Truth as Resisting the Longing for Return

Yeonmi Park, in telling of her escape from life in North Korea, describes the depth to which she was shaped by North Korean propaganda. Though starvation and cannibalism were commonplace at the time of her birth, Park says she presumed she was living in the best country on earth, a socialist paradise. She presumed that all countries and peoples worshipped the Dear Leader, and that North Koreans had nothing to envy but were the envy of the world. She describes the great pride and gratitude she felt in being among the chosen. She viewed the Dear Leader with pure love and knew nothing of what she was deprived. She had never seen a map of the world and had no concept she was Asian – she just knew she was of the race of Kim. Time is not marked by B.C. and A.D. but begins with the birth of the Kim dynasty. There is no history before this beginning. Concepts such as love or freedom, which one might assume are instinctive, she claims are nonexistent in North Korea. She says, there is no concept of romantic love but all affection is directed to Kim Jong-un. So not only love between wife and husband but between mother and daughter or between family members or between friends is forbidden. Even love for the self is denied. The Dear Leader is the center and definition of all affection. Thus, when she saw the film Titanic, an alternative world began to open to her. She describes North Korea as if it existed on another planet. Good and evil, in this Animal Farm like society (the book that opened her eyes), are subject to engineering and manipulation, such that it becomes clear that human thought can be shaped to any mold by the form of life to which it is subjected.[1]

In this political moment many have been made aware of this “manufactured consent” (left and right) on the part of cultural elites – and she compares what she encountered at Columbia University and the promotion of political correctness with North Korean tactics, but it is not just that we are all susceptible to deception but there is a shocking depth to the degree deception might be at work upon us. What the North Korean experiment reveals, like the Stalinist and Nazi experiment before it, is that there is no human concept that is not open to manipulation.  One’s basic humanity, experience of the world and of self, what is seen and heard is subject to manipulation and interpretation.

Park quotes the other George Orwell classic, 1984, “He who controls the language controls the thoughts.” Where there are no words for liberty, justice, or human rights, these concepts do not arise – they have to be taught. There is no direct access to a world of truth apart from the filter of language and cultural-political-religious construction. There is no built-in or biological world of instincts and concepts which we might fall back upon. The objects and ideas which make up subjective experience are enmeshed in a world which can be undone or redone. Park says she feels as if she now exists on a different planet and that she is completely disconnected from the person and experience which defined her in North Korea. But then surprisingly, she does not indicate that she completely likes having left this other world and other self behind. She says she longs for home. She longs for this lost world and this lost self but she feels the only way she could return to it is by returning to North Korea and certain death.  

Her ideological shift describes what Helen Keller reports at an even more fundamental level. Where the words are absent the objects of water, doll, teacher, and mother, are also absent. It is only upon learning the names for objects that they become a distinct entity in experience. The world opens for Helen with her discovery of words and language including the world of other people and her own sense of self. Strangely, she reports the sensation of guilt as the first of experiences which comes with her discovery of her sense of self. The specific guilt is over having broken her glass doll, which she reports as coming with a feeling of delight, as it seemed to be the breaking apart of the world she formerly inhabited. Helen, two times over, remarks on the “keen sense of delight” she felt at the shattering of the doll but then she feels guilty for this lost world.

Park reports a longing for home which she saw in her father, who decided he would rather go back and be executed in North Korea and be buried in his home country. The interviewer suggests to her that the United States might be this new home for her but she indicates it is an idea to which she is still adjusting. Is her reported longing of return made of the same stuff as every child’s feeling of having given up one world at the expense of another?

As Lacan and Freud describe, there is an imaginary violation the child passes through, in which there is a relinquishment of a sort (the castration complex) in the process of language acquisition. It is not that sight or sensation provide a first order experience to which language is then attached but the objects of sight and sensation, up to and including the self, become recognizable only with the acquisition of language but with this acquisition there is also the sense of a relinquishing of a world. Prior to recognizing the body as the self, there is the realization of separateness and the possibility of disintegration and dismemberment (the first stirrings of death). The linguistic medium, connecting the child to the world, establishes at the same time the subject/object or self and world between which an exchange is made possible.

 As we pass from one world to another, from one home to another, the longing for return (repetition) may be the most pronounced of sensations. Is it not a longing for unfreedom for an absence of ambiguity and choice (the longing for the North Korea of the unconscious – a return to the womb of pre-subjectivity)? To refer to this as a false consciousness may be slightly inaccurate (are their false sensations?) but are the stirrings and sensations, which may sometimes overwhelm us, to be trusted? Does the discovery of truth entail also a capacity to recognize and name that which would block us from entering the truth? Are our basic desires reliable guides or is our conscience to be trusted?

I have previously referred to this initial human subjectivity, following Lacan and Žižek, as a deception, but maybe this seemingly necessary passage is only a deception where the impulse to return or the compulsion to repeat or the longing for home overwhelms. The truth would be to forge ahead and to not give way to death drive (the compulsion to repeat), to the longing for the indistinguishable sensations of a loveless pre-subjective existence.

[1] Yeonmi Park: North Korea | Lex Fridman Podcast #196

The End of Naïve Evangelicalism: Exposing the Word of Death

With the storming of the Capitol building, it is clear that we have reached the end of a naïve era: a four-year long indulgence of right-wing politics, and a decades long linking of evangelical religion to nationalism. The exposed underbelly of this religion has shown it to be antithetical to the teachings of Christ. The President’s deployment of his Christian base and the fact that it serves his strategy, indicates the shape of the religion that would serve him. It exceeds guilt by association, as the very possibility of association (with white nationalism, the KKK, or the raw grab for power) is a blasphemous implication of the Prince of Peace in violent nationalism.

 I cannot help but link recent events to an emptying out of the religion, which Faith and I have witnessed personally, since we returned to this country 15 years ago. We came back to work for a Christian College here in Moberly, and it was there we recognized that the religion had morphed into something unrecognizable. The microcosm of the rule by fear and intimidation witnessed at the national level, we witnessed in this institution. The misogyny and maltreatment of women, the commitment to a hellish Christianity built upon fear, and the commitment to a violent God and violent faith, produced systemic abuse which we did not encounter in twenty years in Japan. The forms of violence directly pitted against the rule of law in the Capitol, in this little institution were pitted against basic humane and legal treatment. The same forces that put up a JESUS sign during the storming of the Capitol, the forces that put Donald Trump into office, have transformed what is called “Christianity.” The religion has been turned inside out, along with the nation state, set to destroy what it is meant to uphold and protect.

 In other words, the deployment of the religion in support of the nation state is imploding. The endless sex scandals, the attachment to the cult of personality, the commitment to consumerism over principle and ethics, describes both church and state. It is as if the worst elements of the religion have come to a head in this political period, and the religion connected to the political right has been exposed for the misshapen anti-Christianity that it truly is. The lawlessness of the rioters on Wednesday did not arise in a vacuum, as they were clearly egged on by the President, but this President has been egged on by religious supporters and advisers.

I have pointed to the broad, two-kingdom sort of theology which enabled national socialism (Nazism) in Germany, and which is embraced by American Christian nationalists (here), but I think there is a more specific element in Nazi ideology which coincides with American evangelicalism. The escapism, the “going to heaven when you die,” the otherworldly nature of the American form of the faith, allows death and alienation to reign here upon earth. This was accomplished for Germans in many ways, but archetypically by Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger, the premiere philosopher of the Nazi period, might as well have been declared “Official Nazi Theologian” for his subtle separation of the insights of the Christian faith from the tenets of the teaching of Jesus. He deploys key vocabulary of the New Testament in a negation of the religion. This negative Christianity, instead of trading in resurrection life, presumes the primacy of death and the strategies that deal in death. The religion and philosophy might be summed up in Heidegger’s conclusion that the defining characteristic of humans is death:

Mortals are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so. But animals cannot speak either. The essential relation between death and language flashes up before us, but remains still unthought. It can, however, beckon us toward the way in which the nature of language draws us into its concern.[1]

Heidegger’s linkage of language and death may be a flash of insight worth dwelling upon – he continues to dwell upon it and little else – but left in isolation this focus supports and coincides with one of the most destructive periods in human history. At the same time, Heidegger’s singular focus reveals the shape of a Christian theology which allows death to stand in this life as the controlling factor.

Heidegger’s singular link of death and language, which is certainly serious and worth developing, is only one instance of an infinite number of similar links with language. “Humans are they” who can experience life as life because they speak. Humans are they who can tell jokes because they speak. Humans are they who can experience sex as more than mere animal copulation because they speak (etc. etc. ad infinitum). Certainly, humans appear as “mortal and speaking” but they also appear as liars and speaking, as jokesters and speaking, as lovers and speaking, and as potentially immortal and speaking.

The point is not to trivialize the link between language and death but to recognize the many faceted nature of this relation so as to draw out what it must mean to be “constantly delivered to death” (2 Cor. 4:11), or to defeat death through the peculiarity of the Christian orientation to the word.  Heidegger seems to picture deliverance to death as a one-way street, but Paul is here recognizing and moving beyond where Heidegger stops short. More than that, he is describing an impetus behind language – to take up the word and speak – where Heidegger seems to make the case for silence. Paul is describing a reconnection to the world, to human relationships, which is not obstructed by death, due to participation in the death of Christ. The power of the word of the cross is the power of fellowship, the power for life, the power for preaching.

In contrast, a faith which pictures the cross as a death to benefit God (divine satisfaction, penal substitution) or a deliverance from hell, and not a defeat of death and an opening up of the world, leaves death and violence as a world orientation and strategy. Heidegger and evangelicalism share a singular, flat link to death. Heidegger maintains that death is the main thing about humans and evangelicalism allows this singular emphasis to stand.  

Paul is suggesting that all of life is opened up in rightly understanding the link between the word and death, not because the orientation to death is denied, but because it is displaced. In one instance (in both Paul and Heidegger) language and being human might appear deadly and death dealing but in the other (the Pauline alternative to Heidegger), every facet of life, including death, takes on the aura of revelation. Christ’s death defeats death, baptism inaugurates this victory for all, and communion in the body of Christ describes a life that continually overcomes death. As Paul describes the Christian life: “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10). The Christian embrace of immortality is not meant to be an escape from the connection to death, language, and the world, but it is meant to reverse the sinful orientation to death and to open up life and love in the world.  

Think here, again, of my previous reference to Helen Keller (here), who pictures her entry into language as an opening to the world on the order of a divine revelation.  “The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!” For the first time Helen experiences “water,” “earth,” “teacher,” “baby,” and some 30 odd things she names in an afternoon. Language acquisition, for Helen, is on the order of divine revelation, but what Heidegger demonstrates is the human barrier to this equation. There is a link between language and death which may characterize people and which is spelled out in philosophy and psychology, but the point of Christianity and even the possibility indicated in language is the opposite of this stunted link.

 I do not mean simply that people have the possibility for future eternal life, but that there is a specific orientation to law and language which is deadly and death dealing and that there is an alternative orientation implied even in this stunted negative orientation. Christian engagement with death is aimed at defeating this deadly orientation here and now.  The point of Christianity, the power conveyed through resurrection faith, takes us beyond he word of death to the word of life.

Heidegger does not note the necessary positive side, which makes the negative appear. He only recognizes the negative aspect, the absence and negativity, and he imagines this absence and nothingness is final ground. Heidegger’s philosophy concludes to a pure negativity and nothingness, which presumes with Hegel that to be human is to be founded on negativity. Heidegger is following Hegel, for whom the human is a negative being who “is that which he is not and not that which he is.” He is a “placeholder of nothingness” as death is definitive. I would suggest, Heidegger and Hegel are partly correct in their assessment. Absent a Christian reorientation to the law of sin and death, humans are driven by death as if it were the force of life.

Paul presumes death, like the word, holds out a series of links and possibilities. His understanding of the truth of death, is that death, like language, is peculiar for humans because it holds out a different, an enduring, possibility. Just as mortality is constituted by the possibility of immortality, death is only death where it is presumed to be something other than ground or end. What I mean here is not that death is necessarily linked in reality to immortality, I just mean that human death is constituted as death because the peculiarity of language necessarily opens up another possibility.

Paul is describing a reorientation to both death and language in which neither is presumed as its own end, and he is presuming upon this inherent possibility within language. This might be taken as a trivial reference to a future possibility, but Paul is describing a present actuality, in which death threatens but this very threat opens the mortal to the immortal. He is linking the inherent possibility of language to the realization of a different reality. Certainly, this is realized through Christ, but this should not be separated from everyday life. Paul is describing the “mortal flesh,” the feeling of being “abandoned,” of being “destroyed,” or of “slowly dying,” with the life of Jesus being revealed. As he puts it, “So death works in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:12). Paul is focused on both sides of the valence of the word – it is joined with death in one instance so as to be joined to life in the other instance.

What Heidegger misses, is that while death and mortality appear as primary in human orientation, it is on the same basis that their opposites also “flash before us.” Immortality, too, is not a consideration for unspeaking animals and it is precisely this possibility that constitutes the peculiar human experience of mortality and death. Death taken as life, immortality folded into mortality, or the enchantment of religion lent to nationalism, describes the human tendency to immortalize the tomb and the religious and “secular” systems which worship the tomb. In a pervasive but bizarre reversal, death takes on the patina of life and immortality, as the human condition is not simply bent to death but to immortality – to immortalizing death. What the Bible calls the covenant with death and links to the lie of the serpent and the lie of idolatry, Heidegger identifies with Dasein, with the house of language, with “being there” or waking up to being, which only death and nothingness can make shine. Heidegger is selling his philosophy on the basis that death and nothingness serve in place of life.

This is not simply the accomplishment of a subtle philosophical mind, but I believe it is the articulation of the human condition outside of Christ. It is the reality that is left standing, one way or another, where death is not dethroned as the point of life. A Christianity focused on the problem of God, the problem of hell, the problem of the law, and which misses the way in which the world is entangled with the lie oriented to death, lets death have the last word. It has failed to enact the reign of the living word.

The sign that authentic Christianity has been traded for a counterfeit is the violence this entails, as violence is the necessity where death reigns. As Heidegger’s philosophy fits national socialism, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, in the same way evangelicalism is a fitting theology for American nationalism and the death of hundreds of thousands sacrificed to Mammon, as both transfer the glow of life and truth to death and violence.

As Hitler needed Heidegger and German Christians, so Trump is dependent on evangelicals to lend a religious aura to his violent grasping after power. Heidegger was Hitler’s favorite living philosopher precisely because of his nihilistic embrace of violence and death. Nazi Christianity (the German Christians who embraced Hitler and the Nazi party as opposed to those who did not) was shown up as hollow and empty, just as the religion which led to the storming of the barricades at the Capitol is now exposed in its promotion of death and violence in place of life and peace. This exposure of the religion, spent as it has been on the coin of the realm of a deadly nationalism, is clearly an empty word, a bankrupt form of the faith.  

[1] Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language, (trans. Peter D. Hertz, New York, 1971), 107-108.

Helen Keller and the Discovery of a Trinitarian Reality

The story of the world opening to Helen Keller through her discovery of words and language, the discovery that everything has a name, contains the movement from indiscernible objects and sensations to a connectedness to the world, to other people, and to a profound spirituality. It also contains the discovery of herself as a particular subject and actor, as she becomes self-conscious (guilty) for the first time. In short, Helen Keller’s story (which I assume most are familiar with but which is related below) describes not only passage, in her words, out of the darkness of slavery into the freedom of the light, but it describes what must be the “common” passage into personhood, and my presumption throughout is that the complete realization of this personhood is fully Trinitarian in scope. As with the Trinity, so with the story of Helen Keller, the entire event is mysterious, and yet out of this mystery arises every form of awareness and knowing. Reality – the reality of God, I presume, is not only accessible but is the means and mode of all access and all experience.

The Sacrifice  

The first movement in Helen’s opening to the world of language, to her realization that letters spelled out in her hand related to the world, occurs prior to where many would take up the story, but she, no doubt, felt that the sequence of events was interrelated. At first, she had enjoyed the new game that Anne Sullivan, her new teacher, was playing, trying to spell out words in her hand, and she describes trying to imitate this – she compares it to a monkey’s imitation. But then she became tired of the game and takes it out on the doll Anne had given her and which was the word (d-o-l-l) she was spelling out in her palm:

I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed.[1]   

The doll had not really been special to Helen, prior to her breaking it apart. As with an infant, her world did not contain the sort of differences and differentiation resulting in affections and attachments, which language introduces. Helen describes it as a world without sentiment or tenderness, and explains that she had not really loved the doll. With the doll’s shattering the concrete and undifferentiated world will also explode and become animated with significance – the signs of language.

Helen, two times over, remarks on the “keen sense of delight” she felt at the shattering of the doll. As Lacan and Freud will describe, there is an imaginary violation the child passes through, in which there is a relinquishment of a sort (the castration complex) in the process of language acquisition. Though Helen felt neither sorrow nor regret at having broken the doll, as soon as she makes the leap into language, it will be the doll that she remembers. Even at this early stage in the story, Helen feels “satisfaction” at Anne sweeping the broken pieces of the doll into the hearth. There is already a foreshadowing of the full subjectivity that is slowly arising.[2]

Every child seems to pass from an original, undifferentiated state, in which mother and child and the child and the world are all part of a monolithic whole. An infant slowly discovers its own hands and limbs, but they seem to appear, at first, as objects somehow part of and yet removed from the child, and then with the acquisition of language the integrity of the body and the individual take shape. But prior to recognizing the body as the self, is the realization of separateness and the possibility of disintegration and dismemberment (the first stirrings of death). The linguistic medium, connecting the child to the world, establishes at the same time the subject/object or self and world between which an exchange is made possible. Helen’s passage into the symbolic world is not a displacement so much as an opening, and it would be hard to name what she has relinquished or out of what stuff any sort of choice is constituted.

Religious sacrifice hints at the economy of language acquisition, as in sacrificial religion there seems to be a replaying of the child’s entry into the world of signs. Animal sacrifice, which is already a symbolic displacement, perhaps of human sacrifice, violates the integrity of the animal body, splitting it open either for a reading of the entrails or for setting up a path to negotiate with the gods. Meaning is quite literally, in this instance, in the murder and dismemberment of the thing. Sacrificial practices seem to reduplicate passage into the establishment of signification with the goal of manipulating, pleasing, appeasing, etc. This reentry or reestablishment of meaning seems to objectify and reify (divinize) the symbolic system, but it is this reification which Freud and Lacan presume are present in the child. The Oedipus complex will reify the father, representative of the symbolic order, and service of this father describes the dynamic interplay between the superego or symbolic and the ego or imaginary.

 There may be a difference between the child’s entry into language and the religious attempt to reorder and manipulate the signifying economy, or perhaps sacrificial religion illustrates the characteristic mistake of the child. This is the Freudian assumption, which explains his great interest in primitive religion (along with early childhood development) as an insight into human neurosis and sickness. He presumed the religion reenacts the presumptions of the child. The father the child admires and imitates, is taken up into the child’s own self-consciousness, but both the inner child or the ego that serves this father figure and the father that is served, are mere fabrications, a primordial deception, which gives rise to the split within the human psyche (ego/superego). Sacrificial religion, Freud presumes, reifies both the father figure, as god, and the service that can be rendered by the child worshiper.

What is clear is that the acquisition of language is a necessary step in the constitution of human reality. There is no option, no alternative reality, but the question is if there is a characteristic mistake which marks humanity. Freud’s answer was to provide a scientific escape from religion, while both Lacan and Slavoj Žižek are content to manipulate, apart from religious mystification, the various sacrificial drives set up within the symbolic order. But what if the problem is not so much in the medium of language the child or the religionist takes up or even in the general contours of the economy? What if they have in fact stopped short in their constitution of reality, so that by delimiting it they might control it?

Could it be that in a biblical depiction of sacrifice what is being illustrated is not an economy of exchange, in which worshippers can simply appease and make amends, but more than that, the order of the divine reality and human participation in that reality is depicted as an open possibility. As Jacob Milgrom notes, it is God who is playing all the parts in the Hebrew sacrificial system. As in the story of Abraham, God himself provides the animal, lights the fire, and receives the gift. Entry into the Hebrew sacrificial system, or into the world represented by the Temple, is not simply a point of exchange between God and humans but is an invitation to full participation in the kenotic Trinitarian reality of divine life. It is not that humans can manipulate the exchange and that the exchange impacts them like an object, but they are, like God himself, constituted in the movement of giving, pouring out, donation, self-emptying.

Helen describes a rapidly expanding world which had once been closed off to her. She illustrates her life prior to meeting Anne, as if she were a ship at sea, enclosed in a fog and without means of navigation. Even upon meeting Anne she describes an initial “barrier” or something holding her entrapped. It is unclear what barrier held her back, but perhaps it was the fear of losing the little control and integrity which her isolated world afforded her.

Ironically, her blind and deaf isolation describe the typical understanding of God’s relation to the world – apophatic, impassive, immoveable, and unreachable. Typical sacrificial religion, even that which has come to describe the sacrifice of Christ, is an attempt penetrate some wall or barrier that seems to mark the very character of God.  One may need to get his attention, arouse his desire, break him free of his antipathy, or redirect his anger. The presumption is that God is in his own closed world and that the only way of breaking into this world is to somehow break down the barrier behind which he is hidden. But what if is not on the God side of things that something is required? What if, like Helen, the obstacle that needs to be broken open is one’s own (willful?) isolation.

This is the paradigmatic question which God and God’s prophets continue to raise. In Psalm 50 the worshippers are frustrated because God remains silent (v. 21). Israel has made the childish mistake of assuming God needs sacrifice and God corrects this characteristic misunderstanding: “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, For the world is Mine, and all it contains. Shall I eat the flesh of bulls, Or drink the blood of male goats?” (Ps. 50:12-13). The point of sacrifice, in the Psalmist’s explanation, is not to feed or to satisfy God’s hunger. They need to offer, not blood and meat, but thanksgiving: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving. And pay your vows to the Most High; Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me” (Ps. 50:1-15).

Where their sacrificial economy allows for the sacrifice of the neighbor, God would enact an ethic of sacrifice for the neighbor and thanksgiving to God. As Katherine Sonderegger describes the lesson of Levitical sacrifice, God is not one who would maintain his integrity, like an unbreakable or impenetrable object, but God is continually open and moving outward in the processions of the Trinity, portrayed in sacrifice. Israel is invited into this circulating economy of mercy, gifts, and thanks, as this is who God is. It is through this opening that Israel is established, and it is in this the model in which the full constitution of Personhood is modeled.[3]

The Words of Life

As Helen describes it, the sacrifice and dismemberment of the doll was her entry point into a world of signs and significance:  

She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure. We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As a cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

As Helen walks down the path her sense of warmth and smell seem to be heightened. She feels a certain joy. As the “cool stream” of water gushed over her hand, simultaneously her teacher spells out w-a-t-e-r into her other hand. Her graphic portrayal is of one who was formerly dead to the world being brought into freedom as the “living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free.” This one who is literally blind and in the darkness is enabled to see and to enter into a new freedom. Her “misty consciousness” is delivered to a capacity for thought as “the mystery of language was revealed to me.” What has broken open for Helen is the wall of separation between her and reality.

Helen begins to literally reach out to the world once the “barrier” was broken down. In the description of Anne Sullivan, she began to reach out and touch and name all the objects and persons around her.

I spelled “w-a-t-e-r” in Helen’s free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face. She spelled “water” several times. Then she dropped on the ground and asked for its name and pointed to the pump and the trellis, and suddenly turning round she asked for my name. I spelled “Teacher.” Just then the nurse brought Helen’s little sister into the pump-house, and Helen spelled “baby” and pointed to the nurse. All the way back to the house she was highly excited, and learned the name of every object she touched, so that in a few hours she had added thirty words to her vocabulary.

Her world is growing exponentially, as she describes, her “soul is being brought to life.” She has entered into the possibility of exchange with the world which very much resembles the divine invitation to Israel to share in ultimate reality, the life of God. This is the very metaphor Helen utilizes: “Thus I came up out of Egypt and stood before Sinai, and a power divine touched my spirit and gave it sight, so that I beheld many wonders. And from the sacred mountain I heard a voice which said, ‘Knowledge is love and light and vision.’”  The gift of reality opened to Helen, something like the voice of God. The question might be, why not the voice of God or something on a continuum with revelation?

 It is precisely at this point that there are hints that something might potentially go wrong.

The Subject

The destruction and loss of the doll has somehow opened up the symbolic dimension. Helen has entered a world of differentiation in which she is literally reaching out and touching and realizing the nature of the world, the objects, and the people surrounding her. At the same time, Helen enters a depth of self-awareness and subjectivity she had not yet experienced. In her description the chain of signification linked her to the world and gave birth to an unending series of thoughts, until she came back onto the porch and through the door where she had shattered the doll and then she turns inward:

I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.

Strangely, the broken doll has seemingly ushered her into the human world of full personhood, subjectivity, and morality. Her first notion of repentance and sorrow and her attempt to put the doll back together seem to indicate that in her own mind there has been, in Lacanian terms, a “murder of the thing.” Her own isolated and individual world seems to have splintered and opened with the shattering of the doll. The smashed doll may be functioning as the violation of Helen’s previous sense of wholeness, closed off as she was in her own world. Her attempt to recover this lost object may hint at the primitive religious impulse, the desire of the child, which haunts human subjectivity.

The interchange with the world holds out a lost object of desire, which Lacan will identify with the ego. The ever-elusive object of the self, held out in the mirror image or in the bodily image of others. Helen has no capacity to gaze into the mirror or to witness the bodily integrity of others offered up by sight, but what she has now realized is the breaking open of a former integrity or completeness which she had attached to the doll.

Helen describes her former life as a kind of animal like existence. She was fully enmeshed in the darkness of her immanent, silent, world like an animal, fully enmeshed in the immanent order so that it can be said to be in the world like water in water.[4] This must describe Helens unseeing, unhearing world, but doesn’t every human begin in this completely integrated order? The broken doll seemed to enact a space of separation into which the world of language entered. For the first time Helen desired to put together that which has been broken.

Earlier, she describes how she had become attached to a doll and enjoyed putting the doll in its crib. One day she discovers her baby sister in the crib, and in a fit of rage she overturns the crib and indicates the child might have been killed had her mother not been there to catch her. Helen feels no remorse or sorrow, and yet she seems to have some awareness of what she has done. Strange then that this doll, which unlike her own baby sister was hers alone, would evoke remorse.

The moment of guilt and the attempt at payment, in the explanation of Freud and every biblical indication, seems to become a permanent aspect of failed human subjects. The pervasive, if not universal bent toward masochism indicates a self-induced suffering offered as immediate punishment for the pleasure of the symbolic father figure. The symbolic enacts a price paid through masochistic sacrifice and heightened desire.

In the mode of desire, as the Psalmist explains on behalf of God, “You thought that I was just like you” (50:21). The cycle is one in which there is giving and receiving but the interchange gives rise, not to satisfaction, but to heightened desire. They honor thieves and adulterers and they practice deceit, and in their mistaken focus they have forgotten God (v. 22).

 The point of Psalm 50, and in Sonderegger’s portrayal, the point of Leviticus and the point of Jewish cultic sacrifice, is a direct portrayal of the immanent life of God as a resolution to the corrupt economy of sin. “In Trinitarian Sacrifice, Almighty God gives Himself, His Life as the Distillate, the Concretion, of Deity. He is Molten Gift.  The costly Breaking, the Plunging Down, the Life that is Blood: that is the Divine Generation, the Hiddenness poured out and made Manifest.”[5]

The great exchange which the sacrificial system of the Hebrew Bible may be opening up, is not simply a transaction between God and humans, but the exchange of a mode of subjectivity built on immanent wholeness (a self-contained punishment and pleasure) to one built upon an ever-expanding reception and gratitude. In Sonderegger’s description, “Israel’s cultus is an exchange, a rescue, just because it follows and imitates the Holy Life of God: the life of the sinner and the Divine Life of the Holy God meet on the altar of Israel.”[6]

Hellen Keller’s journey seems to indicate that there is a potential direct trajectory from the house of language to recognition of the person and work of God. According to Sonderegger, Helen illustrates how the child’s acquisition of language may take on a theological tone as “in the encounter of the intelligible in the concrete, the mastering of that explosive relation, we are brought into the house of language but also, and more powerfully, into the House of Being.”[7] She will spend a good portion of her book demonstrating that Being simply is the Being of God, and in Helen’s ever-expanding realization of the essence of things through language, the recognition of God is natural and immediate. We seem to have more than language acquisition demonstrated in the life of Helen Keller’s memoir, as the spiritual richness “tells us that we stand in a larger domain,” something on the order of spiritual enlightenment.

It is a spiritual enlightenment that flows naturally from the orientation that Helen demonstrates, subsequent to the singular sacrifice of her doll. She describes her expanding world granted through the capacity to name and then the passage into abstraction and community: “the more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.” She remembers distinctly her first encounter with and growing capacity for abstraction and her realization of a capacity for love: “The beautiful truth burst upon my mind—I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others.” This connecting Spirit of Love would seem to be none other than the all-powerful Divine Love of God.

What every child, every person encounters in their growing awareness must be this same Divine order opening up to them.

[1] Helen Keller, The Story of My Life, (New York, Doubleday) available online at,%20by%20Helen%20Keller.pdf All quotes of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan are from this source.

[2] The shattering of the doll is similar to the cooing satisfaction Freud first notices in his grandson as he learns his first words, here/gone, as he plays with a spool.

[3] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology Volume 2, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons, Fortress Press.

[4] Richard Boothby, Freud as Philosopher: Metapsychology After Lacan, (Routledge) 187.

[5] Sonderegger, 465.

[6] Sonderegger,464.

[7] Sonderegger, 280.