Light, language and melancholia
“It is perfectly natural for the Sun to shine initially in the upper left-hand corner of the first page of this book.” Francis Ponge, The Sun Placed in the Abyss (1928-54)
“I am saturnine, bereft, disconsolate, | The Prince of Aquitaine whose tower has crumbled; | My lone star is dead, and my bespangled lute | Bears the black sun of melancholia.” Gérard de Nerval, The Disinherited (1853)
“What is the Sun?” asks Francis Ponge in the introduction to his hard-won poem, The Sun Placed in the Abyss, elaborated on over the course of a quarter of a century. “That which dominates all things, and, therefore, cannot be dominated,” he replies, “though it is only the millionth wheel of the carriage that waits at our door every night.” Indeed, being the very source of light in our solar system, Ponge goes on to declare that the Sun is, in fact: “the formal and indispensible condition of everything in the world. The condition of all other objects. The condition of sight itself.” Yet how can one begin to describe, or re-present, such a ‘thing’; an object that cannot be directly observed precisely because it is the very condition of being able to see at all? How can one face its blinding glare? Try as you might the Sun “repels the look, it pushes you further into the interior of your body!” Everything we see is merely a shadow of the Sun; we ourselves are a part of it, exiled and “sent a distance away so that we can contemplate [it]”.
Midway through the text, Ponge feels compelled to insert a footnote, in italics: “(Written June XXII of my fifty-first year; the day of the summer solstice)’, as if to remind us of the presence of the poet’s own body in time, as he struggles to find a literary equivalent for the Sun. Fifty-one summers have been determined by the presence and absence of light: ‘Bodies and life itself are but a degradation of solar energy.” The Sun is the origin of both life and death, maintaining our planet at just the correct temperature to keep us alive: “Imagine how much closer life, so tepid, is to death than it is to the Sun with its billions of degrees centigrade!” Ultimately Ponge concludes that it is not possible to contemplate the Sun directly but only through its surrogates, its metaphors; in “all things under the Sun” but not the thing itself. “The BRIGHTEST of all objects in the world is – consequently – NOT – is not an object”, he declares; “it is a void, the metaphysical abyss.”
In The Sun Placed in the Abyss, Ponge is not seeking a disembodied, objective truth, but, rather, crafting a self-reflexive, extended metaphor in lived ‘real-time’; an attempt to transcend the reductive equivalence of language. As fellow Surrealist, André Breton put it: “We are considered poets because above all we attack language, the worst convention.” Ponge’s conceit is a kind of literary alchemy, combining disparate fragments of language, the shapes of letters, dissolving the bonds of grammar and distilling down the words, in a process of reflexivity, until a new self-conscious ‘genre’ begins to emerge (which he calls ‘the Obgame’). As “the articulations of my right hand, now tracing these black signs” reduce down to nothing more than the “shadow of the point of my pen”, he writes, it becomes apparent that language exists only in the shadows cast by the Sun. “The shadow always has a shape, the shape of the body which carries it.”
Friedrich Nietzsche’s essay On Truth and Lies in an Extramoral Sense puts forward the idea that all language is esentially a lie, because no two referents are strictly speaking identical. Thus we lie when we call two different leaves ‘leaves’; we ignore some different characteristics, and focus on those that are the same. We notice traits held in common only because it is useful to do so. Language is made possible only by what Nietzsche calls a ‘residue of metaphor’, the dead, ‘bony’ remainder of a metaphor, that is, of a word that was initially unique and referred only to a single referent. The momentary, unique conjunction of two different elements (what Nietzsche calls ‘metaphor’) is codified and petrified by language and that perfection of useful language, science. Thus Nietzsche writes of science as an ‘edifice of concepts’ that is finally a ‘columbarium’; a structure that houses dead metaphors, metaphors removed or abstracted from their original and unique – but not necessarily useful, logical, or anthropomorphic – significations.
“Only by forgetting this primitive world of metaphor can one live with any repose, security, and consistency: only by means of the petrification and coagulation of a mass of images which originally streamed from the primal faculty of human imagination like a fiery liguid, only in the invincible faith that this sun, this window, this table is a truth in itself … does man live with any repose, security, and consistency.”
The brilliant ‘fiery liquid’ of the imagination, the sun, and all things under it, are tamed and made ‘useful’ by language. But the originary metaphor that Ponge seeks to invoke is not a useful sun that can serve as a stable grounding for meaning or morality. To the contrary, it is a ‘non-object’, beyond Good or Evil, that resists the reductive equivalence of signification: ‘the metaphysical abyss’.
In White Mythology, Jacques Derrida analyses the Sun as the ultimate metaphor in western philosophy. Referring to Aristotle’s definition of metaphor as essentially ‘translation’ of the unknown into the known through naming, he describes the contradiction of giving a name to the source of all things: “This referent is the origin, the unique, the irreplaceable (so at least do we represent it to ourselves). There is only one sun in this system. The proper name is in this case the first mover of metaphor, itself non- metaphorical, the father of all figures of speech. Everything turns on it, everything turns to it.” In his analysis of Plato’s Republic, Derrida notes its unnamed presence: “The sun is there, but as the invisible source of light, in a kind of insistent eclipse… One may not look upon it, on pain of blindness and death. Beyond that which is, it portends the Good, of which the sensible sun is the offspring: source of life and visibility, seed and light.” Even this most singular ‘non-object’ cannot escape the general law of metaphorical value. “We have long known that value, gold, the eye, the sun and so on, belong to the development of the same trope. Their interchange is dominant in the field of rhetoric and of philosophy.” Thus Derrida argues that there are finally two suns: the stable sun of knowledge is mimed and subverted by a sun that is its written “constructed destruction”. The sun is double and turns like any trope; its invisible face – the face that guarantees the vision of all things – is also the blindness of vision and the night of logic.
Perhaps this ‘blind spot’ within language is the vision that Ponge sought to conjure from the shadows, in The Sun Placed in the Abyss, as he invoked the spirit of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? “In the great barrel of the sky, [the Sun] is the radiant bung, often enveloped in a rag of dull clouds, but always humid, so powerful is the interior pressure of the fluid, so impregnating its nature. At the moment of his death, Goethe saw the bung give way and the fluid (pure and dangerous) spurt out, and he said: ‘More light’. That may indeed be death.” In the poet’s imagination, Goethe’s last words become a vision of death as the end of ‘objecthood’, the extinction of light and shade in a flood of solar plasma, and thus a final liberation from the shadows of language.
The predominant paradigm which still characterises the western tradition of philosophy has been the use of light as a metaphor for truth. At least as early as Plato’s notion that universal ideals are accessible only to the ‘mind’s eye’ visuality has been privileged in re-presenting a rational, disembodied relationship with the world. Unlike the other senses, which situate the body within a reciprocating environment, sight emphasises autonomy, detachment and, thus, mastery. In Plato’s allegory of the cave, the Sun’s light represents reason, ‘the Idea of the Good’, that awaits the prisoners, outside, if only they can escape the thrall of the shadows cast by the light of the fire which they take for reality. With the Renaissance invention of perspective, a vision-centred model of knowledge was privileged once again, but it was the Enlightenment, and the development of the modern sciences, that fully implemented an ‘ocularcentric’ ideology described by Francis Bacon as ‘power over nature’.
Much recent philosophy has centred around a critique of ocularcentrism. Resistance to the subject-centred epistemology of ‘the eye’ runs through the work of Henry Bergson, Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger and, more recently, has taken form in Michel Foucault’s analysis of ‘panoptic’ surveillance, in Guy Debord’s ‘society of the spectacle’ and in Richard Rorty’s critique of ocular metaphors in philosophy. Within the tradition of modern science, however, the ‘disembodied eye’ has remained relatively unchallenged. It was Isaac Newton’s Opticks that was largely responsible for the abstract conception of light which defined the rationalist approach of the Enlightenment, overturning the Aristotelian idea that ‘pure light’ (of the Sun) was colourless. Goethe attempted to question Newton’s mathematical understanding of the optical spectrum a century later with his own Theory of Colours. Where Newton sought to reduce the phenomenon of colour to the rational abstractions of physics – the ‘measurable angles of refrangibility of rays of light’ – Goethe had no desire to reduce lived experience into what was measurable but colourless, and thus destroy the phenomenon itself. Rather than abstracting away from an original experience in order to quantify it, as if the observer were somehow alien to nature, Goethe’s approach was to seek an embodied qualitative understanding that did not abandon sensory perception.
Both Newton and Goethe were practising alchemists, though today their work is assigned to the distinct displines of science and art. Newton’s Opticks was developed out of a quarter-of-a-century’s endeavour at the alchemist’s furnace to find a unified theory of matter and force, while Goethe’s Faust, an allegory of scientific rationalism and the egocentrism of modern man, is steeped in alchemical symbolism. Although alchemy pre-figured much of what we call science today, it was above all a religious-philosophical or ‘mystical’ tradition. The alchemical process of dissolution and transformation is presented in the Hermetic tradition as an analogy for personal transmutation, directly involving the emotional, physical and spiritual state of the alchemist in a lived process of change. Thus analytical psychologist Carl Jung said: “Not for nothing did alchemy style itself an “art”, feeling that it was concerned with creative processes that can truly be grasped only by experience, though intellect may give them a name. The Diamond Floor (1995), James Lee Byars
In the ‘magnum opus’ of alchemy, the first stage of the process to transform base metal into gold is described as the nigredo (the blackening), meaning putrefaction or decomposition. Only by ‘facing the shadow’ during the nigredo, symbolised by the Sol Niger (Black Sun), could the breakdown of existing structures come about, so as to reveal the prima materia, conceived of by Aristotle as the primitive formless base of all matter. From this formless Chaos, the active principle (the soul) could then be separated from the passive principle (the body) and a metamorphosis brought about through the conjunctio, or reunion, of Sol (the sun) and Luna (the moon). Thus the Aurora Consurgens, defined by Thomas Aquinas as the ‘dawning of a new consciousness’, only followed from the dark introspection of the nigredo. Carl Jung re-interpreted this as ‘the dark night of the soul, when an individual confronts the shadow within’.
Philosopher Julia Kristeva also adopted the metaphor of the Black Sun to address the subject of melancholia, both in art and in psychoanalysis (referencing the Romantic poet Gérard de Nerval). Kristeva developed a notion of abjection as an operation of the psyche through which subjective identity is constituted by excluding anything that threatens one’s own psychological borders. The main threat to the fledgling subject is a dependence upon the maternal body. Therefore abjection is fundamentally related to the process of separation from the maternal environment. Melancholy is caused by the un-nameable ‘Thing’, also referred to as the Black Sun, which, according to Kristeva, arises as a result of the trauma of the pre-symbolic loss of the maternal ‘Object’. The ‘abject’ exists somewhere between the concept of an object and the concept of the subject, representing taboo elements of the self barely separated off in a liminal space. According to Kristeva, since the abject is situated outside the symbolic order, being forced to face it is an inherently traumatic experience, as with the repulsion presented by confrontation with filth, waste, or a corpse – an object that has been violently cast out of the cultural world, having once been a subject. Thus the sense of the abject complements the existence of the superego – the representative of culture, of the symbolic order: in Kristeva’s aphorism, ‘To each ego its object, to each superego its abject.’
A distinctive characteristic of the melancholic is that they cannot find the words to express the sense of abjection, or loss. Cast into the darkness of depression, the meaningless void of the ‘lost object’, outside the social currency of language, the subject is forced to ‘face the shadow’ of the Black Sun if they are to re-invent a world that they are able to exist within. Melancholy is thus a vital part of the creative process. Existential fatigue combined with a despondent alienation from the rigorous regulations of the social realm are essential elements in achieving a useful, unimpeded state of introspection from which the artistic imagination is free to wander, interrogating the unknown and experimenting with alternative realities. Only from this condition of self-reflexivity can transformation be achieved, and the ‘dawning of a new consciousness’ come about.
The demise of western alchemy was brought about by the rise of modern science with its emphasis on rigorous quantitative experimentation and its disdain for ‘ancient wisdom’. In recent times, however, the gradual ‘eclipse’ of the ideals of the Enlightenment in society has been accompanied by growing doubts about scientific rationalism, and with it a new sense of uncertainty about the future and a loss of belief in continuous progress. In parallel, the concerns of artists have increasingly turned towards the unknown, speculating upon the unpredictable future that lies ahead, taking refuge in a subjective world of poetic transformation.
As we ‘face the shadow’ at the tail end of the Enlightenment, and turn towards the unknown once more, a question arises: is ‘metaphor’ a metaphor? For Aristotle, metaphor was a translation of the unknown into the known, which in essence is the process of the acquisition of knowledge. But philosophy, Derrida argues, cannot dominate its own metaphors: ‘It could perceive its metaphorics only around a blind spot or central deafness.’ Of the blind spot of ocularcentric philosophy, George Bataille writes:
“… it is no longer the spot which loses itself in knowledge, but knowledge which loses itself in it. In this way existence closes the circle, but it couldn’t do this without including the night from which it proceeds, only in order to enter it again. Since it moved from the unknown to the known, it is necessary that it inverse itself at the summit and go back to the unknown…”
Referring to Derrida’s notion of two suns, in Applied Grammatology, Gregory Ulmer writes,
“The sun… is the sensible object par excellence, and also the metaphor of philosophy (as in Plato’s famous analogy of the sun to the Good)… The dilemma for philosophy is that in spite of Aristotle’s arguments to the contrary, the metaphor as such must necessarily be “bad”…. because metaphors can never furnish anything but improper knowledge. In other words, Aristotle’s comparison of philosophy to the sun… and the philosophic metaphor of the heliotrope (the flower that turns as it follows the path of the sun) may be empty… because no one has an exact knowledge of the sun or of the heliotrope, the vehicles of comparison.”
The final words of this essay must by rights return to to the poet, Francis Ponge:
“However, there is a moral to this story.For, plunged in the shade and the night by the sun’s caprice and its sadistic whims, objects in its service, removed from it in order to contemplate it, suddenly see the starry sky.It had to place them at a distance to be contemplated by them (and to hide itself from them to be desired), but now they see these myriad stars, these myriad other suns.And it did not take them long to count them. And to count ther own sun among an infinity of stars, and not as the most important. Although the closest and the most tyrannical. But finally only as one of the suns. And I do not say that such a consideration reassures them, but it avenges them …”
== Text by Tom Trevor in Black Sun: Alchemy, Diaspora & Heterotopia (2014), published by Ridinghouse, London, with Devi Art Foundation, Delhi==
Image: Eclipse, China (a) (2009), Wolfgang Tillmans