Now haply thou wilt say: 'What is it that God does without images in the ground and essence?' That I am incapable of knowing, for my soul-powers can receive only images; they have to recognise and lay hold of each thing in its appropriate image: they cannot recognise a bird in the image of a man. Now since images all enter from without, this is concealed from my soul, which is most salutary for her. Not-knowing makes her wonder and leads her to eager pursuit, for she knows clearly that it is but knows not how nor what it is. No sooner does a man know the reason of a thing than immediately he tires of it and goes casting about for something new. Always clamouring to know, he is ever inconstant. The soul is constant only to this unknowing knowing which keeps her pursuing.Not every implicit mention of "presence" is the harbinger of a spit-flecked condemnation of phallogocentrism. In fact, the refusal of presence is older than we tend to assume. Pythagoras spoke in a symbolic way (the sea as the tear of Kronos; the planets as the dogs of Persephone), not because he wanted the symbol to be interpreted, but because the symbol itself formed the teaching--whence comes the obscurity of the original sources of Pythagorean prohibitions. Were beans banned because they were like genitals, or because they caused gas, or because they were used politically? The question is senseless, because the prohibition is its own justification--and the symbol is its own teaching.
The wise man said concerning this: 'In the middle of the night when all things were in quiet silence there was spoken to me a hidden word.' It came like a thief, by stealth. What doe he mean by a word that was hidden? The nature of a word is to reveal what is hidden. It appeared before me, shining out with intent to reveal and give me knowledge of God. Hence it is called a word. But what it was remained hidden from me. That was its stealthy coming 'in a whispering stillness to reveal itself.' It is just because it is hidden that one is and must be always after it. It appears and disappears: we are meant to yearn and sight for it.
- Meister Eckhart, Sermon I, "This Is Meister Eckhart From Whom God Nothing Hid"
We see Meister Eckhart appear in the already Aristotelianized fourteenth century as a representative of a much older tradition: he seems to owe much more to Anaximander than to Augustine. Especially in his sermons, Eckhart cannot speak of anything individual without instantly driving it back to its ground in God. This is why his disquisitions upon the virtues are self-contradictory: in one essay, for instance, he says that disinterest is the highest virtue, in another, that it is obedience. The virtues are only expressions, epiphenomena, of being-with-God. God is for Eckhart the ultimate apeiron:
Nature itself, the Ding an sich [this is in my 1941 translation; ??!!] has nothing to do with its adornments but rather it aims at nothing short of the likeness of God. I have been thinking tonight that each analogy is like an outer gate. I cannot see anything unless it bears some likeness to myself, nor can I know anything unless it is analogous to me. God has hidden all things in himself. They are not this and that, individually distinct, but, rather, they are one with unity ... If you want to discover nature's nakedness, you must destroy its symbols and the farther you go in, the nearer you come to its essence. When you come to the One that gathers all things up into himself, there your soul must stay.But wait. Did I not just invoke Eckhart as a sort of proto-post-metaphysician? How are we to reconcile the Eckhart that refuses to complete (and hence negate) the interpretation of the word with the Eckhart that exhorts us to destroy nature's symbols?
- Sermon XI, "Honor thy father"
Several approaches are possible. One is the Heideggerian one: an Eckhartian faith in God simultaneously recognizes that the only possible direction of thought runs through the Destruktion of accreted Beings towards the clearing of Being and that actual arrival at this clearing is impossible. That seems a satisfying solution; for Eckhart, after all, faith and disinterest are nothing if not eternally unfinished projects. But it leaves something unexplained. In his first sermon, Eckhart's interest in the uninterpretable word is not merely a negative one, as is Heidegger's interest in Beings. It seems to have some value for itself.
What Eckhart is in fact doing is formulating an extremely subtle approach to a problem that Heidegger refused to discuss in detail, as far as I know: the idea that to think or talk about Being is to make it present-at-hand as a Being, and hence something else entirely. In the second half of the first quoted paragraph, Eckhart acknowledges that human nature is to turn everything into Beings/images, consider the process complete, and then go looking for something else to colonize. How can we evade this problem, which must necessarily subject God to its vagaries as well, in the context of faith?
Eckhart's solution is more Derridean, we might say, than Heideggerian--but that doesn't get to the root of it. In essence, we are to arrest the process of interpretation at the word itself, which it is our task to strip of all "adornments." The result is not pure presence but rather pure representation, "this secret word and this darkness." The word of God in the human heart derives its power from the fact that it represents something, but also from the fact that the consummation of this representative act is voluntarily, and permanently, deferred. The handwriting on the wall must remain unread.