governance) categories, but is better read as a suggestion that those categories have hardened and no longer serve as comprehensive conceptions of matters political. Under the weight of the "post" critiques, the assumed hegemony of western symbolizations has been destabilized and forced to rethink itself (Henningsen 2000; Radhakrishnan 1993). Despite the predictable backlash, however, the more perceptive of the "post" thinkers realize that the elder categories cannot be wished awayBnor should they be. In fact, postcolonial scholars like Homi K. Bhabha (1994) suggest that coming to grips with the transitive nature of our symbols may well be the real challenge for contemporary political theory. Politics as a rough-and-tumble competition of symbol manipulation in which the acquisition and maintenance of power are the twin objects is even more problematic when cultural understandings are not shared. The check on this Machiavellian conception of politics is what Voegelin (1990b; 1968) among others terms the search for meaning. This search that is always seeking demands we take seriously symbols that move between and among divergent traditions and circumstances. The symbol "in-between" and its corollary "openness" have been essential parts of our political discourse, persisting even as the lingua franca accommodates and is challenged by non-Western voices and categories.

This essay interrogates the usage of these symbols in two apparently divergent voices: the modernist cum ancient voice of Eric Voegelin and the postcolonial cum postmodern voice of Homi Bhabha. Voegelin's general thesis in Order and History (1956-87) is that human participation in reality has to be understood in terms of "leaps in being" that signify the authentic search for truth. Remaining open to the divine ground of being anchors us in the knowledge of our place in the Platonic metaxy, a space in-between the tensions of human existence expressed symbolically as tensions between life/death, order/disorder, truth/untruth, time/timelesness, etc. Yet, despite his commitment to the ancients, Voegelin's use of the term "gnostic" engages Hegel and Marx in their own terms, finally settling on ideological characterizations like "sorcery" to describe their work (1987; 1968). The category "gnostic" marks a limit in Voegelin's search and has the potential to do an injustice to his initial constructive vision. What is nonetheless interesting in Voegelin is his commitment to the symbol "in-between" which suggests not only an ontological and philosophical position, but also a place for necessary political exchange. It is on this latter impulse that postcolonial theorists like Bhabha, attending to the margins of cultural discourse, preserve the symbol even as they rethink the categories of the modern Western discourse on which Voegelin's analyses rely (Radhakrishnan 1993). Bhabha witnesses the ongoing struggle for meaning but not in terms of te dangerous simplifications of ideologies. He focuses instead on the power of discourse(s), particularly at the point of their interactions. Bhabha draws on the critical distinction between symbols and signs to show how cultural symbols are changed from the margins inward. Symbols, and this is the way in which Voegelin uses the term, point to values transcending a particular culture. Bhabha's postcolonial analysis works from the recognition that most of what we universalize into symbols are signs, that is, culturally self-referential marks of value. Signs are valuable as conduits of understanding, but they are also limited, static representations not easily communicable across experiences in time or space. Bhabha engages Western symbols as signs of cultural preferences not to be dismissed as such, but to be drawn into conversation with those of other symbolic systems.

The tension between symbols and signs is critical to both thinkers because, in one way or another, they mark the values, the preferences, the development of cultures through, among other things, text and language. The contemporary willingness to engage literature and literary theory as political and philosophical documents-both Voegelin and Bhabha share this willingness- suggests the importance of cultural symbols to political discourse. The value of symbols may be found in the way they provide continuity in time and help justify specific forms of managing space, that is, they meld the temporal and spatial dimensions of human political existence. We see culture developing over time and, as Voegelin puts it, we can see the differentiation of cultural symbols only by attending to time as movement. But Voegelin posits the source of our political being out of time, concerning himself with the philosophical verticality of human existence, anchoring it in our obligation to attend to the divine ground of being, Bhabha embraces a fluid conception of time and reintroduces a more overtly political concern with the spatial dimension of politics, that is, with the horizontal relationships between and among cultures. Signs as symbols are the coin of these relationships. His is a pluralistic view wherein the desire for hybridity governs cultural contact, transforming cultures and their symbols. As in Voegelin's thought, it is the accommodating complexity of the symbol in-between that allows Bhabha to write of things political in terms of cultural encounters and hybridity. "Minority discourse," argues Bhabha, "sets the act of emergence in the antagonistic in-between of image and sign, the accumulative and the adjunct, presence and proxy" (1994, xxx)

Voegelin: The Verticality of the In-Between

Writing at the precise moment the Western symbol system was beginning to collapse (Jardine 1995) under the weight of its own adventures (philosophical, technological, colonial), Voegelin works from within the tradition in an effort to save it from its self. He seeks a productive, creative synthesis which will salvage the meaning of Western symbolizations without turning them into the fetish objects of ideology. He uses the term "equivalence" in his discussion of symbols to signify a cross-contextual sameness in symbol-engendering experiences. It is this concern with sameness across symbolizations, I will argue, that links his analysis to that of someone like Bhabha. In "Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History" (1990a), Voegelin's philosophy of history posits a series of equivalences, which, as an ever expanding intelligible whole, tell the tale of man's representative participation in "the divine drama of truth becoming luminous" (133). Philosophers are inheritors of a "field of experiences and symbols" which is "neither an object to be observed from the outside, nor does it present the same appearance to everybody" (116). The philosopher's understanding of these symbols is either determined by his "openness toward reality" or "deformed by his uncritical acceptance of beliefs which obscure the reality of immediate experience" (116). The modern philosopher's vantage point has been skewed by the emergence of an "existential faith" in the symbolisms engendered by noetic and pneumatic experiences which dried up into a "doctrinal belief" in a scientific system to end all systems. "The doctrinaire theology and metaphysics of the eighteenth century," writes Voegelin, "were succeeded by the doctrinaire ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; an older type of fundamentalist doctrine was followed by a new fundamentalism" (118). As fundamentalism confronted fundamentalism, we slipped, he asserts, into the "age" of modern dogmatomachy. Consequently, the contemporary philosopher must resist succumbing to the pressure of this "age" determined as it is by the emergence of ideologies and which is, therefore, "badly deficient in consciousness and order of intellect-the social and historical field of deformed existence, which having slipped from the control of consciousness, tends to usurp the ordering authority of existence that is properly the function of the intellect" (119). The very proclamation of an "age" (of Reason, of Revolution, etc.) demonstrates, Voegelin suggests, the hubristic tendency of modern political philosophers to substitute systems for the authentic search for order.

The loss of consciousness and intellect symptomatic of this "age" is the direct result of our inattention to the in-betweenness of our existence. The critical loss occurs when we, Voegelin writes, "hypostatize the poles of the tension [of our in-between existence] as independent entities" and thus "destroy the reality of existence as it has been experienced by the creators of the tensional symbolisms" (120). When answers are simplified for philosophical or political expediency we have ceased attending to the questions, that is, to the tensions endemic to our experiences as human beings. Our symbols are hardened into tools, resume their status as mere signs and history becomes, if I may manipulate Voltaire, "tricks we play upon the [experiences] of the dead." Avoiding this hypostasy requires that human beings remain mindful of their participation and place in the process of reality. Voegelin argues that the

Cognition of participation, as it is not directed toward an object of the external world, becomes a luminosity in reality itself and consequently, the knower and the known move into the position of tensional poles in a consciousness that we call luminous as far as it engenders the symbols which express the experience of its own structure. (121)

For Voegelin, these symbols make up man's philosophical inheritance and suffice until they no longer adequately express man's experience of the process of reality. The process must be a profoundly self-reflective one. We must understand that the "new" symbol discerned through this self-reflective process is "recognizably related to a less reflected experience of participation and its less differentiated symbolization; and the propositions engendered by the effort are recognizably equivalents of the symbols which had been found unsatisfactory and whose want of differentiation had motivated the effort of reflection" (121). These newly differentiated propositions do not render older ones unnecessary; the elder symbolizations of experience merely become part of the inherited historical field. The test of the truth of such differentiated propositions, Voegelin says, "will be the lack of originality in the propositions" (122).

The philosopher's openness to the process of reality is his discipline. The philosopher can allow neither the symbolizations nor the experiences they engender to harden into hypostases which would lead to the formation of a system. Voegelin defines this "openness" as a consciousness of the process revealing the depth of both the psyche and the primordial field of reality. The descent into the depth of the psyche, Voegelin writes, "will be indicated when the light of truth has dimmed and its symbols are losing their credibility; when the night is sinking on the symbols that they have had their day, one must return to the night of the depth that is luminous with truth to the man who is willing to seek for it" (125). At the same time, the "primordial field of reality is the community of God and man, world and society; the exploration of this field is concerned with the true nature of the partners in community and the relations between them; the sequence in time of the verities found in the historical field of equivalent experiences and symbols" (126). Each instance reveals an awareness of a depth: the psyche below consciousness and the Cosmos below the primordial field. The psyche of man is linked "in trust" with the depth of the Cosmos. The descent into the depth results in the recognition of the search into that depth which, in turn, reveals that there is "neither an autonomous conscious nor an autonomous depth, but only a consciousness in continuity with its own depth." (129)

Voegelin's insight into the sameness represented by this consciousness existent in "continuity with its own depth" has implications for history, or more specifically, for our historical perspective. "The process," argues Voegelin, "has a past only to the consciousness of its presence, i.e., at the point where a new truth is released from the depth of the psyche and sets itself off against older truth that has emerged from the same depth" (129). The symbols of an historical field and equivalences among its phenomena are human beings' attempt to articulate an emergent truth positing itself as equivalent but superior to an elder, less differentiated truth. The constant in the process of reality is that, Voegelin writes, "the experience [i.e., the articulation of an emergent truth] is experienced as wholly present to itself" (131). Voegelin can thus define equivalence as the point of confrontation for the two symbolisms [i.e., the emergent truth and the elder truth] in the presence of the process. History, for Voegelin, emerges as the symbol of these confrontations in the presence of the process of reality. The philosopher stands, in temporal terms, in a present between past and future open to presence of the eternal.

Statements like "the test of the truth will be in the lack of originality in the propositions" properly locates Voegelin in his own tradition. He can afford such assertions because his faith in a unity of being that the tradition has explored undergirds his own work and, he believes, our very existence. "The trust in the Cosmos and its depth is the source of the premises," he writes, "that we accept as the context of meaning for our concrete engagement in the search of truth" (133). At the same time, there is something radical in his acknowledgment that symbols have their day and when their light dims we must return to the night of the depth (Heilke 1994) because it suggests the very possibility of that Bhabha embraces in his own work. To argue that an "emergent truth" will posit itself as equivalent but superior to an older one is to leave open the possibility that the newer truth might emerge from outside the currently accepted (e.g., Western) field of symbolizations. In fact, opening oneself up to the depth may well mean having to quiet the often distracting noise of accepted truths. The danger inherent in this radical movement is that the carrier of the newer truth, by his or her discovery, opens the search to hypostatization, that is, to the vagaries of politics as power. "Behind every equivalent symbol in the historical field," Voegelin says, "stands the man who has engendered it in the course of his search as representative of a truth that is more than equivalent" (Voegelin 1994b, 133). History, for Voegelin, becomes a series of equivalences in which truths differentiate themselves from elder concretized others. What cannot be lost in the philosophical search, however, is that this differentiation is likely to be deeply political. In the political arena, truths-differentiated or not-are reinforced by cultural and other more martial technologies. Sometimes, the newer truth is the one most differentiated, but this is not necessarily the case. For the other side of Voegelin's methodological coin is that history is also the story of failed challenges to older truths in which those challenges are revealed as hypostases. The failure of a truth, however, does not mark the extent or limit of its influence for that philosophical failure is may well be masked by access to technological or other resources. Voegelin knows that the intervention of politics into the search for order closes us off from both the relative depth of our own experiences and from experiential insights engendered by different cultures through different methodologies. The everyday urgencies of politics may demand a philosophical closure which is utterly at odds with the openness of the in-between. Voegelin tries to insulate the search from politics, but can only do so by resorting to a faith. "The search that renders no more than equivalent truth," he writes, "rests ultimately on the faith that, by engaging in it, man participates representatively in the divine drama of truth becoming luminous" (133).

Voegelin, through his philosophy of history, is concerned primarily with cultural symbols across time. The political philosopher seeks the presence of an openness to the divine ground of being in the symbolic articulations of others' experiences in order to make connections (and judgments) across time. We stand in a present unfolding in the presence of eternity. The absence of these presences marks the philosophical crisis of Voegelin's time and this diagnosis forces his use of the category "gnostic." A politics that claims truth for itself in some final or complete sense, Voegelin argues in The New Science of Politics (1987) and elsewhere, is ideological, gnostic (Voegelin 1968; 1987), a function of sorcery (1990), etc. His vertical conception of the in-between (e.g., between the presence of the divine and the ugliness of politics) brings with it a corresponding obligation to attend to the past to discern equivalences of experience and their articulations. Yet when confronting the modern impulse to construct systems, Voegelin is drawn out of the tension and into the bipolar political landscape of his present. Ideological constructions, by laying claim to the truth, force their opponents to deny rather than negotiate them. This denial necessarily takes the form of a negation, the ideological practice par excellence. While Voegelin has not constructed an ideology, he has been dragged into ideological struggles it seems he can escape only by either embracing the methodology of ideology-using a philosophical term Agnosticism@ to negate rather than negotiate-or turning his back on politics altogether.

Through his use of the symbol of the in-between, Voegelin seeks a third way, suggesting a value in his work beyond the press of his immediate philosophical and political circumstances. The symbol of the in-between, suggesting persistence, negotiation, and movement in the realm of the political, makes valuable methodological demands of the political philosopher. The in-between signifies that fluid, necessarily incomplete understandings should be discerned and understood to play off of and inform one another. Voegelin's emphasis on the vertical dimension of the in-between (metaxy) suggests that discerning authentic from inauthentic experiences is a dangerous game and so he emphasizes the lack of originality in these insights. We must, as he proposes to do in Order and History, take experiences as they are and feel obligated to understand them to the degree we are able, which is to say, never finally. The corollary symbol "openness" requires the presence of a philosophical discipline that comes from a sense of one's own strength. A functional politics, our concern is political philosophy, requires an openness not only to the "divine ground of being" but also to cultural experiences of which we have no experience. Voegelin's caution against "deformations" is well-intended, but, as we will see from Bhabha's analysis, the cultural and political power embodied in our symbols means culpability in generating the "deformed" experiences of others. Forgetting their relativity to the truths they claim may also lead to deformed perceptions of ourselves as preserved in the tension to the divine ground even as we acquiesce in injustice.

Bhabha: The Horizontality of the In-Between

Voegelin's targets-various ideologies-are mostly Western constructs and their importance-to themselves, to Voegelin, to us-reflects assumptions about their universal application. From his postcolonial perspective, Bhabha measures and takes seriously emergent non-Western responses to these apparently hegemonic conceptions. His work marks, he argues, 
"a shift of attention from the political as pedagogical, ideological practice to politics as the stressed necessity of everyday life" (1994, 15). The stressed necessities of everyday life put to the lie the relevance and universal applicability of ideologies (Giroux and Giroux, 1999). No longer willing to accept the universal application of Western ideologies, Bhabha also will not take the confrontation between ideologies as the most interesting problem in political philosophy. Ideological claims to universality, his analysis suggests, have been displaced by the confrontations and interactions with cultures formerly alien and colonized. These interactions are not the zero-sum conflicts of ideological clashes, but rather an opportunity to, as Leela Gandhi (1998) puts it, re-member the colonial past to make it more approachable. The data for that re-membering are the experiences articulated in our symbolic systems. When these meet, when the hegemon is confronted by that over which it no longer rules, cultural differences emerge which must be articulated and negotiated (cf. Phillips 1998). Assumptions about the relevance, about the authority of particular symbols must now be negotiated where cultural meanings overlap, that is where neither holds sway. "The contribution of negotiation," Bhabha writes, "is to display the 'in-between' " (1994, 29).

Time and the appeal to tradition as a strategy of power and authority are critical to Bhabha's analysis. The unity that Voegelin seeks (and to his credit never finds for long) is the intellectual attempt to tame the fluidity of human political existence using stable generalities and symbols. Colonialism was the physical imposition of a western unity that, for all its strength and subtlety, could not eradicate, indeed, finally helped generate the sources of resistance that eventually emerged as hybrid cultures. But postcolonial claims of new pure national identities (ala Fanon, etc.) failed to recognize the permanent effect of the western presence on both the colonized and the colonizer. Thus, Bhabha recognizes the need for theory on a different order. Theory must resist explaining everything using cultural signs as universal symbols with settled understandings. Now, Bhabha suggests, theory must meet politics and, functioning as critique open up a space of translation between competing cultural meanings.

The challenge lies in conceiving of the time of political action and understanding as opening up a space that can accept and regulate the differential structure of the moment of intervention without rushing to produce a unity of the social antagonism or contradiction. This is a sign that history is happening-within the pages of theory, within the systems and structures we construct to figure the passage of the historical. (25; my emphasis)

Our cultural symbols suggest unity-a functioning politics seems to demand it-but that unity breaks down on borders (physical, philosophical, etc.) where it is confronted with the unity of the Other's symbols: "The problem of cultural interaction emerges only at the significatory boundaries of cultures," Bhabha writes, "where meanings and values are misread or signs are misappropriated" (34). The colonial order violated the signs of the Other by translating them into the categories of Western ideological systems. Voegelin amply demonstrates that these ideological systems are, themselves, replete with hypostasizations of important cultural symbols. There is a double consciousness to these misappropriations and misreadings in that the important signposts of both self and other are being transformed by their forced interaction. Hegemonic conceptions defend themselves in terms of the past, assuming an authority delegitimated by the countering claims of postcoloniality. But these claims out of time undermine themselves in what Bhabha calls their transparency: their self-justifications reveal that "the action of the distribution and arrangement of differential spaces, positions, knowledges, in relation to each other, [are] relative to a discriminatory, not inherent sense of order" (109).

In the wake of the breakdown of the colonialist order, and, one might add the "simple" Cold War dualism that emerged alongside it, the number and sources of important cultural symbols has multiplied. The problem in sorting out the differences among cultural symbols, Bhabha argues, is "how, in signifying the present, something comes to be repeated, relocated and translated in the name of tradition, in the guise of a pastness that is not necessarily a faithful sign of historical memory but a strategy of representing authority in terms of the artifice of the archaic" (35). Like Voegelin, Bhabha takes cultural symbols seriously, but he also recognizes that bringing the categories and authority of the past into the present means substantiating power relationships which are no longer enforceable as legitimate. Interpreting transformed relationships among culturally diverse symbols requires an extraordinary willingness on all sides to let go of their authority.

The pact of interpretation is never simply an act of communication between the I and the You designated in the statement. The production of meaning requires that these two places be mobilized in the passage through a Third Space, which represents both the general conditions of language and the specific implication of the utterance in a performative and institutional strategy of which it cannot 'in itself' be conscious. (36)

Bhabha describes this Third Space-the "in-between" manifest-as a discursive space of demystification in which "the meaning and symbols of culture have no primordial unity or fixity" and in which "even the same signs can be appropriated, translated, rehistoricized and read anew" (37). While cultural symbols stabilize a political environment, locating us in our world, any adventure of cultural confrontation (e.g., colonialism) puts the certainty and universalizability of cultural symbols at risk. Even as the adventurer finds ways to create and assume authority by undermining then supplanting native symbolic systems, otherness persists as a double presence-of both colonizer and colonized-as "a pressure, and a presence that acts constantly, if unevenly, along the entire boundary of authorization..." (109). The persistent, inevitable doubleness Bhabha identifies suggests what Ashis Nandy describes as the violent intimacy of any colonial situation. Once cultures engage each other, a co-dependence develops which alters both permanently and links them together in ways not easily undone.

The cultural encounter, then, is not simply a question of the imposition of one set of cultural meanings on territory formerly home to another set. The act of imposition, through military action, economic influence, education, etc. requires translation, that is, a hardening of those symbols into tools which can be used in overcoming the native culture and governing the population they formerly held together. The hardening of symbols, as Voegelin puts it, becomes part of what it means to govern according to our symbols. In any concrete political situation, cultural symbols are given meanings which are subsumed in political exigency. To the degree that this is so, Bhabha recognizes politics as involving the inevitable double displacement of symbolic meanings. The displacement is two-fold through what he calls hybridity which is "the revaluation of the assumption of colonial identity through the repetition of discriminatory identity effects...that turn(s) the gaze of the discriminated back upon the eye of power" (112). Colonial values come to be seen as coequal with the violence that imposes them and, as the native's cultural symbols are transformed, so too are the colonizer's symbols. For instance, "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity" mean one thing for the French and quite another for Algerian Arabs. Once symbols require force in order to govern, their value as symbols asserted as universals is revealed as a simple but powerful set of local/alien discernments, preferences, and "discriminations" binding only when enforced by some kind of coercion (physical, cultural, etc.). Once identified with the coercive needs of "orderly" politics, symbols and the truths they claim to represent generate their own resistance.

Political use of symbols shuts off discussions of meaning re-creating them as what Bhabha calls "empty presences of strategic devices" (112). The process empties the symbols of any meaning beyond their status as masks for coercive political action. But Bhabha wishes to reconceive the postcolonial cultural encounter as a space of negotiation-a reframing of political conflict in recognition that common or historical understandings have been undermined by the cultural encounter and that which they symbolized must be recreated in new, negotiated and negotiable terms. To this end, we must understand that it is not, he argues, that cultural differences are the source of conflict. The conflict is, rather, the "effect of discriminatory practicesBthe production of cultural differentiation as signs of authority" (114). The emergence of a desire for hybridity (Fludernik 1998; Easthope 1998) resists the unity of the colonial presence, altering it instead into what Bhabha calls a "metonymy of presence," In the metonymy of presence, the hybrid object "retains the actual semblance of the authoritative symbol but revalues its presence by resisting it as the signifier" (Bhabha 1994, 115) of the unity. The meaning of the symbol is transformed or appropriated by the "native" presence until it is forced to govern that which it can no longer represent. In other words, in the colonial situation, symbols are invariably destabilized by the force of hybridity:

Such a reading of the hybridity of colonial authority profoundly unsettles the demand that figures at the centre of the originary myth of colonialist power. It is the demand [of colonial authority] that the space it occupies be unbounded, its reality coincident with the emergence of an imperialist narrative and history, its discourse non-dialogic, its enunciation unitary, unmarked by the trace of difference. It is a demand that is recognizable in a range of justificatory Western 'civil' discourses... (115)

What Bhabha seeks is a recognition that hybridity is a tendency in the confrontation of cultures and not a conscious strategy. Indeed, his work suggests that as we negotiate with those who work from different ontologies, epistemologies, etc., that prior or present contact generates its own conditions which have ceased to be-if they ever really were-articulable by a single set of symbols. The fluidity of the hybrid "is finally uncontainable because it breaks down the symmetry and duality of self/other, inside/outside" (116). In Bhabha's work, then, we are in-between ourselves and the other, but-as in Voegelin-this is an intensely creative and difficult place to be. We are not paralyzed by our in-betweenness, but checked in our certainties and forced to negotiate our symbols, rather than impose our signs as universals. Negotiation sans final authority becomes the basis for cultural interactions and cross-cultural understandings.

Bhabha takes seriously-in a way the Voegelin of Order and History and the History of Ideas (Henningsen 2000) does-extra-Western experiences and positionalities. He writes with a keen sensibility, ala Foucault, that the understandings that Voegelin properly values bring with them assumptions of power. Bhabha argues that we should confront the power dimensions of our symbolic language honestly to communicate in a fruitful dialogic way. Writing as a postcolonial (and post Cold War) thinker, Bhabha must be concerned with cultures across space and is, therefore, more overtly concerned with the politics of the border. Spinning our symbolic language works internally-where signs may be taken as symbols-but where cultures meet and interact cultural differences must be respected and we should abandon the universalist impulse that cultural meanings are or should be made to be all the same. Bhabha's analysis demonstrates that the attempt to take cultural symbols in their own terms requires that we recognize that any act of cultural translation is an act of power and bound to meet resistance and will, therefore, require negotiation on the level of cultural meanings. These overtly political concerns make Bhabha's a decidedly horizontal conception of the in-between.


Bhabha's work addresses itself to some of the same issues as Voegelin's and I think it would be a mistake-indeed this is what I am arguing-to see their analyses as mutually exclusive. Bhabha is thinking in categories that Voegelin cannot afford to indulge, even were he motivated to do so. By the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, Bhabha recognizes that the tensions in political reality are no longer exclusively Western and, therefore, they are not so starkly polar. While conceding symbolic sovereignty over interiors, Bhabha shifts the discussion to borders where meanings are much less authoritative. To produce fruitful outcomes, these meanings and their symbols must be negotiated at the point of contact between diverse cultures. They can no longer be "resolved" through action based on the elder colonial model, that is, by asserting-via whatever means-the superiority (e.g., the "differentiated" character) of one set of symbols or experiences over another. We can no longer afford to ignore the doubleness in our signs/symbols: (1) they are what we say they signify; and (2) we articulate ourselves in space and in time by identifying and asserting the meaning of the symbol. Voegelin's commitment to philosophical openness, it seems, allows for the recognition of this doubleness. Doubleness would seem to be the very essence of what it means to be in the metaxy. Bhabha suggests that the consciousness of this doubleness must be present at the point of cultural interactions and the very stuff of negotiation. Naming what we cannot know is an act of power-Voegelin identifies ideologies as a function of this hubristic tendency-but the effect, Bhabha shows us, is reciprocal and results in the generation of hybrids over which we have little or no control. Bhabha recognizes the critical roles hybrids play in the outcomes of cultural negotiations. What negotiable symbols lack in certainties regarding eternal permanence, they add to politics by forcing a constant dialogue on their meaning and a resistance to hypostatization in the name of political expediency.

"The philosopher's way is the way up toward the light," Voegelin writes, "not the way down into the cave" (1990, 119). But Voegelin knows his Plato-Socrates and knows full well that the way of the political philosopher takes him back down into the cave where he teaches, learns, and finally dies. While Voegelin focuses on the verticality of the in-between, on our position between the temporal and the eternal, his philosophical commitment to an openness to equivalent experiences across time easily translates into a concern with such equivalences across space. Correspondingly, Bhabha's emphasis on the horizontal dimension of the in-between, on the contact between symbol systems across space and in time, suggests the practice of philosophical openness has a place in political discussions between cultures and suggests one way of making that philosophical openness politically viable. The task is to communicate the insights of philosophy in such a way that they may be made to inform politics, that is, to bring the vertical to bear on the horizontal and to take neither as the sum total of human political existence, if we take the political seriously.


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The Story of Eric Voegelin

Copyright 2002 Tom D'Evelyn


What emerges from these papers is that a wide variety of literary story can be read with Voegelin in mind. Not only that: a wide variety of story can be read critically according to Voegelins topics (e.g. consciousness.) In short, we may say that Voegelin has articulated the motherof-all-stories.

One of my favorite texts in this regard is volume 5 (now 18), In Search of Order, the pages on Hesiod. Voegelin writes:

The questing struggle for the truth of reality is the struggle of reality for its truth; it occurs within reality and involves the whole of the hierarchy of being, from the basic material structures to the formative experience of the not-experientiable Beyond.

It must be said that this text is itself literature: that is, it employs a number of literary devices, including paradox and a sort of anagogy ("the struggle of reality for its truth"), to tell a story about the story he is telling about the difficulty of writing. It is literature because it is self-reflexive; it is self-reflexive, because Voegelin understood the consciousness as a paradoxical entity both directed beyond itself and constituting a luminous state. Voegelin came to see his writing in terms of consciousness. Otherwise, to speak as if "reality" quested would be nonsense. Not infrequently does one read a ravishing passage in the late Voegelin and catch oneself passively listening to the music and half in fear of being taken in by it.

One of the great examples of this kind of meta-story telling shows up at the beginning of vol 5, appropriately titled "The Beginning of the Beginning" where Voegelin imagines himself beginning to write a text but starting, like all classic poets, in medias res. Or, as he has taught us to say, in consciousness.

In passage after passage, Voegelin shows himself to be a writer's writer. From Laclos to Soseki to postmoderns like Murakami and Nadas and I would say, pace Voegelin himself, Laurence Sterne, that master of reflexive fiction. If there is a more seductive story than the one Voegelin begins to tell about the writer at the beginning of the final part of Order and History, I dont know what it is. I think people who read Voegelin just naturally start to see all stories as particular realizations of this mother of all stories. The fact that this panel has representatives from a variety of traditions illustrates the universality of Voegelins story, which has become a standard by which to judge all stories. Like the Lesbian rule in Plato, his story is a flexible rule and nicely accommodates an enormous range of cultural variants. There is great promise in these pages for scholars of comparative literature.