- Unselfing as Disruption:The Self and Other in Pain in Valéry and Delbo
At first blush, it may seem strange to consider both Paul Valéry’s La Soirée avec Monsieur Teste (1895) and Charlotte Delbo’s Aucun de nous ne reviendra (1965) in a discussion on the way the self encounters others during painful experiences. The first text, an intellectual thought experiment on the power of pain on a pure mind, seems to have little in common with the second, an account of the systematic reduction of human beings to mute cries. However, when examined together, these texts prove to include strikingly similar narratives for communicating disrupted self-function. The experience of the self pushed to the limit in pain challenges both Valéry and Delbo to articulate altered states of selfhood, leading them to cite otherworldly presences, dreamscapes and unnatural silences. The disruption of ordinary self-experience, pursued by Valéry and suffered by Delbo, reveals to each writer a hitherto unexplored or unimagined functioning of human consciousness before the self regains control. Studying the phenomena of what I call unselfing, an expansive term that covers both self-transcendence and self-loss, when experienced under duress in Delbo impels us to question the utopic possibilities imagined in Valéry.1 These subjectivities at the extreme not only introduce new questions into philosophic discourses on the nature of the self and its persistence through time, but also reveal a novel and unsettling perspective on empathy itself. [End Page 963] While Valéry envisaged a true interaction between ontologically separate beings as an ideal, if difficult source of desire, Delbo describes communion with others as an abject experience that few would seek. When read together, these works challenge us to consider what it might mean to fully share the feelings of others and whether or not we should desire that at all.
Pairing Valéry and Delbo in the same study on the self requires a careful navigation between these two very different strains of human experience: those who seek revelation in intense experience and those who are made to suffer it. From an ethical standpoint, it is of utmost importance to differentiate between disruptions that are self-inflicted and those that are imposed from the outside. I seek to interrogate the differences and similarities between Valéry and Delbo’s narratives in order to examine what unselfing in these diverse circumstances can tell us about unusual self-knowledge and unusual encounters with others.2
On the one hand, Valéry seeks to disrupt ordinary self-function in order to access (and articulate) the unknown as part of his larger interest in the functioning of the human psyche. This once-mystical gesture, the intense contemplation of an object or the void in order to achieve self-alteration and reach a state of enlightenment, was of deep interest to him.3 According to Michel de Certeau, what was new about this strain of modern “mysticism” was that it represented the rejection of (rather than the adherence to) traditional religious doctrine, as well as a turn towards scientific experimentation. He writes,
Depuis que la culture européenne ne se définit plus comme chrétienne, c’est à dire depuis le XVIe ou le XVIIe siècle, on ne désigne plus comme mystique le mode d’une “sagesse” élevé à la pleine reconnaissance du mystère déjà vécu et annoncé en des croyances communes, mais une connaissance expérimentale qui s’est lentement détachée de la théologie traditionnelle ou des institutions ecclésiales et qui se caractérise par la conscience … d’une passivité comblante où le moi se perd en Dieu.(qtd. in Robinson-Valéry 17) [End Page 964]
This experimental mysticism was of course intensified by the rise of individual spiritual practice in the absence of traditional faith structures. “Cette science faite de pure conscience sera en même temps l’ars magna: l’art de se prendre existentiellement en charge sous un ciel vidé par “la mort de Dieu,” un art de se construire et de s’inventer qui soit au sens plénier une forme originale...