Chapter 1 of The God Who May Be addresses the concept of persona primarily in light of the act of transfiguration.
Figure of the Other – Persona
Kearney begins by defining persona as “that eschatological aura of ‘possibility’ which eludes but informs a person’s actual presence here and now.” (10) Okay, time to break this definition down. First, what might be helpful is to consider what Kearney says after this: “I use it here as another word for the otherness of the other…” (10). Kearney appears to be using eschatological as another word term for transcendence. Next, Kearney describes persona as “all that in others exceeds my searching gaze, safeguarding their inimitable and unique singularity.” (8) Persona transcends our consciousness and refuses to be limited by our consciousness “here and now” and also by our imagination. Language cannot speak of the persona literally, so figurative speech must be employed, using imagination (metaphor) and interpretation (narrative).
Levinas also uses the term persona and calls it la trace d’autrui (literally, the trace of others); Derrida uses alterity or otherness.
Kearney writes that when we meet the Other, e.g. a Stranger, we “configure” them in our minds; we “shape or put together” the Other into something or some idea. In other words, when we meet someone we are seeing them, paradoxically, as transcendent and immanent; “both incarnate in flesh and transcendent in time” (10). This is the idea of persona. The human person is flesh, body, while at the same time being soul, having an identity.
What happens when we meet someone is that we are faced with the reality of them being before us, but at the same time being elsewhere (in the sense that they are not literally, 100% right in front of us. There is a part of the person that is still not present in some fashion). Humans are not just bodies. Persona it would seem flies in the face of any sort of naturalism that sees the human body as full contained in and of itself. Human beings are animated by something more, something transcendent.
When we meet the Other, we may be tempted, Kearney suggests, to reduce them to being understandable. We assume that we can fully comprehend this person that stands before us: “What you see is what you get” and nothing more and nothing less (10).
For if it is true to say that we do somehow ‘see’ the persona in the face of the person, we never get it. It always exceeds the limits of our capturing gaze. It transcends us. (11)
The flip side of all of this is to make the Other so vastly different from us that we “mistake the other’s persona for an idol” (11). I suppose here Kearney is cautioning us against divinizing the human being as a god of some sort. Then the Other becomes no longer present, but just a shadow of some other reality. Kearney uses the example of the pop culture cult in which “Madonna replaces the Madonna [the Virgin Mary].”
In short, we disregard others not just by ignoring their transcendence but equally by ignoring their flesh-and-blood thereness. (11)
The middle ground between the two extremes of encounter the Other allows us to acknowledge that this person stands before me as a physical being who has veins, a heart, a brain, eyes, hands, feet, ears, etc. but that the whole reality of this person cannot be captured in just acknowledging these natural faculties. There is something more.
Persona as Eschaton
For Kearney, eschaton does not mean a determinable end, a clear goal to be achieved at some predetermined time, or the ‘End Times.’ Eschaton, instead, is “an end without end.” So the an eschatological persona is one that acknowledges the “irreducible finality of the other as eschaton.” That is, the Other is an end in and of themself, but they are not the end. Paradox. The Other cannot be made less than an end. Perhaps then, an Other cannot be a means to an end, for they are endless ends in themselves.
What happens when we encounter the eschatological persona is that we are made powerless in their presence because we cannot grasp them fully, we cannot hold them in the palm of our hand, we cannot figure them all out, we cannot comprehend them. Nous ne pouvons plus pouvoir: “we can no longer be able” (Levinas). But we are not left without the possibility of being able to do something. It is precisely the Other who “re-enables” us who says “Even though you are powerless, I believe you can do this.” (12) The Other has so many possibilities in its future, but we cannot know these or have power over these. The Other’s possibility, their “may-be” cannot be made into “my set of possibilities or powers: my ‘can-be.'” (12) We cannot make the Other’s possibilities our actualities.
Otherness is not our possession. If we posses and hang onto an Other’s persona, that is, their essence, then they are just illusions that we have created because we cannot grasp their reality, their essence, their what-ness.
The Persona and Place
Persona takes the place of no-place; but it does not itself take place. Yet it does give place to the person and without it the person could not take its place. It is the non-presence that allows presence to happen in the here and now as a human person appearing to me in flesh and blood. (13)
Persona is uncontainable yet it still makes possible the bodily presence of a person. Persona is abstract but at the same time concretely realized in the skin and bones of human beings. The Other in the here and now, concrete, fleshly, physical, before our eyes, is inseparable from the transcendent reality of persona and vice versa.
The persona is there to remind us that there is always something more to flesh and blood than flesh and blood. (13)
Kearney exemplifies all of these points in the context of a romantic human relationship:
Time and again, lovers seek to appropriate each other’s persona as if it could be magically conjured in its present-at-hand thereness…; they fall for the lure of fusion, that is, for the illusion that some ecstasy or addiction might make us one with the other. But it cannot. The other will never be me, nor even like me. Whence the shock, for example, of a spouse reading his partner’s private diary and discovering he never really knew the person (i.e., persona) he lived with for so many years. Whence also the post-coital tristesse [sadness] that derives from the awareness that no amount of intimacy can ever grasp the other. We do grasp something of course–the other person, in their delectable giveness–but not the other’s persona. (13-14)
One’s persona is their own unique, singular, reality that differentiates themselves from every other human being in the world. While we may all share common characteristics, on biological, psychological, and other levels, our persona is unrepeatable. The human body is the place in which the persona is made flesh. Incarnated.