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Finishing Desire Off (4)

Gustave Moreau, L'Apparition (1876)

Gustave Moreau and the Pre-Cursive Cut

Like Odilon Redon, the early symbolist Gustave Moreau was an obsessive reworker of the same symbols. In Redon’s work the emphasis on heads and eyes is the clean and somewhat abstract side of the symbol, in a sense the end product of the symbol’s renunciation of materialism typical of symbolist aspirations of the time. Moreau, in comparison, is rooted in the somaticism of the pre-gaze aspect of scopic metonymy that he worked out in numerous versions of the myth of Salomé. The most overwhelming of his presentations of Salomé is the work “L’apparition.” [i]

Moreau’s treatment of Salomé in this image shows us that the human body is indeed a gesture not an act. The synaesthesia of Salomé’s infamous dance, again another symbolist mainstay, belies what her demanded decollation of John the Baptist betrays. The gesture of the hand within the material of paint is typified, as I have stated, by its arrest. Just as the written sign has a direct relationship with gaps—the space between words that are the pre-condition of metonymy’s word-to-word connection—so too does the visual sign.

In the gesturality of the visual creative process, radically undermined first by photography and then by the avant-garde, we can establish the ground for a theory of scopic metonymy. Metonymy in general, so central to the Lacanian schema must be able to fulfil two conditions, both of which are, in turn, predicated on a basic materiality. These conditions are a physical proximity coupled with a radical break that separates. This is dramatised in the “word-to-word” compound where the dashes cut one word off from the proximate other words, while simultaneously connecting them.

In terms of the gesture, it is dramatised in another fashion which, while harder to theorise is, due to its reliance on an actual hand on an actual body, in the end more clearly metonymical. At the moment that the hand drags the brush through the paint one could say that the I is at its most masterful, while at the point where the image is finished and released to the public environment of the gaze the I is at its most attenuated.

Needless to say these processes are always already in place, the gaze for example is not dependant on an image being seen by someone, but the process of painting is the specific case of the way the I/eye homonymic metonym, is tricked into an act of self-mutilation in the from of a radical anamorphosis. The hand and the eye become grotesque in their magnification of importance, while the body proper, the whole subject one might say, shrinks to a mere speck. The point when the hand stops painting and lifts off from the surface of the screen, therefore, is the articulation gap between I/eye and the gaze equivalent to that of word-to-word metonymy. In this case, however, it is not a bar that denies access to the meaning beyond (S/s) but the screen of the canvas that denies the eye access to the all encompassing vision of the gaze (e/G).

Returning to the image, we can state that the gestures of the body within the scopic drive must reach some point of ending so as to be articulated by lack into a process of desire. The hand must lift up off the screen. In this way the dance is like the gaze in that it holds Salomé in a false sense of subjective plenitude identical to that of the post-romantic, symbolist concept of the artist, and yet in the painting this idea is further problematised by the numerous gazes which hold her.

It would seem that there are different lures involved in the gaze based on this image and the others we have looked at. We had Katz’s inter-subjective and so self-sufficient gaze and Redon’s abstract and disembodied benevolent gaze. Now we can add to these the gaze of self-sufficiency through artistic endeavour and the plain old gaze of desire itself that we see in the eyes of Herod and Salomé’s mother. However, in amongst these variations on a theme the gaze of the decollated pre-cursor to the return of the logos, which is the mythic role that John the Baptist fulfils in symbolism, is quite different.

In trying to understand the scopic, decollation is central, as I have shown (Watkin 2000). If the gaze is that which does not lack and which sees us in our entirety in our relative relation to lack, if in fact the gaze is that mutilated part of us which we have sent away as the pre-cursor to our state within lack which we call desire, then the attempted presentation of the gaze in relation to the precursor is a moment of intensity within the history of the scopic. The pre-cursor (John the Baptists) is what comes before the logos (Jesus Christ), which is akin to a return of the phallus (God). This would suggest that the gaze predates desire and castration, although it follows on from the separation of the objet a, therefore coming in after lack. Such a chronology is possible because the temporal zone of desire is that of the future anterior, that which is about to happen which will become the precondition for its own happening.

All students of Lacan should be fairly familiar with this paradox in relation to desire, the objet petit a, and the formation of the subject as it is a logic that dominates all of Lacan’s mature work. We can argue that, due to its future anteriority, decollation is the precondition to desire or the return of the word, but it is also what happens when the subject, through the scopic, comes to realise its own mutilation at the point wherein the word fails.

In Moreau’s painting, the gaze of the mutilated head operates as a scopic metonymy for Salomé. The decollation of the saint ends the scopic subject into the beginning of her being. If, within the invocationary realm of desire, metonymy slips in between the gaps between utterances, in the metonymy of the scopic it slips in through the gaps opened up in the body by the gaze. In this light, the interaction between the head and Salomé is a fascinating study in how one might represent this. Salomé is half-naked, and in other images Moreau paints of her completely so, thus within the metonym of the scopic, the somatic, her phallic lack is apparent.
Yet the dance also operates as a temporary state of gaze, filling in her gaps if you like with a phallic total possession of her body.

Further, the decollated head also lacks lack, for it is not the body but that mutilated part of it which metonymically stands in for the gaze within the images I have been considering. Salomé’s hand, which reaches out seemingly to shield her from the terrible gaze of the apparition, is both a protection and an invitation. In other words, it is the gesture which both pushes away the gaze because it must end, and invites it, as the painting is the lure of the gaze. This painting is to the scopic what Aeschylus’ Oedipus Rex is to desire, replacing the Oedipal triangle with the Salomean quadrangle.

Feminine lack and the lack of the gaze are both similar and radically different. The woman lacks lack as a matter of course within the misogyny of desire as discourse, but this terrible otherness is also the place wherein desire, or that mutilated part of it the object a, must be placed. Thus, whilst there is no question that desire is misogynistic in its history, as are indeed the presentations of women within symbolist art, it is also a strange case of appropriation for what Salomé fends off is really the very position she is forced to occupy within the economy of desire. Her position is that of someone who lacks. If the body is the gesture towards the scopic in the metonymic myth of the decollation based on the metonym for metonymy, the hand itself, the removal of the head is the act, the completed thing, completed because it does not lack.

The subjective state of the lack of lack that the scopic is the pre-cursor to, in that without lack there can be no logos, is also problematically, for the discourse of desire, the position of the feminine as Hélène Cixous points out (Cixous 1981 and 1989). Yet, it is also an ethical locale of the object of enunciation and its articulation of self through the object as object in the first instance.[ii] The subject which lacks lack is not only produced by objectification but is in effect an object, the objet petit a.

In this sense scopic metonymy, and its development through representations of the gaze in Symbolist art, tells us a lot about the historical narrative of desire which we are caught up in and which Katz’s work updates. For a start it explains why there is no subjet petit a, for the position of the other cannot be occupied by the subject in this instance. It also allows for the basic articulation of lack in language to be somaticised and thus gendered, perhaps suggesting that an écriture feminine must go through the scopic. Finally, it tells us about the role of the real and how the real must be retained and theorised.

The gaze is the real, total alterity, the other qua other of post-modern and Lacanian ethics, and if this alterity is paternal, proscriptive, patriarchal, bourgeois and violent, then this is another avenue by which we could investigate the imposition of power upon our existence. Further, it allows a greater understanding of the body through its imaging, showing that essentially the body is gestural not monadic and in addition that its apparent completeness is due to one moment of the arrest of its movement through time, space and desire.

If the body is a gesture, the decollation of the eye into the gaze is the cutting off of the gesture, which is the onset of the subject into desire. However, this act of cutting is also the moment or gap wherein the subject might revolt against desire opting to be cut out of such a discourse imposed upon it from above and beyond, in favour of being cut off from the objective world, which is the realm of power from which the gaze surrounds us.

[i] Gustave Moreau, “L’Apparition,” 1876.
[ii] The theory of the other qua other is the basic ethical formulation of the work of Emmanuel Levinas elaborated in his seminal works Totality and Infinity and Otherwise Than Being. It has become a central concern of post-modern theories of ethics, politics and consensus as found in recent work by Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard and Jean-Luc Nancy. This position is also criticised in detail in the work of contemporary philosopher Alain Badiou.


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