The question remains, is there a secular self-emptying?

Drawing on the writings of art historians, political activists, philosophers, Christian theologians, and the secular Buddhist Stephen Batchelor, David Patten explores how we might understand the movement away from the egoic self towards the experience of ‘not-self’, a process of secular self-emptying.

David is an artist who lives in England. You can view his work by clicking here. The featured image for this article is a photograph taken by David in July 2011.


I

As técnico de guerra in Buenaventura Durruti’s international fighting group of the same name, the art historian Carl Einstein delivered his obituary to the recently killed anarchist leader on CNT-FAI’s anarchosyndicalist radio station in Barcelona in November 1936. [1] By saying “In the Durruti Column only the collective syntax was known,” Einstein found his answer to his critique of individualism in his 1935 ‘Die Fabrikation der Fiktionen’ (The ‘Fabrication of Fictions’). Despite the increasing Stalinization of the Left, Einstein never abandoned his anarchist position. But his euphoria for the banishment of the ‘prehistoric word ‘I’ had already reached its climax with the radio address of late November 1936.

II

A few years earlier [2], when writing about Cubism, Carl Einstein commented that, “To unhinge the world of objects is to call into question the guarantees of our existence. The naive person believes that the appearance of the human figure is the most trustworthy experience that a human being can have of himself; he dares not doubt this certainty, although he suspects the presence of inner experiences. He imagines that in contrast to this abyss of inner experience the immediate experience of his own body constitutes the most reliable biological unit.”

III

At the age of 23, the Swedish writer and theologian Emilia Fogelklou had a transformative experience which she later called her ‘Revelation of Reality’ [3]: “It was not observation. It was a rising in total view, an attention that intoxicated not only the eyes that saw but the whole … that lived, saw, knew – without form or boundaries.” She also found that “The very art of radiance is its ‘form’ – vibrations through an infinite multiplicity of personal worlds and circles of figurations in all grades of reach and creative transformations.”

IV

In explaining Fogelklou’s writing style, Petra Carlsson Redell, minister of the Lutheran Church of Sweden writes [4], “In Form and Radiance, the “I” who speaks, the author subject, recurrently disappears. If there is a phantasmic author subject in her work, it is broken down into pieces on every page. Fogelklou’s contemplative work is a patch work. Her essays are built up by an author voice that collects voices and, through the very same gathering motion, scatters herself. Naturally, this also makes her texts hard to read at times and her thoughts hard to follow. However, I do not believe this is due to an inability to be clear or speak up.”

V

Kathleen March-Martul tells us [5] that “Cubist painters used an illusionary device termed ‘fluctuant representation’ by W. Judkins. The effects of this device are a multiple reading of the work, its emergent or unfolding nature, and sustained fluctuations of the work’s semiotic identity as perceived by the spectator. Behind the use of this technique was the painters’ desire to show that the senses do indeed deceive the human eye. A simplified description of the aesthetic device under discussion is that it involves the representation of a form in such a way that it is first identified as one object, but subsequently appears to be another, or part of another, object. This multiple reading is made possible by the form’s structural ambiguity, its ability to fulfil the syntagmatic and paradigmatic functions of more than one artistic form.

Thus the viewer is faced with the task of identifying both the features of the ambiguous item and its relationship to the rest of the work.”

VI

In his 1954 Harvard thesis on Synthetic Cubism [6], Winthrop Judkins concluded that “In the broader sense, it is submitted that within the limits of the typical studio still-life setup, a restriction which, for that matter, was probably necessary to this end, virtually the entire fabric of normal representation was explored and transformed into fluctuant representation.”

VII

Six years earlier, Judkins had concluded [7], “…that which all these things have in common, that of which they are an unending variety of manifestations, is this:

  • A Deliberate Oscillation of Appearances
  • A Studied Multiplicity of Readings
  • A Conscious Compounding of Identities
  • An Iridescence of Form.

VIII

In a short chapter on ‘emptiness’ [8], Stephen Batchelor writes “Pens, bananas, and pots are self-evident, instantly recognizable things. But subject them to a little scrutiny, and that certainty begins to waver. Things are not as clear-cut as they seem. They are neither circumscribed nor separated from each other by lines. Lines are drawn in the mind. There are no lines in nature.”

IX

Later, in the same chapter [9], Batchelor tells us that “To know emptiness is not to understand the concept. It is more like stumbling into a clearing in the forest, where suddenly you can move freely and see clearly. To experience emptiness is to experience the shocking absence of what normally determines the sense of who you are and the kind of reality you inhabit. It may last only a moment before the habits of a lifetime reassert themselves and close in once more. But for that moment, we witness ourselves and the world as open and vulnerable.”

X

The 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, and the publication the following of Paul Carus’ ‘Gospel of Buddha’, kicked off a century of Eastern-Western philosophical dialogueseeking equivalence between the Christian kenosis, where God empties Himself through the incarnation, and Zen Buddhism’s sunyata, or the emptying of the self to attain non-self.

Stephen C. Rowe [10] concludes that the “…birth of the true self through surrender to the first law of life: other-preservation, mutual realisation, the fullness of our own presence only occurs when we are present with and for the other. …transforming our lives and the larger life we share on this fragile and still-enchanted earth.”

The question remains, is there a secular self-emptying?

XI

The Swedish philosopher, Martin Hägglund, tells us [11] that “Spiritual life does not descend or ‘fall’ into finitude. Rather, spiritual life is from the beginning subject to – and the subject of – a finite form of life. We can see how Hegel makes this point by converting Luther’s religious conception of Entäusserung [‘kenosis’] as divine love into a secular notion of spiritual commitment. The term Entäusserung is used frequently both in Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ and his ‘Science of Logic’, but it becomes particularly significant in the concluding sections of the ‘Phenomenology’ where Hegel employs it on every page. At stake here are the conditions of possibility for leading a spiritual life, both individually and collectively. Leading a spiritual life requires a conception of who we ought to be as individuals and as a community, what Hegel calls an ‘Idea’ of who we are. Following Hegel’s secular notion of the incarnation, the Idea of who we are is not something that can exist in a separate realm; it must be materially embodied in our practices. Moreover, the Idea of who we are is not contemplative. We cannot discover who we are through introspection, but only by emptying ourselves out in the sense of being wholeheartedly engaged – being at stake, being at risk – in what we do and how we are recognized by others. The Idea of who we are is not an abstract ideal that is external to our form of life; it is the principle of intelligibility in light of which we can succeed or fail to be who we are striving to be.”

Entäusserung | relinquishing

Entäusserung | giving up

Entäusserung | abandoning

Entäusserung | releasing

Entäusserung | surrendering

Entäusserung | alienating

Perhaps a secular self-emptying isn’t found when looking for equivalence between Buddhism and Christianity.

Perhaps it is here already, waiting to be discovered (or re-discovered) in our everyday experience of “pens, bananas, and pots”.

Perhaps, like Carl Einstein and Emilia Fogelklou, we should be looking for our self-emptying fluctuating selves – “without form or boundaries” – in Cubist still-life painting, particularly in the work of Georges Braque.

“This painting of the absolute, this grasping after the pure visual function, demonstrated that the absolute is not some ideological generality, but always a perfectly concrete individual experience that has nothing to do with any metaphysical or posthumously retrospective theoretical product.”

– Carl Einstein: ‘Revolution durchbricht Geschichte und Überlieferung’, unpublished, 1921


Sources:

  1. Haus der Kulturen der Welt: ‘Neolithic Childhood / Art in a False Present 1930’, 2018.
  2. Carl Einstein: ‘Notes sur le cubisme’, Documents 1, 3, 1929, 146-155, 147. Translated and introduced by Charles W. Haxthausen as ‘Notes on Cubism’, October 107, Winter 2004, 158-168, 161.
  1. Emilia Fogelklou: ‘Form och stralning’ (Form and Radiance),
  2. Petra Carlsson Redell: ‘Mysticism as Revolt – Foucault, Deleuze and Theology Beyond Representation’, The Davies Group,
  3. Kathleen March-Martul: Cubist Fluctuant Representation in the ‘Creacionista’ Poetry of Gerardo Diego’, Romance Notes 22, No. 2 (Winter, 1981), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for its Department of Romance Studies.
  4. Winthrop Judkins: ‘Fluctuant Representation in Synthetic Cubism : Picasso, Braque, Gris, 1910-1920’, Garland Publishing, New York,
  5. Winthrop Judkins ‘Toward a Reinterpretation of Cubism’, The Art Bulletin, 30:4,
  6. Stephen Batchelor: ‘Buddhism Without Beliefs – A Contemporary Guide to Awakening’, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, London,
  7. Stephen Batchelor: ‘Buddhism Without Beliefs – A Contemporary Guide to Awakening’, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, London,
  8. Stephen Rowe: ‘Rediscovering the West: An Inquiry into Nothingness and Relatedness’, Suny,
  9. Martin Hägglund: ‘This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free’, Profile Books,

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COMMENTS

3 Replies to “The question remains, is there a secular self-emptying?”

Anne-Laure Brousseau

What a wonderful view of secular emptiness, and how much I enjoyed seeing your work! Many years ago I studied Leger (yes, Luminous One), and it was great to read the excerpts from Peter de Francia’s great book. Being with you view, I recalled Leger writing about the extraordinary speed of modernity, and seeing his paintings and your collage, it occurred that he painted our stillness—a kind of transformative embodied awareness—within that speed.

David Patten

Thanks for the comment, and particular thanks for looking beyond the text.

The phrase ‘luminous one’ seems to be something Émile Zola said about the painter Édouard Manet in about 1863.

Not sure why Peter de Francia used the same phrase to describe Leger during his inaugural address (‘Mandarins and Luddites’) at the Royal College of Art, London, in 1973. It is one of the many things I should have asked Peter when I became one of his students at the School of Painting a few years later, but certainly Zola’s comment on Manet could equally be applied to Leger:

“The note which he strikes in his pictures is a luminous one which fills his canvas with light. The rendering which he gives us is truthful and simplified, obtained by composing his pictures in large masses.”

Yes, like you, I also see Leger’s silence as “a kind of transformative embodied awareness.” There is also in Leger that ‘truthful and simplified’ luminous spaciousness that de Francia recycled from Zola’s text on Manet.

Of course, it is difficult now not to link the phrase ‘luminous one’ with Buddhism, and particularly (for me!) with the ‘Treasury of the Dharmadhatu’ by the 14th century Dzogchen master and poet Klong-chen rab-‘byams-pa (Longchenpa).

Perhaps how we experience painting can prompt Longchenpa’s chos nyid kyi rigs or ‘wisdom mind’. What from they wrote, this may have been what Carl Einstein and Emilie Fogelklou both experienced in front of Cubism, and it might be this which connects Winthrop Judkins’ notion of ‘fluctuant representation’ with the later Pribram-Bohm composite holoflux.

David Patten

Thanks for the comment, Anne-Laure, and particular thanks for looking beyond the text.

The phrase ‘luminous one’ seems to be something Émile Zola said about the painter Édouard Manet in about 1863.

Not sure why Peter de Francia used the same phrase to describe Léger during his 1973 inaugural address (‘Mandarins and Luddites’) at the Royal College of Art, London. It is one of the many things I should have asked Peter when I became one of his students at the School of Painting a few years later, but certainly Zola’s comment on Manet could equally be applied to Léger:

“The note which he strikes in his pictures is a luminous one which fills his canvas with light. The rendering which he gives us is truthful and simplified, obtained by composing his pictures in large masses.”

Yes, like you, I also see Léger’s silence as “a kind of transformative embodied awareness.” There is also in Léger that ‘truthful and simplified’ luminous spaciousness that de Francia recycled from Zola’s text on Manet.

Of course, it is difficult now not to link the phrase ‘luminous one’ with Buddhism, and particularly (for me!) with the ‘Treasury of the Dharmadhatu’ by the 14th century Dzogchen master and poet Klong-chen rab-‘byams-pa (Longchenpa).

Perhaps how we experience painting can prompt Longchenpa’s chos nyid kyi rigs or ‘wisdom mind’ (dgongs pa). What from they wrote, this may have been what Carl Einstein and Emilie Fogelklou both experienced in front of Cubism, and it might be this which connects Winthrop Judkins’ notion of ‘fluctuant representation’ with the later Pribram-Bohm composite holoflux.

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