September 25, 2021
THE DAZZLINGBy EMMALEA RUSSO
“There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it.
Darkness and light, error and truth—it is none of these.
-Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology
“I am not a philosopher, but a saint, maybe a madman.”
– Georges Bataille, Method of Meditation
“But this night of mine can’t be killed by any sun.”
– Alejandra Pizarnik, “The Green Table”
Ingmar Bergman’s The Passion of Anna (1969) shows a disintegrating relationship between Anna (Liv Ullman) and Andreas (Max von Sydow) in disjointed associative leaps. The present fills with residues of a past catastrophe which haunts Anna as an ominous future horror hangs over the film like another film. Mind and world deteriorate in plays of light and darkness. The film opens as Andreas repairs his roof which has “long been in disrepair.” He pauses and squints into the bright sky which contains multiple suns. The bucket of cement falls to the ground.
It’s a question of proximity. Glimmering trash on the ground, uncomfortable close-ups, multiple suns, tiny transcendences under minimart lights. Proximity to sun, lamp, page, face, experience.
Is there a right light for writing? Direct experience? Receiving messages from the dead? Is the light which facilitated a work always the light it emits? Or is there a gap, a spillover, light or night that can’t be accounted for? How does the persistent light of our screens delete and mutate proximity and distance? What facilitates dazzlement, being so close, too close -- to sun, lamp, face, divine, other, ground?
In “The Night, The Poem” Alejandra Pizarnik writes: “In fact, I do not write: I widen a breach so that the messages of the dead can reach me at twilight.” Writing is the process of creating an opening for messages, an active receptivity that is also not writing.
︎When does the writer/lover/filmmaker/mystic’s passage-making and desire for union tilt into madness? Ingmar Bergman wrote The Passion of Anna “in a white heat” aiming to “make a black-and-white film in color, with certain hues emphasized in a strictly defined color scale. It turned out to be difficult.”
In an uncomfortable and hypnotic monologue half-way through the film, Anna tells Andreas about her former marriage, which she describes as a thrilling/dissolving oneness (similar to the way certain mystics speak of union with God) as her eyes gleam. Bergman makes faces into landscapes and here, Anna’s works like a dazzling sun we’re impossibly near.
The Mystical Theology, written by the 5th or 6th century pseudonymous mystic Pseudo-Dionysius and influential for Christian mystical traditions in the Middle Ages, speaks of the divine as beyond speech or description. A “brilliant darkness of a hidden silence” and a “darkness beyond intellect,” highlighting spiritual experience over understanding. The seven page text begins with a question: “What is the divine darkness?” Is this the night Pizarnik speaks of? The night of the poem? The “complete togetherness” that Anna recalls in the film?
In the trilogy of books written during World War II, Georges Bataille connects the writings of Nietzsche with those of the Christian mystic Angela of Foligno (1248-1309), whose bodily devotions included washing hands and feet of lepers and then drinking the water, stripping naked in front of the cross, convulsing, and meditating on portions of Christ’s crucified flesh. This unlikely connection, I think, has to do with unmediated experience. The I/eye of the philosopher, dazzled, might become the I/eye of mystic. In his book on Bataille, Rodolphe Gasché writes about the theorizing eye of the philosopher:
“Never looking up in order to avoid the danger of being dazzled, strips the perceived images of their materiality in order to perceive in them eternal forms and essences. But a look at the things themselves would dazzle his vision like a look at the sun, which still appears to the philosopher as the guarantee of every truth.”
In forsaking cool distance to look at things in themselves, philosophy risks a dazzlement which might swerve the old theory/experience binary. According to Angela of Foligno, the divine darkness shows the soul “nothing and everything at once.”
The multiple suns at the start of The Passion of Anna divine the structure of the film. Just as the violence of the Vietnam War heightened on-set stress, interviews with the actors get interjected and trouble demarcations between reality/fiction, actor/character, nearness/distance. Liv Ullman says that while she sympathizes with her character’s need for truth, the quest has become dangerous. Not finding what she seeks, she takes “refuge in lies and imagination.”
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche writes: “When after a forceful attempt to gaze at the sun we turn away blinded, we see dark-colored spots before our eyes, as a cure, as it were.” Later, in his introduction to Twilight of the Idols (dated September 30, 1888, a few months before his nervous collapse in Turin), Nietzsche writes that the book is a kind of sunspot, a place to rest. When is the darkness a restorative retreat? When does the retreat become a hideaway? When might the hideaway open into terror, deterioration?
Sunspot writing. Philosophy becomes poetry becomes autobiography becomes divine revelation becomes silence. Sunspot writing is perhaps performed in bursts (Nietzsche often paused to write aphorisms while walking) alternating between afternoon sun and dazzling darkness, writing and walking. Walking is sometimes writing. Writing is sometimes not writing.
I often photograph the ground, glimmers that catch my eye or that I might ordinarily pass over, usually something discarded or dropped and curiously lit by sun or streetlight. Over the years, I’ve amassed a glittering digital archive of trash.
Beyond what Nietzsche named “permanent daylight—the daylight of reason,” the dazzled one has a paradoxical relationship to light. According to Bataille, Nietzsche wrote from a night emerging from excesses of light, and perhaps went mad from it:
“The tragedy of Nietzsche is the tragedy of night emerging from excesses of light.
His eyes emboldened and wide open, like an eagle in flight: the sun of immorality and dazzling malice left him blinded.
It’s a dazzled man who speaks.
The most difficult thing.
Getting as far down as possible.
Down to where everything thrown to the ground is shattered. Your nose in a puddle of vomit.”
Light slips and splits. Things of this world, up-close, might unlock a sunspot, a place to write. Pseudo-Dionysius describes this divine darkness as higher than light. To be dazzled is to be so near to something (the sun, the divine, a lamp, a sidewalk, a text, a puddle) that it stuns and confuses. Dazzled knowledge is limit knowledge, perilous, often silent, hard to describe.
In “Sex, Night” Pizarnik writes, “Night opens itself only once. It’s enough. You see.” Then the self, like the sun in the film, multiplies: “Fear of being two in the mirror, and suddenly we’re four.” Often, one doesn't choose this dazzling darkness. It arrives through the breach in Pizarnik’s poem. It comes through poverty, illness, or other precarious situations which take a person out of/into the world in disquieting proximities to light, truth, self, other. I photographed dazzling ground in part because I frequently ended up there, having fallen during epileptic seizures, moments that felt mad, my eye/I dissolved. I have to write around these experiences. I can’t write from them. Still, maybe those falls and contortions are a kind of silent writing.
Who gets to have distance? What (ir)rationality is inherent in collecting and organizing images and making narratives? Near the film’s end, Anna and Andreas communicate in a vacuum of inky darkness. There is always a remainder, a gap or an excess, dazzling or disorienting, between two people, between what happened and the story we tell, between the filmmaker’s vision and how we receive the film as viewers.
Georges Bataille’s brief essay “Rotten Sun” describes two suns, one productive and one combustive:
- The reasonable and elevated sun gives form to our days. Distant, it allows us to see.
- The rotten sun decomposes forms and melts Icarus’s waxen wings: “If on the other hand one obstinately focuses on it, a certain madness is implied, and the notion changes meaning because it is no longer production that appears in light, but refuse or combustion, adequately expressed by the horror emanating from a brilliant arc lamp.”
The sun, so often regarded in philosophy as an unwavering truth source, is also a perishable material. Blisters, headache, disorientation, nausea, and vomiting: symptoms of sun poisoning. Reaching a limit, the sun switches, it’s a dazzled man who speaks.
Up-close, we see other worlds, suns, selves born from rot. We encounter a bodily beyond engendered by proximal experience. Under what light and at what proximity to night, sun, sidewalk, does a person become a philosopher, a saint, a poet, reasonable, mad?
Alexander Irwin defines saint, in Saints of the Impossible: Bataille, Weil, and the Politics of the Sacred, in terms of corporeality and service:
“Saints are beings who, instead of trying to crystallize the abstract essence of courage or justice in yet another theory, enact courage and justice in real-life situations and inspire others to do likewise. Saints offer not airy discourse but their own flesh, a ‘saintly corporeality,’ risked in the service of the other.”
Currently, I’m sitting at my desk. The room is comfortably lit, and the blue light of the computer screen mixes with memories that return, words of various dazzled thinkers, and the film. It’s a question of proximity. I write around the dazzling, a moth circling a gas station light.
Narrated by Bergman himself, we might also read the white heat of multiple suns at the film’s start as a distortion forecast. Productive and combustive suns hanging in one sky, hooking-up the film with the conditions under which it was made, theory with direct experience, an actor with her character.
Just as I begin to sink into the world of the film, an interview with one of the actors arrives to remind me that I’m in at least three worlds (with three suns?):
- diegetic world of the movie
- historical and temporal moment in which the film was made
- my own material reality as I watch
The sun and screen light the room.
After a heated argument, Andreas gets out of the car and begins to walk. Anna drives away. The camera moves closer to Andreas as he paces back and forth. Closer and closer, Andreas blurs into the environment as the film ends.
What’s lost to/revealed in the dazzling?
There is no speaking of it.
Weather says: chance of rain then maybe-sun. A neon reflection in smudged glass, a perfume ad, a bottle of soda, gas station lights in a puddle, paused film, a piece of fabric weathered from overuse or sun.
All screen grabs (taken by Emmalea Russo) are from Ingmar Bergman’s The Passion of Anna (1969). Source: criterionchannel.com
Angela of Foligno. The Complete Works. Trans. Paul Lachance. New York: Paulist Press, 1993.
Bataille, Georges. Guilty. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2011.
Bataille, Georges. On Nietzsche, tr. Bruce Boone. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1994.
Bataille, Georges. The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, tr. Michelle and Stuart Kendall. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
Bergman, Ingmar. Images: My Life in Film. New York: Arcade, 2017.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ. London: Penguin, 1968.
Pizarnik, Alejandra. Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972. New York: New Directions, 2016.
Pizarnik, Alejandra. The Galloping Hour: French Poems. New York: New DIrections, 2018.
Pseudo-Dionysius. The Complete Works. New York: Paulist Press, 1987.
Emmalea Russo is a writer and artist living at the Jersey shore. Her books are G (Futurepoem, 2018) and Wave Archive (Book*hug, 2019). Recent writing has appeared in Artforum, American Chordata, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Granta, Hyperallergic, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She's pursuing a PhD in Philosophy and edits Asphalte Magazine.
For more of Emmalea’s work, go to https://emmalearusso.com/ and/or follow her on instagram at @emmalea.russo
For more of Emmalea’s work, go to https://emmalearusso.com/ and/or follow her on instagram at @emmalea.russo