PRINT November 1999



THE DYNAMICS, the provocations, the sacrifices entailed in any collaborative viewing and interpreting of works of art are easy enough to imagine. But for Leo Bersani, former chair of French and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and Ulysse Dutoit, who has taught film at the same institution for some twenty-five years, the collaborative effort has proved a creative stimulant nurtured to a point where it is by now the veritable ethic of the brilliant, often controversial books they have jointly written, beginning with The Forms of Violence in 1985.

I have been a close friend to both since the time of their first meeting in Paris in 1968, and with Bersani for even longer than that; I know each of them to be formidably articulate, intelligent, and strong willed. For such individuals, collaboration in the interpretation of painting, film, sculpture, and writing could prove to be at the very least an inconvenience, with each party to such an undertaking exerting a digressive, at times diluting influence on the inevitably intense focus of the other. It could become a challenge to what is considered the necessary self-assertiveness governing any determination of what is most importantly “there” in a work of art, while of course subordinating, even erasing, other features of it. William James once complained that this kind of governance is built into the very structure of our ordinary sentences.

But what might be construed as a sacrifice of critical force has, in Bersani and Dutoit’s case, become an enormous, and, I think, exemplary enhancement of it. In fact, the often passionately expressed intention of their work is to challenge that will to power, which has its corollary in what is so frequently the critic’s envy of achievements grudgingly recognized as greater than his own. Looking together at the same picture or the same film, then writing together about it, as Bersani and Dutoit manage to do, can produce a tension between collaborators that relieves the antagonism inherent in the critic’s competitive relation to works of art; it saves their work from that fixed exclusivity of purpose that actually blocks the possibilities of a fuller interpretive receptivity and inquisitiveness.

Before they began to collaborate in 1985, Bersani was by himself widely acclaimed as the author of several books that have since earned a reverberative place in the history of criticism, notably A Future for Astyanax in 1976 and, only two years later, Baudelaire and Freud. And even after the collaboration began, leading in the past eighteen months to the publications of their Caravaggio’s Secrets and Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio, Bersani wrote by himself such disruptively original, widely translated works as The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (1986), and Homos (1995), with its brilliantly revisionist chapters on Proust, Genet, and especially Gide. It is notable, all the while, that his collaborations with Dutoit have substantially enriched his critical perceptions of film, painting, and sculpture, as well as literature. When it comes to his way of looking at any of these things, there can by now be no sure way of determining just where his collaborations with Dutoit begin and where they might, if ever, end. And yet it is important to note that in the work Bersani has been doing by himself, he sustains the remarkable individuality of his way of seeing and responding that has been conspicuous from the very beginning, with his first book, Marcel Proust: The Fictions of Life and of Art (1965). Collaboration has only enhanced that individuality. Bersani and Dutoit’s active collaborations have meant not a loss of individual being for either of them but a freer, more confident, nonaggressive supplementation of it. —RICHARD POIRIER

Behind the brief passage on Ellsworth Kelly in our collaborative work Arts of Impoverishment, there had been a nearly epiphanic experience of what critical activity has meant for us. We had, during one of our museum visits while in the process of thinking about the book, confronted Kelly’s work with an intense blankness, not unlike the characteristic Proustian posture of an anxiously strained attention to the world—in particular, to those objects in nature and in art whose hidden, precious depths, once revealed to Proust’s Marcel, would, he believes, deliver “the secret of truth and beauty.” In Proust, this extreme receptiveness is somewhat deceptive. Its passivity both exacerbates the distinction between subject and object and positions the subject for a more or less secretly wished-for relation of mastery to the object. The subject’s illusion of contributing nothing to the encounter promotes the further illusion of his being able to “know” the world, to penetrate and to appropriate otherness. It could be said that A la Recherche du temps perdu is a monumental tribute to such projects of mastery—although there are moments when the Proustian narrator discovers that penetration, so to speak, can never be a one-way street.

Poised in front of the innumerable buttercups growing along the Guermantes Way, the young Marcel finds that, unable literally to devour the flowers in order “to consummate with my palate the pleasure which the sight of them never failed to give me,” his pleasure “accumulates” on the flowers’ golden surfaces “until it became potent enough to produce an effect of absolute, purposeless beauty.” It is, then, the visibility of the boy’s pleasure on the flowers that caused the pleasure that transforms the buttercups into something like an object of art. Beauty turns out to be not a hidden attribute in the object but, instead, a mode of relationality, a manifestation of the subject’s implication in the world. The flowers “shine” with their own effect on Marcel’s enraptured body.

The very word “criticism,” with its implications of distance and judgment, might make us forget the centrality of the body in our experience of art—indeed, in the very constitution of what counts as art. The critic’s first responsibility is to remember, and to nurture, his body’s vulnerability. Certainly Proust knew that. The buttercups’ beauty is firmly grounded in an appetitive impotence: Unable to eat the flowers as he would eat the egg yolks that their yellow surfaces remind him of, Marcel “settles for” a visual pleasure whose intensity is nourished by the oral-incorporative pleasure he has had to renounce. The move from eating to art is itself a bodily move. When Marcel finally captures in a piece of writing the precious reality that, he felt, the Martinville church steeples were at once offering and hiding from him, he begins to sing with joyous relief “as though I myself were a hen and had just laid an egg.” The primitive project of destroying objects by way of an orality that seeks to transform the entire world into the devourer’s “system” is superseded by a mode of exchange between subject and object, perhaps best conceptualized as an impregnation.

In his contribution to the banquet guests’ speeches in praise of Eros in Plato’s Symposium, Socrates remembers the wise woman Diotima telling him, “All of us are pregnant, Socrates, both in body and in soul, and, as soon as we come to a certain age, we naturally desire to give birth.” Diotima significantly modifies the view of Eros, or desire, as lack, a view insisted on earlier by Socrates himself when, correcting the tragedian Agathon’s attribution of “the grandest and the most beautiful qualities” to Eros, he had remarked on the absence of those very qualities in Love. We can only desire what we don’t have, Socrates had stated; if Eros “were not in need” of beauty and wisdom, it wouldn’t desire them. The subject-object dualism in Western thought (and, derivatively, the critical myth of objectivity) is perhaps grounded in this notion of desire—of that which moves us toward the world—as polarized between lack and possession. Plato’s Symposium, an initiating moment in the history of this mode of thought, also undermines it. Far from expressing an emptiness, Eros, according to Diotima, is the sign of a fullness, of an inner plenitude that seeks to reproduce itself in the world. In philosophical discourse with those beautiful souls that act as catalysts, or midwives, of this self-reproduction, the lover submits his own ideas to a dialogue in which he not only educates the other, as Diotima says, but also “corresponds” with the dialogic modulations of his own philosophical being.

Our own emptiness—our intense blankness—in front of the Kelly paintings proved to be as deceptive as the presumed lack animating both the Socratic lover and the Proustian protagonist hungrily reaching toward “the secret of truth and beauty” in nature and in art. Kelly’s monochromatic surfaces—like those of Proust’s buttercups—began to shine even more brightly not only as our pleasure at looking at them increased, but also as we felt ourselves “growing large” with what we would later say about Kelly. The saying would describe what we call a nonrelational mobility. In Arts of Impoverishment, we speak of a Kelly yellow, for example, as a sort of trembling arc, projected toward the viewer, along which there are only identical points. It is as if the color were stretching itself out in order to relate to itself. The “points” are the analytic fictions by which we try to describe a type of mobility where the trajectory is nothing more than repeated emanations of the point of departure. “Movement” here is without perceptible intervals; it consists in the vibrating of sameness rather than in the construction of a differentiated space.

If Kelly became more interesting to us—and his works more beautiful—it was surely not because we felt we had penetrated the “real secret” of his art. Nor did we feel that, having become more interesting to ourselves, we could endorse the arrogant critical position that claims to derive the very being of the work of art from what is said about it. Unlike most of our encounters with works of art, our interpretive responses as we looked at a few of Kelly’s paintings that day were accompanied by a metacritical attention to what was happening to us, and to him, in the course of our interpretation. Straining toward something different from ourselves, we had been penetrated by something we already carried within us. But it was also as if it were only by entering us that the work could know itself. This peculiar intimacy with ourselves through something different from ourselves seemed to us not unlike what Diotima describes when she speaks of someone “pregnant” with “wisdom and the rest of virtue.” These are hardly attributes of a personality; we are pregnant with what doesn’t exactly belong to us, and self-delivery (self-reproduction) turns out to have nothing to do with self-expression.

What we “delivered” in the case of Kelly did, however, bear the mark of the physicality of our impregnating exchange with him. The vibrating sameness we saw in his work could be thought of as one of the fundamental modes of mobility in space. How to move and settle in space is the first challenge facing the newborn infant, who is delivered into a space radically different from the all-enveloping prenatal environment. In this type of space, connectedness has to be learned, even invented. Art (perhaps especially visual art) gives us a formalized repertory of our original options in spaces—options from which other relational modes we come to consider as more humanly significant (affective, ethical, political) ultimately derive. Art returns us to a physical relationality that is the founding model for those interpretive moves that criticism (preferring to focus on “ideas”) generally severs from their bodily sources.

Our first identity—more exactly, our first identities—is impersonal. These identities are individual not in the sense of belonging to or characterizing a person, but rather in the sense of defining a specific mode or style of entry into the world. Each of those styles at once particularizes mobility and belongs to no one in particular; it is a universal property. In this attempt to collaborate bodily with the work’s physicality, we are, as it were, depersonalized by our bodily imagination. What would seem to belong most intimately to us—our body—puts us in a happily defenseless (and nonpsychological) communication with other, equally anonymous bodies. (And first of all, with each other: Collaborative work both corporealizes and depersonalizes the critical gaze.) Relational being bypasses the defensive individuations of personality. To read art in this way with our bodies is, finally, to acknowledge our indebtedness to those works of art that coax us into self-divestiture and its generally unacknowledged pleasures.

In acknowledging this debt, criticism disarms itself. Rembrandt’s celebrated Night Watch suggests what being disarmed—divested of directional power—might look like. Like those Caravaggio paintings in which looks miss their objects (this is especially striking when the objects—Christ and the Virgin—presumably have the authority to focus, to center human seeing), The Night Watch accumulates instances of the disarmed eye. The troubled history of critical speculation about the activity depicted in this painting interestingly reflects and evades the subject that accounts for the work’s powerfully unsettling effect. The scholarly search to determine the event in this shooting-company picture parodistically got the painting right even when—or especially when—it failed to identify that event. For what Rembrandt gives us in The Night Watch is a collection of unconnected looks, looks that fail to define or to allow us to read a single project. The decentered looks of the figures within the painting metaphorize—give body to—its spectators’ unsuccessful efforts to read the painting itself. Rembrandt painted the disarmed vision to which his painting would give rise.

This deflection from the purposefulness the painting superficially represents is emphasized by the brightly lit presence of the richly dressed girl who has no discernible relation to the arms-bearing men surrounding her. If, as has been suggested, she and the girl just behind her were intended as emblem bearers, for the viewer they are simply there, with no purpose other than to alert us to the unreadability of the painting’s other figures—indeed, to unreadability itself as the subject we are, most profoundly, being asked to “read.” Paradoxically, this effect is further reinforced by the central male figure, Captain Frans Banning Coq, who appears to unify the dispersed looks and presences of the painting by indicating to his lieutenant, with his outstretched arm, the direction in which, apparently, they will all go. But his hand lacks directional force; it is slightly curved back toward him, thus qualifying the forward thrust of his gesture, depriving it of any clear intention. And his look is somewhat off to the side—a visual digression from the direction in which he might otherwise be imagined as leading the others. He thus fails in his apparent function of directing the work’s implied movements and bringing purpose to its undisciplined visuality. Elements that might center vision are minor or peripheral: the small hole in the drum at the right, and, further up at the right, the point where a spear and several lances cross. The weapons in The Night Watch are weak arms.

Knowing what this painting is about—which means spending most of our time away from the painting in order to determine its historical referents—is the critic’s principal weapon. It is of course true that criticism can’t help but sound knowing. Looking at our own texts, we might at times be inclined to say, along with Beckett’s narrator in Worstward Ho, “Something there badly not wrong. . . . How almost true [the words] sometimes almost ring! How wanting in inanity!” Why not, then, simply stop trying to fail? Why continue to write? The answer to this is that silence implicitly concedes that language is entirely on the side of power, that there is only one kind of sense, the sense of mastery, of the ego and its projects. Might there not be ways of making sense—both in art and in criticism—that collaborate with and help to make visible other sorts of intentionality in language?

Language cuts us off from the body. But the vast human signifying world into which it gives us entry also contains pockets of linguistically unassimilable intensities, pulsations from our bodily unconscious. The latter don’t exactly “mean” anything; instead, they reconnect us corporeally to all those points in space to which we merely “correspond.” Those points—those other fragments of being—inaccurately replicated us before we ever appeared in the world. A linguistic unit signifies only by its difference from other linguistic signifiers; but beyond (and before) signification there is perhaps an ontological sameness. Only that family of sameness can rescue us from a sense of the hostile and intractable otherness to which Freud referred when he spoke of the external world as that which we begin by hating and which, he added, we never completely stop hating.

To circulate within sameness we must first of all welcome—to use a favorite Beckettian term—lessness. Great art—contrary to all the critical cant about how richly signifying it is—makes available the always-somewhat-frightening jouissance of lessness. The figures in Rembrandt’s Night Watch are a “community” less the knowledge of what might have brought them together. They connect not to a shared intention but to all the spectatorial looks—looks of interrogation, of undecided projects—that, through the centuries, have found themselves repeated in this painting. More than the projects and identities that always separate and isolate, subtractive being makes visible a solidarity of being that would otherwise be nothing more than a metaphysical speculation. The vibrating sameness of a Kelly painting is a picture of every creature’s necessary adventure of reaching into space, a reaching that experiments with vibration as a primal mode of self-extensibility.

To speak of the intense pleasure of subtractive being is, finally, to assert the intense pleasure of death. We were fascinated in our study of Caravaggio by the painter’s images of death energizing bodies. In the Galleria Borghese St. Jerome Writing, the scholarly saint’s pen is poised in mid-air; he is between reading and writing, and his strikingly sensuous arm extended along his books lies between a death’s-head on the left and the saint’s head to the right. Not only is philosophy represented here as being carried by the body: The source of the intellectual energy informing the saint’s arm is, Caravaggio also suggests, both in the living man’s consciousness and in his death, a death that has always been in his head. In the Entombment, Caravaggio pictorially asserts the compatibility of death with sensuality. Christ’s death becomes for the painter the dramatic metaphor for something that the ordinary movements of life hide from us: a body alive with its own death. In Caravaggio’s Christ, death has become visible as part of the beauty of flesh. Christ’s death illuminates his body.

Death is the ultimate subtraction of being. It grinds up the wholeness, the unity, and the identity of the individual; it is a radical scattering of being. But, in life, self-dispersal—the lessness that scatters identity—is also accretion, a way of being more. The scattering of ego and identity boundaries initiates us to the multiple contacts of a purely relational being. The immanence of this self-extensibility is perhaps what we call beauty. It makes appearances shine—as Caravaggio’s Christ and Proust’s buttercups and Kelly’s colors shine—because they are pregnant with all the space beyond themselves, with all the hospitable otherness in which they are perhaps about to replicate and dissolve. To describe the various modes of this human extensibility into the world is the only critical ethic we know. The responsibility of criticism is to begin speaking on the other side of a certain witlessness we may enjoy if we allow ourselves to be blinded by the radiance of art’s bodies.