“We are creating an image of ourselves, we are attempting to resemble this image… Is that what we call identity? The accord between the image we have created of ourselves and … ourselves? Just who is this, ‘ourselves’?
- Wim Wenders, Notebook on cities and clothes
“You can’t create something without being alone. But who’s trying to create here? What seems different in yourself: that’s the one rare thing you possess, the one thing which gives each of us his worth; and that’s what we try to suppress. We imitate.”
- André Gide, The Immoralist
On a recent trip to Rome, I found myself atop Palatine Hill, where beneath the towering palms and umbrella pines grows an arbor of orange trees. I recall how the overripe globes shone blazingly against the dark weave of their verdant leaves and the hazy blue of the hotly humming sky. In my memory, this palette of saffron, azure, and emerald approaches the apotheosis of all that is lush and luxurious, conjuring in the same gesture visions of deep desert oases and the orangeries of French aristocrats. This resonance between oranges and decadence is perhaps merely a cultural association, the result of too many cruise flyers and surf movies – an oversaturation of images. But I believe this semiosis we detect within the bikini advertisements and travel magazines belies a deeper relationship: the palimpsest of historical memory.
Oranges have long been associated with love, sex, and desire in western culture. Botticelli’s Primavera, commissioned by the Medici family to celebrate a wedding, depicts the family’s orange groves as symbol of a fertile union. In Hellenic myth, Paris wins Helen’s hand by giving Aphrodite a “golden apple,” which in Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Latin is the word for orange.
Beneath the rows of ripening orange trees that run below the Palatine there is a small sign reading, “Do not pick flowers or fruit,” an interdiction enforced by obese guards with carmine-dyed hair and powder blue uniforms who prowl about the garden perimeter like grotesque Hesperides. The necessity of such a prohibition exhibits how unsatisfactory we find mere observation, how we long for a more complete experience, to hold the fruit in our hands, to taste it. Though Mallarmé writes of the “delicious taste we find in bright colors,” he neglects to mention that aesthetic pleasure in the object in turn enflames the possessive desire of the senses, just as the taste of tea and madeleines plumbs the depths of memory. It is not enough that the oranges are beautiful to look at, for that same beauty compels us to consume them. In this way, the chromatic brilliance of the oranges awakened some appropriative drive within me – to tear the oranges from their branch, to decorticate their soft skin with my fingernails, to let the dewy vesicles burst between my teeth.
By the late afternoon, the last of the garden wardens have left the terrace, leaving only the sign and its command to protect the heavy hanging oranges from the tourists strolling amid the trees. The few of us who had remained began to peer at each other, half wondering if we could pluck an orange from the bough without anyone objecting, half waiting for someone else to do it first. Finally, an old man whose face was hidden by a distinguished beard and dark sunglasses placed his chapeau in his outstretched palm. As he probed the darkness of the canopy with the end of his cane, suddenly an orange, waxy and luminous, fell into his hat. Immediately, the sign lost its power over us: the tall man with dreadlocks piled high atop his head leapt up, his coiffure disappearing among the leaves, and the young Korean boy balanced his girlfriend on his back and she lifted her hands high in the shade of the arbor.
The orange I plucked felt leathery and warm in my hands. I measured its swollen heft and sunk my thumbs into the thick pith, stripping the slippery rind. The fruit itself was small, its flesh desiccant, its cells densely packed pustules that when bitten ruptured and spewed sour nectar in my mouth. I ate the entire orange.
Instantly, I felt elated, as if drunk off the bitter pulp. Why does this feeling refract so brightly in the nymphaeum of my memory? I can find only find two disparate points of reference for the feeling I experienced there on the Palatine: the silent satisfaction of a well-executed prank, and the holy hush one feels upon entering the great Gothic cathedrals in Chartres or Strasbourg.
Mischief and holiness. The two seem to run in opposition to one another, for we experience sanctity within the accepted bounds of religious practice, while mischief is that which we do in violation of those bounds. In speaking of bounds and their ruptures, I am reminded of Bataille, who distinguishes between the world of the profane and that of the sacred. The profane is circumscribed through interdiction and taboo, and thus the world of the sacred is apophatically that which exceeds those limits.
The purpose of the taboos, which separate the profane from the sacred, is the preservation of order: the ability to identify difference, to name, to designate object and subject, to relate signifier and signified. The order that makes work possible is at the same time predicated upon the discontinuity of the profane world. As Bataille observes, “Tools and the products of toil are discontinuous objects, the man who uses the tools and makes the goods is himself a discontinuous being and his awareness of this is deepened by the use or creation of discontinuous objects.”
However, the discontinuity of the profane is threatened by the rupture of violence, which introduces continuity into the profane realm. For Bataille, “Existence itself is at stake in the transition from discontinuity to continuity. Only violence can bring everything to a state of flux in this way, only violence and the nameless disquiet bound up with it.” All violence suggests death because death is violence par excellence. In turn, death unites us as our shared destiny, making it continuity par excellence. Bataille thus interprets violence as that which “introduces the abrupt wrench out of discontinuity” and into the sacred realm of continuity.
The taboos that demarcate the profane world exist in order to guard against the intrusion of continuity brought by violence. Bataille writes that this is why we have taboos regarding burial practices and murder, but also around sex, given the abundance of taboos regarding menstruation, incest, public sex, and display of the genitals in general. Taboos were once partly practical – incest leads to genetic mutation, corpses can contaminate water supplies – but Bataille identifies a symbolic significance to them as well, namely the preservation of the discontinuity on which “the clarity, the untroubled clarity, of the world of action and of objectivity” depends. Thus, it is not merely the effect of transgressing the taboo which threatens the profane world, but the act of transgression itself.
In the context of the paradoxical relation between profane taboo and sacred violence, the closeness of mischief to holiness becomes clearer. If we examine the usage of the word mischief, we find that it once meant harm, evil, calamity. But over time the glee of the offense has been inscribed over the offense itself such that today we use the word to refer not to the act, but its intention. When we think of mischief, we don’t think of Demetrius’ sinister threat to “do thee mischief in the wood” – instead we think of the humor with which Puck sprinkles a philtre upon his eyelids as he sleeps. The transgressive nature of mischief delights us because it brings us into communion with the sacred and the holy.
What I felt in the orange grove was the pleasure of surpassing the bounds of the sign that bades, “Do not,” the thrill of coming into contact with that which I had been told I could not have. In that moment, I realized, as if for the first time, how vastly the flatlands of my being stretched beyond the space to which I had heretofore confined myself, how the values I had set for myself had contained me. Intoxicated by the vertigo of transgression, I imagined how the violence of my will might fill the wild expanse of my possibility of being to its horizons, to the point of overbrimming. Perhaps this would be what one might call ‘authenticity’: an absolute correspondence between the realm of my desire and the bounds of my values.
Can I call this realization I experienced on the Palatine an encounter with the sacred? As I have mentioned, Bataille identifies the sacred with the experience of continuity which manifests through transgression. But what is continuity itself? In discussing the link between the object of erotism and desire and the object of sacrifice and violence, Bataille writes that “the being loses himself deliberately” in the object, but in such a way that “the subject is identified with the object losing his identity”, such that one can say, “I am losing myself.”
If I am to link my vision of a possible being to the sacred, then I must link it to this continuity. In what way do I lose myself by pursuing an ethics of desire as I had imagined it? I lose myself in myself. That is, I adopt an ethos of ‘becoming.’ I am always chasing after an image of myself. The result is a Borgesian cartography that attempts an exact representation of my desires; in other words, a continuity between myself and an image of myself.
The idea of such an overabundance of becoming fascinates me, but it also terrifies me. For to devote myself to my own desire would be to devote myself to utter irresponsibility. In pursuing the calls of my inner being, I necessarily ignore the calls of others and forsake them. More than that, I cut myself of from them: the acts which are borne purely of my desire signify for no one but myself, and so the ‘authentic’ freedom I find in becoming collapses into the solipsism.
But perhaps I can locate my experience of the sacred elsewhere. When I plucked that orange globe from its leafy baldaquin, I did not do so alone, but in the company of others. When the vieillard on the Roman terrace caught that first orange in his homburg and we all followed suit, we entrusted ourselves to one another. Any one of us could have broken her silence and turned against the rest as part of a quasi-prisoners’ dilemma. Such an event was not likely, of course, but we nonetheless kept our joint transgression secret.
This is a different kind of continuity, a continuity between myself and the other. We are bound together in secrecy insofar as we predicate our very capacity for transgression on the silence of the other. In this way, we approach a recognition of the other: I give myself to her at the same time she entrusts herself to me.