Lecture Six: Witnesses 6.1

6.1 Introduction


If the self is a hermeneutic construction aimed at mastering uncertainty, then it becomes possible to assess which conditions are more likely to make this construction more or less successful in achieving its purpose. In Lecture Five we introduced a paradox that might jeopardize the possibility of successfully gaining full mastery. The self is constructed along two axes, embodiment and consociation. There is a tension between the two. Embodiment is exposed to uncertainty, and thus creates the need for mastering it. Mastery of uncertainty seems to require a degree of consociation to address the needs of the embodied individual. But consociation establishes a form of dependence, creates new needs, likely excludes that all these needs can be equally satisfied, and eventually might require a sacrifice of the individual itself for the common good of the community. This means that consociation is not just a way of addressing uncertainty, but is also a way of introducing and sustaining specific forms of uncertainty. Since consociation is integral to the construction of the self, we might say that the very process of constructing the self to master uncertainty also creates new uncertainty. Seeking mastery inevitably exacerbates the tension between the needs of embodiment and the constraints of consociation.

In Lecture Five we focused on one particular historical case in which this paradox surfaces. We investigated the ancient Vedic culture and the role that the seer plays in it. The seer is the one who is able, through his poietic practice, to move from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, from uncertainty to confidence. Cultivating his visionary skills, the seer acts as a bridge between his human community and the larger community of agents (the gods), ensuring the support and assistance of the latter. The power of words, hymns, and singing is regarded as capable of both disclosing the nature of reality and positively steering it in an advantageous direction through appropriate ritual actions.

However, the seer is a liminal figure. By travelling away from his community, the seer stretches the background of meaningfulness that underpins his own visionary power. The seer’s visions are entirely informed and predicated upon a shared hermeneutic landscape, which the seer did not invent from scratch but inherited from the community. And yet, as visions strive to become more and more powerful and unique, accessible only to extraordinary individuals, they severe the link with that common inherited background of shared views and meaning. What is unique is also exceptional, and what is exceptional falls outside of the norm, outside of what is common. It becomes something strange, something alien, and eventually something meaningless. This can be understood in terms of directionality: insofar as the seer moves towards greater originality, his visions acquire also greater idiosyncrasy, which undermines their intelligibility; but insofar as the seer remains closer to a shared and well-known communal background, then his visions loose power and cogency, become common, trivial, redundant. Seeking mastery through vision is a path that does not seem to achieve complete success, whatever direction it takes.

In the g-veda, seers are identified as the authors of the hymns, but they are also regarded by the tradition as belonging to a legendary past. In due time, the Vedic ritual changed from the actual performance of visionary insight, into the re-enaction of carefully fixed acts and recitations. The inspired poet is replaced by the ritual specialist, the brahmin, who ensures that the ritual takes place in the appropriate way, but who does not himself see or produce new visions. This ossification of the ritual and its sophisticated orthopraxis also introduces a separation, a distance between the original inspiration and the actual practice. In this case, the distance separates the source of inspired utterances, and the visionary experience that underpins them, from their repetition in the ritual setting. Since words are assumed to have value and meaning in themselves, in virtue of their authority and antiquity, actually understanding them and their meaning might be dispensable. But words whose meaning is no longer understood are no longer words, they are just sounds. Hence, the ritualization of the visionary experience also entails a progressive corrosion of its experiential significance. In order to avoid the alienation of the visionary experience from the community, that experience is embedded in a well-defined protocol. Yet, this protocol, by fostering ritualization, also creates a gulf between the ritual performance and the original experience that inspired its creators, and this in turns empties the ritual of its vital fire. Poietic practice (the ability of creating something new) becomes orthopraxis (the ability of acting in a fixed and prescribed way).

In this lecture, we look at one way this puzzle is addressed in later Vedic and Indian thought. For the seer, mastery is achieved through vision, and visionary insight makes the seer a god, an immortal one. However, visions are semantically dependent on the common and shared background of accepted meanings provided by the seer’s community. An overly unique or idiosyncratic vision (a vision that moves too far from that common background) runs the risk of becoming meaningless. One way of circumventing this problem is by separating the experience of vision from the content of vision. We already noticed that visions are particularly powerful because of their emotional tone, their cognitive quality (expansiveness, boundlessness, euphoria, enthusiasm, and so on), more than for their actual contents. If there is a way of producing the same experience without having to depend on any content, then the uniqueness of the experience will no longer be an issue. In other words, one might start thinking that what makes the ancient seer immortal is not what he sees, but the fact that he sees. If it is possible to move from the content (what) to the metacognitive aspect of the experience (that), then it will be possible to achieve absolute certainty (as in visionary experience) without separation, because there will be no particular content upon which this separation will be built. If separation is conceived of in terms of difference, the idea is thus that of pursuing a sort of pure identity that would entail no difference. Moreover, if such an identity can be experienced, then this experience will be necessarily an experience of eternity and thus of absolute certainty. Uncertainty can be experienced only in a context in which there is some possibility of becoming, and becoming is possible only if difference is possible. If one transcends the world of difference, then one transcends the world of becoming; one becomes immortal, or better, eternal.

As we shall see, this is the leading inspiration that emerges among some of the relatively late (with respect to the g-veda) segments of the Vedic corpus, known as Upaniṣads. However, this solution has its own costs, since it demands a strict form of ascetism, which revives the opposition and separation between the sage and the rest of the community. This separation can be reconciled, but once again only at the price of foregoing the direct experience of mystical union with the eternal in the name of devotion and orthopraxis. Trying to move away from the paradox of mastery ultimately brings us back to it.


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The Tragedy of the Self Copyright © 2023 by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.