Spiritual exercise and metaphysical experience: A birthday meditation

Yesterday afternoon on my birthday, we knocked on the door of a secret meditation room in Soho and no one answered. She knocked a second time and still no one answered. And yet why weren’t we disappointed? “Maybe this is the meditation,” I said as we walked away and laughed.

The incident calls me back to a paper I published, five years ago, on Adorno’s account of metaphysical experience. The incident Adorno relates is, I would now say in a Hadotian spirit, a spiritual exercise (ascesis) in humility.

I wrote,

In his final lecture on metaphysics delivered in 1965, Adorno states that there are two main features of metaphysical experience: the priority of the object (the world’s fundamental exertion on thought) and fallibility (the mind’s openness to the “misfiring” of its concepts vis-à-vis any object of possible cognition). Such features already point to the idea that metaphysical experience is indeed the realization of Adorno’s philosophical model of experience. To make his case more perspicuous, Adorno seeks to establish the actuality of metaphysical experience by calling our attention to certain instances that meet these general requirements while also inhabiting the space between logical possibility and full-fledged empirical actuality.

Adorno thinks that metaphysical experience is instantiated in Proust’s work—specifically, in his allusion to certain place names. To a child, certain place names such as Applebachsville, Wind Gap, or Lords Valley can be pregnant with the promise of great happiness as though being there were tantamount to being at home in the world. Nonetheless, it soon becomes clear that “[b]eing really there makes the promise recede like a rainbow. And yet one is not disappointed; the feeling now is one of being too close, rather, and not seeing it for that reason.” Oddly enough, this child, the Proustian child who conjures up this empirically based fantasy only to have it “recede like a rainbow,” is not overcome by pathos—why not? Because, to put matters too quickly, she is happy in spite of, or rather because of, the way things have come about. In the first instance, the place names example comes to life on account of its metaphysical orientation. For the child who, in keeping with a hazy memory of fulfillment, first casts his imagination beyond his present surroundings, there is a necessary element of fantasy, a magical, imaginative force that colors and enchants the empirical world, the world of ordinary things. At the risk of sounding redundant, it must be stressed that the subject matter is as ordinary as it is arbitrary; it is this factor that gives this fantastical act a turn toward the place names themselves, gives it a certain aura of mundane arbitrariness, even grittiness.

This, then, is the set-up: a partially enchanted world of ordinary things (and hence a world of more than ordinary things) so conceived. It must be understood that the child’s going there is just as important as her so imagining it. I take it that Adorno’s aim is to deflate the idea of finality or utter bliss (the bad Hegelian reading of absolute knowing) when he writes that the world turns out not to be the same as the child’s fantastical conceptions of it. Call this the “weak” critical moment in any emphatic experience. If it is necessary for a child to conjure up a world with which she can be entranced, then it is equally necessary for the world to disabuse her of the absoluteness contained in this very notion, to disabuse the mind of its autarky, and in so doing to show her just how the object takes on substance. And yet, if she is not exactly at home, then she is not lost entirely either.

Whether brought to the consciousness of the child or not, this deflationary moment is immediately followed by, or is conterminous with, our realization of his fallibility. Fallibility, as the “condition of possibility of such metaphysical experience” in general, is registered in the child’s acknowledgment that he is “too close,” too much immersed in things mediated by a cognition that is receptive to an empirical world that is now unfolding before her: a world that is either dazzling or humdrum, but in either case is a cause for her attending to it as it is. Perhaps even more curiously, the child silently accepts that she was “in the wrong” in conceiving of the world in the way that she did. Of course, her original conceptions played a crucial part in activating her imagination and in bringing her fantasies and desires into the realm of empirical reality. But she cannot fail to see, here and now and however dimly, that her adjusting her conceptual repertoire to the empirical world is an indication of her “guilt” and her desire for reconciliation with what she has “injured.”

(Perhaps it is no coincidence that we picked up a copy of Cavell’s In Quest of the Ordinary yesterday. I’ve never read Cavell.)