Most of the time, for most of us, the world is too solid, too reified, too much a “given” to be transpierced by transcendence. So, in the mundane, Jean-Luc Marion argues in God Without Being, the world settles as an idol in which our gaze settles and rests. The world is not transparent; we don’t see through it, nor are we seen through it. We are sealed and protected from the “crossing of being.”
If it’s going to be any different, Marion suggests, something has to change, and what has to change, in phenomenological terms, is our “attitude.” Now, we can’t produce the icon (then it would be a product of us, and remain an idol); however, we might be able to identify a kind of pre-iconic attitude—an attitude ready to receive the gift of the icon, open to being envisaged—an attitude where the screen of Being has been thinned to transparency:
We are looking for an attitude where the gaze no longer would freeze in a first (and last) visible, though not yet find itself envisaged by the invisible, whose initiative still escapes it; in a word, we are looking for an attitude where the gaze no longer would see any idol, though still not pretending to the impossible agape; a gaze, therefore, that would see nothing that it does not immediately transpierce…
And where does Marion find such an attitude? In fiction. Such an attitude is sketched, for example, in Valéry’s picture of Monsieur Teste’s “idoloclastic” gaze which settles on nothing and transpierces everything, but is not (yet?) encountered something Other: “Nothing stops [his gaze], precisely because it reduces to nothingness everything offered to its sight.” His attitude/gaze disqualifies the pretensions of the spectacle—“as if nothing were.” Teste’s gaze transpierces idols, though his self-hatred also prevents him from being envisaged. While Teste goes beyond idols, that doesn’t mean he’s reached the icon: rather he’s suspended between the twilight of the idols and the dawn of the icon: “For we can go beyond the idols, without however receiving the icon that envisages us.”
But in a strange way, this might be something to which we aspire because it opens the possibility of the icon: “when we see like Teste, with one eye too many, we undoubtedly see nothing (as regards the idol), and we let ourselves be envisaged by nothing (as regards the icon); but this nothing, once again, does not mean nothing.” This nothingness is significant.
And what precipitates such an attitude? Boredom. Boredom dissolves the idol because it “does not have any interest whatsoever in what may be.” “The gaze of boredom neither denies nor affirms; it abandons, so far as to abandon itself, with neither love not hate, through pure indifference.” It is boredom’s utter indifference that absolves it from everything and hence dissolves everything; everything becomes as nothing: “It sees all and nothing, all as nothing, all that is as if it were not.” This is the vanity of Ecclesiastes: “Boredom’s gaze strikes being in general with vanity.”
“Striking with vanity therefore amounts to placing in suspension, to leaving the case (of all) in suspension.” Such boredom is indifferent to Being (127): “to be or not to be, that is not the question.” Boredom “sees the world not as the assured subsistence of a (self) presence that is saturated (with itself), but as a suspension, suspended by that which goes beyond.” In this sense, the effect of boredom/vanity is to almost appreciate the world as creation, as a contingent suspension. Such a standpoint sees the world “from the point of view, not of the world, but of the exteriority of the world—between world and Gxd. He sees the world not, to be sure, as Gxd sees it, but as seen by Gxd—as bathed in another light, transfixed by exteriority, suspended by another breath.”
This is at once near and far from “the gaze that can love,” Marion suggests. “Vanity arises from a gaze that exceeds Being/being without yet acceding to charity.” This space between boredom and charity is melancholy which “looks at everything without seeing anything.” Marion is giving us a frame to see Dürer’s Melancolia with new eyes.
The gaze of melancholy does not rest on the works of art; it transpierces to something beyond, something exterior, without yet being envisaged. The melancholy gaze of boredom sees through without yet being seen. The only thing that can halt the “advance” of melancholy is agape. (Is it so crazy to say I feel all of this while listening to Phoebe Bridgers?)
Vanity, then, is a kind of propadeutic to grace. When the thickness of the world is transpierced by boredom and melancholy, then the world is “thinned” to the point of being exposed to what’s beyond the world, even if I am not yet envisaged. One might suggest something like this is at work in decadents like Baudelaire and Huysmans—the world in which they indulge does not return their interest, and thus the world begins to decay in front of them, and the deep dissatisfaction nullifies any interest in the world. And it is at that point that they are open to transcendence.
As an early reviewer of Huysmans presciently commented: “‘After Fleurs du mal,’ I told Baudelaire, ‘it only remains for you to choose between the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the Cross.’ Baudelaire chose the foot of the Cross. But will the author of A Rebours make the same choice?” Prescient because, for Huysmans, of course, his melancholic brief Against Nature set him En Route to The Cathedral.
This is a summary of chapter 4, “The Reverse of Vanity,” in Jean-Luc Marion’s God Without Being, a book that has shaped me more than I could possibly say.
Someday I hope to write something on boredom (I guess a pandemic was the time to be doing that?!). When I do, I’ll be returning to Heidegger’s fascinating phenomenology of boredom in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics.
Also related to this discussion is a fascinating but overlooked book by Conor Cunningham called Genealogy of Nihilism that provocatively considers the way nihilism could be a preamble to transcendence.