italo calvino – the distance of the moon (1965)

‘Like many a critical humanist before him, from Michel de Montaigne to Jonathan Swift, Calvino seems to wonder if our best intellectual efforts, even the sciences, fall subject to “the foibles and fancies of humans,” and to the askew narrative logic of folklore.’  I found this wonderful thing via Open Culture. I had to go and find the story on which the animation is based, and when I did, I had to share it with you, at new moon.

The Distance of the Moon

At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth. Then the tides gradually pushed her far away: the tides that the Moon herself causes in the Earth’s waters, where the Earth slowly loses energy.

How well I know! — old Qfwfq cried,– the rest of you can’t remember, but I can. We had her on top of us all the time, that enormous Moon: when she was full — nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light — it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind; and when she was waxing, she came forward with her horns so low she seemed about to stick into the peak of a promontory and get caught there. But the whole business of the Moon’s phases worked in a different way then: because the distances from the Sun were different, and the orbits, and the angle of something or other, I forget what; as for eclipses, with Earth and Moon stuck together the way they were, why, we had eclipses every minute: naturally, those two big monsters managed to put each other in the shade constantly, first one, then the other.

Orbit? Oh, elliptical, of course: for a while it would huddle against us and then it would take flight for a while. The tides, when the Moon swung closer, rose so high nobody could hold them back. There were nights when the Moon was full and very, very low, and the tide was so high that the Moon missed a ducking in the sea by a hair’s breadth; well, let’s say a few yards anyway. Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.

The spot where the Moon was lowest, as she went by, was off the Zinc Cliffs. We used to go out with those little rowboats they had in those days, round and flat, made of cork. They held quite a few of us: me, Captain Vhd Vhd, his wife, my deaf cousin, and sometimes little Xlthlx — she was twelve or so at that time. On those nights the water was very calm, so silvery it looked like mercury, and the fish in it, violet-colored, unable to resist the Moon’s attraction, rose to the surface, all of them, and so did the octopuses and the saffron medusas. There was always a flight of tiny creatures — little crabs, squid, and even some weeds, light and filmy, and coral plants — that broke from the sea and ended up on the Moon, hanging down from that lime-white ceiling, or else they stayed in midair, a phosphorescent swarm we had to drive off, waving banana leaves at them.

This is how we did the job: in the boat we had a ladder: one of us held it, another climbed to the top, and a third, at the oars, rowed until we were right under the Moon; that’s why there had to be so many of us (I only mentioned the main ones). The man at the top of the ladder, as the boat approached the Moon, would become scared and start shouting: “Stop! Stop! I’m going to bang my head!” That was the impression you had, seeing her on top of you, immense, and all rough with sharp spikes and jagged, saw-tooth edges. It may be different now, but then the Moon, or rather the bottom, the underbelly of the Moon, the part that passed closest to the Earth and almost scraped it, was covered with a crust of sharp scales. It had come to resemble the belly of a fish, and the smell too, as I recall, if not downright fishy, was faintly similar, like smoked salmon.

In reality, from the top of the ladder, standing erect on the last rung, you could just touch the Moon if you held your arms up. We had taken the measurements carefully (we didn’t yet suspect that she was moving away from us); the only thing you had to be very careful about was where you put your hands. I always chose a scale that seemed fast (we climbed up in groups of five or six at a time), then I would cling first with one hand, then with both, and immediately I would feel ladder and boat drifting away from below me, and the motion of the Moon would tear me from the Earth’s attraction. Yes, the Moon was so strong that she pulled you up; you realized this the moment you passed from one to the other: you had to swing up abruptly, with a kind of somersault, grabbing the scales, throwing your legs over your head, until your feet were on the Moon’s surface. Seen from the Earth, you looked as if you were hanging there with your head down, but for you, it was the normal position, and the only odd thing was that when you raised your eyes you saw the sea above you, glistening, with the boat and the others upside down, hanging like a bunch of grapes from the vine.

My cousin, the Deaf One, showed a special talent for making those leaps. His clumsy hands, as soon as they touched the lunar surface (he was always the first to jump up from the ladder), suddenly became deft and sensitive. They found immediately the spot where he could hoist himself up; in fact just the pressure of his palms seemed enough to make him stick to the satellite’s crust. Once I even thought I saw the Moon come toward him, as he held out his hands.

He was just as dextrous in coming back down to Earth, an operation still more difficult. For us, it consisted in jumping, as high as we could, our arms upraised (seen from the Moon, that is, because seen from the Earth it looked more like a dive, or like swimming downwards, arms at our sides), like jumping up from the Earth in other words, only now we were without the ladder, because there was nothing to prop it against on the Moon. But instead of jumping with his arms out, my cousin bent toward the Moon’s surface, his head down as if for a somersault, then made a leap, pushing with his hands. From the boat we watched him, erect in the air as if he were supporting the Moon’s enormous ball and were tossing it, striking it with his palms; then, when his legs came within reach, we managed to grab his ankles and pull him down on board.

Now, you will ask me what in the world we went up on the Moon for; I’ll explain it to you. We went to collect the milk, with a big spoon and a bucket. Moon-milk was very thick, like a kind of cream cheese. It formed in the crevices between one scale and the next, through the fermentation of various bodies and substances of terrestrial origin which had flown up from the prairies and forests and lakes, as the Moon sailed over them. It was composed chiefly of vegetal juices, tadpoles, bitumen, lentils, honey, starch crystals, sturgeon eggs, molds, pollens, gelatinous matter, worms, resins, pepper, mineral salts, combustion residue. You had only to dip the spoon under the scales that covered the Moon’s scabby terrain, and you brought it out filled with that precious muck. Not in the pure state, obviously; there was a lot of refuse. In the fermentation (which took place as the Moon passed over the expanses of hot air above the deserts) not all the bodies melted; some remained stuck in it: fingernails and cartilage, bolts, sea horses, nuts and peduncles, shards of crockery, fishhooks, at times even a comb. So this paste, after it was collected, had to be refined, filtered. But that wasn’t the difficulty: the hard part was transporting it down to the Earth. This is how we did it: we hurled each spoonful into the air with both hands, using the spoon as a catapult. The cheese flew, and if we had thrown it hard enough, it stuck to the ceiling, I mean the surface of the sea. Once there, it floated, and it was easy enough to pull it into the boat. In this operation, too, my deaf cousin displayed a special gift; he had strength and a good aim; with a single, sharp throw, he could send the cheese straight into a bucket we held up to him from the boat. As for me, I occasionally misfired; the contents of the spoon would fail to overcome the Moon’s attraction and they would fall back into my eye.

I still haven’t told you everything, about the things my cousin was good at. That job of extracting lunar milk from the Moon’s scales was child’s play to him: instead of the spoon, at times he had only to thrust his bare hand under the scales, or even one finger. He didn’t proceed in any orderly way, but went to isolated places, jumping from one to the other, as if he were playing tricks on the Moon, surprising her, or perhaps tickling her. And wherever he put his hand, the milk spurted out as if from a nanny goat’s teats. So the rest of us had only to follow him and collect with our spoons the substance that he was pressing out, first here, then there, but always as if by chance, since the Deaf One’s movements seemed to have no clear, practical sense.

There were places, for example, that he touched merely for the fun of touching them: gaps between two scales, naked and tender folds of lunar flesh. At times my cousin pressed not only his fingers but — in a carefully gauged leap — his big toe (he climbed onto the Moon barefoot) and this seemed to be the height of amusement for him, if we could judge by the chirping sounds that came from his throat as he went on leaping. The soil of the Moon was not uniformly scaly, but revealed irregular bare patches of pale, slippery clay.

These soft areas inspired the Deaf One to turn somersaults or to fly almost like a bird, as if he wanted to impress his whole body into the Moon’s pulp. As he ventured farther in this way, we lost sight of him at one point. On the Moon there were vast areas we had never had any reason or curiosity to explore, and that was where my cousin vanished; I had suspected that all those somersaults and nudges he indulged in before our eyes were only a preparation, a prelude to something secret meant to take place in the hidden zones.

We fell into a special mood on those nights off the Zinc Cliffs: gay, but with a touch of suspense, as if inside our skulls, instead of the brain, we felt a fish, floating, attracted by the Moon. And so we navigated, playing and singing. The Captain’s wife played the harp; she had very long arms, silvery as eels on those nights, and armpits as dark and mysterious as sea urchins; and the sound of the harp was sweet and piercing, so sweet and piercing it was almost unbearable, and we were forced to let out long cries, not so much to accompany the music as to protect our hearing from it. Continue reading

kathy acker – from “my mother: demonology” (1994)

But the desire you have for me cuts off my breath – These blind eyes see you, and no one else – My blind eyes see how desire is contorting your mouth – They see your mad eyes-
To see.  I must see your face, which is enough for me, and now I don’t need anything else.
None of this is realizable.
As soon as I knew this, I agreed that we had to meet in person.
But at the moment we met, all was over.  At that moment, I no longer felt anything.  I became calm.  (I who’ve been searching so hard for calmness.)
I can’t be calm, simple, for more than a moment when I’m with you. Because of want. Because your eyes are holes.  In want, everything is always being risked; being is being overturned and ends up on the other side.
It’s me who’s let me play with fire: whatever is ‘I’ are the remnants.  I’ve never considered any results before those results happened.

At this moment if I could only roll myself under your feet, I would, and the whole world would see what I am…,
Do you see how easy it is for me to ask to be regarded as low and dirty?  To ask to be spat upon?  This isn’t… The sluttishness… But the language of a woman who thinks: it’s a role.  I’ve always thought for myself.  I’m a woman who’s alone, outside the accepted.  Outside the Law, which is language.  This is the only role that allows me to be intelligent as I am and to avoid persecution.

But now I’m not thinking for myself, because my life is disintegrating right under me. My inability to bear that lie is what’s giving me strength.  Even when I believed in meaning, when I felt defined by opposition between desire and the search for self-knowledge and self-reclamation was tearing me apart, even back then I knew that I was only lying, that I was lying superbly, disgustingly, triumphally.

Life doesn’t exist inside language: too bad for me.

Excerpted from Kathy Acker’s My Mother: Demonology, A Novel (pp 252-3). (1994)

acker - my mother: demonology

Based loosely on the relationship between Colette Peignot and Georges Bataille, My Mother: Demonology is the powerful story of a woman’s struggle with the contradictory impulses for love and solitude. At the dawn of her adult life, Laure becomes involved in a passionate and all-consuming love affair with her companion, B. But this ultimately leaves her dissatisfied, as she acknowledges her need to establish an identity independent of her relationship with him.

Yearning to better understand herself, Laure embarks on a journey of self-discovery, an odyssey that takes her into the territory of her past, into memories and fantasies of childhood, into wildness and witchcraft, into a world where the power of dreams can transcend the legacies of the past and confront the dilemmas of the present.

With a poet’s attention to the power of language and a keen sense of the dislocation that can occur when the narrative encompasses violence and pornography, as well as the traumas of childhood memory, Kathy Acker here takes another major step toward establishing her vision of a new literary aesthetic.

“Memories do not obey the law of linear time,” reads one of the many aphorisms in this novel, and it seems a key point of departure for Acker’s unconventional exploration of memory and its manifestations in dreams. Here, a woman tries to come to terms with her vulnerability and with the excess mental baggage conferred by time. But that simple narrative is just one of the many important levels in the work, which also contains vast psychological wallpaper. Visceral, unflinching, wildly experimental with shifting contexts and settings, this is written in the “punk” style for which Acker (In Memoriam to Identity , LJ 7/90) is well known. Forget categories, though. Her formidably talented hand gives the cacophonous materials compelling poetic rhythm and balance.

simone weil – metaxu

simone weil gravity and graceAll created things refuse to be for me as ends. Such is God’s extreme mercy towards me. And that very thing is what constitutes evil. Evil is the form which God’s mercy takes in this world.

This world is the closed door. It is a barrier. And at the same time it is the way through.

Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but it is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.

By putting all our desire for good into a thing we make that thing a condition of our existence. But we do not on that account make of it a good. Merely to exist is not enough for us.

The essence of created things is to be intermediaries. They are intermediaries leading from one to the other and there is no end to this. They are intermediaries leading to God. We have to experience them as such.

The bridges of the Greeks. We have inherited them but we do not know how to use them. We thought they were intended to have houses built upon them. We have erected skyscrapers on them to which we ceaselessly add storeys. We no longer know that they are bridges, things made so that we may pass along them, and that by passing along them we go towards God.

Only he who loves God with a supernatural love can look upon means simply as means.

Power (and money, power’s master key) is means at its purest. For that very reason, it is the supreme end for all those who have not understood.

This world, the realm of necessity, offers us absolutely nothing except means. Our will is for ever sent from one means to another like a billiard ball.

All our desires are contradictory, like the desire for food. I want the person I love to love me. If, however, he is totally devoted to me, he does not exist any longer, and I cease to love him. And as long as he is not totally devoted to me he does not love me enough. Hunger and repletion.

Desire is evil and illusory, yet without desire we should not seek for that which is truly absolute, truly boundless. We have to have experienced it. Misery of those beings from whom fatigue takes away that supplementary energy which is the source of desire.
Misery also of those who are blinded by desire. We have to fix our desire to the axis of the poles.

What is it a sacrilege to destroy? Not that which is base, for that is of no importance. Not that which is high, for, even should we want to, we cannot touch that. The metaxu. The metaxu form the region of good and evil.

No human being should be deprived of his metaxu, that is to say of those relative and mixed blessings (home, country, traditions, culture, etc.) which warm and nourish the soul and without which, short of sainthood, a human life is not possible.

The true earthly blessings are metaxu. We can respect those of others only in so far as we regard those we ourselves possess as metaxu. This implies that we are already making our way towards the point where it is possible to do without them. For example, if we are to respect foreign countries, we must make of our own country, not an idol, but a stepping-stone towards God.

All the faculties being freely exercised without becoming mixed, starting from a single, unique principle. It is the microcosm, the imitation of the world. Christ according to Saint Thomas. The just man of the Republic. When Plato speaks of specialization he speaks of the specialization of man’s faculties and not of the specialization of men; the same applies to hierarchy. The temporal having no meaning except by and for the spiritual, but not being mixed with the spiritual—leading to it by nostalgia, by reaching beyond itself. It is the temporal seen as a bridge, a metaxu. It is the Greek and Provençal vocation.

Civilization of the Greeks. No adoration of force. The temporal was only a bridge. Among the states of the soul they did not seek intensity but purity.

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.

simone weil – attention and will

simone weil gravity and graceWe do not have to understand new things, but by dint of patience, effort and method to come to understand with our whole self the truths which are evident.

Stages of belief. The most commonplace truth when it floods the whole soul, is like a revelation.

We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.

The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles, and these movements are associated with the idea of the change of position of nearby objects. I can will to put my hand flat on the table. If inner purity, inspiration or truth of thought were necessarily associated with attitudes of this kind, they might be the object of will. As this is not the case, we can only beg for them. To beg for them is to believe that we have a Father in heaven. Or should we cease to desire them? What could be worse? Inner supplication is the only reasonable way, for it avoids stiffening muscles which have nothing to do with the matter. What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem? Attention is something quite different.

Pride is a tightening up of this kind. There is a lack of grace (we can give the word its double meaning here) in the proud man. It is the result of a mistake.

Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.

Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.

If we turn our mind towards the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.

Extreme attention is what constitutes the creative faculty in man and the only extreme attention is religious. The amount of creative genius in any period is strictly in proportion to the amount of extreme attention and thus of authentic religion at that period.

The wrong way of seeking. The attention fixed on a problem. Another phenomenon due to horror of the void. We do not want to have lost our labour. The heat of the chase. We must not want to find: as in the case of an excessive devotion, we become dependent on the object of our efforts. We need an outward reward which chance sometimes provides and which we are ready to accept at the price of a deformation of the truth.

It is only effort without desire (not attached to an object) which infallibly contains a reward.

To draw back before the object we are pursuing. Only an indirect method is effective. We do nothing if we have not first drawn back.

By pulling at the bunch, we make all the grapes fall to the ground.

There are some kinds of effort which defeat their own object (example: the soured disposition of certain pious females, false asceticism, certain sorts of self-devotion, etc.). Others are always useful, even if they do not meet with success.

How are we to distinguish between them? Perhaps in this way: some efforts are always accompanied by the (false) negation of our inner wretchedness; with others the attention is continually concentrated on the distance there is between what we are and what we love.

Love is the teacher of gods and men, for no one learns without desiring to learn. Truth is sought not because it is truth but because it is good.

Attention is bound up with desire. Not with the will but with desire—or more exactly, consent.

We liberate energy in ourselves, but it constantly reattaches itself. How are we to liberate it entirely? We have to desire that it should be done in us—to desire it truly—simply to desire it, not to try to accomplish it. For every attempt in that direction is vain and has to be dearly paid for. In such a work all that I call ‘I’ has to be passive. Attention alone—that attention which is so full that the ‘I’ disappears—is required of me. I have to deprive all that I call ‘I’ of the light of my attention and turn it on to that which cannot be conceived.

The capacity to drive a thought away once and for all is the gateway to eternity. The infinite in an instant.

As regards temptations, we must follow the example of the truly chaste woman who, when the seducer speaks to her, makes no answer and pretends not to hear him.

We should be indifferent to good and evil but, when we are indifferent, that is to say when we project the light of our attention equally on both, the good gains the day. This phenomenon comes about automatically. There lies the essential grace. And it is the definition, the criterion of good.

A divine inspiration operates infallibly, irresistibly, if we do not turn away our attention, if we do not refuse it. There is not a choice to be made in its favour, it is enough not to refuse to recognize that it exists.

The attention turned with love towards God (or in a lesser degree, towards anything which is truly beautiful) makes certain things impossible for us. Such is the non-acting action of prayer in the soul. There are ways of behaviour which would veil such attention should they be indulged in and which, reciprocally, this attention puts out of the question.

As soon as we have a point of eternity in the soul, we have nothing more to do but to take care of it, for it will grow of itself like a seed. It is necessary to surround it with an armed guard, waiting in stillness, and to nourish it with the contemplation of numbers, of fixed and exact relationships.
We nourish the changeless which is in the soul by the contemplation of that which is unchanging in the body.

Writing is like giving birth: we cannot help making the supreme effort. But we also act in like fashion. I need have no fear of not making the supreme effort—provided only that I am honest with myself and that I pay attention.

The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real. It is the same with the act of love. To know that this man who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as I do— that is enough, the rest follows of itself.

The authentic and pure values—truth, beauty and goodness— in the activity of a human being are the result of one and the same act, a certain application of the full attention to the object.

Teaching should have no aim but to prepare, by training the attention, for the possibility of such an act. All the other advantages of instruction are without interest.

Studies and faith. Prayer being only attention in its pure form and studies being a form of gymnastics of the attention, each school exercise should be a refraction of spiritual life. There must be method in it. A certain way of doing a Latin prose, a certain way of tackling a problem in geometry (and not just any way) make up a system of gymnastics of the attention calculated to give it a greater aptitude for prayer.

Method for understanding images, symbols, etc. Not to try to interpret them, but to look at them till the light suddenly dawns.

Generally speaking, a method for the exercise of the intelligence, which consists of looking.

Application of this rule for the discrimination between the real and the illusory. In our sense perceptions, if we are not sure of what we see we change our position while looking, and what is real becomes evident. In the inner life, time takes the place of space. With time we are altered, and, if as we change we keep our gaze directed towards the same thing, in the end illusions are scattered and the real becomes visible. This is on condition that the attention be a looking and not an attachment.

When a struggle goes on between the will attached to some obligation and a bad desire, there is a wearing away of the energy attached to good. We have to endure the biting of the desire passively, as we do a suffering which brings home to us our wretchedness, and we have to keep our attention turned towards the good. Then the quality of our energy is raised to a higher degree. We must steal away the energy from our desires by taking away from them their temporal orientation.

Our desires are infinite in their pretensions but limited by the energy from which they proceed. That is why with the help of grace we can become their master and finally destroy them by attrition. As soon as this has been clearly understood, we have virtually conquered them, if we keep our attention in contact with this truth.

Video meliora … In such states, it seems as though we were thinking of the good, and in a sense we are doing so, but we are not thinking of its possibility.

It is incontestable that the void which we grasp with the pincers of contradiction is from on high, for we grasp it the better the more we sharpen our natural faculties of intelligence, will and love. The void which is from below is that into which we fall when we allow our natural faculties to become atrophied.

Experience of the transcendent: this seems contradictory, and yet the transcendent can be known only through contact since our faculties are unable to invent it.

Solitude. Where does its value lie? For in solitude we are in the presence of mere matter (even the sky, the stars, the moon, trees in blossom), things of less value (perhaps) than a human spirit. Its value lies in the greater possibility of attention. If we could be attentive to the same degree in the presence of a human being…

We can only know one thing about God—that he is what we are not. Our wretchedness alone is an image of this. The more we contemplate it, the more we contemplate him.

Sin is nothing else but the failure to recognize human wretchedness. It is unconscious wretchedness and for that very reason guilty wretchedness. The story of Christ is the experimental proof that human wretchedness is irreducible, that it is as great in the absolutely sinless man as in the sinner. But in him who is without sin it is enlightened…

The recognition of human wretchedness is difficult for whoever is rich and powerful because he is almost invincibly led to believe that he is something. It is equally difficult for the man in miserable circumstances because he is almost invincibly led to believe that the rich and powerful man is something.

It is not the fault which constitutes mortal sin, but the degree of light in the soul when the fault, whatever it may be, is accomplished.

Purity is the power to contemplate defilement.

Extreme purity can contemplate both the pure and the impure; impurity can do neither: the pure frightens it, the impure absorbs it. It has to have a mixture.

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.

simone weil – to desire without an object

simone weil gravity and gracePurification is the separation of good from covetousness.

We have to go down to the root of our desires in order to tear the energy from its object. That is where the desires are true in so far as they are energy. It is the object which is unreal. But there is an unspeakable wrench in the soul at the separation of a desire from its object.

If we go down into ourselves we find that we possess exactly what we desire.

If we long for a certain being (who is dead), we desire a particular, limited being; therefore, necessarily, a mortal, and we long for that special being ‘who’… ‘to whom’…, etc., in short that being who died at such and such a time on such and such a day. And we have that being—dead.

If we desire money, we want a medium of exchange (institution), something which can only be acquired on certain conditions, so we desire it only ‘in the measure that’… Well, in that measure we have it.

In such cases suffering, emptiness are the mode of existence of the objects of our desire. We only have to draw aside the veil of unreality and we shall see that they are given to us in this way.

When we see that, we still suffer, but we are happy.

To ascertain exactly what the miser whose treasure was stolen lost: thus we should learn much.

Lauzun and the office of Captain of Musketeers. He preferred to be a prisoner and Captain of Musketeers rather than to go free and not be Captain.

These are garments. ‘They were ashamed of their nakedness.’

To lose someone: we suffer because the departed, the absent, has become something imaginary and unreal. But our desire for him is not imaginary. We have to go down into ourselves to the abode of the desire which is not imaginary. Hunger: we imagine kinds of food, but the hunger itself is real: we have to fasten on to the hunger. The presence of the dead person is imaginary, but his absence is very real: henceforward it is his way of appearing.

We must not seek the void, for it would be tempting God if we counted on supernatural bread to fill it.

We must not run away from it either.

The void is the supreme fullness, but man is not permitted to know it. The proof is that Christ himself was at one moment completely unaware of it. One part of the self should know it, but not the other parts, for if they knew it in their base fashion, there would no longer be any void.

Christ experienced all human misery, except sin. But he experienced everything which makes man capable of sin. It is the void which makes man capable of sin. All sins are attempts to fill voids. Thus my life with all its stains is near to his perfectly pure one, and the same is true of much lower lives. However low I fall I shall not go very far from him. But if I fall I shall no longer be able to know this.

The handshake of a friend on meeting again after a long absence. I do not even notice whether it gives pleasure or pain to my sense of touch: like the blind man who feels the objects directly at the end of his stick, I feel the presence of my friend directly. It is the same with life’s circumstances, whatever they may be, and God.

This implies that we should never seek consolation for pain. Because felicity is beyond the realm of consolation and pain. We become aware of it through a sense which is different, just as the perception of objects at the end of a stick or an instrument is different from touch in the strict sense of the word. This other sense is formed by a shifting of the attention through an apprenticeship in which the whole soul and body participate.

That is why we read in the Gospel: ‘I say to you that these have received their reward.’ There must be no compensation. It is the void in our sensibility which carries us beyond sensibility.

Denial of Saint Peter. To say to Christ: ‘I will never deny Thee’ was to deny him already, for it was supposing the source of faithfulness to be in himself and not in grace. Happily, as he was chosen, this denial was made manifest to all and to himself. How many others boast in the same way—and they never understand. It was difficult to be faithful to Christ. A fidelity in the void was needed. It was much easier to be faithful to Napoleon, even if it involved death. It was easier for the martyrs to be Faithful, later on, because the Church was already there, a force with temporal promises. We die for what is strong, not for what is weak, or only for what is weak momentarily and has still kept an aureole of strength. Faithfulness to Napoleon at Saint-Helena was not faithfulness in the void. The fact of dying for what is strong robs death of its bitterness—and at the same time of all its value.

To implore a man is a desperate attempt through sheer intensity to make our system of values pass into him. To implore God is just the contrary: it is an attempt to make the divine values pass into ourselves. Far from thinking with all the intensity of which we are capable of the values to which we are attached, we must preserve an interior void.

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.

hélène cixous – castration or decapitation?

Hélène Cixous’ essay “Castration or Decapitation?” discusses the binary construction of sexuality and society, and how the feminine is defined by the negative: a woman is not a man because she lacks a penis. This “lack” keeps the female subject to definition by the male, as it is seen that because she is the “negative” pole to the man’s “positive”, the woman is concomitantly un-informed, and that therefore it is the position of the man to inform the woman. This imposed silence is what decapitates the feminine metaphorically, precluding her from speaking anything of meaning.

The following is an excerpt from this brilliant essay, translated by Annette Kuhn and published in Signs, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Autumn, 1981), pp. 41-55 (University of Chicago Press)  – read the full essay HERE.

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off with her head

… It’s hard to imagine a more perfect example of a particular relationship between two economies: a masculine economy and a feminine economy, in which the masculine is governed by a rule that keeps time with two beats, three beats, four beats, with pipe and drum, exactly as it should be. An order that works by inculcation, by education. It’s always a question of education: an education that consists of trying to make a soldier of the feminine by force, the force history keeps reserved for woman, the “capital” force that is effectively decapitation. Women have no choice other than to be decapitated. The moral is that if they don’t actually lose their heads by the sword, they only keep them on condition that they lose them – lose them, that is, to complete silence, turned into automatons.

It’s a question of submitting feminine disorder, its laughter, its inability to take the drumbeats seriously, to the threat of decapitation. If man operates under the threat of castration, if masculinity is culturally ordered by the castration complex, it might be said that the backlash, the return, on women of this castration anxiety is its displacement as decapitation, execution, of woman, as loss of her head.

We are led to pose the woman question to history in quite elementary forms like, “Where is she? Is there any such thing as woman?” At worst, many women wonder whether they even exist. They feel they don’t exist and wonder if there has ever been a place for them. I am speaking of woman’s place,from woman’s place, if she takes (a) place.

In La Jeune Née I made use of a story that seemed to me particularly expressive of woman’s place: the story of Sleeping Beauty. Woman, if you look for her, has a strong chance of always being found in one position: in bed. In bed and asleep-“laid (out).” She is always to be found on or in a bed: Sleeping Beauty is lifted from her bed by a man because, as we all know, women don’t wake up by themselves: man has to intervene, you understand. She is lifted up by the man who will lay her in her next bed so that she may be confined to bed ever after, just as the fairy tales say.

From Disney's

From Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty”

And so her trajectory is from bed to bed: one bed to another, where she can dream all the more. There are some extraordinary analyses by Kierkegaard on women’s “existence”- or that part of it set aside for her by culture-in which he says he sees her as sleeper. She sleeps, he says, and first love dreams her and then she dreams of love. From dream to dream, and always in second position. In some stories, though, she can be found standing up, but not for long.

Take Little Red Riding Hood as an example: it will not, I imagine, be lost on you that the “red riding hood” in question is a little clitoris. Little Red Riding Hood basically gets up to some mischief: she’s the little female sex that tries to play a bit and sets out with her little pot of butter and her little jar of honey. What is interesting is that it’s her mother who gives them to her and sends her on an excursion that’s tempting precisely because it’s forbidden: Little Red Riding Hood leaves one house, mommy’s house, not to go out into the big wide world but to go from one house to another by the shortest route possible: to make haste, in other words, from the mother to the other.

The other in this case is grandmother, whom we might imagine as taking the place of the “Great Mother,” because there are great men but no great women: there are Grand-Mothers instead. And grandmothers are always wicked: she is the bad mother who always shuts the daughter in whenever the daughter might by chance want to live or take pleasure. So she’ll always be carrying her little pot of butter and her little jar of honey to grandmother, who is there as jealousy … the jealousy of the woman who can’t let her daughter go.

But in spite of all this Little Red Riding Hood makes her little detour, does what women should never do, travels through her own forest. She allows herself the forbidden … and pays dearly for it: she goes back to bed, in grandmother’s stomach. The Wolf is grandmother, and all women recognize the Big Bad Wolf! We know that always lying in wait for us somewhere in some big bed is a Big Bad Wolf.

Gustave Dore - The Disguised Wolf in Bed

Gustave Dore – The Disguised Wolf in Bed

The Big Bad Wolf represents, with his big teeth, his big eyes, and his grandmother’s looks, that great Superego that threatens all the little female red riding hoods who try to go out and explore their forest without the psychoanalyst’s permission. So, between two houses, between two beds, she is laid, ever caught in her chain of metaphors, metaphors that organize culture . . . ever her moon to the masculine sun, nature to culture, concavity to masculine convexity, matter to form, immobility/inertia to the march of progress, terrain trod by the masculine footstep, vessel… While man is obviously the active, the upright, the productive… and besides, that’s how it happens in History.

This opposition to woman cuts endlessly across all the oppositions that order culture. It’s the classic opposition, dualist and hierarchical. Man/Woman automatically means great/small, superior/inferior… means high or low, means Nature/History, means transformation/inertia. In fact, every theory of culture, every theory of society, the whole conglomeration of symbolic systems-everything, that is, that’s spoken, everything that’s organized as discourse, art, religion, the family, language, everything that seizes us, everything that acts on us – it is all ordered around hierarchical oppositions that come back to the man/ woman opposition, an opposition that can only be sustained by means of a difference posed by cultural discourse as “natural,” the difference between activity and passivity. It always works this way, and the opposition is founded in the couple [binary]. A couple posed in opposition, in tension, in conflict… a couple engaged in a kind of war in which death is always at work – and I keep emphasizing the importance of the opposition as couple, because all this isn’t just about one word; rather everything turns on the Word: everything is the Word and only the Word. To be aware of the couple, that it’s the couple that makes it all work, is also to point to the fact that it’s on the couple that we have to work if we are to deconstruct and transform culture. The couple as terrain, as space of cultural struggle, but also as terrain, as space demanding, insisting on, a complete transformation in the relation of one to the other. And so work still has to be done on the couple … on the question, for example, of what a completely different couple relationship would be like, what a love that was more than merely a cover for, a veil of, war would be like.

I said it turns on the Word: we must take culture at its word, as it takes us into its Word, into its tongue. You’ll understand why I think that no political reflection can dispense with reflection on language, with work on language. For as soon as we exist, we are born into language and language speaks (to) us, dictates its law, a law of death: it lays down its familial model, lays down its conjugal model, and even at the moment of uttering a sentence, admitting a notion of “being,” a question of being, an ontology, we are already seized by a certain kind of masculine desire, the desire that mobilizes philosophical discourse. As soon as the question “What is it?” is posed, from the moment a question is put, as soon as a reply is sought, we are already caught up in masculine interrogation. I say “masculine interrogation”: as we say so-and-so was interrogated by the police. And this interrogation precisely involves the work of signification: “What is it? Where is it?” A work of meaning, “This means that,” the predicative distribution that always at the same time orders the constitution of meaning. And while meaning is being constituted, it only gets constituted in a movement in which one of the terms of the couple is destroyed in favor of the other.

“Look for the lady,” as they say in the stories… “Cherchez la femme”– we always know that means: you’ll find her in bed. Another question that’s posed in History, rather a strange question, a typical male question, is: “What do women want?” The Freudian question, of course. In his work on desire, Freud asks somewhere, or rather doesn’t ask, leaves hanging in the air, the question “What do women want?” Let’s talk a bit about this desire and about why/how the question “What do women want?” gets put, how it’s both posed and left hanging in the air by philosophical discourse, by analytic discourse (analytic discourse being only one province of philosophical discourse), and how it is posed, let us say, by the Big Bad Wolf and the Grand-Mother.

“What does she want?” Little Red Riding Hood knew quite well what she wanted, but Freud’s question is not what it seems: it’s a rhetorical question. To pose the question “What do women want?” is to pose it already as answer, as from a man who isn’t expecting any answer, because the answer is “She wants nothing.” … “What does she want? … Nothing!” Nothing because she is passive. The only thing man can do is offer the question “What could she want, she who wants nothing?” Or in other words: “Without me, what could she want?”

Old Lacan takes up the slogan “What does she want?” when he says, “A woman cannot speak of her pleasure.” Most interesting! It’s all there, a woman cannot, is unable, hasn’t the power. Not to mention “speaking”: it’s exactly this that she’s forever deprived of. Unable to speak of pleasure = no pleasure, no desire: power, desire, speaking, pleasure, none of these is for woman. And as a quick reminder of how this works in theoretical discourse, one question: you are aware, of course, that for Freud/Lacan, woman is said to be “outside the Symbolic”: outside the Symbolic, that is outside language, the place of the Law, excluded from any possible relationship with culture and the cultural order. And she is outside the Symbolic because she lacks any relation to the phallus, because she does not enjoy what orders masculinity – the castration complex.

Woman does not have the advantage of the castration complex – it’s reserved solely for the little boy. The phallus, in Lacanian parlance also called the “transcendental signifier,” transcendental precisely as primary organizer of the structure of subjectivity, is what, for psychoanalysis, inscribes its effects, its effects of castration and resistance to castration and hence the very organization of language, as unconscious relations, and so it is the phallus that is said to constitute the a priori condition of all symbolic functioning. This has important implications as far as the body is concerned: the body is not sexed, does not recognize itself as, say, female or male without having gone through the castration complex.

Tamara de Lapicka (1927)

Tamara de Lempicka – “Rafaela sur fond vert” (1927)

What psychoanalysis points to as defining woman is that she lacks lack. She lacks lack? Curious to put it in so contradictory, so extremely paradoxical, a manner: she lacks lack. To say she lacks lack is also, after all, to say she doesn’t miss lack … since she doesn’t miss the lack of lack. Yes, they say, but the point is “she lacks The Lack,” The Lack, lack of the Phallus. And so, supposedly, she misses the great lack, so that without man she would be indefinite, indefinable, nonsexed, unable to recognize herself: outside the Symbolic. But fortunately there is man: he who comes … Prince Charming. And it’s man who teaches woman (because man is always the Master as well), who teaches her to be aware of lack, to be aware of absence, aware of death. It’s man who will finally order woman, “set her to rights,” by teaching her that without man she could “misrecognize.” He will teach her the Law of the Father. Something of the order of: “Without me, without me-the Absolute-Father (the father is always that much more absolute the more he is improbable, dubious)-without me you wouldn’t exist, I’ll show you.” Without him she’d remain in a state of distressing and distressed undifferentiation, unbordered, unorganized, “unpoliced” by the phallus… incoherent, chaotic, and embedded in the Imaginary in her ignorance of the Law of the Signifier. Without him she would in all probability not be contained by the threat of death, might even, perhaps, believe herself eternal, immortal. Without him she would be deprived of sexuality. And it might be said that man works very actively to produce “his woman.” Take for example Marguerite Duras’  Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, and you will witness the moment when man can finally say “his” woman, “my” woman. It is that moment when he has taught her to be aware of Death. So man makes, he makes (up) his woman, not without being himself seized up and drawn into the dialectical movement that this sort of thing sets in play. We might say that the Absolute Woman, in culture, the woman who really represents femininity most effectively… who is closest to femininity as prey to masculinity, is actually the hysteric…. he makes her image for her!

The hysteric is a divine spirit that is always at the edge, the turning point, of making. She is one who does not make herself… she does not make herself but she does make the other. It is said that the hysteric “makes-believe” the father, plays the father, “makes-believe” the master. Plays, makes up, makes-believe: she makes-believe she is a woman, unmakes-believe too … plays at desire, plays the father… turns herself into him, unmakes him at the same time. Anyway, without the hysteric, there’s no father… without the hysteric, no master, no analyst, no analysis! She’s the unorganizable feminine construct, whose power of producing the other is a power that never returns to her. She is really a wellspring nourishing the other for eternity, yet not drawing back from the other … not recognizing herself in the images the other may or may not give her. She is given images that don’t belong to her, and she forces herself, as we’ve all done, to resemble them.

And so in the face of this person who lacks lack, who does not miss lack of lack, we have the construct that is infinitely easier to analyze, to put in place-manhood, flaunting its metaphors like banners through history. You know those metaphors: they are most effective. It’s always clearly a question of war, of battle. If there is no battle, it’s replaced by the stake of battle: strategy. Man is strategy, is reckoning . . . “how to win” with the least possible loss, at the lowest possible cost. Throughout literature masculine figures all say the same thing: “I’m reckoning” what to do to win. Take Don Juan and you have the whole masculine economy getting together to “give women just what it takes to keep them in bed” then swiftly taking back the investment, then reinvesting, etc., so that nothing ever gets given, everything gets taken back, while in the process the greatest possible dividend of pleasure is taken. Consumption without payment, of course.

mladen dolar – his master’s voice

The following essay is excerpted from Mladen Dolar’s book, A Voice and Nothing More (which I’m reading for my dissertation).

The voice did not figure as a major [western] philosophical topic until the 1960s, when Derrida and Lacan separately proposed it as a central theoretical concern. Dolar goes beyond Derrida’s idea of “phonocentrism” and revives and develops Lacan’s claim that the voice is one of the paramount embodiments of the psychoanalytic object (objet a). Dolar proposes that, apart from the two commonly understood uses of the voice as a vehicle of meaning and as a source of aesthetic admiration, there is a third level of understanding: the voice as an object that can be seen as the lever of thought. He investigates the object voice on a number of different levels–the linguistics of the voice, the metaphysics of the voice, the ethics of the voice (with the voice of conscience), the paradoxical relation between the voice and the body, the politics of the voice–and he scrutinizes the uses of the voice in Freud and Kafka. (There’s a great review by Christine Boyko-Head HERE.)

a voice and nothing morePlutarch tells the story of a man who plucked a nightingale and finding but little to eat exclaimed: “You are just a voice and nothing more.”

There is a story that goes like this: In the middle of a war, in the middle of a battle, there is a company of Italian soldiers in the trenches. And there is an Italian commander who issues the command “Soldiers, attack!” But nothing happens, nobody moves. So the commander gets angry and shouts even louder “Soldiers, attack!” At which point there is a response, a voice rising from the trenches saying Che bella voce!

This story can serve as a good entry into the problem of the voice. On the first level this is a story of a failed interpellation. The soldiers fail to recognize themselves in the appeal, the call of the other, the call of duty, and they don’t act accordingly. Surely the fact that they are Italian soldiers plays a great role in it, they do act according to their image of not the most courageous soldiers in the world, as legend has it, and the story is most certainly not a model of political correctness, it indulges in tacit chauvinism and national stereotypes. So the command fails, the addressees don’t recognize themselves in the meaning being conveyed, they concentrate instead on the medium, which is the voice. The attention paid to the voice hinders the interpellation and the transmission of a symbolic mandate, the transmission of a mission.

But on a second level another interpellation works in the place of the failed one: if the soldiers don’t recognize themselves in their mission as the soldiers in the middle of a battle, they do recognize themselves as addressees of another message, they constitute a community as a response to the call, the community of people who can appreciate the aesthetics of a beautiful voice. Who can appreciate it when it is hardly the moment, and especially when it is hardly the moment to do so? So if in one respect they act as stereotypical Italian soldiers, they also act as stereotypical Italians in this other respect, namely as opera lovers. They constitute themselves as the community of “the friends of the Italian opera” (to take the immortal line from Some Like It Hot), living up to their reputation of connoisseurs, people of refined taste who have amply trained their ears with bel canto, so they can tell a beautiful voice when they hear one, even among the canon fire.

The soldiers have done the right thing, from our biased present perspective, at least in an incipient way, when they have concentrated on the voice instead of on the message, although, to be sure, for the wrong reasons. They are seized by a sudden aesthetic interest precisely when they would have had to attack, they concentrate on the voice because they have grasped the meaning all too well. But quite apart from their feigned artistic inclination they have also bungled the voice the moment they isolated it, they immediately turned it into an object of aesthetic pleasure, an object of veneration and worship, the bearer of a meaning beyond the ordinary meanings. The aesthetic concentration on the voice loses the voice precisely by turning it into a fetish-object.

I will try to argue that there is a third level: an object voice which doesn’t go up in smoke in conveyance of meaning and which doesn’t solidify either in an object of fetish reverence, but an object which functions as a blind spot in the call and a disturbance of aesthetic appreciation. One shows fidelity to the first by running to the attack, one shows fidelity to the second by running to the opera. But fidelity to the third is far more difficult to achieve. I will try to pursue it on three different levels: linguistics, ethics and politics. Continue reading

foucault on sadism’s relationship to western rationality (1961)

Sadism is not a name finally given to a practice as old as Eros; it is a massive cultural fact which appeared precisely at the end of the eighteenth century, and which constitutes one of the greatest conversions of Western imagination: unreason transformed into delirium of the heart, madness of desire, the insane dialogue of love and death in the limitless presumption of appetite.

Sadism appears at the very moment that unreason, confined for over a century and reduced to silence, reappears, no longer as an image of the world, no longer as a figura, but as language and desire. And it is no accident that sadism, as an individual phenomenon bearing the name of a man, was born of confinement and, within confinement, that Sade’s entire oeuvre is dominated by the images of the Fortress, the Cell, the Cellar, the Convent, the inaccessible Island which thus form, as it were, the natural habitat of unreason.

It is no accident, either, that all the fantastic literature of madness and horror, which is contemporary with Sade’s oeuvre, takes place, preferentially, in the strongholds of confinement.

— Michel Foucault, from Madness and Civilisation

t.s. eliot – the cocktail party

TheCocktailPartyIt will do you no harm to find yourself ridiculous.
Resign yourself to be the fool you are.

You will find that you survive humiliation
And that’s an experience of incalculable value.

That is the worst moment, when you feel you have lost
The desires for all that was most desirable,
Before you are contented with what you can desire;
Before you know what is left to be desired;
And you go on wishing that you could desire
What desire has left behind. But you cannot understand.
How could you understand what it is to feel old?

We die to each other daily.
What we know of other people
Is only our memory of the moments
During which we knew them. And they have changed since then.
To pretend that they and we are the same
Is a useful and convenient social convention
Which must sometimes be broken. We must also remember
That at every meeting we are meeting a stranger.

There was a door
And I could not open it. I could not touch the handle.
Why could I not walk out of my prison?
What is hell? Hell is oneself.
Hell is alone, the other figures in it
Merely projections. There is nothing to escape from
And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.

Half the harm that is done in this world
Is due to people who want to feel important.
They don’t mean to do harm — but the harm does not interest them.
Or they do not see it, or they justify it
Because they are absorbed in the endless struggle
To think well of themselves.

There are several symptoms
Which must occur together, and to a marked degree,
To qualify a patient for my sanitorium:
And one of them is an honest mind. That is one of the causes of their suffering.

To men of a certain type
The suspicion that they are incapable of loving
Is as disturbing to their self-esteem
As, in cruder men, the fear of impotence.

I must tell you
That I should really like to think there’s something wrong with me —
Because, if there isn’t, then there’s something wrong
With the world itself — and that’s much more frightening!
That would be terrible.
So, I’d rather believe there’s something wrong with me, that could be put right.

Everyone’s alone — or so it seems to me.
They make noises, and think they are talking to each other;
They make faces, and think they understand each other.
And I’m sure they don’t. Is that a delusion?

Can we only love
Something created in our own imaginations?
Are we all in fact unloving and unloveable?
Then one is alone, and if one is alone
Then lover and beloved are equally unreal
And the dreamer is no more real than his dreams.

I shall be left with the inconsolable memory
Of the treasure I went into the forest to find
And never found, and which was not there
And is perhaps not anywhere? But if not anywhere
Why do I feel guilty at not having found it?

Disillusion can become itself an illusion
If we rest in it.

Two people who know they do not understand each other,
Breeding children whom they do not understand
And who will never understand them.

There is another way, if you have the courage.
The first I could describe in familiar terms
Because you have seen it, as we all have seen it,
Illustrated, more or less, in lives of those about us.
The second is unknown, and so requires faith —
The kind of faith that issues from despair.
The destination cannot be described;
You will know very little until you get there;
You will journey blind. But the way leads towards possession
Of what you have sought for in the wrong place.

We must always take risks. That is our destiny.

If we all were judged according to the consequences
Of all our words and deeds, beyond the intention
And beyond our limited understanding
Of ourselves and others, we should all be condemned.

Only by acceptance of the past will you alter its meaning.

All cases are unique, and very similar to others.

Every moment is a fresh beginning.

Excerpted from T.S. Eliot’s 1949 play, The Cocktail Party

fanon on desire and recognition

As soon as I desire I am asking to be considered. I am not merely here-and-now, sealed into thingness. I am for somewhere else and for something else. I demand that notice be taken of my negating activity insofar as I pursue something other than life; insofar as I do battle for the creation of a human world – that is, of a world of reciprocal recognitions. He who is reluctant to recognize me opposes me. In a savage struggle I am willing to accept convulsions of death, invincible dissolution, but also the possibility of the impossible.

~ Frantz Fanon: Black Skin White Masks. New York: Grove Press (1967)