Unspeakable Joseph Suart February 2023
In 2010 the philosopher Giorgio Agamben and the painter Monica Ferrando published a book titled La ragazza indicible. Mito e mistero di Kore. Agamben’s essay in this publication was translated in 2014 by Leland de la Durantaye under the title The Unspeakable Girl: the Myth and Mystery of Kore. In the first footnote of this translation, with reference to the word ‘unspeakable’ the translator points out that ‘neither the Greek term nor the Italian one with which the author translates it possesses the English word’s suggestion of impish or malicious misbehaviour. Given the alternative between the idiomatic unspeakable and the calque unsayable, I deemed the former truer to the original.’
In the 15th footnote, with reference to the word ‘in-fantile’, the translator notes Agamben is using it in its literal meaning – ‘being without speech’ – emphasising that this is not about limiting the description to a pre-verbal child and pointing out this is a theme Agamben explores in other works. In this essay Agamben uses it to describe the state of being that is experienced by the participants in the Eleusinian Mystery rites once they have been confronted with the presence of the gods. This is not to be conflated with the developmental stage of being pre-verbal, nor with that of being struck dumb or rendered speechless. It describes access to a state of being and not a symptomatic reaction to shock or amazement. We are being directed towards a subverting of the hierarchical arrangement of experience whereby feeling is considered primarily as a precursor to thinking, which then employs words to establish a supposedly more developed understanding. So, ordinarily in our culture, experience that can be communicated through words is privileged over direct experience which is thereby reduced to the pre-verbal. These two footnotes point out that Agamben uses these words specifically to present an alternative to this hierarchy. In this work of Agamben’s there is an exploration of what is not captured by the definition of the human as being the speaking animal.
In the third book of his Homer Sacer series, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, Agamben writes about those who were named ‘muselmann’ because of the complete unresponsiveness to which they had been reduced by their utter exhaustion through forced labour and starvation. These people, pushed to the extremity of what could be recognised as human, embody the ‘impossibility of bearing witness to what happened’ (Agamben 1998 p53-54). He quotes Primo Levi’s view that the muselmann was ‘he who had seen the Gorgon’, by which Agamben suggests that the ‘impossibility of vision’ initiated by the gorgon provides the frozen dynamic between that which simultaneously can be neither seen nor looked away from. It is impossible to bear witness to that which remains of the human when all aspects of humanity have been stripped away to the mere state of ‘bare life’. And yet in this condition knowledge of it is simultaneously unavoidable. The muselman is the embodiment of one who can no longer avoid the impossibility of knowing and seeing what is there before him. His state of embodied inhumanity demands the attention of the human and this and only this is testimony. This state is one that would be accurately described as traumatic.
In The Unspeakable Girl Agamben notes that when Jung and Kerenyi published Einfuhrung in das Wesen der Mythologie (The Science of Mythology) in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam they hid its contents under a misleading title. For, far from reinforcing rigid gender stereotypes as the Nazi censor would have required, the contents show that the ‘Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis’ are founded upon the inherent archetypal ambiguity of the figure of the ‘Urkind – an originary child’ which is ‘seen […] above all in its androgeny’ (Agamben & Ferrando 2010 p.3). This specific and extensive indeterminacy is repeated in the hermaphroditism of the child archetype and it is this very quality that is shown to be necessary for a progressively redemptive capacity and the ability to supervene conflict.
Ancestral voices calling down the years in and through our culture:
‘Your long golden tongue’, Hermes and Aphrodite coming into one, leaping into and out of the blue under the watchful eye of the horse spirit;
‘She has her stalk he said’, being held one by the other they become, together
Furthermore, Kore, the ‘divine girl’, central figure of the story of Persephone’s abduction and rape by Hades, itself the basis for the Eleusinian Mystery rites for the renewal of life, increases this indeterminacy in a very disturbing fashion. The attribution ‘Kore’ didn’t only apply to Persephone, or young girl, but resists the patriarchal divisions of girl/virgin, (married)woman/mother and crone/grandmother.
Kore: girl, mother and the White haired ones:
‘Conceiving, carrying bearing’
‘Hag’: lost, dissolved, emerging from the brutal blood death/birth
The Greek word, ‘Kore’, derives from a root meaning ‘vital force’ and ‘refers to the principle that makes plants and animals grow’ (Agamben & Ferrando 2010 p 6). The Kore is any untethered girl or woman whose sexuality may be yet budding or budding again and again. It is used to refer as much to any unmarried woman who may be sexually active as to one who has not yet awoken to her sexual life. It is also used in reference to those who are old yet still powerful, ‘children with white hair’ such as the Erinyes.
We have here the story, and the images, of a form of human life that ‘does not allow itself to be “spoken” in so much as it cannot be defined by age, family, sexual identity or social role’ (Agamben & Ferrando 2010 p7). The story was communicated in language only in so much as it is heard as a poem sung from the poetic realm.
The poetic realm is imaginal and it speaks directly from the body to the body.
We read the story of Persephone, Kore, as that of a teenage girl being abducted and raped by her uncle.
‘All the names my father called me’ ‘Tits Bird’
But what if Persephone, daughter of the goddess of fecundity, was overwhelmed by her own burgeoning exuberance and sexuality as it pushed up from inside her like an iris budding in the morning? Pushing up and calling towards the Earth around her with the Sea-breeze and the Sun-warmth. The warming Earth, and the Sun and the Sea, are calling back and drawing the budding upwards and upwards.
She is with friends on the cliffs in the warm Spring sunshine, a gentle sea breeze is ruffling the down on their arms, playing around their ears and their knees as they laugh and bend to smell the flowers, picking them in abundance.
‘Persephone holds the flower’ ‘Persephone, Sunseed’
It is in delight that she is drawn into the face of the flower, kissed into kissing and infiltrated by that irresistible scent; it tickles her nose and slips itself into her, sending a frisson down through her body and out over her skin, spreading and awakening her. What can this be that is stealing over and through her as never before? She doesn’t know what is happening and she can’t stop. Everything is different: the way it looks, the way it feels, the way she feels. Everything is new. Again. Each time she opens her eyes and feels her skin respond. And she is aching for more of it but doesn’t know what it is. This is like it is the very first time. She puts the pomegranate seed in her mouth and nuzzles its sharp flavour with her tongue till it sweetens and creeps down her throat. She is not the one she was before. Everything is gone. No one saw it happen and no one knows where she is. She has disappeared.
‘I love him so’ ‘Lovers’ ‘Making love in every particle’
And with that sexually creative sensuality comes the silent knowledge of death, unnoticed until too late. Unavoidable. Necessary.
Is Trauma what happens when a god takes possession of us without our consent?
‘With Death as my advisor’: prayer child arising from a falling vulva with a contained challenge of aliveness and tension in the line and expression
Trauma: not only the result of annihilatory treatment in the Death Camps.
Trauma: also the silent and unnoticed introduction of death, slipping in where it was least expected and in the very moment when we are opening our budding selves up to the world. The butterfly. Even if predicted, the unknown event lies in wait until long after it can no longer be avoided.
‘Tears of sperm (from his weeping eyes) pour into me, I rise up’
There is a sudden jolt as you realise that you are being treated as if you were someone else. The child has been abducted and given a new name. She is never the same again. Snatched and gone. She, he, they, we, are spoken to as someone else. We have forgotten who they are and we don’t know what happened to them. No memory. He only knows he is here on a temporary basis and one day, somehow, he must find a way back to them. He hadn’t till then known that somewhere below there is a huge space where once his life would have been. The full effect of the destructive moment only becomes known once you are way past the tipping point into the turmoil. I fell through the swirling centre, pulled in and down headlong, unending. All those photos, all those posts, all those likes. Still-falling without understanding; silent scream-rushes in my throat. The one who remains walks under a different name, unsure who is the ghost: them or their other?
The trauma of social media: it offers you the chance to cancel yourself through the lure of constructing who you thought you wanted to be.
Someone has been ghosted. Someone is being cancelled. I can’t remember them. All.
In the story of Wolf Alice a young girl is found in the woods by the nuns and rescued back to their convent. She is filthy and goes on all fours and huddles growling in the corner snarling at them. She doesn’t hear words of love, and never has, but she has felt the tongue of love from her wolf-mother. Though named by Wolf Alice, is she not also vitalised by Kore and so Persephone by another name? Is she not ‘the bud of flesh in the kind lion’s mouth’ (A. Carter 1979)? Untameable, she is given to the Duke who feeds on the dead, exhuming recent graves in the local churchyard at night, lurching off with a recent-bride’s torso slung over his shoulder. Death is all around her and she is unafraid. She watches the moon waxing to full and is awoken by the bleeding between her legs. The Duke of Death is ambushed and shot. And Wolf Alice, newly emerging into herself under the gentle caress of her own care, is able to share that loving touch with him. Her loving tongue soothes him as he struggles to survive the wounds of murderous intent inflicted by the humans ambushing him from the Church.
‘page of collaboration: text with tongue, distress, longing’
In The Remnants of Auschwitz Agamben delineates that which eludes being captured by words: the trauma of annihilation.
In The Unspeakable Girl Agamben’s exploration of the Eleusinian Mystery rites appears to present an alternative understanding of Persephone’s trauma as being one that leads to an experience of ecstatic re-birth. The essence of this experience refuses colonisation or interpretation, is not restricted to an elite or retained for the select, but is open to all. It cannot be transmitted or described; it can only be experienced in the body. The Kore, the young girl, the essence of vital life, is re-born from the trauma. This is Wolf Alice. This is also Little Kate being brought back to an enlivened beingness through the tiny ink drawings and the paintings.
‘Finding Little Kate’ suspended, momentarily
The paintings in this exhibition of the Unspeakable are like still-shot images from a renaissance of life out of the trauma of the once lost. They pulse with life caught momentarily in an eternal present, balanced between an impossibly uncertain past and a tremulously reached-for future.
In another small book published with the title Ninfe three years before The Unspeakable Girl, Agamben quotes Walter Benjamin’s note that the ‘image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now (jetzt) to form a constellation […] a threshold between immobility and movement.’ (Agamben 2007 p26)
Ninfe, published in translation under the title Nymphs in 2011, appears to track the spoor of the moment of coming into being as it has threaded its way through the work of artists and philosophers through the Renaissance from the Medieval to the Modern. There are instances of suspension at which this moment of coming into being can be witnessed or experienced; and these instances are unspeakable and not unconnected to trauma.
Agamben’s work makes the case that it is precisely and only in these instances of suspension that the image itself can come into being, can come to life, being rescued from what he quotes Benjamin as describing as merely ‘alienated things’ that have been ‘hollowed out’ (Agamben 2007 p28). He is making a subtle but crucial point: hollowed out alienated things are not images, they are signs emptied of all meaning, where ‘meaning’ appears as the opposite of death.
‘Angel with child (self-portrait)’: The nymph begins to acquire her soul
In Kate Walters’ work presented in this exhibition we see these images being nursed into being out of the inchoate uncertainties of her own traumatic experience which is both hers and that of all of us who, confronted with the shock of the not-understood, continue struggling towards awareness, continue pushing and being pulled towards the sun.
‘Rasa watercolour’ ‘Hiding in a wall’
As we can see in the texture and gesture of line, colour and medium, embodiment of ink or oil pigment, these moments of suspension are both powerful and fragile, constantly eluding us and on the point of disappearing. Agamben quotes Benjamin: ‘images are constellated between alienated things and incoming and disappearing meanings – are instantiated in the moment of indifference between death and meaning’ (Agamben 2007 p29). As Agamben says ‘the dialectical image holds its object suspended in a semantic void’ (Agamben 2007 p29/30).
‘Creatureliness and dreaming of you’
Our experience in that ‘semantic void’ is to witness and to have testimony of that moment impressed upon us primarily in, not through, our body’s senses. These works are themselves unspeakable because they have to be understood in the moment of being that is held in the body. They are also moments in which seeing the Medusa becomes revelatory rather than deathly.
Little Kate, as she comes into view through the ink spilling itself over the typed words of little books, brings with her something from her past and ours that gets reworked in the very act of her formation and this process of vitalization, of renaissance, appears almost epiphanic. It is for this that Little Kate is also Kore, Persephone, kissing the flower thrusting into her whole face, overwhelmed by her own sex and so vulnerable to being captured and exploited by the male gaze of patriarchal power and having to find an Eleusinian way to resist.
Persephone’s story comes to us through the Homeric poem called the ‘Hymn to Demeter’. The Hymn was an oral performance which conveyed what had happened to those listening so they would share in the experience and bear witness to its effects. Agamben quotes Albert Lord on Homeric poems: ‘an oral poem is not composed for but in performance’ (Agamben 2007 p13/14). He links this to Aby Warburg’s theory of Pathosformeln in that they too ‘are hybrids of matter and form, of creation and performance, of first-timeness (primovoltita) and repetition.’ (Agamben 2007 p14) Each repetition with which the image is brought to life, is an instance of first-timeness, because it takes place in the performative space between the work and the witness.
‘Kissing the Angel’
Aby Warburg’s theory of Pathosformeln traces the persistent and elusive appearance in pictorial art of the formulated range of gestural instances of passion. One of which, the nymph, is the subject of the 46th plate of Mnemosyne Atlas. None of the nymphs depicted in plate 46 can be considered the ‘original’ and none of them are ‘copies’, each nymph, Agamben writes, ‘is an indiscernible blend of originariness and repetition, of form and matter’ and so is ‘a being whose form punctually coincides with its matter and whose origin is indissoluble from its becoming’ and that a being such as this ‘is what we call time’. ‘Pathosformeln are made of time – they are crystals of historical memory, crystals which are ‘phantasmatized’ (in Domenico’s sense) and round which time writes its choreography.’ (Agamben 2007 p15)
Through the concentrated devotion that enables an opening of the imagination, the ‘hollowed out’ ‘alienated things’ are drawn up by an artist like Kate Walters out of the swirling memorial past into a momentary suspension on the canvas (or page) where they are infilled with the beingness of images that have ‘charged themselves with time almost to the point of exploding’ (Agamben 2007 p4), creating the threshold between immobility and movement.
‘Girl with spirit animals breathing…’ ‘into her crown’
In Warburg’s description of the nymph as also ‘an elemental spirit (Elementargeist), a pagan goddess in exile’ (Agamben 2007 p39) Agamben recognises a reference to Paracelsus’ essay ‘De nymphis, sylphis, pygmies et salamandris et caeteris spiritibus’ which explores the nature of a creature of the spirit. All of these have bodies, like animals, and can reason, like humans, but because they are also of a spirit nature they do not have souls. However, the nymph can acquire a soul by copulating with a man, and any children she might bear will also have souls (Agamben 2007 p 45).
‘I meet my Angel Out Ahead’ ‘Beatrice in Paradiso’
Agamben describes these elemental spirits as constituting ‘the ideal archetype of every separation of man from himself’ (Agamben 2007 p44). If we interpret ‘man’ and ‘himself’ as being an indeterminate gender term, we might see that the joining of the nymph with the body of the artist, and with the body of the witness, is the process by which this separation is healed. Furthermore, it is a re-enactment of the epiphanic moment that renews itself into an originary experience each time we look at one of the paintings in this exhibition of Kate Walters.
‘Third eye, third mouth. Tiny drawing in a book’
Agamben writes with reference to Averroes (aka Ibn Rushd) that ‘imagination delineates a space in which we are not yet thinking, in which thought becomes possible through an impossibility to think’ (Agamben 2007 p55-6), and that thinking is made possible by uniting (copulating) with the phantasms/images of imagination and memory, ‘which are the ultimate constituents of the human and the only avenues to its possible rescue’ (Agamben 2007 p56).
The image suspended and charged with time requires an experiential union within the poetic and imaginal body of the artist and thereafter of the witness. This is the place where meaning comes into being, where soul is made and where psychic reality is enabled to emerge. The psychic reality of who each one of us experiences ourselves to be, the collective psychic reality of our daily cultural experience, is formed by this unfolding process.