Part I: The Image of Necessity

Geraldine Jorge

Part I: The Image of Necessity

A series of temptations: Every moment is as apropos as the next–the key signature, promises, the rising and setting of the sun all have nothing to tell me. What I am ashamed of, I invent.

It is Byung-Chul Han’s diagnosis of time without scent1: time without memory, direction, nourishment, nausea. Scent permeates space and objects yet it must be discerned, unlike the immediacy of a color or sound. The pungent notes of camphor in this burning stick of incense: their resonances and dissonances. I pause in reflection before the poem I am writing, knowing there is no right move, but so many–infinitely many–wrong ones.

To preserve virtuality, over art as well as life, would require a god’s-eye view. The omniscience of Cassiel and Damiel2: “Assemble. Testify. Preserve.” To see objectively, as everyone and no one. To know exhaustively and finally.

Wim Wenders’ angels take the form of human beings–but I imagine this human form is only a filmic-narrative convenience. Cassiel and Damiel do not bleed; they only pretend to walk, pretend to pick up objects. Seeing is no longer a process but an immediate given. The totality of cinema affords viewers something akin to this disembodiment–we are given trains of thought, telepathy, double-exposure, diegetic color—but it is not true disembodiment since image and sound are placed within time in the process of editing the film.

The self as seen from outside the body. A default face. A default angle. There are no over-turns3 or “turning back” for the disembodied, once one is removed from time.4 Everything is permitted–therefore nothing is. Airports, plastic surgery, diet, a workout routine.

The lack of a final resting-place is the saint’s (or angel’s) blessing, but it is reciprocally a curse.5 Disembodiment is precisely why, across cultures, the dead are the quintessential other. “Every angel is terrifying.”6 The disembodied hover in uncertainty, anchored neither here nor there.

“A very weak coherent light—one photon at a time—moves from source to detector, between which is a screen with two very tiny slits, at A and B. If B is closed the photon goes through the open slit. The same if A is closed. When both are open and we do not know through which slit the photon passed, there is interference.”7

Continuous observation of the mystery results in interference. Only children can see angels.

Als das Kind Kind war,
war es die Zeit der folgenden Fragen:
Warum bin ich ich, und warum nicht du?
Warum bin ich hier, und warum nicht dort?

Why am I me, and not you? Why am I here, and not there?

It is a question which is really a challenge–a poetic challenge which asks not whether or why, but how. How does it mean—how take sense and scent—to have this body, here and only here, now and only now?

Look, my eyes.They are the image of necessity...

The eyes are the image of necessity. Exiles and immigrants know this all too well. Take up the dare in Merleau-Ponty’s thought: “The world, in the full sense of the word, is not an object, it is wrapped in objective determinations, but also has fissures and lacunae through which subjectivities become lodged in it or, rather, which are subjectivities themselves.”9

How much of human (and animal10) culture is the taking-up of one’s own lacunae? Those of the body? Those of the land onto which one’s ancestors were thrown or displaced? It is precisely within the limitations of my body in time and space that the world unfolds for me. I am attracted to some scents and repulsed by others. A sailor stranded at sea develops an obsessive appetite for fish eyes.

The subjectivities themselves are adrift, but the bodies, qua objects in the world, are taken up and put into circulation. My particular body–its needs over time, its size and color, the shape of my nose, the semiotics of such a body with such needs in various milieus both real and imagined, onscreen and in waking life–makes it such that I am always reminded of my own embodiment.

Like a word, my body has its shifting associations, aromas, and aftertastes. I am revolt-ing because I am in the world through this body, as this body–both symbol and conduit: a gesture. The meaning and connotations of the gesture of my body change over time–sometimes subtly, sometimes radically–but always in part due to the dialects within which I happen, choose, or am allowed to dwell, and within the larger language families which encompass bodies and their shifting significations. A strange gesture, then, whose use, definition, and association matter to it, but which the gesture itself cannot autonomously determine. I am seen. I am ashamed. I want to revolt.

“Human existence is the change of contingency into necessity through the act of taking up.”11

I take up space in the world. The world I take up is directly contingent upon the body I inhabit and its unique affordances and its limitations, its historic-political sense for myself and others. My desires, fears, poisons—these are all only real for me because I exist this way and not some other. In other words, this world is only a world for me because I am merely what I am. Colors, sounds, projects, people, history: all have a certain form and weight for me through the weight of my own body.

To look is not to look from on high, but at eye-level.

Another series of temptations: We evolve to fill a particular niche. We evolve because we’ve survived. We evolve to bear witness.

“[T]hat particular signification of nature and history that I am, does not restrict my access to the world; it is rather my means of communication with it. It is by being what I am at present, without any restrictions and without holding anything back … The only way I can fail to be free is if I attempt to transcend my natural and social situation by refusing to take it up at first, rather than meeting up with the natural and human world through it.”12

To affirm my own freedom is to affirm the freedom of others. A word suggests a language. Seeing myself as someone else sees me is absurd in a similar way to how time travel is absurd. I can only learn–i.e., I can only understand and re-understand–because I am embodied; because I can only see so far literally and figuratively, spatially and temporally, subject to the biases and sensitivities attendant to my taking-up of the world. Insofar as I feel what this means, how this means, I come upon the particular of my error as upon an unfamiliar face or a new word.13

A ring of water circled the
elevated mountain. Tiberius was
the courtyard of the first Eden.
I said: the image of the world is
completed in two green eyes.

The lacunae of the world for my left eye are completed in the world of the right eye. The lacunae of my eyes are completed in the eyes of another. We are how we perceive, which is to say we are our respective worlds.15

But, seemingly paradoxically, the world is not only “my” world; there are others and therefore potentially as many unique worlds as there are people and animals.16

“The other person’s cogito strips my own cogito of all value and shatters the confidence I enjoyed in the solitude of having access to the only being conceivable for me, that is, being such as it is intended and constituted by me. But we have learned in individual perception not to conceive of our perspectival views as independent of each other; we know that they slip into each other and are gathered together in the thing.”17

Introducing her poem “Infinite Riches in the Smallest Room,” Lucie Brock-Broido once commented upon the horror of becoming trapped within one’s own mind—a horror which is perhaps predicated less upon fear of what one may be trapped with, than it is upon fear that the world become rigidly enclosed exactly as one has once taken it up and constituted it.18

Notably, in Wenders’ film, it is for someone else—for an “other”—that Damiel is at last convinced to undergo the fall (Kierkegaard’s leap of faith) from the omniscience of immortality to the sense and sensuousness of embodied life.

1. Byung-Chul Han, The Scent of Time, translated by Daniel Steuer (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017).

2. Wim Wenders, Peter Handke. (1987). Der Himmel über Berlin. West Germany: Basis-Film-Verleih GmbH.

3. Jalal Toufic, What Was I Thinking? (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017) 120.

4. And isn’t that what we want–to know our image in the eyes of others? The other side of the virtuality of digital existence: we (re)make our bodies to defy the continuity of space and time.

5. Jalal Toufic, (Vampires) (Barrytown: Station Hill, 1993) 31.

6. Rainer Maria Rilke, “The First Elegy”, translated by Edward Snow.

7. Toufic, (Vampires) 31. Description of the double-slit experiment.

8. “When the child was a child / it was the time of such questions: / Why am I me, and why not you? / Why am I here, and why not there?”

9. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, translated by Donald A. Landes (London: Routledge, 2012) 349.

10. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics, edited and translated by Peter Skafish (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017): “Things could not be otherwise, since nonhumans, being humans in their own domain, see things as humans do–like we humans see them in our domain. But the things they see when they see them like we do are different: what we take for blood, jaguars see as beer; the souls of the dead find a rotten cadaver where we do fermented manioc; what humans perceive as a mud puddle becomes a grand ceremonial house when viewed by tapirs.” 71.

11. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 174.

12. Ibid., 483.

13. Audre Lorde: “We are citizens of the most powerful country in the world, and it is a country that stands upon the wrong side of every liberation struggle on Earth…I want you to feel what that means.” Can we feel what it means to do the opposite of affirm—to deny the freedom (and therefore subjectivity) of others? Aimé Césaire: “I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out.” (“Between Colonizer and Colonized,” 1955).

14. Mahmoud Darwish, “The Death of the Phoenix”, translated by Jeffrey Sacks.

15. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 109.

16. Perhaps even plants and nonliving objects! It is the political art of a shaman to interpret the selfhoods of non-human selves. See: Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics, 61.

17. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 369.

18. Isn’t freeing oneself from being trapped in a world just the mechanism of action of dialectical behavior therapy (and in a less direct way, cognitive behavioral therapy)?

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