Mephistopheles to Faust
“ Up or down! It’s all the same!”
It starts in the vicinity of M87*, at the heart of the elliptical Messier 87 galaxy, in the Virgo A constellation, around 50 million light years away. The news is just out, and it is causing a great stir among astrophysicists. The legacy of Einstein’s concepts regarding relativity is not yet about to be overturned. Between dream and computation, nightmare and theory, the idea of the black hole has just made a leap forward. The hypothesis is age-old, and Pythagoras himself would rejoice at it, but an important step forward has been taken in this theoretical knowledge, with great clamour and many echoes right down into the mainstream media, with the press rushing to trumpet the news: because scientific debate and mathematico cosmological speculations have found an ideal adjudicator, one it would be impossible to argue with, proof that is incontrovertible in everyone’s eyes. Yes, eyes: for the key witness, the one that sweeps away sceptics’ doubts and leads experts and the uninformed to agree, and is now seen everywhere, is a photograph. Do we have to call on general knowledge of the photographic field to make the point when common sense recognizes a unique authenticating potential in everything that goes under the name of photography. So there is now a portrait of M87*. Its mass equal to six and a half billion suns, is now contained in a single shot. And it is its photographic form that has ensured its planetary success ever since the scientific community, with an unerring awareness of the fate of images, unveiled it in an organized ritual, revealing it on a large-format screen. The event was on a planetary scale: the international scientific communication of the picture was made by means of six press conferences held simultaneously on 10 April 2019 at six points on the globe: Brussels, Santiago in Chile, Shanghai, Tokyo, Taiwan and Washington.
Of course it will be objected that the equipment used to produce it belongs more to post-photography. It is the product of a device for taking images which goes beyond simple optical logic, being derived from the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT, a promising name), an international network of observatories located right round the world; sharing radio-electrical data and using interferometric computations and an appropriate algorithm, it ended up with this document. Post-photographic and involving a telescope, but linking up with the concerns of landscape photographers and their dependence on the prevailing weather (colour photos are surely more beautiful with sunshine, aren’t they?). Virtual as this device is, it still needs fine weather simultaneously in Greenland, at the South Pole, in Hawaii, Chile and Spain. More than the making of the image here (obtained moreover by superimposing 7 million images), it is the iconic power of the photograph, its diffraction at planetary scale through the media, its potency as a myth which causes attention to be drawn to the cosmic scale. And all this to look at a hole. A black hole.
In fact cosmic holes have long been the subject of myth, and the Romans, being pragmatic, brought down to earth what the Greeks identified as the Cosmos, with the omphalos at Delphi marking its centre —— 1, designating the orderly, harmonious organization of the universe, in line with the idea of the “harmony of the spheres”. In Latin it was called mundus. In ancient Rome this was the name given to the umbilicus Urbis, the “navel of the City”. This was a site of half-social half-religious ritual, political and symbolic, “both the symbolic centre of the city and a cosmic centre”, according to Michel Humm —— 2, the historian of Antiquity whose ideas I am by and large following here. “The descriptions of the mundus left by ancient sources are in fact ambiguous: On the one hand it would seem to be a question of a foundation ditch into which Romulus’s companions apparently threw the ‘first fruits’ as well as a clod of earth from their country of origin; on the other it would seem to be an underground cavity which could be climbed down into, but was usually kept shut because it was dedicated to the manes or to infernal deities; it was opened three times a year as a special exception on days marked on the calendar with the letters MP (mundus patet: “the mundus is open”), during which no public or private activity could be undertaken in Rome. [...] The word mundus thus designates both the celestial vault of the world and the opening into the underground world [...]”. In this way the mundus apparently contained a philosophical-cum-political message of Pythagorean inspiration: the order of the world is reflected in it, but also the underground depths, the kingdom of the dead, but also the source of life. This is still according to the sources used by Michel Humm, such as F.-H. Massa-Pairault who specifies how Pluto and Proserpine were celebrated there, symbols of the union of the two parts of the world, chthonian and Uranian, because “the underworld gods are crucial in the founding of cities because they guarantee the reproduction of the generations. They preserve the semina (seeds) and are at the origin of the saecula naturalia (natural generations).” —— 3 Thus the Rome of the 4th and 3rd centuries BC offers a pagan intuition of what astrophysics tends to verify: the cosmic black hole is this kind of double figure where the disappearance of matter and its regeneration are played out, just as the mundus offers the opening leading to the world of the dead and the very possibility of generation.
The mundus is, if I may be permitted this photographic metaphor, a superb pinhole, and like the pinhole it is the site of an inversion: the forces of light are open to their opposite, telluric darkness. This ditch, hollow or dent is made into a temple, and in the geometry of the remotest imaginations marks the passage from the immensity of the skies down to the human scale. Geometry that is played out on all sorts of figures: the vertical axis pointing towards the species, the Platonic ideas, the lodging places of most of the earthly gods. The axis on which ancient totems and today’s telescopes run, but also pagan and modern structures like Brancusi’s Endless Column at Târgu Jiu, or indeed the monumental installations those in power like to indulge in. In Rome as elsewhere, such an axis is obvious only at the point where it intersects with the level of the expanse at my feet: thus each of these umbilici tends to claim to be the centre of the world, a sign of political power, reduced to the fact of being there. So human appropriation of cosmic ambition assumes all sorts of dimensions, and gorges with delight on the vertigo produced by shifts of scale.
The spiral adorning Père Ubu’s dreadful stomach denotes both imperial expansion and the despot’s obscene belly, centrifugal and centripetal: it recurs in the self-obsession that the culture of narcissism—to borrow the words used ad a title by Christopher Lasch—tattoos on to so many skins, a self-marking currently in fashion in the human pool, a proclaiming of identity, a self-branding.
The figure of the umbilicus is materialised in all sorts of ways: it is the point of reversals from top to bottom, from outside to inside, of all tilts and of amniotic exchanges. Everything actu- ally passes through the navel. Its use in Freud has great resonance because as the material I freely borrow from the psychoanalyst JeanneLafont ——4 describes, while he uses it to “describe the unconscious process of the dream [it is], because that word already has this enigmatic double quality for him. It [...] seems possible to shed light on it, start- ing from the umbilicus in mathematics, and its fate in the catastrophe theory. [...] The umbilicus in the dream [...] ultimately designates the centre of the unknown which like the anatomical navel that represents it is really nothing other than this void we are talking about, this ‘dream navel’ [...] a point where ‘suffer- ing like a former repressed wish’ is also Desire [...], a special ‘unstable’ point in a system, in the sense of René Thom’s catastrophes” the topology of which includes countless umbilici. [...] “For psychoanalysis, the umbilicus is a system’s point of instability, always moving. [...] In this area of the system’s instabili- ties, there are catastrophic points, i.e. points of extreme instability, which are thought of as limits. The suffering/desire umbilicus is one of these.” Let us leave it to psychoanalysis to endeavour to give shape to these shifts between body and the world and back again; we may envy it the freedom it allows itself to move in turn through symbolic and mythical systems, and somatic and cosmogonic ones. But we will return to the visual field.
Our passion for looking reached a notable staging post with the practice of photography, and optical experiments have constantly, and with endless advances fed this capacity to both compress and expand space, to experience this switch from the infinitely large to the infinitely small, and back again. Machines for seeing, such as were known in particular in the 17th century in Holland, would thus ensure the continuity from the macro to the micro and back again which Antiquity had prefigured. —— 5 If observation is aided by instruments, it tracks this shortcut, between science and charlatanism, between the cosmic dimension and the teeming lives being played out under our eyes. Like everyone else Van Leeuwenhoek would no doubt be amazed if confronted with this image of M87*. Interweaving Rembrandt and anatomical investigation, Vermeer and his camera obscura, Spinoza who polished lenses, with Leibnitz looking over his shoulder, Van Leeuvenhoeck, at the heart of 17th century Holland, observed everything that could be observed, and even more. For a time he was a land surveyor attached to the town of Delft, and he wrote about the comets in the skies of Europe. But it is where smallness is concerned that his work stands out, as the inventor of the microscope and a tireless observer of minuscule crea- tures, an explorer of the world invisi- ble to the naked eye. His biographer, Philippe Boutibonnes —— 6, locates him in his political and intellectual as well as his religious and scientific context. And it is that crossover that makes him remarkable, through his technical and methodological inventiveness and the importance of his discoveries. “In the new practice of observation which is obliged to use ‘optical machines’, the eye is as if detached from the body [...]. —which would lead Svetlana Alpers to say that the microscopic image is produced ‘by a disembodied organ.’—. —— 7 The gaze is then capable of perceiving the structure and the movement of the ‘glob- ules’ of which each body, be it dense or porous, is composed. But the change of scale which makes the arrangement of matter perceptible to the observer plunges him or her, and Leeuwenhoek first and foremost, into a ‘different worldfromotherpeople.’ ——8” ——9 It is Leeuwenhoek who discovered and identified spermatozoa in seminal fluid; and even drew them on 18 March 1676. One of the mysteries that preoccupied Van Leeuwenhoek (and his contemporaries as well) was that of begetting. Is it possible to imagine that it took this experimental dabbling with body fluids to establish a scientific understanding of begetting? Between the plunge into the invisibility of the mundus and the dive into the viewing of organic matter, begetting came under blind knowledge nonetheless adequate to ensure the perpetuation of the species. “All crea- tures copulate, from the most beautiful to the most horrible; the louse, the flea and the maggot like human beings, are provided with genitals. [...] They all, such as they are, quadrupeds or vermin, at their maturity produce little worms; it is through them that offspring are created, and this is the only way it happens. So why should it be necessary to resort to trickery, to this improper begetting, to begetting without parents? No, there is only one means of procreation. We have to believe it. The price to be paid for sticking to this is the abandonment of some of our dreams.” —— 10 The microscope brought down to earth life that was subvisible. Ideal procreation, an immaculate means of conception, vanished under the observer’s lens. Cellular union tied together the living, which unfolded through the cord, the umbilicus that every stomach bears as that point of contact of dimensions that were henceforth ever more measurable.
At a time that cannot be pinpointed, undoubtedly in the future but a future not very distant from our own time, in an ordinary space the austere interior of a technological architecture, already marked with a patina by use, a young taciturn man is living, watching over a baby. A prison environment, without night and day, bathed in gloomy electric light. A penitentiary colony, a space ship launched into galactic space on a quest with no promise of success. It is the glutinous time of long-term prison crossed with the immeasurable time of interstellar travel with no fixed destination. In High Life Claire Denis plays tricks with the genre she is working in, science fiction movies: an imaginary world outside the frame, which the film is attached to only by a few poor signs, space suits, computer screens, an occasional view of the lacklustre vessel in the half-light of space. On board, without any specific reference to their criminal past and without naming the possibility of a future, are a number of haunted women and men. They include the on-board female doctor on an obsessional mission no doubt devised by herself involving the collection of sperm and procreation, which is forbidden to her. The situation and characters lay bare the relationships between desire, pleasure, sex, fornication, procreation, and love, redistributed outside the earth’s social standards and rules. The severance of the link of the human with the Earth and the travel outside time, in conjunction with the prosaic handling of the story and the frontality of the characters make the film a powerful parable which in turn brings into play the scale of bodies and worlds, seminal fluid and interstellar space. Filial begetting is redolent of conception that is not immaculate as those before Van Leeuwenhoek might have thought, but of a disruption, a de-naturing of the principle of fertility that upsets the generational order. A father and his daughter are condemned to the Garden of a cosmic Eden which leads them straight into the vertiginous and devouring dimension of the eye of a black hole. The film provides the complementary figure to that produced by the EHT: the black hole in the image takes on the aspect of a ray of yellow light an illumination. ——11 The tension between opposites the irreducible chiasmus between birth and death, between the seen and the invisible, between what is beyond measure, the time of light and the time of love, with all that can be known known, everything that can be made familiar familiarised, will not yet have found a resolution, any more than the fate of the heroes of High Life.
When the Mundus was open it remained a black hole, leaving space for the imagination, relying on works of art and the intellect, on the doubling of fiction, metaphor and symbolic production as a vital condition. Lyotard noted in the course of a paragraph in Discours, Figure —— 12 entitled “Parenthèse sur le peu de réalité” [Parenthesis on the shortage of re- ality]: “A very slight difference between being in the moon and on the moon” [Très mince différence entre être dans la lune et sur la lune].
——1 Umbilici and omphaloi are figures anthropologists are very familiar with; in the case of the Greeks, it all starts with a story of begetting and a mother’s wiles on the part of Rhea to save Zeus from being devoured by his father Cronus; in the case of the Celts, cf. e.g. L’omphalos celte, kindly pointed out by Baptiste Gille. 2004_1915_num_17_3_1869 viewed on 10 April 2019.
——2 I owe the view of Rome to an article on Antiquity by Michel Humm (in the journal Histoire urbaine 2004/2 (no. 10), pages 43 to 61, accessible on histoire-urbaine-2004-2-page-43.htm#no26
——3 F.-H. Massa-Pairault, quoted by Michel Humm, op. cit.
——4 Jeanne Lafont, Ombilic du rêve, comme catastrophe – Angoisse et Désir Colloquium 15/09/06. lafont-ombilic-du-reve-comme-catastrophe- colloque-angoisse-et-desir-15-09-06-1.html, viewed on 23 March 2019.
——5 Cf. Machines à voir pour une histoire du regard instrumenté (XVII–XIXe siècles), an anthology of texts on real or imaginary viewing instruments, for science and for show business. Edited by Delphine Gleizes and Denis Reynaud, Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 2017, Lyon.
——6 Philippe Boutibonnes,VanLeeuwenhoek, l’exercice du regard, Belin, 1994, Paris. It should be noted that the author led a double life as a university academic specialising in microbiology and an artist. His work is mainly in the graphic field, between writing and painting, not unconnected with his concerns as a biographer.
——7 Philippe Boutibonnes quoting Svetlana Alpers, L’art de dépeindre, la peinture hollandaise au XVIIe [1983], Gallimard, 1990, Paris.
——8 Philippe Boutibonnes quoting Locke, An Essay concerning human understanding [1689], 1972, Vrin, Paris.
——9 Philippe Boutibonnes, op. cit., p.9 17
——10 Philippe Boutibonnes, op. cit., p. 238
——11 Claire Denis has indicated that the saturation in yellow, a colour excluded from the film set, was decided in collaboration with Olafur Eliasson. So it is the artist’s colour that turns up to fill the moment of light, thus challenging the astronomers’ light years.
——12 Jean-François Lyotard, Discours, Figure, 1985, pub. Klincksieck, p. 285