And When I Am for Myself What Am I / Ruth Golan

On Reflection and Identity
Ruth Golan
 
*
 
To see the fields and the river
It isn’t enough to open the window.
To see the trees and the flowers 
It isn’t enough not to be blind.
It is also necessary to have no philosophy.
With philosophy there are no trees, just ideas.
There is only each of us, like a cave.
There is only a shut window, and the whole world outside,
And a dream of what could be seen if the window were opened,
Which is never what is seen when the window is opened.
 
Fernando Pessoa, “To see the fields and the river”, from Fernando Pessoa & Co. – Selected Poems (1913-1915)
 

The point of departure for this essay is Michal Goldman’s vase paintings.
 
Goldman paints vases and reflections of the place and act of painting on a vase’s envelope. Vases devoid of an object - in want of an interior. A vase which is not an object but rather an image of a vase and a hole and shadows on its shell. Emerging from a conversation with Goldman are questions she explores through these paintings, questions of identity and reflection, who and what is the self, the ego, and when I am for myself - what am I? 
 
 
The Ego and the Subject
 
The subject, according to the psychoanalytic perception, differs from the ego. The ego is a psychic construction formed by identification with a specular image, and it is distinguished from the subject. The infant looks in a mirror and the mother says to him ‘It’s you.’ He recognizes himself with his image, identifying with it, yet at the same time, he is not quite there. This is the place where the subject becomes alienated from himself.
 
Thus, the ego is an imaginary formation, allowing the sense of unity in one’s psyche. Due to its imaginary fixity, the ego tends to resist any change and any dialectical movement of desire. The subject, on the other hand, is associated with the symbolic order. The subject is a product of language. He can say “I think” or “I am”, but he can never say both at one and the same time, since his very being is at the level of the unconscious. He is not “any sort of substance, nor any being possessing knowledge [...], nor even some incarnated logos, but the Cartesian subject, who appears at the moment when doubt is recognized as certainty”, to quote Lacan.1
 
What does Goldman do in her paintings of reflection on a vase? She plays between the imaginary shadows of identity, of the ego, and the evasive presence of the subject as an unconscious being. The Freudian unconscious is, as Freud himself dubbed it, the ‘Other scene’. Another place. Lacan called it “the discourse of the Other”. Namely, it is something in me, yet not mine. It is the thing most intimate found within me, as it were, yet, in fact, entirely alien to me, thus it is so hard to accept. In reference to the unconscious, Freud says, I can attest that it emerges suddenly through its formations: a slip of the tongue, a dream, a symptom. Hence it is obviously a hard blow to human narcissism. Psychoanalysis tells us that the self, the ego, is not even the master of its own castle. In order to know about itself the ego must settle for fragments of information, received every now and then, concerning the goings on in the unconscious.
 
The unconscious, then, is the shadow accompanying the ego, and its emergence indicates another reality. It brings up the absence, the lack, revealing the hole, the void within our full life. Lacan calls it manque-à-être (‘want-to-be’). 
 
 
The Artistic Act
 
Does the artistic act create a lack in the world? This is one possible way of understanding Lacan’s phrase, who maintained that art is organization around a void, employing the metaphor of the world’s most ancient art, pottery. Since we are concerned with an image of a vase, this is a perfect example.
 
According to Lacan, the universe was created not by God but by the potter. In any event, it may be said that both created the world ex nihilo. Out of nothing. How do you create something out of nothing? asks Lacan. By attaching a number to it. You start counting the nothing as one. You transform it into One nothing. A nothing. This may be said to be the act of creation. Lending a number to nothing. The problem is, that prior to this act it is difficult to perceive how there could be nothing. Do you create a nothing, or create out of the nothing? Is the nothing nowhere or is it somewhere?
 
The real is not a void, but rather a dense mass of nothing. In order for something to be created, one must introduce the lack, represented by signifiers. Out of the nothing, out of the reflection, one may contemplate on that which ‘is’, on being and identity - the minimum of identity, its pure sign, resulting from a shell with an image of a hole at its heart. Out of the being - the dense, real mass of the world - the nothing, the void, is created by the imaginary potter, who fashions matter in his hand.
 
The potter, says Lacan, is, therefore, an example of creating a void out of a mass of matter. The vase creates the void, thus introducing the option of filling it. The vase is an object created in order to represent the existence of a void at the heart of the real, called das Ding (The Thing). The representation of this void, this emptiness, is nihil - nothing. Thus the potter creates the vase while his hand is embracing this void. He starts out with a hole. This is the introduction of the signifier which is the vase. The signifier embeds the notion of creation ex nihilo. Lacan asserts that the creation of the vase does not represent a container, but rather something more akin to a ring. If the world is a ring, the void is both outside and inside. If emptiness is the real and the vase is the signifier, than the creator - the artist or craftsman - mediates between them. The thing created will always ultimately indicate emptiness since it can only be represented by some other thing.
 
Goldman’s vase paintings go one step further. Goldman is not a potter. She does not create a hole delineated by boundaries of matter, a hole which may contain an object. She paints an image while omitting the object usually inserted within the image of the hole. Even the vase is not an object, since its surface bears reflections, shadows of her work space, of the light reflected in the window and of herself. She paints shadows of reality in a desperate attempt to peel off the redundant and reach the essence, the being. While doing so she encounters the presence of death. Death not as a remote knowledge, a philosophy or ideology, but rather as a threatening presence of nothing at the heart of being. In this manner, the real touches upon the simulacric, the “imaginary”.
 
 
The Shadow
 
In the astounding children’s book Mr. God, this is Anna2, Anna describes the minimum of identity:
 
“Things had shadows; having a shadow was a positive indication that something existed. A shadow lost you many of the things that you could not count, like redness and sweetness, and that was good, but it left you with shapes. A shadow had still got too much information attached to it. Since shadows were different, you obviously had to lose some more information. Now since a shadow lost you a lot of useless information, then it was reasonable to suppose that a shadow of a shadow would lose you some more. So it did, if, and only if, you held the shadow perpendicular to the screen, and then all shadows became straight lines. The fact that all these straight lines were of different lengths was something else you didn’t want, but the solution to this was easy. Simply make all the straight lines cast shadows and there you are. What all these diverse things had in common, the thing you really counted with, a number, was the shadow of a shadow of a shadow, which was a dot. Every scrap of uncountable information had been lost by this method.”
 
In a child’s simple vocabulary, Anna describes Lacan’s perception in his Seminar on Ethics3 - you create something out of nothing by attaching a number to it.
 
The vase’s shell is like a convex screen. The screen is the object which eliminates all redundant information. What remains is, paradoxically, the image of the image’s image - the gaze, or an essence of absence, which is the gaze as an object.
 
 
The Gaze
 
Lacan distinguishes between the act of seeing and the gaze. We see from one point - there is always one subject that is the viewer - but we are seen from everywhere. Our subjectivity is dependent not only upon what we see, but also upon how we are seen, namely, how we are being looked at. The gaze transforms us into visible entities. The first gaze is that of the mother at her baby, the gaze which says to him: “This is you and I like you”, occurring in the ‘mirror stage’.
 
We are seen from everywhere, says Lacan, relying on the phenomenologist philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and his great works, Le Visible et l’invisible and La Phénoménologie de la perception. Ponty discusses the dependence of the visible upon that which places us under the gaze of the seer. Lacan extracts from this theory what he dubs pousse, i.e. ‘shoot’. A drive which is prior to the eye. To wit, following Freud, Lacan introduces vision as a drive, namely, it embeds passion, desire. The gaze is a manifestation of the drive at the level of the scopic field.
 
It may be said that I look at something or observe something which just at that moment evades my vision. The gaze is evasive, like the unconscious, like the shadow. The notion “I see” is ambiguous. Aside from the physical act of seeing, it refers to understanding, knowledge. In fact, the person who sees, who understands, has stopped looking, the gaze has evaded him. Lacan gives an example of this, which links us to the images and reflections also dealt with in the painting; a phenomenon we often find in nature - mimicry. He describes an insect with big eyes drawn on its wings, eyes called ocelli.
 
In this context, in his Seminar XI Lacan cites the ethologist and philosopher Roger Caillois4, who explored mimetic manifestations. He studies a manifestation which may remind us of the function of the eyes, that is, the ocelli: “it is a question of understanding whether they impress  - it is a fact that they have this effect on the predator or on the supposed victim that looks at them - whether they impress by their resemblance to eyes, or whether, on the contrary, the eyes are fascinating only by virtue of their relation to the form of the ocelli. In other words, must we not distinguish between the function of the eye and that of the gaze?” 
 
This example is, for us, but a small manifestation of the function that must be isolated. The function of the stain.
 
“There is no need for us to refer to some supposition of the existence of a universal seer. If the function of the stain is recognized in its autonomy and identified with that of the gaze, we can seek its track, its thread, its trace, at every stage of the constitution of the world, in the scopic field. We will then realize that the function of the stain and of the gaze is both that which governs the gaze most secretly and that which always escapes from the grasp of that form of vision that is satisfied with itself in imagining itself as consciousness.”  
 
In his 1970 lecture about dissymmetry Caillois describes the condition of the animal that must maintain the boundary distinguishing it from its environment. He compares this condition to the testimonies of schizophrenics who feel dispossessed, even consumed by their ambient space: The individual transcends the boundary of his skin, crossing over to the other side of his senses. He tries to see himself from each and every point in space. He feels himself turning into a space. He resembles - no specific thing, but merely resembles. He invents spaces for which he has “convulsive possessiveness”.5
 
The reflections on the vase shells in Goldman’s paintings seem to evoke a sense of disconcert characteristic of such dispossession. Like an allusion to the underworld.
 
 
Screen and Trompe-l’oeil
 
Most theories tend to present the visible, that which is perceived by the senses as a screen, as an illusory meaning behind which lies the “real” world. According to Lacan, there is nothing but the screen. The screen is the world. The truth itself, according to Lacan, is constructed as fiction. There is no foreground and background, superficial and profound, only a screen of signifiers. And in this screen there are rifts through which the absence, the lack, the nothing, springs forth.
 
Goldman’s painted vases are like an opaque, riftless screen; another layer of reality is indicated by the reflections and shadows on their surfaces. This makes them more “real”, as in the tale recited by Lacan about the two Greek painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasios, who competed for creating the “real painting”. Zeuxis painted grapes which appeared so real that they misled the birds, compelling them to eat the fruit. Parrhasios triumphed over him by painting a veil so real that Zeuxis wanted to see the painting behind it. Thus the story imparts the fact that we are concerned with a deception of the eye, with trompe-l’oeil, which causes deception of the gaze. The most successful deceit is that which features a mimicry of a veil, a screen, inciting the viewer to look for that which is concealed behind it.
 
To quote Lacan, “The correlative of the picture, to be situated in the same place as it, that is to say, outside, is the point of gaze, while that which forms the mediation from the one to the other, that which is between the two, is something of another nature than geometral, optical space, something that plays an exactly reverse role, which operates, not because it can be traversed, but on the contrary because it is opaque - I mean the screen.
 
“In what is presented to me as space of light, that which is gaze is always a play of light and opacity. It is always that gleam of light - it lay at the heart of my little story - it is always this which prevents me, at each point, from being a screen, from making the light appear as an iridescence that overflows it. In short, the point of gaze always participates in the ambiguity of the jewel.
 
“And if I am anything in the picture, it is always in the form of the screen, which I earlier called the stain, the spot.”6
 
This painting is not only what any painting is, namely a trap for the gaze. In any painting you will see the gaze disappear precisely in the search for the gaze in each of its points. The gaze always falls on the screen, and the screen is opaque, there is nothing behind it. The gaze is always an interplay of light and opacity. The beam of light looking at me tears a hole in the screen. It creates a rift, a division of being between seer and seen - yet it reveals nothing in depth.
 
The relation between the gaze and what one wishes to see involves a lure, for through the gaze of the Other one perceives himself as the object of desire. Not the ego, but only the human subject - the subject of desire which is human essence - is not wholly captured in this imaginary trap, as opposed to the animal. And the artist becomes the leading actor, when isolating the function of the screen and playing with it. The artist can play with the mask, as that beyond which lies the gaze.
 
To wit, if the screen covers something, then it is not like a phenomenon covering the real thing. The surface, the shell, the mask, are the real thing, concealing the gaze. The rift exposes the gaze, and if we see the gaze, it usually conveys a sense of shock and horror as, for example, in Hitchcock’s films. In Psycho, when Marion walks up toward the house, one feels it is the house looking at Marion. The gaze is behind the reflection of the eye-pupil. In the same manner, the shadows and lights of the vase paintings return our gaze.
 
“They have eyes and do not see”, Lacan quotes. Do not see what? That things are looking at them. 
 
What is Goldman’s gaze at a world whose reflection she paints? What does she see and what has it got to do with questions of identity? Or, to paraphrase Pessoa: What is the shadow of light? Is it a pure representation? Is it the specific essence from which everything begins and ends? 
 
 
The Window Man
 
While writing this essay they announced on the news that Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin is dead. And I think of Pessoa’s poem as if it had been written about him, about the fact that he was the window man looking into the cave, and upon the devils’ dance of his figures’ silhouettes, and about how he shattered all the shells of the vases hoarding all our objects and ideologies, opening a window for us into the world beyond ideologies. The vase becomes an urn, and I am thinking that now he has gone into the vase’s hole, peeping at us with his dead eyes.
 
In his Life of the Dead Hanoch Levin writes about his lover’s shadow falling on his grave as a last contact with the world: “And if they said, ‘The shadow, for the shadow is everything you are not, it is all the beams of light blocked away by you!,’ I would reply, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’ll do, for your shadow is not someone else’s nothingness, it is your own nothingness!’.” 
 
Nothingness too, says Levin, is subjective and unique.
 
“If a cloud should go by at that very moment in time and block the sun, or if I should die in winter and shadows are nowhere to be found, your mere glance at me would suffice. With the falling of your gaze on me, beams of light would bend on my body shrouded in black - in itself, a shadow of sorts - and be drawn into your eyes. With fresh swiftness I would jump into your mind, a dark eel, and dwell within you, nest in you, first with a slight shudder, then quietly, a little modest shadow. Thus I would endure until fading away.”7
 
And when I am for myself what am I. A little shadow on a screen, as in Hanoch Levin’s theater, or a reflection on a vase’s shell.
 
Notes:
1. Lacan Jacques, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. A. Sheridan, Penguin Books, 1977, p. 126.
2. Fynn, Mr. God, this is Anna, William Collins and Sons, 1974, pp. 125-126.
3. Lacan Jacques, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960, Seminar VII, Norton, 1992, p..
4. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts, ibid., pp. 73-74.
5. Caillois Roger, Mimicry and Legendary Psychastenia.
6. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts, ibid., pp. 96-97.
7. Levin Hanoch, Life of the Dead [Hebrew].
 
* A Hebrew proverb taken from the Ethics of the Fathers (Aboth tractate in the Mishnah)