Respect for the unique, the incomparability of each instance of suffering, is one of the reasons why I would describe these posts as presentations, rather than essays or stories. These presentations aim to bring Laura and her words here and now as you read, and to present the other writers and artists who help reach here and now.
Referring back to my “playing” with words, I understand that the etymology of a word does not determine its current meaning or use. I do find, however, that etymology helps to bring me into the fullness of the “sound … color … stress … pause … scent … and … flavor” of the words. Etymologies help me sense words in all their aspects. Or, to put these sentences in more active terms: when I connect the way people used to speak with the way people speak today, I am seeking to sense today more fully by listening to yesterday. And looking, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting yesterday in today, as well.
When my high school Latin teacher took attendance, each student would reply to his name (all-boys school), Adsum. I am here.
Presence is not here. The word comes from prae-ens, to be before, in front of. Even that seemingly most static of philosophical terms, being, ens, is a gerund in both English and Latin, from the verb, the activity, to be, esse..
Here is here. Here is not before. To be here is to do. To present is to make.
We use nouns to bring what’s in front of us into our conversation, as well as what’s more distant. In this case we say “pay attention” instead of “attending.” There is no such thing as attention. We do attend.
When we talk about what’s in front of us, i.e., what we are doing when we “front.” We seek something that’s right in front of us, that’s going on right in front of us, and to which we don’t pay attention in the ways we talk and think, beginning with talking about something in front of us. There is no-thing in front of us. There is no-thing we perceive. We are changing (doing, making, thinking, talking) and we see as we do.
Be careful about “in front of” me. “In front of” implies a surface and something under the surface. I’m not going “under” any more than I’m going “before.” It’s just that we aren’t paying attention to what we are doing and making into “in front of us.”
Talking about something that’s going on in front of us implies a dualism, something other than what we are doing. All we “know” is “what we are doing.”
It is somewhat self-contradictory to use the noun “presentation” to refer to what I am doing here. We present. Others present. We talk about presenting. At all times we are making; others are making. These “presentations” provide physical stimuli as you read them, but these stimuli are not me, nor the people or the ideas that I am writing about. You are reading and making. As you read this, I was and they were—writing and making.
Some writers use the noun “presence” to refer to what I would describe as the activity of presenting. They focus on the “presence” of works of art. While their distinction between meaning and presence is implicit in some of my comments above, I will strive to talk about activities rather than states of being. When we focus on concrete activities and avoid getting caught up in academic abstractions, the distinction between presenting and meaning becomes less and less. One reason I quoted Virginia Woolf on smelling and tasting words is that I think she is touching on broader aspects of presenting/meaning than Hans Gumbrecht, who emphasizes presence as a spatial relation. Space (a noun, I know) is just one of the dimensions in which presenting interacts with meaning. “Meaning” is another gerund form of a verb. “To mean” is to do and to make. As Robert Kegan describes so well our evolution from “object-grasping” infants to meaning-making adults:
Meaning is, in its origins, a physical activity (grasping, seeing), a social activity (it requires another), a survival activity (in doing it, we live). Meaning, understood this way, is the primary human motion, irreducible. It cannot be divorced from the body, from social experience, or from the very survival of the organism. Meaning depends on someone who recognizes you. Not meaning, by definition, is utterly lonely. Well-fed, warm, and free of disease, you may still perish if you cannot ‘mean.’ (18-19)
Laura wasted away and usually felt cold during her terminal illness, but she suffered most from the loss of her ability to mean, to herself and she feared, to others.