My subject is letting go of what I think I know, so as to discover whatever I can. I am not good at this, but I want it very much. Happily, life keeps putting helpful information in my path.
Last month I gave a talk in Vancouver (you can download it from my Web site: it’s “Datastan Meets Storyland,” the first item under “Talks and Speeches”). In the Q&A period following my talk, someone expressed her frustration with the pace of social change, asking me how we can make happen that which is so urgently needed. I said that after a lifetime of trying (and failing) to make things happen, I had concluded it was a better path was to allow them: remain aware of currents in the Zeitgeist, be ready to surf when the opportunity arises, surrender to the truth that our own ability to control the world is minimal.
Afterwards, someone asked if I’d ever heard of the sociologist Kurt Wolff. He used the same words as I with reference to community, this person told me, the same ones that didn’t quite fit the consensus vocabulary of his (or our) moment: surrender, love.
By now I can recognize the knock of my own personal messenger service: serendipity at the door. I went back to my hotel room to google up a storm. I learned that Wolff came to the U.S. in the late Thirties as a refugee from fascism, making his way to many prestigious positions—department head at Brandeis, high office in professional associations and on editorial boards in his scholarly field, the sociology of knowledge. He died in 2003 at 91, still writing and speaking with great vigor. His last piece was entitled “This, Yes!” It is a funny and impenetrable tribute to scholar of phenomenological sociology Alfred Schutz, written in the form of a demonstration of phenomenological perception. Go ahead and give it a try: I dare you.
The unhavable experience, which cannot be had; the absolute ineluctable which is ineluctable: how can I talk about it?
I wrote this but didn’t know what it meant. But I kept thinking of it, about it, not constantly but interrupting me all the time; I had before asked myself with increasing urgency why looking for some object I couldn’t find made me (and other people?) so so nervous or jumpy, as to supersede all other interests and activities, and I came to think that looking for an object, or a name, is looking for something but finding nothing: haunting us with the fear of nothing, that there might be nothing instead of something (the “This” in the title of my lecture): an unbearable experience, an experience which actually cannot be had, is unhavable but which somehow can be viewed as for instance now here. It is the experience of the ineluctable, one experience of the ineluctable, of which there are innumerable others, depending on what you mean by “ineluctable.”
To be this alive at 91, this interested in knowing and in the workings of the human mind, that would be a fine thing, would it not?
Because his career spanned such a long period, it isn’t possible to situate Wolff in a single moment of chronological time. But even though some of his important work preceded that decade, he strikes me as a new-paradigm thinker, Sixties style. Wolff cites his venerable teachers in Germany (notably Karl Mannheim ) along with contemporary fellow-travelers such as Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Erik Erikson and Norman O. Brown, people whose work may soon be revived as the culture enters another phase of renewal. His writing is peppered with poetry, quotations from literature and sacred texts. He seems as a scholar to practice what he preaches.
According to Wolff’s own account of his life, a single line of investigation dominated his thinking for more than half a century, the concept of “surrender and catch,” which sounds a lot like a translation from the German, which is it. “Catch” is a noun in this usage, referring to whatever is discovered or invented in the act of surrender: a new perception, a flash of insight, a new idea, a work of art and so on. For Wolff, whatever is caught constitutes both a result and a kind of beginning, in that the task of understanding, integrating and conveying one’s catch commences for the surrenderer as soon as the catch is made.
Wolff defines surrender—which he also characterizes as “cognitive love, which makes one see, not blind”—as entailing five elements:
Total Involvement: “In surrender man becomes totally involved, involved undifferentiatedly and indistinguishably, with himself, with his act or state, and with his object or partner—just as when we say that the lover is totally involved in his love, the phrase undifferentiatedly and indistinguishably refers to the lover himself, to the act or state, and to his beloved. Like love, surrender is a state of high tension or concentration, an undifferentiated state in which ‘anything can happen.’ But as far as the surrenderer is concerned, whatever may happen brings him closer to what he potentially is.”
Suspension of Received Notions:”[I]n surrender, man suspends, to the best of his ability, his belief in received notions that he thinks may in any way bear on his exploration….”
Pertinence of Everything: “In love, the lover finds anything about his beloved of interest; in surrender, man assumes all that comes to his attention to be pertinent. One of the difficulties of coming up to the expectation that this characteristic of surrender involves lies in keeping pace with what comes to one’s attention, in recording it.”
Identification: “The lover must lose himself to find himself, not to lose himself.”
Risk of Being Hurt: “The risk of being hurt is a meaning of surrender: since the person who can surrender can and wants to change, he is willing to sustain injury. And in both surrendering and acting on the catch, he may be hurt in various ways, the risks having their sources in various dimensions of the person. Above all, perhaps, they have their sources in his orientation, including what he may hold to be his fundamental assumptions; in his defenses; and in his social relations, including his prestige and his relations to various persons variously connected with him. Surrender thus involves the danger of what may be called orientational injuries, defense injuries, and social injuries.”
For Wolff, this consuming act of surrender exists in opposition to our conventional orientation to the world, which is to control and dominate it. He sees our condition in this moment (his moment, that is, and I am very sure he would also see it in the present moment) as incapable of being adequately met by resort to tradition, to what is already known and believed. To the contrary, the knowledge we now need can only be accessed by letting go of what we already believe. “At this time in human history,” Wolff wrote in 1977, “surrender is the most radical exercise of human reason, rationality at its most radical.” He seeks:
[A] social setting in which man would have an ever better chance of being who he potentially is…, the person whose image of man is the being who can surrender and catch may come to outline such a setting; being interested in envisaging a social setting in which man would have an ever better chance of affirming, that is, in which he would have an ever better chance of rebelling for ever more essentially human concerns….
And so do I.
I have been grappling with these ideas—surrender, faith, letting go, rebellion in the service of love—which are such universal spiritual teachings, for quite some time now. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I have been the site of a wrestling match between my own deep desire to understand and my correspondingly powerful resistance, which has manifested as confusion, vagueness, and when I get close, fear that in surrendering I will find nothing to support me. Wolff’s description of surrender has a clarity I have nowhere else discovered. It has left me feeling an excited anticipation of cognitive love, which:
means to love to know, philosophia. In surrender I suspend, to the best of my being, my received notions, most of which are unexamined accretions gathered in the course of my life. In suspending them I test them, thus testing my biography and the traditions sedimented in it. This means—as is entailed by the idea of received notions itself—that I am historical, and even in surrender I cannot wholly shed my historicity, for without notions I would not be a human being, but only an organism. In surrender, however, I assay my historicity, I come as close as I can to being, to being as a human being, to what I really am, which is as close as I can come to being that which I share with mankind, to being a representative of mankind in my ineluctable (inescapable, real, essential, true) historicity, to showing forth the universal in and through my uniqueness, to showing forth that continuity of man which is true, man’s absoluteness within its ineluctable framework, his historicity.
There isn’t all that much of Kurt Wolff’s on the Web. I downloaded a handful of journal articles and speeches and gazed longingly at out-of-print titles priced beyond my budget at used-book Web sites. I’m writing this on a plane, returning from a wonderful respite from grueling adventures in moving (which included my rear windshield shattering spontaneously from the drop in temperature, but never mind). I’m off to the library when I get home, a journey toward surrender.