“Curiously, our letters turned out to be not a mere sum of (theoretically discrete) elements but a new Gestalt, with its own inner pulse, its own existential thickness, its own elusive, yet curiously concrete style which seems to pervade every message that we produce and exchange” (Sebastjan Vörös, 03.10.20). Gestalt is one of the concepts that Sebastjan Vörös uses frequently to describe various aspects of human life, including the form that our exchange has taken since August 2020.
Sebastjan Vörös is a professor of philosophy at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. His research interests span philosophy of science, epistemology, Buddhist philosophy, philosophy of mind, and phenomenology. He translated several articles and books from these fields to Slovene, including, among others, Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett, The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, and The Embodied Mind by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. In addition, he authored Podobe neupodobljivega (The Images of the Unimaginable), in which he addresses mystical experiences from neuroscientific, phenomenological, and epistemological perspectives to uncover new ways to study them. He recently started writing a second monograph on Francisco Varela’s life and work. As I was curious to find out more about the archival sources for this book project, I contacted Sebastjan. Soon after, he invited me to join an online event on synergies between Buddhist views and Western phenomenology. During the event, I gained an inkling of Merleau-Ponty’s use of the term Gestalt while noticing Sebastjan’s admiration for this philosopher.
The following interview is a co-edited collage based on our ensuing correspondence. Although it does not exhaustively convey the unique Gestalt of our dialogue, it seeks to use the idea of Gestalt to reflect upon some of its constituent parts, in particular the dynamically emergent unity of writing and life.
Mareike Smolka (MS): The notion Gestalt does not only recur frequently in your academic writing, but also helps you make sense of the craft of writing itself. Could you explain what Gestalt means in the context of writing?
Sebastjan Vörös (SV): Whenever you try to write something that is meaningful, something that actually matters, you are in a strange position. In your preliminary preparations, you collect fragments from different sources and you try to bring these heterogeneous bits and pieces together somehow. Superficially, it might seem like you are putting together pieces of a puzzle, but it is not really like that. Why not? Well, when you start putting the pieces together, you see that they don’t really fit, they’re not really as compatible as you thought they would be, and you get a faint hint of a whole that is manifesting itself through these parts, but is not contained in them. This is the reason, I think, why writing usually feels like a struggle. You initially had an idea of what you would like to achieve in writing, but when you actually try to put everything together, you see that there is a tension between what you have read, the scattered bits that you have accumulated, and the vaguely present shadow of meaning that you are trying to convey. This meaning is given on the horizon of what you are doing, in the cracks and crannies surrounding the accumulated pieces that you can’t seem to put together. It often takes a lot of effort to finally ‘grasp’ the outline of what is offering itself to you on the horizon: the new whole, the new meaningful structure. I have noticed that, once I break through some of the initial hindrances after several days of writing, the process becomes easier, because I attain a clearer view of the meaning I am trying to express. I see how what previously seemed like individual pieces are given as aspects of this new larger context of meaning. This is one way to understand the process of writing as the creation of a Gestalt. Merleau-Ponty borrowed the term from Gestalt psychology to denote a structured whole that can be neither reduced to its individual constituents nor can it be completely separated from them. In writing something meaningful, you create a Gestalt as an emergent unity in which whole and parts co-determine each other.
MS: Writing is often perceived as a struggle. What does the process of writing feel like for you?
SV: For me, the writing process can be quite painful, especially in its initial stages. I first go through a pretty long and tortuous preparatory phase where I organise and reorganise countless notes collected in my philosophy notebooks, personal reflections from my diaries, and various preliminary versions of the text, which later on, of course, get completely modified. I know that these are merely preliminary outlines, since once I get my hands dirty – once I actually get down to writing –, the structure and content of the text usually change significantly. In this early period, I can be, I’m almost ashamed to admit, quite cranky and unpleasant to be around. This is so, because a wiser part of me knows that it is high time to simply start writing, but for some reason, I keep postponing it, adding layer after layer of notes and outlines. There is an unpleasant lingering feeling, which sometimes results in my doubting whether there is any merit in what I am actually doing; everything appears as utter nonsense, and I ask myself why I even bother with any of this. Yet, luckily, there comes a time – usually after a week or two – when, all of a sudden, I simply start writing. A barrier has been broken, a new stage has begun. I feel alleviated, even if all I manage to produce in the first day is but a passage or two, and even if the text gets completely modified later on. It is this first move – this transition from non-writing to writing – that is really important for me. Afterwards, I usually get into the groove and I write every day. It is not a linear process, however. At the beginning, there is a feeling of elation, which lasts for a couple of days; during this period, things usually go very smoothly. However, at a certain point, especially when I get to the central part of the article, things get very, very messy. Often, a lot of strenuous work is required to get through that part. There are better and worse days, days when I feel that I am really onto something, and days when I feel that what I produce is of little or no value. This is the crucial period, the period of painful birth of the new meaning from the mute and stubborn fragments that are at my disposal. It’s an arduous process, full of unexpected halts and retracements. Yet, by simply persisting – even if this means struggling with a couple of sentences for several hours –, I manage to get out of the rut, in which I have found myself. I gain a clearer view of the new meaning and of how the fragments I try to bring together are like steps on a new, previously hidden path that I have finally discovered. This gets me into the groove, especially when I am nearing the end of the article, and see its Gestalt unfolding rapidly. When, during last revisions, I go through the whole paper, making minor corrections – changing a word here, deleting a sentence there –, a feeling of completion arises. This is a very powerful feeling, which is why I then usually tell myself that this is what I will be doing every day for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last, since once I move on to the next paper, the whole arduous process repeats itself.
MS: You once mentioned in our exchanges that Merleau-Ponty’s writing constructs a Gestalt that has drawn you towards reading his texts. Could you elaborate on the notion of Gestalt in this context?
SV: There is indeed another way of relating Gestalt to writing than the one I described earlier. Some of the truly influential writers, like Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, etc., give rise to their own characteristic Gestalt. They manage to find their own voice, a voice, whereby their style of thought and being organically transitions into their writing. This is something that, I think, cannot be formalised: one cannot develop a technique or a set of rules and strategies for finding and embodying one’s own unique voice. It takes a long time, and a lot of existential bumps and bruises, before a writer learns to speak with his/her own voice. For – what does that even mean, to speak with one’s own voice? One way of thinking about it is to see it as the ability to articulate, from one’s limited and contingent perspective, some generality that has, so far, only been implicitly present on the horizon of the time in which the writer lives. For instance, Merleau-Ponty opened up a nuanced and subtle way of thinking about some of the thorny issues that were plaguing Western thought for a really long time. They were always ‘there’, in a certain sense, in front of everybody’s noses, but it was hard to put one’s fingers on them, to bring them ‘out in the open’. In doing what he was doing, Merleau-Ponty was running up against the constraints of conceptual and theoretical frameworks of his time and, breaking through them, established a new tradition: a new way of looking at and thinking about things. This is why his writings, as is the case with most ground-breaking texts, often feel like staggering and stammering. It is tremendously difficult to articulate and bring forth a new Gestalt. For the process is neither a matter of discovery nor one of creation: the darn thing is neither there (to be discovered) nor simply conjured up (created out of thin air). Instead, it is a matter of finding new (semi-)stable ways of meaningfully engaging with the world, both natural and social. Some authors manage to pull it off, Merleau-Ponty being one of them (but there are many others, of course). And sometimes you get a glimmer of this transcendent aspect even before you cognitively grasp what the author is on about. For instance, I felt attracted to the style used in Phenomenology of Perception before I could even fully decipher its meaning. It was a strange type of attraction, mind you, for it often happened that I was utterly dismayed by some of the more obscure passages of the book. However, never being one to revel in obscurity for obscurity’s sake, I had a deep feeling that there is something important at work here. And, after five or six years of active engagement with Merleau-Ponty’s work, I have to say that I haven’t yet been proved wrong.
MS: You have done a fair bit of translation since the beginning of your academic career. How did you translate an author’s style from English to Slovene?
SV: One thing you learn very quickly when you start translating is that 1-to-1 translating (or more sophisticated versions of that) simply do(es) not work; means and modes of expression differ from one language to another, and the meaning of an expression is not the sum of words or even sentences, but is a subtle interrelation between parts and wholes. So, what is important, is to find a way to capture and express the significative style of language of the original text in the expressive modalities of the target language. It is by no means simple. It takes time and effort, it is never complete or perfect, but it is a hurdle that can be tackled. Translation can never be absolute because there is no ‘view from nowhere’, we always start from ‘somewhere’. Whenever you engage in translation, you – in a certain sense – carve a meta-position out of the material that is at hand (which also refers to modes of expression, etc.). This meta-position makes certain translations possible by reshaping the original symbolic system, and thus, strictu sensu, enacting a new Gestalt. Again, the problem is that once an author establishes a certain symbolic system in a text, this system functions as an organic whole, so it is impossible to simply take individual elements out of it and transpose them into your own system. However, what is possible is to – slowly, gradually, emphatically – enter into that other system, incorporate it into your affective-motivational-cognitive being, and then, instead of transposing individual elements, find ways to express a given significative whole – a given significative physiognomy or style – in one system in-and-through the means of your own system. This, of course, requires a lot of work, but it is possible.
MS: The authors whose work you translated and read articulate different problems. Which questions inspire your writing?
SV: One of the significant milestones in my life was coming in touch with Francisco Varela’s thinking about embodiment and enaction, and translating his co-authored work on The Embodied Mind. Varela’s work provided me with the first relatively coherent framework in which I could combine various approaches, traditions, disciplines, and modes of being that I found important on a personal and professional level (e.g., my interest in philosophy, science, and religion, especially Christianity and Buddhism). Prior to this, I had a profound existential crisis that lasted several years (and still rears its ugly head occasionally). I was in a very dark place at that point, suffering from severe bouts of anxiety and melancholy. I remember that one day, it was during what seemed like a particularly cold and dark winter, I took a long solitary walk through a nearby forest. Having entangled myself, as I often did back then, in a web of unproductive ruminations, which were sucking the life-energy out of me, I came across a bench covered in snow. I wiped the snow off the bench, sat down, and tried to focus my exhausted gaze on the tree that was in front of me. At that moment, my sole concern was to break through the whirlwind of thoughts and open myself to the presence of the tree, only to realise, frustratingly, that I couldn’t do it for more than two or three seconds! Although on the surface level this may seem like a trivial experience, it had a very profound impact on me. There I was, thinking I knew it all – about myself, world, and others – and yet I had no means to work with the existential currents that were sweeping through my lived experience. It was through this humbling experience that meditation (in the broad sense of the term) found its way into my life. This experience eventually gave birth to several important insights, which helped me shed off some deeply entrenched assumptions and adopt a more open, all-encompassing life-stance. When I eventually came across The Embodied Mind, which tries to combine cognitive science, phenomenology, and contemplative practice, I was struck by the concrete possibility of productively combining what was given to me experientially/existentially with what I had learned through studying science and philosophy. It is against this background that I write, and do, philosophy. I write about questions that I find important, and I find them important because they touch upon things that I feel are essential to human existence. Varela and Merleau-Ponty, for instance, are two thinkers who have provided me with useful ways of contemplating fundamental philosophical questions (there are many others, of course, ranging from Buddha and Plato, through Augustine and Pascal, to Canguilhem, Whitehead and Heidegger). Note that it is not so much about Merleau-Ponty, Varela, or any other author him-/herself; it is more about whether a certain author is able to open up ways of thinking, talking, and being that are genuinely valuable, that are both intellectually and existentially stimulating.
MS: Why do you think that I haven’t yet found an author who I feel really drawn towards, who would, in a sense, have as profound an impact on the way I think and see things as Varela or Merleau-Ponty have had on you?
SV: Perhaps, you will never find an author who opens up these questions for you in the way that, say, some of these authors have opened them up for me; not because you’d not be inquisitive, motivated, or capable enough, but simply because the realm of meaning may give itself to you differently – through your empirical research, for instance. But perhaps our exchanges could, even if ever so slightly, open up new horizons, modes of thinking, authors, approaches, and questions that could be fruitfully translated into our own work – not in the sense of these novel vistas being simply handed over, but in the sense of new, previously unarticulated Gestalten being actively developed in and through our ongoing discussions and their vertiginous dialectical twists and turns.
Mareike Smolka is a PhD candidate in Science & Technology Studies at Maastricht University (NL) and an affiliated researcher at the Institute for the History of Medicine and Science Studies in Lübeck (DE). Her current research is a multi-sited engaged ethnography on practices of responsibility in scientific research on mindfulness meditation.
Sebastjan Vörös is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana (SI). He is the head of the research group Metanoia, which explores collaborations between natural scientists, social scientists, and philosophers to overcome dualisms in contemporary Western thought. He also organises the online Ouroboros Seminars on Francisco Varela’s work.
About the series
Writing Life focuses on the craft of writing in the social studies of medicine. Amidst the current challenges to making texts, this series invites scholars in our field to take time to reflect, in conversation with each other, on how to navigate and nurture their craft.
Each post in Writing Life delves into the black boxes of writing life, many exploring the specificities of producing texts about the lives of those entangled in illness, care, pain, diagnosis, experiment, research, suffering, and recovery. The spirit of the contributions is collaborative – an exploration through dialogue. In crafting the posts, authors also explore a research practice central to our fields – interviewing – and the work and art of transcribing and editing other people’s words.