For Leo Bersani: On His 90th Birthday

By | April 16, 2021

Guest post by Mikko Tuhkanen

A dual orientation in Leo Bersani’s thought never fails to make me tremble, for in it I think I recognize something indisputably true. On the one hand, Bersani repeatedly attends to the unavoidability of aggression in our encounters with the world: we are inhabited, he suggests,by an “intractable,” because constitutive, hatred of otherness. On the other, all such murderous impulses are supplemented by the logic of what Bersani, echoing Charles Baudelaire, calls “correspondence of forms.” Our connections are “broken”; yet our brokenness entails the inescapability of relations. 

Bersani often cites Jacques Lacan’s discussion of the critique that Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), directs at the Golden Rule, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” This is absurd, Lacan tells us, for the neighbor in their difference cannot but evoke an “unfathomable [insondable] aggressivity” in us (Seminar VII 186 / 219). Lacan silently borrows the word “insondable” from Romans 11.33, where we learn of God’s “unsearchable” ways (as both the King James and the New International Version render the term in English): “Que ses jugements sont insondables, et ses voies incompréhensibles!” God is the Other whose being cannot be “sounded,” who resides in unmeasurable depths. Such “unfathomability” evokes the concept of apophasis, the idea that deity can be approached only asymptotically, by naming things that He is not.

The apophatic God arrests the believer in an awe-filled fascination with the sublime. Lacan suggests that we frame our proximate others in the same way, and that this infinitely distant neighbor—more precisely, her alien jouissance—evokes a murderous rage in us. For Bersani, such “unfathomability” has, in various ways, congealed into something of a routine way for twentieth-century thinkers to conceptualize otherness; much of his work constitutes experimentations with ways of approaching the other otherwise. Writing with Ulysse Dutoit, he deploys the word several times in Caravaggio’s Secrets (1998). With his seductive boy models, Caravaggio expertly illustrates the presence of the tantalizing otherness that, as Bersani and Dutoit argue, we apprehend as the world’s “eroticization.” He paints “the apparently unfathomable nature of the erotic” (6) in the provocative gazes of the sick Bacchus and the fruit vendor, who coyly solicit the viewer’s attention only to refuse to divulge the sexy secrets—themselves—initially offered. Later, the term is evoked in a discussion of Jean Laplanche’s account of the infant’s sexualization into the human subject by the caretaker’s enigmatic messages. “The seduction is a mystification,” Bersani and Dutoit write: “the child’s body is erotically stimulated by unfathomable ‘messages’” (41). The infant receives the gestures of caretaking as mysterious dispatches—Laplanche calls them “enigmatic signifiers”—that demand interpretation. Hereby opens the infant’s road to desire, a project of infinite interpretation that, according to Laplanche, marks all subsequent forms of human relationality. 

Bersani and Dutoit again use the term in describing the constitution of the unconscious in primal repression: “The mystery that shattered us into sexuality is by definition unfathomable; in its original form, it can never be dredged up from the unconscious and worked through” (81). We know that the unconscious, like God, exists; we also know that we will never be able to conclusively sound its depths, discover its bedrock. We can only ever approach such mysteries asymptotically, gauging their effects in secondary phenomena (the refuse that drift toward the surface; the symptoms that issue from unknowable depths; the vestiges of divinity that we see in nature’s mirror). With the implicit allusions—Lacan’s name is not mentioned—Bersani and Dutoit suggest that psychoanalysis is one of the discourses that have trained us thinking otherness apophatically. 

Bersani frequently queries after the ramifications of the ethics of the “unfathomable” otherness in which we seek the truth of our being. The riskiest of such moments are perhaps found in his repeated engagements with the Holocaust. Especially since the rise of trauma theory in the 1990s, the Shoah has figured in contemporary theory as an event whose purportedly unthinkable singularity has demanded an ethics of unfathomability. We are told that, if we are not to diminish the radical evil of its bureaucratized genocide, we must find the event incomprehensible, unwelcoming to any effort to assimilate its traumatic impact into meaning. For much of trauma theory, the Holocaust is the model of the absolute cut, a separation that one can contemplate only in melancholic wonder, in the time of belatedness.

For poststructuralist readings of psychoanalysis, this traumatic belatedness—what Freud calls Nachträglichkeit—establishes the structure for any human experience of the otherness that supplements, in its difference, the self. Yet Bersani wants us to be careful here. “Was the Holocaust ‘special’?” is the opening query in his and Dutoit’s essay on George Segal’s installation The Holocaust. While trauma theory—Bersani and Dutoit are writing during its high point in the late 1990s—would insist that we are to approach the event only apophatically, respectfully averting our eyes from its brutal éclat, Segal’s artwork facilitates our entrance onto the ground of terror. “Segal’s Holocaust is close to us: easily entered, recognizable, even familiar,” Bersani and Dutoit note. As we enter the installation and walk among the bodies, we find ourselves “in the midst of a complex system of exchanges, a ‘solidarity’ of presumed opposites in contact with one another, touching: inside and outside, the spectator-subject and the art object, order and disorder, horror and serenity” (79). The aesthetic forms given to the event solicit our “solidarity”: the terror lives in the present. 

The event’s aestheticization does not mean its depoliticizing dismissal; rather, the aesthetic mode of accessing terror refuses the distancing effect of “knowledge.” Segal’s installation “prevents us from seeing in the Holocaust an alien horror we can view ‘from above,’ confident of being able to transform it into an object of knowledge” (79). As Bersani and Dutoit write elsewhere, in another discussion of the Holocaust, “wanting any documentary knowledge of Nazism may be a way of refusing to confront our implication in it” (Arts 185). “Knowledge” as a mode of comprehending the world’s unthinkable brutality guarantees that we remain at an appropriate distance from the object-to-be-appropriated, that we diagram it into a consumable form. Paradoxically, trauma theory’s apparent refusal to fathom the other functions according to the epistemo-logic that organizes Enlightenment modernity, even if trauma theorists, pushing the object into an infinite distance, ostentatiously refuse the possibility of ever knowing the event. 

“Something does connect us, and what it is is hidden,”observes another of my favorite thinkers (Baldwin, Conversations 26). Like Bersani, James Baldwin explores the ravages of late modernity, the terrors, arguably inherent in the Enlightenment project, that became inescapable even to European-descended people after the two World Wars. In his novel Another Country (1962), one such character, Vivaldo Moore, tortuously seeks a connection to his beloved, Ida Scott. The interracial affair cannot proceed, it seems, before Vivaldo “gets what he want[s]”: “the truth out of Ida, or the true Ida” (751). She appears to him as an enigma that he must “decipher” (646). Captivated by “the desired and unknown Ida” (479), he is not only like the spectator whom Caravaggio’s models seduce before turning away from his desiring gaze, but also like Marcel Proust’s narrator, staring in ravenous incomprehension at the “enigma” that is Albertine (408).

At the end of Baldwin’s novel, Ida tells her lover, “Vivaldo, . . . just one thing. I don’t want you to be understanding” (752). At the moment when he thinks he has reached the heart of darkness—“the true Ida”—she suggests that they reorganize the logic that enables their connection. With Vivaldo as his exemplar, Baldwin suggests that we can approach the world otherwise than in fascinated capture by its enigmas. 

The word “(un)fathomable” finds its root in the Old English fæðm and the Old Saxon fathmôs, “the two arms outstretched” (OED). It is related to famn in contemporary Swedish: “lap” or “bosom.” To face the unfathomable is to be unable to throw one’s arms around a thing; the object is beyond the reach of one’s embrace. Baldwin borrows the epigraph for one of Another Country’s three sections from Joseph Conrad’s late novel Victory (1915): “Why don’t you take me in your arms and carry me out of this lonely place?” Rather than “understanding”—the careful attending to the other so as to “know” them—Baldwin proposes, through Ida, that we train ourselves in a connectivity that is a fathoming, an embrace and a touch. Much of such relatedness in Another Country, as in his other texts, takes the form of aesthetic encounters, for example in Ida Scott’s singing or Eric Jones’s acting.

If, as Baldwin says, what connects us to the world is “hidden,” this hiddenness is not that of enigmas that we are called to decipher. Bersani would continue that such connectivity resides in the horizontal connections that remain out there, unactualized. As he might also say, the logic of such hiddenness is one of virtuality. This is the context in which we can read his and Dutoit’s assertion, in the concluding paragraph to their essay on Segal: “Everything communicates within the universal solidarity of being” (79). For such onto-ethics/aesthetics, claims for the unapproachable singularity of otherness constitute an error of considerable consequences. Implicitly responding to the scholarly consensus in trauma theorizing about the singularity of the Holocaust, Bersani and Dutoit remind us: “It was the Nazis who insisted on absolute difference, on the uniqueness of both themselves and those they slaughtered. A fitting memorial to the victims of that murderous illusion must perhaps include a certain blurring of the Holocaust’s distinctness, even a forgetting of its specialness, so that we will be unable to ignore our closeness to it” (79).

Yet such “solidarity” cannot but be infected with aggression, the “antisocial” dynamics whose major theorist Bersani is often considered. It is indeed the antisocial that, demolishing the self, opens the space for configuring connections beyond ego interests. In a 1967 essay on antisemitism, Baldwin wonders whether it is possible “to create ourselves without finding it necessary to create an enemy” (“Anti-Semitism” 204). It is not, Bersani might reply. Yet the precise mode of enmity—the way in which we want to eviscerate the world and, as such, ourselves—bears careful reflection.

Leo Bersani book cover

Mikko Tuhkanen is Professor of English at Texas A&M University, where he teaches African American and African-diasporic literatures, LGBTQ literatures, and literary theory. Most recently, he is the author of Leo Bersani: A Speculative Introduction (Bloomsbury, 2020) and the editor of “Fascination and Cinema,” a special issue of Postmodern Culture (2020). He is also an Associate Editor of James Baldwin Review.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Another Country. 1962. Early Novels and Stories. New York: Library of America, 1998. 361-756. Print.

———-. “Anti-Semitism and Black Power.” 1967. The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings. Ed. Randall Kenan. New York: Pantheon, 2010. 203-05. Print.

———-. Conversations with James Baldwin. Ed. Fred L. Standley and Louis H. Pratt. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1989. Print.

Bersani, Leo, and Ulysse Dutoit. Arts of Impoverishment: Beckett, Rothko, Resnais. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993. Print.

———-. Caravaggio’s Secrets. Cambridge: MIT P, 1998. Print.

———-. “George Segal, The Holocaust, 1984.” Artforum International 37.6 (1999): 78-79. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. Le séminaire de Jacques Lacan, Livre VII: L’éthique de la psychanalyse 1959-1960. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1986. Print.

———-. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960. 1986. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Dennis Porter. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992. Print.

Proust, Marcel. Sodom and Gomorrah. 1921-1922. General ed. Christopher Pendergrast. Trans. John Sturrock. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

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