“Immediately the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand: and the king saw the hand as it wrote” – Daniel 5:5
“Mais qu’il euvre des mains iteus: / Non pas des main esperiteus, / Mais des mains dou cors proprement, / Senz metre i double entendement.” [But he should work with hands like this, not with spiritual hands, but with actual bodily hands, without putting a double meaning on them] – Roman de la Rose, lines 11479-82
“La représentation de ces deux mains, corporelle et spirituelle, indispensable à l’intelligence du texte, a dû ètre figure dan le ms. original, autrement iteus n’aurait pas de sens.” [The representation of these two hands, corporeal and spiritual, indispensible for the understanding of the text, must have been drawn in the original manuscript, otherswise iteus does not make sense] – Ernest Langlois, note to the above lines
“The manicule is evidently the only sign that . . . is at once icon, index, and symbol” –William H. Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England.
“All our so-called consciousness is a more or less fantastic commentary on an unknown, perhaps unknowable, but felt text” – Nietzsche
“[T]he very cause of the universe . . . is also carried outside of himself . . . and is enticed away from his transcendent dwelling place and comes to abide within all things, and he does so by virtue of his supernatural and ecstatic capacity to remain, nevertheless, within himself.” – Pseudo-Dionysius
The amazing moment of reverse manicular deixis pictured above—text indicating drawing of hand rather than drawing of hand indicating text—provides an inviting opening into the limitless space of relation between commentary and ecstasy that my remarks will only haphazardly and tentatively (but hopefully nonetheless spectaclularly and tentancularly) explore. I call this space limitless because it extends, as these epigraphs suggest, from every moment of conscious experience to the event of the cosmos itself as an expanding spherical commentary explicating the divine being or infinite unnameable who that inexplicably brings it into being, following the broadly pre-modern (and more specifically Neoplatonic) vision of existence as eternal procession and return. As Ibn Arabi explains, the cosmos is to be understood as the ongoing effect of an original erotic auto-deixis or desirous indication towards self-presence that simultaneously splits and joins Being into ephemeral and eternal: “The movement that is the coming into existence of the Cosmos is a movement of love. This is shown by the Apostle of God in the saying, ‘I was an unknown treasure, and longed to be known,’ so that, but for this longing, the Cosmos would not have become manifest in itself. . . . The image of perfection is complete only with knowledge of both the ephemeral and the eternal.”1 So Augustine, commenting on John 5:25 (“he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life”), envisions perfect being as final, face-to-face understanding of the original word sans gloss: “The fruit of faith [is] understanding, so that we may arrive at eternal life, where the Gospel would not be read to us, but he who has given us the Gospel now would appear with all the pages of reading and the voice of the reader and commentator removed.”2 At this scale, commentary is the ekstasis of absolute being, its being outside of itself in the ordered nowhere or placeless place of cosmos, a place that corresponds perfectly to the unbounded elsewhere of the margin, which, as the figure of the manicule ceaselessly dramatizes, includes everything that is in contact with it.
At the more actual and familiar level of individuated being where we happen to find ourselves, thinking the moment of consciousness as commentary delivers the sense in which experience takes the form of an asymmetrical subject-object relation that is always both constrained to being about something and open toward the spontaneity or potentiality of its own movement. Thus object oriented philosopher Graham Harman, sounding like commentary personified, writes: “I do not perceive insofar as I merely exist, but only insofar as I am a piece of a larger object composed of me and another thing.”3 In the same vein, Heidegger understands interpretation “as a how of Dasein itself”: “Hermeneutics is not an artificially devised mode of analysis which is imposed on Dasein and pursued out of curiosity. . . . Rather, interpreting is itself a possible and distinctive how of the character of being of facticity. Interpreting is a being which belongs to the being of factical life itself.”4 In other words, commentary, whose etymology (via comminisci, to devise, invent) indicates the creativity of thinking with something, is intelligible not only as a certain application of consciousness, but as an application that discloses the nature of consciousness as a kind of writing on/of the reading that it is. Whence Nietzsche’s prioritizing of affect over knowledge, which allows us to think of the object of consciousness, the “unknown but felt text” on which it is a commentary, as a ceaselessly mobile apophatic function that operates at once at the level of specific concrete objects, which are thought only in the midst of their first being felt (as form, image, appearance, relation, etc), and at the level of an absolute ur-object of consciousness toward which it is gravitationally and orbitally bound: “pondus meum amor meus.”5 Indeed the word affect (ad + facere), in the sense of a working on something, itself furnishes the commentarial principle. In a correlative way, Gershom Scholem, addressing commentary as “the characteristic expression of Jewish thinking about truth,” defines it as the “laying open of what [the seeker after truth] receives from [the tradition of the Divine word] in the context of his own time.”6 Releasing this definition from its scriptural, revelatory determination opens the way towards understanding commentary as a broader and yet particular mode of interpretive relation to the world, one that prioritizes the integrity between the object and the impulse of its original reception, a hermeneutic that paradoxically owns by disowning and moves within the negative responsibility of not being responsible for what it uses but rather for its use. As Agamben says about his text on signatures, or “that which marks things at the level of their pure existence”: “I have . . . preferred to take the risk of attributing to the texts of others what began its elaboration with them [ciò che andava elaborando a partire da essi], rather than run the reverse risk of appropriating thoughts or research paths that do not belong to me.”7 Commentarial consciousness is in these terms profoundly phanic, in the sense of recognizing and pursuing appearance as always appearance of hidden depths, as appearance of being always more than what appears, appearance of further appearance. At the Future of Commentary roundtable last April, Gumbrecht proposed something similar in identifying commentary as maximization of the conjunction between spatial proximity or presence and existential remoteness.8 Such maximization is also comparable to Lucian Blaga’s concept of luciferic, as opposed to paradisaic cognition: where the latter “attempts to quantitatively reduce the mysteries of existence” and progresses linearly, “adding new facts to the existent body of knowledge,” the former “seeks to qualitatively reduce mystery, through attenuation, or if that is not possible, through permanentization or intensification of the mysterious,” what Reza Negarestani calls “bask[ing] in the speculative glory of the problematic.”9 And where paradisaic cognition is enstatic, luciferian cognition, writes Blaga, is an operation of the “ecstatic intellect.”10
All of which leads me back to Walter Benjamin’s ungenerated androgynous ‘other’ self, Agesilaus Santander, kabbalistically glossed by Scholem as an anagram of The Angel Satan (Der Angelus Satanas), and the theological impulse of its grand commentarial project. “Bear in mind that commentary on reality,” writes Benjamin in the Arcades Project, “calls for a method completely different from that required by commentary on a text. In the one case, the scientific mainstay is theology; in the other case, philology.”11 Such commentary, Benjamin explains, “is comparable, in method, to the splitting of the atom,” for it “liberates the enormous energies of history that are bound up in the ‘once upon a time’ of classical historiography” (N3.4)—a transgressive citational rupturing of the eternal non-present of linear temporality that saves, as Agamben explicates, not “what cannot be saved . . . the past as such. But what . . . never was, something new . . . what has never happened . . . [this] is the historical and wholly actual homeland of humanity.”12 What does it mean, then, to collapse Benjamin’s text/reality distinction into itself, to comment—let’s resuscitate (re-sub-citate, citation as resurrection) the transitive tense of this verb—to comment reality and text at their site of non-duality, to push the exegetical principle of inexhaustible meaning to the breaking point, into the danger zone, here, where it already dwells? That of course is the essence of the exegetical operation. As Levinas says: “The possibilities of signifying tied to a concrete object freed from its history . . . are innumerable. Requiring the usage of uncommon speculative abilities, these possibilities unfold in a multidimensional space. The dialectic of the Talmud takes on an oceanic rhythm” (Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings, 8). But what if the oceanic dialectic of endlessly new meaning overflows and its depths, in whose details dwell the monster of God (see Warburg), are released from religion (not what unites men and gods, but the zookeeper of their distinction) and allowed to overflow, interdimensionally infecting all space? What if all becomes scripture, infinitely tautologous holy book of the religion of life? That is, of life in a yet-to-be-realized sense of which the Dionysian concept may be considered the seed: “The transcendentally originating Life is the cause of all life, produces it, brings it to completion, gives it specific form. When we speak in praise of it our words must be drawn from all of life, for we have to remember that it teems with every kind of life. It may be contemplated and praised amid every manifestation of life, for it lacks nothing or, rather, it is overflowing with life.”13 What if every actuality enjoys as its surroundings, not not the slimy auras of the artificial now, but a copious, commentarial space, one capable of intense but unhurried relation to the terrible totally of what is happening?
That, I think, following Benjamin’s model, is the proper domain of ecstatic commentary, commentary whose scientific paradigm is mystical theophilology, a term we can begin to make sense of by remembering the mystical simultaneously as irresistible need for identity between the absolute and the actual, what Bataille names the “desire to be everything,” and as the experience of language as sacred site of the unsayable, the zone between name (onoma) and discourse (logos), as explicated by Agamben: “The ancient wisdom that, under the name of mysticism, keeps watch against the level of the name being made to coincide with that of the proposition takes its stand on this fracture in language. The name enters, to be sure, into propositions, but what they say is not that which the name has called. . . . All language . . . rests on a single name, never in itself proferable: the name of God.”14 In other words, mysticism is an etymologically true philological relation to world, the loving of the world as word or event of the unsayable. Whence Wittgentstein’s definition of mysticism, which proportionally traverses the gap between indication and expression: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.”15 Mystical theophilology, then, corresponds to the space of equation between word-love and the desire to be everything, the place of the phanic event where one is lifted up into or overcome by the fact of language as appearance of the unnamable, what Meister Eckhart indicates in the form of a prayer against the Name (I pray to God to rid me of God), and what H. P. Lovecraft provides under the sign of horror: “No - it wasn't that way at all. It was everywhere - a gelatin - a slime yet it had shapes, a thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory. There were eyes - and a blemish. It was the pit - the maelstrom – the ultimate abomination. . . . it was the unnamable!”16 The object of philological knowledge—a thousand shapes beyond all memory—is in this space not an object at all, not an end or product, but the means of being beyond means, of being at their end. This is a mysticism, then, of a supremely practical, or better a perversely and inordinately practical, sort, a practice whose inviolable unknowing renders it resistant to every instrumentalization and ensures its operation as auto-anagogy, a foretasting, not of a distant homeland, but of the paradises, the enclosed gardens, of its own present. Such, indeed, is the traditional domain of mystical theology: “[The] anagogy of the ‘negative way’,” writes Williams, “offers no ‘religious experiences’ other than those which arise from participation in a community devoted to ‘doing the truth’; it allows us to articulate our hunch that the reality we seek to actualize is not represented by the signs. . . [here] individual development and theophany are not opposed, but are united through the kenotic negation of both divinity and humanity.”17
So back to the hand, which in the moment from Romance of the Rose is now more clearly visible as a term holding the intersecting strands of all I am trying to address:
- The double ecstasy of a primordial splitting of Being, coincident with creation, into temporal and eternal, human and divine—an eternal event that itself goes represented under the sign of a manicular, divine “severed” hand.
- The dual, subject/object structure of consciousness, which always “puts a double meaning” on things as its essential and only way of having them—a structure exemplified by the hand itself, as an instrumentalization of a form from within by remaining outside it, in the gestural space of its appearance.18
- Commentary as an essentially deictic relation to the text, in the sense of an ecstatic encounter that both that enters by standing outside and stays outside by entering the object—a situation for which the manicule as severed hand is emblematic, something both coding the real presence of your own manipulating hand within the text and a hand cut off, a mere, self-moving sign.
- The originary facture in language, between showing and saying, indication and expression—a division that is correlative to body/mind or matter/spirit distinction, here given as different kinds of hands, powers of manipulation and apprehension. If hand and word co-originate (Heidegger), what does word, called by Augustine the hand of the mouth (manus oris) grasp and get a hold of itself?
- The labor of commentary, manual and intellectual, a production of presence in the middle, the midst of all these dualities, at their present and anagogical interim.
Trying to synthesize these—remembering that life, like spice, can never be synthesized and only exists on one planet in the universe (the one you are one—the ecstasy of commentary is explicable as participation in the event of language, recalling that “Indication is the category within which language refers to its own taking place” (Agamben). Deixis is where language points back to itsel, and in these terms the reverse manicular moment of the Roman de la Rose encodes the anagogic “arrival” of commentary as arrival at the word’s wondrous auto-deictic presence. “So metaphyiscs,” notes Agamben, “is the experience of language that, in every speech act, grasps [coglie] the disclosure of that dimension [emphasize that, that dimension = dimension of the that], and in all speech, experiences above all the ‘marvel’ that languages exists” (Agamben). This metaphysical wonder is formally equivalent to that charted by Bataille’s definition of ecstasy as an experience that is properly imaginable as the dialectic of a severed hand in the void: “THE OBJECT OF ECSTASY IS THE ABSENCE OF AN OUTSIDE ANSWER. THE INEXPLICABLE PRESENCE OF MAN IS THE ANSWER THE WILL GIVES ITSELF, SUSPENDED IN THE VOID OF UNKNOWABLE NIGHT.”
But there is more. What Agamben’s marvel and Bataille’s will avoid is the foundational fact of love in their equations, something Julian of Norwich perfectly indicates in naming love “the ground of our seeking.” And it is putting this love back into philology in a big way (love of word as desire to be everything) that returns to itself the practical meaning of mystical theology, defined by Hugh of Balma as a word of the word, “the hidden divine word with which the human spirit, disposed by ardor of love, converses secretly with . . . her Beloved in the language of the affections” (Roads to Zion Mourn). This is the real, beautiful ecstasy of commentary, where the text not only indicates the weird marvel of its own and your event, but gives you something to do about it, saying, take me – I am yours. “Every person is freed,” writes Bernard of Clairvaux about a spicy detail from a text whose commentary generated among other things the Kabbalah, “Every person is free to pursue thought and experiences, however sublime and exquisite, that are his by special insight, on the meaning of the Bridegroom’s ointments.” Ointment, application, affection – this is the ungraspable space where ecstatic commentary makes its ever-expanding home, what Nietzsche calls “the whole Olympus of appearances.” Here the text undresses itself into a commentary on you (all the glossator every wanted) and makes all your dreams come true. Taste and see. Commentary’s ecstasy, the necessity of its standing so nearly outside its object, is the state in which it must stay in order to maintain, to keep always at hand, the irreplaceable promptings of the heart. “The Psalmist says,” says Hugh, “Taste and see. Taste refers to the affectus of love; see refers to the intellect’s cogitation and mediation. Therefore one ought first to surge up in the movement of love before intellectually pondering . . . For this is the general rule in mystical theology: one ought to have practice before theory.” For that is what you do anyway.