“Be – and yet know the great void where all things begin” – Rilke
Death is an evental space.
An evental space is a site of Truth, which is to say, an experience of radical newness. By radical, I mean completely outside of language, unknowable, and wholly personal.
What better word do we have for the unspeakably unknown than death? Death is the abyss over which the precipice of life looks. It is the void at life’s very core. What better source could we have for radical newness than the most radical extreme of life itself: death?
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me ask, simply – What would it mean to posit death as an evental space?
Rilke encourages this approach to death in Letters: 1910-1926, “Death is the side of life averted from us, unshone upon by us… We must try to achieve the greatest consciousness of our existence which is at home in both unbounded realms, inexhaustibly nourished from both… The true figure of life extends through both spheres” (373).
As this quote reveals, we are not speaking about the experience of death after life, but rather what it might do for us, in life, to have a nearness to death. Thus, my project here is to draw an analogy between that productive unknown void at our core, that space we call evental, and this notion of death, in all of its obliterating power. For what does death obliterate in life if not the boundaries of identity?
Allow me another analogy: what is the most human attempt at destroying the boundaries between people? Or shall I say, destroying the boundaries between bodies. Sex. The erotic experience.
I will thus attempt to outline these many concepts below: death, creativity, sexuality, the void, Truth, radical newness, God, eroticism and the evental space. My analogy attempts to show that all these elements are saying the same thing: you don’t have to die to do what death does.
This outline will begin by looking at one of the most powerful analogies in western thought: the Sun as Truth, which later becomes linked to God. I will then discuss the best film I’ve ever seen to deal with this problematic: Pascal Laugier’s “Martyrs.” I will then trace the death drive from its source in Freud to its contemporary re-interpretations. I will then introduce the erotic by discussing Bataille’s thesis in Erotism, as well as revealing this analogy at work in the recent film “Black Swan” by Darren Aronofsky.
Derrida Dreams of Death
Plato, in The Republic, establishes one of the West’s most foundational analogies with his allegory of the cave. In this story, the “sun” outside of the “cave” is meant to stand in for the transcendental signified, which is to say, Truth. In his allegory, the philosophers are the ones who leave this cave, go outside and look at the light of the sun. Everyone else just sees shadows.
Thus was the origin of our metaphors for intelligence: enlightened, shed light upon, etc. Ever since Plato, the light of the sun has been an analogy for Truth. Since Christianity, this analogy has added the term “God” to the equation. Thus, today we have: Sun::Truth::God.
Yet, analogizing Truth/God to the sun also does something curious. In Spurs and in Of Grammatology, Derrida “illuminates” this problematic of light metaphors by writing, “The dream of death begins” (Spurs, 89). By this he means, that if humans were to be truly present with God, truly in possession of Truth, by association with this analogy, they would be looking directly at the sun. And anyone who’s been a kid knows, you’re not supposed to look directly at the sun. Why? Because it’s blinding.
Derrida writes, “Pure presence itself, if such a thing were possible, would be only another name for death” (Of Grammatology, 155). He goes on to show how language protects us from that pure, blinding presence of the sun, but we won’t touch upon that here. The point has been made: to access God/Truth means to look directly at the sun, a death by blindness.
But don’t let this deter you! This is not a warning against seeking Truth, but rather the introduction of a new element into our analogical string of terms: Sun::Truth::God::Death.
The introduction of this fourth term is exemplified in the film “Martyrs.”
Martyrs: Death as Access to God
Pascal Laugier introduces his film “Martyrs” by calling it “a response to ‘Funny Games’,” a film by Michael Haneke. He claims that “Funny Games” presents violence for no reason, while “Martyrs” engages violence for the greatest reason known to man. Without addressing the validity of dismissing “Funny Games,” I will go with his second point: the greatest reason.
Georges Bataille writes about religious sacrifice in his book Erotism, stating that “In sacrifice… the victim dies and the spectators share in what his death reveals. This is what religious historians call the element of sacredness. This sacredness is the revelation of continuity through the death of a discontinuous being to those who watch it as a solemn rite” (22).
Keep this quote in mind while I briefly outline the film’s second half. Anna, our new protagonist, stumbles across a basement dungeon in the house of her lover’s abusers. At once her lover is vindicated: she was not insane, but was truly abused as a child. Anna’s love is reborn, and she decides to explore the house for evidence. She is horrified to find the dungeon in pristine condition, expensively outfitted and sadistically utilitarian – not the work of amateurs. After rescuing another young woman, Anna is seized by the true owners of this dungeon: a religious cult. The Matriarch of the cult sits Anna down and explains everything to her.
They are an ancient cult made up of wealthy aristocrats. Their aim is simple, yet next to impossible to achieve: to recreate the religious experience of martyrdom. They believe, as the above Bataille quote suggests, that martyrdom leads to a sacred nearness to God. Their goal is to be near to that nearness, to witness this nearness to death::God::Truth. And then they tell her she’s next.
Anna is broken down, and eventually martyred in the most horrifying, painful way possible: she is completely skinned alive. Yet, their hypothesis was true. She achieves a presence with God before dying. She gains access to the Truth, and is able to relate it all to the Matriarch. Anna passes away with a holy, cosmic look in her eyes.
What is Laugier analogizing here? He is synthesizing two opposite poles: the most horrible thing a human can experience, and the most beautifully transcendent. Anna achieves what the entire history of western philosophy and religion has sought – access to God/Truth. Yet, she is skinned alive. She can only get it via the most horrible bodily experience possible. Laugier is claiming that these two extremes are linked.
He thus proves Derrida’s thesis, that the only access to God/Truth is death. This is exemplified in the film’s final moments. Immediately following Anna’s divine confession to the Matriarch, a cult-wide conference is held. All of the members are eager to hear her Truth, the word of God.
The Matriarch is in the bathroom, slowly taking off all her makeup, her fake eyelashes, her wig, etc. I read this as her exit from the Symbolic, a re-becoming of body. A cult member knocks on the door calling for her. She asks him, “Can you imagine what happens after death?” He responds, “No.” The Matriarch then puts a gun in her mouth, and before shooting herself, says, “Keep doubting.”
Now, the content of Anna’s confession doesn’t matter here. Does she reveal the glory of Heaven, or the void of nothingness? Is the Matriarch’s suicide a nihilistic gesture, or an eagerness to join God? The structural analogy is intact regardless of its content, since the crux of this thesis rests upon knowing: Truth::God::Death. All who see are blinded by the sun. The only way to live is to doubt.
Reinterpreting the Death Drive
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud defines the death drive in binary opposition with Eros (love, relatedness). He claims that the death drive is “man’s natural aggressive drive, the hostility of each against all… The death drive [is] found beside Eros and which rules the world jointly beside [it]” (58).
Today, even though this term has retained its name ‘death drive,’ it no longer connotes an irrational hostility, but rather the opposite. Contemporary psychoanalytic theory has completely reinterpreted the binary opposition of death drive/Eros, not just inverting it, but rather compressing both elements into a new term. This new term is still designated as the ‘death drive,’ but as Zizek states, it is now understood as “the return of the life force… What re-emerges in the ‘death drive’ is ultimately life itself, and the fact that the ego perceives this return as a death threat precisely confirms its perverted ‘repressive’ character. The ‘death drive’ means that life itself rebels against the ego” (Interrogating the Real, 159).
Allow me to unpack this passage. What Zizek is calling the ‘death drive’ is actually an excessiveness of life drive – this is raw life in the form of pure existence. We will later see Bataille refer to this pure existence as continuity. By linking the death drive to a return of pure existence, these authors are establishing a narrative. It goes like this: pure existence exists. It is then interrupted by the formation of the ego, which is to say – individuals arrive on the scene. Individuals are constituted by language. This entrance into the Symbolic, cuts us off from Things. The ego thus builds its walls of identity, and situates itself into a system of symbolic exchange. We then have the audacity to call living in a perpetual state of lack by the name ‘life.’
Thus, the “return of the life force” interrupts this lack, and in fact restores a sense of authentic continuity – the continuity of pure existence. This is the intrusion of pure life in all its radical potentiality, in all its undifferentiated multiplicity. Zizek states that this intrusion is perceived “as a death threat” by the ego because, quite violently, the ego’s constitutive limits are threatened by existence’s unboundedness. Pure life is called the ‘death drive’ since it breaks down all boundaries. This is an astute re-definition, since another name for pure existence is ‘God.’
The death drive is thus a creative force. Don’t be confused by its name – this is not a suicide-drive. But rather being in a living state of a “nearness to death,” a living with the understanding of what death does. And, as Rilke writes, it means being “at home in both unbounded realms.”
Unbounded Love: Salomé/Rilke
In Flesh of My Flesh, Kaja Silverman writes, “There is no getting outside of the unfathomable totality of which we are a part; not only is it spatially unbounded, but it also extends backward and forward in time. Most of us, though, are mentally estranged from this dimension of Being. We are unable to say ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’ to the existence of other creatures and other things because our ego has either incorporated them or excluded them. This will continue to be the case unless we allow the angel of death to graze us with his wing, because only finitude can teach us how to affirm” (28, emphasis added).
When Silverman writes that we must “allow the angel of death to graze us with his wing,” she is speaking about none other than the death drive. This is the same analogy we’ve been making, the great analogy, we might say – the intertwining of death with life. This passage essentially states that this nearness to death is the thing that allows us to affirm. Saying yes to what death means, means saying yes to everything.
The unboundedness that a nearness to death affirms also allows, via analogy, the sexual relationship to reach its full potential. By this I mean that the evaporation of the death/life boundary is analogous to the evaporation of the masculine/feminine boundary – both breaches allow for a profound identification with the reciprocal term. Unbounding each term thus dissolves their binary relationship, and establishes a new, synthesized term – a sort of multiplicitous totality.
Silverman addresses this potentiality within the sexual relationship by discussing Rilke’s love affair with Salomé. Salomé, a writer and psychoanalyst, had intense relationships with four men during her time: Nietzsche, Freud, Paul Rée, and Rilke. Yet, the only one of these relationships that was sexual was hers with Rilke. The radical reciprocity of this relationship allowed Salomé to come to an understanding of a term she called “identification.” I use the phrase “radical reciprocity” because Salomé was able to dissolve the opposition between the terms in her relationship: Salomé/Rilke, masculine/feminine, death/life. For her, love had to be unbounded.
Silverman writes, “To identify with someone or something in the Saloméan sense of the word is not to transform this other into an image of oneself, but rather to feel one’s togetherness with it in an ‘unfathomable totality.’ This totality is unfathomable because it has no limits, either temporally or spatially, and because it defies explanation. It can be affectively registered, but it cannot be thought” (26).
This “affectively registered but not thought” feeling of unfathomable totality is the evental space. This feeling is the radical potential of love, and the productive unboundedness brought about by a nearness to death.
Silverman concludes by stating, “Rilke came to see that there is ‘neither a here nor a beyond,’ but only one ‘realm whose depth and influence we share, everywhere unboundaried, with the dead and those to come.’ The only song that is commensurate with the world’s ‘longing’ is one that affirms this unity – that says ‘life-AND-death’” (80).
Eroticism as Event
“Eroticism, it may be said, is assenting to life up to the point of death,” writes Bataille in Erotism (11). With this first line, he is boldly introducing a new term in our analogical series: sex.
Above, we explored how the death drive qua pure existence restores a sense of authentic continuity. Bataille proposes that sex does the same thing. He picks up from psychoanalysis and states that individuals, because of their constitutive identities, are separate from one another. The moment the ego forms the boundaries of its identity, it is forever alone; which means, one being living separately amongst other separate beings. Life, then, is an experience of discontinuity.
The death drive is thus the force that leads us back to our original continuity. The word “force” is actually misleading here. Instead, one might even say: the death drive is the topology towards continuity. The same way in which gravity isn’t a force, but rather the curvature of space itself, so is the death drive the curvature of existence, leading us back to continuity.
As we have seen, a nearness to death wears many masks. Sex, too, is a profound experience of continuity. Physically, the boundaries between bodies break down during sex. Bodies enter one another, transgressing their surfaces. Psychologically, the experience of sex is one of union, of loss of identity to a new whole. Nakedness in itself is a symbolic gesture – the lowering of one’s defenses and the possibility of intimate openness.
Bataille writes, “Bodies open out to a state of continuity through secret channels that give us a feeling of obscenity.” And earlier, “The whole business of eroticism is to destroy the self-contained character of the participators as they are in their normal lives” (17).
Sex and eroticism, just like a nearness to death, aim to dissolve the boundaries between binaries, the boundaries we experience in our “normal lives.” This nakedness, which brings us skin to skin with our lover, has a chiasmic character. It is indeed the “flesh” written about by Merleau-Ponty, which says, “we become others and we become world” (The Visible and the Invisible, 160). We become unbounded, both self/other, both masculine/feminine, both alive/dead.
It comes as no surprise that the French word for “orgasm” is “la petit mort” – which translates as “the little death.” The same experience of continuity produced by sex is present in a nearness to death. The French language, and Bataille are thus making the same analogy: Sex::Death.
And perhaps this brings us to a larger analogy (since death is a form of violence) that sexuality and violence emerge from the same void within ourselves. Bataille writes, “The domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation… The most violent thing of all for us is death which jerks us out of a tenacious obsession with the lastingness of our discontinuous being” (16).
Mind you, I’m not talking about bringing physical violence into the sexual act. That would have the opposite effect we’re looking for. Physical violence would end up reifying the separation between individuals. Abuse, in this sense, isolates the individual within reactionary psychological walls, imprisoning the ego. I’m talking about is the opposite: destroying all walls of the ego. What I am talking about is a conceptualization of the sexual act as violence. A violence that comes from unleashing pure existence in all of its radical potentiality is a violence that is constituted by the unboundedness of authentic continuity.
Sex, in this sense, is an event. Eroticism is the evental space constituted by this nearness to death. Thus: Truth::God::Death::Sex.
Bataille elucidates, “Eroticism opens the way to death. Death opens the way to the denial of our individual lives. Without doing violence to our inner selves, are we able to bear a negation that carries us to the farthest bounds of possibility? (24).
What does Bataille mean by “the farthest bounds of possibility?” This is where art comes in. Death qua eroticism opens up the evental space of creativity. And no other film renders this space better than Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.”
Black Swan: The Evental Space Unbounded
Nina, played by Natalie Portman, is a ballet dancer of near perfect technique. Yet, her frigid personality and passionless control stifle her creativity, making her flawless, yet boring. She makes an ideal white swan, but since she lacks any element of the irrational, sensual passion of the black swan, her ballet director is hesitant to cast her as the lead (which has to play both parts).
The film’s narrative is essentially Nina’s journey to discover all of the “black swan” qualities she lacks. The point I’m making here doesn’t require the specifics of this story, but rather relies on the interconnectedness of all the qualities she releases once the fetters of her self-repression give way.
Nina begins by turning her gaze inward, away from practicing technique and toward the unknown within herself. Her journey into her own unknown releases three things: her vibrant creativity, her passionate sexuality, and her insatiable violence. In the end, she succeeds and becomes the black swan. But, the point here has already been made, which is the analogy between these three elements: violence, sexuality and creativity.
Aronofsky’s profound thesis in this film is this analogy. He is incredibly astute to link these three elements to Nina’s unboundedness – because they are all indeed inexorably linked. The journey into the unspeakably unknown, into the void at the center of each of us, unleashes these three because they are all the exact same. Let me elaborate. The radical newness that is produced by access to the evental space is violent, because it destroys all limits of the ego, is erotic, because it produces an unbounded experience of continuity, and is artistic, because it releases the pure possibility of creativity.
These three elements are each the same thing because all three do what death does. They are each an experience of Truth, in all of its radical potential and authentic continuity. The life force that streams out of Nina is nothing short of pure life itself, flowing forth without boundaries. It is the creative force.
Art, like love, is that which says yes to everything.
Thus, once the shackles restraining her evental space are thrown off, Nina violently explodes with sexuality and creativity. All boundaries in her world dissolve, thrusting her into a fantastic, unbounded world. This world is a work of art.
In conclusion, we have seen how the films “Martyrs” and “Black Swan” reveal a complex analogy linking the terms Truth, God, sex and art to the term death. Death, in this sense, occupies the ego’s empty center in the form of the death drive. This drive is best understood as a topological slope toward the continuity of pure existence. Read through Plato, Derrida, Freud, Zizek, Silverman, Salomé, Rilke, Neitzsche, Merleau-Ponty and Bataille, this experience of a “nearness to death” during life constitutes a productive evental space – creatively, erotically, and spiritually.
Bataille writes that the evental space allows us to “achieve the power to look death in the face and to perceive in death the pathway into unknowable and incomprehensible continuity – that path is the secret of eroticism” – and, I would add, the unspeakable power of art (24).
Art allows us to wander the precipice of our void and stare into its blinding abyss with wings outstretched. Art is sex, which is Truth, which is God, which is death. All these terms are structurally equivalent insofar as they all do the same thing: produce radical newness. Living a nearness to death thus means living this analogy, and achieving profound unboundedness during our lifetime.