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1. Simple lines

Suppose you read the following brief poem about eros:

“I don’t know what I should do: two states of mind in me … (36)
I’m in love! I‘m not in love!
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!

Suppose you reread it. Such simple few lines composed with such few simple words. What would you tend immediately to think? Would this be a candidate for a Daily Deviation here at dA? It seems to me not, for a multiplicity of reasons. I believe dA is at times too sophisticated. I tend to think most of us would smilingly frown upon it; it sounds too juvenile. Perhaps we would even tend to feel a tad of sarcastic sympathy within, we might even mock the words a bit. We laugh a bit at them; though perhaps the joke is, as we shall see, on us. When one is not in love, irony towards the other rules; yet, when in love, such irony is the least of our concerns.

But back to this simple poem. We already know so much about love and the erotic that we might in fact fail to see, to touch, to smell, to conceptualize. More philosophically, we modern westerners tend to think we have truly liberated human sexuality to its fullest expression. But this might just be simply a dangerous illusion as Michel Foucault dramatically points out in the first volume of his powerful The History of Sexuality. Although he is one of the strongest defenders of postmodernism —-a movement which criticizes the tyranny of modern reason—— there Foucault radically criticizes the connection between modern sexual liberation and the false sense of overall liberation we assume we have reached from the deeper western roots found in our confessional practices.

But back to the poem. Does it not seem altogether naïve? These words seem more a youthful description than a poem; they merely recount a very personal moment which most of us keep to ourselves. But let us not be so quick to dismiss it; maybe its apparent simplicity demands of us an effort which goes unnoticed at the start. Line-art, as I have argued elsewhere, does so similarly. What, then, does this naïve poem demand? That we situate ourselves in the time of the lover who loves; that time is the now of our existence. To remember a love is not be in love. To demand a love to the future is not to love fully. We humans can only fall in love in the now, we can only love in the present presence of the now. But we ALL know this; so, what makes this poem so special? Why tell us about it? If I had written it, I would probably not have much to say. But here is the thing, it was written by a lover, perhaps the greatest woman lover of them all. These simplistic words were written by Sappho, one of the greatest poets in human history. Courageously, she has marked down these dramatic words to posterity so that we can situate ourselves in the “now” of the erotic. But besides, all her words carry an erotic charge which has not dissipated over the centuries. In her poetic lines she confronts us and reminds us of the complex nature of erotic life as expressed in our deepest longings and complex desires as humans.

But let us go back to the poem. Why then is this poem so famous if it is so elusively naïve, even premature and incomplete? Therein precisely lies its force. Its simplicity deludes us into thinking that no complexity is there to be found. Its simplicity masks purposely. This journal tries to investigate this simplicity. It briefly seeks to investigate some of the many questions regarding erotic desire and its puzzles as seen by Sappho. One could even go so far as to say that this type of exercise is required in order to deepen the discussion on sexuality in our societies. We constantly hear that we, as a society, have failed in our own erotic education. I truly believe we have failed and will fail, unless we take seriously the task of understanding desire beyond the technical and biological aspects we emphasize as moderns. That type of technical education and practice speaks thus: your sexual organs are such and such; they are located here and here; you put this there; you put this on like so; if you touch here, then ; have any problems? Take this… …. ; and so on.

Instead of defending such crass reduction, an investigation on the metaphors of erotic love becomes central to understanding ourselves; even to deciding what type of life we choose to live. For the questions around the erotic involve a choice of life. Such an investigation will touch on Sappho here as one of the representatives of the views of eros as defended by artists. But this investigation requires a much deeper understanding of the challenge to artists set forth by Plato’s and Aristotle’s combined understandings of desire. Art and philosophy are THE privileged avenues to desire. Exploring them both, opens us to ourselves in a broader, less illusory fashion. Women like Martha Nussbaum lead the way here with her important The Fragility of Goodness. But perhaps the tension between both areas will eventually lead us to defend and, actually live, altogether different erotic lives.

Shaken by coming to recognize that what we thought was an irrelevant poem, we want to take another chance with it. Don’t we also sometimes want to take another chance with an unforgettable lover? We want to let ourselves be opened by the poem, Sappho wishes to open us and close us repetitively, teaching us the motions of our desiring natures. We must be ready to open ourselves and close ourselves in the rhythm of her “simple” words. For her, we must be ready to love as lovers do. For her we must be ready to risk.

2. Deceptive simplicity

So let us return to these opening lines which we now know have a poetic backing like few others. The poem, once again, reads:

“I don’t know what I should do: two states of mind in me …
I’m in love! I‘m not in love
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!”

First she tells us, “I do not know what I should do.” Don’t you remember this? You might answer, “Yes, I do.” But unfortunately, I must tell you that, strictly speaking, you cannot.. “Why? What do you mean?”, you protest. Part of the reason is this: if you CAN remember, then you are NOT in love in this moment. For in love, says Sappho in this poem, you just do not know anymore! Perhaps this is why we can never quite remember how badly it went previously the last time we loved, when we ACTUALLY fall in love again NOW. Repetitive loses accumulate as we cannot grasp what is going on each time.

And moreover, if in fact you CAN remember having felt this, then —-really, really—- you don’t remember. What you are trying to say just means, most probably, that you are now in love. Only in being in love do these words touch you as they should, for in love you are no longer yourself. As Sappho says, in love you do not know what you should do. And if you think you do, Sappho thinks you might just be deluding yourself.

Or in other words, of course, when we are NOT in love, or when we think we are assured the love of another —–which is a very odd thing to think/desire— we simply shrug our shoulders when faced with such “immature” poetic words. “Yeah I know, I remember when I fell in love”, you say to yourself. But in doing so you confuse what you ONCE felt in the PAST with what it is ACTUALLY to be IN love NOW. By projecting the “then” of love into the present moment, you certainly feel secure. This is the characteristic of the worst of lovers, says Plato in his beautiful Phaedrus. Plato finds this tyrannical type of love exemplified in the story of King Midas. Everyone knows his story; he tried to control the temporality of love, and failed.

In seeking such security, the indecision of Sappho’s poem seems juvenile and unworthy. But, “not to know”; do you remember how this felt so as to liberate YOU to the full presence of the present instant of loving now? Stricken by the other’s enigmatic presence, Sappho allows us —or better yet, makes us— feel what this presence does to us through her words. What occurs in the “now” of the erotic according to Sappho?

In the appearance of the erotic other, I lose all possibility of thoughtful presence. This Sappho affirms. Little wonder we mock those in love; we humor ourselves through their lost capacities. This is nowhere more poignantly revealed than in The Damask Drum, a must read for anyone interested in erotic desire. This is a short play by Japanese writer Yukio Mishima in which a poor and old janitor named Iwakichi, claims to fall in love with a 20 year old beauty called Kayoko. The perplexing dynamic of their affair reveals much about the way we mock those who lose themselves in love. But be that as it may, we have ALL at one time or another actually mocked those in love. For, you see, they truly seem out of their wits! They actually seem irresponsive, as in a dream. They are slow to reaction and for this we taunt them. They can’t even keep in their saliva at times! Even their bodily functions are a total loss!

“Not knowing” in that moment of the erotic encounter; to be simply grabbed by the force of a presence which remains even when not there. The absence of the loved one does not mitigate in the least the feeling. And worse yet, “not knowing” carries with it crucial problems in real life. “Not knowing” ourselves, ceasing to be who we thought we were, our actions cease to be coherent. For responsible actions require some kind of identity that affirms such decisions. No wonder lovers are irresponsible! The planned coherence once available to answer the question “ who am I?” evades us in this instance. We are paralyzed as rarely we are. This is why Saphho adds that her not knowing involves primarily not knowing what I should do. Once you know what you should do, you have lost contact with Sappho’s poem. Perhaps you seek such security, but ironically such security erases the moment which held the erotic tension in its extreme possibility. You get back to the security of yourself, but perhaps this is precisely the way to lose yourself.

But this is odd, isn’t it? How come you do not know what you should do? Well, we feel like saying to the lover, “Just kiss him or decide not to kiss him. Or send him a denial. Just get it over with”, we are frequently advised by friends. But that, precisely, is NOT the point. In contrast, Sappho asks us to remain in the presence of the moment in which the other comes into our view as a lover we desire intensely. But to remain there, this is almost impossible in our first loves, for powerful enigmatic forces override us, as we shall see. Perhaps in reading and understanding Sappho, other more enticing possibilities might appear for us.

But remaining in that privileged instant, we are —- paradoxically— conscious we no longer are fully conscious of ourselves. I do not know what to do in that moment which many seek to avoid, to forget. To this we shall return. For captivated by it, we can no longer do anything as we did. In a sense, I know I should, but I can’t; in another sense, I know I shouldn’t’ but I find that can and I will. And a question arises; is Sappho speaking here of the moral limitations of social life? Not in the least. That is not her concern here. Her point, instead, is that eros is a kind of assault; we tremble, we feel uneasy, and yet –paradoxically—we desire to feel so. Eros pushes us besides ourselves, and in doing so we, says Sappho, risk our very own personal and uniquely created identity.

This is confirmed by the simple words that follow. The expression of this enigmatic and unexpected entrance brings about severe division and fragmentation. He who was once one, has NOW become two. Knowing yourself divided, a fall of consciousness that both opens the world to new possibilities, but risks the very foundations of who we have become. Sappho adds in the poem, as if to validate our previous words:

“I’m in love! I’m not in love!
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!”

To be crazy is to lose it, to lose one’s wits; to remain in the realm of the metaphoric as against the unerotic realism of the everyday real. What we have suspected above is revealed as true. Knowing she cannot act, she nonetheless begins by accepting this rupture and division. The penalty of not being ruptured lies in the constant immersion in the ordinary world of constant personal presence. Many of us live, prefer to live, without such disruptions all our lives. We can actually BE with another and yet not love as Sappho claims we should. But some of us chose not to live so. Such are true artists, such are true philosophers. Instead of the safety of the known, the artistic lover embarks in another type of self-affirmation which might end badly for her. The poetess knows it is unreasonable to do so, to “chose” to do so. That is why she cries out of two severed minds that she is in love and that she is not, that she is not crazy and that she is.

These words have the sound of a certain truth to them, they reveal the stance of the person who has fallen in love. To fall in love is indeed to fall; it is to become another who no longer is as he was. To be in love. To become two; to be unable to decide. In love we are and we cease to be. For we love and we long to be with another, and yet that other who beckons us makes us fear we will be utterly lost to ourselves. But without such erotic presence the loss might be double! Divided we stand as we long to be and not to be in front of her. How peaceful it was when time was not rushing forth in the now. How peaceful it is to simply remember as if one had once lived such a life and had gotten over it.

Emily Dickinson, also a woman, knew of this kind of love. In her No. 18 she points out to the very same dilemma of internal division and strife:

“Heart! We will forget him!
You and I —- tonight!
You may forget the warmth he gave —
I will forget the light!

When you have done, pray tell me
That I may straight begin!
Haste! Lest while you’re lagging
I remember him.”

Of course, Dickinson speaks once the affair has come to the painful realization of the final loss. Sappho cannot accept this. It is for her, in a sense, a kind of cheating. Instead, Sappho asks us to remain in the now of the moment in which the touch of the other’s caress reaches us and we are paralyzed physically, conceptually and metaphorically. This journal stems from such decisions in my life.

No wonder Sappho’s words endure in their utmost simplicity as the barest –in the sense of most naked— expressions of the erotic instant. Erotic desire as unnamable cannot be named in too many lines; Sappho reminds us of this. Her courage lies in not being capable of denial. Her courage lies in opening herself, and ourselves, with her erotically charged words to the presence of eros in our lives. If ever there was a force that could make us transform our settled dispositions, here we have found it at last. And how we yearn for such change, we artists and philosophers.

3. Erotic assault

Romanticism as an artistic movement saw nature as somehow intimately connected to our most basic human desires. It was in and through nature that we found the most complete fulfillment available to us as natural human beings. For the romantics we sought nature to become whole once again, to overcome the temporary division which separates us as humans from the rest of the natural world; even to overcome the divisions within ourselves between reason and feeling, between thought and creative expression. In a sense a contemporary and dramatic portrayal of this dream is the stunning documentary The Grizzly Man in which a young man seeks to become one with the bears of Alaska. Of course, there are different types of romantic positions available; from the naïve kind found in Goethe’s Werther, moving to more complex ones such as the one found in Wordsworth magically healing poetry. To repeat, to bridge the gap between us humans and the natural becomes the cornerstone of their position. (See Taylor’s Sources of the Self)

But Sappho thinks otherwise. Sappho’s poetry reveals , continuously, its non-romantic character and foundation. This is, I believe, why it touches us so deeply as moderns living a disenchanted world. Seeking a certain type of erotic fusion with the world and the other is something she believes is unavailable to us. Sappho, instead, focuses seriously —–makes us focus seriously—- on the real nature of desire as we experience it as the embodied beings we are. This stance is powerfully revealed by Sappho in her vision of eros as a woman caught in the grasp of love. In this respect, perhaps one of the most anti-romantic poems ever written on the nature of erotic desire is the following:

”Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me
Sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up”

We have already encountered Sappho’s simplicity of word. And, as it clearly stands out, she remains firm to her decision. My own line-art has been deeply influenced by her. But once again, this simplicity is truly deceptive. We desire an encounter, an encounter with Sappho’s simplicity. But we must not be blinded into believing that simplicity obscures complexity. Rather, it might just be that in simplicity lies the most complex of all affairs. For don’t we ourselves sense how simple it was to fall in love? And yet, don’t we acknowledge much later the complexity of what we did not see in the beginning?

How does Sappho express erotic desire in this famous poem? Sappho answers with great awareness. Against our romantic notions of eros —–the lovers who hold each other dreamily in a kind of oblivion of each (e.g. Tristan und Isolde)—- Sappho speaks as a mature human does. First, what strikes one immediately is that for her Eros is not at all chosen. Instead, she claims that eros is a creature which steals up; as if in ambush, as if unseen. Eros, a predator. The mystery of eros cannot be controlled from within for it is an unexpected appearance from the outside, a sort of reptilian assault which steals up towards us. Eros is an external force we cannot will, just as one cannot will either birth or death.

Secondly, instead of a gentle touch, she demands of us to recognize things as they are. Eros is a limb-loosener, not in the first instance a limb-generator. Eros whirls and twirls. It has hurricane forces to it. As it appears from hiding, no rectitude remains. No assured rigidity can face up to its overwhelming presence. And, as we saw above, it cares little for the powers of assured identity. In contrast, as if in a kind of protest, Sappho knows of her body’s loosing itself; for we do indeed tremble when in the presence of the lover (even if through a computer!) Each and every single limb comes apart as the force of the external comes rushing though my bodily self-image. Sappho demands that we recognize that eros touches our body first, our minds only much later. To live erotically is to pay attention to the body that we as finite human are and will always be until our death. This is why in another poem she writes:

”Without warning

As a whirlwind
swoops on an oak
Love shakes my heart”.
(44, Barnard)

Eros without warning, impossible to fight off. Against it, no defenses. Or so it seems. But this is not altogether right. Of course, we ALL know we actually DO defend ourselves quite well. Even some of our modern marriages may try to become a kind of defense. But Sappho speaks not to those who claim such abilities, she speaks to the artists and artistically-minded humans who have the courage not to defend themselves from eros in irony, denial or multiple deflections. However, some of the consequences of such an open stance —–of the stance which sees something beyond the boring repetition of oneself in front of oneself—– may turn out to be dire. This is why in another short poem Sappho warns:

”Pain penetrates

Me drop
by drop”

Freud also knows of the strange enticement behind these words, as he shows in this studies on the phenomenon of sadomasochism.

But that is not all. We are not even close to the poem yet. We have barely felt its loosening power. We have barely opened ourselves to Sappho’s bodily words. This is revealed by looking more closely at the poem, just as we desire to look more closely at our lover. We become like the photographers of Sappho’s poetic lines. We photograph her, that is to say, we write her in the light of our own erotic understanding.

Magnification brings out a special word in the poem. The poem uses the Greek word <b>glukupikron</b> which is erroneously translated in English as “bittersweet”. But the order of Greek is quite different; it is the same order of the word in Spanish. No wonder Spanish culture is close to the erotic; full of serenades, and dance and such! For the Greek word literally translates “sweetbitter”, or as in Spanish, “dulceamargo”. But what is Sappho pointing out? She is struggling to point out the temporal ordering of desire. The sight of the beloved in the first instance is adequately perceived as bringing forth a certain desirable sweetness. Rarely do we think of our first loves as lemons, rarely do we play erotic games with acid limes. Usually we use chocolates, and sweet oranges and the like. Later, of course, that MAY change.

But, less literally, what could this word be pointing to? Primarily to the fact that the assault that whirls us around, is, in the first instance, not so intimidating. The first encounter is actually pleasant. Of course, if our loves have gone badly, then we tend to deny this first impression later on. However that may be —–and it is a VERY frequent and difficult issue— Sappho speaks primarily to those who, in opening themselves to themselves, are honest to themselves as regards their natural erotic capacities towards the pleasant. But alas, it is also true that lovers can DO what in another poem Sappho says is itself a chosen denial:

”But their heart turned cold and they dropt their wings.” (16)

But then again, for Sappho that was not erotic love at all primarily because eros is not chosen. .

And even when previous loves have failed, we cannot but feel the sweetness of a new encounter. We feel what Sappho speaks of, namely, that in love we sense we are never more alive, readier for challenges, readier to regain our health, readier even for certain types of battles and decisions. The world is another, it has become unrecognizable.

But there is still much more to this little simple poem. According to the powerful work of Anne Carson, the crucial aspect of this poem is a tiny Greek word which, when translated, comes out to mean “once again”. The word in Greek is deute. The fact that Sappho seems to have invented it speaks volumes of her poetic abilities and endurance. But what could such a little word hold? The word “deute” relates us to the temporality of eros. It is grammatically composed of two elements: “de” which means ‘once’ thus signaling to the unequivocally non-repeatable present moment of the erotic encounter. “De” signals vibrantly the now of desire.

The second composite part of “deute” is the word “aute” which turns out to mean “again”. In contrast, it points to the temporal repetition of desires which have come and gone throughout our lives. “Now” we feel the presence of Eros, but Sappho in her maturity recalls that this newness was there before and was somehow “conveniently” forgotten. To this we shall return below. But that would not be fair; for if we remember well, Sappho’s erotic assault is NOT up to us! It just isn’t! So in this combined magical word “deute” the temporal nature of desire springs forth. In it, intertwined, we encounter the “now “ that we are facing in this instant as we look at her eyes (or messages if on the internet!), but this now is traversed “again” by the repetition of the many already felt assaults which have come previously in a similar fashion. To put it simply one could say, this poem reveals how this “now” is traversed by the “thens” of love. (Carson, 165) Pulled within the now, we actually feel in love. Pulled apart by the “thens”, we feel the craziness of the whole thing. And yet we let ourselves fall in the now. For Sappho, herein lies our humanity.

Much more could be said about the attempt to control the temporal nature of desire. To those interested in these issues Plato’s Phaedrus is a must read. Just recall King Midas. But here I would like to focus on what is meant by the now of erotic desire. So I will tell you a little story of mine. One of the main reasons I returned to Canada for a third time, was to see, feel and touch snow. To you this must seem incredible. But if you lived in the hot tropics you would never cease to be amazed by snow.

This whole absurd idea is perfectly captured by our amazing Gabriel Garcia Márquez in his deep and hilarious novel Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude). If ever you intend on living in a “developing” country, this is required reading. In his famous book, Gabo shares one of the amazing stories of José Arcadio Buendía. The book itself even begins with these incredible words which could barely be understood by an inhabitant of Northern latitudes:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Upon death, Aureliano remembers the sensation of ice. I, for my own part, remember the sensation of snow. Gabo tells us the whole story a little later in the novel. José Arcadio ——Aureliano’s father—– exclaims after seeing ice for the very first time in his life: “It is the largest diamond in the world.”(We smile thanks to Colombian humour.) Just to touch the ice, means José Arcadio must pay a big sum of money. But the sensation suddenly brought upon him, sheds light upon the memory his son Aureliano will carry forth until his death. Gabo tells us:

” and so he placed his hand over the ice, and held it there for several minutes, while his heart grew swollen with fear and jubilation in contact with the mystery.”

Ice, a mystery; snow a mystery. But what could this mystery be? What is the mystery of ice? What is the mystery of snow? It’s a mystery that is not totally decipherable. You must grab an ice cube and experience it for yourself. What you find yourself stunned by, is the feeling of holding on to the effacing. The more you press, the quicker it melts. The harder you wish to hold on, the quicker it ceases to be. You desire not to let go, and yet you know you must if you desire to feel this novel pleasure extended in time. You are torn between letting go —–thus freeing what you wish were only yours—- and holding on to what brings an indescribable and unknown pleasure, thus necessarily destroying it in the process.

We are reminded of some of our loves. This is why some have compared the sensation of holding ice in your hands to eros. One of those who knows of this mystery is Sophocles. In a poem he writes:

“This disease is an evil bound upon the day.
Here’s a comparison –not bad, I think:
when ice gleams in the open air,
children grab.
Ice-crystal in the hands is
at first a pleasure quite novel.
But there comes a point–
you can’t put the melting mass down,
you can’t keep holding it.
Desire is like that,
Pulling the lover to act and not to act,
again and again, pulling.”
(See Anne Carson.)

Holding ice in your hands, you become more aware of the temporal nature of desire. You come closer to knowing, and thus truly feeling, the always fleeting now of human desire. Understanding this becomes crucial in order to give life to healthier desires within our erotic relations. For we also wish to hold on to our loves in this troubling way. Much more could be said, but perhaps now you better understand why I wanted to return to Canada and see, and touch, and melt snow in my bare hands. And perhaps now you better understand when Sappho exclaims:

“I don’t know what I should do: two states of min in me …
I’m in love! I ‘m not in love
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!

4. The metaphoric distance of our erotic lacks.

Simplicity, loss of identity, bittersweetness, the “now” and “thens” of eros; all mysteriously opened in the poetic words of Sappho. But even more stunningly, Sappho reveals the nature of our erotic longing in an unparalleled graphic poem. We ask: what precisely in us makes us desire what we have seen may lead to a deep destabilizing force in our lives? Sappho reveals that desire is moved negatively by the presence of a self-sustaining lack. In another very short poem Sappho adds to our previous considerations:

As a sweet apple turns red on a high branch
high on the highest branch and the applepickers
well, no they didn’t forget —were not able to reach.”

If desire moves us so deeply, it is perhaps because in part it reaches out to something we ourselves have not made part of our self-identity. We are not whole, but tend to desire some kind of wholeness; even desire an original wholeness previous to birth. Coming together sexually is perhaps the closest we may come to bridging this “physical” gap. This is brilliantly related by Aristophanes the comedian in the Symposium, perhaps another journal will provide the connections.

For what we do not lack seems not to move us in the least. If in fact we were completely self-sufficient, it seems our movements would cease; we would become something like strange bodiless gods. But we are far from such self-sufficiency, says Sappho. Science fiction does dream of bodiless existences, but even if it were so, Sappho would protest that such a life would not be a human life in the least. This sense of lack is then a powerful jump-starter, but a dangerous one as well. It does pull us out of ourselves, but it may do so primarily seeking its own fulfillment. Having my needs met by you —believing that this is possible— I fail to confront my needs which continue to go unnoticed within me. For perhaps in seeking not to face our lacks, we push them forth into others, specially and most dramatically into our lovers. We place in them the burden of our desire for original wholeness.

But how is all this connected to the poem at hand? Let us see. As we elevate our linguistic sight, we behold a very complete sweet apple turning on a high branch hanging above us. Focusing our eyes upon this apple we discover several things. First, and foremost, that we no longer see our surroundings. The tree which bears this apple has been lost to us, the other apples are no longer there to be seen. Is this not very much like the times we have become smitten by eros in our lives? Don’t we radically reduce our sight from a healthy wide-angled view to the most telescopic of lenses? Photographically speaking, we move from 10mm to about 600mm! Besides, we know Sappho has chosen an apple tree for obvious reasons. If indeed most of us westerners relate the apple to another myth, the myth of Adam and Eve, it is clear that for Sappho and the Greek lyrical poets in general, an apple is the metaphoric fruit of the beloved. Rather than the beginning of a sinful existence as in the Christian myth, it stands as the perplexing presence of an erotic longing which might make us fall as well, but in an altogether different sense. And even in our daily life we still correlate sweet apples with erotic desire; dA is full of such enticing photographs. Some photographs even portray this with no apple whatsoever!

Now, what was puzzling from the start, becomes even more so. If we were initially told that the sweet apple was on a high branch, we now are corrected by Sappho who stretches our sight almost beyond the visible. She tells us now that even the 600mm is not enough, we WILL need lens-extenders! Or so it seems. For this sweet self-sufficient, self-enclosed and silent apple is truly situated “high in the highest branch”! (For an amazing analysis of the Greek grammar which carries out this telescoping see Ann Carson). But how could we have been so mistaken! I mean, how could our eyes have not seen this coming? Perhaps they did not want to see, perhaps they saw what they wanted before them. And just like the ice we held, but somehow did not want to hold on to for it meant its dissolution, likewise we now look but do not want to look too hard for we might no longer have anything to look at!

Suddenly we are introduced to the true subjects of the poem: the apple-pickers who “specialize” in picking the beloveds of the world. Apple-pickers, men and women who seek out the fulfillment of their desires in another whose beauty primarily seems to appear as a sweetness which hides bitter possibilities. But what does Sappho herself tell us about them? First off, that they are many. Many, it seems, look up to the apple which awaits picking, many will have to “deck it out” for it. The whole thing is quite Darwinian! Secondly, that instead of picking —–which is what they are good at—- they instead are lost in the activity of seeing. As if charmed by the apple’s reddish presence, they have ceased any action. But this is not altogether true. Sappho tells us that what they have done is rather specific, they have decided to “forget”. We are told that in picking they have forgotten something altogether important. But what is it that they have forgotten? Their first action, was to pick, then they just stare, and now suspiciously they forget! And forgetting desire, how difficult a task that is according to Sappho! We continue reading and, fortunately, the poetess herself reveals it “all” to us. She clarifies the illusions behind the mysterious forgetting of the beloved.

Suddenly, as if pulling us back from the distance to the reality of the present, Sappho tells us that in reality the apple-pickers did not actually forget at all:

“well, no they didn’t forget —were not able to reach”.

What a stunning revelation of a conveniently comic decision! The sweet apple on the highest branch remains untouched by any of them; and yet, instead of recognizing their incapacity, they make a strategic move. They pretend to have not even seen it at all! For if they are indeed good apple-pickers, it would be to their detriment to have some apples actually escape into the freedom of their own erotic nature. So, just as we convince ourselves that the “now” of eros can be sidestepped, so these apple pickers convince themselves that they never saw anything! Faced with the desire to face their own lacks, they instead become forgetful of themselves so as to be able to desire this very same apple the morning after as they move around the orchard unchanged and truly unloved.

By thus moving us using this kind of photographic focusing of erotic desire, Sappho teaches us that the erotic lack we have as sexual beings pulls us outside ourselves into a distant reality. This erotic reality which hangs before us eludes us; we tend to deny it in disbelief as we approach it and learn, to our astonishment, that it continuously evades us. Lacking the apple we seek it, but if we actually came to possess it, the drive to jumpstart the search would be gone! And therefore, during the sleep of the night, these apple-pickers will convince themselves of events that did not occur. They will awaken the next morning to try to pick the sweet apple on the high branch, or rather, the sweet apple high on the highest branch. And they will forget once more, and they will begin anew the morning after. The apple, it seems, will never be reached, for in reaching it, we would cease to be humans altogether.

Perhaps Sappho allows us, through her poetry, to liberate our lacks into the honesty of their essential nature. In reading Sappho’s simple lines there might come a day in which we will not only not forget, but actually love the other as other for we will have come to know ourselves as lacking. And perhaps it is in a very similar way that we as artists relate ourselves to our own work. For we all know of the desire to create and yet somehow feel that once the work is created, once the apple has become real, the search for it is gone. And day by day we convince ourselves that there is a new apple we have not picked. It lies high in a high branch in a tree we can no longer see, and in this way we strive to give poetic word to those foundational lacks which conform us from the very start.

(A complete understanding of this dynamic would have to include several discussions of Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus, including their intimate discussions of wings and metaphors. Besides, a deeper understanding of the apple itself and its troubling intrinsic nature —–of this self-sufficient being which is the erotic beloved, which in modernity finds parallels in the idea of the “Lolita”—- in a sense requires readings such as Yukio Mishima’s stunning The Damask Drum, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Alba Lucia Angel’s Misia Señora and Gabriel Garcia Márquez latest book: Memoria de mis putas tristes, among many others.)

5. Erotic triangulation

Sometimes one should simply let a great poem speak for itself instead of pretending to understand it:

”He seems to me equal to gods that man
who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing — oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, a moment, then no speaking
is left in me

no: tongue breaks, and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead —or almost
I seem to me.”

(Do let me know if you have found the puzzle of triangulation within its mysterious lines. To be able to see it involves, among other things, learning to read erotically: http://amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7266768/ )

6. Conclusion

Sappho’s poetry is perhaps the single most important poetic work on the nature of eros in a pre-Christian era. Not giving in to romanticism, she faces the mystery of erotic desire head on. Thoughtfully perceptive to desire’s perplexing dilemmas, she encourages us with her courage to feel the nakedness of those simple poetic lines in which she remains open as perhaps the most erotic lover of all. Her poems provide a certain mature self-sufficiency which nonetheless remains open to the living eroticism of those with whom we come into contact as we move through our lives. Or in other words, through her decisions the poem is liberated to its inmost energetic possibility which in turn may radiate into the possibility of loving oneself –—and perhaps another—–in the intimacy of the created and creating word.

However, me must conclude by pointing to at least two great challenges to this very powerful view of human desire. One is the view of eros as defended by Socrates and later on Aristotle guided by a reconsideration of desire and the connection between true friendship, another kind of self-sufficiency, and a happiness beyond the mere sense of a personal feeling. (See my journals on Socrates : a) http://amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7640910/ and b) http://amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7696872/ ) The second view is the view upheld by a believer; for instance the one defended by Christians and their notion of “agape” (love of God) as expressed profoundly in Augustine’s <b>Confessions</b>.

We artists might feel secure in our own islands, but Sappho’s poetry at least teaches that openness alone guarantees the possibility of avoiding self-delusion. It is this very same poetic honesty which may allow us to return to the beginning of erotic love:

“I don’t know what I should do: two states of mind in me … (36)
I’m in love! I‘m not in love!
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!

I have been there. It does take much courage. It is rare.

(First published on the web on Feb 9, 2006 with accompanying art: http://www.amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7838058/)

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On trees, deep ecology and poetry

1. Introduction

Most of us, if not all of us, have a particular fondness for and connection to living things. And since each of us is unique, we have greater connections to some living beings over others. This connection is very difficult to articulate. For example, some people have a fondness for dogs; still others for tarantulas. Dali was fond of flies, though most of us aren’t. I myself have always had a particular fondness for trees. I cannot tell you why exactly; I can only say that my adolescence was close to them. I was lucky, I got to know MANY diverse trees. But many other living beings were also close to me, and yet my fondness for trees stands out. This journal tries to articulate this connection.

But, fortunately, I am not the only one. Here at dA many people are fond of trees and flowers. One need only check out the photography category Nature to find thousands upon thousands of photographs being uploaded constantly. And I ask myself, what are all these deviants trying to say? Of course, not all such deviations are artistic, but they DO show that artists and non-artists have a strong and deep connection with the living.

But for some, it is poetry which is THE privileged art that opens this connection with the living more primordially than any other. This journal is also about this connection with poetry, with a poem that tells about our connection to trees. Once, one such poem came to me. It is a poem about trees. I am sorry, I must correct myself. It is a poem about A very unique tree. These are the opening lines of this poem entitled A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds:

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow. ”

(Salvatore Quasimodo; Nobel Prize, 1959.)

Poetry uses such deceptively simple words! I mean, I am sure most of us know each and every single word just read. So much so, that we think we have understood these few lines. But then I wonder, why would Quasimodo receive the NOBEL prize if things are as simple as they appear? Surely there is a mystery brewing here. Perhaps our complex modern lives have made us a bit hasty. We know too much and rarely pause.

Instead, I propose we listen “intently” again to the poem as this peculiar pine listens intently to the abyss. But this is not easy; for I am not sure if our capacity to listen is at its best. How could we listen being surrounded, as we are, by so much noise pollution? How could we listen if we are always talking? Have we forgotten to listen in our hectic age?

But much more importantly, and these are the VERY difficult questions which guide this journal: if indeed we CAN listen to the world of living things —–if we can listen to their Being— what would it mean to be able to listen TO them? I mean something not too complex. I mean, in part, this; the latest I heard, trees just DO NOT speak. Or, more to the point, how exactly can a poem speak for trees in an age in which trees are becoming extinct because of our technological encroachment? How can we humans –specially artists and philosophers— let trees speak? Or, can/should we just shed our technological understanding of the world, an understanding in which trees have lost their symbolic enchantment? How, indeed, to let them speak without Imposing our anthropocentric voice unto them?

This journal attempts to be a very incomplete preparation towards new types of encounters. Mainly, it is shared so that together we can listen more clearly to our fondness for trees and other living beings. But like the twisted pine in Quasimodo’s poem, before getting to the poem itself, we must —unfortunately— make some preparatory twists.

2. A puzzle

The previous questions carry with them a very perplexing puzzle; it is a puzzle which is of particular interest to us modern Westerners for we alone have brought about the demise of a mythological understanding of the universe and the beings which inhabit it. To this we shall return; but for now, how to express better this puzzle which I feel so intensely?

In one of the most beautiful Platonic dialogues –—the Phaedrus, which deals with erotic discourse— Socrates says something altogether puzzling to us moderns. Phaedrus teases Socrates by telling him that he rarely leaves the city of Athens for the countryside. In the countryside Socrates seems to be totally lost. Socrates seems to not be much of a hiker, as we modern city dwellers in our polluted cities have become. To this teasing, Socrates responds:

Forgive me, best of men. For I am a lover of learning (philomathes). Now then, the country places and the trees are not willing to teach me anything, but the human beings in town are. But you ….” (230d; Translated by James H. Nichols; Ithaca, Cornell University, 1998) ” (on the web a lesser translation, see:

(In this regard see the striking lack of reference by Xenophon’s Memorabilia (Ithaca, Cornell University, 1994) to Socrates’ studies in natural philosophy, a silence which points to the puzzling relation, to say the least, between “natural philosophy” and “political philosophy”.)

Socrates is of the city, rather than of the countryside. What could Socrates be getting at? But, is this true? Don’t we have anything to learn from trees? Isn’t Socrates absolutely wrong here? We might think about this possibility: Socrates just simply did not foresee an age in which the very existence of the Earth would come into play because of the powers we have harnessed as humans caught in our technological grids. Of course, Socrates knew VERY WELL the Greeks could destroy themselves. But for US humans to destroy the Earth, that, I think, was a situation Socrates could not have foreseen.

And yet, might not there be some truth to Socrates’ important point? To see what might be behind his point just consider a very simple question once again: when was the last time you actually spoke to a tree, and it actually answered back? By the same token, recall the opening lines of the poem above. The tree in Quasimodo‘s poem is NOT the tree which I see through my window. I bet you, the tree outside does not actually listen to anything, for it just does not have ears! So after all, it seems, Socrates has a point. Trees cannot teach us much. But, is this true?

It is this ambivalent questioning which moves me to try to listen more carefully to what trees might say to us humans in an age in which trees are continuously fallen and seen as standing reserve ready to be cut, rather than as the wilderness of which we are an integral part. This is why, in contrast to Socrates’ words, I must let you listen to Tolkien’s words. In particular, we listen with deep gratitude to how Pippin tried to describe his encounter with the Ents, the oldest inhabitants of Tolkien’s symbolically rich world:

“One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking, but their surface was sparkling with the present; like sun shimmering on the outer leagues of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know but it felt as if something that grew in the ground –asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.” (BOOK II; ‘Treebeard’, pg. 77)

How could we not learn from such creatures? How could we not wish to become like them? I mean ; “enormous wells with ages of memory of slow thought and a sparkling present as surface”, who does not seek something like this before death arrives? We moderns in particular; how could we not learn from beings whose motto, Tolkien tells us, is “do not be hasty”?

It is the pull of these two views, summed up in the contrasting words of Socrates and Tolkien, that move me to write this journal. I am extremely fond of trees, but I do not want to simply project my fears upon them. If they do indeed have nothing to teach me, I prefer to know.

3. Two understandings of trees; secular biology and sacred wisdom.

To better understand this puzzle, which I myself find difficult to grasp and even to share with you, one can bring to memory certain stories. Think of the role trees play in two very important events in human history. One concerns the origins of Buddhism; the other, the origins of our modern scientific approach.

It is said that Siddhartha, at the age of 29, was forever transformed when he came upon the sight of four very special humans: an old crippled man, a sick man, a decaying corpse, and finally a wandering holy man. The sight of suffering and the search for a meaning to such suffering, became the meaning of his life. Years later, it is said that while sitting in meditation under a bodhi tree Siddhartha reached enlightenment and became a Buddha.

“But, what does all this have to do with trees?,” impatiently you ask. Very much. The Bodhi tree plays a central role in the story; Siddhartha could just as well have been meditating in the shower when he reached Nirvana. Or under an orange tree. But that is not how the story goes. Instead, there is something in trees, specially THIS tree, which brings us closer to certain fundamental and sacred truths about ourselves and the universe. No wonder in Buddhism the bodhi tree is considered to be THE tree of wisdom; it is both sacred and its name literally means “supreme knowledge”. ([link] ) Scientific nomenclature itself has been so struck by this that it calls the tree, using its binomial categorization, ficus religiosa! [link]

(If you come from a Christian background, as many of us do in the West, you might ponder about our very own initial myth, that of the tree of life and the tree of knowledge: “And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Genesis 2; 9; For a consideration see Thomas Pangle Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham[link] )

But we modern westerns also have another, very different story about trees. It is the story of Sir Isaac Newton’s tree. ( [link] ) It is said that the apple that hit Newton on the head allowed him to think anew our relation to the universe and its fundamental laws. The privileged realm above in the heavens could now be understood by the very same laws which were applicable to the natural world right here in our Earth. Of course, this might not have happened exactly as the story goes, but the myth has greatly become part of our understanding. And I ask myself, can you sense how different roles the trees play in each of these two very important stories? What Newton discovers is not wisdom in the company of a wise tree, but his universal mathematical understanding over and above any tree. For ALL trees are covered by the laws of gravity. In contrast, in Buddhism, NOT ALL trees are wise trees. Newton and Siddhartha sought the comforting shadow of trees for two VERY different reasons. [link] .

What this story reveals then, if I am right, is that we can no longer safely move without reaching into BOTH stories. Trees, in the West particularly, have definitely lost the strong symbolic powers which once attached to them and linked them directly to the Gods. It would seem that this is simply a loss. But I do not think so. The story of yet another tree may help us to understand the necessity of both discourses. It is the story of the neem tree.

On the one hand, ayurvedic medicine has known for centuries of its multileveled benefits. They are so many that it is actually called the “village pharmacy”. So a pre-scientific understanding has already gained much. But the biological-scientific understanding seems to provide the possibility for this tree ‘s playing a central role in the defense of complex ecosystems themselves:

“Of primary interest to research scientists is its activity as an insecticide. Many of the tree’s secondary metabolites have biological activity, but azadirachtin is considered to be of the most ecological importance. It acts by breaking the insect’s lifecycle. Research has increased in the past few years as the desire for safe pest control methods increases and it becomes apparent that this tree will be able to play a role in integrated pest management systems.“

It seems, then, that both discourses have MUCH to gain from their interaction. And yet, at the same time, we are overly conscious of the destruction of trees and rainforests in our world. We no longer have the confidence we once had that the solution to our technologically generated dilemmas can be cured by the use of technology itself. We recognize that something has gone wrong with this scientific-instrumental view of nature. We fear, rightly, that it does not have the tools to pull itself out of the dangers it generates.

And the tension of our initial puzzle, which I hope has progressively become clearer, returns. On the one hand it is WE humans who are disrupting the planet and therefore humbly must take into consideration the symbolic relevance of other living beings. But on the other hand, we somehow sense that WE alone have consciousness of the world and know what it would actually mean to SAVE or DESTROY this living world of ours. Perhaps if we try to understand more closely the dangers of instrumental reason we can get clearer still on this difficult puzzle. Here, the aid of some philosophers is much required.

4. Instrumental reason and deep ecology

To see how deep we are into this scientific model of understanding nature, we can do an exercise in memory. Biology courses provide a great example. For, it seems, we moderns take it for granted that the way we classify nature and seek to understand it, is THE primary way of access to the world. A standard biological definition of a tree reads: “A tree can be defined as a large, perennial, woody plant. Though there is no set definition regarding minimum size, the term generally applies to plants at least 6 m (20 ft) high at maturity and, more importantly, having secondary branches supported on a single main stem or trunk.” [link]

That we do not feel any uneasiness at this view of trees, should indeed make us a bit uneasy. This understanding of trees is quite unique and problematic. Don’t you see something odd here? First of all, it is indeed odd to even try to define trees. Of course, biology requires it. But, is this mode of access the PRIMARY access to trees we must adopt? What this model emphasizes is not without problems. We classify, categorize, measure and analyze. Don’t you feel you are objectively being told what a tree is, as if the tree were being observed from above, rather than the tree being a participant in a complex ecosystem? And such definitions usually continue by telling us what we westerners seem to love, they proceed to speak of superlatives. We are immediately told about the tallest, the widest, the oldest, constantly seeking in reality what we can quantify analytically. However, as for the height of trees, it is interesting that we are told: “the heights of the tallest trees in the world have been the subject of considerable dispute and much (often wild) exaggeration.”. Trees serve our purposes for recognition by others; we want to have the tallest tree near US, so we can stand out much taller than we actually are.

But how to quantify what for others is the sacredness of certain trees? The Bodhi tree does not seem to stand so much physically apart from all other trees as it does spiritually. To have been the one tree under which marvelous events occurred, what more could a tree wish for? A more comprehensive, a deeper, understanding of trees is required. Trees must be allowed a voice beyond their classification. Poetry, as we shall see, is such a possibility.

Many philosophers have likewise pointed out how strange this view of reason is; primarily because it begins its processing by severing our access to the world of living things. For it to work accurately and cleanly, it must begin by separating us form the world. This is a non-starter for many of us. This strangeness can be revealed as well in our modern maps. This type of reason is known in philosophical circles as “instrumental reason”: It has a complex history of its own connected to the rise of the new science defended by Bacon and Descartes. Among other things, when one speaks of instrumental rationality the idea is that we consider the means without thinking reflexively about the ends to which this means might lead us. Production must keep increasing even if there will in the end be nothing to produce with. We seem caught in this self-destructive dynamic. Underpinning this view of the world is the preponderance of a cost-benefit analysis and in general a utilitarian outlook to ourselves, others and nature. Taylor sums up the issue quite well:

“Instrumental reason has grown along with a disengaged model of the human subject, which has a great hold on our imagination. It offers an ideal picture of human thinking that has disengaged from its messy embedding in our bodily constitution, our dialogical situation, our emotions and our traditional forms of life in order to be pure, self-verifying rationality. This is one of the most prestigious forms of reason in our culture.“ (“The Ethics of Authenticity”, a MUST read for ANY artist, pg. 102)

Disengaging ourselves from trees, easily we topple them. We might say to ourselves: “They cannot engage in dialogue; so much the worse for them.”

To this position the Romantics, among many, revolted. They pointed out the dangers of this separation between humans and their natural world. Art became a way to bridge the disconnected parts which conformed a mechanical view of the universe. To make a very long story short, what has come out of such critiques is what is known as a stance called “Deep ecology”. This position stems from a reconsideration of what language reveals about ourselves and the world we inhabit. Under it, living things place a demand on us humans which moves us beyond our anthropocentrism into a view in which we “let things be”. In an article entitled “Heidegger, Buddhism and deep ecology”, Michael Zimmerman writes:

“Buddhism, Heidegger and Naess argue that puncturing the illusion of permanent selfhood would alleviate the infliction of such suffering by freeing one from the illusory quest for total control. Being liberated from the illusion of egocentrism also frees one from the spontaneous compassion towards other beings human and non-human alike. One ´lets things be´ not for any external goal, but instead simply from a profound sense of identification with all things” (pg 263-264)

It is not by chance that it is Buddhism which leads the way here. Siddhartha knew much about trees, or so it seems. Now, this perspective in itself is not without problems, but it stands as a powerful critique of the anthropocentric view which sees humans as dominators of nature, rather than as one of the highest expressive possibilities of the natural.

Deep ecology reconsiders seriously the role language plays in our relation to the world. Instead of using language to classify the world, words become the way to disclose things and allow them a voice beyond our own. Having language center exclusively on humans likewise makes it impossible to hear subtler languages which open humans to realities beyond their own anthropocentric paradigm. Our initial puzzle seems to have found a possible response. Although it is WE humans who have language, it is by changing the way we understand language, that we can hear the voice of the living things to which we belong. Something like this is what Taylor is trying to get at with the use of the term “epiphany”:
“what I want to capture with this term is just the notion of a work of art as the locus of a manifestation which brings us into the presence of something which is otherwise inaccessible, and which is of the highest moral or spiritual significance; a manifestation, moreover, which also defines or completes something, even as it reveals” (SotS pg 419)

Art in particular provides the human possibility in which epiphany can be realized. Perhaps now we are more prepared to listen to Quasimodo’s poem about a very unique tree.

5. A poem about a unique tree: “A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds”

Do forgive so many twists and turns. Now, finally, to Quasimodo’s complete poem. A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds, reads:

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow.

A refuge of nocturnal birds,
in the deepest hours of midnight it resounds
with the swift fluttering of wings.

Even my heart has a nest
suspended into the darkness, and a voice;
it, too, lies awake listening at night.”

Let’s listen to it a stanza at a time. We must remain open to see what poetry can reveal and transform as it reveals. It reveals complexities, even if made up of the simplest of words. As few other arts can, it reaches origins.
First Stanza

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow.”

The poem opens by distancing us from what appears is its main character. High on a cliff, far away, one sees a tree. But this tree is not just any tree. It could have been a maple, or a eucalyptus. But no. It is a pine. “Why a pine?,” you might ask. Only later shall we see. We must be patient and not skip the lines of the poem. We must not be hasty as Tolkien’s trees remind us. But then we puzzle a bit. This pine is no ordinary pine; it is instead, twisted. But tell me: have you ever seen a twisted pine? Aren’t pines the straightest of trees? Why does Quasimodo do this?

Perhaps that this special pine is twisted tells us something. It is a pine which has undergone a transformation. Its nature is no longer what other trees of its species take for granted. It has mutated. It stands out. And we imagine all other pines blushing somewhat at the sight of such abnormality. In contrast, Siddhartha would not have mocked this tree. .

Having described the tree and its location, we are now told what it actually DOES. Trees aren’t really the most active of creatures. But this tree is special. It is a listening tree. It listens with its twisted trunk. How does it listen? This tree listen INTENTLY. It is an intense twisted tree. What does it listen to? It listens to the abyss. It listen to the depths; to the depths of time and the darkness of origins.

And through the magic of words Quasimodo suddenly transports us from the distance on the high cliff afar, to a certain closeness to this tree. We are moved , with a few words, to focus on the shape of its trunk. The tree trunk provides the solidity of a tree’s very existence. Just remember the biological definition of trees. It is the trunk which holds the branches, not the other way around. Surely a tree without a trunk is like a person without a spinal chord. And this tree’s trunk has a special form; that of a crossbow. And we puzzle at Quasimodo’s choice of words. A crossbow for what? This pine intently listening is both a pine and a crossbow. Now we suddenly understand why it MUST be a pine. For a pine has the form of an arrow. This pine listening intently projects itself ready for flight as an arrow thrown from its very own being towards itself. But how can this be so? Have you ever seen a tree move? How can it move while remaining in its place? Trees seem to have a certain magic to them.

Second Stanza

“A refuge of nocturnal birds,
in the deepest hours of midnight it resounds
with the swift fluttering of wings.’

Quasimodo gives us pause to rethink what has happened. And while we do so, we return only to suffer a move towards the inside. This fantastic tree, shunned by other trees in their upright existence —–which does not mean this tree is not itself upright, only that it is so in a very different way— has a peculiar function. It is the tree chosen by the surrounding birds. It is a refuge for life. Bent, it can carry the birds which upright trees might not. These winged friends flock to it at night, when the light of day is gone and great perils arise. Waiting in time, probably remembering its own rings, suddenly this tree resounds in the darkest of moments. And we look carefully at Quasimodo’s choices upon the many which opened before him while writing. This tree “resounds”. Why not simply say that this tree “sounds”? Why emphasize that it RE-sounds. Perhaps because this tree has sounded before, and will sound again at midnight as long at it lives and there are humans to tell the story. Other trees seem soundless in comparison.

It resounds at a specific time; at the time in which much of night has gone by, and still much of night is still to come. One needs strength to survive until midnight and great hope to survive afterwards. For dusk is long past, and dawn is far away. How can we be sure dawn will in fact arrive? This tree has no songs of its own, though its rings have the memory of countless singing inhabitants it has outlasted. This unique tree resounds with the fluttering of wings. Swiftly the birds ——who take refuge in it as a home—– give it motion and musicality. Instead of simply lying asleep within the tree, they keep it close company. It is as if the birds —-in gratitude towards this special tree— want to take the crossbow which this twisted tree is, directly into flight. Unable to fly, this tree is now prepared, because of the presence of fluttering birds, to fly. For we are truly grateful to refuges; particularly to those refuges which took us in the midnight hours of our lives. Specially those refuges who gave us shelter based on the DIFFICULT maturity of true generosity. Grateful as Siddhartha must have been before he became another; a much better other.

Third Stanza

“Even my heart has a nest
suspended into the darkness, and a voice;
it, too, lies awake listening at night.”

And we catch our breath for we are heading towards the end. We began far way, only to enter into the very branches which hold these birds within. But now, suddenly, WE appear to ourselves for the very first time. The twisted tree OUT there in the cliff, the birds OUT there in the twisted tree, becomes the tree IN which WE live. We are not the tree, but we are close. Have you ever been close to a tree? Quasimodo tells us that even our hearts have a nest here. But we KNOW we are not birds If you have doubts, try to fly into the abyss. And yet, a bit like birds, we create our nests from the twigs and small branches of our lives. Furthermore, for Quasimodo the nest is not primarily for our brains, or legs; though it is ALSO nest for them. It is primarily a refuge for our hearts. This twisted tree is a refuge for artists who value our emotional human existence as a privileged way of accessing the world which surrounds us in constant immediacy.

Quasimodo is grateful as well; even HIS heart has a nest. This is why he shares this poem with us. He does not simply want a nest for himself, but rather a nest for US. But this nest, we are told, lies suspended. It lacks a firm grounding which guarantees total safety. Total and firm grounding is not a possibility for us moderns, as it was possible for earlier times. Our access to nature as moderns cannot have the grounding we once knew in earlier mythologies which allowed for a direct connection between trees and gods. We know of science and its understanding. This is why our nest lies suspended in the darkness. .A strong and compassionate refuge is required precisely in such times. It is in darkness that the generosity of shelter becomes a gift. Suspended in the darkness and close to the abyss, Quasimodo’s poem allows us to reconsider ourselves and our relation to the world of trees.

And then the MOST puzzling aspect of the poem appears as a lightning bolt. Quasimodo briefly adds “and a voice”. Not the tree’s voice. Not the birds’ voices. Not Quasimodo’s voice, for he could just as well have said “my” voice. And yet it is A voice. This voice does not have the presumptions of possession, but rather discloses, in the darkness, the possibility itself of a language in which things are freed unto themselves for us to hear them. And what does it say? Nothing; for our human voice may perhaps have said too much. Instead, it is open to the difficult activity of listening beyond our own speech. This voice is open to the disclosure of nature in the very words of the poem we are reading together.

In contrast to so many voices, this voice lies speechless; it awaits the time to speak, to open itself in renewed speech. It listens, as once the twisted tree we knew at the beginning of the poem did. Awakened, it has allowed this tree access to language. Our consciousness –liberated from pure instrumentality – becomes itself a crossbow which projects the tree as an arrow into the abyss. This voice, the voice of the poem itself, resounds ever again as we feel the pull to return to the beginning, to its origin. Perhaps in it, awake at night, we might feel the echoes of a faint refuge for us humans, specially of us artists. Instrumentality has seen the possibility of a depth beyond its dangerous limitations.

6. Conclusion

This has been, once again, a long journey. I am grateful if you have been a refuge to my weak words. Perhaps now we are more prepared to listen for calls which we might otherwise miss. Perhaps at least this call must be heard; the tree of life must be heard before we continue climbing up the tree of knowledge. For it seems we know much, but live well little. Perhaps together we are now better prepared to listen to Quasimodo’s deceptively simple words. Let’s listen intently:

A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow.

A refuge of nocturnal birds,
in the deepest hours of midnight it resounds
with the swift fluttering of wings.

Even my heart has a nest
suspended into the darkness, and a voice;
it, too, lies awake listening at night.”


In alto c’è un pino distorto;
sta intento ed ascolta l’abisso
col fusto piegato a balestra.

Rifugio d’uccelli notturni,
nell’ora più alta risuona
d’un battere d’ali veloce.

Ha pure un suo nido il mio cuore
Sospeso nel buio, una voce;
sta pure in ascolto, la notte
. link )

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On Radical Linearism.

Those of you who have seen my simple drawings have done me great good. Their simplicity is shocking, specially to me. I mean, are they really complete works? Surely I must be kidding, right? Surely they are just simple nice sketches which will be reworked finally to really produce a painting. Surely it might even seem a bit arrogant to frame such few lines and pretend they are a finished works. In a sense this is true, but in another quite false. This is why I write this journal; to clarify to myself and to some friends what might lie behind the appearance and decision to draw such lines. In this sense, this journal continues the ideas present in my previous Journal “Lines and Beauty” [link] . In it, I briefly spoke about my love of lines.

So I guess first one must say that these lines have risen out of great love of some painters in particular. They can only be understood in reference to Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, and Miró. I will provide examples of the first two to see what I mean:

1. Klee (drawings and paintings)

2. Kandinsky (drawings and paintings)

If it were not for my contact with these painters, I doubt I would have ever drawn what I have. This is so because “abstract impressionism” led me on a truly anti-representationalist path. As Klee wrote: “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” But these drawings are much more radical in their nature, hence the name “Radical Linearism”.

Have you ever stayed up late wondering about what your art shows? Have you ever had the need to express to yourself in words what lies behind your artistic decisions? Have you ever wondered after you submit here at DA, what is it you are doing? Well if you have felt this, then you will be open to this journal. But all this requires a bit of courage and the passage of time. Courage, because it is hard to defend a certain simplicity in our modern complex, technologically-oriented, world. And the passage of time, for I doubt a few years ago I could have even thought about writing this. Perhaps the preparation for my PhD thesis has allowed me to understand myself a bit more. And finally, there is always recourse to great artists and thinkers. As Da Vinci is said to have written:

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”

Obviously this cannot mean that Da Vinci was a simpleton! Simplicity is far from superficiality. Quite the contrary, simplicity may sometimes provide a radical critique of our supposed complexity; a complexity which may truly be hiding us from ourselves. In this sense, this journal is very Socratic ——remember Socrates preferred, for the most part, to go about without shoes— because it asks of us to try to know ourselves. Perhaps more journals such as these at DA can help us better understand ourselves as artists.

To the problem. You see, the problem with these drawings I did in the period 2000-2003 —–after having drawn for many years much more complex figures and paintings— is clearly that they seem to be the result of a childish inability to develop one’s ideas so as to produce a real complete work. To see what I mean just take a look at some of these radical linear drawings. You will see and feel what I mean:

“Human being”

“Linear Woman”

“Minimalist landscape”

“Peasant “


“Linear Woman”

“Conversation over water”

“Mujer cuadriculada”



“Peace towers 9/11”

“Beating Landscape”




(and many others found in my Gallery; and still others which I have not submitted.)

The feeling some deviant commentators have had can be summarized as follows: “Really beautiful drawings and yet there is something lacking in them, a certain depth. They are cute and nice, but inconclusive. Surely there will come a point when you will have time to work on them.” So much have I heard this, that I even doubted whether to submit them at all, not to mention frame them as they are!

The defense. First of all I must repeat that, contrary to what one might believe, these drawings were done between 2000-2003, so that they belong to a much later date in my artistic production. Second, they arose suddenly as if of themselves. I had drawn extensively before, but these later drawings were quite unique and challenging. They seemed absolutely simple and yet I found myself with no desire whatsoever to modify them much! It is as if they told me not to modify them much.

To understand the issue at hand I must let you see for yourselves previous paintings and drawings which show the complexity which existed before the arrival of these radical lines:

1. Anthropomorphosis (1989-90) (A complex painting)

2. Temporality (A complex sketch from 1988)

3. My house (A complex sketch from 1993)

4. Rezo (A complex drawing from 1988)

So you see, now you might understand why these later drawings puzzled me so much. And what is still worse is that previously I HAD IN FACT used some older drawings to create much more complex paintings. Such is the case of

1. “Coupling”

whose sketch was done in 1987

2. “Soaring Sunset”.

whose sketch was done in 1987 as well

This is very paradoxical to me. I had already created complex paintings from similar drawings when I was much younger. These paintings provided possible solutions for the immature sketches to try to become more complete works. The solution in “Coupling” seems to create much beauty, but makes the lines fall into the background almost completely. The solution with “Soaring sunset” —-–to expand the lines and color them— keeps the value of the lines, but requires the use of color.

And then I asked, what if these radical linear drawings were ends-in-themselves? What would that mean? How could I make myself clearer about this with multiple commentators arguing that these “nice” and “cute” little sketches were just sketches? I told myself that the only solution I could afford to accept was that of making them much larger then they are, simply widening the lines so that they would not seem as fragile as they do. But aside from that, no color or transformation in the lines. I started to worry I was loosing it. And then came DA, and luckily I had to think about these drawings thanks to the comments by several kind deviants to whom I am grateful.

Thinking it through, I came up with the idea of “Radical Linearism”; first as a nice title, but slowly as a more serious possibility for self-understanding. The part on “Linearism” is too obvious to even comment. But why is it radical and not merely another form of abstractionism? Because the emphasis lies in the lines themselves; and, as far as possible, in the least amount of lines that one can use to express oneself with regards to any given topic or subject.

And so AT LAST, the following 10 points are what I think might lie behind the simplicity of these lines. (Please check out my previous journals so you do not believe this is simply a crazy fluke.)

Radical Linearism: some working ideas

1. The simplicity of these lines stands as a powerful critique of modern complexity. Busying ourselves at all times, we may have truly lost ourselves. These lines therefore stand as a kind of therapy against complexity; they remind one of the need to stop and reconsider. In this sense, they defend another kind of complexity.

2. Their simplicity is fueled by an economic critique. Their economy of form and color is set up in contrast to a society which enjoys consuming endlessly (consuming even the greatest of art works). Their economy of means is set up against a world of radical economic inequalities. They put forward the possibility of having less as condition for creating more.

3. The simplicity of these lines points directly to our mortality. Mathematically, a line is made up of points; but a point –according to Euclid— is “that which has no part” [link] . They in fact arose soon after I was diagnosed with a severe illness which made it impossible for me to walk for over a year, and also made it quite difficult to draw. It hurt to draw, hence the need for few lines. Is this why they seem to have a certain therapeutic effect? Is their simplicity to be understood in part because, when one comes in touch with one’s mortality, one gets rid of the annoying superficial complexity of many irrelevant things?

4. Their simplicity opens them as true possibilities. They can be seen as the genetic structure for further projects; a kind of DNA which can generate multiple possibilities. They could allow, as sketches do, to be reworked in different directions under differing conditions. (Isn’t the DNA helix quite linear; not to mention the way we represent molecular bonds?). And yet they are completely finished unto themselves.

5. The simplicity of these lines has a direct connection to Primitivism. They recall the symbolism of lines which appeared in caves as some of the first expressions of our expressive possibilities as distinctly human.


6. Their simplicity can be seen as spiritual. They can be regarded both as a reduction towards the essentials of a given object, and simultaneously as an ascent to a certain kind of “Purification”. Forgive me, but here I must have recourse to truly great painters. As Klee wrote:

“Some will not recognize the truthfulness of my mirror. Let them remember that I am not here to reflect the surface… but must penetrate inside. My mirror probes down to the heart. I write words on the forehead and around the corners of the mouth. My human faces are truer than the real ones.” [link]

Or as Kandinsky famously wrote: “The contact of the acute angle of a triangle with a circle is no less powerful in effect than that of the finger of God with the finger of Adam in Michelangelo’s’ painting.” (p. 77 Kandinsky)

7. The simplicity of these lines opens us to the world in a radically new way. The minimalist group here in DA — ~minimalism —- provides wonderful examples of what this might mean. (I myself have tried to provide photographs in this direction in my gallery.) Your eye becomes unencumbered in an age in which complex images assault us at every instant.

8. Their simplicity has a particular historical and personal context as the Colombian citizen that I am. They stand as a contrasting balance to our famous and magnanimous Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero and his well-known over-sizing:

9. The simplicity of these lines invites the spectator to become an engaged and activate participant who —if she/he is open enough— must be truly puzzled by their very simplicity: As I wrote in my previous journal on lines: “One tends to think that lines reduce. But lines actually make you produce an image that is nowhere to be found in the world. Lines make you activate your seeing and your thinking. For lines ask to be completed by you, the perceiver. At first you do not see it, so you must look closer and engage what seeing cannot. They are deceptive because they seem too childish to hide any depth. But if you can see some depth in them, then —just maybe—- you really surprise yourself and therefore start to see lines all around you in the world. Of course, I rarely succeed in doing this, but I have tried hard for several years.” These simple lines may feed us by reactivating our imagination in an age in which imagination has become choked. And finally,

10. Their simplicity —allow me to venture into the area of understanding I have dedicated my last 18 years to— might even be seen as part of the tendency by multiple philosophers (Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Taylor) to criticize the Cartesian model of reality. In particular one might think of the profoundly influential Cartesian model of the “x-y grid” which has mapped our modern space and psyche. Think, for instance, of how odd our modern maps are when compared to their medieval counterparts. The simplicity of these lines does not seek to control space, but rather to liberate it to its multiple possibilities.


So, in the end, the question which “Radical Linearism” might be said to ask is this: why exactly can’t simple lines be just simply lines? . This journal has been but a humble attempt to answer it.

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Remembering Dalí: An Analysis of Two Paintings

Towards the end of the 1980’s The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts held an exhibition of the complex, enigmatic and harrowing work by Dalí. I must confess I was unconsciously frightened; it was this fundamental anguish which opened Dalí forever to me. As I remember it, Dalí struck me from the start; the first sketch which opened the exhibition was entitled “Painted with the right hand while masturbating with the left.” (Many years later, in 1973, Dalí was to paint Hitler Masturbating). And in the same room, hundreds of small ink drawings repeating themselves differently. Dalí’s Cape Creus populated by skeletal figures; bones and sea gathered upon the shore. The mountains of Cataluña —mountains also to be found in the Persistence of Memory— providing the distant background. And within the exhibition in surreal Montreal, strange watches I had never seen before; Dalí’s now too famous, now too obvious, soft-watches.

This Journal inquires about what may lie behind two of his paintings. It therefore continues my decision to try to make Journals in DA much more philosophical and critical than they are. The two paintings in question are: Persistence of Memory (1931) and its 20-year-older kin Disintegration of Persistence of Memory (1954). The ideas were first presented in a PhD seminar on Heidegger’s views on time held in my Colombia. (Heidegger’s difficult vocabulary has obviously been altered.)

Remembering the “Persistence of Memory” (1931)

The space which is this canvas opens human temporality in a truly enigmatic manner. The surroundings bring us close to our endangered earth. A blue horizon recovers for us the daily appearance of the natural clock which dates our days in continuous cycles of sunrises and sunsets. What does the sunshine bring forth? The mountains of Dalí’s childhood; more generally, the very space of our own childhood. In this sunset —which is simultaneously a sunrise— sunrays provide the light which allows for the appearance of the painter’s head itself anchored in placid sleep. Dalí himself appears anchored as a fetus is anchored before life unto the womb. Resting almost faceless, he lies over the hills of his youth.

Nature’s abundant vegetation makes its appearance as a lonely tree devoid of life which emerges from an overconfident cubic structure which does not realize it is itself made out from the deadening wood which it supports. And it is on this leafless-lifeless tree that a clinging soft-watch appears. Arising out of thin air, amoeba-like, it signals our time. We realize more soft-watches have been hung by Dalí for us to see. And yet we need ask: why only four? Why not five or six? Why not an infinity of soft- watches reminding us our own finitude? Perhaps four have been carefully chosen by Dalí to remind us of the three-dimensional temporal structuring provided to us humans by our natural understanding of present, past and future tenses. “Was”, “is” and “will be”; a triad which conforms our daily perception of ordinary time. Still, the fourth watch remains a mystery.

The first soft-watch lies projected upwards hanging from the leafless tree. It signals with its only pointer a continuous now at around 6:00; the hour of dusk, the hour of dawn. Time seems to have been forever immobilized by Dalí. Yet it is so far from being a regular watch, that its mechanism has failed. Melting softly, it has ceased to be the watch of our ordinary lives. Its pointer has ceased to point as it should. It signals instead another time, the future time when trees will be no more for our lack of understanding our own temporality. This futuristic watch lies covered by the sky’s bluish reflection which brings us back to the natural time of our natural surroundings.

A second soft-watch, which again is no watch at all, makes is appearance. It is this watch which reflects the constant being thrown of human beings into their present existence. Thrown unto existence one finds Dalí’s fetus-like face over the sand which sustains him; the sand of the bony beaches of cape Creus. It is the very same dust to which we will return. Showing another hour, this soft-watch melts in time —not over a rotting tree —- but rather over the profile of the artist himself. The time of the watch attempts to become a body, and yet it cannot; it fails. The watch’s time does not, cannot, capture our own temporal nature. Dalí is thrown into deep sleep within the canvas present before us right now. Dreaming of what was, the persistence of our memories springs forth; at times liberating, at times torturing. The time of watches, even of soft-watches, points to a temporal dimension beyond their constant ticking. In contrast, the creator in dreaming of time recognizes the true foundation of our desire for everlasting timelessness. Watches melt so that our present time is not reduced to a mere ticking time-bomb. We owe this to Dalí. As we watch at this very moment Dalí’s painting, time redefined suddenly makes its appearance through us.

In a moment, now forever gone, the third angle of temporality is revealed; this one takes us back in time to what has been. It pushes us as in a fall over a solid cubic structure which will explode 20 years later in Dalí’s reworking of the original, a new painting entitled Disintegration of Persistence of Memory. The pointers in this third watch signal an impossible hour; an hour which is simultaneously before and after six. Fallen in time, each of us is present awaiting his inmost creative death. How can this be so? Because the twelve o’clock pointer signals a mortuary fly awaiting our demise. And yet memory persists, clinging overconfident to its ticking time frame. But it cannot remain so.

The threefold nature of our temporal existence –with a past, a present and a future—lies open before us who are set in motion by Dalí’s dreaming of the persistence of memory, But enigmatically there appears a fourth clock providing a new angle of vision; perhaps providing an original depth to all existing watches that are currently handcuffing our modern wrists. This watch alone seems oblivious to its own future disintegration in the mirror painting painted 20 years later. It alone is not a soft-watch. Under the “Persistence of Memory” the surrealist project still finds a certain security, a certain rest. Earth and sky may still cover the painter, comforting him.

With this fourth watch, a premonition of disaster. Lying mysterious in its own secluded corner, it does not even reveal its pointer. Perhaps it has none. We don’t know; we can never know for it is closed and will remain so forever in the painting. It lies there, mocking us in self-sufficiency. Not only is it not soft and melting, it also stands firmly entertaining itself. It appears enclosed upon itself as an erotic apple whose reddish tonality invites us constantly to try to open it, and at the same time warning us about the consequences of doing so. Bloody is this watch upon which insects gather as in a festive spirit. It is trodden by concentrating ants. They trod the watch as we trod the beaches lit by the movement of the sunlight covering Cataluña’s mountains and Dalí’s portrait. It takes twenty long years, it appears, for Dalí to open this fourth anomaly. This first painting’s persistence fails to understand the aquatic world of the womb from which we all arise in time. To even try to open this ant-ridden all-too-hard watch, there must first appear before us the “Disintegration of Persistence of Memory”.

Remembering the “Disintegration of Persistence of Memory” (1954)

The world of calming blues has left. It is now another time; two decades have gone by. And now fifty years have passed since then for us in 2005 still confronted daily with the mystery of our temporality. In Dalí’s later painting the world has become golden as a desert in which the temperature melts even soft-watches and the reality they have tried to safeguard. The force of the primordial dissolves everything present.

The same mountains appear as other, as foreign. Why? Not so much because of the different coloring, but rather because the land has broken away as if by a tectonic plaque. The mountains of youth, of innocence, have broken away from the security which previously allowed Dalí his placid dream. Properly speaking, the continent now appears there in the distance. It was once closest, now it remains inaccessible. We stand over water where once continental land ruled. The world has become a permanent becoming in which time itself becomes transformed. Memory disintegrated has nowhere now to anchor itself firmly. The solid ground has become liquid. Earth becomes once again marine; but not really, the world simply once again knows itself to have been marine. Memory must constantly forget this to remain as solid as can be.

And not even that is true, for one sees not water, but rather a thin canvas supported by the weakened branch of a new minute, but still leafless tree, which carries upon itself all the weight of sanity. Our previous tree has given birth to itself, but dwarfed by the passage of time. Surprisingly it isn’t even held in place by the strength of the cubic form which supported it 2 decades ago. How, then, could it support the whole of the coetaneous canvas which it carries? It might be really supported instead by the very canvas which opens itself before our spectator’s eyes as a new skin awaiting our explorations. By watching Dalí’s watches unfold, we ourselves sustain that tree which stares at us in the anguish of one who knows himself soon to collapse. And yet the elder tree of decades past has sprout a sibling; disintegration seems to allow for the possibility of the rebirth of self-sufficient trees freed from the necessity of leaves.

What has happened to the watches we have watched? Quite a lot. The angle of future existence supported by the changed tree explodes. Its bluish tranquility gives way to the metallic color of lifeless minerals. The pointer is thrown in flight into pieces. It has imploded; only a natural shadow remains. This watch can no longer be winded. Time has undergone a further transformation from the one we found in the Persistence of memory. A deeper time, the foundational time of poetry, is glimpsed. Implosion has rid the previous soft-watches of numbers, leaving instead the shadow of their mathematics. Shadows which provide the key to our most human possibility, a glance into our mortality which lies hidden from us busying ourselves at all times without any temporal depth, relying constantly on watches which have remained dangerously overlooked.

But something rather different occurs below the watery surface with our second watch. The portrait of the artist as a young man lies now dissolved in the uncertainty of he who no longer governs his own time. Creativity gains control over our desire to control time. Dalí reveals our desire for immortality as the dangerous desire which possesses us. Opening itself to its most primordial temporal depth, each face looses its definite figures. Conscious of the body’s temporality, Dalí liberates the body from itself and its sufferings. It is only then that the dangerous liberation from the time of ticking watches takes place. The logic of numbers lies revealed; numerical data no longer dates.

Our third soft-watch —–which previously anchored itself firmly on the cubic structure— now appears fully submerged undergoing with certainty the process of its own unstoppable rusting. Void of life, it appears golden metallic much like king Midas’ attempt to govern the temporality of his loved ones. It has moved indicating 12 o’clock. Twenty years have gone by in only five minutes. The time of those who are ill, as ill as Hans Castorp —Thomas Mann’s wonderful hero from The Magic Mountain —– has appropriated our temporal existence. The time which reveals a never-ending afternoon is done away with; the canvas instead reveals the longest day ever recorded as the few last instants of the drowned man to whom his life is suddenly revealed.

And what has occurred to our enigmatic fourth soft-match? It has been displaced unto the depths of the canvas. Now it appears open, almost just as any other watch does; now we seem to know it. And yet, underneath the nuclear structures with which Dalí fell in love in his later years ––which were to include the marvelous mathematic of the rhinoceros— we humans can hardly even see. The grounding of what is, must remain forever unfathomable. This uncertainty, which persists even after the disintegration of memory, requires the dignity of a courage free of illusions. It is in the courage of humans such as Dalí —-and his compatriot Don Quixote—- that we today may at least take a glimpse of those depths which are denied to us ordinary temporal beings. In doing so they provide us with the possibility of disintegrating our morbid assurances. Perhaps in this way alone can there come into being the beautiful Venus of Milo whose body reveals the bullfighter who knows of his instantaneous temporality in confrontation with Nature. Herein lies the magic —-far from the persistent memory of Nordic experiences—- of Dalí’s beautiful painting entitled The Hallucinogenic Toreador (1970).

A) Three other related paintings with soft watches
Soft Watch at the Moment of First Explosion, 1954 [link] , The Garden of Hours, 1981, [link] , Wounded Soft Watch, 1974, [link] .

B) Dali on the Internet


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  In the Myth of Sisyphus Camus retraces Hamlet’s famous words: “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”. The murdering king’s bloody desire for power must be uncovered, and a play within a play will allow this. Camus is also, like Hamlet, keen on desiring to catch and uncover. This can be seen in our tracing anew his commentary on the words by Ophelia’s vanishing lover: “‘Catch’ is indeed the word. For conscience moves swiftly or withdraws within itself. It has to be caught on the wing at that barely perceptible moment when it glances fleetingly at itself” (MoS, 77). Conscience eludes us, and yet we desire to get hold of it, somehow. Conscience is a task, not a given; it is there, but it is not.

  Eros, for the Greeks, was much like this. It too moves in flight: “flutters its wings amongst the birds of air” (Sophocles, Love, fr 855, Lucas 224). We humans of course do not fly. And this perhaps it is why desire is so hard to ‘catch’: “as a sweet apple turns read on a high branch/ high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot —-/well, no they didn’t forget — were unable to reach” (Carson quotes Sappho, 26). Eros  and Camusian conscience both evade us as soon as we attempt to ‘catch’ them. They are like red apples we cannot really bite, and yet we yearn to taste their sweetness.

  Writing a concept trace has to do a lot with all this. To leave a trace is to leave marks, a sign of something’s presence. But the marks stand there as a memory, what left the trace in the first is long gone. And we long for it; if not, then why trace it in the first place? And so we set out to trace that which left its footsteps, or better, its wing-marks. For this particular quest we reach out to the vestiges of desire as it traverses Camus’ lyrical philosophy.

  But to trace, we ought to remember, is not only to follow, or to track down. To trace can be like the hunter; but we do not want to hunt, that is, catch in death. Hunters seem to be fond of stones. But stones leave no traces, for they neither walk nor fly. (Stones are truly not ruins, like the ruins at Tipasa). To trace can also refer to a much simpler innocent act that, as children, we repeated again and again and again. To trace refers also to the act of drawing or copying with lines or marks. To trace, then, is to recopy. I set out then to recopy Camus’ words, listening intently for the appearance of such an elusive force as is desire, the Greek Eros. In this sense to trace is truly to plagiarize. And plagiarizing is not only always inevitable and desirable, but, it can, if done properly, also be liberating. Besides, plagiarizing Camus is remembering him again and again and again. And this is something to be desired.

  Our search along desires’ vestiges in Camus’ marks and lines will proceed in triangular fashion: i) by providing the general location of desire within it, albeit, given that this is just a tracing, briefly, incompletely, and sketchily, ii) by giving some specific locations in the work by referring to some pages where desire has been “caught” in words, pages which I will copy once again, that is trace, as I did as a child, and iii) by letting desire have its play through the desire to question which we feel governs us. Questions born out of desire as fragile sketches.









i) General location


            a) Drusilla’s death is the death of a loved one. Besides it is the death of a desired sister. Loss here is at once erotic and filial. Caligula’s refusal to face this desire as truly relevant.

            b) Caligula’s desire for the impossible as symbolized in the moon. His drive to physically possess the moon; to be sexually moonstruck. Sadistic desire to kill and to obliterate, out of love of power and of the impossible, the other, the human and the possible. Caligula as hunter. The forceful desire to teach his logical truth: “Men die and are not happy”.

            c) Caesonia’s desiring love of Caligula.

            d) Cherea’s desire for meaning and his hard-won respect for Caligula.

            e) Caesonia v.s. Cherea on love.

            f) Scipio’s love and admiration of Caligula. Scipio’s love of art v.s. Caligula’s solitude and rejection of the lies of art.


ii) Specific locations


            a) pages. 4, , 6, 6, 10, 15, 71

            b) 7, 8, 15, 40, 46, 49, 71

            c) 17

            d) 21, 58,

            e) 63

            f) 67, 65,


a) 71, “love isn’t enough for me; I realized it then. And I realize it today again; when I look at you. To love someone means that one’s willing to grow old beside that person. That sort of love is outside my sort of range. Drusilla old would have been worse than Drusilla dead”

b) 46, “she was coy to begin with, I’d gone to bed. First she was blood-red, low on the horizon. The she began rising, quicker and quicker, growing brighter and brighter all the while. And the higher she climbed the paler she became. Till she was like a milky pool in a dark wood rustling with stars. Slowly, shyly she approached, through the warm night air, soft, light, as gossamer, naked in beauty. She crossed the threshold of my room, poured herself into it, and flooded me with her smiles and sheen … So you see Helicon, I can say, without boasting, that I’ve had her”

c) 17, “ I needn’t swear. You know I love you”.

d) 21 “to loose one’s life is no great matter; when the time comes I’ll have the courage to loose mine. But what is intolerable is to see one’s life drained of meaning, to be told there is no reason for existing”

    58, “he forces one to think, there’s nothing like insecurity for stimulating the brain, that of course is why he is so much hated” (words said even after his condemnation of Caligula’s “corruption” of Scipio (56)

e) 63, “too much soul, that’s what bites you, isn’t it? You prefer to label it disease .. tell me Cherea, has love ever meant anything to you?”

f) 67, “I shall go away, far away, and try to discover the meaning of it all … Dear Caius when all is ended remember that I loved you”



iii) Some questions


Is Drusilla’s role simply secondary, as Caligula says? Why then did Camus not choose any lover? What is that only emotion Caligula ever felt, that “shameful tenderness for” Caesonia (70)? Why does Caesonia ask Cherea if he has ever loved? Is Cherea truly ‘loveless’ and ‘simple minded’? Does Caligula ‘really’ think he has possessed the moon? If so then why does he say “even if the moon were mine, I could not retrace my way?” (49) What could it mean that Caligula is still ‘alive’? Does desire have to do something with it?





i) General location

            a) Maria’s unconditional, bodily love for Jan; simplicity; loss of a world outside Europe in which together they were happy.

            b) Jan split not only between the desire to fulfill his duty to relatives and his love for his spouse, but also between the land of exile and the homeland.

            c) Martha’s longing for the wind of the sea. Her desire to breathe under the sun, even if this implies murder. Her asexuality, bodilessness and stone-like character. (Like The Commander for Don Juan, like Sisyphus’ stone, like the Gods).

            d) The mother’s fatigue of life briefly cast aside through the emergence of a late love. (Like Meursault’s mother’s love for Perez)


ii) Specific locations


            a) 81, 84, 128

            b) 88

            c) 79, 105

            d) 81, 124


a) 128 Martha: “What does that word mean (i.e. love)?”, Maria: “It means all that is at this moment tearing, gnawing at my heart; it means that rush of frenzy that makes my finger itch for murder. It means all my past joy and this vivid sudden grief you have brought me, yes, you crazy woman”

b) 86-87, “As for my dreams and duties, you’ll have to take them as they are. Without them I’d be a mere shadow of myself; indeed you’d love me less, were I without them” …. and ….. “One can’t remain a stranger all one’s life. It is quite true that a man needs happiness, but he also needs to find his true place in the world. And I believe that coming back to my country, making happy those I love, will help me to do this”

c) “What is human in me is what I desire, and to get what I desire, I’d stick at nothing, I’d sweep away every obstacle in my path”  ….. and ……. “ I have a very different idea of the human heart, and to be frank, your tears revolt me” (129) …… and ….. “Buried alive! No one has ever kissed my mouth and no one, not even you, has seen me naked. Mother I swear to you that MUST be paid” (122)

d) 122 “its no more than the pain of feeling love rekindle in my heart”


iii) Some questions


Is Maria simply a secondary character? Is Maria’s appeal to the Gods a ‘weakness’? Are these Gods the same stony one’s of which Martha speaks? Is Martha’s longing similar to Caligula’s? Is it just in a ‘minor’, much less impressive, scale? Can it not be seen instead as appealing to the contrast between the public and the private sphere? Politics and ruthlessness as against family and intimacy? Is The Misunderstanding really more familiar than Caligula? What is Camus’ idea in recovering the force of this play in The Stranger? Is this a little like Hamlet’s staging a play within a play? Is Jan at fault for not being straightforward? How to understand the dichotomies present in this work of mirrors: home/exile, dark/light, burning sun/sun of life, family love/erotic love, past/future, rich/poor, men/women? Can the absurd be seen as springing precisely out of their tension? Would it be too crazy to say that it is rather strange an odd that Camus chose the names of Maria and Martha as those of the central figures of the work? Is it not puzzling that their names, out of a million others, begin with the three letters which stand for sea in Spanish(i.e. mar)? Are not Maria’s tears which Martha repudiates born out of this sea? Can one see Maria’s encounter with Martha as a mirroring encounter? Like the different mirroring encounters Caligula has with himself? What does this mirroring have to do with our recopying Camus’ words in front of us? What of the words in The Stranger  which tells us of the sea that “it lay smooth as a mirror”? (54)





i) General location


            a) Greek valuation of nature’s beauty. Socratic desire for limits and desire for admission of ignorance.

            b) Modern split between instrumental rationality, and expressive powers (Like Jan split duty/love)

            c) Hubris; desire of power (Like Caligula’s overstepping of limits)

            d) love of friendship (a healthy Scipio)


ii) specific location:


            a) 187

            b) 189

            c) 191

            d) 192


a) 187, “The Mediterranean sun has something tragic about it, quite different from the tragedy of fogs. Certain evenings at the base of the seaside mountains, night falls over the flawless curve of a little bay, and there rises from the silent waters a sense of anguished fulfillment. In such spots one can understand that if the Greeks knew despair, they always did so through beauty and its stifling quality. In that gilded calamity, tragedy reaches its highest point. Our time on the other hand, has fed its despair on ugliness and convulsions. This is why Europe would be vile, if suffering could ever be so”

b) 189, “we turn our backs on nature, we are ashamed of beauty. Our wretched tragedies have a smell of the office clinging to them and the blood that trickles from them is the color of the printer’s ink” (very different, of course, than that of Camus’)

c) 189 “Our reason has driven all away. Alone at last, we end up by ruling over a desert”  ……. and ……. 190-1 “Nature is still there, however. She contrasts her calm skies and her reasons with the madness of men. Until the atom too catches fire and history ends up in the triumph of reason and the agony of the species. But the Greeks never said  that the limit could not be overstepped” (Overstepping in a universe devoid of Gods)

d) 192 “we shall fight for the virtue that has a history. What virtue? The horses of Patroclus weep for their master killed in battle. All is lost. But Achilles resumes the fight, and victory is the outcome, because friendship has just been assassinated: friendship is a virtue?”


iii) Some questions


Is Camus’ view of Nature here truly romantic? Is not an appeal to nature as objective standard inaccessible to us moderns? Could one then relate this view of nature to our inner expressive powers? Nature reborn out of its transfiguration? Nature’s epiphany? Does Camus fall into a regressive desire for a land long lost for us, that is the Greeks? Is his a failure like Rimbaud’s  ambivalent Soleil et Chair? Or does he find a way to retrace this past era in a way that it opens, for us moderns, new possibilities of becoming? How to link Helen’s beauty with both a political project and an ethical outlook? Can Helen return form exile?





i) General location


            a) longing love of the homeland; permanent exile (Like Maria and Martha, and Caligula, and Jan, and Camus, and us)

            b) love of water and the Sea God (a God in Camus!)

            c) love of light; its ephemerality

            d) love of what is, as it is

            e) split love again: beauty and the humiliated

            f) love of love; an ethics of overflowing giving

            g) strange love of paradoxical articulated secrets


ii) Specific location


a) 194 Medea “You have navigated with raging soul far from the paternal home, passing beyond the sea’s double racks, and now you inhabit a foreign land”

b) 195 “for five days rain had been falling ceaselessly on Algiers and had finally wet the sea itself ….. which ever way you turned you seemed to be breathing water, to be drinking the air” …. and …… 200-201 “before dropping into the sea itself. It is seen from a distance, long before arriving, blue haze still confounded with the sky. But gradually it is condensed as you advance towards it, until it takes the color of the surrounding waters, a huge motionless wave whose amazing leap upward has been brutally solidified above the sea calmed all at once. Still nearer, almost at the gates of Tipasa, here is its frowning bulk, brown and green, here is the old mossy god that nothing will ever shake, a refuge and harbor for its sons, of whom I am one” (The sea of Meursault’s flowing with Marie)(Tipasa, the loved ruins of our youth)

c)  199 “In the earth’s morning the earth must have sprung forth from such light” ….  and …..202 “O light! This is the cry of all the characters of Ancient Drama brought face to face with their fate … I knew it now. In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was an invincible summer in me”. (invincibility in Camus!)

d) 196 “disoriented, walking through the wet, solitary countryside, I tried, at least to recognize that strength, hitherto always at hand, that helps me to accept what is when once I have admitted that I cannot change it. And I could not indeed; reverse the course of time and restore to the world the appearance I had live” (dis-orientation)

e) 203 “yes, there is beauty and there are the humiliated, whatever may be the difficulties of the undertaking, I should like never to be unfaithful either to one or the other”

f) 201-2 “For there is merely bad luck in not being loved; there is misfortune in not loving. All of us are drying up of this misfortune. For violence and hatred dry up the heart itself … I discovered at Tipasa once more that one must  keep intact in oneself a freshness, a cool wellspring of joy, love the day that escapes injustice and return to the combat having won that light” (ethics of benevolence and artistic creation; good-fortune?)

g) 203-204. (a secret cannot be revealed)


iii) Some questions


Is the tension between beauty and the humiliated fully surpassable? Can one think of a longing to a rebirth of the world outside a Christian tradition? What is the relationship between Camus’ moving philosophical work and his moving and lyrical work? Are they complementary, in tension? Does Camus’ loving transfiguration of nature eliminate its silence? If not, then what does it mean to ‘leave everything as it is’?  (Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence)





i) General location


            a) contradiction: desiring the end of desiring. Force of suicide and lack of meaningfulness

            b) a desire too move beyond nihilism as loss of meaning. Beyond exile and malaise.

            c) desire and nostalgia: modernity and homelessness

            d) Lovers’ dialogue: A: “What are you thinking of” B: “Nothing”

            e) death appears: mortality and the end of desiring

            f) Don Juan’s Love: like a platonic cicada

            g) The actor: the body is king

            h) Conqueror: desire for articulation, lost causes and self-conquest.

            i) desire for creation: ephemeral works of art

            j) loving and knowing

            k) desire to break stones; hatred of unhealthy rockiness

            l) desire for happiness


ii) Specific location


a) Preface, 3, 5 “It is confessing that life is too much for you, or that you do not understand it … It is merely confessing that it is not worth the trouble”

b) Preface, “even within the limits of nihilism, it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism”

c) 6, “in a universe suddenly divested of illusion and light, a man feels alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy (a logical contradiction with b?) since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting is properly the feeling of absurdity”

d) 12, “but if that reply is sincere, if it symbolizes that odd state of soul in which the void becomes eloquent, in which the chain of daily gestures is broken, in which the heart vainly seeks the link that will correct it again, then it is as if it were the first sign of the absurd”

e) 57, “the idea that ‘I am’, my way of acting as if everything has meaning, all that is given the lie in vertiginous fashion by the absurdity of a possible death”

f) 69, 71, 72, 76, 77  “the more one loves the stronger the absurd grows” ….. “this life gratifies his every wish and nothing is worse than loosing it. This madman is a creative man” …… “yet it can be said that at the same time nothing is changed and everything is transfigured. What Don Juan realizes in his action is an ethic of quantity, whereas the saint on the contrary, tends towards quality” ….  “what more ghostly image can be called up than a man betrayed by his body who, simply because he did not die in time, lives out the comedy while awaiting the end” ….. “the ultimate end awaited but never desired, the ultimate end is negligible”.

g) 80, 81 “the actor is the intruder. He breaks the spell chaining that soul, and at last the passions can rush onto their stage. They speak in every gesture, they live only through shouts and cries. Thus the actor creates his characters for display. He outlines or sculptures them and slips into their imaginary form transfusing his blood into their phantasms”

h) 84, 88 “don’t assume that because I love action I’ve forgotten how to think …. I can thoroughly  define what I believe. Believe it firmly and see it clearly and surely. Beware of those who say :’I know this too well to be able to express it’ For if they cannot do so this is because they don’t know or it is out of laziness they stopped at the outer crust” (biting the apple of desire?) ….  “conqueror’s sometimes talk of vanquishing and overcoming. But it is always ‘overcoming’ oneself that they mean”

i) 93, 94, 113, 114  ( 93-4)“it is certain that a new torment arises wherever another dies. The childish chasing after forgetfulness, the appeal of satisfaction are now devoid of echo. But the constant tension that keeps man face to face with the world, the ordered delirium that urges him to be receptive to everything leave him another fever. In this universe the work of art is then the sole chance of keeping his consciousness and of fixing its adventures. Creating is living doubly” ….. 113 “ this is the difficult  wisdom that the absurd thought sanctions. Performing these two tasks simultaneously, negating of the one hand and magnifying on the other is the way open to the absurd creator. He must give the void its colors”

j) 97, 98, 117  (97), “there are no frontiers between the disciplines that man sets himself for understanding and loving, they interlock, and the same anxiety merges them”

k) 120, “You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted towards accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of the earth”

l) 123 “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”


iii) Some questions


Is Don Juan just a step on the ladder to the conqueror? Is this not too Hegelian a view? In other words is quantity leading up to quality or are quantity and quality at the same level; even in constant interacting conflict? (like Dyonisius and Apollo in Nietzsche) Can one have a Doña Juana? Is loving and knowing at the same time really possible?  Can one not desire suicide under certain circumstances? How is Sisyphus’ stone linked to Christ’s cross? Does not Camus tend to see the Greeks and the Catholic tradition too much like each other? Can Sisyphus be really happy, or is he just fooling himself? Can one really move beyond nihilism starting from it? Why does Camus say yes and no?  How is it that the body and all we are ‘become’ conscious of its mortality? By reading Camus? By being sentenced to death? By external events; an accident? Is the Myth of Sisyphus simply related to an ‘individualistic’ retrieval of ‘consciousness’; if so then why does the conqueror say, “as for me. I decidedly have something to say about the individual. One must speak of him bluntly and, if need be, with the appropriate contempt” (84)? What then does the conqueror’s self-conquest imply? How is it that art becomes the sole possibility of keeping consciousness?





i) General location


            a) Marie, lovely laughing living Marie. (Like in The Misunderstanding?)

            b) Salomon and his dog (Raymond and nameless girlfriend, a variation)

            c) Friendship; love of Celeste

            d) Love of ghosts: Marie’s traces

            e) Mother’s new love

            f) Love v.s. priest (Cherea v.s. Caesonia?)

            g) Love of life: love of ice-cream


ii) specific location


a) 27, 28, 29, 42, 56, 57, 78 

b) 52

c) 93

d) 75, 79, 80, 113

e) 120


g) 98, 104-5


a)  27, “ I let my hand stray over her breasts” …. I caught her up, put my arm around her waist, and we swam side by side. She was still laughing”, …..  41 “ One could see the outline of her firm little breasts, and her sun tanned face was like a velvety brown flower” …56 “for the first time I seriously considered marrying her” …. 78 “I remember Marie’s describing to me her work with that set smile always of her face”

b) 52 “I tried hard to take care of him; every mortal night after he got that skin disease I rubbed an ointment in. But his real trouble was old age and there is no curing that“ (Meursault’s reaction ‘a yawn’)

c) 93 “ I didn’t say anything, or make any movement, but for the  first time in my life I wanted to kiss a man”

d) 80 “ I never thought of Marie especially. I was distressed by the thought of this woman or that …. so much so that the cell grew crowded with their faces, ghosts of my old passions. That unsettled (desire unsettles?) me, no doubt, but at least it served to kill time” (compare to Don Juan “he is incapable of looking at portraits” (72))

e) 120 “and now it seemed to me I understood why at her life’s end she had taken on a ‘fiancé’. Why she’d played at making a fresh start”

f) 118 “and yet none of his certainties was worth one strand of a woman’s hair. Living as he did, like a corpse, he couldn’t ever be sure of being alive”

g) 104-5 “only one incident stands out; towards the end, while my counsel rambled on, I heard the tin trumpet of an ice-cream vendor in the street, a small, shrill sound cutting across the flow of words. And then a rush of memories went through my mind — memories of a life that was no longer mine and had once provided me with the surest, humblest pleasures: warm smells of summer, my favorite streets, the sky at evening, Marie’s dresses and her laugh. The futility of what was happening here seemed to take me by the throat, I felt like vomiting, and I had only one idea: to get it over, to go back to my cell, and sleep …. and sleep”


iii) Some questions


How does desire’s appearance relate to the idea that Meursault is simply a ‘passive’ character? Is not desire precisely where Meursault finds meaning in life? Is he not truly artistic in his meticulous descriptions of places and people; like Camus, in a sense? Is this a prearticulate sense of bodily activity and meaningfulness a more adequate path towards Caligula’s questioning and dismissal of Drusilla and consequent search for the impossible?  (Like enjoying ice cream, and the smells of summer, and favorite streets, and the evening sky, and Marie’s dresses and especially her laugh) Why did Meursault decide, finally, to marry her? What to say about Meursault indifference to his mother’s death,  to Salamano’s beatings, to Raymond’s beating’s, to his four extra-shots? Just chance? Just psychoanalysis? Just unethical? How do we in our everyday life become aware of the value of life; do we have to be sentenced to death? But is not reading this book a kind of death and a rebirth? How, if at all, can Meursault ever become a political being? Is there not a tension here?



We have in this way come to the end of some of the tracks left by desire in Camus’ words. But surely many other traces remain untracked, and if we are to follow the Conqueror’s conception of conscience, somehow we must be able to articulate what moves elusively in all these marks and figures. But for now, tending to believe that such a project is doomed to fail, let us remind ourselves of the ambivalent love of ice that Sophocles tells us children feel; that same love of ice, as of ice-cream, which triggered in Meursault the surest and humblest pleasures:


            “Like children that beneath a frosty heaven

            Snatch in their eagerness at icicles

            (First they are ravish with their latest toy;

            Yet soon they find it hurts their hands to hold

            That icy thing: and yet how hard to drop it!) —

            Even such are lovers too, when what they love

            Tears them betwixt ‘I would not’ and ‘I would’” (Sophocles, Lucas, 224)


Desire traced has come into our hands but it has melted; its gone. This is a feeling Camus knew all too well. It, too, is present in the gaining of our own self and meaning:  “For I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, If I try to define it and summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers” (MoS, 19).

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We have so become accustomed to looking at ourselves in mirrors, that even when facing ourselves we overlook ourselves. And not having seen ourselves, once we turn around, we are blind to the beauty and the injustices of the world. Lifeless we see no life; deaf we hear no cries. We have lost the child’s playful love of mirrors. Even Zarathustra, who has to be handed a mirror by a child, is a stranger to himself:

‘O Zarathustra,’ the child said to me, ‘look at yourself in the mirror’. But when I looked into the mirror I cried out and my heart was shaken; for it was not myself I saw … (TSZ, II, “The Child with the Mirror”)

Zarathustra, unlike us, dares to look; he dares to challenge what he finds staring back at him, a “devil’s grimace and a scornful laughter”.

One way of shedding some light on the event known as ‘nihilism’, involves recovering ourselves, and the world, through mirror-like relations. Just as mirrors provide the possibility for a doubling split between spaced figures, so nihilism itself is a split phenomenon arising from what is truly spaceless, a point in which we learn of the death of God. In order to understand the duality characteristic of nihilism, I shall turn in Section I to Zarathustra’s creator, Nietzsche. Why him? Well because Camus sees in his works, in the multitude of colorful mirrors it provides, and the multitude of mirrors it shatters, a lucid reflection of the emergence of modern meaninglessness. The death of God marks, according to Nietzsche, our modern identity. It is an event in which all possible reflection is shadowed; an event which forecloses all foreshadowing. From it, flowers nihilism in its two principal mirroring modalities, the passive and the active. But besides this important theoretical gain, for Camus, Nietzsche is one of those whom it is worthwhile to mirror creatively: “if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply” (MoS, 3). But, can we, really? We, who are unable even to mirror ourselves.

In Section II, I will proceed to look at one who loves mirrors as few do, Camus’ Caius. He comes to mirrors by confronting the death of his beloved. In Caligula, his imperial name, passive nihilism shows one of its two faces, that of murder. His feverish mirror becomes stained in blood. It is precisely because of its reddish reflection, the one which likewise invades the moon he longs for, that he must in the end break it. But ironically, at the moment where all reflection ends, Caligula claims to be finally alive. Could this be possible?

Finally, in the last section of this essay, I will take up Camus’ remark that “even within the limits of nihilism it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism” (Preface, MoS). The guiding questions here will be: can we truly move beyond nihilism? Would it not be better, perhaps, to say we learn to move within a certain kind of nihilism, that is to say, its active variant as elucidated by Nietzsche? I will try to look here at the possibility of re-covering ——- in other words, covering anew ——- ourselves and the world through a new light that streams from a web of mirrors exhibiting an ephemeral value. We will be able to look at, and through, an artistic kaleidoscopic whose motion is born out of the present desire of life. But in this peculiar kind of kaleidoscope, the playful child who delights in it, is him/herself part of the figures and colors recreated. Perhaps by partaking of some of the dancing figures which Camus himself allows us to see ——-and as in a mirror, reflect upon—— we will come closer to understanding what Camus meant by saying that ‘creation is the great mime’. (MoS, 94). (*1)


In The Gay Science Nietzsche wrote concerning ‘New Struggles’: “God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown —-and we —– we still have to vanquish his shadow, too” (TGS, 108). The divine mirror on which we saw ourselves mirrored has been shattered. Of it there remain only fragments and the shadow of a corpse. But a shadow is much like a mirror; for it, too, is our other. But this other, unlike the reflected self facing us in the mirror, is born out of the absence of all sunlight. Nevertheless, the shadow spoken of, is of infinite dimensions. To divine mirroring, there follows a dead God’s omnipresent shadow.

The death of God is a modern phenomenon which alludes to the downfall of all previously held hierarchical valuations. The divine axle, that standard around which we orbited, has been crushed. (*2) We are left suspended in mid-air; or no, mid-air implies there being a middle to which one can refer in order to place oneself appropriately. There is no middle anywhere now. Instead we are exiled into a weird atmosphere lacking any gravitational pull whatsoever. Flung around, disoriented where once we knew our way around, we see the land we once stood on, crumbling. (*3) Where lay constructions now appear ever-fading ruins. We are overtaken by the aquatic fluidity of it all:

In the horizon of the infinite.—-We have left the land and have embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us—- indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us. Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean: to be sure it does not always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of graciousness. But hours will come when you will realize that it is infinite and there is nothing more awesome than infinity. Oh, the poor bird that felt free and now strikes the wall of this cage! Woe, when you feel homesick …… there is no longer any land. (TGC, 124) (*4)

There is nothing but ocean straight ahead; only in the sea can we come to see ourselves again. And on it, knowing of its dual nature, at the same time a silky gold and a deep devouring black, we landless moderns must set sail. But this quest is precisely the quest for ourselves because looking overboard we cannot overlook the reflection which stares at us from beneath. The sea is the mirror of mirrors:

Free man, you will forever love the sea!

The sea’s your mirror; you observe your soul

Perpetually as its waves unroll,

Your spirit’s chasm yawns as bitterly (Baudelaire, 51) (*5)

Like waves, we long for a land upon which to break. But instead, for us, there remains only a world rid of continents; a true laberynth made up of watered walls. Our universe, at its worst, is that of a whirlpool sucking us to the dark depths where shadows find comfort.

But even if we look up, tired of gazing downwards, we find much the same picture, that of utter confusion. Even our galaxies have ceased to follow the regularity we had become accustomed to. We voyage in a milky way, but one lacking orbits, lacking milkiness, lacking predictable ways:

Parable.—–Those thinkers in whom all stars move in cyclic orbits are not the most profound. Whoever looks into himself as into vast space and carries galaxies in himself, also knows how irregular all galaxies are; they lead into the chaos and labyrinth of existence. (TGC, 322)

Looking at oneself not only involves the sea, but star filled galaxies where all light is born. However, our galaxies, these have to be constructed anew out of chaotic ruins. Nostalgia reminds us of once known star systems where orbits, milk and predictability were taken for granted.

But continuously longing for this center upon which to gravitate, we start to become dizzy as never before. The chaos that emerges and the marine labyrinth into which we are flung leave us at a loss. Meaning and purpose mean nothing.

He who feels the blurring of our disintegrating cartographies; he who holds a compass liberated from any magnetic pull; he who knows himself at a crossroads whose point of origin is quicksand; he who feels all this is the mad human:

‘Whither is God?’, he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him —- you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? …Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? …. who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? Is not the greatness of this deed to great for us? (TGS, 125)

Sunlight is effacing; night sets in, enlightened by a blood covered moon. Thirst becomes unquenchable for to quench it there is only the salty water of the ocean which, the mad human tells us, we have already drank up. Even the sea seems permanently deserted, lifeless. The madman announces an event, but nobody listens. Breaking his lantern, he tells us, from the ensuing shadowy atmosphere: “deeds though done, still require to be seen and heard …. themselves” (ibid.). But we, who are unable to look at ourselves in mirrors, how could we not overlook the deed that precisely shatters all mirroring?

Nevertheless Nietzsche did try to see; as a matter of fact, he foresaw as few have. His tenacity allows us to gain clarity while still among shadows, shadows whose pull is like that of black holes. Nietzsche stood his ground for, as Camus tells us, one who “has become conscious of the absurd ….. is forever bound to it” (MoS, 31). The absurdity of nihilism is what Nietzsche faced. The deed, God’s death, triggers an event, the leveling of all values; the ‘reign’ of emptiness, the will to nothingness. If God’s death arrives as shadow, then surely nihilism is that shadow which we carry upon ourselves; like Zarathustra his dwarf. Ours is not a cross, but a cross’ shadow. Nietzsche places himself at the crossroads, at that point where the two logs meet, that point where the divorce between humans and the world has taken place. And there, in that crack which follows the earthquake —-a crack quick to close itself—– lucidly he awaits; and listening intently, there he sees two paths flowering in different contradictory directions. (*7)

The question “What is nihilism”, is an odd question to ask. The real question, for Nietzsche, is quite different: what does nihilism, the situation emerging out of God’s death, mean to whom? For one does not, in a parallel way, ask what is the beautiful, nor what is the good, or the true:

In every case it is a question of the conditions of preservation of a certain type of man: thus the herd man will experience the value feeling of the beautiful in the presence of different things than will the exceptional or over-man” (WtP, 804) (8)

Beauty, goodness and truthfulness are taken to be different things depending on the character of those concerned. And this holds true, likewise, for the interpretation of nihilism.

Nihilism is an event we as moderns share. It is in this sense that Nietzsche speaks of it as being a “normal condition” (WtP, 23). But this normal condition, which we have seen is defined precisely because of it abnormality, its anomie, is one which can be faced in different ways. And the way we do face it, says a lot of the way we face ourselves in mirrors. How we see the world and how we perceive who we are, are as inseparable as a coin’s two sides.

Even though Nietzsche has been all to keen on portraying, as vividly as possible, the disorientation that stems from the death of God, he wants anything but simply despairing beings who embrace as desirable the loss of all valuations. Not only has he told us that we have a ship on which to cruise the ocean, but likewise reminded us of the silky gold graciousness of the sea upon which we travel. And furthermore, his keen eyesight brings to light that “only ONE interpretation succumbed; but because of the fact it passed as THE interpretation, it looks as if there were no sense in existence, as if everything were in vain” (Melendez, FP, 5 (71), 1887, p 31). God’s death is the culminating point in the history of a unique interpretation; an interpretation which claimed to be the only mirroring possibility. Its having been questioned leaves now open the possibility of a plurality of mirrors.

For the univocal pessimist, the loss of an interpretation necessarily involves the loss of all possible interpretations. Unsurpassable meaninglessness ensues:

Everything lacks meaning (the impossibility of practicing one unique interpretation of the world to which immense efforts have been dedicated —– awakens the suspicion of the falsity of all interpretations of the world —-) Buddhist tendency, longing for nothingness (Melendez, 2(127), 1885-86, p. 23) (9)

The pessimist rids all life of meaning for life does not fit his/her notion of what meaningfulness is. The pessimist prides himself on dis-covering the world; but his egoism lies precisely in his/her passion simply to un-cover, leaving everything nakedly, shamefully, barren:

it has been discovered, the world is not worth what we thought … a senselessness which finally begins to be understood after unfortunate roundabouts, a Comedy of Errors, a bit too prolonged, which shamefully looses itself in nothingness. (Melendez, FP, 3(14), 1886), p. 31) (10)

Love of disorientation. Desire for an endless fall free of any meaning whatsoever. A decision to remain in perpetual indecision. Triumph of the shadow and its aimless wandering, its coldness incapable of taking in the light required to carry on the quest for horizons of sense. All this is the pessimist, and much less. Through the pessimist, who is nothing but shadow, one gains clarity on the phenomenon of nihilism. His/her shadow asks Zarathustra:

Nothing is alive anymore that I love; how should I still love myself? …. how could anything please me any more? Do I have a goal any more? A haven toward which my sail is set? A good wind? Alas, only he who knows where he is sailing also knows which wind is good and the right wind for him. What is left to me now? A heart, weary and imprudent, a restless will, flutter-wings, a broken-backbone. Trying thus to find my home ——O Zarathustra, do you know it? ….’Where is —-my home?’ I ask and search and have searched for it, but I have not found i. O eternal everywhere, O eternal nowhere, O eternal—in vain!’ (TSZ, IV, “The Shadow”)

Windless wandering upon boats without masts; ships peopled by back-bone lacking creatures; eternal homelessness and never-ending directionless wandering; all this is the world of shadowy figures. Theirs is an adventure which is truly an undertaking, that is to say, an ‘under’-taking. A death sought in dreamt ships, among ghostly seamen vent on fictitious quests. Shadows who, lacking any port, disdain all possible ports. Each and every possible site of arrival is burnt out of resentment and resignation. A lifeless life of blackened mirrors, is for them a perfect life:

Perfect nihilism

Its symptoms: The great scorn

The great compassion

The great destruction

and its culminating point: a doctrine which precisely makes of the life of nausea, of compassion, of the pleasure of destruction, more intense, and teaches them as absolute and eternal” (Melendez, FP, 11 (149), 1987-88, p.67)

Perfect teachers of the hatred of life. Desire vent on destroying itself; on punishing itself.

But for every shadow in us, there lies a living laughing being from which it stems. Not all destruction need simply rejoice in its destructive abilities. This is why nihilism is not a one way affair; but much more like a coin with two opposing faces. Nihilism flowers into two variants which stand to each other as one stands to a mirror. On the one hand, the passively imprisoned image, on the other, the actively living human:

“Nihilism. It is ambiguous:

A. Nihilism as sign of increased power of the spirit; as active nihilism.

B. Nihilism as decline and recession of the power of the spirit; as passive nihilism” (WtP, 22)

Active nihilism, for it Nietzsche, for the most part, stands as mirroring model due to his lively confrontation with the void. A dignified spirit standing its ground under the most extreme of disasters. Affirmation of a life desired ever and ever anew just as it is; a ‘yes’ to a loved narration which eternal recurs. (*11) A faint light in the dark world of madness and indifference. The fragile light born out of a candle in the quiet of the night onboard our interim home:

“With ropes I have learned to climb many a window; with swift legs I climbed into high masts; and to sit on high masts of knowledge seemed to me no small happiness; to flicker like small flames on high masts —- a small light only, and yet a great comfort for shipwrecked sailors and castaways” (TSZ, III, “On the Spirit of Gravity”)

Our homes, ships with backbones and true sea-humans. Zarathustra, climber of masts whose words shine in order to be mirrored creatively. Creatively, that is, not like blind shadow-like followers. Shadows to which Zarathustra asks: “this is my way; where is yours? —-thus I answered those who asked me ‘the way’. For the way —that does not exist” (ibid.).

Caligula is no follower, and he too will tells us of his way.


In the ‘Introduction’ to The Rebel Camus lets us know that absurdity and mirrors go hand in hand: “in a certain way, the absurd, which claims to express man in his solitude, really makes him live in front of a mirror” (R, 8). Caligula’s absurdity lies precisely in his being a lover of mirrors. But what he sees there, in front of him, is not the light that Zarathustra won through his unconditional affirmation of life. He sees there, at a distance, that which Zarathustra once saw, a “devil’s grimace and a scornful laughter”. That grimace and laughter somehow tied to the passive nihilist.

Passive nihilism itself is a complex phenomenon which Camus portrays as split; it too, like nihilism construed broadly, is like a coin. When tossed its downward fall resembles that of a guillotine. When it lands on the emptiness from which it springs, two possible outcomes can follow: heads is suicide, tails murder. Absolute nihilism

“which accepts suicide as legitimate, leads even more easily, to logical murder. If our age admits, with equanimity, that murder has its justification, it is because of this indifference to life which is the mark of nihilism” (R, 6)

Caligula’s coin has landed heads-side up. Murder is Caligula’s peculiar sort of passive nihilism. But ironically it seems completely opposed to all passivity; it is active nihilism set head over heels. All this is better seen by looking at the mirroring pages of Camus’ Caligula.

The recurrent appeal to nothingness with which the play starts, stems from their being no news of the emperor who, on parting, himself had nothing to say (C, 3). Caligula, the political name for Caius, the man, has left to see, for the last time, Drusilla. Loving her was an affair “something more than brotherly” (5). Face to face with the death of his beloved, Caligula disconcerts us. Rather then entering into a radical disorientation, he remains calm, cool, in control: “he stroke it with 2 fingers and seemed lost in thought for a while. Then swung around and walked out calmly” (5). Caligula’s body has come into contact with Drusilla’s shadow. The death of God manifests itself for him in the death of the beloved one. And yet, seemingly, nothing happens. The others, most of whom believe that loosing a loved one “doesn’t amount to much” (4), do not yet perceive that Caligula has already been lost to them: “and ever since we’ve been hunting for him in vain” (5). Caligula evades them for they disdain what Caius has felt.

It seems to me not at all self-deceptive to seriously take Caesonia’s words concerning Caius’ love for Drusilla: “one thing is sure, he loved her. And its cruel to have someone die whom only yesterday you were holding in your hands” (10). (*12) But, why believe her? Particularly given the fact that Caligula himself, again and again, denies this? Because she, of all the characters in the play, knows love. She alone will stand by Caligula, as unconditionally as the fool by King Lear: “Caligula: Swear to stand by me, Caesonia. Caesonia: I needn’t swear. You know I love you” (17).

Nevertheless, what Caesonia affirms, Caligula denies vehemently. The emperor denies, from the start, the determining encounter with mortality which was his touch of Drusilla: “love is a side issue, I swear to you, her death is not the point” (8), or elsewhere, “what nonsense is this? Why drag in Drusilla? Do you imagine love’s the only thing that can make a man shed tears?” (15). All this talk of love is, for Caligula, pure nonsense. In him loving is senseless, it turns out to be that loving is precisely what lacks all meaning; it is, for the emperor, nihilism at its clearest. And yet, he cannot stop desiring and loving.

We do not, and should not, believe Caligula. Why take his ‘swearing’ seriously if he sets out to replace all Gods? Something deep down in us rebels against Caligula’s denial of Drusilla. And we faintly know why. We sense somehow that Caius’ body feels what Caligula’s logical knowing fails to admit. Caius has touched Drusilla, and is moved, Caligula moves back untouched. Drusilla’s death shatters Caius’ every bodily sense, it makes life senseless:

Pain everywhere, in my chest, in my legs and arms. Even my skin is raw, my head is buzzing. I feel like vomiting. But worst of all is this queer taste in my mouth. Not blood or death or fever, but a mixture of all the three” (5)

Caius’ skin, that which stands between him and the world, between him and Drusilla, is raw material. The body is pure flesh left naked and vulnerable to the world’s hostility and indifference. But Caligula, well he knows better. He finds this new taste in his mouth not so much queer as desirable.

Nevertheless in the first entrance of Caius-Caligula unto the scene of the action, he appears not naked, but rather covered. That which covers his body, and garments, is the earthly mud of a torrential night:

“His legs caked with mud, his garments dirty, his hair wet, his look distraught. He brings his hand to his mouth several times. Then he approaches a mirror, stopping abruptly, when he catches sight of his reflected self” (6-7)

And with the world sticking to him Caius-Caligula catches sight of himself as he never had before. Without Drusilla’s absence, a love which cost even the overstepping of the incest taboo, Caligula would not have come to be present to himself as he is now. A child gave Zarathustra his mirror; mortality gave Caligula his. Stopping abruptly one can imagine Caligula’s silent mouth saying: “I am alive, you, my love, are dead; I cannot be happy; and if I cannot, no one will”.

With Drusilla’s death, Caligula enters the night. And in it he sees a being so overwhelmingly lit that he longs for it as he perhaps never did for his beloved sister. Raising his eyes above Drusilla’s fragility, Caligula finds a pregnant moon overflowing in light. The moon is majestic, seemingly eternal; Drusilla, perhaps lovely, but neither majestic nor long-lasting:

Caligula: Yes, I wanted the moon

Helicon: Why?

Caligula: It’s one of those things I haven’t got …. I couldn’t get it ….That’s why I’m tired (7)

Caligula desires the moon, he longs to possess it. Drusilla he wanted and kind of had; but she was snatched from him. The moon, if he could have it, that would certainly, seem to be, a much more consummate affair. For the moon is a celestial being, not simply a worldly one: (*13)

“Really, this world of ours, the schema of things as they call it is quite intolerable. That is why I want the moon, or happiness or eternal life, something, in fact, that may sound strange, but which isn’t of this world” (8)

Only in the moon can Caligula now find eternal happiness; but scarcely does he know that for him the evanescent happiness of human evenings will never again be possible. Scarcely does he realize that the moon is only a mirror, its light source not of itself. The moon makes sense only by way of the rays of the sun and the permanent longing for the return of daylight.

Caligula, logician as he is, is one of those who really “dare(s) to follow his ideas” (13). Caligula persists as few do. He alone will have the courage of tracking down the moon. This hunter adventurer is set on “exploring the impossible, or more accurately, it is a question of making the impossible, possible.” (13). It is a quest begun out of a real death, carried through on a red sea populated by deadly encounters, and its circular conclusion being the proud prize of all hunters. It is a syllogistic proof of a single truth: “a childishly, simple, obvious, almost silly truth, but one that s hard to come by and heavy to endure … Men die and are not happy” (8). God’s die and they are not happy either; but what Zarathustra derived from this was certainly not what Caligula believed inevitable.

The mirror upon which Caius stares at himself shows him the magnanimity proper to an emperor; the mirror blurs Caius so, that now he sees only Caligula. Mirrors sometimes can be made to distort; Caligula’s eyesight so distorts this one that he appears magnified a thousand fold. And the reflection which reaches his eyes, much like in King Oedipus’ case, makes him turn around and see in the world, and us, nothing but lies and self-deception. (*14). But the Roman, unlike his Greek counterpart, feels a gnawing need to become a teacher. Caius has felt the truth, he has earned the diploma. In contrast Caligula believes it his mission to set out and impose: “for I know what they need and haven’t got. They’re without understanding, and they need a teacher; someone who knows what he’s talking about” (9).

Caligula’s denial of the experience of the death of the beloved becomes norm; his mirror is the only possible one. We must all stand in line to face ourselves through it. Whoever sees not death as Caligula himself does, must be sentenced to death. Then his raw skin will be made to feel what up to then it, stubbornly, refused to know. While Drusilla remains as the dead beloved unjustly taken away, those Caligula sets out to murder are his/her ignorant students, who, for their own good, must be ‘taken away’. Like the shadow Caligula task is truly an ‘under’-taking. And ironically, what Caligula sees flowering from this enlightening project is a noble end: “then perhaps I shall be transfigured and the world renewed; then men will die no more and be happy” (17). Caligula has come up with the answer to the predicament of death; but only faintly does he perceive that his transfiguration is such that it leaves no figure whatsoever to play with.

But, if to transfigure is to change in form, then Caius does so transfigure himself. He transfigures himself in that his now, unique and only, form seems to lie in the emperor’s figure. Facing the mirror once again, the transfigured Caius faces an image free of either landscapes as background, or comforting beings as companions;

Caligula: All gone, you see my dear … no more masks. Nothing, nobody left. Nobody? No, that’s not true. Look Caesonia. Come here all of you and look …. (He plants himself in front of the mirror in a grotesque attitude).

Caesonia: (staring, horrified, at the mirror) Caligula!

Caligula: Yes …… Caligula. (18)

The world is truly renewed, in it there remains one figure, one reflection, one interpretation. Only Caligula remains in the world. The transfigurative murdering of others and disruption of the world can commence. The untouchable is violated: murdered father’s and son’s, raped wives, usurped property. Anomie becomes the imposed norm (9).

Extreme solitude would seem to be price for all of this. This is what Scipio, whose father has been cowardly murdered, seems to believe. “How horrible loneliness yours must be”, he tells Caligula (36). But the latter again disconcerts us, as many years later will Meursault. The emperor is emperor, and not simply out of luck:

“You don’t realize that one is never alone…. Those we have killed are always with us. But they are no great trouble. It’s those we have loved; those who loved us and whom we did not love; regrets, desires, bitterness and sweetness” (37) (*15, *16)

Those who loved us and were taken away from us; that is the first, albeit unacknowledged, premise in Caligula’s criminal argumentative process. Drusilla’s absence haunts Caligula till the end, but everything he says seems to deny, again and again, our claim. Even nearing death he clings to his indifferent attitude towards the loss of the beloved’s face:

Love isn’t enough for me; I realized it then, and I realize it today again … To love someone means that one’s willing to grow old beside that person. That sort of love is outside my sort of range; Drusilla old would have been far worse than Drusilla dead” (71).

Caligula’s range is, as I briefly mentioned, sky oriented. And perhaps we might be tempted to say that he has real reasons to say that his sky-oriented range is not simply the desire of a madman; but rather can be considered as a real, human, possibility. Perhaps, like the Socrates of the Symposium, his desire for the moon can be seen as moving, somehow, beyond that worldly, too fragile love of a Drusilla condemned to aging and passing away.

Once, his reign of terror already on the roll, Caligula tells us that out of the mirror on which he only saw himself, there came a new light; the light of the moon. Once, while in bed, Caligula’s longing seems to have been temporarily consummated. The full moon itself decides to share its reflected and guiding light for those lost in the midst of darkness and utter despair:

“to come back to the moon —it was a cloudless August night …… She was coy, to begin with. I’d gone to bed. First she was blood-red, low on the horizon. Then she began rising, quicker and quicker, brighter and brighter all the while. And the higher she climbed, the paler she grew, till she was like a milky pool in a dark wood rustling with stars. Slowly, shyly she approached, through the warm night air, soft, light as gossamer, naked in beauty. She crossed the threshold of my room, glided to my bed, poured herself into it, and flooded me with her smiles and sheen …” (46)

The moon has shared itself with Caius, once lover of art. But the alleged encounter takes place too late. The moon’s reddish color perhaps stems from the evening contact with the evanescent sun, but Caligula’s reddish color projects from his murdering hands. The emperor cannot even comprehend what has just happened between Caius and the guiding light of night. Caligula now speaks, and with his words, the charm of the moon is forever lost: “so you see Helicon, I can say, without boasting, that I’ve had her” (ibid.) Revealing the intimacy of his encounter, viewing it as the hard won prize in a hunting competition; precisely this, is boasting.

And Caius knows this. This is why, just prior to the final mirroring encounter with Cherea, Caligula and Caius stand once again facing each other. Together they doubt. Caius seems to deny that they ever actually had the moon. Caligula ironically says:

Suppose the moon were brought here, everything would be different. That was the idea, wasn’t it? … After all, why shouldn’t Helicon bring it off? One night, perhaps he’ll catch her sleeping on a lake, and carry her, trapped in a glistening net, all slimy with weeds and water, like a pale bloated fish drawn from the depths, Why not Caligula? Why not, indeed? (49)

An ‘idea’, that is what it was all about; an idea, not a living loving act. Or was it? Caligula displaces his search for the moon on Helicon; Caius knows, deep inside, that his ‘trapping’ it is doomed to fail. But to our surprise the moon seems to have, itself, been transfigured. What Caligula intends to trap, in a move towards modesty, is not anymore, the heavenly body. The moon has descended, or perhaps, as Caligula says so himself, emerged from the depths of the earth. Moreover, the moon is now one which in its proximity comes to be covered by water and weeds, and unavoidably, by the mud that covers Caligula from the start. Disconcerting revelations follow. Caligula now he seems intent on a net-size moon. The moon, it seems, is no longer that unreachable object overlooking our world; but a reflection found in the mirror-like calm of a lake in a cloudless night of August. This is a human moon, and Caligula’s halfway realization, makes his tragic fate, even more so. It is not a chance event that Caligula, as we shall see, is loved and admired by many of his own.

The words just analyzed, we are told by Camus, are to be spoken in complete irony, and irony implies expressing that which one disbelieves in such a way that all who hear understand this masking. This is why to their pronunciation there follows a muffled voice which, like MacBeth’s, knows of the inevitability of the events to follow: “too many dead, too many dead — that makes an emptiness …. No, even if the moon were mine, I could not retrace my way … There’s no return” (49). To the emptiness born of the loss of Drusilla, Caligula adds a self-inflicted one. The world has become stained in red, looking at it unbearable. Caligula must look ahead, to the mirror in front. But before the ultimate confrontation, that of Caius and Caligula, the emperor is met by three successive attacks; attacks born out of love and/or admiration. But just as with the moonstruck encounter, these final encounters, take place after Caligula acknowledges that truly, “there’s no return”.

In the first place Caligula stands face to face with Cherea. The defender of a courageously held ‘common sense perspective’ likens Caligula to a rather odd ‘murdering Socrates’: “he forces on to think. There’s nothing like insecurity for stimulating the brain. That, of course, is why he’s so much hated” (58). Cherea, who sees himself as an “ordinary” man (52) desiring “to live and be happy” (51) refused, from the start, to join the hunters. He is no coward, rather he knows death’s inevitable appearance, but he likewise knows of the different ways of dying:

“to loose one’s life is no great matter; when the time comes I will have the courage to loose mine. But what’s intolerable is to see one’s life being drained of meaning, to be told there is no reason for existing. A man can’t live without some reason for living” (21)

He “refuse(s) to live in a topsy-turvy world”, he wants to stand secure (51). Cherea is a land creature, not a lover of the sea. His mirror is that which challenges, like no other, Caligula’s pretensions. He cannot bring himself either to hate Caligula, for he knows him not to be happy, nor to scorn him, for he knows him to be courageous (51). Nevertheless he will, and does, participate in the final stabbing of the maddened emperor.

A second mirror now appears in the mirror full world where Caligula’s death is steadily approaching. Scipio reflects a warmth for Caligula which Cherea did not. He both admired and loved Caius. (10) Fatherless because of Caligula’s ruthlessness, Scipio knows a love of Caligula which goes beyond the bondage of familial ties. Their bounding element is art. And this linkage is for Scipio unbreakable: “I cannot be against him, even if I killed him, my heart would still be with him” (56). Bonded by the heart, Scipio, though not a coward, denies himself revenge. His counterattack lies in the pen as a sword:

Pursuit of happiness that purifies the heart

Skies rippling with light

O wild, sweet festival of joys, frenzy without hope (66)

Scipio’s three line poem shines forth in a different light. The pursuit of happiness lies not only in knowing the bitter cold of a hopelessly unending night. Happiness as purification; that seems to be more a matter of the permanent interplay of night, and its frenzy, and day with its ‘skies rippling with light’. Happiness, as we shall see, in our third section, lies in between these; in the eveningsat Algiers. Scipio leaves; his poem unheard. Caius’ love of art mocked by Caligula’s disheartening wreckage. Another beloved has died to Caligula, and, as he told us, it is those loved who are the real problem: “I shall go away, far away, and try to discover the meaning of it all ……. Good-by dear Caius, when all is ended remember that I loved you” (67). Scipio loves Caius, the human being who has lost his beloved, not Caligula the human who has lost himself, his humanity. This is why he too finally participates in the culminating self-defensive act.

The third and final mirror which places itself against Caligula’s, is that of Caesonia’s love. But this one, the most fragile, is precisely the one which has been torn to pieces, even before the beginning of the play, with Drusilla’s death. Caesonia’s love for Caligula makes one shudder “we will defend you. There are many of us left who love you” (69). It is alone for her that Caligula has felt a sincere emotion a “shameful tenderness”(71). Caesonia makes Caligula blush, and she reminds tenderly of Caligula’s childish nature (10). But Caligula’s cheeks of filled with a red from a very different source; his tenderness buried under the redness of his crimes.

And Caligula knows this. Out of the two types of love and happiness he knows, he admits to have chosen the murderous kind:

I live, I kill, I exercise the rapturous power of the destroyer, compared with which the power of the creator is merest child’s play. And this, this is happiness; this and nothing else —-this intolerable release, devastating scorn, blood, hatred all round me; the glorious isolation of a man who all his life long nurses and gloats over the ineffable joy of the unpunished murderer; the ruthless logic that crushes out human lives (he laughs), that’s crushing yours too, Caesonia, so as to perfect the utter loneliness that is my heart’s desire.” (72)

Caligula’s destructive nature undoubtedly places him in the field of the passive nihilists; but his passivity can only be understood as a negative, counterclockwise activity turned against the world, others and himself.

But even this rage towards the world, this desire for complete loneliness, is marred by his incapacity to kill Caesonia (72). Drusilla was taken away, but if Caesonia were to die it would be by his hand, not by that of fate.

Nevertheless a kind of loneliness, not absolute, not so perfect as Caligula would like, sets in; it is that odd loneliness characteristic of a dialogue among identical, symmetrical beings, among Caius and Caligula who are one and the same. Caius, the man, the art lover, the living body who senses the loss of the beloved, he who knows of tears and of trembling, in the first instance condemns the distorted image of Caligula, that over-magnified image reflected on the red-tanned mirror: “Caligula! You, too; you too, are guilty”. But this momentary humane resurgence is followed by an imperial denial : “then what of it — a little more, a little less? Yet who can condemn me in this world where there is no judge, where nobody is innocent?” (72). A true duel is on the make, and in the space separating the duelers, sincerity is born. Caius, distressed, realizes now that the moon will “never, never, never” be his, and self-questioningly asks himself why, even though “innocence will triumph”, he is not among those sharing in it (72).

But Caligula’s calmer speech, that same calm attitude with which he left Drusilla’s inert body, is now reflected from the glassy surface. Calmness quickly diminishes and a heartbreaking screaming sets in:

If I‘d had the moon, if love were enough, all might have been different. But where could I quench this thirst? (*17) What human heart, what god, would have for me the depth of a great lake? (kneeling, weeping) There’s nothing in this world, or in the other, made to my stature, And yet I know (presumably Caligula) and you know (presumably Caius)(still weeping stretches out his arms to the mirror) that all I need is for the impossible to be. The impossible!”

The emperor kneels and weeps; his body has partly recovered his humanity. His knees on the floor remind us of the descent of the moon to the lake. Earthly bound, Caligula stretches out his hands, but in that space between him and Caius, he now only sees emptiness and death; death of the beloved, absence of the moon:

(screaming) See, I stretch out my hands, but it’s always you I find, you only, confronting me and I’ve come to hate you….. I have chosen a wrong path, a path that leads to nothing, My freedom isn’t the right one … The air tonight is heavy as the sum of human sorrows” (73).

Though heavy, the air is not so heavy that Caligula cannot pick up the stool and hurl it with all his strength at the mirror image which from the beginning has overgrown itself. Watching his reflected self disappear into shattered fragments Caligula shouts: “To history Caligula. Go down to history” (74). Caligula goes down into history for each and every one of us who, when we look at ourselves in mirrors, overlook ourselves. In each look of ours at the everyday mirrors that permeate our modern world, Caligula-Caius appears. In this sense, Caligula can claim to still live at the moment of death. We are challeged by the simple truth from which he derived the wrong conclusions.

Nietzsche too knew of this rebirth to which he alluded at the beginning of Book IV of The Gay Science. After a destructive period, Nietzsche wins for himself the miracle of Sanctus Januarius, whose blood, once a year, becomes liquid again:

With a flaming spear you crushed

All its ice until my soul

Roaring toward the ocean rushed

Of its highest hope and goal.

Even healthier it swells,

Lovingly compelled but free:

Thus it lauds your miracles

Fairest month of January! (TGC, IV)

Camus knew himself of such new beginnings.


When we moderns try to reflect on nature, we do not see ourselves reflected through it. For us, nature has ceased to be a source we can mirror for it manifests itself as the other which confronts us with its overwhelming force and its silencing indifference. Nature is no home for us:

“in a universe suddenly divested of illusion and light, a man feels alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home, or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting is properly the feeling of the absurd (MoS, 6)

The universe has been rid of all its masks, there are no illusions left. And without illusions, no magic. Moreover, without light, the playful interplay of mirrors is destroyed. The home we once inhabited no longer is, and the one we longed to make our permanent habitat no longer will be, it never really was. Looking back one sees not cities but only ruins; looking forward, simply a void, not the divine city in which we thought our long pilgrimage would finally come to an end.

The most familiar, the beloved face itself becomes faceless: “there are days when under the familiar face of a woman, we see as a stranger her we had loved months or years ago” (14). The beloved stands unattached; living, but for all intent and purposes, dead-like. To corporeal intermingling there follows a separation and an endless longing. But not only personal beauty erodes, the beauty of the world too lies ravaged. Undressed, behind its illusory meaningful garments, there lies nothing but corroding hostility:

“at the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outlines of the trees at this moment loose their illusory meaning … the primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia (14) (*18)

The colorful and meaningful mirror upon which we once saw ourselves reflected, lies now shattered into fragments (18). And with its infinite fragmentation, we ourselves become like nucleus-free electrons. Our-’selves’ are “nothing but water slipping through (our) fingers” (19). Nature’s silent indifference and incomprehensible violence is met, or better, never met, by our inability to hear and articulate.

Setting a date to which neither party cares to attend; something like this is the absurd. It “lies in neither of the elements compared (but) … is born in their confrontation” (30). But a confrontation requires an intermediate space, that space in which duels take place. It is a space of silence and darkness where we see, now, not simply God’s death, but our own mortality in a godless, and many times gutless, marine environment: “the idea that ‘I am’, my way of acting as if everything has meaning, all that is given the great lie in vertiginous fashion by the absurdity of a possible death” (57).

Caligula, for example, could never have proclaimed this ‘I am’. The confrontation between Caligula and Caius is born within the space lying between them. This space is precisely the “no man’s land” which separates Marie and Meursault in her only visit to the condemned stranger (S, 76). It is also that horrifying space that opens up in the mirror-like confrontation between Maria and Martha at the end of The Misunderstanding. (Maria and Martha, Spanish names whose three first letter match each other in perfect symmetry; three letters which, furthermore, in Spanish mean nothing other than ‘sea’. The sea in which alone we can see ourselves.)

Now, exile would truly be ‘without remedy’ if this intermediate space between us and the world, us and others, and us and ourselves, were totally devoid of any life forms whatever. But to our astonishment life seems capable of flourishing even in such arid territories. This is why we should take Camus literally when he says; the absurd is “born out of (a) confrontation”. The absurd is a kind of birth, it is not simply an aborted fetus. It is this dimly felt light, above anything else, which makes it meaningful to seek intercommunicative channels between those confronted. Without the presence of any links whatsoever, confrontation itself would become incomprehensible; for how to confront that from which one is completely detached? If confrontation were solely a matter of monologues, then surely there would follow the most monstruous of characters, a Caligula without any mirror to break, a lonely emperor without the possibility of redemption.

What Caligula did not see, or feigned he did not see —– or distorted when he in fact did see it —— is something to which Don Juan, in the The Myth of Sisyphus, dedicates his entire life. Don Juan lives for desire’s living. The lover is truly the most absurd human for “the more one loves the stronger the absurd grows” (69) If the absurd human’s ideal is “the present and a succession of presents” (60), then Don Juan ——and all Doña Juanas (*19)——- are more than any other human, the caretakers of this ever-present way of living. Their banner, that is, that for which they would, if they had to, give their lives, is that of the instant where they, others and the world come to be in the presence of each other. For them life is bodily vitality felt, here and now, at its highest energetic level: “life gratifies his (her) every wish and nothing is worse than loosing it. This mad(human) is a great wise (human)” (72) (*20). Living life’s every second has made this topsy-turvy human ——- a different species of mad human than the one we found in Nietzsche ——– aware of the stakes involved in life’s loss.

Loving passionately paves the way to transforming the space between the confronted parties. Don Juan’s love is the love of a human, and such love is capable of transformation. Yet, ironically, the transfiguration that ensues from his activity is one in which both “nothing is changed and eveything …… tranfigured” (72). Through his/her figure-giving love, the lover’s commanding figure rises, not as a stone sculpture that condemns, but rather as a thread-thin bridge which resonates to a world with a new, more humane figure (*21). In all this, the passionate lover is very much like a cicada, those platonic figures which “enter the ‘now’ of their desire and stay there”; little fragile animals who “have no life apart from their desire, and, when it ends, so do they” (Carson EBS, 139). (*22) Nevertheless, unlike cicadas, Don Juan and Doña Juana are human beings. Desire for them is a bridge to dwell upon, not an immediacy out of which no confrontation can be born. The lover, unlike the cicada, loves humanely, that is to say as a another Don does, Don Quijote.

Don Juan and Doña Juana know Caligula’s simple truth: they will die and they, like all of us, are not happy. But although Don Juan awaits “the end face to face with a God that he does not adore” (76), his interest lies not in a divine mirror from which are born rays of grace. Death he is faintly conscious of, but he does not desire to be conscious simply of its inevitable presence. He loves living all the more so, for he knows, but cares not to pay too much attention to this, that in the end love really ends. There he stands “the ultimate end awaited, but never desired, the ultimate end is negligible” (72). Don Juan and Meursault are vey much alike. The former’s attitude towards death, is that of Meursault to, among many other things, God. To the priests’ words he responds, thinking through: “though I mightn’t be so sure about what interested me, I was absolutely sure about what didn’t interest me. And the question he had raised didn’t interest me …… I hadn’t time to work up interest for something that didn’t interest me” (S, 114). In the same way Don Juan is not so much interested in death for what interests one is that which one spends time doing; Don Juan does not spend much time dying. (*23)

This is why he prefers to turn his loving aging face elsewhere. From the solitary monastery cell which has become his home, he turns to the light shining “through a silent narrow slit in the sun-baked wall, some silent Spanish plain, a noble, soulless land in which he recognizes himself” (76). Ennobled, nature rises temporarily, all too briefly re-’covered’, that is to say, covered anew, by the warmth of a being sold out to the pre-articulate desiring impulse which flows out of his body regained. Don Juan, unlike Caligula, is not covered by mud.

Don Juan and Doña Juana await death, perhaps even together, and death will come to each in their loneliness. But the air he/she breathes is one which does not weigh over and suffocate him/her like it did Caligula. His/ her air is of a much purer variety. It is that air which Camus himself allows us to breathe through our reading of his desire pregnant lyrical works. Breathing as Don Juan does, is recovering a new atmospheric confrontation which nevertheless cannot but remind one of one’s unavoidable exile:

“being pure is recovering that spiritual home where one can feel the world’s relationship, where one’s pulse beat coincides with the violent throbbing of the 2 o’clock sun. It is well known that one’s native land is always recognized at the moment of loosing it. For those who are too uneasy of themselves their native land is the one that negates them” (SA, 152)

Our spiritual home as moderns can only stem from the realization of our inevitable homelessness.

Caius surely recognized love’s abode by loosing Drusilla. Besides he mistakenly longed for a homeland, or better an over-land, which is impossible for any human to achieve. Martha too longed for a new realm of meaning, but unlike Caligula’s, it was earthbound. Nevertheless, like the emperor’s, it too travelled the reddish path of murder. Both Caligula and Martha longing as they do, become terribly uneasy. But somehow we sense that Don Juan is really the uneasy character par excellence; made uneasy out of the fragile bondage to life he so much cherishes.

In being uneasy we are not that different from Caligula, Martha and Don Juan. In what sense? Well in the sense that we too know of the longing for both a native land and a beloved face. This encounter if ever it is to happen for us becomes not a given, but rather a creative task. But even if all three characters share this with us, it is in Don Juan where uneasiness finds itself a home; his courage lies in living uneasily till the end do him apart. It is in him, as in no one else, that what Camus tells us occurs: the “pulse beats” of his desiring blood coincide with the “violent throbbing of the 2 o’clock sun”. A human being and nature stand confronted, but at the same time erotically intertwined as peculiar kinds of energetically charged mirror images. (*22) Don Juan’s selfishness lies in his love of this newly won mirror which reflects much more than he himself is, or can, see. Caligula, in contrast, must break the desert-like mirror in which he alone stands facing his red stained image.

But surely there is one thing Don Juan knew nothing of, this is creative writing. What would or could he have written about? (*24) He cannot even look at portraits —— yet another kind of mirror of which Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a beautiful portrait —– much less articulate what he would have seen in them. But Camus did write, his passion to articulate moves him much more towards towards a Don Juan, Conqueror of himself. (*25). In this sense, something like what Don Juan’s pulse beats felt looking enamouredly at the Spanish plain, is what Camus allows us briefly and secretly to read in his return to Tipasa. For Don Juan to return is a joke. “Return! To what?”, he would ask.

Camus’ permanent and healthy uneasiness is that which permeates his every written word. Camus is a lover of lively portraits which spring from the light of his pen. Returning to Tipasa he allows us a return. Although in some sense it is his return, he allows us all to share in its beauty. Together we return to the ruins of our youth. Camus re-walks paths once traveled. But traveling anew is not simply a childish nostalgia for what, somewhat disoriented, Camus knows has been inevitably lost:

“disoriented, walking through the solitary countryside I tried at least to recapture that strength …. that helps me to accept what is when once I have admitted I cannot change it” (RT, 196).

To return is to recapture desiring strength. Part of strentgh comes from purer air, part from purer drink. Through liquid words Camus reaches outside Don Juan’s monastic cell. He traverses that land he once inhabited. A landscape which once again gives him some refreshing water to quench, his two main thirsts:

“I satisfied the two thirsts one cannot reject without drying up — I mean loving and admiring. For there is merely bad luck in not being loved; but there is misfortune in not loving” (RT, 201)

The lovers of suicide and murder find their thirst quenched in the thickness of blood. They onle vary as to the source. But blood coagulates outside its body bound atmosphere. It does not refresh, and this is why Sanctus Januarius’ miracle strikes us as miraculous. Looking back at the quoted passage one is lead to realize: unlike this bloody saint, Caligula has known misfortune, Martha only bad luck.

Camus’ thirst for loving and admiring he met in a world he retraced; a world which allows us to bathe our naked, mud-covered bodies, again. A world of words and live figures which recovers the warmth of a fragile candlelight:

(I) discovered once more at Tipasa that one must keep intact in himself a freshness, a cool wellspring of joy, love the day that escapes injustice and return to combat having won that light. Here I recaptured the former beauty, a young sky and measured my luck, realizing at last that in the worst years of our madness the memory of that sky had never left me.. This was what in the end had kept me from despairing. I had always known that the ruins of Tipasa were younger than our new constructions … there the world began over again everyday in an ever new light. O light! This is the cry of all characters of ancient drama brought face to dace with their fate. This last resort was ours too, and I knew it know. In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer” (RT, 201-2)

In Tipasa Camus, face to face with the ruins and beauty of his past, resembles the condemned heroes of Greek tragedy standing facing fate’s decisions. And in these two face to face encounters —-separated by thousands of years ——- again springs that intermediate space, a void, which has recurrently returned to us. It is the unbridgeable space which separates us from ourselves, from others and from nature. But in that space there springs life out of a light never lost; a light that traverses the youthful ruins in a country to us unknown: “I had always known hat the ruins of Tipasa were younger than our constructions … there the world began over again everyday in an ever new light”. Camus is born to life like Meursault, but unlike him he does not need to be sentenced to death to do so. Sentenced to death officially, that is.

This light which allegedly gave Camus invincibility, this light is not that of divinity. It is not a never ending, shadow-free light. It is not the light that numbed Meursault. Not at all. Camus’ return knows instead of candlelight ephemerality. The return is not simply a longing for a golden lit age which would utterly blind us, if we in fact could ever reach it. The return is to ever fading, mortal bound ruins, the only homeland we moderns can know if we take the death of God seriously. In the ephemeral nature of ruins, Camus finds the most beautiful mirror for our fragile nature as desiring and mortal creatures (*26). Ruins are dead memories of fought for constructions, constructions made possible by proud and dignity deserving human beings (*27). Besides, the actual ruins stand only as a physical human reminder of the natural ruins which are summer and winter to each other. In its among the ruins of winter and its, apparently, lifeless landscapes, that Camus actually finds, facing himself in his ruins, a light so powerful and yet so weak, that it can even melt ice.

In the middle of winter Camus finds in himself an invincible summer. Winter and summer stand as the seasonal correlates, of the more recurrent confrontation between night and day. This is why Camus returns to find not the revival of a divinely everlasting light, but rather that light which is born when the day comes to an end and prepares itself to enter the night. Or to put it another way, Camus finds himself facing those Algerian evenings of which he asks that figure reflected in the mirror which are his books: “what exceptional quality do the fugitive Algerian evenings possess to be able to release so many things in me?” (SA, 146). Fugitive, lawless, evenings re-’lease’ Camus from a certain kind of imprisonment. Evenings give him a new lease on life. Why evenings? Why not sunrises? Aren’t they equally as beautiful? Caligula loved the absence of light; sunlight truly hurt Meursault; Camus enlightened both shadowy figures for us. Only evenings make us long for a return.

Evenings bring, in an instant, the divorce of night and day to a momentary togetherness. In those instants Merusault’s sun, fading, reaches the cool waters of the sea; but almost instantaneously, Caligula’s sunlit moon rises to allow us to see the emerging beauty of the night. And between them, in their confrontation, there is born the presence of an intemediary; “the old mossy god that nothing will never shake, a refuge, and a harbor for its sons, of whom I am one” (RT 200). Scipio’s sky, rippling with light, traverses the land bound ruins of Tipasa; that which remains of them is reflected unto the salty waters which in an mysterious instant fill the entire horizon, (and even Caligula’s weeping eyes):

“the evening is inhabited. It is still light, to tell the truth, but in this light an almost invincible fading announces the day’s end. A wind rises, young like this night, and suddenly the waveless sea chooses a direction and a flow like a barren river from one end of the horizon to another. The sky darkens” (RT, 203)

The space between one end of the horizon, and the other, is flooded; and we marine moderns can inhabit it momentarily by swimming away as Meursault and Marie did; that is, like strangers in love. (*28)

This Tipasian evening, this nihilistic event, is one of which Camus goes on to say, “begins the mystery, the gods of night, the beyond pleasure”. But knowing that we are bound to be lost in the language Camus uses, he tries to translate this natural event into something more familiar to us who are so unused to looking at evenings. The translation into human terms is peculiar, it involves a two-sided coin:

But how to translate this? The little coin I’m carrying away from here has a visible surface, a woman’s beautiful face which repeats to me all I have learned in this day, and a worn surface which I feel under my fingers during the return. What can that lipless mouth be saying, except what I am told by another mysterious voice, within me (*29) which everyday informs me of my ignorance and my happiness? (RT, 203-4)

The mysterious pleasurable dance of gods is mirrored unto a worthless coin which Camus carries away from Tipasa. A coin is much like a two sided mirror. But unlike the possible contact of two figures approaching themselves in a mirror; in a coin those two who constitute it stand forever apart, yet at the same time, welded by channels they feel intensely, yet cannot comprehend.

If for passive nihilism tossing the coin involved two possibilities, heads meant suicide and tails murder, Camus’ active nihilism involves two radically different ones. On the one hand, beauty emerges in all its visibility. It is the beauty of a woman, it is Drusilla born again, Marie meeting Meursault, Maria meeting Jan. But Drusilla is dead, Meursault and Jan too; beauty’s mouth must remain lipless. Yet beauty finds a translator who has word-loving fingers as lips. And this is why, what beauty silently says, remains nothing other than what another mysterious voice within Camus informs; informs, that is to say, gives form. What is informed are the limits of all possible forms; the inner limit being ignorance, the outer happiness.

But a coin has two faces and only one seems to have been brought to light. This is so because, just as the moon has too its permanent dark side, so beauty must have a worn backside to which it cannot turn its back on. The tail end of the coin is one that Camus’ fingers feel worn out, tired, exhausted. It is a deserted land of lifeless cries:

“I should like, indeed, to shirk nothing ad to keep faithfully a double memory. Yes there is beauty and the care of the humiliated. Whatever may be the difficulties of the undertaking, I should like never to be unfaithful either to one of the others” (RT, 203)

To each lucky coin there lies an unlucky face. But the tossing of the Camusian coin involves a more dignified outcome than that which accumulates endlessly in the coins amassed by some passive nihilists. This everyday coin, which enriches our life like no other, is the coin of art with its mirror-like duality: “negating on the one hand and magnifying on the other, is the way of the absurd creator, he must give the void its colors” (MoS, 114)

Perhaps know, I hope, we can come a little bit closer to understanding what Camus could have meant by remarking that “creation is the great mime”. But even if this is not so, at least, his creation will certainly allows us, not only never again to overlook ourselves when looking at mirrors, but also to see and hear the absurd confrontation between a beauty which certain evenings give and the painful endless cry which emerges humiliated out of voiceless mouths.




A) Primary Sources


Camus, Albert Caligula and three other plays, Vintage Books, New York, 1958. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. (Abbreviations: Caligula: C)


———The Myth of Sisyphus, Vintage International Books, New York, 1955 (1991), Translated by Justin O-Brien. (Abbreviations: MoS, Summer in Algiers: SA, Return to Tipasa: RT)


——– The Outsider, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1961 (1980). Translated by Stuart Gilbert. (Abb: S)


——–The Rebel, Vintage International Books, 1956 (1991) Translated by Anthony Bower. (Abb: R)



B) Secondary Sources


Baudelaire, Selected Poems, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1975 (1984). Translated by Joana Richardson.


Carson, Anne, Eros the Bittersweet, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1986.


Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science, Vintage Books, New York, 1974. Translated by Walter Kaufmann.


——–Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in “The Portable Nietzsche”, The Viking Press, New York, 1968. Translated by Walter Kaufmann.


———Will to Power, Vintage Books, New York, 1968. Translated by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale.


———Fragmentos Postumos, Editorial Norma, Bogotá, 1992. Translated by Germán Meléndez Acuña.


Taylor, Charles, Sources of the Self, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1984.


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One cannot help but be puzzled by Freud’s four-page interpretation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrranus. Innumerable pages have been written on the tragedy, and yet Freud seems not to be troubled much by his brief and allegedly clear solution of the work’s principal riddle. Freud seems to share some of Oedipus’ confidence as riddle-solver. But we must ask just how so.

In order to get clear on Freud’s interpretation, I propose to divide this essay into five sections the interrrelation of which, I hope, will become clearer as we move along struggling with the issues present in each. In the first I will look specifically at Freud’s analysis as explicitly presented in The Interpretation of Dreams. By proceeding in this manner three possible paths of interpretation will be brought to light: i) the ‘regressive path’, which is the pillar of all, ii) the ‘humiliation path’, and finally iii) the ‘revealing path’. Then I will proceed to show why the four page interpretation is so problematic by focusing primarily on the issue of the ahistorical nature of Freud’s analysis. The third section will be devoted to signaling out two central aspects of the play itself, aspects upon which Freud barely touches: the issue of the revelation of truth and its relation to Oedipus’ pride and hubris. Why Freud is blind to some of these aspects will become clearer in the fourth section when psychoanalysis’ regressive type of inquiry will be uncovered. Finally, in the last section, I will try to show how the ‘humiliation’ and ‘regression’ paths of interpretation, both of which are present in psychoanalytic theory and practice, make sense only with view to a third ‘revealing’ interpretation in which a special kind of truth can be brought to light; a truth that can be lived meaningfully.


Freud’s interpretation of Sophocles’ play is very specifically located. Without an understanding of this location Freud’s brief analysis is dramatically impoverished. Therefore, it is crucially important to remember that the interpretation of the tragedy takes place in Chapter V of The Interpretation of Dreams which is the chapter that deals with the material and sources of dreams. But within it the play only appears in the section entitled “Typical Dreams”. We are moving closer to localizing the isssue but still a further qualification is required; the tragedy appears only within it in the subsection beta , that is, the one concerning dreams of the death of persons of whom the dreamer is fond of. The four-page interpretation of the play thus involves death dreams, which are a special kind of dreams, which in turn refer to special kinds of sources.

Among typical dreams one finds those dealing with embarrasing situations involving some sort of nudity. It is among these that we come to the dream of the unhappy wanderer; Odysseus himself standing naked and covered with mud before Nausicaa. Literature makes an early appearance in this section on ‘typical dreams’. Besides, Freud’s commentary on the dream present in Homer’s work paves the way for what is to follow: “the deepest and eternal nature of man, upon whose education in his hearer the poet is accustomed to rely, lies in those impulses of the mind which have their roots in a childhood that has become prehistoric” (F, TIoD, 346). Odysseus’ dream portrays Homer’s reaching out backwardly in time. Children’s shameless exhibitionism likewise pointing to some long lost Paradise where shame, anxiety, sexuality and cultural actvity were not yet present (ibid., 343).

The fact that some writers such as Homer follow the creative process “in a reverse direction and so trace back the imaginative writing into a dream”, allows Freud to ascertain the connection between dreams and literary works of diverse kinds (ibid., 345). If this connection is to hold, then it becomes crucial to find some common element shared both by literary art and typical dreams. And in fact, Freud claims to have found such a linking thread. Of typical dreams we are “accustomed to assume they have the same meaning for all of us” (ibid., 339). That is to say, what links typical dreams to literary works is the underpinning sense of universality characteristic of both. What is meant by this can be better appreciated if one listens to Eliot’s words concerning Twain’s Mississippi river; this river “is not only the river known to those who voyage on it, or live beside it, but the universal river of human life” (Eliot, LNI, 66).

The fact that the discussion is carried out in reference to ‘embarrasing dreams of being naked’ brings nudity itself as a common element underpinning children, adults and literature; children live it, adults embarrasingly dream it, and artists, as we shall see in the case of Sophocles, use its power to undress us, leaving us nakedly facing ourselves in order to better live.

To nakedness there follows a sort of death. And it is in relation to dreams of loved ones that we find Freud’s words on Oedipus. Such dreams, under normal circumstances, seek not a real and bloody manifestation of the desire from which they stem, but rather reveal an unfulfilled wish the history of which can be traced regressively. Psychoanalysis “is satisfied with the inference that this death has been wished for at some time or other during the dreamer’s childhood” (ibid., 349). A desire to kill has been set up, or better sets itself up, as part of our human make-up. Dreams’ power to move backward allows us to bring to light what would otherwise remain concealed, or at least, not properly understood.

Wishing the death of brothers and sisters can be understood by referring to the child’s intensely maginified egoism. Children, at one point in their development, take themselves much like Oedipus will, to be all powerful. And given that for them death is easily equatible with ‘general absence’, then their wishing the death of brothers and sisters becomes, through psychoanalysis, more comprehensible, much less shocking.

But wishing the death of one’s parents, now that seems like a much more complicated matter. There is truly a riddle here: how can we make sense of the wish to kill precisely those beings who have given us life and love in the first place? People who perhaps we are fortunate enough to admire? Freud, like Oedipus, does not shy away from the riddle. Instead he calls on the reader to consider what analysis has found in the case of psychoneurotics who exhibit “on a magnified scale feelings of love and hatred for their parents which occur less obviously and less intensely in the minds of most children” (ibid., 362). It is from the analysis of these troubled humans that analysis, Freud confesses, reaches “complete conviction” (ibid., 360). They convince the analyst of two things: first, that there is a sexual preference by children for the parent of their opposite sex and, second, that the other parent stands as a rival “whose elimination could not fail to be to their advantage” (ibid., 356-7). Analysing neurotic patients then, like dream analysis, involves a regressive uncovering of childhood wishes.

It is only after having said all of this that Freud begins to speak of Oedipus. But the role of the interpretation to follow is not intended to add anything new to the findings already reached. Rather than there being in Sophocles’ tragedy a new discovery, what we find is a different, albeit not unrelated path, towards the revelation of the same conflict. Dreams, neurosis and Literature seem to follow different paths towards an identical destination:

“this discovery is confirmed by a legend that has come down to us from antiquity; a legend whose profound and universal power can ONLY be understood if the hypothesis I have put forward in regard to the psychology of children has an equal universal validity.” (ibid., 362-3; my emphasis)

The argument is intended to be purely circular.[1] The emergence of the meaning of the death wish in dreams ——– an understanding that arises out of an understanding of the distortive mechanism of the dream-work process ——- is intricately connected to the meaning which emerges undistorted in the tragedy:

“It is thus the psychology of children that furnishes the core of the argument, provided that it has ‘universal validity’. But it is the legend and its literary elaboration which provide evidence for this. The explanation is thus perfectly circular: psychoanalysis brings out ‘the particular nature of the material’ ….; but it is the tragedy which makes it speak” (Ricoeur, PWA, 9)

The tragedy speaks from a realm different than that of our, or neurotics, everyday dreams. But within the work itself Jocasta fails not to remind us that what psychoanalysis discovers in the twentieth century is something deeper, the universal character of which, Sophocles’ tragedy allows us to better see.

In Freud’s four-page analysis, I take there to be three interconnected interpretations at work. I will call the first, the ‘regresive interpretation’, the second, the ‘humiliation interpretation’ and, the last, the ‘revelation interpretation’. For Freud, seemingly, the first of these carries most of the weight in our understanding of Oedipus’ psuche. Nevertheless, I will show not only that the other two are already present as early as The Interpretation of Dreams , but likewise take on added importance if one looks beyond the analysis of Sophocles’ play. While section IV will deal with the ‘humiliation’ and ‘regression’ interpretations in the broad context of Freud work, section V will elucidate briefly what the ‘revelation’ interpretation involves.

The ‘regressive’ interpretation is primarily intended to fill up the circular argument of which we spoke above. The tragedies main, or for Freud, ONLY theme, is that dealing with the issues of incest and parricide. Oedipus’ destiny:

“moves us only because it might have been ours —- because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father” (Freud, ibid., 364)

We are thus shockingly perturbed and moved by the tragedy becuase it leaves us nakedly facing the wishful nature which cements our psychological history. We shrink upon reading Oedipus’ life-story because we repudiate the meaning of the dreams we ourselves have; dreams which, thanks to psychoanalysis, we come too know all too well. The real shame (and guilt) which asssaults us having dreamt these phantastic dreams, finds a parallel in Oedipus’ own self-punishment. But we, we do not blind ourselves as the hero does. Instead we are “blinded”, through repression, and thus cease seeking to carry out these disturbing wishes in reality.

The ‘humiliation interpretation’ —– to borrow Ricoeurs terminology[2]—– finds expression in the text some of Freud’s own words which strike us as a reprehension. Having quoted the last lines of the play, lines which ask of us to fix our eyes on the culminating fall of the Greek hero left nakedly facing himself, Freud tells us that all this: “strikes us as a warning at ourselves and our pride, at us who since our childhood have grown so wise and mighty in our eyes. Like Oedipus we live in ignorance …..” (Freud, ibid., 365). Now, this is of course not just any kind of ignorance, but precisely the kind of ignorance which ties this second interpretation to the first. It is ignorance, as Freud proceeds to say, of our childhood wishes for incest and parricide. Having regressed and acknowledged what this regression entails “we may all of us well seek to close our eyes to these scenes of our childhood” (Freud, ibid., 365). We moderns close our eyes ashamed (or feeling guilt); Oedipus, through Sophocles’ “pen”, does not simply close them but instead violently and bloodily pulls them out.

The third and final interpretation is the one I have called the ‘revelation interpretation’. It likewise, I believe, finds expression in the text in the following words: “the action of the play consists in nothing other than the process of revealing with cunning delays and ever mounting excitement — a process that can be likened to psychoanalysis” (Freud, ibid., 363). Revelation is here not to be taken in the religious sense of an undistorted meaning given to us humans by the divine.[3] Rather, for our purposes, it is to be understood as the coming to light of truth as meaningfulness.

Through the intertwining of the three interpretations, we will come to see how psychoanalysis not only humiliates in order to open the realm of the past, but is likewise projected and fed by the desire of present resolution and future construction of healthy ways of moving about.

However, even though the three interpretations interact in different ways, they are seemingly under the banner of the first. This is so in the sense that, as we quoted above, this first interpretation is the one which truly allows us to understand what is going on in Oedipus’ mind; it alone can really explain what is that something which the tragedy triggers in us. The tragedy stirs us because we find in it the birth of the Oedipus complex. And its taking shape in early childhood stands, for Freud, as the pillar of psychoanalysis. This complex is both decisive and divisive; it is representative of a frontier. Those adhering to it are truly, for Freud, psychoanalysts. Its denying critics are playing on a separate field:

“It has justly been said that the Oedipus complex is the nuclear complex of neuroses, and constitutes the essential part of their content. It represents the peak of infantile sexuality, which, through its after effects, exercises a decisive influence on the sexuality of adults. Every new arrival on this planet is faced by the task of mastering the Oedipus complex; anyone who fails to do so falls a victim to neurosis. With the progress of psychoanalytic studies the importance of the Oedipus complex has become more and more clearly evident; its recognition has become the shibboleth that distinguishes the adherents of psychoanalysis from its opponents” (Freud, 3ES, 149)

This quote, written 20 years after the writing of the principal work on dreams, sees the Oedipus complex as a shibboleth, that is to say, the crucial piece, the real clue, the very solution of a very important human riddle.


Section I, I hope, has shown that Freud’s four-page commentary of Oedipus Tyrannus is more complex that it would appear at first sight. And yet one is left with a sense of lack and incompleteness. One longs for something more, so to speak.

It is Greek scholars who particularly feel this way. There is just something odd and suspicious in trying to understand a Greek text through three quotes taken out of context and reprinted, seemingly, haphazardly. But what is most puzzling is that Freud, particulary in The Interpretation of Dreams, goes out of his way not to rid the reader of innumerable quotations from all corners of knowldege. Unknown scientists, difficult philosophers and literats all share in Freud’s voluminous work on dreams. But Sophocles does so in an astonishingly limited way; particularly given the centrality of his appearance.

It is precisely this oversimplification which really irritates Greek scholars such as Vernant and Vidal-Naquet. One finds their protest for example in their purposely entitled essay “Oedipus without the Complex”:

“If one proceeds … as Freud does, by succesive simplification and reduction —- of all Greek mythology to one particular legendary schema, of the whole of tragedy to one particular play, of this play to one particular aspect of the story and of this aspect to a dream —- one might just as well substitute, for example, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon for Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex” (Vernant, 69)

Although Vernant’s commentary is half-mocking, half-serious, I have been trying to argue that the simplification, while blatantly obvious —- and just because of this so very puzzling—– is not really so simplistic, but instead makes more sense within the context of Freud’s work.

Nevertheless there are two points to be recovered from the view that wants to argue for an Oedipus without a complex. One is the crucial issue, which I take it really goes to the heart of Freud’s limited interpretation, of history; the other the tension and relationship between, what I have called the ‘humiliation interpretation’ of the play and its counterpart, the ‘reggressive’ one.

Although in a sense the regressive nature of dreams makes them historical both phylogenetically and ontogenetically, it is obvious that Sophocles’ play is seen by Freud without the most minimal attempt at understanding the context within which it arose. In a sense Freud’s interpretation, in its search for universality, takes a leap outside history: “for in the Freudian interpretation the historical aspect of tragedy remains totally incomprehensible” (Vernant, 67). But tragedy is so historically situated. Tragedy springs out of and within a highly complex artistic, religious and social reality. To put it in the most minimum terms; we moderns read Greek tragedy, the Greeks in contrast, at one point in their history, lived and experienced it through their bodies. Tragedy made them feel truly naked.

Tragedy arouse not just anywhere; its birth lies in a crossroad —-much like the crossroad at which Oedipus begins his doom. Tragedy is born out of and expresses conflict and contradiction. The highest tension possible comes to live in the peculiar form of art which is Greek Tragedy. But the tension from which it sprung is not completely our own. It is rather that which appears, very broadly speaking, in the struggle between conflicting moments and ways of viewing the world. Contraries come face to face for a moment in history: the decaying myth encounters the emerging philosophical outlook, prejuridical social forms struggle with the juridical status of the new born cities, the almost absolute determination of action by divine forces is questioned by a new conception of action and decision “in” the agent (Vernant, IWGT, OWC), the competitive virtues face the now emphasized cooperative ones (Adkins, MR). It is in this border zone that the tragic hero lives and breathes. He is a torn being, both acted upon and acting over:

“It is a form that must convey a sense of the contradictions that rend the entire universe, the social and political world and the domain of values, and that thus presents man himself as ….. some kind of an incomprehensible, baffling monster, both an agent and one acted upon, guilty and innocent, dominating the whole of nature with is industrious mind yet incapable of controlling himself, lucid and yet blinded by a frenzy sent to him by the gods … his choice takes place in a world full of obscure and ambiguous forces, a divided world … “ (Vernant, 68)[4]

Understanding this divided world involves taking the gods seriously. But instead what Freud tells us is precisely that the interpretation which holds that Oedipus Tyrranus is a tragedy of destiny — which for Freud, erroneously implies complete submission to divine will (F, TIoD, 364)[5]——– is not the most accurate. This is so for, Freud argues, other modern tragedies of destiny fail to move us: “the espectators have looked on unmoved while a curse or an oracle was fulfilled in spite of all efforts of some innocent man. Later tragedians of destiny have failed in their effect” (Freud, ibid., 364) Freud does not investigate further why precisely it is that such tragedies do not move US, and in doing so he does not quite see how and why they did move the Greeks.[6]Furthermore to his argument one could equally reply, playing devil’s advocate: “dramatic success would be simple if it sufficed to write plays about incest, there have been plenty. But Walpole’s Mysterious Mother, for example, is stone dead. Oedipus lives. Why?” (Lucas, 168).

It is part of this ‘why’ that Freud, as child of the Enlightenment, cannot see. And this is a reminder that we always runs the danger of misreading the Greeks by projecting on to them our own views, vocabulary, and practices.(Vernant, 29).[7]

The second issue which I would like to touch upon is the question of the primacy of what I have called, the ‘humiliation’ thesis, over and against the ‘regressive’ one. For Vernant the value of the play lies precisely where Freud sees it not. Oedipus errs out of megalomania, out of an excess of grandeur. He oversteps ——- and at the same time is made to overstep ——- the limitations set upon us humans by the divine and cosmological order. Under this perspective, the central theme of the tragedy becomes, not incest and parricide, but “absolute power and the necessary hubris that necessarily stems from it” (Vernant, 84). Oedipus is overproud, oversure of his prowess as solver of riddles. And this facet of his character is made worse because of his lack of self-criticism. Rather than seek to change himself, Oedipus, as we shall see, changes the world by distorting it. The central concern of the play is therefore, not so much the murder of Laius, but Laius’ murderer and his relation to the gods:

“It is this hubris characteristic of a tyrant … that causes Oedipus’ downfall and is one of the mainsprings of tragedy. For the inquiry concerns not only the murder of Laius but also the question of Oedipus himself, Oedipus the clairvoyant; the solver of riddles, who is a riddle to himself that, in his blindness as king, he cannot solve.” (Vernant, 81)

The ‘humiliation’ interpretation is primary; the ‘regressive’ only an added one.

Having come to see some of the dangers in bypassing the historical context within which Oedipus’ tragedy was played out, we are now led to ask who is this Oedipus king, who even though most famous of riddle-solvers, has become a riddle to himself. We would like to get clearer on who is he of whom his mother-bride says “may you never, unhappy, know who you are” (Lucas 1068).[8]To do so we cannot follow Freud any longer, but rather must turn our sight, weary of what we shall see, to Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.


Oedipus is intent on truth. He is driven against all obstacles, both self-imposed and of external origin, to try to uncover Laius’ murderer. Oedipus’ self-clarifying inquiry into the nature of his past will leave him, all of us at least think we already know, nakedly revealed. Oedipus is truly undermined for the ground on which he felt secure is taken away from him. He enters the eternal darkness of the really unhappy wanderer; he who blindly gropes in the night. But Oedipus is king, and as such he is also beholder of heroic force and power. He thinks highly of himself and it is precisely because of this that his drive towards truth is capable of overcoming his and others’ resistances. Only in revealing himself through his past, does Oedipus humiliate himself to the point where even though self-blinded, he nevertheless will come to see a new light —– a light far away in Colonus.

The very first lines of the play intertwine these two struggling paths; the one towards truth, the other towards true hubris: “I thought it right to hear the truth, my children/and so am come/ I, Oedipus, whose name fills all men’s mouths” (Lucas, 7-9). [9] Moreover, the Oedipus who knows himself bent to truth is he who also knows that other’s must bend in his presence. The Thebeans, who look up to him (35), place in him their salvation: “greatest in the eyes of all/ Here at thy feet we beg thee, Oedipus,/ Find us some help” (42-44). And Oedipus will be at all costs —- even if he must loose himself —– of ‘some help’.

First he seeks help in the divine; by way of Apollo. Apollo, god known as ‘Phoebus’ which means bright or radiant (133), as Lycean King that isprotector of flocks as against wolves (203), and as healer (155). (Lucas, page 230). This gods of light speaks bright words that aim at a healing which protects from the ravages of excessive beings. His words to the Thebeans stand clear, pollution can only come to an end through exile or blood. (100).

It is with this new information that Oedipus recognizes that he must begin anew: “I must start afresh, and bring to light/ these hidden things” (132-3). Oedipus will start an excavation out of which will surface what is hidden; but nothing does he know of the fact that this tunneling is carried through and about himself. Unknowing he firmly continues his search for truth, initially understood only in reference to the murder of Laius (129). But in order to so continue; he is in need of further information. And not just anybody gives it to him.

Summoned by Creon, Teiresias enters the action. But he does so in a very peculiar way; his entrance is one that is guided. Teiresias comes to life in the tragic play led by the weak hand of a boy. He is the well-known prophecy teller who was blinded for having looked at Athena’s naked body. But to blindness followed as divine gift another kind of seeing, that of foreseeing. Nakedness, which appears again, cost him his sight; but having seen the nude goddess won him a sight which “shares most nearly Apollo’s vision” (285). His new sight then would seem to have some relation to the power to heal. Moreover, what Teiresias sees, now blinded, is nothing other than the naked truth, he is“the prophet in whose heart/ alone of men, lives knowledge of truth” (300-1).

Teiresias entrance is not only guided by a child, it is one guided by silence; he knows all too well what his words carry with them. The enraged Oedipus cannot endure this and calls him, who for all is the wisest of men, a “creature of unending night”, a creature who has no power “to injure (him) or any that sees the light” (375-6). Oedipus has truly lost all measure, and his excessive pride fills his mouth:

“If merely for the sake of this my greatness,

Bestowed on me by the Thebens, a gift unasked,

The loyal Creon, my friend from long ago,

By stealthy machinations undermines me,

setting upon me this insidious wizard —-

Gear-gathering hypocrite, blind in his art,

With eyes only for gain!

For tell me now, when have you proved true seer?

Why, when there came that chanting, monstrous hound,

Had you then no answer to deliver Thebes?

And yet her riddle was not to be read

By the first comer’s wit —- that was the time

For powers prophetic. But of those no sign

You gave us —- neither by the voice of birds,

Nor taught by any God. But then came I —–

the ignorant Oedipus! —– and closed her mouth

By force of intellect — no birds to help me!” (381-398)

Oedipus reveals himself as the self-sufficient king and riddle solver who has lost his humanity; he alone has defeated the Sphynx and alone he will stand accursed. He has both severed ties to friends, through his distortion of Creon’s intentions, and to the Gods, through his mocking of Teiresias mediator.

But even so, Oedipus will not cease asking. He is driven to uncover the riddle which he know sees facing him. “Who was it that gave me life?” he asks the humiliated Teiresias (438). A puzzle to which the seer answers, mockingly enough, with yet another riddle: “this day shall bring thy birth — and thy destruction” (438). And we, puzzled ask, how is Oedipus, already born, to be brought to birth once again? And how is it that this newly won first sight of light, will simultaneously involve the darkest night of death?

The action rushes on and it does so primarily through a process of remembering. Oedipus remembers the words of the insulting drunkard who had said Polybus and Merope were not truly his parents (778-9). And his capacity to reminesce is aided by its slow eruption in different characters which are lead slowly, but surely, towards the discovery of the meaning behind Oedipus’ birth. The herdsman who saved Oedipus as a child from death has to be reminded by the messenger about these past events. Besides this dialogical remembering is one dealing with truth:

Herdsman. Not that I can recall it —— out of hand

Mesenger. No wonder sire. But though he does not know me,

I’ll soon remind him. Well I know he knows

Those times that we ranged together round Cithaeron,

He with two flocks ……..

Am I talking truth or not?

Herdsman. ‘Tis true enough; though a great while ago” (1132-40)

The herdsman is even forced to remember and answer by Oedipus’ threats of physical torture (1150). But when all the information has been put together, Oedipus realizes what has happened; how it was he who murdered his father, thus committing parricide, and he who wed his mother, thus committing incest. A contradictory (like the contradictory world out of which tragedy is born) ‘shadow full clarity’ sets in: “now all accomplished —-all is clear/Light of this day, let me look last on thee/ Since now I stand revealed, curst in my birth/ curst in my wedlock, curst in my bloodshed” (1182-5). Oedipus stands revealed; he has been uncovered, all his clothing removed.

But the shadow of the intellect is not enough; this blindness must be appropriated by the body itself. In a monologue of utter despair Oedipus, as reported by the servant, yells “henceforth be darkened/ eyes that saw whom ye should not” (1270-4). Oedipus king lies truly helpless. He is now become a hideous monster to look upon (1318-20), too “hateful for human sight” (1301-2).

But his is a king’s nature and pride, even now, is not lacking. Thus to the leader’s words: “I cannot count well what though hast done”, he answers, “ah cease advising me/tell me not now/ that what I did was not the best to do” (1368-9). Oedipus most definitely does not believe himself merely to be a puppet of the gods, as Freud would have it. He knows well both that it was he who blinded himself and, in a sense, not he who was involved in the acts of parricide and incest: “It was Apollo, my friends, Apollo/That made me suffer this misery;/But my eyes were stricken by myself alone./What need had I to see/For whom life kept no sight of sweetness more?” (1328-32).[10]

Oedipus does not die or commit suicide. If had so proceeded, Teiresias’ riddle involving a birth and a death in the instant of coming to know, would have been denied. Teiresias foresees another path into the future. And as the mark of this beginning, which is now simply seen as total disorientation, Oedipus chooses exile. But exile not just anywhere but precisely to the land in which he as a child, one could say, was truly saved to life:

“Leave me among the mountains, where Cithaeron

Is linked with my name forever. There it was

My parents when they lived, assigned my grave;

There let me die, according to their will

That sought to doom me then —-yet well I see

No sickness, no mischance, had power upon me;

Who could never have escaped, had I not been

Reserved for some portentuous doom.

But let my own fate drive to what end it will” (1451-9)

And end of which Freud did not speak and which Oedipus will find only in the Colonus of a poet in his nineties. (Lucas, 215)

It is only after all this has been revealed that one —-finally—– encounters the closing words of the play which are quoted by Freud in his analysis in The Interpretation of Dreams.[11] Our feeling that something was missing seems not to have been completely misleading. But then why Freud’s confidence in his four-page analysis? Why this neglect of relevant aspects from a man whose magnificence, humour and humanity shine through in all his writings?


Freud did not ever pretend to see everything clearly, but he did claim the capacity to give us clarity in certain dimensions of our understanding: “Freudian interpretation touches on the essential precisely as a result of its narrowness” (Ricoeur, PMCC, 141).

Diagnosis is psychoanalysis’ path towards understanding. As investigatory practice it is not content with the way things appear, but is rather suspicious of such a-critically held appearances. For instance, something more lies behind the appearance of the manifest content, of our identifying love for our parents, of our neurosis, of our kokes, of our love of God, of our civilization’s goals. It is because of this that the linguistic symbols which psychoanalysis sets out to comprehend come to light, in the first instance, as shadowy, illusory and deceitful. The meaning of symbols is undermined by their presence as idols. Analysis, in uncovering deceit, distortion and blindness, cannot but ask negatively. (Ricoeur, FP, 31). Psychoanalysis is intent on undressing symbols, so that in their nakedness we can better come to comprehend and reappropriate them once again.

Psychoanalysis, as a hermeneutics of suspicion, is primarily concerned with the humiliation of the historically developed narcissism which anchors our pride in conscious knowledge. Of course psychoanalysis cannot deny the immediate certainty of consciousness, the Cartesian ‘I think’, but it does lay bare the former’s illusory claims to immediate truth. Consciousness in this view, is in immediacy a ‘false consciousness’ for, although it posits itself, it does not possess itself: “psychoanalysis cannot situate the essence of the psychical in consciousness,, but is obliged to regard consciousness as a quality of the psychical, which may be present in addition to other qualities or may be absent” (Freud, EI, 351) Psychoanalysis, Ricoeur tells us, does away with “consciousness and its pretensions of ruling over meaning in order to save reflection” (Ricoeur, FP 422). Meaning is a task, not a given.

The movement towards reflection necessarrily implies a dispossession or displacement of the illusory cogito. We relinquish consciousness in order to recapture it at a more complex level through the integration of a ‘deeper’ understanding of the conditions within which consciousness itself is born. To gain myself I must, oddly enough, somehow be willing to loose myself:

“If it is true that the language of desire is a discourse combining meaning and force[12], reflection, in order to get at the root of desire, must let itself be dispossessed of the conscious meaning of discourse and displace it to another place of meaning ……… But since desire is accesible only in the disguises in which it places itself, it is only by interpreting the signs of desire that one can recapture in reflection the emergence of desire and thus enlarge reflection to the point where it regains what it had lost” (Ricoeur, FP , 424)

There is then a reduction not ‘to’ consciousness but ‘of’ consciousness and for the sake of a new, more humble, type of conscious activity. But, why is discentering so crucial to my rediscovery? It is because through it alone can one move beyond the narcissism which cements one’s ego. The illusion of a not fought for selflove, safeguards the ego from the work involved in its becoming. Freud’s appeal to our ‘humiliation’ interpretation is clear:

“You are sure you are informed of all that goes on in your mind …. come let yourself be taught something on this point ….. turn your eyes inward, look into your own self, learn first to know yourself! Then you will understand why you were bound to fall ill; perhaps to avoid falling ill in the future” (Ricouer quotes Freud, FP, 426-427)[13]

Consciousness is wounded by the “reality” of the unconscious. The ego no longer rules in an unqualified manner, but is instead set within a complex and demanding internal and external framework. The immediacy of the ego and the world is forever shattered; the idea, for instance, of an oceanic feeling —— adhered to uncritically —— is in reality the flight of an ego who denies the exigencies of an external reality which stands apart as alien, overpowering and senseless.[14]The ego is uncovered, undressed, and what Freud finds is a precipitate of lost objects. That objects have been lost signifies that direct real satisfaction of libidinal demands has not been adequately met. The ego thus presents itself to the Id as a totality of losses, ‘I’ becomes the primordial love object for ‘it’: “when the ego assumes the features of the objects, it is forcing itself, so to speak, upon the Id as a love object, and trying to make good the Id’s loss by saying: ‘Look, you can love me too —- I am so like the object’” (Freud, EI, 369). The ego which posits itself arrogantly, does not come close to possessing itself. In order to become itself, it must start by reviewing the history of its losses; it must engage in archeological investigation on itself. The ‘humiliation’ interpretation consequently goes hand in hand with the ‘regressive’ one. Making oneself humble implies retrogression and retrogression can only start through humility. A new circle is born.

Negation opens up the way to the remoteness of our history both phylogenetically and ontogenetically; this happens in various interrelated ways. One can see this backward motion in dream formation. Dreams lay bare, and allow us to acquaint ourselves through critical interpretation, not only with our personal history (going as far back as our childhood), but also, and through connections with works of art such as Oedipus Turranus, but also with the whole archaic heritage which constitutes our humanity. The first topography shows the mechanism of this regression in dreams which allows movement of unconscious material, not towards the motor end of the y-systems, but rather to the opposite extreme, namely, the perceptual end (Freud, TIoD, 692)[15]. Dreaming is not only ”an example of regression to the dreamer’s earliest condition, of the instinctual impulses that dominated it, and of the methods of expression …. available to him” (Freud, ibid., 699), but likewise a universal regression towards the archaic structures which involve the rise of the Oedipus complex itself. Psychoanalysis, having quoted Nietzsche, knows that this its particular kind of narrowness is far reaching:

“Dreams and neurosis seem to have preserved more mental antiquities than we could have imagined possible; so that psychoanalysis may claim a high place among the sciences which are concerned with the reconstruction of the earliest and most obscure periods of the begginings of the human race” (Freud, ibid., 700)

It is in this sense that topographic, temporal and formal regresion are at bottom one and the same kind of regression; for “what is older in time is also more primitive in form and in psychical topography lies nearer to the perceptual end” (Freud, TIoD, 699).

But this regressive tendency, is far from being only present in dreams, rather it permeates the whole of Freud’s outlook. It continues to play a central role in the second topography where in a difficult passage we are told: “in the id, which is capable of being inherited, are harboured residues of the existences of countless egos; and, when the ego forms its superego out of the id, it may perhaps only be reviving shapes of former egos and be bringing them to ressurrection” (Freud EI, 378). Understanding ourselves today involves then an understanding of residues present prior even to our birth. Moreover this regressive tendency is likewise present in Freud’s writings on culture.. An example of this being the analogy of mind and Rome in Civilization and its Discontents, where we are told concerning mental life:

“Since we overcame the error of supposing that the forgetting we are familiar with signified a destruction of the memory trace — that is, its annihilation —- we have inclined to take the opposite view that in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish — that everything is somehow preserved and that in suitable circumstances (when for instance, regression goes back far enough) it can once more be brought to light” (Freud, CD, 256) (my emphasis)

Regression is not an endless abysmal fall into the darkness of the unknown; it rather involves, as we shall see, a bringing to light; something for which we are better prepared having read Sophocles’ play. But furthermore, one finds this regressive type of inquiry coming to life in the very foundation of psychoanalysis, that is to say, it is present in psychoanalysis dualism. as seen in the perpetual struggle between the eros and the death instincts. The latter, which for Freud finds meaningful expression in sadism and hatred is not only supported by biology but its task is to lead organic lfe back ino the inanimate state” (Freud, EI, 380). This is truly as back as you can go.[16]

Having said all this, I hope it becomes clearer to see why it is that in an early work like The Interpretation of Dreams so much emphasis is placed by Freud on Jocasta’s words on incestous dreaming. Only with a view to the whole regressive nature of psychoanalytic investigation does the four-page interpretation of Sophocles’ play start to make more sense. Humiliation and regression, which we saw present in the work itself, are two of the banners held by psychoanalysis in its search for understanding. Ricouer, who captures this tendency in his concept of the ‘archeology of the subject’, tells us:

“If one interrelates all these modalities of archaism; there is formed the complex figure of a destiny in reverse, a destiny that draws one backward; never before had a doctrine so coherently revealed the disquieting consistency of this complex situation” (Ricoeur, FP, 452).

A complex situation hinted at by Teiresias’ puzzling words: “This day shall bring thy birth —– and thy destruction”. Destruction, painful as it might be, is not for destruction’s sake. Neither Sophocles nor psychoanalysis aim simply at leaving us nakedly and embarrasingly facing ourselves defenseless in the uttermost cold of cage-like caverns.


Literature is fond of playing with words. To reveal is one of those words that invite us to playfulness; it calls on foreplay, that is to say, all that which goes on before the actual playing. But some languages aid us better is playing certain games; I will therefore refer the reader to Spanish words here. To ‘reveal’ in English is to bring to light, to disclose. But, at least phonetically, the word could be seen to have some relation to the verb ‘to veil’ which means exactly the opposite, that is to say, to cover, to haze over. If one added the prefix ‘re’ which means to do again (as in redo your homework) then one would end up with the exactly opposite word to ‘re-veil’. The game I am playing works much better in Spanish, for the word for ‘to reveal’ is ‘revelar’, and the word for ‘to veil’ is ‘velar’. It is easier then to add the repetitie prefix ‘re’ which also exists in Spanish. To reveal then would involve a new type of vealing, a new covering up. The game takes added force because inseems to point precisely at Ricoeurs conception of what a ‘symbol’ is double meaning and which in reference to dream we are told: “the dream and its analogues er set within a region of language that presents itself as the locus of compelx significations when another meaning is BOTH hoddenn and given ina n immediate meaning” (Ricoeur, FP, 7). The regressive and humiliation have moved us a primary meaning that distorted, veiled. But there movement revelas new posibilities which leave us not strandeed nakedly humiliated in a maddening past but covers us agains, re-vveils’ us. How is dthis done? [17].

Now under this view to ‘reveal’ is a ‘re-veiling’ that is to say, a recovering, a covering oneself anew. Naked we would surely die; we humans must cover us through new meanings.

There are many ways in whih one could come to see how psychoanalysis could do this within its regressive framework; through a positive view on identification[18], also by way of a recovery of the never fully articulated and comprehended phenomena of sublimation by Freud[19], and finally, the course I propose here to take by looking at Freud’s own words, by reminding oneself of the practice which psychoanalysis involves. In the analytic situation analysand and analyst meet in dialogue to overcome regression and firmly held resistances. IN the analytic situation nakedness sets in, but it s a different kind of nakedness, one that reacts much like Athena did to Teiresias.

The analysand —and all of us reading Freud outside the analytic situation —- is suffering from symptoms which hamper his ability to move around, articulate and face the reality which mingles outside the analytical situation. He/she is stuck, so to speak, much like we dream universally of being embarrassingly stuck in our own nakedness. Their inability to orient themselves in the real world lies partly in a regressive fixation on past experiences: “not only do they remember painful experiences of the remote past, but they still cling to them emotionally; they cannot get free of the past and for its sake they neglect what is real and immediate” (F, 5LP, 40). But not only are they backwardly fixed, they cannot see what it is precisely they are fixed on. It is as if they had become amnesic. The analysand is there fore set in an awkward situation of simultaneously knowing and not knowing. Confusion sets in, as Freud clearly saw in the case of Fraulein Elizabeth von R.:

“it followed that her feelings themselves did not become clear to her …. her love for her brother in law was present in her consciousness as a foreign body …. with regard to these feelings she was in a peculiar situation of knowing and at the same time not knowing” (Freud, SoH, 165)

A riddle plays itself out here. It is a riddle that Oedipus knew all too well. Uncovering the riddle implies recognition this dangerously regressive tendency “the libido …. has netered on a regressive course and has revived the subject’s infantile images” (F, TDoT, 102). We are literally caught up in a dream world.

Psychoanalysis, like Oedipus, does not shy away from this riddle. It desires a try at it. It rebels against human suffering for it cannot understand how “people notice that the patient has some slit in his mind, but shrink from touching them for fear of increasing his suffering” (Freud, 5LP, 84). Psychoanalysis likes to touch; it does so for the purpose of healing. It faces our split head on and tries to comprehensively fill gaps building brdges of communication between both split —much like iin tragedy — disconnected worlds.

And it knows that this construction is a task, “one o f the hardest” (Freud, SoH, 138), is a true battle of continuous struggle towards recovery:

“The analysis has to struggle against the resistances … the resistance accompanies the treatment step by step. Every songle association, every act of the person under treatment must reckon with the resistance and represents a compromise between the forces that are striving towards recovery and the opposing ones which I have described” (Freud, TDoT, 103)

Psychoanalysis, following the basic rule of honesty which states that “whatever comes into one’s head must be reported without criticizing it “ (Freud, TDoT, 107), moves by way of shedding clothes, by untangling knots which hamper our everyday fulfillment. Psychoanalysis clears, much like Oedipus, its procedure is “one of clearing away the pathogenic material layer by layer, and we liked to compare it with the technique of excavating a city” (Freud, SoH, 139). Psychoanalysis exccavates but its excavations matter iin so far as the uncovered city that is brought to light is not simply left standing to werode but rather integrated, cultivated and admred by making it part of the whole topography of one’s mind. Psychoanalysis rebuilds, repaints, reconstructs. Psychoanalyis recovers, that is to say, it covers again our nakedness.

In the analytic situation, byy way of the, beautifully termed by Freud, “catalytic ferment” which is the transference (Freud, 5LP, 82), which is the “true vehicle of therapeutic influence” (ibid., 83) psychoanalysis embarks of the reconstruction of misunderstood losses in order to construct new meaning. Knowing all too well about the dangers of transference as substitute for the analysand most intimate desires — the analysand feels his nakedness can be covered by way of the analyst —-(Freud, TDoT, 103-4), it sets out on a quest towards the difficult articulation of a narrative, the coherence and beauty of which, allows, and proceeds from the overcoming of resistances. Freud sees this narrative structure but his scientific outlook is weary of its claims to real truth: “and it still strikes me as strange that the case histories I wrote should read like short stories and that we might say they lack the serious stamp of science” (Freud, SoH, 160). [20]

With the aid of a trained analyst who, with Freud’s unfortunate choice of words “tries to compel him to fit these emotional impulses into the nexus of the treatment and of his life history” (Freud, TDoT,, 108). The analysand is given the tools through which he can not only comprehend his/her past, but move beyond it creatively and realistically in a world outside the analytic situation for “what matters is that he shall be free of it in his real life” (ibid., 106). IN the construction of a narrative of which I cannot go into detail here, regression and humiliation end up ina form of revealing, as we saw a new covering, a revealing; a veiling in the warmth of meaningful words and actions. truth emerges out of a backward movement in which we doubt as never had. Truth emerges as a rock that “is reliable,, strong enough to be a foothold, a foundation for us to stand upon” (Loch, CSPT, 221) A rock from which Oedipus at Colonus finds his own death (Sophocles, OC, 1594), with these words, leaving his children without a father:

“My children, from this day

Ye have no father. Now my life is done.

You shall not toil to tend me any more.

How hard it was for you, I know, dear daughters;

Yet that one word of ‘love’ repaid it all.

No man could give you deeper love than mine.

And now without me

You both must pass the remnant of your days” (1614-1621)

His children are left nakedly facing the world, but they are better prepared for it.

[1]For a defense of such circularity as mode of understanding peculiar to human beings one can look at Heidegger’s Being and Time..

[2]For Ricoeur psychoanalysis can be understood, in conjunction with the work of Marx and Nietzsche, as a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’. For these critical thinkers the immediacy of meaning is questioned and each develops a way to gain insight into the process of distortion which governs, be it dreams, capitalist accumulation and alienation, and morality. This idea will perhaps become clearer in section IV of this essay. Besides, the term is used by Ricoeur in reference to the three-fold humiliation of Western thought: i) the cosmological humiliation by Copernicus, ii) the biological humiliation at the hands of Darwin, and iii) the psychological humiliation at the hands of Freud himself. (Ricoeur, FP, 32-36, see also PMCC). Humiliation therefore, as I take it, has nothing to do with guilt; but with something more like shame.

[3]Ricouer does attempt to situate psychoanalysis within, what he considers are three zones of symbolic language: i) the cosmic, linked to the phenomenology of religion, ii), the zone of the oneiric linked to psychoanalysis, and iii) the zone governed by poetic imagination (Ricoeur, FP, BOOK I: “Problematic: the placing of Freud”)

[4]Perhaps one could see in this tension clear parallels with the struggle between unconscious and conscious forces, between the ego and the id, but one must continuously be weary of projecting the way we understand ourselves to other cultures who shared neither our practices nor our conceptual frameworks. A crucial example is the inexistence of a concept of ‘will’ within Greek thought. (Vernant, 28)

[5]The theory of double motivation holds instead that there is not simply a submission by the agent but rather a complex double participation, both divine and human: “Since the origin lies in both man himself and outside him, the same character appears now as an agent, the cause and source of his actions, and now as acted upon, engulfed in a force that is beyond him and sweeps him away. yet although human and divine causality are intermingled in tragedy, they are not confused. The two levels are quite distinct, sometimes opposed to each other” (Vernant, 53)

[6]Within the tradition of a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ one could look at Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy for a clearer view of what Tragedy meant to the Greeks. Nevertheless, the Nietzschean analysis is not itself without problems, and one can therefore try to look at works such as Dodds’ stimulating The Greeks and the Irrational for a better understanding of teh context within which Greek Tragedy took place (e.g. Appendix I “Maenadism”). For a defense of a more Freudian analysis of Oedipus Tyrannus , one can also look at Thallia Feldman’s “Taboo and Neurotic Guilt in the Oedipus Theme”. Her argument is that “ it is principally Sophocles who, in his two dramas, bridges the transition between such surviving notions surrounding primitive taboo and their elevation into a significant stage beyond, one which indicates a new, individual concern and feeling” (Feldman, 60)

[7]The issue of historicity places real questions on the whole enterprise of psychoanalysis. This is nowhere better seen than in the important work of Michel Foucault who traces the history of madness in his Madness and Civilization. The possible ground for a critique of psychoanalysis is found particularly in his first and third volumes on the History of Sexuality. While in the third he attempts to understand Artemidorus within his context, in the first he argues that modernity is characterized by a deep concern for what is referred to the ‘repressive hypothesis’. The fundamental claim of this hypothesis, according to Focault, is one of liberation by engaging in discursive critique through which it is argued we may finally overcome both external and internal repression. (Of course Freud himself never aims at this, but some aspects of Foucault’’s critique due go to the heart of psychoanalytic practice) For Foucault this project is radically misguided. He seeks to show this by tracing its origin in history to the development of a practice peculiar to the West, namely, the radical emphasis we have placed in the discursiveness of sexuality. The overwhelming concern with the speaking of sexuality is traced back to the Christian confessional. In the confession one seeks permanently to ‘uncover’ oneself; it is an uncovering which makes possible,at least ideally, the emergence of some deeply concealed truth which up to that point had been held back. For Foucault the Christian confessional becomes secularized in a move from Augustine’s Confessions through to Rousseau’s Confessions and finally in the analytic situation itself. Freud many times writes as if within this paradigm, for example in An Outline of Psychoanalysis: he tewlls us: “this looks as though we were only aiming at the post of a secular father confessor. But there is a great difference, for what we want to hear from our patient is not only what he knows and conceals from other people; he is to tell us too what he does NOT know” (Freud, AOP, Chpter VI ) What is problematic for Foucault on this view of things is that we are continuously incited to confess believing that herein lies the breakdown of repression. But for Foucault this confessional practice is set within a whole network of power relations which give expression too a historically developed technology of the self through which we come to be constituted as particular kinds of subjects, that is, confessional subjects. The former perpetuate the discourse of protest which represents the very means of perpetuating their condition as the kind of subjects the have come to be. For Foucault this condition is that western human have become ‘confessional animals’ (Foucault, HoS I, 159) (This position radically questions many of the points in this essay).

[8]Vernant and Vidal Naquet have two furher arguments against Freud’s interpretation: i) the first concerns the circularity of the argument (I have tried to show that this is precisely what Freud intends and therefore the critique is unfair) (Vernant, 64); and ii) they question the whole idea of Oedipus’ really knowing or not whether Polybus and Merope were his parents. I think this to be a weaker argument and Freud could attempt to answer it.

[9]I will use F.L. Lucas translation because although its English is difficult I find it particularly beautiful. But perhaps not everyone coincides.

[10]Vernant and Vidal-Naquet shed light on this dual nature of the action: “the contrary aspects of the action he has accomplished by blinding himself are both united and opposed in the very same expressions that the chorus and himself both use … The divine causality and the human initiative which just now appearede to be so clearly opposed to each other have now come together and, at the very heart of the decision ‘chosen’ by Oedipus, a subtle play of language produces a shift from the action …. to that of passivity …” (Vernat, 54)

[11]”Dwellers here in Thebes our city, fix your eyes on Oedipus/Once he guesed the famous riddle, once our land knew none so great—-/Which among the sons of Cadmus envied not his high estate?/Now behold how deep above him there hath rolled the surge of doom/So with every child of mortal” (1524-8)

[12]Ricouer sees n Freud’s analysis two interpretations, the hermeneutical and the energetic, neither of which can be reduced to the other an the dual nature of which gives an added strength to psychoanalytic theory.

[13]Perhaps one could argue that part of the fascination with Sophocles’ play lies precisely in its appeal  to the language of sight. In this sense it moves us closer to the perceptual end of the first topography.

[14]A view which makes sense, I beleive, only as stemming from a Schopenahuerian view of the will.

[15]It is interesting to note that our game leads us, in its Spanish variant,  to realize that the verb “velar” also means to take care of something important, and particularly of the dead.

[16]The presence of the symbol is further made interesting if one looks at its Greek origin. As Anne Carson tells us in her beautiful Eros: the Bittersweet: “The English word ‘symbol’ is the Greek word symbolon which means, in teh ancient world, one half of a knucklebone carried as a token of identity to someone who has the other half. Together the two halves compose one meaning. A metaphor is a species of symbol. So is a lover.” (Carson , 75.)  The importance of this relation becomes more important if one sets to try to understand Freud’s claim to be following Plato in erotic matters. (Freud, 3ES, 43.)

[17]A positive view of identification would see it as an inevitable event, yet under certain historical circumstances not simply a negative one. One could try for example, to link the issue of identification with a notion of ‘identity’ such as theone defended by Charles Taylor in his Sources of the Self.


[19]Ricoeur recovers this in his view of Sophocles’ play seen principally as a tragedy of truth and in his genral understanding of art as providing the progressive movement which, while incorporating some regressive understaniding, nevertheless reveals present and future possibilities. : “because of their emphasis in disguise dreams look more to the past, to childhood. But in works of art the emphasis is on disclosure; thus works of art tend to be prospective symbols of one’s personal synthesis and of man’s future and not merely a regressive symptom of the artist’s unresolved conflict”. One can also  look at also Ricoeur’s “Psychoanalysis and the Work of art” where he touches on the realiton of he ‘fantastic’ as both representabel and substitutable, and the sublimation found in the work of Leonardo Da Vinci.

[20]On the issue of narrativity and truth see Ricoeur’s essay: “The Question of Proof in Freud’s Psychoanalytic Writings”



Freud, Sigmund, Two Short Accounts of Psycho-analysis, Penguin, London, 1991, “Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis” pgs. 31-87. Translated by James Strachey.

———– The Interpretation of Dreams, Volume 4 of the Penguin Freud Library, Penguin, London, 1991.

———–On Sexuality, Volume 7 of the Penguin Freud Library, particularly “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” pp. 33-169.

———–On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, Volume 11 of the Penguin Freud Library, “The Unconscious” 159-210, “The ego and the Id”, 339-401. (Edition 1984)

———–Civilization Society and Religion, Volume 12 of Penguin Freud Library, “‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness” pp. 33-55. (edition 1985


Loch, W., “Some Comments on the Subject of Psychoanalysis and Truth”, Essay 8 in Psychiatry and the Humanities Volume 2: Thought, Consciousness, and Reality, (de. Smith, Joseph) Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1977, pgs 217-250.

Lucas, F.L., Greek Tragedy and Comedy, “Oedipus the King”, The Viking Press, New York, 1967, pp. 168-208

Ricoeur, P., “Psychoanalysis and the Work of Art”, Essay 1 in Psychiatry and the Humanities Volume 1: Psychiatry, Art and Literature (de. Smith, Joseph), Yale Univesity Press, New Haven and London, 1977, pp. 3-33

———– Freud and Philosophy, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1970. Translated by Denis Savage.

———- Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,

“The question of proof in Freud’s Psychoanalytic writings” pp. 247-273.

Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, Translated and edited by Luci Berkowitz and Theodore Brunner, Norton and Company, New York, 1970. Particularly “Thalia Phillies Feldman “Taboo and Neurotic Guilt in the Oedipus Theme” pp. 59-69.

Vernat, J.P. and Vidal-Naquet P., “Preface”, Chapter 3: “Intimations of the Will in Greek Tragedy”, Chapter 4:“Oedipus without the complex”, in Tragedy and Myth in Ancient Greece, Harvester Press, Sussex, n.d., pp. 28-86.

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Nadie en la Biblia, en particular en el Antiguo Testamento, padece la voluntad de Dios como lo hace Job. Infortunado por designio divino sufre la muerte de sus criados, la pérdida de su cuantiosa propiedad, el asesinato de sus hijos e hijas, y además es hecho preso de una sarna maligna enviada por Satanás como prueba a su fe en el Dios Jehová (Job, 1,2). Es él quien antes de confesarse pecador por soberbio —– acción que le posibilita recuperar su propiedad y bienestar perdidos —— maldice incluso el día en que nació. En un apartado este doliente dice a Dios estas desgarradoras palabras:

Mi carne está vestida de gusanos, y de costras de polvo;

Mi piel hendida y abominable.

Y mis días fueron más veloces que la lanzadera

del tejedor,

Y fenecieron sin esperanza.

Acuérdate que mi vida es un soplo,

Y que mis ojos no volverán a ver el bien.

Los ojos de los que me ven, no me verán más;

Fijarás en mí tus ojos,

Y dejaré de ser. (Job, 7, 5-8)

Juan Rulfo en su breve cuento “Talpa”, uno de los que conforman El llano en llamas, recupera muchas de estas ideas en el contexto latinoamericano contemporáneo. Miremos más de cerca dicho cuento misterioso y desgarrado regido por la carga de la letra ‘T’; la letra del crucifijo que cuelga sobre los delicados cuellos de muchos y muchas.

La visión judeocristiana del universo permea todos los bienes y prácticas nuestras como latinoamericanos en particular, y como occidentales en general. Así no comulguemos con las doctrinas de la Iglesia Católica, y tampoco estemos completamente de acuerdo con sus prácticas, es incuestionable que su marca en nuestra cultura, en nuestras prácticas cotidianas, es inmensa e innegable. Nuestro referente temporal siempre es Cristo cuya fecha de nacimiento se ha convertido en eje de nuestra temporalidad histórica. Es así como al hablar de los griegos, por ejemplo, los ubicamos de manera dantesca en un periodo anterior al nacimiento de Cristo, los siglos a.C. Respetar e intentar comprender esta tradición cristiana en la que nosotros —–querámoslo o no ——- somos, evidentemente involucra un enfrentarnos con nuestra propia realidad, con nuestra propia cruz. Nietzsche sabe bien de la necesidad de este enfrentamiento, él lo asume como pocos escritores lo han hecho. Desviémonos una vez más para ver cual es el problema en cuestión.

Talpa, Tanilo, Natalia, todos nombres cruciales del cuento de Juan Rulfo “Talpa”. La extraña letra ‘T’ palpita por entre sus trazos; los gobierna. La letra ‘T’ es la letra de la cruz, y cada personaje y espacio de la obra carga con su propia cruz desde su mismo nombramiento por el autor. Incluso la misma división estructural del cuento en cinco partes, la tercera de las cuales abre al lector al camino de Talpa, nos recuerda en su simetría y mediana prolongación una cruz compartida.

En una famosa canción Serrat, nos canta, siguiendo un poema de Machado, que no hay camino, sino que hacemos camino al andar. Para Rulfo, en este breve cuento, por el contrario lo que en efecto no hay son posibles caminos por recorrer con bifurcaciones y desvíos intermitentes. No, existe en la tradición católica un único camino, el camino de Talpa; a saber, el camino de la peregrinación en la que reconocemos nuestra pecaminosa naturaleza y la necesareidad del perdón divino. Y recordemos que el peregrinar es el viajar por el extranjero; es que efectivamente el católico no es de este mundo, este mundo no es sino un mundo extraño que recorre hacia el mundo del más allá.

Natalia y su enfermo esposo, llamado Tanilo, recorren junto con el hermano de Tanilo (el narrador sin nombre) el camino hacia Talpa. Talpa, lugar de peregrinación a la virgen misericordiosa del mismo nombre. Pero si bien el camino tendrá su fin para Tanilo. los otros dos protagonistas serán condenados a recorrerlo —– ya no tanto físicamente sino espiritualmente —– en el infinito remordimiento que les corroe el alma. La culpa y el remordimiento permea todos los ámbitos del cuento. Este lo abren las largas e incontenibles lágrimas de Natalia quien a su regreso de Talpa llora, “como si estuviera exprimiendo el trapo de nuestros pecados.” (Rulfo, T, 168). Pero nos preguntamos, ¿a qué se debe este llanto desmedido como catarata de sentimientos ocultos? ¿Acaso llora ella su reciente viudez? No, llora ella no por su viudez sino por haber deseado vehementemente esa viudez conseguida.

La narración del hermano anónimo de Tanilo es en su totalidad una confesión. La confesión es el diálogo que conoce el catolicismo y que tiene su más clara ejemplificación en Las confesiones de San Agustín. Es esta una práctica cuyo eje es el constante revelar a mi superior espiritual la compleja interioridad de mi alma para purgarla de toda maldad que la agobie; sobretodo limpiarla de males carnales pensados y, peor aún, actuados. Pero lo paradójico es que este narrador rulfiano no se confiesa frente a un sacerdote, en lo oscuro de una parroquia silenciosa; no, él lo hace frente a todo el universo de lectores posibles, lectores que sabemos, así no vayamos a tales parroquias, de la necesidad del continuo confesar dentro de nuestra cultura. Es esto cierto hasta el punto que Foucault señala que el ser humano occidental se ha convertido en un animal confesional (Foucault, THS, p. 60). El narrador en su relato contado comienza el recorrido de su paz por el camino de Talpa:

“Porque la cosa es que a Tanilo Santos entre Natalia y yo lo matamos. Lo llevamos a Talpa para que se muriera. Y se murió. Sabíamos que no aguantaría caminar, pero, así y todo, lo llevamos empujándolo entre los dos, pensando en acabar con él para siempre. Eso hicimos. “ (ibid. 169)

El confesar la certeza de su crimen es el camino hacia la reconciliación del hermano de Tanilo consigo mismo y con su Dios. Revelándonos la atrocidad de su crimen se abre él a la posibilidad del arrepentimiento y del perdón, el único tipo de redención que conoce el católico.

A Tanilo —– y que apellido el suyo, ‘Santos’ —– el destino divino le ha enviado, como a un Job moderno, una prueba para comprobar la veracidad de su fe. Padece él una incurable enfermedad que le carcome los miembros frágiles de su cuerpo; maldita enfermedad que le corroe no desde fuera,, sino desde sus propias más internas entrañas. Lo que alguna vez fue cuerpo de ser humano estaba ahora compuesto de “llagas por donde no salía nada de sangre y si una cosa amarilla como goma de copal que destilaba agua pesada” (ibid. 169). Estaba su corporeidad “llena por dentro de agua podrida que le salía por cada rajadura de sus piernas o de sus brazos.” (ibid. 174). Para la tradición católica el cuerpo es la fuente de todo pecado en tanto que su terrenalidad encarna las pasiones contaminantes. El cuerpo de Tanilo es el cuerpo católico llevado al extremos de su infecciosidad. Sin embargo Tanilo tiene fe en su Dios todopoderoso y bondadoso cuyos planes, así parezcan terriblemente injustos y dolorosos, siempre tiene una razón de ser, un fin preciso.

Creer es tener fe; la racionalidad no podrá ayudar a Tanilo a comprender su situación enfermiza. Ser fiel es tener esperanza en aquello que motiva nuestra fidelidad incondicional. En su esperanza Tanilo espera el fin de esta prueba divina; espera él que en su peregrinación hacia la virgen de Talpa se le de la gracia divina que le permita encontrar la redención de este mal corporal que él no ha escogido voluntariamente. Esperanza tiene él en la pureza de María, madre de Cristo.

La Virgen María, símbolo de la pureza del cuerpo y del alma, puente siempre abierto entre los seres humanos y Dios, modelo de las mujeres latinoamericanas. Mujer ella que sabía “lavar las cosas, ponerlo todo nuevo de nueva cuenta como un campo recién llovido” (ibid. 169). Virgen a la que el párroco de Talpa invoca recordándonos su infinita benevolencia:

“La que quisiera llevarnos en sus brazos para que no nos lastime la vida, esta aquí junto a nosotros, aliviándonos el cansancio y las enfermedades del alma, y de nuestro cuerpo ahuatado, herido y suplicante.” (ibid., 176)

Virgen en quien Tanilo cifra toda esperanza de curación, de limpieza y de nuevo comienzo.

Enfermedad corporal es la de Tanilo, él no ha podido elegirla; en cambio es un enfermedad del alma la que eligen libremente Natalia y su hermano. La pecaminosidad de la cual son ellos objeto, surge de la insaciabilidad de sus pasiones que en medio de la muerte de Tanilo se encuentran, entregándose a sus excesos pecaminosos. Son las piernas de Natalia aquellas que habían estado “solas desde hacia tiempo”. (ibid., 169) Exceso de excesos para los católicos, el adulterio. Cometer adulterio es el quebrantar el sacramento divino e indisoluble del matrimonio católico. Es este el pecado de pecados que en el caso de Natalia y su amante multiplica su pecaminosidad por el deseo vivo de realizarlo llevando a Tanilo mártir hacia su muerte. Eliminar la sangre de su sangre: “algo que no podemos entender ahora, pero entonces lo queríamos. Me acuerdo muy bien” (ibid., 170)

Ahora ya no comprenden ellos los motivos escondidos de su acción, pero el recuerdo de haber en un momento anterior comprendido, y además de haber querido actuar como lo hicieron, hace que, por ejemplo, Natalia “no ve(a) ya nada”, sino el fantasma de su esposo muerto. Ve ella sólo culpa, ve ella tan solo el camino de perdición como posible redención. Está ella llamada a recorrer el camino que Tanilo ya ha recorrido siguiendo el camino de las estaciones de la crucifixión de Jesús. Ella lo camina una vez más en su interioridad, padeciendo a cada paso de concientización, su infidelidad. Su interioridad la carcome lenta y agudamente.

El tercer apartado del cuento de Rulfo se alarga como eje central de una cruz que es este camino a Talpa. Recorrerlo les ha tomado en términos puramente temporales desde mediados de febrero, hasta finales de marzo. Pero este recorrido espacio temporal local de los personajes del cuento es el universal recorrer esperanzador de todo creyente peregrino; recorrido por el camino en el que a la soberbia se enfrenta al arrepentimiento, la penitencia y la humildad en el amor de Dios.

De una luminosidad agobiante, este camino en su calurosa claridad destella como una corona angelical: “teníamos que esperar a la noche para poder descansar del sol, y de aquella luz blanca del camino” (ibid., 172). Pero en el recorrer la luz blanca que es este camino los caminantes como rebaño desplazan la claridad con sus pesados pasos polvorientos: “y arriba de esta tierra estaba el espacio vacío, sin nubes, solo el polvo, pero el polvo no da ninguna sombra” (ibid., 172). La sequedad polvorienta lo cubre todo; se cubre el camino del mismo polvo con el que en el Miércoles de Ceniza los católicos se marcan recordándose como han surgido del polvo y al polvo volverán luego de su recorrido por este valle del exilio. El polvo invade con su grisáceo tono mortal —— y paradójicamente para Nietzsche el tono de la genealogía es el gris (Niet, GdM, Prólogo, #7) —– todo ámbito: “el cielo siempre gris como una mancha gris, y pesaba que nos aplastaba a todos desde arriba (ibid, 173).

Solo en el fresco de la oscura noche los caminantes se pueden refrescar momentáneamente; Natalia y el hermano de Tanilo se refrescan en la liquidez compartida de sus cuerpos entregados al amor erótico; no al ‘agape’, es decir, al amor cristiano. El recorrido del día es el agobiante y caluroso, fatigante y sudoroso, recorrer del católico por este mundo que es un valle de lágrimas; recordemos que nuestra palabra ‘inmundo’ con su connotación puramente negativa quiere decir también, ‘en el mundo’. La noche es la oscuridad de la muerte como tránsito necesario hacia la ciudad divina y la vida eterna en comunidad con Dios. El camino a Talpa es el caminar por la vida del católico latinoamericano:

“Algún día llegará la noche. En eso pensábamos, llegará la noche y nos pondremos a descansar. Ahora se trata de cruzar el día, de atravezarlo como sea para correr del calor y del sol. Después nos detendremos. Después. Los que tenemos que hacer por lo pronto es esfuerzo tras esfuerzo para ir de prisa detrás de tantos como nosotros y delante de otros muchos. De eso se trata. Ya descansaremos bien a bien cuando estemos muertos” (ibid., 173)

Recorriendo este cambio hacia la noche eterna llega por fin Tanilo a Talpa. Su cuerpo peregrino a duras penas ha resistido el viaje; su cuerpo ya no es el de un humano sino el de una cosa animada desfigurada e irreconocible. Su cuerpo era “aquella cosa tan llena de cataplasmas y de hilos oscuros de sangre que dejaban en el aire, al pasar, un olor agrio de animal muerto” (ibid., 175). En la penitencia ha abierto Tanilo a la Virgen lo infeccioso de su corporeidad. En medio del baile y la oración del párroco surge de ese animal como muerto, que es Tanilo, una gran lágrima que pareciera no compartir la infecciosidad de todos sus otros humores corporales. En su aparente pureza esta gota cae “apagándole la vela que Natalia le había puesto en sus manos” (ibid., 176). Esas velas que inundan con su frágil y tenue luz la oscuridad pacífica de iglesias sin fin. Nuestra vida para los católicos es como un vela cuya cambiante textura hace que unas se consuman más rápido que otras, y además cuya luz débil está siempre abierta a la posibilidad de corrientes de aire divino que acaben con ella. Apagando su propia vela de vida, grita su rezo de redención y rendición Tanilo a la Virgen de Talpa. Pero como dice su hermano, “no le valió de nada, se murió de todas maneras” (ibid., 176). Muere Tanilo en su cuerpo putrefacto que había sido llamado a la descomposición mucho antes de ser realmente enterrado. Muere él sin recibir el alivio del abrazo virginal que le desaparezca sus dolores aquí, en esta tierra. Muere él sin correr la suerte de Job. Enterrado es Tanilo por las manos manchadas y sudorosas —- pero de un sudor muy diferente —– de su esposa Natalia, y su pecaminoso hermano anónimo. Viven ellos desde ese momento en el recuerdo repetitivo de su oscura relación adultera. Son ellos enterradores que en su acción han enterrado bajo el polvo su propia felicidad. Para ellos comienza ahora sí el recorrido hacia una nueva Virgen de Talpa más allá de Talpa y de Tanilo mismos:

“Y yo comienzo a sentir como si no hubiéramos llegado a ninguna parte; que estamos aquí de paso, para descansar, y que luego seguiremos caminando. No se para dónde; pero tendremos que seguir, porque aquí estamos muy cerca del remordimiento y del recuerdo de Tanilo” (ibid., 177)

Natalia y su amante no podrán olvidar pues el pecado resurge constantemente en el recuerdo. Recordando su culpa retornarán ellos indefinidamente hacia su acto pecaminoso hasta que algún día confiesen su acto para que suplicando el perdón, sean liberados del eterno retorno de la culpabilidad. ¿Cómo? Gracias al influjo misterioso de la gracia divina.

Y nosotros, que hemos leído este cuento, lo hemos podido comprender ya que somos un poco como ese anónimo que lo recuenta; también nosotros estamos marcados por la ‘T’.

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