Bread and Wine

By Sallis, John | Philosophy Today, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Bread and Wine


Sallis, John, Philosophy Today


In entitling the following text, offered to memorialize my very dear friend Andre Schuwer, "Bread and Wine" is to be sounded and, I hope, heard in a broad range of registers. Though it is precisely the measure of this range that is at issue in the text, some indication needs to be given in advance so as to mark openly the memorial character of the text. At one extreme the register is that of a theoretical discourse, one in which the metaphysical-theological determination of the sacrament would be carried out or, as the case may be, disrupted and displaced. At the other extreme the register is that of the gift, the gesture of unlimited hospitality, in which, for instance, one freely offers bread and wine to another, in which one enjoys them, above all, with a friend. Beginning at least as a theoretical discourse on the sacrament, the text that I am about to read was the subject of one of the last conversations I had with Andre, and you will, I hope, hear in it -even if in my voice and as my responsibility-some of the concerns that he most cherished: his concern with the thought of Hegel, of Nietzsche, of Heidegger, and with the recoil of their thought on the possibility or impossibility of theological understanding; his concern with deconstruction and with all that comes into play in what has been called the end of metaphysics; his concern, above all, with the poetic work of Holderlin, with what that poetic work holds out to the future of thinking. It may be also-and it is my hope-that the way taken in this text redoubles an itinerary that Andre himself followed; but this I must leave to your judgment. As for the gift, the unlimited generosity of spirit with which, for instance, Andre infused festivity into even the simplest occasions of eating and drinking together-to this, in remembrance of this, my response can only be a free, heartfelt thankfulness sheltered by silence, withdrawn into reticence.

Bread and Wine

Bread and wine. One will readily call them signs of the sacred. One will also, perhaps as readily, grant the consequence of their sacramental status, the privilege it accords them: bread and wine would be the primary signs of the sacred, those things in which the very presence of the divine would be sheltered. In the consecrated bread and wine, God would be with the faithful who partake of the sacrament.

Two sets of questions come to disturb these assurances.

My sole concern will be with the measure of these disturbances, of their extent and of the force with which they set things (the things of sense) moving in another direction.

The first set of questions threatens to efface the concept of sign, putting its relevance here into question: if the divine is present in the sacrament, present in the very guise of the bread and wine, then the relation will be more intimate than that of a sign or signifier to its signified. This identity, the very presence of the divine in the sacrament, would appear to leave no space across which a sign could operate. Hence the first set of questions: In what sense, if any, can bread and wine be called signs of the sacred, granted the intimacy with which the divine would be. present in the sacramental bread and wine? Must this intimacy indeed be granted unlimited sway or does there open within it an interval where signification might operate? Could such an interval be regulated in such a way as to preserve the intimacy of the relation or would its opening eventually disrupt the relation, leaving bread and wine utterly apart from the divine that they were to have signified?

These questions can be most effectively addressed if the assurances that they come to disturb are themselves set into their most rigorous form. Such a setting or transposition is provided by Hegel's speculative thought: within the element of absolute-which is to say, absolutely rigorous-reflection, such thought would appropriate without remainder the essential content of religion, elevating that content to the level of the concept. …

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