“I did that,” says my memory. “I could not have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually-the memory yields. – Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 68
This man is called ashamed. He covers himself up. Skem, an old word meaning “to cover” in the language of those whose tongues and voice boxes have rot out so thoroughly that they make up the dust that hangs in our offices and lays still on our eyes, stinging out tears. This man, covered up, ashamed, his fingers interlaced across the back of his skull. The skull that covers over the brain the seat of all the thoughts and prayers he had before the act. The act itself, covered over by the bone and brain and fingers interlaced as a yarmulke holding god at bay. This act (whatever it is) being the spectre of the body, the virtual made manifest of the infinite fold and connexion of the cerveau. The act itself, then, also a cover, laying over the mystery of consciousness like a film on dark milk.
These layers — the act, the body crouched over in response, the fingers covering the skull, the skull covering over the brain, the brain holding in its folds and covering the ineradicable kosmos raging within me. These layers all a form of shame, skem, covering that about which we’ll be ignorant. That bit which rational elucidation lets slip whenever it takes hold. That bit which is the font of indecision and uncertainty. That part we call the soul [the christians were always wrong] The soul, the ungraspable, unfathomable mystery, is not a source of assuredness, but looks more like a fissure for a faultline. Toss in a stone, you hear it sing as it tumbles down, but you never hear it end. It becomes an echo chamber with four parts. A symphony. A Heart. This is what we have come to cover over.
Heaping up stones and osseous metacarpal materials makes for a good bridge, an observatory ledge to make the deep a spectacle. It does not do away with it. This man will do anything to escape the act, the fear that inspired it. What he fears now is his stammering over its disconnexion to the good. The drooling repetition as he circles back over his arguments that make less sense as he makes them, these KOANS in reverse.
HE tries to explain why he did it, why it happened, to find some ground upon which to stand and turn his face — now downturned — upward to his associations of angels. For now, he hides covered beneath his act, his brain, his skull, his fingers. He cannot look them in the eyes. He wants to explain, but his foot slips into the fault line and down he falls,
down he keeps falling.
This man’s body hands him no key to securing his life, nor the actions contained therein. It seems solid enough, but the mystery is that it will fall apart, and he can hang no argument upon it. The covers he lays down reach up to the heavens as he tries to drive back (re-pellere) this uncertainty. Shame, ultimately, is an inner repulsion, a repulsion away from oneself, for better or worse.
[The eye: the fact of being seen. One cannot be seen except by one we can imagine can accuse. We cannot imagine one can accuse unless we find in them the agency to do what we can do. We cannot imagine one can accuse without knowing that we can accuse ourselves. The eye is the throne of this power, among others.]
[The fingers: the virtue of holding. Holding is dialectical, insofar as the hands would have no purpose unless the world was full of things which hold themselves forward to be held, or let alone. This means dishes, toys, a child, a pen, necks, skulls, the hips. That we find the world so ready made for our letting alone or holding is miraculous, and utterly without meaning.]
“Abjection preserves what existed in the archaism of pre-objectal relationship, in the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be” – Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror, p. 10
This man turns away from the abject. His neck is nearly rent with the turning, the pulling away, the seeking greener pastures. The abject moves life the way that a gadfly moves a ruminating heifer. This man is content with the simple pleasure of continuing, when he can; he is not partial to the rueful, pain, the woeful, and moves away from them, when he must. So now his fingers are upflung like stars in the gloaming, and he hopes his thin skeleton is enough to move the abject away from him forever.
The abject is, by definition, not a thing to which this man is acclimated, and he is totally unprepared for it. No one could have seen it coming. They did, but only in the recesses of their minds. How could this have happened? This repugnant, repellent, repulsive thing? He is not prepared for it, because of its abjectness, its unbearableness. If he had seen it coming, it would not have been a joke, but a thing more real than life itself. But he did not see it coming. It hid like fish among the rocks, starting and lowing in predation. It is this unpredictability, this ductile anchor riding chaos, which is the heart of its abjectness, its essential repulsiveness.
The light that glints off the abject through his backstretched hand, resentfully settling in his backturned eye, is an image of dysbiosis, which is both the destruction of life and is motor. The sur-prise — a “taking over” — of the abject is the moment when life can perish or adapt. When he man casts his eye through the cracks in his fingers at the repulsive thing beside him, the abject appears as the end of life. The termination and the telos, the cessation and completion. The image of the abject, then, is a better picture of life than the man had known before: a self-moving cow, a gadfly seeking itself behind a veil of dying. The repulsive thing causing movement, being the movement of life, because it manifests a field of wildness which is as destructive as it is productive. Life, in evolving, is a turning away from stasis in the search of stasis. This is what Hegel sought in his Logic, the creative negativity and contradiction in the essence of reality, the image of the repulsive as the motor of creation.
This relation is amoral, perhaps even premoral. Everything about the repulsive, the abject, occurs in a sphere of premorality. The man has preemptively rejected the abject, before conscience [for good or ill] can stay his upturned hand and curl back his fingers and change them from a warning to a supplication and offer. To turn the hand from a palm that pushes and repels, to a palm that rides in on donkeys, this is a moral turn. The man turns his digits down and they hover for a moment between a fist and a handshake, a hammer and a tear. Everything about this moment shudders. The moment when he realizes that repulsion is an outer shame: a shame either at having been so callous, or a shame at the state of the world that he had been building, and to which he is now reacting, always too late.