(I would like to thank Paul Newall and Dr. William T. Clark, III, for taking the time to read through the various versions of the thoughts and expressions contained herein (originally posted as The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Parts 1-12) and for the significant contributions of their many criticisms, suggestions, and discussions.)
The appeal of movies such as The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life is generated predominantly by their serious concern with the matter of transcendence. Transcendence is commonly conceived of in terms of there being a transcendent realm, a part of reality said to be beyond the physicality ordinarily referred to as nature. Accordingly, the transcendent tends to be thought of as non-natural, supra-natural, super-natural – in essence, other-worldly. However, these are metaphysical descriptions which reveal next to nothing whatsoever about the transcendent itself, its characteristics, its qualities. Metaphysical descriptions fail in particular to reveal anything about whether and how the transcendent is at all relevant to lives being lived. Even attributing to the transcendent a metaphysical immanence (a not-physically-identifiable presence within the natural and, hence, a this-worldly aspect) does nothing to depict the relevance of the transcendent, even if it does suffice intellectually as providing an ultimate ground or foundation for (thinking about) all aspects of reality.
The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life utilize this-worldly settings to evoke the sense – the experience – of a need for some sort of transcendence, a need for the individual to reach beyond the condition and the context of his or her own self in order to bring something new and better into the world, to take the world beyond itself, to have both the person’s own self and the world transcend. In both of these movies, it is the transcendent quality called grace upon which focus is set eventually.
This grace is a loving regard for the being of persons; this grace precedes any merit that a person might earn; it is, therefore, a love which occurs despite the character of a person and in active hope that the person will proceed beyond the condition of his or her current self. Grace is, therefore, an active quality, an always transcendent act, one forever concerned with transcending and transcendence. But, this is not the primarily metaphysical rendering of grace so often encountered in religious scholarship. Instead, these movies are concerned with how grace (and transcendent qualities in general) can be effected within the contexts of this-worldliness.
To this end the movies provide situations mired in the sort of this-worldliness that seems so remote from the transcendent as to almost exclude even the possibility of anything transcendent being at all relevant to the here and now, only to then indicate that the transcendent can most certainly be effected even in the midst of the worst ways of this world. However, because of the very nature of this-worldly being, effecting the transcendent cannot help but depend upon some preparatory conditioning for recognizing and becoming aware of the very characteristics which are part of the transcendent. Most important to this preparation – more important than musings about the metaphysics of the transcendent – is investigation into and explication of the characteristics or qualities of the transcendent, even if the transcendent and its characteristics remain only partially expressible.
2. The problem of the transcendent
By juxtaposing the way of grace and the way of nature, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life enlivens the sense that grace is something transcendent, a matter of other-worldliness. Grace, of course, is itself a matter of love, and as Hannah Arendt notes, “Love, by its very nature is unworldly”.1 It is unworldly not in the sense of being assuredly unreal but, rather, in the sense of seeming not to originate from – or seeming not to be wholly contained or locatable within or as – the physicality generally regarded and referred to as the reality which is nature. It is as if that other-worldliness is an aspect of something which – in addition to being transcendent – is also already somehow immanent, even if it is not readily or often seen. It is as if the transcendent is not just other-worldly but is also present and available, yet waiting to be made manifest (or more readily apparent) within this world.
The problem of the transcendent is the issue of its manifestation: Is it even possible for the transcendent (if there is such a thing) to have a durable this-worldliness which does not itself adulterate the transcendent? Arendt has noted that nothing alleged to be transcendent ever manifests permanently within the physical world. This is because, if there is a transcendent and if it ever becomes this-worldly, its appearance is perceived as or in an occurrence, in the fleeting moment of a thought, a word, a deed, an observation.2 The extreme brevity of any such supposed manifestation does not even leave a clear, indisputable trace of the transcendent. This lends to the transcendent being interpreted as withdrawing or hiding from this-worldliness when it does not suggest the transcendent as not just non- or supra- or super-natural but actually unreal (or, alternatively, merely the psychological phenomenon of thought).
Even though the juxtaposition of the way of grace and the way of nature in The Tree of Life has the effect of presuming that the transcendent is real, that movie is still encumbered with the general problem of transcendence in the form of the particular problem of grace and how it can ever be made durably manifest. According to Arendt, since it is “inherently” other-worldly, “love can only become false and perverted when it is used” in the world, when it is intended to effect change, even when it is regarded or utilized as a means for salvation.3
In stark contrast to the presumed reality of the transcendent with which The Tree of Life begins, an earlier Malick movie, The Thin Red Line, almost immediately starts with a disavowal of the transcendent: Pvt. Witt recounts having heard people talk about [transcendence in the form of] immortality, but – as he indicates – the transcendent remains for him unreal so long as he cannot see it.
I remember my mother when she was dying. She was all shrunk up and gray. I asked her if she was afraid. She shook her head. I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. Couldn’t find nothing beautiful or uplifting about her going back to God.
Of course, to disavow is not necessarily to dismiss, and a disavowal need not depend on there being a demonstrated falsity assignable to that which is disavowed. In fact, the disavowal of the transcendent with which The Thin Red Line begins simply introduces the first defining condition of the transcendence problem: Is anything transcendent actually real if it is not in some way possible to perceive it from within this world?
As Witt reports it, although he had not seen the transcendent either before or at the time of his mother’s death, he had since then become aware that the transcendent was there to be seen in the calm of his mother’s last breath.
I wondered how it would be when I died. What it would be like to know that this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did. With the same calm. ‘Cause that’s where it’s hidden – the immortality [the transcendent] I hadn’t seen.
Because of that seeing, because of that now retrospective perception, what was unreal had become real. The other-worldliness of the transcendent had become real for Witt, for his person, for his own self. When Sgt. Welsh later tells Witt that “there ain’t no other world but this one”, Witt tells him, “You’re wrong there. I seen another world.” However, Witt must have some sense that what he is saying is easily (mis)construed or (mis)understood either as what some would call a metaphysical claim or as some sort of demand that this other-world be in some way acknowledged, because he quickly admits that “Sometimes I think it was just my imagination.” It is as if Witt regards this other-world as something wholly dissociated from demands – at least demands that others even speak in terms of this other-world, much less acknowledge it. It is also as if Witt will not restrict reality simply to considerations in terms of what exists. This is actually quite reasonable, because claims about what exists always follow from a preceding sense of there being something important or potentially worthwhile about that which is being noted as a part of reality.
In effect, this is to say that every thing which seems real does so only when and only because it exhibits some sort of relevance. That being the case, it is not the reality of the transcendent which matters so much as it is the relevance of the transcendent which is of primary importance. Besides, it is only by means of its relevance that the reality of the transcendent (if there is such a reality) could ever seem more real than imagined.
If someone perceives the transcendent and is motivated by that perception to respond in some way, then the perception is certainly relevant to the perceiving person. However, this sort of personal, individualized relevance is likely best described as being at most only minimally or indirectly relevant to the world, its ways, and its reality.
Accordingly, the problem of transcendence is not limited to the possibility of perceiving the transcendent from within nature; instead, the problem of transcendence quickly moves beyond perception and on to the matter of whether and how the perceived transcendent is ever relevant beyond the person who perceives it. Is there a public place for the transcendent? Can the transcendent be taken public in any way that is publicly meaningful? But, then, what is public relevance or meaningfulness? Does it refer to anything other than a usefulness within the world or the fact of being utilizable by or for the public in contradistinction to a strictly personal relevance?
If Arendt is right, and not just love but also other facets of the supposed transcendent, such as goodness, are perverted when an attempt is undertaken to make a public use of the transcendent, then the transcendent never actually manifests publicly. Instead, to the extent it makes any sense at all to say that the transcendent is real, it can only appear to – and be directly relevant for – individuals. This, in turn, leaves any indirect relevance to the world as wholly dependent upon the manner in which the individual who perceives the transcendent makes it manifest in his or her own person and his or her own actions.
3. Witt amongst the Melanesians
We first meet Pvt. Witt dressed in remnants of what had been military fatigues and living in the midst of Melanesian islanders. Melanesian life as presented is idyllic; it is as if the Melanesians were freed from the toils which constitute the goings-on in most lives. Consequently, the most pervasive feature of this life seems to be something akin to the calm other-worldliness which Witt had seen in his mother’s face. It is as if Melanesian life is not just an extension of transcendent calm but a grand enduring manifestation of transcendent reality. Here there is peace – a veritable heaven – on earth. Here life becomes something other than – something more and better than – an incessant chasing after the necessities required just so that life can go on. Freed from all urgency, it is as if life becomes an immersion in the most unadulterated form of being.
This, of course, is a highly romanticized vision of Melanesian life. It is Witt’s perception; it happens to be a mis-perception. For whatever reason, Witt is blind to the presence of anything similar to the relentless this-worldliness which can be presumed to have characterized his life before he came to this island. He is so blind to this-worldliness in Melanesian life that he thinks the Melanesian children never even fight, but a Melanesian mother assures him that they do fight. She also admits to Witt that, despite the fact that he has lived amicably with them, she and her people fear him; despite the fact that Witt has lived amicably with the Melanesians, they do not regard him as one of them.
As it turns out, Witt is AWOL from his army unit, and, given the great significance he had found in the transcendent calm which he had glimpsed in his mother’s last breath, there is reason to suspect that Witt had come to feel (if not quite think) that the thorough this-worldliness of the military had to be escaped in order for the transcendent way of being to come more into his life.
Relative to the military life defined by its sort of this-worldly persistent and demanding tumult, the Melanesian way of life would certainly appear to be other-worldly, but what Witt comes to sense is that the Melanesian other-worldliness is just a different this-worldliness rather than a transcendent other-worldliness. He senses this when, after having immersed himself in its different this-worldliness, he reaches out to the Melanesian mother whose response, as Witt then finds out, cannot help but be shaped by a fearfulness, the presence of which preserves the very sort of remoteness, the very sort of insularity of person that Witt does not expect to be part of the transcendent which he had glimpsed.
What Witt begins to better realize is that the transcendent is not the calm he had realized in his mother’s face; the transcendent is not the calm felt as the lack of urgency which he identified with life on that island. Calm can come of being solitary, but the transcendent which he had glimpsed was something other than – and something ultimately incompatible with – any kind of calm that might come from being utterly alone. In pursuit of the calm he now recalled in his mother’s last breath, Witt had not been seeking the calm of aloneness. He had begun trying to immerse himself into being with the Melanesians because of – as now becomes more apparent to Witt – the unexpressed (even to himself) expectation that the transcendent had something to do with others. In effect, the transcendent was very much the opposite of an aloneness and the stillness which could come of the most extreme aloneness.
Witt had perceived the transcendent in the calm of his mother’s last breath; he thought he had also been perceiving it in the calmness he saw in island life, but what the experience of perceiving the transcendent in the calm of his mother’s last breath had ended up doing was spark in him a rapt realization of the transcendent as the incessant, inescapable, and real “responsibility” which Emmanuel Levinas says we encounter in “the face of the other”.4 It was the face of the other of which Witt became more acutely aware during his time with the Melanesians, and, as the Levinasian responsibility (the response-to-the-other) began to burn in him, it was no longer the calm but something about the very being of others which drew him beyond himself.
The fear to which the Melanesian woman admitted in no way mitigates the responsibility, the responsible, responsive concern which Witt has for the fearful others, and what Witt comes to realize is that the exigencies of military life likewise in no way mitigate this responsibility – this sort of transcendent relationship – about which he now has some awareness. What he also quickly realizes about the transcendent as relationship is that, although fear felt by the other does not alleviate Witt’s responsibility to the other, that fear most certainly does affect how and what that responsibility might make manifest. After all, it was a fear of his own which prevented him from recognizing the presence of the transcendent at the time of his mother’s death. The fullest fruition of Witt’s response to his responsibility towards and for an other person ultimately depends upon the other’s reaction to anything Witt does, including anything he says. But, when fear is present, a person reacts to fear; therefore, so long as Witt is feared by the islanders, what responses they have to him will be reactions to the fear they have of him rather than to Witt himself.
What Witt has come to recognize is that a consequence of fear is that, in addition to blinding, it insulates individuals, and, in insulating individuals, fear is always an impediment to ever fuller manifestation of the transcendent. Having come to this realization, when Witt is returned to his army company, he is determined to fearlessly manifest his responsibility in service to, as he says, “my people”, the men of Charlie Company who – in contradistinction to the Melanesians – already do not fear him.
4. Witt in the brig
Upon being returned to the army, Witt is placed in the brig where Sgt. Welsh indicts him saying, “Truth is: You can’t take straight duty in my company. You’ll never be a real soldier.” Animated as Witt now is with a new found devotion to fearlessness and to the responsibility he encounters in the face of the other, Witt speaks truth when, with a hint of heatedness, he tells Welsh, “I can take anything you can dish out. I’m twice the man you are.”
Welsh’s response to Witt’s claim about being more of a man is interesting. Welsh does not act as if he feels at all insulted; instead, he appears to intentionally give a look of amused puzzlement. He does not answer with the reflexive vehemence that often appears when a man’s own manliness is proclaimed to be comparatively deficient – especially when that proclamation is issued by someone who is supposed to be of lesser status. Since he is supposed to be Witt’s leader, it is possible that all Welsh had been trying to do was provoke Witt, to stir some fight within him. In that case, it would be counterproductive for Welsh to respond vehemently inasmuch as that vehemence might douse the spirit which Witt had exhibited. Welsh responds to Witt with a relatively calm insistence saying, “In this world, a man, himself, is nothing … All a man can do is shut his eyes and let nothing touch him, look out for himself.”
To an extent, in these statements are both representation and contradiction of the ethic which the military prefers to have imparted to each of its members. According to that ethic, each person is not to look out for only himself, and it is by not looking out for only himself that each person becomes more than nothing.
That ethic contradicts Welsh’s advice that “[a]ll a man can do is … look out for himself”, and that easily identifiable contradiction might be intended to further stoke the spirit, the fight which is now apparent in Witt. Welsh’s comment is certainly not put forth as some sort of rebuttal to Witt’s claim of being more of a man. Welsh’s comment lacks the force of a challenge, and, yet, it seems to be something other than a psychological ploy. The remark might be intended to signal that its lack of vehemence should be appreciated as indicating a power which Welsh has, the capability not to be affected by remarks from someone in Witt’s position, but there is something in the tone of Welsh’s response which makes it seem that Welsh is in some way deferentially acknowledging – although not outright agreeing with – Witt’s claim to be more of a man than Welsh is.
There is a sense in which Welsh’s response serves to confirm Witt’s claim. According to Martin Buber, the transcendent (which Buber refers to as “spirit”) manifests in “a response of man to his Thou”, something which is very much like – if not identical to – the Levinasian face of the other. Buber says, “Spirit is not in the I” of the individual person. Likewise, spirit is not in the It, by which Buber means the things experienced simply as objects which the individual might put to some use. Instead, spirit is “but between I and Thou”,5 and “he who lives with It alone is not a man.”6 This is to say that if Welsh really does “shut his eyes” so that he never sees “his Thou” in the face of the other, then Welsh necessarily lives only “with It” and is, therefore, most certainly less of a man than Witt now is.
Shutting his eyes so that he will not see the face of the other or his responsibility to the other is precisely what Witt intends never to do, and Witt is aware that, no matter how hard or how often Welsh might try to keep his eyes shut, the fact is that Welsh’s eyes never stay shut. As Witt later says to Welsh, “You care about me. Don’t you sarge? I always felt like you did. … I still see a spark in you.” Whereas Sgt. Storm can “look at that boy dying” and “feel nothing … care ’bout nothing anymore”, Welsh, on the other hand, never attains the numbness of such a supposed “bliss.” Welsh always has feeling – whether a sense of responsibility towards, or maybe even a concern – for others, no matter how much he tries to “make [him]self out like a rock,” and it is that responsive concern for others which Witt sees as a spark of the transcendent in Welsh.
5. Welsh and the wounded soldier
Welsh often seems to deride or mock the transcendent which animates Witt, but there is one scene in particular which suggests that Welsh’s apparent derision for the transcendent has absolutely nothing to do with any adamant denial of, or hard-held disbelief in, the possibility that the transcendent is real. In fact, this particular scene – where Welsh braves enemy fire in order to get morphine to a mortally wounded soldier and is then praised by Capt. Staros – reveals Welsh as the person possibly most broadly aware of the nature of the transcendent and, therefore, most tortured by the problem of transcendence – the fact that any appearance of the transcendent in the world never endures clearly.
After a medic is killed while trying to bring morphine to a mortally wounded soldier who is screaming incessantly in agony, Welsh takes it upon himself to weave through the field of fire to get to the dying soldier. Welsh first tries to take the soldier back to the covered position where the rest of the company is, but it very quickly becomes obviously impossible. So, Welsh retrieves the morphine and gives it to the soldier before leaving. When Welsh gets back to the company position, Capt. Staros begins to effuse, “Sergeant, I saw the whole thing through the glasses. I’m going to mention you in orders tomorrow! Recommend you for the Silver Star!” Welsh cuts him off: “Captain, if you say one more word to thank me, I’m going to knock you right in the teeth. You mention me in your fucking orders and I’ll resign my rating so fast and leave you here to run this busted up outfit by yourself. You understand?!?!?”
Welsh did what he did for the sake of the soldier writhing in agony. He did not risk his life in order to be noticed. He did not risk his life in order to be praised. He did not even do what he did in order to alleviate any deleterious anxiety which that fallen soldier’s continuing screams might have caused the rest of the company. All that Capt. Staros could see with his field glasses was Welsh in action. Staros saw that action as Welsh’s; Staros saw the greatness or the great goodness of that action as Welsh’s, and, as a consequence, Staros heaped praise on Welsh. But, what Staros seems to have turned away from with that praise – what Staros seems to have been blind to – was the goodness itself. And this is what drives Welsh almost to apoplexy.
Arendt remarks that “the moment a good work becomes known and public,” such as when it is praised or even called good, “it loses its specific character of goodness, of being done for nothing but goodness’ sake.”7 An act can make (indeed, an act is necessary to make) goodness or some other supposedly transcendent quality manifest, but that manifestation does not endure when there is focus upon the act or the person who does the act rather than upon the transcendent quality which is to be found in or which motivates the act.
The vehemence of Welsh’s reaction to the praise which pours out of Staros is consistent with the character of a person pained by the problem of transcendence, a problem which itself manifests as people’s blindness to the transcendent and its nature. It is as if Welsh does not want to be praised precisely because what he most wants is for the others, including Staros, to see beyond the act to what it is that makes the act appear good. To see beyond is to be better aware of the good in order that it can then be continually made manifest until it is no longer so rare and out of the ordinary. The tendency to see only the man who acts – to praise the man and his act – only results in using the man as an example of a thing to be imitated. But, to imitate makes manifest only an imitation, and the transcendent is never – and can never be – made manifest by imitation. It is almost as if, despite his repeated disavowals of other-worldliness, Welsh has his own quite strong sense of the transcendent.
The idea that what he did would be proclaimed an exemplar for military behavior in particular enrages Welsh precisely because it is not the military ethic which motivates Welsh’s act. Welsh ends the tirade directed at Staros by exclaiming, “You understand?!?!? Property! Whole fucking thing’s about property.” Although it sounds like mere hackneyed anti-war sentiment, Welsh’s remark nonetheless punctuates the fact that, no matter the rhetoric used to justify the war, no matter how very evil the enemy might actually be, the institutions fueling this war are by their very nature necessarily motivated by and limited to a thorough this-worldliness of a sort which Welsh rejects.
6. Staros and the response to the transcendent
It may be, however, that Sgt. Welsh has misinterpreted Capt. Staros’s reaction. Staros is, after all, more concerned about the men under his command than he is interested in the military or its ethic. Already having his own sense of a Levinasian – a transcendent – responsibility, it may be that Staros was reacting to having seen the reality of a great goodness, a goodness which he had seen in or because of Welsh’s act. It may be that an awe-filled joy overcame Staros as an uncontainable ebullience which Staros let pour forth in praise of Welsh not only because Staros had seen the great goodness owing to Welsh but also because that goodness would not have appeared as it did, where it did, and when it did had it not been for Welsh allowing and enabling – frankly, effecting – its manifestation. Could Staros have done differently? Should he have done something else instead? Buber says:
Spirit is not in the I, but between I and Thou. It is not like the blood that circulates in you, but like the air in which you breathe. Man lives in the spirit … if he is able to respond to his Thou….
But the … stronger the response the more strongly does it bind up the Thou and banish it to be an object [an It]. Only silence before the Thou … leaves the Thou free, and permits man to take his stand with it in the reserve where the spirit is not manifest, but [instead simply and fully] is. Every response binds up the Thou in the world of It. That is the melancholy of man, and his greatness. For that is how knowledge comes about, a work is achieved, and image and symbol made, in the midst of living things.8
Staros could have responded to Welsh with the deeply personal silence of an acknowledging touch and look. However, just as a man is not to place his light under a bushel but, instead, upon a pedestal,9 so too is a man not to hide the light of another man, because that light is to be given for all others who might see it. Accordingly, it is not wrong of Staros to want the attention of others to be set upon what Welsh has done so that they, too, might see or hear and become aware of the great goodness that can be made manifest as was done so by or because of Welsh. This is also why Staros could not have said something like “I have seen something wonderful” and left it at that.
At the same time, Welsh was not wrong with his concern about the praise. But such is the condition of the person who in effect has some sense of the transcendent, the person who in Buber’s words is aware of the spirit: “He knows that his mortal life swings by nature between Thou and It,” between other-worldliness and this-worldliness. “It suffices him to be able to cross again and again the threshold of the holy place wherein he was not able to remain; the very fact that he must leave it again and again is inwardly bound up for him with the meaning and the character of this life.”10
Welsh’s numerous denials of transcendent other-worldliness never amount to a philosophical challenge as much as they indicate a bitterness over the very necessity of having to repeatedly give manifestation to the transcendent. Alternatively, his bitterness might stem from the fact that so very few are astute enough or dedicated enough to making manifestation of the transcendent less out of the ordinary. But, whichever the case, that bitterness is essentially the product of a demand that reality be as Welsh wants it to be.
It is, in effect, the very sort of demand which Pvt. Witt, on the other hand, thinks is never to be made, even if only because that demand which endures as bitterness can distract from the responsibility towards others. In Welsh, that bitterness – despite its ineffectualness – has not given way to the hopelessness of the so-called “bliss” in which there is no feeling. Although that bitterness may sometimes be distracting, it never eliminates from Welsh what is effectively a sense of responsibility towards the other men of Charlie Company.
7. Perception and unexpectedness
Of course, neither a sense of responsibility nor any act done in service to a responsibility is necessarily a matter or a manifestation of the transcendent. Responsibility can be a product of social pressure and can take the form usually known as duty. As duty, responsibility is predominantly – if not exclusively – a role undertaken to satisfy others’ expectations. Accordingly, duty is a service which can be demanded by others. However, that responsibility which is a matter of transcendence never comes to be as a result of its being demanded, and it can never be demanded. Responsibility as duty can be delegated; transcendent responsibility can never be delegated to anyone else.
If Staros had ordered Welsh to get the morphine to the mortally wounded soldier, Welsh would have been at least as brave in doing what he did as he was when he did it on his own initiative and without having been ordered. The relief delivered to that fallen soldier would not have been at all lessened if Welsh had been ordered to undertake that mission. There could even have been a no less genuine realization that there was goodness (that needed) to be effected in the world and made manifest in taking care of that soldier. In that situation, the realization would appear to have taken place within the person of Staros. Welsh’s undertaking and accomplishing the task would still have been praised; it likely would have been deemed every bit as deserving of the Silver Star. And, yet, despite the extensive similarities between the two situations (the one in which Welsh acts on his own and the one in which he is ordered), it is unlikely that the response to what Welsh did when ordered would have been identical to that which occurred after he acted entirely on his own. Is there anything of significant note which would explain these differences in these responses and distinguish these situations?
It might be argued that, if he had been ordered to attend to the wounded soldier, Welsh could have exhibited the same bravery in precisely the same way that he actually did when he undertook the mission on his own – for nothing but the sake of goodness itself. The fact that Welsh could have acted for goodness’ own sake in both cases is not sufficiently exhaustive to establish that both situations are identically significant. The fact that Welsh could have been acting for goodness’ sake in both cases and yet effected different responses compels some consideration into the nature of manifestation itself.
If the medic had not been killed while trying to help the wounded soldier, the response to the medic would not have been the same as that which occurred when Welsh acted on his own. And this is so despite the fact that the medic was not ordered to help the wounded soldier. Staros tells the medic, “I can’t ask you to go out there.” Staros’ choice of “ask” might mean he cannot in good conscience either request or order that the medic attend to the soldier, but, in either case, the response to the medic braving fire can be expected to be different than the response to Welsh’s own unsolicited action precisely because there is a sense of duty assigned to the role of medic, a duty which is not similarly assigned to the other soldiers’ roles. The medic would not seem less brave owing to his having a duty which the others do not have, but with that duty comes some expectation. What distinguishes the medic’s action from Welsh’s is the absolute unexpectedness of Welsh’s action. It is that unexpectedness that makes the transcendent manifest in the sense of being more apparent, more likely to be perceived, or more noticeable as distinguished from being real or having been part of an occurrence in the world.
Staros’ own response to the medic having completed the mission would have been different from his response to Welsh’s successful completion of the mission. This is in part because Staros was aware of the medic’s intent before the medic undertook to make his entirely private intention an actual, public, this-worldly event-occurrence. The medic had said that the wounded soldier would “be dead before they can ever get him back to the surgeon … Well, maybe it’s worth a try. Maybe I can at least get a syringe of morphine in him.” By making his intention known before undertaking his mission, the medic made his act less unexpected. However, being less unexpected in no way diminishes what goodness there is in (association with) the act – regardless of whether that goodness is objectively transcendent or not. The degree of unexpectedness only affects the likelihood that some person(s) will come to perceive – and appreciate – qualities in association with what occurs.
A characteristic of this-worldliness is that it is inescapably a world of appearances. Appearances are not necessarily illusions; rather, appearances are matters of perception. This-worldly reality is the reality of appearances; it is the reality of that which is perceived and might ever be perceived, and perception itself is a matter of conditioning. Hannah Arendt says:
Men are conditioned beings because everything they come in contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence … In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which … possess the same conditioning power as natural things.11
Perception is conditioned by things which a person has “come in contact with”, by situations experienced, and by the person’s own interpretations of what has been perceived (experienced). This is to say that how a person interprets an event – what a person thinks about an experience and the manner in which a person thinks – can affect what that person later perceives and how that person later acts. Unexpectedness is not necessary for perception to occur, but interpretation – just as is the case with human vision – does depend upon there being recognizable contrast. Unexpectedness is itself one sort of contrastive matter, and so is exceptionality.
In effect, all perception is constituted, characterized, or conditioned by interpretation. Any great goodness in Welsh’s act to help the wounded soldier is perceptible only by means of interpretation, and that interpretation will itself characterize Welsh’s act in terms of some sort of contrast. The most conventional interpretation of Welsh’s action would describe it as having been “selfless”. Given the context in which the action took place, wherein it is expected and proper that each person would be largely consumed with concern for his own self, it makes sense to interpret Welsh’s act as selfless inasmuch as something other than a concern for his own self had to have occurred in order for Welsh to act as he did. However, every soldier who charged the enemy could just as well have been acting with something other than a concern for his own self; therefore, if there is something to be seen in Welsh’s act as distinguishing it from the charging soldiers’ acts, it is something which is better to be described other than in terms of selflessness. Indeed, what most notably distinguishes Welsh’s act is seeing in that act – not selflessness, but – something other than and beyond selflessness: Welsh was not selfless when he acted; instead, it was his very self which acted for another self.
This is not a matter of duty; it is a matter of transcendent responsibility. It is not a responsibility which Welsh could have delegated to or demanded of any other person; it is not a responsibility which anyone – including the military through its own code of ethics – could have imposed upon Welsh. It is his own self’s responsibility.
It is the same transcendent relationship which Pvt. Witt had earlier perceived. Witt’s interpretation of what he perceived made relevant what he had perceived; it had the effect of conditioning him for setting about through his actions to give that transcendent responsibility a durable this-worldly place in the person of his own self. Such an enterprise would, if successful, have the effect of making the transcendent at least a little more commonplace within the world and, thereby, less obvious in terms of exceptionality. In fact, the presence of the transcendent which had become Witt’s near ceaseless motivation (and, hence, part of his very person as well as many of his actions) was not readily noticeable for those around him, but its reality, its relevance was there nonetheless – even if any of those who might come to see it first had to be conditioned in order to perceive it and themselves respond to it as relevant.
8. Witt and fear in the face of the other
When Witt is in the brig after having been returned from his life among the Melanesians, Welsh tells him, “Normally you’d be court-martialed. But I worked a deal for you … I’m sending you to a disciplinary unit. You’ll be a stretcher-bearer. You’ll be taking care of the wounded.” Since Witt is devoted in responsive concern for and service to others, being assigned to a stretcher-bearer unit does not strike him as any actual punishment. Motivated as he is to make effective the responsibility he has for others (a transcendent relationship he has with those others), it is likely that Witt is not even in the least embarrassed that others in Charlie Company will think of him as having been disciplined.
Witt realizes his responsibility in responding to the wounded. He does not just transport fallen soldiers; he reaches out to the wounded, trying to give comfort and assurance. He gives one man a sip of water from a canteen and then pours a little water over the man’s head and rubs the man’s head. Witt pours a little more water on the man’s neck to help cool him down, and he rubs the man’s neck. The man says something, and Witt nods an acknowledgment with a slight smile seemingly meant to assure the man that he will be alright.
The stretcher-bearing duty provides contexts in which Witt can be responsive to persons and attend to their needs, but such situations are not of the sort which Witt feels most need that responsibility which he is dedicated to effecting. He would much prefer to be in the midst of the battle, because that is where fear will be most rampant, and Witt senses that his primary responsibility is to do what he can to dispel particular occasions of fear. That is why, when he encounters Welsh and Staros during the battle, Witt asks Staros to let him rejoin Charlie Company.
From that time on, Witt is always taking part in the most forward fighting. That is where he will encounter others from whom Witt thinks it is of the utmost importance that fear be removed.
Witt knows what it is like to be restricted, confined, constricted by fear. It was fear which impeded his vision, his awareness of the transcendent. By his own reckoning, he must place himself in the sorts of situations where there might be opportunity for him to effect his responsibility to dispel the type of fear which confines a person to his own self and prevents that person from seeing and moving beyond himself – the type of fear which, in effect, assigns the transcendent to unreality.
Witt is present when Sgt. Keck reaches for a hand grenade but, instead of grabbing the grenade, mistakenly pulls the pin. Aware of what he has done, Keck flings himself against an embankment to shield the other soldiers from the blast of the grenade. Keck does not die immediately, and he remains conscious for awhile. Witt looks on as one soldier whispers something in Keck’s ear. Another soldier tries to comfort Keck by telling him that he is not going to die, but that only angers Keck who is as well aware as are the others that the injuries will very soon prove fatal. Witt grabs a hold of Keck’s shirt, pulls him up, and says, “You’re gonna be alright … Even if you die … You didn’t let your brother down. If you hadn’t thrown yourself against that embankment we’d have all been killed.” Keck shivers and says, “I’m cold … I’m freezing,” and Witt lets him back down gently so that he can rearrange Keck’s shirt to make him a little warmer. Keck begins to agitate, and Witt holds him down until Keck relaxes and becomes calm. Witt then puts one of his hands on Keck’s shoulder and briefly brushes the side of Keck’s face before Keck dies. Witt smiles faintly, pleased that Keck was able to meet death with calm and possibly also glad with the thought that he had helped Keck attain that calm.
Witt’s responsibility towards others is not limited to those whom he regards as “my people”, the men of Charlie Company. His responsibility more clearly exhibits the broadness of a Levinasian characteristic when, after the Japanese have been routed from their bunkers, Witt is observing some of the Japanese who have been taken prisoner. The prisoners are hunched close together; some are obviously distraught; others are clearly afraid. At that point, Witt recognizes that his responsibility properly extends even to the vanquished in whom Witt sees the face of the other for whom he has a responsibility and towards whom he is to respond. He offers some chewing gum to those others so that they might be invited out of their fear.
9. Leadership from virtue
Witt does not try to make the transcendent manifest (in the sense of more apparent) so much as he tries to effect the transcendent in the world. Dedicated as he is to effecting the transcendent rather than drawing attention to it, Witt’s actions do not appear to the rest of the men around him to be at all distinguishable from duties performed simply for being what is expected in accord with the military culture. Witt exhibits the expected bravery with his willingness to participate in front-line fighting. In that fighting, he watches out for the other soldiers just as they watch out for him, and he does not balk at orders. Unlike some of the other soldiers, Witt exhibits the respect towards prisoners which the military ethic expects.
It would be of no concern to the military that Witt acts as he does for reasons which, as the movie reveals, are themselves not products of the training and ethic – the culture – which undergirds the military. Instead, the military is predominantly interested in what Witt does only in terms of whether or not he contributes to the ends which the military seeks to attain in some particular context.
Insofar as the military ethic is developed in anticipation of times wherein the military will be called upon to extend itself beyond its rituals in service to (and as reminders of) its hierarchical structure – insofar as the military ethic is constructed to anticipate times when the military will have to effect acts within that vast part of the world which is not itself subject to or in service to the military, its ways and purposes – the military ethic ultimately requires something other than a structure which demands simplistic deference to orders that are hierarchically imposed.
Particularly in the most dire situations, it is always to be expected that there will be a need for acts which are other than what can be ordered or demanded, inasmuch as contexts very often unfold with situations that cannot always be anticipated. Accordingly, in order to enhance the likelihood that success will be attained, the military ethic properly entails some degree of flexibility in order to accommodate the expectation of a need for the sort of judgment which can be made most effectually only from within and during the sort of unanticipated situation which does not afford opportunity for action to be put in abeyance until some higher ranking person can be adequately informed about what is going on before the decision can be made for what action is to be ordered and then undertaken.
This is to say that the military ethic certainly need not be a simple matter of following orders. Some versions of the ethic itself are designed to at least encourage the development of the capability for effectual judgment. This capability is the basis for that indefinite – and, therefore, ultimately indefinable and incompletely describable – yet indispensable characteristic known as leadership, which itself is something other than the right (or a privilege granted) to impose demands through the issuance of orders.
It has been said that a person leads by example, but such a notion in no way captures the sense of what is meant by leadership. Once the battle commences, Pvt. Witt’s courage, loyalty, and honor are exemplary, but it would be inaccurate to say that his actions amount to leadership. It would be just as inaccurate to think of Witt’s actions as being at all intended to lead others. Of course, this is largely the result of Witt being devoted to effecting the transcendent himself rather than being devoted to making the transcendent more blatantly apparent to others. And this is probably because a devotion to making the transcendent more immediately apparent would end up depending upon his being devoted to getting others to see things as he sees them, which, in turn, means being devoted to getting others to think about things as he does, and that then means being devoted to getting others to somewhat extensively adopt his own way of speaking about the effecting of the transcendent: By which point Witt would feel himself far removed from the devotion to effecting the transcendent – which is always done only for the sake of effecting the transcendent and never because it is expected or so that one comes to be noticed as worthy of praise.
This is not to in any way suggest that leadership is incompatible with devotion to effecting the transcendent. Indeed, leadership can follow from that devotion even if the desire to have others follow might itself be incompatible with the devotion to effect the transcendent. What this is meant to indicate is that leadership is something other than exemplary acts, and it is also intended to suggest that leadership depends upon relational qualities between persons which are other than what is imposed hierarchically.
Leadership depends upon trust and respect. As individuals become aware of the qualities or talents of those with whom they keep company, they respond to those characteristics with trust; they learn which other individuals are to be trusted to act in particular ways. Trust, in turn, can give rise to respect, a personally held high regard for some qualities of an other person. Whereas deference can be demanded, trust and respect develop organically, so to speak, between persons. The leadership quality becomes apparent in that person who is able to judge effectually between individuals in accord with their individual capabilities and who – because he, too, is trusted – is well-positioned to motivate others.
Successful attainment of military goals very often depends upon the production and maintenance of a morale for which the issuance of commands would never be sufficient. That morale which is so very important to the military is to some extent similar to the spirit which Buber discusses. It depends on there being some recognition of others as distinct selves rather than as de-personalized, effectively de-individualized, and in essence replaceable things to be utilized in service to some grand purpose.
That leadership upon which the military is ultimately dependent entails some extent of responsiveness to the persons – the selves as their individual selves – in order for there to be a spirit between them in which they share, live, and operate together and as selves. This feature itself should be sufficient to indicate how the leadership quality can follow from a devotion to effecting the transcendent, but it is also conceivable that a more intentionally instrumentalist ethic could be implemented wherein personnel would be trained based upon something akin to the above discussed considerations into the nature of morale along with considerations into how effectual judgment will – at least at times – depend upon the same capabilities that contribute to morale.
While the capability to recognize and respond to others as the selves who they are is necessary to the quality of leadership, this capability – particularly during war – can be a very limited sort of concern about the selves of those others. In The Thin Red Line, Capt. Staros seems to exhibit the quality of leadership when – after incurring heavy casualties and getting bogged down during the battle – he objects to and refuses to carry out Col. Tall’s order to have Charlie Company undertake a frontal assault which Staros insists would be pointlessly and needlessly suicidal – with the emphasis on suicidal.
Within earshot of men under his command, Staros makes it very clear that, having lived with these men for as long as he has and knowing them as the men – the selves – who they are, he will not be complicit in ordering that they assuredly die. So that his apparent leadership will not be confused for fearfulness (even cowardice), Staros expresses an apparent willingness to continue to engage the enemy – just not with a poorly thought-out frontal attack. Without expressing this willingness to continue the fight, Staros’ refusal to follow Tall’s order would itself have very likely been deleterious to his troops’ morale; it would have taken on the pallor of a destructive fear. But, because of the seeming fearlessness with which Staros put himself at clear risk for the sake of his own men’s very persons, his men perceived in Staros the leadership quality which ended up invigorating the company – even, as it turns out, if that re-invigoration might have occurred owing to the respite from fighting which followed Staros’ refusal to enact Tall’s order rather than from an instance of genuine – as distinguished from merely perceived – leadership.
In the movie, it is made clear that Staros has become tortured by the prospect of ever having to send his men to their deaths. This torture no doubt arises out of Staros’ recognition of his men as individual selves. However, he reacts to that dread by withdrawing into himself and becoming obsessed not with the deaths of selves manifesting individuality but, instead, with death itself so that he ends up losing sight of his men as the individual selves who they are. Because he now only sees the horror he faces as undifferentiated deaths rather than as individuated deaths, Staros is on the verge of refusing to put any lives at risk. Given the situation as it has unfolded, so far as he is able to discern, refusing to put any lives at risk is now likely the only means by which he can be of service to his men. The problem for Staros – actually the error he makes – lies in his thinking that the individuality of selves is ever (pre)served in taking greater control over their lives. Having effectively lost sight of his men as individuals, Staros can no longer recognize that (at least some of) those individuals might have good reasons for being willing to put their own lives at risk for the sake of others.
As a consequence of having lost sight of his men as individuals, Staros’ ability to exhibit the necessary leadership quality quickly disintegrates. This begins to become apparent to his men when Col. Tall reaches their position, and Staros remains hunched with fear despite the fact that the fighting has largely abated by that time.
The judgment required for leadership depends first (and whenever circumstances allow) on an assignment of duties which takes account of individuals’ characteristic abilities. This sort of judgment in terms of individuals is more concerned with mission success than it is with assuring the well-being of any individuals, but even that type of judgment can impart to the members of an operational unit the sense that there is some regard for their individual selves. The sense that the person in charge is inclined whenever possible to make judgments in terms of individuals’ abilities (rather than just use individuals as indistinguishable, interchangeable, and – if need be – ultimately discardable tools) engenders in members of the unit a recognition of the leadership quality in the person authorized to issue orders. In response, unit members will to some extent personalize their own relationship to the person in charge; a trust ensues, and the individuals are invigorated to act for the sake of the leader regarded as the representative of the unit and its members. As a consequence, a person who exhibits the leadership quality is well-positioned to motivate others to pursue and achieve goals beyond which they might have otherwise thought themselves capable. On the other hand, a commander who is incapable of the type of judgment that is necessary to effect a sense of leadership puts at risk the morale that (once it comes to be) must be maintained in order for extended engagements to succeed.
10. Levinasian responsibility and the military ethic
When Colonel Tall relieves Capt. Staros of his command after the first battle, he puts Lt. Band in charge of Charlie Company. Band is no leader. This lack of leadership is foreshadowed in two scenes prior to Band being put in command.
As first the medic and then Welsh respond to the mortally wounded soldier’s repeated agonized calls for someone to help him, Band says to Staros, “Fortunately, Jim, the fate of the company doesn’t depend on one man.” Staros does not reply. Then later, as casualties continue to mount and Charlie Company gets bogged down, Tall orders Staros to have his men undertake a frontal assault. Staros objects,12 and then Band interjects.
Staros: “Colonel, I don’t think that you fully understand what’s going on down here. I formally request to be given permission for patrol reconnaissance around to the right … through the jungle. I believe the entire position, sir, can be outflanked with a maneuver there in force.”
Tall: “No! … There will be no flanking move! … Now, attack, Staros! That’s a direct order!”
Staros: “Sir, I must tell you that I refuse to obey your order.”
Band: “It’s not your fault, Jim. He’s ordering you to.”
Staros again ignores Band, and, after asking Tall once more to permit the flanking move – which Tall still adamantly refuses – Staros tells Tall, “Colonel, I refuse to take my men up there in a frontal attack. It’s suicide, sir. I’ve lived with these men, sir, for two and a half years, and I will not order them all to their deaths.”
What those two scenes indicate about Band is that he lacks any sense of personal responsibility towards the men of his company, and he lacks any sense of responsibility towards those men as persons. For him, no person matters. This might be an attitude adopted as a way of trying to buffer himself from having to face the deep horrors of lives lost. He might be afraid that if he were to allow himself to see the others as persons, as unique selves, then he might not be able to function as a soldier – especially in battle as those unique selves are being killed. Instead of investing his own person in a responsibility towards others, Band has decided that his only responsibility is to be that which is imposed upon him as orders to be effected. In effect, he hopes that there will never be a need for him to have or use judgment.
He expects others to function in like fashion. These characteristics are absolutely antithetical to those which constitute leadership, and, as becomes painfully apparent once Band assumes command of the company, these characteristics have worked their way to the very core of Band’s being.
With Band in charge, the company is on patrol, following the course of a river. Artillery shells begin to fall nearby, and as the explosions get closer and closer, Sgt. Bell (who, as a private during the first battle, had found the route which would be used to successfully overrun the Japanese bunker) tells Band, “We need to get out of here right now. Did you explain to headquarters the situation?” Band meekly admits, “No.” Bell continues, “Do they know where we are? … we’re sitting ducks out here.” Interestingly, Band responds to Bell telling him, “Well, I think that’s for me to judge.” But, that is precisely what Band has trained himself not to be able to do, and Band soon proves himself wholly incapable of judgment.
He begins to exhibit a confusion on the verge of becoming incoherence. Band says, “No. I think we just need to send somebody up there and find out how close they are. OK? It’s easy.” Then he tells another soldier to radio headquarters, basically just as Bell had indicated he should already have done. The radio operator announces that contact with headquarters cannot be made, “Line’s cut.” Band responds, “Well, we need to send somebody out there to find out where that line is being cut. And we need to find out how close they are. Come on!” Bell watches Band as Band, continuing to fumble for thoughts, points past Bell and says, “Uh … OK. OK. Uh … Hey … You … You go.” That you at whom Band appears to be pointing is Cpl. Fife, someone who was with Band alongside Capt. Staros during the entirety of the first battle. Fife becomes incredulous and his jaw drops.
During the movie, Fife has never been seen involved in any of the most direct, most heated fighting. His primary duty seems to have been to be close at hand to the commander. Fife is also the person who Pfc. Beade calls for to hold his hand as he is dying. Of course, any soldier is expected to be able and willing to undertake the most dangerous missions if so ordered, but, in the midst of the utmost confusion, would a leader turn to someone like Fife to do reconnaissance “to find out how close they are” and “to find out where that line is being cut”, especially when others who have already proven themselves more capable are right at hand?
If Band is giving Fife the order, then why does Band not just address Fife by name? After all, Fife is someone with whom Band should have been well familiar. Is it because he is so very racked with confusion – now that he needs to make judgments for which he is not well suited – that Band can only speak in terms of you? Or, is Fife just a nameless you owing to the fact that no man is an individual person so far as Band is concerned? Whatever the explanation, Band is just adding to the general state of confusion. No one moves; so, Band must name the you and says, “You’re going, Fife.”
Nearby, Witt has witnessed the entire exchange, and as Band names Fife, the camera shifts between Witt’s looking on in disbelief and Fife’s incredulous stare. Once again seeing his responsibility in the face of the other, this time in Fife’s face, Witt jumps in and tells Band, “I’ll go.”
For some reason, Witt feels compelled to add, “I want you to know I think the whole thing is a bad idea, though.” It is possible that the bad idea which Witt first had in mind is the one sending Fife on the reconnaissance mission, but, so far as Witt is concerned, he will have alleviated that situation if he goes with Fife. But, Witt also seems to recognize that someone has to step forward and be responsible for the rest of the men. That is to say that someone has to lead; someone has to take account of the men’s lives and the purpose of the mission and make a decision rather than just leave the company hunkered in the river, and Witt tries to get Band to realize his responsibility to the men under his command. Witt tells Band, “If they come down here in any strength, Lieutenant, they’re gonna knock our position to hell and flinders.” As Witt speaks, Fife seems to feel somewhat relieved. Maybe it is because Witt is there for him; maybe it is because Fife thinks Witt might get Band to change his mind.
Band completely mis-takes what Witt has said, and Band responds telling Witt, “You don’t have to go, private. There’s others who’ll volunteer.” Witt replies, “No. I wanna go, sir. In case something bad happens, I wanna be there.” Having seen his responsibility in Fife’s face, Witt wants to go where he can effect that responsibility. He would, of course, have a like responsibility to the other men were he to remain with the company instead of going with Fife, but Witt is aware that the responsibility which he is most likely to be able to effect is the responsibility towards Fife. In part, this is because there is a likelihood that the others will be responsible for one another (even if Band were to continue failing in his responsibility as commander) whereas Fife would have no one with him as capable as Witt thinks himself to be at being there for Fife.
11. Grace: transcending transcendent responsibility
Bell is frozen in awe as he looks at Witt. Bell has seen through the world of appearances and perceived a great goodness which he had never before noticed – not just in Witt, but – in anyone, a goodness so rarely perceived as to give the impression of being unworldly, a holy greatness, the sort of rare greatness which gives meaning to the term holy.
Witt had for some time been dedicated to seeking out the most trying situations, thinking that it was in those contexts where he might most meaningfully effect that transcendent responsibility of which he had become aware, but no one could be aware of Witt’s motivation. After all, Witt’s dedication was to an effecting which was wholly unconcerned with appearing in order to be noticed.
Here, too, in the river, Witt’s dedication was unchanged. He certainly hoped that Fife would be eased by his presence, but Witt sought nothing more than that Fife would feel a little relieved. Accordingly, it was not at all in Witt’s mind that Fife might seek to figure out why Witt would do what he had done and might happen to see in Witt’s face the responsibility for the other that Witt had recognized in Fife’s face. For that matter, it was not Witt’s intent that Bell or anyone else might grasp why Witt acted as he did.
But, Bell did realize what he had just seen. And what he had seen was something far beyond the call of duty; it was something more than bravery.
In fact, it was something beyond that grandest sort of responsibility, that Levinasian responsive dedication which befalls a person who, in the face of an other person, becomes aware of the overwhelming importance of – and feels himself responsible towards – the other simply for being an experiencing self. This Levinasian responsibility can never be demanded; it can only be accepted. Yet, howsoever transcendent this responsibility may be, apart from it is the matter – the question – of how one is to respond to this responsibility. In itself, even this responsibility which transcends anything that can be demanded is only a beginning. This is because, although this responsibility flows from realizing individuals as experiencing selves, the responsibility itself does not depend upon anything having to do with the qualities which characterize the very person of the other. As a consequence, even this responsibility, transcendent though it may be, can be extensively dispassionate and impersonal.
Earlier in the movie, Bell had wondered, “How do we get to those other shores? To those blue hills,” and the answer which he gave was “Love” – that love which “no war can put … out” or “conquer.” What Bell saw when Witt said “I’ll go” was an act beyond even Levinasian responsibility. What he saw was love.
What he saw in Witt at that moment was a wholly passionate care for the person of Fife, a care which was more than a response to Fife for being an experiencing self. It is a care which takes into account the characteristics which are uniquely Fife – his particular abilities, his particular fears, his particular perspective, Fife’s uniquely particular moment in the world. Consequently, Witt was no longer acting in accord with some abstract, generalized – and, therefore, impersonal – guiding principle called responsibility; instead, Witt now acted in response to – and in accord with – the uniqueness which specifies an other person. This is to say that Witt acted with love.
It is with relative ease that duty (as well as deference) can be fulfilled, satisfied, or actualized without taking into account the characteristics which constitute the uniqueness of any other person. In like fashion, responsibility can be acknowledged, accepted, and acted upon without taking into account the characteristics which constitute the uniqueness of any other person. It is for this reason that responsibility (including transcendent responsibility) can be said to precede inter-subjectivity.
The actualization of love, on the other hand, necessarily depends upon a response tailored to the uniqueness of an other. To the extent that love can be generalized, it is only as the principle of being devoted to discovering the uniqueness of each other for the sole purpose of then being able to determine how best to respond to that unique other. Witt knew enough about Fife to be able to go beyond even transcendent responsibility and respond with love rather than out of mere responsibility. An act of love such as Witt’s is not sufficient to establish inter-subjectivity. It is in that regard similar to responsibility inasmuch as love, too, can precede inter-subjectivity, but, because love is tailored according to a recognition of something unique about the other, love always invites – but never demands – a response by the other which might proceed to the development of some inter-subjectivity.
What Bell saw in Witt was grace in the midst of war. Bell was particularly conditioned for recognizing that love because of his own devotion or sensitivity to the importance he associated with love. Yet, it was Witt and not Bell who responded to Fife with love, and this is because for Bell love had been restricted to others for whom he had a preference13 whereas for Witt love was an act which followed logically and naturally (so to speak) from the transcendent responsibility which Witt realized he had for each person he encountered: For Witt, love was the act which transcended that responsibility which itself transcended any sort of duty in service to an other which could be demanded.
12. Some additional thoughts
In Witt’s response to Fife, Bell saw grace in the midst of war. But it was just a moment, and the question remains: How is that transcendent love we know as grace to be effected more durably in the world? It may be that the only way to more durably effect the transcendent in the world is to effect it more often. This is to say that the question – How is the transcendent to be effected more durably in the world? – may well be the wrong question. Instead, the much more proper question could be: How can the transcendent be effected more often in the world?
The transcendent is often alleged to be ineffable. Some will quickly accept this supposed characteristic of the transcendent and tie it to Wittgenstein’s statement, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” in order to insist on the irrelevance of the transcendent or in order to disdain as nonsense all discussion of and reference to the transcendent. Indeed, in his Lecture on Ethics, Wittgenstein himself appears quite willing to assign matters of the transcendent to the realm of nonsense (without, in his case, being disdainful):
You will say: Well, if certain experiences constantly tempt us to attribute a quality to them which we call absolute or ethical value and importance, this simply shows that by these words we don’t mean nonsense, that after all what we mean by saying that an experience has absolute value is just a fact like other facts and that all it comes to is that we have not yet succeeded in finding the correct logical analysis of what we mean by our ethical and religious expressions. Now when this is urged against me I at once see clearly … that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value …
That is to say: I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. …
Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense.
To say that there “can be no science” which investigates the transcendent is to reveal the essential nature of science without addressing very much about the transcendent. Inasmuch as science seeks to attain knowledge, and insofar as knowledge regards awareness of truth(s), science is necessarily committed and restricted in its efforts to those matters which are (presumed to be) actually determinate.14
More specifically, science is concerned with determinate matters which recur consistently (and, hence, predictably). This is to say that at the heart of science is the attempt to discern patterns and, in particular, the range of conditions – the limits – within which those patterns occur. Were there no such recurrent patterns – were there not the determinateness which makes those patterns discernible – there could be no science.
With this in mind, it becomes quickly apparent that the absolute to which Wittgenstein refers itself gives the impression of being the sort of condition – a determinate condition – which can be subject to science. However, if “ethical value and importance” are absolute (in the sense of determinate) and, therefore, subjectable to scientific inquiry, it seems to be the case that none of the attempts at ethical values expression has yet managed to provide – as have other scientific endeavors – a sense that the relevant determinate absolute is being conceptually or expressively approached.
Whereas other sciences have been able to impart a sense of progress towards a fuller understanding about many investigated relatively determinate conditions, in the case of “ethical value and importance” there does not seem to be any comparable advancement in understanding. Other sciences have managed to devise consistently applicable formulas, principles, and laws that anticipate specifiable details which themselves are at least practically invariant in otherwise distinctly different situations.
On the other hand, when it comes to principles concerning “ethical value and importance”, the details of different situations seem more often to present exceptions to – rather than confirmation of – these principles, with the result being that for the sake of consistent applicability such principles tend towards more indefinite expressions. Such a tendency is precisely the opposite of what is to be expected if there is some determinate absolute undergirding ethical value and significance and if the principles being devised are moving towards a fuller understanding of this determinate absolute.
However, there is a term other than absolute which has often been used in reference to the transcendent. That other term is the word infinite, a term which Wittgenstein does not address in his lecture. This term indicates (the expectation of) an indefiniteness rather than a determinate absolute. Indefiniteness does not necessarily indicate either chaos or unreality or even an immutability of the indefiniteness, and this term can be epistemic or metaphysical or both.
Infinite as indefiniteness can merely indicate an indeterminateness persisting beyond whatever determinateness there may ever be. Particularly as a not necessarily immutable indefiniteness, to say of the transcendent that it is infinite is to say that it persists with indefiniteness despite all possible knowledge. Although the term infinite can impart a sense about the transcendent which the term absolute in itself does not, when that which is described as absolute is also recognized as infinite, then the term absolute serves primarily to indicate a perpetual and unremitting otherness to the transcendent, and this is to say of the transcendent nothing more than that it does not originate from (nor is it wholly contained) within conditions of this-worldliness.
Even so, the sort of indefiniteness associated with the transcendent tends to support Wittgenstein’s contention that “there can be no science” which establishes “ethical value and importance”. The matter to then be considered is whether an intractable but not necessarily unchanging indefiniteness is necessarily nonsensical and non-important.
For Wittgenstein, nonsensicality only indicates the condition of “not add[ing] to our knowledge”; accordingly it would seem that for Wittgenstein sensicality is – essentially by definition – only a matter of knowledge. Science, by its very nature or by definition, is the pursuit of knowledge. As such, science is related to the philosophical field of epistemology. Accordingly, philosophy is no less interested in knowledge than is science; however, unlike science, philosophy is not limited to matters of knowledge and the determinateness upon which science depends. Instead, philosophy is most properly identified with the pursuit of wisdom.
It is with wisdom rather than with knowledge alone that the indefinite is navigated. So, while science seeks knowledge, it necessarily depends upon wisdom in order to be able to mine the determinateness which science presumes is there to be recognized and described so as to become knowledge. This means that, even if the identification of sensicality with knowledge is accepted, it is nonsensical to insist that what nonsensicality there is within wisdom necessarily renders that wisdom non-important. Indeed, it is arguable that wisdom is more closely tied to importance than is knowledge (alone).
Of course, it seems that wisdom is always to be identified with that which follows from and because of wisdom – which is to say that wisdom is ultimately recognized and identified owing to what it effects. Within science, wisdom becomes recognized and maybe even appreciated only when knowledge is (or seems to have been) produced, but to claim that wisdom attains importance only upon the production of knowledge is simply to deny that there is anything important other than knowledge, and that in turn is simply to insist upon the identification of importance with knowledge without having established the exhaustiveness and, therefore, the necessity of relating or identifying knowledge with importance.
It might be argued that wisdom as the attempt at navigating the indefinite produces knowledge even when that attempt fails to produce a new solution to whatever happens to be the problem being addressed; this attempt at navigating the indefinite would be said to be important because it produces knowledge that the manner of that attempt does not provide a solution. However, by this reasoning, ethical investigations would qualify as having produced knowledge no matter how often these investigations fail to provide solutions in the form of principles which can be applied across differing situational details in a way that eliminates the need for judgment such as occurs when well defined scientific principles or laws are produced.
The knowledge which science seeks to produce is that which can be expressed as principles or laws which having been abstracted from differing already-occurred situations can then be applied in other distinct situations. The ultimate goal of such knowledge is to minimize the need for judgment and, therefore, wisdom. In effect, then, this knowledge is important to the extent that it makes redundant the very wisdom – the judgment – which brought the knowledge to fruition. Even so, it is absurd to insist that only knowledge in terms of principles is important when judgment in wisdom is essential – which is obviously to say important – to the production of knowledge.
This suggests that there is something amiss in exclusively identifying importance with knowledge. In fact, to insist upon what is in effect a tautological relationship between knowledge and importance is to assign a matter such as love to the realm of the non-important. Love, after all, is a very broad and, frankly, an indefinite condition, one which remains apart from the sensicality describable as knowledge. Accordingly, were importance identifiable only with knowledge, love would have to be assuredly unimportant, but to say about love that it is not a matter of knowledge is most definitely not to say that love is unimportant. From this it follows that importance is something other than the attainment of knowledge.
In the case of philosophical focus on the transcendent, it is the this-worldly effecting of the transcendent which is important, and the effecting of the transcendent depends extensively upon wisdom. Furthermore, given the extremely brief duration for each effecting of the transcendent and given the apparent need to be able to more often effect the transcendent, it is correct to say that the this-worldly effecting of the transcendent is perpetually dependent upon the judgment of wisdom which no knowledge can render redundant.
Even if it is the case that love is unremittingly indefinite – certainly in terms of how it can be expressed – this does not mean that there is nothing to be said about love or that nothing should be said about love or that love is non-important. For example, it can be said about love that as grace it is (or produces or effects) an invitation to inter-subjectivity; it is an invitation offered to an other simply because of the fact that the other is an experiencing self; as such, grace is not the result of a preference had for the invited other which is not had for others. At the same time, grace as an invitation to an other is something distinct from a responsibility; grace is more than responsibility – it is love – insofar as it is tailored specifically for some uniqueness recognized about the other. This tailoring is done in order that it will be more likely that the other will respond by participating in the development of inter-subjectivity. As the offering of this invitation, grace is an act which only momentarily effects the transcendent, although the invitation itself can remain open in perpetuity. Because love is an act, and because acts so quickly pass away, in order for love to be effected more durably by being effected more often, there needs to be a another act of love – actually other acts of love – beyond the offering of grace. This is the case whether the other who is invited accepts the invitation, rejects the invitation, or does not respond to being invited.
The development of inter-subjectivity commences when grace is accepted, and that development continues in a series of invitations and responses. Grace is extended, rejuvenated – indeed perpetuated – by another form of love, the act of love known as charity. It is by charity that the loving person opens up his or her own self. At times, this opening up of the self is done as part of the loving person’s attempt at becoming more aware of details about the other, particularly by realizing the perspective of the other. This is done so that the loving person might then be more capable of addressing the other in accord with the current character or condition of the other self. But this is also always done with consideration into how the other might be able to further his or her own self.
Clearly, such a consideration into constructive contribution to the other’s self-furtherance requires judgment on the part of the loving person; hence, judgment is not antithetical to love, and, yet, the loving person never desires to impose his or her own judgment concerning the other upon that other self. Indeed, love cannot be imposed, because the concern which love has is that the loved other respond not as the loving person thinks the loved other should but, instead, the concern which love has is that the loved other respond with his or her own – frankly creative – act of love, one which is creative inasmuch as it effects progress in the development of both the other self and inter-subjectivity.
This is to say that charity is effected in accord not only with the current condition of the other but also with hope for the being of the other. In addition, from charity comes a new, modified grace, another invitation to develop a still deeper inter-subjectivity, a fuller love between persons for one another.
Each point in this iterative and oscillatory procession from grace to charity and hope and back to grace is at risk of mis-judgment not just because the person who actively loves might have insufficient information about the other but also because it can just as well be the case that there is no one way to effect a responsive act of love in a particular situation; for that matter, it need not be the case that there is only one way to actively love in response. In addition, even if the person who actively loves were a perfect self (whatever that might be) and fully aware of his or her own self and capabilities, it could well still be the case that the other person is such that he or she at that time is not capable of constructively responding to the love which is available to that loved person. That said, it is common even for a person wholly devoted to actively loving to mis-judge the context defined by the perspective of the other. This often occurs because the loving person is as of yet insufficiently aware of – or at that time has insufficient information about – the person of the other. But, even a mis-judgment severe enough to result in the loved other taking offense need not put an end to the iteration which effects love. This is because forgiveness – whether in the form of the act of forgiving or in the form of those acts which seek forgiveness – is itself an act of love, an appeal for that greater inter-subjectivity which can only come about by love.
Because love cannot be imposed, it is necessarily patient, but patience is not passivity. That is why neither an outright rejection of – nor a lack of response to – grace or charity puts an end to love and its hope. It is here that another aspect of the opening up of the self which comes with charity is critically important. For the sake of love and its furtherance, the loving person must be open to what the response by the other can indicate about the self (including the acts) of the loving person. The manner in which the transcendent can ever be effected is always context dependent. In the case of love, since it cannot be imposed, it can at first only be offered (as an invitation). Thereafter, the manner in which it can be effected most definitely depends upon the response of the other. That response provides definition to the context, and that context is also defined by the self of the one who loves. But, since love is always for the sake of an other, the response by the other to an act of love will, can, or should effect in the one who loves some consideration into whether there is something about the loving person’s own self which can be constructively modified – improved – so as to produce a changed context, one which can be more conducive to another effecting of love within the world.
Love is appropriately described in terms of acts, but, because of the iterative nature of love, the acts of love are properly unified when, because of the efforts needed to actively love, these acts are recognized as work; hence, acts of love ultimately give way to Kierkegaard’s description in terms of works of love. Acts of love are distinct occurrences, but love is a work which has no non-arbitrary end; no act which effects love ever effects a condition in which love cannot be effected yet again – although, of necessity, differently. Love itself is not determinate, and even when a condition is made determinate with an act of love, how else love is to be effected remains an indefinite, an indeterminate matter. Howsoever efficaciously an act of love evokes a response of love, no act of love ever makes it seem at all more likely that there is a formula or an otherwise expressible principle which would reduce – much less preclude – the need for judgment in the this-worldly effecting of love.
Love is always for the sake of an another, but since the response by the other to an act of love affects the manner in which love can be additionally effected, love is not exclusively for the sake of an other even if it is primarily for the sake of the other. Neither the lack of a response nor a rejection of an act of love puts an end to love. At most, non-response or rejection only frustrates love – if the one who loves remains devoted to the work of love and, accordingly, continues to seek ways to modify the context in such a manner that might make the next invitation more effective. Oftentimes the only aspect of the context which can be changed by the one who loves is the very person of the one who loves; therefore, responses to acts of love will themselves effect in the loving person a self-examination for the purpose of assessing what about that person’s own self might be alternatively presented or improved in order to bring about a modified context. And, yet, it may very well be that there are occasions in which there is no constructive change in the loving self which would modify the context in any way that would elicit a responsive love on the part of the other.
Indeed, it seems too commonly the case that the only love which can be effected is that which is never more than an initial invitation. That invitation can be held open – or stand – until such circumstances occur wherein the other person might be more responsive to an offering of love, but, a standing invitation is operatively an abeyance in the effecting of love, with that abeyance being indicative of the remoteness which persists unremittingly between persons. The loving person can repeatedly present the invitation to love in alternative forms in further attempts to more effectually tailor the address according to the perspective of the other, and these alternative presentations can properly be characterized as acts which effect love, but this is a characterization to which the loving person would not actually accede.
The loving person will not so accede because that characterization supplies a sense of satisfaction for a situation which is most properly rendered in terms of discontent. The loving person effects love for the sake of the other – which is to say in order to bridge (and, thereby, reduce) the remoteness between persons. An act which effects love but does not reduce the remoteness of the other leaves the one who loves discontented – not discontented simply for his or her own ineffectualness but, rather, discontented because of the unallayed relative isolation of the other. And this relative isolation which so bothers the loving person is not necessarily the unmitigated remoteness between the one who loves and the one loved. Since love is effected for the sake of an other, the one who loves is less discontented than satisfied if the loving person’s own act of love effects in the loved other a responsive act which itself effects love for the sake of yet someone else and thereby reduces (at the very least the sense of) isolation, remoteness. The remoteness between the one who first loves and the one loved would not in such a case be (immediately) mitigated by the response of the one loved, and this is a cause of some discontent, but the sense of satisfaction greater than the sense of discontent here rests with there being the opening up of a new route on which love might be effected.
The response by the other to an act which effects love can produce an abeyance in the further effecting of love between the one who loves and the one loved, and it can rightly be said that at such times love has not (yet) succeeded. The fact is that “no one in any time … has succeeded in loving every man he met.”15 But such a lack of success, although invariantly frustrating, is never on any occasion sufficient to do away with love, that aspect of the transcendent which – in its characteristic infiniteness – remains always available to be this-worldly effected.
Buber says that were there a love “without real outgoing to the other … and companying with the other, th[is] love remaining with itself – this [would be] called Lucifer.”16 This raises another question about characteristics of the transcendent, specifically whether the transcendent is only to be identified with such qualities as the good, the constructive, and the like. Is there a transcendent evil or badness, a transcendent destructiveness? This is a topic that might be taken up at some other time, but there is reason to say that the transcendent has no such opposite or negative aspects.
1 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 242.
2 Ibid., p. 75.
3 Ibid., p. 52.
4 Emmanuel Levinas, God, Death, and Time, Werner Hamacher and David E. Wellbery, eds. (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2000). “I am … a subjectivity … unique, without the possibility of having someone replace me, or in an impossibility of hiding before responsibility which is more grave than the impossibility of escaping from death.” (p. 140) “In the one-for-the-other that is signification and responsibility, there is a certain subjectivity. It is that of a subject unique in its identity, indiscernible from without, and who is not defined by properties or by reference to predicates, but who … is responsible and cannot be replaced. It is to this subject that the neighbor is entrusted, and [the subject’s] identity is formed by way of the impossibility of fleeing in the wake of this responsibility. … This signifies neither intentionality nor a property of the ‘me’ [moi] … It is, on the contrary, as responsibility and in responsibility that the ‘me’ gains its uniqueness.” (pp. 157-158)
5 Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), p. 39.
6 Ibid., p. 34.
7 Op. cit., Arendt, p. 74.
8 Op. cit., Buber, pp. 39-40.
9 Matthew 5: 15-16.
10 Op. cit., Buber, pp. 52-53.
11 Op. cit., Arendt, p. 9.
12 It is to be noted that Staros made sure to refuse the order in a way which would seem not to deny or undermine the hierarchy upon which the military relies. He was aware that the military code afforded someone in his position the discretion to refuse an order if that order exhibited a blatant lack of the judgment necessary to justify the order. It is interesting and telling to note Tall’s deference to reason and extenuating circumstances when he responds to Staros’ refusal to follow the order to undertake a frontal attack. Tall says, “This is a very important decision you’re making … maybe you have a reason; so, I’m coming down there … if I find there are extenuating circumstances, I’m gonna take that into account.” This is indicative of the military ethic realizing a need to have some in-built deference to the exceptionality which necessitates judgment, ultimately resulting in acknowledgment that there are to be circumstances under which judgment is to be valued over mere compliance.
13 See Søren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love.
14 See the brief essay, A Characteristic of Truth, for further discussion about the relationship between truth and determinateness.
15 Martin Buber, Between Man and Man (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1975), pp. 20-21.
16 Ibid., p. 21.