‘It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists’ (Tractatus, 6.44). Some of what Wittgenstein says about the mystical is very like what he says about the logical: to understand logic we need a certain ‘experience’ not of how things stand in the world, how things are, but of the existence of something:
The ‘experience’ that we need in order to understand logic is not that something or other is that state of things, but that something is: that, however, is not an experience.
Logic is prior to every experience—that something is so.
It is prior to the question ‘How?’, not prior to the question ‘What?’ (5.552)
It was central to Wittgenstein’s thought, both in the Tractatus and later, that logic exists only in its application. This is the point of the question raised in the next section, 5.5521: ‘if there would be a logic if there were no world, how then could there be a logic given that that there is a world?’. If there were such a thing as logic independent of its application (of the world) there would be no logic, since a further logic would be required to ensure the correct application of the first logic. Logic is prior to the world (how things are), to all that is the case. If what is the case might not have been, then what is logically prior to the world is logic itself: logic is concerned with possibilities, with what might have been or might not have been. The study of logic is the study of what is prior to fact, though logic itself is not composed of facts that are beyond or prior to the world. Logical form is the logical scaffolding, the logical background, of the world, concerned with the possibilities of combination of simple objects in what the Tractatus calls ‘states of affairs’. If whether one thing could combine with another in a state of affairs were a fact, this fact would in turn require the existence of a further state of affairs, a condition leading to an interminable regress. This is the point of 5.552 and 5.5521, with their insistence that logic is before the How, not before the What. How the world is is what is the case, so that what we need to experience, if we are to understand logic, is not what is the case, is not a situation in the world:
To view the world sub specie aeterni is to view it as a whole—a limited whole.
Feeling the world as a limited whole—it is this that is mystical. (6.45)
The usual way of looking at things is to see objects from amongst them, but the mystical view, the view sub specie aeterni, is to see them from outside. The mystical wonder at the bare existence of things, at their being there, is the experience we need in order to understand logic.
What we understand when we understand logic is that it is senseless (sinnlos). The propositions of logic do not treat of what is the case, but of what might have been or might not have been the case; they represent in this way the scaffolding of the world. Hence logic is not a field in which we express what we want to say with the help of signs, but rather one in which signs that are absolutely necessary speak for themselves (6.124). Being tautologies, they have no subject matter, and so what they treat of is the nothing, which is all that lies outside the world, the world being what is the case. The senseless is thus the pre-condition of making sense at all, and what we know and understand of the world can therefore only be known and understood against the background of logic, of nothing. The simple objects, which were intended to ground sense in the names that meant those objects, are beyond being and non-being, rather as Plato describes the Good in the Timaeus. We cannot say what objects are because objects, understood in this way, are what allow us to say anything. Nothing makes sense unless in the last analysis—the last analysis as proposed by the Tractatus—it involves the names of objects; we cannot, therefore, say that this and this simple object are in the world, but not that and that. We cannot say what is not a possible state of affairs, what is not in logical space. The general form of the proposition, as given by the successive application of joint negation to elementary propositions, can give us all possible forms of elementary propositions and molecular propositions; it will not tell us what application these forms will have nor which will be the elementary propositions. This follows from the fact that we cannot experience what elementary propositions there are, since every experience must be the experience that some possibility is realised. This is the same point that emerged in the previous chapter; it is not possible to establish the foundations of sense. The attempt to do so must end in nonsense (Unsinn). This is why Wittgenstein refused to give a justification for logic in terms of the derivation of theorems from a basis of fundamental axioms; logical systems are not to be understood in these terms. The question of how logical propositions can be justified, of why we must obey them, cannot be answered; the question itself must be put to rest. Logical form is shown in the fact that some combinations of signs make sense, and others do not. In relation to this last point, ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’ (7) would thus appear to be not only the last but also the fundamental proposition of the Tractatus.
The propositions of the Tractatus as a whole are at once elucidations and nonsense. The elucidations centre on the ‘say-show’ distinction, whereby the nature of logical form and its role in how we use propositions to say what we do is made clear. One result of this is that how sense is determined cannot in the end be said, and no complete analysis of propositions in terms of logical form can given. Just as the attempt to characterise the internal structures of language turns out to be unintelligible, that is, nonsensical, so the attempt to move beyond language, to the foundations of sense, the simple objects, also ends in nonsense. To understand the elucidations is to understand them as nonsense, while to understand that the text is nonsense is to understand the elucidations. The one is the other of the other. That is, the distinction between saying and showing, on which the whole analysis depends, means that the ineffability of nonsense and the effability of sense are both called into question. As Read and Deans have it, ‘What the reader is left with is the realisation that there is thinking going on as the propositions of the Tractatus are engaged with, but without thought in anything like the Fregean-Russellian sense. Logical analysis can neither fully capture nor fully specify just what it is to think. Thought and language cannot be “pinned down” and the attempt to give a complete analysis breaks down; but not because it is impossible, for this suggests that there is something here that cannot be done, but because the very notion of giving a complete analysis is unintelligible. There is nothing that amounts to anything in the notion of a vantage-point wherefrom we can survey thinking, where we can get beyond it and see it laid out neatly before us’ [‘“Nothing is Shown”’, Philosophical Investigations 26:3 (July 2003), 258].
Thinking is always ahead of us, always on the move, thwarting and escaping any attempt to circumscribe its boundaries. Any attempt to do so ends in nonsense. There is an interminable antagonism between the dimensions of the constative and the performative, inasmuch as what can be said is always exceeded by the saying of what is said, an excess shown in the iterated negations of logical form, which undo the primacy of propositional content by affirming and negating its terms in succession. The writing of the Tractatus is thus to be seen as a ceaselessly self-differing relation between what is said and what is shown. The writing, the event of the text, one might say, stands on neither side of this relation, and any attempt to characterise logic in terms of, say, the theory of types must sooner or later come to be recognised as unintelligible. Given that this so, the comment of Read and Deans, to the effect that there is thinking going on in the propositions of the Tractatus, though without thought in the Frege-Russellian sense, touches on something fundamental to Wittgenstein’s enterprise here, namely, the manner in which it compels a reversal of intentionality. The intention in question is that of the author, such that what one sees in the Tractatus is a process whereby the work changes from being a correlate of the author’s own intentional act to being instead the site of its own emerging exigencies. The shift in aspect is that indicated in 6.54: ‘My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them’. Logical form, as Wittgenstein presents it, does not, as it does in Russell, attempt to stand outside itself, and report on itself. It is not the account of an event; it is that event itself, at once imminent and the site where it will occur. It produces itself as its own object and is the process of that production. And yet even that seems not quite right: logical form is rather an endless dependence of the one on the other, a relation or process that can never be finished, that can never come to a point of final analysis. What is impossible here is not some task that might, were things different, be done, but the logically impossible. The idea of a final analysis is unintelligible. To see this is to see why it is that the Tractatus as a whole is unintelligible, and why, as the last proposition (7) has it: ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’. One implication of this must be that, while we cannot speak, the text may nonetheless affirm itself. The work may effect its being, not as the creation of an author, but through the writer: insofar as the Tracatus effects just this mode of coming to be its effecting it is the overcoming of the search for foundations that is also the overcoming of philosophy itself. The text exists free of author and of things, cancelling them both in the exigency of its coming-to-be. To see the Tractatus under this aspect is also to see, with James Guetti, that ‘an abstract scrutiny of non-functioning grammatical forms – of concepts disengaged from actual use – inevitably results metaphysical attitudes and assertions’ [James Guetti, ‘Idling Rules’, Philosophical Investigations 16:3 (July 1993),].
It is now possible to develop the argument further in relation to Wittgenstein’s later work, in order to clarify the nature of aspect seeing and to understand its pertinence to a grasp of Blanchot’s work. The crucial distinction here is that made in Philosophical Investigations between working concepts and idling ones, between language in use and language abstracted from its applications. So far as the early Wittgenstein is concerned, if we are to speak of ‘showing’, we must not allow ourselves the confusion of thinking that what can be shown can also be said (whether by indirection, gestures or raising language to a ‘higher level’). There is no such thing as an outside to the ‘limits’ of language from which language can be surveyed as a whole. In the ordinary use of language we hear what others say and find a sense in it. It is very rarely that we find what they say nonsensical, and even then not because what is said breaks grammatical rules. On this, the Tractatus is clear: ‘all the propositions of our everyday language, just as they stand, are in prefect logical order’ (5.5563). The same point holds for Wittgenstein’s later thought as well: so far as our customary practices with language are concerned, when words are being used to say something, they are perfectly transparent and nothing at all is meant by them except in the actual situation of their employment in a sentence. Use and context are paramount. In Part I of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein contests the view that logical or grammatical forms are necessary, and necessarily prior, for us to be able to apply them. He does not accept that the rule must be there in advance of its application in order for us to perform what we call ‘applying the rule’. The gist of the matter is given by Guetti: ‘[Wittgenstein] shows again and again that the necessity of grammatical rules is neither a property of them before the fact of application nor an infallible determinant of the meaning of that application, but is constituted in our actively employing certain expressions or language games as rules’ [Guetti, art. cit., 190-191]. What this means, as Guetti sees it, is that if rules as singular collections of possible applications are ‘there in advance’ of any actual applications, ‘there’ only means in the language that we know. To use a word as a word is to use it to say something, to carry out a linguistic act, to make a move in the language-game. What we mean by rules, conventions, grammar, and so on, is already dependent on our existing practices. It is the use of words that teaches us their meaning. There is no independently existing meaning attaching to a word that in some way determines or lays down its use in advance. The rule is what is explained, not what does the explaining. Obeying a rule is a practice: giving reasons is not enough, for sooner or later my reasons will give out, and then I just act, without reasons. ‘“How am I to obey a rule?” – if this is not a question about causes, then it is about the justification for my following the rule the way I do. If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: “This is simply what I do”’ (Philosophical Investigations, §217).
One might put all this by saying, with Stanley Cavell, that the ground or rule from which one leaps, or steps, in speaking ‘is itself implied or defined by the leap’ [Quoted by Steven G. Affeldt, ‘The Grounds of Mutuality: Criteria, Judgment and Intelligibility in Stephen Mulhall and Stanley Cavell’, European Journal of Philosophy 6:1 (April 1998), 22. Mulhall replies in the same issue of the journal, pages 32-44]. For Cavell, as Steven Affeldt reminds us, it is not that in order to speak intelligibly I must locate myself on some given ground of the possibilities of sense. ‘To speak intelligibly is to define the ground from which you speak, it is to articulate the position that you are assuming and from which you speak’ [Affeldt, 22]. The significance of the argument is made clear by Wittgenstein:
I see that it is red—but how does that help me if I do not know what I have to say or how, in some way or other, to give expression to my knowledge? For sooner or later I must make the transition to expression. And at this transition all rules leave me in the lurch. For now they all really hang in the air. All good advice is no help to me, for in the end I must make a leap. I must say ‘That is red’ or act in some way, which amounts to the same thing. [Cited by James Guetti and Rupert Read, ‘Acting from Rules’, International Studies in Philosophy 28:2 (1996),46.]
My position or point in speaking, what it is I mean to say, and so the ground of my intelligibility, is neither carried by nor insured by any mediating structure. (This insight was already central to the Tractatus.) If I am to be understood by someone else, I must articulate what I mean to say; I must draw a connection between what I say and what concerns me. The normativity of what I say or how I act does not depend on some underling structure of rules or grammar: it is in what I say and do. It is there that my agreement and that of others in judgement and form of life is expressed. There is no previously agreed-upon structure the speakers of a language refer to, and yet the speakers of that language are, for the most part, from moment to moment agreed in their use of that language. This being so, the idea that context determines what is worth saying will not do: ‘our grasp of a context and of what someone is saying emerge together, wax and wane together’ [Affeldt, 19]. All that is required for us to find what someone says comprehensible and what he does intelligible is to find some reason for or point in what he is saying or doing. This is why Cavell insists that what is said is inseparable from the point of saying it: ‘We can understand what the words mean apart from understanding why you say them: but apart from understanding the point of your saying them we cannot understand what you mean’ [Cavell, The Claim of Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 206].To speak is to say what counts, what matters. In speaking I project before me and behind me the ground of my intelligibility:
In saying, asking, objecting, denying, accepting this now and in this tone of voice, I reveal how I am taking an exchange and the point I take it to have reached. My remarks reveal what I take to be the past of the exchange and project what I take to be its (or one possible) future. [Affeldt, 22-23.]
As this indicates, time cannot be excluded from discourse. There is a temporal shift, manifest in our actually doing something with words, in our actually using them to say something, whereby judgement, the application of a rule or definition, is anterior to the definition it is the application of. This applies not only to the application of a given rule, such as ‘+2’, discussed at length in Part I of Philosophical Investigations, but also sequential movements from utterance to utterance. As utterance gives way to utterance, the passage onward from one to the other reveals meaning to be constituted locally and dynamically within ‘an actual set of living circumstances such that the “use” of words often exceeds their “correct” and even their quite specifically defined senses’ [Rupert Read and James Guetti, ‘Meaningful Consequences’, The Philosophical Forum 30:4 (December 1999), 298].
‘It is only in the give and take of language, the relation between what one person says and what others say, that you see the kind of public character that different concepts in it have’ [Cora Diamond, ‘Rules: Looking in the Right Place’, in Wittgenstein: Attention to Particulars, ed. D.Z. Phillips and Peter Winch (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), p. 24]. This remark of Cora Diamond’s points to the essentially dialogic character of the meaningful use of language, something essentially bound up with temporality. The way concepts matter in our lives and the difference that the meaningful use of them makes to how we go on may in a sense be discovered in how people subsequently respond to what they and others have said. However, the temporal aspect of language that Diamond brings out in relation to what occurs with one’s expressions can also be seen in relation to what occurs within them. It is this latter point that Read and Guetti develop in responding to Wittgenstein’s idea that the meaning of a word is its use ‘in the language’: ‘we take him to be pointing away both from standing grammatical considerations and from any merely pragmatic utility to which meaningful expressions might after the fact be put; and toward what actually happens to meaningful expressions in their dialogic and sequential development’ [Read and Guetti, 301]. What is in question here is a sense of meaningfulness, of ‘use’, which is immanent to language in action as it is interwoven with non-linguistic action and with the world. It may be easy to see the changes wrought by performative or imperative utterances, but in the case of descriptive statements what is effected may not be so obvious. So, in order to clarify this point, we need to see that, when Wittgenstein says that ‘What we call “descriptions” are instruments for particular purposes’ (Philosophical Investigations, §291), the emphasis falls on ‘for particular cases’ rather than ‘in particular cases’. ‘A meaningful description is one that has a capacity for a particular use; and this particular capacity must somehow have been achieved just in the development of the description itself’ [ibid., 302]. That is to say, it must have been achieved in the course of some linguistic sequence, a sequence that may most easily be envisaged as a dialogue. Read and Guetti give the following example: someone comes into a house after a walk, and says to a friend ‘The leaves have begun to change’. This remark would most probably count as an empirical statement, and it marks a difference, a difference from what one did or might have said earlier about the leaves. The friend may respond verbally, by saying something, or non-verbally, by looking out of the window, going for a walk, and so on. These responses could amount to a test of what has been said, a kind of check on the truth of the ‘empirical proposition’. What the responses also do is allow for further description. The first speaker could now add ‘The maples, especially on the high ground, are changing more than the oaks’. This could have been said from the outset, but he would have done so with less chance of being understood, at least without pause or surprise. The point here is that that the first empirical statement—‘the leaves have begun to change’—may come to function in relation to the expressions that follow it as a grammatical stipulation. Expressions can change their status from being descriptive and ‘referential’, to functioning retroactively as a grammatical background against which further testable observational statements may be made. As Read and Guetti have it: ‘Expressions that serve initially as descriptions of fact are transformed, evidently just by the onward sequencing of the discourses in which they occur, into presumptions that make the next description assertable; and each presumption amounts to a further determination of the grammatical rules of the sequence, a determination of the logical “range” appropriate for subsequent empirical expression, and hence a modification of the grammar of the entire discourse to that point’[ibid., 303]. This is a dynamic conception of grammar, such that the grammatical, or normative, status of expressions in a sequence is being generated as one goes along, so that a speaker’s responsive linguistic reaction towards a previous speaker is not determined or arbitrary, but interwoven, ‘interleaved, in a less or more seamless fashion’, whereby the status of expressions alters retroactively in time. This is to describe a dynamic of otherness internal to the active use of language, in which the iterability of identical sentences operates in such a way that these sentences come to play very different roles within the developing sequence of expression, a play of difference within language deriving from what Derrida would see (in Limited Inc., for example) as the repeated inscription and erasure of the trace. In effect, we speak the language we use only to the extent that we are spoken by it. This is one further reason for insisting that rules do not contain their application, that the relation of rule and application is not internal, and that, ‘whatever grammatical relations may be held to be in force at any time, an application of that grammar must consist in something other than those relations, something beyond or in addition to them, a further step’ (or leap) [Guetti and Rupert Read, ‘Acting from Rules’, International Studies in Philosophy 28:2 (1996), 46]. When Wittgenstein writes, in On Certainty, ‘the same proposition may get treated at one time as something to test by experience, at another as a rule of testing’, [On Certainty (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979), §98] this may be read as addressing changes, not only occurring across the historical development of a language, but also within ordinary, particular verbal sequences, where the sequential progression from ‘one time’ to ‘another’ produces of itself alterations in linguistic status between the empirical and the normative. What is at work here is a continual change in grammar, so that, when Wittgenstein insists that meaningful statements must make a ‘difference’, this ‘difference’ can be understood as a matter of ‘the development of our empirical assertions into local and timely presumptions that enable further assertion. The consequences that meaningful developments have—which no “process” could have because, be it as “dynamic” as one cares, still it cannot process” its own rules as language-in-action continually does—are in this sense well described as grammatical consequences’[Read and Guetti, ‘Meaningful Consequences’, 305]. The active application of rules thus differs profoundly from the idle contemplation of them: the presumption of a rule and expressly conceiving it are two logically exclusive things. Considered grammatically, Guetti and Read argue, in the sense of grammar just elaborated, a rule in action must be ‘invisible’, just by virtue of the fact that, to be taken as a rule, to be something we can act upon, it must be un-expressed and un-exposed. The very leap away from or beyond it renders it retroactively the rule we follow and at the same time inexpressible. It is in this sense that we may speak of the language of statement or representation as ‘invisible’: not because it is in some way ‘transparent’ to or mimetic of the world, but because grammar is transformed, in the act of stepping—or leaping—‘beyond’ it, to presumptive status.
This line of thought may seem far removed from cinema, but it is not so. For instance, Vertigo depends on just such a shift between the empirical and normative, inasmuch as Scottie’s initial understanding of the facts concerning Madeleine’s death takes on the presumptive force of a paradigm which is to structure his very experience in the second part of the film. (The name Madeleine can hardly fail to evoke that of Madeleine Usher, buried alive by her brother.) His attempt to recreate the lost Madeleine by means of the transformation of Judy is not a consequence of the effects on him of fetishism or the ‘male gaze’; it is an attempt to create a world whose norms derive from a retroactive presumption of the events, empirically given, in his earlier investigation of, and love for, Madeleine/Carlotta. When finally he realises that he has misunderstood these events, having been duped by Gavin Elster, with Judy’s assistance, his expulsion from the world he was trying to create is an expulsion into a kind of nowhere, as he confronts death—not his own, of course, but Judy’s. The famous final scene in the tower consists in part of Scottie’s rehearsal of how he was duped by Elster, who trained or directed Judy so as to trap him in the toils of his own fear, his vertigo. The last image, of Scottie looking down from the top of the bell-tower at Judy’s body below, is an image of empty transcendence, as we look down in turn on Scottie, below whom an abyss has opened, of a world that has fallen from him. In this same image, Hitchcock presents us with an image of cinema, an image of death. The death is Judy’s but it is also Scottie’s: he is beyond meaning and outside time, caught in the eternal present of the impossibility of dying. He is no-one, an effect only of the image, which now creates him. So at the end of Psycho, a similar image of death arises at the end, ‘of’ here being meant in both objective and subjective senses of the word. As Norman’s face is replaced by the superimposition of his mother’s head, her skull, we have an image of his death, of the final death of his personality and his possession by his mother. At the same time, we have an image of an image of death: it is the image itself which negates him, in the sequence of its transformation, as one image is placed upon another. At this point, there is a dissolve, as Marion’s car is pulled up towards us from the swamp, and the film closes on a shot of the trunk of her car, inside which her body lies, rotting. We have an image of resurrection reminiscent of that in which Blanchot evokes Lazarus in the tomb, not resurrected into the light, but evil and smelling bad, in order to evoke in that image the ‘beyond’ on to which writing gives. As such an image of what writing effects, Lazarus is neither dead nor alive, and Marion, too, may be taken as not only an image of what this particular film has made of her, but of film as such. Film is the realm of the living dead.
What a concept might be, and how we might grasp it, apart from its use, is, for the first part of the Philosophical Investigations, a secondary consideration. In Part II, however, Wittgenstein turns his attention to the question of how one might characterise and locate inactive concepts, that is, how we might grasp a concept apart from a use immanent to language in action, as it is interwoven with non-linguistic action and with the world, with our forms of life, to serve some purpose:
When I pronounce this word while reading with expression, it is completely filled with its meaning. – ‘How can this be, if meaning is the use of the word?’ (Philosophical Investigations, p. 215)
Wittgenstein goes on to say that the first use of the term ‘meaning’, in the sense in which a word may seem to be ‘filled with its meaning’, is ‘figurative’, or as he is later to put it, ‘meaning’ is here being used in a ‘secondary sense’. However, as Guetti indicates, he never anywhere suggests that calling this kind of apprehension ‘understanding’ is to employ a figurative or secondary expression; instead he says that is simply one of the uses that make up the concept of understanding (Philosophical Investigations, §532). At other times, the immediate awareness that a word is full of the meaning is described almost paradoxically, as a ‘seeming’ and ‘no such marvel’:
But if a sentence can strike me as like a painting in words, then it is no such marvel that a word uttered in isolation and without purpose can seem to carry a meaning in itself. (Philosophical Investigations, p. 215)
As Guetti notes, here ‘two of the very conditions that [Wittgenstein] so often suggests would disallow meaning – syntactic isolation and purposelessness – do not compromise the word’s seeming to carry meaning in itself’ [James Guetti, ‘Idling Rules’ Philosophical Investigations 16:3 (July 19930, 185]. It would seem clear, then, that meaningful verbal practices, the use of words to say something, is to be thought of very differently from language that seems, in itself and unexercised, to be ‘full of meaning’. In this latter case, words are inactive, or idling, and yet their suspended uses, which seem to fill them with possible meanings, give them a life, a life which is very different from that of words in actual employment. Words that take on this quality seem suspended, out of time, as though the temporal relation between definition and judgement, rule and application, had gone into reverse, or flipped over: now the definition does seem to contain its possible applications, and to have become anterior to its application. The comparison here is between words seen in this way and the seeing of figures with aspects, such as the ‘double cross’ and the triangle, or indeed the duck-rabbit. These simple figures may be taken as models for isolated words, inasmuch as a schematic figure like a triangle can appear limitless in the possibilities of interpretation it lays itself open to.
In Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson displays and discusses many words that seem ‘full of meaning’. Here is an example of the fifth type of ambiguity, which occurs when a writer is discovering his idea in the act of writing:
Our natures do pursue
Like Rats that ravyn downe their proper bane
A thirsty evil, and when we drinke we die.
(Measure for Measure, I, ii)
The first idea would seem to have been that lust was the poison, but the word ‘proper’, introduced, so Empson argues, as meaning ‘suitable for rats’, and baring with it the suggestion of ‘right and natural’, together with memories of poisons designed to keep rats from dying in the wainscot, ‘produced the grander and less usual image, in which eating the poison corresponds to the Fall of Man, and it is drinking water, a healthful and natural human function, which it is intolerable to avoid, and which brings death’ [William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), p. 184]. ‘Proper bane’ becomes ambiguous, since it applies to nothing in particular, but lies between different things, rats and men, seemingly suspended between them. This is an example of the way language—or a phrase set in isolation—can, as it were, organise its own applications, while at the same time retaining its singularity. Guetti notes this particularly: ‘it is the combination of singular “form” and multiple aspects in such figures [as the triangle and double cross] and such words that we find so strange. And that aspects can only be worked out one at a time, even while we “know” of the others that are possible, may generate the feeling that the actual, sequential realizations of aspects are somehow insufficient when weighed against the figure that enables them. . . . The figure conceived apart from its meaningful employments, the word apart from its meaningful employments, is a mysterious thing; it presents a singularity that we can see together with a variable potential that we know but cannot see’ [Guetti, ‘Idling Rules’, 186-87]. This is unquestionably one of the sources of metaphysics, as we imagine a separation between the figure and its aspects, the word and its realisable meanings. It is precisely in this way that a word like ‘object’ operates in the Tractatus, as it draws us on to imagine what it might rally be, behind its possibilities of combination, behind or beyond being and non-being. The question concerning the Tractarian object can be put this way: ‘how can I see this , of which I can see so many aspects, apart from these aspects?’ As this example should serve to remind us, we are here entering upon the field of nonsense, where words have been given no meaning. This leads on to Guetti’s general point, that ‘when a rule is so thoroughly suspended from its applications that any one of them may be imagined, and no choice among them more appropriate than any other, it is utterly idle. In its illimitable multiplicity it is . . . a blank, but an extremely potent sort of “blank” that seems fully to “contain” all of its possibilities, the “blank” of a blank check’ [ibid., 193]. This means that the practices, techniques and actions of meaningful language use become, when regarded grammatically, linguistic possibilities: so one cannot imagine a word apart from language, language apart from language. And because language cannot be imagined away, because it is always grammatically present to use, we can and do isolate it from actual use. There is, as I suggested earlier, a temporal reversal, in which what was anterior, the judgement, the application, precedes that which came after it, the definition, the rule. Language, we might say, takes on a presence in its own right, independent of application and use. The sample, it would seem, now is at once sample and application.
A concept (or sample) abstracted in that way may not be a rule at all. In its limitless interpretability it may have nothing to do with rules in their actual applications. As Guetti has it, it may not even be a ‘sign’, depending on how we interpret that word; but it is symbol, and indeed the best definition of a symbol may be as a ‘concept in isolation’, an idle concepts, surrounded by what Wittgenstein calls ‘lightly indicated’ possible meanings. Wittgenstein gives a compelling example of this notion of ‘symbol’ in Philosophical Investigations:
The machine as symbolizing its action: the action of a machine – I might say at first – seems to be there in it from the start. What does that mean? – if we know the machine, everything else, that is its movement, seems to be already completely determined.
We talk as if these parts could only move in this way, as if they could not do anything else. How is this – do we forget the possibilities of their bending, breaking off, melting, and so on? Yes; in many cases we don’t think of that at all. . . .
But when we reflect that the machine could also have moved differently it may look as if the way it moves must be contained in the machine-as-symbol far more determinately than in the actual machine. As if it were not enough for the movements in question to be empirically determined in advance, but they had to be really – in a mysterious sense – already present. And it is quite true: the movement of the machine-as-symbol is predetermined in a different sense from that in which the movement of any given actual machine is predetermined.
When does one have the thought: the possible movements of a machine are already there in some mysterious way? – Well, when one is doing philosophy. . . . What is this possibility of movement? It is not the movement, but it does not seem to be the mere physical conditions for moving either. . . . The possibility of movement is, rather, supposed to be like a shadow of the movement itself. But do you know of such a shadow? (Philosophical Investigations, §§193-194)
In one sense of ‘know’, the one considered in Part I of the Philosophical Investigations, we do not know any such ‘shadow’ at all. The possibility of movement cannot be observed as the movement can (and, as we saw above, rules are invisible, in the actual use of language). But in another sense—as the consideration of aspects and figures shows us—we know of this shadow as we know of language. ‘The machine-as-symbol is the grammatical conception of the machine, the idling “image” that is as separate from the machine at work as rules in their grammatical condition are separate from their functioning applications. So long as we are thinking of rules at work, their possibilities are perhaps not even so much as “shadows”. But these possibilities spring to life, and over-shadow both the work and what we could understand from it, when rules are idling’ [Guetti, ‘Idling Rules’, 194-95]. What we have here, perhaps, is ‘a powerful illusion of singular presence, with an elusive multiplicity that yields no singular representation’ [Ibid., 197].
Seen from this perspective, Blanchot’s fundamental insights into the nature of writing the ‘mystery’ of literature are, in effect, versions of what Wittgenstein gives a condensed account of in terms of the ‘symbol’. This holds particularly for Blanchot’s notion of the work and the work’s undoing or un-working: when the possibilities of words spring to life, they over-shadow the work they compose, and open it to what lies beyond it. Idling rules, such as are exposed in poetry, lead beyond what is said, or meant, into regions constituted by singularity and the fascination it attracts. This is ‘the step not beyond’, into the exile of the ‘neuter’, of alterity and the ‘other night’. Blanchot captures the particularity of his vision in some remarks on the fragment, where he insists on the fragment as what expresses itself in a language which does not recognise it:
Fragmentary: meaning neither the fragment, part of a whole, nor the fragmentary in itself. The aphorism, the proverb, maxim, citation, thoughts, themes—verbal cells in being further removed than the infinitely continuous discourse whose content ‘is its own continuity’, continuity that is assured of itself only in giving itself as circular and, by this turn, submitting itself to the preliminary of a return whose law is outside, which outside is outside the law. [Ibid., 197]
The fragment is language that does not recognise itself as language, and ‘whose law is outside, which outside is outside the law’. It seems clear that Blanchot’s thought on writing may more satisfactorily be understood in these terms than in those deriving from a questionable account of naming, based on a concept of the word as ‘murderer’ of the thing. For Wittgenstein, the quest for some foundation of language, in naming, ostensive definition or other procedure, is unintelligible. ‘Propositions do not follow from one another as such; they simply are what they are. We can only prepare language for its [use]; we can only describe it as long as we do not regard it as language. The rules prepare for the game which may afterwards be used as language’ [Wittgenstein’s Lectures, 1930-1932, ed. Desmond Lee (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 57. Cited by James Guetti and Rupert Read, ‘Acting from Rules’, International Studies in Philosophy 28:2 (1996), 53. Guetti and Read substitute ‘use’ for ‘usage’ in their citation from Lee’s transcription of Wittgenstein’s lecture.]. In other words, ‘language’ cannot be considered to be language until it is used. Whatever grammatical considerations there may be anterior to their employment, whatever rules we take to be in place prior to their application, we do not so much as regard these as language until they are used. It is only in their active employment that names have a role to play in language; it makes no sense to think of them as founding, or as prior to, that role. The notion of the fragment, however, does derive from the abstract or isolated scrutiny of non-functioning grammatical forms, of concepts disengaged from actual use. Clearly, the actual use of words must occur first, before we can ‘experience’ the meaning of a word. We have to learn the use of the word ‘apex’ before we can use it to express our seeing an aspect of say, a triangle, as an apex. ‘More generally, we must master the techniques of language before we can experience several techniques as the “static” aspects of a given object’ [Guetti, ‘Idling Rules, 189]. ‘Clearly the words “Now I am seeing this as the apex”’ of the triangle ‘cannot mean anything to a learner who has only just met the concepts of apex, base, and so on’; ‘it is only if someone can do, has learnt, is master of such-and-such, that it makes sense to say he has had this experience’; ‘we talk, we utter words, and only later get a picture of their life’ (Philosophical Investigations, pp. 208-209). [Cited by Guetti, ‘Idling Rules’, 189-190.] The retroactive temporality, or deferred action, of language that Wittgenstein points to in the last quote is complex: on the one hand, it is as though language were, in the seeing of aspects at any rate, constitutive of experience (‘it is only if someone . . . is master of such-and-such, that it makes sense to say he has had this experience’), while, on the other, it is only later that we step back from this into the realm of grammatical possibility. There is a temptation to say that, in stepping back, it is as though we stepping back into a realm of possibility (or impossibility) from which all kinds of grammatical forms may be realised. It is as though we were privy to come kind of ‘beyond of possibility’ (or ‘impossibility’, in Blanchot’s idiom), which governs and, so to speak, is the source of the possibilities attaching to an isolated word.
That this approach is not unjust to Blanchot’s vision of language, as revealed by writing, can be seen from his discussion of the récit, where we find a view of language and literature indebted profoundly to the poetry of Mallarmé (a view that in many respects is similar to that of Derrida). One respect in which Mallarmé is crucial to him is that his texts break free from the constraints of representation. ‘The essential nature of language, rather than being harnessed to mimetic or cognitive ends, was set free to effect itself in its own textual space. Once representation is eschewed, the order of the text need no longer submit to the sequentiality of time’ [Timothy Clark, Derrida, Heidegger and Blanchot (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 82]. It is this notion of time that is central to the récit: to enter the space of literature, its own textual space, requires a break with the supposed linearity of quotidian time (certainly the linearity of narrative, as ‘traditionally’ conceived) and with notions of beginning, middle and end. The same goes for space: the récit is the creation of something that could never have had a physical existence. Poetry, for Mallarmé and Blanchot, says nothing beyond itself. Timothy Clark summarises the position:
The word no longer refers to an object in the concrete world; its reference survives only for its evocative qualities and the contribution the word makes by its semantic resonance and formal properties. The word is inscribed in an open context where it plays or, in a loose sense, rhymes in many directions at once. [Clark, op. cit., p. 82.]
This is to describe the perception of concepts that are inactive, idling, whose suspended uses seem to fill them with possibilities of a life very different from that achieved by signs in actual use. The Mallarméan conception of poetry, espoused by Blanchot, aims to create that space, the space of literature, in which words and concepts are isolated in their singularity. The effect is to pass beyond language, the language of actual use, into an elsewhere, where meaning is suspended. A récit, as Blanchot defines it, concerns a single event, that may seem, on the surface at least, to conform to the conventional narrative pattern. However, the event in question is usually ‘marvellous, in the sense of approaching an experience that takes consciousness and language to their limits, an encounter, according to Clark, ‘either sexual or traumatic, which is too immediate to be mediated by language and thus remains heterogeneous to the very narratives it sets in motion’ [Clark, op. cit., p. 85]. Examples from Kafka abound, such as ‘Metamorphosis’, ‘The Hunter Gracchus’ or The Castle. The temporal structure is comparable to that of a topological figure such as the Moebius strip, in which the relating of the récit and the events related, genesis and result, seem endless to merge with one another and yet equally endlessly fail to do so. This endless, asymptotic turning is a movement towards a ‘neutral’ point that is opened up by the language it renders possible. The idea is to incorporate into the text an impossible point of origin, which is always already yet to come, whereby language, cut off from its meaningful employment, is set to achieve a mysterious potential:
The relation of the récit and its event involves a transformation of language akin to that described by Heidegger in terms of a ‘step back’ from representationalist language. The domain into which the step directs itself does not . . . pre-exist that very movement; it is no more than the transformation wrought in the language that performs the step. [Clark, op. cit., p. 86.]
For Blanchot, the movement of narration (récit) is towards a point that has no prior existence apart from this movement, and yet the narration cannot begin until it has reached this point, the point the narration itself is to open up: ‘it is only the narration, and the unpredictable movement of the narration which provide the space where this point becomes real, powerful and appealing’ [Blanchot, The Siren’s Song, trans. Sacha Rabinovitch (Brighton: Harvester, 1982), p. 62]. The power of this view, and it is powerful, arises in part from taking what are grammatical possibilities for perceptible properties of language that might be described as though they were facts.
It is as though one could isolate a space prior to narration, which is both the ‘impossible’ source of it and the magnetic point whose power enables the narration to happen. (Such a structure has already been seen in the Tractatus, in the general form of the proposition, as that is shown in recursive iteration of joint negation.) To find a compelling example of this same topology in English poetry I will look to a poem by Donald Davie, who as a critic has done as much as Blanchot himself to clarify the nature of symbolist writing, in essays on Mallarmé, Eliot and Pasternak.
Look here! What a wheaten
Half-loaf, halfway to bread,
A cornfield is, that is eaten
Away, and harvested.
How like a loaf, where the knife
Has cut and come again,
Jagged where the farmer’s wife
Has served the farmer’s men,
That steep field is, where the reaping
Has only just begun
On a wedge-shaped front, and the creeping
Steel edges glint in the sun.
See the cheese-like shape it is taking,
The sliced-off walls of the wheat
And the cheese-mite reapers making
Inroads there, in the heat?
It is Brueghel or Samuel Palmer,
Some painter, coming between
My eye and the truth of a farmer,
So massively sculpts the scene.
The sickles of poets dazzle
These eyes that were filmed from birth;
And the miller comes with an easel
To grind the fruits of earth.
[Donald Davie, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2002), p. 147.]
This poem, ‘The Hill Field’, published in 1964 in a collected entitled Events and Wisdoms, refers to other writing, in this case to eighteenth century landscape poetry and Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper’, as well as to Robert Duncan’s ‘The Opening of the Field’ (1960), a poem which addresses explicitly the then new aesthetic of composition by field, or projective verse, developed during the 1950s by the American modernists associated with Black Mountain College, under the aegis of Charles Olson. The poem also manages to place, in a complex balancing act, Pasternak in relation to Hardy: ‘The Hill Field’ shares with other poems Davie wrote during the same period a complex modernist aesthetic based on that of earlier and contemporary masters, but as it were transposed into what looks like the minor key of a poet who was, according to Davie, unlike Eliot and the other major modernists in that he failed to transform or displace ‘quantifiable reality or the reality of common sense’ [Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), p. 62]. The poem in the texture of its writing refers to itself, as the singular act of composition that it is, but in referring to itself, it must inevitably, as we have just seen, refer us to other writing, and by so doing refer again, not only to intertextual reference in general, but also to the singularity of this act of referral in itself. Because of the uncertainty of context these interrelationships of reference create, an uncertainty concerning who is saying what to whom, the poem’s tone—its explicit ‘address’ to the reader—cannot be taken simply as the expression of an originating authorial voice. This is clear at the very start, where the imperative, ‘Look here’, serves to confirm the identity of this text (or, at any rate, of this phrase) rather than this author, by moving outside or beyond itself, in order to point to itself from the position of an other, the reader who is addressed by words that apparently refer only to the event of the poem itself—the event of the poem’s depicting what is depicted by it. ‘Look here’ is not only an imperative but also an expostulation, but an expostulation uttered by no one.
An image of a field is what the poem is in the process of constructing, and part of what the image is an image of is the process whereby it is being constructed. In effect, what the poem shows is itself as it emerges from, or is engendered by, the process of being said. The hill field is the space of literature, and the poem makes, in Blanchot’s words, ‘what is ungraspable inescapable; it never lets me cease reaching what I cannot attain’ [Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 31]. The poem exhibits the topology of turning syntax characteristic of the récit. One of Davie’s major contributions as a critic was to elaborate on this kind of symbolist configuration in essays on Eliot, Pound, Mallarmé and Pasternak, some of which were written prior to or during the composition of the poetry of this collection. In ‘The Hill Field’, symbolist techniques are present, and signalled as such. ‘Wheaten’ is reduced to ‘eaten’ as the ‘half-loaf’ of the field set up by the poem is reduced by the removal, or harvesting, of the letters ‘wh‘. In stanza three, ‘the wedge-shaped front’ is there on the page, shown in the shape constructed by the way the words ‘and creeping’ in line 3 protrude beyond the second and fourth lines. The apostrophe ‘how’, beginning at line 5, is only revealed to be an apostrophe, rather than an interrogative, by the end of line 12. The opening ‘See’ of line 13 looks like another apostrophe (in the eighteenth century manner), but by the end of line 16 it is seen in retrospect to be a question. The palpability of the words is further emphasised by sound: ‘ee’ provides a kind of basic pattern, through which other vowels intertwine in a series of complex variations. Like Mallarmé and Eliot, Davie evokes linearity so as to undercut it and in order to do so he accords new significance to the layout of the stanzas, the spacing between them, the organisation of line-ends, the placing of punctuation, and so on.
The poem demonstrates a mode of self-alienation that separates it from itself, so that it doubles back on itself, opening a gap within its structure across which reference can operate. In this sense, ‘The Hill Field’ may be said to refer to itself referring to itself, an effect signalled and realised by the temporal displacement at the opening, whereby the cornfield is presented as already the loaf it has not yet become, a loaf baked before the harvest is gathered in. It is a violation of temporal linearity that various metaphors of rupture and incision arise from, carried by words like ‘knife’, ‘cut’, ‘cheese-mites’ and the ‘sickles’ (inevitably evoking ‘versicles’) that occur throughout the text. By means of a folding or turning back of time on itself, something that occurs only in the order of writing, the récit, the end is enabled to precede the beginning, and the beginning to come after the end. The device results in an undoing of linear order such that there remains to the reader only one movement or trajectory of time, a movement in which the passage of the poem counts for more than any point of rest. This substitution for received syntactic relationships of an intransitive mode that refuses any obvious decipherment to its images results in a flight or negation in which images and metaphors succeed each other in such a way as to prevent them being read as picturing states of affairs. The poem achieves an inertia, which may be described as the work’s starting point, ‘the point anterior to all starting points, from which nothing ever begins, the empty profundity of being’s inertia, that region without issue and without reserve, in which the work through the artist, becomes the concern, the endless search for its origin’ [Blanchot, op. cit., p. 44].
Most poems, or the best,
Describe their own birth, and this
Is what they are – a space
Cleared to walk around in.
[Davie, Collected Poems, p. 336.]
The ramifications of this reach very far. A word that has special privilege in Davie’s earlier poetry is ‘edge’, and there are others related to it, like ‘knife’, cut’, ‘sculpture’, ‘stone’ and words and names associated with art more generally. ‘Edge’ seems to have the same role here as ‘blanc’ in Mallarmé, whose writing, like Davie’s, is a writing of spacing—in the sense that it foregrounds spatio-temporal differing—in which words like ‘blanc’ and ‘éspace’, or in Davie’s case, ‘edge’, ‘cut’, ‘sickles’ and similar variations, refer to the very whiteness of separation, the spaces, cuts or divisions that make possible the series of which they are themselves members. The edge thus understood is what gives to the poem both the possibility and the impossibility of meaning, inasmuch as it is part of and beyond the series of which it is the progenitor. Just as ‘The Hill Field’ is as title of the poem above the text and yet is the poem, is part of the text to which it is ostensibly external, so the names of the artists, Brueghel and Samuel Palmer, constitute similar traits of undecidability, or, as Derrida would have it, supplementarity: they mark what makes the poem possible and what stands outside, or transcends, that possibility, inasmuch as they mark what conditions it, ‘coming between/My eye and the truth of a farmer’. The final stanza takes the image of the eye further: in the phrase acknowledging that the poet’s eyes were ‘filmed from birth’, the preposition engenders multiple possibilities which are repeated in the double genitive in the last line, ‘fruits of earth’, a second doubling which calls forth yet further multiplicities in relation to ‘earth’, a word already resonant with implication and connotation. The poem is an impossible experience of a desire to see, a desire which can never be fulfilled. The vision of the poet, irreplaceable in its singularity, and yet filmed from birth (the cinematic pun is unavoidable) and so ineluctably alien to itself, is precisely what, in its irreplaceable singularity, the poem shows to be replaceable, a point driven home by the fact that ‘Breughel or Samuel Palmer,/Some painter’ substitutes for the poet, a substitution in turn replaced by one who ‘massively sculpts’. The ‘sickles’ of poets and the miller’s ‘easel’ complete the list of artistic forms and names of artists displacing the uniqueness of the poet’s act, names and forms evoked and effectively constructed in the formal configuration that is the expression of that very act. Breaking with the logic of circularity and exchange, signalled by the first words of the first stanza: ‘Look here!’, the poem effects a complex suspension of grammar beyond or behind the application of that grammar, in that way opening upon a condition anterior to both subject and object, and so anterior to writing itself.
The temporality of Vertigo is so organised that the viewer is exposed to what must appear an impossible state of affairs. At the end of the film, in the final shot, as Scottie looks down from a tower painted and superimposed onto an original image at the body of Judy on the tiles below, we confront a repetition. Madeleine has already died in just this way, at just this spot, the Madeleine who from Scottie’s point of view at that time was the woman he had fallen in love with. The result of this death was his own death, as in the dreams of his madness (again a special effect created in the post-production process) he fell into her grave, uniting with her in death. This first ‘death’ he outlives, as Judy outlives it also: her death, her second death, thus places Scottie in the position of the impossible. He must now outlive his own death, a death he can never attain and which he has always already stepped beyond by virtue of the film’s suspension of him above her body. He will never be other than the image in which the film holds him, and it is in the realm of the image, not the concept, not meaning, that the film concludes—a conclusion, it must be said, that is no conclusion. Vertigo effects an encounter with imaginary space as the being of cinema: in accordance with Blanchot’s account of literature, we can call this cinematic spacing. Blanchot’s account of Proust’s consciousness is especially pertinent to the movement of spacing that affirms itself here:
the metamorphosis of time into an imaginary space (the space peculiar to images) and an ever-changing absence uncluttered by events, unobstructed by presences, an incessantly reborn vacuum: that remoteness and distance which are the space and origin of metamorphosis: the place where psychology is redundant because here there is no psyche, where that which is inner becomes outer, becomes image. [The Sirens’ Song, trans. Sacha Rabinovitch (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1982), pp. 68-69. Cited by Clark, op. cit., p. 89.]
Scottie does not die as a result of an event within the narrative; he does not plunge off the ‘tower’ to join Judy in death. His death is a death he lives through, and he lives through it in the image. In other words, his death is a death of the image, and the dread it induces is not dread in the face of death, Judy’s death, for instance, or his own, but dread in the face of existence itself, dread at being riveted to existence, dread induced by the impossibility of dying. For Scottie, there is no exit and no escape, only the irremissibility of an existence he is unable to leave. This sense of the role of the image works though the film. For example, the necklace which Scottie recognises as having belonged to Madeleine is actually one that belonged to Carlotta Valdez, the ‘sad, mad Carlotta’, whose picture hangs in the San Francisco Art Gallery, and on whose neck the jewel is clearly marked as the object of Scottie’s gaze, as he follows Madeleine Elster (Judy) around the city. Seeing this necklace—‘the souvenir of a murder’—around Judy’s neck as the two of them prepare to go out to Ernie’s, to what is intended to be a lovers’ dinner, Scottie realises what Gavin Elster had planned and how he was the lynch-pin of the plan, because Elster made him into the dupe of a woman Elster had transformed into an image of an absent, and now dead, wife. The act of recognition is given in a series of ever-closer shots of the necklace, isolating it in the mirror as Judy, unawares, looks at herself wearing it. The shots of the necklace are followed by a cut away to the picture of Carlotta, which focuses on her neck. The necklace reveals itself as revelatory of the truth only insofar as it resembles itself, is its own image. In the same way, Judy becomes the image of herself, as she emerges from the bathroom, as the image of Madeleine, finally recreated in realisation of Scottie’s paradigm. We see her come through the door as an image, ghostly, inexpressive, and invested with a pervasive green light, an uncanny presence troubling the security of the distinction between presence and absence. Theirs is a relation of proximity and distance, both spatial and temporal, the horizons of which are captured in the 360 degree tracking shot around the two of them, as they embrace, the room changing into the stables at the church and back again, and in the music, evoking the passionate embrace on the beach, after the visit to the sequoia: it is a relation whose transformations are thus undergone as transformations of cinema. Thus, while Vertigo undoubtedly follows linear form in its unfolding, the shifts in time between what is before and what comes after, and the insistence of the use of repetition, make of it an instance of skewed temporality. In the image of vertiginous depth that opens beneath the protagonist at the beginning, only to return to him, transformed as he is transformed, at the film’s end, one may see that ‘limit experience’ in which the very narrative it sets in motion is transgressed.
To see Psycho is to surrender to the fascination of time’s absence. ‘The time of time’s absence has no present, no presence. . . . The irremediable character of what has no present, of what is not even there as having been once there, says: it never happened, never for a first time, and yet it starts over, again, again, infinitely. It is without end, without beginning. It is without a future’ [Blanchot, The Space of Literature, p. 30]. The surrender is retroactive. As the film ends, and Norman is possessed by his mother, we see that the essential interest of the film has been, not with Marion or the search by her lover and her sister for her killer, but with the relation between Mrs Bates and her son—a point, it may be said, that fascinates the sequels. As Derrida has noted in considering Romeo and Juliet, it is in the nature of true love that the lovers outlive each other. Such is certainly the case here: Norman and his mother outlive each other. Norman outlives the mother he has done for with strychnine, but she also outlives him; she annihilates him as he sits staring at the camera, and as he dies into her, her voice speaking for him, her dead face appears in triumph, superimposed on his. This is in fact simply a manifestation of a state of affairs that was already in place: as Dr Richmond, the psychiatrist, puts it, Norman was never wholly Norman, but he was sometimes all mother. This is a time that is always and forever past, so that the relation between mother and son exists in an empty, dead time, which is nonetheless a real time in which death is present; indeed, we see it become present, as Marion’s car, bearing her rotting cadaver, is withdrawn from the swamp—a resurrection of the dead. Norman, in solitude, wrapped in a blanket, is not alone, for he is not there, and nor is his mother; no one is there, and the possibility of personal relation has long since dissolved, transformed into what is neither real nor unreal. Earlier in the film, Norman insists that ‘This place is my home. . . . this place happens to be my only world. . . . My mother and I were more than happy’. As the last sentence implies, Norman’s world is not the world of reality, but something more compelling, more disturbing, more absolute, than that, something closer to what Blanchot has called ‘the indeterminate milieu of fascination’. We get a first intimation of what this might mean when we watch Norman stare through the peephole at Marion undressing for the shower. Contrary to many readings of the film, not to mention the remake, I would wish to contend that this is not the occasion of a voyeuristic thrill, for us or for him, and to that extent it does not exemplify the male gaze of spectatorship. The issue here is not one of psychology, of fetishism and voyeurism, but of fascination, a realm of experience ‘where objects sink away when they depart from their sense, when they collapse into their image’ [Blanchot, The Space of Literature, p. 32]. As Norman stares at Marion, his gaze coagulates into light, and he does not see what he sees. He is, as Dr Richmond has it, ‘touched’ by her. Marion touches him in an immediate proximity; what he sees seizes and draws him close, even though it leaves him absolutely at a distance, a nearness and distance whose contradictory energies are resolved only insofar as he can ‘become’ mother. When Norman insists that he had a very happy childhood, we may believe him: childhood is the moment of fascination, is itself fascinated:
This gold age [childhood] seems bathed in a light which is splendid because unrevealed. But it is only that this light is foreign to revelation, has nothing to reveal, is pure reflection, a ray which is still only the gleam of an image. Perhaps the force of the maternal figure receives its intensity from the very force of fascination, and one might say then, that if the mother exerts this fascinating attraction it is because, appearing when the child lives altogether in fascination’s gaze, she concentrates in herself all the powers of enchantment. It is because the child is fascinated that the mother is fascinating, and that is also why all the impressions of early childhood have a kind of fixity which comes from fascination. [Blanchot, The Space of Literature, p. 33].
Norman’s condition of fascination is evident in his bedroom, which Leila visits, finding there the broken-eared rabbit, the wind-up gramophone with the 78 disc of the Eroica Symphony, and the book, whose pages we never see. The usual assumption is that the pages are covered with pornographic pictures, but one might just as plausibly think of them as schematic figures, like the duck-rabbit, triangles and cubes, or maps or other images out of childhood. What threatens this golden age must be excised, cut off, whether it be the young girls whom Norman is ‘touched’ by or Mrs Bates and her lover, whose ‘touch’ Mother has had to endure. Mrs Bates is not Mother: Mother is the figure of fascination, who concentrates in herself all the powers of enchantment, and it is this figure who returns eternally, in the time of the absence of time, and whom Norman loves, even as he hates her.
Psycho, like Vertigo, is an exploration of love, or rather the transformations of love, in the course of which the moving picture is itself transformed, into an image, suspended, beyond relation, whereby Norman, Mother and Marion, an unholy trinity each person of which is dead in his or her own way, and alive in his or her own way too, are given up to our fascinated contemplation. There is a pattern of doubling and repetition across the two films that serves to connect them both to the uncanny and the death drive. Judy doubles as Madeline who doubles as Carlotta; Norman is doubled by Mother and Mother by Norman; the plot divides in both films, in Vertigo at what Scottie takes to be Madeleine’s death, followed by own ‘death’, and then again as Judy reveals all in voice-over when Scottie has found her the second time, and in Psycho at Marion’s death in the shower. Not only is there doubling and repetition at the level of narrative structure, but the films present patterns of repetition in imagery and in narrative event. This is especially marked in Psycho at the occurrence of the dead face, the face of the cadaver. After Marion’s murder in the shower the camera closes in on the plug-hole where Marion’s blood is flowing away; it then pulls back from a similar black point, which turns out to be the pupil of her dead eye. As the camera moves back from her dead face, the film induces an uncertainty: are we seeing Janet Leigh remaining remarkably still, or are we looking at a photograph of the actress? A drip of water runs down her face, thus seeming to confirm the matter—we are watching an event in real time played out before the camera. But are we? The face of the dead woman seems unnaturally still, despite the movement of the water drop, and the status of the image remains as it was before, uncertain. [Laura Mulvey has discussed this issue in her essay ‘Death Drives: Hitchcock’s Psycho’, Film Studies: an international review 2 (Spring 2000), 5-14. She also raises the issue of the Freudian uncanny and the death drive in relation to the film.] There is no way of deciding whether the face we are seeing is dead (a photograph) or alive (an actress in front of the camera). This image of the dead face and its shifting status returns in the face of Mother, as Leila disturbs her in the cellar, and she turns, on what is clearly a motorised chair, to face Leila and the camera, her eyes alight and vitalised by the illumination generated by the swinging of the light bulb Leila has struck in her instinctive reaction of terror. Here the role of the cinema is made even more obvious: the face is animated by the on and off movement of the light source, and by the screeching violins, its life an effect of the editing of the visual and sound tracks. The effect in both these cases is uncanny: the certainties on which we base our discriminations between appearance and reality are made to tremble, are solicited (as Derrida would have it), as each occasion removes itself from the world of intelligible reality and plunges us into an impossible arena, of life in death, and death in life. Repetition is essential to the removal from the world of quotidian reality: as with language, where, as Wittgenstein points out in Philosophical Investigations II, xi, a word repeated often enough changes its aspect, becoming a nonsensical sound or written image without meaning. Repetition effects an intrusion of what lies beyond the order of significant discourse: language, transformed into something empty and opaque, becomes as it were an opening, onto what is there when the world is there no longer and onto what is there before the world is. Freud saw this as the realm of the death drive, Blanchot the field of the neuter, the formless presence of an absence, where one is brought, an impersonal and anonymous no one, to the ‘experience’ of the impossibility of dying.
It may be that one of the most exact embodiments of this state of affairs is to be found in the zombies of George Romero. This, at least, is the view of Steven Shaviro, who sees in these figures a ‘weird attractiveness. . . a perverse, insidious fascination that undermines our nominal involvement with the films’ active protagonists’ [Shaviro, op. cit., p. 96]. The uncanny power of Romero’s films, for Shaviro, lies in the fact that the relations of contiguity, attraction and imitation, that hold intradiegetically between the zombies and their victims, are the same processes as those that serve to bind viewers to the events on screen. The power of the ‘living dead’ trilogy, he considers, is inseparable from ‘an overwhelming affective ambivalence’, achieved in part by going beyond the conventional mechanisms of identification and spectatorial engagement with character and situation. Something odd seems to happen to perception, inasmuch as it itself becomes infected, being ‘transformed into a kind of magical, contagious contact’ [Shaviro, op. cit., p. 96]. What this means in effect is that the films tend to break up the onward movement of the narrative in a way that emphasises at once our inability to identify with the zombies and our being seduced by them, our being drawn into proximity with them. They represent what Georges Bataille has called an ‘inexplicable acuity of horror’, and for him ‘extreme seductiveness is probably at the border of terror’. The reason for the power and fascination of the zombie figures lies perhaps most critically in the curious passivity inflecting their movements, as they approach the house in Night of the Living Dead, for example, or in the opening sequence of Day of the Dead, as they emerge from the side streets and doorways of the infested townscape in Florida, in both cases moaning and pressing inexorably towards the camera. Shaviro notes the way in which ‘Living action is subverted by the passivity of waiting for death; indecision debilitates the self-conscious assertion of the will’. These moments of slowed down perception recur throughout the films and what make them what they are. As I watch the zombies approach, ‘I am uncannily solicited and invested by the vision of something that I endlessly anticipate, but that I cannot yet see’ [Shaviro, op.cit., 98]. The night of the living dead is what Blanchot would call the night of insomnia, where the viewer is caught, as are the protagonists (consider, for example, Mrs Cooper’s death, as she abandons herself to the hands of her daughter, newly risen from the dead), in a paralysed lucidity, which is that of the ‘other night’, that night from which there is no escape, no exit, and where everything has become image. The living dead are neither dead not alive; they are images, from which death and life have withdrawn, leaving nothing but the resemblance of resembling, the resemblance of no one. At the end of Day of the Dead the zombies are left wandering the corridors and caves of the military installation, holding dominion over all, and yet unable to escape the underground bunker or to die. The film begins with Sarah’s dream, in which she is filling in a calendar without dates or months; as she does so, zombie hands push through the wall and grab her around the throat, pulling her tight against the wall. In the very final shots of the film, when she is sitting on the beach of an idyllic looking island, she is filling in the same calendar. There is the obvious implication, at least at first sight of the calendar, that this is a second dream, and that the zombies are about to reappear. What is clear is that the time of the film is one that doubles back on itself, where what comes after is anterior to what comes before: just as the zombies exist in a time that is the absence of time, so, like the main protagonist, does the viewer. This is the time of the dream, and the time of the zombies, a time which expels us from the world into an outside where night holds sway.
The Virtues of Knowledge
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