Seeds of a primordial spatial phenomenology

Chrétien's spacious joy

Paul Downes

pp. 58

Publication details

Review of: Chrétien Jean-Louis, Spacious joy: an essay in phenomenology and literature, Rowman & Littlefield, London, 2019.

Full citation:

Downes, P. (2019). Review of Spacious joy by Jean-Louis Chrétien. Phenomenological Reviews 5, pp. 58.

J. L. Chretien, Spacious joy Downes Paul; Archiving of XML in sdvig press database Open Commons October 16, 2019, 5:37 pm

1A dual, entwined argument takes place throughout this book. These arguments require disaggregation. One layer of argument is a concern with foreground phenomenological content in experience. The second layer pertains to background phenomenological structure. The foreground argument is a highly distilled one that concentrates its focus on a specific term, dilation (dilatatio), as a content of experience. This experiential content is sensitively explored through multifarious dimensions across predominantly Christian thinkers and mystics, though with a range of poets also embraced, such as Whitman, Rimbaud and Rilke. Chrétien explicitly states that his focus is on ‘spiritual authors’ such as poets and mystics where ‘the Christian tradition predominates’ (2) rather than on philosophers,

2This phenomenological content of experience goes beyond simply Husserlian intentionality, in terms of both scope and claimed source; it also interrogates the precognitive in experience and invokes experience of a Christian God. The range of texts chosen for interrogation in terms of experiential dilation is quite limited, while Chrétien largely resists the temptation to invite obvious resonances with wider philosophical sources for these accounts of experiential content in relation to dilation.

3The background argument is somewhat more surreptitiously expressed and unfolded. It is in terms of a spatial structure or system of experience. Dilation is irredeemably spatial, resting on background spatial suppositions. The contours of this spatial background for experiencing, underpinning experience of dilation, is adverted to in a sustained way throughout the book, though not in terms of a systematic argument or overarching conclusion as to the features and trajectories of these spaces of experience in experience. The structural features of these spaces tend to remain for Chrétien as illustrative, though his claim at the outset of the book is that these spaces are primordial and are prior to metaphor.

4Chrétien seeks to retrieve a space for experience that has been glossed over in much of the Western tradition. Significantly, Aquinas is viewed by Chrétien as taking ‘the fatal step of splitting the concept of dilation into two, namely, into a physical meaning and a metaphorical meaning’ (7). He seeks to challenge this Aristotelian construction between the literal and metaphorical for space, upon which Aquinas built this cleavage. Chrétien raises the pivotal question, ‘Is there not a more primordial sense of dilation, anterior to the split ?’ (7), a split that reduces space to mere metaphor or bodily experience. Chrétien explicitly states that he draws on authors in this book that ‘do not treat the dilation of the heart as a mere metaphor’ (7). He seeks a more primordial space than the metaphorical and possibly also prior to the metaphysical. In doing so, he assails the Cartesian definition of matter that ‘implies that spiritual substances such as Gods, angels, or our own mind cannot be extended’ (9). Moreover, given that Descartes treated space as an empty non-entity,1 Chrétien is challenging this whole Aristotelian-Cartesian edifice for space.

5With explicit search for ‘their phenomenological basis’ (47), the accounts of the content of dilation as lived experience of the various thinkers offer some common threads pertaining to space. However, the broad range of experiences invoked for dilation raises the question as to whether, grasp all, lose all ? Do the wide domains of dilation dilute its meanings ? It is purportedly both an extremity of experience and yet, available naturally in the everyday; ‘dilation is found at every level of experience, including at the highest level of mystical moments’ so that the ‘supernatural is not necessarily the supra-sensible’ (96). Dilation is and brings both love and joy, as well as renewal (100). Though for St. Theresa of Avila, it is a passage to a higher spacious mode of experience, dilatatio invades the senses of sight, sound, smell, as an expansion of perception, as a ‘transformation of all the senses’ (128); it is proposed to infiltrate action, emotion, memory and thought, while emanating from a level of soul prior to the heart. As a spatial movement, ‘dilation is an act and a motion; it cannot form a perpetual state’ (175). It is an experiential process of movement.

6Dilation is portrayed as including cognition within its ambit, both as intellect and volition (117), while also accommodating contemplation as dilation. Thus, dilation as a mode of experience appears to stretch into terrains of both the Dionysian as a prerepresentative experience of rapture in early Nietszche, and the Apollonian as self-conscious condensing into form as a process of cognition, without being reducible to either or all aspects of the Dionysian or Apollonian in Nietszschean terms. A powerful final chapter 9 on the breath in terms of expansion/contraction, as a mode of dilation, offers a prior site of experience to sheer sensuality.

7The retort that Chrétien would give to this risk of dilution of understanding of dilation is that it is part of an inner unification process (71) and unity is not totality of experience, ‘the very act of dilation unifies the self’ (16). Yes, the scope of dilation is ambitious on Chrétien’s account. His spatial search via dilation is not merely the phenomenology of space as perception, as that of Gaston Bachelard. Bachelard acknowledges his spatial concerns are in the miniature and not at the extremes of experiential and conceptual depths, ‘Such formulas as being-in-the-world […] are too majestic for me and I do not succeed in experiencing them […] I feel more at home in miniature worlds’ of space (1964: 161). In contrast, Chrétien is entering the caverns of experience to extract a unifying pulse of principle as dilated spatial movement.

8This quest is for a spatial system of dilation as ‘porous boundaries, or boundaries with holes, allowing it to open itself to the infinite and incorporate it’ (169), which can be juxtaposed with the ‘heart…as thick as grease’ (v.69 Bible of Jerusalem), cited by Chrétien (63) and implicitly echoed by Schopenhauer’s ‘thick partition’ (211) between self and other in the person lacking compassion. Chrétien’s spatial phenomenological concern is with boundaries for experience, not only as constraints but as the opening process of dilation; ‘dilation is an opening up’ (31), a ‘joy that opens space up’ as ‘the gift of space’ (42). This opening ‘does not denote a simple expansion of space. It denotes a space that is different from the old space’ (42).

9Dilation operates as a counterpole to compression with both as spatial movements, as Chrétien invokes St. Gregory’s words, ‘compressed by pain and torments’ (48), for ‘the theme of dilation of love, joy, and hope in the very midst of tribulations’ (49). Dilation serves as a directional counterpoint to the relative closure of compression of experiential space, ‘If we are assigned a boundary that cannot in any way be pushed back or overtaken, we are filled with dread at the thought of a definitive imprisonment, of a constriction that diminishes us and stifles us’ (155). Where existentialist dread dwells in the awareness of the constricted space of sealed boundaries, resistant to the expanse of dilation in their firmness of closure, dilation is the possibility of an opening of space, a capacity for spacious experience that lives in a precise correlation to this dread, as a directional opposition. Angst may offer the awareness of the capacity for this directional movement between these Siamese twins, namely, the relatively more closed and open spaces of dread and dilation.

10This spatial phenomenological questioning of background structure shaping lived experiential contents offers a key insight regarding a spatial expansion of experience that is not simply a blank space removal of all boundaries, ‘another kind of dread would take hold of me, characteristic of dilation, namely the dread of self-loss and self-dissolution. Since the joy of dilation does not desire or aim at self-loss, it requires that I remain at all times the self that dilates’ (155). He continues, distinguishing the opening of dilation from a frantic obliterative opening, ‘Otherwise, what is involved would be more like an explosion than a dilation’ (156). A spatial structure is needed to distinguish the relative opening of dilation that retains a sense of assumed connection to self from a monistic fusion with background stimuli that surrenders all sense of personal identity. The spatial expansion of dilation is not simply empty space, it is not space as the nonentity of limitlessness.

11He emphasises that capacity to receive experience of divinity is a spatial concern, tracing the etymology of capacity to the Latin capax, with spatial connotations. In his account of St. Augustine, Chrétien appears to accept the traditional Christian framework of grace that would treat dilation as a gift outside the control of the subjective ego, of the conscious mind. If so, a precognitive dimension to dilation as an expansion of space requires amplification, one that does not simply rest in a stale selfconsciousness or state of reflection as contemplation, though Chrétien also subsequently includes these modes within the ambit of dilation processes. Augustine’s cogitatio as thought is also treated as being infiltrated with dilation. The vacillation here between the precognitive and cognitive for dilation may be that Chrétien is more concerned with revealing the positions of the various thinkers whose texts he explores than with exploring in detail clashes between their various positions or emphases.

12Chrétien highlights that St. Gregory ‘ties wicked dilation to power’ (47). An unexplored implication of Chretien’s acknowledgment of ‘evil dilation’ (48), envisaged also to include pride, is that it suggests an active spatial force propounding evil that appears prima facie to challenge the traditional Thomist doctrine of evil as privatio boni. An implication of dilation as a spatial movement also pertaining to evil is undernourished in Chrétien’s book. This implication is that as a spatial movement, evil is not simply a negation of good, as a kind of non-being as privation, but an active force in some way. Much may depend here on the level of description, as for example, what may be initially a negation may gain momentum as an active movement in space; causal and ontological levels of description may also import different characterisations of evil as lack or active force. Going further, this could be construed as seeking spatial movements prior to the diametric opposition of absence/presence that melds together a framework of evil as negation of good rather than as a spatial movement. However, this book is less concerned with theological implications of the spatial analysis of the phenomenology of dilation, whether as joy, love or even evil, than with describing the specific experiential unfolding of dilation as a spatial movement, across a range of thinkers.

13Much of Chrétien’s concerns with dilation and space is to characterise them in terms of a prior judgment as good or bad, as life giving or pathological. Yet this is itself a space, a diametric spatial projection. Moreover, Chrétien’s exploration of Pierre Corneille’s experiential accounts ‘with an open heart’ (99) invites what Chrétien describes in diametric oppositional terms as where the heart ‘must win the struggle against what blocks it’ (99). This diametric oppositional space lurks in the background without any explicit analysis in his spatial structural questioning.

14Like Wordsworth who crossed the Alps without knowing it, Chrétien has arguably discovered a whole spatial system of experience. A pervasive aspect of these spaces in this book is that they express expansion and contraction, as a spatial movement, as a rhythm where both the expansion of dilation and the narrowing of contraction are in mutual tension and interaction; dilation is part of a unified rhythm in spatial-structural terms for experience, as ‘a set of rhythmic and palpitating systems’ (169). This experience is treated as a cosmic spatial system affecting experience though not reducible simply to experience as subjectivity; it is ‘a process of cosmic widening’ (150). The relative openness of the expansion in dilation as a space of experience and a spatial ‘capacity’ for experience is frequently characterised by Chrétien’s selected thinkers and writers as being circular in movement, as part of a circular widening, where ‘the furthest circumference preexists already in the center’ (160); it is a ‘radiant’ (145) circular movement ‘spreading out in waves and circles’ (115).

15Portrayed at the level of imagery in terms of fluidity, as ‘heavenly liqueur’ (p. 88), citing Claudel’s ‘liquid breathing’ (178), this can be further construed in spatial structural terms, where, by way of contrast, desiccation is a feature of contraction, a drying up as a loss of dilation. Moreover, this fluidity of the breathing experience as part of experiential dilation offers a fluid space to be distinguished structurally from monistic fusion and empty space, ‘Airy or liquid respiration, together with its dilation, forms the place where we are related to the limitless, but not to a limitlessness that loses itself in emptiness; to a limitlessness, rather, that is a totality’ (178). Chrétien thus invokes and quests for a space that is a fluid unity or unifying process for an experiential opening. He contrasts this space not only with contraction but also with the empty space of monistic fusion as a totality. This is first cousin of a recognition that truth unity claims are to be distinguished from truth totality ones.

16Another argument made, albeit en passant, is that thought is structured like the structure of our breathing, and needs to reflect this interplay between systole and diastole. Spatialisation of experience moves into a terrain of impact upon thought, as a spatialisation of thought. This is a different embedded structure for thought than one simply resting on bodily analogy, such as that employed by Freud for oral, anal and phallic stages of development. The breath gains force as an animating space underlying thought. This is a promising argument left largely in the shadows in this book, though hovering at its edges. The inhalation/exhalation superstructure for thought may offer a counterpoint, as a different mode of interactive polarity to the Gestalt figure/ground focus on foreground and background in thought. If ‘the rhythm of breathing characterizes all living things’, where ‘the general laws of respiration…are the laws of dilation’ (168), this invites treatment of thought as a living thing giving expression to this breath rhythm of dilation, of spatial movement as expansion and contraction, in the very structure of thought itself.

17The discussion of dilation as pathology offers rich resources for interpretation, resonant with recognition in a Jungian tradition that mystics and schizophrenics find themselves in the same ocean, where the mystics swim and the schizophrenics drown. Dilation of space in experience offers an account of this ocean, pertinent also to the oceanic feeling recognised by Freud through his friend Romain Rolland. This oceanic feeling contrasts with ‘the airless dungeons we have built for ourselves’ (20), in Chrétien’s memorable phrase.

18Chrétien’s challenge to treatment of space as a mere metaphor is stated at the outset of his book. While it is developed through examples of dilation, he does not seek to amplify this argument in detailed philosophical terms. Nevertheless, his argument for a realm of spatial experience that is irreducible neither to mere metaphor nor to the body offers a rapprochement with concerns of Paul Ricoeur in La métaphore vive. Ricoeur seeks to suspend primary reference of truth as correspondence to an external world in science and to invoke a split reference to encompass another referential domain for metaphor in discourse, a ‘world’ or state of affairs of poetic reference. Chrétien can be understood as taking a further expansive step through a concern with a phenomenological reference to a state of experience of dilation in its multidimensional forms expressed in language.

19Spatial understandings pervade much of Ricœur’s discussion of metaphor in terms of proximity and distance, tension, substitution, displacement, change of location, image, the ‘open’ structure of words, closure, transparency and opaqueness. Yet this is usually where space is discussed within metaphor, and as a metaphor itself, rather than as a precondition or prior spatial system of experience interacting with language.2 Chrétien also invokes language in terms of a poetics of dilation though again he leaves reservoirs in his text to explore a conception of a spatial system of experience, for unifying experience that is prior to metaphor and language. He reaches this threshold in this book, but does not carve out this pathway in detailed, sustained terms as part of a structural spatial phenomenological argument. He offers seeds of a primordial spatial phenomenology.

20Viewed in contrast with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age that explored temporality as a horizon of experience taken for granted in the social imaginary, in a distinct socio-historical set of contexts across Europe with implications for a secularist Zeitgeist, Chrétien’s scope of works are more confined. However, they can be construed as overcoming a key caesura in Taylor’s work with regard to spatial conditions or horizons underpinning religious and mystical experience. Moreover, Chrétien is not pitting space against time, he incorporates a temporal dimension into the rhythm of the dilation as openness interacting with the compressed, contraction process of closure. This temporal dimension is of space as a movement, of spatial capacity for movement.

21A key strength of this book is its opening of a series of promissory notes to a more primordial spatial phenomenological structural questioning, regarding dilation, its interplay with contraction, the structural features of this spatial movement, its embedding in the breath, the circular expansive movement in what is tantamount to concentric spatial terms of infinite dilation sustained as a series of extended concentric spatial movements. This important contribution of Chrétien is allied with the pulse of vitality that runs through the sensitive interpretation of the accounts of the various thinkers regarding dilation, to embed dilation as a major feature of mystical experience, with dilation arguably offering as much of an Archimedean point for these experiences as does Angst for existential-phenomenological concerns.

22It can be inferred that four modes of space, not necessarily all distinct from each other, emerge from Chrétien’s spatial phenomenological account. A fluid open and opening concentric circular space of dilation, a contracting, compressed, desiccated space, and an empty space of monistic fusion, as mere limitless totality through obliteration and explosion of all boundaries. The other space is that of diametric spatial opposition, whether between good and evil, openness and closure, as oppositional directions in mutual tension. This is a diametric space not only as structure and position, but as direction. Chrétien does not directly address the interplay between these spaces of experience.3

23Though the argument for a spatial system of experience as dilation and contraction is as part of a claim for a primordial space prior to metaphor, it is this key argument that merits much more expansion, dare it be said, dilation, in this work. What is the ontological status of dilation as a mode of space, as a spatial system in rhythm with contraction, as a dynamic interactive spatial movement ? This pivotal question is only addressed indirectly by Chrétien, with hints and fragrances, in Spacious Joy.

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