Kant's Three Questions and Yo! God

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Sweet Baby Jesus's biceps, it should be stated at the outset, are pretty great. Lately he has been spending a decent (not a ridiculous) amount of time at the gym, and he's bulked up since I first met him a year ago. He looks good.

Not long ago he began toying with the idea of decorating one of those biceps with a tattoo. Of course he came very close to getting a band of barbed wire around his upper arm.... Just kidding. He'd never do that. Nor would he opt for the ribbon of celtic knots--yes, they look fabulous, but they might be one of the few tattoos more ubiquitous than Chinese characters.

What he finally decided on were the three questions posed by Immanuel Kant in Critique of Pure Reason: "What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope?"

Which are pretty f*cking awesome questions.

He spent a lot of time experimenting with fonts, and finally chose an unusual, angular font called Daupin. When he knew what he wanted, he grabbed his passport and drove to Toronto so he could get the tat done at a really great parlor he'd heard about up there. This is not as eccentric a move as it might seem; we're not that far from the Canadian border, and no one raves about the tattoo parlors here. Given that not only tattoos but certain blood diseases are forever, I'd be willing to drive four hours to ensure that the needles were sanitary and the marks permanently etched on my body aesthetically pleasing.

And aesthetically pleasing the three questions are. They're high up on his right arm, and all three questions are legible even when is arm is at his side. The tattoo looks nice simply as a band around his arm, and then you realize the band actually says something, and your appreciation for it deepens. It's one of the best tattoos I've ever seen.

He also got this Hebrew word, transliterated as "hineni," tattooed above his heart. I don't read Hebrew (in the late 90s I went to the synagogue in Iowa City to ask about Hebrew lessons, but they told me they don't provide that for the goyim, especially since there was a perfectly good university in town) so I have to take his word for it when he tells me that it's the word Moses spoke to God when God first appeared to him in a burning bush, translated in Genesis 3:4 as "Here I am."

He explained, however, that the word could not be used to say "I was here yesterday;" it indicates presence in time but not in space, and is all about the now. "So it's kind of like saying, ‘Yo!' to God," I suggested.

"Kind of," he said. And then he gave me all this other information I'll try to paraphrase as well as I can.

It has "the flavor of being in the accusative rather than the nominative," or of being a direct object (me) rather than a subject (I), and is a way of "announcing yourself at the service of others, rather than as an agent who acts upon others." (It occurs to me now that it might be like what well-mannered store clerks or receptions say: "Jill speaking; how may I help you?")

His interest in this word comes from his study of Emmanuel Levinas ([1906-1995], philosopher and Talmudic commentator, born in Kaunas, Lithuania, naturalized a French citizen in 1930), who was the subject of SBJ's dissertation. According to the obituary of Levinas published by The New York Times, on December 27, 1995,

Dr. Levinas's alternative to traditional approaches was a philosophy that made personal ethical responsibility to others the starting point and primary focus for philosophy, rather than a secondary reflection that followed explorations of the nature of existence and the validity of knowledge.

"Ethics precedes ontology" (the study of being) is a phrase often used to sum up his stance. Instead of the thinking "I" epitomized in "I think, therefore I am"--the phrase with which Rene Descartes launched much of modern philosophy--Dr. Levinas began with an ethical "I." For him, even the self is possible only with its recognition of "the Other," a recognition that carries responsibility toward what is irreducibly different.

Knowledge, for Dr. Levinas, must be preceded by an ethical relationship. It is a line of thought similar to Martin Buber's idea of "I and thou," but with the emphasis on a relationship of respect and responsibility for the other person rather than a relationship of mutuality and dialogue.

According to SBJ, Levinas illustrates his ideas about "the Other" and our responsibility to It with Isaiah 58: 6-9:

Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?

Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?

Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward.

Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am.

SBJ tells me it's the only place in the Bible where GOD uses the term "hineni" to address humanity, the only place where God declares himself in the service of humankind.

He also said, in all seriousness, "Originally I wanted to get this passage from Isaiah tattooed on my chest...." Which is another of those earnest statements I can't help but titter at. I mean, it's really quite cool that someone who isn't a bible-thumping evangelist would want three and a half verses from Isaiah tattooed on his chest as an ethical declaration. But it's just not something you hear someone announce every day.

And as the tattoo over his heart healed (it didn't get as much air as the one on his arm, and he said it itched a lot), he would lightly press his hand to his chest and take a deep breath, which was rather a lovely gesture.

In any event, both are very cool tattoos: stark, intelligent, tasteful. They are like mine in that they are primarily verbal declarations rather than representational images, so it's not remarkable that I would find them so remarkable. If you ever meet Sweet Baby Jesus, ask to see them! He'll be embarrassed, but chances are good he'll oblige you by showing them off.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on August 25, 2005 12:16 AM.

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