I have been thinking about Gerard Manley Hopkins’ idea of inscape in relation to John Paul II’s theology of intersubjectivity. Hopkins believed that everything had a particular essence, an “inscape,” which expressed the spark of divine genius which had brought that particular thing into being and which caused it to speak itself as a gift to the world.
AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
John Paul II speaks of intersubjectivity as an essential property of the human race. He argues that it is only through relationships with other people that we come to understand and even to be ourselves as truly human beings. Our subjectivities are called into being not merely at the moment of conception but throughout the course of a life lived in communion with others. This notion of human personhood transcends the fear, expressed by men such as Sartre, that ultimately we are self-contained and unable to escape the burdens of our own freedom and our own subjectivity.
These ideas would seem to be at odds. In Hopkins’ account the self comes to speak itself and to image Christ in the speaking. Each individual has a being indoors, a name that it speaks, a doing which it is and a purpose for which it came. John Paul II’s self always exists in relation to others, its inscape is not determined merely by an essential identity that is inscribed on it in the beginning but by a constantly shifting series of interactions with other selves. These two axes of being can, and certainly often are, perceived at being at odds with one another. The demands of corporate and communal identities often seem to contradict the demands of interior authenticity. To those whose identities are primarily centered in the interior self those who allow themselves to be openly shaped by social forces often come across as shallow and fickle. On the contrary, to the extrovert the introvert may seem narcissistic and uncaring.
It would seem that there has to be a third option. Human beings must have inscape. Indeed, we are called to the highest possible degree of authenticity. We alone of all creatures are given the task of becoming ourselves: the kingfisher is made to catch fire and catch fire it does by nature, without effort. The dragonfly draws flame in the same way. The bell tolls thus because it was in the mind of the bellmaker that it would so toll. The human person, though, is given identity as a task which must be completed through the act of living that identity. The human inscape involves both allowing the being indoors to speak its name, and also nurturing the being indoors so that it has a self to spell.
This is where the notion of intersubjectivity is able to make its way into contact with the notion of authenticity. We are called to be in relationship. Part of our inscape is the ability to interact with the inscapes of others, to mutually imprint our own particular variation of the imago dei onto the personalities of those we love. Out of this there arises a sort of broadening of the self, an infolding of persons which is an image of the communion of saints. A human unity is slowly being formed out of the web of interactions and relationships between persons. When a particular individual is sung into being by the Creator in a particular place, time and culture their very self is already in the process of being arranged into a melody of pre-existing persons. Identity thus emerges as a kind of harmony between the interior self and the self-among-others.
There is, however, something more, a mysterious thing which I think any given person only experiences once or twice in this lifetime. When two souls come into sufficiently close contact, when there is a sufficient interpenetration of subjectivities, a kind of magic happens. A third unique type of personality emerges. The conception of a child is a physical realization of this but I think that it happens also on the spiritual plane. The relationship between two people becomes a kind of third being, something that is more than just the two added together. An interscape emerges which has the capacity to be every bit as broad, as complex and as personal as the inscape of the individual. The type of friendship which Aristotle speaks of when he describes a friend as “one soul in two bodies” is the closest earthly realization of this reality.
This would seem to be a foretaste of what is meant by the communion of saints. We often think of the creation as being completed at the moment of the Last Judgement, but I think that the capacity of new persons to emerge from human unions is just too essential to our nature for it to ever truly pass away. It must be rather that the earthly form of producing selves through sexual union is just an image of a kind of creative and productive communio personarum which will be perfected in heaven. It therefore seems possible to me that in our heavenly communion what will emerge will be an infinitely recursive formation of interscapes, selves joining into a new type of intersubjective self which then rejoins again with others until the whole humanum cries in a crescendo of love “What we do is we, for that we came.”
Melinda Selmys is a Catholic writer, blogger, and speaker. She is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism and she blogs at Sexual Authenticity. Melinda can be followed on Twitter: @melindaselmys.
Excellent essay. Indeed, that is why the monastic movement began in the 3rd century, to realize this communion in the Eschaton, although now in this present life. The communion of souls then seems to be something that begins and has a reality in this life that continues and is brought into full fruition in the Eschaton with the judgment and completion of the Kingdom. In any case, that’s one of the beauties of monasticism is that this is a realization that can truly happen in such a context.