Exposure is perhaps the very hallmark of modernism.
What began with what Moses Mendelssohn called the psychological sublime, an aesthetic category for awe-inspiring creations of inner experience, culminated in the exaltation of private subjectivity.
At the threshold of the modern age, the Faery Queen Elizabeth famously said she didn’t plan to build windows into human souls, prefiguring perhaps more than she knew, because that is exactly what the arts of the subsequent age accomplished.
By the nineteenth century an enlightened pastor in Berlin, Schleiermacher, recognized that this movement had begun much earlier in the history of humanity and re-introduced the concept of Christian hermeneutics.
What appears to be secular and even defiant of simplistically conceived religious prohibitions, is in fact profoundly Christian. The mere fact that such art was bred on the rich soil fertilized by the Word of the Bible speaks eloquently in support of this thesis.
The realm of private experience is nowhere closer to its ontological vulnerability than in nudity stripped of its exchange value within a public economy. To re-sexualize this act of sublimation would rob us of a world within.
But as the prophetic Queen warned us, the interior has to remain off limits to power, money, and politics, which act as desublimating factors, exposing the contents of the soul not only to the curious, admiring, and loving gaze, but to envy and plunder.
It is perhaps a forgotten or simply ignored fact that Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, Bride of Christ, concludes a period of mourning.
The Church and the Second Creation
The yearly celebration of Pentecost marks the cyclical return of the moment the Holy Ghost descends on the apostles and all present and subsequent followers, enabling them to participate in the will and intelligence of the Lord. This is an unprecedented event in the history of the faith and in the history of humanity. It initiated a new order of things and marked the beginning of the Second Creation, which succeeds the first creation, which fell and became subject to sin and the law. The Second Creation is free of sin and the law. The story of its genesis sheds light on the nature of its substance and the substance of its freedom from sin.
Manifest History and Spirituality
To grasp the superb design of the Biblical testament and its truth, we would be best served by abandoning the idea of mere spirituality, soothsaying stories, and superstitious religious ideas in general. Spirituality and religion that don’t interpret the material dimension, nor organize it into a system of values, historic teleology, and manifest reality aren’t worth anything. A system of thought and values like the Judeo-Christian one, which has commanded world events over the last five thousand years isn’t mere superstition, religion, or spirituality. But to grasp the power of its bequest we would do best to position it in its proper temporal, material and historical context as the text itself defines it.
The event of the descent of the spirit takes place exactly forty nine days after the Crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ.
Mourning between Tradition and Modern Psychoanalysis
Traditionally, the official mourning period is forty days. Though the number may be symbolic, it’s also concrete in the division of the year into weeks, which still follows the first seven days of creation, and the annual recurrence of the mourning period after Easter. Prescriptive rules about mourning aren’t there to force neurotics to perform compulsive acts of whaling and mourning, as Freud and anthropologists disdainfully believed, but an important period for the group and individual mental organization.
During the period of mourning the mind engages in highly productive activities and generates an imago that from then on will dominate the libidinal life of the mourner and organize their perceived environment. When he was more reflective and less anthropologically fashionable, Freud observed a period of latency (non-manifest psychological processes that are imperceptible but active at a fundamental level) in the wake of mourning that endows the entire world of the mourner with meaning.
In the individual development of the human psyche, this is the period following the dissolution of the Oedipal complex, when the child accepts the limits to its sexuality, namely that the mother and father are debarred from providing sexual satisfaction and with them, all representatives of the child’s own sex. This is a crucial moment in the development of the psyche, since without it the child will fail to build necessary emotional attachments to its environment and may be threatened with mental degenerative diseases. The child must learn that sexual satisfaction is only provided by an appropriate object in the future and for the specific purpose of producing an heir like him or herself.
The latency period, as Freud called it, is a mourning period that lasts several years until the psyche matures enough to seek love objects outside the family. It begins when the child accomplishes the important task of giving up instinctual satisfaction and renouncing its parents as sexual objects. This important period builds the entire world of the individual and imbues it with its specific and quite unique characteristics. Every future experience the individual gains will refer to this bedrock of reality. The future partner will likely be chosen from a similar symbolic order.
What is true for the individual is also true for large epochal and historical formations and phenomena. Pentecost likewise commemorates the establishment and continual growth of both the Church and every individual follower of Christ as a creature of mourning. The Second Creation is ex maeroris.
The prototype for this event in the Old Testament is the conception, birth, and life of Samuel the King-Maker. Anna conceives literally “ex multitudine doloris et maeroris” foreshadowing the Immaculate Conception, the Second Creation, and the birth of the Church from a period of mourning. As with the founding event of Pentecost, the task of mourning is the conception of a King-maker, a divinely appointed figure endowed with power over the kings and kingdoms of the earth. Taken at its most abstract, this power echoes the centrality of the world the child psyche erects in the wake of its renunciation of instinctive satisfaction. From the founding event of Pentecost onward, historical, political, and discursive power will derive from the act of renouncing the body of the first creation and its instinctual needs, symbolically represented by the Crucifix.
Pentecost: The Mourning Period from the Crucifixion to the Birth of the Church
The Holy Ghost is likewise a product of the work of mourning. Christ’s apostles and followers, especially the women, his mother, her sister, and the Magdalen, engage in the work of mourning during the forty days following the Crucifixion. It is important that His nearest accomplish the work, not strangers. Love, libidinal currency, is the driving psychological reality principle of the process. Mourning is intimately related to love. It is the response of the bereaved psyche to the death of the beloved.
Death is not simply absence. Those who depart on long journeys are also absent, but not dead. Death takes away our agency in the world, which is why the mourning period is so important for the preservation and curation of human remains. The mourning period isn’t just a superstitious ritual, but a crucial period during which the dead continue to have agency through the bereaved they have left behind.
Christ appears numerous times to the eleven disciples and to the women teaching them how to build the Church as they begin to draw multitudes. It is in the wake of his death that they learn to act on His behalf and to enact His will and legacy in the world. We participate in their work as we return to this crucial period cyclically.
The nine days from His Ascension to Pentecost add the week of Second Creation ex maeroris, which is two days longer than the 7 days of original creation because they include the day of Crucifixion and of the Black Sabbath, during which Christ descends to the realm of the dead to gather the heathens and non-believers He grants salvation.
On Sunday of Easter, when Christ appears to the Magdalen and commands her not to touch him, the work of the Second Creation, from mourning, that is, in the physical absence of His agency, begins. A lack of agency characterizes the Second Creation. It is a work of love and mourning. This is why I claim that Christianity is the religion of mourning. Mortification of the flesh is an essential part of the faith.
Consciousness of Mediated Reality
This is a decisive moment in the history of human civilization, when we begin to explore mediated reality, the materially manifest dimension of distance and the distant and their ability to remain active in the world through our love. Now we understand why the commandment to love is the highest. It participates in the work of mourning that enacts the will of the absent dead. It is different from following the commandments of the dead in that it is voluntary work of love, charity. The work of mourning is essential in the arts of mastering spacial and temporal distance.
Mourning isn’t merely a response to the death of someone near, but can be triggered by any kind of loss that takes away agency. It is a process of mortification of the immediate needs of the flesh, a separation from the instinctual body that repeats the original process of the birth and formation of the psyche in the course of individuation that takes place between mother, father & child.
Renunciation and the Bride
The renunciation of instinct is a kind of sublation of it and not a direct repression. When we renounce instinct, we don’t abandon it, but to the contrary, we bring it to work on behalf of the higher bidding of immaterial love in mourning.
The Church is called the Bride of Christ. The concluding event of the Bible and the final book of Revelations is the Marriage of the Lamb to the Body of the Church, the body of saints united in holy communion. The divine comedy reenacts the events of a human lifetime. As man is made in the image of God, so is his biography a copy of the divine biography or history as we know it.
Human development requires the child abandon and renounce its instinctual bond to the parents and replace it with the marriage partner. The frame for the choice of marriage partner, which guarantees a healthy covenantal relationship, is constructed during the latency period of mourning. That is the period we are in historically in relation to the Church and Her Bridegroom. History itself is a period of latency that culminates in the union and covenantal relationship to the Lord.
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.
The Gospel revealed a dimension of human experience that is perhaps the most exalted and sublime, but also the most surreal and unreachable with the instrumental means of collecting, organizing and recording human knowledge. Since the expulsion from Eden we have known that human science is bound to the created world, but the human mind, heart, and soul will forever exceed and precede mere knowledge of the created world, no matter how powerful, technologically magical, and complex it may be.
Whether an individual confesses Christ or not, the principles intimated in the Gospel inadvertently and inevitably organize the unconscious layers of their psychic life. Faith is a means of making intra-psychic reality conscious and a practice of cultivating awareness of inner experience, while also developing empathy for the same in others. Knowing one’s inner world and allowing the same in others is essential to developing authentic morality predicated on the sanctuary of private life. Just as the external world has its measures and laws, so inner reality has its own commandments and imperatives, as Leibniz, encouraged in his faith by his patronesses, the royal dames of the House of Hanover, also wrote:
“Quid mirum, noscere mundum si possunt homines; quibus est et mundus in ipsis, exemplumque Dei quisque est sub imagine parva.” (Theodicy) “No wonder humans possess knowledge of the universe, being made in God’s own image and carrying the world inside them” (my translation)
Long before psychoanalysis, the Gospel stipulated the absolute primacy of love as the ultimate reality principle. Christ left us the final commandment, to love the next one as oneself, which fulfills the law and the remaining commandments. Likewise, when Freud linked the unconscious layers of psychic reality to libidinal reality, he essentially subordinated the law of existence to love. If love is not to be reduced to hypocrisy, empty protocol, and Pavlov-dog style external behavioural norm, however, it must reflect psychic reality. The problem with the Freudian approach is that since Christian love remained repressed and off limits to him, he could only conceive of the currency of libido as unsublimated raw sexuality, which remains under the sign of the moral law, not under the sign of love.
The final commandment teaches us to transform animalistic sexual attraction, the currency of love in creaturely existence, into the cultural ligatures that bind us to one another, neighbour to neighbour. In fact, many have testified to the vastly increased power of love when it is banned from carnal, animalistic consummation. The most basic concept in psychoanalysis and the vehicle of the therapeutic process is the libidinal attachment to the therapist known as transferential love, which to remain therapeutic and to enable the internalization of genuine morality and the re-organization of a failed and diseased moral stage of development must remain unconsummated. Sublimated sexuality, that is sexuality that is debarred from its carnal aim, is the very substance of what we call passion. The catechism preaches mortification of the flesh and its raw sexuality not to punish, as Freud imagined the moral law, but to enable greater love and greater passions, to scale the heights of the human spirit.
As an atheist working in the medical sciences at the time when materialism and calculus were crowned absolute rulers of being, time, and reality, displaced from the Christian context in which they originated, and forcibly re-routed in the failed materialist systems of a dead civilization, the classical Greco-Roman world, Freud was both aware and ashamed of the Biblical dimension of his inner experience. He called it the unconscious and dedicated his life to the singular obsession of articulating his deeply repressed knowledge of Christ through a dubious pseudo-science of natural sexuality. As a Jew he had an intimation of the teachings of the Gospel and understood instinctively the primacy of love. He struggled to explain it as libidinal energy in order to conform to the rigid, absolute materialism of the scientificity of his era. The pseudo-scientific and pseudo-psychological term libido served to disguise the Christian love he was obliged to repress and deny within himself.
Perhaps Freud was nowhere more blatantly and alarmingly confronted with the reality of the world he held imprisoned within than in the encounter with his most famous patient, the Christian aristocrat and exile Sergei P, whose case provided the most prolific psychoanalytic material in existence. Not only did some of the most productive concepts originate in Wolfman’s vocabulary, but post-Freudian analysis dedicated entire libraries to his case. Because it is as much Sergei’s case as it is Freud’s own, it continues to occupy psychoanalytic minds and attract new disciples to this day. In Sergei Freud recognized the repressions carried out not by some imaginary child raised in the Christian faith, but his own mental prison in the world of scientific publishing.
The next post will address some the most fruitful concept that emerged in the context of Wolfman’s analysis, THE PRIMAL SCENE, in its relation to visual expression, fashion and the visual arts.
The Wolf Man on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/selfmadehero/wolfman
The Bible is not a complete book. The hearts of the human disciples of Christ are the sacred chambers where Holy Writ is completed. Every testament, every individual reading of the Bible matters and is inspired by the Holy Spirit, that is, by God himself.
Our interiors are made up of our personal biographical memories, which are largely structured by the Seven Sacraments of the Church, whether we know it or not.
Each interior is unique as we are confronted with an endless variety and variables of human experience, which is why every biography is precious and dear to our Lord. It is irreplaceable and irreproducible.
The testament we leave for posterity is a pale record of the true reality of our lived experience, but nevertheless the building block for the materialization and manifestation of Christian being in the world. It articulates the individual contribution to the communion of Saints. We owe the Church not only taxes and donations, but our life works, our individual testaments, which enrich the Christian community with knowledge, beauty, and emotional splendour.
The Vatican, earthly center of Christian civilization and symbol of Church Unity
Disciples of Christ Today
Joining a Church community is important for maintaining Christian power and leverage in an increasingly hostile world. Church practices are losing ground in traditional strongholds. Christian thought has been expelled from all university disciplines. Christian intellectuals have shrunk enormously in numbers. The few who have been allowed to participate in contemporary intellectual discussions are severely restricted. The role they have been allotted is already pre-packaged and pre-determined by other overarching discourses. As a result Christian thinkers are not present as active interlocutors and agents of knowledge on the intellectual scene. Their influence is very limited.
Given these sad historical developments, it is paramount that the remaining Churches reunite and individual members renew their commitment to the Bride of the Lamb. The Church represents the Christian communion of Saints directly. Each Christian must understand himself as part of the greater body of the Church, which spans all times and historical epochs and consists of the community of Saints.
Sacramental culture has been essential in establishing the cultural reality of the Christian world. Participating in the sacraments is our first duty as Christians. Our contribution to Church culture is also the cornerstone of our lives, which are structured by the sacraments. Our biographies wouldn’t make sense without our participation in the sacraments.
Rogier van der Weyden, The Seven Sacraments The Christian Life is structured by the sacraments, at the center of which is the crucifixion and the ensuing principal sacrament of mourning (the following post will focus on cultural production and the central sacrament)
Literary Testament, Individual Testament
Though we are required to remain in the Church, the living word of God only becomes complete in our interiors. Mechanical participation in rituals and sacraments would be meaningless if we don’t let God dwell richly in our innermost being.
God’s love unfolds in the interior of the disciple of Christ. We read in the Gospel that God dwells inside us. He sets up His Kingdom in the innermost spaces of our being. This also means that the unique labyrinth every Christian heart represents is an exclusive world fashioned after God’s image and resonating with God’s being.
Every Christian leaves a testament of some kind. Some leave books, poetry, or memoirs, others leave buildings, gardens, scholarly studies, or designs, still others leave athletic records and media, works of art and fashion, etc, the list goes on as there are endless ways of leaving a testament.
What is important in leaving a testament, however, is not how well it was received at the time of its making and presentation, nor how closely it conformed to the highest technical standards of the times, which become obsolete all too quickly, but how richly they let God’s word resonate in them and how well they accommodate the Living Word.
It is not by chance that the arts and sciences were developed and thrived on Christian soil. Christians understand the value of their work as service to God, service to others, but above all as an expression of the most precious gift we receive, the baptism in the spirit, which is absolutely unique for individual Christians.
What kind of testament are you leaving? How do we understand our interior worlds? How do we develop individual reading practices?
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (c 1524) by Parmigianino
The modern age developed a unique form of literary arts, which lifted the curtain on an endlessly rich and elaborate interior human world. Since most testaments are written and since all testaments begin to mean something only once they become articulated in language, it is important to understand literature as sacred testament and not simply as profane commodity. Stay tuned for the Biblical and sacramental theory of literature as a personal and sacred testament. Literature upholds a standard designed to aid and support individual testaments, not to replace or annihilate them.
The journal Narrative Paths just published an interview with Prof. Timm about iCulture therapy: http://www.ljfrank.com/archives/922.
About the journal and the interlocutor, L.J. Frank:
The journal offers an experimental platform for literary and artistic curiosity searching for innovative narrative and symbolic paths of engaging the market, technology and especially online blogging.
L.J. Frank’s novels explore the inner world through fictional characters placed in remote worlds and confronted with the inexplicable need to break through external, authoritarian barriers to communication that prevent them not only from expressing what they perceive as real, but from believing in the very existence of their subjective truth.
His artwork has developed an indigenous idiom that likewise communicates the inner experience of color. They represent the many facets of what appears to be the familiar, intimate setting of an unspeakable, breathless relationship to undefined objects through the medium that communicates their presence, color. These are not paintings in the traditional sense, but rather documents of a movement of color that speak the kind of groaning prayers the Bible teaches us to recognise when words fail to articulate our needs.
Another interesting art sale, closing tomorrow, offers a collection of objects that address the same needs: https://www.artnet.com/auctions/all-artworks/
Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987)
Grace Kelly, 1984
Lot ID: 118477
Pop art is likewise distanced from the traditional media it engages, paint and sculpture, among others. Painting is not exactly painting when it doesn’t serve the function of representing a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional medium. Rather, as in L.J. Frank’s paintings, it performs a relationship to something that is deeply personal, not necessarily unique, but dwelling between available objects. Pop art showcases internal objects.
Much like color in L.J. Frank’s paintings, the instantly recognisable pop object becomes a vehicle of a journey within. The familiar “icons” serve as railroads, flight trajectories or infrastructure facilitating the transport of the internal object to the market. The exercise of creating, curating, and consuming pop art becomes a living practice of birthing a new indigenous idiom that in the long run serves a more profound articulation of inner reality. Pop art is elaborate prayer. Yet, unless it is contained and included in the living language of Christian experience, it will remain inexplicable to the future, its meaning will perish like that of the Egyptian hieroglyphs.
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.
La Piscina | I like The Monologue Even More Than The Duet ▪ Edition of 3 ▪ € 5.000.- ▪ 2 Left
My next post will deal more subtly with the world of circulation, commerce, and coins, which will be an offshoot of the ongoing reflections on the literary and artistic design of identity. But please allow me to post this recommendation of a photography sale I found online as a preamble.
Photography is the most philosophic medium. Like the reflection of thought on the invisible dimensions of being, it has the potential to shore up the essence within. Vilem Flusser (http://cmuems.com/excap/readings/flusser-towards-a-philosophy-of-photography.pdf) famously proposed an analogy between writing and photography. He claimed the same revolutionary powers for photography as linear writing. Flusser’s limited, Darwinist interpretation forgets or wilfully erases the history of a vital relationship for the design of the human form. The relationship between the image and the text is the techno-genealogical origin of photography.
The historic relationship begins with Christian art in antiquity. It inherited the perfection of Greco-Roman culture and the passionate humanity and femininity of the textual culture of the Bible. The New Testament established the human interior as a physical topos in the world for the first time in history.
Madonna with the Book by Raphael Sanzio, 1504
Self-Design Not Selfie
Collecting photography is a unique and poetic way of articulating the private identity. As the world scurries around the world chasing cheap selfies it forgets itself and its beholder. The quick and mindless snapshot of what one believes is the genetically singular shape of a humanist visage is highly artificial. Pre-processed and pre-fabricated by the enormous technological apparatus charged with designing the globe and the heavenly spheres, the selfie is as unique as a piece of lunch meat.
Most selfies have a lifespan of about 10 seconds. Some may get framed and survive a few decades on a dusty shelf. But only few will make it into significant enough frames to pass on to posterity. A carefully designed collection, on the other hand, organised by the fingerprint of one’s private and deeply personal desire, serves to re-educate the senses to perceive what matters to the collector. The market and the bureaucracies are irrelevant to collectors consciously focused on works that reflect their human individuality.
Ethan Hawke as Iachimo SPYING on a lady with a book in 2015 production of Cymbeline
In fashion photography the medium does not reach its fullest potential, because the images are intended as templates for selfies, even before selfies existed.
Fashion addresses itself to the feminine body in its most vulnerable states. Moments of transgression break through the fabric of interiority and offer a peep into forbidden territories.
The world of contemporary fashion emerged after the French Revolution to mop the spillage from entire industries that revolved around the culture of the crown. Fashion and Pop continued to develop at least the technical dimensions of fashioning the personality of the crowned heads of state, which represented the body of the nation.
Unfortunately fashion and pop also removed the religious dimension of their original setting. To restore the passion attending the arts of fashion and pop, the twin industries that continued to articulate what had once been the property of sovereign heads of nations, we only need remember that the structure of articulation is fallen human desire. The individuality emerges as a symptom and an aberration. The arts charged with fashioning the crown were cultivated at the cutting edge between virtue and transgression.
As the quintessential feminine art of transience, fashion requires a more encompassing medium like photography to preserve its timelessness. Commercial fashion photography is a mere prop in this project.
Art photography, like the exemplars I’m recommending, takes the fashion photograph as its object in an act of disruption of the mass context. Each photograph interrupts the continuity of the flawless fashion image, which hides its structure, and offers a peep-show into one’s own interior. Between the edges of the components, model, setting, light, eye, and camera, an invisible secret agent of personal desire sutures a different image. Discover it. Re-write it.
01A909TW; CYMBELINE [RSC 1962] Vanessa Redgrave as Imogen and Eric Porter as Iachimo photo by Gordon Goode Date: 1962
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.