Quantity and the Politics of Prayer

A mere accumulation of data . . . eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution.
—Pope Francis[1]

Hydrate the Ontology.

My insurance changed not long ago. I rely on expensive medication to, well, stay alive. Not long after my secondary coverage took over, I received a very official notice by very official mail that my authorization for that drug had been denied. I prayed half a “damn them,” but did not think much of it as my new primary insurance would kick in soon. Days later, I got a call while at the liquor store: “Just kidding. The medication is now approved. That will be $4,500 every two weeks.” That did not sound too good to me. “Don’t worry,” the cheery, flat voice said, “If you go online, you can print a coupon to make it cost $5!” Joy to the world; joy to me. I printed the card, and now the pharmaceutical company has been calling me every day—whether to get me to praise their beneficence or just to give me the ins and outs of the program (all of which I have read on the website, thanks), I do not know.

I do not mean to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I cannot shake the so-Kafkaesque-it-exceeds-Kafkaesque ridiculousness of the situation. I, a dataset—of history, risks, revenue, etc.—had been transferred from one organization’s database to another’s. I prayed that my life might be sustained. At first, I was found wanting. Pitiable, I only half cursed the database’s name. And so, my prayer was answered; they would re-crunched the numbers, and I was in. Only it would cost x units of currency, where x is more than what I can afford. But do not worry: a program exists to make x less than what I can afford. I am allowed this grace, but only if I submit to further data collection or intake (not that I am complaining).

Perhaps most absurd of all is how bureaucracy invites prayers. When we hand in a form, we may as well kiss the envelope or email and hope it gets to the right person in the right department at the right organization. Better luck next time if not. It is not that the little balding man behind in his little beige cubicle stands in for God any more than the woman in thick-framed green glasses in HR does. They are his hands, and his name is the Process. He needs us, as broken down into quanta of information in just the right order to be put on just the right altar in just the right way. Still, we need the prayer, the whispered wish that indeed the correct this and correct that will come to pass, that our unfortunate situation will end, that we will not need to file these forms again. Always, always there is a “You,” whether directed to the balding “you” or the green bespectacled “you,” it endures. The “You” abides. Prayer abides.

Narrating Excess

Sometimes I take your little automatic out of my bag, run my thumb down smooth, cheap chrome. Chinese .22, its bore no wider than the dilated pupils of your vanished eyes.
—William Gibson[3]

‘Let him alone,’ Father Crompton said. ‘Let the poor man rave.’
—Graham Greene[4]

Prayer’s refusal to go away inheres as much in literature as it does in our lives. When we write about ourselves or imagine versions of humanity's past, present, or future, we bring along this obsession with address. To get at this point, I would like to look at two exceedingly different pieces: Graham Greene’s 1951 novel The End of the Affair and William Gibson’s 1984 short story “New Rose Hotel.” The former is an avowedly Catholic novel about a love affair during the Blitz. The latter is a cyberpunk short story set in a shipping container hotel in future Tokyo.[5]

Greene’s novel follows Maurice Bendrix, a self-assured, jealous novelist who decides to sleep with his neighbor Henry’s wife, Sarah, because he is writing a book featuring a civil servant and Henry is just such a person. This affair quickly gets out of control as the two fall for each other. Sarah’s love, however, is never quite enough for Bendrix. Since she has cheated on Henry before (and is doing so again with him), he never trusts her and drives her away. As the book begins, Bendrix uses Henry’s novel fear that Sarah might be cheating to hire a London gumshoe to see if she really has moved on. He hates Henry for his stupidity and hates Sarah for not seeing him anymore. He will know the truth even if it blows his life apart.

Bendrix secures Sarah’s diary (“secures” here, of course, meaning “steals”). What he learns shocks him. Sarah, as it turns out, is far less fickle than he has imagined, and her love for the novelist is, in fact, the cause of their separation. What is worse, she has begun to feel pulled to a belief in God that a technically minded bureaucrat like Henry and a modern auteur like Bendrix find distasteful if not outright disgusting. Such is small-minded lunacy. Her discomfort, her suffering, have led her away from herself and toward both her lover and her Lover (if you will).

Narratively, this takes the form of a second-person address throughout the dairy section of a novel otherwise written in the first person. At first, she mimes prayers, damning prayers, execrations from the past:

When I was at school I learnt about a King—one of the Henrys, the one who had Becket murdered—and he swore when he saw his birthplace burnt by his enemies that because God had done that to him, “because You have robbed me of the town I love most, the place where I was born and bred, I will rob You of that which You love most in me.” Odd how I’ve remembered that prayer after sixteen years. A King swore it on his horse seven hundred years ago, and I pray it now, in a hotel room at Bigwell-on-Sea—Bigwell Regis. I’m going to rob you, God, of what you love most in me. I’ve never known the Lord’s Prayer by heart, but I remember that one—is it a prayer? Of what you love most in me.[6]

Only moments later, Sarah cannot help but turn the King’s curse of hatred for God into a reflection on her hatred for herself. “When he looks at me, does he see something I can’t see? It must be lovely if he is able to love it. That’s asking me to believe too much, that there’s anything lovely in me.”[7] She believes that she is no more than “a bitch and a fake,”[8] undeserving of any real love. Sarah admits she knows how to gain the admiration of men, that she (much like a young Augustine) understands material devotion or affection but has only befuddlement for whatever invisible good a God could love. Even in this confusion, however, the discourse is a prayer. She slips right back into the second person: “But what are you supposed to love then in the bitch and the fake? Where do you find that immortal soul they talked about? Where do you see this lovely thing in me—in me, of all people? . . . Tell me that, God, and I’ll set about robbing you of it for ever.”[9]

This ineluctable set of “yous” returns throughout. Sarah’s last correspondence with Bendrix, for example, is in the form of a letter. It begins with much the same sense of enlightened self-condemnation and self-transcendence, though the addressee has changed: “Maurice, dear, don’t be angry. Be sorry for me, but don’t be angry. I’m a phoney and a fake, but this isn’t phoney or fake.”[10] This “Maurice” quickly shades once more into the name of the divine. She’s not exactly shy about it. Among her last words are: “I pray to God.”[11]

Bendrix remains obstinate in his disbelief-turned-hatred for God. The loss of Sarah leaves him bitter. A strange thing happens, however. The more disaffected he becomes, the more “yous” begin to crop up in his sections of the book. The problem, you see, is that life goes on after tragedy and suffering. There is nothing real in an ending from the subject’s point of view: “If I were writing a novel I would end it here: a novel, I used to think, has to end somewhere, but I’m beginning to believe my realism has been at fault all these years, for nothing in life now ever seems to end.”[12]

With pain, with the unbearable intractability of life after abasement, comes the need for prayer. Not to God, of course. But to Sarah, to the one whom he knows he loves. So, when he first tries to be with a woman after Sarah’s gone, someone he knows he can only hurt by his callous indifference and (in his own mind) winning charms, he prays: “I implored Sarah, Get me out of this, get me out of it, for her sake, not mine.”[13] His pain has, unexpectedly, made him self-less, placed a half-gasped prayer upon his lips. Indeed, this weariness dogged by Sarah and her god stays with him to the very end. His narration parts with a final defeated cry: “I found the one prayer that seemed to serve the winter mood: O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone forever.”[14] You, you, you.

Gibson’s story is entirely recollection and thus entirely prayer. His dystopian future, his unnamed protagonist, has no need of God. But again, there is a god, or better yet, a goddess: Sandii, the speaker’s lover. As his monologue proceeds, we learn that he and his partner, Fox, used her in a corporate defection scheme. She was to beguile a scientist into switching from one corporation, Maas, to a zaibatsu, Hosaka. In the process of “training” her, he falls in love, overlooks her constantly changing stories about her background, absorbed by her beauty, her skills. Sandii betrays him, gets Fox killed, and, having disappeared, leaves the protagonist to crawl into an old stack of shipping containers turned hotel rooms somewhere in Tokyo, where he caresses her cheap old gun, remembers their journey, and pleads with the absent Sandii for her love. He waits for Hosaka to find him and put it all to an end.

As Bendrix puts it, “Prostitutes have a great respect for sentiment.”[15] Our speaker is most certainly that—a hired gun who has pimped out the woman he loves only to cower before her betrayal. He sifts through the lives she offers him and lovingly selects what most comforts him: “In New Rose, tonight, I choose from your deck of pasts.”[16] In truth, his sadness is assuaged by the fact that there are so many to choose from, that she offered him so much in so little time. Even as he rubs death (her gun, Fox’s demise, his own) and remembers suffering and failure, he cannot help but ask for Sandii’s help. He leaves us, perhaps leaves the world, with a forgiving plea: “I just can’t hate you, baby . . . . It’s all right, baby. Only please come here. Hold my hand.”[17]

Again, this “you,” implied here but just as present, is unmovable. Again, this abasement leads not to silence but to a vox, some need to say something, get it out there to some other, some other one hates or loves (if the two can truly be separated). The two texts differ in their prayers, sure. Greene’s tarries with the negative, sits in this afflicted state, lashes out at Sarah and God, loves both inescapably but hates them both for being alternately present and absent. Gibson’s speaker negates that suffering by remembering the good times, by praying that Sandii, even if only for a moment, might come back, might be what and who she was. She may never have been real, surely more a fake than Greene’s Sarah, and yet, this man wants nothing more than the feeling that oozed from her con, the comfort of her soft caress.

But these differences are minor. In both cases, suffering gives rise to prayer. In both, prayer is not so much a request as a crescendo of addresses, a need to speak to another that grows and builds and grows until it bursts forth, whether the speaker wants to pray or not. This need is not relative to time or place. The subject, no matter how well-contained, seeks a “you” when the pressure builds enough.

Exceeding Suffering

Quantum is indifferent determinateness, that is, one that transcends itself, negates itself; as this otherness of otherness, it lapses into infinite progress. Infinite quantum, however, is sublated indifferent determinateness: it is the restoration of quality.

There is a limit beyond which we find affliction and not before.
—Simone Weil[19]

We must tread carefully here. I do not believe that suffering always causes enlightenment. Bullying does not magically make the bullied person stronger. In no way is prayer the inevitable consequence of all suffering. I do, however, contend that pain can grow to the point of what Simone Weil calls “affliction.” Whether in the lead-up to or the aftermath of affliction, prayer becomes a necessity, a gasp before destruction or transcendence. The need to love, to connect, to address some pain, some state of neediness to someone cannot be escaped.

What, then, is “affliction?” For Weil, it represents the sort of psychological, corporal, and social suffering that leads us to a stunned, silent abasement: “Those to whom one of these blows has happened—after which they struggle on the ground like a half-crushed worm—have no words to express what has happened to them.”[20] It is pain beyond pain, the point at which we either find ourselves so destroyed that we pour out into others or crumble beneath the unbearable weight of the world’s inhumanity. Alexander Nava has put the possible responses better than I can: “The differences between these two forms of suffering lead, then, to either decreation or destruction. In the case of decreation, suffering is the path to the loss of the self and the discovery of another agent deep within the self—God. In the case of destruction, the self is lost without any such breakthrough.”[21]

Prayer anticipates and then enacts this (either achieved or hoped-for) decreation; it addresses some other in the destruction of the self. If one is destroyed by suffering, one has still prayed, has still whispered in hope or debasement. No one can guarantee an answer (as for Gibson’s protagonist), and even to receive a response often means a kind of worldly destruction, a true decreation (as for Greene’s Sarah). Even Jesus offers prayers from the Cross. This “you” emerges from the condition of suffering; it indicates hope, never mind if through hatred, rage, or self-pity.

But then is there a moment where cries and whispers become prayers? It is here (do not worry!) that Hegel is useful. His exploration of the relationships among the categories quantity and quality are notoriously difficult.[22] We need not worry about the more granular details here. For our purposes, what matters is that Hegel posits that we can deduce the notion of quantity from that of quality (the opposite of how it is usually conceived). By approaching the topic in this way, he contends that we can re-derive the notion of quality from that of quantity. The upshot is that, from a conceptual perspective, when the quantity of something grows enough it can become qualitatively distinct from its previous form. Eventually, we gain so much weight that we go from overweight to obese. At some indeterminate point of acquisition and structural capture, medieval burghers stopped being primitive accumulation specialists and became capitalists.

Prayer works in much the same way. It is the excess of our suffering as put into words. Our cries go from mere words to prayers when the need for address, for the comfort of the other, becomes so acute that we cannot but speak in and from abjection. It relates us to something or someone outside ourselves. Prayer is the vocalized excess of our suffering, that which remains from the silence of self-contained horror.

In this sense, prayer is a qualitatively human endeavor. From within us there emerges an always possible need to be heard, to be not just one, but one in union with another such one, one with whom we share something but are not identical; we wish to be seen, to be heard, to be known by some person or power that is not us. We can isolate this or that pain. We can quantify each and every word spoken in response to these. But, at some point, there is affliction, at some point prayer. Or, to go with Hegel: “Quantity, in its truth, is instead the externality which has returned into itself, which is no longer indifferent. Thus is quantity quality itself, in such a way that outside this determination quality as such would yet not be anything at all.”[23]

Prayers is that which exceeds. It can be broken into discrete prayers, yet stands above as a qualitative prayer, that which cannot be disunited from itself, as opposed to the merely measured (beyond quantitative ideas of a Henry or the zaibatsus). It is the qualitative exception to the quantitatively driven world of today, that which cannot be reduced without ceasing to be itself.

Qualifying Politics

Because truly, when people think that they are acquiring God more in inwardness, in devotion, in sweetness and in various approaches than they do by the fireside or in the stable, you are acting just as if you took God and muffled his head up in a cloak and pushed him under a bench.
–Meister Eckhart[24]

I could go on and on about the failings of Shakespeare and the constitution and Stradivarius violins, and at the bottom of this post I do*, but really I shouldn’t need to: the Bayesian priors are pretty damning.
–Samuel Bankman-Fried[25]

A warning: prayer, as an address, cannot be mere quietism. It cannot be “apolitical.” In a narrow sense, it connects us to one who is loved, the other who is addressed. More broadly, prayer teaches us to pour ourselves out beyond ourselves, to love more and to sit with the suffering of others, to seek justice and redress for these sufferings. It refuses to allow agony to continue; it cries for its end and acts accordingly. As Simone Weil wrote of philosophy, so of prayer: it “is exclusively an affair of action and practice.”[26]

We arrive, then, back at insurance, at the collecting, organizing, and trading of data. I cannot help but feel that what Byung-Chul Han has called our “burnout society” is a result of inhuman quantification, a foolish attempt to divorce qualitative conceptualization and measurement. Our selves are splintered into data, points on charts. And our personalities become discrete collections of nouns, brands used to sell ourselves on data-driven web platforms. That is, until we burn out, until we pray. The return of the human, the excess—our hope in irreducibility.

Many years ago, when I first received my diagnosis, I was only a teenager. I sat night after night in agony I had no words for. Surgeries and medication changed that. Surgeries and medication followed prayer. Prayer followed suffering. Human, all too human. I pray that in the hope of prayer we may foster and nurture humanity and justice again.

[1] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, §s33.

[3] William Gibson, “New Rose Hotel,” Burning Chrome (New York: Arbor House, 1986) 60–70, 60.

[4] Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (London: Heinemann, 1951), 157.

[5] It seems worth noting here that Gibson’s short story was adapted into a 1998 film of the same name by Abel Ferrara, the director behind 2022’s Padre Pio. In another bit of “coincidence,” the original cover art for Gibson’s most famous novel, Neuromancer, was done by James Warhola, Andy Warhol’s nephew (Warhol, of course, was a Byzantine Catholic).

[6] Greene, 90.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 91.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 133.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 145.

[14] Ibid., 176­–177.

[15] Ibid., 157.

[16] Gibson, 64.

[17] Ibid., 70.

[18] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. George Di Giovanni (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), par. 21.173–174. p. 152.

19 Simone Weil, Awaiting God: A New Translation of Attente de Dieu and Lettre a un Religieux, “The Love of God and Affliction,” trans. Bradley Jersak with Adit Gamble and Anny Ruch (Abbotsford, CA: Fresh Wind, 2012), 32.

[20] Ibid., 33.

[21] Alexander Nava, The Mystical and Prophetic Thought of Simone Weil and Gustavo Gutiérrez: Reflections on the Mystery and Hiddenness of God (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 30.

[22] The best explication of Hegel’s thinking on the topic is Stephen Houlgate, “Hegel on the Category of Quantity,” Hegel Bulletin 35.1 (2014): 16–32.

[23] Hegel, par. 21.320, p. 279.

[24] Quoted in Nava, 27.

[25] Samuel Bankman-Fried, “The Fetishization of the Old.” This blog post from 2012 can be found here.

[26] Quoted in Nava, 20; emphasis Weil’s.

Featured Image: Marian Zarembski, The Sower (Angelus), 1880; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Chase Padusniak

Chase Padusniak is a PhD candidate in Princeton University's Department of English, where he specializes in medieval literature. In addition to his academic pursuits, Chase spends time working on creative projects such as films, poetry, and cultivating negativity.

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