Looking Through You

Jacques Tati, Playtime, 1967

Rousseau at fifty-three — afflicted by illness, temperamental and alone, an anguished, paranoiac conscience — sitting up at his desk in Wootton, in the 1760s: “Nothing about me must remain hidden or obscure. I must remain incessantly beneath the reader’s gaze, so that he may follow me in all the extravagances of my heart and into every last corner of my life.” The Confessions are Rousseau’s response, in the form of a remedy, to the pain and contradictions of a human heart filled with content that can no longer be transmitted vertically, toward the heavens. The task of the accused to supply proof of innocence, to authenticate the rightness of his conduct, requires a new, lateral kind of divination. A community of readers, not saints, is what counts. “My decision to write and to hide myself was perfectly suited to me,” says Rousseau in his solitude. “With me present, no one would ever have known what I was worth.” He writes neither as pious (Augustine, Chateaubriand) nor partisan (Montaigne, Saint-Just), but as a companionless telepath of his own moral character. The secular heart, with all of its extravagances, cannot confirm its innocence — or its intentions, or its beauty, or the terms of its character — through petitions to an omniscient authority, to God. An empty, unwatching sky entails an earth without witness, and the dethroning of the old promise that one's life history can ever be intuited from above. The goal of absolute, maximal transparency means that Rousseau’s must be an autobiography written under his own eyes, and his alone.

Two hundred and fifty years later, in a bifocal work of criticism — part memoir, part cultural tract — Marek Bie?czyk mourns the dulling of Rousseau’s standard of the unobstructed, transparent heart. But Transparency, published in Poland five years ago and now appearing in an English translation by Benjamin Paloff, is by no means a document of lament. What interests Bie?czyk — a novelist, critic, and translator of considerable repute in Poland, and the latest recipient of that country’s Nike Award for literary achievement — is the evolution of an idea inherited from Rousseau, and the circumstances underlying its retention in contemporary taste, in language, politics, certain works of art, and architecture. Ours is a political moment tempered by a public-relations promise of transparency and political accountability; so much of our urban environment, from the buildings of Diller, Scofidio + Renfro to the glass faces of Lower East Side condomniums, insists on giving (and getting) the whole view. From Aristotle, for whom transparency meant the expression of light, a hidden medium of illumination; to the glass bodies dreamt by Fontenelle and La Mettrie, and the metaphors of a republic of light in the eighteenth century; to the appearance, in the nineteenth century, of the first public aquariums and the Crystal Palace, so abhorred by Dostoevsky for the punitiveness of its scale and the tyranny of its vision; to the twentieth century’s layering of multiple surfaces, “as if they’re made of celluloid,” in the paintings of Piccaso and Léger, and the glass-and-steel imagination of architects like Bruno Taut, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Philip Johnson. For Bie?czyk, sitting at his own desk in Poland, the terms have changed: A concept dissociated from its lineage, the Rousseauian idea of transparency is these days moribund before a politically prostrate electorate, modified by contemporary techniques of civic pseudo-therapy and empowerment, the “new opium being distributed to the people, the great civilized substitute for the feeling of having a modicum of power.”

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But this book is not in the service (at least not principally) of describing feelings, political or otherwise. The thirty-seven chapters of Transparency trace a sensibility without explicit thematic connection; the book confects a series of movements between discontinuous ideas, and its achievement is the density and sinuousness — but also the restlessness and intellectual itinerancy — of its imaginative range. There has been no irremediable fall from transparency for Bie?czyk, but rather a transaction across several styles of thinking and varieties of experience. A first-person treatise supplemented by Bie?czyk’s own memories, real or imagined, the book ultimately appeals to three recurring preoccupations:

Transparency as an aesthetic feature. This is exemplified by the interiors of Gothic cathedrals, for example, or the prose works of Maurice Blanchot and Alain Robbe-Grillet, about which Bie?czyk writes, “Devoid of all affect, emotion, of a particular rhythm, [the work] seems to create — like white monochrome in painting — a space in which, insofar as it is possible, all traces are erased.” Cubist paintings, already mentioned, provide another, although somewhat different, model of stylistic diaphony. (Braque, for instance, superimposes his images so that, as Bie?czyk says, “the viewer may come away with the impression that he’s looking straight through them.” The effect here is of a crowded, stuffed space, not the coolness and clarity of the minimalist painter Robert Ryman or, returning to the novel, the French writer Michel Butor.)

Transparency as a disposition. Or, perhaps more appropriately, as a way of encountering the world, of experiencing things and persons. Here, Bie?czyk invokes the “existential imperative” of the nineteenth century, with its taste for exhibition, collecting, and for putting into view, as well as the great encyclopedists and taxonomists (Diderot, d’Alembert, Linnaeus) at work during Rousseau’s lifetime. Zola’s refrain, “To see everything, to say everything,” also supplies the premises of the flaneur, the preemiment melancholic. “Looking through a windowpane is a textbook embodiment of the melancholic condition,” Bie?czyk writes. “Seeing without having leads to other, worse verbs: refusing, departing, dying. One needs, for example, the city.”

Transparency as a force. One can be a victim of transparency. This, perhaps, was Dostoevsky’s fear; the glass house, the Crystal Palace, is really one early and interminable kind of surveillance palliated by the lie (the riddle?) of its utopian vision. Here is Bie?czyk: “What would seem a harmless sort of dream” — the dream of Rousseau — “becomes involved in a concrete project for organizing social life, one in which the ruler can completely control the ruled.” The panopticon imagined by Jeremy Bentham in the 1790s is one instance of this, although Bie?czyk does well here by foresaking an exhausted reprisal of a certain subset of démodé theoretical formulations (about power, punishment, disciplinary societies, etc.). If transparency is a force, it is also vulnerable to the counter-pressure of its metaphysical antonym: hysteria. The hysteric is the outcome of a flaw, a defect in the quality of Rousseau’s diaphanous heart — Bie?czyk calls it the “experience of an unexpected, sometimes staggering encounter with an obstruction” — that, when coupled with transparency (the two are coterminous), produces “one of the formative features of modern existence.”

But hysteria is also the frustration of a revelation; the hysteric’s vision — of another place, a kingdom of heaven, an elsewhere — never fully obtains, and the hysteric himself is left alone, the victim of an implacable and sedentary consciousness, a writer without a reader. For Bie?czyk, “this vision surpasses us: after all, this is where we came from, this is where we had our lives, and then we were suddenly left with nothing, without those lives, holding nothing but our useless selves.” Such a temperament is less “one of the formative features of modern existence” than the expression of a spiritual project, if by spiritual project we mean the obeisance — and the subsequent response in the form of endless, repetitive tasks — to the painful knowledge of the Fall. However, faith, not knowledge, is what matters; hence the ecstasy of the response to the Passion, which often has nothing to do with language or with laws of any kind, but with the needs, and the frailties, of an impure human body. When we do get the response in the form of spiritual autobiography, as we do in the tradition of Teresa, Augustine, Bonaventure, etc., it is always marked by the author’s awareness of the inadequacy of his work, and therefore by his frustration. Thus Augustine’s remorse: “I am saddened that my tongue cannot live up to my heart.”

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Jean Starobinski’s Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction, mentioned only briefly by Bie?czyk but a far more sustained elaboration of his ideas, describes the Genevan’s optimism about the written word: “Language fills a middle ground between the primordial innocence and the verdict of final judment, which is supposed to establish the fact that Rousseau has regained his innocence.” But this innocence, by Rousseau’s own admission, is illusory. One can’t have the whole life, at least not in the way it has been written traditionally; one needs the advantages of a less even-tempered style of self-dramatization, a language increasingly fussy, undisciplined, prone to deviations and inconsistencies of thought: “By abandoning myself to both the memory of past impressions and to present sentiments, I shall paint two portraits of my mental state, showing it as it was when the event occurred and as it was in the moment I described it. My uneven and natural style — now brisk, now digressive; now restrained, now wild, now grave, now gay — will itself be part of my history.” Transparency achieves a similarly “uneven and natural style”; the discontinuousness between many of Bie?czyk’s chapters, and his preference for the first person and for storytelling, are the effects of a work that speaks capriciously, and in tongues.

And yet the book’s promise is not in its incongruities, but in the cool, bravura manner of its presentation of ideas; it is more successful when Bie?czyk lets us follow him to the conclusion or exhaustion or fulfilmment of a thought than when he plays at literary flourish. While Rousseau grants this book its intellectual heritage, it confirms its loyalties not only by rehashing certain kinds of anxieties — about how to communicate one’s innocence in an age without guarantee of divination, about the consequences of a life defrocked of its old securities and promises — but through its temperament. Like Rousseau’s Confessions, Transparency is the achievement of a supple and transient style of thought. As an example of criticism, it is deliberately inconclusive, depersonalized, approximating; as a work of literature, its plaintiveness warms to the touch. That so much of Transparency feels either incomplete or, less frequently, overdetermined is beside the point, though this incompleteness is one expression of the pursuit of extreme techniques of dissociation and harmonization typical of a great deal of the art of our time. Two standards of conduct and feeling that inform so much of our new work are assault (of the senses, of materials, of the viewing space) and participation (of the audience, which is often invited to complete sections of a performance, for example; or of the viewer, who is asked to respond to questions and follow instructions concocted by the artist). Bie?czyk’s book appeals to this tradition as simultaneously an assault and an invitation. Each of its solutions to certain critical problems combusts before the onset of larger, although by no means less ephemeral, dilemmas; the destruction of these solutions is therefore Bie?czyk’s invitation for further debate, further reflection. It is the work of an appetitive imagination, and a vivid example of the terms underlying one variety of art and ideas today.