the double sense of the surface

Un homme contemple et l’autre creuse son tombeau : comment les séparer ? Les hommes et leur absurdité ?  Mais voici le sourire du ciel. La lumière se gonfle et c’est bientôt l’été ? Mais voici les yeux et la voix de ceux qu’il faut aimer. Je tiens au monde par tous mes gestes, aux hommes par toute ma pitié et ma reconnaissance. Entre cet endroit et cet envers du monde, je ne veux pas choisir, je n’aime pas qu’on choisisse. Les gens ne veulent pas qu’on soit lucide et ironique. Ils disent : “ca montre que vous n’êtes pas bon”. Je ne vois pas le rapport. Certes, si j’entends dire à l’un qu’il est immoraliste, je traduis qu’il a besoin de se donner une morale; à l’autre qu’il méprise l’intelligence, je comprends qu’il ne peut pas supporter ses doutes. Mais parce que je n’aime pas qu’on triche. Le grand courage, c’est encore de tenir les yeux ouverts sur la lumière comme sur la mort. Au reste, comment dire le lien qui mène de cet amour dévorant de la vie à ce désespoir secret. Si j’écoute l’ironie, tapie au fond des choses, elle se découvre lentement. Clignant son œil petit et clair : “Vivez comme si…” , dit-elle. Malgré bien des recherches, c’est là toute ma science.   

Après tout, je ne suis pas sûr d’avoir raison. Mais ce n’est pas l’important si je pense à cette femme dont on me racontait l’histoire. Elle allait mourir et sa fille l’habilla pour la tombe pendant qu’elle était vivante. Il paraît en effet que la chose est plus facile quand les membres ne sont pas raides. Mais c’est curieux tout de même comme nous vivons parmi des gens pressés.

Albert Camus (1913-1960), L’envers et l’Endroit, 1937

Sisyphos

The absurdity of the world is given by its recto/verso. Albert Camus has perfectly and dramatically recounted this double feeling of straightness and imperfection that characterizes each human being. Both in his theoretical and theatrical production, the presence of the contradictory movement of life has been treated under different perspectives, also evoking the possibility of an action, of a revolt. But even under an optimistic or active point of view, the Sisyphus won’t be able to kick out of his way the heavy rock that will constantly fall down from the mountain. On one side light and on the other darkness. Thus the question how not to lose balance on this subtle difference between the recto and the verso  ?

As Camus writes in this text, it is not possible to choose between the two but to accept them both. Connected and part of the same plan of analysis, existence, they cannot be taken individually: accepting life means accepting death. The confusion and peculiarity of this connection is thus defined by the writer as the sentiment of the absurd, which causes a paradox in choosing to live in order to die. Dialectics will play an important role afterwards, but what is at stake here is the difficulty of the acceptance of those almost contradictory presences.

Etymologically, the recto is the anterior part, the straight one, it is the good side of the sheet where we write, print or communicate. The verso corresponds to the action of turning something, to reveal the side that is usually not in the front or the principal one. It also refers to the direction, the way to take and to a rhythmical construction of sentences in literature and poetry. The recto and the verso thus constitute and define the same surface through the existence of two differences.

Gilles Deleuze in the Logic of Sense writes about the sense as a double or a continuity between the envers (recto) et the endroit (verso) not because the philosophical thought is a representation or an image without “body” (according to Plato) but because it creates connections between the two domains of the world, inside and outside, theory and action, ideas and things etc. If we consider the metaphor of the weaving this definition becomes even clearer: by weaving the threads the recto and the verso become part of the same work, of the same surface. In this context, Deleuze refers to the Stoics and Cynics who, in his opinion, has practiced the more subtle and detailed weaving between the two: “la surface, le rideau, le tapis, le manteau, voilà où le Cyniques et le Stoïciens s’installent et ce dont les entourent. Le double sens de la surface, la continuité de l’envers et de l’endroit, remplacent la hauteur et la profondeur.” [1]

Deleuze mentions curtains, carpets and cloaks as surfaces of the double, of the continuity of the recto and the verso. All of them are manufactured textiles that can be easily reversed and seen from both sides, avoiding the necessity to define a straight face, which therefore exists but as part of the same weave. Diverse are the layers and their intensities, some lying more on the surface and others deeply hidden below.

Michel Foucault in his last courses at the Collège de France [2] also referred to the attitude or the posture of the Cynics towards values and norms. Their will and capacity to blend theory and practice in a surface which is body itself is well represented, once again, by the image of the cloak (only garment they used to cover themselves) or the coin. Thus, one of their mottos was “change the currency” referring to the need of reversing or overturning the current values to show what lies behind, letting appear the recto of the verso and vice versa.

Talking about images and their presences in society, we are directly brought to consider their characteristic of being double-sided, similarly to a coin or a cloak. Not as representations of the reality but as interpretations (appropriations) of it, images appear in their double being, presenting themselves at the same time as clear visual descriptions and complex sources of a deeper weaving of meanings. The “body” of images lies in their surfaces blending the recto and the verso in a continuity of absurdities still productive of sense. Being able to take out the truth of images will correspond to their reversal, to the overturning of the current values and superficial (direct) meaning to discover the intricate relations of power lying behind. Being testimonies and visible traces of history and their players, building a common memory which identifies a collectivity, weaving different temporal dimensions, images need to be reversed in order to preserve a critical posture toward the dominant appearance of things.

[1] G. Deleuze, Logique du sens, Les édition de minuit, Paris 1969. p. 158
[2] Cfr. M. Foucault, Le courage de la vérité, Gallimard Seuil, Paris 2009

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