I do not remember: philosophy and oblivion.
The expression "I do not remember" has always been a challenging enigma to the philosopher. It establishes both a structural limit and an active relation. On the one hand, it marks my exclusion from the truth since he who "does not remember" does not know; on the other hand, it reveals my oblique relation with the absent truth, for he who says "I do not remember," in the first person singular present indicative, is, none the less, on the tracks of that truth he does not possess. He who can not remember is actually trying to remember. (1) Oblivion and the effort to bring back to memory are two faces of the same coin. There is no oblivion without the search for what is lost, precisely as a wound begins, from its first appearance, the process of its healing. "I do not remember" always involves an act of seeking, even in the hour of surrender, when we are faced with the impossibility of remembering. In this case, the unknown perpetuates itself as unknown, as virtuality, and is experienced as an insatiable "hunger"' for determination, which, sadly, we realize we are in no position to lessen.
Philosophy entails a search for, a tension towards, the truth. The practice of philosophy relies on a double condition: on the one hand, the truth has to manifest itself; "somehow" it has to appear. On the other hand, our distance from the truth must not be a sign of exclusion, but rather the sign of our indirect participation in it. Such distance-relation is exactly what we experience in the oblivion "in the first person." Only by experiencing this kind of oblivion do "we know that we know nothing" and we can start to aspire to true knowledge. The consciousness of ignorance does not end in the mere fact of ignorance, but rather in the tension towards the absent knowledge. Similarly, the structure of oblivion is the possibility of a relation with what is absent, because of its absence. Even he who knows he knows nothing must "somehow" know what he does not know.
Oblivion entails intentionality; it is oblivion of something. It is consciousness of oblivion. This is the specific and paradoxical trait of oblivion for consciousness intentionally aims towards something which is not actually given, and which, therefore--if we assume that To Be means To Be Present--is not. (2) From a strictly logical standpoint, oblivion is simply absurd, since it forces us to take the closed off "path of non-Being." How is it possible to aim intentionally at something which is not? "On the tip of the tongue," that is, in the temporary amnesia of the proper name, nothing is "given"! If I were asked to say what do I see when I do not remember, I would not be able to answer. I would experience the inadequacy of any possible linguistic description as well as the insurmountable transcendence of the perceived "thing." I might say that I am experiencing some sort of phantasm of the thing, a larva waiting to materialize in a body of flesh and blood.
These spectral phanthasms that will reveal themselves to be full of unexpected meanings, are discomforting to a logical mind. What, then, is on "the tip of the tongue"? What is the prime mover of my search?
When "I do not remember X," not only do I give meaning, absurdly, to something that is not (X), but I use it, like the North Star, to direct my quest to discover what is this "something." This is not only absurd but also somewhat ludicrous. Something which is not becomes guide in my quest to discover what this something is. In the emptiness of oblivion, I ask what is X? Is it B, C, D? No, B, C, D resemble X, they share some characteristics with it, but still they are not X. Instead, X is A. The conclusion "X is A" arrives only at the end of my research. It marks the surfacing of memory and the dawn of knowledge. Only at this point, is it given as intuitive evidence that which in oblivion, I must assume, was given as absence.
"I do not remember" means to aim towards a specific absence, towards some image (eidos) X (X that will be A and will not be B, C, D, etc.). The process is similar to what happens when we forget a proper name: the name is unknown and yet it is there "on the tip of the tongue." Absence, qua intentional object, is not a vague nothing, but rather a determinate absence. The proper name I am looking for is not there, but the void left by its absence wields an incontrovertible selective power. The proper name I am looking for is a negative method that allows me to exclude certain "candidates" surfacing from the consciousness. Further, there is the reason (still unknown to me) why some specific images are surfacing rather than others. Like dreams, these images are uncanny visitors, yet they have a cause. Both Augustine and Sigmund Freud analyzed this paradoxical and "uncanny" situation, referring precisely to the temporary amnesia of proper names.
We may now better understand why the specific intentionality of oblivion is a crucial problem for philosophy. Oblivion expresses the affinity between the soul and the true, and its relation with the eternal specifically in the most unfavourable case, i.e., when the limit clearly shows itself (I do not remember something or somebody, I know that I know nothing). "I do not remember" means that I am in relation with the X that I am looking for; I might even be guided by it in my search, as if I were possessed by some sort of superior power that makes me reject the false knowledge, the above mentioned "candidates," Freud's "false memories." This very same power, whose signal phrase seems to be "it is not this!" will also guide my recognition of the truth, when it finally appears to quench my anxiety.
Socrates's well-known answer to Meno's "eristic argument" in the homonymous dialogue (Meno 80d 5, but see also See also Euthydemus 275d, 276d, and Theaetetus 165b) relies precisely on the evidence of the intentionality of oblivion, i.e., on the tropism that inevitably leads the "I know that I know nothing" to become knowledge conceived as contemplation of the eternal idea. (3) Oblivion in the first person singular, i.e., the limit, proves that I have seen, that I know (the Greek word for "I know" is oida, literally, "I have seen"). Otherwise, how could I look for something I do not know, and how could I eventually recognize it when I find it? Why would I be so sure when I exclude some "candidates"? And why would I detect an aura of similarity between the "candidates" and the thing I am looking for and towards which I strive, in a certain sense, despite myself? How can such a similarity emerge during the effort to recall? (e.g., the false memories "Boltraffio"' and "Botticelli"' for the name "Signorelli," which was sought by Freud?, 4-10) How could a similarity anticipate the terms in which it will be expressed only after? How could a "false recognition," as often occurs in everyday life ("that guy looks like someone I know, but I can't tell who ..."), foreshadow something that is absent?
In order for this to happen--as Socrates said to Meno--I need to have seen already, I need to know already. Such knowledge was not acquired here, but up there, in the sky above all skies, "somewhere" out of this world (Meno 82b). My temporary oblivion must therefore be the sign of my intentional relation to a kind of truth which does not completely leave me even down here in the sensible world (as, instead, argued by Meno's nihilistic "eristic argument").
With its paradoxical intentionality, oblivion in the first person endorses the principle on which the possibility of philosophy itself relies, namely, the Absolute is always present to us; we are and we live within it. Even the immediate (prima facie) negativity of oblivion aims at the Absolute. Moreover, the paradoxical intentionality of oblivion reminds us of the original contract that we have stipulated with the truth. The limit is indissoluble relation. Oblivion is memory. This is what allows philosophy to be the science of truth.
These conclusions are the same as those drawn by Augustine in his Confessions, Book X, where he uses all the resources the paradox of oblivion has to offer to speculative thought. When I do not remember the name which is temporarily lost, and yet I am looking for it, as if driven by some kind of instinct, that means that I do see. I do not know what I see, for, otherwise, the statement "I do not remember" would be mere nonsense, but I am sure that I do see. As it will be clear later, the degree of certainty involved in this act is close to the Cartesian cogito. Such certainty manifests itself in the confident refusal of those images which rush out in troops, and while one thing is desired and required, they start forth, as who should say, "Is it perchance I?" (The Confessions 138), "until what we seek meets us, and when it doth, we say 'This is it'" (146). (4)
According to Augustine, human beings are so desperately in pursuit of happiness because somehow ("nescio quomodo") they must have experienced it beforehand ("nescio qua notitia"): "Where have they known it, that they so will it?" (146). (5) If mankind mistakes happiness for vain simulacra, which are similar to the "false memories" theorized by Freud, it is because these simulacra hide what, at the same time, through a veil, they are obliquely manifesting to those who are able to "read" beyond facades, to those who can decipher the symptom. These images, which appear in the course of our search, carry with them an aura of similarity with the happiness we are looking for. We need to be aware of their deceptive quality, but, at the same time, we need to treasure them, for just like the names Botticelli or Boltraffio for Freud, they indicate the path towards the truth to the interpreter (Signorelli!). Thus, according to Augustine, God never abandons us, and the sign of his benevolent grace lies exactly in the fact that he is manifesting his irreducible presence in the very moment in which we reach our limit, in negative moments, in sin, when we do not remember him. This is the central leitmotiv of Augustine's Confessions: the oblivion of God is indeed the most powerful sign of his presence. (6)
According to both Plato and Augustine, in the statement "I do not remember," it is the true and eternal Being which is given as X in need of determination. In the paradox of an empty intentionality shines the possibility of philosophy as the science of truth and as a principle for the salvation of the soul. It is by extending the paradox of oblivion, as Socrates does with Meno, that the soul can be healed and re-integrated into the Eternal. Plato's anamnesis is the memory of the eternal implicated (as X) in the contingent fact of intentional oblivion and it is the way to the purification of the soul from the dirtiness of time. It is memory of the "a-chronic" essentia implicated by, and dissimulated in, the existentia.
Marcel Proust also follows Plato when his story's narrator sees the "gesticulating" of three trees on his way to Hudimesnil and feels the throbbing pain of a lost opportunity. Those trees, Proust writes, wanted to say something about him, about who he had always been and would forever be. Failing to decipher the message--as it, instead, happens in the famous cases of the madeleine and the steeples of Martinville--means to miss the eternal truth manifesting itself in time. There, in the surrender of memory, communication fails, the Absolute (God or the truth) is temporarily disconnected from its relationship with the soul, which is left prey to an anguishing solitude. (7)
A similar conception of memory as medicine for the soul can be found in Freud's analysis of the paradox of oblivion in the first person. Freud understands the "I do not remember" as a symptom, i.e., as an oblique materialization of the unconscious, and as a figure to be interpreted if the subject wants to connect to his/her desire. The formula is that of an oneiric rebus. Boltraffio, Botticelli, Bosnia Herzegovina, Herr, Trafoi, etc., are the terms of a figural equation that, once solved, will lead the interpreter to the determination of the incognita inscribed in the amnesia of the name Signorelli.
In the Platonic tradition, "somewhere" (Augustine's "ubi?") stands for the locus of origin from which the soul separated, a separation, however, which always maintains a sense of relation. In Freud, it becomes the eternal truth of the unconscious. The expression "I do not remember" is both path to and relation with the truth because of its paradoxical intentionality: "That is, I wanted to forget something, I repressed something [...]. The substitutive names no longer seem so thoroughly unjustified as they did before this explanation. They remind me (almost like a form of compromise) as much of what I wished to forget as of what I wished to remember, and show me that my objective to forget something was neither a perfect success nor a failure" (13). Together with its relation to the truth (to the unconscious), oblivion gives the soul a chance to heal, to escape from the tyranny of the symptom.
It is not surprising, therefore, that philosophy, from Plato to Augustine to Freud--just to mention some of the major authors--has long been engaged with the phenomenon of oblivion, often focusing on its simplest and most common form: the temporary amnesia of the proper name. As I have shown above, what is at stake here is the possibility for philosophy to be the science of truth and the path to the salvation of the soul. The paradox of oblivion's intentionality testifies to a relationship with and a partaking in the Absolute, where the limit ("I do not remember") is not an obstacle, but rather its transcendental condition.
These "classical" interpretations of oblivion, nevertheless, share a common feature which has to be highlighted and, in my opinion, questioned, namely, a "metaphysical" nuance, which can no longer be taken for granted. All these interpretations share the following pivotal element: they assume that the unknown X, whose paradoxical determination I experience in oblivion, is one and the same thing as what will be found at the end of the recognition process, namely, "until what we seek meets us, and when it doth, we say 'this is it'" (Augustine 146) . This means that the process of recalling is still understood from the standpoint of Aristotle's theory of judgement (X is A, this is it, hoc est). According to this bi-millenary tradition, judgement is the locus of truth, and the truth, as experienced in the phenomenon of oblivion in the first person, is nothing but the truth of the judgement. What I have "on the tip of the tongue" is X as A, X as mask, figure, or symptom of A; an X determined as A will be determined, because X is de facto A. According to Plato, what I have "on the tip of the tongue" is the idea, the one predicated of the many, as revealed in the determinate judgement.
Yet, can the unknown X experienced in oblivion, as a correlate of oblivion's specific intentionality, be reduced to what will eventually be established in the judgement? Or is the result of the process being projected in retrospect on its origin, thus denying, as often happens in metaphysics, the creativity of time and the performance of consciousness? Is the effort to recall just the simple recognition of something that has already been given and entirely constituted "somewhere" once and for all? To answer these questions we have to go back to our basic question, our Grundfrage: What is intentionally aimed by those who, having forgotten, are trying to remember? Do they really aim at "something"? I will now explore the larva experience in order to sketch an idea of the Absolute very different from that of metaphysics: the Absolute of life, which is difference, creation, and individuation in act.
An interesting and forgotten book, Le Mystere de la memoire, published in Switzerland in 1947, may be useful for answering my question. The author, Francois Ellenberger, wrote it during the long years he spent in a German detention camp. As he states in the foreword, the book is the product of a scientific mind trained "to interrogate the Earth's past and to contemplate the inhuman solitudes of geological periods through rocks and fossils" (9). (8) Unable to work as a geologist, Ellenberger turned to the only available material under those circumstances: the geological stratifications of his memory. With rare and remarkable precision, Ellenberger described, classified, and interpreted the heterogeneous signs of his living memory: from dreams, his favourite material, to reveries; from temporary amnesia to hypnagogic visions; from sudden reminiscences to distractions and the "automatic" association of words and images.
Despite the wide range of the topics covered, his is not an imprecise or a superficial work, nor is it the successful product of a lucky amateur. Ellenberger undertook his enterprise as a "geologist of memory" well-equipped, utilizing up-to-date and first-class philosophical literature: the young Jean-Paul Sartre's works on imagination and the imaginaire, as well as Sartre's critique of the Ego contained in the pivotal essay (crucial for all of twentieth century French culture), La Transcendance de l'ego; Pierre Janet's vast body of reflections on the "soft" states of consciousness; and last but not least, Henri Bergson's Matiere et Memoire (Freud's works, known to Ellenberger, remains more in the background).
Ellenberger's precious book would have probably been overlooked and forgotten had he not shared his prison years with Raymond Ruyer, a philosopher more reknown, if barely, than Ellenberger himself. Ruyer himself, in spite of his vast publications and the notoriety (at times, equivocal) some of his works have achieved even outside the scientific field proper, has remained a marginal author in the history of French thought of the twentieth century to the point of being completely ignored by what is today, by all accounts, the outstanding overview of contemporary French philosophy by Frederic Worms. Ruyer understood the great metaphysical significance of Ellenberger's description of the living memory, so much so that it became the landmark of his own interpretation of evolutionary phenomena, providing the overarching theory for his new philosophy of nature. Ruyer extended Ellenberger's idea of memory to life itself (memory and life are considered as co-extensive), and as a consequence, memory becomes the "privileged experience that allows us to glimpse into the metaphysical disposition of the universe" ("l'experience privilegiee qui nous permet d'entrevoir l'agencement metaphysique de l'univers." "Leibniz" 28).
It is beyond the scope of this paper to summarize Ellenberger's far-reaching study. He provides some precious hints regarding the ontological status of the X that we encounter when we experience oblivion in the first person. Let's go back to my previous questions: What do we have "on the tip of our tongue" when we know and yet we do not know, when we remember and yet we do not remember? What provides the ground for the contradictory actuality of the intentional oblivion of something (e.g., a forgotten proper name)? Such a ground cannot be either something that is, an idea, or something that is not. If so, as it is shown in the Platonic account of Meno's "eristic argument," we won't be able to avoid the alternatives proposed by the bright, young sophist to Socrates: either we look for something already known, and consequently ours is not a search, or we look for something unknown, and hence engage in an impossible enterprise. Ultimately, oblivion as "metaphysical" idea, as expounded in Plato, Augustine, and Freud, does not avoid the above mentioned alternatives, but rather it reformulates the Meno's first hypothesis along a non-Parmenidean line. It explains Becoming as the passage from oblivion to memory in the framework of the determination of Being as eternal presence, given once and for all "somewhere," namely, in the hyper-uranium, in God, in the unconscious.
According to Ellenberger, what is to be found in first-person oblivion is neither the presence of something (an "unconscious" presence) nor its nonsensical absence; rather, it is the larva, "something" that is much more than a possibility (to be distinguished from Aristotle's potency) and much less than an actual reality. The larva's reality is not the same as the reality of the "thing" expressed during the recalling process in the proposition (X is A). The larva opens up a new field, one of virtuality. The larva forces us to think of a process which is radically different from the standard (Aristotelian) model of becoming, namely, a process which does not involve the transmission of a pre-constituted message, which is not the identification of a datum (an idea, a transcendent God conceived as the unconscious cause already present in the intimacy of memory). It is rather what in Bergsonian terms can be called an "actualizing differentiation," the parallel creation of the real and of its related possible.
According to the dictionary entry for larva, the word has a plurality of meanings. (9) The common ground between the different meanings is the relationship between the larva and the "form," or the principle of identity. The Form, or the Identity, is what has been lost by the phantom, the zombie, the revenant, the ill man transfigured by a terminal illness. The embryo or the insect in its first phase of development does not yet have a form; the mask dissimulates it. The fantastic creatures of dreams and reveries appear under a disturbing and foreign light; their identity is actually unidentifiable. Larvae communicate with the shapeless; they are expressions of the commerce with chaos from which the form proceeds through the difficult process of individuation. These creatures are disturbing because they are part of the ambiguous and not-recognizable dimension of the threshold, i.e., of what cannot be grasped nor specified as something merely present (or merely absent). The threshold does not belong to the sphere of the things that are given. It is rather at the origin of every givenness. The threshold pertains to either the givenness of the given (the larva-embryo) or the limit of the given; and when the given reaches its limit it becomes other (the larva-ghost, the ill man who has become a shadow of himself).
The larva is not something. Maybe, it was something or it will be something. Nor is it nothing. It is related to the formless, but it is not formlessness--how, in fact, could the formless be? It is rather the unformed of the form, namely, its critical point of emergence (the embryo-larva) and its critical point of disappearance (the larva-ghost, the zombie). Jacques Lacan's account of the unconscious is close to the larva in that the larval unconscious is neither being nor not being, it "does not provide a ground for ontology," it belongs to the pre-ontological (23). (10)
The larva's mode of (not) being or of "being by not being given" (not realized) belongs to the realm of the "virtual." The word "virtual" may be equivocally read in terms of either potentiality or as some sort of surrogate for real existence. Yet the virtual is neither the possible nor the imaginary substitution of the real. It is not the possible since the possible originates from the real, when virtuality has already determined this or that state of affairs by differentiating and actualizing itself. Possibility, Bergson observes in a well-known essay ("Le Possible et le reel"), is concomitant to reality, not precedent to it. It does not make any sense (or it has only a logical sense, and not a real one) to mention possibility rescinding it from actuality. A state of affairs is possible in its occurrence.
In addition, the virtual is not a simulacrum of a real presence, as naively believed by the apologists for "virtual reality." Far from pointlessly replicating the real in a sort of house of mirrors, the virtual pertains to the occurrence of the real (and of the possible); it is its "event." The event of the real (the virtual) differs in kind from the real of which it is the event (the actual). This can be better understood through the idea of "threshold," one of the best examples of the paradoxical reality of the virtual.
The threshold that articulates a space, that determines it and makes it significant, would not be said to relate to that space like the possible to the real, and would not be taken to be an image of it. The same has to be applied to the virtual with its relation of implication and of difference to the actual. The virtual is essentially the act that realizes, actualizes, while occurring, while being in act. It is the difference that builds a relation and that relocates to its own borders the terms of the relation that are now only given. The virtual is, in short, the datum that gives itself, the fact that makes itself, the occurring of what occurs, the becoming of what becomes, the being of beings. Using yet another illustration, it may be said that the virtual is the motor of a process that drives reality to build itself as such (X as A). But if this is how things stand, then the virtual is not real at all (according to the meaning of "actually" given), and it has no other function than to lead to reality (actuality, givenness), at which point it will cease to be virtuality.
If, however, this virtuality that frames the real re-emerged for an instant, and re-emerged "pure," in its difference from that which permits existence, then we would face the disturbing experience of the larva. We would experience the not-realized forcing itself upon the given reality as a pure hunger for being, as a pure hunger for determination (we would experience a pure similarity that hungers for the similar object: "That guy is like someone I know, but I can't tell who ..."). We would encounter the pure X that moves and drives all searches for something, the X whose possibility Meno did not succeed in logically conceiving because it goes beyond the simple opposition of being/not being.
The Ghost and the Embryo
Ellenberger provides a remarkable definition of larva. Larva is "the experience of the qualitative specificity disembodied from any representative content, deprived of its sensible being, or rather, it is the empty experience of the empty form" (35). According to Ellenberger, the "empty experience of the empty form" is exemplified perfectly by the previously described experience of the missing word. Before re-emerging to consciousness, the word lies "on the tip of the tongue"; it is a similarity without object. The word lies there like a larva, something un-realized, virtual: the experience of the qualitative specificity disembodied from any representative content, deprived of its sensible being. Such a comparison may appear superficial or even naive, but if we look closer at it we will see unexpected connections. The X intentionally aimed by the oblivion of the name is nothing less than the very same dreadful larva tormenting the sleep of the living in the Roman system of religious beliefs; it is a real lemure, a real haunting ghost generating a specific anguish. The coming-into-sight of the larva does not allow the consciousness to rest, but it leads it in a danse macabre similar to what is experienced in dreams when the subject loses control and becomes a pure passivity, unceasingly spoken to by the Other. Consciousness is possessed, subjugated, and chained; it is forced to follow "a-temporal ideomotor paths" (35). (11) It is subjugated to "an implacable duration" (35), to an anonymous "there is" (il-y-a). (12) The X is within the subject; and it is because of the subject that the X can be looked for. The X wants to find itself; it looks for its own emptiness--a specific emptiness, a determinate hunger--in a whirlwind of false memories and wrong names. The angst of a consciousness colonized by larva does not calm down until the remembrance appears. Only then the wound stops bleeding.
Furthermore, the intentionally aimed X shares its dynamic nature with the larva/embryo. Ellenberger convinced his prison companion, the philosopher of biology Raymond Ruyer, that memory (and its paradoxes) are certainly an enigma of the psyche, but most of all, they are an enigma of nature. Evincing the structure of memory will explain nothing less than the morphogenesis and the process of formation of living things! The paradox of memory is the paradox of morphogenesis. They are two faces of the same paradox defined by Ruyer as the "paradox of thematic possession" (Paradoxes 210). The expression "theme" is misleading here because it refers to an object, a problem, a correlative of an intentionality of act or a thetic intentionality. It is better to use the word "sense," retaining the additional meaning (common in German, French, and Italian) of "direction of the process."
"The paradox of thematic possession" is the paradox of oblivion, already so well described by Ellenberger. According to Ruyer: "An eclosion (pre-eclosion) of memory ahead of time in consciousness as a feeling 'of being possessed,' by a consciousness-other-from-me-and-that-is-consciousness-I, though. Moreover, since this is an empty consciousness, it imposes its specific hunger for completeness (completion) and for structuration" (210). Ruyer also observed that Proust, Janet, and many psychoanalysts were engaged in working with such a paradox.
With respect to morphogenesis, the above mentioned "paradox of thematic possession" is called the paradox of the "actual sketch" or the paradox of the "living abstract"--also the paradox of the "instinct" (213), because the embryo is possessed by a theme-sense that determines development in the direction of the fully formed individual. A "specific hunger for completeness (completion) and for structuration" governs its development.
It should be noted that the future development of the embryo must also be "given" as unknown X. But how is it to be given, and what is given? How can the embryo look for the complete form which it has not yet reached? Meno's "eristic argument" is valid also for the biologist. The idea of "programme" found in molecular biology (and that can be traced back to Laplace) utilizes the Socratic-Platonic solution to the paradox (which, let us repeat it, is not a real solution but simply a reformulation of one of Meno's hypotheses). Morphogenesis is once again understood within the framework of anamnesis; morphogenesis is recognition, the actuation of a programme given in the genetic code.
The Platonic solution of the paradox of morphogenesis is also disguised in the "vitalistic" hypothesis that an embryo is a state of equipotentiality. The great biologist Hans Driesch was amazed by the experimental observation that half of a sea urchin embryo produced the same intergral embryo as did a whole egg, although smaller. A state of diffuse and not localized potency seems to be at work here, but such an interpretation in terms of potency is redolent of finalism. Potency implies the act and the final cause (i.e., it implies that the "sense" is given somewhere as the telos of the process). Aristotle did not allow for alternatives, especially for the biologists. Driesch realized that morphogenesis relies on the presumption of the larva-ghost (what is more phantasmic than an invulnerable "being," resilient to any external attack, immune to cuttings, ablations, or translocations?). It was, however, the Aristotelian model embedded in Driesch's interpretation that prevented him from fully understanding what he had seen and the challenge he had posed to mechanical determinism.
The mode of (non-) being of the larva-embryo does not rely on potency, and the larva cannot be said to be a "state." The larva is not something; it will eventually become something. It will become something when it will have been. While it is, it is pure energeia, pure "forming" activity. From the standpoint of what is given, we have nothing "on the tip of the tongue." On the tip of the tongue there is nothingness rather than nothing: there is the event of a difference which generates differences that articulate a field of relationships.
The larva is not a state but rather an unceasing production of difference, not a fact but an act in action; it is impalpable and invulnerable because whatever of it that can be seen, touched, and handled is already its effect; it is a "memory-image" generated in order to satisfy the specific hunger of the larva. (13) Hence, the larva-embryo is not a state of diffuse potency; it is not a possible that seeks realization; it has no similarity to the individual it will eventually be; the so-called equipotentiality is nothing but virtuality. Morphogenesis is a progression that goes from the virtual to the actual, a creative duration that produces itself by differentiations (realizations and specifications). Henri Bergson gave an impeccable description of this process in his essay "L'Effort intellectuel," namely, that the process of trying to recall a forgotten proper name is structurally analogous to the process in nature of generating an individual, single life. (14)
At the end of the morphogenesis process there is the emergence of the formed individual. Similarly, at the end of the larva-ghost process of recalling there is the emergence of the forgotten proper name. A number of questions arise from this comparison: Is it correct to state that we re-discover the proper name? Can we affirm that the proper name was in fact already present/known "somewhere," thus denying the importance of time in the whole process of recalling (as if the time I spent looking for the name had not essentially produced anything new: it merely gives back what was already there, waiting to be discovered, just like America waited to be discovered by Columbus)? Is the larva of an insect only its mask (larva)? Was the X intentionally aimed by oblivion the very same A (masked) discovered during the recalling process in the propositional form X = A? Does oblivion ultimately prove our participation in the eternity of the Idea? It is probably more accurate to say that the process of recalling parallels the formation of an individual, namely, that X does not begin as A, but rather X becomes A. Therefore, participating in the larva (i.e., unfolding the morphogenesis process at the level of memory) implies the experience of a kind of Absolute which is radically different from the Idea. (15) This Absolute becomes and is the very act of its own becoming; it is a non-transcendent Absolute coincident with the act of living.
The X involved in the "empty experience of the empty form" is not A, though it is the reason why we are able to find A. It is not a "whatness," or the prefiguration of a future whatness. It is not a quidditas. What we see when, almost controlled by a superior power, we experience the unknown X is the nothingness of determinations (as a subjective genitive). The X encountered in oblivion is the pure place (locus) of emergence of something. X is the Platonic chora, the place "where" things are generated (the Platonic dechomenon, or "recipient" of Timaeus 50-52). And indeed, if fortune is with us, things will happen, the name will be (re)discovered, and the individual will take form. The only "content" we experience in oblivion in the first person is this specific nothing (we might also affirm that this is the entire "being" of the larva-embryo). We have an "idea," we do see, but the idea is not the theme, is not the object, is not the problem. When "I do not remember," I do see. Otherwise, how can the process of recalling be explained? Meno's objection cannot be overlooked. Nevertheless, if I had to describe the content of what I see, all I could say is: "I see that I do see, I see that I am in the act of seeing." Going back to Augustine's example, I see that I see a sense of happiness which is none of the determinate happinesses recorded in my memory. I see that I see that happiness is none of them, that I have no clue to what happiness is, other than what it is not. What I see is the larva of happiness, the sense (sense means also "the direction") of happiness. I experience qualitative specificity disembodied from its representative content and deprived of its sensible being--the empty experience of the empty form. I see that I do see, but I do not know what I see, or better, I see that I do see by not seeing anything. I see by seeing the nothingness of determinations, by seeing the pure "thatness" (the quodditas) of happiness, and yet I am unable to give its proper name.
To call such an experience "seeing" is going too far because, in doing so, one falls prey to the "intention illusion" or "the convincing illusion that I alone have determined all aspects of the specific image" (Le Mystere de la memoire 266). I am de facto obsessed by a ghost that provokes me to see in spite of myself, and that guides me in the search. The memory images emerge like visitors (candidates) because the recalling process is initiated by the larva that appears in the loss of memory as a ghost (persecutory). The certainty I feel from oblivion in the first person is the certainty that I do see, that I am in a relation with the ghastly truth that appears to me and asks for me. Descartes came to the certainty of the "I think" in the same way using his methodological doubt. (Cartesian doubt is the equivalent of oblivion in the first person on the level of the knowledge in the first person.) Even his is an obsessive act since "I think" means "I am thinking that I think." "I think" means "I cannot not be thinking," I am prey of the thought-larva, of the thought-event, of the thought-ghost, that unceasingly thinks itself in me and that commands me to think of something.
In Ellenberger's "empty experience of the empty form" I participate in a rather different Absolute than what I experience when the larva eventually becomes a memory and the theme of the determinate proposition (X as A). Will the Absolute then unfold as an object allegedly complete somewhere and for someone? (God? The agent intellect? Absolute knowledge?) Conversely, when "I do not remember" I am free from this form of transcendence and I participate in an Absolute which is living life, morphogenesis in act.
Universita dell 'Aquila
(Translated by Giovanna Gioli and Susanna De Maria)
Augustine, St. La citta di Dio. Ed. Luigi Alici. Milano: Rusconi, 1991
--. The City of God--Originally, De Civitate Dei contra Paganos. Trans. Marcus Dodds. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009.
--. The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Trans. Edward Bouverie Pusey. Forgotten Books 2007 (www.forgottenbooks.org).
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Bergson, Henri. Matiere et Memoire. Essai sur la relation du corps a l'esprit (1896). Paris: PUF, 1982.
--."Le Possible et le reel." La Pensee et le mouvant (1934). Qluvres. Ed. Andre Robinet. Introd. Henri Gouhier. Paris: PUF, 1959. 1331-345.
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Bronzini, Giovanni Battista. "Dalla larva alla maschera." Ed. Maurizio Bettini. La maschera, il doppio, il ritratto. Bari: Laterza, 1991. 61-84.
Ellenberger, Francois. Le Mystere de la memoire. L'Intemporelpsychologique. Geneve: Editions du Mont-Blanc, 1947.
Freud, Sigmund. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Ed. James Strachey. Trans. Alan Tyson. New York: Norton, 1971.
Hugo, Victor. Journal: 1830-1848. Ed. Henri Guillemin. Paris: Gallimard, 1954.
Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book 11. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1998.
Levinas, Emmanuel. De l'existence a l'existant. Paris: Fontaine, 1947.
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--. Le Temps et l'autre. Paris: PUF, 2004.
Plato. Complete Works. John M. Cooper, D. S. Hutchinson eds. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1997.
Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. Swann's Way. Within a Budding Grove. Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. New York: Random House, 1982.
Ronchi, Rocco. Bergson filosofo dell'interpretazione. Torino: Marietti, 1990.
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Ruyer, Raymond. "Leibniz et 'M. Tompkins au pays des merveilles.'" Revue Philosophique 5, (1957): 27-40.
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(1) The case of oblivion in the third person is different. If a nation, for instance, cannot remember its past--and is then condemned to repeat it--we say, "It does not remember," meaning that it has no consciousness of its oblivion. Peoples without a memory are peoples that have no awareness of their oblivion, that do not remember having forgotten. They do not track anything; no unknown is actually given to them as an unknown and as an aim of their search. They have nothing "on the tip of their tongue." Oblivion is then used in two ways that are homonymical: 1) as a conscious act of forgetfulness and adventurous opening to the unknown (oblivion in the first person); and 2) as oblivion of forgetfulness, and as a repetitive co-action (oblivion in the third person). Oblivion is not, however, a genus and the two forms of oblivion its species. Only in the first person can it be properly defined oblivion, whereas in the third person it is called oblivion only by us, who experience oblivion in the first person.
(2) "For what shall I say, when it is clear to me that I remember forgetfulness ? Shall I say that that is not in my memory, which I remember ? or shall I say that forgetfulness is for this purpose in my memory, that I might not forget?" (The Confessions of Saint Augustine 144 ; "Quid enim dicturus sum, quando mihi certum est meminisse me oblvionem? An dicturus sum non esse in memoria mea quid memini? An dicturus sum ad hoc inesse oblivionem in memoria mea, ut non obliviscas? Utrumque absurdissimum est. Conf Book X, XVI 2).
(3) "Eris" means "strife." An "eristic argument" is a sophistic argument designed to prevail over all the refutations and to make an agreement impossible. Meno's eristic argument, as the author paraphrases it in the next pages, says: "either we look for something already known, and consequently ours is not a search, or we look for something unknown, and hence engage in an impossible enterprise" (Editor's note).
(4) "[...] prosiliunt in medium, quasi dicentes: Ne forte nos sumus?" Conf. X, VIII 2 ; "[...] et cum occurrerit, dicimus, hoc est." Conf. X, XIX 1.
(5) "Ubi viderunt ut amarent earn?" Conf X, XX 1.
(6) "If I find you without my memory, then I do not retain thee in my memory. And how shall I find Thee, if I remember Thee not?" (145). ("Si praeter memoriam meam te invenio, immemor tui sum. Et quomodo jam inveniam te, si memor non sum tui?" Conf. Book X, XVIII 1).
(7) "Like ghosts they seemed to be appealing to me to take them with me, to bring them back to life. In their simple, passionate gesticulation I could discern the helpless anguish of a beloved person who has lost the power of speech, and feels that he will never be able to say to us what he wishes to say and we can never guess. Presently, at a cross-roads, the carriage left them. It was bearing me away from what alone I believed to be true, what would have made me truly happy; it was like my life" (773).
(8) Translations from Ellenberger and Ruyer (below) are the author's (Editor's note).
(9) Its first meaning refers to those ghostly and malevolent apparitions that, according to ancient Roman religious beliefs, came and tormented men. The root of the word (lar) is related to the Lares, the ancient Etruscan and Roman tutelary deities that received their name from the place they guarded, but it later took an unquestionably negative connotation, attested to by the definition given by Augustine (De Civ. Dei, IX 11): larva as a "lemure," an evil demon, a revenant. Even with respect to a man weakened by a long-term illness or by other misfortunes and reduced to a severe degree of physical and psychological decadence, we might say he has become a "larva," a ghost of himself. Anguish, perturbation, disgust are the emotional shades that usually accompany the appearing of the larvae. For this reason, larva (and its derived adjective larvatus) also signifies the mask, above all but not only, a terrifying one (see Bronzini). Larva is also the creation of a sick imagination, the result of a reverie close to the limit of pathological attitudes. Larvae sometimes refer to images of a dream. In more recent times, now marked by modern science, larva has come to designate an early stage of development in some animals: "The first temporary form of animals that are subject to metamorphosis," according to Spallanzani's definition (1797). From a historical semantic point of view, Geoffroy's explanation, dated 1762, is very interesting. In his study of insects, he uses the term "larva" to indicate the early stages of an insect's life: we use this term, he writes, because in its (the insect's) first phase it is as if it were "masked." The "embryo" of something, of an insect as well as of a revolutionary movement, thus retains the perduring sense of a larva--see, for example, the use of the word in Hugo. (Spallanzani, Geoffroy, and Hugo are quoted in Bronzini. Editor's note).
(10) According to Lacan, the unconscious status is larval: "At first, the unconscious is manifested to us as something that holds itself in suspense in the area, I would say, of the unborn [...]. Certainly, this dimension should be evoked in a register that has nothing unreal, or dereistic, about it, but is rather unrealized. It is always dangerous to disturb anything in that zone of shades (larves), and perhaps it is part of the analyst's role, if the analyst is performing it properly, to be besieged--I mean really--by those in whom he has invoked this world of shades (larves), without always being able to bring them up to the light of day" (24). The analyst's role is thus not the one of the ferryman that takes the message of the unconscious (meant as already built "somewhere") to the shore of realization. His role, never free from dangers, is rather of the one who is dealing with the non-realized. He produces the unconscious, he lets it be born like the insect that develops from its larva. Lacan hence frees the unconscious from its metaphysical-Platonic interpretation. He does not mean the analysis to be a classical decomposition of the given and finding of the already-known. He rather intends it in the Bergsonian (and Deleuzian) way as a creation progress, a "production."
(11) Ellenberger was thoroughly familiar with Sartre's writings on imagination. He knew that according to the French philosopher, the power of the imagination measured the transcendent freedom of consciousness. For Sartre, the ability to evoke images was the proof of the difference between the nature of consciousness and things that cannot be other than what they are (they are identical to themselves). Since consciousness imagines, it is being-for-itself, negativity at work. The experience of the larva, already acting in that brief loss of memory which is the oblivion of the proper name, confutes Sartre's phenomenology on this essential matter. The larva is actually a demonic image that alienates the subject's freedom: "It is poles apart from the freedom of the imagination," Ellenberger often emphasized (114, 122). The concept of anguish, so dear to existentialism, must then be reformulated, also in the light of this tiny example. Anguish, Ellenberger wrote, is "the paroxysm of the larva" (122) in what it is in need of and in its blindness. Far from being the discovery of the transcendent freedom of consciousness, anguish is the exposition beyond remedy of an insuperable passivity.
(12) Levinas's description of the il-y-a, contained in the writings published after World War II (De l'existence a l'existant, "Le temps et l'autre"), is very similar to Ellenberger's description concerning the experience of the larva. Both Levinas and Ellenberger insist on the matter of passivity, of insomnia, of obsession with the dead end and dismissal of subjectivity. The reason for this similarity can also be found, I think, in the common experience of detention. The detention camp is indeed, and especially, an example of "dead time," a place where there is nothing to do, and where weariness and impotence prevail, hence, a place where it is easy to fall prey to a "larval" imagination.
(13) The most appropriate illustration of the non-being of the larva-embryo does not come from biology, but rather from the apofatic theology. Apofatic theology thinks God as a pure difference (as a threshold that cannot be localized) and the world as the other generated from this difference. God implies the world yet He infinitely differs from it. The world explicates God, yet it is infinitely different from Him.
(14) For discussion of these pages, in which the metaphysics of creative duration finds its most precise formulation, see Ronchi, Bergson filosofo 151-206, and Il pensiero bastardo 83-128.
(15) In order to partake in this Absolute I have to, so to speak, go back to the embryo condition, live the life of the larva-embryo, "becoming in it a shapeless being, opaque, incapable of knowing" (Ellenberger 267).