Giacometti was fond of saying, ‘There is only success to the extent that there is failure. The more it fails, the more it succeeds’.
Alberto Giacometti, Three Figures in the Street, 1949. Oil on cardboard.
Between things, between people, bridges are broken; the void slips in everywhere, each creature secretes its own void. Giacometti became a sculptor because he is obsessed with the void. He is a sculptor because he bears his void like a snail its shell, because he wants to give an account of it from all angles and in all dimensions.
In each of his paintings and drawings, Giacometti takes us back to the moment of creation ex nihilo; each one of them revives the old metaphysical interrogation: Why is there something rather than nothing?
Beauty has no other origin than the singular wound, different in every case, hidden or visible, which each man bears within himself, which he preserves, and into which he withdraws when he would quit the world for a temporary but authentic solitude. Such art, then, is a far cry from what is called miserabilisme. Giacometti’s art seems to me determined to discover this secret wound in each being and even in each thing, in order for it to illuminate them.
Giacometti’s art is not a social art that would establish a social link between objects—man and his secretions—but rather an art of superior beggars and bums, so pure that they could be united by a recognition of the solitude of every being and of every object. ‘I am alone,’ the object seems to say, ‘hence caught within a necessity against which you are powerless. If I am only what I am, I am indestructible. Being what I am, and unconditionally, my solitude knows yours!’
Giacometti’s walking man approaches us from a distance, as if emerging from primordial stuff, yet that very distance involves us, engrosses us, in a field of awareness in which ours is the individual, the subjective perspective. My argument, through Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, regards the walking figure as an emblem of the fundamental life of perception: unreflective, anti-predicative, concrete living experience. He walks, and in walking, creates a direction and a motion that locate him in our world.
The idea of a primordial self beneath the ego takes us to Beckett’s The Unnamable. The Unnamable invents an ‘I’, as well as other, surrogate characters like Mahood and Worm, because language requires it. But he feels himself existing below or beneath these avatars of consciousness. Names exist in a world presided over by ‘them,’ the Unnamable’s constant antagonists, the Generalized Others who taught him to reason and move about, the ‘delegates’, the bright catechists, who are forever trying to clap a name on him and teach him the ways of their world. Each time he speaks of himself as an ego with a name or pronoun, he joins them. About one of his avatars, Basil, he says, ‘Is he still usurping my name, the one they foisted on me, up there in their world?’. And later, ‘Every day, up above, I mean from one set hour to another set hour, everything there being set and settled, they assemble to discuss me’. He wonders, ‘Are there other pits, deeper down? To which one accedes by mine? Is not this rather the place where one finishes vanishing?’. Like Giacometti’s statues, the Unnamable exists in some atmosphere, or field of perception, to which the positing consciousness has descended.
When he designates himself as Worm, he decides he is in the depths of a pit, looked down upon with alarming interest by ‘them,’ who proceed to try to dislodge him with their voices and get him within reach so that they can drag him into the light of consciousness. He hopes to remain beyond their grasp, to exist at a primordial level. ‘I have dwindled, I dwindle’, he says, deciding at one point that his head is a ‘great smooth ball’ with only eye sockets remaining. Clearly, he hopes to achieve the primal reduction of a Giacometti figure: silent, alone, a hard core of reality in unreflecting touch with phenomena, an object among objects, ‘that unthinkable ancestor of whom nothing can be said’. But he cannot, of course, achieve this state. His consciousness posits continually, asking and rejecting question after question, saying a great deal about himself. It is this tension—at times anguished and at times playful, between the unnamable self and the self that must name—that is the life of Beckett’s narrative. To connect this tension to Giacometti’s figures, it will be useful to focus on the act of walking in Beckett’s fictions, that action that brings Giacometti’s and Beckett’s figures toward us, in a familiarity that relates their primordial world to our own.
For Beckett, to walk is to emerge into a state of consciousness that establishes direction and purpose, to initiate an activity that defines the space around his characters as something other than void. Their famous refrain, that they keep ‘going on’, refers at once to talking and moving, because to name things is to establish a ‘place’ for oneself, and so to create the possibility of movement from one place to another. Like tramps, Beckett’s (and Giacometti’s) figures walk nowhere, but with the purposefulness of walking: ‘Forward! That’s soon said. But where is forward? And why?’, cries the Unnamable.
When Genet wrote ‘an art of superior tramps’, he was referring, in his immediate context, to the way in which Giacometti’s figures establish with us, not a social bond, but a bond of solitude. Tramps have knowledge of this solitude, and the purity of their awareness makes them, in a sense, ‘superior’ to us who have layered over our fundamental selves with the ‘secretions’ of the social and historical. This is the source of the dignity of tramps.
Sartre was speaking of Giacometti, and could as well have been speaking of Beckett, when he said that ‘distance, to his eyes, far from being an accident, is part of the inmost nature of the object’. What we feel about Beckett’s and Giacometti’s tramps is that our distance from them is the space between our perceiving selves and our inmost selves, and this feeling disquiets and strengthens us.
Giacometti highlights an ineffable drama about limits, boundaries, and disputes. We cannot flesh out his characters to stake out larger territories or widen the frame of their identities; nor can we augment the stature of his two-inch figurines to grant them heroic grandeur. Finally, we cannot recuperate the absence from which these figures emerge and still do justice to their difficulty.
For Genet, who vacillated between accepting and rejecting this desolation in Giacometti’s work, the answer seemed to lie in a type of radical nostalgia: ‘We begin to imagine a universe where man, rather than working frantically on visible appearance, might work at undoing it, not only refusing to act on it, but also laying himself bare so as to discover that secret place, within us all, out of which a different human adventure could be born—a more precisely moral one, no doubt’. According to Genet, this ‘undoing’ could still alight on a ‘secret place’; for Giacometti, I think it could not. Yet Genet nonetheless grasped the aim of Giacometti’s ‘subjective detumescence’. By representing both inertia and appeal, Giacometti clarified an urgency we cannot properly speak or ignore. As he argued, ‘The simple fact of living in itself demands such will and such energy’. Against communism and perhaps all social engagement, he also asked, ‘Why should I take a stand that eliminates myself?’.
By binding sculpture to the subject’s anxious persistence, Giacometti asked us to consider a number of difficult tasks: whether we can theorize our interiority in all of its complex manifestations; whether we can imagine a zero degree of existence that is distinct from a zero degree of meaning; and, finally, whether we can isolate death from life to emerge with unquestionable certainty that we are properly—unbearably—awake.
Giacometti: Qu’est-ce qu’une tête? DVD
In Giacometti’s Studio, Michael Peppiatt
Giacometti, Yves Bonnefoy
Giacometti: A Biography, James Lord