Gary J. Shipley




During an interview in 1965, Vladimir Nabokov gives the following response to a question concerning his pedagogic methodology: “When studying Kafka’s famous story [‘The Metamorphosis’], my students had to know exactly what kind of insect Gregor turned into (it was a domed beetle, not the flat cockroach of sloppy translators) and they had to be able to describe exactly the arrangement of the rooms, with the position of doors and furniture, in the Samsa family’s flat. They had to know the map of Dublin for Ulysses. I believe in stressing the specific detail; the general ideas can take care of themselves.”

This attention to the concrete, the readily ascertainable details, the factual structure of works of fiction, is a way not of avoiding or merely bolstering later attempts at interpretation, but is itself a form of interpretation—not a tool of demystification, but a tool used to extend any existent puzzlement. It is not, as it might seem, a means of tying the work to the real world, but rather a means of having the work unrealize the world, a method by which we take the book to the real in order to undo it with words, a retaliation for the fact that the world in its turn is busy undoing us. The very concreteness and accuracy of the descriptions of Dublin in Ulysses, while undeniably increasing the factual density of Joyce’s novel, has more to do with an attempt to fictionalise the space referenced than it does with an attempt to have real world locations anchor the book’s narrative meanderings to one particular place. The seductive import of what is written is being pushed forward in place of the correlation. The same can be said of Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet and Lisbon, and Prague and the novels and short fictions of Kafka. The fictions transform the cities, the cities do not materialise the fictions: the evening sadness of the Rua do Arsenal/Rua da Alfândega, the tired, anchoring drudgery half-constructed in daydreams of an office on the Rua dos Douradores, and the fourth floor home of a partially escaped life on that same street, are none of them manifested by some earlier presence there or some presence to come.

I do not live Pessoa’s lines more successfully via the possibility of this acquaintance being actualised according to geographical specifics. Any street will do for this, imagined or real. The significant alteration occurs when you take the page to the world, when you feel Soares on the Rua Dos Douradores, or some other place you’ve substituted for it in ignorance or knowledge of the original. The oneiric disconsolation that you may then attribute to streets and shops and offices and passing pedestrians, even individual bricks and windows and voices, is the superimposition of a placeless place on a particularity of place, a ragbag of sensations and emotive triggers that is placed like an annotated slide over an existing screen of the counterfactual postulation of the what-is-without-you (i.e. that which in turn unrealizes you), which is not to say that the world must ask your permission in order to exist, but that the way it exists at any given moment also constitutes what it is to be you. [1] The two exist inside one another, exchanging pressures and influences, each unmaking the other.

In ‘Metamorphosis,’ the fact that Gregor has been transformed into a beetle with a domed back, and not a flat-backed cockroach, lends consistency and credibility to his being able to, for instance, “set about rocking the whole length of his body evenly out of bed.” [2] But then a domed beetle does not become flat when dead, no matter how desiccated it becomes—the exoskeleton retains the same shape as it did when living—and yet Gregor’s corpse is also described (in the same translation) as being “completely flat and dried out.” [3] The obvious casualty of this contradiction is our image of Gregor, how confident we can be in our visual imaginings. How it is we can continue to trust a world in which Gregor wakes to find himself transformed into a man-sized beetle, with a hard dome-shaped back like a dung beetle, when a few weeks after his death he is supposedly flat.

Maybe we can accept this by hypothesising that the apple that lodged in his back after an earlier assault somehow resulted in the exoskeleton’s subsequent collapse post-mortem. And sense is extracted from the context of this tale, however tenuous, and we can once again see Gregor scuttling up the walls and across the ceiling of his room, as we imagine Kafka intended. Alternatively, there might be more to discover if we consider this an instance of a second transmutation, of species, of turning cockroach, of a slyly suggested mutability of physicality in general. But then this is not a technique applicable only to fictions: consider how we might hope to describe ourselves as immortal vessels, how we could hope to resolve the paradoxes that existence makes of us. For not only do we not have any answers for what might give our existence some sense of ultimate meaning, but we do not even know the questions we should ask, for we cannot make any real sense of what we might mean by ultimate meaning, or what kind of creature could be unquestionably deserving of it.

To evoke Bataille, we seek the answer to a question that we are unable to formulate, [4] or else Baudrillard: “Modern Philosophy flatters itself, in a wholly self-satisfied manner, that it asks questions to which there are no answers, whereas what we have to accept is that there are no questions at all, in which case our responsibility becomes total, since we are the answer—and the enigma of the world also remains total, then, since the answer is there, and there is no question to that answer.” [5] But after all, it is this very enigma that we need to preserve: it must remain “impossible to say just what I mean!” [6] How could we deliberately overreach our understanding, and still expect our semantics to behave?

The need to formulate and think and speak comes up against the necessity of the unthought and the unspoken—you can’t say it without breaking the spell. You’ve got to leave it unadorned: “It would shrink to the earth if you came in.” [7] No end-state satisfies, not even our acceptance of this incompleteness, this state of answers without questions, this sense of the meaninglessness of meaning. The poet accepts but accepts in such a way that he is still able to write; he accepts with every part of himself except the act of writing, which becomes in itself the illusion of resistance, an illusion in which reality can again seem real.

Where something is attainable there is no art. You must see and inhabit the cul-de-sac, and, squirming, see more than a dead end and yet see the dead end as everything and everything as a dead end. Wittgenstein said of Trakl’s poems: “I do not understand them; but their tone pleases me. It is the tone of true genius.” And while the tone he acknowledges exists against the advice he’d delivered at the close of the Tractatus—as of course does most of the rest of his output—he can nevertheless soak in a muteness someone has been compelled not so much to undermine as describe. (As Bachelard tells us: “There is nothing like silence to suggest a sense of unlimited space,” [8] and the quieted head need not recall its own entrapment.) It’s the tone of silence in a state of prolapse, startled by its own noise, playing at returning to its former state. In a conquest worthy of Sadean Man, the nauseating infinity of Nature is countered with endlessly recurring autumns and afternoons collapsing in on themselves around a human tongue, where time and the very air can be seen yellowing in the felt sickness of being alive.

Theorizing does not reveal, but instead creates its own hollows; it clarifies nothing but its own confusion, and that confusion is its truth. In order for it to taste the cockroach (à la Lispector), it must first turn itself into one. And what all Art becomes, what it had to become, is the post-nihilistic wasteland of an increasing desperation—licking at itself and tasting only its disgustingly human shit—the paradox that comes of accepting the now revisionist structures of incompleteness, the pointless endlessness of striving toward no end beyond openendedness itself—its striving for the encapsulation of antithesis: the unreadable novel, the unwatchable movie, the unviewable artwork, the unlistenable music—the unliveable life.

“On one hand, this small, limited, and inexplicable existence, wherein we have felt like an exile, a butt both of jokes and of the immense absurdity that is the world, cannot resolve to give up the game; on the other hand, it heeds the urgent call to forget its limits. In a sense, this call is the trap itself, but only insofar as the victim of the joke insists—as is common, if not necessary—on remaining a victim.” [9] And, following Nagel, there is no option but to fall victim, the inherent incompatibility of the subjective and the objective views of ourselves keeping the cockroach in sight and within our grasp. Although, when our mouths close on it they taste only their own tasting. This dichotomy of self-awareness seems for the most part all but unbridgeable, and our structures of human meaning themselves dependent on it remaining so. We do not often get to the material of this world, this place of places, to the material we carry around with us as if we’d already accepted it as constituting our existence, and if there’s any mercy to be found in our existing it is there in the fuzz of this obligatory lacuna, this uneasy embracing of unease, this noisy silence, when after all “[o]nly silence is able to express what we have to say.” [10]

Foot-binding produces dainty, pretty feet. It is only their nakedness we find ugly. Whoever understands this altercation knows how friendless the impossible becomes, how its fidelity to morning exhausts all concentration. Supererogation is cadaverous. But we God more forest, the ill-measure goaded in the existence of the long age, the gloom of now a visitant at work, the Holberg unchilded man rotten in his screams. Every vow is a pestilence of occasion, a fancy of dizziness, the head full of termination-earth disturbances of mind up a tulip-tree. I ate at the cockroach for 24 months, and died inside it as a way of living, and through that reversed consumption death became something I lost. I chewed on the cockroach and swallowed it down and watched it eat its way back out again, climbing into my hand to be eaten again as if my body (with my mind trapped inside it) was an amusement park ride and my unhealthy stretch of embodiment was its repeat ticket.

This state (this inner-ear infection of the soul): that of someone walking on my grave, not over but up and down repeatedly, a faceless someone, a faceless me.

My sanity is a diorama done out in yellowed lapses in concentration.

What I’m working on, all I can see interest in working on, are the dreams I will bring to the end of the world.

With the cockroach between your teeth you bite down and you know: (1) A lie is the ultimate investment of meaning. And it was a gift that can be taken away. (2) Knowledge is a way of making the corridor go somewhere, whereas nonknowledge is a way of making the corridor impossible, of nonreasoning through the corridor’s dead end. (3) To seek is to unravel—and perish in the sought. (4) Even hopelessness is a form of hope: the hope that hope’s absence means something. (5) God is the enigma of an etymology of the nameless. (6) Noncomprehension is a wound dressed with action, underneath which it festers and blackens—eventually only death saves man from ever having to remove the bandages and behold the thing he’s cultivated with neglect. (7) That reason fails us—goes back on its promise—opens a schism (between means and ends) into which we can if it happens fall, and there struggle—but ultimately hide. Better, though, to see the schism shut?—a creative act?

There are entire schools of thought conceived with the cockroach on the tongue. And it still lies there unmolested. Like the cleverest parasite, it has convinced them that all the time it is there their teeth are not. But its “shell must be cracked apart if what is in it is to come out […] if you want to discover nature’s nakedness, you must destroy its symbols and the farther you get in, the nearer you come to its essence.” [11] And that essence is the horror, not in and of itself, but of the shell, of the mask around it (the mask that must be pierced for what’s beneath it to ooze out, when all suspicions suggest we’ll see only ourselves behind it, but only for an instance before we disappear), [12] the seemingly unsurpassable horror of the very needfulness of masks, the loose goo that the exoskeleton hides, the fluid life inside the rigid death. A reversal is apparent: we’ve constructed life from the inflexible dead matter, and avoided the watery, pococurante substance of life at all costs, avoided it because we somehow sense there’s nothing and nobody there—just life, when we’ve constructed ourselves from the dead. “I had reached the nothing, and the nothing was living and moist,” [13] and the found then becomes the unfound, and the unfounded. The contrivance and the immanence of horror lies in our having to be constantly forgetting how we are daily conscripted into this lie of form around the formless, and how residing at its core we imagine ourselves and find nothing. It is not the reality of death that we deny, but that we are alive in the first place, and that all this squirming is as a result of this affliction, this threat that like water seeping into a damaged boat must be constantly displaced back inside the body of itself. Horror does not get to us, get into us, because it threatens death, but because it reminds us that we are alive.

Like Galen, we have created life according to what we’ve learnt of the dead, and not from any life we’ve ever found for ourselves, and not even from the dead of the kind we are, but from the pigs and apes of what life via death might look like. Even in anchoring ourselves to Vesalius (approximating life through the bodies of our own dead) we’d only come marginally closer to that which we do not know, closer in the sense that we would at least bear better witness to the mortification we call human life, to the specificity of our own trends in rotting out this existence. For it isn’t being alive that terrifies, but knowing it. Being alive is for the most part synonymous with solidity, fixity and death, whereas knowing it, and feeling that knowing, is to see the sanctuary of your living death peeled back as if it were the sky. In the warm gloop of the cockroach is your own self-witnessing, and biting into it you bite into a someone you cannot taste or feel or experience beyond the sense that from somewhere came the thought that this was you. All the comforts of your dead reflection obliterated in an instant—no such thing as past, or sense in hope, or belonging in the Other—and for as long as it lasts there is life there before you without the mask of its dead trappings, the undiluted, unfiltered, essence of the inhuman nucleus of everything your existence so far has provided protection against. And what is there then but the fraught scramble to reassemble the deceased materials of your home, your exoskeleton of sameness through time. For “knowing that you’re alive is courage,” [14] but such unearthly stress on this most terrestrial of dispositions is not one that remaining human can sustain. And yet what else is there to the meaning of human existence that is not encompassed in these brief episodes involving the complete eradication of both? Because when we put the humanness back together, we create ourselves in light of this knowledge, equipped somehow to live a life we know we cannot live, and like this correct God’s work.

This work of perfecting (of accommodating the nonhuman), of continuing what has become senseless to continue, is to become something else, to be “caught up into the likeness of God,” [15] to make meaning out of meaning’s absence, to establish sense where there is none. But it is only through the unbearable knowing of this necessity, this burden of continuance, through the felt nonknowledge of the state to which we must return, that creation has heft. Only via the disinterested (nonhuman) excretion of unliveable life is anything ever done. Only what is conceived in spite of itself is ever conceived. If there are similarities here to the existential concerns for authenticity we see reinvigorated by Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre, then they go only so far, for the authentic state that’s to be recognised is not that of a forgotten or subdued humanness, but instead the repression of a core nonhumanness which any self-examined humanness will come to know as something felt. It is not merely a case of not getting lost in the They, but of no longer curling up fetus-like inside individuality either, as both of these inevitabilities are crucially extrinsic to something known (as a felt nonknowing) through this bilinear boundary’s momentary absence: “The perfectly operative unworkability of the interface, a unilateral duality of thought and life, exposes the terribly unending and inescapable suddenness of being trapped alive in consciousness, of finding oneself (to be) something like an always improper sum of thought and being.” [16]

For once let’s stay faithful to the enigma of these moments, to the “hell of living matter,”[17] the disenfranchising of the human, the pale, twitching ugliness of life for once seen (and not seen-as). “All philosophers should end their days at Pythia’s feet. There is only one philosophy, that of unique moments,” [18] and we come at it already knowing we are in error, how in merely preparing to recount we’ve contributed to their going—and suspect this as the very reason such preparation was instigated, to be free of instances which we cannot be said to have experienced but which nevertheless substantiated an experience for which we feel the need to account. Hope is attached to what was without it, concern to what had repelled involvement, the adrenaline of mortality to what was the purest expression of life: “Being alive is a coarse radiating indifference. Being alive is unattainable by the finest sensitivity. Being alive is inhuman.” [19] Through our seeing the cockroach’s dead mask as dead, through our recognising that this investment in human life is at all other times via something rotted out, we see life as something necessarily beyond our being what we are. We know then that we cannot share in it, but cannot either shrug off the sense that the continuance of the human corpse is inevitable and desirable and unfairly deathless for never having lived. The whole history of philosophy is the expansion of a single moment, repeated over—the style dependent on the proximity, on the degree to which it was felt, and the extent to which each voice needed distance from its origin—in keeping with the Oracle of Delphi, a moment unique in content but not in number. All prioritisation of the human body (as essentially human) signals a retreat, a return to that which was savagely cleansed, recourse to a lifeless life (words and structures used like paddles to its decayed heart), for “to obey the flesh is to die,” [20] and to obey it when you’ve already seen and smelt its long having left is to die wilfully as something only humanity could embody. But in contrast to this timorous retreat there is what might be seen as a refusal to leave, once found, this inhuman material, a more authentic and vigorous obeying of flesh, a courageous persistence with this formless and indifferent substance, and to then reappraise one’s humanness while under its influence, of the kind we see in Bataille.

Even when Kafka becomes beetle, or mole or dog or mouse or ape, he remains for the most part human, intellect and reasoning powers intact, occupying only the guise and physicality of the animal in question. Remaining so archetypally human, we need to ask what purpose the animal incarnations serve. While in ‘Metamorphosis’ Gregor’s being a man finding himself made insect is central to the narrative, in his other transpositions of persons into animals no reference is made to them being anything other than nonhuman. We are being asked to accept that access is being given to us of the creature in question, with no reference to the means of that access being anything other than the animal itself. If the ‘I’ has remained constant throughout this act of imagination, what is it that escapes the human in any meaningful way? We “want to eat straight from the placenta,” [21] but there has been no rebirth, no complete surrender and so nothing encountered that can be regarded as previously unknown and inaccessible. Without this surrender, it is surely more sincere to stay outside, as for instance Paul Auster does with Mr. Bones in Timbuktu. Returning to the succession of priestesses that comprise the Delphic Oracle, there is more force to the account that tells of how learned men translated the glossolalia of these gassed priestesses than there is to the more recent corrective account establishing these Apollonian reports’ initial lucidity. The connection being, that from the adyton of these animals we would not expect a human voice, but a voice instead that would require at the very least some exploratory and approximated translation.

When Kafka is a dog he is a dog amongst dogs, “dogs like you and me.” [22] By addressing us in this way he confesses that we are as much dog in reading him as a dog as he is a dog in writing himself one, and that our consequent inculcation into dogdom is a self-conscious mockery of identifying as anything, something acknowledged with our heads on their sides. But then becoming dog is after all just becoming human again (for there are no humans in this world of dogs): the uniquely human facility for music, having been stripped away, is quickly returned to us to assist us in this self-identifying as canine.

However, perhaps in this performance, this performance of being something, something unrecognisable, we are not dogs at all, but instead humans wrongly mistaken for dogs—like our narrator’s performing seven, suggestively naked and upright—because both beyond our own species and within it there is only silence, a poisoning silence posed as a question: “Whence does the earth procure this food?” [23] And what is this question of food but the realisation that the world itself is food without being nourishment and the food inside of dogs a toxin, both non-foods made to look like food (the former thought by others to be a substance to “stop [the] mouth”), [24] when no such food can bring the needed silence, the end of questions, can bring about the question that in answering itself will become music.

Therefore, Kafka-as-dog (as would-be-dog-messiah) can be thought to exist under the guise of some resurgent yet atheistic Inedia prodigiosa, back to modernise and educate, to science-fictionalise this drooling present with the deathless future of the past, and, like Catherine of Siena and Angela of Foligno, to decline the food of the world and drink nothing but the putrescence of its sickness, to refuse himself as he does in ‘The Fasting Artist’ not merely for show (for there must be some element of show if only to see oneself) but for purposes of research, research into the possible means of allaying a hunger inseparable from the one who hungers, for purposes of starving yourself alive. Sharing in the flesh of dogs is just the pre-made decision to exist, and to not feed on a food that is in fact a placebo poison, but instead on a poison fit for a god (for doesn’t his refusal of life make him appear backward?): [25] the food of our canine marrow, our deepest core, a manifestation of an inside that no ordinary life can taste while remaining ordinary, while remaining anything that can be framed in shared questions. Kafka-as-dog needs to spread the sickness of his self-awareness of existence (like those spreaders of ressentiment Nietzsche abhorred), but not in order to shirk the burden of life but to convert his anorexia to gluttony, to feast on what it is that starves him. [26] Animals are not victim to the idea that suffering redeems. An animal’s suffering is just suffering, so it can and must be stopped at any cost—even if that means that someone must suffer for them, even if that means that that someone is not as unlike them as they might at first imagine.

Just as becoming a Red Indian first involves the gradual disappearance of inharmonious tack and then the horse itself that you’ve imagined yourself-as-Red-Indian riding, so too does becoming nonhuman involve the continued fading of the vehicle you assumed to get you to that point, thus finding yourself nonhuman in the midst of being human, as the façade of the animal you became drops away or is discarded. The animals of these tales likewise disintegrate on contact with the human, for although they come to us via language, they lose themselves in the process: “What I felt then as an ape I can of course only describe today with human words, and they falsify the description.” [27] Their way out, as the ape in his report concedes, is always the human way. Only in talking to humans does a jackal know its own hatred and hopes for freedom; left wordless, it simply eats the dead camels its enemies provide. Only in action and material constitution can the animal remain animal. Whether it is the assumed position of animal leaching into the human to be heard, or the human leaching into the animal to be seen, it is always the non-species-specific wound of existence itself that is the focal point of both. For while it is always the human perspective that permits the regenerative abrasion of life to be witnessed at all, [28] it is not about being either man or animal, although this habitation of the blurred ground between them is a crucial tool, but instead that “incurable wound” [29] that comes of knowing you are anything at all, even if you are not even yourself. Recall how the mole-like creature in ‘The Burrow’ becomes less and less distinct from its network of tunnels—his blood should it ever be spilled would not be lost in them—how the earth is imbued with sentience and how the creature that shapes it is little more than a source of noise within it, as are all things like him: that other anonymous digging beast itself nothing but noise in shifted soil.

Becoming animal or becoming human-as-animal is, then, a transitory measure to facilitate becoming neither. To imbibe the liquid corpus of a broken cockroach, to wake as a beetle, to feel the pangs of human mystery as a canine, to renounce being ape for the exit of being human, to start as mole and end as noise in soil: the common strain in all of it is to source the wound of the need to be anything, the given-up-on freedom that remains always hidden in a series of desperate ill-fated ways out that are actually just ways back in. Kafka knew this, and as a result his excursions into the non-human are always humanly confined, remaining only superficially species-transcendent, because the true inexpressibility he was after was never the animal, but instead what it is about thought that cannot escape itself, the place in which Kant’s dove is not seen to soar ever easier, but in which it is no longer a dove at all, but rather the very vacuum that removes it from the sky. The animal is merely the reimagining of a limit, as it is for Nagel and his bat, a perspective that cannot exist—not even for the animal, once we’ve indulged ourselves in tasting its approximated flavour, for the process denies both the animal and the human in its search for something more fundamental than either.

The taste of cockroach hemolymph is the taste of your own act of tasting, the taste of what it means to eat just about anything, of what it means to have existed on this planet for hundreds of millions of years. The earth will not suffer fussy eaters for long. As if these scuttling elders had made us their students, we have learnt to consume the world around us like we’d been here long enough to unlearn any diet that is not everything, as if we too had emerged from an ootheca, hissing and chirping, drooling at the prospect at swallowing the universe. And the appetite of capitalism, with its wake of grey goo, is nothing to the accumulated hours of colourless slop that man’s experiencing churns forth every second of every day. The world is not here unless I’m shitting it out, or else watching some other victim of experience fecalize the content their being alive has made necessary. In the manufacture of processed meat you start with the animal and end with slices or various grades of mush, and this food we understand, for the animal always makes more sense to us in its processed form.

Extrapolating on Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, to become animal is to become slave, for a slave is anyone or anything more afraid of the Other than he is of himself: the mouse and the mole being archetypal in this regard. It is also provides a vicarious experience of an otherwise defunct direction, for the master has the opportunity to know that for all there is there’s nowhere to go. All directions are open to him and yet he cannot desire any of them. The emptiness of this erroneous elevation is alleviated through temporary identifications with the slave, with those for whom direction sustains itself, those for whom direction has direction and a vertical as well as a horizontal plane. As for the self-confessed human-worm of Kafka, he does not have the animalistic descent of the master, with which he cannot identify, but the humanistic descent through animal to its lowliest form.

According to Bataille, the merging of the animal with the human is the merging of the sacred and the profane, as the sacred fuses and liquidates in an intimate oneness what the profane seeks to individualise. And it is this particularly human awareness of time and distinctiveness that lead to anxiety, and to the anxiety “the impotent horror,” [30] even, involved in letting them go, for this relinquishment of individuality and discontinuity, this embracing of intimacy, is of course indistinguishable from our fear of death, itself nothing more than a fear of formlessness. [31] However, it is not that animal consciousness, “lost in the mists of continuity where nothing is distinct,” [32] represents what he means by sacred, but rather our human acceptance of such a state, that paradoxical condition of transition, kept forever in self-sacrificing perpetuity, the human in limbo in animal. We must remember though that Bataille’s world is not the world, it’s the acrid hundred-or-so-million year-old sludge oozing from the cockroach, its inaccessibility, the blur we manage to bring into focus at the cost of becoming something, something worldly.

On the surface, Kafka’s exercises in becoming animal appear to be in direct opposition to a Bataillean aesthetic—indulging in disfigurement and primitivistic renderings of distortion—seeming instead to perform some eerie yet palatable gentrification of what it means to become animal—a process made most explicit in ‘A report for an academy’. Often we are left guessing as to the presence of real animals, or else must remind ourselves that a particular animal is being evoked in the words we are reading.

For example, in ‘Josephine the singer, or The mouse people,’ aside from the title, there is very little to suggest mouseness at all, all that is except for the constant reiteration of ‘squeak’—the squeak that remains, as the memory it always was, even after Josephine has gone. And this squeak is worth pursuing further, as a means of unpacking these nonhuman excursions as more than mere literary contrivance, more than the anthropomorphic prettification of supposedly baser modes of existence. For although only the title provides direct access to the world of mice, as from there on in all that is left to contextualise this opening promise is the squeak, it is via this squeak that we are able to orientate one species in the space of another. And the squeak retains its non-semantic allure even for those for whom we’d imagine it language. It is abstracted from all content: it is pure noise, gradually indistinguishable from any other instance of noise, it is the voice removed from what is said. And of the audience’s silence there is something of Levinas’ transcendent self-awareness, in which “this breathlessness or holding back is [maybe] the extreme possibility of the spirit, bearing a sense of what is beyond the essence.” [33] It remains as unsubstantiated as anything else that just occurs, so that what looks like some kind of taxonomical marker is instead something more germane to existence in general: the temporary undoing of silence, the to-be-forgotten announcement of some non-historicised incidental. Mouseness, then, is indeed a distortion, a disfigurement, a crude enactment of primitive grappling, not through the humanized narrator, but through the squeak, the common squeak elevated to meaning by the silence that surrounds it, that becoming-art of what is otherwise habitual and mindless. If here we have the quietly insidious melancholy of us witnessing our contrived impositions of form, what of the full-blown horror of what remains for the most part hidden and formless (in us and in the world itself)?

If “affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit,” [34] what can we say of the cockroach? Can that too be considered formless in the same way as the spider? Firstly, we need to establish just how it is the spider lacks form, and the most immediately obvious indicator of this—like the earthworm with which Bataille makes the spider congruous— is its lack of an independently formed head, [35] as what would in other arthropods constitute two bodily segments are combined in the spider into a single tagmata: the cephalothorax. Here, then, any possible assimilation with the cockroach would appear to come to an end, as the cockroach’s head is clearly segmented from the rest of its body. And while there are those often discussed instances in which cockroaches are found to exist acephalously, this depleted state is not implicit within the cockroach’s taxonomy. And it is for this reason that the cockroach’s outside must be breached, its insides revealed, the indeterminate spit of its most intimate machinery shown to be nothing other than some secreted nexus of horror, an unrecognised and unrecognisable terror hidden even from its bearer, in a violent extrusion of liquid debasing whatever form surrounds it, because it is the mystery of the connection between them that ultimately makes room for attachments to be made, for mergings of thought and physicality to have a realm of senselessness in which to establish meaning: “A dog devouring the stomach of a goose, a drunken vomiting woman, a sobbing accountant, a jar of mustard represent the confusion that serves as the vehicle of love.” [36]

The spider, the earthworm, the insides of the cockroach: all are instances of form’s transparency (transparent and non-transcendental), and so its failure, its ultimate formlessness. This malfunction of form is a glitch that reveals glimpses of that which form is ordinarily so proficient at concealing: that which is not merely not human, not merely animal, but antithetical to humanness, the nonhuman as the active unmaking of humanity, our narratives and imposed recreations unrealizing the world, and that world returning not as the reciprocal manifestation of our act of manipulation, but instead as formlessness laid like glass over formlessness. Us in the world and the world in us, and neither one with any discernible shape or substance or purpose: Pessoa becoming Lisbon and Lisbon becoming Pessoa, Joyce Dublin and Dublin Joyce, and both sides a slippery powder cascading through the fingers of each, fingers which cannot remain fingers long enough to feel the contents drain away. Our structures and the structures of the world existing for a moment in a state of unitive honesty, a state emptied of contrivance on both sides and so somehow exhuming the mutually unconditioned: a univocal drool.

When the world is not there for me, or rather persistently there and yet available only as the backdrop of some past involvement, I look to the unreality of it and then to the unreality of myself. For the loss of the world eventually requires the loss of self, and this corrective measure is no less distressing, no less fought over, despite its clearly being requisite. This compensatory or restorative mirroring is both defensive and combative: for instead of suffering the world’s lack, making yourself the victim of this enhancement of the distance-from, [37] you instead go about removing the world residing within you that can no longer find its correlate. The unassailable logic is this: two ghosts are better than one. Resistance to this likewise becoming ghost will more often than not manifest itself in various clinically recognisable states—anxiety, depression, psychopathology—whereby the illusion of the independent substantiality of the self seeks reinforcement in contradistinction to the intangible flow of sensory experience that is the world as it is found and how it has come to find us. This intangibility, though (cruelly enough) not literally without the sensation of touch, is nevertheless something equally transformative, as it demands from haptic experience what was never there, while fully imagining that it was (which of course in some ways it actually was, that is in the sense that its absence had not yet been noticed), and so while still experiencing that tactile interaction with the world, it becomes instead just the conditions of the sensation vacated of history. The world then still there, but as a simulacrum of what it never was, a dream of a journey somewhere else, that, for lack of a point of departure, was never embarked upon.







[1] At least as far as you remain in the world of definability, of knowledge.

[2] Franz Kafka, ‘The Metamorphosis’ in Stories 1904-1924, trans J.A. Underwood, (Abacus, 1981), 96.

[3] Kafka, ‘The Metamorphosis’, 142.

[4] See Georges Bataille, ‘The Cruel Practice of Art’ in Médicine de France, 1949.

[5] Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories II (Polity Press, 1996), 20.

[6] T. S. Eliot, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in T. S. Eliot: Collected Poems 1909-1962 (Faber and Faber, 1963), 16.

[7] Alfred Tennyson, ‘The Poet’s Mind’ in Poems of Tennyson (SPCK, 1910), 32.

[8] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Beacon Press, 1969) 43.

[9] Georges Bataille, ‘The Cruel Practice of Art’.

[10] Georges Bataille, The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge (Univeristy of Minnesota Press, 2001),113.

[11] Meister Eckhart, Meister Eckhart: a modern translation, trans. Raymond B. Blakney (Harper Collins, 1942), 148.

[12] See Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy (Continuum, 2006), 5.

[13] Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H. (Penguin Books, 2014), 55.

[14] Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H., 16.

[15] Meister Eckhart, Meister Eckhart: a modern translation, 76.

[16] Nicola Masciandaro, Sufficient Unto The Day: Sermones Contra Solicitudinem (Schism Press, 2014), 186.

[17] Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H., 53.

[18] E.M. Cioran, The Book of Delusions, trans. Camelia Elias in Hyperion, Vol. 5, Issue 1 (2010), 61.

[19] Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H., 181.

[20] Meister Eckhart, Meister Eckhart: a modern translation, 75.

[21] Clarice Lispector, Água Viva (Penguin Books, 2014), 3.

[22] Franz Kafka, ‘Investigations of a Dog’ in Kafka: Metamorphosis & Other Stories trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (Minerva, 1992), 89.

[23] Kafka, ‘Investigations of a Dog’, 95.

[24] Kafka, ‘Investigations of a Dog’, 96.

[25] The god in a pack of gods.

[26] “For I want to compel all dogs thus to assemble together, I want the bones to crack open under the pressure of this collective preparedness, and then I want to dismiss them to the ordinary life that they love, while all by myself, quite alone, I lap up the marrow. That sounds monstrous, almost as if I wanted to feed on the marrow, not merely of a bone, but of the whole canine race itself. But it is only a metaphor. The marrow that I am discussing here is no food; on the contrary, it is a poison.” (Kafka, ‘Investigations of a Dog’, 99.)

[27] Franz Kafka, ‘A report for an academy’ in Stories 1904-1924, trans J.A. Underwood, (Abacus, 1981), 222.

[28] “Man differs from animal in that he is able to experience certain sensations that wound and melt him to the core.” in Georges Bataille ‘Madame Edwarda’ in My Mother, Madame Edwarda, The Dead Man (Marion Boyars, 2003), 140.

[29] “he only will grasp me aright whose heart holds a wound that is an incurable wound, who never, for anything, in any way, would be cured of it.” in Georges Bataille ‘Madame Edwarda’ in My Mother, Madame Edwarda, The Dead Man (Marion Boyars, 2003), 155.

[30] Georges Bataille, Theory of Religion, Trans. Robert Hurley (Zone Books, 1992), 36.

[31] The correlations here with Schopenhauer’s account of salvation (erlosung) are striking.

[32] Georges Bataille, Theory of Religion, Trans. Robert Hurley (Zone Books, 1992), 35.

[33] Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being (Kluwer, 1991), 5.

[34] Georges Bataille, ‘Formless’ in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939 ed. Allan Stoekl, trans. Allan Stoekl with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr. (University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 31.

[35] For more on heads, headlessness and the formless possibilities of arachnids see Eugene Thacker ‘Thing and No-Thing’ in And They Were Two in One and One in Two (Schism Press, 2014) 10-30.

[36] Georges Bataille, ‘The Solar Anus’ in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939 ed. Allan Stoekl, trans. Allan Stoekl with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr. (University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 6.

[37] It might be thought that distance is always in some sense distance-from, and that this precisification is an empty and unnecessary embellishment. However, this logistical preposition serves to distinguish the corrosion of the world from distance experienced in the abstract, i.e. the distance that precludes full presence without any determinate sense of lack.