Printer Friendly

"L'art et les gens" (1): Jean-Luc Nancy's Genealogical Aesthetics.

It is an ancient, immemorial scene, and it does not take place just once, but repeats itself indefinitely, with regularity, at every gathering of the hordes, who come to learn of their tribal origins, of their origins in brotherhoods, in peoples, or in cities--gathered around fires burning everywhere in the mists of time. (Jean-Luc Nancy, "Of Divine Places")

Jean-Luc Nancy's treatise on aesthetics, The Muses, begins with a journey into the field of etymology, into the roots and origins of the name of the Muses. Rather than following the Greek etymology--in which "Muse" relates to music, the arts, and through manthanein to the process of learning as well--Nancy pursues the Latin roots and imagines the Muses as more encompassing manifestations of the spirit: "The Muses get their name from a mot that indicates ardor, the quick-tempered tension that leaps out in impatience, desire, or anger, the sort of tension that aches to know and to do. In a milder version, one speaks of the 'movements of the spirit'" (1996, 1).

In preferring this route through the Latin mens (spirit or soul), however, Nancy skips over another connection implicit in his own language. This "movement of the spirit" that yields such ardor and tumult can be seen as the mental correlative of the menses, the movement of the blood in the female bodily cycle. I am suggesting that the excitement, arousal, and force associated with the mens--let us say, with the movement of the poetic spirit--might operate here as a metonymic displacement of the menses, which mark and interrupt the internal movements of the female body, thus inscribing on it the passage of time. This image of time's traces on the female body becomes all the more exegetically poignant, since the principal function of the Muses in Nancy's text consists in delineating the temporality of art by marking the rise and fall of artistic movements and epochs, as well as of aesthetic philosophies.

Embodiments of the divine force that visited the poet in the Homeric times, the Muses gradually disappeared until they were reduced in modernity to a single muse. The modern muse, however, is less of a divinity and more of a ceremonial evocation of her predecessors. She is a figure of speech, an ornamental apostrophe to an external being that ironically exposes the absence of any such genuine externality in a solipsistically self-reflexive age. This is why in his study of the great modernist poet, Stephane Mallarme, Yves Delegue speaks of the poet's "muse moderne de l'Impuissance" (1997, 58), namely, a muse denuded of her divine omnipotence, who is now only a faint index of the vigor of her ancient precursors.

Earlier on, Theodor Adorno also commented on the disappearance of the Muses as a modernist motif in Eduard Morike's poem "On a Walking Tour" Entering a small town at sunset, where "On the streets lies the red evening light," Morike completes this melancholy image of the bygone day with an invocation to the muse, equally now a figure of the past, enveloped in the glow of the dusk and emptied of her divine fervor, though still capable of a rousing sentimentality: "I am as if drunken, led astray--/ Oh muse, you have touched my heart,/ With a breath of love!" (Morike qtd. in Adorno 1991, 47-48). "It is as if this word [muse]," writes Adorno, "one of the most overused in German classicism, gleamed once again, truly as if in the light of the setting sun, ... and as though even in the process of disappearing it were possessed of all the power to enrapture which an invocation of the muse in the modern idiom, comically inept, usually falls to capture" (48). In part, we can say that a lonely muse is possible only in her disappearance and that she moves us only in her departure, because her plural nature--her proper mode of appearing--has been expended. This image of the exhausted muse corresponds to the 19th-century notion of aesthetic exhaustion. The consolidation of the Muses into a single "impotent" muse parallels the 19th-century reduction of the arts into Art, itself a vanishing category capitalized as if to compensate for its loss. Reduced to a single figure, almost forgotten by now, these daughters of memory (Mnemosyne) return to punctuate Nancy's aesthetic narrative in the guise of various feminine figures.

Indeed, the notion of femininity is central to Nancy's narrative of art. Although the book at first appears to be a collection of disparate essays on aesthetics, a thematic link is established through recurring images of femininity. From the first two essays, which explore the philosophical definition of art, back through readings of Caravaggio and the earliest examples of cave painting, Nancy draws on female presences from the Christian Virgin to the pagan Muses. The multiplicity of these figures, each presented with her own historically specific function, corresponds to what Nancy calls the "singular-plural" character of art--namely, the way in which a discrete and singular aesthetic phenomenon produces in us a plurality of impressions and experiences.

This issue of art's singularity and plurality lies for Nancy at the core of the philosophical question of art's essence, and I would like to examine how and why this essence is exemplified in various feminine images. Why does a discourse on art--after art's declared end--need femininity as a necessary topos in order to exist at all? Nancy, I suggest, summons these feminine figures in order to produce a regenerative aesthetic discourse at a time when books on aesthetics have become all but obsolete. Regeneration, however, should not imply here the coinage of a new aesthetic theory. Such a facile gesture would need to dismiss the well-attested exhaustion of aesthetics, an exhaustion Nancy hardly ignores. Aware of art's subsumption by philosophy in Hegel's aesthetic metanarrative, Nancy attempts a symmetrically anti-Hegelian move of ending aesthetics in the name of art. (2) Regeneration, then, describes this transport through which Nancy reinscribes the aesthetic from the place of reflection into the place of being--that which is born and dies (the finite and genealogical), and which functions as the source but not the site of reflection. The vehicle for this transport is the Mme, herself morphing and transported into various other feminine figures.

In arguing this claim, I draw from the psychoanalytic vocabulary both of Freud, whose presence is sparse but revealing in Nancy's own text, and of Julia Kristeva, whose insights on the relation between gender and textuality provide a fruitful framework for my discussion. Psychoanalysis's postulation of latent and manifest content allows me to read what remains unspoken in Nancy's theorization of art through these feminine figures, or better yet, what cannot be spoken (thus registering as latent), because it is already more than manifest--namely, the notion of femininity.

Significantly, Nancy refrains from explicitly acknowledging the structural importance of gender in his work. Beyond the philosopher's natural refusal to name the obvious, this omission is consistent with Nancy's theoretical concerns with the nature of definition and categorization. Nancy is aware that, even for the sake of self-reflexivity, the rigorous assignment of categories runs the risk of conceptual impoverishment.

What Nancy will not concede to definition, and thus to hypostatization, is precisely the plurality of the Muses as non-essential figurations of art, of sense, and eventually, of femininity. To comment on the gendered nature of these figures would mean subsuming their plurality into the single category of "gender"--a reduction that would bracket and isolate gender, genre, and genealogy from the work of the Muses, fixing them as emptied manifestations of a concept. In fact, it is at the limit of concepts that the work of the Muses lingers, since they come to the artist from the outside as forces of insight but also as creatures of chance, with no logic to their comings and goings; they appear unexpectedly, long before or after the artist's invitation, disrupt the course already taken, and leave pitilessly with no forewarning.

As Gayle Levy suggests, the muse is related not only to inspiration, which has traditionally rendered her a passive servant to the genius of the male artist, but also to chance (le hasard), which transforms her into an active--albeit arbitrary--force of creation (1999, 9, 112-24). Levy stresses the accidental character of the muse with a reference to Paul Valery, the poet who most insistently explored the significance of accident in the creative process: "L'art et la peine nous augmentent; mais la Muse et la chance ne nous font que prendre et quitter" ["Art and toil strengthen us, but the Muse and chance only tempt us to take and leave"; Valery qtd. in Levy 1999, 9]. The unpredictable nature of chance destroys the organizing principles of law, thus marking a hiatus in the processes of logic and reflection. Outside the laws of cause and effect, chance is aligned with the impulse behind the artwork, its accidental emergence, rather than its semantic contents. Hence, modernist aesthetics embraced chance, with the view of liberating us from the burden of determinism by promising something novel and uncontrollable. (3) Similar to Nancy's etymological definition of the Muses as sources of emotive exorbitance and messengers of tension, desire, ardor, and impatience, the modern muse as chance "compels the poet to do her bidding" (9; original emphasis). Nancy corroborates further the link between the muse and chance toward the end of his study, where he argues that, as early as the caves of Lascaux, the "first painter" was compelled only by chance and by no other self-reflexive or metaphysical need to leave his trace on the wall. As harbingers of the physical sensations of color, rhythm, and texture produced by the arts, the Muses block the metaphysical movement of the self toward self-reflexivity. They disrupt the cohesiveness of the self-reflexive moment; they do not celebrate it.

Consequently, this book, strictly speaking, does not wish to be read as a reflection on art, but as a veritable encounter with the lux of the arts--the light and radiance that brings the world into presence and that, according to Nancy, shines through the art object. Nancy defines the art object not as a mere phenomenon, that is, as something appearing under light, but as the invisible source of illumination itself:
 The things of art are not a matter for a phenomenology--or else,
 they are themselves phenomenology, according to an altogether other
 logic of this "-logy"--because they are in advance of the
 phenomenon itself. They are of the patency of the world. Or else,
 that's what the phenomenon is, but not in the sense of what appears
 in light: rather than the phanein, it is the phaos itself, light,
 and not the light that appears (lumen) by clinging to surfaces, but
 the light that flashes (lux) and that causes to appear, itself
 nonapparent as such. Lux without fiat, having neither creator,
 subject, nor source, being the source but in itself refracted, in
 itself radiant, exploding, broken. (Nancy 1996, 33)

Therefore, encountering the art object does not signal a moment of reflection, but rather of a splendid transfiguration (4) in our understanding of the world. This splendid light, emanating here from the artwork, appears in another of Nancy's writings. In "Of Divine Places," he similarly describes the movement of divine appearance and disappearance as the alternation of light and darkness. In fact, for Nancy, light is what the gods are made of:
 What "resurrection" refers to--inadequately--is the radiance of
 manifestation. Osiris, Dionysus, Christ are never as radiant as
 when they have risen again. They are what they are: gods of
 radiance itself, divine glory open, offered, dazzling as the
 heavens and effaced like them ... [God] simply comes, in radiance
 and in the withdrawal of radiance. Or rather: his pure radiance
 withdraws him. (Nancy 1991, 125-26)

Grunewald's dazzling Resurrection of the Isenheim altarpiece provides an exemplary illustration for Nancy's description (Figure 2). Both art and the divine make themselves available not as phenomena, but as the originary light source that makes the phenomenon possible. In "Of Divine Places," Nancy anticipates explicitly this connection between the aesthetic and the divine when he writes: "It is a god--or a goddess--who offers us art: that is something we have still to think about" (1991, 127). The Muses carries out this thinking and, furthermore, it does so by engaging exclusively the feminine aspect of the divine.


Femininity, as implied in the image of the Muses, is from the beginning divided into a plurality of figures and functions, divinities rather than the divine. The Muses trope here not so much the unchangeable essence of art, but art's singular occurrence in an aesthetic gesture and the multiple sensations it produces. Nancy quotes an example from Wittgenstein: "Imagine someone pointing to a spot in the it is in a face by Rembrandt and saying 'the wall in my room should be painted that colour'" (1996, 20). Terms such as "brown" or "gray" prove simply inadequate as precise descriptions of the it is. With this example, Nancy wishes to show that Rembrandt's rendering of a particular color is an empirical instance whose extreme particularity exceeds--in effect, transcends--its linguistic description. Hence, Nancy's Kantian inversion: "Here [in art] the empirical is the transcendental" (1996, 20). Art offers us both the uniqueness of an instance, as well as the plurality of its inscriptions in our senses. For instance, the singular and unique explosion of a certain green not only appeals to our eyes, but can also evoke the smell of freshly cut grass, thus touching a seine other than our vision. Similarly, a sound might carry colors and textures within it, in a way that liberates the manifold character of experience from the generic rubric of linguistic categories and their strict correspondence between sense and the sensed.

Invoking Freud early on in his treatise, Nancy compares the discreteness of the aesthetic experience to the erotogenic zones (1996, 16). Whereas the erotogenic zones refer to the organization and distribution of erotic pleasure throughout discrete bodily surfaces, the aesthetic zones describe the infinite discreteness of sensory experiences. The analogy between erotogenic and aesthetic zoning, and the rapprochement between Freud and Nancy are of particular importance given the gendered subtext of The Muses.

In his analysis of the erotogenic zones, Freud links them expressly to hysteria and thus to issues of gender:
 There are predestined erotogenic zones, as is shown by the example
 of sucking. The same example, however, also shows us that any other
 part of the skin or mucous membrane can take over the functions of
 an erotogenic zone, and must therefore have some aptitude in that
 direction.... A precisely analogous tendency to displacement is
 round in the symptomatology of hysteria. In that neurosis
 repression affects most of all the actual genital zones and these
 transmit their susceptibility to stimulation to other erotogenic
 zones (normally neglected in adult life), which then behave exactly
 like genitals.... Erotogenic and hysterogenic zones show the same
 characteristics.(Freud 1962, 49-50)

By opening up the organization of the erotogenic zones to the displaced pleasures of the hysteric, Freud defines the function of the zones not as rigid hierarchical dissections of the body, but as discrete receptacles of stimuli that are potentially substitutable by one another.

Just as the hysteric (classically represented by the feminine gender in Freud's case histories) displaces genital pleasure to other, less valorized zones of the body, so Nancy's aesthetic imagines a parallel displacement of sensations from one sense organ to another. Nancy speaks of a similar "spacing" of the sensorium, of a quantum distribution of sensations, which is not rigidly fixed, but perpetually mobile and varying in its degree of intensity: "this red is also a thickness, a fluidity, a figure, a movement, a flash of sound, a taste, or an odor. The zone is itself zoned" (1996, 21). Pushing further the analogy between these two types of zoning, we could conclude that a "hysterical disposition" provides the ideal ground for the fulfillment of the aesthetic expression and experience--an argument germane to Kristeva's valorization of the semiotic modality of literature. (5)

In strict Kristevan terms, however, the subject of such infinitely discrete sensations is even more radically fragmented than the hysteric: "the subject in process/ on trial," as she calls it, is one exposed to the shattering conflict of the drives, but also one capable of jouissance precisely because of its heterogeneity. This subject does not discover pleasure in simply displacing sensations from one zone to another, or covering the gaps of meaning by inventing narratives. To the contrary, it pulverizes representation; it breaks down the edifice of meaning into infinite morsels of sensuous correspondences. "Unlike hysteria, where the subject visualizes past experience and represents those 'memories ... in vivid visual pictures,'" writes Kristeva, referring to Freud's cases, "this process breaks up the totality of the envisioned object and invests it with fragments (colors, lines, forms). Such fragments are themselves linked to sounds, words, and significations, which the process rearranges in a new combination" (1984, 102). The subject dissects and "spaces" the sensorium, grafting on to it the conflicts and divisions of the drives. The drives' internal split compels the subject toward this heterogeneous experience of the world, a state of excitation that rejects the pleasure principle (6) for the jouissance of dissolution: "In a moment that constitutes a leap and a rupture separation and absence--the successive shocks of drive activity produce the signifying function" (167; original emphasis).

Echoing Nancy's opening definition of the Muses, the terms "leap" and "rupture" align the Muses once again with the elements of strife, heterogeneity, and impetuousness that characterize the drives. Through the jouissance of splitting, this kind of sensing "destroys all constancy to produce another and then destroys that one as well" (Kristeva 1984, 104). In an almost parallel formulation, Nancy describes again the Muses as follows: "This is the force of the Muses: it is at once a force of separation, isolation, intensification, and metamorphosis" (1996, 22). Producing and destroying, appearing, disappearing, and transforming, thus disrupting all seine of constancy: these are the entropic rhythms set by the Muses, and followed by all the other feminine figures who succeed, resemble, or dissimulate them in Nancy's text.

Curiously, the feminine presences at work in his text all share the sexual and metaphorical attributes of a virgin. Celebrated in a self-contradictory fashion for her sexual purity and for her potential maternity, the virgin forms an unexpected parallel to the work of art. Her paradoxical temporality of both promising and resisting genealogy resembles the temporality of art: insofar as every artwork is the realization of a singular and ideal beauty, it too is predicated on the paradoxical repudiation of its on-going genealogy. Put differently, like an adolescent virgin who enjoys this status only during a bracketed time of her life, a specific work of art can only aspire to aesthetic singularity by considering itself as a moment of absolute interruption from history. Virginity and art share in this temporal paradox, and it is for this reason that Nancy attempts to regenerate the aesthetic discourse through figures of virginity. Virginity marks a liminal place both for temporality and for sexuality, thus providing a constitutive metaphor for the syncopated genealogy of the aesthetic. It is worth noting that Nancy here both expands and complicates the traditional duality of "feminine muse" and "masculine artist," for both the moment of inspiration and the moment of creation are subsumed into the virginal, feminized space of the artwork.

Having considered some of the general issues at stake in Nancy's reliance on the feminine for his aesthetics, we can now examine each of the figures individually. The first in the series is the maiden who, in a section of Hegel's Phenomenology, marks the relay from Greek art to Christianity. Nancy relates Hegel's description of the maiden to an image from Pompeii of a girl with offerings (Figure 3). Standing in the passage from antiquity to Christianity, from the cult of aesthetic exteriority to the cult of moral interiority, the girl offers us the fruits of another era, decayed by now, unable to conjure the life that surrounded them, ready to enter the museum:
 [The works of the Muse] have become what they are for us
 now--beautiful fruit already picked from the tree, which a friendly
 Fate bas offered us, as a girl might set the fruit before us. It
 cannot give us the actual life in which they existed, not the tree
 that bore them, not the earth and the elements which constituted
 their substance, not the climate which gave them their peculiar
 character, nor the cycle of the changing seasons that governed the
 process of their growth. So Fate does not restore their world to
 us.... Our active enjoyment of them is therefore not an act of
 divine worship; ... it is an external activity--the wiping-off of
 some drops of rain or specks of dust from these fruits, so to speak.
 (Hegel qtd. in Nancy 1996, 45)


Despite the dialectical necessity of art's sublation by the Idea, Hegel's tone in this passage is rather elegiac. Hegel laments the irretrievable loss reflected on the surface of these fruits. He understands that their passage into modern times is also the passage into death and that the tradition of art is also partly a tradition of death. The fruits are drained of their divine substances, standing witness to their own decay but also that of the past gods.

At the same time, however, as Nancy might observe, they are never as radiant as when they have appeared again. For the first time we can see and enjoy these fruits as they are, namely, as pure sensuous form, as art freed from the burden of religion (1996, 46-47). What we are presented with is the simple exterior beauty of form in the passage from a religion whose duty was art (the Greek pantheon) to a religion whose art is duty (Christianity). In fact, the passage from the temple to the museum is itself an image of severing, death, and corruption that exposes the change of seasons after all. It also exposes that the history of art is a series of suspensions and transitions, a movement by which art is recognized as art only in and after its passing.

If art, according to Hegel, must be linked to the representation of the Idea, then art can never enjoy a more autonomous status than when the Idea that it represents has obsolesced, ascended the dialectical spiral, and brought about the death of its corresponding art as well. The metaphysical coupling of art and religion thus yields a fascinating temporality of art. Since art per se cannot exist but after the death of religion and thus its own death, art's pure sensuous dimension is always recognized belatedly in the morbid image of decay. Marking and duplicating the passing of religions and of the Spirit, art is there always just out of sync. it lags behind the Idea in an anachronism that renders it perpetually contemporary and urgent.

Remarkably, the Pompeii maiden, Nancy's choice of image, literalizes this passing away by replacing the fruits with leaves. Hegel's fruits, which even decayed might point to the notion of rebirth, are replaced by foliage. But perhaps this substitution too does not signify only death. Perhaps the fruits have not yet ripened, just as the maiden who carries them is also awaiting the time of maturity. Indeed, in a footnote Nancy adds that of ten in ancient traditions the offering of the fruits symbolizes the maternal offering of the breasts and this is the reason why some of the Pompeii maidens appear bare-breasted (1996, 116 n. 9). Unable (yet) to deliver the fruits of life, the Roman maiden, successor to the Muses, partakes through her virginity both in the register of sterility and death, and in the register of fertility, of literally waiting for the "pregnant moment" to deliver what is yet to come.

In the next essay on Caravaggio's Death of the Virgin, the ubiquitous feminine figure reappears as a combination of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene (Figure 4). Caravaggio divests the religious scene of all sacredness. The angelic orders and the triumphant son who carries the Virgin to the heavens are replaced by the mourning disciples and the daughter-figure, Mary Magdalene. In place of a miraculous Assumption or Dormition, death is presented here as a concrete and ordinary reality to which we are all constantly exposed.


Entitled "On the Threshold," Nancy's reading is proper to the metaphoricity of the Virgin: theologically and iconographically, Mary's function is to provide a spatio-temporal threshold or bridge between the divine and mortal planes, as well as between the Old and the New Testament. This function is thematized in virtually every Annunciation painting, a moment where both birth and death (in the anticipation of Crucifixion) are encompassed In such paintings, Mary is of ten depicted praying on the threshold of a domestic or church interior, a pious corrective to our sinful progenitor, Eve. (On an anecdotal note, Nancy dedicates this essay to a certain Marie-Eve Druette.) Furthermore, the significance of the threshold of Caravaggio is appropriately about division, partition, discreteness, but also the discretion of the eyes in confronting the sight of death. This sight is one which cannot ultimately be caught, since it constantly divides itself between "this and the other side of dying" as Paul Celan wrote (1972, 87). On the one hand, there is the inaccessible, un-knowable side of death that commands the passive awaiting of the living. On the other, there is this side, the side of life, where the living experience death and confront their own mortality in the death of others. In the painting, these two sides are demarcated by the Virgin and Magdalene, each a Mary and an Eve; by the lush drapery functioning both as ornament and serpentine enclosure; but most of all by the gendered division of the painted space: the old, grieving, and solemn Apostles in the background herald the time of the past, whereas both women represent in their simplicity the time of the present, the time of life, which is also always open to the possibility of death.

Presented with this gendered divide, Nancy aligns the unbearable other-worldliness of death with the male disciples, while reserving the humanized face of death for the two women: "If it is a question here of death, it is more on the side of these men. The most visible among them are very old. The light harshly isolates three bald skulls. The group they form barely leaves the shadow; it remains immobile, a stranger to the rhythm of the two women, of their bodies and the red cloths" (1996, 61). Ultimately, even the stasis of death cannot arrest the "rhythm" that is established by the communion of these two women. With their respective bodies thrown backward and forward in a movement of parallax, the dead and the living Maries present the infinite exchange of finitude, the passing down of death and life from the one to the other. Deviating from traditional iconography and the church doctrine, which deny Mary her death, Caravaggio portrays a humanized Virgin as the true promise of life and the future. In this sense, the painter completes the task of incarnation and futurity for which the Virgin was uniquely destined by Christianity, a task which remains--at least in our imaginary--any mother's promise.

It is after all in death that the Virgin could have claimed back her body, her mortal and sexual body that the Church denied to her even in that last moment. (7) This link between death and female sexuality is of course anything but new, given a long and moribund aesthetic history in which death always follows the fulfillment of feminine desire. But even though such criticism is well-deserved, it cannot alone suffice here, since it forgets the other Mary, the passage to life. It forgets that the split origin of being and not being, of doing and undoing, is what Nancy celebrates as the woman's definition, in one rare sentence where the philosopher explicitly acknowledges the feminine figurations that pace his text: "Woman is that which divides itself" (1996, 66). Woman is not merely the passive site of sexual difference invented by the patriarchal imagination, but most importantly, the active site of the original difference that divides itself between life and death.

As if echoing this flow from death to life, the drapery, of the painting forms streams and ripples around the bodies and the interior of the room in a way that corroborates Nancy's allegorical reading of this painting, as being a painting about water: "It is said that the painter took for a model a woman drowned in the Tiber. It is also said that she appeared to be suffering from dropsy. Water is perhaps the secret element or prism of this scene bathed in tears" (1996, 59). Liquid substances--water, tears, and I would add the milk of the numerous single-breasted Madonnas of the history of art (Figure 5): all these privileged signifiers of maternal femininity become the secret elements through which this painting promises life and the future even in its depiction of death.


Furthermore, these textured drapes and folds enclose still another symbolization of femininity. They are displacements of the hymen, the most contested threshold in any understanding of virginity and the metaphorical device par excellence of speaking any entry, including Nancy's attempt to enter the threshold of this painting. "So, we have entered there where we will never enter" (1996, 57), writes Nancy in the very first sentence of his essay on Caravaggio. With this paradoxical formulation, Nancy recognizes the indeterminate character of any entrance into a virginal space--in this case, of the entrance into the exposed yet hermetically sealed surface of a painting. The liminal status of virginal sexuality best describes the aesthetic threshold as the simultaneous sense of joyful invitation and infinite withdrawal we feel when standing in front of an artwork. Like the feminine experience, or even the experience of death, the aesthetic experience is also one of self-division. Nancy starts from the conclusion, "So, we have entered," when he has not even begun his analysis, and extends this inverted temporality into the self-contradictory assertion that one has already entered what one will never enter. One cannot speak of proper entrance into a space where the door, namely, the hymen, functions as an indeterminate sign of boundaries, a sign whose meaning exceeds and supplements the sign's absence. This indetermination of presence and absence, of proximity and withdrawal, is at the core of every aesthetic encounter, since such an encounter transports us into uncharted areas of existence.

"What if art were never anything but the necessary plural, singular art of consenting to death, of consenting to existence?" (1996, 55) asks Nancy at the end of it is essay on the Roman Fate, which precedes the study of Caravaggio's rendering of this passage from life to death. From the life and death of art in Hegel to the life and death in the art of Caravaggio, the threshold is once again thematized by another virgin, the unconsummated bride and sterile mother of Christ juxtaposed next to the image of the whore, her mortal double.

However, before genealogy is reduced solely to thanatology, Nancy uses his penultimate chapter in this book to take one last stop in this journey and imagine the primal beginnings of art: the birth of painting in the grotto. The question of art today is transformed into a question of the most remote past in accordance with the Heideggerian formula: "That which is earlier with regard to the arising that holds sway becomes manifest to us men only later. That which is primally early shows itself only ultimately to men" (1997, 22). What has been with us in closest proximity and for the longest time will only be understood in the most distant future.

Near the end of his journey into the aesthetic, and just before he offers bas final remarks on the future of art, Nancy injects the reader back into the grotto, where he depicts his own version of the primal scene, peculiarly less violent and traumatic than Freud's. In the cave of Lascaux, we encounter the "first painter" who is drawn to the wall by a joyful surprise, or chance--a kind of serendipity upon seeing the outline of a form. This simple form with no grand narrative behind its conception seduces by its resemblance, and the human's recognition that he is mirrored in that accidental outline draws him back to repeat it and revise it. In this scene of recognition, the "first painter" left for posterity bas now self-conscious signature, the trace of his palm on the wall.

In the grotto, "in the mists of time," Nancy allows for a recuperative fantasy: he achieves the decoupling of art and religion by at least imagining it, thus unfettering art from the service of the Idea. He radicalizes Hegel's claim that art is the sensuous expression of the Idea (Hegel 1975, 9), by pushing the expressionism of dais proposition into a relation of identity: art, Nancy maintains, does not express the idea; art is where the idea happens, or more simply, art is the Idea.

With no onto-theological urgency in the background, the "first painter" is drawn to the surface of the cave by the force of resemblance, by the similarity he senses between himself and a strange, external form. What calls him toward art is less the voice of a god and more the wonder of simple, child-like imitation. In the mists of time, in a fog that forestalls the clarity of vision as it taints the certainty of the scene, Nancy picks up the thread of the primal story:
 Man began in the calmly violent silence of a gesture: here, on the
 wall, the continuity of being was interrupted by the birth of a
 form, and this form, detached from everything, even detaching the
 wall from its opaque thickness, gave one to see the strangeness of
 the being, substance, or animal that traced it, and the strangeness
 of all being in him. At this, man trembled, and this trembling was
 him. (Nancy 1996, 74)

The birth of form signals the discontinuity of being. Just as a form is delineated on the wall, so the self is also carved out of the undifferentiated continuity of other creatures. Human existence takes on a concrete shape with edges and boundaries; it separates from and thus relates to other entities and to the world; it enters the space of individuation and finitude. The image of the detached form evokes this state of severing, but also of rebirth, since the human creature recognizes itself for the first time as part of the world precisely because of being separate from that world. Cadaverous and creative, the sight of the drawing causes trembling in the very hand that traced it; not Hegel's absolute dread at the face of death, (8) not a shudder, but a trembling, a slight wavering of the limbs more comparable to the rapture of sexual release. Indeed, Freud, the submerged interlocutor of this text, resurfaces at this point, as the Heideggerian category of the coming-to-presence of the world resonates with echoes from the primal scene:
 Beneath the earth, as if touching on the rupture of any support and
 on the foundation of any distance, the whole world surfaced ... one
 more time: what was then this additional "time," this second
 occurrence or this recurrence of the origin, this re-creation that
 recreated the creator himself?. (Nancy 1996, 74; ellipsis in the

The story of art has been retold as a story of creation, albeit of a divided, "second" creation. Like the primal scene, which provides for a belated origin in its retroactive and fantasmatic unconscious representations, this story is also a "second occurrence." Significantly, the moment of creation is exemplified in the gesture of a hand tracing a form. In other words, the originary moment belongs to the sense of touch. This is in keeping with Nancy's earlier statement in this study that "creation is (the sense of) touch or the stroke of being-in-the world" (1996, 20), where he uses the painterly touch and the brushstroke as metaphors for demiurgy.

Touch, the sense that brings two different surfaces into contact, that bridges boundaries by also keeping them distinct, is of course the privileged sense that describes the mother-child dyad. Yet the feminine ability to bring forth life is a carnal creation that has long been the inferior correlative to the transcendental claims of artistic creation: "My body is no longer mine, it doubles up, suffers, bleeds, catches cold, puts its teeth in, slobbers, coughs, is covered with pimples, and it laughs," writes Kristeva in her own personal memoir that supplements the untold pains and deprivations of her Stabat Mater (1987, 240-41). According to Kristeva, it is dais aversion to the physical that drives Christianity to deny the Virgin her corporeality and to represent the conception and incarnation of the Word in terms of a disembodied, aesthetic conception.

In telling the story of this "second origin" through art, however, Nancy inverts this metaphysical semiotic of creation and reverses the traditional Platonic temporality of mimesis: "Painting is not a copy of the Idea: the Idea is the gesture of painting," he writes (1996, 78). The first part of dais formulation rejects the metaphysical aspect of aesthetics, which posits a dichotomy between origin and copy, aligning the origin with the lofty realm of the Spirit while relegating the copy to the realm of sensuous matter, the artwork. In this Platonic aesthetics, which Hegel also inherited, the artwork merely expresses the pre-existing Idea, and is potentially a poor expression at that, since it injects the Spirit with materiality. The second part of the formulation further radicalizes this inversion by engaging the metaphoricity of the gesture and its etymological link to gestation.

Gesture, like gestation, derives from the same Latin root of gerere (to bear, to carry) and involves first and foremost the sense of touch. Gesturing is typically associated with movements of the hand, out principal organ of touch, and painting is essentially an activity of the hand. Gestation too, the interval during which two living bodies coexist in one, is predicated on the sense of touch. By linking the processes of carnal and aesthetic creation through the metaphorics of touch, Nancy reinvests aesthetics with its dissipated ancient Greek sense of materiality, for the meaning of aisthesis was precisely sense qua sensuousness. Not only was aisthesis understood by the pre-Socratics as sense perception, but its various processes were bound up with the sense of touch: for instance, for Empedocles, all sense perception depends on an object's effluence through the pores and passages of the sense organ, while for the atomists a visual image is formed when a series of moist airy particles permeates the surface of the eye (Kirk, Raven, and Schofield 1983, 309-10,428). Nancy's notion that "the Idea is the gesture of painting" can thus be paraphrased as follows: the Idea is that which painting carries with; it is born of painting, or it comes in and after painting. The Spirit is not expressed by art, but rather it emerges from art. Consequently, art is not the sublimated tale of creation and existence. Instead, existence, the specificity of the empirical, manifests itself as art.

Nancy exits the grotto by attributing to the "first painter" the surprising recognition that the world simply exists and exposes itself to us:
 So the eye, which up until then had done nothing but perceive
 things, discovers itself seeing. It sees this: that it sees. It
 sees that it sees there: it sees that there is something of the
 world that shows itself. And this is always also to see there in
 the night of the grotto, the gaze stretched straight ahead into the
 black depths. And the gaze sees there the Idea, the (feminine)
 stranger, the figure: it is opened by and in this figure, its
 rhythm is set by "her" and it is "she" the Monster that it is
 itself. The Monster sees the invisible, and the vanishing sense of
 its own presence in the world. (Nancy 1996, 79)

From mere perception to the conscious recognition of the world, there is the extension of this arm drawing a shape on the cave wall. This distance, the fact that there is a "there," makes of this hand an instrument of creation and of this eye a witness to the presence of the world. Looking at the traced hand, the painter recognizes in it the Idea, the Muse: it is not that the figure of the hand expresses this idea, but rather that the idea springs from inside the palm's contours. The Muse is not there as divine inspiration, or movement of the spirit, but primarily as a force of the hand, an exercise of touch and vision. She does not birth or precede the execution of the work. She arrives simply as a recognition, the same recognition the human creature experiences when he confronts himself in the trace on the wall.

Last in the series of these ethereal and virginal femininities, the Inspiration (Muse) takes on now the structural position of the daughter. Although upon first glance such a statement seems to relegate the Muse again to a derivative and inferior status, it does indeed provide a liberating temporality: it relieves the Muse of the impossibility--which has traditionally worked toward her erasure--of having to precede the artist, while also having to recede in front of his genius, much as the Virgin Mary had to follow silently him whom she had birthed.

Nancy concludes this study with a partly programmatic essay in which he addresses the repeated declarations of the end of art and the significance of such declarations for today. Returning to Hegel, the essay, entitled "The Vestige of Art," establishes the passing of art as the highest manifestation of its essence. Traces, vestiges, and fragments are what we know of art, and it is only in the sense of an ungraspable ruin that art offers itself as a subject of investigation. Indeed, for all its scientific connotations, the word "investigation" embraces the logic of the vestige, of that which is not wholly identifiable and which cannot fully yield to our usual scientific tests of validity. Investigation in general, and Nancy's investigation in particular, follows the path of thinking according to the vestiges left imprinted on this path. From the handprints of Lascaux to the footprints of aesthetic history, we are asked to understand that art is art only in its passage, in the thresholds it marks between epochs, styles, and movements; art not only as vestige, but as vestibule, as this passageway where the vestal virgins now only see the smoke of a tire long extinguished. (9) The passage of art and our contemplation of it are in that sense entrusted to and made possible by these maidens, the Muses, themselves figures of suspended adolescence.

The korai of this treatise then are not mere vehicles, transportations so to speak--into the past of art. They are themselves transports and arrests, whose movement writes the history of the aesthetic. Their pattern of appearance and disappearance, of motion and interruption, mirrors the sliding of figure and background, the cut that makes possible the appearance of form and of the world. More importantly, the persistence of writing on art at a time where art's existence is called into question necessitates the presence of such figures that can promise lire and generation over and against the inescapability of death.

"Man overcomes the unthinkable of death by postulating maternal love in its place," writes Kristeva, while adding that "Every God, even including the God of the Word, relies on a mother Goddess" (1987, 252). Like Kristeva, who recognized in the Virgin the last attempt of a patriarchal religion to promise resurrection, Jean-Luc Nancy rescues a jeopardized history of art by resorting to this metaphorical structure of femininity. Completing Morike's gesture, who bade farewell to the muse in her sunset halo, Nancy envisions a future for art in the wake of her shimmering departure. But even beyond the last farewell--the Hegelian gesture that, after ail, indulges a certain endlessness--Nancy transports the aesthetic encounter outside aesthetics and into the realm of finitude and genealogy.


(1) Nancy (1996, 100). My ride borrows from Nancy's last sentence in this book, where he offers this topic as worthy of future investigation. "Art and people"--where gens/people is a generic name related to another family of words such as genre, gender, and engendering--provides a backdrop for my analysis on the gendered and genealogical aspects of Nancy's aesthetics.

(2) Nancy's debt to Hegel is emphasized rather than weakened by the term regeneration, since it has been pointed out that the Hegelian dialectic conforms to the logic of reincarnation--a similarly corporeal metaphor (Rosen 1989, 1). For instance, by renaming art as philosophy, Hegel recognizes and reincarnates art in the form of thought. At this point, I wish also to thank Eva Geulen, who first turned my attention to Nancy's radicalization of Hegel, a point to which I return later on in the essay.

(3) Valery's mentor, Mallarme, would be the most appropriate example here. Mallarme thematized his preoccupations with the nature of chance in two of his major works, Igitur and Un coup de des.

(4) Byzantine icons of Christ's transfiguration come to mind as exemplary illustrations of this splendor (Figure 1). On the top of a mountain, Christ revealed to his disciples tm divine nature, anticipating the second light of his resurrection: "and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as light" (Matthew 17:2). This theological reference is of particular importance in this context, since Nancy draws an immediate connection between the divine and the aesthetic gesture in an earlier essay, entitled "Of Divine Places" Although in The Muses Nancy wishes to free art from its subservience to religion and to other metaphysical systems, his earlier link between the aesthetic and the divine is not thus invalidated. To the contrary, this link continues to inform and inflect his thought insofar as his understanding of the divine differs from the established concepts of official theology. Like art, Nancy's imagination of the divine resists the impulse toward transcendence that has traditionally allied theology with the doctrines of metaphysics and dialectical philosophy.


(5) In Revolution in Poetic Language Kristeva distinguishes between two kinds of signifying chams and two respective modalities of the subject: the semiotic and the symbolic (1984, 21-24). Interestingly, she offers as examples of the semiotic modality the pathological discourse of analysands as well as literature, arguing that both of these discourses present us with some degree of motivation as opposed to the theoretical assumption of an arbitrary relation between signifier and signified. Literary texts and case histories, like those of the hysterics, are outward manifestations of latent unconscious contents, and although such contents will never be transparently expressed, they may still be symbolically articulated. The second kind of signification, the symbolic, Kristeva identifies with the traditional subject of linguistics.

(6) Freud defines the pleasure principle negatively as the diminution of psychic excitation: "the mental apparatus endeavours to keep the quantity of excitation present in it as low as possible or at least to keep it constant" (1961, 3). Opposed to the blissful but disruptive elements of jouissance, the pleasure principle is predicated on the law of constancy which, at the minimum, guarantees the maintenance of the psychic status quo.

7 Julia Kristeva's "Stabat Mater" analyzes the symbolic ramifications of the desexualization of Mary in the Christian tradition. In order to keep the Virgin's sexuality intact, the Christian doctrine denies her a carnal genealogy: being herself the daughter of an immaculate conception, as well as the mother of a virgin birth, Mary is also denied a physical death. Caravaggio's ordinary representation of death in this painting is a kind of a gift, not only to the Virgin by granting her finitude, and thus individuality; it is also a gift to us, since it relieves us from the transcendental burden of Christianity which abstracts even at the moment when it promises the concreteness of the flesh. For a similar critique of Christianity, see also Luce Irigaray's "The Crucified One:'

(8) In his famous master-slave dialectic, Hegel describes the movement from consciousness to self-consciousness--that is, the recognition of oneself in the other and as another--the subject's experience of shudder: "this consciousness has been fearful, not of this or that particular thing or just at odd moments, but its whole being has been seized with dread" (1977, 117)

(9) Reading Hegel's end of art, Nancy states that "art is smoke without rite, a vestige without God" (1996, 96). This is of course what Hegel saw in the maiden of his Phenomenology, whose offerings were drained of their religious significance and became for us lifeless representations of formal beauty.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. 1991. "On Lyric Poetry and Society." In Notes to Literature 1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, train. Shierry Weber Nicholsen. European Perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press.

Celan, Paul. 1972. Poems of Paul Celan. Trans. Michael Hamburger. New York: Persea.

Delegue, Yves. 1997. Mallarme le suspens. Strasbourg: Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg.

Freud, Sigmund. 1962. Three Essays in the Theory of Sexuality. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Basic.

--. 1961. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton. Hegel, G.W.F. 1977. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

--. 1975. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Trans. T. M. Knox. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1997. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper.

Irigaray, Luce. 1991. "The Crucified One." In Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche, trans. Gillian C. Gill. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kark, G. S., J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield. 1983. The Presocratic Philosophers. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kristeva, Julia 1987. "Stabat Mater." In Tales of Love. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

--. 1984. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press.

Levy, Gayle A. 1999. Refiguring the Muse. Currents in Comparative Romance Languages and Literatures. New York: Peter Lang.

Mallarme, Stephane. 1994. Igitur, Divagations, Un coup de des. Paris: Gallimard. Nancy, Jean-Luc. 1996. The Muses. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

--. 1991. The Inoperative Community. Trans. and ed. Peter Connor. Theory and History of Literature 76. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rosen, Stanley. 1989. The Ancients and the Modems: Rethinking Modernity. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kalliopi Nikolopoulou is Andrew Mellon Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Vanderbilt University. She is currently working on a book-length study, entitled Reading the Disaster: The Ethics of Negativity in the Poetry of Paul Valery and Paul Celan.
COPYRIGHT 2003 West Chester University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Nikolopoulou, Kalliopi
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Mar 22, 2003
Previous Article:Ben Jelloun, Jean Genet, and cultural identity in The Street for Just One: Alberto Giacometti.
Next Article:Something queer is going on: sex and methodology in the Middle Ages.

Related Articles
The Muses.
Ethos et pathos: Le statut du sujet rhetorique.
Forum sur l'engagement des citoyens du Nord de l' Ontario. (Nouvelles de FedNor).
Unhappy returns: John Rajchman on the po-mo decade. (Writing the '80s).
Introduction: literature and the arts: a French perspective on visual poetics, language, and artistic representation.
Le territoire pense : Geographie des representations territoriales.
On touching--Jean-Luc Nancy.
The Ground of the Image.
Noli me tangere; on the raising of the body.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters