Sunday, February 25, 2007

Confocal & Copresent

Gabriel Marcel was, I guess one could say, a French existentialist philosopher, and playwright. But that ignores his interest in the creative process itself, in things transhuman, in the metaphysical, in the sublime. Marcel was rooted in mystical French Catholicism, which I think always gives philosophy a spin, away from the purely abstract and towards the ecstatic. I read some of his books a long time ago, and am prompted to read Marcel again by a quote posted by Frank Wilson:

I have frequently had the occasion to stress the metaphysical significance of the encounter, never having seen eye to eye with the rationalist who prefers to construe it as a simple, accidental meeting; but I had not noticed . . . that encounters can also occur on the level of thought. To encounter someone is not merely to cross his path but to be, for the moment at least, near to or with him. To use a term I have often used before, it means being a co-presence. . . . A real encounter with one of these thoughts, if we consider the matter carefully, is something which does not happen accidentally, and one can ready oneself for it—as for a visible encounter—but it still involves one of those shocks which punctuates the career of the soul. —Gabriel Marcel, from Creative Fidelity

Marcel's idea of co-presence makes me think of the union of opposites, the encounter with the Other, the co-existence of intermingled chaos and order, and other mergings of two and more into One. The encounter with another, for those who are sensitive, is to take on aspects of the other: the momentarily become one; to merge; to literally "walk a mile in my shoes." This is the route of empathy and identification, and it is a human birthright, if we choose to exercise it: to identify with the Other. Whoever or whatever the Other is, we can encounter one another, and merge. Marcel speaks of the shock to the soul: I think that's a good way to put it, because when you know you have really encountered someone—or something, such as an idea, an object, or another sentient being that just is a presence but not necessarily a human—when you have really encountered someone, you do get that inner shock: you are suddenly awake an aware, fully in the present moment.

I am reminded of the poet and translator Olga Broumas saying that when she first heard the modern Greek poet Odysseas Elytis read for the first time, her one eye that is unable to focus, and always wanders, came into sharp focus, and con-focus with her other eye, for the first time in her life. It was a moment of utter co-presence.

This makes me think also of the idea behind the word confocal, a word perhaps most often associated with microscopic and photographic imaging. The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as: adj. Having the same focus or foci. Used of a lens.

But the word has another implication besides the literal, scientific one: focusing on a center, in conjunction with others: having the same focus, in unity. If we all sit in community around the same campfire, and we are all contemplating the flames together, we are confocal. Confocal can mean a type of community, that is focused on a center, rather than structured as a linear hierarchy; the person of importance sits in the center, rather than above. An Indian chief sits in council with others, all sitting in a circle around a fire; a king sits on a throne, above and removed from others. Confocal political power might operate best through cajoling disagreements into concensus, rather than by being dictatorial: concensus rather than hierarchy, in which every voice might be heard.

A few more Marcel quotes I find exciting to consider:

The dynamic element in my philosophy, taken as a whole, can be seen as an obstinate and untiring battle against the spirit of abstraction.

But however measurable, there is much more life in music than mathematics or logic ever dreamed of. . . . Music at times is more like perfume than mathematics.

Contemplation and wisdom are highest achievements and man is not totally at home with them.

The dynamic element in my philosophy, taken as a whole, can be seen as an obstinate and untiring battle against the spirit of abstraction.

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