Transcendence through Suffering. A Eulogy to Martyrdom
In the English language, “suffering” can indicate many things with different normative connotations. Not only can we, quite negatively, suffer from, but we also can suffer through, which, while indicating hardship, implies an achievement, or at least some gain. While the latter is usually part of the result, i.e. of what comes after we’ve suffered, we often, quite positively, ascribe a certain value to what we’ve undergone itself and even look back at it with a certain amount of pride. A friend once told me about how her mother used to slap her when she was a child, and she considered this to be formative, an experience of value; not only was it a positive experience despite it, but because of it. It is a phenomenon that is familiar to all of us, namely that we take pride in our suffering and consider those, who haven’t gone through these experiences, as naïve, lacking. Has not our first heartbreak taught us an important lesson about love?
Seen in such light, a certain economy pertains to suffering. There’s a potential pay-off, whereas unjust suffering can be compensated with, say, revenge. A great amount of suffering amounts to a great amount of experience, adding to our worth. But who suffers the most in a society? The poor, evidently. As we can see, the dynamics of taking pride in one’s suffering, thereby legitimizing it, also affirms the status quo, the world in which said suffering is taking place. Someone who that takes pride in the corporeal punishment that was afflicted upon them as a child, will possibly continue this practice. Just the same, the poor are often portrayed with a certain dignity, an air of wisdom that they’ve ‘earned’ through their abdication, an authenticity that is seemingly unreachable for the upper class. A lie, evidently, and a pathetic one. But should we refuse the economy of suffering altogether then, claiming no suffering to be ‘worth it’, or is there an economy within the economy, where we could decide, which parts of the status quo are to be changed, and which ones to be kept? Is growing up not always linked to discipline, self-denial, cultivation? We’ll respect someone, who’s “worked himself to the top” more than someone who was “born with a silver spoon,” but is the goal’s value necessarily connected to the price we had to pay for it? Would it diminish the skill of driving a car if we were born with the ability to do so? Suffering through a difficult experience might make us become more modest, or appreciate things more, but are there no better ways? We might gain experience, but is memory truly, as Nietzsche said, a wound?
We might say that suffering is an unfortunate component of agency, a necessary price to pay, but necessary by outward circumstances. In this light, we’re still on the economic level, with pay-offs and dues to be paid. But the pain that one experienced in attaining a certain goal neither increases nor decreases its value. Understanding a difficult topic requires a lot of effort, and potentially sleepless nights, but discipline and a good time management can make it easier for us without diminishing the result. If, on the other hand, we consider suffering to be a necessary source of the goal’s value, it becomes the mark of a higher state, a door to transcendence. We cannot forget that this (potentially) amounts to a total affirmation of the status quo, as it would legitimize poverty, war, famine, and other forms of suffering, which we force onto others. Yet, if we remind ourselves that the condition of suffering is never something to remain in, but, quite the contrary, something inherently to be overcome, the perpetuity of it becomes problematic. It is only afterwards that we take pride in it.
Suffering always points to ‘something else’, in a denial of the present with regard to a future. To affirm suffering could therefore only mean to affirm it as something of the past, which has been overcome in the present; as a retrospective affirmation. The child that is beaten is suffering, but, as its parents are promising it, it will learn the ‘lesson’ in the future. As such, it is at the same time a present affirmation by an instance that can judge the present from a retrospective position. In as such as it affirms the continuation of the practice, so that future generation also ‘have to go through it’. But the legitimation comes from the future (even if it hasn’t happened yet, as a promise); the parents, who have ‘transcended’ the difficult childhood, ‘guarantee’ that the practice is of value. We could speak of a horizontal, temporal axis of legitimation (from future to present).
At this point, we can’t really say how to evaluate this structure of legitimation. It can range from basic (and legitimate) scenarios like “you should try this food, it tastes better than it looks (I guarantee it)” to something as despicable as corporeal punishment. Guaranteeing the value of experience is a fundamental way of how we pass on experience. Essentially, there is no doubt that hardship (even if it’s just about tasting ugly looking food) can be formative. The question is, to what degree the suffering itself can be a source of value, instead of just a variable hurdle that needs to be overcome.
The model of retrospective affirmation works, as long as there’s a potential for us, as the ones who are suffering through an experience, to reach that point eventually, where we can look back at the experience and affirm that it was indeed ‘worth it’. But what about more stable and long-term conditions of suffering, like poverty? It is not like we live in a world, where everyone is born into a modest household and will ‘work themselves up’; where (moderate) poverty would teach us modesty, or whatever. Even at a time of apparent social mobility, the eradication of poverty is but a lip service and does not reflect the experience of the poor, who consider themselves (just as they are considered by others) as essentially poor, as a worldly condition. Simply speaking, a poor child is very unlikely to be able to retrospectively affirm this ‘formative experience’.
This changes the whole dynamic, as the source of validation, coming from the future, ceases to exist, leading us to the choice of either negating the validity of suffering (it is never legitimate), or of finding another source of validation, so that we could affirm the condition after all. A simple, but very effective way to do the latter would be to prolong the temporal axis into the afterlife, which would once again retrospectively affirm the condition of suffering: “The last will be the first, and the first will be the last.” In this case, though, the sufferer cannot look back and affirm the experience of suffering. They are dead. Without an external source of guarantee (except through representatives, priests), it is now the sufferer himself who needs to bear witness to the validity of his condition; and the source of this condition can’t be anything but the suffering itself. The economic gain that we could profit from in the first case, was inherently worldly, while in this case, it is the worldly condition itself that is imbued with loss. The horizontal, temporal axis is therefore now complemented by a vertical, transcendent axis, in which the sufferer affirms suffering within the condition of suffering. This is what is often described as the aura of dignity of the poor, their heroism of self-denial, and what not. This is because they are (apparently) privileged to bear witness to the transcendence, which all the others, in their worldliness, are cut off from. In short, the sufferers become martyrs (martyr means witness in Greek). It is no longer parents that ‘legitimize’ the children’s suffering (dual, temporal structure), but the metaphysical structure itself that looms over their heads, and they themselves become the guarantors of their own suffering (unitary, vertical structure).
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But how can someone be able to witness this transcendence? It is clear that even in the second case, suffering is marked by an impulse of flight, not only towards a future (“it will be over soon”) but towards a higher plane. It is still a refusal of the present condition, but it seeks the solution in the otherworldly. Transcendence, in this case, is simply the refugee route that leads out of this world. It is borne out of a need. This inherently corrupts the authenticity of such a transcendence, as we humans were always good at finding what we’ve initially searched for.
This is shown painfully clearly in the French-Canadian movie Martyrs (2008), where [spoilers ahead], quite contrary to the secret society’s wish for their victims to reach transcendence, Lucy becomes haunted by a specter from the past, the girl that she didn’t save when she was fleeing. And there’s nothing more worldly than guilt. One could say that the second victim, Anna, truly reaches transcendence in the end, the truth of which she whispers in her last moments; but is that because she was ‘special’ or because the cult’s leader told her in advance what she was supposed to find? Reaching transcendence was the only way for her to legitimize the torture inflicted upon her, and it was no surprise that she found exactly that.
What guarantees the authenticity of transcendence as a source of value, is therefore not an authenticity of experience, to which the suffering have access, but their very wish to escape the condition. The suffering of the poor does not break through the walls of immanence, it is rather a strategy to legitimize the perpetuation of the despicable condition, despicable even more so, as it claims that the sufferers themselves guarantee its validity, hiding the evident truth that it is inflicted upon them from the outside. Suffering cannot be a source of value, and if we take pride in our past suffering, we are committing an act of cognitive dissonance; borne out of the wish to legitimize something that can never be legitimized.
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The early Christian martyrs suffered corporally, out of the need to escape spiritual suffering — the suffering of not being able to be Christians. This martyr suffers, as long as Christianity is not in this world, as the religion that witnesses the arrival of the messiah. His sacrifice announces the future community of Christians as a utopian state, of which he is a prophetic witness; it is inherently worldly.
This changed as soon as Christianity prevailed (in the Western world); changing the nature of martyrdom. It is now an essential part of the world’s fabric, as we suffer from our creatural condition after the expulsion from Eden, etc… But that doesn’t make everyone a martyr; only those who testify the metaphysical denial with a very worldly denial: the poor, the hungry. It is part of their apparent dignity. If the concept of martyrdom is to be of any use for us, then it is in the original sense — as the foresight to a condition, where suffering is not. But we need to go further. It is time to break this bond between suffering and transcendence, to deny it as a source of value. We need to differentiate between the pride in our strength of having overcome hardship (which affirms us, not the suffering), from a pride that legitimized the misery we went through (which negates us, as we’ve ‘deserved’ it). Whereas the latter perpetuates the status quo, and is thereby evidently a means of suppression, it is the former that opens us up to change — in view of a transcendence, but a worldly one…