Notes on Mekas, Marker, and memory

Last night, watching Jonas Mekas’ Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, as on other occasions I’ve found my face flickering in the temporal mysteries of his images, I couldn’t bear facing the film directly. Not for a lack of attention or interest in his child-like sincerity, nor for a dearth of endearment in the the careful slurring of his words and silences – in the whirl of an eye that fragments the past the moment it’s uncovered – rather, I couldn’t sustain a gaze for if I truly fell into his spell I believed and still believe that I wouldn’t return.

Remember that scene at the very beginning of Sans soleil, where Chris Marker presents us with an image of happiness that is so totalizing in its Medusa-like rapture that it can only be seen in the “long black leader” that follows it, in its traces, in its reverberations?

The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me: one day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.

Of course the film Joan of Arc describes is this very one. Alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader. But it’s also another film. A film of course he’ll never make. It’s a sci-fi film. He even gives it a title, Sans soleil. But it’s a film that like the happiness in the picture only exists in the margins, in the traces, in the echoes and reverberations of something which, the moment you see it, it shatters. Or do you shatter? The moment you see it, it petrifies, it collapses, and its life escapes. Or does yours?

In Iceland I laid the first stone of an imaginary film. That summer I had met three children on a road and a volcano had come out of the sea. The American astronauts came to train before flying off to the moon, in this corner of Earth that resembles it. I saw it immediately as a setting for science fiction: the landscape of another planet. Or rather no, let it be the landscape of our own planet for someone who comes from elsewhere, from very far away. I imagine him moving slowly, heavily, about the volcanic soil that sticks to the soles. All of a sudden he stumbles, and the next step it’s a year later. He’s walking on a small path near the Dutch border along a sea bird sanctuary.

Why this cut in time, he asks, this connection of memories?

He hasn’t come from another planet he comes from our future, four thousand and one: the time when the human brain has reached the era of full employment. Everything works to perfection, all that we allow to slumber, including memory. Logical consequence: total recall is memory anesthetized. After so many stories of men who had lost their memory, here is the story of one who has lost forgetting, and who—through some peculiarity of his nature—instead of drawing pride from the fact and scorning mankind of the past and its shadows, turned to it first with curiosity and then with compassion. In the world he comes from, to call forth a vision, to be moved by a portrait, to tremble at the sound of music, can only be signs of a long and painful pre-history. He wants to understand. He feels these infirmities of time like an injustice, and he reacts to that injustice like Ché Guevara, like the youth of the sixties, with indignation. He is a Third Worlder of time. The idea that unhappiness had existed in his planet’s past is as unbearable to him as to them the existence of poverty in their present.

Someone who has lost forgetting. If an image of happiness escapes into the margins in the wake of its weight, an image of unhappiness is precisely imageless, enduring only in shadows, in traces. It cannot be gathered into a frame, nor can it be imagined, hanged on a wall, hung on a tree. The unhappiness of the past is unimaginable precisely because it is not yet past.

The past is not yet past because it cannot be forgotten.

The past is a ghost, a spirit, a spectre that the present has not exorcised.

Not to forget the past is not yet to remember it.

To remember the past is for it to become past, to pass away.

But the past is a lingering pain, non-memories of injustice that can only be remembered, that is, can only be forgotten, the moment our present becomes an answer to the grievances which questions like the wind searches through us its answer. The classic moral of ghost-stories: the purgatory of unresolved pain. Neither remembered nor forgotten. Inbetween. In the interstices of time.

This is why the images of the past are not images per se. The moment they fit into a frame and hung on a wall, the past becomes a genetic justification for the present which consigns them to a past that is not properly past.

The mystical Mekas, like Marker and his non-images of the Zone – those that “at least they proclaim themselves to be what they are: images, not the portable and compact form of an already inaccessible reality” – can access this past, not yet past, but exceedingly past. But I can’t sustain his gaze. So I tweeted:

and then:

and again:

When Mekas appears in his own films he has the look of those Icelandic children, or the women in the marketplaces of Bissau and Cape Verde who stare with equality: “I see her, she saw me, she knows that I see her, she drops me her glance, but just at an angle where it is still possible to act as though it was not addressed to me, and at the end the real glance, straightforward, that lasted a twenty-fourth of a second, the length of a film frame.”

I wrote that there’s something so mercurial in Mekas’ eyes when in image he looks past the camera, something that’s more cunning and knowing, more clever than the lilting naïveté of his absent eyes through which we watch his films.

This look is capable of overcoming the immense distance of time. Like the nativity of film in La jetée, where from still images emerges a look, a gesture, and a touch that reaches across times, Mekas sees more when he’s seen than when he’s seeing.

The reminisces of the journey to Lithuania, to a home that’s still there but inhabited only by a cat, are numbered 1 through 100. Mekas calls them glimpses. They do not grasp the past. They’re not supposed to. The past isn’t something that can be grasped. They intimate in a peripheral voice. They point to. They gesture. Swirlingly sparse, they fragment.

But something spills over the edges of the frames and the void between them. Time isn’t numbered. There are gaps. There are interstices. Mekas’ voice that so sincerely searches for the right word where there is none, thus his lilting, slurring, silencing, speaks through the parentheses, spills over, weaves through.

The borders of the frame and the manner in which Mekas sets them as seeing and flees them when seen work like less like Husserl’s phenomenological bracketing and more like the brackets in that chapter of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse called “Time Passes.”


[Here Mr Carmichael, who was reading Virgil, blew out his candle. It was past midnight.]

[Mr Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]

[Prue Ramsay, leaning on her father’s arm, was given in marriage. What, people said, could have been more fitting? And, they added, how beautiful she looked!]

[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well.]

[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.]

And that emphatic condemnation of poetry:

[Mr Carmichael brought out a volume of poems that spring, which had an unexpected success. The war, people said, had revived their interest in poetry.]

Even though the brackets quite literally gather the past into their embrace, what they gather is an offstage objectivity whose matter of fact tone is nothing more than a silence.

A peripheral voice, a parenthetical voice.

An intimation of.

A gesturing towards.

A Gesualdo madrigal, a Bruckner mass.

And a Čiurlionis prelude.

A corollary to ‘It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than a new world’

is that it’s easier to imagine an end than a beginning.

The end is where the imagination ceases. Following Spinoza the end (and all teleological thinking) is merely the imagination grasping itself but being unable to end there. The imagination is unable to delimit itself.

The end of the world is a product of the imagination. But this does not mean that this end is not real. Again following Spinoza, the imagination is the lebenswelt, which, only as real as it is perspectival, is very capable of diminishing itself to zero, of ending itself but not by itself, for it is very capable of diminishing itself to the point where it ceases but where there is nothing to cease.

What then grasps the end also delimits this end from the world in which it grasps ends, and so trespassing this limit thinks the new, keeps it open.

To imagine the end of the world is easy, is imagination itself, insofar as the world the imagination imagines is the world of ends, the world that ends, which it traces onto the world so excluding the world, so ending the world.

To … another world, a new world, is … is … itself, insofar as the world … … is the world that … which … maps as the world so creating the world ? so … the world ?

An attempt to describe what i feel when i close me eyes:

It takes so much [x] of being not to cry that there remains not much [x] to do anything else, really.

You can replace the word ‘cry’ with any of the following: collapse, disperse, cease, see.

Solve for [x]?

To cry: a direction? a dedication?

[x] isn’t a thing but a perspective.

I am the one who closes my eyes but I am also the one whose eyes are closed and so cannot see who closes my eyes, the one whose eyes are not closed, but close, too close.

Perspective: as one who is seen I nevertheless glimpse in my blindness the one who sees me.

Glimpse: as one turns one head thinking, some one is looking at me, am I being followed.

Glimpse: as one’s shadow overtakes one when turning a corner, or walking beneath a streetlamp, or brushing against an angel.

To be seen. To be being seen. To be being being seen &c. Each one so entirely seen so as to be nothing but seen and being seen and being being seen &c.

On a conversation, recently

I found a friend in a coffee shop reading Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s collaborative collection of essays. They were quick to point me in the essay “The University and the Undercommons” to this passage:

What the beyond of teaching is really about is not finishing oneself, not passing, not completing; it’s about allowing subjectivity to be unlawfully overcome by others, a radical passion and passivity such that one becomes unfit for subjection, because one does not possess the kind of agency that can hold the regulatory forces of subjecthood, and one cannot initiate the auto-interpellative torque that biopower subjection requires and rewards.

This stunned me. Especially in our conversations (this friend and I’s perpetual experimentation with the same question, which is perhaps the only question, the question that poses the new, the answer to which we will become if we only articulate the question, which we can only do if we already are &c) which twist and tangle through questions of subjectivity and resistance, especially the gaps, forgetting, and lapses in a self which we can exploit further to fragment. We tried to situate this radical passivity that is not passivity as a lack of activity or submission in relation to an authority which certainly inscribes such passivity as acquiescence to command, and so misinterprets this passivity precisely by forgetting its passion. We tried to understand it.

  • First in Don Quixote’s first adventure. Out of the blue, a scream. A master is whipping a servant. Don Q. asks why. The master as all masters do has an explanation which functions more as a belated justification than description. The servant lost some sheep. The servant refutes this. Don Q. orders the master to pay the lost wages with perfumed bills. The master assents so our knight leaves this master to beat the servant with twice the violence than before. The question is how does the first beating differ from the second. One answer is that the second beating decisively proves that the master had no justification to beat the servant, that there is no justification for any beating, and that all beating derives from the anxiety that authority is illegitimate. All justification for punishment comes after the fact. All punishment is a response to an act that proves the illegitimacy of authority and all punishment is the very enacting of this illegitimacy. Passivity displays this violence and provokes it (so that the servant when he returns to the story is certainly pissed). Passivity becomes the body that …
  • Second in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Passivity becomes the body that delimits power in the same gesture that intimates the beyond. The woman dreams of meat and blood and violence. She then refrains from eating meat and blood and violence. She refuses to participate in the patriarchal economy of misogyny. For the men in her life this is unacceptable. They encode her refusal as an assent. They confuse her passivity with obedience. The violence they doubly inflict on her is contradictory. The normal violence that is legitimated by everyday assent seeps into its own excess when this assent becomes non-relational, becomes a radical passivity that is not in relation to an activity but is its own passion and escape. The men are infuriated when beyond an assent to violence that might normalize violence in certain quanta of I deserve this, there is no answer nor resistance. When they whip you and you answer, they see your answer as legitimation and they might stop. When they whip you and you do not answer, you refuse to answer and you refuse their violence, they reveal their illegitimacy, the become enraged, they become excessive. She becomes a plant. She becomes vegetal. She ingests the sun. Passivity becomes the face that …
  • Then Levinas where passivity becomes the light that comes from beyond the face. A double injunction: Kill me / Do not kill me. The other incites violence at the moment it commands you not to kill, a command which exceeds your strength to kill. A contradiction between an ontology and phenomenology of alterity. The other if the other is at all is feebleness (faiblesse is such a pretty word), but a feebleness whose mode of appearance is a force. The feebleness says kill me but the force of its appearing exceeds my strength to kill in and as a command not to kill. But Levinas founds the self in its transcendence, that is in its desire to return to itself as a staying the same. Levinas needs the other in order to introduce transcendence. I am chained to myself and I need to escape in order to become myself. The other is this escape. The other introduces this transcendence into the self. Do not kill me because you need me for the beyond yourself that you incorporate as your transcendence? Kill me because nevertheless this void that I introduce into the heart of your being is immeasurable, exceeds trespass and return?

A passivity that disrupts the identification between self and same, an identification that even persists – strangely – in Levinas’ radical ontology of alterity. A passivity that locates the beyond here in its futurity. A passivity that refuses its transcription into lack and locates in its openness a future that it refuses to collapse.

That’s the lesson of Bartleby right? I prefer not to. Not to what? Not to prefer.

The office of dead letters. Preserving possibility. Preferring to cultivate a future as possibility.

some thoughts on Spinoza, suicide, anorexia, vegetarianism, Chris Kraus, and Simone Weil

Is suicide a choice? It seems that, more than life, suicide can be decided, and even life, if it is a choice, is so only as one of the many answers to the question that suicide poses. Yet, to say that suicide is a choice, that is, a decision, the enacting of a will, decisively, is to say further that death too is a possibility that can be wrenched into being.

Which death?

Listen to the last lines (though what are the last lines if a postscript follows…?) of Blanchot’s The Instant of My Death:

Comme si la mort hors de lui ne pouvait désormais que se heurter à la mort en lui. “Je suis vivant. Non, tu es mort. /// As if the death outside of me could henceforth only collide with the death inside of me. “You are alive. No, you are dead.”

Who speaks here? The voice comes from the outside where there is only death and only collision, but inside of the quotation marks there is the confusion of life and death, a you, not an I.

To say that suicide is a choice is to confuse one death for another. The death that makes me for the death I make. I am insofar as my death precedes me. I am insofar as my death recedes from my grasp. I am insofar as I make this death into an act. I am insofar as I am conscious of me disappearing.

Yet, this death I meet meets me, this death I grasp grasps me, such that, in the final instance, “I” neither kill myself nor die, since this death is not mine, for it has no relation to me. In the fnal instance, I am only consciousness disappearing, I am not, consciousness, only, disappearing. While, for Blanchot I who kill myself am not I who is killed, for the latter is an other, for Spinoza, I who am killed by myself am not I who kills, for the latter is an other.

A suicide between absolute activity – a voluntary death, a willed death, a last will and testament to oneself – and absolute passivity – a suicide victim, victim of whom? no one, no one at all, only the inanimate matter through which power penetrates. A suicide between.

I want to stop here for a moment, because the examples that Spinoza includes in the scholiastic demonstration of the impossibility of suicide – that i) no one can kill themselves from the necessity of their being and that ii) when one does kill oneself one must be an other to oneself without being able to cognize this otherness – are strange.

Before that strange sentence:

Or it may come about when unobservable external causes condition a man’s imagination and affect his body in such a way that the latter assumes a different nature contrary to the previously existing one, a nature whereof there can be no idea in mind.

                                                                                    : there’s Seneca and anorexia.

Only a side note on Seneca. Nowhere in Tacitus (presumably Spinoza’s source) is his death qualified as a voluntary death, the Latin formulation of suicide. Seneca remains implacable when asked if he’s contemplating suicide, his death follows from a sentence not a will. Further, Spinoza adds to the source that Seneca “chooses a lesser evil to avoid a greater,” where a greater evil than death is impossible to imagine in the framework of the affects.

Anorexia, then. Which is implicitly gendered.

There are a few ways to formulate the sexual difference of transcendence and the language used to describe it.


Genevieve Lloyd picks up on the framing of Spinoza’s conatus as only a human desire in her discussion of The Ethics in relation to its possible grounding of environemtnal ethics. One passage she focuses on is when Spinoza determines “man’s” rights over the beasts because our power or virtue is far greater than theirs. Although Spinoza doesn’t deny that animals “feel,” our natures are not compatible in essence only in power over.

Incidentally, this is why I am always wary of discussions of power – whether Nietzsche’s will to power or Spinoza’s concatenation of equivalences with power is essence is virtue, etc. – for even when someone like Deleuze tries to avoid misinterpretation by insisting that the will to power does not mean a desire to dominate, nor the desire for power, it seems to me that power is never neutral. Power is always encoded within the constraints of one who wields it.

So, while with Spinoza we can think of a shifting scale of individuality by which one could, in encouraging identification with an ecosystem, shift ecological actions away from the human as existing above an environment towards actions within an ecosystem as an ecosystem, there is still a codified hierarchy of power. A greater or less than of reality that rings radical in a theory of immanence is still recoded into an ideological dimension of power as oppression.

One of these instances in Spinoza is when he notes that “it is clear that the requirement to refrain from slaughtering beasts is founded on groundless superstition and womanish compassion rather than on sound reason.”

The insistence of “womanish compassion,” is especially revealing. Vegetarianism is not merely an ethical or political choice, but, like with the character of Yeong-hye in Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian, it is not a choice at all. But neither is it a passivity considered as being constrained by external forces or determination. To say either choice or constraint in this case is to reduce becoming-vegetal into a masculine binary of domination.

Well, I was in a dream, and I was standing on my head … leaves were growing from my body, and roots were sprouting from my hands … so I dug down into the earth. On and on…I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch so I spread my legs; I spread them wide…’

As Sadie Plant says of that “specular” economy (referring to Irigaray, another theorist of the vegetal), the patriarchy is an ecomony, not a construction or an order, but the exchange first and foundingly of women as commodities. Yeong-hye escapes by becoming vegetal, becoming a body with neither organs nor sex, but a substance as light as it is fed on light.

Of course this desirelessness is seen as passivity by the men in her life who are enraged by the neutrality of her existence, taking what they see as passivity as an acquiescence to their power, as an invitation to rape, to dominate, to destroy, though all of these men are disgusted by their violence, because of the silence in response to it, because her passivity is not in relation to them, which of course makes them all the more violent.

Starving is always seen as starving for attention, as if such a lack is always in reference to a refusal to be penetrated which incites rage and entices rape.

Chris Kraus rhapsodizes this in relation to the alien body and Simone Weil, among others. One of Weil’s nicknames was “the Martian.” Another was “le vierge rouge.” Kraus in one passage of Aliens and Anorexia compiles patronizing characterizations of our mystic.

“Nancy Houston faults Weil for the denial of the body. She pities her because she never fucked, and therefore must’ve suffered from a lack of self-esteem.” … “According to Weil’s English editor/biographer, Richard Rees, she identifies the chief value of the human soul as a state of utter impersonality. And yet, as her friend-enemy Simone de Beauvoir would later argue in The Second Sex, the female self, because it is primarily defined by gender, can never be perceived impersonally.” … “In his 1991 biography of Weil, the scholar Thomas Nevin writes: “Her intellectual rigor, her relentless, never concessive way of arguing a position, her quest for the pure, worked as a mechanism for distancing herself as others might see her, as a woman.” … “In an extraordinarily patronizing introduction to Mary McCarthy’s translation of Weil’s monograph, The Iliad – A Poem of Force, Weil’s brother Ande notes that if only she had combed her hair, worn stockings and high heels, the world might have taken her more seriously.”

For Georges Bataille, who included her as a character he couldn’t fuck but whose depressive nature attracts him as a “talking-whore” in his work The Blue of Noon, writes six years after her death that her work was “immoral, trite, irrelevant, and paradoxical.”

“The bibliographic sourcebook to Weil’s work, published by UC Santa Cruz in 1992, describes her as an ‘anorexic philosopher’ who died of self-starvation at the age of 34.”

“A self-loathing and self-starving adrogyne.”

John Berger writes of her in a text called, Anti-gyne

Perversely, for Kraus all of the literature surrounding anorexia “is based on the unshakable belief that the formation of a gender-based identity is still the primary animating goal in the becoming of a person, if that person is a girl.”

Even the female psychotherapists “lead the pack in nailing down the anorexig girl as a simpering solipsitic dog: Marlene Boskind-White, Bulimarexia: ‘Anorexics have a disproportionate concern with pleasing others, particularly men, a reliance on others to validate their sense of self-worth. They have devoted their lives to fulfilling the feminine role.’ Anorexica are merely ‘starving for attention’ (Cherry O’Neill) and ‘as a group, they are manipulative and deceitful’ (Hilde Bruch).”

“No one considers that eating might be more or less than what it seems. At best, the anorexic is blocked in an infantile struggle to attain a separation from her mother. At worst, she is passive-aggressively shunning the ‘female’ state and role. At any rate, all these readings deny the possibility of a psychic-intellectual equation between a culture’s food and the entire social order. Anorexia is a malady experienced by girls and it’s still impossible to imagine girls moving outside themselves and acting through the culture. All these texts are based on the belief that a well-adjusted, boundaried sense of self is the only worthy female goal.”


Anorexia – in Greek, without desire – is the figure of a gendered transcendence. For even Spinoza’s beatitude consists of detaching one’s mind from the thought of the outside. It is not a denial of the body as much as in Spinoza it is a rearranging of affects from external determination to self-determination, just as anorexia is not a denial of the body as such but only a recoding of its masculine inscriptions, an erasure of the sexual transcription of the female body. It need to be emphasized that this is not in relation to man or his desire, it is an erasure of his desire, which is why it must be foreclosed.

I would like to say so much more – especially about Simone Weil and decreation as a transcendence that includes a gendered desire without defining it in relation to a hegemonous and neutral masculinity, but I’m now drinking by a fire.

I’ll close with the opening of Kraus’s Aliens and Anorexia:


This is Ulrike Meinhof speaking to the inhabi-

tants of Earth. You must make your death public.

On the night of May 9th 1976 in a special iso-

lation cell of the Stammheim Prison where I was

confined without sentence by order of the Chief

Prosecutor of the Federal Republic of Germany,

as co-leader of the Red Army Fraction….


As the rope was tightening around my neck,

moment of losing my mind, suddenly I lose my

perception but regained all my consciousness

and discernment. An Alien made love with me.

If it is true as certain newspapers write, that

traces of sperm were found on my dress, these

could be the traces of intercourse.

After making love, I could state that my con-

sciousness went on functioning in a new and

uninjured body.

Afterward the Alien took me to a special planet

which belongs to Andromedas. The society

there treats time and space with intensity, gen-

tleness, discipline and freedom. Over…

Compare this with the last entry in Simone Weil’s diary:

He entered my room and said: “Poor creature, you who understand nothing, who know nothing. Come with me and I will teach you things which you do not suspect.” I followed him.

He took me into a church. It was new and ugly. He led me up to the altar and said: “Kneel down.” I said: “I have not been baptised.” He said: “Fall down on your knees before this place, in love, and before the place where lies the truth.” I obeyed.

He brought me out and made me climb up to a garret. Through the open window one could see the whole city spread out, some wooden scaffolding, and the river, on which boats were being unloaded. The garret was empty, except for a table and two chairs. He bade me to be seated.

We were alone. He spoke. From time to time someone would enter, mingle in the conversation, then leave again.

Winter had gone; spring had not yet come. The branches of the trees lay bare, without buds, in the cold air full of sunshine.

The light of day would arise, shine forth in splendour, and fade away; then the moon and the stars would enter through the window. And then once more the dawn would come up.

At times he would fall silent, take some bread from a cupboard, and we would share it. This bread really had the taste of bread. I have never found that taste again.

He would pour out some wine for me, and some for himself—wine which tasted of the sun and of the soil upon which this city was built.

At other times we would stretch ourselves out on the floor of the garret, and sweet sleep would enfold me. Then I would wake and drink in the light of the sun.

He had promised to teach me, but he did not teach me anything. We talked about all kinds of things, in a desultory way, as do old friends.

One day he said to me: “Now go.” I fell down before him, I clasped his knees, I implored him not to drive me away. But he threw me out on the stairs. I went down unconscious of anything, my heart as in shreds. I wandered along the streets. Then I realised I had no idea where this house stood.

I have never tried to find it again. I understood that he had come for me by mistake. My place is not in that garret. It can be anywhere—in a prison cell, in one of those middle-class drawing-rooms full of knick-knacks and red plush, in the waiting-room of a station—anywhere, except in that garret.

Sometimes I cannot help trying, fearfully and remorsefully, to repeat to myself a part of what he said to me. How am I to know if I remember rightly? He is not there to tell me.

I know well that he does not love me. How could he love me? And yet deep down within me something, a particle of myself cannot help thinking, with fear and trembling, that perhaps, in spite of all, he loves me.

The editors of the diary notes that “unclassable mass of fragments follow.”

another addendum to the Spanish poet

wikipedia cites on Carl Gebhardt’s authority that the Spanish poet whom Spinoza cites is Luis de Góngora, who feuded with Quevado.

the last sonnet included in his selected poems, translated by John Dent-Young is “of human ambition,” from 1623

De la ambición humana
Mariposa, no sólo no cobarde,
mas temeraria, fatalmente ciega,
lo que la llama al Fénix aun le niega,
quiere obstinada que a sus alas guarde,
pues en su daño arrepentida tarde,
del esplandor solicitada, llega
a lo que luce, y ambiciosa entrega
su mal vestida pluma a lo que arde.
Yace gloriosa en la que dulcemente
huesa le ha prevenido abeja breve,
¡suma felicidad a yerro sumo!
No a mi ambición contrario tan luciente,
menos activo sí, cuanto más leve,
cenizas la hará, si abrasa el humo.

their translation reads:

Far from being a coward, the moth chooses
—rashly bold, endowed with fatal blindness—
obstinately to claim for its wings a kindness
which even to the phoenix fl ame refuses;
too late aware to save itself, it turns
toward a splendor, enchanted by the blaze
of that which shines; ambition thus betrays
the ill-assembled plumes to that which burns.
In glory now it lies in the tomb most sweetly
which in advance a little bee had fashioned.
The greatest bliss rewards a fault that’s great!
But my ambition does not need this enemy:
it can by smoke alone be turned to ashes,
which has no burning power, no shine, no weight.

addendum to the Spanish Poet

this poet is not Borges, who wrote of his own other the poem “Borges and Myself

It’s to the other man, to Borges, that things happen. I walk along the streets of Buenos Aires, stopping now and then––perhaps out of habit––to look at the arch of an old entrance way or a grillwork gate; of Borges I get news through the mail and glimpse his name among a committee of professors or in a dictionary of biography. I have a taste for hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the roots of words, the smell of coffee, and Stevenson’s prose; the other man shares these likes, but in a showy way that turns them into stagy mannerisms. It would be an exaggeration to say that we are on bad terms; I live, I let myself live, so that Borges can weave his tales and poems, and those tales and poems are my justification. It is not hard for me to admit that he has managed to write a few worthwhile pages, but these pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good no longer belongs to anyone—not even the other man—but rather to speech or tradition. In any case, I am fated to become lost once and for all, and only some moment of myself will survive in the other man. Little by little, I have been surrendering everything to him, even though I have evidence of his stubborn habit of falsification and exaggerating. Spinoza held that all things try to keep on being themselves; a stone wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is so that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in those of others or than in the laborious tuning of a guitar. Years ago, I tried ridding myself of him, and I went from myths of the outlying slums of the city to games with time and infinity, but those games are now part of Borges, and I will have to turn to other things. And so, my life is a running away, and I lose everything and everything is left to oblivion or to the other man.

Which of us is writing this page I don’t know.

Borges also wrote a poem entitled Spinoza:

Las traslúcidas manos del judío
Labran en la penumbra los cristales
Y la tarde que muere es miedo y frío.
(Las tardes a las tardes son iguales.)
Las manos y el espacio de jacinto
Que palidece en el confín del Ghetto
Casi no existen para el hombre quieto
Que está soñando un claro laberinto.
No lo turba la fama, ese reflejo
De sueños en el sueño de otro espejo,
Ni el temeroso amor de las doncellas.
Libre de la metáfora y del mito
Labra un arduo cristal: el infinito
Mapa de Aquél que es todas Sus estrellas.

The Jew’s hands, translucent in the dusk,
Polish the lenses time and again.
The dying afternoon is fear, is
Cold, and all afternoons are the same.
The hands and the hyacinth-blue air
That whitens at the Ghetto edges
Do not quite exist for this silent
Man who conjures up a clear labyrinth—
Undisturbed by fame, that reflection
Of dreams in the dream of another
Mirror, nor by maidens’ timid love.
Free of metaphor and myth, he grinds
A stubborn crystal: the infinite
Map of the One who is all His stars.

Spinoza and the Spanish Poet

I’ve been tormented recently by that Spinoza scholium about the Spanish poet, he whom, having lost his memory, Spinoza is not prepared to call the same person. It’s a strange scholium, not the least because as Montag points out, it’s one of the only loose threads in the Ethics. It’s almost as if the second Ethics (to borrow Deleuze’s topology of the project) is not an esoteric sub-terrain, which system, like the double language of Strauss’s Maimonides, can be uncovered as a secular project concealed for fear of persecution beneath words shaped to appease both the student’s simplicity and the authority’s rigid canon.

Rather, when this thread, which as we shall see has a strange course, is pulled, the whole tapestry doesn’t collapse, but, there being symptoms in the seams, what is revealed is a shadow-portrait painted over, a work of which Spinoza is not the master. Certainly the work is masterful, but while traversing the disparate perspectives of infinite substance and finite modes, the play of power leaves gaps in the cloth’s folds. Montag, asking what external forces compel Spinoza’s pen, proposes that, “[t]he product of such heterogeneous forces would necessarily be a composite, nothing more than a factitious unity whose diverse elements. while combined, are never harmonized. Indeed, what would the ‘something more’ be, if not the very supernatural/supertextual realm that Spinoza so vehemently rejects?” (27).

More than anything else I want to trace the thought of the outside in Spinoza, there where there is strictly speaking no outside, for everything is immanent to an infinite substance that envelops itself in itself, but also where everything is the outside, for everything is just a play of forces and a play of folds, ceaselessly entangled without inside.

The thread weaves through these passages:

Pr.5.III: Things are of a contrary nature, that is, unable to subsist in the same subject, to the extent that one can destroy the other.

Pr.10.III: An idea that excludes the existence of our body cannot be in our mind, but is contrary to it.

Sch.Pr.20.IV: Therefore nobody, unless he is overcome by external causes contrary to his own nature, neglects to seek his own advantage, that is, to preserve his own being. Nobody, I repeat, refuses food or kills himself from the necessity of his own nature, but from the constraint of external causes. This can take place in many ways. A man kills himself when he is compelled by another who twists the hand in which he happens to hold a sword and makes him turn the blade against his heart; or when, in obedience to a tyrant’s command, he, like Seneca, is compelled to open his veins, that is, he chooses a lesser evil to avoid a greater. Or it may come about when unobservable external causes condition a man’s imagination and affect his body in such a way that the latter assumes a different nature contrary to the previously existing one, a nature whereof there can be no idea in mind (Pr.10.III). But that a man from the necessity of his own nature should endeavor to cease to exist or to be changed into another form, is as impossible as that something should come from nothing, as anyone can see with a little thought.

Sch.Pr.39.IV: For I do not venture to deny that the human body, while retaining blood circulation and whatever else is regarded as essential to life, can nevertheless assume another nature quite different from its own. I have no reason to hold that a body does not die unless it turns into a corpse; indeed, experience seems to teach otherwise. It sometimes happens that a man undergoes such changes that I would not be prepared to say that he is the same person. I have heard tell of a certain Spanish poet who was seized with sickness, and although he recovered, he remained so unconscious of his past life that he did not believe that the stories and tragedies he had written were his own. Indeed, he might have been taken for a child in adult form if he had also forgotten his native tongue. And if this seems incredible, what are we to say about babies? A man of advanced years believes their nature to be so different from his own that he could not be persuaded that he had ever been a baby if he did not draw a parallel from other cases. But I prefer to leave these matters unresolved, so as not to afford material for the superstitious to raise new problems.

Sch.Pr.38.V: Hence we understand that point which I touched upon in Sch.Pr.39.IV and which I promised to explain in this part, namely that death is less hurtful in proportion as the mind’s clear and distinct knowledge is greater, and consequently the more the mind loves God. Again, since (Pr.27.V) from the third kind of knowledge there arises the highest possible contentment, hence it follows that the human mind can be of such a nature that that part of it that we have shown to perish with the body (Pr.21.V) is of no account compared with that part of it that survives. But I shall be dealing with this at greater length in due course.

Immediately it should be strange that there’s any talk of a ‘subject’ in Spinoza. In fact, every other use of the word is the verbal ‘being subjected to.’ Even more strange is that this proposition (Pr.5.III) is the very basis for the establishment of the universality of the conatus or our very essence in so far as we strive to persist in our being.

The argument goes like this: I cannot destroy myself. Moreover I oppose everything that can destroy me. Therefore I endeavor to persist in my being, an endeavoring which is my very essence.

Spinoza must then decisively establish the impossibility of suicide in order to identify the conatus with an individual essence. How does he do this? On the one hand he shows that, like the previous demonstration, no one can kill oneself from the necessity of their nature or the laws of their essence. But, on the other hand, when one does kill oneself, it is because of external forces. Suicide as such is impossible, while what actually takes place when “one kills oneself,” is merely the event of a death, like all other deaths, that comes from the constraints of the outside.

Yet, why does Spinoza add the qualification “Or it may come about” in order to continue, “when unobservable external causes condition a man’s imagination and affect his body in such a way that the latter assumes a different nature contrary to the previously existing one, a nature whereof there can be no idea in mind.” This reads like an unfinished thought.

Is it that when one’s body becomes contrary in essence to what it once was, this becoming-contrary is itself suicide? Or is it that one kills oneself, not from the necessity of one’s own nature, but rather this other nature is that which accomplishes the act from its own striving to be – like a virus, like a parasite that smothers its host?

When Spinoza speaks of the Spanish poet, however, it is a question of exchanging the death of life with the death in life. One’s body can become contrary in nature to what it once was, but one can neither have knowledge of the previous nature or the fact that this nature has changed. This is what it means when Spinoza qualifies the contrary nature as that, “whereof there can be no idea in the mind.” Yet, how is there still a mind? For Spinoza a mind is the idea of the body. If the body has become contrary to itself then it makes enough sense to say that, if there is an idea corresponding to its nature, it cannot be an object of thought for the mind that corresponds to its previous nature. But how can there be a mind of the previous nature if one is neither aware of the previous nature or the change therein?

This might make more sense if we present Blanchot’s analysis of the impossibility of suicide as a foil. In the section of The Space of Literature entitled “The Work and Death’ Space,” Blanchot asks the questions, “Can I die? Have I the power to die?” three times, each enunciation shifting the emphasis from ‘I’ to ‘power’ to ‘death.’

When Blanchot asks, “Can I die?” on the first instance, this question

has no force except when all the escape routes have been rejected. It is when he concentrates exclusively upon himself in the certainty of his mortal condition that man’s concern is to make death possible. It does not suffice for him that he is mortal; he understands that he has to become mortal, that he must be mortal twice over: sovereignly, extremely mortal. That is his human vocation. Death, in the human perspective, is not a given, it must be achieved. It is a task, one which we take up actively, one which becomes the source of our activity and mastery. Man dies, that is nothing. But man is, starting out from his death.

For a being that must account for their ownmost death that makes them, death becomes, in a shrewd twist of thought, an accomplishment, an act, a suicide. To make death possible is, as Kirilov in Dostoevksy’s Demons formulates it, “practically [to grant] us the right to live.” It is to find a path from one to oneself and also from one to God, to the abslute, to existence as such, in a suicide that in order to be affirmed must be carried out.  

Yet, the addition of ‘practically,’ like in much else of Kirilov’s dizzying and disorienting language, Blanchot finds moreover a shame and a fear that precisely these thoughts of God mask by giving death a face. In the second instance, then, it is a question of the power of death: Have I the power to die, or does this power not belong to death itself? Against the anonymous omnipotence of death, one becomes utterly powerless, for to meet death is always to be met by death first, just as to grasp death is to be grasped by death, such that in the third instance of the question, it is the very impossibility of death that is at stake, for it is not I that dies.

Do I myself die, or do I not rather die always other from myself, so that I would have to say that properly speaking I do not die? Can I die? Have I the power to die?

The death that I make possible in my sovereignty over myself is not the same as the death in which I cease, that impossible death which “I” do not die, for this death has no relation to me. Death doubles as does the self, which is split both in relation to itself and to death. Consciousness of disappearing severs from consciousness disappearing, the self that kills from the self that is killed, and the death that the one makes a possibility from the death into the impossibility of which the other dissolves.

The expression “I kill myself” suggests the doubling which is not taken into account. For “I” is a self in the plenitude of its action and resolution, capable of acting sovereignly upon itself, always strong enough to reach itself with its blow. And yet the one who is thus struck is no longer I, but another, so that when I kill myself, perhaps it is “I” who does the killing, but it is not done to me. Nor is it my death – the one I dealt – that I have now to die, but rather the death which I refused, which I neglected, and which is this very negligence.

Who then is the subject of suicide?

For Spinoza, when “I kill myself,” I am not the one that kills myself even though I am the one that dies. For Blanchot, when “I kill myself,” I can certainly be the one who kills, but it is not my self who is killed.