Jonathan Lear on Learning from Linguistic Example on the Playground
“It is not that there are no answers; it is rather that the answers never close the book on the questions.”
In the autumn of fourth grade, when I was ten years old, I swore on the playground. Although I vividly remember what followed, I cannot directly remember what I said. The class was at recess in late morning, it was a gray day, and I am pretty confident I said, “Goddammit.” This is where my memory clicks in. A classmate overheard me, was upset, and ran over to tell the teacher. Mr. McMahon turned around, and he started walking toward me. He was wearing a trench coat, belted in the middle. His hair was in a crew cut, common among men at that time. He might have been a police detective in a television show. He came over, looked me in the eyes, and said in a low, calm voice: “We do not use profane language on the playground.” He then turned around and walked away. That was it.
I have been thinking of this moment, on and off, ever since, and it has come back to me now as I try to think about confidence in the kalon. I would like to take a close look at the exemplarity of Mr. McMahon and ask what it consists in. Mr. McMahon’s direct communication (as Kierkegaard would put it) was that I was not supposed to swear, and I certainly got that message. But I am here concerned not so much with his direct teaching as with what he exemplified (what Kierkegaard would call his indirect communication). I shall isolate and discuss five moments: the enigmatic nugget internal to understanding, generosity of interpretation, nonretaliation, the persuasive power of reality, and protecting the playground.Retribution in the name of justice rarely restores harmony.
First, the enigmatic nugget. I had never heard the word “profane” before. I knew that he was telling me not to use bad words on the playground. I knew he was going to tell me that before he opened his mouth. But in the midst of his utterance, he enclosed an enigmatic nugget: What was he telling me not to do? What is a profane word? Something important was being said, it was being said to me, and I did not know what it was, even though in some sense I did. One might think I could solve the problem of what “profane” meant by looking it up in the dictionary. I tried that. But that turned out to be the beginning not the end of my inquiry. This inquiry has moved in two directions. First, what did Mr. McMahon mean when he used that word?
Second, what does profane mean anyway? These questions have become lifetime companions. It is not that there are no answers; it is rather that the answers never close the book on the questions. Profane is one side of a fundamental division, with sacred on the other side. Of course, the original home of this division is religious. But even within a secular context, one can glimpse, however obscurely, an important divide: over there, on the other side is something special and good, while the profane is that which gets in the way and even spoils. But however clear one gets on this division and its cultural history, there is always an enigmatic sense that there is more to learn.
This shows us something important about the exemplar–recipient dyad. Mr. McMahon was a real figure who, decades ago, made an impression on me. At some point, he left the playground and went on to live his own life, and I left fourth grade to live mine. Still, in some sense, he also took up residence in my imagination. Not only can I call him to mind, but “he” can come alive in my mind, as it were, of “his” own accord. He then continues to exert an exemplary influence. And the continuing activity of the exemplar is due, at least in part, to what I have been calling the “enigmatic nugget.” His utterance of the word “profane” became an intriguing grain of sand inside my imagination.
In recent years, I have imagined Mr. McMahon in that moment after he spoke to me, when he turned around to go back to where he had been. What was he thinking? Perhaps nothing. Or that it will be lunch time soon. But I have also imagined him smiling to himself, indiscernible to the outside world, and thinking, “I’ve given that little fellow something to think about for the rest of his life.”
I shall treat the next two features of local exemplars, generosity of interpretation and nonretaliation, together. If I had simply received a standard punishment, I suspect I would have forgotten about this moment long ago. But not only was Mr. McMahon using this strange word “profane,” it was in a context in which I was not going to get punished. That was surprising enough. But even more so, it was as though punishment was not what this encounter was about at all. But then, what was it about? Socrates famously said that philosophy begins in wonder. This for me was a wondrous moment. Mr. McMahon saw me as someone for whom this “simple” statement was sufficient—this was his interpretive generosity.It is through this repetition that nonretaliation has become established in me as an ego ideal.
But the generosity was uncannily apt. As Kierkegaard pointed out, Adam could not have understood what God was telling him not to do because he had not yet eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam did not act because he was sinful; it was in the act that he sinned. I had heard the expression “Goddammit” circulating around my house, in the background, as my mother and father argued.
So, I was in an Adam-like position. I had an intuition that this expression was used to express negative feelings, but I did not know what it meant. What I had was a possibility: a possibility for imitating my parents. But I did not understand what I had said until after I had committed the act. So, not only did I not understand what “profane” meant, I did not understand what I had said to provoke it. Nevertheless, I had done it. How does a teacher respond to this childish mixture of innocence and guilt?
I think this was a moment of creativity. Our drama did not have to play out according to a fixed pattern. Mr. McMahon saw me as a person I had not yet become: a person who needed no more than those words he spoke. And in his saying, I took up that possibility. I think this is the nub of my gratitude: not just that I did not get punished or humiliated—that would have provoked relief—but that there was something both comprehending and gracious in Mr. McMahon’s attitude
As for nonretaliation, it has become a life lesson: retribution in the name of justice rarely restores harmony. Nonretaliation is a centrally important trait both in a teacher and in a psychoanalyst. But in terms of understanding the role of an exemplar, there are two points.
First, I do not think I could have learned the lesson via direct communication, by someone telling me that retaliation is bad. It had to be via exemplification: I needed to be on the receiving end. Second, the “power of the exemplar” lies not so much in the exemplar per se but in a dyad that stretches over space and time that includes the exemplar and the person who was on the “receiving end” of the exemplifying experience. The dyad instantiates a structure of repetition that I shall elucidate.
On my side of the dyad, time and again, I am called back to nonretaliation as a way to be—and it has the structure of repetition I outlined in Chapter 2: the return of the good again—only this time perhaps better! It is through this repetition that nonretaliation has become established in me as an ego ideal. Not quite me: nonretaliation is not effortless at my core. But me in the sense that nonretaliation is established as an ideal, project and task. This life task, set up in repetition, remains somehow tied to the exemplar. I want to claim not only that I am strengthened by this structure of repetition, but also that the persuasive power of reality is enlivened. I shall try to make clear what I mean.
Excerpted from Imagining the End: Mourning and Ethical Life by Jonathan Lear. Copyright © 2022. Available from Harvard University Press.