July 16th, 2012


May 29, 1982. Dear Olga… I kiss you, Vašek

{321} Letters to Olga: June 1979 - September 1982 [+][+][+][+][+][+]

May 29, 1982

Dear Olga,

Several days ago, during the weather report (it precedes the news on television each day, so I see it regularly), something went wrong in the studio and the sound cut out, though the picture continued as usual (there was neither an announcement "Do not adjust your sets" nor landscape photographs, as there usually is in such cases). The employee of the Meteorological Institute who was explaining the forecast quickly grasped what had happened, but because she was not a professional announcer, she did not know what to do. At this point a strange thing happened, the mantle of routine fell away and before us stood a confused, unhappy and terribly embarrassed woman: she stopped talking, looked in desperation at us, then somewhere off to the side, but there was no help from that direction. She could scarcely hold back her tears. Exposed to the view of millions, yet desperately alone, thrown into an unfamiliar, unexpected and unresolvable situation, incapable of conveying through mime that she was above it all (by shrugging her shoulders and smiling, for instance), drowning in embarrassment, she stood there in all the primordial nakedness of human helplessness, face-to-face with the big bad world and herself, with the absurdity of her position, and with the desperate question of what to do with herself, how to rescue her dignity, how to acquit herself, how to be. Exaggerated as it may seem, I suddenly saw in that event an image of the primal situation of humanity: a situation of separation, of being cast into an alien world and standing there before the question of the self. Moreover, I realized at once that with the woman, I was experiencing — briefly — an almost physical dread; with her, I was overwhelmed by a terrible sense of embarrassment, I blushed and felt her shame; I too felt like crying. Irrespective of my will, I was flooded with an absurdly powerful compassion for this stranger (a surprising thing here, of all places, where in spite of yourself you share the general tendency of the prisoners to see everything related to television as part of the hostile world that locked them up): I felt miserable because I had no way of helping her, of taking her place, or at least of stroking her hair.

Why did I suddenly — and quite irrationally — feel such an overwhelming sense of responsibility for someone whom I not only did not know, but whose misery was merely transmitted to me via television? Why should I care? Does it even distantly concern me? Am I any more observant or sensitive than others? (Perhaps, but does that explain anything?) And if I am, why was I so affected by this, of all things, when today and every day, I see incomparably worse forms of suffering all around me? After having read only one short excerpt in Ivan's letter, I don't feel I can judge the breadth and depth of meaning that the idea of responsibility has in Levinas's philosophical work. But if Levinas is claiming that responsibility for others is something primal and vitally important, something we are thrown into and by virtue of which we transcend ourselves from the beginning, and that this sense of responsibility precedes our freedom, our will, our capacity to choose and the aims we set for ourselves, then I share his opinion entirely. In fact I've always felt that, though I didn't put it to myself that way. Yes, a boundless and unmotivated sense of responsibility, that "existence beyond our own existence," is undoubtedly one of the things into which we are primordially thrown and which constitutes us. That responsibility — authentic, not yet filtered through anything else, devoid of all speculation, preceding any conscious "assumption," nontransferable to anything else, inexplicable in psychological terms — exists as it were, before the "I" itself: first I find myself in it, and only then — having in one way or another either accepted or rejected this thrownness — do I constitute myself as the person I am.

In itself, the incident with the weatherwoman was insignificant, yet it vividly confirmed all of this within my own tiny frame of reference — not only because it happened in the atmosphere evoked by my having read that excerpt from Levinas, but mainly, I think, because it was such an incisive representation of human vulnerability. And if, in that moment, I felt such a powerful sense of responsibility for this particular woman and felt so entirely on her side (though common sense tells me she is doubtless better off than I am and probably never gives me a thought, if she knows about me at all), then this was likely because the more transparently vulnerable and helpless humanity is, the more urgently does its misfortune cry out for compassion. This dramatic exposure of another, void of all obfuscating detail and all "appearances," reveals and presents to man his own primordial and half-forgotten vulnerability, throws him back into it, and abruptly reminds him that he, too, stands alone and isolated, helpless and unprotected, and that it is an image of his own basic situation, that is, a situation we all share, a common isolation, the isolation of humanity thrown into the world, and that this isolation injures us all the same way, regardless of who, concretely, happens to be injured in a given instant.

· · ·

Just as there is no escape from the world we are condemned to live in, so there is no escape from our unfulfilled connection with the universality of Being, from the painful presence of its absence in us, from this constant appeal to transcend ourselves, from the beckoning of our source and our destination. Speculating about where that endless, boundless and unreserved, prerational and prerationalized responsibility for another and for others comes from, I realize that it can only be one of the ways that separated being remembers its ancient being-in-Being, its presubjective state of being bound to everything-that-is, its intrinsic urge to break out of its self-imprisonment, step outside itself and merge once more with the integrity of Being. The vulnerability of another person, therefore, touches us not only because in it we recognize our own vulnerability, but for reasons infinitely more profound: precisely because we perceive it as such, the "voice of Being" reaches us more powerfully from vulnerability than from anything else: its presence in our longing for Being and in our desire to return to it has suddenly, in a sense, encountered itself as revealed in the vulnerability of another. This cry from the depths of another's fate arouses and excites us, mobilizes our longing to transcend our own subjectivity, speaks directly to the latent memory of our "prenatal" state of being-in-Being; it is, so to speak, stronger than everything else ("rational") within us — we suddenly find ourselves compelled to identify with Being, and we fall into our own responsibility. From this point of view, responsibility for others manifests itself as a revitalized or actualized responsibility "for everything," for Being, for the world, for its meaning. It is a revitalized involvement in Being, or rather an identification with what we are not and what does not touch us: it is the manifestation of a primordial experience of the self in Being and Being in us; the expression of a deep-seated intention to cover the world with our own subjectivity. Compassion, love, spontaneous help to our neighbors, everything that goes beyond speculative concern for our own being-in-the-world and what precedes it, these genuine "depths of the heart" can thus be understood as a unique part of what the world of human subjectivity becomes, evolves toward and how it flourishes when it is thrown into its source in the integrity of Being, and of how that subjectivity constantly strives toward and returns to that integrity — while at the same time being astonished by it — just as I was astonished at the sympathy I felt for the meteorologist, caught unaware by the sudden breakdown of television technology.

I kiss you, Vašek