First scene: Conflicts
In her Notebooks, Simone Weil wrote that “Each true statement is an error if its opposite is not thought of at the same time, and it cannot be thought of at the same time”. The mediation of contradictions is only an altered image of the irreconcilable polarities that, instead, make up reality. But thinking about the unthinkable leads us to a place that reason has never managed to penetrate. To be exact, it leads us to atopy, to “that absence of a place” that offers us a different measurement of the world. A trajectory towards overcoming the idea of harmony that, even before Weil, had been undertaken by Dostoyevsky in all its highest metaphysical tension. A reality that always reveals itself as a contradiction, dismemberment, a place in which contraries coexist and interweave in an arabesque where everything is present and nothing is excluded. From the fragment by Heraclitus where “War is the father and king of all” to Plato’s Socratic drama where we are challenged to think like “Knights on an open field” and to Nietzsche’s precept to “Do philosophy with a hammer” or Heidegger’s Kampf. Like an underground river, the line of belligerence crosses the whole of Western thought. This is because the thing itself is fundamentally polemical, as well as the truth that is referred to: the conflict existed before the participators in it.
Second scene: A Border
A limit, a boundary.
A prison, an earthy and opaque shell. This is the body Plato talks about in Phaedo, inaugurating philosophy as an act that ought to put the body itself to death by blocking the “barbaric mud” of the passions enclosed in it.
But do there exist borders that are not, as Melville said, porous or frayed? Does there exist a final border that we cannot cross? In an essay dating from 1935 and titled De l’évasion, Emmanuel Lévinas reminds us how contemporary literature too has tried to evade the imperative of this cumbersome presence. There then appear to us the images of Kafka’s bodies that collide and torment; of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s orgies as an attempt to raise ourselves above the limits of the body; of Georges Battaille’s lacerated bodies. The protagonist of Abraham Yehoshua’s The Return from India is, with surgical passion, the destroyer of borders. His obsession is with the endless body of the Mother, the opposite of the body politic, of her hierarchy and her primacy as a parent, which is the image and metaphor for the State and its organization about which Foucault was to argue at length. But the checkmate on that body happens at its borders. Once it has established a boundary this, rather than excluding, generates mixtures: a boundary is the place where there converge, beat, and swash the waves from outside and inside. In his essay Die Verneinung Freud wrote, “this is the outside and I want to incorporate it; this is the inside and I want to spit it out”. But, with a stroke of genius, it was to be Friedrich Nietzsche who found an opening, the beginning of a possible path, by defining the body as a plurality with a single sense: “… a war and peace; a flock and a shepherd”. A gap where the body and its reasons are both a limit and an overflow, a boundary and indefiniteness.
Third scene: Extremes
Perhaps it was Novalis who first thought of an atopic knowledge, of a knowledge that does not dwell in any defined place. Due to this he had to hypothesise a limit that was not a boundary between the things of the world but was inside the things themselves: “… to fluctuate between extremes that it is necessary to unite and divide. From this point of view, every situation is sparked off by this fluctuation…”. For him, everything is contained in it: both object and subject. When translating Sophocles’ Antigone he was to identify himself with the internal tensions of tragic thought, where he was to discover that “… there are many boundless things, but nothing is more boundless than mankind…”. Tragedy is excess, tragedy is the dissolution of boundaries. For tragic thought male and female, the divine and the human, eros and thanatos are all elements of an antinomy in which being and non-being are opposed. But it is the very dissolution of those boundaries that opens an endless horizon within things, thus transforming every possibility into reality: of the self and the other which never are but that can become. Hölderlin wrote that possibilities can come about in the place of reality’s greatest instability: “reality everywhere”.
Fourth scene: Vertigo
Man is the being who knows about his own death. He carries it within himself like a bud or like a vice. Eros, Thanatos, and the body. Perhaps this is the vertiginous odour that the embraced bodies feel in the depths of their respiration. Bodies waiting for the end, as though the present were a limit that has in itself the pestilential topicality of death. This is, as Simmel has written, the “power of the formal fascination of boundaries”; this is the intoxication of the modern “impatient time” that assailed Aragon on his journey to Paris. The fascination of a boundary is the fascination “of a beginning that is at the same time an end; the fascination of novelty and, at the same time, of fragility”. At the boundary every form is the same thing and, at the same time, the cessation of each thing. This is also the place where life intersects with death. The space in which the fragment by Heraclitus flashes, resounding within ancient tragedy, and that has once again begun to launch tenuous rays from the words of Rilke and Proust. But it is also the place where, perhaps, it is possible to overcome the inexpressibility of the body which, according to Heidegger, checkmated his own philosophy, the inexpressibility of the body which, as Lévinas has written, has checkmated all Western philosophy.
Fifth scene: Silences
Appearance does not hide the essence but reveals it in its very finiteness. A face chooses a mask, not to hide itself, but to reveal itself. At a certain point the truth of a mask meets the truth of the face over which it is placed, over the nakedness that the face could not bear. It is on that mask that my silent gaze rests, and the other at once becomes an object of my universe. The body’s being is paradoxical because it is the obstacle that I have to overcome in order to be in the world, but at the same time it is the tool for overcoming this obstacle. It is through this very paradox that I can recognise that I exist as a being known by others as an example of the body, and what defines me is that continuous “outside” my “inside”.
Sixth scene: Nudity
Albrecht Dürer, in a 1505 drawing, revealed absolute nudity: only a light hat keeps his hair above his wide-open eyes in this excessive vision without precedents. Rembrandt exposed his opaque face on which is reflected only the shadow of death. Egon Schiele pushed himself to a nudity that borders on flaying, almost as though only the lacerated body could have a meaningful relationship with the world. However, not all nudity is shameful and the bringer of scandal. It is so when in it there is an ostentation of our being, of our final intimacy.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness was to go far further. Shame emerges when our intimacy, our self, becomes the object of someone else’s gaze, a gaze that is also revealed in the presence of the objects that surround us, in the sound of a door opening, in the echo of steps that are coming near. In that moment I am not the one who possesses the world through the gaze I project on it. I am looked at, I am possessed by another gaze that reaches me, my intimacy, my being myself, through my inexorably exposed body. But it was to be Charles Baudelaire who defined a cognitive possibility linked to shame and nudity in My Heart Laid Bare. There not even a loving relationship can open up communications with the other, there, where not even complicity can arrive, a resolution can be arrived at with the display of oneself. This is my naked body, this is my denuded heart. On my flesh can be read the wounds and scars that contact with the world, of which I cannot talk, has inscribed on me, like the needles of the monstrous machine in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony.