Melencolia 1 (text)

5 January 2016



An indeterminate Object


What is beautiful I do not know. Dürer


Shortly before Dürer engraved Melencolia I in 1514, he wrote: 'What is beautiful I do not know'

Quote: [...] The bat-like creature flying through a night sky declares the subject of this famous engraving: Melancolia I. That dark temperament is personified by a female figure seated in the foreground. The winged infant beside her is a 'genius' (in the ancient sense, meaning an accompanying spirit). Melancholy has wings and from her belt hang keys and a moneybag, symbolizing power and wealth. She is surrounded by measuring instruments. Above her head is a panel of 'magic' numbers (they add up to 34 in all directions). At her feet are the tools that can fashion the material world. Yet she does nothing: lost in thought, she turns away from the light. Renaissance philosophers had suggested a new interpretation for melancholy, as the temperament of genius (in the modern sense). Melancholy was possessed by artists, in whom 'Imagination' predominates; 'Reason' dominates scholars; while the final stage of 'Spirit' was the preserve of theologians. If this interpretation is correct, Dürer has presented us with a portrait of his own temperament as an artist. d%C3%BCrer,_melancholia.aspx

We ask, following Dürer, where is there to lie down but not in the midst of a void? What is beautiful, what is poisonous, where is the horizon drawn between? Is black bile, acedia [sloth] productive, whose deformations, and misconceptions of the ego  are the subject of both passion and psychosis, in cultivation of allegories of love? What is it that always makes itself heard, in the black silences of a voice? Dumbness allied with intelligence, which, residing within the opacity of stone, incubates the topos of the unreal. The task to appropriate what can never be appropriated is expressed with the maxim, from Robert Musil, that whoever seizes the greatest unreality will shape the greatest reality. This place is not in shape physically spatial or objective. The visible world has no choice other than transform to an invisible quarter, another concept, deriving from its (virtual) co-habitation with the (actual) co-ordinates of the earth. It is to remain the same while becoming other. The differences might be exchanged at the point of temporal catastrophe to attempt an ontological leap.


An Indeterminate Object the world unglued from itself

The beginning of any thinking of the void place of 'the middle' would be in locating the tautology [exacting a mid-point between somewhere and nowhere, origin and ending, the middle being at the same time unequal] as a tracing of the obscure symbolism interred in objects and figures. By association their spatial relations, beyond any mental calculation in Dürers Melencolia 1 engraved in 1514, are placeless - and thereby inaccessible. Pictorially they take place outside chronology opening and expanding time whilst standing still. Distraction is pictured frozen as the image of eternal detours in time.

An experience of emotional and earthly detachment from any given known world falls from assumptions of any notional sense of place and linear time a faded past once present - to an embodied, journeyed present imagined and projected as the gravitational sphere of immanence in which we are to live and die. This time is one of the body where we can orient and stabilise the world, and by so doing free ourselves equally from the parametric of the past aligned in dead time. We are conscious of the life-world as universal, in the perception of a receding horizon of past or as the friction felt as affect, joy or pain, against its mortal tides in the present.  Lebenswelt [the life-world] alternating between ecstatic and reasoned modes of memorialisation is withdrawn in the saturnine activity of Melencolia 1s symbolic disorder, so difficult to grasp. The subjective destitution of the imagination is affirmed in this paradoxical image. An atmosphere of self-possession in narcissist gazing is depicted by the disordered mis-en-scène which on closer reading is highly ordered. This absented life-world is perhaps to be conveyed by the mood of physical isolation and exhaustion in the metaphor of breathing: inhaling [space time]; exhaling as thought [identity] dwelling too closely upon itself. Yet it is in this withdrawal that the imagined solution to a problem resides. In the power of the powerless, and the silent force of the low and unspoken, what is affirmed in mute voice, is the sublime loss of identity.

In Melencolia 1, space is introspective in the first regard, set out on a plane between the latitudes of familiarity and unfamiliarity, far from the stars of poetic allegory and the study of mathematics directed to eternal questions.  The instruments of their measurement have been used, perhaps, whilst a dog sleeps,





the Angel ruminates [on the Fall?] in their midst.  A second position, a radical one, overlaps and augments the first, in the allegory of angelic contemplation. The Angel of Melencolia 1 sits, as if spending time, [longue durée] within the same plane, imagined as the space of latent possibilities of transformation, by immersion in her thought. All these things are devices. All are momentarily jettisoned from the will to complete. The task to instigate research, in this capture of duration, is more ascribed to forgetting. These tools of reason and logic are the very obstacles, if viewed from this second [subjective-poetic] position that seek to control what they create as solutions to projected antagonisms. Dislocating the pure calculation of mathematics from the translation of poetic procedure at a cost of its internal contradictions, the lost object of knowledge being above all problematic in the transport to poetry, transfers metonym to metaphor, from heaven to earth. Hidden by the technological apparatuses impelled by their reference an unknown lost object, to reject metaphysics, remains unknown, or is in this distracted state, conceptually enigmatic, out of reach. In Melencolia 1, distraction is disclosed by way of an absence in the indirection of angels intense lost gaze. The mode of framing metaphysics (from Heideggers term Gestell) promised by technology is broken, since it is not technical as such, but a human framing anterior to the abstraction and production of technology. Here is no lost object, but an imaginary of its lost anteriority. Perhaps the Angel, in half-sleep, has dreamed of an entire universe, of histories and languages, in an instance of distraction. She falls from the real task of her work set before her. Perhaps her fixation on the object of loss is cured in this moment, and simply has never existed. No longer out of reach, she is redeemed. The angelic is distracted from work, imperceptive to the affect, as a matter of fact, of presence without aura.

Many attempted in vain to say the most joyful things joyfully; here, finally, they are expressed in mourning. Hölderlin

In its lassitude or inertia, any turn, or nuanced movement of the axis of mid-point [in the difficult and laborious task of balancing these fragile relations by their internal antagonisms] is a potential disaster of the will to imagine future time. Frames within frames infinitely regress. The tangent [orbit] returns the thinker to her surrounding clutter, given up to thoughts exhausting circular compulsion, split between poetry and philosophy. The Angel testifies to an impossibility for Western culture of fully possessing the object of knowledge. So argues Giorgio Agamben in Stanzas- Word and Phantasm in Western Culture (1993). Loss is the completion of possession. The poet Rilke writes that [] it completes it, if you wish, it affirms it'. It is not, at bottom, but a second acquisition this time wholly internal and equally intense.

The point of the axis has not moved as such in the least intensity and only appears to move through the conceptual frames of thinking the same situation or geography, co-agitating frames within frames of cognition, to almost breaking point. The speed of the relative movement increasingly slows down as it approaches its destination, to be virtually at standstill. The more the time taken the more the space to traverse, the more the intensity of the impulse to collide.

The object of thought recedes as it approaches to standstill always at the same distance. This is the picture plane articulated through conceptual movement; melancholia is set within the withdrawn (plane of the) world, the Lebenswelt levelled without desire for desire, or progression, stifling all distinctions. The Angel, incommensurable with both logical deduction and its antagonisms, prevents the finite measures of the ressentiment, locked as she is within the infinite world. No world as such, no illusion of an enemy to project failure and blame but the passion of irony masking an incapacity to master the subject. Disenchantment and lack of mastery are sustained in the image of useless tools in measure, themselves incapable of abstraction, although being abstractions effected by the concrete relations of ideological formation. At the same time from this perspective Melencolia 1 presents the allegory of love and its exile as a failure of Enlightenment disenchantment.  Dante addresses the pain of exile in Paradiso, XVII as leaving love behind:




... Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta


... You shall leave everything you love most:
più caramente; e questo è quello strale
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
che l'arco de lo essilio pria saetta.
shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste
Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
of others' bread, how salty it is, and know
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
how hard a path it is for one who goes
lo scendere e 'l salir per l'altrui scale ...
ascending and descending others' stairs ...


What happens on the way to any understanding of the temperament of this self-imposed sloth, windowless, and [sublime] inexistence? Lebenswelt is relative to a general slowing of space-time, to move to an acceptance of the worlds groundless ground, finding oneself repeatedly ascending and descending, gradually fading or falling away from familiarity. It is through the angelic experience of an approach to self-exile being next to nothing, that thought subsists, despite and because it senses no where at hand.

How these depicted residues of an action, had, other than in uncertain relations and remainders dwelled at peace, are recast upon the incommensurable questioning of the origin of its lost spirit. The over-proximity of things alerts to metaphysical thought of an eluded elsewhere, in the aspect of a fall from grace that affects all contingency thought in isolation: all the symptomatic paraphernalia collected together engenders absence, despite all effort to cling to unities of familiarity by being seated among them. A sovereign thought arises. The gravitational pull away from an origin, a spiralling outward and a collapsing inward, exalts solitude in its residual, material hopelessness. From reflective cogitation to spiritual despair, something engraved in the thinking of the 'place' without hope is to be best substituted in the immediacy of things, of an exceptional reprieve from the unknowable expanse of Chaos.

This is [again] not itthis is not the object, and cannot be determined other than in dwelling upon being without any essence. By remaining solely with the desire to dwell, reasons insistence is distraught but cannot forsake the desire born of will and intention yet to remain.


Melancholia is not an operation of negating thought or craft as such but a constitution of thinking the difficulty as affirmation; the attention at the zero point of the cogito welcomes emptiness itself. Art, the remainder, is as yet to be crafted, to resist all interpretation, to being always poised to universal attention. We are left disappointed in reasoning if the spirit is not crafted into image. This is the paradox of the imagination of reason, weakened in the reason of the imagination.

If the spirit does not become an image, it will be annihilated along with the rest of the world.  Simon Magus

Slavoj Žižek writes concerning Martin Scorsese's 1993 cinema adaption of Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence written in 1920. He suggests that the lovers of the story (already) compose and donate their love not to each other but to the sovereign anticipation of the pre-destined ending of their relationship, formulating love from the beginning as precisely founded upon the initial outset as low, or in the dissolution of energy toward absolute powerlessness, consequently to falling, - falling in love, to a final falling away, in death or separation, between the two. The completion of despair is rendered in falling outside the immediacy of the lived relationship, yet subsists as a remainder, precisely, of Love whose fragile existence appears timeless beyond the individuals themselves in their failure of any capacity to resist the passion of their weakness. Condemned like foreign suspects in absentia, love will have fully appeared only when the protagonists are not mortally present, at the moment of a fragile and indeterminate appearance. The anticipation sets the relation in melancholias radical incapacity. Illuminated as a flash in the imaginary register of surrender to choose - affection in the choice of death, in the last fall of the veil of mortality, to uncoil as endless joy [joi damour] no longer vital, yet immortal as beloved is still insufficient.

Well-being approached through capacity happens in the vanguard of the other beginning, a metaphysics for reality's potential.  Agamben helps understand the experience of this register, of human freedom grounded in the privative capacity to withhold, to choose not to (be or do).  This privation is experienced through the facticity of existence, the site where the withdrawal of disclosure may be apprehended.  Agamben suggests that the experience that most fully represents the complexity of radical incapacity (the capacity for death, finitude), the freedom that follows paradoxically from absolute powerlessness, is love (passion).  On one hand passion motivates action, the mood of wanting and being able, and on the other the loss of control or mastery.  In love (passion) one undergoes an event of pure receptivity that distinguishes capacity from its peer faculties of reason (knowledge) and will (intention).

On the back of a Mobius curve, Melencolia 1 returns us to the immediacy of a sudden expanse (before time) as the background of an original cosmic fault in the unified universal field, in order to undo, re-do, and undo again the chain of an immense incompletion. The iron will of a universe is to be forged upon a new notion of beauty held apart in its imperfections. The [metaphysical] chain of signifiers that privilege the momentary, or originary myth indetermines the broken 'ground'. What is disturbed, unfinished, but All? This 'beginning' at the obscure core of thinking (anticipation of the Anthropocene age, of disaster, the end of thinking the human as human, and so on) itself adjusts the very subject of being in 'the middle', to exclude love from completion in perpetua. The Angel is set down in metaphor, having begun and lost interest in the sedimentary process of her melancholic deposition, from an organic to inorganic, material of fabrication of the world.

Melancholia unites beginning and ending only by contemplation and cognition of disunities. The passage is always already to be incomplete. What is about to occur is held at the impasse to preserve, to negate, to frame all thinking here; and as Samuel Beckett imagines as a claustrophobic, or windowless room, the self, subtracting a subject from her infernal study, endures 'impossible' self-contradiction in that sealed windowless space. The voice she hears is pure alterity, from time and beyond time, so as to guarantee imprisonment.

Samuel Beckett makes use of such an impossible space of subjectivity through a window device that appears open to the outer world, yet is really closed, viewless and practically windowless. From a small frosted skylight of Murphy until the last window of Stirrings Still, the windowless window has kept evoking a condition of issueless room/mind inhabited by protagonists like Murphy, Watt, Malone, and Hamm. Focusing upon the window in Beckett's oeuvre, his strategic use of the window device as a solipsistic expression, is more inward than in the Leibnizian monad. It is subjectile, a windowless self, upon which the borders of surfaces collapse.


The Tragic Colony I know not where beauty is

At the threshold of Becketts voicing at its impasse to go on is the subjective event approaching exhaustion. It breaks the deadlock whose energy in the hidden aspect of its apparent destructive negativity is not 'nothing' but the affirmative quality of acedia, infinitely subtracted of any future movement.  Fixation upon an insoluble problem is arguably characterised in Dürers Melencolia 1 as a portrayal of human subsistence in her imagination. What will remain, without the necessity of difficulty when all efficacies fall away? We see the figure of an anticipation of mourning for the inexistent Real, something that never happened, yet inscribed already in the messages of meteors from the void, whose absent form might be deepened in melancholy. The figure of angelic or universal love (agápē) is grounded. She unfolds all illusion of the universal dimension that sustains wellbeing in human belief and meaning. To be held captive by material love also is to be in debt to the materiality of its images. In Alain Robbe-Grillets La Belle Captive, (1983) desire, without desiring its movement, comes to rest as a stone falling from the heavens.

It begins with a stone falling, in the silence, vertically, immobile. It is falling from a great height, a meteor, a massive, compact, oblong block of rock, like a giant egg with a pocked, uneven surface. 

Weighed down in eternity, deep in her own thought, the Angel has in any case nowhere left to go after desire is at rest, with all identity and memory inert; she begins a cycle of returning to the void. In the imperfect place, whose formation in epigenesis is an unfolding, the Angel colonises the placeless - conspires to turn the inside out, the outside in, intersecting space and silence, as if not there, yet still present as novelty.


On Indifference...

In contemplating the pain of exclusion, or of suffering or death, melancholia proposes an exception to not reflect upon itself by an attitude of 'So what?' or 'Es ist mir egal' in the ressentiment of depressed anger, blame, negative per se, but as a subject withdrawn, set apart in the continuum of the present. 

Melancholia in the inert pose of 'evil' in the Hegelian sense of the Fall might be adjusted by a decision not to serve in Eden, but emerge precisely from sin or sickness via imagination. It is the persistence of the frame to permit change, affirm the mood, and imprison time [kairos] in the opportunity and decision to remain [as phantasm] at an imagined zero. The subject claims and asserts the void - what can be held apart through indeterminacy at the level of decomposing in order to resist something; to disavow possession so as to metaphorically reach its shore. The held-apart, or taking-place of an exception does not in this scenario, incite the overruling of its exception. It is upon a profound misunderstanding of the meaning of the exceptional journey, that constitution of knowledge if stated as command or rule rises up to exact its own downfall, to rise to the call, summoned to appear before itself, to the consequence of nothing, and proof of consequence - as not nothing, but as merely released in time unfolding.

States of Mediterranea / Melancholia The Future of an Illusion

The expansion around a 'middle', (the sea), void, or gap structures territorial space. Absence, here, is the aporia that exists, or rather subsists, between and within 'self' and 'other', figuratively as the mid-terrain of both sea and land. The exploration of the limits of meaning of the spaces in which meaning is located are to be abandoned, upon a risk to the subject, to the identity of the Mediterranean, to the synthesis of space not as the ground of oppositions. Subject becomes object. In mapping the historical/mythological and poetic territories [chora] of the Mediterranean upon the psychopathological state[s] of melancholia, is to perforce to transverse territory, abandon possession, overcome the self/other, collapse all policing between actual borders and virtual existences, to become something else, yet remain. This map infinitely rendered in the task of transcription of a measurement or number exceeds the edge of its notational world, spilling over. It cannot be contained, like the rising sea or the overflowing of the well of tears; a 'tear' through which the territory of the self, to well up in melancholia is to overwhelm the subject.

Additional Notes

Limen Caelo is the anagram of the [intentionally] misspelt 'Melencolia' translated as I engrave or the Gate of Heaven.

The Artist - Philosopher moves from determinate to indeterminate, exterior to interior, in one direction; and in another, from 'mytheme' to 'matheme' and by so ascending and descending is angelic, returning to the dispassionate affect of melancholia. Jacobs ladder is unclimbed. Choosing exception, poetic exclusion, the underworld, and the courage demanded in extimacy the gate of heaven is closed, and engraved in the images of melancholy.  

This is the Angels providence whose resistance is, voiced by silence, indestructible. To return with the alliance of reason - which links the unconscious power with the formality of the intellect - she is to cross over/ out the imagination.  The infernal architecture welding melancholia to reason, builds, upon the burning ground of unreason, the exterior edifice of science, permanently collapsing. The imputation of actions arises by the interpenetration and mutual transformation of the spheres, of melancholia and reason, such that impossible and absurd tasks might be overcome in defeat of them. 

De imputatione actionum ex melancholia provenientium. 

Warren Neidichs Infinite Replay of Ones Own Self-Destruction (2012-13) suggests a novel form of neurological/psychological space of transverstaile possibility between unconscious power and the formality of art, as providing renewed perception and affection. In his work, a dissonant choir stands in for the society of loss, as the noise that begs for cessation.

Something of that sovereignty, Mediterranea, is always undetermined. In anticipation of taking place its geography contracts without concern to what might be unredeemed, robbed or left in ruin. It is indeterminable, in extimacy, that the past is forever lost in its future.

Žižek argues that the truly Hegelian insight is to discover that the supposed fall itself, the fateful forgetting of the ancient wisdom which enabled us to maintain a direct contact with the 'dance of life' [...] is already in itself its own self-sublation; the wound is already in itself its own healing (Žižek 1999: 71). Hence the way out of the fall from natural unity and bliss is already implicitly found, not beyond the fall, but in the fall itself. This is what Žižek takes to be the meaning of the Hegelian negation of negation or the celebrated Aufhebung that negates and preserves self-contradiction in conceptual/ontological determinacies.

The Middle

Antonio Gramsci said that whenever you think you are at a turning point in history, people always keep on using the word new just like now, everything to do with globalization is new: new economies, new telecommunications, new materials. Gramsci said whenever you hear this word new you have to understand that you stand in a very fragile relation of the past to the present, and that is incubation. It is not as if you stand at the end of something or in the middle of a brave new world. It is a middleness of a different kind. It is, in a way, starting from thinking you are always in the middle of something [...].

Homi Bhaba, quoted in 'The Old Brand New' press release

Melancholia and Capital are in this sense, tragically coiled, they spend time to value labour to nihilation, to reduce the capacity for the psyches affective potential in framing sensations of time from the sublime chaos of memory to an acceleration of duration toward pure chaos. At the point of physical collapse we might hear the light.