The following essay, “Annihilation,” is part of Eric Basso’s collection of critical writings, Decompositions. The second part of this essay will be posted later in the week. Click here for a complete selection of Eric Basso’s books. - The Editors
If a cup of water be placed on the chest, there will
be no movements of waves or ripples on the surface.
— Spriggs, The Art and Science of Embalming
Over [seventy] years ago, a terse, cunningly-moving tale by the Hungarian novelist Lajos Zilahy appeared in Esquire magazine. Its English title, “But for This … ‚” was perhaps three words too long; the ellipsis would have sufficed for what remains to memory of a journeyman carpenter forty-nine years after his death, when the last of his “effects,” a receipt for services rendered, is left to fade in the rain, letter by letter, until the name John Kovacs, his name, obliterated, will never again be seen, spoken or imaged in the mind of another. With laconic eloquence, Zilahy traced the progress of an identity toward inevitable extinction through a series of bleak anecdotes written in unencumbered prose. No more, no less. This brief but haunting inventory of loss, soon anthologized in The Bedside Esquire of 1940, has fared far better, to the modern eye, than some of its more “substantial” companion pieces — stories by Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and other luminaries of the time — yet it cannot be called a “modern” text, nor could it be claimed, with any merit, as an exemplar by one or more contemporary schools of literature. “But for This …” is simply a work that has managed to “get through” with something more, perhaps, than its author had put into it. After thirty-five years of nondescript living, John Kovacs’ solitary demise presents us not with the death of a man, but with the death of a fragment, followed by the eventual ten-letter dissolution of a name in ink, the fragment’s final remains. This ten-stage effacement begins with a burial and ends with an innocuous receipt. Disconnected vignettes replace the traditional plot to effect a calm dismantling of the text. The narrative is stark, linking fortuitous events which have common ground only in recollection of a vanished man or in the relics he has left behind. All vestiges of plot and character are subsumed in a process of eradication, an emptying of objects and images as prelude to the ultimate denial of human existence, for each paragraph will disintegrate into the closing ellipsis of the story, never to return. “But for This …” is powerfully disturbing because it restores all things to their essential vacuity by depriving them of human associations, correspondences which once raised them to the level of secular icons. Such is the toll of annihilation upon men and things. Such is its endless fascination.
The human head may be taken as an ideal model for the contradictions inherent in animastic annihilation. Consider the case of a corpse newly dead and in full habit; that is, of one who has died without suffering the ravages of starvation or disease. The flesh lends itself readily to a close, pore by pore examination; its finest details gain an incredible sharpness by virtue of their immobility. Nostril hairs, commissures of tooth and gum, shallows between half-open lips where the tongue curls in the dry cavern of the mouth, these are subtleties that go far beyond even the most skillfully crafted waxworks effigy, though the skin, through the slow gravitation of blood to a lower depth, assumes the pallor of dulled candlewax. Often, as in literature, a physiognomy much troubled in life can ransom a few lost years from the brief repose preceding rigor mortis; fretlines may yield to a smooth, unaccustomed complexion as the eyes flatten under their lids, settling fast in the skull’s sockets. There are, as yet, no blatant signs of decomposition. Somatic death — the death of the body — will occur only when the last of the cells has ceased to function, when the hair and the nails no longer continue to grow. But the mind’s annihilation is the true death of what the body represents. When the cadaver is that of a close relative or a long-standing friend, its subsistence after death seems all the more incomprehensible, for the intricacies of the human organism are suddenly brought into vivid focus. To the living eye, this utterly useless aggregate of facial details becomes a plenitude of absence, a meaningless husk, soon to be shoveled under. Yet for many it remains the icon, the personification, however deceptive, of the perished brain; hence, the almost primeval necessity to fill the void with totem and ritual. The untreated corpse, subject like any vegetable to imminent decay, enters into mystery.
January 1632. Adriaan Adriaanszoon of Leiden, alias het Kint or Aris Kindt, hanged for the crime of assault and battery, lies on the dissecting table of Dr. Nicolaas Pieterszoon Tulpius in the theatrum anatomicum of the St. Anthony Gate, a weighing-house in Amsterdam; a young painter, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, is present and records the event for posterity — it is his first major commission and marks a crucial stage in his development as an artist. This painting, generally known as the Anatomy of Dr. Nicolaas Tulp, is unsettling for many reasons, not the least of which is the personality of its cadaver, Aris Kindt. The dead criminal reposes in the full vigor of oblivion as the renowned doctor and members of the Guild of Surgeon-Anatomists press solicitously around him. Kindt appears oddly inflated; with him, so unlike the other figures in the canvas, there can be no question of an illusory sense of movement.
Rigidity has set in, thickening the taut muscles of the thorax; their unnatural distension conceals the broken neck from view. Kindt’s facial expression corresponds exactly to the given signs of death; few artists have captured this mask of absence so well — one thinks of the severed heads painted by Géricault, whose studio at the time was said to resemble a slaughterhouse. But the most extraordinary thing about Rembrandt’s depiction is that what it gains in realism by his portrayal of the face, it immediately loses by his clumsy rendering of the dissected arm, which seems to rest quite limp upon the corpse, its nerves pinched back by the bloodied forceps of Dr. Tulp. That distorted arm, peeled and flattened into the semblance of a rubber glove, lies in astonishing contrast to the body proper by virtue of its stylized simplicity; it remains the single most arresting detail of the composition. One’s gaze runs from the face of Aris Kindt to the dissected arm, and from there to the keen glance of Nicolaas Tulp; but the wandering eye always returns to that arm, that salmon-colored objet trouvé which inhabits the painting like some exotic coral dredged up from the deep. In short, the left arm of Aris Kindt is monstrous, for, though it is the main focus of attention, it nonetheless strikes a profound discord, a counter-texture as it were, bred of a foreign substance which simultaneously destroys the unity and coherence of the image it completes. Paradoxically, the Anatomy of Dr. Tulp is held together by this one inharmonious element. The flayed hand, in that calm yet tense setting of the theatrum anatomicum, is a fatal lure, a contradiction, a scandal, because Aris Kindt remains unmoved.
Young Rembrandt surely had access to anatomical atlases in the possession of Tulp and his colleagues; one may conclude that the appalling unreality of the dissected arm arose either from technical deficiencies or for want of a model — it must not, then, have been wholly intentional. Dr. Nicolaas Pieterszoon Tulpius, by skillfully laying bare the internal mechanism of an arm and hand, somehow intensifies for us the disturbing impassivity of his victim, and thus reveals the most unsettling “lesson” of the punitive anatomy. Rembrandt, breaking a time-honored precedent of concealment, has crafted a thing with the face uncovered; we see it plain, and from the shock of unrecognition it elicits comes a sudden realization that the doctor and his “pupils” are in the presence of an utterly useless object, a compost of meat, gristle and bone upon a narrow table. Aris Kindt will be fully coöperative; he will not bat an eyelash; he will not speak. He will keep death’s counsel, indifferent even to dismemberment and to his own methodical evisceration.
This impassivity of the corpse before the surgeon’s knife, and the effect which it produces upon the witness, plays a compelling rôle in the theatre of the public anatomy.
It is midwinter. Imagine yourself chilled, leaning over the balustrade of a high, elliptical gallery – one of up to six that rise, steeply terraced, from the depths of a small, shadowy arena under a domed skylight. Should the demonstration take place after dusk, you may be standing level with a massive ironwork chandelier, festively candled against the gloom. You peer down the deep well into which a sacrificial victim has fallen prey to men in black within the circle of illumination — the cadaver of a man or a woman lies on the swivel table. Toward the circle’s edge, where light fades to an amber penumbra, skeletons wired upright at the joints clench banners inscribed with legends calling the spectator to witness the vanity of human existence, the inevitability of his decay into bones. In the anatomical theatre at Leiden, the skeletons of a man and woman stood beneath a tree, depicting Adam’s fall from grace.
The Miltonian exchange of heaven for an apple, one bite of which brought death and pain into the world, robbed man of his dignity before the angels, and made Lucifer the equal of God, enters into the ritual dissection as an archetypal reference, unspoken yet subconsciously understood by all who crowd the ascending galleries. This harsh mythological annihilation of man’s hope lends an air of solemnity to the vivid actualities of the anatomy lesson by imparting a sense of drama in its most elemental form: the allegory. Mors ultima linea rerum, all splendors are fleeting, life and the world pass quickly away as the scythe takes its recompense. The symptomatologies of death are scarce enough to cloak, in seemly metaphors, the naked facts disassembled under the very eyes of an audience which has assumed the part of Hamlet before Yorick’s skull.
That Rembrandt’s group portrait is an act against death, a narrow victory over the ravages of decay, cannot be doubted; but it is also, in its way, a celebration of death. As in the punitive anatomy itself, the corpse triumphs over life and pain by an act of stillness. The subject under dissection is an abyss within matter filled by the witness, who is, of course, the true subject of both the punishment and the expiation.
It was Flaubert, I think, who once confessed that he could never look at the face of a beautiful woman without imagining her skull. Listen and you can almost hear the bones rattling beneath Emma Bovary’s petticoats as she glides across the dingy parquetry. Her boredom, in the Baudelairean sense of the word, is the mask of living death par excellence; her smile, when she smiles at all, betrays the scent of leisurely corruption. A portion of the skull present there, behind her lips, a discreet memento mori, recalls her face to its impending anonymity. One smile uncovers a death’s-head grin, degree zero between the perception of an existence and the idea of Void.
Nihil, naught, nil, nullity, nonbeing — prevalence of the letter N in all matters pertaining to extinction. The philosophical dinosaur has labored hard, over the years, to situate, define and comprehend what remains, in essence, unnameable. Neither numbers nor obscure etymologies can ever hope to limn the concept which, in poverty of language, we name Nothing, for words, even of neutral connotation, subsist at one remove from the noumena: Void and Absence. An approach to silence fares no better, though it carries us somewhat closer to the reasons for this conceptual failure. Silence, put obliquely to the uses of simile and metaphor, is “understood” in terms of the relation it bears to noise; but the absolute Silence continues to elude perception. John Cage, in expectation of the Silence, had himself shut into a clinically noise-proof chamber, yet still heard a faint blood-pulse and an ultrasonic whistling in his ear. Another sensation, not so much of the Silence itself as of a counterfeit sound within the mind, appears in quiet moments to make a prolonged meander through some inaudible current between the ear and the brain. Often an abrupt noise can trigger the “negative” of its own fleeting echo; unlike a pebble tossed into calm waters, this negative proliferates not a sequence of geometrical configurations but an endless winnowing, a chain of labyrinthine variations which push their listening-hollows deep into the silence that at each instant swallows them back. It is as though whenever absolute Silence seems about to bridge the gulf between annihilation and existence, a bogus infinity, harbored in the most opaque crypts of the drowsing consciousness, rises like a warped mirror, masking in its depths the threatening actuality of Void. All this, by way of approximate imagery, and one comes only a little nearer in description, which is nothing.
Nothing. The locution has a varied and imprecise meaning, is no more than a tragically inept transliteration of an idea which lies beyond the pale of evidence, and which, for that reason, has become, to couch it in the worst of all possible phrases, an article of faith. A modern cabalist might perhaps deduce more than one enigmatic cipher from the long series of letters that, up to this very sentence, and to these very words, make up a portion of the speculative essay titled, “Annihilation.” The text itself, like many another, contains an abyss of unwritten texts whose characters will differ from reader to reader and, in the mind of its author, from night to night. Thus far, it has attempted an approach to Void by way of silence, and to the Silence by way of words. Only words remain.
Thoughts exist, save in a few purely poetical cases, anterior to language. If, as Henri Poincaré suggests in “Le Raisonnement Mathématique,” a region of the brain functions preconsciously, by some obscure proto-mathematical operation, to eliminate all but a decimal’s worth of the constant flux of subliminal articulations that swarm like an ocean of larvæ below the threshold of our inmost senses, then this limbo, which accounts for the greater part of our mental lives, has been doomed since birth to perpetual oblivion; it resides, in chaos, hidden from a consciousness nurtured in language and tending always toward an idea of order. In nuce, the workings of the mind are pure mystery. When the chemical origin of a thought is finally isolated in the test tube, the thought itself will elude us. Phonesis, words and written characters come into it much later, the last of a discreet chain of metamorphoses in which every second link is unrelated. Little wonder that a true understanding of Void lies beyond our grasp. The whole edifice of language collapses before it like a house of cards.
Constant emphasis has been laid, for want of any suitable alternative, upon the relation of Nothing to existence, though the two (note the gulf about to open) hold nothing in common. What does the previous sentence suggest? Within the opening capital and the period, the word nothing, logically correct in its placement, takes on a kaleidoscopic variegation of meanings; one can draw either a positive or a negative inference from it. The word, unlike the thing which it denotes, is a snare. Let us take the paradox of Nothing one step further by way of this caution: Nothing — if, indeed, it exists … Here we see that nullity of abstract words dear to the philosophers, words which, as Paul Valéry was correct to point out, are essentially hollow. Void is not, in any way, shape, or form, at the mercy of dialectics. Void is not in any way, shape, or form, for it lies in contradistinction to the totality of human experience. Logic, our sole means of approach, itself a species of void, exists within its own vacuum of intricate methodology, sacrosanct in that it cannot be acceptably refuted save by logical argumentation; to do so, one would be forced to take up the very practice one condemns. The paradox lingers. We tend to think of Void as emptiness, vaguely intimating the possibility of an enclosed space — however vast, however dwindled — to be filled by some nameless presence. According to Descartes, “Cogito, ergo sum.” Under the circumstances, one would do better merely to say, ‘Ego?’ or to omit all but the inverted commas, which by now, too, have become superfluous.
Thus we have the conscious mind, always at one remove from its core of being, able to conceive an idea of — but unable to know — itself, and, by such ignorance, reducing all notions of personal identity (which implies consistency) to a nebulous comedy of ever-changing masks. The “quest for the self,” viewed in this light, becomes the most absurd and insidious of popular delusions, a modern dream of Narcissus lured to his death by the image in water.
No mirror, in itself, possesses an absolute worth this side of death; no word, taken alone, has a meaning wholly unto itself. A mirror exists, apart from surface glass and silvering, as a form of camouflage, a window into nonexistent space beyond the domain of all but one sense: sight. Whatever vision brings to a mirror is obliterated when the eye turns away from it, for there can be no reflections, no counterfeit depths, without an eye to register them. The blind man’s house has no need of mirrors. Rooms elsewhere, deprived of sight or human presence, may exist before the moment someone enters them — until that moment, their mirrors will be blind.
By October 1864, Stéphane Mallarmé had developed the habit of scrutinizing his face each night for long hours in a small Venetian mirror. The goal of this seemingly innocuous exercise was to attain such a degree of passive concentration that his image, after a wraithlike period of transition, would neutralize and become one with its background. This neutralization was no mere optical effect brought on by prolonged staring. Mallarmé appears to have confronted his reflection not so much as the outer hide of his being — the carapace, as it were, through which a lesser mind might sound the depths of a soul — but rather as one confronts an unknown who has become all the more strange for possessing one’s own features in reverse. The distance across which this reversal of identity into otherness occurs, doubled by the mirror’s surface, is half mirage; there lies a vertical plane, midway between the seer and the seen, whereon the true annihilation of both Mallarmé and his demon fixity collide. And if one gazes long enough through the point of zero visibility, the place behind annihilation may, in its turn, give way to a haunting ideal — in Mallarmé’s words, un fantôme nu, a “naked ghost” latent in the mirror. One such phantom he named Hérodiade.
The “Scène,” part two of Mallarmé’s triptych fragment, Hérodiade, was the first of the three sections to be written, the fruit of his interminable nights before the Venetian glass. Hérodiade lives, attended by her aged nurse, alone in an Idumæan tower. Her mirror is likened to a smooth, ice-covered pond submerging dormant leaves, the withheld substances of her memories and of an ageless past of memories anterior to her existence, a tenebrous primeval history. Far from being the lust-tormented Salomé whose lips burn for the Baptist’s kiss — his head, nonetheless, will hurtle through the blinding ecstasy of space in the poem’s third tableau — Hérodiade pines to enter the kingdom just beyond reach, where her mirror-image is the idol. The enigmatic distance between Hérodiade and her reflection, untraversable because it stretches across a timeless dimension that mimics space, color and form, light and shadow, gives the poem its unique static force. All movement, life itself, seems frozen under a prolonged suspension of words in convoluted syntax. Mallarmé has discovered that the mirror is a hypnotic lie, that its falsehood, cradling the stuff of man’s primordial impressions, is preferable, is indeed the only possible alternative to “the Nothing that is truth.”
The same decade in which the Impressionist painters began to dismantle light with dabs of pure color saw the composition of Hérodiade plunge its poet into a densely intricate warp of obscure languagy and imagery. Intellectually, emotionally, Mallarmé had wagered and lost everything in creating Hérodiade. Like his high priestess of sterility, he arrived at a terrible impasse, the negative and irreversible culmination of all his earlier works. Hérodiade’s desire to be one with the naked phantom in the glass, her passage into the mirror, would be accomplished only by an act of suicide; Mallarmé committed just such an act in writing the poem — it brought him to the very edge of being and left him nowhere. The poem begins with the key word, abolie, “abolished,” and is itself a work of demolition, the abolishment of an inaccessible ideal. A year of intense moral crisis followed upon the young poet’s abandonment of Hérodiade, the “frightful year” of 1866 – 67; then he was saved, paradoxically it would seem, by Hegel’s metaphysics. But there had already been a tacit acceptance of Void, the background against which some great future Work might come to be written, in Mallarmé’s blinding of the mirror. Thenceforth he would make his poems windows into nonexistent space.
The annals of mysticism are rich in narratives of a very peculiar kind. Meister Eckhart, Blessed John Ruysbroeck, Jacob Boehme, St. John of the Cross all write of a privileged “moment,” remote from human notions of time and three-dimensional space, when all contradictions are resolved by the perception of a vast, eternal harmony that goes beyond the adequacy of words to express. To Western mystics the experience often manifests itself as a sudden and overwhelming illumination. This transcendence almost of mind and body is by no means confined to the ascetic; abundant “secular” documentation exists to indicate hundreds of similar occurrences in the lives of ordinary men and women — one also finds the “moment” described in works by Blake, Dante, Shelley and Rilke, to name but a few. In Eastern religions transcendence can become a way of life, the reward for years of mental and physical austerities; supposedly one may acquire the talent to conjure up the “moment” by an act of will, paths to which are mapped out in the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and other sacred texts. The mystical experience must, nevertheless, be sharply distinguished from “visions” seen by the starving, sleep-deprived anchorites of early Christianity and from the dreams of the Old Testament prophets. In hallucination, as in sleep, there seems to remain a constant link, however tenuous, with the intellectual modus operandi; hence, a dream or mirage, subject only to the common failures of memory, offers itself, after due process of transcription, to some fatidic interpretation. The sibyl may speak indirectly, but no matter how mysterious her words at first appear, they are what they are so that the adept can reinforce the veneration of an arcane tradition by their decipherment. Such visions, dreams and Delphic incantations fall well within the resources of language; their “signification,” tainted by the spiritual bias of the recipient, need not detain us. What is important is their profound difference from the so-called “awakening,” which has sometimes been described by the mystics themselves as the experience of annihilation.
Nicholas of Cusa, the renowned fifteenth-century Christian mystic, speaks of a “coincidence of opposites,” implying that there is some point at which reason and logical comparisons will cease to have meaning; at such a point the visible and the invisible merge: matter and spirit are one in the Deity. The higher understanding of this oneness, however, lies beyond all power of communication. Much of the literature touching upon mysticism sets great emphasis on this stumbling block and suffers, in consequence, from a profusion of vapid generalizations and maudlin, ethereal clichés. Yet it is precisely these often insipid gropings toward expression that render accounts of the mystical experience so convincing. For Nicholas of Cusa, Creation and Void, no longer sundered by a barrier of contradiction, reveal, as of one substance, the presence of a fixed yet all-encompassing point: God. The actual knowledge of this supreme order and harmony “which passeth understanding” comes, minus the intercession of language, like a color from outside the spectrum; more than pure thought, it is not so much a thing which the organism absorbs but rather the thing that absorbs and, by implication, annihilates the organism in a “moment” of timeless ecstasy. It should be remembered that nearly all written and oral accounts of the mystical experience, though they differ in some particulars, are one in the sentiment that with the intellect’s absorption into the universal harmony all sense of contradiction between being and nothingness ceases — the abyss assumes its place in the cosmos. It is not, then, a question of polarity, of “higher” or “lower” degrees; all densities of matter, from the most rarefied to the most concrete, dovetail at a common point with all that is unformed and uncreated, as motion dovetails with stillness, sound with silence. Thus, when Nicholas of Cusa expresses this “coincidence of opposites,” he means to tell us that word and symbol have become a site of ruins, unutterably drained of meaning in the face of one privileged “moment” akin to death.
Over a century ago it was thought that the act of death could somehow be isolated, arrested in the brief limbo of time between existence and extinction. Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” though a fiction, was widely believed to have presented an authentic account of mesmeric suspension in articulo mortis when published in December 1845, and as such attained instant popularity here and abroad. The hapless Monsieur Valdemar’s seven-month vegetal ordeal of mind and voice drew its author into a flurry of heated correspondence with professional, crank and lay enthusiasts. In some instances Poe was hard put to debunk his hoax; the idea that one might commune with death itself seems to have been, over and above the more repugnant aspects of the tale, too compelling a wish-fulfillment for the morbid reader willingly to eschew. The groundwork had been laid a year before with “Mesmeric Revelation,” a less sensational but far more interesting “report” in that it is something of a dress rehearsal for Poe’s cosmological treatise, Eureka, which was to influence two generations of French and European Symbolists. Eureka has often been dismissed as worthless by shortsighted critics, many of whom are doubtless unaware of Poe’s profound importance in the history of world literature, a status relating as much to his speculative writings as to Roderick Usher’s hyperesthesia or to the proto-Baudelairean black cat; such criticism fails to take account of either the philosophical or parapsychological ambiance informing the practice of mesmerism, a practice which, ostensibly for literary reasons, came later to be the wellspring of Poe’s speculations on the materiality of the cosmos. His, after all, was the epoch in which the Romantics, and Balzac, had appropriated Swedenborgian dialectics to their own uses; the sometimes hazardous craze for table turning reached epidemic proportions in the U. S. and Europe within five years of Poe’s demise, affording countless amateurs the delusion of séance with a world of woodpecking “spirits.” Chicanery went hand in hand with the tastes of a period rich in hoaxes, nostrums, real and bogus automatons, snake-oil cures, and the waning though still powerfully sinister presence of the secret society. Mesmerism was in the thick of it, and Poe, an avowed skeptic who often gleefully assumed the rôle of charlatan, combined the two most pronounced and contradictory aspects of his work — the analytical dæmon and the hoaxer — in “Mesmeric Revelation,” whose protagonist maintains that trance closely approximates a state of death.
Vankirk, the subject under hypnosis, perceives existing things directly, without the intervention of those “idiosyncratic organs,” the five senses, for they are merely the excess baggage of his “rudimental life,” a life held in momentary suspension. The medium of this perception is, of course, indescribable. Unlike the mystics, Vankirk couches his images in pseudoscientific language; he approaches his tentative explication of universal order in terms reminiscent of Lord Kelvin or Faraday. His theory of “unparticled matter” (a description of God) anticipates the ’pataphysical investigations of Jarry’s Dr. Faustroll. Under the influence of trance, his senses in abeyance, Vankirk succumbs to an inner denudation; he experiences bizarre simultaneities of thought: words and phrases, though still recognizable as such, become mere sounds devoid of meaning. The apparent contradiction arises not so much from an insufficiency in Vankirk’s, or Poe’s, rhetoric as from the dislocating effect of the fact for which experience provides no analogy, namely that words, while they may no longer “signify,” remain none the less identifiable for what they once represented, though all concepts of representation have vanished and, with the now-vestigial senses, been rendered obsolete by the mesmeric state.
Pending evidence to the contrary, one must assume that these hypnotic “revelations” are based on erudite hypothesis rather than firsthand knowledge. It is always tempting to view Poe as a maddened opium fiend, yet recent biographical intelligence shows him to have been, certain tales of the arabesque aside, a more prosaic, if intermittent, drunkard capable of sustaining prolonged bouts of genteel sobriety. Like Dickens, Poe may have actually dabbled in hypnosis, but such experiments alone cannot fully explain the almost Einsteinian depth of his grasp of ontological relativity. The denudation of time, space and the senses described by Poe would seem, in mesmeric trance, to be much the same as in the mystical experience. Eureka (1848), which he considered his magnum opus, expands the earlier hypnotics into an astonishing cosmological system; it is, in every sense, a true and fitting document of the life of a mind. Yet its substance remains hypothetical. We must look to the career of René Daumal (1908 – 1944), French poet, ’pataphysician and Sanskrit scholar, for the most extraordinary evidence of perceptual dislocation.
Daumal offers the example of a man who, from his earliest years, was obsessed virtually to the brink of illness by the idea of annihilation, and who, quite young, resolved to confront that idea head-on by whatever means he could command. Daumal’s hope that, beyond the “anguish of nothingness,” an “imperishable” absolute might yet exist led him, at about the age of sixteen, to embark upon a series of dangerous experiments. His findings were set down in two remarkable texts. “L’asphyxie et l’Évidence Absurde” and “Le souvenir déterminant” bear witness to some precocious researches into the nature of sleep, consciousness and death. Following in the steps of Valéry’s Monsieur Teste, Daumal concerns himself with the phenomenon of attention — attention carried beyond the point at which a mind normally loses consciousness of its existence. First alone, later in the presence of friends, Daumal inhales fumes from a handkerchief doused with carbon tetrachloride in order to place his body in a state approximating physiological death. He passes through the initial stages of asphyxia against a rising tide of sleep; waking life seems an “inconsistent illusion” to him, yet at no time does he completely lose contact with his surroundings, though they come to be veiled, distanced by an ironic certitude which he knows will soon be forgotten. Clinging tenaciously to some splintered remnant of consciousness, Daumal dooms himself to witness, perpetually, his own dissolution, endless recapitulations of his loss beyond time and place in a vicious circle of “evidence” consisting, on the visual plane, of vivid red/black phosphenes — circles inscribed within triangles — metamorphosing one into another according to an “impossible” geometric movement that engulfs the space around him, a warped, non-Euclidean space curving, at all instants simultaneously, toward the “central idea of identity” which it annuls.
This ironic certitude, this évidence absurde in which Daumal experienced, at one remove from nothingness, the spectacle of his own annihilation, proved a source of unbearable anguish; held in thrall by a “sentiment of the irreparable,” he felt himself suspended at the perimeter of a maddening paradox. Given that the phenomenon of asphyxia transcends language, Daumal, to his credit, manages to describe his sensations without succumbing to the vague spiritual formulas which tend to mar similar accounts written by the mystics; his choice of wording is precise and of an almost scientific objectivity, at least enough so that others who have known this dislocation of the moi will understand. The irremediable paradox of Daumal’s situation lies in its unmasking of the fact that contradictions exist only because to admit otherwise — as he now must, ironically, to save himself from annihilation — would be to disrupt all preconceived notions of the “truth” of the very process by which we reason. In testing the frontiers of consciousness and death, Daumal has had to withhold a small fraction of his moi to be the observer; this, then, becomes the focus of his anguish, arising from a realization that the nature of what he observes exists in blatant contradiction to his now fragmented sense of identity. The évidence absurde can, and does, resolve itself only in Daumal’s perpetual dissolution, for he is the flawed molecule in a universe of impossible harmony, the one remaining contradiction to be obliterated.
“L’asphyxie et l’Évidence Absurde” and “Le souvenir déterminant” are of capital importance to the study of annihilation; they comprise rare secular documentation of an experience all too frequently informed by mystical or pseudo-religious hysteria. The necessity to observe, to maintain, at whatever cost, some shred of attention as consciousness drifts toward the moment of syncope and death, places René Daumal on a plane apart from the mystic writers, and raises serious questions about the validity of any religious or “spiritual” convictions that might issue from such an experience. Now, some fifty-five years after Daumal’s initial experiment, with a formidable battery of hallucinogens at our disposal, after dubious accounts by the thousands of “oneness” with the cosmos, we might do well to remember the incomparable Illuminations of Rimbaud, and that that poet later renounced them as delusions.
Part two of this essay, which focuses on Kafka, among others, will be posted on Thursday.