A Rose Garden
I Never Promised You Anything: a rather strong, radical statement. Had it been in the present tense - "I don't promise you anything "- it would have sounded differently. It would have made room for possibilities, for a “we shall see”, for a “let things run their course “, for an unspecified commitment. In the past tense, on the other hand, it has the air of a cut, of a full stop. That's it. A slammed door: a statement stunningly identical to its enunciation, where the saying seems to coincide with the said, and where ambiguities, hesitations, and the radiations of sense separating saying from hearing are quickly disposed of.
And then again, is it really so? After all "I never promised you anything" includes a backward looking, a summing up. There has been a trajectory, a project, a hope; why would anyone have to speak about it now, otherwise? And can we be sure it is being said in earnest?
I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden. Here irony is transparent. A rose garden is undoubtedly a garden of thorns; roses bloom and wilt. Their petals fall to the ground.
Is this, then, the destiny of love?
By addressing myself to you, in the promise I maintain never to have made, a difference is rendered explicit: the difference existing between request and promise. Thus a dissymmetry is drawn which is typical of the figure of love: the dissymmetry between the lover (erastes) and the beloved (eromenos), between the person who finds in the beloved all the attributes he craves for, the object of a desire that excites him, and the person who has been invested with the power of love, venerated and narcissistically exalted. The outcome of their coming together is not, however, the ideal roundness satirically depicted by Aristophanes, the re-joining of two parts, mythically separated and forever searching for the lost counterpart. It is, rather, a non coincidence.
What is it that characterizes the lover? That which he lacks, and believes he can find in the beloved. The beloved, on the other hand, no matter how inebriated he may be by all the love poured in him, no matter how pleased he may be to recite his own virtues and attributes, remains unaware of what he possesses and which is precisely what makes him attractive to his suitor’s eyes. Here is the rub of love, as Lacan defines it: despite all illusions to the contrary and all appearances, what the lover is lacking is not what the beloved possesses.
We know it well, love is blind. The first thing he does not see is the discordance that propels him. It is that very discordance that gives cause to the love encounter, and it is in fact its inner request – give me what I am lacking – that opens an unexpected path. One petal at a time, one answer at a time, each implicitly different from what was expected, I end up interrogating myself about my lack and thus asking: why should anyone make up for it? Is this love? Rather exploitative wouldn’t you say? I would give you the world right now on a silver platter but what would it matter?
What is found in love does not match what was hoped for. This is what makes love an experience in transformation as well as a transforming experience – if one is willing to go through with it. What I expected is different from what I find. But, really, why did I expect to find anything at all? Expecting: is it not a form of knowledge? A filling the new with past hope? Is it not an attempt to find again something that has been mythically lost, a love for what has been loved before?
On the way to an impossible answer - I never promised you a rose garden - I learn how to know you. I learn that love is not the satisfaction of a need, a way to introject one another, a voracious way to make the other a piece of oneself. It is not the yearning for a narcissistic completeness. It is, rather, the progressive acknowledgement of the discordance that unites us, of the autonomy inherent in our lack; it is the way by which difference and incompleteness are let free to be. It is the way by which the beloved acquires the status of lover and discovers in himself the desire for difference.
To love is to give what one does not have.
Thus we move from love as demand, to love as a process of signification. In that unrivaled discourse on love which is Plato’s Symposium, Diotima associates the meaning of love to the meaning of poetry: love is poiesis ( ποιέω, "to make"), it is the passage from non-being to being. And each act by which a thing comes into being is in and of itself creation. Love's invitation is an invitation to create. Heidegger adds: poiesis is the moment of ecstasis when something passes from one state to another. A flower blooms, petals fall.
It is no longer a question of having (finding again, having, having you, possessing, metabolizing, filling), it is a letting be: an opening up to the unforeseen, the new, the different, the unthought-of, an adhering to transformation. It is an acceptance of transformation.
The notion of transformation calls for a pause. According to Aristotle change (métabolé) moves from one thing towards another thing (ek tinos - eis ti). Think, for example, of the passing of the time wherein change is conceived as a movement from before to after, from a point of departure to a point of arrival. There is an end (telos) to the movement and there is a substance that remains unaltered in the transformation. This is the idea of time that accompanies the history of Western thought and sneaks in at every turn whenever the notion of time is reflected upon. It knots together the substratum of accidents and the logical support of propositional predicates. Hence the idea of substance as a suture between being and the way we speak about being: the idea by which they naturally coincide.
Conceiving change as a movement from before to after is so deeply embedded in our way of thinking that we may not even realize it. It turns the idea of modification, of passage, into a sort of verdict, of deprivation. A before, an after, an end. A Being-unto-Death, as Heidegger puts it in his radical formulation. It gives our take on change a comparative, superegoic slant. Have I missed an opportunity? Do I no longer have what I had and perhaps did not know I had? Am I not lovable any more?
I was young, I am no longer young; I am the same and I am not the same.
And yet "vieillir a toujours déjà commencé", growing older has always begun already, in the words of Philippe Julien: a reminder that living occurs from within life, where one does not live in the intermission between departure and arrival. The point of departure escapes our awareness, the beginning is never fully begun, and the arrival, the beacon of death, remains of course a real vector, more or less visible, but it cannot, in and of itself, be integrated into the living. To grow old is not like passing from youth to old age the way one shifts from heat to the cold, from sleep to wakefulness. It is, rather, a global and continuous process, of which, in the present, I am the expression. I am process: I am present.
Petals are falling. They descend and form a heap, progressively, changing bit by bit the descent into an ascent. To fall is to grow. I thought I was going to lose, and am I gaining, instead?
In I Never promised You Anything the composition is spread out in 12 parts, 12 signifying stations each relaying to the other, each made for the other in the unfolding of a single enunciation. And when this silent spatial-temporal phrase comes to a stop, the last panel refers back to the first, in a circularity of movement that reveals how its theme – visual and musical – is transformation itself. The work is both outcome and process.
The quality of each panel is that of a suspended animation, in accordance with the temporality specific to gestures in scopic creation. Gestures freeze: they are the pause in which movement gets halted. In I Never promised You Anything each of the panels, however, each suspended movement, sets off a new itinerary for the eye, it refers to the sentence being spoken. Each stop, then, becomes a “good” moment, kairos, an apt moment to gage the sublimity of the pause in the course of the musical score: kairos is both the opportune moment and a special moment that gets repeated periodically, like the good season in the cycle of nature. 12 months, 12 roses. From its origin, kairos retains a value of spatial significance: it is cut, aperture, a point of discontinuity in the continuous knotting of space and time.
Do you want to look? Great, I offer myself to your sight. You let your eye deposit its look on me; look at what I have to offer. Take heed however: I do not promise you anything, I never promised you anything.
What I offer, so that you may gaze at it, is not necessarily what you seek to see. There is no coincidence between eye and gaze, there is deceit, as Lacan reminds us: “Jamais tu ne me regarde là où je te vois”, you never gaze at me there where I see you. But there is expectation. And if, as in a love discourse, you accept the challenge of this encounter, then perhaps you might be able to find something other than what you expected without even knowing it. Something that shifts us away from repetition and turns me into an opportunity. Something that opens up a new horizon unfolding from the transformation we both share in the act of seeing.
©Paola Mieli, February 2011