It’s like how they used to swallow whiskey before bed so they could sleep better. Maybe that was why I used to read my bible before bed. Sometimes it even worked.
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I’m still pulling quotes out of Zizek’s Violence left, right and central because there’s a bit of profundity times infinity contained within those pages. Here’s what he has to say on suffering:
Opposite such a violent enforcement of justice stands the figure of divine violence as unjust, as an explosion of divine caprice whose exemplary case is, of course, that of Job. After Job is hit by calamities, his theological friends come, offering interpretations which render these calamities meaningful. The greatness of Job is not so much to protest his innocence as to insist on the meaninglessness of his calamities.
(p.152, Big Ideas series, 2006).
This legacy of Job prevents us from taking refuge in the standard transcendent figure of God as a secret Master who knows the meaning of what appears to us as meaningless catastrophe, the God who sees the entire picture in which what we perceive as a stain contributes to global harmony.
Zizek here presents suffering not as a question that we look for answers to, but as a question of which answers are unworthy¹. Job asks God a whole lot of questions. God asks a whole lot back. Contrast this with a couple of verses from the New Testament. Paul writes to persecuted Christians and helps them deal with their suffering by attributing some eternal meaning to it: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2Corinthians 4:17 NIV). Jesus warns his disciples of martyrdom and in the inevitability of the death of sparrows must attribute it to God’s purposes: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care” (Matthew 10:28-29 NIV). How seriously should we take Job’s existential struggle with suffering?
If we view suffering in this guise, as a question, then the answers which diminish its value are shown to not actually be answers at all; the person who answers the question of suffering immediately negates it. To give an answer to the question of suffering is to attempt to say “Suffering doesn’t exist” because now the word suffering holds a meaning entirely different to that which we first understood it as. To suffer is, with regards to Paul, to brighten the light of eternal life by providing an earthly contrast. To suffer is, with regards to Jesus², to accept the will of God. We no longer read suffering as it is, a question. That there are answers actually says something fundamentally different to the answers themselves. Whereas the answers themselves by implication say that suffering doesn’t exist, the existence of the answers, and the need for the answers in response to a question, show that the question does exist, that suffering is a reality as a question without answers.
Right about now it would be meet to engage Zizek in the classic critique of nihilism, as his understanding of suffering is literally nihilistic, that is, without meaning. The critique goes that to say our existence is without meaning is to actually make a meaningful conclusion regarding existence. Therefore, to say suffering is meaningless overlooks the fact that you’re actually saying something about suffering — by designating it as a question you’re actually providing an answer.
This is my way of doing justice to Zizek, by misunderstanding him. The only authentic engagement with suffering is impossible, because it requires that sufferer only suffers, without reflecting at all on their suffering. This too, is the problem with Nietzsche’s amor fati, which although a central idea in his philosophy has probably not exerted as much influence on contemporary thought as his other ideas. Nonetheless, I’ll make use of my liberty and attack it. Amor fati, to love fate, that is to accept everything in life as your lot and not just bear it, not bemoan it, but embrace it and love it, including suffering, is in this sense also impossible. You can have your amor or your fati; you cannot have an amor fati though. To love necessitates a subject that loves; fate necessitates no freedom on part of the subject, and therefore no subject. You can have your amor by ceasing to live according to fate and deciding you embrace all that you have no control over, a kind of limited conception of fate, or you can have your fati by engaging with fate as fate dictates you. Already the words amor fati are pure tautology because they introduce a reflection into an existence that depends on the absence of reflection. To live literally according to this philosophy we must be as rocks coming down a landslide who are subject wholly to physical factors. Conscious rocks, somewhat hurt by the landslide, yet deciding to embrace the suffering regardless, are no longer subject wholly to physical factors because of their decision to embrace. Their reflection, amor, destroys their fati.
So I’ve pointed out how every reflection upon suffering, every answer to the question of suffering, is fundamentally the same. To avoid further caricatures of great minds, there remains the possibility that all reflections we impose on suffering, though fundamentally the same, are functionally and qualitatively different. I cannot yet say anything authoritative regarding philosophy, but please humour me. What if all misunderstandings, all accusations of a circular argument, have rested on a confusion of the terms fundamental and qualitative. There has been some universality in what everyone has said at any point in time because they speak through the medium of language, but that everyone has said something different at any time is also assumed. If all truth is subjective and I cannot say ‘truth is subjective’ because I am subjectively presenting a truth as objective can I then really not say it? What if my truth is fundamentally subjective, but qualitatively objective? And with this assumption, Nietzsche and Zizek can put forth alternative readings on the nature of suffering, even claim that they are not readings at all, despite fundamentally being readings, because qualitatively they are different readings.
To illustrate the point further, a few posts back I wrote on Nietzsche’s critique of selflessness: True selflessness is impossible because your desire to help someone is always a response to a desire within yourself. But Nietzsche misses an important distinction. Although every action is fundamentally selfish, slapping someone with a fish and cooking them a fish are qualitatively different.
With these thoughts in mind we approach suffering. Whether you define it as an opportunity for anxious engagement with meaninglessness or hope, either choice inevitably acts as an opiate or a crutch, only that each is qualitatively different.
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¹I think Zizek’s point in his reading of Job nonetheless stands, but it is a little wishful. Although God doesn’t give Job direct answers, he still rebukes him, and when I read the text I get the feeling that it assumes there are answers behind suffering, only that they are unintelligible to us.
²Neither the quote from 2Corinthians nor from Matthew should be seen as a statement indicating Paul or Jesus’ overall interpretation of suffering; these are just examples.