Saturday, 16 December, 2017.

Dear friends, *

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that even in the midst of the approaching end of the world there is a new generation is coming, is germinating, one that knows how to think while playing and play while thinking, one that is at odds with the unwritten "professional" philosophic code of those pathetic provincial "local jokesters" about whom Vinaver talked.

The ease with which Branka Arsić speaks about the most difficult issues without betraying them is unique. She penetrates unerringly into the heart of the matter; I have been deeply impressed by her interpretation of Descartes' Death, first in the discussion organized by Radio Belgrade's Third Program, and later by her review of the book, and I came here to say it as clearly as possible; I have never yet experienced such a brilliant understanding of Descartes' Death as hers.

We are indebted to Dragan Stojanović, the poet, for his review of Branka Arsić's first book, The Dictionary. He wrote that he had been waiting for such a book all his life. I cannot say that I have been expecting Branka Arsić at the end of my life, though now, having read very carefully (and thoroughly), with pen in hand, her book Reason and Madness, I could say that her comprehension of Descartes' Death might have been expected, certainly not only because of Descartes alone, whom she understands perfectly and who has a place in my own most personal, most profound history; so, not only because of Descartes but in the first place because of Descartes’ (or more precisely, the Cartesian) meditative subject experience, the experience that helps me to find my Ahasuerus in some of Branka Arsić's sentences, the experience of the same meditative subject who is eluding himself, whose only truth is his non-truth, whose only so-called success is his failure, who while meditating as Cogito and finally trying to find himself and penetrate somehow to his own self, endlessly eludes his own being, having strayed from his own self as if he had wandered off in the labyrinth of this meditation, the meditative subject who is inevitably baroque precisely because of this curse of his own self's (non-self's) thoughts as a labyrinth.

* This text was read at the promotion of Branka Arsić's book Reason and Madness on November 20, 1997 in Belgrade.

This issue of the baroque, the baroque quality of the meditative subject's labyrinthine destiny to which Descartes' Cogito was condemned, reminded me of Ahasuerus in the book Ahasuerus or the Tractate about the Beer Bottle. I am not sure if I should say this tonight, but nevertheless I will: Branka Arsić was born in 1965; that year I finished my tractate about Ahasuerus, or about the beer bottle, which now appears to me, having discovered it as being baroque in terms of the fate of the labyrinthine meditative subject, to be a project (I say, project not work, because there can be no work or product or anything finally, at last discovered in the end under the black star of absolute incompletion or infinity or terrible immortality) - a project which, for Branka Arsić, represents, and with good reason, a Cartesian Cogito of meditative consciousness.

This is destruction as the absolute impossibility of the self-presence, the self-possession of the meditative subject, whose only truth, I repeat, is his non-truth, whose only success lies in discovering his own failure: his meditation, as the discovery of his own labyrinth where any kind of self is impossible, represents the ultimate risk. Branka Arsić says that the meditative subject risks his reason, his own mind. Cogito, as interpreted by Branka Arsić, thinks by risking his own mind: he really thinks, which means he really is at risk. He tests the void, wandering through the twists and turns of his own mind (the architecture of the baroque labyrinth is the architecture of hopelessness, in other words, of the meditative subject's despair), and he tumbles down the steps with nothing to hold on to, so it looks like a bad dream which is supposed to be our only truth: we are non-truthful and whenever we try to establish our own truth it takes us back to the feeling of our own deprivation.

If, after this meditative experience of Cogito, we try to find Res cogitans, it appears as an attempt to rescue this subject-non-subject of meditative thought from himself as one doomed to the endless, uncompletable testing of emptiness or his own unreality and phantom-ness. Res cogitans appears here, along the lines of Branka Arsić's horizons of thought, as Cogito who runs away from him himself, from non-truth as his only possible truth, from non-identity as the only possibility of his identity, and finally (to reach now into the very essence of the book Reason and Madness, and I would say to the core of Branka Arsić's mind), from his own reason as madness, aiming for madness as his only possible rationality.

These are dizzying inversions. When we read Reason and Madness we feel as if we are watching the most incredible movie, only sometimes I do not know if it is a comedy or a thriller: the movie of demystifying, revealing, disclosing the real ('til now hidden) subject of this reason as madness, and this madness as reason. The absolute inversion of reason and madness lies at the root of everything. The more untenable the distinction between (Cartesian) reason and madness is, the more compelling this inversion becomes.

This demystification of reason as madness and discovery of madness as reason, this fundamental inversion, lies at the heart of the thoughts and words of Branka Arsić, our dear First Lady of this evening. The humor of this lady, the humor of absolute inversion, as the humor of perverted perversion is at the root of her thought-speech. This is the persiflage of absolute rationalism in thought res cogitans, achieved by thinking this thought through to its ultimate possibilities, that is impossibilities: to the point of absurdity, to the explosion of humor. This is irresistible movement from circle to ever-smaller circle until one reaches the point where nothing is left; the coup de grace, as a rule, is in the maximum possible compact, short, quick sentence: in the sentence that declares the end or the hopelessness stemming from the contradiction of this thought as an absolute paradox. Branka Arsić is truly a first-class critical-meditative humorist, performing as a dancer or acrobat on the trapeze of extreme Cartesian rationalism brought to the absurd.

A few examples, if you permit. The first example could be this: developing Descartes' view that "a woman's naive gaze will never see the spirit", because she sees only images of multi-shaped bodies (meaning: the merely external, the sensual, the absolutely non-essential and anti-meditative and non-spiritual), she concludes: "Precisely because she looks, her gaze is blind" (page 171), which becomes clearer on the next page (172): "In contrast to the untrained eye, which in its naiveness  is always exposed to light, for which all is light and because it is surrounded by light everything is always in darkness, the trained eye is the eye trained by reason to stay in the dark in order to see the light.(...) Such an eye sees clearly only if it finds itself in a place where nothing is visible, where everything is confusion and obscurity because everything is blacked out. This eye will look only if it has 'gone blind'. It sees because it does not look". This is followed, as it should be, by a coup de grace of this humorous demystification of res cogitans (as if it wants us never to come out of Descartes’ camera obscura), by her contempt for all physical or "sensual2 knowledge: "The most sophisticated eye is the eye that does not look", or, penetrating into even deeper absurdity: "The dead man's eye does indeed see the world".

This, then, is Branka Arsić: this discovery of Descartes' dead man who alone sees the world. Speaking about Descartes' God who, as is well known, is not defined by anything outside himself, not by any law or truth or logic but only by his absolute free will, Branka Arsić tells us that God "may act contrary to reason and that is why he is an unreasonable and incredibly crazy God": "Undoubtedly, it is very possible that God himself does not act according to the principle of reasonableness. (...) But even this possibility does not lead to the conclusion that such a contradictory, divided and schizophrenic God is mad. Self-splintering would necessarily have to mean the truth because it is the product of God himself who is the one and only truth, and schizophrenia would have to mean reason. And no matter how splintered he may be, God would always be reasonable. Therefore, only God is a lunatic who is always reasonable."

Here again, this is Branka Arsić. Playing the same absurd game of Descartes' extremely rationalistic thought, and in regard of Descartes' famous postulation that there is no difference between creating and maintaining the world - because every maintaining is an act of recreating, and so a smaller cause is needed not to maintain something but to create it", Branka Arsić says: "Thus the object that thinks is always new yet always the same, always 'formed' just as it has been formed many times before. The object that thinks is always the same new novelty".

Let me repeat: this is a critique of the  res cogitans of absolute identity or self-possession, for which (res cogitans) Descartes left Cogito, the meditative subject (from Meditation), which is the subject of the impossibility of the subject, the subject who cannot get to his own self, who is condemned (punished, cursed) to the extreme existence of meditation. Now, I repeat this because it seems, after all, as if every punishment has been eliminated from society, from the world of others (imprisonment or boycott in various versions), punishment in this extreme meditative existence, in this unending testing of its own phantom-ness. This is being condemned to existence in the endless testing of emptiness, to existence without love and consequently to a kind of phantom-ness and incorporality. Certainly, the law of otherness is extended with the meditative subject here, which is what I am reading in the book Reason and Madness. Otherness is inherent to our very attempt to look at our own I (therefore it is naturally turned to self-reflection) and it also lies in our necessarily dialogue-based existence (monadological existence is a lie, as is the existence of sameness, without others, and therefore without language). Nevertheless, we cannot equate the imperative of otherness with existence with others. No matter how impossible it is to draw an absolute distinction between the internal and the external, in the sense that what is external is  necessarily also internal and that our internal is external to the extent that the former cannot but elude us, unable of achieving full self-possession, still these other Cogitae, its I's  (in the plural) whom we have heard to be its "best friends", are the I's in the impossibility of I, the I's that abandon Cogito, so that this same Cogito represents the great destruction of each of its (not-its) I's, others that can never replace the real, other I, the other body that remains real and, in that sense,   "external", no matter how much they try to internalize it. The other is the safeguard of the world, of objectivity, which is irreplaceable in my search for my own subjectivity. (Hence, the other can also be sought in my Ahasuerus's beer bottle). Other-lessness, if I may put it that way, is absolute selfness-less: the other in and of itself, I am in the other who always, whenever I leave my own self, returns me to me.

The curse lived by Cogito is the curse of the absolutized impossibility of self-possession, just like this cursed existence without the other, or existence without love: existence in absolute consciousness which is, of course, the negation of so-called naďve consciousness - as consciousness of our alleged finally given self-possession, consciousness which is asked no questions and which therefore should be "light-hearted" - but this meditative consciousness exists exclusively by constantly testing the abyss.  "Light-heartedness" of the naďve mind is naďve in relation to the abyss as well: it does not know of the abyss in the same way that it does not know of thought, especially not of meditative thought. Cogito is not suffering from the melancholy to which the absolute self-possession of res cogitans is condemned, the self-sufficient identity, which, in its self-sufficiency,  is deaf and blind to the world and absolutely immovable, but Cogito has been doomed to horror vacui, to endless vertigo, and (Pascalian) existence above the abyss. In this book I read that "Meditation is absolute disempowerment of the naive"; but I also read that meditation is invocation of the abyss. Branka Arsić says: "Entering the dispute with reason, acting "unreasonably", meditation endangers the self-being of the person meditating. That is why the decision to meditate represents the greatest of all possible risks. (...) Because the subject, having decided to meditate, risks nothing else and nothing less than himself, his own mind and surrenders to the danger /I should point out that this is now a quote from Descartes' Meditation on the First Philosophy/, "of being suddenly thrown into a deep whirlpool (...) where he cannot touch the bottom with his feet or rise to the surface". This is the curse brought by the decision to meditate (Cogito is compelled to make such a decision to the extent that opening up to the abyss is a matter of compulsion). Branka Arsić's book is very precious in helping us to describe this curse and you should read it carefully, with pen in hand, to learn who and what Cogito is. You will find everything I have already mentioned, but I repeat clear and loud:  "His untruth is his truth, and his truth is that he is significantly deprived of his truth (truth about himself), it is "accessible" to him only as untruth, only as delusion". Or the following part which is even closer to the very existence to which Cogito is condemned (in other words, my Ahasuerus): "Meditation is the process of uninterrupted destabilization of what is being meditated; it makes meditation steadily unsteady and constantly inconstant". And later on, in conclusion, although it comes only a few pages before the sentences I have just read and what we have already talked about, this conclusion without a conclusion about existence, I must repeat something using the words of Branka Arsić: "The only success of meditation is its constant lack of success, the only definite result is the absence of any definite result, and constant postponement of the final effect caused by uncompletable progression (history is unending), and the insuperable impossibility to stop progress."

This is (Samuel) Beckett: this uncompletable progression, as the  power of impotence that tries to be acceptable. This is Beckett, or unthinkable thinking – real thinking or dangerous thinking. Because thinking is dangerous: one cannot think without risking one's own mind. There is no reconciliation between thinking and us. But, what does that mean? Does it mean that there is an absolute disagreement between our existence and our thought? Does it mean that we will never make peace with thought?

Here, above this abyss which has just opened up between meditation and us, I must stop, although I know that it is right here, at the dividing-line between meditation and existence (a terrible dividing-line) that many things begin: this is not in any sense only Descartes res cogitans where Cogito seeks to be rescued from the abyss, running away from this part of himself which (I repeat) constantly eludes him; no,  these are all the evils we are capable of, my friends (and you are my dear friends in spite of everything), our countless sins because we are incapable of true existence without Truth (without identity); compared to these evils, the evil of melancholy res cogitans is really naive.

But this is a subject for some other discussion; now, I can only offer the title for this subject: Fascism as the Ground for Absolute Identity, or: Fascism as Escape from Existence (in other words: from non-identity). I am convinced that the book Reason and Madness is the inevitable introduction to this discussion. I am indeed convinced that Branka Arsić's book is a very important book.

Women's Studies Journal

Selected Papers
Anniversary Issue 1992/2002

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