Jean-Luc Nancy

“Between story and truth”
Jean-Luc Nancy

One day, the gods retreated. On their own, they retreated from their divinity, that is to say, from their presence. What remains of their presence is what remains of all presence when it absents itself: what remains is what one can say about it. What can be said about it is what remains when one can no longer address it: neither speak to it, nor touch it, nor see it, nor give it a present.

(One might even say that the gods retreated because one no longer gives a present to their presence: no more sacrifice, no more oblation, except by way of custom or imitation. One has other things to do: write, for example, calculate, do business, legislate. Deprived of presents, presence has retreated.)

What one can say of the absenting presence is always one of the two things: its truth, or its story (histoire). Of course, it could even be its true story. But because the presence has fled, it is no longer certain that any story about it can be absolutely true: for, no presence will be able to attest it.

Thus what remains is straightaway divided into two parts: story and truth. The one and the other have the same origin and are related to the same thing: the same presence which has retreated. Its retreat is thus manifested as the line that separates the two, the story and the truth.

One calls mythos the narrative of the divine actions and the passions, among which there are always those which concern the world and its working, man and his fate. Mythos signifies the saying about something, by which one can make known the thing, the situation: in Latin, the narratio of something refers to the knowledge about it. When the gods have retreated, their story can no longer be simply true, nor their truth be simply narrated. There is absence of the presence which would testify to the existence of what is narrated, as well as to the veracity of the words that narrate.

There is absence of the body of gods. Osiris remains dismembered, the great Pan is dead. There is absence of the true body which would pronounce its own truth: its statue spattered with the blood of the victims, permeated by the incense vapours, or even the sacred wood within which one can hear the murmur of the spring into which pours forth a subterranean presence.

This speaking body is missing. What remains is what we can say of it — and the said (le dit) has become incorporeal, like the void, like space and like time. These are the four forms of the incorporeal, that is, the interval in which some bodies can be found, but which is never one body. The interval is ever being opened up and divided. The said is no longer given, attached to the divine body, as prayer on its lips: it is detached from self, it becomes distended, logos.

Truth and narration are separated thus. Their separation is marked by the same line which shows forth in the retreat of the gods. The body of the gods is what remains between the two: there it remains as its own absence. It remains there as the body painted, figured, and narrated: but there is no longer the body as the sacred body.

Between literature and philosophy there is lack of this entwinement, this embracing, this sacred mingling of man with God, that is to say, with animal, with plant, with lightning, and with the rock. The separation between them is indeed that of untwining, unclasping. The mingling that is thus unmingled is divided by the sharpest of blades: but the cut itself forever shows the effects of the entanglement. Between the two, there is something that cannot be disentangled.

Truth and narration are separated in such a manner that it is their separation that installs them as one and the other. Without the separation, there would be neither truth nor narration: there would be the divine body.

Not only is narration susceptible to or suspected of lacking in truth, but it is deprived of it by principle, being deprived of the body present as its own enunciation, its own exposition.

This deprivation is at the same time the deprivation of truth, and truth in principle is receding. It is in retreat, it cannot be figured, it cannot be narrated. Truth becomes a vanishing point which is anamorphosed into a question mark. Truth becomes: “what is truth?” Surmounting the question, and moreover, being delivered from it, remains the vanishing point, the infinite perspective of what from now on will be called logos.

Narration exhibits the figures: it is constituted as figurality in general, that is to say, the sketch of the contours by which a body is distinguished and becomes body in the first place. But a sketch about which it is doubtful if the body that it outlines is real. The narrative sketch reveals a manifestation of the body, regarding which it is not certain if it would be identical to a manifested body. Or rather, it is certain that it is not so: by figuring it, the narration declares it absent. It is the same sketch which created God itself — the priest as the head of jackal, or the drops of resin on the side of a tree — and which from now on is its figure. But this representation is devoid of self: the divine body is lacking in there.

The perspective of truth thus regards this lack as the site of what it desires just as well, but whose lack it is devoted to revealing. By revealing the lack — the figure itself, the imitation, the representation, the allegory, the mythology, literature — it speaks the truth about it: that it is a lack, that it is false (error, illusion, lie, deceit). In speaking this truth, it however speaks only half the truth: it lacks presence beyond the figure, or within the figure itself. But the discourse of truth claims that this presence is beyond being. This discourse itself proceeds until this beyond, where it perishes in an excessive light, the dazzle in which every possible figure disappears.

Between the figure and the dazzlement remains the absent body of God. What remains is a singular body of absence, which is approached from every side by narration and the perspective of truth. The former describes the shape of the body, and the latter inscribes its excavation. Between what is described and what is inscribed, there is only writing (l’écrit), the interminable graph engraved on the lead of a seal affixed on the site of the retreat. The scene is played around an empty tomb, a hollow mummy, a portrait resembling no one: around a body henceforth displayed and declared as “body”, that is to say, as absent outside.

But it is a scene, and it is played very effectively. It is a scene simultaneously of mourning and of desire: philosophy and literature, each in mourning and each in desire of the other, but each competing with the other in the accomplishment of the mourning and the desire.

If mourning is what prevails, and is shut up in ceaseless dereliction, the one or the other sinks into melancholy, with a lump in the throat over the lost body. But the latter (the lost body) is as well, the image one has of the other: philosophy is choked by its own impossibility as literature — for, literature is its own impossibility — or it is even the reverse.

Sometimes it is literature which conducts the mourning that philosophy endures or denies. Sometimes it is philosophy which sustains the absence that literature fakes. But the gesture of one can also be the fact of the other. There can even be a philosophical poem which is spent up in the desire of the other: Zarathustra concludes by exclaiming: “Do I then strive after happiness? I strive after my work.” And there may be a thought, tied irreligiously to its verses addressed to Venus, which concludes thus its convulsively written, red-hued song of nature:

Upon the pyres erected for others,

With a loud uproar the men placed their own kinsfolk

Applied the torches, engaged in bloody struggles,

Rather than abandon the bodies.2

Do not abandon the bodies, even if the work is to be shunned. Such is the task. Do not abandon the bodies of gods without wanting to call back their presence. Do not abandon the service of truth nor that of the figure, without however, filling up with meaning the gap that separates the two. Do not abandon the world, which becomes always more world, more under the spell of absence, more in interval, incorporeal, without saturating it with signification, revelation, proclamation or apocalypse. The absence of gods is the condition for both literature and philosophy to be in. It is the in-between which legitimates the one and the other, both of which are irreversibly atheological. But they both have the responsibility of taking care of the in-between: of guarding its open body, and of allowing it the possibility of this opening.

Translated from the French by Franson Manjali

1. The original French essay ‘Entre deux’ first appeared in Magazine Littéraire, No. 392, November 2000. The translator has benefited from consultations with Wolf Feuerhahn and Pascale Rabault.

2. These are the concluding lines of Lucretius’s Latin poem De natura rerum (On the Nature of Things).

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