Sunday, 30 September 2012

Sartre: Holes Without Metaphors

There are a couple of pages in War Diaries devoted to the subject of holes. To say so, post-Freud,  is perhaps already to raise a snigger. But this reflex ‘Freudianism’ is precisely what Sartre is out to question:

Freud will consider that all holes, for the child, are symbolic anuses which attract him as a function of that kinship.

But where Freud might relate our fascination with holes to the anal phase etc, for Sartre the anal phase is only the localisation of an original fascination with holes – an origin which is ontological. For example: 

 [..] The child who sticks his finger into a hole in the ground experiences the joy of (ful-)filling the hole. In a sense, all holes plead obscurely to be filled, they are appeals: to fill = triumph of the full over the empty, of existence over nothingness.

 Every hole we encounter localises and makes particular this encounter with nothingness. And this encounter is ontological before it is anything else. For Sartre there is, before the story of sexual development or family relations, an inescapable existential situation.

This bears, indirectly, on the question of metaphor. The Freudian model makes the anus, or the womb, ‘original’ holes that render subsequent holes only metaphors:

One day I saw a Freudian mother gazing tenderly at her little daughter crouched on all fours under the table. She was convinced that this liking of the child for dark hidey-holes was a desire to return to the pre-natal state [..] as if the child [..] wished to return to the intimacy of her womb [..]

For Sartre, this is ‘nonsense’:

The vertiginous thrill of the hole comes from the fact that it proposes annihilation [..] This nothingness is the attractive element in what is properly termed ‘vertigo’. The abyss is a hole, it proposes engulfment. And engulfment always attracts, as a nihilation which would be its own foundation. 

 Any particular hole exercises fascination not because it reprises an original hole (womb, anus etc) but because it dramatises or embodies an some basic ontological issue. The first hole encountered was only the first time this problem was localised, so it has not pre-eminence, no priority. All holes are equidistant from this ‘origin’, this situation. All, equally, are concrete stagings of some underlying dilemma. In destroying the ‘original’ hole, Sartre also destroys the logic which makes all subsequent holes into metaphors of the origin. For the hole only localises the encounter with Nothing, and this encounter is an existential given.

Perhaps Sartre’ argument here might have a more general application. Perhaps not only holes, but objects of various kinds, only localise or dramatise some particular ‘existential’ problem , in which case the distinction between an originary object and its metaphorical stand ins becomes annulled.For example, I was watching a program on the treatment of autism in France and the influence of Lacanian ideas in this area. A (Lacanian) child psychiatrist is holding a plastic crocodile that children play with. It is a given that the crocodile ‘represents’ the mother. The child puts a doll inside the crocodile’s mouth and is actingn out a relation with the mother. Again, we have the idea of an original object that knocks down all subsequent objects into metaphors, deprives them of substance. But suppose even the first object particularised some more basic anxiety? Suppose the child, putting the doll into the mouth of the creature, is fascinated by the vertiginous nothingness that Sartre speaks of? 

For Sartre, there are no holes in nature, only a continuous surface, a ‘plenum’. Nothing is ‘missing’. Only in relation to human projects and practices are there gaps, omissions, ‘holes’. But this is true of objects more generally, i.e., they reveal their significance only in relation to human projects and concerns. As such , there are no original objects, for each individual object, equally, is the localisation of some underlying project or concern or anxiety.There is still room for metaphor here, but it is metaphor without an original object.

So when Pierre is missing from the cafe we might say that where Pierre should be there is a hole. The experience of entering the cafe and seeing Pierre not there is the same encounter with nothing as putting your hand in a hole and not finding a bottom.These two situations are not the 'same' but they do particularise the same anxiety.

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