We are never more alone nor more vulnerable than at the times we mourn the loss of someone we love. The devastating event that deprives us of the beloved forces a thorough reorganization of our reality principle and re-creates the world we inhabit from within.
Love is intimately related to our ability to mourn. The first object of love we encounter is formed in the process of mourning: it is what remains after we have mastered our separation from the maternal body. The infant doesn’t know that the mother will return and thus experiences the first deprivation of her presence as a traumatic event. The moment mother leaves the room and leaves the infant alone is baby’s first encounter with death. The fact that she returns cannot erase the horror the infant has experienced in the meantime and this terrifying memory becomes part of the maternal imago, the first and to some degree the only love object in a given lifetime. Every subsequent love object as well as the placeholder of self-love will assume the basic contours of the maternal imago, which becomes the solid kernel of our individuality. The basic task of every culture is to master, frame, and cultivate the consequences of this originating event, which can also be called the birth of the human psyche or mind.
The kernel of our being is paradoxical. It receives its form in the process of mourning, the series of emotional and ideitic responses to the absence of the maternal body. Yet, because its dissolution would entail the disintegration of the entire psychic apparatus, the kernel remains intact and absolutely unmournable for the duration of our lifetime. It contains the memory bank of the mechanisms that form the basic structure of the individual mind. We develop these mechanisms to cope with the trauma of separation from the maternal body. They become the central framework for our being in the world, the structure of our attachment to the world, and are absolutely unique to every individual.
How does this paradoxical kernel maintain its integrity while initiating countless periods of processing loss? The introduction of the third person, the father, in the mother-child dyad initiates a secondary mourning process. The father represents the law and the conscious symbolic order of language. The foundational structure of secondary mourning is rooted in the individual patterns of the primary mechanisms, which remain unchangeable throughout our lifetime, but it also produces our conscience and consciousness, giving the mourning period its distinct meaning in the cultural symbolic order we inhabit. Thus, though the basic kernel of being remains rooted in the culture of the mother, the law of the father allows us to share it with others, to give it expression, and to design it according to the laws of the cultural-symbolic system we inhabit.
Love and Death
The love and death instincts are intimately intertwined from the very beginnings of our mental life. Our ability to attach to objects and environments outside the self is predicated on our mastery of the stage of mourning. This truth was buried in the mythology of ancient classical cultures, both Greek and Jewish.
The myth of Cupid and Psyche, recorded most thoroughly in Apuleius’s “Golden Ass,” anticipates the psychology of mourning in the formation of libidinal attachments. Psyche, the breath of life, soul or kernel of being, awakens to love and life by the very agent of her demise, Cupid, who was sent by his mother to destroy Psyche. Instead of piercing her with his arrow, however, Cupid scratches himself and falls in love with her. Their union is symbolic of the birth of the soul in a union that is dangerously close to death.
Likewise, the virgin Mary experiences the visitation of angel Gabriel as the moment her soul awakens to eternal life as she conceives the Redeemer.
Today we celebrate the 267th birthday of the most profound modern poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He is perhaps the foundational figure of our explorations of the interior, since his oeuvre opened the door to articulating the interior publicly. His work is the bridge from Shakespeare’s inexhaustible psychological savvy, which he gained through linguistic mastery, to Sigmund Freud’s attempt to systematize inner experience quasi-scientifically and psychologically.
Goethe captured the hearts of prominent women of the upper classes; his poetry was profoundly shaped by voices that would have remained otherwise silent; their rich interiors live on in his work
It could be argued that with Goethe women gained access to the public sphere, not as prostitutes, as the case had been before the modern age, but as co-creators and co-designers of its culture and aesthetics. Goethe’s deep lifelong friendships with women like Katerina von Klettenberg, a pious Christian he commemorated in the chapter “The Beautiful Soul” of his Shakespearean novel “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” to Charlotte von Stein, whom he loved passionately and who taught him the habits and morals of courtly society, to Bettina von Arnim, his stormy relationships actively shaped the basic tenets of modern literary culture. It could be argued that women have exercised no greater influence on the design of the modern world than through Goethe’s enormous and to this day unsurpassed legacy and influence on literature.
I will dedicate a separate post on the legacy of modern German literature, its culture of self-reflection, and aesthetic of interior design, but suffice to say at this point that Goethe was the founding father of the modern literary tradition as a profoundly subjective experience. It is safe to say the service Literary E-Spa provides, its endeavour to educate an engaged literary audience in the arts and design of individual interiors, and quest to shape more sophisticated religious, cultural and consumer practices would be impossible without Goethe. We owe him our grateful hearts today, even as we contemplate the contemporary relevance of his crowning work “Faust.”
Goethe with Charlotte von Stein; garden conversations were a sophisticated courtly social art form of practicing philosophy and theology; Eissler’s faithfully Freudian study of the relationship has offered many clues not only to Goethe and his work, but to the modern subject in general (http://www.kensandersbooks.com/shop/rarebooks/43075.html)
Goethe’s crowning masterpiece is “The Tragedy of Dr. Faust,” a long two-part dramatic poem based on medieval allegorical material, much like Shakespeare’s own plays, and a chillingly prophetic abstraction of the political future of modernity. Goethe worked on this drama his entire life. He began composing it at 18 and finished it in his 70s shortly before his death.
The main character is a suicidal scholar who avails himself of the legal and scientific apparatus of the modern age, allegorically represented by Mephistopheles, to become not only young again and engage in a tragic romance with the pretty, innocent village girl Gretchen, only to abandon her to a cruel fate of single motherhood and eventually prison and death, but also to become the supreme global ruler of all nations and design an infallible totalitarian social system that provides for the basic needs of all constituents. Naturally his plan of solving the world’s problems once and for all fails. Faust is condemned to hell for all eternity. This is the end of the medieval story of the Dr. Faustus. Goethe, however, adds a twist and grants the scholar-statesman grace and mercy by bringing Gretchen’s ghost back to mourn his passing and thus preserve his memory and legacy from the flames of hell. It is the ultimate tale of Christian grace, bringing the loving and forgiving victim back to embrace and save her ravisher.
If we consider the fact that modern German scholarship did develop the global bureaucratic system that keeps trying to seize control of the world, first through National Socialism, then again with the USSR, and now with globalism, is it perhaps time to let Gretchen rest in peace? Could Goethe not have foreseen the destruction of his own legacy if we are unable to let Gretchen rest and monumentalize her modern legacy in order to move on?
classical dichotomy of divine beauty and earthly passion
Pure Classicism: Divine Beauty Conquers Earthly Passion
Jose De Ribeira’s 1637 masterpiece Apollo and Marsyas depicts the commencement of the satyr’s flaying by the classical god of beauty and the arts. The painting illuminates an ancient myth about the power of art as it contemplates self-reflexively the function of art in the re-creation of humanity. The Renaissance re-framing of mythic material alters the meaning of a scene of torture and carnal ritual sacrifice fundamentally. An unbridgeable cultural gap separates it from its organic context.
Our reception of Ribeiro’s work removes it from the origin even further and re-inscribes it in a new aesthetic system. Yet a kernel of the myth remains and it has to do with the immediacy of the passions. Ribeiro’s rendition easily rivals the slasher and splatter images hardening contemporary aesthetics. Its gory depiction of a bloodied piece of Marsyas’s torn skin most recently prompted a Twitter commentary by Sotovoce @MP27: “…si’ come quando Marsia traesti dalla vagina delle member sue.” Translation: as if Marsyas brought forth a vagina from his limbs.
Myths, like fiction and self-reflexive art, reveal structural psychological realities that would otherwise remain buried in the common systems of signification and circulation. It has been widely contested that, like King Oedipus, who committed the crimes of patricide and incest not knowing who his parents are and did cruel penance for his offences, Marsyas too did not deserve the brutal sentence of death by flaying.
Nietzsche discovered the origin of tragedy in satyric revelry
The satyr was famed for the incomparable music he composed on the autos, Athena’s abandoned flute. Apollo, god of beauty and perfection, offended by a rivalry he could neither master nor surpass, engaged the satyr in an unfair contest that would condemn the creature to a cruel death.
The original cultural system of values the tale reflects is the basic aesthetic of classicist naturalism. Nietzsche was a devout follower and went as far as to claim that life is so horrible, it is only worth living as an aesthetic phenomenon (Birth of Tragedy). In classical aesthetics, forms and shapes that copy the paragons of nature dutifully are objectively beautiful and perfect. Everyone must emulate them to be virtuous, existence justified.
The subjective world of the satyric revelers who were famed for indulging their wild passions in drunken orgies in the wilderness was not granted human form. Satyrs are only half-human half-bestial in the mythological system of Greco-Roman antiquity.
Peter Paul Rubens’s study of a satyr
Nietzsche’s grand discovery and most profound insight was the recognition of drunken satyric revelry as the main item on the tragic menu of ritual sacrifice. Nietzsche felt the passions that moved dithyrambic poetry and claimed the origin of the beautiful proportions and mathematical precision of tragedy for Dionysus, the god of all satyrs.
The dualistic aesthetics represented by the Janus head of Apollo and Dionysus dominated all classicist movements from the Renaissance onwards. Their major flaw is the sacrificial mindset they indulge by insisting that the flayed skin of individuality and interiority is simply discarded, relegated to nothingness, sacrificed at the altar of natural beauty and mathematical perfection.
As Hegel recognized in his reading of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” the Christian world differs from its pagan heritage, including the Greco-Roman, in that it recognized the impossibility of nothingness. Killing an enemy does not make it go away. Banquo’s ghost returns to haunt Macbeth’s feasts.
the ecstasy of music transcends the woes of passion
Because its reality principle recognised, valorised, and included condemned passions as such, Christianity developed musical annotation. The only system designed for the preservation of music in turn allowed for the development of polyphonic recitals, then symphonies and eventually opera. By contrast, no Greek music survives. We will never hear the sound of antiquity. Only the voice of nature remains.
Apollonian perfection tortures the subjective dimension into submission to the laws of the created universe. Some strands of biblical thought have developed a parallel belief, the doctrine of creationism which is coextensive with the absolutism of science. Creationism declares all creatures holy, yet leaves no room for human creation.
Current global health systems are likewise dominated by the scientific-creationist doctrine, which views the body as purely natural and creaturely and does not take into account the vast systems of manmade cultural articulation that participate in the establishment of health and wellbeing. Culturally displaced human individuals suffer enormous health damages, currently unacknowledged by the barbaric administration of global migration.
Caravaggio recognised his own passions as reflexive of the ghostly sickness of the satyrs’ aberrant aesthetics; 1593 Self-Portrait as Sick Bacchus
Biblical Twist: Symptom blossoms into Beauty
Christian thought introduced the value of the symptom and the value of difference as co-creator or re-creator of the world. Hence, Christian art not only produced a vast treasury of masterpieces but also preserved the sublime legacy of Greco-Roman antiquity.
Interiority could not develop in the classical world because, like Marsyas, its aberrant outward form was continually flayed by the demands of Apollonian perfection. It never entered the systems of circulation. As the Twitter user cited above correctly diagnosed, the interior is profoundly feminine, because it exists in the spaces between the natural units measuring systemic reality.
Feminine love saves the beast in the folk-tale. Beauty’s love endows the Beast with the magnificent shapes of human proportions. But feminine love itself is of the beastly nature of the passions, the central symptom on display in the classical arts of tragic poetry.
As Heidegger recognised in “The Question of Technology” and “The Origin of the Work of Art” (http://users.clas.ufl.edu/burt/filmphilology/heideggerworkofart.pdf), poetry is the engine of invisible reality, the fundamental tapestry of love. Our little lives are rounded not so much with sleep but with poetry. Caravaggio’s depictions of suffering saints emerging from pitch black darkness put the human body in all its passionate creaturely glory on display for the first time in the Christian history of art. Ribeiro’s reinterpretation of the flaying of Marsyas borrowed the poetic idiom of Caravaggio’s profoundly Christian aesthetics, thus re-inscribing the satyr in the feminine position of the saint who bears his suffering patiently in not so silent complicity with the passion of the Christ. The rest is music.
Botticelli, The banquet in the forest , Prado, Madrid
Romeo and Juliet’s Marriage
The most profound, unlikely and graceful aspect of Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” is its award envelope, the covenant of marriage. A plot driven by a grisly engine of death and sexual violence unveils a stunning portrait of incomparable beauty, the good and faithful work of Romeo and Juliet’s wedding. The twin work of poetry and marriage shares a common heart, a counter engine to creaturely death, in its quest to re-create and immortalize the heavenly joys of marital bliss.
The Freudian concept of “work” and the Heideggerian concept of “enframing,” which refers to the phenomenological horizon of presence (Wesen) and being (reality), illuminate a rich analysis of both, the work of dramatic poetry and the work of marriage. The object of enframing is the seminal tragedy of the play Shakespeare wrote in the final decade of the Cinquecento in London, which he based on an imported Italian tale of an ill-starred vendetta. The “enframing” linguistic horizon of the tragic spectacle of star-crossed love, is the Divine Comedy of the Book of Revelations, which concludes the cyclical Biblical narrative with the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.
Defining Public Spaces: Tragedy, Marriage, and Public Health
Coming from a public health background recently I also consider “tragedy” in terms of its use of ex-votos. The pinax or votive tablets of ancient Greece were often used to drape and dress the stage of tragic sacrifice. As a public sacrifice of individual moral and familial deviation tragedy is harmful to public health. Ex votos are traditionally delivered as thanksgiving for healing, that is, as tokens of conformity and a testaments of aberration from the health norms of the public.
Corinthian votive tablet (Pinax), about 575-550 b.C.
The tragic process is a process of corpse production. The re-creation of the corpse saves it, along with the significance of its experience for the enrichment of public life and public health. The work of marriage, like all works of poetry elevates as it sublimates the work of death, which is the mode of production of all creation.
The word “work” in my reading refers both
–to the Biblical sense of works as that by which a man is judged
— and as a work of poetry in the Heideggerian sense I draw from his reading of the Greek term techne in “The Question of Technology”(1950). The essence of being, any being, is a product of technology. Poetry is techne.
The definition of works as products of technology is supported by Heidegger’s insistence on the reality building capacity of poetry as the ultimate source and maker of the world. The object Heidegger is concerned with is not a natural object, but a human work of language.
Human works are re-creations, not originals, but they are crucial to preservation, which the Bible calls saving grace. To save something is to steal it from death, from its creaturely estate. Products of human sublimation make up the world we inhabit and determine its recurring reality.
Techne and Recurrence
Heidegger’s unhistorical understanding of techne as the poetry of being and the Biblical teleology unveiled in Revelations share the same cyclical temporality of recurrence. What recurs is the moment when works are judged for conservation or destruction.
Their judgment is not human. It is a reality test, coextensive with divine judgment. Heidegger’s experiment can be concluded with a theorization of divine judgment. Nature saves and preserves the works of God’s creation, but the works of man undergo judgment. In Revelations the final judgment is both a Wedding Feast, of the Lamb to his Bride, the Church, and an apocalypse. In other words, some works are judged good and therefore recur to establish being and time, and some become condemned sites.
The Biblical point of return is feminine, because it is a work of love. It is marked by the ritual of marriage as the life-giving source of meaning and the techne of biographical memory.
Marriage as Eternal Telos
Though not the final event in the chronology of the five acts, marriage is nevertheless the eternal telos and the source of internal illumination of the tragedy. Every lasting work contained in the dramatic poem “Romeo and Juliet,” be it a trope of learned contemplation, a strophe of seduction, an image of vice, a portrait of virtue, or an eloquent philosophical argument, is a work of the holy union between the two young lovers, since it takes its significance directly from the event of their union in the chapel.
Ex Voto and Effigy
The two golden statues pledged by the survivors at the end are an eloquent effigyand a kind of ex voto offered for the healing of the families, whose strife had condemned their generation to mortal sin:
Effigy of Mary Queen of Scots 1542-1587
Capulet: O brother Montague, give me thy hand./ This is my daughter’s jointure, for no more/ Can I demand
Montague: But I can give thee more/ For I will raise her statue in pure gold,/ That whiles Verona by that name is known,/ There shall no figure at such rate be set/ As that of true and faithful Juliet.
Old Montague is pledging an ex voto that won’t bring his child back, but will serve to establish the identity of Verona, much like Thebes rests on the bones of the royal family of King Oedipus. This belongs to the tragic formatting of the poem. The marriage bond, coextensive as it is with the dramatic work, exceeds the Greek tragic format of both the sacrifice of the young lives and the identity of the city. The play contains the flower of their bond. Like the golden effigy pledged by Old Capulet, it is their true living legacy that will not only leave the walls of Verona, but also of London and go on a worldwide journey to attend the moment of eternal recurrence that Revelations call “The Wedding Feast of the Lamb,” when all victims are “raised again.”
Unlike Thebes, their tragedy does not become the tragedy of Verona, but remains the incomparably beautiful and beloved legacy of Romeo and Juliet, who then, like wandering stars, set off on a journey worldwide. The vehicle that sets them on a journey of global circulation is not the death of the creaturely phenomenological horizon, but love enframed by marriage.
St. Rita’s Legacy and the Union with the Lamb
The Saint of the Italian vendettas is St. Rita. The mortal rivalries plagued Italian youths for centuries and re-rooted the otherwise Christian belief system that prevailed on the peninsula in the ancient rituals of blood sacrifice. St. Rita was married off into a powerful family involved in a vendetta when she was only 13, the age of Juliet. She lost her husband to the vendetta and was about to lose her sons, but they were “spared” by untimely death by sickness. Rita took that as a sign that her prayers had worked. She knew no greater death than the damnation awaiting her sons if they were to commit the mortal sin of murder in the course of the vendetta.
Her faith was so enormous that she managed to reconcile the families and bore patiently a permanent wound in her forehead. Rita refused to let the wound heal. She believed every symptom, suffering, and trial we endure brings us closer to union with the Lamb.
Mortification of the Flesh in Marriage
This is another aspect of the Wedding Feast mentioned in Revelations: every work brought for judgement to the Feast, like the ex votos carried to the tragic stage or to the holy shrine, has to overcome some unique form of suffering, which sin roots in mortality. The vendettas are an obvious example. This gives the doctrine of mortification of the flesh a new and very special meaning.
Rita of Cascia’s wound never healed. She bore it fervently and was able to perform minor miracles of healing through the sheer power of her personality. Notorious in Cascia during her lifetime she became the patron saint of the city.
Today she is known as the Saint of improbable causes, the most improbable being faith itself.
French postwar painter Ives Klein dedicated his ex-voto to St. Rita in an act of defiance of the materialism of the art market. The sacraments dedicate all Christian works to sanctified love, even if it is not of one’s own marital bond. This is a very interesting moment in Christian thought palpable in Shakespeare. Ex-votos renounce the individuality of the symptom, yet for artists they take on the meaning of devotional objects in circulation. Thus marriage becomes the unique setting for the articulation of individuality. The circulability of works is a mark of common currency that guarantees their exchange value. It is finite and creaturely. The story they tell of suffering humanity on its journey to the wedding feast is in excess of tragic formatting. Marriage is the techne of love, the transformation and sublimation of the apple of original sin.
The Beautiful People
Rene Magritte, Le Beau Monde, 1960
The apple in Le Beau Monde is not a physical apple, but a two-dimensional image. The image recoups transient creation. But Magritte takes the act and product of painting itself as his object. He removes the proverbial apple, the source of temptation and ultimate object of original sin, twice from its fallen physical state. His is not a mere image of an ordinary apple, but an image that points to its second nature as image and a sublimated object. It is conscious of being a mirror within a mirror.
Magritte takes the apple of original sin out of its context in the natural world and then also removes it from the context of the technical world of painting. Magritte goes a step beyond Heidegger. Its pure technical essence consists of a few brushstrokes, colour, paint, and canvas (the elements in Ives Klein’s ex voto). Magritte sublimates the very materiality of the medium of representation and achieves a new level of sublimation at a time in history when his medium, painting, has become stale and desublimated as a cultural artefact.
A point of recurrence punctuates the transition from old to new techne. Nietzsche and the Odyssey place recurrence in the feminine province of love. Christian thought will make it its fundamental reality principle by making the Wedding of the Lamb the goal and point of recurrence of the Divine Comedy.
At a time when painting an apple has become an ordinary act, Magritte sublimates the crude, material act of painting by removing it one metaphysical level further from the origin.
Magritte, Son of Man, 1964
Magritte’s later work The Son of Man takes this self-reflexive process of sublimation even further. He paints his self-portrait as Christ and covers it with the trivialized image of an apple. The face we put in circulation in social circles is neither original nor unique. It hides the real face with a pre-fabricated image, a product of old cultural processes of sublimation that have been automated in their production of ‘individual’ identities.
Sublimation re-channels and re-creates the symbolic pathways of raw creaturely desire. A form of mourning that dispenses with the negative half of emotional ambivalence toward the dead, it does not deny nor conceal the loss.
New linguistic and artistic shapes and beings arise from basic instincts, movements and emotions when the natural object is withdrawn.
Between Death and Sublimation: Reality Tasting, Feasting, Consuming
Titian, Noli Me Tangere, 1514
In the gospel of John 20, Jesus appears in the flesh on the evening of the first day of the week and admonishes Mary Magdalene, whom he finds weeping next to his empty tomb, not to touch him.
The new testament achieves another marriage, that of the Greco-Roman and the Jewish heritage flowing into one world of love’s works. The conclusive event, the wedding feast of the Lamb, however, is neither final, nor singular, nor historical. Since it represents the ultimate telos, it is also the point of its eternal recurrence.
Freud introduced the term “sublimation” as a model for the psychological reality of Ovidian epic, which is metamorphosis. For Freud reality is the product of a process of testing in the wake of death, caesura, or permanent loss.
Judgment is also a kind of caesura and death. It withholds something of great value and disrupts the fabric of life in the psychological world of the subject. Reality testing is a form of mourning and repair of the damage inflicted by traumatic loss. It covers the period during which the mourner has to confirm the loss as real.
It is significant that Jesus does not allow Mary to touch him, not because she is doubting his resurrection like Thomas will, but because she must establish the reality of his death. The interruption constitutes the meaning-giving caesura. It is the moment of re-creation. The time of re-collection of the works, human and divine, fills the presence of the departed. Here it is the presence of Christ. This is the time when reality is made. The period between death and resurrection represents the psychological timeframe of reality testing, which establishes the core reality principle. It is a time of material absence, literally untouchable by the senses: “noli me tangere.”
What returns is the essence and internal being of the departed. Their transformed, reconfigured presence is re-collected from the good works. In the case of St. Rita of Cascia it is the famous rose that grew in the barren winter garden of her family home.
The Good Husband
Romeo is a melancholic. He is deeply entangled in the pleasures of metamorphosis. In fact, we first encounter him in a sycamore grove, mourning Rosaline an inch too deeply to be psychologically healthy. The sycamore is a symbol of aberrant forms of love well known to artists. An artist who delights in the sweet pleasures of parting, Romeo is also very skilled with the rapier. Romeo is Shakespeare, an indulgent and glamorous self-portrait. Poets, like good husbands, glory in the art and passion of departure.
This kind of passion is not unaccounted for in the Bible. In fact, it is central. When Jesus admonishes the Magdalene not to touch him, He also says that he is not yet ascended to the Father. Not yet ascended, He is in the space between death and reunion. The moment of eternal recurrence is the birthplace of earthly reality in its human essence, that is, as constitutive of human presence. In a sense we are always already ghosts.
“Noli me tangere” refers to the fundamental principle of Christian reality, which means beyond mortality and the mortal creaturely essence. Untouchable and unavailable to the immediacy of the creaturely senses, the immaterial reality of sublimation structures the sacramental experience of Shakespeare’s works.
Romeo and Juliet’s problem is one of oral impatience, as Freud would call it. Impatience impedes their ability to process the absence of the other. Their response to the reality of banishment is exactly to disobey the commandment: noli me tangere. Their failure initiates a relentless cycle of death: Mercutio, Tybald, Paris, Romeo, and Juliet.
Jesus appears to the Magdalene on the evening of the first day of the week. Sunday evening is the pregnant time before the workweek begins. It represents symbolically the time of conception of works. Sunday is a time of recurrence and repetition. Because it is the day God rested, it is empty of His creation and filled with the human works of love, invention and re-creation. All flowers and fruits of marriage belong to Sunday, from children to the dazzling sepulchre of Romeo and Juliet.
Juliet’s passion, her unique suffering is not initiated by murder as Romeo’s, but by a transgression against the name. The function of the name changes in the Christian experience. Christ’s sword delivers the cut of self-difference. The introduction of Biblical thought to the Greco-Roman cultural foundation changed the tragic dis-articulation of family identity by making a further division within the family. ” Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.35For I have come to turn “ ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’c (Matthew 10:34-36). Recreation introduces self-difference, absent in tragic sacrifice.
In language, the individuality dwells in the spaces between signifiers. Difference is the origin of poetry and the idiomatic calculus of unique interiors. In the endless chatter of language, a caesura introduces the breaking point where Christ’s sword cuts the self in two to introduce divine presence. Heidegger calls this presence techne. This healing cut vouchsafes the unique truth and being of the individuality. St. Rita’s attachment to her wound understood this profoundly. The sacramental use of the name altered its function from an objective unit in the chain of signifiers, whose meaning is guaranteed by blood lineage or by the nomos in Greco-Roman logic, to a guardian of unique suffering. It is the portal between language and internal infinity.
Juliet’s raw desire erases the name and precipitates regression to Greek tragic formatting. Violation of the limit built into the name initiates a relentless cycle of tragic annihilation.
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself. (R&J II.ii.38-48)
The limit Juliet fails is the name. This purely linguistic operation erases Romeo’s and her own humanity. It is her wound, moreover, that makes her frantic but futile actions an engine of greater hunger for what she cannot have because it is already inside.
Her wound initiates an endless mourning ritual we still engage with pleasure. In the tragic format of the tale, the names of the young lovers, the very names they erased in their youthful passion, remain the monument of their union for all eternity: Romeo and Juliet. Their mortal passion becomes their passport to the global systems of circulation.
Circulation (to be continued)
Paul Klee, Sirens of Ships, 1917
Paul Klee’s 1917 image of the Sirens of Ships is an interesting commentary on the psychology of global circulability, epic transformation, and adultery. The Sirens represent the Bard Homer, whose song of war glory tempts men away from their work of marriage. Sirens beckon with the adulterous temptations Odysseus had to conquer on his long journey home to his spouse, Penelope. But unlike the Sirens of war, the crossed stars of Romeo and Juliet keep testing our works for their fitness to grace the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Reality testing and tasting is an endless work of epic transformation and sublimation.
The main attribute of our personal idenity, the name, is, as Juliet discovers on her balcony, not part of the creaturely body governed by desire. Literary and philosophical contemplations of love and desire often bring the boundary between family identity and group identity into sharp focus. Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” can enrich the theoretical discussion of the tensions between private and pubic identity as the play refines the distinctions between love and desire, between the name and the word, as well as between the self, the family, and the state. Not unlike Sophocles’s “Antigone,” a tragedy about the clash between family duty and state duty, (on the tragic aesthetics of State design please see: Tragic Design), this early play by the Bard reformats the relationship between tragic love and family identity.
Shakespeare’s play is perhaps the crowning masterpiece in the Western canon about the limit built into the very nature of love, a limit that is intimately related to the function of the name and to the growth and flowering of living language. The boundary introduced by the name is central to the growth of language and all the arts, because it erects an irreducible difference and a remainder into the grammatical calculus of language. The name introduces difference and an inviolable limit, which girds man’s divine presence like a halo and protects his dignity as a child of God. The divine nature of humanity is given in language. The name is the limit at which language originates and at which it must also stop if it is not to consume itself without remainder and thus also annihilate the human world language constitutes.
The Name of Adoption
The name is the cornerstone of Western morality built not on pagan but on Biblical principles, because the Bible altered the function of the name from representing the bare life of a pure biological unit to a mark of divine nature and grace. This is the function of the sacrament of baptism, which symbolised God’s adoption of the name. It is not just an empty ritual. Historically it altered the way language functions by introducing the immaterial dimension to mores, morality, all human relationships, and above all, it to one’s relationship to the self.
Forms of metaphysics and narcissistic worship of the self are well known and widely available in antiquity. Classical metaphysics remain absolutely dependent on physics through the logos (word and logic) and the nomos (law). They are not related in any way to human agency and the name it carries. The name introduces an inviolable limit within language, a limit desire seeks to transgress, but without which love becomes superfluous, its sublimating power drained of actuality, and aesthetic currency emptied of its immaterial minting.
Aesthetic currency is pure desire. Juliet’s transgression is all-consuming love, the kind of love known as desire in the philosophical lexicon: hot, unruly and uncontrollable creaturely passion destined for death. Desire is not conditioned by the internal law of the individual being, but by purely external, objective, shared reality. “You kiss by the book” says Juliet to Romeo, who at the time of their encounter is emerging from a fresh break-up, emotionally battered and internally unavailable for a new relationship. Juliet runs the show from the very beginning. Romeo follows, blindly worshipping at Juliet’s altar. His emasculation, like the erasure of his baptismal name, is the tragic action driving the play. He is going through the motions of courtship automatically, “by the book,” even bureaucratically. Desire burns his and Juliet’s young lives quickly and leaves nothing but their desire as their legacy.
The aesthetic conventions of desire consumed the individual without remainder. In the true fashion of tragic poetry, which shatters the flawed hero onstage only to preserve the rules of classical perfection, which are purely external and ostentatiously public, Romeo and Juliet’s remains become the common property of the world. Indeed, countless languages, media, and art forms have adopted and adapted the play since its original appearance in London. Only the internalisation of their transgression individualises their passion and confers upon it a saving grace.
Political Misappropriation of Juliet’s Tragedy: Nomos over Name
The en vogue interpretation of the play among scholars of the new historicist school of thought today foregrounds the young couple’s victimisation by traditional values. This interpretation justifies social design of racial and cultural interbreeding as a form of intervention in tragic destiny. This classical state intervention, however, is not supported by Shakespeare. It ignores basic cultural distinctions between the classical and the biblical traditions, as well as among biblical traditions.
The internal logic (nomos: law) of the tragedy of desire and the two corpses it inevitably produces is as dead-certain and fixed from the beginning as the law of gravity. Interracial unions based on racial identities, which conflate the distinction between the group, the family, and the individual in one dominant racial currency, inevitably produce violence and senseless destruction. Such is the tragic nature of the limit family identity posits to group identity. The group cannot articulate itself except through the family, but in order to adopt a family identity, the group must sacrifice it, that is, articulate its desire as common aesthetic currency. This was the function of Greek tragedy.
Ancient Rome demanded the sacrifice of the family to the state. It permitted the articulation of family identity only within the circulable discursive network of the state. In this case, interracial union is simply a matter of state interests, neither family nor individual interest. The relentless calculus of tragic aesthetics governed the ancient world and even as it pitted existence against the harsh realities of desire, it also developed the fine arts at the locus and limit between the nomos of the state and the family. Roman patricians took great pride in their family history, but only insofar as it served the ars memoria of the state.
Civic Crown: Nomos not Name
Biblical Name & Freudian View of the Family
Only in Jewish thought is family identity completely subsumed by group identity. The names listed in the Old Testament are inviolable and protected, not subsumable by the law (nomos). In the old testamentary biblical context interracial breeding becomes taboo. Freud’s thought originated in this tradition, which he confused, unwittingly and unfortunately, with the Greek tragic tradition. This made his articulation of the psychoanalytic world-view of the family as the centre of the universe a little blurry. But Freud made a mistake by merging tragic with Jewish family identity. The natural mores of gentile nations and their moral universe remained materially grounded in the tragic distinctness of the family from the nation. Tragic poetry, and later in Rome, more neutrally, pastoral poetry, served to articulate distinct family identities. Thus gentiles maintained a crucial distinction between the group and the family that is not available in other identity patterns.
Christian Re-Interpretation of Classical Identity Patterns
I will devote future posts to the Greco-Roman virtue of sacrificing the interests of the family to those of the state, especially Shakespeare’s Christian treatment of the material in “Coriolanus” and the other three Roman plays. Suffice to say at this point that the creative lancet of classical aesthetics operates between the family and the state. This is the price and the place of classical perfection. The profoundly Catholic Jacques Lacan considers tragedy the ultimate calculus of desire’s irreversible march toward death.
Christ’s Sword: Birth of Self-Difference
The introduction of Biblical thought to the Greco-Roman cultural foundation changed the tragic dis-articulation of family identity by making a further division within the family. The Christian individuality under God is separate from the family, as well as from the group/state. In antiquity separation from the family was normal and expected. In Jewish thought it is unthinkable. Christ has Romans and Greeks in mind when He says: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.35For I have come to turn “ ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’c (Matthew 10:34-36). What Christ introduces in this crucial passage is self-difference, which is absent in both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultural reality.
Self-difference produces an infinite remainder that prevents annihilation of the individual. His consummation by social, biological, aesthetic, and all other currencies he shares with a group, be it family, tribe, national group or political organisation, is never total and complete. Self-difference produces a remainder that does not obey the logic of time and nature. It has its internal clock and calculus, even as it encloses the temporal and the natural world. Mathematically self-difference is evident in the number Pi. Simultaneously a finite value, a conglomerate of finite values, and an infinite number, Pi is the number of individuality.
In language, the individuality dwells in the spaces between signifiers. Difference is the origin of poetry and the idiomatic calculus of unique interiors. In the endless chatter of language, a caesura introduces the breaking point where Christ’s sword cuts the self in two to introduce divine presence. This healing cut vouchsafes the unique truth and being of the individuality. The Christian context altered the function of the name profoundly. From objective unit in the chain of signifiers, whose meaning is guaranteed by blood lineage in Jewish thought or by the nomos in Greco-Roman logic, the name becomes the guarantor of a unique interior. The name is a portal to language and to internal infinity.
Desire and Regression to Tragedy
Desire erases the baptismal name and precipitates regression to tragic formatting. Shakespeare sets tragic regression in motion with Juliet’s famous balcony soliloquy. Violation of the limit built into the name initiates a relentless cycle of tragic annihilation.
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy; Thou art thyself, though not a Montague. What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot, Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part Belonging to a man. O, be some other name! What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d, Retain that dear perfection which he owes Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name, And for that name which is no part of thee Take all myself. (R&J II.ii.38-48)
The limit Juliet fails, the source of her transgression, is the conflation of the word and the name. This purely linguistic operation erases his humanity. Words in circulation represent a system of signification that orders the created world. We name creatures, but as creatures ourselves we lose the power to name. Nature is mute. Only humanity has the God-given gift of language, the medium of human creation. A bee may remain a bee even if we call it a violet or a true. The name of an object is replaceable. Stripping a Christian of his name by equating him with his race or family annihilates his interior and his being. Juliet’s curse, much like Romeo’s, is their bondage to families that indulged the magnificent tragic passions of family rivalry. Italy inherited the tragic arts of Rome and never really let go of them.
The function of the name is to stop the infinite circulability of words, to mark a limit that re-routs external passions to the interior. It also protects the teaching of Scripture, which no Christian can claim in his own name. Christ said “I am not here in my own name, but in the name of the Father.” This was necessary for the conversion of gentiles. The maker of their identities is not God, but the pale, earthy image of desire and its tragic beauty. This is why their initiation in the Biblical lineage is by adoption only, that is, by grace. The sublimation of Romeo and Juliet’s gruesome end is an act of grace. The play initiated an endless mourning ritual we still engage with pleasure. Shakespeare gives each character enough time to begin mourning and internalising the other marking a temporal caesura for their salvation.
The Limit in Love
Though Romeo and Juliet do marry, the consummation of their love is without remainder until the bitter end when Shakespeare makes them mourn each other and acknowledge their difference. The erasure of the name is also an erasure of the limit between the two. In a sense the tragedy of their union is the total merger of the two individualities. A love too passionate to stop at the threshold of transgression that consumes the beloved is star-crossed in its nature. Ironically, it is the names Shakespeare gave the young lovers, the very names they erased in their youthful passion, that remain as their only monument for all eternity: Romeo and Juliet.
In the ancient currency of tragic aesthetics the name is accidental, objective, and property of the state. In Christianity, the name simultaneously designates the entry to the interior and the guarantee of objective reality of Scripture. It certifies the name-bearer’s dual citizenship in the reality of Scripture and in his own difference from it. In a sense, it transports the tragic cut between the gentile family name and the classical nomos within the self. Because we know self-difference ourselves, we can identify with the transgression of the young lovers. Their passion remains in the cleavage between the self and its negative.
As self-difference the name constitutes an internal tragedy, the separation of one’s own name from the name of the Father. Self-difference is the essence of Christian passion. It is not narcissism, because there is no pure yield of pleasure nor self-worship, but to the contrary, a glorification
of difference. The identity pattern of self-difference initiated industrialisation and Western liberalism. The latter permitted other cultures and religions to participate in the project of modern statehood. Whether the politicisation of an internal Christian principle was a positive development is a question for another post.
What does the name have to do with the news? Which identity pattern emerges in the news and how do we relate to it?
Tragic Design today: 68th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes. (AFP PHOTO / ANTONIN THUILLIER)
The Internal and Eternal Stage
An actor is in possession of heavily curated, poetically designed content he skilfully executes on a stage of streaming light and relentless scrutiny. What comes before and after the performance, the behind-the scenes machinery and the technologies of memory employed to seal the transient moment in time link the flawless material presented in the limelight to the interior of the actor and his accomplice, the beholder. The interior represents the stage in its dismantled state and exposes its mechanics. One can say the internal actor is the only “doer,” the engine behind acting and the mere appearance of action. His script is the decisive one. The doer makes an `appearance in James 1:22, among other lines: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” A user asked the question how can a contemporary “doer,” actively collect, cure, and preserve a unique individuality from the plethora of available material goods. There are three components to address in this question: understanding proper action and its time; learning to value and research one’s unique and infinite interior as the dwelling place of the Lord; and mastering the two-way street between products in circulation and the interior.
Collecting and curating one’s identity as the dwelling place of the Lord is a life-long task and an indefinite therapeutic process. This internal action is therapeutic precisely because individual difference is always experienced as discomfort, loss, or as a symptom. At the very least, a symptom or discomfort, such as a chronic illness, a minor disability, or poverty, represents an opening and an invitation to enter a relationship with God and to begin the therapeutic process of establishing one’s interior identity as His dwelling place. This is the calling of iCulture therapy.
The term therapy is not applied loosely. At the centre of the practice iCulture teaches is the question of health. How do we think about health? How do we think about a symptom? I refer frequently to the knowledge base of psychoanalysis here because it is the only systematic discourse besides medical science that addresses health philosophically, linguistically, experimentally, in a way that can be meaningful to the individual in times of bodily and emotional distress. By definition the health standard is the common property against which the individuality asserts itself, so by default one’s unique individuality is experienced as a symptom. This is what made individualism a threat to ancient societies, which feared it and imposed long lists of laws designed to regulate and contain it. All ancient civilisations without exception used violent methods to suppress individual deviation from the law in the name of public health.
One example of ritualistic suppression of individualism is Greek tragic poetry, which staged trials of cases of conflict between the individual will and the will of the state, as we’ll see with the analysis of Sophocles’s 4th century BC “Antigone” below. In his 1912 work “Totem and Tabu,” Freud also observed that the laws of ancient sacrifice-based religions resemble neurotic symptoms. Freud may have confused individual symptoms with the symptoms of the social group, which also has a unique body and an individuality, but his insight into the compulsive-neurotic structure of the suppression of individual thought and expression is valuable. It indicates a constant threat of regression to the psychological mechanisms of ancient civilisations.
Only in Christian civilisation is the individuality pursued with vigour and passion, but also under condition that it acts — becomes a ‘doer’ — of the divine word. This is why forgiveness and mercy are the cornerstone of Christian teaching. Everyone is bound to make a mistake, even fall and get derailed, processes whereby an individual learns to collect his identity. It is through mercy, however, that the individual is granted the right to recover and give expression to his unique personal history. Unlike other founding books, the New Testament became the historical door to an infinity of books and spawned the only civilisation to invest in technologies of universal literacy.
Scientist are currently exploring the role of language in DNA modification, but the knowledge they produce on the subject would do us little good if all we can draw from it is further rules, laws, and common uses of language. To be effective in treating individual symptoms and transgressions, language must be both absolutely individual and unique to the person composing its works and translatable in common language. No easy task. Only in Christianity is every individual a reader of the book and a ‘high priest’ granted the authority to perform the sacraments. We don’t need special certification, permission, or training to read the Bible. For Christians individual prayer is as important as collective prayer. But for individual prayer to be meaningful as such, it must be written or spoken in one’s unique internal language. This requires us to develop a singular poetic idiom. It was this need for individual expression more than anything else that spurred the rise and fall of the splendid, but now as good as lost, era of European literary arts.
To pause briefly before we get to the main object of our discussion today, tragedy, let us define a “doer,” in the Jamesean sense of the word, as an actor on the divine stage directed by scripture and by the tale written in one’s unique linguistic DNA. This makes the collection of one’s interior out of the material goods and signs available in the world not some narcissistic whim or vanity, but the fulfilment of God’s design. It makes our relationship to language and poetry the central task in the life of a Christian. It is a labor of love. Soon the site will add a section where users will have the opportunity to pen, style, and share their stories and poems. But first we need to familiarise ourselves with the historic designs of grand interiors.
Tragic Design: Portrait of Louis XIV, after Hyacinthe Rigaud, Gift of J. Paul Getty. Digital image courtesy the Getty’s Open Content Program
Tragic Design: Je m’en vais, mais l’État demeurera toujours
To understand the action of perfect objects, we have to begin with the object that emerges in the course of tragic action. Proportion and perfection of beauty is something we have been studying copiously from classical antiquity. We expect the same from our plastic surgeons. Yet, the price of material perfection, the token of its exchangeability, is tragedy. How we frame, use, sublimate, and ultimately overcome tragedy determines our actions on the divine stage.
No one understood the importance of tragic spectacle for the fashioning of political power better than the French cardinals of the seventeenth century who set up the stage, literally, for the most opulent display of rulership that was the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. What the cardinals ignored, however, as they reached for the ancient Greek formulas of unsurpassed beauty, proportion, and clarity of purpose in a public figure was the increasingly complex, profound, and ever better articulated psychological reality that had penetrated the vernacular languages with the introduction of Christian thought and sacrament.
The translation of the Bible into vernacular languages was not so much the beginning as the end of a long process of linguistic evolution that culminated in the psychological virtuosity of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. The French cardinals who designed the first and last monarch to be be fully identified with the state — L’État c’est Moi — were driven by their ancient rivalry with England, a country that had moreover just broken off from Catholicism and espoused the Protestant faith. The unprecedented power of Shakespearean theatre to move, educate, and influence public perception of rulers without sparing any of the flaws and symptoms of their individual personas was a gauntlet on the ground to the French clergy. In response, France focused on a revival of the Greek tragic arts instead of pursuing the psychological depths Shakespeare discovered for language, poetry, and the stage of political spectacle. This single development in what may seem an off-the-cuff literary peculiarity in the history of French design set powerful linguistic processes in motion that dominate French thinking to this date, as we will see is the case with Lacan’s reception of German philosophy and psychoanalysis in his reading of the classical drama “Antigone.”
We may not have access to the original purpose and setting of Greek tragic spectacle, not in any absolute terms, but we do know it was rooted in something like contemporary public health, a social extension of medical practice. Enough evidence exists that the original mis-en-scene consisted of ex voto devotional objects, which served to represent a healthy body or outcome to implore or thank the gods for healing. The pinax (http://www.stoa.org/diotima/essays/fc04/Skinner.html) entombing the action unfolding on stage are also among the first technologies of memory. Eventually they were used for such mundane transactions as writing down debt. As in medical theatres, tragic action performs a dissection of a vital social organ, specifically the moral or state organ, by showcasing a diseased version of it in its relentless course toward death and decay and concluding with the triumph of the state as the final instance of healing and reconciliation. Unlike Western democracies, which inherited the Christian moral order and eventually separated it from the state, in ancient Greece the state was the ultimate instance of moral authority. The gods were equally subject to transgression and hence hardly a paragon of moral health, but since they were immortal, they could afford it. For humans, on the other hand, transgressions were much deadlier. Per Aristotle’s definition (https://www.stmarys-ca.edu/sites/default/files/attachments/files/Poetics.pdf) the players on the tragic stage are royal, heads of state, and their transgressions are the engine driving the action. The spectacle unfolded among rich folds of the votive pinax: representations of wholesome and healthy human, social, and family bodies. Tragic spectacle is an early technology of memory that served to imprint the consequences of bad moral choices on the impressionable minds of the spectators much like healthy figures were engraved on votive tablets:
Nietzsche believed tragic poetry was born of the need to give forbidden emotional states full expression in dithyrambic verse. Like Heidegger after him, he longed for a perceived innocent childhood still nestled in the pure state of Greek antiquity, which both philosophers believed to be the native land of the only creative power available to humanity, poetry. Both thinkers ignored, forgot or simply failed to consider the movement of translatio studii and translatio imperii that took place first from Greece to Rome and then through the advent of Christianity to the Holy Roman Empire and Western civilisation. The transformations of ancient Greek civilisation through these monumental changes in the cultural and belief systems of the West were so significant that we no longer have direct access to the original context. In a sense, ancient Greek civilisation is extinct and has buried its secrets irremediably. One major transformation that changed the role of tragic spectacle was the transition from prehistoric religions based on sacrificial worship to a religion that abolished sacrifice once and for all through the Last Supper and the sacrament of the communion. Eschewing their Christian formatting, both Nietzsche and Heidegger, not only failed to reflect on that part of their thought structure, but also failed to recognise that ancient Greece was a claustrophobic world of animal and human sacrifice for which tragedy was a final and irreversible outcome, not a private expression of interior opulence.
We introduced psychoanalytic thought with Jacques Lacan to help us understand the world of objects from the point of view of psychological reality. But with Lacan we also hit a snag and a dead end, because his attempt to reconcile Freudian pre-historic thought with the classicist philosophy of Heidegger left a major historical component out of the picture, Christian experience. Lacan is Catholic and took a very critical view of Christianity. Moreover, Catholicism stalled centuries ago, because it was unable to process its own experience and to this day remains stubbornly resistant to subjective experience and to history, which is paradoxically its major calling. But the Latin base of historic Christianity remains central to the material, worldly articulation and manifestation of Christian practice, which is historically tied to Catholicism through the Nicene creed. Rome remains the portal through which Christ entered history and changed it forever.
The task of reconciling the Christian world and getting the Catholic Church to perform its duty may still be ahead of us, but for our purposes, in order to establish intelligent, reflected, meaningful consumer practices that honor the time and labor that goes into the creation and manufacture of objects, we need to understand the world of objects and consumer products. The classical definition of the object as something that confronts the subject is still prevalent today, but no longer reflects the reality of the Christian and post-Christian experience. Like Heidegger, Lacan was unable to think outside the constraints imposed on his philosophical platform by the classical Greek concept of the object.
Insofar as the interior is not entirely independent from historical formatting, the public articulation of its individual design not only includes the national or ethnic identity as a component, but in cases of complete foreclosure of individual development is perfectly identical with it. In this case of sacrificial identity construction, the internal format is an engineered object entirely dependent on the national historical art and literary archive. This structuralist reality is mirrored in Lacan’s perfectly French, perfectly tragic, and perfectly Catholic philosophical system. His reception of psychoanalysis was in full accord with the cultural tradition of classicism he as a Frenchman and a Catholic inherited from the state. The death of Louis XIV, as the king himself predicted, was the birth of the modern French state, an ex nihilo Catholic bureaucracy, born of the death of the individuality and perfectly subordinated to the radical finitude of tragic action. We only need to search out the arguments in Lacan’s oeuvres about action and tragedy to establish a full and consummate accord between his object of observation and his thought process. The utter exclusion of individual development is striking and allows for a perfect, closed system that perpetuates itself in endless revolutions of the same cycle. The French system of revolutionary cyclicality was then perfectly copied and reflected in Hegel’s phenomenology.
Let’s take a closer look at Lacan’s reading of Sophocles’s “Antigone.” He positions the tragic figure of Antigone between two deaths and tells us this is the linguistic space where technological invention happens. He writes: “The style of the poem [Sophocles’s “Antigone”], which is that of the chorus, represents Polynices’s soldiers and his shadow strangely enough as a huge bird hovering above the houses. The image of our modern ears as something that glides overhead was already made concrete in 441 BC.” Though he doesn’t cite it, Lacan is referring to Heidegger’s essay on technology, which suggests that the transformation of Antigone into a threatening bird and a menace for the community in the course of a tragic performance constitutes the poetic invention of the airplane. Lacan is most certainly referring to Heidegger’s airplane as he searches for the ethics of psychoanalysis among the remains of Greek tragedy.
Though he tells us we don’t have the key to read ancient Greco-Roman civilisation in its original context, he nevertheless performs a classicist reading of ethics as a code of law for regulating human relations. Lacan’s greatest discovery was the dependence of human desire on the law, an insight he believes to have borrowed from Freud’s interpretation of the tragedy of Oedipus as the most fundamental human psychological structure. Antigone is Oedipus daughter and sister, a child of incest, like her brothers. The basic formula of the exquisite tragic poem is: a conflict breaks out between her and her uncle Creon, the king of Thebes, when he announces that only one of the dead warring brothers is to receive state funeral, Antigone refuses to accept the decree, defies her uncle and buries her brother Polynices, getting herself excommunicated and buried alive in the process. This is why Lacan is referring to a time span between two deaths. He is referring to the time between her live burial in the self-made tomb of her brother and her eventual natural death. He is suggesting that every tragic process whereby subjectivity is born, lives and dies, is a live burial in the structures of the community, which he views as tombs. The poem is indeed breathtakingly beautiful. Every word is in perfect position and proportion to harmonise with every other and together they produce a veritable music of the cosmic spheres. The perfection of the poem is almost otherworldly and supernatural. The structures of the community, the burial caskets of Classical subjectivity, are gloriously seductive, as Lacan never tires of reminding us.
Antigone stands for absolute individualism after the classical conception of both object and subject. Her figure represents the right of the non-reproductive part of family identity, that which is truly unique among immediate family members. Greek law was founded on the prohibition of incest and hence it must have considered the kind of individualism Antigone stands for to be absolute barbarism. Exclusion from the community is death. This was the meaning of sacrifice in prehistoric religions. A sacrifice was offered as a token of one’s renunciation of one’s individuality. The part of the individual that remains banned from the community is in a sense dead, but this is also what makes it valuable to the future, because its action, unlike tragic action, is an event. Tragic action is not event-producing. The final founding sacrifice of the Christian creed, on the other hand, the death of the Christ on the cross, changed the game completely. Instead of sacrificing one’s identity, one dedicates it to Christ, the last material sacrifice — last supper — and that allows the otherwise doomed individuality to unfold in the immaterial realm of sublimation. In the Christian world Antigone would not encounter the resistance her tragic figure needs to be born and to define itself, but she has an important function nevertheless: through her the entire underworld peopled with the dead of ancient Greece and Rome gets a chance at salvation in Christ. She carries her unburied brothers in the splendid, blinding beauty of her tragic features.
For Lacan the ethics of psychoanalysis was the promise to liberate desire structured by libido. He found desire ‘sandwiched’ between two deaths because of the prohibition of incest, which formats the private sphere on one end and the law of the community, which structures the social sphere, on the other. For Lacan, there is no such thing as interiority or at least there is no way of communicating it. Indeed within the classical frame that is true. But this is precisely what Christianity liberated. Greco-Roman civilisation had no concept of the interior, the individuality, which it equated with barbarism. Ultimately, this inability to reflect the interior doomed ancient civilisations to extinction. They were star-crossed to find their desire trapped between two deaths and be irresistibly drawn to their own doom on the barbaric outskirts on which they projected their dreaded interior.
The case is very different with the Biblical tradition. Its law is not based on the prohibition of incest. To be sure incest is prohibited, but it does not form the core identity of the group and its desire, as in classical thought and society, to which Freud and Lacan also belong. Biblical law, because it is not grounded in the prohibition of incest, can only be fulfilled in its own dissolution in love, caritas. The second death of which Lacan speaks in a sense is dissolved in the absolution of the first. As mere text, an individual literary work, “Antigone” represents the legacy of the defeated and unburied Polynices. This is exactly what takes place in the Christian practice of caritas, a carrying forth after death, a survival after death. This was the secret Shakespeare buried in his poetry, which is all that remains, as he tells us in Sonnet 18:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
In the Greek scenario, instead of Antigone, Oedipus returns to lay down the law of the community. If that were not the case, Antigone would have no reason to oppose Creon’s decision and entomb herself with her disgraced brother. Had she believed her participation in Greek civic life could have carried forth the memory of Polynices, she would have obeyed her uncle. But because Greek civilisation had no place and no knowledge of the interior, it also had no formats to which women could contribute. The fact that Antigone considers a potential husband and child insufficient means of preserving and transmitting the legacy of her excommunicated brother, speaks eloquently for the low regard of the family in classical civilisations. Hence emphasis was placed on military action, where lost and confused men sought in vain after what they could have found in the family, namely private glory. Shakespeare revisits this problematic in “Coriolanus,” which is his rendition of Polynices’s tragedy.
Was the airplane invented in poetry with the splendid image of tragic Antigone? Heidegger considered poetry the driving force behind all technological invention. Poetry, techne, was simply state-of-the-art means of representing being, which is hidden in language. Lacan follows in his footsteps when he claims Sophocles invented modern airspace warfare with his poem “Antigone.” Lacan and Heidegger are absolute classicists, for whom death and its form of power among the living, which is the law, represent an absolute limit. This is why they could not conceive of human desire as anything beyond carnal pleasures that do not participate in poetry. Not so for Shakespeare.
Heidegger modified the concept of the traditional philosophical term “object” to account for the new objects of technology by shifting the emphasis to the more general term “thing.” Forgetting the techno-philosophical background of the term’s origin in Heidegger’s thought trajectory, Lacan applies it, nevertheless correctly, to the psychoanalytic object of desire, making the thing a creation ex nihilo, Latin for ‘out of nothingness.’ He illustrated the concept with the object of the empty vase, which does not hold an object, but rather nothingness. The empty space signifies nothing beyond an essence that can only be revealed in the course of its being put to use, in the course of its proper time. The vase is a reservoir of emptiness or energy that can only unfold its being-unto-death as a thing in the course of its tragic-poetic action. Kate Mandrukevica’s Dislocation, Scale and Transparency is an uncannily correct illustration of the infamous Lacanian vase. (saved from fineartphotographyvideoart.com)
Rise of Modern Literacy: Invention of the Interior
I did promise Goethe and Burckhardt for this post, but I realised we need more background in theory before we can place them properly in the discourse and practice of iCulture therapy. In preparation for the fathers of modern classicism, we need to stake the Christian position on technology. Classicism is a disappearing aesthetic today, but still structures the formal design of most products we buy, so we need to be able to reflect on it intelligently, if we truly want to ‘own’ it. The modern industrial age would not have been possible had a literate public not demanded cultural sophistication for the design of its private sphere.
Milestones in the History of Technology: the Printing Press
The invention of the Gutenberg press reformatted a large group of individuals who became increasingly aware of their interiority and whose demands were more cultural than materialistic. This historical development was lost on historians focused on materialist history. One unfortunate consequence of materialist historiography is that contemporary identities and consumer practices around the world are almost entirely structured by politics.
To understand how the immaterial human interior participates in the material world of objects and things in order to cultivate better, more self-reflexive and ultimately more satisfying consumer habits, we need to understand the relationship between the structure of Christian faith and technology. Technical knowledge alone is not sufficient to initiate the kind of large-scale technological modernisation we see in early modern Northern Europe. Many cultures have claimed pretty much every major invention in the history of technology, but none of them launched the industrial age. There are two reasons for this development: Christianity made the technological era possible by providing the needed identity mechanism and it also invented interiority in the first place by postulating that God dwells in His subjects and the subjects in God. In a sense the initiation of technological modernity worldwide was the fulfilment of the Christian structure of the interior temple. This structure was unknown to ancient civilisations, including the Greco-Roman. A number of posts will be devoted to the development of technology in Christian civilisation now and in the future, but let us begin with a few cornerstones from twentieth century philosophical thought, since the most recent past is the most repressed and most misunderstood.
Blindspots of the Academic Discourse on Technology
Academically influential twentieth century philosophy was largely unconcerned with the Christian experience and if so, either only critically or in conformity with a theological school of thought that remained absolutely divorced from modern developments, scientific, technological, and philosophical. The problem the Church has with philosophy lies in the great schism that took place in 1054, which split the Church into a theoretical East and a largely political and practical West. The Reformation initiated by Martin Luther tried to amend the evacuation of theoretical reflection and that allowed the rapid modernisation of the North. The South remained relatively underdeveloped, which carried over into the new Latin territories in America. The Reformation stalled, however, when national and socialist thought gripped the main engine of progress in Europe, the Germanic countries, in the 19th century. The Church is yet to bridge the immense gap in philosophical development socialist thought inflicted on German letters.
An important philosopher, who had otherwise a great deal to contribute to the conception of technology, Martin Heidegger, remains a national socialist thinker. His academic progeny has been struggling with this fact, failed to account for it, and remains unable to reconcile itself to it. But the fact that academic philosophy paid little attention to the monumental historic importance of the Christian experience for the development of technological modernity does not mean it was not operative in the blindspots of philosophical practice. We will try to fill in some of the gaps, insofar as they concern the practice of iCulture therapy.
The Classical Heritage and the Philosophy of Technology
Human interiority is intricately involved in the history of technology and is deeply invested in technical sophistication. Historically, the interior represents a fairly new object of philosophical reflection, one that traditional philosophy is ill equipped to handle, because philosophical structures are pre-Christian. This is why history and theology have little to tell us about the historic importance of Christian interiority for the development and refinement of the technologies of emotional and psychological design. On the one hand, history is limited to politically backed power discourses and hence is not always reliable as a source of truth. On the other hand, theology is limited to the disciplines of logic and philosophy, both unable to reflect on the core of Christian experience.
An earlier post discussed St. Jerome’s tormenting passion, classical philosophy and arts. The author of the Vulgata was unable to tear himself from the incredibly rich intellectual pleasures and passions the classical world had to offer. And perhaps he didn’t have to. Since the Nicenean creed does specify the historical time of the crucifixion, the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, classical civilisation remains an essential part of the earthly design of the Christian experience, even though the tension between the two can never be resolved. It also means that the political Latin framework remains the earthly and historical dominion of Christianity.
The Vatican has a huge responsibility to the entire ecumenical Christian community to incorporate its experience in its practices, but it keeps failing at this task. Instead of incorporating new developments of the interior and its technologies, it keeps reconciling itself to foreign political developments like Marxism and Islam, failing in its basic task to be the earthly protector of the Christian faith. The Vatican is currently more open to socialism and nationalism than to the Protestant and Eastern Orthodox teachings and traditions. This problem is not intrinsic to the Church. It is dictated by academic discursive developments of the past two centuries.
Even the Vatican cannot deny, however, that classical antiquity was carried forth by Christian civilisation. Without Christianity, the Greco-Roman civilisation would have become extinct. This fact was lost on the best philosopher of technology we have to date, Martin Heidegger. The reason Heidegger was unable to develop a satisfactory bullet-proof philosophy of technological being on the basis of Germanic etymology alone is because he failed to take into account the historical significance of the Christian mechanism of subject-formation in language. His philosophy was inspired by Germanic etymology, forgetting as it were that the German language was radically altered through Luther’s translation of the Bible. No more nor less than the Hebraic, the Germanic language is not the native or natal context of Christianity, which provided the psychological mechanism for the initiation of the technological and industrial age. Every language is native to Christianity, but the Latin language and classical antiquity remain the materialist, historical-political core of the Christian world. This is stated in the the Nicene creed. Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilatus, a Roman governor. This material event is the portal to the historical and political manifestations of Christianity then and forever. Contemporary political philosophers like Georgio Agamben have recognised this fact, but took it as licence to preach socialist dogma, without reflecting on the fact that socialism originated in a different historical and political context, namely a pagan — classicist — Germanic one, not in the native Latin of the Nicene creed.
Though always at multiple removes from their origin, Latin and classicism exist in multiple translations and not in a pure state of natality. We’ll get back to the concept of distance in sublimation. Its cultivation is another important topos (point of return) of Christian civilisation. The history of the Christian experience remains firmly rooted in the classical world, at least as far as its pure historical record goes.
Literary and Visual Archive
There is one exception to the purely historical archive: literary history and its twin branch of art history. Both disciplines run on parallel tracks with the history of technology and contain an archive that is fairly independent from political-historical data and documents. The literary and visual archive contain psycho-genealogical data and the shrouded history of technology. Before a piece of technical equipment becomes manifestly operative in the world, it exists not as a clear Platonic idea, but as psychological reality that has no means of articulating itself in existing media of communication. It has to await the invention of a suitable medium or technological equipment as it were to unfold its being. The literary archive and the visual depositories of historical data have a good deal to tell us about the psycho-genealogy of the technologies that structure our being in the world, our communication systems, and our interiors.
Technologies of Mourning
Shakespeare has more to tell us about the still ongoing burial of Julius Caesar than any historical document, because his play, a form of burial in words, focused squarely on the afterlife of the dominant political format of leadership (Workshop of Apollonio di Giovanni and Marco del Buono Giamberti Italian, 1415/17-1465 & 1403-1489 The Assassination and Funeral of Julius Caesar, 1455/60)
The most sophisticated philosophical approaches to technology have treated it as a funeral practice, a way of framing, preserving, transmitting, and storing remains, human remains. Twentieth century thinkers like Martin Heidegger, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Friedrich Kittler are among the more aesthetically sensitive readers of technology. All four, though Heidegger will never admit it, work in the shadow of the Freudian pre-historic interpretation of ethics, which he based on his reading of a literary work, Sophocles’s tragedy “Oedipus Rex.” Freud was in fact more deeply influenced by Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which he coupled with the ancient Greek predecessor to plummet Hamlet’s labyrinthine depths. We will return to this problematic, but for now it is important to stake that for Freud the murder of the father becomes the founding event of any symbolic system, because it clears the path to substitution.
Language functions by way of substitution. For example, in the statement “the rabbit is a carrot-eater” the term “rabbit” stands for “carrot-eater,” because they are interchangeable. The verb “to be” is in a sense the ultimate weapon and harbinger of death, because only dead entities can enter the system of substitutions. Whatever is known of the rabbit, that it is a carrot-eater, a mammal, etc., constitutes its transience, its creaturely status. The sum of all substitutes that account for its being are only equal to its mortality, the shape of its corpse and its creatureliness. The rabbit in “Alice in Wonderland,” on the other hand, is not mortal, but also not considered a real being, even though it has all attributes of a real rabbit. What the rabbit in the children’s book does as opposed to what it is makes it a techno-rabbit, a thing standing in reserve and holding energy, to borrow Heidegger. To be interchangeable is to be dispensable, i.e. capable of dying, disappearing, dissolving into dust, non-being. In Heidegger’s system the essence or presence of being is hidden in language and can only unfold in the process of thinking, not by way of metaphor or substitution, but rather by the very circumvention of the verb “to be.” In a sense Heideggerian being cannot enter the grammatical system of circulation, grammar being among the most ancient technologies known to man. Being is not available for direct representation just as the thing, something of technological nature, is not simply an object, but rather a reservoir, a container of energy, like the Lacanian vase, that will only reveal its essence, that is its ability to be present, in action.
Though Heidegger was not usually concerned with ethics, but rather with the truth of being and especially what he considered its most beautiful version, Greek antiquity, his subordination of being to language shares a great deal with Freud’s conception of the world as ordered by the law of the father. The two are reconciled completely and nearly without remainder in Lacan’s work, which inspired Friedrich Kittler’s invention of media-genealogical research and alienated Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, both of whom represent a more hermeneutic dimension of thinking about technology, that is, an interpretation based on subjective difference. Just as for Heidegger and Lacan the object of post-Socratic philosophy becomes a thing standing in reserve, a reservoir of energy whose essence is revealed in action, the subject in Kittler and Derrida becomes, respectively, a consumer and an individual, that is, non-repeatable difference.
On the set of F. W. Murnau’s “Faust” (1926), a visual interpretation of J. W. Goethe’s prophetic tragedy of the modern leader
Preserving the Cultural Traditions of Tragic Formatting
Over the course of its two thousand-year reception history, tragic poetry has remained the highest form of expression of what Heidegger called being. It is not accidental that its definition coincides with Heidegger’s shortcut definition of technological being: the unfolding of an action over a given time at a fixed place. An ancient technology of mourning, tragedy is a thing that unfolds itself over the time period of its use. A carrier of pure energy, it is synonymous with death or nothingness. In the next post we will see how Lacan treats this insight in his interpretation of the Sophoclean tragedy “Antigone” and what that may have to do with the invention of the war plane and modern warfare.
The ethical being that emerges in tragedy is mortal in an absolute sense, since its being unfolds from its annihilation. It is the only subject of war and statesmanship subordinated to the military. To the Greeks, tragic spectacle was not a matter of entertainment or aesthetic pleasure, as it is to the moderns. It was a religious ritual, probably based on sacrificial rituals, and a way of programming the citizens’ interior to accord with the ethical principles of the Greek community. This was the meaning of the Aristotelian term “catharsis,” a process whereby the emotions of the spectator are ‘purged’ of all unwanted and unethical elements. In ancient Greece tragedy was a form of social engineering.
This form of social engineering is still alive today, though it is almost entirely unaware of its origins, affiliation, and philosophical genealogy. It pervaded postwar political thought through such concepts as “bare life,” “human rights,” post-colonialist views of what constitutes a ‘native,’ and especially the concept of “natality” as we see it articulated in Hannah Arendt’s tragic writings. As a student and intimate companion of Heidegger, Arendt’s thought was programmed to understand being as something that unfolds through its action unto death. Her concept of “natality,” which was implicitly designed as a polemic against the Christian notion of rebirth and life-after-death, is in fact being-toward-nothingness and reduces human life to its funereal technologies. The native “futures” her tragic worldview defended so emotionally are in fact foreclosed. If we are to carry forth the values of universal care — caritas — for human life, we need to be more vigilant about tragic ideas contaminating discourses about native life. Arendt’s case is a good example of the confusion brought about by the perilous indulgence in pure classical philosophical thinking, especially in regard to political philosophy, that St. Jerome rightly feared.
Premature critics of Christian thought mushroomed after the war and were quick to blame Christian civilisation for the atrocities of war. This was possible largely because theologians had failed to establish a dialogue with contemporary discourses, but also because official organs of the state, by default, that is, through no fault of their own, demanded a total war effort from intellectuals. The movement was carried by blind emotions of political allegiance, horror, and moral outrage, but cannot be maintained on the strength of its poor, unsustainable arguments forever. Outspoken intellectuals who waged war on cultural Christianity, Lacan being among them, have read the Christian concept of life unfolding “after death,” especially in hagiography (https://web.archive.org/web/20150331030718/http://www.the-orb.net/encyclop/religion/hagiography/hagio.htm) as creation ex nihilo, that is, birth out of nothingness. This was a much mistaken application of the term and originated with Lacan’s Heideggerian reading of ex nihilo as the essence of technological being in his most famous seminar “The Ethics of Psychoanalysis:” http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1315975.files/6%20Seeing%20Things/Lacan-%20seminar%207%20Ethics%20of%20Psychoanalysis%201959-1960.pdf
Heidegger’s greatest contribution to human thought was his discovery of the essence of technology. His focus on the thing rather than on the classical object revealed its essence: a reservoir and a potentiality holding energy, always standing reserve. Its being is held in its action and use, its emptying of energy. The concept of the thing suffered a reduction by its subordination to Heidegger’s general conception of all being as being unto death. Thus the specific essence of technology remained bound to objectivity, its classical frame. Heidegger remained trapped in the native Germanic roots of language-based philosophy and did not take the Biblical “after death” into consideration. The proper trajectory “after death” is a means of transport to the interior as a form of sublimation and displacement. The Biblical “after death” is far removed from classical metaphysics. It points to the immaterial realm of sublimation and its action enables emancipation from material existence. Had Heidegger taken his Germanic insight further, he would have been able to position technology where it belongs: inside the human psyche. But his philosophy remained famously non-receptive to any kind of psychological formatting of subjectivity, in a truly tragic line of thought, because his philosophy remains, tragically, without a future.
To sidestep and integrate the automatic interior design propagated by the mass media in a self-authored private environment, some historical knowledge about the function of language is indispensable. The introduction of Christian teachings with the Vulgata by St. Jerome altered the function of language in ancient European cultures and their historiographies fundamentally. The very concepts of the resurrection and the transubstantiation, which structures the sacraments, introduced the realm of the immaterial to simple linguistic transactions like metaphor, simile, and poetic metamorphosis.
The new linguistic genre Christ introduced into human language in general and St. Jerome into Western languages was allegory. Christ invented this form of communication to speak to his disciples, because the truth he bore could neither be communicated nor understood by the followers through literal use of language. The simplest definition of allegory is telling a story with another story. The impossibility of a total match between the two stories, the manifest one and the one being illustrated, which is immaterial and internal, creates an opening, a caesura (see earlier post) for the immaterial to enter our material world.
There are two concepts of subjectivity, the deterministic concept and the Christian concept. The determinist view defines the interior as a largely unconscious entity comprised of emotional and psychological material. The Christian concept of subjectivity is open-ended and points to an infinity and to the immaterial. Behavioural psychology, psychiatry, psycho-pharmacology, and a large part of the psychoanalytic school contend that the interior of an individual consists of instincts and mental processes that are absolutely independent of the individual will, action, or emotions. According to this view, the interior is structured by biology, psychology, sociology, and the media. This view is correct as far as science goes, but it is by far not a total view and remains open to revisions and new knowledge. This opening is guaranteed by the introduction of immaterial transubstantiation with Christian thought. It is unlike Platonism, Aristotelian metaphysics, and unlike poetic metamorphosis, which were all known to the ancient pre-Christian world, which remained absolutely conditioned by physical and material laws.
We will continue to address the presence of the classical heritage in Christian civilisation, especially its philosophical foundations, but today it suffices to note that to earn a degree of autonomy over the interior, over the interior, private, subjective sphere, an individuality has to be established and furnished with its exclusive dwelling space of difference that refers to the immaterial.
Remains of Bare Life
Jacky Tsai, Floral Skull design made for Alexander McQueen
The Christian world celebrates Good Friday every year. The idea of the calendar originated not so much in the need to coordinate activity and synchronise human life and labor, but rather in the need to indicate points of return for otherwise fragile, transient, and fleeting life forms. The desire to preserve something that is destined to perish is the cornerstone of all material civilisations. The old religions and their linguistic systems function much like calendars and serve the preservation of culture, which in turn guarantees the return of perishable life forms. But culture also chains, because what returns is already dead. The material remains that make up the physical world, to which we have dedicated our learning and science, are not living and breathing. We engage in acts of repetition to give them breath and life again.
Remembering the crucifixion on Good Friday, we also contemplate the significance of human remains and how they shape and design our world. Christ is raised on the third day and leaves no human remains for us to enshrine, worship, and lock under heavy symbolic, social, and actual keys, as the old cultural and religious systems have done. The difference between the material sarcophagi of traditional cultures and the fragility of bare life is illustrated, allegorically, in material design, in architecture for example. Intelligent, impactful design not only follows theoretical concepts, whether consciously or unawares, but can also introduce them to the world. The little chapel of Mary in the impressive but austere glass and stone Catholic building on the lakeside where I live, designed by one of the leading contemporary female architects, Heike Buettner — https://www.uni-weimar.de/de/architektur-und-urbanistik/professuren/grundlagen-des-entwerfens/personen/prof-dipl-ing-heike-buettner/competence-and-performance/ — is reminiscent of an unassuming wooden barrel and presents a stark contrast to the glittering weighty structure. It is shaped like a keyhole, a narrow passage way; it is open to all; no key, no barriers, no remains. Through Mary’s womb Christ entered the world and became human — the Son of Man — but he left no remains, only the empty grave signifying the greatest hope and the resurrection, on which our civilisation is built.
Christian saints are identified not only by name but also by their main attribute, which functions like a miniature allegory of the main trial in their hagiography. St. Jerome, whose translation of the Bible from Greek into Latin, the Vulgata, became the foundation of Roman Catholicism, is identified by the skull — http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2009/july/why-st-jerome-is-icon-for-our-times.html. The cranium is the epitomic representation of materiality. It is proof that something material remains after death, not in heaven, but here on earth. It stands for everything we value highly on the market and in our social interactions: possessions, everyday household items, medicine and hygiene tools, educational material, instruments of knowledge, real estate, family jewellery, objects of value. In their original conception, art collections don’t belong to this list, because they are private, and like everything private, designed in the realm of immaterial interiority. Today art collections are used as material assets in global circulation, which has degraded their original purpose. As far as they are reducible to their market value and material ownership, contemporary art collections mostly consist of meaningless objects.
The material world surrounding us is symbolically represented by the skull. It is everything that remains after we depart. European civilisation is built on two strong pillars: the classical Greco-Roman heritage and the Bible. The classical world is the last great pagan age and the most advanced civilisation known on earth. It continued to develop after Christ, but only in relationship to the Church. The article linked above represents an irresolvable paradox, a binary structure, that forever opposes the classical to the biblical heritage. They are, in fact, not in some kind of competition over dominion of the world, but have blended wonderfully in the medieval, Renaissance and modern European world. The philosophical structures of the contemporary political order have departed radically from the Biblical heritage and rely exclusively on the ancient pre-Christian traditions. The evacuation of the Biblical contribution to European civilisation continues to justify political orders like socialism, national socialism, and refugee socialism, which have eliminated the individual private sphere and with it the only symbolic place where subjectivity can be created and self-authored. These regimes continue to engage in inhuman treatment of individuals and are currently threatening to undo every cultural, moral, and political achievement of Christian civilisation.
Alexander McQueen Design
Classical Aesthetics and the Bible
By introducing allegory in language through Christ’s words, the Bible became the world’s first material manifestation of the immaterial. Language is the paradoxical manifestation of the immaterial in the materiality of existence. In its function between linguistic elements, it is the only material trace that makes us God-like. The rest belongs to the realm ruled by the skull, which language names and masters by ordering it in our minds. St. Jerome belonged equally to the classical world of the past and to the always emerging, always breaking immaterial world of the transcendent word. St. Jerome’s passion for classical learning and aesthetics is the beginning of a long tradition of veneration for the classical arts that is still with us today. It has given us wonderful buildings to dwell in, beautiful art objects, sophisticated design, all theatrical and narrative arts from tragedy to Hollywood, plastic surgery aesthetics, the drive to dwell in healthy, beautiful bodies, and much more. The dominion of the skull is mighty powerful and it has a very specific origin: classical Europe. Language and writing were as highly developed and perfected in the Greco-Roman world as their material arts and sciences. But language was not considered a divine attribute as it is in the Biblical tradition. The classical world had little use of the immaterial. Even Plato and Aristotle could only conceive of ideas and metaphysics as metaphors and substitutive structures. Classical deities remained bound to dreams and phantasmagorias, to human wishes and desires that found no other manifestation than the materiality of a supremely powerful imagination, but they could not reflect anything beyond equivalencies between media of representation. St. Jerome remained enthralled by that beautiful classical world until his very last and this has something to do with his main accomplishment, the translation of the Greek New Testament into Latin. St. Jerome wrote the Vulgata, meaning popular, for the people, the common folk: http://www.vatican.va/archive/bible/nova_vulgata/documents/nova-vulgata_nt_epist-titum_lt.html.
Alexander McQueen Design
St. Jerome the Translator
Translation is an activity that requires transcendence, the breath of God animating bare life between the fixtures of specific language systems. What is transmitted between languages is the only living form on earth. What we consider living is not reducible to the sciences of biology and zoology. Neither is living language reducible to the state in which it is used and recorded at any given time in history. The historicisation of language, that is, its systematisation according to the social and cultural recording network systems of any given time, reaches highest visibility in its translatability. This is why translation is a form of burial and mourning of linguistic being. Translation represents the form in which language ‘remains.’ It is an excavation tool that lays bare the fossilised form of language. Languages are living organisms and as such not reducible to their bare remains. The Biblical God dwells in the Word of the Bible. If letters and words are sheep, the book of the Bible is their only shepherd. The preservation of languages depends on the degree to which they are permeated by allegorical Biblical language. It is in translation, however, that they “die.” The skull is St. Jerome’s attribute because he was the first translator of the Bible and because translation represents the death of language. The Vulgata, however, instead of remaining encrusted in a dead language, Latin, became the source of all modern European languages, because it allowed for its infinite translation. St. Jerome is its author and as such the founding father of all modern languages founded on the teachings of the Bible.
Alexander McQueen Scarf
St. Jerome’s Passion
The passion of St. Jerome was the classical heritage of Greco-Roman civilisation, which is still largely with us. His vision of his punishment at the hands of God’s angels for the sinful passion he nurtured for the classical arts is generated by his awareness of their historical demise and fossilisation. By the same token, however, the Resurrection also teaches us that everything that dies can be saved by the living breath of the Biblical word and thus transcend death. This is why St. Jerome’s translation is also transcendence. Latin is both a dead language and a transcendent language. The living breath of the word animates us and our languages, but it is not given in anything material, which is a mere fossil, mere remains.
Next to St. Jerome, Shakespeare is the other ‘founding father’ of modern language frequently pictured with a skull, not least because he wrote the most famous and most powerful scene with the mentioned prop, namely, Hamlet’s contemplation of the skull of his court jester and nanny, Yorick. Yet, Shakespeare’s skull is ironically the most notorious no-show in history. Periodicals circulate news of Shakespeare’s skull cyclically, obsessively, almost religiously. Here is the latest example: http://nyti.ms/1q4BmQg. The warning on Shakespeare’s grave, not to dig up his bones lest a curse befall the digger, is also meant to protect not a secret, but the very sanctity of life. As long as Shakespeare’s grave, like Christ’s, remains empty, his legacy and his language shall live. There is perhaps a degree of truth to the conspiracy theory that his skull was stolen. Every translation, every interpretation, every transfer of his work in other languages, media, and systems of thought is a kind of theft of the original that produces a skull. The remains are a work of translation and a dolorous work of mourning. Everything we “know” and understand clearly about Shakespeare is in fact stolen from the living breath of his language, the mystery that animates his creations and holds us in their thrall.
Life remains a mystery, its only manifestation being held in the living language of Biblical exegesis. By exegesis here I don’t mean scholarly interpretation, but rather a living hermeneutics, the power of the Biblical word to shape and re-create our daily life. Shakespeare’s work is deeply rooted in Biblical knowledge, though the scholarship of the past two centuries has been gradually moving away from reading Shakespeare side by side with the Bible. We will do so on this site and learn to read for our own reflection in the Bard’s incomparably rich, aesthetically immaculate, and morally superior texts. A future post will provide more literary historical and theoretical background to the infamous prop in Hamlet.
The skull made a spectacular appearance in the world of haute couture recently through the work of the late British designer Alexander McQueen. Fashion reaches the status of haute couture when it proves a faithful, more or less self-reflective record of historical cultural developments. At the same time, fashion has a historical record, its datedness, which it has to transcend to be considered art. The most recent developments in fashion originated in the bourgeois household that emerged with modern urbanisation. The transition from traditional landed gentry households to modern households has been plentifully documented in literature, but most memorably in the poetry of Baudelaire and the 19th century French novel. Future posts will take a closer look at the relationship between the adultery novel, the fashion world, and gossip media in more detail, but suffice to say here that modern haute couture has always been self-aware about its flowers — and passions — of evil. McQueen’s reference to one of the staples of Christian civilisation commemorating contemplatio mortis (contemplation of death) as a door or a keyhole between states, modes, cultures, and information systems was an expression of the designer’s struggle with the world he inhabited. His suicide, like the memorable, culturally significant designs, totalise his remains and bring them under the sign of absolute death. We’ll discuss this phenomenon in contrast to transformation and transubstantiation further in later posts.
The Saving Grace of the Word
The attraction of death is a mighty passion that participates powerfully in the design of our world and beckons with the pleasures of perdition. It possessed Christ as he took the dolorous path to Golgotha out of love for mankind, St. Jerome as he journeyed through the library of the classical world he could not let perish in oblivion, and McQueen’s designs as they weaved the condemned sites of our contemporary social milieus. The vigil we hold in the night of the Resurrection, however, and the living power of the Biblical word in Shakespeare’s texts provide the saving grace that will preserve the remains of passion’s work of destruction. From the veil of Veronica, the only material imprint of Christ’s passion, to McQueen’s prints our memory contains and curates the earthly remains of passion through the immaterial word within. Inside, in the hidden crevices and private languages of subjectivity, we weave the only living fabric of God’s image.