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Finishing Desire Off (3)

Odilon Redon, “Vision,” 1881; “Cyclope;”; “Oeil-Ballon,” 1878.

Odilon Redon Sketches the Gaze

Desire is historical. If Katz’s painting shows a sophisticated post-modern pastiche of the operations of the gaze, so the work being produced by symbolist artists in Europe contemporaneously to Freud’s development of the original concept of desire help tell us something about the origins of the role of the scopic in the formulation of desire before Katz and his contemporaries came to deconstruct it. Redon’s grotesque anamorphoses of the eye in numerous images drawn, etched and painted throughout his career, seem, in this light, like nothing so much as an attempt to come to terms with what we might call scopic metonymy.[i]

These images, which are not chronological and so don’t show a systematic reduction of the head to the eye, demonstrate instead a speculative casting around as to how these two central metonyms for the artist can relate in art which is symbolist and thus really a negation of the eye in favour of vision. As we can see, Redon is a genius of the anamorphic arts much in the same way as Lacan’s beloved Holbein was.

The first image, Cyclope, is grotesque not merely because it lacks an eye but because the eye it has is excessive in size, somehow being able to both contract the lower features of the face and yet also make them seem outsized and horrific. In contrast to this the second image, while in some ways much more inhuman, seems at peace, with the eye finally substituting for the whole face in an act of enforced metonymy stressing the visionary over all other embodied cognitive possibilities such as the voice or the humanity of the face as a whole.

Finally, the famous eye-balloon removes the distraction of the face altogether, magnifying the eye to the status of a meta-metonym, both rhetorically and actually in that the eye is over and above everything. Below, a severed head seems somehow magically to cower on a silver salver, and the telescoping mutilation of the body into symbolic constituent parts is all the more powerful because the lowest and upper levels are omitted. One can imagine the abandoned rag-doll body slumped somewhere below in that bleak landscape, but what is above the eye that it gazes at it in such minimal rapture? That, of course, is the unanswerable question behind the whole of the project of symbolist art and takes us back into the realm of the gaze.

Symbolism, as one can gather from this brief comparative analysis, is an important moment for the understanding of the scopic in desire. The emphasis in Redon’s art on what is beyond appearance is an attempt to sketch the gaze, and whilst it is only natural to use the “eye” metonym here to stand in for the “I” of the subject of vision, due to the proximity of the eye to the mind, this is ultimately aporetic as was the case in Roundhill. In the first instance, the gaze is not what can be seen but what sees, so any attempt to draw the gaze will fail.

Instead, these images, like that of Katz’s, draw the subject out of the realm of the gaze presenting the situation of lack in a reified and static manner which itself does not lack, or as Lacan has it in relation to Holbein’s The Ambassadors: “This picture is what any picture is, a trap for the gaze. In any picture, it is precisely in seeking the gaze in each of its points that you will see it disappear.” (Lacan, 1994, p.89)

Apart from the fact that any image is merely a lure for the gaze, inviting it in so as to negate it, the metonymic logic that links the eye to the gaze is fallacious. However, Redon’s obsession with the eye as organ tells us as much about the state of the scopic in relation to the development of desire, as Katz’s work shows us for example. In Redon, his anamorphic tendency to elevate the eye as the organ so that the metonymic association of the eye to mental vision, is replaced by a synecdoche where in fact the eye is all we have, as we saw in the progression from Cyclope to Oeil-Ballon.

Metonymy’s association through physical contiguity and causal relations must operate in the scopic field in a manner very different to that of enunciation and language. The basic copula of the utterance is predicated on a central metonymy that is of one word next to another and a central lack, the gap that indicates one word is not another. This is in essence Lacanian metonymy:

A lack is encountered by the subject in the Other...In the intervals of the discourse of the Other, there emerges in the experience of the child something that is radically mappable, namely, He is saying this to me, but what does he want? In this interval intersecting the the locus of what...I have called metonymy. It is there that what we call desire crawls, slips, escapes, like the ferret. (Lacan, 1994, p.214)

In painting there are no gaps and so nowhere for the ferrets of desire to crawl through. This is the essential difference between desire and the gaze, which perhaps suggests that text and image are themselves radically heterogeneous. Because, in language, lack comes along with the mark, the split of the metonymical—of saying and of not saying—is relatively easy to come to terms with. In the scopic, a basic articulation without which there could never be desire or a subject is harder to access, but Lacan places it around the split between the eye and the gaze.

The pronoun “I” and the organ “eye” are both like the speck in relation to the subject. The multiplicity of the subject of enunciation is then reducible to the first person pronoun; this ushers in subjectivity based on metonymic lack. I say, “I am,” you simultaneously hear and understand this, and don’t hear and don’t understand what this really means. “I,” the first person pronoun, is a speck of utterance in comparison to the vastness of what the subject actually is in terms of desire. Similarly, the “eye” as organ is only a speck, a single instance of the scopic that fades into insignificance in relation to the all-pervasiveness of the gaze. Lacan is uncharacteristically straightforward in his formulation of this: “What we have to the pre-existence of a gaze—I see only from one point, but in my existence I am looked at from all sides...The eye and the gaze—this is for us the split in which the drive is manifested at the level of the scopic field.” (Lacan, 1994, p.73)

Redon moves in the opposite direction. In the third image the eye is all and is all seeing. It is his vision of the eye as gaze. However, this image has little to say about subjectivity except that within the realm of the gaze the subject is very little. The eye expands beyond the confines of the body and thus ceases to be metonymic, as I have noted. The body is then reduced to the level of the speck so that we no longer have the eye within the subject, but rather the subject is within scope of the eye.

In fact, the body is not there at all, only a head remains as a reminder. Whilst the eye cannot be the gaze, can only really be a parody of the gaze, the eye cut off from the body presents a complex interrogation of the scopic and its relation to lack in similar ways to that of the cutting off of the phallus in castration.

If the materiality of the visual is typified by its lack of lack, then the split necessary for desire must be enacted in other terms. In the case of symbolism, this is done using the body. Whilst the material of language has the advantage of a basic relation to absence, what it lacks in terms of metonymy is a direct relation to the body. Except in cases of calligraphy, language comes in as an act rather than a gesture. The act is the fait accompli of language: either it is, materially, or it isn’t. The visual arts, at least painting, etching and the like, are in this way much more metonymic than language, because there is an actual proximity between the hand and the image through the gesture. It is a proximity that is mappable in the image itself through the organisation of the strokes on the surface. This is painting’s gap, the moment of arrest in the gesture, which is testified to by the size, shape, and distribution of the gestural through the material to hand.

At this point we can see that there is a double metonymy to desire, that of text and that of image, and if the unconscious is structured like a language, the scopic is structured like a body, problematically a man’s body. Redon goes some way towards developing this through his representation of the gaze as a vast free-floating eye, however what is missing from this formulation is the sense of violence inherent in this separation. The scopic is somatic, and to attain the split between the eye and the gaze a basic articulation between the eye and the body must occur and this must be a messy affair.

I think it only ethical that artists should represent this basic mutilation, and further that we today consider not only what mutilation does to the body, but also what kind of body it is that is being mutilated, especially in terms of gender.

The final artist I want to consider then, also a symbolist and an influence on Redon, is Gustave Moreau and especially his misogynistic drama of the scopic through the myth of Salomé. The addition of this myth transforms for us the act of decapitation into that of decollation, the special term reserved for the beheading of John the Baptist in Christian culture. It also sets up an alternative melodrama of subjective mutilation that completes the schema of the scopic providing us with a metonym to rival that of the phallus, an act of cutting equivalent to that of castration, and a domestic inter-familial scandal that is an alternative to the overused oedipal triangle of traditional post-Freudian theories of desire, including Lacan’s own.

[i] Odilon Redon, “Vision,” 1881; “Cyclope;”; “Oeil-Ballon,” 1878.[i] Odilon Redon, “Vision,” 1881; “Cyclope;”; “Oeil-Ballon,” 1878.


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