Following Simone Weil in Attente de Dieu (1942), if we want to declare that “le regard est ce qui sauve” (147), that it is desire “qui sauve,” we must identify the labor in looking, we must know what we are saving, and how desire can become the agent of our delivery (150).
Solely by such work will our form-making, our image-making, serve us. My statement postulates that our pictures portend a route to future action, that they chart the hypothesis of an achieved exertion, hence rendering the future and the past correlative and attesting–in their visuality–to a kinship with the world that compasses them. But Proust’s imaging power, in Contre Sainte-Beuve (1908-1909), for instance, documents the ache for a pre-lapsarian terrain that we, in our unending lateness, penetrate by virtue of a divinatory-seeing in contradistinction to Weil’s counsel: “nous ne pouvons pas faire meme un pas vers le ciel” (149). So long as we cannot take a single step towards heaven with ownership of that region as our goal, towards the sky that will abidingly surpass us, so long as “la direction verticale nous est interdite,” we ought to share in the ache and correct ts picture, recognize the vertical avenue of our pining yet honor our interdiction from fusing with what we cannot lay claim to (149). Indeed, to mime the unifying force of a realm before the Fall, to ape the coalition anterior to our descent into time, is to aspire to supplant it–to establish the self as the irrigator of all phenomena. That which opposes the summational image, however, will not be exchanged for its representations; a tropism may ease us in the direction of exchange, but “toutes les sources de puissance” lie “hors de ce monde,” outside this world, which, nevertheless, is saturated with signs of power-sources we cannot track (109). Thus, we need at once to concede our tropism and to reorient its turning in order to announce “le oui nuptial,” the nuptial yes that Weil and Virginia Woolf conjure for us (95). We need to pledge ourselves to conceptualizing the act of picturing in another way.
As a means of clarifying the tasks inherent in such a promise, I ruminate on desire, on power, on the thinking recumbent in them, and on their visual representations that so often structure the ways in which we project ourselves into the continuous space we denominate as world. Doing so, I posit the reciprocity of mind and body, the complementary character of mental actions and the physical behaviors incited by them. If, with Woolf–in “Memories of a Working Women’s Guild” (1930)–I wish to say that “after all, the imagination is largely the child of the flesh” (233), I should apprehend that when I think, my body thinks with me, that what I picture to myself is coincident with the corporeality I consign myself to knowing. Hence, how we conceptualize, how we grow round with thought and with thought’s behavioral coordinates, all superintend our negotiation of the world whose spatial continuity our pensive “flesh” can never conclusively encompass. If these statements are true, if with Weil we appoint imagination “la source des actions” (109), then to retrain our capacity for imagination would be to re-envisage what it means to act. But, since desire undergirds imaginative operations, enkindles the “flesh” in which they occur, vitalizes the gaze we pitch at the object of our yearning, we ought to examine what desire appears to dictate to us. Precisely to the extent that we can do this may we claim our embarkation on the toil of a revised looking.
Because of desire’s appetitive properties, because of its hankering for the ingestion of its object, we often behave as though to absorb were necessarily not to think. In consequence, the thing for which we crave, intagliated with a beauty our longing exerts itself to reach, vanishes from sight once we swallow it. The finality we imitate here, however, indicates an energy whose reapplication would ensue if we were to educate, again, our manner of directing it.
Our treatment of beauty can commend us to that undertaking when, like Weil, we regard beauty as the sole finality here below: while we are drawn towards it “sans savoir quoi lui demander,” we may nevertheless replace our facility for interrogation with what we can do to the thing which seems to offer us “sa propre existence” (124). But “la grande douleur de la vie humaine” is that looking and eating “soient deux” different operations, so that perhaps vice, depravity, and crime, “dans leur essence,” manifest our straining to eat beauty–to eat what we should only “regarder” (124). Eve, as Weil suggests, may have caused humanity to be lost by eating the fruit, though “l’attitude inverse,” looking at the fruit “sans le manger,” might be what is required to save it (124).
Rather than hungering for a Proustian repossession of the lost, we must acquiesce in asking what we intend to point to by the terminological network of desire, power, the cognitive actions in which both originate, and by the objects outside any network. We must distance ourselves, in so far as we can, from our entanglement in how we see in order to attain to the personhood indispensable for ample vision. Thus, to save our personhood is to dispossess ourselves of what we thought we knew of it. And aiming our desire–our re-schooled longing–at dispossession, we liberate objects and world from our engorgement.
Such liberation results from the “no” implicit in “le oui nuptial,” the “no” which shuns the compulsion of our fancy to enchain its referents to the pictures we fabricate of them. Repealing enchainment, we prepare ourselves for committal to a “yes” which establishes a rift, of whatever size, between our desires and their satisfaction–between the mental, verbal, pictorial images forged by our cupidity and the target of unceasing space for which those images will always be inadequate substitutes. But inadequacy of fit, of accordance, both demonstrates a breach and rescues the world from the imperative that it should correspond to what we demand of it, so that our sense of inadequacy reveals a gulf in which the world may be said to happen and readies us for what Weil terms “la destruction” of the selves we thought we were (108). In denying ourselves, in challenging what those selves manufacture, we become capable of founding “un autre” by means of a creative affirmation: “on se donne” in ransom “pour l’autre”; we empty ourselves in an effort to redeem the “otherhood” accessible to us and whose magnitude our eyes uncover, when rightly used (108). Yet this right-use involves our unchaining what we designate as power and desire from the teleological thinking to which we affix them.
If my love of power amounts to a desire to institute “un ordre” among the people and things around me, my predilection for order springs from what I particularize by the name of beauty (126). Nevertheless, my unsatisfied appetite, the mandate that the ring of my hunger must go on increasing, heralds my need for contact with what Weil calls the beauty of the universe, which, on the strength of its dimensional scale, eludes the snare of my encircling (126). Because our manner of disposing such hoped for order is unequal to the world, it can only hide it; and, for us, the propriety of the world’s concealment consists in its rallying our skill at untying desire from both dilation and fulfillment. So loosed from the cordon we have made, we face the very attention, animated by desire, we never thought we stood in need of (151).
This integration of desire and attention takes me to Paul Engelmann’s proposal that our images “can say nothing about their own relation to the world, by virtue of which they are its picture.” Despite the assurance of that claim, when dispossessed of an acquisitive selfhood, when emptied of the desire that recognizes itself by what it eats, we are free to attend to the world’s disengagement from equivalence to our pictures of it. Yet the difference between world and picture does not demolish relation but provokes our assembling it, if by “relation” we signify something other than identity’s noose. Thus broken, thus voided of concepts we could never use under the name of legitimacy, we look out–at the shock produced by a new breed of image. And Woolf reminds us how to condition the venture of our looking.
Before probing at more length the ways in which Woolf prepares us for reviewing the individual and what he sees, I want to acknowledge the criteria that determine the utility of self-emptying, of self-dislodgement, since for Weil and Woolf those criteria seem so distinguishable. Both consider desires which must be thwarted, flouted, reoriented in the face of things, whether Eve’s fruit or the “large earthenware pot” whose clay (45), under the work of human hands, evolves into another kind of fruit and so signals the materiality of generative things in Woolf’s “Robinson Crusoe” from The Second Common Reader (1932). Both connect desires, the conceptual activities fuelled by them, and the imaging capacities we train on the solidity of the world; both suggest that we see, we look, we behave, owing to the charges inherent in this connective network, out of which we fashion essays, stories, novels, and paintings that tell of that conduction–each a goad to potential readerly behaviors as each originates in the world wide enough to include it. And both disdain, implicitly, Proust’s eiodolopoeia, his form-making, which, by its picturing will, wishes to return the always-vanished to a self already dead because of the circular character of its thinking, because circularity, here, supposes that the world will adhere to the circumference of its injunction. Yet, for Weil and Woolf, the primacy of any image–verbal, pictorial, sonic, all bent upon by mind–is its failing to wind itself round the world of things, so that we judge an image worthy by virtue of its incapacity for, its rejection of, total comprehensiveness. And such incapacity renders Engelmann’s “relation” an avowal of the not-to-be-captured: the educative image turns me towards what it cannot wholly show, towards the incalculable on the other side of it, hence conducing to my awareness of the “other world” vital to Woolf’s “Walter Sickert” (1934), whose capaciousness embraces even its failed representations (237).
But the ends of conduction, for Weil, for Woolf, appear distinct. If we must refrain from positioning ourselves “au centre de l’espace,” which Weil holds in her American Notebooks (1942), published as La Connaissance surnaturelle, our forbearance reprehends a perspective that seems to install us there, at the hub of the real (29). Yet the very “condition de la perception,” the very requisite for seeing the real, extorts from us our emplacement at the heart of it (29). So that to surmount “la perspective” is to recognize no center in the world, only outside “du monde,” in order–through love of God–that we should renounce the illusory power he has left to us of saying “Je suis” (31). Any picture that fosters such renunciation merits the labors of our gaze and angles us towards what will not be framed by it. I think, now, in regard to Weil’s “justice surnaturelle” and to the God who is its origin (31), of James Hillman’s exploration of the mythic in A Terrible Love of War (2004), seeing that myth shepherds in the lexicon of the unfathomable, which organizes Weil’s experience of theodicy.
Hillman envisions “myths” as the “norms of the unreasonable” whose “effect” plunges us into feeling that there is “no way out,” if “out” describes a terrain beyond their purview (9). Before our lack of egress, before the “necessity” which overhangs us, we must take a “leap of imagination” into “myth” (9), into the “meaning without explanation” on which, for example (11), Bernard and Woolf herself predicate the “‘methodical absorption'” so fundamental to the images in The Waves (1931) (157). Though Woolf does not syllable Weil’s God, she nevertheless advances characters who address “‘what is abstract'” at the “‘end of the avenue, in the sky'” (154), who struggle to “‘find something unvisual beneath'” the solidity they see–an effort as “unreasonable,” as beyond reason, as Weil’s argued for perspectival shift (156). Thus, like the Bernard who walks through the National Gallery “‘picking up fragments'” while he craves for wholes, like Defoe as he presents us with a “large earthenware pot” whose reality is attributable to the background which must outreach it, we stand steeped in a world braced by the “‘unvisual,'” by what we can never claim to see absolutely, beyond sounding (157). Even so, our paintings (our images) intimate what they cannot measure if their makers and viewers abide in “‘the perpetual solicitation of the eye,'” “‘methodical'” when it adds “‘stroke to stroke,'” look to look, outside the incantation of a mere “I am” (157). Both Weil and Woolf would assert that, so abiding, we edge near to the justice of which we are capable.
And they would be right.
Bruce Bromley’s fiction has been nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize. He is Senior Lecturer in expository writing at New York University, where he won the 2006 Golden Dozen Award for teaching excellence. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in Out Magazine; Gargoyle Magazine; Able Muse Review; and in Environmental Philosophy, among other journals. Dalkey Archive Press will publish his book, Making Figures: Re-imagining Body, Sound, and Image in a World That Is Not for Us, in autumn 2013.