Wednesday, June 09, 2010

reading _The Visible and the Invisible_

Despite my misgivings, I'm going back to Maurice Merleau-Ponty's unfinished manuscript of The Visible and the Invisible, the book he was writing when he died. Why misgivings? The extant manuscript is about 150 pages that amount to an introduction of the task of the book. The task of the book was to be an inquiry into the source of meaning and truth, as well as a kind of archeology of meaning and truth. Big league stuff.

The Merleau-Ponty academic establishment (Lauren's word: fandom) has pursued this book relentlessly. Especially during the 90s, it seemed that any academic conference discussion of Merleau-Ponty led straight to rather florid speculations about what appear to many to be the key notions on which Merleau-Ponty's account of meaning rest. These words, chiasm, intertwining, irreversibility, and flesh, are all really evocative, especially flesh (I'm a big fan of flesh, and indeed of flesh).

This speculation, especially at its most florid, always bugs me. It's weird that it does. I'm as kinky as the next guy - no, now that I think of it, I'm probably kinkier than the next guy - but the way people wrote and talked about flesh struck me as unseemly and profligate. For one thing, we can't know what Merleau-Ponty was going to write about all this stuff. Often enough, when the going got rough in this business, people would refer to the "Working Notes" published as an appendix to the book, and go on to use these (generally quite sketchy) phrases as the basis for an interpretation. As bizarre as it is to make pronouncements of things like "Plato's theory of ____," to take an unfinished work as the starting point, and proceed this way... it just seems licentious.

Yes, I said "licentious." I said "licentious."

And here is Claude Lefort, in the Editor's Foreword:

Thus again we discover death in the work, because its power is bound to its final impotency, because all the routes it opens and will always keep open are and will be without issue. In vain we try to brush aside the menace of this death: we imagine that what the work could not say others will say in the future, but what is has not said belongs properly to it, and the thoughts it awakens will be inscribed only far from it in a new work, by virtue of a new beginning. The meaning it dispenses always remains in suspense; the circle it traces circumscribes a certain void or absence.

The "new work" Lefort predicts has kept trying to say what is unsaid as though it were proper to this maddeningly fractured book, at least as far as the Merleau-Ponty gang are any indication. Grrrr! Grrrrr!

Meanwhile, what do you do with a 150 page dead letter? Read it, I guess, but I don't think I'll write back.

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