Thursday, December 30, 2010

Nostalgia for Texture, 4

Third attempt at theory.

Back to the problem of nylons. – Nostalgia for texture is fundamentally erotic. It’s driven by a desire for tactility, a desire to touch something that can no longer be touched; its peculiar paradox seems to be the construction of simulacra of touching precisely via the medium felt to prevent the touching. The lost object (or the object felt to be lost) is, I think, The Breast.

If I’m going to capitalize that, I suppose I shall need a theory to take things further; but which? My best guess is Lacan, but I’ve never been able to stand him long enough to understand him. There’s Piaget’s distinction between the sucked breast and the seen breast – as far as I understand it, the point here (as with Lacan?) is that human individuation occurs concurrently with a transition from an infantile feeling of physical identity with the mother (of which the breast is, or becomes, a metonym) to a sense of non-identity confirmed by the distancing quality of sight – but although I like this distinction as a heuristic, I don’t know Piaget’s theory (or his rep) well enough to follow it through to further theoretical consequences. In a bit, I’ll see what I can do with Alois Riegl’s distinction of haptic from optic styles in art… From this much alone, though, it’s clear that nostalgia for texture is psychologically regressive, involving a fantasy of identity with (or in) an object of desire perceived as lost in a transition to exile; Eden again. Where then has technological change been conceived as an expulsion from the garden? Prometheus, probably; which brings me to Goethe’s Faust in his study.

A few paragraphs from the same as-yet-incomplete elsewhere as before:

The Faust legend has been a means of expressing anxiety about sexuality since its conflation, by 1587, with the legend of Cyprian of Antioch, whose use of the Devil’s help to win his pious beloved Justina seems to have introduced the Helena theme to the scholar’s tragedy.[1] Characterizing the Faust legend as “l’expression la plus parfaite de la Réforme,” in which we see accumulated many of its ideological traits – “la censure de l’imaginaire, la culpabilité intrinsèque de la nature et de son instrument principal: la femme,” Ioan Couliano observes, for one, the degree to which such anxiety is registered culturally, in Reformation Europe, by a trend in fashion to hide and flatten Nature’s favored metonym, the female breast; and, for another, by a surge of ambivalent interest in magic; a combination that would inform the European witch-craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[2] Jane Brown identifies the same fashion trend in late sixteenth-century paintings of women, connecting it not with magic but with anxieties produced by the process of secularization as it affected the problem of representation.[3] But secularization and early modern thinking on magic are linked phenomena, and if the one informs what Brown calls “the persistence of allegory” in later literature, so does the other.[4]

The first study scene (“Nacht”) of Goethe’s Faust expresses related concerns, using similar tropes. “Welch Schauspiel! aber ach! ein Schauspiel nur!” Faust declaims in frustration, having sought direct contact with Nature in signs – in this case, a printed sign, in a book, of the Macrocosm. “Wo faß ich dich, unendliche Natur?/ Euch Brüste, wo? Ihr Quellen alles Lebens, /An denen Himmel und Erde hängt,/ Dahin die welke Brust sich drängt – / Ihr quellt, ihr tränkt, und schmacht ich so vergebens?” Oddly, Faust has just turned to books, directly following (indeed, as if in answer to) a violent rejection of them: “Weh! steck ich in dem Kerker noch? Verfluchtes, dumpfes Mauerloch! Wo selbst das liebe Himmelslicht/ Trüb durch gemalte Scheiben bricht” – this an image of media generally – “Beschränkt mit diesem Bücherhauf,/ Den Würme nagen, Staub bedeckt,/ […] Das ist deine Welt! Das heißt eine Welt!” Just as Goethe’s Werther, rejecting an early offer to have his books sent to him, can protest, paradoxically, that his heart “doch genug aus sich selbst [braust],” then declare: “Ich brauche Wiegengesang, und den habe ich in Fülle gefunden in meinem Homer”;[5] and just as Werther, later, can soothe a soul troubled by social rejection with a carriage ride out to a sunset accompanied by Wetstein’s Homer,[6] so also does Faust find himself looking to printed signs in the very act of seeking to escape them.


This would be another example of the paradox that has nostalgia seeking fulfillment in simulacra of (sensual) experience produced by the very technologies perceived to be blocking access to such experience.

To continue.

Marlowe’s Faustus, too, has a problem with text: “I’ll burn my books!”[7] This, his last-ditch effort to avoid hell, ends a final monologue whose central theme is not books, but what seems a problem of individuation. This Faust, to avoid damnation, would have the earth swallow him; the stars draw him up “like a foggy mist/ Into the entrails of yon labouring cloud,/ That, when you vomit forth into the air,/ My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths,/ So that my soul may but ascend to heaven”; he envies the beasts, for “all beasts are happy,/ For when they die/ Their souls are soon dissolv’d in elements;/ But mine must live still to be plagu’d in hell. […] O soul, be chang’d into little water drops,/ And fall into the ocean, n’er be found.”[8] The extended desperate metaphor of dissolution is, I believe, a response to the “feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual” – to the radical sense of aloneness with one’s own soul in the face of the problem of grace – that Max Weber saw at the heart of Calvinist Protestantism; precisely, Faustus’s loneliness.[9] “He is not well with being over-solitary,” observes one of his students. The comment applies to both Fausts, Marlowe's and Goethe's. The connection, for both, of such loneliness with the problem of books is characteristic generally of German (perhaps European) reactions to media revolutions at two (or, perhaps, four) distinct points in history. One of these – Marlowe’s context and that of the Faust legend’s origins – is the sixteenth-century print revolution, occasioned by the invention of movable type around 1450 and greatly accelerated by Humanist scholarship and the pamphlet wars of the Reformation, in the 1520s and after. Another is the last third of the eighteenth century, the moment in which the German Mittelstand – Werther’s class – began to define itself as such, above all by construing itself as a reading (and book-buying and -publishing) public. In both eras, the positive value of printed texts as a medium of social and individual self-construction trailed a shadow in anxieties about the downside, the dangers of alienation in printing and reading.

From another sketch I wrote recently.

By the end of Doctor Faustus, Marlowe no longer needs the Good and Bad Angels of the morality tradition: they have changed fully from theological exteriorizations of conscience to moments of inward psychology, voices in Faustus’s head. What these voices enunciate is a terror of selfhood, of radical individuation; and what Faustus answers them with is a fantasy of dissolution, of de-individuation. If here selfhood is coded in terms of ethical conflict with God the Father, dissolution is cast as a flight from the angry father into the womb of Nature, the primal mother. Faustus, to avoid damnation, would have the earth swallow him; the stars draw him up “like a foggy mist/ Into the entrails of yon labouring cloud,/ That, when you vomit forth into the air,/ My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths,/ So that my soul may but ascend to heaven” (V.ii.86-90); he envies the beasts, for “all beasts are happy, for when they die/ Their souls are soon dissolv’d in elements,/ But mine must live still to be plagu’d in hell. […] O soul, be chang’d into little water drops,/ And fall into the ocean, n’er be found” (V.ii.103-105, 111-112). To repeat: the extended desperate metaphor of dissolution is, I believe, a response to the “feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual” – to the radical sense of aloneness with one’s own soul in the face of the problem of grace – that Max Weber saw at the heart of Calvinist Protestantism.[10] The phantasmatic retreat to a state of non-differentiation in nature, coded female – with which the German romantics, too, answered their sense of the “fragmentary” quality of modern culture, which they blamed partly on Protestantism – is here articulated specifically in terms of a series of bodily fluids: implicitly, blood and tears; explicitly, milk and saliva. The aporia of Calvinist predestination is phrased in terms of a choice between bloods: Faustus’s own, used to seal the pact with the Devil, and Christ’s which could redeem him. This choice between bloods cannot be resolved without aid of tears: “Break heart, drop blood, and mingle it with tears,/ Tears falling from repentant heaviness/ Of thy most vile and loathsome filthiness” (V.i.39-41). Tears, a sign of repentance at an emotional level (not just the volitional, as are both bloods) are not forthcoming; in his desperation, unaided by tears, Faustus turns first to a vaporization of blood in what is implicitly the Milky Way: “See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!/ One drop would save my soul, half a drop. Ah, my Christ!” (V.ii.74-75) and finally to images of integration into the natural water cycle: “O soul, be chang’d into little water drops,/ And fall into the ocean, n’er be found” (V.ii.111-112). Between these two fantasies of escape, we see Faustus distracted – seduced – by the saliva of a succubus, of womanhood marked as false, whorish, demonic: “Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. [They kiss.]/ Her lips sucks forth my soul. See, where it flies!” (V.i.92-93) Tears and milk are the answer; blood and saliva are not. The difference seems one between a regression to primal unity – psychologically, the preverbal oneness of mother and child, so often imagined as a return to Nature (as Isis, she of the many breasts)[11] – and the problematic entrapment in the guilts of family (blood) and sexuality (saliva, etc.)[12] attendant on the development to individuated selfhood. “O, would that I had never seen Württemberg, never read book!” (V.ii.19-20). This recalls Nietzsche, quoting Silenus, companion of Dionysus: “What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is – to die soon.”[13] The problem, however, is not being born. It’s what comes after: the fall into language (“I’ll burn my books!”) and hence into selfhood and the Oedipal “law of the father” (Freud). From here (so it seems to Faustus), there is no way back to the mother, to the breast, to Nature, to Paradise.

Final reflection.

I suppose that it’s no coincidence that Condillac’s ideal armature for the sensations was a (statue of a) nude woman, or that in Pygmalion Rousseau’s Galatea convinces herself of her individual selfhood by an act of touch:

Galathée se touche, et dit :


Pygmalion, transporté


Galathée se touchant encore

C'est moi.


Ravissante illusion qui passes jusqu'à mes oreilles, ah ! n'abandonne jamais mes sens.

Galathée fait quelques pas et touche un marbre

Ce n'est plus moi.

(Pygmalion, dans une agitation, dans des transports qu'il a peine à contenir, suit tous ses mouvements, l'écoute, l'observe avec une avide attention qui lui permet à peine de respirer. Galathée s'avance vers lui et le regarde ; il se lève précipitamment, lui tend les bras, et la regarde avec extase. Elle pose une main sur lui ; il tressaille, prend cette main, la porte à son coeur, et la couvre d'ardents baisers.)

Galathée, avec un soupir.

Ah ! encore moi.

Rousseau’s fantasy, typically, resolves the non-identity involved in individuation with an identity recovered in erotic love for one’s own work of art; a Narcissist’s move that, equally typically, Goethe came to deplore. Why? (This will take some explaining, but it's a key point.) In any case, such regression, although Goethe felt it (see Werther) was not for him (see Werther). It’s not for me either, though the pull is strong…

In this context, it might be worth finding out how often early filmmakers used the conceit of the living statue; there are three examples in the Austrian Film Archive’s collection of early pornography Saturn, Filme 1906-1910: Die erotischen Anfänge der österreichischen Kinematografie, but I expect there’d have been many more. I must ask Gustav Deutsch and Hanna Schimek… Hauke Lange-Fuchs counts 160 silent Faust films between 1890 (a Zoopraxinoscope series) and 1933 (Faust im Film, 28-30). Méliès alone seems to have made five or six.

[1] That is, if one doesn’t include the accusations of sodomy levelled against the historical Faust in 1507 and 1532. Bates I and VI. On Faust & Cyprian see Ioan Peter Couliano, Éros et magie à la renaissance 1484 (Paris: Flammarion, 1984), 282-291. Note Aby Warburg’s inclusion of the “Raub der Helena” theme in his Mnemosyne-Atlas, as an “Antike Vorprägung” of the ninfa fiorentina (WIA, Kasten 12; Mnemosyne-Atlas, Tafeln 24.8, 33.63, 33.9, 35.2, 35.5, 35.72, 35.81, 35.92, 37.19, 37.20, 3.23, 37.24, 38.92) and hence as a Pathosformel for anxiety about women and the dangers they signify. See also Ernst Gombrich, Roberto Calasso & Ulrich Raulff on the ninfa.

[2] Ioan Couliano, Éros et magie à la Renaissance, 282-291. On connections of anxieties about breastfeeding with accusations of witchcraft in the early modern period, see Deborah Willis, Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1995), 18, 52, 66, 72-73, 156.

[3] Jane K. Brown, The Persistence of Allegory, 9. See also Hans Blumenberg, “Weltverlust und demiurgische Selbstbestimmung,” Säkularisierung und Selbstbehauptung (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974), 158-166.

[4] Recent work on Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1926) – in parts, a reworking of the Faust theme – has made clear the extent to which anxieties about media change and the slippage of signs remain linked with gender anxieties in the cinema’s early years, while tending (in Lang) to allegory. See especially Tom Gunning’s chapter on Metropolis in The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity (London: British Film Institute, 2000), and Andreas Huyssen, “The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis,” New German Critique 24/25 (Autumn 1981 – Winter 1982): 221-237.

[5] Werther, Erstes Buch, Brief des 13. Mai

[6] Werther, Zweites Buch, Brief des 15. März; see Hans Rudolf Vaget, Dilettantismus und Meisterschaft. Zum Problem des Dilettantismus bei Goethe: Praxis, Theorie, Zeitkritik (Munich: Winkler, 1971), 51.

[7] “Am Ende plant er, wie jeder schwarze oder weiße literarische Magier der Renaissance einschließlich Faustus, seine Bücher zu zerstören.” Jane K. Brown, Ironie und Objektivität 108.

[8] Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, A-text, act 5.

[9] Max Weber, Protestant Ethic, 104; Pauline Honderich, “John Calvin and Doctor Faustus,” The Modern Language Review 68.1 (Jan., 1973), 1-13

[10] Weber, Protestant Ethic, 104

[11] See Pierre Hadot, Le Voile d’Isis. Essai sur l’histoire de l’idée de Nature (Paris: Gallimard, 2004).

[12] Note to self: There might be more to do here with the psychoanalysis of succubi. See Ernest Jones, “Incubus and Incubation,” On the Nightmare (London: International Psycho-Analytic Society/Hogarth Press, 1951), 82-97.

[13] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 42.

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