"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, April 3, 2020

The Crucifixion of Eros: An Interview with Matthew Clemente

Now more than ever the rashness of predicting the future is revealed in all its futility, but nonetheless I will make bold to say that the future of the philosophy of religion is in very good hands indeed with the young and newly minted scholar Matthew Clemente coming on board and making a splash with his new book, the fruit of his doctoral dissertation, which was just recently published: Eros Crucified: Death, Desire, and the Divine in Psychoanalysis and Philosophy of Religion  (Routledge, 2019), 202pp.

It is such a deeply fascinating book that I find myself almost ineluctably picking it up again and again to re-read parts of it, all the while plotting to find ways to use it in my courses.

Now, you might expect that with such a title and focus, this book would be catnip to me, a psychoanalyst manqué, and you would be right.

But in addition to the book's engagement with our father among the saints, Sigmund of Vienna, there are many other wide-ranging and often astonishing insights and claims, and then there is still more: the book's method, which is my second principal reason for delighting in it, recommending it, and wanting my students to read it. Here Clemente embodies, with almost effortless grace, the method of "despoiling the Egyptians," of discerning the spirits, of finding good wherever it may be found and engaging it directly.

This is a method I have had to spend no little time and energy trying to inculcate in my students in the past two years, many of whom seem increasingly to be not just uninterested in but hostile to learning from such as Nietzsche, Freud, Kierkegaard, Plato, Kristeva, Lacan, Levinas, and Žižek, inter alia, all of whom (and others) feature prominently as interlocutors in this book. Rather than retreat into some enclave of Catholic identity from which to hold oneself aloof from figures such as these (one of my students said to me this year that he refused to learn from "anybody who doesn't have 'St.' in front of their name"!), Clemente finds what is good, notes what is not, and moves on without rancor or defensiveness. It is very refreshing and encouraging to behold.

Following my usual practice, I e-mailed him some questions about the book, and here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us about your background

MC: My friend and mentor, the philosopher Richard Kearney, is known for asking his students Paul Ricoeur’s famous introductory question: d'où parlez-vous? Where do you speak from? And of course, the answer always comes in the form of a story. Where do you speak from means tell us your story, tell us the story of your life. Well, my life as a philosopher began by mistake. I was not called to philosophy by an oracle. I fell into it like Adam into sin.

I am notoriously bad at keeping a schedule and have been my entire life. (I often joke that my wife is the single mother of four children, our three kids and me. I wouldn’t know where I was going or what day it was if not for her). The summer before my freshman year of college, I was scheduled to register for classes on a certain day at a certain time. Naturally, I forgot. And by the time I realized my mistake, all of the classes I had planned on taking were filled. Left with few options and feeling more than a little desperate, I decided to fulfill as many core requirements as I could. I ended up taking the last available seat in the last available Intro to Philosophy class. (I had never read a word of philosophy before then and didn’t expect to read much after the semester ended).

That class happened to be taught by a professor named John Manoussakis. I was there for his very first lecture at Holy Cross and his was the first college class I took. 12 years later, I completed my doctorate in philosophy and published my first book which focuses mainly on Manoussakis’s work.

I currently teach at Boston College and at Suffolk University, am the Associate Editor of the Journal of Continental Philosophy and Religion (Brill), and have been fortunate enough to study with and work alongside some of the best living Continental philosophers, Kearney and Manoussakis in particular.

AD: What led to the writing of Eros Crucified?

MC: The things that interest me are the things I don’t understand and will never understand. What to make of death. What to make of sex. What to make of great suffering and great beauty. How to reconcile these brute facts of human existence—my existence—with my own struggles over and longing for faith.

I think it would be a fair criticism of me and my work to say that I try to say too many things. When I was writing Eros Crucified, I was nagged by this persistent feeling, this little inner-voice that kept telling me “you’re doing too much.” But I’ve always been that way. I’ve always wanted to say everything, everything I ever thought, everything I ever felt, all I had to say. Eros Crucified is a first attempt at that. (God willing, there will be many more). It represents, for better or worse, the ideas and obsessions that have boggled my mind for the past half-decade and probably much, much longer.

AD: Your disclaimer at the outset outlines a bit of an analogy between a philosopher and a detective like Sherlock Holmes. Later on you quote Ricoeur ("controlled schizophrenia") on the problems of effecting too sharp a separation between philosophy and theology. Tell us a bit more about your own understanding of the relationship between philosophy and theology, and how you see a philosophical mind working.

MC: My book was born out of my dissertation. After my defense, the big take away I got from my readers was that at times it was unclear what position I was defending, which side of a question I was trying to argue for and which I was trying to upend. This, I realized, amounted to a difference in methodology.

For me, writing philosophy is not like writing a logical proof. A proof begins with a conclusion and builds an argument from which that conclusion necessarily follows. My writing was much more organic. At different points during the writing process I agreed with, or at least honestly entertained, every idea put forth. By the end, I don’t think I agreed with any of them. That is because philosophy begins with questions—or at least it ought to—and pursues answers, answers it will never find, only approach. The search is the thing. And who knows where the search will lead?

I love detective fiction and have been reading a lot of it lately. The detective is for me the ideal thinker. He is a questioner, a believer, an artist. In him, philosophy, theology, and poetry meet. As a philosopher, he knows that he knows not. He is late on the scene and so must question his way toward probable answers. He deals in probability, not certainty. Even when he solves a case, he never knows exactly what happened or why it happened. He was not there. He will never know. But he hopes to get nearer to the truth, closer to understanding, and he finds satisfaction in simply knowing what the truth is like—what might have happened, what probably happened, what is most likely to have happened.

Now although he is a skeptic and a questioner, the detective is not a doubter. Every detective is a theologian and indeed must be. By that I mean the detective is committed. He has his dogmas, his fundamental principles, which ground and orient his search. If he didn’t believe—believe to the core of him, in his very bones—he would never begin. There is such a thing as crime. There is such a thing as truth. The detective stands against one and on the side of the other. And while he may never know, still he believes there is something to know. He believes his search for truth will not be in vain. These are the premises from which his investigation begins, the foundation on which every investigation is built.

Yet in order to solve the case, the detective must do more than question and believe. He must create. He must paint a picture. Provide an image where no image exists.

Holmes and his descendants emphasize the role that reason plays in uncovering the truth. But the truth is that truth is never uncovered. It is recreated, reinvented, birthed into existence by the artists of existence, those who take the raw material of existence and make of it something that enables us to see and hear the world around us. Without inventiveness, without poetic imagination, no question would ever be answered, no problem ever solved. Experience is interpretation. Interpretation is construction. Construction is art. This fact goes unacknowledged by philosophers and detectives alike, but it is an essential aspect of how they—and we, all of us, who must create the world in order to live in it—engage with existence.

AD: Your Preface immediately takes us to the problem at hand: the poisoning of eros by Christianity (at least according to Nietzsche). For many Catholics today, bombarded with banal slogans about a "theology of the body" for 30 years now, this might come as a startling claim. Tell us a bit more about what you mean, including your claim of "the grave danger of a spiritualized sexuality" (p.80).

One of the great things about teaching philosophy is being reminded every semester of where our ideas come from, where our understandings of ourselves, our world, our relation to the divine originate. So much of what we call “Christianity” predates Christ—or at least Christ as incarnated in Jesus, the man who drank wine and went to weddings, wore clothes and did all of the unnatural and ridiculous things we human beings do.

The notion of spiritual purity, for instance, is thoroughly Platonic. The idea of the immortal soul is not a Christian one. (Why care about the resurrection of the body if there is an immortal soul that goes to heaven or hell the moment one dies?). Nietzsche is not wrong to call Christianity “Platonism for the masses.” By and large, what we think of when we think of Christianity is merely a less sophisticated form of Platonic philosophy. But this is a great danger. Because if the incarnation stands in opposition to anything, it is the spiritualized view of the human person offered by Platonic philosophy.

Sex is one of the strange and unsettling things about human existence that gets reduced by philosophy. Plato, of course, diminishes it. How often does he put into the mouth of Socrates the notion that sex (and bodily pleasure of any kind) is beneath the philosopher, the spiritualist par excellence who strives only for “higher” intellectual pleasures?

But the same is true in reverse. To idealize sex, to see it as some pure and sacred event rather than recognizing it for what it is—both beautiful and disgusting, at once the pinnacle of our existence and the epitome of our degradation—is to deny the scandalous truth of the incarnation. It is to reject the belief that God became man. Fully man, utterly man, with all of the parts of a man—even the most intimate and the most profane. Christ was—to borrow another phrase from Nietzsche—human, all too human. We, unfortunately, are not.

AD: "Eros has become an idol." There are many ways that crucial claim of your book can be hijacked, it seems to me, but you're not interested in simplistic one-sided ranting against "too much sex on TV today" or anything like that. Rather, part of your project, it seems to me, is to maintain the tension Freud saw: "The highest and the lowest are always closest to each other in the sphere of sexuality," a claim you immediately set alongside St. Paul's letters and, later, Kearney's recognition that "pornography...is a twin of Puritanism." Unpack all of this and tell us about the tension you maintain in the grandeur and griminess of human sexual desire, the "baseness and beatitude" you speak of later (p.125).

One of the things that Christians, myself included, don’t spend enough time reflecting upon and thus fail to take as seriously as we should is that religion itself is the greatest form of idolatry, that belief is a temptation, that Christ reserves his harshest rebukes for those who believe most ardently. To believe in God is an easy thing. It costs little and provides a good deal of comfort. What could be better than believing that everything happens for a reason, that there is someone looking down on us from on high, some utterly perfect, utterly beneficent, utterly distant being who guarantees our security and yet remains immune to the illness of the world?

Human life, we all know but rarely admit, is messy and complicated and the best aspects of our existence are also the worst. Our cities are built on top of sewers. Our advances are bought with war and destruction. Art is born of suffering. Life springs forth from the bowels. Being honest about our situation is hard enough. We prefer to flatter ourselves with thoughts of the “inherent dignity” of man. Or, if we’re being reactionary, we take pleasure in emphasizing the ills of human existence to the exclusion of its beauty. Sometimes we even deny that beauty exists. This is our lot. These are the ways in which we conceive of ourselves. And then along comes this strange and startling god—a god who is fully human, more human than any of us—and he alone is honest. He alone shows us—not with words or dictates, but with his life, with how he lives and, even more so, how he dies—that each of us is infinitely beautiful, infinitely perverse.

If Eros has become for us an idol that is because we refuse to see our sexuality (and thus our humanity) as it is revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. We refuse to look at the one who has been humbled and exalted, humiliated and, in his very humiliation, lifted up. In denying him, we deny ourselves. We prefer the counterfeit to the real thing, the lie to the truth of who and what we are.

AD: As one who has recently written a lot about Freud, and is working on a book ("Theology After Freud") I was fascinated by your treatment of him, which seems to me so skillful and deft in many ways--finding what is good and useful, but not being afraid to criticize or go beyond him. You also note--as did Lacan and Manoussakis--that there is significant overlap between Freud and Augustine. Tell us a bit more about that.

Thank you for your kind words. One of the goals of my writing is to test everything and retain what’s good, as St. Paul put it. A close friend, William Hendel, recently suggested to me that this single line of Scripture sums up St. Thomas’s entire project. Thomas is motivated by a desire to see how many disparate things he can incorporate into a deeper, richer, more philosophically complex understanding of Catholicism. I don’t know that anyone would call me a Thomist, but in this sense at least I view myself as very much indebted to the Thomist tradition.

Chesterton once observed, “The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike take positive evil as the starting-point of their argument.” I would say that this is what any honest man must do. That the human heart is more perverse than anything—“beyond remedy,” the prophet Jeremiah insists—is one of the first discoveries made by any man who looks into himself. It should come as no surprise then to find so much overlap between Freud and Augustine, the psychoanalyst and the orthodox Christian. After all, both attempt to offer an image of the phenomena of life by plumbing the depths of the human soul, and their own individual souls most of all.

I have never really understood why so many Christians are reluctant to accept and adopt the best arguments from the best thinkers. Heinrich Heine—an underappreciated philosopher and great wit (his work is really just a pleasure to read)—notes that so-called pessimistic philosophers, those seen by many to be the enemies of faith, actually provide the faithful with a good deal of ammunition. Their bleak (and honest) assessments of the human condition, far from refuting the tenants of faith, lend support to dogmas like original sin. Heine, of course, was bemoaning this fact. But I accept his observation and will adopt it for my own purposes. Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre, Lacan—these are not our enemies. They are our great thinkers, our great sufferers. Their insights have been purchased at a price. The price of honesty, an honest assessment of themselves. I am ready to listen to anyone willing to look into the depths of his own heart. And I’m not surprised when he reports having seen nothing there but dark.

AD: In a time when--if they know anything--most people assume that Catholic Christianity is conservative, if not reactionary, when it comes to questions of sex, sexuality, and gender, you speak of "the radical reevaluation of gender relations introduced by the Christian understanding of sacramental sexuality" (p.118). Tell us a bit more of what you mean here.

Freud, in classifying libido as masculine, identifies the desire to use and objectify others for our own selfish purposes—sadism in his terminology, will to power in Nietzsche’s—as the defining characteristic of human sexuality and thus the defining characteristic of human beings. The violently obsessive nature of male desire seeks the subjugation and ultimately the destruction of that which it loves; “male love is murder,” to quote Žižek. That we desire, in a very literal sense, a love object and not another human being seems to me not only experientially verifiable, but also irrefutable.

To return to a point touched upon above: isn’t desire understood as such the glue that binds together the apparent opposition between pornography and puritanism? What is the attraction of the pornographic if not that it gives the viewer an object to vent his sexual desires upon in the place of a real human being? What does puritanism offer if not an idealized (that is, inhuman) image of purity that only an object could attain?. Interestingly, Freud posits that women too are defined by this destructive desire and that sadistic sexuality, far from being an exclusively male problem, is the rule. Yet how do we account for the existence of a love beyond exploitation, one that forgoes power, refuses to objectify, loosens its grasp? (Obviously, for Freud no such love exists).

It is no secret that Christianity has throughout its history neglected the feminine, feared it, suppressed it, relegated it to the realm of the irrational and untrue. But if we’re being honest, we must admit that the Christ we meet in the Gospels is not a particularly masculine figure. A savior who comes not in power but in weakness, who preaches mercy instead of justice, forgiveness in place of revenge, who measures his wealth not by how much he can possess but how much he can give away, who shows us how to inhabit our vulnerability and be honest about our frailty, whose love is abandonment—that is not a very manly savior.

What is fascinating is that thinkers such as Nietzsche and Lacan appreciate this “revaluation of values” while many of their Christian counterparts—who focus with an almost fetishistic fervor on the perfection, omnipotence, justice, and transcendence of the divine—fail to even recognize it. In Beyond Good and Evil, for instance, Nietzsche speaks of woman as “clairvoyant in the world of suffering” and then immediately links female love with the love of Christ. Lacan, writing in Seminar XX on the “something more” (en plus) of female jouissance, says that male mystics such as John of the Cross embody feminine desire and he links that mysterious jouissance with l’amour de Dieu.

There is no question, I think, that if human sexuality is to be saved—and by that I mean, if human beings are to be saved—it can only be by means of the crucifixion of Eros, the nailing to the cross of our lust for power and might.

AD: Your quoting Mannoussakis, "There is no other" (p.123) puts me immediately in mind of Winnicott's equally blunt aphorism, "there's no such thing as a baby." Unpack this a bit for us.

Your pairing of these assertions is, I think, instructive. The first gestures at what I was just saying in response to your last question. There is no other means that the other is for me merely an object, a tool that I use and abuse for my pleasure. There is no baby means that for the infant, there is no self or rather that the self is all other, lost in the oblivion of fusion (“oceanic oneness” in Freud’s language) with the mother. Both capture something true about the human condition which strives at all costs to eliminate otherness, either by reducing it to the subhuman (sadism) or subsuming it into the indifferentiation that makes one from two (fusion). Both, of course, are different instantiations of Thanatos, the death drive, the desire our own unmaking. Both refuse the salvation that comes from without, the grace that comes from the other.

AD: Sum up your hopes for the book, and who especially should read it.

Whenever I write, I write with a reader in mind. That reader is the person I am trying to persuade, the one for whom all of my arguments and hesitations, illustrations and tangents are intended. The worst writing is written for an audience that already agrees. I assume a suspicious reader. My reader is hostile.

My goal is not to win a convert but simply to get the reader to acknowledge that a person as reasonable as him or herself could hold the positions I put forward. My ideal reader for this book would be someone skeptical of faith—Catholic Christianity in particular—someone with an affinity for existential philosophy and Freudian psychoanalytic thought.

But books are made to be read and ideal readers—like all ideals—simply do not exist. As I have worked through your questions, I have been touched time and again by your charitable and attentive reading of my work. That there is someone willing to show my book such good will tells me that my highest hopes for this project have already been reached. An author cannot ask for more.

AD: Having finished this book, what projects are you at work on now?

My latest obsession has been Socrates’s assertion at the end of the Symposium that authors should be able to write both tragedies and comedies, the true tragic dramatist is also a comic poet. I see the seeds of work of literary theory developing along these lines but God only knows if and when it will be finished.

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