I came up philosophically under several phenomenologists. I was reminded of that when I spent some time in Boston where the used bookstores gather in their eddies the excess from students attending bastions of continental thinking like Boston College. It reminded me that there are lessons from that period have left an imprint on my spiritual practice today. Today, I have in mind the roots of phenomenology.
Phenomenology proper begins with Edmund Husserl’s epoche. The epoche is one of those practices that seems simple, even simple-minded, but can be brutally challenging and transformative in practice. Simply stated, the epoche is the suspension of ontological questions in order to more carefully examine the epistemological dimensions of experience. When we undertake the epoche, we stop asking after the existence of a thing and start asking after the nature of our experience of a thing.
Phenomenology owes something to Immanuel Kant in that it seeks to probe the structure of our understanding. At its best, it diverges from the critical project of Kant by better preserving that which we experience; it stops asking after whether something exists, but it preserves the object of experience as an essential dimension. Its categories are less abstract and the work returns more frequently to the concrete facts of daily life.
Subtle, perhaps, but that habit of thought remains in much of how I approach magical work. Maurice Merleau-Ponty prepared me to appreciate how magical operations transpire in and through my body, in and through the flesh and bone that makes possible my experience. The way in which that experience pulls my sense of myself out into the world, is part* of what led me to start working with the materia of my environs. My personal practice flowers in those environs and its materia, so that’s a big deal for me.
One of the things that the epoche reveals in all its thorny glory is the weirdness of our time consciousness. Time is the substance of our experience, the means through which our understanding develops and stages order. The sense of a present that divides events into before and after becomes the basis for a more sophisticated and more fragile sense of story and history. Between the immediate constitution of present and the sweep of a narrative, there are numerous intermediaries which include habit, expectation, hope, and surprise.
As narratives develop, they also become elements in experience that contribute to the intermediary world in which things like habits and expectations are born and eliminated. This relationship isn’t one-directional but dynamic and reactive. Our present, our habits, our hopes, our narratives, are all in dialogue with each other. All well and good, right?
Okay, all that said, the root remains our present moment and its (our?) production of a before and after. What follows from that root is less vital and essential (the intermediaries can still be vital, just less so than the root). The work with the epoche helps us to clear our way toward that present and discover how it isn’t at all simple. It has a texture and tempo which is capable of changing. Time isn’t fixed in experience and in experience we discover the door to magical time where sign and symbol circulate in ways that reveal an entanglement between our present and what seems to be the present of something else. Emmanuel Levinas talked about the face of the Other and this is definitely one of its aspects.
This root time, this magical time, this time just beyond the epoche, isn’t the time of history. The present is a strange affair, one in which we find ourselves tumbling through a world filled to the brim with life and awareness. What we will come to call the future and the past aren’t yet firmly divided. We can proceed to insert ourselves within them, but we can also develop a relationship to other modes of time. One of those times is the time of redemption, what Walter Benjamin would identify with both the messiah and revolution.
The time of redemption isn’t linear time. It joins what we cut across disparate fragments of the past, the present, and the future. It touches on what could have been but wasn’t. To work with signs and symbols under the aspect of redemption is thereby something quite different than building up a deep history. Jorge Louis Borges’s writing plays along the edge of this; as Benjamin observed, so does fashion.
Neither fashion nor fiction embraces redemption’s time. The way in which philosophical-critical thought becomes more prone to the winds of fashion in the wake of phenomenology and its children suggests that it, too, often remains at a remove from this temporality, that it comes up to the edge of redemption and proceeds to hesitate and step back from it.
It is hard to describe the difference between what plays along the edge of redemption’s temporality and what embraces it. The best contrast that I have is that the play along the edge explores what we might want or desire or fantasize about, while the embrace reaches out to what will be. There is a weight to the future akin to the weight of the past. One of the greatest spiritual benefits of historical study lies in developing an appreciation for the weight and immediacy of the past because it helps us in appreciating a comparable quality in the world that is coming to be.
What makes the present the present seems to be its ability to navigate between these two weights, to redirect and shift it. The present bears within its essence a core of freedom and in utilizing this freedom to work with the determinations in the before and after it acquires responsibility. That responsibility is, at the very least, dual, both to the weight of the past and to the weight of the future. Lose either one and the work becomes unmoored from both.
In his recent interview with Gordon, Frisvold noted that there are several ways to think about where Ifa came from, where Orunmila comes from. There is obviously the historical trajectory, the one that positions Orunmila and Ifa alongside geomantic sand cutting. In spite of all the good and interesting things that cna be said, Frisvold prefers to say (minute 37 in the interview) that “he just appeared….in spite of all critical theory.”
I think some of the best spiritual work partakes of that, it appears within history and sets to make a future for itself beyond that history. That sort of work can be talked about under the auspices of academic history, but what that history will capture is not the spiritual dimensions of it. That’s true of the majestic Ifa, but it also true on a humbler scale of each of us as individuals. For all our inheritance (cultural, genetic, material), we just appear, too.
*The other part is mostly my time spent in Ocha and its robust materiality, inflected by coming back round to accounts of the sorts of Mesoamerican religious practices described by Barbara and Dennis Tedlock.