메인 Journal of Phenomenological Psychology Ellis, Ralph D. (2004). Love and the Abyss: An Essay on Finitude and Value. Chicago, Ill: Open...
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Ellis, Ralph D. (2004). Love and the Abyss: An Essay on Finitude and Value. Chicago, Ill: Open Court Publishing Company, 271 pp., ISBN 0-8126-9457-0, $25.95 (paper). Reviewed by Margery E. Capone, Pittsburgh, PA The search for meaning in the human journey is certainly neither a new subject nor one resolved with any sense of finality. It is what spurs us along the journey, slows us down, and even at times threatens to enervate us when we temporarily have lost our sense of its threads seaming the fabric of our lives. It is the stuff of literature, philosophy, theology, psychology, art, music, dance. Whether or not we are clearly focused on its primacy in our lives, it is always there, even if sometimes only in the shadowy sense of something forgotten along the path of youth and innocence. In Love and the Abyss, Ralph D. Ellis wishes to ground his search for meaning in this world among his fellow men and women. In an era of the dispensable, he reclaims value for humanity. In fact, his work is a celebration of and appreciation for human life. There are no caveats. This life is not more worthy than that by virtue of any of its attributes or accomplishments. It is simply human life per se before which he suggests that we stand in a posture of awe-filled reverence. And perhaps this request for all of us to simply cease doing, to wait and watch for the unfolding of being is the work's most basic phenomenological stance. To allow the opening of the lotus, gradually, without particular demands or expectationssimply to be a willing witness to a human life as potentially replete with meaningmay be to allay the existential angst which so oft overwhelms us as we hurriedly attempt to make meaningful lives instead of allowing for them by non-doing. Throughout Love and the Abyss, Ellis is profoundly concerned with not concocting meaning in the service of diffusing our ontological anxiety. We may not always agree with the meanings he dismisses as improbable or impossible, but we can understand his concern with prematurely s; oothing ourselves rather than confronting the ultimate possibility of human finitude. Ellis asks us to first and foremost find meaning in this world of the here and now rather than assume that all ambiguity will be resolved in the there and then. We might even extrapolate that finding meaning in the present rather than in any future, not only the other-worldly one he clearly rejects, calls for committed presence in our lives, and hence a richer possibility of being vibrant human beings with the profound value he believes we radiate. Ellis explores the metamorphoses we undergo in the exchanges of energy which are the basis of authentic and authenticating human relationships. He has a profound understanding of abnormal psychology and the errant pathways our relationships so often take, thereby undermining any potential they might have to fuel our own or Book Reviews • 129 Downloaded from Brill.com11/15/2020 05:55:19PM via University of Cambridge another's growth, let alone a sense of meaning rich enough to give us cause to continue the sometimes arduous journey of life. Thus, as he explicates what he believes to be the quintessential relationship which he will call a "spiritual partnership," he also differentiates the latter from its counterfeits and blemished forms. And so, ultimately, Love and the Abyss seeks to describe this phenomenon, "spiritual partnership," insofar as it represents for the author the ground of life's meaning. As well, Ellis addresses the destructiveness which he believes is resultant from a dearth of such relationships. And finally, he states his case for dismissing certain other venues in which we have historically quested for the significance of human life. * * * Ellis describes his research methodology as one of phenomenological reflection along the lines of Husserlian imaginative variation. He suggests that his cultural and personal biases are bracketed as much as possible thereby. His intent is to ask questions he might not normally ask when embedded in everyday-ness such that the essential structure of the phenomenon of spiritual partnership might develop with clarity. Indeed, we read along as he gradually builds upon an infrastructure of the phenomenon so that we are privy to the process. What is not quite so clear is why Ellis feels the need to establish as a rationale for the import of spiritual partnership an a priori conclusion that any belief in a life after death is the result of denial in the face of human finitude based on blatant religious fundamentalism. We then are catapulted into the proverbial chicken or the egg argument between believers and non-believers, i.e., did religions develop from man's recognition of a cosmic force greater than himself and the attempt to understand it or from a fear that there was nothing more than the here and now? More to the point, did the spiritual call to us or did we manufacture it? It would seem that resolving this theological conundrum might be somewhat too complex and unnecessary as a foundation for this otherwise valuable study. Furthermore, the possibility of an afterlife need not eliminate the very real facts of human limitation, suffering, the problem of evil, and an understanding of a qualified free will, all of which Ellis maintains are issues washed away or in the case of the last, manufactured by the panacea of a promised second world. Even though Ellis thereby renders spiritual partnership and the appreciation for human life emanating therefrom as the new cornerstone of meaning in life, the insistent rejection of most religious ideologies becomes problematic from the standpoint of a phenomenological approach hopefully unfettered by assumptions, especially unnecessary ones. In short, the import of identifying and describing a human relationship as potentially vital as spiritual partnership would seem to easily stand on its own merit as a means 130 • Book Reviews Downloaded from Brill.com11/15/2020 05:55:19PM via University of Cambridge to the continuing journey of becoming rather than as an end, an attempt to contain the ultimate meaning of life. With that caveat, we turn to the centerpiece of Love and the Abyss-the spiritual partnership and its nourishment of an appreciation for the inherent value of being. * * * Ellis intends this study as an exploration of "the phenomenology of a direct feeling of admiration-through-compassion that is both intense and sustained enough to persist" (Ellis, p. 10). Furthermore, this feeling must be contextualized within a value experience through which one is able to transcend one's egocentricity and recognize the intrinsic rather than merely extrinsic or instrumental value of the object of consciousness, which, for Ellis, can only be another conscious human being, It is this being then who will become the "spiritual partner." The transcendence of the egocentricity which Ellis believes would otherwise thwart our ability to find meaning in a finite world must occur within a "space of empathy" (Ellis, p. 11). The latter allows both parties in the relationship to continuously reveal themselves as ontologically vulnerable-limited, endangered, unique, temporal, and courageous-without having to experience ongoing judgment from a narcissistic other. In order for the intense and sustained feeling emerging from this transcendent experience to foster a spiritual partnership weighty enough to qualify as the gateway of meaning for human existence, it must be a mutual one, shared between what Ellis calls "spiritually complementary subjects" (Ellis, p. 93). Although the author notes that the latter need not necessarily refer to persons of opposite sexual polarity, he indicates this is most often the case as the shared feelings would most probably not otherwise be intense enough to break the cycle of egocentricity from which he believes the spiritual partnership frees us. However, Ellis also differentiates the language of the body in purely romantic versus spiritual partnerships to convey that in the latter the body becomes "an instrument for the expression of the other's forms of consciousness ... (in order to) intensify ... and underscore their importance ... to symbolize their feelings of quasi-aesthetic awe toward each other's intrinsic value" (Ellis, p. 93). Moreover, the effect of the spiritual partnership must spread "to a concrete experience of the value of many other conscious beings," sustain a sense of intrinsic value "strong enough to counterbalance the ontological dilemma," and do so "without the need for self-deceptive denials of the reality of this radical finitude (... a literalistic belief in the immortality of the individual soul .. .)" (Ellis, p. 10). In this way, humanity is endowed with a categorically intrinsic value not despite but rather because of its finitude: "I learn to experience the intrinsic value of my old high school classmate Book Reviews • I 3 I Downloaded from Brill.com11/15/2020 05:55:19PM via University of Cambridge who grew up to be a serial murderer in a way that is very similar to the way I experience the intrinsic value of my wife and children" (Ellis, p. 174). For the spiritual partnership to relinquish itself as the primary transcendent experience and allow for the "spreading effect" Ellis has described, courage at the edge of the abyss must stay the desire to tum around and run back to the safety of the relationship. Herein is the significance of the title of Ellis' work, Love and the Abyss. The abyss appears to ask us to relinquish that comforting and affirming space of empathy in which we have been walking with the spiritual partner and we are suddenly afraid-for ourselves, for the other, for the space we have shared and the meaning it has brought to our lives. Ellis happily notes, however, that "the surprise on the other side of this abyss" (Ellis, p. 179) is that through the spreading effect, we do not lose the sense of intrinsic value of self and other, but rather gain the sense that all being has that intrinsic value. So what appears to be on the verge of extinction actually flourishes in manifold ways. This profound and transcendent appreciation for the value of human life, according to Ellis, is the inspiration human beings desperately need in order to be creative rather than destructive. He cites the well known Spitz-Wolf study on infants given basic care who languished, became ill, and died without the affection which would have signaled their significance. And he points to destructive behaviors such as addiction and suicide or lives lived without a sense of personal agency (as when individuals choose to follow charismatic or dogmatic leaders rather than direct their own lives) as evi- dence of society's loss of the sustained transcendent and consequently of a sense of the intrinsic value of life. * * * Once having offered us the architecture of his spiritual partnership as an alternative to what he considers the purpose of traditional religions(" ... to counterbalance the obnoxiousness of the cruel cosmic joke that constitutes the ontological conditions for the existence of conscious beings in a universe such as ours" [Ellis, p. 243] by "pretend(ing) that people do not really die when they die, that there is no injustice or evil in the ultimate scheme of things, and that the only purpose of enduring our harsh and perilous existence 'here below' is to wait for death to deliver us to the rich pleasures of 'heaven' ... " [Ellis, p. 80]), the author discusses the insubstantiality of other foundational paradigms to meet this need. Romantic relationships which remain solely as such and are not absorbed into a spiritual partnership suffer from being relegated to only one partner, frequently displacing its members from the place of empathy by the narcissism which infuses itself into sexuality, and being bound by the institutional I 32 • Book Reviews Downloaded from Brill.com11/15/2020 05:55:19PM via University of Cambridge expectations of marriage in any given society. Religious rituals are empty because, for Ellis, they are based on "believing that things are true simply because we would like them to be" (Ellis, p. 80). The arts are "too few ... to provide a lastingly intense appreciation for the consciousness of their characters" (Ellis, p. 88). And altruistic endeavors are not bi-lateral relationships. Ellis further characterizes the structure of the spiritual partnership by sculpting its face as one which sees through the eyes of being rather than having. His understanding of this phenomenon is crisp and clean: insofar as we are engaged in a spiritual partnership and its extension ("spreading effect") to others, we forego being acquisitive in an inept attempt to assuage the emptiness borne of ontological angst. In short, we cease the attempt to fill the emptiness announced by the possibility of non-being with more and more having. It is in this way that Ellis points us toward a philosophy of existential responsibility and authenticity. With a refusal to either follow the way of society when it equates the value of human existence with what we either qualitatively or quantitatively have, or chase the elusive shadow of denial which, indeed, some theologies and philosophies have offered us, he asks us to stand courageously in the midst of life with no armor other than our humanity. It is a worthy place to stand. * * * To stand in the "space of empathy," that place in which every word, indeed every breath, glance, and mere suggestion of a thought is granted meaning and worth by another human being is not only to experience a profound sense of harmony and connection with the universe, but to experience the ongoing flow of life energy through pathways that are so frequently blocked by the dis-connectedness of everyday life. And in that fluidity, there is growth-a continual and ongoing movement of the bodymind-spirit. To live in this uninterrupted river of life is quite naturally a welcome respite from the space of the ambiguous erratic with which the contemplation of the meaning of existence often presents itself. But can we truly maintain this sense of awe in the face of the worth of human life which the author suggests spreads throughout our worlds from the spiritual partnership? What will sustain it beyond the memory of an experience? Or might its longevity depend on a sense of becoming which has been seeded in the growing sense of the meaning of human life? In other words, does the appreciation of the worth of life have to act as a means to something else rather than an end in itself in order to sustain itself? Does the rapture in the face of being take its next breath from the waters of becoming? Book Reviews • I 33 Downloaded from Brill.com11/15/2020 05:55:19PM via University of Cambridge If the latter is so, why has it not suggested itself from the research? Although clearly phenomenological in approach, this study might still benefit from re-evaluating certain apparent assumptions which may have prematurely delimited it. In the first place, it is assumed that finitude in its most final sense is a given. Secondly, it is also assumed that religion developed in response to the ontological anxiety which unfolded in the face of this finitude and from a psychological denial thereof. Thus, and in order to embrace finitude without despair, the value of life as understood and experienced through spiritual partnership becomes an alternative way to adjust to the reality of finitude. There seems to be an element of the reductionistic here insofar as the author somehow equates belief in an afterlife with a denial of the suffering, temporality, fragility, and limitation of earthly life. The potential promise of another life might give one hope that current anguish will not last forever, but it does not follow that the pain of being human is thusly eliminated, nor that the need to find effective ways to cope with life on this earth is rendered null and void. And even if one allows for those who do misuse their religious beliefs as buffers to life, the assumption that if something can be misused, it (rather than the one who misuses it) is inherently flawed belongs to the over-protective parent who would prefer never to allow her child to venture into an unpredictable world. The author also makes a case against free will as a contrivance devised by religions to deny the reality of evil; i.e., people are poor or ill or unsuccessful because they choose to be. This is quite an assumption especially since many of the major religions of the world quite clearly characterize life as an interplay between very real forces of good and evil, challenging their followers to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and live in honor and integrity, all in the service of standing against the forces of darkness which would rather we tum away, numbed by the enormity of the task, frightened by the depth of the night. As well, the concept of both person and world co-creating reality in a non-deterministic universe, with many wills in play, thereby allowing for a qualified free will is strangely absent from the discussion. The point is that without the pressure of having to replace religion and give life its sole meaning, the phenomenon of spiritual partnership might be able to unfold even farther than the research has suggested, as one means to further navigating the ambiguity and mysteries of life rather than as a definitive end to merely sustain it against the dark recognition of a random and otherwise apparently meaningless universe. Or as C. S. Lewis describes in what he considers the four faces of love-affection, friendship, eros, and charity: It is not that we have loved too much, but that we did not quite understand what we were loving. It is not that we shall be asked to tum from them, so I 34 • Book Reviews Downloaded from Brill.com11/15/2020 05:55:19PM via University of Cambridge dearly familiar, to a Stranger. When we see the face of God, we shall know that we have always known it. (Lewis, p. 190) In this way, the human spirit can reach beyond itself toward the "more" and humanism does not stunt the cosmic, but rather simply announces the human form as a locus for its incarnation. Another way to potentially allow for the phenomenon of spiritual partnership to manifest itself more fully might be to recognize the limitation of reducing a phenomenon to its operational definitions. For example, love is defined as requiring a bilateral space of empathy. which in turn is defined as a place in which vulnerability and finitude are valued, with the consequent assumption that a human being cannot love God because a deity is neither fragile nor tragically finite. Or on the other hand, because religions are mainly understood by the author as belief systems erected in the service of the denial of finitude, then if man is finite, religions must be wish-fulfillment fantasies and ineffective ones at that. This is rather reminiscent of the ubiquitous complaint by adolescents who have never outgrown the childhood conception of their parents as previously useful creations, set before them to ease all of life's difficulties. When the parents are clearly no longer able to rescue their coming of age progeny from the responsibility of impending independent living, they are understood as disappointingly ineffective, useless, inherently flawed-by the child's definition of what a parent should be. Ultimately, the unfolding of the phenomenon under study suffers from such attempts to establish a lexicon upon which it will be based rather than allowing it to language itself as it gradually appears in vivo. There is also a certain deterministic quality to assuming that spiritual partnership and its proliferation directly and solely bring about a meaningfulness to an otherwise meaningless life. Life becomes a mechanism to which we have been given the key. A spiritual partnership might very well be a throughway to a meaningful life, but when it becomes the meaning, it is somehow delimited and delimiting. Jacob Needleman writes, "First one must be able, only then can one love" (Needleman, p. 169). And becoming able is a life long process of living within the very ambiguity Ellis (ironically as well as the type of religion he rejects) wishes to resolve. Finally, there is an inherent dualism in rejecting the immaterial, the invisible as unverifiable by material means. Body is hallowed thereby and mind and spirit spin off as suspect. Furthermore, as soon as the phenomenon of the spiritual partnership becomes an experienced-object which a researcher-subject observes, it is forever changed, truncated. Witness the spiritual partnership described at this level: Book Reviews • I 35 Downloaded from Brill.com11/15/2020 05:55:19PM via University of Cambridge ... we know it because we feel pulled involuntarily by a strange force ... Moreover, we feel a vague intuition that ... if we submit to it we will have submitted to one of those frightening elemental forces that sometimes engulf people from without, like a tidal wave or a war ... the other person may suddenly appear superhuman or larger than life, like some strange apparition from another world, possessed of mysterious, magical powers ... a force stronger than ourselves, which threatens to possess and occupy our being with an alien power that we can neither control nor escape ... (Ellis, pp. 132-33) This suggests the "I" experiencing the other rather than participating in her /him to allude to Martin Buber's attempt to differentiate "l-It" relationships from those of "I-Thou." In the latter's words, "As long as love is 'blind,'-that is, as long as it does not see a whole being-it does not yet truly stand under the basic word of relation" (Buber, pp. 67-68). And it is the relationship of being-in-the-world-with-others rather than the experience thereof which lifts humanity out of its embeddedness and into the infinitely possible. * * * Yet, this phenomenon Ellis has offered us is a gem gathering light with which to see our way through our own individual evolution as well as through the life journey. The concept of a spiritual partnership lifts any relationship which it absorbs to another plane, clearing it as much as possible of the mire of egocentricity and allowing more of its facets to brilliantly reflect and focus rays of meaning it did not have the capacity to catch while remaining clouded by being embedded in the everyday. Revisiting the phenomenon, with more and more care each time, can only result in polishing it until its full essence manifests itself. And placing ourselves in its presence can only prepare us more fully to appreciate and foster such spiritually radiant relationships in our lives. For this opportunity alone, we can only be grateful to Ellis and his courageous sojourn through Love and the Abyss. * * * References Buber, M. (1970). I and Thou. New York: Simon & Schuster. Lewis, C. S. (1960). The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich. Needleman, J. (2003). Lost Christianity: A journal of rediscovery. New York: Penguin Books. 136 • Book Reviews Downloaded from Brill.com11/15/2020 05:55:19PM via University of Cambridge