“This conviction underlies Heidegger’s “counter-logic”, the peculiar design to replace the aggressive, inquisitorial discourse of Aristotelian, Baconian, and positivist investigation with an unresolved, even circuitous, nevertheless dynamic dialectic. In Aristotelian analysis, nature is made to bear witness; Bacon tells of putting natural phenomena on the rack so as to make them yield objective truths; in French, ‘la question’ signifies judicial torture.
In Heidegger’s “questioning of being”, an activity so central that it defines, or should define, the humane status of man, there is neither enforcement nor a programmatic thrust from inquisition to reply. To question truly is to enter into harmonic concordance with that which is being questioned. Far from being initiator and sole master of the encounter, as Socrates, Descartes, and the modern scientist-technologist so invariably are, the Heideggarian asker lays himself open to that which is being questioned and becomes the vulnerable locus, the permeable space of its disclosure.
– George Steiner, from his book ‘Martin Heidegger’
“The Right to Say Nothing”
A few years back I walked out of the Wormhole Cafe on Milwaukee ave. and spotted a lovely woman surrounded by baggage trying to hail a cab. I approached her and asked if she was travelling. Indeed, she was. She had just flown from Montreal to Chicago to see the Pitchfork Music Festival. She had a strong French accent and blue-green eyes. It struck me as odd to hear such a strong French accent on somebody from North America, even though I knew millions of Frankophones hail from the province of Quebec.
I volunteered to be her unofficial tour guide to Chicago, showing her around to things like the Shedd and the Music Box Theatre when she was not at the music festival. We became good friends, have stayed in touch, and she reads this blog from time to time to see what kind of trouble my mind gets into.
Last time I saw her was two years ago, when I took a train up to Montreal for the sake of it. She worked at a cafe where you could purchase a ceramic artwork and paint it as you sipped on coffee or tea. They had hundreds of objects to choose from, from bowls to vases, statues and mugs. I chose a mug with a big Question Mark on it.
I’ve told people recently that if I die, I want to be buried in Rosehill Cemetary with a tombstone that has a big Question Mark on it, followed by my name and dates. Of course, I don’t want to die. I’m too greedy and filled with zest for life. Plus, I don’t think there’s a second chance. But that’s beside the point. I would like a tombstone that looks just like the mug: ? That’s my religious symbol.
When I finished painting my ceramic mug, my French Canadian friend informed me that it would have to be heated in the kiln and cooled, a process that would take up to a week. I was leaving the next day, so it was an impossibility for me to take it with me. She promised to mail it.
What resonates most with me about this memory was the english phrase she used to describe the Question Mark. She called it an Interrogation Point. In French, ‘interroger’ is a verb that means to question; it does not have the same negative/harsh connotations as the english ‘interrogate’. Nevertheless, the phonetic similarity caused me to ruminate on the sense in which all questions are a form of interrogation.
Questions are in one sense innocuous, benign. A child asks questions as they curiously explore the world. A question like ‘How was your day’ indicates you care about someone. Other questions denote wonder and astonishment- that’s the kind of question I want on my ceramic mug or tombstone.
But then there are the interrogation points. Who do you think you are? What were you thinking? How could you want to kill yourself? Where were you on the night of February sixth? A questioner, the interrogator, is someone trying to pull the answer out of the questioned. In its most extreme example, this process involves torture and forced disclosure. It involves pain. Notice the root in Spanish Inquisition. Inquisition, as in, to question. In its more temperate, yet nevertheless problematic forms, ‘to question’ puts ‘the questioned’ on the defensive. This happens in the most innocuous yet distorting of ways.
You ask me what I’m going to do with a philosophy degree. That is SUCH a loaded question. What is implied is that one must “do” something. It implies that I can’t do anything with a philosophy degree. It implies I made a mistake; I’m immediately on the defensive when faced with this question.
Asian cultures have a beautiful response to such questions. Mu. In English (and French), we don’t have such a luxury, we only have two answers: Yes and No. But some eastern languages have a third term: mu. It basically means, unask the question, or, your question is wrong. The best defense is a good offense. The word mu is designed to call the questioner into question, to make their question questionable.
But, alas, in the west, we’re forced to answer all sorts of stupid questions. The problem is is that if the question is wrong, no possible answer will be right. And the questioner, like the one who plays white in chess, will always have the advantage after making the first move.
Why am I bringing any of this up? Because today’s piece is about such a questioner. It’s a 7 minute dialogue between two lovers. One of the characters is unable to get an answer to a question, and their response to this in-comprehensibility isn’t a shift to receptivity and listening, but a further bombardment of questions.
The character reminds me of myself. When I don’t understand something, rather than pause and look, I bang my head against the proverbial wall again and again, hoping answers will fall out.
In that spirit, I’m not going to grill (notice the connotation of torment) my friend as to why she’s yet to mail me the mug after two years…
the piano in the background is me playing at the Harold Washington Library. Did you know they have free upright pianos and practice rooms you can borrow for up to an hour, more if nobody is waiting?