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It is striking how close this third stage is to one of the central themes of Nietzsche’s philosophy, the theme of the “affirmation of affirmation.” As Deleuze showed very well, the point of the Nietzschean “yes” is that it has to be itself affirmed by another “yes.” There has to be a second affirmation, so that the affirmation itself can be affirmed. For this reason the Dionysian “yes” (the “yes” to everything that provides pleasure and enjoyment) needs the figure
of Ariane in order to be completed.6 This could also be a way of understanding what is usually referred to as Nietzschean ‘anesthetization of life”:
if life should be a “yes” to a “yes,” then this means precisely that it should be “aestheticized” (in the Kantian sense of the word). Life must involve passion (engagement, zeal, enthusiasm, interest), but this passion must always be accompanied by an additional “yes”—to it, otherwise it can only lead to nihilism. This “yes” cannot be but detached from the object, since it refers to the passion itself. The great effort of Nietzsche’s philosophy is to think and articulate the two together. “Yes” to the “yes” cannot be the final stage in the sense that it would suffice in itself. Alone, it is no longer a “yes” to a “yes,” but just plain “yes”—the “ee-ahh,” the donkey’s sound of inane, empty enjoyment. Thus, for Nietzsche, the figure of affirmation can only be a figure of a couple, and the aesthetic detachment only a “yes” to the greatest involvement.
But how exactly does this couple function? We know that any real involvement excludes simultaneous contemplation of it. And yet they must be somehow simultaneous, they must always walk in a pair (i.e. constitute one subjective figure), otherwise we would not be dealing with the “affirmation of affirmation,” but with two different types of affirmation. The figure that corresponds to this criterion is the figure of creation—or, in other terms, the figure 54 Penumbra of sublimation. The creation is never a creation of one thing, but always the creation of two things that go together: the something and the void, or, in Lacan’s terms, the object and the Thing. This is the point of Lacan’s insisting
on the notion of creation ex nihilo, and of his famous example of the vase:
the vase is what creates the void, the emptiness inside it. The arch-gesture of art is to give form to the nothing. Creation is not something that is situated in the (given) space or that occupies a certain space, it is the very creation of the space as such. With every creation, a new space gets created. Another way of putting this would be to say that every creation has the structure of a veil. It operates as a veil that creates a “beyond,” announces it, and makes it almost palpable in the very tissue of the veil.
The beautiful is the effect of a surface which is supposed to hide something (else). One must note, however, that the beautiful here no longer remains within the frame of the Kantian definition: it is not the pleasure that we find in the harmony between a given form and an indeterminate concept of the understanding. Lacan’s notion of the beautiful actually combines two Kantian notions, the beautiful and the sublime. This is why he often uses the term “sublime beauty.” Beauty no longer refers to the (harmonious) form, but to the splendor, éclat, that seems to emanate from certain objects which may very well be “ugly” or, at any rate, “plain” if taken only in their form. What makes them “glitter” is their relation to something else, the fact that they function as a screen for something else. One of the finest examples of the beautiful image’s relation to the “abyss,” the background upon which it emerges, which it announces and at the same time forbids access to, is probably Poe’s tale “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” This relation is precisely that which exists between the repulsive and formless mass, the disgusting dissolution, the substance of jouissance into which Valdemar’s body is transformed when he is woken up from the mesmeric trance and, on the other hand, the sublime body of Valdemar, maintained for seven months in a state of mesmeric trance, under the disguise of which it transforms irrepressibly into the Thing (in Freud’s as well as John Carpenter’s meaning of the word). “There lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putrescence.”7 It is because of the reader’s awareness of the near presence of this “liquid mass of loathsome” (long before it finally reveals itself at the end of the story) that its surface, the body of Valdemar, produces an effect of beauty: the object-body is thus “elevated to the dignity of the Thing.”8 This is why in relation to the phenomenon of the beautiful Lacan speaks of the fantasy which he formulates in terms of “a beauty that mustn’t be touched,”9 which is his “conceptual translation” of Kant’s “devoid of all interest.” The shift that this translation produces is a very subtle one: it posits the breakdown of the object, linked to the appearance of the beautiful, as the very effect of the beautiful (and not as its condition). Kant goes to the trouble of performing a kind of “phenomenological reduction,” of “putting in parentheses” the The Splendor of Creation existence of the object (and the pleasure or displeasure that we can find in its existence), in order to arrive at the “devoid of all interest.” Whereas Lacan’s point is that “putting in parentheses” the existence of the object is the effect of the beautiful on our desire and not the state of mind that we must achieve first in order to be able to appreciate the beautiful (this is, once again, closer to the Kantian conception of the sublime): “the beautiful has the effect, I would say, of suspending, lowering, disarming desire. The appearance of beauty intimidates and stops desire.” 10 We must be very careful in understanding this statement. It does not imply that beauty is on the side of the Thing and the intimidated desire on the side of the subject. On the contrary, they both refer to one and the same thing which is to be situated in the space that lies between and separates the subject and the Thing. But the appearance of the beautiful is at the same time precisely what creates this “space-in-between,” this distance. The “spectator” who finds something beautiful acts, participates actively in its being beautiful and, in finding something beautiful, he re-acts in the active sense of the word.
The “splendor” of beauty is a kind of shield that the artist and the “spectator” raise, in a kind of complicity, at the very point of das Ding. This shield is made to stop desire: desire, as it were, stops at beauty and remains with it, not wishing to go any further. It is not that the desire for the beautiful is suspended, but rather that desire is suspended, “frozen” within the realm of the beautiful.
This modified notion of the “devoid of all interest,” which implies the engagement of desire at a certain distance, a “respect” in the sense of “do not come too close to the beautiful,” is not far from Nietzsche’s conception of the beautiful. In Will to Power, § 852, for example, he writes: “To pick up the scent of what would nearly finish us off if it were to confront us in the flesh, as danger, problem, temptation—this determines our aesthetic ‘yes.’ (‘That is beautiful’ is an affirmation).”11 The opposition between the “scent” and the “flesh,” in which the scent is the locus of the beautiful and flesh (or “danger”) its excluded interior, is perfectly compatible with the Lacanian conceptualization of “sublime beauty” (as well as with Kant’s theory of the sublime). When Nietzsche links the notion of the scent (which expresses the same idea as the veil—another word that Nietzsche likes to use) to his affirmation, this points precisely in the direction of the simultaneous appearance of two things: the involvement and the distance, the “danger” and the “pleasure,” the Thing and the object. In other words, it points in the direction of sublimation.
It might seem that it is precisely the notion of sublimation that opposes Nietzsche’s and Lacan’s conceptions of art (and creation in general). Is not the notion of sublimation a “reactive” notion par excellence (reactive in Nietzsche’s sense of the word, i.e. non-affirmative, non-active), implying that art can only be an “answer” and never a proposition, affirmation, invention? At best, art would be a “yes” to a “no” (i.e. to the impossibility of attaining satisfaction there where it is originally sought). Another question connected to this is the 56 Penumbra one of the “aesthetics of the ugly” (or the “explicit”): we know that not all art moves in the direction of “sublime beauty.” Traditional wisdom about sublimation describes the latter as the process of converting the explicit (which is considered to be forbidden and/or impossible) into the implicit (which, because of its ambiguity, is socially acceptable and/or possible). Moreover, the explicit is supposed to be linked to the sexual, whereas in the implicit the sexual character is no longer directly visible. This is, according to Lacan— who here adopts an almost Nietzschean discourse—what “the foolish crowd thinks.” Sublimation actually presupposes a change of object, yet this “change of object doesn’t necessarily make the sexual object disappear—far from it, the sexual object acknowledged as such may come to light in sublimation.
The crudest of sexual games can be the object of a poem without for that reason losing its sublimating goal.”12 In order to demonstrate this, Lacan stops at a poem that belongs to the literature of courtly love, while at the same time being quite sexually explicit. If our idea of courtly love (and of the sublimation that it involves) is that we are dealing with “idealization,” we are now in
for a big surprise. Here is a part of the poem:
Though Lord Raimond, in agreement with Lord Truc, defends Lady Ena and her orders, I would grow old and white before I would consent to a request that involves so great an impropriety. For so as “to put his mouth to her trumpet,” he would need the kind of beak that could pick grain out of a pipe. And even then he might come out blind, as the smoke from those folds is so strong.
He would need a beak and a long, sharp one, for the trumpet is rough, ugly and hairy, and it is never dry, and the swamp within is deep. That’s why the pitch ferments upwards as it continually escapes, continually overflows.
And it is not fitting that he who puts his mouth to that pipe be a favorite.
There will be plenty of other tests, finer ones that are worth far more, and if Lord Bernard withdrew from that one, he did not, by Christ, behave like a coward if he was taken with fear and fright. For if the stream of water had landed on him from above, it would have scalded his whole neck and cheek, and it is not fitting also that a lady embrace a man who has blown a stinking trumpet.13 This poem is a good example of the “aesthetics of the explicit,” as well as proof of the fact that not all art moves in the direction of “sublime beauty.” It is clear that sublime beauty with its splendor is not the only “shield” that can step in between the subject and the Thing, thus diverting the subject from feeling just pure horror or disgust or plainness. The other “shield” or way of reacting is laughter. The tragic or sublime paradigm consists in creating the surface of the Thing, creating something as the obverse of the void that can be inhabited by all sorts of projections of things that would “finish us off if they were to confront us in flesh,” the surface playing the role of the “last veil.” The Splendor of Creation The comic paradigm, on the other hand, is not so much a process of “tearing down the veil” and peeking on the other side, revealing the actual ridiculousness of the “sublime object,” as it is a process of describing the Thing (in a certain way, of course—the poem quoted above can also be categorized as the process of describing the Thing). Good comedies do not just say, “The Emperor is naked”—they display and lay out a whole set of circumstances or situations in which the nakedness is explored from many different angles, constructed in the very process of its display. If the tragic/sublime paradigm implies that we elevate an object to the dignity of the Thing, the comic paradigm could be said to consist in elevating an object to the very indignity of the Thing.
Another commonplace about sublimation is that it provides a substitute satisfaction. Sublimation, however, should be distinguished from the symptom as compromise formation which belongs to the economy of substitution (a repressed drive returns in the form of a symptom by means of a signifying substitution). The object of “formation” that is the result of sublimation can be composed of metaphors, but is not itself a metaphor or a stand-in (for something else). This is why Lacan, following Freud, links the question of sublimation to the question of drives. Sublimation is the satisfaction of the Trieb. This does not mean that a drive which cannot find its satisfaction in the object that it originally aims at (because of certain social prohibitions) is then forced to find its satisfaction elsewhere, in some more “acceptable” way. The point is that the “structure” of the drives is in itself the very structure of sublimation: “The sublimation that provides the Trieb with satisfaction different from its aim—an aim that is still defined as its natural aim—is precisely that which reveals the true nature of the Trieb insofar as it is not simply instinct, but has a relationship to das Ding as such, to the Thing insofar as it is distinct from the object.”14 When, in The Four Fundamental Concepts, Lacan returns to the question of the drive, he reformulates the difference between the object and the Thing in terms of the difference between aim and goal. Let us suggest an example of this difference, as well as of the difference between instinct and drive: the child’s instinct to suck the nipple in order to be fed becomes the drive when the aim (or the object) of sucking is no longer milk, but the very satisfaction that it finds in sucking. Thus, a child sucking its finger already has some experience of the drive. The “change of object” that characterizes the drive, as well as sublimation, is the shift from the object that gives us satisfaction (i.e.