Images & Text By Michel Wichegrod
I’m not a sadist. I don’t like sadism, nor sadists. I don’t like Sade, whatever was, apart from his literary sadism, his degree of applied sadism, much less it seems than that of the fictional and rigorously obsessive sadism of his novels, perhaps because the events of his existence did not allow him to sufficiently satisfy what he called his fancies. Twenty seven years in prison, even intermittently, out of a life of seventy four years, is an obstacle. There remain forty seven years, during which Monsieur le marquis, at least Monsieur le marquis as an adult, has not, as far as we know, killed anyone, although he committed what we today call sex crimes and engaged in some acts of mutilation on children. During this time, the Revolution resulted in around thirty thousand guillotined, for considering only of these deaths, and the Napoleonic wars three million victims, civil and military, if not four or five millions. Or six. History is quite often a large-scale fantasy where the taste for blood takes advantage of good intentions or dreams of greatness.
Sade’s literary sadism is not tolerable to me either. I only admire his verbal agility and the incredibly dense exiguity of his imagination swirling around fifty sordid situations and as many graduated abuses, perpetually arranging, in an exhausting delirious mathematics, the greatest possible number of shocking, absurd and monotonous combinations, if horror can be monotonous. However, this off-putting man, this great and oppressive talent – sometimes dazzling in his language finds and in his overpowering arrogance, as in certain letters – brought out from his quill-pen quasi-Shakespearean thoughts, like this one, written to his wife from the broad pipe of vertical stone where he moped around in the dungeon of the prison of Vincennes: “You made me form ghosts that I will have to make real.“ The writer Hervé Guibert will use it two hundred years later for the title of a book that is not a beach novel.
There are two ways to make things real. The first, directly in and on the outside world, this rough reality that Rimbaud speaks of in A Season in Hell. Saint Vincent de Paul, let us say, carried them out in this way, and no doubt he was only haunted and led by the kind ghosts of charity, the delectable demons of good. Adolf Hitler also made them this way, and he had only the worst hellhounds of the rabid mediocrity to offer his contemporaries.
The second way goes through the interior world, or rather through the analogical materialization, in the exterior world, of certain states, events or figures of this interior world, through the crystallized expulsion – preferably in an aesthetic form – of its chimeric hieroglyphs. Hitler, by the way, was a failed painter. When we fail in one world, we take revenge in the next one or the one next door. Sade certainly created some of his ghosts in the order of the flesh, that of his victims and his own; he produced the greatest number of them in the order of the book, which is in some way the flesh of thought. Books, sentences, the long organization of sentences can be realities, just as melodies, sculptures, paintings, photographs can be realities, additions to reality, increases, excrescences, surpluses, excesses.
As Ralph Gibson said, who surely knows what he is talking about: “A strong photograph is not the image of something, it is something in itself. “ That is to say something more. It seems moreover, according to certain serious and complicated theorists, that the meaning and specific beauty of photography, especially black and white photography, would be nothing other than the meaning and beauty of the conceptual universe. But what is a concept, if not a supplement added to reality by its simple appearance in a brain, possibly by its putting into words, if applicable by its putting into images? And perhaps, for human beings, dramatically human, this quantitative and qualitative increase of reality – augmented reality is that and nothing else – is the beginning of reality, its essence, the only reality viable and livable.
I’m not a sadist – and I’m not an accuser. I don’t know what made me form the ghosts that I must bring to reality, what education, what genetics, what human fellows, what torturers, what society, what circumstances, what inclination, what evil, what illness, what curse. It does not matter at all. Everything is absence, loss and lack, frustration, deprivation, suppression, and makes us form ghosts, and forces us to bring them to reality according to our capabilities. It is not a catastrophe, it is the opposite of a catastrophe: these ghosts created in the sphere of this or that art are more useful and more favorable to us than would be the absence of all these variations of the absence, because they are the creations of these deficiencies from which we cannot do without, the products of the psychic and mental maelstrom caused by the emptiness of removed things.
Today we argue about whether there is an exclusive characteristic of human being, whether there are several, what it is or what they are exactly, but it would seem despite everything that what counts in life, at least in human life, this is what makes us know that we know and that we extract from this lucidity, however particular and partial it may be, representations without equivalent in the world which is outside of us nor in the world that is in each of those who are not us. What matters are these combinations, these architectures, these unique and recognizable metaphors, captivating, consoling by their substance and by their lines, possibly saving, for ourselves but not only. We can indeed hope that they will be discovered, studied, admired and commented on as such by kindred spirits or half-kindred spirits, families of minds, more or less enlightened amateurs. We can also hope that certain new residents of the Great Dungeon – where we all enter on the day of our birth and where we all leave on the day of our death and which most of the time is, in spite of its rigors, a very preferable something rather than nothing – will find inspiration in these combinations, these architectures, these metaphors and they too will know, when they will dig into the mud of their intimate pandemonium, bring up the dark miraculous draught of fishes with which they will nourish their own achievements.
Since its publication in 1774, Goethe’s Werther has armed throughout Europe the suicidal arm of a multitude of young men rejected by pretty girls, and who did not know what reading meant. Good readers survived because they studied a great book by a great author, not swallowed the painful sugary and blood-red novel of a character with a heart too tender, a brain too small. That he finishes to pulverizing – this is one of the threats that hang over little brains – with a pistol shot, which is awful, but less awful, basically, than not reflect on, not thinking, not to bring into being our secret creatures, for example the ghost of mad love, which is no less extremist than the ghost of sexual carnage. Goethe recovered from his mad loves by writing them – it is the only happy ending of mad loves – but Goethe’s mad loves were only half mad, if only because there were several. The first half of the second half of these loves, so a quarter of the whole, was reasonable. The last quarter was rational. The Germans have the reputation of being like that, in the worst, in the best, in the equidistance of the two, but the reputations of peoples are generalities that vary over time, particularly in the West, today more than ever.
I don’t know precisely what I have become since I read the novels of Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Henry James, listened to the symphonies of Beethoven, Igor Stravinsky, György Ligeti, saw the paintings of Rembrandt, Goya and Francis Bacon, and the photographs of Hans Bellmer and Dora Maar and Michael Ackerman, but I have a little forlorn idea of what would have happened if I had never heard of these people or their work. Or worse, if I had considered them wrongly. I would have been found one morning, I’m afraid, on the parquet floor of my room, the forehead pierced by a bullet, and soon a ghost myself – in the perception and in the creations of what dreamer, what madman, what afflicted?
Photographs from the ‘Still Life 4’ series.
All images and text © Michel Wichegrod
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