The Irving Sandler Essay Series
Edited by Alexander Nagel
This essay series, generously supported by Scott Lynn, is named in honor of the art historian and critic Irving Sandler, whose broad spirit was epitomized in the question we would ask, with searching eyes, whenever he met someone or saw someone again: what are you thinking about? A space apart from the press of current events, the Sandler Essay invites artists and writers to reflect on what matters to them now, whether it is current or not, giving a chance for an “oblique contemporary” to come in view.
I’ve been through a strange liquidation of friends over the course of the pandemic. I don’t think I’m alone, though for others friendships have solidified. I still feel as if I’m navigating the aftershock. Speaking recently with the writer and curator, Fiona Alison Duncan, we both acknowledged losing women friends in particular.
People are certainly in a panic about their decisions, who is doing what, who is succeeding or not. We gaze at one another on social media, collapsing life and work into the rubric of self-promotion. I mentioned to Fiona that a friend commented on my social media saying I didn’t exploit my commercial potential, adding that I probably didn’t really know how to do that. “We should be better business women,” we declared to one another thinly.
“What are you reading?,” she asked, as if to return us to ourselves. “Merleau-Ponty!” I gushed, and told her about his fascination with Cézanne’s paintings. The artist received little recognition during his lifetime. “Why so much uncertainty, so much labor, so many failures, and, suddenly, the greatest success?” Merleau-Ponty asks. Merleau-Ponty points to a final moment of doubt when, towards the end of his life, Cézanne wonders if he painted the way he did because of a defect in his eyes, “whether his whole life had not been based upon an accident of his body.” Fiona cast a downward gaze like a sad emoji. “But who reads this stuff anymore?” I said, raising my own doubts about my interest. “I have a Merleau-Ponty tattoo,” Fiona said with a sly smile, “Chair du monde.” Flesh of the world.
I have been reading Maurice Merleau-Ponty because of a casual reference to him by Jacques Lacan. The tattoo gracing the back of Fiona’s right shoulder—a slash of cursive writing—was an homage to her father. Merleau-Ponty, the philosopher of sensual embodiment, was the one person they could both agree they appreciated. While she imagined all of her tattoos, save this one, were a symbol of her independence, she realized at some point in her twenties that they all had some association to her family. “Depressing,” she declared. “Chip on your shoulder,” I replied, trying to be cute, while acknowledging that my inked body was not immune from the family problem. Flesh is where the anxiety of influence is felt.
Merleau-Ponty worked on the visual in the years between 1942 and 1961. The visual is not about what is there, in nature as it were, nor any transcendental laws of perception, pointing to empirical accuracy. Seeing and being seen, he felt, arise together, and then constantly reverse coordinates, showing an enigmatic point of interlacing that is more “out there” than it is in our head, is more flesh than the flesh we see. The mind needed to stop being identified with the eye. Thus it was important to Merleau-Ponty to return to painting, which did not end with the mastery of linear, planimetric perspective. If painting can begin and carry on past ideas of realism, why can’t philosophy?
Cézanne was the painter whose style, Merleau-Ponty proclaimed, calmed him. Cézanne took us straight to the objects—to their viscous, vibrating immediacy—that otherwise remains isolated by our individual consciousness. “The object is no longer covered by reflections and lost in its relationships to the atmosphere and other objects: it seems subtly illuminated from within, light emanates from it, and the result is an impression of the solidity and material substance,” he writes. Painting is an encounter with “the rebirth of existence.” Psychoanalysis too, in its understanding of art, is part of this search for the object: “Psychoanalysis does not make freedom impossible; it teaches us to think of this freedom concretely, as a creative revival of ourselves, always, in retrospect, faithful to ourselves.” This retrospective faith in the revival of ourselves is part of the necessary doubt in the present about one’s work or life.
The question of the visual as sensual participation is crucial to psychoanalysis. So much of our experience remains unconscious—a place absolutely embodied—a repression reinforced by disembodied looking and thinking. Freud commented often on the human’s upright posture and exaggerated reliance on sight in comparison to the sensory world of animals. Freud holds unconscious desire up against the gaze, which is a powerful source of the illusion of our separateness and individual sovereignty. It was left to Lacan to see the connection between his friend Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of the visual and Freud’s understanding of the unconscious.
I confess that my only tattoo, acquired when I was fifteen years old in 1994, is of the Egyptian eye of Ra, a version of the evil eye, meant to ward off the other’s gaze. An eye for an eye. Perhaps I was destined to take up this question of the visual and the Lacanian gaze, a task that on face value felt tiresome; all too 1990s. But doing so surprised me. Younger generations are returning to the nineties, the youth of a prior generation, my youth. Going back to the nineties seems to name a point in time, especially as a time just before the internet as we know it. Primal scene gazing like this, as we psychoanalysts like to call it, is meant to solve a problem for a particular generation. What did my parents see when they couldn’t see all that I see? What life can I have before me?
Lacan’s pivotal statements on the gaze are in his 1964 seminar, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, given after he was expelled from the International Psychoanalytic Institution for breaking what were considered at the time the rules of standard Freudianism—forty-five or fifty minute sessions, four or five times a week on the couch, no extra-analytic patient contact. Lacan was willfully conducting “variable length sessions.” Mind you, these were not Freud’s rules, nor really those of his first circle. Meanwhile, Lacan’s teaching was increasingly influential, already impacting several generations of analysts. No question, Lacan had to be removed.
At the time of his expulsion, Lacan was already sixty-two years old, but his audience was young, soon to participate in the events of May 1968. Even though his followers were all he had left, Lacan was critical of them. L’Emoi de Mai, he called it, in a pun on Le Mois de Mai, the emotional meltdown of May. He was then criticized by his students for being too conservative, in particular for saying their work on their dissertations could be more radical than their revolution. But then Lacan was revived by academia, especially in the US, in the 1980s and 90s, during a new wave of interest in the culture and thinking of the sixties and seventies. So we have five generations in this little tale, all looking at the other, a scene of generational tumult: the original father Freud, and his children, at war with one another.
After being expelled, Lacan announces he is quitting the topic of the father, the focus of his next seminar, and will start over with the fundamentals of Freud. Lacan names his primary concepts—unconscious, drive, repetition and transference—begins his lectures, and suddenly veers off into a discussion on the gaze for several months. Why? He theorizes the splitting of the gaze, a phenomenologically palpable version of the Freudian split subject—a fact unrecognized by his peers and a real theoretical addition to psychoanalytic thought. As he says beautifully, “you never look at me from the place from which I see you. Conversely, what I look at is never what I wish to see.” But is this really about the stakes of Freud? Does it not speak more to the split between him and the psychoanalysts who saw themselves as the protectors of Freud’s legacy?
You don’t see me from the place that I’m now looking at you, and clearly you don’t like what you saw.
Lacan goes into great detail on Freud’s “Father, can’t you see that I’m burning” dream. The phrase was uttered to the dreamer by his child who had just died of fever. But the dead child also caught fire in reality when a candle fell onto his shrouded body, the father having fallen asleep during his vigil. The fire outside entered into the dream so the father could continue to sleep in order to see his child one last time. But which reality is worse, Lacan asks, the one inside the dream, or the one outside? The candle that falls, or falling asleep?
The invocation of the gaze—father can’t you see—sets off the problem. See what? See what is no longer visible? But that’s the last thing we want to see. As Merleau-Ponty notes, seeing abhors a vacuum. Nothing is worse than never seeing your child again, but what this father sees in trying to see him a final time is not only the horror of death, his child burning, but a depth of guilt in the form of vicious, recriminating words. Look at me! You were asleep at the wheel!
Lacan appeals to these words in this dream as if he, himself, is calling out—look at what you did to me!
I realized that this scene of betrayal drew from Lacan his most famous story on the gaze. Reminiscing about a moment from his twenties, he says he wanted to experience something more real, something gritty, physical, dangerous. So he goes out with some fisherman in Brittany, a place, he remarks, that is not industrialized, meaning it is a job at their own risk, a different kind of exploitation to that of industry. He is at sea with these fishermen, waiting to pull in the nets, and they happen upon a sardine can floating at sea. This object is like a visitor from their commercial future.
The can is glittering in the sunlight and a fisherman, clearly amused, says to Lacan, “You see that can? Well, it doesn’t see you!” Lacan notes that the sardine can is in fact looking at him. It is the point of light, the line of sight, that shows the picture that he is in. The picture is a picture where these fishermen laugh at this boy who is out of place, has no real reason to be there. This is why he couldn’t find the joke funny. Even worse, somehow it is as if his name is there, in the ‘it’ (ça) that he is shown to be, in their laughter at him as a cunt (con). Lacan, for many years after this scene, would play with his own name in his teaching, breaking it down into its phonemes, La-Ca-eN, creating chains of equivalences: La (the), ça (it), con (cunt), clan (clan), clandestine (illicit), clamer (yell), en (in), rien (nothing). He even called himself Jacques La claqué, the slapped or slammed.
The picture is in our eye, Lacan states, but we do not see ourselves in it. Yet, we constantly show ourselves to the gaze of the other, meaning we live within the frame of the Other’s looking at us. His friend Merleau-Ponty, he says, wants to reach back to an original moment where we are closer to the world of flesh, where we are not plagued and seduced by this virtual split. But there is no such ground for Lacan. There is only the Real, which is a moment when what is out of frame shatters us, like this fisherman’s joke, or the father’s nightmare, or getting stabbed in the back.
Lacan is certainly critiquing Merleau-Ponty at this point in his lecture, though he finds his philosophical ambition quite touching, even moving: “Merleau-Ponty wants to be wrapped in flesh like a mother’s arms.” “I know this desire. I hear it all the time,” Lacan almost exclaims. Lacan’s Real is the opposite of a tender embrace. Merleau-Ponty’s search for the visual was a search for the space of sensual intertwining, a search that turned him more and more towards painting. Yet, even the story of his beloved painter is shrouded in isolation. Cézanne, he remarks, suffered greatly during his life, was socially alienated, having many depressive breakdowns. For Merleau-Ponty, his “schizoid temperament” and “frozenness” is why he was able to search for the true “expression” of nature, to search the whole of our exterior. “Cezanne’s life found its only equilibrium by leaning on the work that was still in the future.”
If aesthetics can’t solve Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical problem exactly the way he wishes, turning to art still does something for him, as it no doubt did for Cézanne. Lacan notes that it appears to calm him down, cauterizing his wounded search for his mother’s flesh. Merleau-Ponty, he says, imagines Cézanne’s brush strokes—“those little blues, those little browns, those little whites,”—like a lullaby he repeats to himself, offering to him a substitute for the object he demands.
Envy, jealousy, ambition are incited by the gaze and there must be a renunciation of some kind. Invidia, envy, comes from videre in Latin, to see. “It is to this register of the eye as made desperate by the gaze that we must go if we are to grasp the taming, civilizing and fascinating power of the function of a picture,” Lacan writes. This is what painting asks of the gaze: to throw itself down. “If a bird were to paint would it not be by letting fall its feathers, a snake by casting off its scales, a tree by letting fall its leaves?” To see at the place of this fall.
Painter’s gestures, Lacan notes, are movements that terminate. At some point a painting is declared finished, a terminus that gives to the gaze of its viewer a stopping point, a sense of the descent of desire, which is difficult to know. The invidia of the gaze is not merely to be jealous of what the other has—which you don’t really know much about—but an encounter with the fantastical image of a completeness closed upon itself. Painting, Lacan says, demonstrates that there is no promised totality in what you see. Painting offers to its viewer a hole. This is an opening into the terrain of the visual beyond the gaze.
“Freud always stressed with infinite respect that he did not intend to settle the question of what it was in artistic creation that gave it its true value.” Sublimation assumes a value for Freud simply because there is something profitable in art for society. But that something remains enigmatic; Freud, Lacan reminds us, refused to say more than this. But Lacan does take Freud’s message slightly further: “Broadly speaking, one can say that the work calms people, comforts them, by showing them that at least some of them can live from the exploitation of their desire.” The artist’s exploitation of their desire solicits the viewer’s desire in an experience of its rebirth and closure. This crossing proves that some are not only exploited by others, by civilization, or hemmed in by their consciousness. Exile becomes an exit.
Lacan’s missive regarding the taming of the gaze—dompte regarde—and the invocation of the “some” who can live is what surprised me re-reading him. So many renditions of Lacan stress the aspects of power with respect to the visual, such as the male-gaze, which only leaves you feeling more uneasy, more open to exploitation. Versions of Lacanian film analysis play with the split as dramatized on the screen, or between the screen and its viewer, inciting the gaze and hiding the subject of desire. But why not show us how desire meets with itself in these visual mediums, finds points of freedom and even a future, rather than simply being further duped? What if the visual were an encounter with either the hole of desire or its counterpart in flesh? Certainly this is the direction that psychoanalysis goes. Merleau-Ponty too,
If there is a relation of the visible with itself that traverses me and constitutes me as a seer, this circle which I do not form, which forms me, this coiling over of the visible upon the visible, can traverse, animate other bodies as well as my own. And if I was able to understand how this wave arises within me, how the visible which is yonder is simultaneously my landscape, I can understand a fortiori that elsewhere it also closes over upon itself and that there are other landscapes besides my own.
Where Merleau-Ponty and Lacan meet on the visible beyond the gaze is its temporal now: a wave, an exigency that closes over upon itself, and eventually, a style of working.
Every generation has to ask how it fits, or not, into the picture of things. The fact that we are never in the same place is a saving grace—you never look at me from the place from which I see you. If there is the cry of recrimination from one generation to another, it is a testimony to this space, the chiasm. Every generation has to reinvent its way into the flesh of its world.
I am reminded of a moment with one of my patients who protested that he couldn’t see where we were going with all of this. How was he going to get out of this psychoanalysis that had taken over him? I suddenly recalled a dream from earlier in the week where I left him a hand-written note and repeated what I had written to him: I’ll see you there.
This version of seeing across spatial and temporal distance, the encounter with something unknown, and yet a meeting-point, feels different from symptomatic incessant gazing and doubting. It is seeing as moving. Seeing as rendez-vous. Seeing in the future-tense. It may be a fantasy, but I like to imagine that the younger generations are looking for what we missed in those we held precious: not critique, but what can be offered; not outrage, but what might calm us down; not the amplification of alienation, but the search for what gives us a feeling of a possible life. We are willingly giving ourselves over to exploitation. These questions are invaluable, as Merleau-Ponty wrote, amidst the debris of an unknown celebration.
We can never get away from our life. We will never see ideas or freedom face to face. We are never finished working.
Repeat like a lullaby.
- Lacan Jacques et al. (1998) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XI Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. W.W. Norton & Company.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968). The Visible and the Invisible. Translated by A. Lingis. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1993). “Phenomenology and Painting: ‘Cezanne’s Doubt’” in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting (ed. Johnson, Galen A.). Northwestern University Press.