In 1901, the Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote two works of prose, ‘Colours’ and ‘The Letter of Lord Chandos’. In ‘Colours’, Hofmannsthal sets out what he calls ‘the crisis of an inner disposition’, a ‘crisis’ which takes the form of an almost indescribable experience of what he calls ‘Next-to-Nothing’:
But how enumerate these occasional attacks of a Next-to-Nothing? . . . Now and again in the morning it happened, in these German hotel rooms, that the jug and wash-basin—or a corner of the room with the table and the clothes-rack—appeared to me so nonreal, despite their indescribable banality so utterly not real, ghostly as it were, and at the same time ephemeral, waiting, so to speak temporarily, to take the place of the real jug, the real wash-basin filled with water. . . . it was like a momentary floating above the abyss, the eternal void. . . . such an indescribable wafting of the eternal Nothing, the eternal Nowhere, a breath not of death but of Not-Life, indescribable. . . . all in all [things] took on an aspect, a peculiar ambiguous air so filled with inner uncertainty, malicious unreality: so transitory it lay there—with such ghostlike transitoriness. [Selected Prose, (New York: Pantheon, 1952), pp. 142-44.]
While in this state, the narrator enters by chance an art gallery, where he sees some paintings by Van Gogh. As he stares intently at the paintings, his earlier sense of the ghostlike quality of reality seems taken over, as it were, by the paintings themselves, in an oddly displaced experience exposing the narrator to the sheer existence of things, an experience made all the more curious by the fact that the substantial and voluptuous quality—the sensuous presence—of the things depicted seems, in some way, withdrawn from them:
And this innermost life was there, tree and stone and wall and gorge gave of themselves their innermost, almost casting it at me—not, however, the voluptuousness and harmony of their lovely inanimate lives, as sometimes, in days gone by, like a magic atmosphere it had flowed towards me from old paintings: no, only the impact of its existence, the ferocious wonder of its existence surrounded by incredibility, made a dead set at my soul. [Selected Prose, p.147.)
The experience is one of something taking place that is impersonal, neutral: the ‘loveliness’ of the old days gives way to what is quite other, whereby ‘ferocious wonder’ replaces the familiar and magic atmosphere flowing forth from older paintings with ‘an existence surrounded by incredibility’. In the narrator’s experience of the art of Van Gogh, the familiarity of the object disappears under the impact of its existence, and with that disappearance there emerges something that is there but not visible—the presence of an absence, the density of a void.
What Hofmannsthal undergoes in his engagement with Van Gogh’s art, as he describes the matter, is an experience of fascination or captivation. Emmanuel Levinas has contrasted this with ‘being-in-the world’, a life lived with concepts. A concept is the object grasped; the object becomes intelligible by way of the concept. In our actions, in our lives with words, we maintain a living relation with objects; we hold and understand them. However, ‘the most elementary procedure of art consists in substituting for the object its image. Its image, and not its concept’ [Collected Philosophical Papers, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1998), p. 3]. Art implies a blindness to concepts, inasmuch as art does not engender them. The image is not a concept; it takes hold over us, and instead of us grasping it, as with a concept, the image effects a reversal of intention and grasps us, thereby inducing in us a fundamental passivity. For this reason, Levinas regards the image as musical: possessed, ‘inspired’, when we hearken to music, ‘we become’, as T.S. Eliot puts it, ‘the music while the music lasts’. The passivity of our possession is made visible in the very magic, music and song that possess us.
This is the captivation of poetry and music. It is a mode of being to which applies neither the form of consciousness, since the I is there stripped of its prerogative of assumption, of its power, nor the form of the unconscious, since the whole situation and all its articulations are in a dark light, present. [Op. cit., p. 4]
To be confronted by an image, by the ferocious wonder of its existence, is to be no longer a being-in-the-world. It is to exist in a waking dream, in whose light habit, reflex and instinct operate no longer.
In ‘The Letter of Lord Chandos’, Hofmannsthal describes a similar standstill or fascination with respect to language, in which words are immobilised, thought and concept banished. The text purports to be a letter written to Francis Bacon by an Elizabethan nobleman, explaining why the writer has renounced all literary endeavour.
At first I grew by degrees incapable of discussing a loftier or more general subject in terms of which everyone, fluently and without hesitation, is wont to avail himself. I experienced an inexplicable distaste for so much as uttering the words spirit, soul, or body . . . the abstract terms of which the tongue must avail itself as a matter of course in order to voice a judgement—these terms crumbled in my mouth like mouldy fungi. [Selected Prose, pp. 133-34]
The distaste for abstract terms, for concepts, comes to a climax when Chandos, trying to reprove his daughter for lying, finds himself incapable of distinguishing between—or at any rate of communicating the distinction between—truth and falsehood. Gradually, these attacks spread ‘like corroding rust’, until familiar and humdrum conversation seems to him ‘ as indemonstrable, as mendacious and hollow as could be’. He is on longer capable of comprehending things with the simplifying eye of habit:
For me everything disintegrated into parts, those parts again into parts; no longer would anything let itself be encompassed by one idea. Single words floated round me; they congealed into eyes which stared at me and into which I was forced to stare back—whirlpools which gave me vertigo and, reeling incessantly, led into the void. [Ibid]
Chandos comes into contact with a fundamental passivity, wherein language is no longer the expression of a subjectivity, but a reversal of that, whereby he is exposed to language in its exteriority. The words that confront him are no longer words as signs or symbols but words in their existence as words, without meaning, on the hither side of signification. He seeks to rescue himself from his plight by seeking refuge in the Ancients, not in Plato, but in Seneca and Cicero, writers notable for ‘the harmony of their clearly defined and orderly ideas’. But to no avail.
These ideas, I understood them well: I saw their wonderful interplay rise before me like magnificent fountains upon which played golden balls. I could hover around them and watch how they played, one with each other; but they were concerned only with each other, and the most profound, most personal quality of my thinking remained excluded from this magic circle. [Ibid]
A terrible solitude afflicts him, as though he were locked in a garden surrounded by eyeless statues. As Donald Davie has noted, what Chandos goes through is a loss of faith in language as an instrument of articulation, as an instrument able to establish and sustain relationships. In effect, he has lost his faith in syntax: ‘[t]he only language he can trust is a language broken down into units of isolated words, a language which abandons any attempt at articulation, because that articulation seems to take place only inside a closed system—“they were concerned only with each other”’. [Articulate Energy, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1955), p. 4.]
At the same time, Lord Chandos describes another aspect of this transformation: as words lose their coherence, and objects become useless, he is drawn outside language into a new intimacy with things in themselves, with things in their existence. Maurice Blanchot puts it in the following terms:
a new contact forms with things’ intimacy, a presentiment of unknown relations, of another language, capable of expressing the infinite acceptance which the poet is when he becomes the refusal to choose—capable also of enclosing the silence that lies in the deepest recess of things. [The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 183]
Hofmannsthal in this way accedes to the demand or exigency of writing itself: it is a demand that ‘assigns to the artist—to the most irresponsible of men—the responsibility for what he cannot accomplish, and makes him guilty for what he cannot say, for what cannot be said’ [ibid]. Hofmannsthal himself writes:
I felt, with a certainty not entirely bereft of sorrow, that neither in the coming year nor in the following nor in all the years of this my life shall I write a book, whether in English or in Latin: and this for an odd and embarrassing reason. . . . [T]he language in which I might be able not only to write but to think is neither Latin nor English, neither Italian nor Spanish, but a language none of whose words is known to me, a language in which inanimate things speak to me and wherein I may one day have to justify myself before an unknown judge. [Selected Prose, pp. 140-1]
It is not surprising that, as Blanchot remarks, Kafka felt ‘The Letter of Lord Chandos’ to be kindred text. Kafka also, when he wrote, ‘felt judged from deep down in his words by that unknown tongue of which he was not the master, but for which he was responsible, and which, with torments and preposterous accusations, removed him more and more from the authority to write . . . and condemned him to a language whose understanding was refused him but whose justification was required of him’ [The Space of Literature, pp. 183-84]. The writer is drawn, by too strong a movement, into a space where truth is lacking, where limits and boundaries have disappeared, and where he is handed over to the immeasurable and the illimitable.
The exigencies to which Hofmannsthal, and Blanchot after him, attend, are complex and difficult to characterise. To make a beginning, I turn to a book by Levinas, Existence and Existents, published in 1947, which exercised a considerable influence over Blanchot in his earlier criticism, and which has features in common with his early novels, such as Thomas the Obscure (1941). Levinas asks us to imagine an event which is, we may believe, unimaginable. Let us imagine, he says, all things, being and persons, reverting to nothingness. There would be an experience, but not the experience of something. It would be an experience of the nothingness that remains, the silence of night and of nothingness, what Levinas calls the experience of the ‘il y a’, the ‘there is’. The ‘there is’ is like the third person pronoun in the impersonal form of the verb—‘it rains’, ‘it is night’—and it designates not the unknown author of an action, but characterises that action itself, which has no author. Levinas speaks of the ‘impersonal, anonymous, yet inextinguishable “consummation” of being, which murmurs in the depths of nothingness itself’ and which ‘we shall designate by the term there is. The there is, inasmuch as it resists a personal form, is “being in general”’ [Existence and Existents, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press), p 52]. The there is derives neither from the exterior nor the inner world, or from any ‘being’ whatsoever. It transcends the inner and the outer, and makes the very distinction impossible. It is here, perhaps, that we may locate Hofmannsthal’s experience of inanimate things, as they speak to him, in an unknown and anonymous ‘language’.
One might be inclined to take the experience of the there is to be an experience of the night, but if it is it is not an experience of night as opposed to day. The night in question is what Blanchot has called ‘the other night’: in their common usage, day and the night that belongs to it are part of the world within which communication, meaning and understanding have their places, whereas the night of which Blanchot speaks, the night of the there is, is what emerges as an elsewhere, as a radical otherness, as a neutrality that is the realm neither of things not of concepts. When the forms of things are dissolved in the other night, the darkness of that night, a darkness which is neither an object nor has the quality of an object, becomes a kind of invading presence. The notion of experience is not, however, applicable in the context of this presence, since, according to Levinas, the darkness of the night excludes all that might present itself to mind or body. It is a darkness beyond or other than anything that might be possible; in the night, we are not confronted by anything that might, or might not, be. The darkness is the darkness of a nothing. And yet it is not a nothing to be identified with an idea of pure or transcendental nothingness. The place of which Levinas speaks is a place where there is no longer ‘this’ or ‘that’—there is no longer ‘something’—but nonetheless the nothing, the darkness, is in its turn a presence, an utterly unavoidable presence. It is not a presence that can take its place in a dialectic relation with absence, nor can it be grasped by thought. It is simply there, beyond mediation, beyond language. ‘Nothing responds to us but this silence; the voice of this silence is understood and frightens like the silence of those infinite spaces Pascal speaks of. There is, in general, without it mattering what there is, without our being able to fix a substantive to this term. There is is an impersonal form, like it rains, or it is warm. Its anonymity is essential’ [op. cit., pp. 52-53]. The well-worn opposition between the inner and the outer, the world of objects and the world of subjectivity, is thereby rendered irrelevant. The mind no longer faces an exterior world, since no such world exists. The self, the I, is submerged by the night, invaded and depersonalised by it. All things disappear and the I with them, leaving behind what cannot disappear, ‘the sheer fact of being in which one participates, whether one wants to or not, without having taken the initiative, anonymously’ [op. cit., p. 53].
The experience is one of horror and menace. Nothing approaches, nothing comes, nothing threatens; and yet this silence, this void empty of sensation, constitutes a mute and absolutely indeterminate menace. As Lord Chandos found, in the deepest recess of things, there is here, in this nowhere, an ambiguity and indeterminateness, where one thing can count as another. As things in their being are delivered over to us, so we are delivered over to things, and are exposed to them. The darkness does not simply change the way things appear to us: it reduces them to undetermined, anonymous being; and it so reduces us. Things strike us ‘as though they no longer composed a world, and were swimming in the chaos of their existence’ [op.cit., p. 54]. Levinas cites as examples the ‘hallucinatory’ poetry of Rimbaud, or the calm and smiling horror of de Maupassant’s tales, in which beings and things collapse into their materiality, whereby a terrifying presence accrues to their density, their weight and shape. For Levinas, it makes things appear to us in a night, ‘like the monotonous presence that bears down on us in insomnia’ [op cit., p. 55]. This is the ‘rustling’ of the il y a, and it is horror. Horror is in no sense an anxiety about death. The subject is stripped of its subjectivity, and in being so stripped loses the power to have a private existence: the self, the I, is depersonalised. Horror is this turning of the subjectivity of the subject, its particularity qua entity, inside out. Levinas describes the process as ‘a participation in the there is, in the there is which returns in the heart of every negation, in the there is that has “no exits.” It is . . . the impossibility of death, the universality of existence even in its annihilation’ [op. cit., p. 56]. The point Levinas is making here is crucial: to kill someone else, or to seek to die oneself, by risking one’s life, or by attempting suicide, is to seek an escape from being, to enter a realm in which negation and freedom can operate. Negation, by denying the world, allows us mastery over it, and hence freedom. As Simon Critcheley has noted, ‘[t]he work of negation, whereby the in-itself becomes transformed into the for-itself and the immediate mediated, is likened by Hegel to death. . . . the Subject produces itself through a relation with death; the life of the Spirit endures death and maintains itself in death’ [Very Little…Almost Nothing (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 53]. For Levinas, then, to experience horror is to experience, at the very heart of the negation that founds and sustains the world, a return of being, an event that makes it seem as though that negation had not taken place. The world—founded on negation—is itself in turn negated. For Levinas, as for Blanchot, the corpse is an especially pertinent icon of what is at stake: the corpse, the very embodiment of death’s negation, already bears within itself its own phantom; it presages its return. ‘The haunting spectre, the phantom, constitutes the very element of horror’ [Existence and Existents, p. 56].
Levinas finds in Shakespeare a potent exemplar of this position. It is the return of presence in negation, the impossibility of evading anonymous and incorruptible existence, that for Levinas constitutes the final depth of the tragedies, in which ‘[t]he fatality of the tragedy of antiquity becomes the fatality of irremissible being’ [op. cit., p. 57]. The spectres, ghosts and witches of the plays are not simply elements deriving from the folklore and shared iconography of the late sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries, or from the original material the dramas are derived from; they are what allow Shakespeare to move towards the limit between being and nothingness, where being insinuates itself even in nothingness. Hamlet recoils before the ‘not to be’, because he has a premonition of the return of being (‘to dye, to sleepe, perchance to Dreame’). Macbeth comes to experience in the apparition of Banquo’s ghost, of ‘its phantom return through the fissures through which one had driven it’ [ibid.], the impossibility of escape from existence. ‘The times have been/That, when the brains were out, the man would die,/And there an end; but now they rise again,/. . . And push us from our stools: this is more strange/Than such a murder is’ (III, iv, 78-83). The horror for Macbeth derives, not from fear, but from the shadow of being, ‘the profile of being [as it] takes form in nothingness’ [ibid]. What emerges from these considerations, Levinas wants to insist, is that the horror of the night, as an experience of the there is, neither reveals, nor derives from, the danger of death or pain. Nor does the pure nothingness revealed by Heidegger’s analyses of anxiety in Being and Time constitute the there is.
There is horror of being and not anxiety over nothingness, fear of being and not fear for being; there is being prey to, delivered over to something that is not a ‘something.’. . . . Horror carries out the condemnation to perpetual reality, to existence with ‘no exits’. [Existence and Existents, pp. 57-58]
Here, Levinas refuses the ontology of Heidegger, and, indeed, epistemology in general. The horror of the night, ‘the silence and horror of the shades’, is simply opposed to Heideggerian anxiety, the fear of being to the fear of nothingness. Anxiety, in Heidegger, is concerned with ‘being towards death’, in which death is somehow grasped and understood, mastered, while, for Levinas, the horror of the night is the horror of the impossibility of dying. There is no exit from the horror of the night, and the unavoidable demands of existence make no answer. Horror is the horror of immortality, the perpetuity of the drama of existence, the necessity of forever taking up its burden.
At this point, Levinas refers, in a footnote, to Blanchot’s novel, Thomas the Obscure, a text which, he insists, captures precisely that ‘presence of absence’, that negativity of ‘the other night’, and the dissolution of the self, the subject, in the night, which constitute the il y a. What is crucial is the sense the novel gives of the horror of being, of what Levinas calls the return of being at the heart of negation, the reality of irreality.
Soon the night seemed gloomier and more terrible to him than any night, as if it had in fact issued from a wound of thought which had ceased to think, of thought taken ironically as object by something other than thought. It was night itself. Images which constituted its darkness inundated him. He saw nothing, and, far from being distressed, he made this absence of vision the culmination of his sight. [Thomas the Obscure, trans. Robert Lamberton (New York: David Lewis, 1973), pp. 14-15]
This is fascination, or ecstasy, in the sense that the subject is evacuated, standing out beyond itself. And across the void thus opening up, sight and the object of sight mingle themselves together. What is seen imposes itself upon the gaze, and the eye’s own glance enters it as an image, as though the gaze were its own object. In this torsion of the subject, a torsion which is fascination, everything is withdrawn from the world, including the powers of language. ‘What fascinates us robs us of our power to give sense. It abandons its “sensory” nature, abandons the world, draws back from the world, and draws us along. It no longer reveals itself to us, yet it affirms itself in a presence foreign to the temporal present and to presence in space’ [The Space of Literature, p. 32]. Fascination is not a cognitive relation. As Gerald Bruns points out, ‘it deprives us of our concepts and leaves us powerless to grasp what we see. It is our seeing which is grasped and held: neutralized’. [See: Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins, 1997), p. 60]. It is ‘solitude’s gaze’ and to enter into this gaze is to enter the impersonal and neutral space of the il y a. Writing is a movement into this space, since to write is to allow fascination to rule language, and the space of writing is that of the impossibility of dying. Thomas the Obscure is a shade, doomed not to rest but to wander through the pages of the text in a caricature of immortality. He cannot die. Thomas digs his own grave and hangs a stone about his neck as if to obliterate himself in the earth, and to become his own corpse, yet he continues to ‘exist’, to stand outside himself until the end. The condition is like that of a man who is hanging himself: after kicking away the stool on which he stood, he feels, instead of the leap into the void, only the rope which holds him around his neck, so that he is bound more than ever, bound as he had never been before, to the existence he had sought to leave. So Thomas ‘felt himself, at the moment he knew himself to be dead, absent, completely absent from his death’ [Thomas the Obscure, p. 36]. He was indeed dead, and yet rejected from the reality of death, and as he leaned over the void, he saw his image in the total absence of images. He saw the fascination of the il y a, and like a man waking up alive in his coffin (a theme familiar from Poe) he saw the impalpable air where he floated transformed into an air without air, ‘filled with smells of the earth, of rotten wood, of damp cloth’ [op. cit., p. 37]. Like Lazarus, he comes forth from the tomb, not resurrected, not risen, but dead, taken at once from life and from death. He walks, a painted mummy, in whom death itself has been resurrected.
This condition Levinas sees as characteristic of modern art, as is clear from his account of cubist painting:
The breakup of continuity even on the surface of things, the preference for broken lines, the scorning of perspective and of the “real” proportions between things, indicate a revolt against the continuity of curves. From a space without horizons, things break away and are cast towards us like chunks that have weight in themselves, blocks, cubes, planes, triangles, without transitions between them. They are naked elements, simple and absolute, swellings or abcesses of being. In this falling of things down on us, objects attest their power as material objects, even reach a paroxysm of materiality. Despite the rationality and luminosity of these forms when taken in themselves, a painting makes them exist in themselves, brings about an absolute existence in the very fact there is something which is not in its turn an object or a name, which is unnameable and can only appear in poetry. [Existence and Existents, p. 51]
The materiality in question here is not that of classical materialism, or of scientific determinism. What Levinas is pointing to is matter in its coarsenss, thickness, massiveness, wretchedness. He is concerned with the brute and implacable presence of things, with what is humble, bare and ugly. Matter in this sense is the very fact of the il y a. Hence, as Bruns notes, it is important not to miss the import of Levinas’s remark: ‘there is something which is not . . . an object or a name, which is unnameable and can only appear in poetry’. This ‘something’ is what lies at the heart of Blanchot’s concerns also. ‘Blanchot’s question is what sort of thing poetry would have to be in order to be that (and only that) in which this materiality of being, this anonymous, oppressive, invasive power of existence, this implacable density of the il y a, can appear’ [Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy, p. 61]. In The Space of Literature, Blanchot says that the writer ‘belongs to a language no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no center, and which reveals nothing’ [The Space of Literature, p. 26]. But the question then arises as to what is it to belong to such a language, a language that is no longer a language, no longer used for expression or to make statements, no longer the language of negation or assertion. As Bruns remarks, this is ‘[a] language not for use: a language that can only be described by a kind of topology, not by grammar and rules’ [Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy, p. 62]. Though poetry may be made out of words, it is not a use of them. To belong to language understood in this way means to lose one’s subjectivity. To belong is not to belong, to belong nowhere, and to lose what we understand by position, and so to be deprived of perspective or standpoint. One is not free of the world, but deprived of it.
Kafka’s novels, and in particular The Castle, exemplify for Blanchot the exigency or demand of writing, thus conceived. A similar exigency or demand is manifest also in The Waste Land. Eliot places at the beginning of the poem an epigraph, from the Satyricon, that is very pertinent to the issues at stake here. Trimalchio claims to have seen the Sibyl hanging up in a bottle at Cumae (in a condition similar to the protagonist’s, in Beckett’s The Unnamable). Apollo had granted her request to live for as many years as there were grains of dust in her hand (‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’), but she forgot to ask the god for eternal youth. Her one wish now is to die, and yet this is impossible. Trimalchio reports her state thus: ‘For I with these my own eyes have seen the Cumean Sibyl hanging in a jar; and when the boys said, ‘What do you want, Sibyl?’, she answered, ‘I want to die’. Hugh Kenner has noted that the passage from the Satyricon is given in ‘macaronic Latin, posterior to the best age, pungently sauced with Greek’ (the boys’ questions and the Sybil’s answer are in Greek [The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot (London: Methuen, 1965), p. 136]. He has also suggested that she is a figure of shifting identity, who functions much as the consciousness of the writer, and is to be associated with the fragmentary, the sibylline leaves. The Waste Land is, one might say, prefaced by a figure embodying the aesthetic of the poem to come, and it is an aesthetic of horror. The impossibility of dying is an extreme limit, as it were between life and death, an experience of the interminability of existence: here I lose the ability to die and the dead rise up from their graves. This condition is, for Blanchot, the condition of writing, and one may perceive a most powerful instance of it in The Waste Land. The experience is related, as we have seen, to the experience of the il y a, in which one experiences the horror of the absence of the world, of an absence of meaning in which I can no longer act or say, and where I myself disappear in the passivity of dying. Heidegger’s conception of the authentic death, as the origin of my knowledge, is changed into something quite other, into the experience of the impossibility of dying, an experience inseparable from the experience of the loss of subjectivity and so of the impossibility turning the world into a place of meaning. This is the space of non-origin, where I have lost the right to my own death, ‘that unique event which answers Rilke’s prayer: “O Lord, grant to each his own death”.’ [Quoted in The Space of Literature, p. 241.] What I find is that death exposes me to an anonymity in which it is not ‘I’ but ‘they’ who die. Men die always as other than themselves, at the level of the neutrality and impersonality of the They.
They die: he who dies is anonymous, and anonymity is the guise in which the ungraspable, the unlimited, the unsituated is most dangerously affirmed amongst us. Whoever experiences this suffers an anonymous, impersonal force, the force of an event which, being the dissolution of every event, is starting over not only now, but was in its very beginning a beginning again. And in its domain everything that happens happens over. From the instant “they die,” the instant is revoked. When someone dies, “when” designates not a particular date but no matter what date. Likewise there is a level of this experience at which death reveals its nature by appearing no longer as the demise of a particular person, or as death in general, but in this neutral form: someone or other’s death. Death is always nondescript. [Ibid]
‘I’ may hope that my death will prove the moment of my greatest authenticity, the moment towards which ‘I’ propel myself as towards the possibility that is my own-most, as to what is most proper to me, and which will secure me in the solitude of what I am, of the pure ‘I’. But the anonymity of death refuses this accomplishment: dying is intransitive and interminable, where what is intelligible is translated into something unspeakable and alien, and where the law has become absence or impossibility as such. Levinas writes: ‘The time of dying itself cannot give itself the other shore. In dying, the horizon of the future is given, but the future as the promise of a new present is refused: one is in the interval, forever an interval’ [Collected Philosophical Papers, p. 11]. It is as though death were never dead enough, as though it were prolonged in the horror of the interval, as in the horror of being buried alive. This is the experience of certain of Poe’s characters, and it is that of the Sybil.
It is the Sybil’s experience, the horror of her being unable to die, which informs the poem throughout its movement. We remember that Eliot had proposed initially to begin his text with a citation from Heart of Darkness, concerning the death of Kurtz, which makes explicit the connection between the poem’s writing and the sense of horror: ‘Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision,—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—“The horror! The horror!”.’ Like the Sybil, Kurtz experiences that interval, in which knowledge, the ‘supreme moment of complete knowledge’, is transformed by a slippage of language into ‘some image’, the very image of fascination itself, which works on him its effect of horror. By placing these two citations together, we may perhaps glimpse something of the strategy of the poem—to explore the dread of being held to existence without an exit. True horror arises from an ineluctable awareness of the irremissibility of existence, of immortality within life, from the dread of existence itself. The Sybil is the locus of that mode of consciousness which is appropriate to this space or region of language, where subjectivity is lost.
The Sybil is a prophet, as is Kurtz, in his own way, and Tiresias, that figure inseparable from the poem of whom Eliot writes in a note: ‘Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character’, is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem’ [The Waste Land: a facsimile and transcript, ed. Valerie Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), p. 148, n. 218]. In Eliot’s poem, the cognitive or expressive subject is dispersed in a fission of its inwardness, as though it were possessed, speaking, in the manner of a prophet, under inspiration, its breath taken from it. This is the condition of the ‘I’ of writing in The Waste Land, where what Tiresias sees is the condition of the poem’s existence, and, as it were, of his own existence in it. The consciousness constituted within and without Eliot’s text is the consciousness of an elsewhere, where that elsewhere is not a private, interior, subjective space; nor is it an imaginary space, the space of aesthetic differentiation. It is the space opened up by writing. One may set against the background of these claims Eliot’s citation in the Notes of Bradley’s remark, from Appearance and Reality, to the effect that ‘regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul’ [op. cit., p. 149, n. 411]. The interior, private space of Bradley’s self is turned inside out, through the effect of iteration, in the very note that cites it. For the whole world to be peculiar and private to each soul that apprehends it would require that language similarly be private. For Bradley to say what he wants to say is therefore impossible, since the notion of a private language is unintelligible, as the fact of iteration, here instantiated, makes evident. We are, so to speak, required to understand what is not intelligible and to see sense in nonsense and vice versa. The inner world and the outer are thereby troubled in their relations, each undecidably moving through and beyond the other, in a play of uncertainty that affects in like fashion the relations between the Notes to the poem and the poem itself. Does The Waste Land comprise the ‘poetry’ and the Notes, added at publication to make up the book’s length, or not? The Notes are both internal to the poem (they are inside the book’s covers), and external to it, inasmuch as they stand apart from it and comment explicitly on it, from a point beyond it, while at the same time they also contain poetry, as does the ‘poem’ itself. The world of The Waste Land is the world of the non-identical: suspended between what is and what is not, it is linked to what is outside the world, to the ‘Unreal’ city and to that place where ‘We who were living are now dying/With a little patience’. The poem expresses ‘the profundity of this outside bereft of intimacy and repose—this outside that appears when even with ourselves, even with our death, we no longer have relations of possibility’. The Waste Land, with its multiple voices and persons, sets out the situation of one who has lost himself, ‘who can no longer say “me,” who in the same movement has lost the world, the truth of the world, and belongs to exile, to the time of distress when, as Hölderlin says, the gods are no longer and are not yet. This does not mean that art affirms another world, at least not if it is true that art has its origin, not in another world, but in the other of all worlds’ [The Space of Literature, p. 75]. It is rather that The Waste Land brings about a confrontation with the process from which all poems derive, with what Blanchot calls ‘the original point at which the work is inevitably lost, that always destroys the work, recreates endless idleness in the work, but with which too, if anything is to come of it, an ever more primal relationship has to be established’ [The Gaze of Orpheus, trans. Lydia David (New York: Station Hill, 19810, p. 195).
The ‘time of distress’ is precisely what Eliot invokes at the end of the poem, by way of juxtaposed fragments of literature and the Upanishads. The last words of the poem are ‘Shantih shantih shantih’ (a formal ending to an Upanishad, according to Eliot's note) and, as the text shifts from ‘Shantih shantih shantih’ to the gloss offered there (‘“The Peace which passeth understanding” is a feeble translation of this word [shantih]’), we can hardly fail to hear at the same time the word ‘shanty'—or rather, two words, one originating in nineteenth century French (chantez,) the other in nineteenth century North American (perhaps also in the Irish sean tig (toig) ‘old house’)—in which song and shack are combined. The text, like an old house, haunted and uncanny, opens a space of echo and redoubling, where it is not someone, some one person, but rather the unknown space itself which speaks, that speaks without speaking. It is as though the voice itself spoke, in the manner Conrad ascribes to the voice of Kurtz: ‘A voice! A voice! It was grave, profound, vibrating, while the man did not seem capable of a whisper’. ‘Shantih’ contrasts with the ‘feeble translation’, as the voice contrasts with the feeble whispers of the dying man. In this way, the text seems to turn back on itself, even as it withdraws from itself, inscribing itself as an interminable torsion, without beginning or end, or rather, as a torsion like that of the Moebius strip, whose end precedes its beginning and whose beginning comes after its end. This self-surpassing operation can be found throughout the poem, as its principle of movement, a principle that the last forty lines or so bring to the fore. Of these lines, beginning after ‘Then a damp gust/Bringing rain’, Kenner has remarked, in The Invsible Poet, that they recapitulate the poem in terms of the most ancient wisdom accessible to the West.
Then spoke the thunder
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
An ancient wisdom is evident and at the same time troubled somewhat here: the lines give not only a reminder of sexual surrender, or of the greater spiritual surrender attendant upon ascesis and self-abandonment, they give the very movement by which they are the lines, the writing, they are. Surrender and retraction open up the space in which to inscribe the limits of the human, a limit we can respond to only by forsaking the selves in terms of which response is possible. The existence of which the poem speaks is thus an existence exiled from itself: we are not there, we are elsewhere, and we never cease to be there. The present does not flee into the past, but remains open, an unfinished present, as if not part of a sequence.
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
Eliot evokes here an entrance into the passivity of time, outside the possibility of narrative, ‘disappearing through the lack of mediation between past and future when time is prolonged, incomplete and unceasing’ [Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy, p. 68]. Eliot’s invocation of the founding language of Europe, given as ‘DA’, the word prior to all words, and spoken by the thunder, bringing rain, is no less and no more than the other words and languages of the poem, the language of exile. As Blanchot says of Saint-John Perse (a translation of whose Anabasis Eliot first published in 1931), ‘[w]hen Saint-John Perse named one of his poems Exile, he named the poetic condition as well. The poet is in exile; …. The poem is exile, and the poet who belongs to it belongs to the dissatisfaction of exile. He is lost always to himself, outside, far from home; he belongs to the foreign, to the outside which knows no intimacy or limit’ [The Space of Literature, p. 237]. Exile thus characterised is inseparable from what Blanchot calls the experience of the passivity of dying, an experience ascribed in the poem to the Sybil, as well as to Tiresias, the experience of an afterlife lived in time. This between-time is the time of a neutrality, which Tiresias, ‘throbbing between two lives/Old man with wrinkled female breasts’, is the embodiment of: it is the time which the prophet, though blind, can see, the time of the ‘violet hour, the evening hour that strives/Homeward and brings the sailor home from sea’, lines that enact a syntactic displacement in which and by means of which the ‘hour’ comes to be, a time in and of language. It is this order of time that emerges at the moment when Orpheus turns to look at Eurydice, a moment alluded to in the line Eliot cites from de Nerval: ‘Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie’. The speaker of El Desdichado assumes multiple personae, in the manner of the speaker of The Waste Land, and as Orpheus enters the shades to call back his love. The task of Orpheus here, as in the myth, is to bring Eurydice into the light, and his work is the production of beauty. As Simon Critchley puts it: ‘Orpheus must submit to the law of the underworld in order to produce the artwork. Thus, the presentation or unconcealment of the beautiful form in the daylight—what one can call, with Heidegger, ‘world’—can only be achieved by submitting to the prohibition against looking Eurydice in the face, by recognising that she can only be approached by turning away’ [Very Little….Almost Nothing, p. 42]. But in Blanchot’s reading of the myth, what is crucial is Orpheus’ gaze, the moment of his turning back to see Eurydice in the night, the transgression of that prohibition. Orpheus desires to see Eurydice in her concealment, as the darkness, as the essence of the night, the other night. As Critchley describes Blanchot’s account, Orpheus does not desire to make the invisible visible; he desires the impossible, ‘to see the invisible as invisible’ [op. cit., p. 43]. And it is this desire, which destroys his art, losing him Eurydice, that is also the source of his art. This act, the act of inspiration, is at once the ruination of the work and its impossible origin. Blanchot writes:
Does this mean that inspiration changes the beauty of the night into the unreality of the void, makes Eurydice into a shade and Orpheus into someone infinitely dead? Does it mean that inspiration is therefore that problematic moment when the essence of the night becomes something inessential and the welcoming intimacy of the first night becomes the deceptive trap of the other night? That is exactly the way it is. [The Gaze of Orpheus, p. 102]
Inspiration leads to the other night, in which one can neither sleep nor die: this night is the night of The Waste Land.
The issues at stake in this kind of writing may be illuminated by consideration of the poem’s temporality. It is when the events a poem narrates are the events that constitute its own unfolding that we are cast into what Blanchot calls a time before the world, before the beginning. A later poem, East Coker, opens with the words `In my beginning is my end', and it concludes: ‘In my end is my beginning’. Here, the work says what it says in the very gesture of saying what there is for it to say. The only happening in the poem is the happening of the poem itself: a world is described, and, in that same act of description or definition, created. Here, the act of creation turns back upon itself, becoming other than, and exterior to, itself. Hence it is possible neither to begin nor to end, since the words of the poem are already beyond themselves, elsewhere. As Eliot has it, in Burnt Norton: ‘the end precedes the beginning,/And the end and the beginning were always there/Before the beginning and after the end./And all is always now’. We cannot begin, since the beginning is always already begun, and we cannot come to an end, since the end is always already completed, in a time before the beginning. If, with Blanchot, we think of names on the Hegelian model, as effecting the murder or annihilation of the things they name, then the negation, by which the poem sustains itself and which in turn it sustains, must enter paradoxically into the poem, effecting its failure, and (in Blanchot's idiom) betraying the work of the poem to worklessness (désœuvrement). By this he means that the poem is split from itself, in a movement of double negation that turns it towards the outside, the exterior, beyond language and concept, where, as he puts it, there is no intimacy, no place to rest. `The work says the word beginning from a starting point - art - which is complicit with the futility of starting over', and so, like a tautology, the work says the nothing that is the condition of its simultaneous possibility and impossibility:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images . . .
The Waste Land, exemplary in this regard, is nothing other than what it constitutes itself as, namely `this stony rubbish', and the reader, caught within the language of the poem, unable to move beyond it, is, at the same time, exterior to it as it narrates the passage of its own negation:
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
Blanchot's prose, which often reads like a rhapsodic commentary on The Waste Land, says of this mode of writing: ‘The work declares being - and says choice, mastery, form - by announcing art which says the fatality of being, says passivity, and formless prolixity’ [The Space of Literature, p. 244].
. . . I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding to meet you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
The poem comes, not to an end, but upon a series of fragments: `These fragments I have shored against my ruins'. These ruins are the ruins of the kingdom, the wreck of its earlier kings, on whose fortunes I have pondered, `Musing upon the king my brother's wreck/And on the king my father's wreck before him'. The fragments I have shored against my ruins are in effect those very ruins themselves. They are the ruins of a realm in which, except for ruin, there is nothing sure. As Blanchot has appositely put it, ‘By turning itself into an inability to reveal anything, literature is attempting to become the revelation of what revelation destroys’ [The Gaze of Orpheus, p. 47].
In The Waste Land, conditions of possibility and impossibility are registered in successive reversals of syntax, which occur as the poem unfolds in the time of reading:
Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair
Spread out in fiery points
Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.
As we first approach them, coming around the end of the preceding line, the words ‘Spread out’ have the force of a verb, a past indicative; but, after we have reached ‘Glowed’ in the next line, they retroactively become a past participle, governed by ‘hair’. However, there is no question of deciding which reading is correct: the phrase has to be taken as both things at once--verb as we approach it, participle as we look back to it--in what is a sustained and ambiguous suspension that leaves us interminably divided between the two. Again, in the last line, ‘would’ hovers ambiguously between being a transitive verb, expressing the desire or wish that the hair be `savagely still', and an auxiliary, expressing a conditional statement, saying how the hair would be if such and such were the case. What this condition is or might have been or might yet be is not specified. What we can say is, with its language organised in this manner, the poem will never have completed its passage into the future; impotent to situate itself securely in time, it will exist in a quasi-eternal moment, unable to go beyond itself, unable to pass on. The opening section of Burnt Norton exemplifies this exactly, as it narrates the passage from past to future, and so back into the past, of the words that occur in it. This is to sustain a present in which the future is imminent, but never realised, a present stripped of what makes it the present, its passing. The linguistic events of the poem are the only happenings there are.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
Something has disappeared, as the writing, seeking to register what comes before, makes of it what comes after, undermining our usual understanding of temporal succession, and dispossessing words of the power to name, or state. Nonetheless, words may take from this dispossession a power of their own, an obscure power almost that of incantation, so that things become really other than they are. Words become ‘one moment in the universal anonymity, a bald statement, the stupor of a confrontation in the depths of obscurity’, and through the action of language itself, it becomes possible to achieve a passage beyond language and to enter upon the presence of things before the world exists, in what Blanchot calls ‘the lucidity of the depths of torpor’ [The Gaze of Orpheus, p. 47].
If we are to accord this way of thinking its due weight and seriousness, then we must recognize that Blanchot and Levinas have come upon states of mind and modes of experience that are accessible only by virtue of a specific employment of language, that typified by what is, in effect, post-symbolist poetry. And what this kind of experience gives onto, for Levinas, is the true horror, the horror of the uncanny and the fantastic. It is the return of being in negation, the impossibility of death, the universality of existence even in its annihilation. It appears to us in the obsessions and insomnias of the night, and it is fear of being, not fear for being, fear of death. In Levinas's words, ‘it is a density of the void, like a murmur of silence’, and it is beyond contradiction [Existence and Existents, pp. 63-64]. It is the condition described by Eliot in ‘The Hollow Men’: ‘Shape without form, shade without colour,/Paralysed force, gesture without motion’. And we find it also explored in Lucio Fulci's horror film, The Beyond.
Released by Fulvia Film (Rome) in 1981, the film takes up the motif of the gateway to hell from The Sentinel (Michael Winner, 1976) and living dead imagery based on Romero's first two zombie films. The story opens in Louisiana, 1927. A posse, bearing torches, rifles and chains, is rowing across a lake towards an isolated hotel. Inside the hotel, Schweik, an artist, is completing an indistinct landscape, littered with grey shapes, perhaps corpses. The men burst into the hotel and seize him, the leader of the group accusing him of being a warlock, or satanist, and beating him mercilessly across the face with a heavy chain. Ignoring his warnings, the men carry him to the hotel's cellar, crucify him, and throw acid over his head, watching him as he dissolves in agony. As this is happening, a young woman, Emily, is elsewhere in the hotel, reading from the book of Eibon, which contains ancient prophecies concerning the seven sacred gateways into hell. Schweik is then walled up. In 1981, Liza Merril arrives from New York to claim the hotel which she has inherited. Assisted by Martin Avery, she decides on its renovation. On a long causeway, resembling that between the Florida Keys, Liza meets Emily, who now is blind. Emily takes Liza to the house where she lives, and warns her to leave immediately. At the same time, Martha, the hotel's Mrs Danvers-like housekeeper, guides Joe, a local plumber, towards the far end of the hotel's cellar, which is flooding, to find out where the water is coming from. He knocks down the wall entombing Schweik's body, and is killed by a hand that reaches out and seizes him. Subsequently, two corpses are discovered. Mary Ann, Joe's wife, goes to the hospital mortuary to prepare her husband for his funeral, when she too is killed. She falls, and lies unconscious at the foot of a cupboard, on which stands a large bottle of acid. The bottle falls forward, spilling its contents over her head, which dissolves into a sea of bloody foam. Her daughter watches in fascinated horror, as the foam creeps towards her. Martin Avery dies in the town library. When he comes upon the original plans for the hotel, he falls from a high ladder, and is bitten to death by giant spiders. During his death agonies, the plans, of a vast and elaborate building, dissolve into the whiteness of the page. John McCabe, a doctor, who has become friendly with Liza, is increasingly puzzled by what is happening, and is especially perturbed by the fact that he has never heard of Emily, despite living many years in the town. He goes to her house, only to find it abandoned and in ruins. Here he discovers the book of Eibon and reads in it that the hotel stands on one of the seven gates to hell. In the hotel, Martha is cleaning the bathroom of room 39, Schweik's former room. She puts her hand into a bath of foul black water, and frees the plughole. As the water drains away, Joe arises from the water, rather as Schweik had done earlier in the cellar, after Joe's death. He drives Martha before him, until the back of her head is impaled on a large nail sticking out of the wall, a nail similar to those used in Schweik's crucifixion. She will join the undead. Schweik appears before Emily, summoning her back with him, presumably to hell, a summons she passionately refuses to obey. Her guide dog turns on her, and tears out her throat. Liza is set on by the dead in her hotel, and is rescued by McCabe. Together, they flee to the hospital, which they find strangely empty and unreal. They are pursued by `living' corpses from the morgue. They escape down to the basement, only to find that they are back in the cellar of the hotel. They pass through the holes in the walls, into a landscape that seems everywhere the same. It is the landscape of the painting Schweik completed at the time of his destruction, and it is the site of hell. Liza and McCabe appear to merge into the landscape, and the painting comes to dominate the screen.
As this summary should indicate, the plot is anything but concisely organised. Elements are pulled in from many sources, and strung together in a series of set-pieces, involving various degrees of violence and bodily mutilation. Of these, the opening sequences are the most striking, as Schweik is crucified by the posse and dissolved in acid. The score, by Fabio Frizzi, dominates the sound track, carrying over to the reading by Emily from the book of Eibon. The same musical motif recurs throughout, especially at moments of violent death, such as Mary Ann's and Martha's. The music, rather than the narrative, is the cohesive force in the film, through its repetitious insistence drawing the disparate narrative events together, and emphasising pace and rhythm at the expense of motivation or psychological insight. The effect is of visuals and music seeming to cohere in a unified sound-image. This is brought home at the end of the film, when Schweik's painting has come to fill the screen, accompanied by the throbbing musical score. It is precisely at this point that Liza and McCabe are recognised as having become part of Schweik's landscape, which he completed as the film began, a painting which does not simply depict hell, but is it. The film's end is established at a point prior to its beginning, and the organisation of its temporal development identified with that of a painting internal to it. The role of music and rhythm in achieving this effect of reversal, whereby the end becomes the beginning, and the exterior the interior, is similar to the role of rhythm in The Waste Land, where, as we have seen, words impose themselves on us, disengaging themselves from reality, and (we may want to say) making us part of them. For Levinas, rhythm understood in these terms is what constitutes the duration of the interval. Words in poetry impose themselves on us without us assuming them:
Or rather, our consenting to them is inverted into a participation. Their entry into us is one with our entry into them. Rhythm represents a unique situation where we cannot speak of consent, assumption, initiative or freedom, because the subject is caught up and carried away by it. [The Levinas Reader, p 132]
Levinas is speaking here as we saw Blanchot do earlier. He believes that in poetry the subject enters into its own representation, so that the self exists no longer, having become an anonymous or impersonal shadow of what it formerly was. What this means becomes clear if we think of the way the reader is captured by the incantatory movement of Eliot's writing: ‘. . .you are the music/While the music lasts’. Our consenting to the music, or the poetry, is inverted into a participation, in which initiative and freedom are lost. The condition is that of a waking dream. As Blanchot insists, this is a mode of being which is neither that of consciousness, since the self is stripped of the ability to assume its powers, nor that of unconsciousness, since the whole situation is there, in what Levinas calls a dark light, present. Blanchot identifies this condition with that of hell, though not the hell of traditional Christian torment. He makes this clear by citing a passage from Gershom Scholem's Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism on Kabbalistic speculation. Scholem argues that, after the Expulsion from Spain, religious thought attempted to overcome exile by pushing it to its limit, ‘enhancing its torments’ and ‘savoring its bitterness to the utmost’:
The horrors of Exile were mirrored in the Kabbalistic doctrine of metempsychosis, which now won immense popularity by stressing the various stages of the soul's exile. The most fearful fate the could befall any soul--far more ghastly than the torments of hell--was to be “outcast” or “naked”, a state precluding either rebirth or even admission to hell. . . . Absolute homelessness was the sinister symbol of absolute Godlessness, of utter moral and spiritual deprivation. [Cited in The Space of Literature, p. 70, from G.G. Scholem, The Major Trends of Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), p.250]
Such absolute homelessness was, for the Kabbalists, the worst nightmare of the soul. Liza and McCabe are submitted to this fate, not in punishment of their sins, but by virtue of their being what they are, creations of the film. Fulci's hell is a revelation of the fact that art ‘describes the situation of one who has lost himself, who can no longer say “me”, who in the same movement has lost the world, the truth of the world, and belongs to exile’ [The Space of Literature, p. 75].
The disruption of tenses in a symbolist poem disrupts and discredits retrospectively the whole tense sequence of the poem, so that the reader has nothing to fall back on except the duration the poem takes in the reading. The symbolist poem is `a falling movement on the hither side of time, into fate' [Existence and Existents, p. 139]. A disruption of comparable order takes place in The Beyond, but it does so at the level of the image, not the word, when image and what is imaged become one, as the film concentrates at the end on Schweik's painting. This echoes a point basic to Levinas' conception of art. For him, the most elementary procedure of art is to substitute an image for an object. And an image is not a concept. `A concept is the object grasped, the intelligible object. Already by action we maintain a living relationship with a real object; we grasp it, we conceive it. The image neutralizes this real relationship' [The Levinas Reader, p. 132]. Like the Hegelian name, the image neutralises, annihilates, the object. The effect of Schweik's painting is to incorporate into the film the symbolist logic of the word, discrediting the narrative, and revealing its bondage to the inexorable duration of the interval. Seen in retrospect, the elaboration and spectacle of the film's many deaths reveal the film's fixity and subordination to a time impotent to go anywhere except interminably back to its beginning. A corpse rises from the foul water of the bath, in an obvious reminiscence of Clouzot's Les Diaboliques, and Martha steps back before a horror she is unable to escape. She is held by the fact of its presence, by the fact that it is dead and yet before her: confronting it `alive', she confronts a death that is not dead enough. For the viewer, this effect is reinforced by the Clouzot reference, inasmuch as the corpse seems summoned forth, not so much by the powers of hell or Schweik, as by the cinema itself. Death has become a sound-image, composed of elements we have seen or heard before, including the nails, the corpse rising from the black water, the music, the violation of the head, the moaning, as well as elements deriving from other films. These are the plastic elements which fix and immobilise the characters in time. The death we see is a death effected, not by motive or significant action, but by the image understood as Levinas and Blanchot understand it, as the site of a repetition, which the characters in the film and we, the viewers of the film, are equally impotent to resist. The housekeeper takes her place among the undead. Emily refuses the summons of her fate, and her death, her throat torn open by her guide dog, is the repetition of a similar episode in Suspiria.
Films of this type disengage us from the world, not in order to go beyond it, since this requires meaning, and the complexities of human action, but so that we may enter an interruption of time, similar to that effected in Eliot's poetry, where a quasi-eternal instant is created, aside from time, offering the horizon of a future which will never come. `Words, after speech, reach/Into the silence.' In this realm, the priority of the concept is displaced, and we find ourselves submitted to fate. This is not the fate of rational law or universal necessity, but of a present, where `all is always now', constituted by the eternally suspended future of poetic rhythm and the image. Fate has no place in life. The fate of art is that of the statue, suspended in an immobile instant, where, according to Levinas, `the power of freedom congeals into impotence. And here too we should compare art with dreams: the instant of the statue is a nightmare' [The Levinas Reader, p. 139]. The fate of art is also that of the narrative. The being of a character is immobilised in it, committing characters in novels and films alike to the infinite repetition of the same acts and experiences. Nothing in the narrative initiates life, and in The Beyond Fulci acknowledges the fact, immobilising death and forming it into a series. Death subordinate to repetition is impossible, and just as Liza and McCabe are fated to wander endlessly through the world of Schweik's hell so under Fulci's direction freedom congeals into impotence. The characters of The Beyond are fated to a death that is always the same, suspended in the fixity of the film, not only because the film can be seen over and over, but because they each experience in their dying the nightmare of the interval. The Beyond does not reproduce time; it has its own time, a time of fixity. Time cannot shatter this fixity, despite the fact that cinema unrolls in time, since it is the fixity of the interval, and the interval stands aside from time. In The Beyond, the work is lost; going beyond itself it unites with its origin, establishing itself in impossibility. Fulci has created a cinema out of an image of writing. He has taken narrative beyond itself, as a condition of its existing, and it is only because the being of the characters can be doubled into the beyond that he finds their actions worth narrating at all.
Seen in this light, the film is nothing other than a catalogue of notations of its own aesthetic, and it exhibits them everywhere, in the blind yet seeing eyes of Emily, the appearance and disappearance of the hotel plans, the hotel itself, the undead, and, most significantly, Schweik's painting. The characters become elements of its plastic composition, in a transformation that defines the aesthetic undertaking of the whole film. Characters constantly die into the beyond constituted by their images, a doubling we first see in the death of Schweik himself, who returns from the dead, still in the atrocious condition in which he died. Like the Lazarus of Blanchot, he is not resurrected into the sunlight; he remains in the tomb, and of the tomb, and is evil, lost. Similarly with the hotel: putrescence and rot pervade it, and the dead dwell there. As with the `old houses' in Suspiria and Inferno, the hotel exists suspended in the empty place between life and death, inseparable from an image of itself that has disappeared, and ultimately no character is possessed of the power to escape it. The degradation of the world represented in Fulci's film is in effect a degradation marking the reversal by which reality is removed, and replaced by the shadow of the image. All darkens into the shadow of the beyond, and this peculiar death of the shadow serves in Fulci's hands to undo the narrative from within, inverting it into what is at once an image of death and a dead image. This view of the film is supported by the longest Italian version of the film's title: ...E Tu Vivrai Nel Terrore! L'Aldilà. Reading this as `...And you shall live in terror! The beyond', it points towards the notion of a future conditional on the past, a terror beyond, beyond the grave, beyond the end and before the beginning, in which you shall live. This is the threat that for Levinas appears in the approach of the interval; there can be no retreat from it, but the approach never ends.
The Beyond has been seen as in many ways a failure, or so its detractors have been quick to insist, remarking on its haphazard and derivative narrative, and its often crude effects; however, I would argue that its concluding sequence acknowledges it to be a failure in a more profound and far-reaching sense. Liza and McCabe are lost in a place where to go forward is to go back, and where every beginning is simply a repeated end. `If all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable': Eliot's words are an exact definition of Fulci's hell. And yet the film at its end pulls back, with a crane shot, away from the place of darkness, which the voice of Eibon tells us we are condemned forever to explore, into the painting, and finally away from that also. Here is the final ambiguity, that to dwell beyond, in the place outside, in the impossibility of the possible, is possible only at the cost of the impossible: to achieve this final ambiguity, for Fulci, as for a post-symbolist like Eliot, would be to achieve a condition of `complete simplicity/(Costing not less than everything)'.
The Virtues of Knowledge
1 month ago