Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What is this "You" you speak of?

Rene Magritte, Not to Be Reproduced

The figure's dilemma in Magritte's unnerving painting is ours, as well: What is the self? Where, exactly, is it located? Of what is it constructed? And how do we know when we're in its presence when we meet another person--or, even more fundamentally, how do we know it in ourselves?

I don't know. There's no way we can even think our way outside this particular box, much less climb out of it. But for various reasons and in various ways of late, these questions have been bumping around in me, and so I thought that this blog might be a good place to turn them around from time to time. Critical theory, theology, philosophy, biology, psychology/psychiatry and, as here, the arts will of necessity be popping up in these posts. My goal is less to find a definitive answer to these questions as it is to ask the questions themselves--which, as Thomas Merton avers, are themselves the answer.

As a starting place, then, consider John 20:22: "And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'"--keeping in mind that in the original Greek, pneuma means both "breath" and "spirit."

I want to do a little more reading about pneuma before saying too much more here, but I'll begin by observing that its double meaning seems, initially, indicative of the trickiness of answering questions about the self: that both breath and spirit seem animative in nature--and not necessarily in their respective spheres (biology and philosophy/theology), either but, at the very least, in conjunction with each other.

I'll come back to this when I've read some more.


R. Sherman said...

This series has the potential for causing dire work-related circumstances on my part. I better get some stuff done while you're thinking.


John B. said...

You say that like it's a bad thing.

j sligh said...

The pneuma=breath/soul thing reminds me of the footnotes in Robert Alter's translation of the Five Books of Moses, where he talks about the Hebrew word that becomes "soul" in the King James Bible being literally, not just breath or life-breath, but the breath from the nostrils - like, when you're checking to see if someone is dead or just sleeping, and you put the back of your hand underneath their nostrils to feel the weight of their breathing.

A lot of the translation is making concrete - and placing on the body - ancient Hebrew that gets turned more and more abstract in successive Greek, Vulgate Latin and English.

Raminagrobis said...

I'm interested to see where you're going with this. A few thoughts:

You must be right to say that 'both breath and spirit seem animative', because all three of those words are etymologically the same concept : In Latin both spiritus and anima have the primary meaning of breath and the secondary one of spirit, soul.

It appears that in classical Greek pneuma meant only air / breath and it is only in New Testament Greek that it takes on the meaning of spirit or soul.

The nexus of these meanings seems to be in the concept of inspiration -Lat, inspiro - Gr. prospneo (breathe into) - which obviously predates Christian theology. However in ancient philosophy/poetry, inspiration is more a matter of self-abnegation than the making of a self.

Surprisingly (for me) the verb used in the gospel verse you quoted is emphusao (insufflo in the Vulgate) - both of which according to my dictionaries are classically uniquely used of physical breathing /air and are not used to denote inspiration.