(Continued from Part 10)
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.
Continued in Part 12
13 See Søren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love.