Appendix: Apparitions in the Night

In a darkened museum gallery, as two frames of imagery drag along the walls in opposition to one another at the languid pace of a cortège, the viewer encounters a disembodied cadence. This cadence, a voice over, meditates and muses about the fascination that recollected images invoke in solitude. Gradually, the pellucid purl of a brook trickling over its stony bed subsumes the voice-over. These images and sounds belong to an installation by Gary Hill entitled BEACON (Two Versions of the Imaginary) (1990).[1] Taking its parenthetic title from one of the appendices of The Space of Literature, Hill's installation evokes the cavernous realm of the Blanchotian essential night, the same night that Thomas encounters in Thomas the Obscure.

Once within Hill's installation, the viewer begins to occupy a position not unlike the one held by the cave dweller of Plato's famous cave analogy. With his back toward the light of the day, the viewer faces images flicking through the chinks of the projector into the recesses of the cavernous room. Immersed in the darkness of the room and thus deprived of sense experience, the viewer, like Plato's cave dweller, takes the images flickering on the wall as his or her sole source of reality and as a result enters the Blanchotian milieu of fascination.

Upon entering this space of fascination, the viewer of Hill's installation (and hence Blanchot's reader) finds, like Odysseus chained to the mast of his ship and beguiled by the isle temptresses, his or her senses assailed and charmed. As the chanson of Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses, projects a montage of evanescent memories onto the screen hung in the theater of his or her imagination, the viewer cannot help but fall under her hypnotic spell. In other words, the viewer cannot help but listen to the soothing lullaby of fascination. For even thought the images are mere disembodied shades, mere hollow traces of what once existed in the truth and light of the world, the viewer takes these shadows, thrown into stark relief by the darkness of the vacuous room, as his or her world. As a result, like the protagonist of Cocteau's Orphée (1949), an incessant broadcast consumes the viewer. Assuming the role of deposed Sisyphus, this viewer, despite the fact that no one is suppose to survive the experience, for it shipwrecks whosoever passes near on rocky shoals, soon becomes wedded to the endless task of deciphering an eternal signal or broadcast.

Blanchot believes that the viewer must court in a deliberate manner the unknown. He believes that one must beck his or her ear to the murmur that forever recites messages drenched in incomprehensive mystery, that one must chance the gaze prohibited by the gods of the underworld. In other words, the viewer must seek the Orphic vision that jeopardizes the work, that causes him or her to return to the light of the day empty handed and unsuccessful, cloaked in the bleakness of perdition. Indeed, Blanchot's writing continual reiterates the belief that the viewer must resolutely behold the infinite flash of the beacon: for it is only by diving into the murky deluge of the unconscious, by converting one's work into a delimited site, an interminable night, that perception nears the possibility of becoming pure.

Arrested by disembodied images emitted by the mother of the Muses, Blanchot's viewer does not experience a sleep comprised of light dream. Rather, leaving behind the day and its dictate for engagement within productive work, within tasks capable of being completed, this viewer enters a realm where the interregnum of désoeuvrement or inertia holds sway. Submitting to an unending trial, the viewer enters a stairway that, as it winds in an infinite loop, leads to the excluded middle of an either-or suspended in opposition, to the paradoxical dialectic of Heraclitus. Nevertheless, according to Blanchot, the viewer must assume the neutrality of irresolution as his or her mantle. Although caught within the interstitial realm of Hamlet's vacillation, the viewer must resist the logic of the day and its demand for decisiveness. So that he or she may ascend like the Phoenix from the ash, the viewer must, according to Blanchot, temper his or her work within the crucible of worklessness.

Reducing the objects and actions encapsulated within its murmur to mere echoes of former embodiment, to dissembling trompe-l'oeils, the susurrations of Mnemosyne present both Hill and Blanchot's viewer with derivative simulacra that once lived and breathed. Subsisting upon the absence of the object represented, these eidolons or ghosts gain ascendancy over the viewer through their duplicity, through their ability to present the "cadaverous resemblance" (SL 255). For similar to the twin of Fredrick Usher, lain to rest in the dungeon in the prime of her life, the cadaverous resemblance permeates the room with its combination of absence and presence. It is for this reason that Thomas the Obscure, reflecting on Anne's cadaverous resemblance, remarks, "Neither impalpable nor dissolved in the shadows, she imposed herself even more strongly on the senses" (TO 90). Similar to Thomas in relation to Anne, the viewer, preyed upon by the haunting presence of the cadaverous resemblance, has no choice but to gaze upon its eerie similitude. As Blanchot points out, "no matter how calmly the corpse has been laid out upon its bed for final viewing, it is also everywhere in the room, all over the is an invading presence, an obscure and vain abundance" (SL 259).

However, although they merely present the idealized glint of utopia, "the transparent eternity of the unreal," Blanchot points out that the cadaverous resemblance bestows upon the viewer a reflection of the world capable of deepening his or her understanding of the logic of the day. For it is, as Blanchot elucidates in his fiction, the rosy blush of the martyr stricken in the prime of her life that reveals the grandeur of form (SL 255).[2] Indeed, graceful and composed as a marble statue, coldly magnifying the ineluctable essence of the day, the cadaverous image, by permitting and sustaining the dissecting gaze, proffers illumination to the viewer. Establishing a link between two worlds separated by a great divide, it inflates a republic of clouds and stimulates the mind's eye.

Attracting to itself at least two different interpretive versions, the duplicity or double-nature of the cadaverous image ultimately thwarts all attempts made by the viewer to limit the range of its equivocality. Generated through a violence that simultaneously represents a birth and a death, through a negation that nonetheless affirms the essence of the day, this image remains ambiguous. By observing the world at a distance, though, the image makes it possible for the viewer to project him or herself into a primordial sea of symbolic archetypes and possibilities. Plunging into the cleansing oblivion of ambiguous infinitude, entering fascination and a vicarious existence, the viewer sheds his or her 'I' or individuality and in turn emerges reconstituted.

Through the creative powers of the imagination, Blanchot and Hill's viewer, breathing momentary form into the formless obscurity of the night and sculpting transient meaning out of indistinct and equivocal imagery, becomes for a brief moment the sorcerer's apprentice, the "ecstatic magician" (SL 262). On the other hand, by wielding the wand, this viewer exposes him or herself to the interminable night. Quickly losing the way, this viewer soon encounters an infinitude that splinters the gaze, thus leaving him or her quagmired in the distress of diplopia. Here, haunted by apparitions in the night, by an abyss that looms incessantly, by vacuity that roars as mightily as the Charybdis, the viewer knows not the rest of true sleep.



[1] See Gary Hill 56-57 for photographs of the installation.


[2] One should point out that Blanchot's concept of the image differs from the Platonic hierarchy of forms or eidos. Although it might be tempting to associate the Blanchotian image with the Platonic copy, for both appear duplicitous and derivative, such a link ignores the fact that the image often appears in Blanchot to be purely a mental phenomena. In other words, whereas the Platonic copy is a worldly representation of an ideal form, the Blanchotian image is, in a sense, merely a mental copy of an object that exists solely in the world. This difference naturally reflects the importance Blanchot places upon mental perception and phenomenological subjectivity. In contrast to the Platonic concept of the idea or form, which does not distinguish between the idea and the mind's perception of this idea, the work of Blanchot uses a phenomenological model that takes into account subjective perception. Because he regards the duplicitous image or copy as mental phenomena, it might be more appropriate to associate Blanchot's conception of the image with the Platonic idea. Yet, upon closer inspection, the image fails to garner from Blanchot the type of respect that the idea gathered from Plato, for unlike the Platonic idea, which is the original and fountainhead, the Blanchotian image is not the original. What then is the original for Blanchot? When one considers his glorification of the object or thing vis-à-vis Ponge, one might want to speculate that it is the object in and of the world. On the other hand, in light of how Blanchot uses the word 'image' to allude to both memory and the literary image, it appears impossible to construct a Blanchotian hierarchy of forms. Indeed, at once a mere shade and a mental reality more imposing than reality itself, the Blanchotian image remains inimical to all attempts aimed at encapsulating it in some sort of logical definition.


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