Wind and Breath by D. L. Pughe

Rodolphe Bresdin – French, 1825-1885 – Trees Bending in the Wind

by D. L. Pughe

originally published in Writings on Air (MIT Press, Terra Nova Books, 2003)

A week ago Bellagio was still flush with foreign visitors wandering through the narrow, carefully swept cobbled passageways in search of scarves and ties or dangling wooden Pinocchios.  They marveled at the perfect order of the small town nestled in the crook of Lake Como’s two waving arms.  Everywhere they looked were stained ochre walls and dark orange tiled roofs, the whisked stoops of every shop and home, and animated citizens chatting in the central square.  They sat in the sun lakeside or under an awning at the Lido or the Hotel du Lac sipping cappuccino or indulging in a decorated glacé.  Now, a week later, the ‘season’ is over as they say, and a cold wintry Tivano, or Northern valley wind, has arrived.  Huge scarlet leaves from the ivy that clings to the walls of Villa Serbelloni above have tumbled down into town, mixing with smaller golden leaves from all the trees along the way.  The wind has come up and the tourists are gone, and the stores are all shuttered with piles of leaves drifting along the passageways.  Down the narrow stairs, into the square with its ancient chapel, and out across the vast pewter lake the breeze gains momentum and increases its chill.  Small whirlwinds grab up the leaves and spin them in the air like furious dervishes that tornado off, floating out over the whitecaps toward the opposite shore.

A week ago the ducks were well fed from French fries and ice cream cones dropped along the lake’s edge and were nonchalant about coming over to inspect offerings of crackers or bread.  Now they scurry across the waves crashing against the gray sea walls toward anything edible tossed to them, with an anxious glance over their shoulder at the approaching winter.  And the tall diagonal concrete stairs of the Lido’s diving platform, stairs once ascending in sunlight toward some mythic heaven, are now stark against the leaden sky as though the rest of their steps have been broken off by the wind and washed away.

When the wind arrives in Como at the South end of the lake, it is even fiercer and roars down the streets of the city forcing its citizens to huddle together in doorways.  During malevolent gusts “Il tempo brutto!”  is murmured consolingly as a greeting.  Only the most stalwart grandmothers can be seen with bundled children in the abandoned leaf-strewn playground of the central park near the wharf.  There stands the Volta Museum with its impressive 19th century dome, and yet appears torn apart by the wind.  It is only in a state of renovation but with chunks of marble and heavy equipment lying idle as though too cold to touch.  Inside, the antique mahogany and glass display cases are shoved together and only a few exhibits remain on view.  The ancient batteries and glass bulbs, the brass rods and dark wooden implements, all forged during the earliest years of electricity, lie scattered some distance from the numbers that once marked their spot in each case.  They all are covered with a fine layer of dust.  The attendants who run the museum, two elderly ladies whose days are spent playing cards with woolen sweaters tucked around them, seem surprised a visitor will still come by, much less pay to enter.  They shrug, interrupted from their game, and take the money all the same, offering a thin guide to all that one cannot see but only imagine from the rubble both inside and out.

Later, out in the streets, young high school students are attempting a political demonstration about the recent horrors of our world.  With a few home-made banners, a rag tag group mobilizes in the city square and many of the kids, their mufflers wrapped around ears and mouths, gradually defect due to the ferocious push of the wind.  The ones that stay appear to be involved in adolescent flirtations with one another, with much joking and friendly shoves.  Their earnest leader with the bullhorn has trouble getting everyone in order and the police shiver, lean against their car, amused and unhurried.  Finally the charge is called, and one protestor ignites a red emergency flare that sends out vibrant crimson sparks, the wind takes them up like the spray of a fountain.  A small puppy along for the march is alternately attracted and frightened by the light, pulling forward and back, and the group moves off with much laughing and pushing, into the enveloping charcoal dusk.


When a cold piercing wind howls into town it seems a harsh injustice, a punishment for things gone wrong.  In this autumn of 2001 the wind in Italy rings with all that has changed everywhere since a new kind of terror overtook our lives.  Winds are only part of the complex currents of air that chase around the world.  Unlike seas separated by land, the atmosphere is continuous, connected, far and near, global and local.  A network communicating vast distances, back and forth, the wind is a messenger of both good and ill.

Names given to winds are in statu nascendi, born on the tongue in the heat of the moment.  Here in Bellagio there is the Breva, a warm breeze from the South, the Vento another cold valley wind, and the Tivano, the recent fierce gale from the North.  And not far away in the Besgell Valley of Switzerland is the Brüscha, and in the pathway of the Rhine:  the robust Wisper.  Toward the west in Spain is the Criador, a traveling ‘disturbance’ that precedes rain, and the Levanter that blows in stormy gusts through the Strait of Gibraltar.

The ‘worst’ winds are notorious and are blamed for a rise in malevolence of human actions, for a malaise of the soul.  On the Mediterranean coast, for example, a shrill siren will quickly rouse sleepy sunbathers to hurriedly grab their striped beach chairs and umbrellas, their towels and books, clamoring for shelter.  Swimmers caught in the waves glance over their shoulders then rapidly stroke to shore.  Before the pulsing blare of the horn dies away, the fist of the Sirocco hits the dancing surf, and as it punches the beach, all the dust and heat it has carried from the dunes of the Sahara is unfurled.  Then it grabs up the sand underfoot and whirls it all together in tormented gusts.  Any poor soul still escaping the strand has no way to turn from the wind, it whips in all directions at once.  Braudel tells us that as it passes through Saharan villages on its way north, it tears out gardens and orchards, reducing a year’s work to a minute’s destruction.  Then, as though fortified by a hearty meal, it heads out across the vast Mediterranean full of great gulps of sand.  When it reaches the famous beaches of northern Italy and the South of France, it throws itself about with a triumphant force and has been blamed for increased murders, accidents, anger and suicide.  In earlier eras, it was once possible to offer the Sirocco as an alibi for violent crimes, the culprit in spectacular cases of sudden, unconscionable homicide.

From the northern polar regions comes the Mistral, the ‘masterful’ wind which plunges South through the Rhone valley of France in violent cold and dry gusts.  Damaging crops, threatening the railways and challenging sanity along the way, it arrives in Marseilles where it stays sometimes for a hundred days.  It can hurl children into canals and pull off chimneys in ways natives call ‘malevolent’ and ‘impetuous.’

And tearing down from the Alps, the warm dry Föhn is a menacing and notorious wind.  In Southern Germany, Munich in particular, it is surprising at first, a warm gust during the thick chill of winter.  But as it violently sprints down the mountainsides, melting everything in its path, torrents overflow the rivers, buds and blossoms mistake it for spring, only to freeze again and perish.  It shakes the branches of trees like truant Katzenjammer kids caught by the schoolmaster, and it shrieks around the windowpanes, pounding on the glass.  The ‘Föhn syndrome’ includes anguishing bodily pains as well as headaches, dizziness, nausea and fatigue.  And it is blamed for every unbalanced psychological state:  hostility, irritation, anxiety, depression, inability to concentrate, and occasionally elation and suspiciously excessive niceness.

The Föhn, too, has been used to defend the worst of human actions:  “It was the wind that picked up the knife, stuck it in again and again.”  From afar, from places without wicked winds, it is always confounding when someone invokes the weather to explain away his or her guilt.  But when you are caught in a wind, when you are pinned flat against a building by its fierce intensity, hounded down the street, pummeled as you attempt a hill; after you have listened to it squeal around you day and night, night and day for weeks on end.  When it has kicked sand in your face and whirled back to do it again, it could help possibly change your mind or even possibly help you lose it.

In Afghanistan and Iran there is a wind of 120 days called the Bad-I-Sad-O-Bistroz.  Careening violently downslope from the Northwest, from the direction of Europe, it usually arrives between May to September.  It blows continuously, and in the dry, furrowed dusty terrain of Afghanistan it increases the hostility of an environment already unwelcoming to humankind.  The world is now alert to complex drought-afflicted landscape of Afghanistan, and, with overdue humanity, is worrying over the plight of the people there.  There are rumors the network of terror is housed in the caves sunk in the rugged Hindu Kush mountains.  Aeolus, the ‘ruler of winds’ was himself a cave dweller, keeping his potent breezes tied up in a sack.  It was curiosity rather than revenge, however, that led his powers to be loosed on the world.

We are just beginning to understand the way that the generous citizens of Afghanistan refrain from judgment as they welcome and care for guests.  Journalists, health workers, and mujahadeen all recount how Afghanis with little or nothing themselves and who may not like what you stand for, will take you in, give you their last drop of tea and their only bowl of rice.  It is not the wind there that one can blame for all that has changed with the world.


To be in Italy in the fall of 2001 is to be strangely apart from our American plight and the Afghani perils, and yet it is possible to feel caught and pulled between the poles of Afghanistan and Manhattan.  We feel the fierce winds of change and yet the last image of New York, passing through on October 1 on the way to Italy, was windless, as though the breath were knocked out of it.

From friends who were in the city in the sizzling days of early September, we heard about an eerie calm, absent even a Cat’s Paw, the most gentle of American winds.  Perhaps it was most like what Leopardi experienced, where:  not a breath of wind stirs a single leaf/Or a single blade of grass, and you can’t/See or hear, near or far, a ripple of water/Nor a cricket chirping, nor a wingbeat/Flittering in leaves, nor an insect buzzing,/Nor any sound or any movement at all./A profound hush settles.  Perhaps it was like the last innocence before the storm.

A few days later, on a morning of absolutely beautiful hot clear skies and an absence of wind, a horror beyond imagination changed all our lives.  We watched one tower blazing with flames and hopeless souls escaping the smoke, abandoning themselves to the air, falling countless stories in final agonizing moments of consciousness.  Then another tower was pierced by another plane, the scene replayed itself until both towers fell and a deathly stillness settled in the smoke and debris across a center of the world.  The horror was indescribable, and when we arrived en route to Italy we were drawn to the gaping wound of the city, covering our faces to blunt the mingled scents of disaster that hung over lower Manhattan.  We felt the absence, the towers that were never architecturally loved (though the people were) but how, as the highest beacon, they supplied Manhattan with a compass for figuring out where you were.  As we gazed at the ruins, the fugitive limb of their presence and the agony of the families left behind ached at the back of our hearts.

The city was groping for air and at the same time letting go of any former feeling of safety and comfort.  We recalled every haunting image, particularly a young man in a light jacket, his arms calmly at his sides in a headfirst fall.  We realized the abject hopelessness that led him to cast himself into the windless air.


A ‘Wind Rose’ is a diagram where the length of lines drawn to the center of a compass show the frequency and speed of the wind.  Where there is no wind, it appears to be crushed on one side.  In the stillness of New York it seems to embody a sense of direction gone awry, where part of the world has fallen away and a new angle has taken hold.  It looks illogical from all that we know, neither reasonable nor understandable; horror arrived and had left us all gasping in its wake.  It was only later, in the relative safety of Italian shores, that I found consolation again in words, the first clues for how to weather the future.  Centuries earlier, Petrarch had begun to fathom grief, to reassure us how, at such moments

Love, wisdom, valor, pity, pain,

Made better harmony with weeping

Than any other likely to be heard in the world.

And the air and the wind were so filled with this deep music

No single leaf moved on its still branch.

Sigvart Verner – Fortunen Morgen





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Leaf Sanctuaries by D. L. Pughe

Amy Mikelson – Tree Thicket, 2018

Walking up our driveway in my mask, back from an urban hike, I see Aziza sitting in the tree in her neighboring garden and she’s reading.  I feel an instant recognition of my own time in trees, from being caught in a particular one while avoiding piano lessons (and finally being reported by the piano teacher who could see me from her window), to the haphazard tree house I built in our backyard.  It was never as grand as the ones in Swiss Family Robinson, where they actually hoisted up a piano to play, but in my mind, mine was every bit as perfect:  safe from all dangers and disturbances of the world.  And where one could read in peace.

Aziza is 8 and through these months of the pandemic has been at home with her older brother, Roshan, her younger sister, Layla, and her parents Lina and Ali.   They are a wonderful family and have been trying to keep up with school, exercise and have fun including making music as a family in their backyard.  Lina tells me that Aziza has recently needed a little more private space and time and has chosen the tree as her sanctuary.  She is also hoping to curtain her bunk bed into a private tent.  Aziza has so many talents:  she is a passionate painter, singer and her curiosity and engagement with the world is charming.

I have been thinking of tree chambers myself a lot lately.  Jon’s mother, Oriel, was a brilliant philosopher and kind and generous person, and often spoke to me of her own childhood hideaway in the trees.  It was a large ancient tree in Andover whose branches bent to the ground and made several alcoves protected by leaves.  She told me there was an entry space, a sitting room, and at least three more chambers for other aspects of home.  It was her favorite place and, especially in those final years, one of her fondest memories.  She lived to the age of 91, but in her last two years she lost her sight, and then her ability to eat.  She still managed to find a quality in life deeply lived.  She loved to visit with her family and friends, enjoyed books read aloud, and, with help, she still dressed well to face each day.  I have been looking again at Oriel’s copy of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, one of the most challenging works of philosophy.  In it she taped onion-thin paper in order to make extensive notes for those that did not fit in the margins.  She wrote in tiny pencil script, questions and insights on all that she read.  Her thoughts fill many pages.

I came to realize her mind was like the chambers of her beloved tree sanctuary.  It was where she stored ideas she could still think about, images and insights and memories.  She could retreat into thoughts.  It is the greatest lesson one can take now where we are all experiencing some sort of limitation on our former full embrace of the world.  It reminds me of Wallace Steven’s great poem:  the Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour which ends:

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.

We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,

A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.


Within its vital boundary, in the mind.

We say God and the imagination are one. . .

How high that highest candle lights the dark.


Out of this same light, out of the central mind,

We make a dwelling in the evening air,

In which being there together is enough.

—Wallace Stevens

Postscript:  My friend David Rothenberg was so taken with the pages in Oriel’s Tractatus that he included several images in his recent book on Wittgenstein, The Possibility of Reddish Green.  And with thanks to Amy Mikelson whose photograph above has enchanted me since I first saw it and embodies my idea of a scruffy sanctuary in nature.


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The Empathy of Edith Stein by D. L. Pughe

Knowledge is blind, empty, and restless, always pointing back to some kind of experienced, seen act. And the experience back to which knowledge of foreign experience points is called empathy.[i]

Edith Stein

Einfühlung ist eine Art erfahrender Akte sui generis.

Empathy is a kind of unique act of perceiving.

Edith Stein

Only one who experiences oneself as a person, as a meaningful whole, can understand other persons. The ‘self’ is the individual experiential structure…in it (is) the source of deception from which danger threatens us. If we take the self as the standard, we lock ourselves into the prison of our individuality. Others become riddles for us, or still worse, we remodel them into our image and so falsify historical truth.[ii]

Edith Stein

 Edith Stein’s Exploration of Empathy as Experience

Edith Stein (1891-1942) was one of the few philosophers to try to reckon with the multiple definitions of empathy.  She began her philosophical studies in Göttingen with Edmund Husserl and his circle, then became Husserl’s assistant at his position in Freiburg. There she completed her work On the Problem of Empathy in 1917 (Zum Problem der Einfühlung) as her final thesis. By the end of the twentieth century Einfühlung had accumulated complex layers of competing ideas. For Stein, the core ‘problem’ of empathy began in its various applications. Aesthetic empathy had grown out of ancient theories combining with the Kantian intuitive union with the sublime and Robert Vischer’s extension into aesthetic ‘oneness.’ In ethical empathy, both philosophers and psychologists recognized empathy as an innate moral impulse which could be refined through social awareness. And then there was the empathy which Husserl most often referred to: empathy as the cognitive source of foreign (fremdes) experience. For Stein, the previously unquestioned mingling of epistemological, purely descriptive, and genetic-psychological aspects of empathy complicated efforts to untangle all these definitions.

Edmund Husserl

While she sees the aesthetic and moral sides of empathy as valuable, Stein believes the basic problem is the question of how we experience empathy as the perceiving (Erfahrung) of foreign subjects and their experience (Erleben). Thus, the description of empathy within consciousness must be the basis for any other dealings with the problem by psychologists, sociologists, or biologists.[iii] She believes empathy consists in imaginatively putting oneself in the place of another I, and reproducing in one’s own imagination the form of the other’s experience.[iv]

Stein was always confident of her intelligence from the time she was a child as she describes in her autobiography.

Edith Stein was drawn to Husserl’s work, as were many other young philosophers in the early 20th century, as a chance to describe the real experience of perception. As she writes in her autobiography Edith Stein, Life in A Jewish Family 1891-1916, the first ‘at home’ session Husserl hosted in Göttingen included the group of young philosophers Johannes Hering, Alfons Reinach, Hans Lipps, Theodore Conrad, Max Scheler, Alexander Koyré, Siegfried Hamburger, Rudolf Clemens, Gustav Hübner, and Alfred von Sybel:

 All of us had the same question on our minds. [Husserl’s] Logische Untersuchungen had caused a sensation because it appeared to be a radical departure from critical idealism which had a Kantian and neo- Kantian stamp. It was considered a “new scholasticism” because it turned attention away from the “subject” and toward “things” themselves. Perception again appeared as reception, deriving its laws  from objects not, as criticism has it, from determination which imposed its laws on the objects.[v]

Through Stein’s autobiography and her published letters we are able to understand some of the texture of these philosophical encounters. The close-knit group of students who gathered around ‘the Master,’ both in Göttingen and in Freiburg, experienced ‘intersubjective understanding’ not just in theory but in practice.

Husserl’s Circle left to right:  Johannes Hering, Friedrich Neumann, Adolf Reinach, Hans Lipps, Hans-Theodor Conrad, Max Scheler, Alexandre Koyré, Siegfried Hamburger, Hedwig Martius, Rudolf Clemens, Gustav Hübener, Alfred Von Sybel

With ‘The Master’

The phenomenological ‘special standpoint’ that allows one to perceive the essence of empathy became the focus of Stein’s research. She closely examines Husserl’s phenomenological method, particularly the second reduction, hoping to discover what is left in our perception after the world and other subjects are ‘bracketed’ away. She questions how phenomenology is not satisfied with describing a single perception but attempts to establish an ‘essential perception’ from a single case in ideational abstraction. At this point Stein began to see weaknesses in Husserl’s original (pre-Ideas II) stance. In Husserl’s epoché the entire surrounding world, including the physical and psycho-physical and the soul of the perceiver and the perceived, is ‘withheld’. In her letters to Roman Ingarden, a fellow student of Husserl in Freiburg, Stein reveals what she considers to be their main point of divergence:

I have begun to examine more closely one of the points on which the Master and I differ (the necessity of a body for empathy).[vi]

She believes that the living body (Leib) of the ‘I’ is itself the center of orientation, the zero-point of perception. She is interested in how what is given in outer perception is constituted within consciousness and affects our understanding. Her use of the word Leib to describe the living body is crucial, for the more common term is Körper which refers to simply the ‘physical body.’ For Edith Stein, each us is constituted as a psycho-physical individual instead of a mere cogito, and each of us possesses a soul.

Edith Stein’s examination of empathy with regard to the whole person influenced Husserl’s second book of his Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology. Stein was hired to collaborate with Husserl on the Ideas II, but ended up largely translating his works out of the ‘Gabelsberger‘ shorthand method in which Husserl had written his thousands of pages. She then tried to organize his manuscripts which were voluminous and chaotic.

Husserl’s wrote in Gabelsberger shorthand in over 40,000 pages of his manuscripts.

In letters to another student, Fritz Kaufmann, Stein describes the difficulty of communication she experienced with ‘the master’ while working with him in the process:

collaboration with the dear Master is a highly complicated matter; there is a concern that it will never even come to an actual collaboration. He keeps occupying himself with individual questions about which he dutifully informs me, but he cannot be moved, even  once, to look at the draft I am making for him out of his old material to enable him to regain the overview of the whole that he has lost.[vii]

In her letters Stein alludes to Husserl’s moods, and she eventually resigned in 1918 stating that it was

 the thought of being at someone’s disposition that I cannot bear. I can place myself at the service of something, and I can do all manner of  things for the love of someone but to be at the service of a person, in short—to obey, is something I cannot do.[viii]

Husserl’s inability to understand Stein and her needs to create original work of her own echoed his growing inattention to others in his circle of students and friends. And later, as the shadow of the second world war loomed over Europe, he increasingly withdrew into his own abstract world. It is ironic that in this realm of extreme reflection and limited personal contact he was trying to enlarge a notion of interconnectedness between human beings.

Primordial Perception

To try to clarify what is ‘given’ to us in phenomenological perception Stein first looked at outer perception, then the concept of primordiality, and finally the relation to memory, expectation and fantasy. ‘Outer perception,’ Stein sees as an act given primordially without reflection and is immediate and sensate, while empathic perception takes a step back and is thus reflective and non-primordial. She looks at pain in particular as the problematic ‘sign’ in outer perception, since pain is usually perceived ‘in’ the pained countenance of another yet it is difficult to get an ‘orientation’ to where the pain is primordially given. Where the ‘averted sides’ of what is perceived phenomenologically are supplied through a progressive perception and bring new sides of the thing to primordial ‘givenness,’ so empathy tries to provide a parallel approach to other human beings. But, according to Stein, our ability to synthesize these sides and to delve into their meaning then requires a step back into reflection, opening up space and also delay.

Primordiality implies a spontaneity and immediacy which Husserl found crucial to an unmediated and bracketed notion of ‘givenness.’ Primordiality, recalling Paul Ricoeur’s definition, is the experience where one perceives while realizing one is perceiving and involves the whole body.[ix]   In Stein’s own footnote about her usage, she defines it as the ‘act side of experience’ instead of using the words ‘actual experience’.[x]   Stein notes that our past ‘experience’ also has a primordial character, though may not be primordially ‘given’ nor primordial in content. Rather than completely bracketing it away, she feels it is the key to the ability to empathize. Experience includes all manner of things, often usually separate from current circumstances in time and also distant from present company in space.

Stein recognizes how the present primordiality points back to a ‘past’ primordiality which has the character of a former ‘now’. She notes how in the second epoché of projecting into (hineinverseten) ourselves, the present ‘I’ and the past ‘I’ face each other as subject and object. This process unites the past to the present in an ‘apperceptive grip’ and becomes key to the similar process of inter-subjective projection in empathy. The way we revive memory and how it faces present reality offers a sense of immediacy, even though it is reflective. Stein explains:

Diverse forms of memory can have a variety of gaps. Thus it is possible for me to represent a past situation to myself and be unable to remember my inner behavior in this situation. As I transfer myself back into this situation, a surrogate for the missing memory comes into focus…it is the requisite completion of the memory image to get the meaning of the whole.[xi]

Stein suggests this synthesis of past into present is where ‘experience’ is most valuable in empathic awareness. Similar to Husserl’s description of the retention of the past into the present when we listen to music, allowing us to synthesize a melody from a succession of notes, Stein recognizes the important way that the past helps us unpack or unfold the present as a continuity.

‘Expectation’ or a sense of the future she feels is a parallel situation to the process of synthesizing past and present, but where both past and present combine to help us anticipate what is to come. Expectation is not ‘primordially given’ but shares a similar immediacy. In ‘fantasy’, however, there is no temporal distance to bridge. Fantasized experiences are not actual experiences or those drawn from memory, but they take the non-primordial form of present experience:

 The ‘I’ producing the fantasized world is primordial while the ‘I’ living in that world is non-primordial.[xii]

Stein concludes by admitting that neither memory (drawing on the past) nor expectation (focusing on the future) nor fantasy (alluding to mythical time) have the object of perception before them. Yet in calling up the object, they do represent it, according to Stein, and the character of this representation is immanent and essential rather than a remote ‘sign.’[xiii]

As for the ‘act’ of empathy, for Edith Stein it draws on both past and present and is in tune with the future as a ‘present experience.’ The key difference for Stein is that it is not primordial in content. The content can be called up in different ways (such as in memory, expectation, or in fantasy) and Stein tries to describe the experience of empathy itself. When it ‘arises’ it happens all at once (seeing sadness in another’s face before you), and ‘faces’ you as an object but when you inquire into the ‘implied tendencies’ (trying to bring the person’s mood to ‘clear givenness’ to yourself) it becomes apparent that the content has pulled you inside and it is no longer an ‘object.’[xiv] Suddenly, she explains, you realize that you are no longer turned to the content but to the object of the content and are ‘at the subject of the content in the original subject’s place’. This mode of trading places, of being for a moment in another person’s shoes, is followed by a clarification where the content returns again to face you as an object.

Stein concludes from this that empathy is not perception, representation, or a neutral positing but is an experience of being led by the foreign experience. Empathy for Edith Stein is being drawn into the experience of another and it is perhaps important to clarify ‘experience’ once more. What Stein believes is critical is the ‘inner lived experience’ (Erlebnis) of the individual is the direct observational knowledge of the world which is immediate, passive, fragmented, isolated and unintegrated.[xv] ‘Personal experience’ we think of as the cumulative knowledge of what one has come to know or believe through past acquaintance or repeated performance. This past-tense version of ‘experience’ is that of digested perception while ‘inner lived experience’ is still fresh, in the moment of occurrence.

She goes on to outline how the experience of foreign inner experience takes place on three levels:

  1. The emergence of the experience;
  2. The fulfilling explication;
  3. The comprehensive objectification of the explained experience.[xvi]

Stein sees each level as necessary to the full understanding found in empathy but admits that in reality most people are often satisfied with one of the lower levels. She goes on to describe how in the first and third levels what we experience is on a parallel plane to the perception of current time and space. On the second level, however, where we experience the fulfilling explanation which is key to our understanding, we are on another plane, which is parallel to the having of the experience.

This sequence with a ‘middle’ moment of meaning recalls Aristotle’s anagnorisis in his theory of tragedy, where the hero suddenly understands his or her situation and then a purging catharsis follows. Empathy as a ‘moment of understanding’ also requires a reckoning which must emerge before the fulfilling explication. Here Stein points out that the ‘subject’ of the empathized experience is not the subject empathizing, but another, the transcendental ego. These ‘two subjects,’ Stein says, are separate and not joined by a consciousness of sameness or a continuity of experience. She explains that rather than a ‘feeling of oneness’ with another, this form of empathy is a kind of act of perceiving.

Testing Lipps

As part of the directive for her thesis, Edith Stein was asked to comment on the other key thinkers on the idea of empathy, most notably Theodor Lipps whose work Husserl had relied on in choosing ’empathy’ as the means to experience other individuals. While she found this an irksome task, it became an important means to articulate her own theory in the end.[xvii] She disagrees with Theodor Lipps at the outset in his idea of empathy as the basis ‘point blank at the center’ of his whole ideology aesthetic, ethical and social philosophy.[xviii]

Lipps believes empathy is ‘inner participation’ in foreign experience as a kind of ‘act undergone’ by the subject. She feels he confuses the act of being drawn into the experience with the act of transition from non-primordial to primordial experience.[xix] And she finds his ideas about ‘positive’ or full empathy which allows a complete experiencing another’s experience, engulfing. She objects to his example of the spectator who views the acrobat and experiences the inner movement of each thing he does. A spectator viscerally responding to the performance, she says, is not one with the acrobat, but only at him. What confused Lipps, Stein thinks, is a kind of self-forgetfulness which is more characteristic of sympathy than empathy. Self-forgetfulness is a way of ‘surrendering’ oneself to an object which also dissolves the ‘I’ of that object. She explains that empathy is not a ‘feeling of oneness’ at all but rather a recognition of the two-sidedness of the empathic act as:

an experience of our own announcing another one…It comes to life in my feeling, and from the “I” and “you” arises the “we” as a subject of a higher level.[xx]

Lipps also seems to Stein to be ‘bound’ by the phenomenon of the ‘expression of experiences.’[xxi] He refuses to explore how empathy exactly happens and was satisfied with calling it an ‘inexplicable adjustment of our spirits’ or a ‘natural instinct’.

Empathy (‘in feeling’) is seen as an improvement on sympathy (‘with feeling’), but Edith Stein wants to know what distinguishes it as such. Sympathy or ‘fellow feeling’ is a primordial act of ‘joy-with-the-other’ or ‘sorrow-with-the-other’ which does not have the same content as empathy. Empathy is reflective, it has a non-primordial nature which includes memory, expectation, imagination. She notes that Lipp’s designation of ‘reflexive sympathy’ is simply the ‘reiteration’ of empathy: comprehending empathically that there can be empathic acts in which the other comprehends another’s acts. The key difference between all kinds of sympathy and the act of empathy is the mode in which they are given.

In her interest in the ‘whole’ person, including physical and spiritual aspects along with the cognitive, Edith Stein feels that the facial and physical gestures we are ‘given’ by another person are open to phenomenological interpretation. In the methodology used by Husserl, she notes in On the Problem of Empathy, phenomenological perception is

not satisfied with describing the single perception, [but] wants to ascertain what “perception is essentially as such.” [Yet] it acquires this knowledge from the single case in an ideational abstraction.[xxii]

This approach excludes broader experience, and experience plays an important role in our ability to empathize according to Stein. In trying to understand the single, concrete experiences of individuals there are too many layers that can complicate or confuse what could be ‘read’ as essence. Stein gives the example of the human face which could be read symbolically based on a single perception, but which experience would augment with significant information:

 I not only know what is expressed in facial expressions and gestures, but also what is hidden behind them. Perhaps I see that someone makes a sad face but is not really sad. I may also hear someone make an indiscreet remark and blush. Then I not only understand the remark and see shame in the blush, but I also discern that he knows his remark is indiscreet and is ashamed of himself for having made it. Neither this motivation nor the judgment about his remark is expressed by a ‘sensory experience.’[xxiii]

Another of Lipp’s theories is that of ‘negative empathy’ which is essentially ‘unrealized empathy’ in a subject within whom something psychological opposes such an experience. Because Lipps emphasizes a full primordial experience as the ‘true’ accomplishment of empathy, any half-measures are denied. Stein instead sees empathy’s unique role in allowing us to transcend personal barriers for a moment and use our imagination to grasp what we can. She gives the example of hearing about another’s joy at a time when you are saturated with grief. One is only able in that circumstance to experience empathy for the other as a ‘background experience’—comparable to the peripheral areas of vision, the horizons of perception. One experiences the pull of personal emotions and those presented by the other. Recalling the complexities of ‘mixed emotion’ which troubled Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Spinoza, Edith Stein sees no reason one cannot accommodate both and learn from them. Empathy as experience appears to imply that all emotional experience can be meaningful if one approaches it as an empathic act.

Being Led

If empathy is a mode of perception toward the goal of knowledge of experience foreign to our own, is it an ‘idea’ (Vorstellung) or an actuality? There was debated over this at the time of Stein’s book, led by M. Geiger in Das Wesen und die Bedeutung der Einfühlung. Stein believes that because empathy is non-primordial in character, there is no certainty of its objective nature in being ‘led’ by the other. This persistent metaphor in Stein’s work of the other ‘leading’ us into their experience implies an invitation and course of a journey in the process of understanding. It is respectful of the twists and turns we can be taken on in that process, attempting to remain open along the way.

But, as the Skeptics and many philosophers before her have argued, one can go this route, one can say that the foreign experience ‘is there’ for me, but there is no objective way to prove it. This challenge forces Stein to clarify some of her definitions. She distinguishes ‘perception’ as having its object before it in embodied givenness, while ’empathy’ does not, but:

both have their object itself there and meet it directly where it is anchored in the continuity of being.[xxiv]

The invisible essence of the other person is thus held somewhere beyond sight and proof. But Edith Stein believes empathy goes further than an intuitive idea which makes another’s experience into an object and does not reach the stage of ‘fulfilling explication.’ For all these reasons she finds it impossible to classify empathy as either idea or actuality, setting it up in a category all its own. Empathy resides in a zone where intuition and imagination meet, where reason and emotion complement rather than coerce one another, and where experience—our own, and that of the other person—all combine to give us a moment of understanding.

Imitation, Association and Analogy

Stein also reviews empathy in the psychological terms of the times. She finds the phenomenological method is concerned with essences, and disagrees with Lipps again that empathy resembles the psychological ‘theory of imitation.’ That theory declares that a witnessed gesture arouses in me the impulse to imitate it, which I do ‘inwardly’ if not outwardly (the acrobat, for instance). Stein describes ‘transferred’ feelings as those which saturate us and yet which prevent our turning toward or submerging ourselves in the foreign experience of the other which is the aim of empathy. The example of a child crying when it sees another cry and finds it is a receptive rather than projective act related to Scheler’s notion of emotional contagion. In their engulfing, overflowing scope, imitative feelings often have the paralyzing effect which Descartes noted occur in his writings on ‘astonishment’. Unless one makes connections which lead to understanding (or ‘wonder,’ as Descartes suggests), one is simply stuck in the throes of another person’s pain or joy.

The ‘theory of association’ has many permutations; in Stein’s usage it is based on a visual image of another person’s gestures reproducing a visual image of our own gestures, which in turn reproduces the kinesthetic movement and finally the feeling linked to that movement. For instance: we see someone stamp his feet we instantly remember how we once stamped our feet and the fury associated with it. Via the ‘theory of association,’ according to Stein, we would then say to ourselves ‘This is how furious he is now.’[xxv] The emotional state is inferred, matter-of-factly. The ‘theory of association’ is rejected by Stein because it calls on our memory for a comparable experience to the one we are witnessing and transferring our feelings from that memory onto the other. Association does not mediate our understanding of what we are witnessing as the expression of an inner condition the way that empathy does.

Finally, Stein tackles the ‘theory of inference by analogy’ as it was developed by John Stuart Mill, examining evidence of outer and inner perceptions through inferences about their meaning. Stein believes it does not yield perception but only a more or less probable knowledge of the foreign experience—it ignores direct perception as it searches for what, in the initial behavior, reminds one of one’s own. Analogy provides an empty representational form for interpretation without being oriented toward the nature of knowledge itself. Empathy, Stein states, posits being immediately as a perceived act that reaches the other directly without representation. Analogical awareness does occur during the second phenomenological reduction, but it is not ‘analogy’ in the usual sense of the word. It is recognition that the other person shares the same possibilities of world and self, but not the same characteristics or personal character.

Stein also challenges Scheler’s view that we perceive the foreign ‘I’ with its experience ‘inwardly’ just as we perceive our own ‘I’. From an initial neutral stream of experience, in Scheler’s schema, our ‘own’ and ‘foreign’ experience gradually crystallize. Vischer had also used this metaphor describing the way imagination deepens and sensation crystallizes in forms to reach ’empathic sensation’ (Einempfindung). The slow, hardening process of crystallization seems at odds with the fluctuating nature of sensation. In fact, Wilhelm Worringer believed that ‘crystalline’ best describes our abstract, inorganic and life-denying tendencies. Scheler’s theory suggests a connection to Stendhals’ (1783-1842) description of romantic love in his book De l’Amour. Near a mine outside Salzburg, Stendhal saw bare tree branches become slowly encrusted with salt until they were crystallized ornaments. He compared this process to the way a person in the throes of romantic love turns a person into a faceted object of their imagination and desires.[xxvi]

Detail of salt crystallized on a branch from Ellen Rasmussen’s artwork Salzburg Bough, 2010 based on Stendhal’s quote.

Stein finds Scheler’s ideas similarly embellished, hardening over the immediate essence of perception, and his idea of ‘inner perception’ deceptive. Yet she was drawn to Scheler and it begs the question of her own definition of empathy as a process of being drawn into or led into foreign experience. She describes her own experience of Scheler in her autobiography:

Scheler’s practice of scattering about ingenious suggestions without pursuing them systematically had something dazzling and seductive about it…One’s first impression of Scheler was fascination. In no other person have I ever encountered the “phenomenon of genius” as clearly. The light of a more exalted world shone from his large blue eyes. His features were handsome and noble; still, life had left some devastating traces on his face…Scheler spoke with great insistence, indeed with dramatic liveliness. Words he was particularly fond of (for example, “pure Washeit” (pure whatness) were spoken with devotion and tenderness. When expressing disagreement with presumed opponents, he used a contemptuous tone.[xxvii]

The seductive aspects of Scheler’s thought and personality bring us back to the difficulties in knowing where we are being ‘led’ in Stein’s notion of empathy.

Max Scheler

Stein tries to deconstruct Scheler’s theory and finds that Scheler’s sense of inner perception seems directed toward acts and is psychic experience while outer perception is differently given and is physical. What distinguishes reflection from inner perception is that it is an actual turning toward an actual experience while inner perception can be non-actual. Then she questions what Scheler means by ‘own’ and ‘foreign.’ Scheler implies that one must suppress or ‘forget’ one’s own ‘I’ in the process of empathy in order to comprehend the other. Stein insists that phenomenological reduction leads to empathy only by the second epoché, the return to the ‘sphere of ownness.’ For Scheler, one’s own ‘I’ is psychic and he believed that we do not experience either ourselves or the world in isolation but as part of a world of psychic experience. Stein agrees that if we abandon the phenomenological standpoint one can see Scheler’s point. Against the background of the spatial world spread out on all sides of us, our inner experience holds a boundless world of psychic individuals and psychic life.[xxviii]

In this realm, Stein admits, one can feel ‘foreign feelings,’ feelings, she says, that have ‘penetrated’ one from a foreign individual.

In this dissection of Scheler, Stein is forced to clarify her own meanings of ‘experience’ and spatial arrangements. She describes the way the whole world of ‘inner perception’ is bracketed in the second phenomenological reduction, our own and all others. Perceptions are not ‘within’,’ they transcend the sphere of givenness. In these terms, the question of whether an experience is ‘mine’ or another’s becomes senseless:

 What I primordially feel is precisely what I feel irrespective of this feeling’s role in the sum total of my individual experiences or of how it originates (perhaps by contagion of feeling or not). These experiences of my own, the pure experiences of the pure ‘I’, are given to me in reflection. This means that the ‘I’ turns back and away from its object and looks at the experience of this object.[xxix]

Reflection, she says, is always an actual turning toward actual experience, it is the comprehension of an experience, while inner perception itself can be non-actual. For Stein, Scheler’s use of ‘inner perception’ suggests that an experience ‘presented’ and comprehended in reflection has no sides and no depth.

Scheler’s exploration of the ways our feelings can be deceptive in the Idolenlehre illustrated his weaknesses for Stein. Scheler describes the ways we can take on the feelings we ‘acquire by reading’ as our own, for instance a young girl thinking she feels Juliet’s love.[xxx]   For Stein this simply means the child has :

blown [her] spark into a flame by borrowed embers…This flame will go out of its own accord as soon as the embers die out because a primordial value is lacking as a foundation.[xxxi]

She posits a less romantic example: that of a child of conservative parents who may believe they hate Jews or Social Democrats. It points to two deceptions she says: a deception of value and a deception about my person, my ‘self’. Stein felt that there can be no ‘reflective deception’. Turning toward our own experience means that the ‘borrowed’ experience ceases. Reflection, for Stein, is the ‘comprehension’ of an experience: ‘an experience I comprehend cannot elude me.’

What about motives within our own behavior which deceive us? She admits that people generally ascribe better motives to their actions than they may actually have. Stein thinks that the reflecting glance directed toward actual experience weeds out such deceptions, that secondary motives withdraw from one’s reflecting glance as though they are no longer ‘actual.’

This suggests that applying the phenomenological method of empathy would have a positive moral effect. By eliminating the peripheral or ‘background experiences’ which Scheler sees as important, Stein is confident that actual experience can sever all ties to deception.

Stein’s ‘Psycho-physical Individual’

Stein’s remaining focus in On the Problem of Empathy was exploring how the psycho-physical individual is constituted within consciousness. Since sensations are part of the immediate experience of consciousness, they cannot be bracketed away. These sensations are not aware of themselves though we are aware of them. Stein wonders how they are unified within what we consider our ‘self’ She describes the pure ‘I’ which is usually the indescribable, qualityless subject of experience, as a ‘selfness’ which is experienced and is the basis of all that is ‘mine.’ This ‘I’ is only brought out, as though in relief, when another person is given to experience. Our perceptions, in a similar way, become visible against a background of a stream of all our experiences, and Stein posits the pure I as the unity of the stream of consciousness. The stream of consciousness is ‘itself and no other’ and the pure ‘I’ allows our ability to call up past experience where our perception of self is unified. The stream of consciousness is not our soul, but Stein explains:

among our experiences there is one basic experience given to us which, together with its persistent attributes, becomes apparent in our experiences as the identical “bearer” of them. This is the substantial soul.[xxxii]

Our soul is a substantial unity with attributes including the acuteness of our senses, the energy apparent in our conduct, the intensity and excitability of our sentiments. The content of the stream of experience, she notes, depends on the structure of the soul.

So far, Stein has described aspects of psychic life and yet she wants to understand how the body is constituted within consciousness. Our senses interact, she goes on to explain, with our eyes seeing something tactile which beckons to be touched which could in turn compel us to find out its scent. Our senses, she says,

call each other as witnesses, though they do not shift the responsibility on one another.[xxxiii]

Then there is the phenomenon of movement, where each approach and withdrawal provides constantly shifting successive appearances of other things. But there remains with us an inescapable full embodiment which we are ‘perpetually bound to.’ Stein emphasizes once again how this sensed, bodily perceived ‘living body’ (Leib) is very different from the outwardly perceived ‘physical body’ (Körper).. She believes the soul is founded on the body and synthesized together in the individual ‘livingbody.’

Detail of a photo of Simone de Beauvoir’s hands by Giséle Freund

Bodily perception is thus a double mode of experiencing phenomenon, a ‘fusion,’ according to Stein:

I see the hand and what it senses or touches and also bodily perceive this hand touching this object.[xxxiv]

On multiple levels and all at once our senses and our soul experience are amalgamated into a unity with a unified awareness:

I relate the parts of my living body, together with everything spatial outside of it, to a ‘zero point of orientation’ which my living body surrounds. This zero point is not geometrically localized at one point in my physical body…it is localized in the head for visual data and in mid-body for tactile data. Thus whatever refers to the “I” has no distance from the zero point.[xxxv]

Unlike a discrete physical location such as the heart or the pineal gland (as Descartes had hoped), the pure ‘I’ cannot be ‘localized.’ Perhaps the ‘I’ could be compared to the constant shifting of true magnetic north which affects the whole earth’s activity, but can never be pinned down. Sensation is always spatially located, Stein notes, it is always ‘somewhere’ at a distance from the ‘I,’ though it can be quite near it. We have a sensed ‘living body’ and an outwardly perceived physical body which exist in a kind of double givenness. ‘Bodily space’ (Leibraum) of which the zero point is the ‘I,’ and ‘outer space’, where the zero point is the living body, are completely different from one another yet are experienced at the same time. Because they are ‘given’ at the same time, this ‘double givenness’ allows them to be experienced as the same, as a unified sense of self and space.[xxxvi]

Movement, both our own movement and the shifting alteration of the outer world combine in the form of an ‘if…then’ relationship. She explains: ‘If I move, then the picture of my environment shifts.’[xxxvii]

(photo by Yohann Sandberg)

If she rests her hand on a rotating ball, for instance, then the perception of both her hand and the moving ball are comprehended together in an ‘apperceptive grasp.’ But the sense of ‘outer and ‘inner’ never fully dissolves for Stein; she feels that all the objects of that realm are always a certain distance from her:

They are always “there”, while I am always “here” They are grouped around me, around my “here.”[xxxviii]

Yet this state of awareness allows her to fantasize that she can cross the room and look at herself in her consciousness. She suggests that consciousness could exist without a living body, as in someone whose paralysis has made them numb, but not the other way around. It is here that her image of the ‘I’ seems to revert back to Descartes’ cogito.

Sensations of feelings (Gefühlsempfindungen) or sensual feelings (sinnlichen Gefühle) Stein says are inseparable from their founding sources. They can be ‘in me’ and issue from my ‘I.’ Moods are a species of feeling unto themselves and, like other psychic feelings, have a reciprocal ‘influence’ in bodily general sensations. Our essential psyche is thus dependent on somatic influences: ‘the soul is based on the living body.’[xxxix] Our ability to notice bodily sensations and our capacity to understand them she feels can be strengthened by ‘training,’ which she unfortunately does not describe.

Expression of feeling is most often found appearances, in faces people make or in their sighs or groans. Stein suggests that phenomenology allows an empathic understanding when we set aside our common interpretation:

 Feeling in its pure essence is not something complete in itself. As it were, it is loaded with an energy which must be unloaded.[xl]

We must get at the motivation behind the feeling which is often difficult due to the ways ‘civilized’ people have learned to ‘control’ their behavior. And in our bodily perception of others we often take apart the unity of experience and expression in the other person. A reddened face, for instance, can be an expression of mounting anger, but it can also be a sign of shyness or shame. If we pull it towards one conclusion without knowing the actual experience of the person, we arrive at complete misunderstanding.

Experiences of ‘will’ or ‘motivation,’ Stein continues, are an important part of the psycho-physical unity. When we decide to climb a mountain, for instance, we have conceived of an overall plan which allows us to forego consideration of each step but instead to essentially mentally and physically ‘click into gear’ once our decision is made.

The Zero Point of Orientation

The psycho-physical individual which has become aware of its living body, Stein continues, when it ’empathically’ realizes that its own ‘zero point’ of orientation is a spatial point among many others. This is a ‘reiterated’ empathy of one’s self with self that allows us access to the experience of others. We experience them as unified in a similar way to ourselves, a kind of empathic givenness Stein calls ‘con-primordiality.’ She believes that the averted and ‘interior’ sides of the individual are co-given with the sides we can see and we experience them as a wholeness.[xli] We also can experience the fields of sensation of the other as they are ‘there themselves’ to the physical body to which they are given. A ‘sensual empathy’ which Stein calls ‘sensing-in’ is warranted by our interpretations about our own body. Here Stein remarks on difference and how empathy can allow us the experience of another even though they are so unlike ourselves:

Empathy is also quite successful with men’s and children’s hands which are very different from mine, for my physical body and its members are not given as a fixed type but as an accidental realization of a type that is variable within definite limits.[xlii]

The limits she considers grow exponentially the further we get from human beings, though we are able to ‘sense-in’ pain in the paw of an injured animal because of its vague similarity to our own hand.

Interpreting foreign living things as being ‘of my type’ is quite different from ‘association by similarity’ which is the comprehension of a single instance of a familiar type. It also appears different to her than ‘inferences by analogy which leap to judgment in interpreting another’s expression without considering all the possibilities. Such thinking is adept at finding the first thing which strikes one with similarity without employing empathy to fully understand what experience the other could be having. Empathy, Stein tries again to define, is a unified comprehension of foreign experiences in all modes: sensations, feelings, everything.[xliii] We are able to experience the other person only when we transfer ourselves to their spatial orientation. Without empathy, we generally experience only outwardly perceived mechanical and associated movement of others. With empathy we co-perceive spontaneous and alive movement.

Stein returns to the sense of space, with our own living body at the zero point of orientation, inseparable from the space of the outer world. Another person’s living body is at some distance from us and when one empathically projects oneself into it, one obtains a new ‘image’ of the spatial world and a new zero point of orientation. She notes that ‘image’ or bild in German is a bad word as it implies a view from one side—perhaps a revised experience of the spatial world can amplify its meaning. While at the other’s zero point of orientation we have still kept our own primordial zero point an orientation for an overall sense of conprimordial understanding. Rather than being a stationary perceiving eye and ‘I,’ we have physically traversed the distance between oneself and another. Their world image is, by the fact that we share the same Life-world, a modification of our own. We must refrain from ascribing a world image we think ‘suits’ his or her orientation or Stein says we would be committing ‘gross empathic deception.’ This is where bracketing our normal interpretations and expectations can keep us open to what Stein says emerges as the possibility of ‘enriching our own world image through another’s.’[xliv]

It is here the motivation for empathy as a ‘personal enrichment’ belies not a solipsism but a motivation based on a desire for understanding perhaps for its own sake. Stein again mentions how we learn to see our living body as a physical one among many others, and in ‘reiterated empathy’ there is a way that we are given back to ourselves as a psycho-physical individual in the fullest sense. It, she believes, is what supplies the mirror-like givenness which we have of ourselves in memory and fantasy, some notion of how we present ourselves as a unified composition of qualities.

The Senses of Empathy

Stein’s whole discussion of the senses employed in empathy so far has centered on vision and the sense of visual touch—not actual touch, but being able to touch with our eyes on the basis of past knowledge of our skin. The truth in these perceptions, Stein insists, comes from statements others make about the world we share. And here she admits:

Statements can fill the breach and supplement where empathy fails. Possibly they may even serve as points of departure for further empathy. But in principle they cannot substitute for empathy.[xlv]

So empathy, which she considers a non-verbal perception and experiencing, goes beyond.

Stein examines how the stages of life, including growth, development, aging and health and sickness define the individual. In defining ‘life’ Stein excludes the lives of plants whose ability to feel sensations she finds ‘doubtful’ so that our empathy for it would be ‘unjustified.’ Phenomena of life, she states, have ‘an experiential character in psychic contexts’. ‘Soul’ is inseparable from life. In understanding physical states so different from ourselves, Stein realizes how experience makes us conscious of what we are or have been only when we suddenly are not that way any more. Weakness suddenly informs us of our former strength, pain or sickness of our former health. A physician’s capacity for empathy in a multitude of conditions of which he or she may have had little personal experience can be cultivated, Stein says, by focusing on a group of phenomena through long and extensive differentiation.

This leads us to consider the ‘causal’ structure of the individual and how we begin to interpret certain aspects of a person from what we observe and experience of their circumstances. This is easier for our external physical perception of each other because most of the same causes there have the same effects, but in the psychic arena that does not hold true. The intelligibility of the other is most confusing if we expect certain kinds of behavior from individuals of certain types and they do not fulfill our expectations. The psychological aim of diagnosing a ‘type’ of mental state can lead one to look for only specific symptoms. Instead of dismissing certain behavior as irrational or ‘abnormal’ to the scheme of types, Stein recognizes that the strength of phenomenology is to revise one’s classifications as new phenomena present themselves, to not be tied to ‘types’ themselves.

Stein also parts company with psychologists who might say that isolated past experiences determine the course of present experience. She agrees that past experience can exist in the background of the present and still affect how one thinks, acts and perceives, and called this the ‘mode of non-actuality.’ Stein describes how a past decision, for instance, can remain in the present without sinking into the stream of the past. Drawing on Husserl’s theories of time consciousness, she notes how we are surrounded by a marginal zone of background experiences in each moment of experience, they are no longer accessible to reflection and to comprehend them, they must first pass through the cogito. These are not things which ‘affect’ the present, as a psychologist might claim, they simply ‘reach into the present.’[xlvi]   While these affects can mislead one in the process of empathy with another person whose past is unfamiliar to us, by maintaining an openness we can achieve some measure of understanding.

Physical Words

But what role does language play in empathic interaction, other than to confirm or deny our interpretation of the other person’s experience? Following Husserl’s distinction between ‘indicative signs’ (Anzeige) and ‘expressions’ (Ausdruck) from his Logische Untersuchungen, she reiterates that a ‘sign’ is where something perceived tells one that something else exists (smoke is a ‘sign’ of fire, a flag is a signal on a ship), and ‘expression’ or ‘symbol’ is where in something perceived there is something else, a meaning through which we ‘co-comprehend’ or ‘co-experience’ something psychic in it. Facial countenance, such as wearing the expression of sadness, is a ‘co-given’ meaning because within it is something else. The symbol points beyond itself without wanting or having to, she says. Verbal expressions are symbols which are like signals in that they are intermediate points to a theme they designate—they arouse a momentary transition to comprehension.[xlvii] Signals, she continues, have a ‘moment of ought’ or a ‘demand in itself’ which is determined by someone and for someone. Symbolic and symbol character then can combine in a certain way so that they essentially use the symbol as a sign:

I not only comprehend disapproval in the furrowed brow but it intends to and ought to announce it.[xlviii]

This ‘comprehended intention’ gives the phenomenon a new character in which ‘intention’ can be given in symbolic relation (as in a glance) or can be the seen as the ‘result’ of the whole situation.

What distinguishes the word from the symbol or expression, according to Stein is its lack of physical body (Wortkörper) which matches the signaling physical body (Signalkörper). A signal is ‘real’ and Stein believes that the living body and the ‘soul’ of a word can form a living unity from separate paths of development. Words are ‘born’ of consciousness and live ‘by the grace’ of a spirit. For Stein they do not ‘signify’ but express and the causal link is that what is expressed is ‘no longer what it was before.’[xlix] Symbol and meaning are linked in ‘verbal expression.’ Because of its nature of origin, being hatched in consciousness rather than primordial ‘pre-consciousness,’ Stein believes a danger lies in the ways we can ‘neglect the speaking individual in the word.’ When we speak an externalization of self occurs which can not only ‘step into view’ but block our intuitive ‘vision.’ As we leave the primordial state necessary for empathy in order to enter the abstract realm of the ‘word’ we can leave the intimate space between ourselves and another behind. Empathy can help us have the intuition about the circumstances of and full experience of the expression of the other person. While words can remove us to abstract realms, understanding requires empathy which can pull us back into the intimate space of interpersonal perception.

Each of us has ‘levels of experiencing.’ Conduct, for instance, is motivated by will and will is affected by feeling in an ‘intelligible unity.’ Expression likewise proceeds from experience and all form an intelligible whole. Yet how do we interpret expressions in one person which are at odds with one another? If we see a person with a wound and intuit pain, yet he is smiling, the meaning is equivocal. Stein struggles with the problem of ‘mixed’ emotions. She thinks one can distinguish the ‘genuine’ expression from a false one by ‘penetrating into their meaning contexts.’[l] By putting together all of the clues, all of the circumstances before us we are able to empathize with the genuine experience of the other person. In the case of words uttered with multiple meanings, we consider the possibilities always in the context of the experiential space in which they are spoken.

Stein kept this photo of Lipps on her desk until she entered the convent

Hans Lipps, a close friend of Stein and fellow student in Göttingen, is a prime example of indirectly shared consciousness. In her autobiography Stein revealed his unique demeanor and methods of communication:

Hans Lipps made a deeper impression on me than did anyone else. Twenty-three years old at the time, he looked much younger. Very tall, slim, but powerfully built, he had a handsome, expressive face, lively  as a child’s. His gaze was serious; still his large, round eyes were as inquisitive as a child’s. Usually he would state his opinion in brief but very definite terms. When asked to give more detailed clarification, he would assert there was no more to be said as the matter was self-explanatory. That had to satisfy us. We were all convinced that his insights were true and deep even though we were incapable of confirming them ourselves.[li]

Elsewhere in Stein’s personal writings, the subtleties of unspoken communication and observations made over time, accumulating into insights and understanding, confirm the value of her belief in admitting experience into the act of empathy. In describing two of the women in the group studying with her in Göttingen she notes:

 [Fräulein Ortmann] was a tiny, delicate bit of a person but had such a ponderous tread that she usually splattered her coat, way up, with mud from Göttingen’s streets. Just as ponderous were the decidedly emphatic statements which she delivered with the ring of solemn pronouncements but which, to me, seemed quite trivial…In contrast, Erika Gothe’s attitude of respectful silence attracted me very much.[lii]

Thus Stein believes through empathy we experience a harmony of ‘unity in meaning.’ Here, like Husserl, she expands on what one can gather from an individual instant or ‘single-meaning context’ and assume certain habitual attributes of others. On the basis of seemingly short-term exposure to another, she believes the logic of that individual can be perceived. In the space between oneself and another, she allows what she calls this ‘point of departure.’ A person’s character is fathomed from the empathized unity of attributes and these are projected for future verification through empathic acts. Here, again, is the danger of taking individual characteristics from this ‘meaning context’ and defining them by a single aspect of character. There is also the danger of inference by analogy where our own ‘actual, not typical’ characteristic becomes the starting point for what we assume about the other. Stein believes we can avoid this sort of ‘false projection’ if we are constantly ‘guided by empathy through outer projection.’[liii]

During the first world war, Stein volunteered in an Austrian military hospital that was in the province of Märisch-Weisskirchen, an experience that exposed her to a great deal of suffering.

Reflexive Empathy

Finally, there is consideration of how the other person sees us. Stein’s use of ‘reflexive empathy’ is where we come to consider ourselves as a being like the other. In an exchange of standpoints, we become aware of our own bodily expression and the ‘image’ the other person possibly has of us. And we can be very wrong. Here, empathy implies a privilege:

It is possible for another to “judge me more accurately” than I judge myself and give me clarity about myself. For example, when he notices that I look around me for approval when I show kindness, while I think I am acting out of generosity. This is how empathy and inner perception work hand in hand to give me myself to myself.[liv]

The Spiritual Union

The final section of Edith Stein’s work on empathy dealt with ‘Empathy and Understanding of Spiritual Persons.’ There, the depth and range of the soul became her main concern and passion. In a letter to Roman Ingarden she confessed that, after all her struggles trying to sort out empathy:

the [final section[ is the only thing I produced “con amore[lv]

There she expressed her hope, along with Husserl and Dilthey, that the Cultural Sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) could create an ‘ontology of the spirit’ with an objective basis similar to the sciences of the ‘ontology of nature.’

Against all claims that each one of us sees the world from a different angle, Stein felt confident that

The experiential context of spiritual subjects is an experienced (primordially or empathically) totality of meaning and is intelligible as such.[lvi]

Willing is usually directed toward realizable ends, Stein thinks, though she admits that mental derangement defies our ability to fathom the logic of another person.

She explores what it can mean to feel a special understanding with a metaphysical being, and how that feeling comes about. It was this part of the book which she most wanted to develop and explore, leaving behind intersubjective understanding to embrace an even more abstractly foreign experience.

The Dimensions of Feeling

Foremost in the lives of spiritual persons are feelings and Stein describes the ‘directions’ of two types of feeling. On the one hand we have ‘feeling’ (Fühlen) which is in response to what we experience. On the other we can have ‘the feeling’ (Gefühl) which is when a feeling appears to be originating within us and directed outward. As we are undergoing a feeling, we do not ‘perceive’ per se, but we ‘experience’ it. General feelings we have, or moods, as we go into this experience have a special place in the realm of consciousness. Stein calls them ‘colorings’ which penetrate all levels of the ‘I’. Then the feelings we are conscious of (Gefühl) are feelings in the ‘pregnant’ sense—they have a similarity to consciousness itself in that they are ‘always of something.’[lvii]

Stein notes how there is a range and depth of feeling and how we value one thing over another. She refers to each person’s ‘depth classification’ of value feelings which is so intertwined with the ‘logic’ of the person. Feelings which arise only in contact with others (love, hate, thankfulness, vengeance, animosity) are key ‘sensitive acts’ which end up exposing our ‘personal levels’ of how we value them, their feelings, and our own. Comprehending our own personal values is itself a feeling: we become aware of our feeling of value about the feeling of value. We also grow to have a ‘feeling of self value’ as we become aware of creating or participating in things of value. These shifting feelings rise and fall in our awareness and take on new significance at each turn. In keeping with her painterly description of the seeping color of moods, Stein develops a metaphor of enlightenment:

feelings are like different sources of light on whose position and luminosity the resulting illumination depends.[lviii]

Feelings, for Stein, have four dimensions. One is their depth, the second is their range or reach, the third is their duration and the fourth their intensity. Depth of feeling either fills us or makes us feel empty. In the other two dimensions she describes how the

“reach” of the aroused mood, then   depends on the “I” depth of the act of feeling correlative with their height of the felt value. The level to which I can “reasonably” allow it to penetrate is prescribed.

[Finally, the duration is how] long a feeling or mood “may remain” in       me, filling me out or ruling me, is also subject to rational laws.[lix]

Intensity or strength of an emotion is specific to each feeling and, like Descartes and Spinoza, she notes how our stronger feelings guide our will.

This sudden turn from an abstract openness in the process of empathy to a descriptive geometry or physics of emotion seems contrary to Stein’s view and was perhaps influenced by Husserl. And similar to the problems of ‘stress’ in the physics of engineering, Stein believes that the ‘rational duration’ of a feeling can exceed an individual’s ‘psychic strength’ which will cause a psychic collapse.[lx] The strivings which propel these eccentric feelings seem to burst forth from a secondary depth according to Stein and have a ‘constitutive significance’ in one’s personality. While willing takes place in the central cogito, these eccentric strivings appear located in the ‘background experiences’ which hover on the edges of current experience.

Unlike an urge coming deep from within us, buried in the past as psychoanalysis would suggest, Stein believes this ‘hovering’ of undigested experiences are slightly in the background of our current experience. The feeling of value from a past act of feeling is the basis for whatever amount of will we have in any situation.

At whatever depth past experience is located this imaginary view of our psyche, Stein seems to agree with psychology in the causal link between a past event and a present one. Her manner of presentation, both in tone and examples presented, conveys a sense of calm confidence that most people experience interpersonal life in the same way. It is a way which, in the end, she says is ‘subordinated’ to rational laws. She finds it impossible to formulate a ‘doctrine of the person’ without a ‘value doctrine’ and suggests that a ‘doctrine of types’ might provide the ontological foundation which Wilhelm Dilthey was hoping for in the cultural sciences.[lxi] But since every empathic comprehension of a personality means the acquisition of a type or ‘typical character,’ Stein later sees problems with this plan. Remaining open to the particular circumstances and nature of another individual seems at odds with defining them by type.

For Stein, the nonverbal act of empathy is what can give one a ‘glimpse into the kernel of the person.’ The ‘levels’ of a person are innate according to Stein; they do not ‘develop’ or ‘deteriorate’ but are simply either exposed or not in the course of psychic development.[lxii]   As in a Bildungsroman, Stein agrees with Dilthey’s assessment that whether or not these levels of depth ‘sleeping’ in us are developed depends on the ‘significance of the milieu for the character.’[lxiii] A person who lives an ‘incomplete’ life with little emotional contact with the world resembles the unfinished character of a work of art, a ‘sketch.’ It is these people for whom empathy is a constant challenge, even if they attempt to augment their experience through novels or artworks which purvey experience:

He who does not feel values himself but acquires all feelings only through contagion from others, cannot experience “himself.” He can become, not a personality, but at most a phantom one.[lxiv]

It is only one who experiences himself as a ‘meaningful whole’ as a person who can understand other persons.

Stein believes if we have developed the power of empathy from emotional contact with people, then this allows us to comprehend experiences which are far from our own. She uses the example of one who is skeptical still being able to understand the sacrifices another might make out of religious faith. Here Stein says one empathizes as a ‘value experiencing’ as a motive for the other’s conduct, where our own values tell us the depth which the other is experiencing. Empathy is not projecting one’s self as an image onto the screen of the other, but projection simply as a traversal of the space between two persons.

Another work of Stein’s is currently gaining importance, an essay concerning new possibilities in government published in 1925, Eine Untersuchung über den Staat. In that work Stein explains her belief that the ontological reality of the person is grounded in a dynamic unified relation of intersubjectivity which serves an analogous application to an ‘incarnate’ notion of the state.[lxv] She relies on a medieval concept of persona as it was posited by other Catholic thinkers like Scheler and Maritain. Community development relies on a vibrant ‘personal’ exchange between members on all levels; while society is not personal, community is personal. The idea of a ‘people’ consists of many individual viewpoints and is different from a nation where identity blurs into a ‘mass.’ The notion of community recognizes the importance of intersubjective relationships which provide a ‘space’ where personal ‘Einfühlung’ is possible.[lxvi]

Empathy with an Invisible Spirit

Stein was introduced to Catholicism by Scheler, who returned to the church not long after she met him in 1913. As she describes in her autobiography:

he was quite full of Catholic ideas at the time and employed all the brilliance of his spirit and his eloquence to plead them. This was my first encounter with this hitherto totally unknown world. It did not lead me as yet to the Faith. But it did open for me a region of “phenomena” which I could then no longer bypass blindly.[lxvii]

Serving as a nurse in World War I, Stein was faced with the death of several of her philosophical colleagues from Göttingen, including her close friend Adolph Reinach. Reinach’s widow impressed her with her strength and faith in the face of such a deep loss and Stein became open to Christian ideas.

Edith Stein in 1921

In the summer of 1921, during a stay with a friend, she read The Book of Her Life by St. Theresa of Jesus.  It was the thought of this sixteenth-century mystic of Avila who offered answers for Stein’s spiritual questions. In 1921 Edith Stein joined the Catholic faith and became a lecturer at the Catholic Academy of Münster.

She later became a cloistered nun of the order of the Carmelites in Cologne, though this did not shelter her from the Nazis and their round up of all Jews and former Jews. She secretly transferred to a Carmelite convent in Echt in the Netherlands where her sister joined her. On August 2, 1942 both sisters were deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz where they died on August 9.

Stein’s turn toward Catholicism does not resemble Husserl’s transition from Judaism to Lutheranism. He integrated his faith into his existing life, delegating it to the background of his personal life which allowed comfort in secular professional activities. Stein was not seeking a religion secondary to her philosophical studies. For Edith Stein, her work on Empathy and her life experience both culminated in a deep need for complete spiritual union. The Carmelite order begun by St. Theresa offered the seclusion and total devotion she craved, and the spiritual teachings suggest a complete spiritual and physical union with the Christian God.

On the Pentecost, seven Sundays after Easter in 1942, Edith composed Seven Beams from a Pentecost Novena, a series of poems about her love for God. Here, in poetry, she describes an empathic union with an abstract spirit in spatial terms:

You are the space

That surrounds and contains my being.

Without You it would sink into the abyss

Of nothingness from which You raised it into being.

You, closer to me than I to myself,

More inward than my innermost being —

And yet unreachable, untouchable,

And bursting the confines of any name:

Holy spirit —

Eternal love![lxviii]

Was this the final ‘fulfillment’ which Edith Stein first explored in phenomenology but found in religious mysticism?

Stein’s theological writings and teachings are highly regarded in the Catholic Carmelite orders and her generosity toward others en route to and at Auschwitz is legendary. On May 1, 1997, after a miracle occurred saving the life of a young child while invoking her name, the Pope declared Edith Stein a saint.


[i] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 19.

[ii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 116.

[iii] Waltraut Stein, Ph.D., “translator’s introduction,” Edith Stein, On the Problem of

Empathy xviii.

[iv] David Woodruff Smith, “Mind and Body” in The Cambridge Companion to

Husserl (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 355.

[v] Edith Stein, Edith Stein, Life in a Jewish Family 1891-1916, trans. Josephine Koeppel

(Washington DC: ICS Publications, 1986) 250.

[vi] Edith Stein, “Letter to Fritz Kaufmann <at the front>, Freiburg, January 12, 1917” in

Edith Stein, A Self-Portrait in Letters 1916-1942, translated by Josephine Koeppel.

(Washington DC: ICS Publications, 1987) 5

[vii] Edith Stein, “Letter to Roman Ingarden, Göttingen; Breslau, March 20, 1917” in

Edith Stein, A Self-Portrait in Letters 1916-1942   12.

[viii] Edith Stein, “Letter to Roman Ingarden, Göttingen; Breslau, February 19, 1918” in

Edith Stein, A Self-Portrait in Letters 1916-1942 22.

[ix] Ricoeur, Husserl, An Analysis of His Phenomenology 61.

[x] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 121f.

[xi] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 9.

[xii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 9.

[xiii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 7.

[xiv] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 10.

[xv] Martin Jay clarifies the defining characteristics of ‘experience’ in his article “Experience

Without A Subject: Walter Benjamin and the Novel” in New Formations, No. 20,

(Summer 1993) 146-148.

[xvi] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 10.

[xvii] In Stein, Life in a Jewish Family 1891-1916 269, she describes the evolution of her thesis

and the format Husserl required:

Husserl had said that an objective outer world could only be experienced

intersubjectively, i.e., through a plurality of perceiving individuals who relate

in a mutual exchange of information. Accordingly, an experience of other

individuals is a prerequisite. To the experience, an application of the work of

Theodor Lipps, Husserl gave the name Einfühlung (empathy). What it consists of,

however, he nowhere detailed. Here was a lacuna to be filled; therefore, I wished

to examine what empathy might be. The Master found this suggestion not bad at all.

However, almost immediately, I was given another bitter pill to swallow: he required

that, as format for the dissertation, I use that of an analytical dialogue with Theodor


[xviii] Stein, Life in a Jewish Family 1891-1916 277.

[xix] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 13.

[xx] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 16,17 & 10.

[xxi] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 37.

[xxii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 4.

[xxiii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 6.

[xxiv] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 19.

[xxv] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 24.

[xxvi] Carson, Anne. “A Dangerous Affair” in The New York Times Book Review, June 26, 1988,

Section 7, 2

[xxvii] Stein, Life in a Jewish Family 1891-1916 259,260.

[xxviii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 29.

[xxix] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 29.

[xxx] Scheler, Max. Idolenlehre (Leipzig: L. Voss, 1919) 112f.

[xxxi] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 32.

[xxxii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 40.

[xxxiii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 41.

[xxxiv] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy xxi.

[xxxv] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 42,43.

[xxxvi] In Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 43, she describes:

the distance of the parts of one’s living body from oneself is completely

incomparable with the distance of foreign physical bodies from me.

[xxxvii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 45,46.

[xxxviii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 46.

[xxxix] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 49.

[xl] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 51.

[xli] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 57.

[xlii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 58-59.

[xliii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 60.

[xliv] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 62-63.

[xlv] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 65.

[xlvi] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 73-74.

[xlvii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 73-74.

[xlviii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 79.

[xlix] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 80-81.

[l] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 85.

[li] Stein, Life in a Jewish Family 1891-1916 254.

[lii] Stein, Life in a Jewish Family 1891-1916 254.

[liii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 87.

[liv] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 89.

[lv] Edith Stein, “Letter to Roman Ingarden, Göttingen; Freiburg, April 27, 1917” in

Edith Stein, A Self-Portrait in Letters 1916-194 15.

[lvi] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 96.

[lvii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 100.

[lviii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 104.

[lix] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 104.

[lx] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 105.

[lxi] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 108.

[lxii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 110.

[lxiii] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 111,116.

[lxiv] Stein, On the Problem of Empathy 112.

[lxv] Antonio Calcagno, “Persona Politica: Unity and Difference in Edith Stein’s

Political Philosophy,” International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol.

XXXVII, No. 2, Issue No. 146 (June 1997) 204.

[lxvi] Calcagno, “Persona Politica: Unity and Difference in Edith Stein’s Political

Philosophy” 207.

[lxvii] Stein, Life in a Jewish Family 1891-1916 260.

[lxviii] Edith Stein, “Seven Beams From A Pentecost Novena” in Edith Stein,

Selected Writings, ed. with comments and reminiscences by Susanne M.

Batzdorff. (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1990) 93.

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Budapest Train Dream – As written in the dark

Arriving at some train station —not Nyugati, Keleti perhaps.

MML was there—and Jon, a few other friends. I was sent out to find our way —somehow we’re in an outer area, vacant overgrown lots — darkness has fallen —I make my way across a field — the distant glow of lights in homes — I see a narrow road so steep uphill like a roller coaster that one cannot see the top. There is a line down the middle but the road can only accommodate one car. The other side of the road is solid, high fences, a bus shelter —plastic and aluminum, suburban, old, forlorn, with weak overhead light.

Suddenly, from the top of the hill: lights! I grab Mister Dog who has crossed the road and could be hit — we duck into the bus shelter, me holding him tight. But the lights are paused at the top of the hill, waiting. At any moment I expect them to come barreling down the narrow road past us.

I hear a cry across the field behind us— one of our party has come to fetch me — they’ve found a well-lit city street passage and we are headed towards a hotel, or is it a hospital? On a hill, eerie greenish light, a long wait at the reception desk. Then we all proceed to a houseboat somewhere—is it on the Danube? We unroll bedding in what is more like a train compartment.

In the middle of the night Mister is sleeping near me, cradled by my stomach — someone begins to yell that the boat is sinking. I try to gather up all our bedding in one sheet pulled together by the corners and grab our bag and somehow we make it off…

We go directly to a train, very old-fashioned made of chrome and old wood. We pause in an amazing solarium car with a skylight. The car has three stories — steep balconies like an ancient surgery classroom.

It is all in resonant cedar wood, the color of a fine cello. The lowest level has wooden chaise lounges with leather cushions in the same smeary cedar color as the wood. Everything is smooth, satin-varnished with deco lines and designs. I marvel at how tall and high the car is, thinking of the tunnels it must pass through, the bridges. Someone explains the train goes through the steppes and prairies, endless miles of flat terrain…all the way to Siberia?

The point of waking, but all the scents and atmosphere of Budapest are still circling in the air and sky, the rain soaked streets. The glowing castle above on the hill, the lights of Margaret Island, the bridge and throngs coming from Buda to Pest and back again….

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Opus Posthumous

 by D. L. Pughe

From 1990

          Quite unexpectedly in late August of last year I was taken to the OP Project in the rural countryside near Utrecht. I was visiting my friends Lefke and Willem in Leiden who hosted a gathering of acquaintances and there I met Edna Bauer, the now famous founder of the OP. In interviews I’ve read, writers often mentioned the idiosyncratic pulling on her throat below her chin and rolling her eyes, but I quickly found her stories about how the OP began to outweigh the catalogue of tics.

The OP Project, short for Opus Posthumous, was founded in 1975 and remains devoted to finishing unfinished ideas. Artworks, novels, poems, plays, compositions, anything which was cut short by time. Edna (who has now added an unusual mouth-pursing and blowing gesture to her repertoire since she quit smoking last year), offered some of her personal experiences which drew her to unfinished fragments.

As a promising music student in Salzburg in the 40’s, Edna became hypnotized by some partial musical scores of several avant-garde composers killed in the first World War. She assembled a small chamber group which played the pieces in sequence, with one breaking off, pausing, and flowing into the next in the order in which the composers had fallen in the war. The rupture created a heightened effect and in the third performance, Edna, who was conducting the group, held the silences in a prolonged gasp where the preceding music danced invisibly along in the air, experienced differently by each listener. Edna, however, kept hearing a repeated refrain and a new movement which substantially grew with each performance. And, although she denies any affinity with paranormal forces, she came to believe that the composer was tossing notes down in the still pause. She imagined herself, as though on a battlefield, with a huge white apron rushing around madly trying to catch each clef and note that fell.

The live performances of these pieces ended with great acclaim and the chamber group went on to a more predictable classical repertoire, with much less success. But Edna did not join them and was never the same again. At night, she claims, musical refrains would cascade down to her and pull her from sleep, as if wrapping her in their embrace. She found it happened more frequently and with crystal sound when she was in the countryside.  She soon rented a room above a barn in Roelofarendsveen for the summer in order to complete transcribing the imaginary scores….

At first she wanted to know everything about each composer in order to translate their concepts most honestly. Then, she realized that finding out the intimate details of the composer’s life sometimes forced her into judgmental walls which held her back as a medium. She knew that a suspension of analysis in order to allow the music to flow into her mind and soul was the only way to grasp integrity to the idea.

It was in Roelofahrensveen that she met Henk Schoonover, a retired philosopher who was taken by her eccentric nighttime quests. He once found her asleep in an open field in order, she said, to hear the notes ringing louder in the sky. If she were mad, Henk reasoned, then the pages of notes she copied down before breakfast were those of a mad genius. No, she explained, they weren’t hers at all. She had found them in the air. And she went on to describe the unusual process which had led her to lie in wait for what to her became visible music.

Henk was not unaffected. He fell quite in love with Edna, though she was too preoccupied to notice.  He also began to lay awake with continual thoughts of the philosophers whose work he most admired, and what they might have written had their lives spanned a few more years. His focus soon became Spinoza, a man of the neighborhood who had lived nearby in Rijnsburg and The Hague and who had died from ingesting too much glass dust from his lens grinding occupation at the young age of 44.


This account of the Opus Posthumous project trails off here, a work of fiction in my imaginary museum series, but led to my own dreams of friends lost on the battlefield of AIDS.  I awoke one night and in a hypnagogic state thought I saw threadlike beams of colored light coming down from the sky, each one humming with a radio-like frequency carrying the unfinished ideas of so many friends who had died.  In my group at the Museums (of 25 employees) we lost 11 to AIDS.  So many creative artists, writers and poets from that time disappeared far too young, their ambitions and talents never fully realized.  I later woke and saw that the colored threads were a dream within a dream.  But also palpable and humming and I spoke of it to Joe Goode, the founder and choreographer of Joe Goode Performance Group.  He turned it into a brilliant performance in the darkened main court of the de Young Museum in honor of AIDS Day, December 1, 1991.  Under 6 beams of light, dancers captured the longing, the distant frequency of ideas still touching down long after the mortal world is left behind.

This fragment also led to this essay on Spinoza and his houses that was originally in NEST Magazine

The illustration to Opus Posthumous is from Choregraphie, 1700, the  dance notation system invented by Raoul Auger Feuillet


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Collected Thoughts

An excerpt from A Different Acquaintance, by D. L. Pughe

The porcelain room of the great fortress of Würzburg is in a high archway connecting one enormous chilly stone chamber to the next. Those rooms are warmed only by massive tapestries that seem to comfort and clothe the shivering stone.  Tiny spotlights frame the paintings there, then glint off of sentries of shining armor and caress the thoughtful faces of ancient lindenwood sculptures. The archway of porcelain is instead lined with windows and full of bright lamps and sunlight. Coming out of the dark Mayer ducked his head while entering as though leaving Socrates low cave.

Believing the ancient plates and bowls could take the weather, the uniformed guard had flung the windows open.   A crisp spring wind rising up over the vineyards surrounding the castle was happily flapping the curtains, pulling them out of the window frames where they were licking the air.

Mayer had arrived in town the previous evening. After dropping his things at a small pension he made his way up to the fortress in the dark. The huge saints and gods that line the walkways of the bridge across the river Main stood tall in the moonlight, each embellished with a touch of gold on the belt or sword or crown. Five times human size, they are grey and harmless guardians, menacing only to the sky. Mayer approached the castle with an unexpected feeling of safety.

It followed him back to the hotel that night and had returned this morning as he again passed by the guardians of the bridge.  The safety lingered as Mayer made his way up to the castle then through its chilly dim chambers and now stood in the light before the arranged dishes and bowls. They would have particularly delighted his grandmother who collected blue and white porcelain for decades and kept it in a mahogany cabinet her father had carved for her with sliding doors. Platters and bowls were brought out and used on celebratory occasions, filled for a brief moment with steaming meats, potatoes and gravies and stuffed cabbage and colorful salads. Then each dish was carefully washed and put away, their patterns enhanced by being in the midst of others.  Dishes from distant countries with elaborate shapes joined  local objects of shared hue, making them into a region all their own. The land of blue and white.

At his grandmother’s house in old Buda, Mayer spent many hours as a child looking at her dishes. She would slide open the mahogany doors and take out one or two, tracing the floral arabesques on a Moroccan saucer with an unsteady finger, then pointing out how it was also on a Chinese cup and a bowl from the Netherlands and one from America. These patterns delighted her and clearly made her feel hopeful. She often mentioned the ‘silk road’ which, like the Black Sea, Mayer for many years harbored as a literal vision. He believed there was a road paved in silk which billowed and shone, blue and white stretched between far dots on the globe that could ripple and lift up into the air.  And at one end lay a huge black sea with waves of ebony or tar.  And that image, in turn, imbued how he saw the dark trunk where she kept the broken pieces from the past.  She did not like to speak of how they were broken and yet was particularly proud of the ones she had managed to mend.  “They’re still good,” she would say.

A few years ago, on a return visit to Budapest, Mayer (now an aging professor in a different land) invited his grandmother to join some of his colleagues for lunch at a café in Pest. Morris, an American philosopher with an affection for poetry, was seated next to her and they began an animated conversation that ended in curious looks, then perplexed silence, and finally laughter between them. His grandmother’s small frame shook and her face grew bright from the exertion while her hands folded helplessly in her lap.  Morris bent over his plate choking on his wine, laughing while wiping his eyes with his napkin. Mayer’s grandmother, in halting English, explained that they had been conversing for some time about a thing they both share in great affection. It began with Morris asking her if she knew Paul Celan.   She enthusiastically exclaimed that she collected it. Somehow they proceeded until the hard plates and bowls of Mayer’s grandmother’s vision collided with Morris’s thoughts of the Romanian poet and they discovered their mistake. Now this story clung to Mayer’s notion of porcelain itself, as though phrases from Celan’s poetry were secretly etched in light relief in the bottom of his grandmother’s cups, visible only when the tea is gone and they are tipped to the light.

The tear, half,

the sharper lens, moveable,

brings the images home to you.

Peering into the cases before him now, Mayer saw a plate brushed with  blue figures and gestures from the great Qing poems, airy and incomplete. Imported to the West, these were copied on bowls and the human features become more angular, the eyes wider, fluttering details of landscape began to encroach upon the mist. Taken back the other direction along the same road, they were imitated on cups, with inflections of local life creeping into the faces until a whole new race emerged.


From blue and white, as a child Mayer mistakenly believed that photography evolved from porcelain. He assumed colors were exiled leaving black and white in order to highlight pattern and setting. Later, when he learned this was just a limit of photography at the start, his first and partial knowledge lingered on. For Mayer they remain intertwined, one a cerulean silk road, the other paved by Daguerre and ending in Sudek’s dark haunting portraits of Mionší Forest.

Mayer’s grandmother’s collection was his first experience of desire and unembarrassed pride in ownership not based on value.  It was her need to gather certain things all in one place. Each piece joined a group only after lengthy, discriminating nomination and acceptance. He recognized it in himself, as a student Mayer had  scraped together every penny to buy one of Sudek’s views of Janacek’s garden, an iron chair between two trees with a carpet of fallen leaves.   Even now, when it was pulled from its box and admired, his stomach recalled the two weeks that followed its purchase when he was forced to go without lunch.  What was its power?  An empty chair in an overgrown garden, waiting amid neglect.  He had never seen anything more haunting.


Most collections begin innocently. A thing draws our attention. Something about it provokes an intangible recognition, a sensation of kinship, an evocation of memory. You long to hold it, and then: hold onto it.  Then comes the hunt and gather of the very particular. Prominence comes into the picture, then the notion that others who are drawn to the same thing understand and share the ways of weighing it. A scale of excellence begins to emerge and condition each new acquisition. The innocent delight at the start of the collection now grows more serious. Discrimination takes place. At some point early pieces are exiled, and each addition can go hand in hand with exclusion.  In his grandmother’s case it was not pieces that were expensive, but ones found for a handful of change.  It was plates or bowls or cups which reminded her of something, most of all of a time of peace, times of tea and coffee on calm sunny afternoons, times with so many relatives there, laughing, their forks clinking against the plates.

When Mayer was ten he cut school one afternoon to go up into Jánoshegy forest with his friend András. They shared a strong dislike of their 4th form teacher, and an interest in being out of doors. After racing through the empty cafeteria, they took the tram up Buda hill to the forest, then rode through the woods on the Children’s Railway using the last bit of change they could scrape together. The Gyermekvasút (as it is called) winds through the thick forest and is managed by older children, giving every other kid on board a sense of entitlement. They got off in a stretch of the forest with tall firs and rough terrain of needles and brush at Virágvölgy. It was still cold with the last traces of winter in the air. Mayer and András used their knives to cut two willows and strip them into swords that made desirable whooshing sounds. They began to fence on a cluster of rocks in a clearing among the trees.

Then András tipped Mayer off the embankment and he feigned death by rolling down onto a mound of twigs and leaves. When they poked around it was a vast structure of compressed bits of wood and trash. An old and abandoned nest, or so Mayer told himself as his curiosity overtook respect for the creature that might live there. The crush of things must have left little room for its inhabitant. But then a large brown pack rat rushed out, its round ears flattened back, and scuttled up the hill to a hollow in the stones. From there it shrieked in fearless anger.  Mayer and András stopped pawing their way into the nest and broke their swords, using them to attempt to repair the area they had damaged and build a small tunnel for the rat to return to its fort. They departed grudgingly respectful of its creator. Since they had no coins left, they began to walk in silence along the edge of the tracks through the forest.   Darkness was falling when the train reappeared. They showed their empty pockets as it rolled by and a boy attendant helped to pull them on board. He operated in silence too, handing them each transfers even though they hadn’t asked.

Mayer now leaned out the open window of the German fortress in Würzburg into a similar spring chill. He recalled Leonardo’s sepia sketch the Rain of Things, a crashing deluge of human objects falling from the sky in random clutter. Rakes and boxes, tools and all manner of household stuff. The moral warning Leonardo intended was lost, Mayer thought only of how it might have delighted the pack rat of Jánoshegy.  And possibly his grandmother.

In the year she died, her collection of porcelain was shared among the grandchildren and cousins.  Mayer asked for only three broken and repaired pieces, the ones she had proudly shown him in the past.  Two had survived the war, one the failed revolution.  And, with no objections from any of her survivors, Mayer took away a box of shards from her small dark trunk.  From time to time he would look at them, fragments of blue and white and sometimes the grey of clay in between, and see two bits that might fit together.  Now, he realized, of all things—even his photographs—this box was what he would rescue if there were ever a threat and a need to suddenly go.

Tiny bits of green were timidly adorning the contorted vines far below Würzburg castle while traces of snow still hid in the brown furrows. A cool wind was sweeping up the hill. Mayer leaned into its embrace, the curtain flapping against his ear, a moist spray beginning to cover his glasses making it nearly impossible to see.  But there was also sun, and a brief moment of safety.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Rain of Things, The Royal Library

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Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite


Jean Vigo made Zéro de conduite in 1933 and it was banned in France until 1945 out of government fear that it would be an incitement for boarding school boys to misbehave. It was revolutionary and anarchistic. In October 1933, Vigo made these remarks before a screening in Belgium, and nothing captures the spirit of the film or of childhood so well:

 “In this film I did not allow myself any literature. No invention whatsoever. I barely needed even to bend down in order to retrieve my memories. Childhood, an October night at the start of term, kids abandoned in the courtyard somewhere in the provinces beneath some flag or other, but always far from home and the desired affection of a mother, the camaraderie of a father (unless he’s already dead). Now I feel myself consumed with anxiety. You’re going to see Zéro de conduite. I am going to see it again with you! No doubt I shall rediscover in the train compartment those two friends returning from vacation for the start of term. Of course there will appear with its thirty identical beds the dormitory of my eight years of boarding school, and I shall see also Huguet, the junior master who we loved so much, and his colleague The Warden Péte-Sec (dry fart), and the silent Head Supervisor with his ghostly crepe soled shoes.

In the light of the gas lamp left on low, will the little sleepwalker haunt my dreams again tonight? And perhaps I shall see him again at the foot of my bed as he appeared to me the night before he was swept away by the Spanish flu in 1919.

Yes, I recognize all my friends, Cosussat, Bruel, Colin, the cook’s son, and Tabard known as ‘the girl’ who was spied on and persecuted by the administration. All he really needed was a big brother as his mother didn’t love him.

 Everything is represented, the refectory smelling of beans, the classroom where one day one of us said out loud what all of us were thinking. And I shall witness again the representation of the conspiracy that caused us so much trouble. The night spent in the loft, the rebellion that took place, the crucifixion of Péte-Sec. The public celebration that we disturbed on the aptly named day of Santa Barbara, B for Boredom. Shall I again set off from that loft, our sole domain, across the roof and towards a happier sky?”


96529_04_w464_h260_fc  f_23  film-zero-de-conduite7


imageszero-de-conduite-1934-08-gvlcsnap-2010-05-16-14h50m09s33    Zero_Feature_Current_video_still  zero-for-conduct



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The dentist and her

assistant move

in unison, four

hands in silence

passing tools

and cotton,

suction and light.

Screen shot 2015-03-06 at 10.57.19 AM

The dance of women’s fingers

beyond words.

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Aware of all of it

or none; drifting

off to the night

I held my mother’s

hand.   Her breath

slowing and weaker

over hours,

her skin cool then



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For her life, her

love, I

weep with

gratitude that

could fill oceans.

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“Are you okay?”

Afraid I’m in

pain the

concert of hands


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No, no…I wave,

my eyes and

mouth and

throat full.

Screen shot 2015-03-06 at 10.57.19 AM

Don’t worry.

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The play of hands

ends; my smile

restored. I blink

back into the

day with

my mother’s palm


lightly warm

in my own.

Screen shot 2015-03-06 at 10.57.19 AMScreen shot 2015-03-06 at 10.57.19 AM

— D. L. Pughe


My beloved mother, Barbara Pughe

I think of you every day, sloshing with love,

and try to somehow live in your honor.

  BarbaraPughe-CUYears  IMG_2383

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The Ordeal of Richard Feverel

This passage refers to the previous post on E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End:  Connecting with Nature in Forster’s Forests

The Ordeal of Richard Feverel by George Meredith is referred to by Mr. Bast in Howard’s End as leading to his own desire to walk through forests all night.  Bast mentions it is in the Chapter called ‘Nature Speaks’

From Chapter 42 

Nature Speaks


 Telling Austin he would be back in a few minutes, he sallied into the air, and walked on and on. “A father!” he kept repeating to himself: “a child!” And though he knew it not, he was striking the key-notes of Nature. But he did know of a singular harmony that suddenly burst over his whole being.

The moon was surpassingly bright: the summer air heavy and still. He left the high road and pierced into the forest. His walk was rapid: the leaves on the trees brushed his cheeks; the dead leaves heaped in the dells noised to his feet. Something of a religious joy — a strange sacred pleasure — was in him. By degrees it wore; he remembered himself: and now he was possessed by a proportionate anguish. A father! he dared never see his child. And he had no longer his phantasies to fall upon. He was utterly bare to his sin. In his troubled mind it seemed to him that Clare looked down on him — Clare who saw him as he was; and that to her eyes it would be infamy for him to go and print his kiss upon his child. Then came stern efforts to command his misery and make the nerves of his face iron.

By the log of an ancient tree half buried in dead leaves of past summers, beside a brook, he halted as one who had reached his journey’s end. There he discovered he had a companion in Lady Judith’s little dog. He gave the friendly animal a pat of recognition and both were silent in the forest-silence.

It was impossible for Richard to return; his heart was surcharged. He must advance, and on he footed, the little dog following.

An oppressive slumber hung about the forest-branches. In the dells and on the heights was the same dead heat. Here where the brook tinkled it was no cool-lipped sound, but metallic, and without the spirit of water. Yonder in a space of moonlight on lush grass, the beams were as white fire to sight and feeling. No haze spread around. The valleys were clear, defined to the shadows of their verges; the distances sharply distinct, and with the colours of day but slightly softened. Richard beheld a roe moving across a slope of sward far out of rifle-mark. The breathless silence was significant, yet the moon shone in a broad blue heaven. Tongue out of mouth trotted the little dog after him; couched panting when he stopped an instant; rose weariedly when he started afresh. Now and then a large white night-moth flitted through the dusk of the forest.

On a barren corner of the wooded highland looking inland stood grey topless ruins set in nettles and rank grass-blades. Richard mechanically sat down on the crumbling flints to rest, and listened to the panting of the dog. Sprinkled at his feet were emerald lights: hundreds of glow-worms studded the dark dry ground.

qmNCXHe sat and eyed them, thinking not at all. His energies were expended in action. He sat as a part of the ruins, and the moon turned his shadow Westward from the South. Overhead, as she declined, long ripples of silver cloud were imperceptibly stealing toward her. They were the van of a tempest. He did not observe them or the leaves beginning to chatter. When he again pursued his course with his face to the Rhine, a huge mountain appeared to rise sheer over him, and he had it in his mind to scale it. He got no nearer to the base of it for all his vigorous outstepping. The ground began to dip; he lost sight of the sky. Then heavy thunder-drops struck his cheek, the leaves were singing, the earth breathed, it was black before him and behind. All at once the thunder spoke. The mountain he had marked was bursting over him.


Up started the whole forest in violet fire. He saw the country at the foot of the hills to the bounding Rhine gleam, quiver, extinguished. Then there were pauses; and the lightning seemed as the eye of heaven, and the thunder as the tongue of heaven, each alternately addressing him; filling him with awful rapture. Alone there — sole human creature among the grandeurs and mysteries of storm — he felt the representative of his kind, and his spirits rose, and marched, and exulted, let it be glory, let it be ruin! Lower down the lightened abysses of air rolled the wrathful crash: then white thrusts of light were darted from the sky, and great curving ferns, seen steadfast in pallor a second, were supernaturally agitated, and vanished. Then a shrill song roused in the leaves and the herbage. Prolonged and louder it sounded, as deeper and heavier the deluge pressed. A mighty force of water satisfied the desire of the earth. Even in this, drenched as he was by the first outpouring, Richard had a savage pleasure. Keeping in motion, he was scarcely conscious of the wet, and the grateful breath of the weeds was refreshing. Suddenly he stopped short, lifting a curious nostril. He fancied he smelt meadow-sweet. He had never seen the flower in Rhineland — never thought of it; and it would hardly be met with in a forest. He was sure he smelt it fresh in dews. His little companion wagged a miserable wet tail some way in advance. He went on slowly, thinking indistinctly. After two or three steps he stooped and stretched out his hand to feel for the flower, having, he knew not why, a strong wish to verify its growth there. Groping about, his hand encountered something warm that started at his touch, and he, with the instinct we have, seized it, and lifted it to look at it. The creature was very small, evidently quite young. Richard’s eyes, now accustomed to the darkness, were able to discern it for what it was, a tiny leveret, and he supposed that the dog had probably frightened its dam just before he found it. He put the little thing on one hand in his breast, and stepped out rapidly as before.

The rain was now steady; from every tree a fountain poured. So cool and easy had his mind become that he was speculating on what kind of shelter the birds could find, and how the butterflies and moths saved their coloured wings from washing. Folded close they might hang under a leaf, he thought. Lovingly he looked into the dripping darkness of the coverts on each side, as one of their children. He was next musing on a strange sensation he experienced. It ran up one arm with an indescribable thrill, but communicated nothing to his heart. It was purely physical, ceased for a time, and recommenced, till he had it all through his blood, wonderfully thrilling. He grew aware that the little thing he carried in his breast was licking his hand there. The small rough tongue going over and over the palm of his hand produced the strange sensation he felt. Now that he knew the cause, the marvel ended; but now that he knew the cause, his heart was touched and made more of it. The gentle scraping continued without intermission as on he walked. What did it say to him? Human tongue could not have said so much just then.


A pale grey light on the skirts of the flying tempest displayed the dawn. Richard was walking hurriedly. The green drenched weeds lay all about in his path, bent thick, and the forest drooped glimmeringly. Impelled as a man who feels a revelation mounting obscurely to his brain, Richard was passing one of these little forest-chapels, hung with votive wreaths, where the peasant halts to kneel and pray. Cold, still, in the twilight it stood, rain-drops pattering round it. He looked within, and saw the Virgin holding her Child. He moved by. But not many steps had he gone ere his strength went out of him, and he shuddered. What was it? He asked not. He was in other hands. Vivid as lightning the Spirit of Life illumined him. He felt in his heart the cry of his child, his darling’s touch. With shut eyes he saw them both. They drew him from the depths; they led him a blind and tottering man. And as they led him he had a sense of purification so sweet he shuddered again and again.

When he looked out from his trance on the breathing world, the small birds hopped and chirped: warm fresh sunlight was over all the hills. He was on the edge of the forest, entering a plain clothed with ripe corn under a spacious morning sky.



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The Child of the Open Sea


This short poetic story is by Jules Supervielle, a French poet who spent much of his life in Montevideo,Uruguay.


How had that floating street been created? What sailors, with the aid of what architects, had built it in mid-Atlantic, on the surface of the sea, over a gulf thousands of fathoms deep? That long street with its red brick houses, so faded that they were turning French gray, those roofs of slate and tile, those unchanging, humble shops? And that richly perforated belfry? And this place which had nothing but sea water in it, though no doubt it wanted to be a garden, with enclosing walls set with broken bottle glass, over which a fish would sometimes leap?

How did it remain standing without even being tossed by the waves?

And that solitary twelve-year-old child who walked in her sabots with a firm step down the liquid street as though she were walking on dry land? How did it come about?

We shall relate all these things as we get to know and understand them. And if anything remains obscure it will not be our fault.

Whenever a ship approached, even before it could be seen on the horizon, a great drowsiness took possession of the child, and the village disappeared completely beneath the waves. And thus it was that no sailor had even seen the village, even at the end of a telescope, or even suspected its existence.

The child thought she was the only little girl in the world. Did she even know she was a little girl? She was not very pretty, because of her rather wide-spaced teeth, and her rather too tip-tilted nose, but she had a very white skin with a few speckles—I mean freckles. And her small person, dominated by gray eyes that were shy but very luminous, sent through your body, right into your soul, a great surprise which hailed from the night of time.

Sometimes in the street, the only one in that little town, the child would look to right and left as if she were expecting a friendly sign from someone, a slight wave of the hand or a nod of the head. This was merely an impression she gave without knowing it, since no person or thing could come to that lost village that was always ready to vanish.

How did she live? By fishing? We don’t think so. She found food in the kitchen cupboard and larder, and even meat every two or three days. There were also potatoes for her and a few other vegetables, and eggs from time to time.

Provisions appeared spontaneously in the cupboards. And when the child took jam from a pot, it remained as intact as before, as if things had been thus one day and had to stay the same forever.

In the mornings, half a pound of fresh bread, wrapped in paper, was waiting for the child on the marble counter of the bakery, behind which she had never seen anyone, not even a hand or a finger pushing the bread towards her.

She was always up early, and she would push up the metal screens of the shops (one labeled “Bar,” and others “Blacksmith,” “Modern Bakery,” or “Haberdasher”), open the shutters of all the houses, carefully fastening them back because of the sea wind, and, according to the weather, leaving the windows closed or not. She would light a fire in a few kitchens so that smoke should rise from three or four roofs. An hour before sunset she began, very simply, to close the shutters and to lower the corrugated metal screens.

The child accomplished these tasks, moved by some instinct, some daily inspiration which drove her to look after everything. In the summer months, she would hang a rug over a window sill, or some linen to dry, as though the village must at all costs look inhabited and as lifelike as possible. And the whole year round she had to take care of the town-hall flag, which was so exposed.

At night she used candles, or sewed by the light of a lamp. There was electricity, too, in several houses in the town, and the child turned the switches easily and gracefully.

On one occasion she put a black crepe bow on the knocker of a door. She thought it looked nice. It remained there for two days, after which she hid it.

Another time she started beating a drum, the village drum, as though she were going to announce some news. And she had a violent longing to shout something that might have been heard from one end of the sea to the other; but her throat contracted and no sound came out. She made such a stern effort that her face and neck became almost black with it, like those of drowned people. Then she had to put the drum back in its usual place, in the left-hand corner at the far end of the big hall of the town hall.

The child reached the belfry by a spiral staircase whose steps were worn by thousands of unseen feet. The belfry which, the child thought, must certainly have five hundred steps (it had ninety-two) showed as much sky as it could between its yellow bricks. And she had to satisfy the weight-driven clock by winding it up with the crank handle, so that it should sound the hours exactly, day and night.

The crypt, the altars, the stone saints giving silent orders, all those faintly whispering chairs which waited, in straight rows, for people of all ages, those altars whose gold had aged and hoped to age still more—all that attracted and repelled the child, who never entered that tall house, contenting herself, when she had nothing else to do, with sometimes half opening the padded door and darting a rapid glance at the interior, holding her breath as she did so.

In a trunk in her room there were family papers and some postcards from Dakar, Rio de Janeiro, and Hong Kong signed Charles or C. Lievens, and addressed to Steenvoorde (Nord). The child of the open sea had no idea what those far countries and this Charles and this Steenvoorde were.

She also kept an album of photographs in a cupboard. One of them showed a child who looked very like the little girl of the Ocean, who would often gaze at it humbly; it was always this picture which seemed to her to be right, to ring true; she was holding a hoop in her hand. The child had looked for one like it in all the houses of the village. And one day she thought she had found one; it was the iron hoop of a barrel; but hardly had she begun to run down the marine street with it than the hoop bowled out to sea.

In another photograph the little girl was seen between a man dressed in sailor’s clothes and a bony woman in her Sunday best. The child of the open sea, who had never seen either man or woman, wondered for a long time what those people wanted, even thinking about it in the dead of night, when lucidity sometimes strikes you suddenly with the violence of a thunderbolt.

Every morning she went to the village school, with a big satchel containing notebooks, a grammar, an arithmetic, a history of France, and a geography. She also had, written by Gaston Bonnier, member of the Institut and professor at the Sorbonne, and Georges de Layens, laureat of the Académie des Sciences, a little field guide which listed the most common plants, as well as useful and harmful plants, with eight hundred and ninety-six illustrations.

She read in the preface: “During the whole of the summer, there is nothing easier than to get hold of a great number of field and forest flowers.”

And how were history, geography, countries, great men, mountains, rivers, and frontiers to be explained to someone who has nothing but the empty street of a little town in the most solitary part of the Ocean? She did not even know that she was on the Ocean, the very one she saw on the maps, although the idea did cross her mind one day, for a second. But she had driven it away as mad and dangerous.

Now and then, she would listen with complete obedience, write a few words, listen again and begin writing again, as though at the dictation of an invisible mistress. Then the child would open a grammar and remain for a long time, holding her breath and bending over page 60 and exercise CLXVIII, of which she was particularly fond. In it the grammar seemed to be speaking entirely for the benefit of the little girl and the open sea:

— are you? — are you thinking? — do you

speak? — do you want? — should one apply

to? — is happening? — is being accused? —

are you capable? — are you guilty? — is the

matter? — do you like this present? — are

you complaining?

(Replace the dashes by the appropriate

interrogative pronoun, with or without


Sometimes the child felt a very persistent longing to write certain phrases, and did so with a great deal of concentration. Here are some of them, among many others:

Let’s share this, shall we?

Listen to me carefully. Sit down and don’t

move, I beg you!

If I only had a little snow from the high

mountains, the day would pass more


Foam, foam all round me, won’t you at last

turn into something solid?

To play a round game you have to be at least


There were two headless shadows walking

away along the dusty road.

The night, the day, the day, the night, the

clouds and the flying fish.

I thought I heard a noise, but it was the noise    of the sea.

Or else she wrote a letter in which she gave news of her little town and herself. It wasn’t addressed to anyone and she put no kisses for anyone at the end of it, and on the envelope there was no name. And when the letter was finished she threw it into the sea, not to get rid of it but because it had to be that way, and perhaps in the manner of navigators in distress, who consign their last message to the waves in a despairing bottle.

Time never passed in the floating town: the child was always twelve. And it was in vain that she swelled out her little chest before the glass-fronted cupboard of her room. One day, tired of looking, with her plaits and her very bare forehead, like the photo she kept in her album, she got cross with herself and her picture and scattered her locks roughly over her shoulders, hoping that this would give her age a jolt. Perhaps it would even affect the sea all round her, and she would see coming out of it great goats, with foaming beards, who would draw near to look at her.

But the Ocean remained empty and she received no other visits than those of the shooting stars.

Another day destiny seemed to forget itself for a moment, as though there were a sudden crack in its will. A real little cargo boat, all smoking, as obstinate as a bulldog and riding easily although it was not heavily loaded (a beautiful red band gleamed in the sun under the water line) —a cargo boat passed down the marine street of the village, without the houses disappearing beneath the waves nor the little girl’s getting overcome with sleep.

It was just midday. The cargo boat sounded its siren, but this voice did not mingle with the voice of the belfry. Each kept its independence. The child, hearing for the first time a noise which came to her from men, rushed to the window and shouted with all her might:


And she flung her schoolgirl’s pinafore in the direction of the ship.

The helmsman did not even turn his head. And a sailor, who was puffing smoke from his mouth, passed along the deck as if nothing had happened. The others went on washing their clothes, while on each side of the ship’s bow dolphins separated to make room for the cargo boat, which was in a hurry.

The little girl descended very quickly into the street, lay down on the track of the ship, and embraced its wake for such a long time that, when she got up, nothing remained of it but a stretch of sea with no memory, quite intact. On returning to the house, the child was dumbfounded at having shouted: “Help!” Only then did she understand the profound meaning of this word. And this meaning terrified her. Could men not hear her voice? Or were those sailors deaf and blind? Or more cruel than the depths of the sea?

Then a wave, which had always remained at some distance from the village, clearly not wishing to intrude, came to look for her. It was a huge wave, which spread much further than the others on each side of itself. In its crest it had what looked exactly like two eyes, made of foam. You would have supposed it understood certain things and did not approve of them all. Although it furled and unfurled itself hundreds of times a day, it never forgot to equip itself with those two well-formed eyes, in the same place. Sometimes, when something interested it, you would catch it lingering for nearly a minute, with its crest in the air, forgetting its wave nature and that it had to begin again every seven seconds.

For a long time this wave had been wanting to do something for the child, but it did not know what. It saw the cargo boat disappearing and understood the anguish of the little girl who remained behind. Not being able to bear it any longer, it carried her a little distance away, without saying a word, as though leading her by the hand.

After having knelt before her, wave-fashion, and with the greatest respect, it tucked her under itself and kept her for a very long moment, trying to confiscate her with the collaboration of death. And the little girl stopped breathing to help the wave in this serious plan.

Failing to achieve its object, it flung her into the air until the child was no bigger than a sea swallow, catching her again and again like a ball as she fell back among the foam flakes bit as ostrich eggs.

Finally, seeing that nothing was of any avail, that it could not succeed in giving her death, the wave took the child back to her home, with an immense murmur of tears and excuses.

And the little girl, who had not received a scratch, had to begin opening and closing shutters again without hope, and disappearing momentarily under the sea the moment the mast of a ship showed on the horizon.

WaveFLourish2             Sailors who dream upon the high seas, with your elbows propped on the handrail, be fearful lest you dwell too long in the darkness of the night on a beloved face. For if you do, you risk giving birth, in places that are essentially deserted, to a being gifted with ever human sensibility, who can neither live nor die nor love, and yet suffers as though he lived and loved and was always on the point of death, a being infinitely disinherited in the watery solitudes, like that child of the Ocean, born one day in the mind of Charles Lievens, of Steenvoorde, deck hand of the four-master Fearless, who had lost his twelve-year-old daughter during one of his voyages, and one night, at a place 55 degrees latitude North and 35 degrees longitude West, thought of her for a long time, with terrible intensity, to the great misfortune of that child.


Le Theatre de Nuit has made this interpretive short film based on this story.  Theatre de la Nuit website with this story.



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