Book Review: Prolegomena to Charity

I was recently talking with a friend of mine (a philosophy major) about the philosopher Jean-Luc Marion. Apparently he has been called the first post-modern Catholic theologian. I was intrigued, and so went to the library and checked out his Prolegomena to Charity, a collection of seven essays approaching love from a phenomenological perspective.

The book is a strange mix of philosophy, psychology, and theology – a result, I think, of Marion’s phenomenological bent – and occasionally delves into esoterica that I don’t have enough background to understand. But for the most part, it is reasonably comprehensible. He tends not to make formal arguments, but rather to sketch an outline of a particular phenomenon and then examine its implications. Thus when I disagreed that the experience described was one common to humanity, his analysis of it was uncompelling, but when I recognized truth in his portrayal, I found his elucidation of it intriguing and often quite insightful. Since I agreed far more often than I disagreed, I learned a great deal from the book; in fact, I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the questions it addresses. It has seven sections, each of which can stand on its own, though they also work together as a whole. Here are my attempts to summarize each section, hampered by my inexperience in reading phenomenological philosophy and the fact that I already returned the book to the library:

  1. Evil in Person: Marion argues that “evil” is the logic of revenge, and Satan the voice that prompts us to seek vengeance for wrongs done to us. If we even accept the idea of revenge as normative, evil acts as a counterfeit bill we have been given in payment; it doesn’t matter whether we seek revenge or absorb the insult, we lose either way.
  2. The Freedom to be Free: Marion says that we cannot prove our own freedom, but it is in fact this uncertainty that allows us to be free; we become free by choosing to be free despite our inability to know we are acting freely.
  3. Evidence and Bedazzlement: Examining the purpose of apologetics, Marion argues that the goal is not to provide a line of reasoning that leads inexorably to Christianity – for such a line would be a chain, dragging its victim into belief and denying him free will and thus personhood. Rather, apologetics should elucidate the choice that Christianity proposes, a division that boils down to an acceptance or rejection of love.
  4. The Intentionality of Love: In the longest and most involved chapter, Marion proposes a definition of love as the willing of the other’s existence. When looking at the other and trying to love her (Marion consistently uses the feminine “her” to refer to the other, and the chapter throughout describes love in romantic terms, though he means it to apply to all forms of Christian love), an unseen mirror descends between us, and I begin to love my own reflection rather than the other for her own sake. To escape this, I must allow the “I” to become “me,” to be an object perceived by her subjectivity, while simultaneously perceiving her; this situation is impossible, but the attempt, symbolized by two lovers’ gazing into each others’ eyes, results in two subjects trying to perceive each others’ subjectivity and in the process creating, where their visions cross, an experience, love, which only they can perceive. At least that’s a vague approximation of what he describes. There’s also a lot of complicated phenomenological language I don’t quite understand.
  5. The Crucial Crisis: There is a crisis (a crossroads) in our lives, Marion says, because we do not know where the crisis is, do not know what our choice is between. Christ solves this by refusing to judge, and forcing us to judge him; in doing so, we judge ourselves, and make our choice in the moment of death. Or something like that. This chapter confused me, and served primarily to reinforce Marion’s love of paradox and the importance of free will and choosing to choose.
  6. The Gift of a Presence: In the most explicitly Christian and biblical of the sections, Marion provides an exegesis of Christ’s Ascension. Christ removed himself to heaven in the act of blessing us; the creation of distance between Christ and us is thus itself the blessing, as it allows us to enter alongside Christ into the Trinitarian circle of love.
  7. What Love Knows: Marion examines the objection that when we love, we cannot know the object of our love, and responds that in fact love offers a form of knowledge, a grasp of the haecceitas of the other. Through love, we grant the other her being and allow ourselves to become a “me” to her “I”; in doing so, we know her. This article seemed, to me at least, in many ways a recapitulation of chapter 4 in particular, though with some new insights.

All of these are really quite worth reading. But what struck me while reading was how literary Marion’s imagination is – he philosophizes in terms of metaphors, with his “counterfeit bill,” “unseen mirror,” and “crossing gazes.” I get the feeling that what he is doing could be better accomplished in literature – and, in fact, much of it I have already seen in what I’ve been reading recently – Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Hopkins, Melville, even Shakespeare – all considerably older than Jean-Luc Marion or even phenomenology proper.

I’m not sure what to make of this. My inclination is to say that what Marion is doing is trying to translate literary truths into philosophical language – a perhaps not worthless attempt, but one I think necessarily subordinate to the literature itself. It is less philosophy than literary criticism – it elucidates the truth found in literature, but should be read as a supplement to literature, rather than a replacement for it.

But don’t take that as a reason not to read the book. It’s really great stuff, well worth the time spent trying to understand it. Honestly, I don’t understand why Marion isn’t discussed more often.

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3 Responses to Book Review: Prolegomena to Charity

  1. Greetings. I found your blog somehow on account of exploring Wesnoth forums, and I’ve been reading it for a while now. Well, I thought it might be useful to strike up a conversation rather than passively blog-stalking, so…

    At this point there’s a lot I’d be interested in knowing about your thoughts, but I’ll start with a single question – have you ever read anything by Simone Weil?

    Oh and if you’d like to know something about me – I am a 20 year old liberal arts student at NYU, who follows Jesus Christ in the tradition of the Reformed Church.

    God Bless!

  2. (Cool! Always good to hear people are actually reading this stuff.)

    I’ve never heard of Simone Weil, though Wikipedia makes her sound somewhat interesting. It also describes her as ‘gnostic,” though, which is a little off-putting.

  3. Ah, well, the tone of her writing tends to be more subjective and exploratory than authoritative, but she very well may have had gnostic-leaning beliefs at some point. I would recommend a work called Gravity and Grace that was compiled from her notebooks, if only for the unique way of thinking that she has.

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