- The Pursuit of the Real
“What is this enigmatic impulse that does not allow one to settle down in the achieved, the finished? I think it is a quest for reality.” Czeslaw Milosz, who uttered these words in his 1980 Nobel lecture, was not unaware of the difficulties and ambiguities of making such a grand claim. After all, who can say what is real? Or whether it is possible to know it? For Milosz, it is less important to try to define reality in some philosophically precise way than to open up an imaginative space in which the moral claim of all those things, persons and events in the midst of whom we live can be felt with clarity and force. It is the quest that matters most. And it is because of this, one suspects, that he describes poetry itself simply as “the passionate pursuit of the real.” Close to the heart of these reflections is a sense of the moral and spiritual significance of learning to see.
“To see,” means not only to have before one’s eyes. It may mean also to preserve in memory. “To see and describe” may also mean to reconstruct in imagination. A distance achieved thanks to the mystery of time must not change events, landscapes, human figures into a tangle of shadows growing paler and paler. On the contrary, it can show them in full light, so that every event, every date becomes expressive and persists as an eternal reminder of human depravity and human greatness. Those who are alive receive a mandate from those who are silent forever. They can fulfill their duties only by trying to reconstruct precisely things as they were by wrestling the past from fictions and legends.1
There is something beautiful and moving in this account of our capacity and obligation to learn how to see “reality.” And it strikes me as being analogous to the sensibility that we often find so compelling in the spiritual texts and traditions that occupy the center of our work and in the scholarship that seeks to elucidate their meaning and significance.
It is just such a sensibility that leads Jon Sobrino to identify the central ethos of the practice of spirituality as “the spirit with which we confront the real.” There is a risk of circularity here: we attend to the real by being faithful to the real. But I think that risk is necessary if we are to avoid the even greater [End Page ix] danger of trying to fit the expansive and subtle subject of our inquiry into categories too narrow to contain them. Even as we seek clarity and intellectual coherence in our work, we must remain aware of the fundamental wildness of spiritual experience and discourse and approach the work of interpretation with a certain humility and openness.
One of the reasons the work of Michel de Certeau continues to call for our attention is precisely because of his own fierce commitment to attend to and give voice to “the real”—especially as this emerges in Christian mystical experience—and to refuse the kind of premature closure of meaning that sometimes prevents us from seeing and engaging the wild otherness of such experience. The symposium on Michel de Certeau in this issue of Spiritus touches on this and many other questions arising from his life and work on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death. He remains an immensely challenging thinker, not least because of his insistence on paying careful attention to and documenting the minute particulars of human experience, and giving voice to the nearly endless complexity of the historical and cultural contexts in which they find their meaning. One senses in de Certeau’s work on Christian spiritual experience something of the same moral seriousness that Milosz claimed was necessary to authentic poetic expression. Noticing, naming and learning to stand in relationship to the real requires this kind of deep moral engagement.
This is also in evidence in the fine work by Mark Clatterbuck on Crow Pentecostalism, in Edward Kaplan’s sensitive portrayal of Thomas Merton’s struggle with sadness late in his monastic life, and Julia D.E...