The Little Crystalline Seed
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The Little Crystalline Seed

The Ontological Significance of Mise en Abyme in Post-Heideggerian Thought

Iddo Dickmann

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eBook - ePub

The Little Crystalline Seed

The Ontological Significance of Mise en Abyme in Post-Heideggerian Thought

Iddo Dickmann

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Mise en abyme is a term developed from literary theory denoting a work that doubles itself within itself—a story placed within a story or a play within a play. The term flourished in experimental fiction in midcentury France, having not only a strong impact on contemporary literary theory but also on post-structuralist philosophy. The Little Crystalline Seed focuses on how thinkers invoke the concept of mise en abyme in order to establish ontologies that deviate from that of Heidegger. Iddo Dickmann demonstrates how the concept served in modeling Jacques Derrida's logic of supplementarity; Maurice Blanchot's mechanism of désouvrement; Gilles Deleuze's philosophy of repetition; Emmanuel Levinas's concept of "proximity, " and in further circuit: the philosophies of Bergson, Kant, Leibniz, Heidegger himself, and more. Exploring the interpretative and generative potential of the mise en abyme for continental thought, Dickmann reveals new points of resonance between various philosophical topics including, aesthetics, ethics, time, logic, mirroring, play, and signification.

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Informazioni

Editore
SUNY Press
Anno
2019
ISBN
9781438474014
Argomento
Philosophie
CHAPTER 1
THE LITERARY THEORY OF MISE EN ABYME AND ITS PHILOSOPHICAL MEANING
MISE EN ABYME AND MIRRORING
Dällenbach, following Magny (1950), views an 1893 paragraph from Gide’s Diaries as the first theory and founding “charter” of mise en abyme:
In a work of art, I rather like to find transposed, on the scale of the characters, the very subject of that work. Nothing throws a clearer light upon it or more surely establishes the proportions of the whole. Thus, in certain paintings of Memling or Quentin Metzys a small convex and dark mirror reflects the interior of the room in which the scene of the painting is taking place. Likewise in Velazquez’s painting of the Meninas (but somewhat differently). Finally, in literature, in the play scene in Hamlet, and elsewhere in many other plays. In Wilhelm Meister the scenes of the puppets or the celebration at the castle. In “The Fall of the House of Usher” the story that is read to Roderick, etc. None of these examples is altogether exact. What would be much more so, and would explain much better what I strove for in my Cahiers, in my Narcisse, and in the Tentative, is a comparison with the device of heraldry that consists in setting in the escutcheon a smaller one ‘en abyme,’ at the heart-point.1
A major principle which Dällenbach draws from the charter is that the mise en abyme, as a means by which the work turns back on itself, “appears to be a kind of reflection.”2 Indeed, literary theorists and philosophers alike have associated the mise en abyme with the emblem of the mirror right from the start. The type of mirror which they usually invoke, however, is unique—infinite parallel mirrors (“two mirrors would in fact suffice!”3)—a device which Deleuze, following Bergson, also terms “dynamic” or “mobile” mirroring. The specular relation prevailing in mise en abyme, writes Ricardou, “is not that of a still mirror, but a dialectical one which elaborates itself, incessantly resettles itself, and which escapes any immobilization.”4 Whilst the static mirror bears a relation of correspondence with the object it reflects, so that one can stably determine any part of the mirror-image to represent a part of the person gazing at the mirror (and that part alone) in the mobile mirror one stands on moving sands. In a mobile mirror where “A reflects B while being reflected by it in continuous mirror effects,”5 the “selves” (and features) of both the reflecting device and the reflected object incessantly change. Mirror A cannot reflect mirror B without being always already a different subject reflecting a different object, it is retroactively transformed into a conjunction such as (mirror A within mirror B), that is, mirror C. The subject and object of the mobile mirror bear not a “coded” identity, to use Deleuze’s terminology, but only a “situational” one, deriving from a here and now constellation. This also means that though a difference between the reflected and the reflecting does persist, one cannot stably discern here two respective substances, that is, determine which is the origin and which is the copy. There is no unique, singular, “first time,” preceding other instances of repetition temporally or qualitatively: The mise en abyme “does not redouble the unit, as an external reflection might do; in so far as it is an internal mirroring, it can only ever split it in two.”6
The subject and the object of mirroring, incessantly changing, do not preexist the here-and-now juxtaposition between them. This is to say that the true object of reflection in mobile mirroring is neither the person gazing at the mirror, nor the mirror reflecting this person, but the very “middle” between them, their very juxtaposition. Correspondingly, if La Tentative amoureuse, as Gide writes in the charter, “explains much better what he strove for,” it is due to bearing what Dällenbach calls a “relational mise en abyme.” Mise en abyme, writes Gide, reproduces the “subject of the work itself.” Bal notes the ambiguity of the word “sujet,” which may designate either the subject-matter or the creative, grammatical, and narrating subject. Gide, she writes, “was interested primarily in the power of the narrating subject, a power which seems to increase when the subject doubles itself.”7 But, contrary to Bal’s interpretation, La Tentative in fact shows interest in neither the subject matter, nor the narrating subject. What reproduces itself in La Tentative is rather the relation between the two: the subject is duplicated “as soon as the work begins.”8 This novel not only attributes to a character in the narrative the activity of the narrator in charge of the narration, but also poses an analogy between the situation of the character and that of the narrator, so that its mise en abyme is “a relationship of relationships, the relation of the narrator N to his/her story S being the same as that of the narrator/character n to his/her story s.”9 If Gide dismissed Poe’s story and others’ as imperfect examples it is because “the duplication they provide only comprises two of the four terms required (N:S::n:s)”;10 mise en abyme, to stress again, doubles no simple, but what is split into two at its very origin, what is retroactively already double. Indeed, in a paragraph adjacent to the “charter”—later to inspire Blanchot—Gide explains the mise en abyme in terms of a mechanism of retroaction:
I wanted to indicate In La Tentative the influence the book has on the author while he is writing it … A subject cannot act on an object without retroaction by the object on the subject that is acting … An angry man tells a story—this is the subject of the book. A man telling a story is not enough—it must be an angry man and there must always be a continuing relationship between the man’s anger and the story he’s telling.11
In mise en abyme, as in the double mirror, a subject of reflection becomes retroactively its object. In the other adjunct paragraph it is already explicitly a “double mirror” Gide reflects on:
I am writing on the small piece of furniture of Anna Shackleton’s that was in my bedroom in the rue de Commailles. That’s where I worked; I liked it because I could see myself writing in the double mirror of the desk above the block I was writing on.12
I am not sure how Gide could view himself writing while writing, but it is definitely the case that only in a double mirror can one view oneself gazing at the mirror, that, contrary to the still mirror, one can gaze at the object of reflection and the process, or subject, of reflection, at one and the same time. Such principle of simultaneity between incommensurable logical or narrative levels also governs, as we shall see, the mise en abyme. Certainly, in the “charter” itself it is rather convex mirroring which served as Gide’s criterion in selecting pictorial examples, but Deleuze would later show convex mirroring to precisely share with double mirroring the principle of simultaneity. Like mobile mirroring, reflecting not only an external object but also the very reflecting device, the convex mirror, capable of condensing within itself almost the entire field of vision that is presented on the canvas, allows the painter to “perform the paradoxical feat of including observer and observed together in the painting.”13
What Gide terms “retroaction” is the breaking of linearity between cause and effect. The man’s telling the story as a cause of the story becomes, through “an act of retroaction,” an effect of that story. This system thus comprises two incompatible moments. On the one hand, the cause gains temporal and qualitative priority over the effect. On the other hand—it is the effect which gains such priority; the mechanism of retroaction entails a double articulation, with the two discontinuous “slopes”—to use Blanchot’s terminology—separated by an irreducible gap. If metaphysics throughout history invoked the static mirror paradigm—entailing a substance-based distinction between the reflected and the reflecting—to impose binary values upon free-floating variants, poststructuralist philosophy would invoke the double mirror—entailing the irreducible gap of retroaction—to pursue the “difference in itself,” unmediated by the binary logic of representation.
It was by taking interest in the poetics of the mise en abyme that philosophers adopted the emblem of infinite mirroring. At the same time, it was through attentiveness to the contemporary philosophical discourse that poeticians like Ricardou were careful to establish a qualitative distinction between static and mobile mirroring, associating mise en abyme with the latter alone. Dällenbach is salient among poeticians who remained blurry as to this distinction. On the one hand, it was he who identified that in Gide’s supreme example of mise en abyme, the “relational mise en abyme,” “reflexion of reflexion” is a governing principle. Furthermore, in his definition of mise en abyme as “any internal mirror that reflects the whole of the narrative by simple, repeated or ‘specious’ (or paradoxical) duplication,”14 he incorporates the term “internal mirror,” which Ricardou, as we saw, has already used as an equivalent to mobile mirroring.
On the other hand, he negligently overlooks that it is in fact a double mirror which Gide mentions in his paragraph on mirroring, and he recounts “images of mirroring” among writers and theoreticians of mise en abyme, without any discrimination between static and mobile ones.15 Finally, in articulating the three types of the mise en abyme, he seems to understand this distinction as rather quantitative. The term mise en abyme, he says, applies to three essential figures, corresponding to three “aspects of mirror reflection”:
a)simple duplication, represented by the shield within the shield, where a sequence is connected by similarity to the work that encloses it;
b)infinite duplication, represented by infinite parallel mirrors, where a sequence is connected by similarity to the work that encloses it and itself includes such sequence; and
c)aporetic duplication, where a sequence that is supposed to be enclosed within the work also encloses it.16 This type is represented by the Liar’s paradox or other contradictory statements such as “there cannot be anything other than a personal philosophy” (which is itself a personal statement claiming to be a general proposition). At the same time it is represented—like the infinite duplication—by Gide’s The Counterfeiters, where the main narration “cannot be captured in a single mirror, but is projected, through various filters, in a series of mirrors that open up dizzying perspectives.”17
These three underlie three types of mise en abyme, respectively: the “simple,” the “infinite,” and the “paradoxical” (indicted as types I−III in Dällenbach’s typology). What is notable here is Dällenbach’s implicit association of the “simple type” of mise en abyme—including Gide’s important figure of the shield-within-shield—with the still mirror. Alternatively, these “aspects of mirroring” do not correspond to empirical types of mirroring—the simple and the mobile—at all, or else the “infinite” and “aporetic” would not have been differentiated. This indicates Dällenbach’s disinterest in the actual mirroring devices and their phenomenology, so that the “mirror reflection” in Dällenbach is an abstract genus whose three “aspects,” continuous to each other, differ in quantity rather than quality.
Dällenbach, I will show further on, often employs a conscious and methodical ambiguity in his research on mise en abyme. This is not, however, the case here. His blurriness regarding the significance of mobile mirroring would have been avoided had Dällenbach, like Ricardou, been aware of the ontological paradigm shift—from still to mobile mirroring—which contemporary philosophers, invoking mise en abyme, have conducted.
THE DOUBLE-BIND OF THE MISE EN ABYME
If the first distinctive feature of the mise en abyme—the essential and indivisible feature that distinguishes it from other literary notions—is the idea of reflexivity, the second, writes Dällenbach, is its immanence in the text: Mise en abyme is a “transposition of the subject at the level of the characters.” Immanent reflexion is “hypodiegetic” (or “metadiegetic” in Gérard Genette’s lexicon18). If Achilles and the Tortoise in Hofstadter distract themselves from a tense predicament by reading a story in which two characters called Achilles and the Tortoise read this...

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