Richard Ford On ‘Secular Redemption’

In his review of Richard Ford’Let Me Be Frank With You: A Frank Bascombe Book (Ecco, 2014) Michael Dirda quotes Ford as saying:

For me what we are charged to do as human beings is to make our lives and the lives of others liveable, as important, as charged as we possibly can. And so what I’d call secular redemption aims to make us, through the agency of affection, intimacy, closeness, complicity, feel like our time spent on earth is not wasted.

The end of a year–another one that rapidly accelerated, nay, hurtled, to its closing–is as good time as any to think about how the creation of value is supposed to make our brief span of existence ‘meaningful’ and thus not ‘wasted.’ (I suspect the sin of ‘wasting time’ was invented after timepieces were, but that reflection is for another, er, time.) The first part of what Ford supposes human beings are ‘charged’ with is familiar: ‘make our lives and the lives of others as liveable[sic], as important, as charged as we possibly can.’ (These values  raise familiar puzzles about their grounding and meaning.) The second part is more interesting.

Here, Ford invokes first, the agencies of ‘affection, intimacy, closeness’ and closes with ‘complicity.’ The first three are explicitly related to the ethics of love that are sometimes derived from the world’s great religious traditions. They suggest that our time on this planet is best spent loving and being loved; from those acts will follow all else. (If we are loved, we will be safe; if we feel safe, we will be not fearful or anxious; we will trust more and be more trustworthy; thus we will be less prone to hatred and distraction, ours, and that of others. And so on.) ‘Complicity’ has a slightly different flavor: we must collaborate. With others like us. On our life’s ‘projects’ and on theirs. Now, ‘complicit’ is usually used to indicate membership in a criminal conspiracy of some sort. What does its use here indicate?

I would venture that very often our life’s projects are ‘illegal’ in some sense or the other. They are not sanctioned; not approved; not permissible–custom, order, procedure, convention, norm, historical precedence must be violated. But we press on; we feel we can do no other. To do so we require collaborators; and the best place to find them is among those for whom we feel and experience and express the ‘affection, intimacy, closeness’ (and presumably trust) that Ford speaks of.

So the notion of secular redemption does two things here: it invokes a unavoidably groundless ethic of love (asking us perhaps to look at our most instinctual reactions of caring and wanting care), and then, in a more existential sense, as it commits us to projects uniquely and particularly of our own making, it also bids us ensure that we remember we cannot accomplish them alone. The only human essence here is one of love; all else remains to be determined. We make ourselves but with others.

Note: I have no idea what Richard Ford thinks ‘secular redemption’ means.

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