jean cocteau addresses the year 2000 (1962)

Compelling stuff.

Jean Cocteau began his career as a poet, publishing his first collection, Aladdin’s Lamp, at the age of 19. By 1963, at the age of 73, he had lived one of the richest artistic lives imaginable, transforming every genre he touched. Deciding to leave one last artefact to posterity, Cocteau sat down and recorded the film above, a message to the year 2000, intending it as a time capsule only to be opened in that year (though it was discovered, and viewed a few years earlier). Biographer James S. Williams describes the documentary testament as “Cocteau’s final gift to his fellow human beings.”

Portraying himself as “a living anachronism” in a “phantom-like state,” Cocteau, seated before his own artwork, quotes St. Augustine, makes parables of events in his life, and addresses, primarily, the youth of the future. The uses and misuses of technology comprise a central theme of his discourse: “I certainly hope that you have not become robots,” Cocteau says, “but on the contrary that you have become very humanized: that’s my hope.” The people of his time, he claims, “remain apprentice robots.”

Among Cocteau’s concerns is the dominance of an “architectural Esperanto, which remains our time’s great mistake.” By this phrase he means that “the same house is being built everywhere and no attention is paid to climate, atmospherical conditions or landscape.” Whether we take this as a literal statement or a metaphor for social engineering, or both, Cocteau sees the condition as one in which these monotonous repeating houses are “prisons which lock you up or barracks which fence you in.” The modern condition, as he frames it, is one “straddling contradictions” between humanity and machinery. Nonetheless, he is impressed with scientific advancement, a realm of “men who do extraordinary things.”

cocteau 1961And yet, “the real man of genius,” for Cocteau, is the poet, and he hopes for us that the genius of poetry “hasn’t become something like a shameful and contagious sickness against which you wish to be immunized.” He has very much more of interest to communicate, about his own time, and his hopes for ours. Cocteau recorded this transmission from the past in August of 1963. On October 11 of that same year, he died of a heart attack, supposedly shocked to death by news of his friend Edith Piaf’s death that same day in the same manner.

His final film, and final communication to a public yet to be born, accords with one of the great themes of his life’s work—“the tug of war between the old and the new and the paradoxical disparities that surface because of that tension.” Should we attend to his messages to our time, we may find that he anticipated many of our 21st century dilemmas between technology and humanity, and between history and myth. It’s interesting to imagine how we might describe our own age to a later generation, and, like Cocteau, what we might hope for them.

Via Open Culture.

simone weil – illusions

simone weil gravity and graceWe are drawn towards a thing because we believe it is good. We end by being chained to it because it has become necessary.

Things of the senses are real if they are considered as perceptible things, but unreal if considered as goods.

Appearance has the completeness of reality, but only as appearance. As anything other than appearance it is error.

Illusions about the things of this world do not concern their existence but their value. The image of the cave refers to values. We only possess shadowy imitations of good. It is also in relation to good that we are chained down like captives (attachment). We accept the false values which appear to us and when we think we are acting we are in reality motionless, for we are still confined in the same system of values.

Actions effectively carried out and yet imaginary. A man attempts suicide, recovers and is no more detached afterwards than he was before. His suicide was imaginary. Suicide is probably never anything else, and that is why it is forbidden.

Strictly speaking time does not exist (except within the limit of the present), yet we have to submit to it. Such is our condition. We are subject to that which does not exist. Whether it is a question of passively borne duration—physical pain, waiting, regret, remorse, fear—or of organized time—order, method, necessity—in both cases that to which we are subject does not exist. But our submission exists. We are really bound by unreal chains. Time which is unreal casts over all things including ourselves a veil of unreality.

The miser’s treasure is the shadow of an imitation of what is good. It is doubly unreal. For, to start with, a means to an end (such as money) is, in itself, something other than a good. But diverted from its function as a means and set up as an end, it is still further from being a good.

It is with regard to the assessment of values that our sense- perceptions are unreal, since things are unreal for us as values. But to attribute a false value to an object also takes reality from the perception of this object, because it submerges perception in imagination.

Thus perfect detachment alone enables us to see things in their naked reality, outside the fog of deceptive values. That is why ulcers and the dung-heap were necessary before Job could receive the revelation of the world’s beauty. For there is no detachment where there is no pain. And there is no pain endured without hatred or lying unless detachment is present also.

The soul which has poked its head out of heaven devours the being. The soul which has remained inside devours opinion.

Necessity is essentially a stranger to the imaginary.

What is real in perception and distinguishes it from dreams is not the sensations, but the necessity enshrined in these sensations.

‘Why these things and not others?’ ‘Because that is how it is.’ In the spiritual life illusion and truth are distinguished in the same way.

What is real in perception and distinguishes it from dreams is not sensations but necessity.
There is a distinction between those who remain inside the cave, shutting their eyes and imagining the journey, and those who really take it. In the spiritual realm also we have real and imaginary, and there also it is necessity which makes the difference—not simply suffering, because there are imaginary sufferings. As for inner feelings, nothing is more deceptive.

How can we distinguish the imaginary from the real in the spiritual realm?
We must prefer real hell to an imaginary paradise.

That which distinguishes higher states from lower ones is the coexistence in the higher states of several superposed planes.

Humility has as its object to eliminate that which is imaginary in spiritual progress. There is no harm in thinking ourselves far less advanced than we are: the effect of the light is in no way decreased thereby for its source is not in opinion. There is great harm in thinking ourselves more advanced, because then opinion has an effect.

A test of what is real is that it is hard and rough. Joys are found in it, not pleasure. What is pleasant belongs to dreams.

We must try to love without imagining—to love the appearance in its nakedness without interpretation. What we love then is truly God.

After having experienced the absolute good, we find the illusory and partial aspects of goods once more, but in a hierarchical order, so that we only allow ourselves to seek one such aspect within a limit where it does not interfere with the care due to another. This order is transcendent in relation to the aspects of goods which it connects together and it is a reflection of the absolute good.

Already discursive reason (the understanding of relationships) helps to break down idolatries by considering good and evil things as limited, merging, overlapping.

We must recognize the point at which good passes into evil: in so far as, to the extent that, having regard to, etc.

We must get further than the rule of three.

There is always a relationship to time to be taken into account. We must get rid of the illusion of possessing time. We must become incarnate.

Man has to perform an act of incarnation, for he is disembodied (désincarné) by his imagination. What comes to us from Satan is our imagination.

Cure for imaginary love. To give God the strict minimum in us, what it is absolutely impossible for us to refuse him—and desire that one day, and as soon as possible, this strict minimum may become all.

Transposition: we believe we are rising because while keeping the same base inclinations (for instance; the desire to triumph over others) we have given them a noble object.

We should, on the contrary, rise by attaching noble inclinations to lowly objects.

All the passions produce prodigies. A gambler is capable of watching and fasting almost like a saint, he has his premonitions, etc.

There is great danger in loving God as the gambler loves his game.

We must be careful about the level on which we place the infinite. If we place it on the level which is only suitable for the finite it will matter very little what name we give it.

The lower parts of my nature should love God, but not too much, for then it would not be God.
May their love be like hunger and thirst. Only the highest has the right to be satisfied.

Fear of God in Saint John of the Cross. Is this not the fear of thinking about God when we are unworthy; of sullying him by thinking about him wrongly? Through such fear the lower parts of our nature draw away from God.

The flesh is dangerous in so far as it refuses to love God, but also in so far as without fitting modesty it pushes itself forward to love him.

Why is the determination to fight against a prejudice a sure sign that one is full of it? Such a determination necessarily arises from an obsession. It constitutes an utterly sterile effort to get rid of it. In such a case the light of attention is the only thing which is effective, and it is not compatible with a polemical intention.

All the Freudian system is impregnated with the prejudice which it makes it its mission to fight—the prejudice that everything sexual is vile.

There is an essential difference between the mysticism which turns towards God the faculty of love and desire of which sexual energy constitutes the physiological foundation, and the false imitation of mysticism which, without changing the natural orientation of this faculty, gives it an imaginary object upon which it stamps the name of God as a label. To discriminate between these two operations, of which the second is still lower than debauchery, is difficult, but it is possible.

God and the supernatural are hidden and formless in the universe. It is well that they should be hidden and nameless in the soul. Otherwise there would be a risk of having something imaginary under the name of God (those who fed and clothed Christ did not know that it was Christ). This is the meaning of the ancient mysteries. Christianity (Catholic and Protestant) speaks too much about holy things.

Morality and literature. Imagination and fiction go to make up more than three-quarters of our real life. Rare indeed are the true contacts with good and evil.

A science which does not bring us nearer to God is worthless.
But if it brings us to him in the wrong way, that is to say if it brings us to an imaginary God, it is worse…

It is bad to think that I am the author of the operations which nature mechanically performs in me: it is still worse to think that the Holy Spirit is the author of them. That is still farther from the truth.

Different types of correlation and passage from one opposite to another:
Through total devotion to something great (including God), giving free licence to our lower nature.
Through contemplation of the infinite distance between the self and what is great, making of the self an instrument of greatness.

By what criterion can they be distinguished?
I think the only criterion is that bad correlation removes the limits from that which is rightly limited.

If we except the highest forms of sanctity and genius, that which gives the impression of being true in man is almost bound to be false, and that which is true is almost bound to give the impression of being false.

Work is needed to express what is true: also to receive what is true. We can express and receive what is false, or at least what is superficial, without any work.

When truth appears at least as true as falsehood it is a triumph of sanctity or of genius. Thus Saint Francis made his audience cry just like a cheap theatrical preacher would have done.

Duration, whether of centuries in the case of civilizations or of years and decades for individuals, has the Darwinian function of eliminating the unfit. That which is fitted for all things is eternal. In this alone lies the value of what we call experience. But falsehood is an armour by means of which man often enables what is unfit in him to survive events which, were it not for such armour, would destroy it (thus pride manages to survive humiliations), and this armour is as it were secreted by what is unfit in order to ward off the danger (in humiliation, pride makes thicker the inner falsehood which covers it). There is as it were a phagocytosis in the soul: everything which is threatened by time secretes falsehood in order not to die, and in proportion to the danger it is in of dying. That is why there is not any love of truth without an unconditional acceptance of death. The cross of Christ is the only gateway to knowledge.

I should look upon every sin I have committed as a favour of God. It is a favour that the essential imperfection which is hidden in my depths should have been to some extent made clear to me on a certain day, at a certain time, in certain circumstances. I wish and implore that my imperfection may be wholly revealed to me in so far as human thought is capable of grasping it. Not in order that it may be cured but, even if it should not be cured, in order that I may know the truth.

Everything that is worthless shuns the light. Here on earth we can hide ourselves beneath the flesh. At death we can do this no longer. We are given up naked to the light. That means hell, purgatory or paradise as the case may be.

That which makes us hold back from the effort which would bring us nearer to what is good is the repugnance of the flesh, but it is not the flesh’s repugnance in the face of effort. It is the flesh’s repugnance in the face of what is good, because for a bad cause, if there were a strong enough incentive, the flesh would consent to anything, knowing it could do so without dying. Death itself, endured for a bad cause, is not really death for the carnal part of the soul. What is mortal for the carnal part of the soul is to see God face to face.

That is why we fly from the inner void since God might steal into it.

It is not the pursuit of pleasure and the aversion for effort which causes sin, but fear of God. We know that we cannot see him face to face without dying and we do not want to die. We know that sin preserves us very effectively from seeing him face to face: pleasure and pain merely provide us with the slight indispensable impetus towards sin, and above all the pretext or alibi which is still more indispensable. In the same way as pretexts are necessary for unjust wars, a promise of some false good is necessary for sin, because we cannot endure the thought that we are going in the direction of evil. It is not the flesh which keeps us away from God; the flesh is the veil we place before us to shield us from him.

This is perhaps not the case until after a certain point has been reached. The image of the cave seems to suggest as much. At first it is movement which hurts. When we reach the opening it is the light. It not only blinds but wounds us. Our eyes turn away from it.

May it not be true that from that moment onwards mortal sins are the only kind we can any longer commit?

To use the flesh to hide ourselves from the light—is not that a mortal sin? A horrible idea.
Leprosy is preferable.

I need God to take me by force, because, if death, doing away with the shield of the flesh, were to put me face to face with him, I should run away.
Excerpted from Simone Weil‘s Gravity and Grace. First French edition 1947. Translated by Emma Crawford. English language edition 1963. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

anne carson – every exit is an entrance (2005)

anne carsonI want to make a praise of sleep. Not as a practitioner—I admit I have never been what is called “a good sleeper” and perhaps we can return later to that curious concept—but as a reader. There is so much sleep to read, there are so many ways to read it. In Aristotle’s view, sleep requires a “daimonic but not a divine” kind of reading. Kant refers to sleep’s content as “involuntary poetry in a healthy state.”

Keats wrote a “Sonnet to Sleep,” invoking its powers against the analytic of the day:

O soft embalmer of the still midnight!
. . . Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes;
Save me from curious conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed casket of my soul.

My intention in this essay is to burrow like a mole in different ways of reading sleep, different kinds of readers of sleep, both those who are saved, healthy, daimonic, good sleepers and those who are not. Keats ascribes to sleep an embalming action. This means two things: that sleep does soothe and perfume our nights; that sleep can belie the stench of death inborn in us. Both actions are salvific in Keats’ view. Both deserve (I think) to be praised.

My earliest memory is of a dream. It was in the house where we lived when I was three or four years of age. I dreamed I was asleep in the house in an upper room.

That I awoke and came downstairs and stood in the living room. The lights were on in the living room, although it was hushed and empty. The usual dark green sofa and chairs stood along the usual pale green walls. It was the same old living room as ever, I knew it well, nothing was out of place. And yet it was utterly, certainly, different. Inside its usual appearance the living room was as changed as if it had gone mad.

Later in life, when I was learning to reckon with my father, who was afflicted with and eventually died of dementia, this dream recovered itself to me, I think because it seemed to bespeak the situation of looking at a well-known face, whose appearance is exactly as it should be in every feature and detail, except that it is also, somehow, deeply and glowingly, strange.

The dream of the green living room was my first experience of such strangeness and I find it as uncanny today as I did when I was three. But there was no concept of madness or dementia available to me at that time. So, as far as I can recall, I explained the dream to myself by saying that I had caught the living room sleeping. I had entered it from the sleep side.And it took me years to recognize, or even to frame a question about, why I found this entrance into strangeness so
supremely consoling. For despite the spookiness, inexplicability and later tragic reference of the green living room, it was and remains for me a consolation to think of it lying there, sunk in its greenness, breathing its own order, answerable to no one, apparently penetrable everywhere and yet so perfectly disguised in all the propaganda of its own waking life as to become in a true sense something incognito at the heart of our sleeping house.

It is in these terms that I wish to praise sleep, as a glimpse of something incognito. Both words are important. Incognito means “unrecognized, hidden, unknown.”

Something means not nothing. What is incognito hides from us because it has something worth hiding, or so we judge. As an example of this judgment I shall cite for you two stanzas of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Man-Moth.” The Man- Moth, she says, is a creature who lives most of the time underground but pays occasional visits to the surface of the earth, where he attempts to scale the faces of the buildings and reach the moon, for he understands the moon to be a hole at the top of the sky through which he may escape. Failing to attain the moon each time he falls back and returns to the pale subways of his underground existence.

Here is the poem’s third stanza:

Up the façades,
his shadow dragging like a photographer’s cloth behind him,
he climbs fearfully, thinking that this time he will manage
to push his small head through that round clean opening
and be forced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the light.
(Man, standing below him, has no such illusions).
But what the Man-Moth fears most he must do, although
he fails, of course, and falls back scared but quite unhurt.

The Man-Moth is not sleeping, nor is he a dream, but he may represent sleep itself—an action of sleep, sliding up the facades of the world at night on his weird quest. He harbours a secret content, valuable content, which is difficult to extract even if you catch him.

Here is the poem’s final stanza:

If you catch him,
hold up a flashlight to his eye. It’s all dark pupil,
an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens
as he stares back, and closes up the eye. Then from the lids
one tear, his only possession, like the bee’s sting, slips.
Slyly he palms it, and if you’re not paying attention
he’ll swallow it. However, if you watch, he’ll hand it over,
cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.

To drink the tear of sleep, to detach the prefix “un-” from its canniness and from its underground purposes, has been the project of many technologies and therapies—from the ancient temple of Asklepios at Epidauros, where sick people slept the night in order to dream their own cure, to the psychoanalytic algebras of Jacques Lacan, who understands sleep as a space from which the sleeper can travel in two directions, both of them a kind of waking.

If I were to praise either of these methods of healing I would do so on grounds of their hopefulness. Both Asklepiadic priests and Lacanian analysts posit a continuity between the realms of waking and sleeping, whereby a bit of something incognito may cross over from night to day and change the life of the sleeper. Here is an ancient account of one of the sleep cures at Epidauros:

There came as a suppliant to the god Asklepios a man who was so one eyed that on the left he had only lids, there was nothing, just emptiness. People in the temple laughed at him for thinking he would see with an eye that was not there. But in a vision that appeared to him as he slept, the god seemed to boil some medicine and, drawing apart the lids, poured it in. When day came the man went out, seeing with both eyes.

What could be more hopeful than this story of an empty eye filled with seeing as it sleeps? An analyst of the Lacanian sort might say that the one-eyed man has chosen to travel all the way in the direction of his dream and so awakes to a reality more real than the waking world. He dove into the nothingness of his eye and is awakened by too much light. Lacan would praise sleep as a blindness, which nonetheless looks back at us.

What does sleep see when it looks back at us? This is a question entertained by Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse, a novel that falls asleep for twenty-five pages in the middle. The story has three
parts. Parts I and III concern the planning and execution of a trip to the lighthouse by the Ramsay family.

Part II is told entirely from the sleep side. It is called “Time Passes.” It begins as a night that grows into many nights then turns into seasons and years. During this time, changes flow over the house of the story and penetrate the lives of the characters while they sleep. These changes are glimpsed
as if from underneath; Virginia Woolf ’s main narrative is a catalogue of silent bedrooms, motionless chests of drawers, apples left on the dining room table, the wind prying at a window blind, moonlight gliding on floorboards. Down across these phenomena come facts from the waking world, like swimmers stroking by on a night lake. The facts are brief, drastic and enclosed in square brackets.

For example:

[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]
[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.]
[Mr. Carmichael brought out a volume of poems that spring, which had an unexpected success. The war, people said, had revived their interest in poetry.]

These square brackets convey surprising information about the Ramsays and their friends, yet they float past the narrative like the muffled shock of a sound heard while sleeping. No one wakes up. Night plunges on, absorbed in its own events. There is no exchange between night and its captives, no tampering with eyelids, no drinking the tear of sleep. Viewed from the sleep side, an empty eye socket is just a fact about a person, not a wish to be fulfilled, not a therapeutic challenge. Virginia Woolf offers us, through sleep, a glimpse of a kind of emptiness that interests her. It is the emptiness of things before we make use of them, a glimpse of reality prior to its efficacy.

Some of her characters also search for this glimpse while they are awake. Lily Briscoe, who is a painter in To the Lighthouse, stands before her canvas and ponders how “to get hold of that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it has been made anything.”

In a famous passage of her diaries, Virginia Woolf agrees with the aspiration:

If I could catch the feeling I would: the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world.

What would the singing of the real world sound like? What would the thing itself look like? Such questions are entertained by her character Bernard, at the end of The Waves:

“So now, taking upon me the mystery of things, I could go like a spy without leaving this place, without stirring from my chair. . . . The birds sing in chorus; the house is whitened; the sleeper stretches; gradually all is astir. Light floods the room and drives shadow beyond shadow to where they hang in folds inscrutable. What does this central shadow hold? Something? Nothing? I do not know. . . .”

Throughout her fiction Virginia Woolf likes to finger the border between nothing and something. Sleepers are ideal agents of this work.

Read the rest of this brilliant essay: Every Exit is an Entrance from Anne Carson’s Decreation (2005).