Some Fore-thoughts on Gadamer and Rilke

Gadamer ends his presentation of hermeneutics and aesthetics by quoting from one of Rilke’s new poems. He does so almost with glee, for not only has he shown aesthetics to be comprehended within the hermeneutical project, he has also overcome the phenomenological ‘prejudice’ of intentionality, insofar as he has demonstrated that the linguistic nature of the work of art displays an excess of meaning. Intentionality is then inverted – the meaning that is intended is not my horizonal activity projected outside of myself in the mode of grasping or objectivating, but rather I am the one intended by the work of art. The language of the work says something which is greater than the author’s intentions and involves a timeless presence and contemporaneousness with itself (for instance the word classical not only designates a historical time period and a historical ideal this time period achieved but extends to any art that becomes a ‘classic’). Decisively, however, it says something to me. Hermeneutical interpretation is letting it be said to me, the letting myself be intended by the other.

It is in this regard that the Rilke poem is quoted with such a startlingly optimistic sense of closure: “You must change your life.”

Here is “Archaic Torso of Apollo” in full, translated by Edward Snow:

“We never knew his head and all the light
that ripened in his fabled eyes. But
his torso still glows like a gas lamp dimmed
in which his gaze, lit long ago,

holds fast and shines. Otherwise the surge
of the breast could not blind you, nor a smile
run through the slight twist of the loins
toward that center where procreation thrived.

Otherwise this stone would stand deformed and curt
under the shoulders’ transparent plunge
and not glisten just like wild beasts’ fur

and not burst forth from all its contours
like a star: for there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.”

From this poem we can say two things about the past. That it still sees. That the place from which it sees is only the feeling of being seen by a past that is lost but lingers. This is the meaning of the double negative – there is no place that does not see, the placeless place of the past is localized in the rupture it creates in the present, the place where you feel seen.

Consider one of the most striking sequences in Theo Angelopoulos’ film, Ulysses’ Gaze. (This is such a poor translation of Το βλέμμα του Οδυσσέα because it Latinizes the Greek, but in so doing it reveals that the gaze of the past is a ‘blemish’ in the present – the past survives in how it wounds the present.) The film is about homeward journeys and a voyage to a homeward source that is no longer a home to which to return.

The various homeward cycles that are inscribed in the film – Odysseus returning home to Penelope then leaving for a death in a place where there is no word for ‘oar,’ that is where his journey cannot be recognized as a journey, Odysseus as Ulysses who in Dante’s underworld cannot return from the place beyond the world, modern Greece ravaged by neo-liberalism, austerity, the Balkan wars, and of course this filmmaker who seeks the source of Greek film – all present a past, an origin, and a home that is irrevocably lost.

So the, striking scene. The filmmaker remains on a train, and, while his lover on the platform (Penelope, whose actress slips through roles like the ghost of a beloved) is incredulous that he moves where he is taken, he tells her a story. The train picks up speed and in order to listen she begins to run.

“And then I heard a creaking sound, a hollow sound, as if coming from the depths of the earth. I looked up, and on the hill I saw an ancient olive tree slowly toppling over, an olive tree on a hill slowly sinking to its death on the ground, a huge, solitary tree, lying. A gash made by the fallen tree revealed an ancient head, the bust of Apollo, dislodged and rolled away, I walked on further past a row of lions, a column of the row of phalloi till I reached a small secret place, the birthplace of Apollo according to tradition. I raised my polaroid and pressed the button, and when the photograph slid out I was amazed to see it hadn’t registered a thing. I shifted my position and tried again. Nothing. Black negative pictures of the world. As if my glance wasn’t working. I went on taking one photograph after another, clicking away…”

Angelopoulos comments, “The filmmaker tries to take a picture of this event, but when he develops it, he sees that nothing appears. You see, the head had emerged from the spot where Apollo, the god of light, had first appeared. The light at such a spot, the source of light, was too strong for the camera.”

Light can be captured, but not the source of light. The first look sees what the first film cannot capture. The first glance is already a lost glance.This is the archaic aspect of Apollo’s torso, the anarchic perspective, an origin that is not related to an end but is seen only as the undisclosed in the disclosed, the concealed in the unconcealed.

Like many of Rilke’s new poems or thing poems of this era, after having studied with Rodin and attended with attentive regularity the Cézanne gallery, salon d’automne, the first and last lines wrap the poem up into a thing that exceeds itself.

Like also Merleau-Ponty’s observation that Cézanne paints the origin of light, the hazy coming into appearance that a tender gaze solicits of things, these new poems see more than what it seen, for what is seen is shaped by the seeing as the disclosure of the thing and the possibilities that it may become what it is that envelop the things as its aura.

The statue is not known but you whom the statue, though eyeless, “sees,” is known not only more than you know yourself, but also you whom you must be is known, too. On what authority is this understanding?

And to whom does it belong? For, that you must change your life does not specify any sort of authenticity as in becoming yourself, but the life into which you must change must also incorporate the past that sees you through your feeling of being seen. What must be brought into being is the in-between of the origin and the present, the lost past and the future. Their mediation and realization each in the other.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *