by Lisa Sisler
In order to explore the concept of “the Other,” one needs to go back to its philosophical origins.
In the late 18th century Immanuel Kant divided the world into the categories of noumena, what actually is, and phenomena, how the world appears to the senses. He reasoned that the mind could not directly understand the world as it is, but only through phenomena. Kant believed that for people to fully understand the phenomenal they relied on fixed categories that were developed prior to human existence. Concepts such as quality, morality, quantity, time, and space not only helped people process information, it created a shared human consciousness.
In the early 19th century a follower of Kant’s, G.W.F. Hegel applied many of Kant’s theories to his own. Hegel believed both in a shared human consciousness and in the categories Kant highlighted in his work, however he believed that these categories are in a constant state of flux and are in constant conflict with one another.
Hegel called this back and forth process where ideas come into conflict with their opposites dialectic, from the Greek for discussion. The goal of the dialectic process is to come to resolution. For example: If Being were the Idea, Nothingness would be its opposite, its Conflict; the Resolution of the two concepts would be Becoming.
Hegel believed Dialectic to be a universal experience of self-recognition. Without the final step of resolution, ideas become merely fragments, apart from a larger reality, and the Self becomes alienated. Resolution also balances the desire that conflict creates with knowledge.
Two conflicting ideas, two desiring consciousness are blind of everything but their separate need. Dialectic allows them to face off in a battle for self-recognition. The problem? One idea must win, one must submit, and a true self-recognition for each idea cannot be achieved; each idea becomes dependent on the other for survival. The Master Concept is powerful, but only because it has dominance over the Slave Concept, and the Slave Concept is powerful because without the Slave, the Master falls. The solution? Each must recognize the will and needs of the Other.
And here’s where the concept of the Other began: through conflict and desire, through a lack of knowledge and a need for self-recognition. Ultimately the concept seeks resolution not for the Other, but for the Self. Reaching resolution, though, is not through self-exploration; it is through an understanding of the ideas that conflict with your own.
Paul Celan’s “Language Mesh,” published in 1959, is an example of this conflict-resolution in poetic form. While the poem is about an Eye: its parts, its movements, and what can be seen in and through it, Celan starts his poem with a single line, the only one in the poem, containing two ideas: The Eye and its imprisonment. “Eye’s roundness between the bars”(1) establishes both idea and conflict, and while literally we are talking about the Eye behind a pair of glasses, metaphorically we can’t help but see the parallels to the Self (Eye/ I).
In order to get to the Eye the reader must penetrate that which contains it—“The bars,” “the iron holder,” “the splinter”(1,7,8). This prison, as even the language suggests, that hold the Eye is juxtaposed with the Eye’s attempt at movement; “vibratile/ [it]…propels itself upward,/ releases…”(2-4). Now, though, the Eye begins to imprison itself; the “monad eyelid” (2), the “iris…dreamless and dreary” (5) suggest the Eye turning on itself and submitting to the conflict.
The first four stanzas show the back and forth of conflict, much as Hegel’s concept details. The Eye begins to break free, begins to move from conflict to resolution and self-recognition, only when the Eye recognized the Other’s usefulness. “By its sense of light/ you divine the soul” (9-10). This is also the first time the poem names the Other as “you.”
In the second to last stanza of the poem we again see two ideas, two separate entities, now called “I” and ‘you.” The I reflects on the conflict and questions the Other: “If I were like you. If you were like me” (11), and sees that the conflict is both of the I and foreign to it. “Did we not stand/ under one trade wind?/ We are strangers/”(12-14). When the Eye/I recognizes the Other’s ability to “divine the soul,” even while imprisoning it, the Eye/I is released from the Other’s control. They are once again strangers and the conflict resolves.
But here is where poetry, Celan, is superior to Hegel’s philosophy. Celan moves past simple resolution of conflict. In his final stanza, Celan reintroduces the strangers (he hints at this n the previous stanzas with the pronoun “we”). He calls them “flagstones” (15), stones used for paving a walkway and gives them a shared experience. “…On them,/ …the two/heart-grey puddles:/ two/ mouthsfull of silence./ (15-19). The pronoun “them” keeps the Eye/I and its conflict together as a unit, but distances the unit from the immediate. They are no longer the “we” of the present action, but the “them” that has survived and moved on. “Them” is also the name commonly given to the Other, and Celan cannot help but show the cyclical nature of Hegel’s philosophy. But rather than continue to be opposed to one another, they experience the same fate. The phrase “on them” suggests that they are wearing or rather owning these experiences. Though wearing puddles and silence that affect the heart and mouth suggests that the fate for conflict may be taxing to organs much more important than the Eye/I.
So why does the Other matter? If we take Hegel at his word, the way to discovering the Self is through an exploration of that Other, and like Celan’s poem shows resolution and true understanding can’t happen until the Self discovers the divine in the Other. This is no small feat. I think of poems like Patricia Smith’s “Skin Head.” As much as we hate the narrator of the poem, there are hints throughout the poem as to why the narrator clings to racial stereotypes. Surprisingly they have little to do with the races and lifestyles he hates, but are more centered on his self-loathing. This does not excuse his abhorrent behavior, but the poem attempts to understand that behavior, that hatred, and its source. While I may not go as far to call the narrator “divine,” I would claim that understanding his underlying pain and rage is a more effective way to combat and prevent his behavior in others.
That the Other has been demonized, that many do not attempt to resolve the conflict by discovering the divine in their opponent can be seen in almost all facets of daily life—from politics to family (dys)functions, from cyberspace to classrooms. So far, this approach hasn’t helped, and at the risk of sounding sentimental, maybe trying it a different way, Celan’s way, just may.