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"Those who find ecstasy do so not by visiting the shrines of civilization but by trudging in the swamps of human destitution and misery. Our literature of ecstasy recounts the dark nights of the soul and encounters with mystics in the slums and in the refugee camps of genocidal wars."
                           —from Abuses, Alphonso Lingis

Alphonso Lingis, a professor of philosophy at Penn State University has been portrayed as "a spectral presence, posed as an otherworldly griot, his voice phasing in and out of sync with peppery Brazilian music that boomed from a pair of formidable speakers. Silhouettes of dancers moved behind an opaque screen, writhing with a shadowed eroticism, as Lingis read a page, then tossed it in air."[1]

Guerrilla Metaphysics by Graham Harman shows a Lingis - as Tom Sparrow states it, that "toes the line between himself and the whole phenomenological tradition by affirming the autonomy of objects."[2] Tom Sparrow tells us in an interesting aside that "Lingis is a wanderer and a cosmopolitan philosopher par excellence, perpetually in search of sensations and constantly giving expression, or the closest thing to it, to the sensualities he encounters. This sensuality is not only sought out in each of Lingis’ travels, it operates as a condition of possibility in his philosophy. Speaking boldly, we might call him a transcendental
phenomenologist of sensuality." (ibid. p. 101)

I've been reading his work Dangerous Emotions.[3] In it he describes his travels to Easter Island where in a descriptive passage on the "free and nonteleological energies" of this volcanic paradise he asks, "How can the passions of penguins, albatrosses, jaguars, and humans not lift their eyes beyond the nests and the lairs and the horizons? How can these passions not sink into the volcanic rock and the oceanic deserts?" (ibid. DE) I'm reminded of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda who once described Easter Island as “a secret island, a rose...of purification, a golden navel”.


He describes the moia, the large ancestral statues that strewn the landscape like strange objects arising out of the horizon with their "depersonalized faces of the legendary chiefs ... Stern, hieratic, rigid, uniform, these figures certain impose a severe order on the inhabitants ... and their eyes fixed and expressionless and unbenevolent on remoteness beyond the horizon ... To the wanderer among them today, these huge empty eyes rule ... with their jaws designed by geometry, their thin, tight lips, the only animation on these faces is in their strong splayed nostrils, pulling in the forces of the winds." (ibid.)

The descriptive force of such passages that give us a hint at the power of objects arising out of the groundless ground of existence, a power that evokes the very infringement of the real upon our haunted and spectral world awakens us to that mystery which is beyond all horizons, yet can keep our eyes pacing its dark edges for more objects  half-buried in the loam of the abyss. Coming upon a quarry of works in progress he asks: "Should we now dig out these moai and erect them on rebuilt altars? Philsophy too consists of works in progress, cut short by the death of innumerable philosophers."(ibid.)

After a disquisition on the decay and rot of this once proud people at the hands of our Civilization with its influx of war, syphilis, and barbed-wired enslavement he tells us that an "obsessive drive, nowise economic or rational, erected these depersonalized stone faces with eyes looking out into the featureless emptiness. The force of passion was the force of volcanoes and the wind and the ocean and the sky." (ibid.) He tells us that the last of these once proud Birdmen of the isles were "a culture of pride, darking and chance, violence and eroticism. A culture of birds."

In his musings he tells us that the task of a historians of stone when they "write the text of history, their work is not so much to inscribe those initiatives and enterprises, triumphs and defeats themselves, as it is to reinscribe their meanings. .. the task is to recycle in their brains the thoughts of a man long dead. Writing exists to make that possible." (ibid.) After showing how the ancient storytellers, the historians of a former time, awakened in their listeners emotions that quickened them with "hearts pounding and their brains fevered with the audacities, hopes, loves, and hatreds of heroes and heroines who were dead. ...", he goes on to describe how it is emotions that "color the line drawings with which cognition represents reality." And goes one saying,

"The philosophical distinction between the cognitive senses and private feelings can be traced back to Aristotle; it continues to our day in the concept of objective scientific knowledge. ... If these things move us, it is because we are moved by the colors we project onto them. ... It is through its feelings, drawing our eyes into their fields of force, that a body emerges out of its self-contained closure and becomes visible. ... Our emotions reorient others, disturb their trains of thought, seep into the blueprints of their projects, contest them, and afflict them with misgivings and self-doubt. Power among humans is not simply the physical force with which one material body may move another; it is the force to distract, detour, maneuver, and command. ... Emotions get their force from the outside, for the swirling winds over the rotating planet, the troubled ocean currents, the clouds hovering over depths of empty outer space, the continental plates shifting and creaking, the volcanoes rising from the oceanic abyss... " (ibid.)

In a last little fragment of both philosophical and political import he tells us that "People who shut themselves off from the universe shut themselves up not in themselves but within the walls of their private property. They do not feel the volcanic, oceanic, hyperborean, and celestial feelings, but only the torpor closed behind the doors of their apartment or suburban ranch house, the hysteria of the traffic, and the agitations of the currency on the stretch of turf they find for themselves on the twentieth floor of some multinational corporation building." (ibid.)

In a last reflection the the island moia he tells us that it was "clear to me that the passions turned to fathomless distances that raised those stones into giant statues were drawn from the upsurge of the volcanoes themselves, that those vacant eyes reflected the radiance of the skies, that the song of the winds and the seas was on those lips, and that those great stone faces and their raiment held the color of the ardent lava and the restless oceanic depths." (ibid.)

Reading Lingis I almost felt that he was a precursor of all those passages in H.P. Lovecraft that awaken in me the solitude and horror of lonely landscapes full of cosmic and abysmal colors out of space. It is the nihilistic bleakness of stone and wind and solitude that brings to us that ancient mystery of time and nature in their most abject moments.

1. Mortal Thoughts - Philosopher Alphonso Lingis Brings the Real World to the Ivory Tower, by Stephen Janis
2. Bodies in Transit: The Plastic Subject of Alphonso Lingis, Tom Sparrow
3. Dangerous Emotions, University of Californian Press 2000 - ISBN 0-520-22559-7


S.C. Hickman
S.C. Hickman

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