Re-enchantment   /   Fall 2015   /    Re-enchantment

Can You Change Your Life?

Reflections on Peter Sloterdijk and the Confoundments of Religion in Our Time

Charles Mathewes

Sigrid Kolbe/Getty Images, New York.

Sloterdijk’s is an essentially lonely, not to mention exhausting, grammar of human life.

In “The Figure in the Carpet,” Henry James fashioned a failed semiotic detective story, a foiled epistemological treasure hunt, a tale as acute as it is exquisite. The plot is simple: A nameless protagonist, a young literary striver in London, is tormented by a clue, dropped by the respected novelist Verecker, during a weekend at a country house, that a secret pattern lurks in his, Verecker’s, books. This fundamental theme, this core idea, as yet undiscovered, driving all his work, is “the figure in the carpet.” The story unfolds inevitably from there, as the striver tries and fails to uncover what that secret is. Later, others claim, possibly accurately, to have unlocked the answer, and they report, via correspondence, that they have the great author’s imprimatur on their analysis. But then the self-proclaimed discoverers die; Verecker dies; and everyone else who possibly knew the answer dies; and the secret dies with them. The story ends with the young striver, no longer quite so young, infecting, as it were, another person with the exegetical obsession that has ensnared him.

“The Figure in the Carpet” must be considered among James’s most prophetic works. Despite the noisier claims of a gothic ghost story like “The Turn of the Screw,” this work remains for me James’s spookiest and most postmodern. The puzzles of epistemology it explores are almost Pynchonian in their paranoia, and Borgesian in their bafflements. To ponder the story is to confront the question of what parts of our world are flagrantly obvious to some (when asked for a clue at one point, the novelist Verecker replies “I’ve shouted my intention in [the critic’s] great blank face!”) and utterly invisible to others; it puzzles over the fundamental conditions of our epistemic solitude, and perpetual surprise, at what others have always already known. In a world of vast and radical cultural diversity—and James’s was the first real generation for which that sort of diversity could come, however faintly, into widespread view—the befuddlement the story explores is a situation increasingly available to us; James even hints it may just be our fate.

Given that we live in a world with manifestly different “obviousnesses,” with multitudinous and contradictory “common senses,” and given that all of us must in the end rely on one of them, what are we to do? From at least Montaigne forward, the struggle to recognize and then learn to live with this diversity has been one of the most enduring epistemological and political projects of modernity. At their heart, James’s works analyze human efforts to navigate these archipelagoes of otherness; his characters are always coming up against the varieties of human experience, to adapt a line from his brother William. In this one, the tension is refined and accentuated by the palpable proximity of the incommunicate mentalities. Nothing substantial in the way of language or class or culture separates the nameless narrator from Verecker. The only distinction is that one of them knows, while the other does not.

I kept thinking about this story while I was reading Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life.1 Not because I think Sloterdijk is our age’s Verecker, and not because I am the story’s nameless young reviewer. (For starters, I’m not that young.) But Sloterdijk’s book represents his best effort to identify religion’s “figure in the carpet,” its real meaning, from the perspective of someone who is himself resolutely not religious, in the curiously ironic and postmodern way that so many European and American intellectuals are not religious. It is his attempt to bridge this chasm between belief and unbelief—to explain the world of religion, and in fact to show that it’s not a different world after all. Of course, it’s about much more than that. Indeed, much, much more: While it begins by purporting to be about religion, it ends by claiming to have named not just the modern condition but the fundamental dynamic of the human situation. Indeed, it proposes to reinterpret religion on the way to a global redescription of the human as a “practicing animal,” a creature who needs to “make itself,” and perpetually remake itself, in order to be fully human. The question, then, is whether this account can comprehend the “data” that religion, historically and today, offers for analysis.

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