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The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

An essay about that which isn't a pipe

by Michal Ajvaz

(Ed. note: In 2005 we published a piece, "This could be a pipe: Foucault, irrealism and Ceci n'est pas une pipe," critical of Michel Foucault's essay "This Is Not a Pipe." Here we present a piece by the Czech writer Michal Ajvaz, translated for the first time into English, which offers a contrasting view of Foucault's essay.)

Michel Foucault’s essay, "This isn't a pipe," is a meditation on a drawing by Rene Magritte. According to Foucault, Western painting from the 15th to the 20th centuries was governed by two principles: the separation between plastic representation and linguistic reference, and the equivalence between the fact of resemblance and the affirmation of a representative bond. This separation of plastic representation and linguistic reference doesn't mean that forms and text couldn't come together into a single whole. Their placement, however, is always subject to a simple hierarchy: the text is either driven by the picture (as it is in paintings that show the pages of an open book), or the picture is driven by the text (as in the case of an illustration). It was Paul Klee who abolished this hierarchy, when he began to juxtapose signs and images in a single construction, and so created an uncertain space that is both a page and a canvas at the same time. The ascendancy of the second principle rests in the fact that, wherever elements of resemblance appear, the relation of representation immediately also surfaces, which divides the world into originals and copies and hierarchically ranks the copies according to their degree of distance from the originals. It was Kandinsky who ruptured this principle when he began to assert that lines and colors -- the same as buildings, cliffs and clouds -- are things; by so doing he nullified the dualistic and hierarchal world of imitation and, in its place, constituted the world as the homogeneous plan of things.

At first glance, Foucault says, it would appear that there couldn’t be a work more different from the paintings of Klee and Kandinsky than Magritte’s. Magritte is, nonetheless, an ally of both Klee and Kandinsky in breaking up the classical space. He, however, uses different means and achieves a somewhat different outcome. Klee exposed the mysterious (and yet intimately known) space in which forms and signs are born in the current of the same original event-stream, where they were constituted by the muted work of elemental, to this point undifferentiated, signifying. Magritte, contrary to this, carefully separated the elements of the image and the elements of writing. This surface appearance of image and text isn’t, however, an assertion of an unproblematic order of seeing and reading. Rather, the absence of a common space reveals the absence of any kind of foundation or roots, and instead reveals a void, in which words and images are born and which remain in their interior. Where Klee descends into the dense tangle of the common roots of words and images, Magritte lets the forms and linguistic signs emerge as inscriptions on a polished stone; this stone is a gravestone, under which is only a void, a non-place.

In this broken space, which problematicizes habitual relations between images and words, there emerge games of images and words in which the object begins to dissolve. These games, in which nothing is basic or privileged, evolves between two extremes: on one hand, words penetrate into things and disrupt them by revealing their double-edged ability to deny and duplicate; on the other hand, the things themselves beget words, which appear before a person in an indifferent solidity and ungovernableness. There is no longer a pipe to be found anywhere – it has melted away, the same as do all objects in the game of images and words. (Nor does this disappearance of objects occur in a single manner: in some of Magritte’s paintings, the object is replaced by a kind of outline of the object -- by a name and a dense undifferentiated matter; in other examples of his painting, to the contrary, both the name and the content of the object are gone, having changed into an empty cutout.)

Similar to this is Magritte's relation to the principle which unites the fact of resemblance and the affirmation of a representative bond. While Kadinsky broke the space of representation with a single, bold gesture, Magritte (in this case) substituted, for a direct attack, an ostensible corroboration that was the ultimately a subversion. At first glace, the representation is even strengthened by the fact that it is willfully multiplied: Magritte’s ship isn’t only similar to other ships, but also to the sea on which it sails; his shoes aren’t only similar to other shoes, but also to the toes which are hidden inside of them. In these games of analogy, however, Magritte removes resemblance from representation and then plays the resemblance against the representation. Resemblance stops being a sign and an instrument of representation and instead develops into a series or mesh which – different from the space of representation – does not split into an original and a copy, and is not therefore hierarchal on the basis of its distance from the model; it is possible to pass through them from all directions. Magritte leads us into a space in which it isn’t possible to determine what represents what, which element is original and which is derived from it. Do the birds change into the leaves of a plant and take root in the land, or does the plant change into the birds which then fly toward the sky? That which depicts and that which is depicted are linked in a circle similar to what we see in Escher, where the visitor stands in the gallery, finding him or herself in a city which is in the picture that the visitor is examining; similar to what we find in Lewis Carroll, where Alice is a character in the dream of the Black King, who is a character in her dream; or in Raymond Roussel, where the weaving loom creates a picture that is a symbolic depiction of the loom. This world, which defies ordinary logic and elicits a vertigo, Foucault presents as the hidden malleability of our everyday reality. Resemblance – the same as the void, revealed by way of the unfamiliarity of lines and letters – facilitates the glimpsing of the unrealized games of likenesses and differences, in which the object is born and which, at the same time, the object is forever being disrupted and destroyed. In the picture of the pipe there emerges a whole mesh of likenesses which is weaved into the real, written and painted, whose absence would make it possible to establish some kind of a hierarchy among these elements. It is nothing but a game of transmission without a foundation or a support, and, in this game, things, pictures and words are born and then, once again, vanish.

Foucault, on one hand, doubts those who argue that language acts as the ultimate source for our formulation of reality and that its borders are the borders of the world, period. On the other hand, however, he rejects the approach of those who strive after an encounter with an original reality, as yet unaffected by language. Foucault finds a connection between vision and language that is neither the connection of the original experience and its representation, nor the connection of the formless mass and the outer form, in which the form imprints itself into the formless mass. It is a connection brought about by the fact that words, pictures and things emerge as a part of the mesh, through which likeness proceeds in all directions, although it is not possible to isolate the different parts of the mesh and no part is, in relation to another part, closer to being the original.

Language has the nature of being an organizing event-stream, emerging from a wider organizing event-stream that establishes reality in general, and which remains forever embedded in this event-steam. Speech isn’t a form without roots, it is a body and a reality and it remains embedded in the rhythms of the genesis of reality; it is an expression of the mode of the concrete world, which manifests itself in the gentle weavings of the linguistic body. On the other hand, not even vision is the ultimate foundation, independent of language. Nor is it possible to pluck vision out from the mesh of likenesses -- the work of language already affects the differentiation and character of vision, from which it is not therefore possible to isolate reality. Meanings and partial meanings have already grown – are already present in -- the seen objects, whose birth language shared in with all of its elements, including the spectral qualities of its sound, energetic characteristics of its voicing and the visual shapes of the written word. The circle closes: linguistic meanings grow from the rhythms of the genesis of reality and reveal them, but this reality has already absorbed into itself the meanings that are unfolded by language.

Our interpretation has already, of course, digressed from Foucault’s own thinking. We will try to go still further and ask whether the distance that Foucault stakes out between Magritte’s void and Klee’s undifferentiated space between seeing and reading isn’t still too large. Is the emptiness under that gravestone covered in etchings really so different from the dense tangle that the mutual roots of pictures and words create? Doesn’t a single rhythm come into view in the event-stream that develops in this void, which unites these games in which things, pictures, and words are born, without which it would be necessary to relate them to some kind of a privileging paradigm? Isn’t this rhythm the same as the rhythm of the sap flowing in the roots? Aren’t there moments when the rhythm of this event-stream reveals and clarifies itself, reappearing as something of an originality? And don’t the places (where such a clarifying arises) grow, having the character of a new focus, which hierarchizes the mesh of likenesses in a new way? Are there not processes which break the stability of natural, axiomatic objects and, at the same time, processes which restore the objects back to their original, tacit life. Doesn't a newly disappeared pipe emerge on the very last page of Foucault’s book, meshed from the gentle fiber of fleeing events, thanks to which realities multiply?

(translated by G.S. Evans)

Michal Ajvaz was born in 1949 in Prague. He is a noted novelist, poet, essayist and translator. Two of his novels have been translated into English and published by Dalkey Archive Press, The Other City (2009) and The Golden Age (2010). His most recent novel, Lucemburská zahrada, won the 2012 Magnesia litera literary award, the most prestigious literary prize in the Czech Republic. He is also a researcher at Prague's Center for Theoretical Studies who has published a book-length meditation on Borges, a study of Derrida, and a philosophical work titled Svetelný prales: Úvahy o videní (The Luminous Jungle: Meditations on Seeing). His "Two Compositions" appeared in Issue 26 of The Cafe Irreal and "The City and Heaven" in Issue 31. The essay translated here, originally "Kniha o tom, co není dýmka," is from his work, Tajemství knihy (Petrov, 1997).

G.S. Evans is the coeditor of The Cafe Irreal. His short fantastical work, In search of the Cyberking, was recently published in translation in the Czech Republic (Po stopách kyberkrále, Prague, David&Shoel, 2011); his fiction and essays have appeared in various Czech journals, including Host, Labyrint, Tvar, Listy and Britské listy; his translations of the work of the Czech writer Arnošt Lustig have appeared in The Kenyon Review, New England Review and New Orleans Review.

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copyright by author 2013
translation copyright by translator 2013