Walid Sadek, The Impregnated Witness 1

Disconcerting, St. John of Patmos sits in ease on a rocky promontory looking at the Unnamed in all his glory, appearing from within a conical disk with one flaming circular rainbow behind his seat and another demarcating the outer edge of the disk. Witness to a revelation, St. John seems ek-static, physically untouched and emotionally unruffled. His lean lower leg delicately extends out from beneath the generous folds of his pale pink tunic, and both feet, soft and untried, barely touch the scanty grass. His notebook is open. Effortlessly, he writes. Nib on paper sharpened by the penknife and blackened in the ink well, he has been writing; gestures in concert with the unfolding revelation. Privy to witness the end, he looks with unhurried attentiveness. He sees, that is all.

In Hans Memling’s (ca. 1430–94) right panel of the altarpiece The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine,2 St. John of Patmos is represented as a witness to the apocalypse, as someone who sees. He is graced, because unique, witness to the end of a world he knew as well as to the coming of an eternal reign, a divine time wherein all he experienced and lived would be radically altered. Memling’s St. John is disconcerting because he is a mortal man present to his own end. St. John sees what ought to be physically unbearable to him and ought also to be mentally unintelligible. He spectates what should in actuality annihilate him. Yet Memling, the painter, seems decided as to the terminal vision to which he attaches St. John: Unconcerned by the calamitous events that punctuate the landscape and the high sky behind him and to his right, St. John’s sight is made to rest on God, the Unmoved Mover, who initiates an end and will preside over a new beginning. Accordingly, one might propose that the many scenes of destructive fires, sinking ships, four deadly horsemen, and seven-headed dragons in that panel are the necessary hyphen over which the mortal witness will cross onto a timeless, post-apocalyptic continuance. Accordingly, Memling can be said to have read and painted the Book of Revelation, beginning with its concluding sentences: “He, Who is Witness to all this, says, Yes, I am coming very quickly!”3

Yet Memling’s panel contains a contrary indication. A detail in the background, just below the horizon, offers a rather timid depiction of chapter ten in the Book of Revelation. We see that mighty angel clothed in a cloud with a rainbow around his head, his right hand raised toward the heavens as he extends a small open book with his left down at St. John, who reaches for it from a safe distance. Several of the visual cues in chapter ten are therefore employed by Memling, but only in a dutiful indication of an event that, if attentively depicted, could in fact undo the principal conceptual structure of his work. For if, almost in its entirety, the Book of Revelation follows a structure by which St. John witnesses from a safe and privileged distance, in chapter ten that structure is disturbed. Unheralded in the preceding chapters and curiously without consequences in the following chapters, this tenth chapter is the only event of the book, an event that can be thought of through the theoretical framework developed by Jean-François Lyotard and commented by Bill Readings as one after which nothing will ever be the same again and which “disrupts [the] pre-existing referential frame within which it might be represented or understood.”4 For in that concise tenth chapter, St. John is demoted from a privileged witnessing to a violent corporeal engagement with the vision:

Then the voice which I had heard from Heaven was again in my ears, saying,
“Go and take the little book which lies open in the hand of the angel whose feet are planted on both sea and land.”
So I went off towards the angel, asking him to give me the little book.
“Take it,” he said to me, “and eat it up. It will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.”
Then I took the little book from the angel’s hand and swallowed it. It was as sweet as honey to the taste but when I had eaten it up it was bitter to my stomach.5
St. John eats what until then he was allowed to see. The vision is shut down and replaced by ingestion. The envisaged revelation collapses into the dense organic insides of the witness. If the revelation is an event because it causes an interruption in space-time, then chapter ten is a caesura within the revelation. It is an event that disrupts the referential frame of the witness that allowed a representation, albeit descriptive. And because of this disruption, Memling seems hesitant. His panel does no more than allude to the chapter, which stands in the book as the solitary corporeal reverse to a preferred visual revelatory obverse. In attempting to offer a single image of the Book of Revelation in its entirety, Memling is necessarily partial. The chapters of Revelation that expound in detail on visions are in fact punctured by this one chapter that signals a blinding. Accordingly, a general visual depiction such as Memling’s must ignore, or in the least misrepresent, that one contrary event in order for it to visually cohere.

Working during the first decade of the 16th century, Albrecht Dürer chose not a comprehensive and simultaneous depiction of the Book of Revelation but a series of woodcuts.6 His approach allows, as is evident in plate 2, titled The Great Angel, a forceful, even brutal depiction of chapter ten. In a congested composition, starkly rendered in black and white, we see the mighty angel and St. John fully engaged. A face marked by wrath, the angel looks sternly ahead while St. John grabs the little book with both hands, as one corner of the open book spills into his open mouth. The image is bluntly iconoclastic, for it occults the image/object, namely the book, by drowning it deep in the insides of the witness. St. John is abducted away from his writing tools, his tools of representation – seen strewn on a boulder to his left – and impregnated by the event from which he until then had remained separate. In Dürer’s woodcut print, we are given an uncompromising depiction of the collapsed distance between event and witness, and between message and messenger. Impregnated, St. John is literally carrying a message he has not read. The little book, as open as it appears, is not to be read but rather ingested, a situation that leads to the proposition that the message, if any, which might be released from within St. John’s insides, will not be a message at all but rather an event to himself. Accordingly, St. John can be said to carry that over which he has no authority, or, in other words, that of which he can no longer speak. Eating the little book is an experience that determines him more so than an experience that he undergoes. In other words, he is with book and as such he is an unprecedented and unexpected event. St. John is necessarily and radically current, an imminent it happens rather than what is happening. Dead to his own past as a witness, he could be described as one who lives a stretched duration without sequel, a duration that will be interrupted and replaced by that which the event will initiate. Can St. John remain a witness? Can he still write while carrying inside him what in fact turns him into eventhood? The event of chapter ten leaves the witness without criteria. Accordingly, St. John of Patmos might be proffered as the extreme figure of a muted witness, consumed from within by an event of which he owns no means of representation. From spectating the sublime to being invaded by sublimity – such is the exorbitant consequence of an unprecedented or at least unpredictable event. But if we were to elaborate further on the impregnation of the witness by the event and on the shift from a viewing at a distance to a proximity that denies the subject his constitutive ability to see, can we do so without necessarily walking headlong into the tropes of a traumatic scenario? This tenth chapter is veritably compelling, not just a mere curiosity in the midst of a book that does not heed its consequences. It is a call to reconsider the difficulty of witnessing what overwhelms, outside the assumptions of unrepresentability, of a sacral catastrophe; in other words, outside trauma theory.7 From contemplation to ingestion or, more pointedly, from seeing to eating is precisely the extent of the shift needed to think the aesthetics of witnessing in terms other than those that consider the overwhelming as necessarily debilitating because of the sudden transformation of a sublime there-ness to be spectated from a distance into a corporeal proximity. This shift opens up a path away from the notion of a traumatic and therefore unregistered event that cannot be spoken except in the compound verb tense of a futur antérieur, as a past that will have happened or, in other words, a past that will not be known except following another event that will, if at all, happen in the future and make the past possibly representable. It is a shift that calls for thinking the allegedly overwhelming as an over-here, a here awash and yet a here that can still be spoken even if only in another tongue. Fadi El Abdallah intimates such a move in a poem that weighs the sensorial disposition of St. John. He writes, “[A]nd yet bitterness as far as we know can only be tasted by the tongue. Could it be that his [St. John’s] belly – aching stomach and bitter hollows, insides undoubtedly wounded by the papers’ edges – has become an unspeaking tongue, a tongue for tasting?”8 El Abdallah is perspicacious in questioning the curious phenomenology of a belly that tastes. For the forced impregnation to which St. John dutifully submits does not only disturb his internal composition through misplacement; more importantly it reorganizes his sensorium through displacement. The belly that is robbed of its gustatory oblivion by the object of the book is given a sensory ability it now shares with another organ placed elsewhere. It is a displacement that is neither redundant nor complete; rather, it is organically structured along a splitting of the gustatory sense between a sweet tasting tip of the tongue and a bitter tasting back area of the tongue which, in this particular and drastic case, slipped far down and way below the back of the tongue and into the belly. This intimation by El Abdallah proffers the ingested book in St. John’s belly not as a complete and dormant object with a potential for eruption but rather as already active in reshuffling the perceptions, and possibly emittances, of the witness. The dormant object paralyzes in its portentous silence and in its insalubrious misplacement. The active object vexes the internal order and the division of labor of the organs as well as of the senses, provoking a speaking that may not easily be heard as such because it is already split and displaced. Accordingly, the impregnated figure of St. John appears diminished through the loss of its discursive representational capability, but also increased by a forked tonguing and possibly a split speaking that radically dissociates the voice from its culturally assumed performance of the subject who voices. St. John can no longer voice himself into presence through the uttering of sounds that begin inside him and then vocally leave him to pass over into the external world.9 The drastic event he undergoes is certainly violent. Enough to displace, seize and arrest the reproduction of the unitary self through the activity of the voice, having done away with the previous subject position of witness by stripping it of the attributes of the spectator who describes. And yet, the impregnation remains possibly generative; the figure of St. John seems capable of saying much, of conversing with its forked self, of saying more than one thing simultaneously and without obstruction. The figure of St. John is ventriloquial; it speaks even if without one ascertainable and authorial reference point, without an assumed single source of emittance.

To speak the drastic event, a loss must be registered. In fact, it is the registering of loss that allows for the event to be spoken. Yet, both this registering and this speaking can vary much and are hard to gauge in any single coherent schema unless a difference is found within the structure of one work, as in the extremely rich pages of Fawwaz Trabulsi’s autobiography titled Surat al Fata bil Ahmar.10 In this wide-ranging book, eminently resistant to anecdotal summary, a difference between a registering of loss that prompts renewed action and another that causes a particular forked tonguing and a ventriloquial speaking is made available. It is a book that offers a rare and clear instance for thinking the diverging consequences of two drastic events for Trabulsi, a founding member of the Organization for Communist Action in Lebanon,11 and of whom the least that can be said is that he was and remains an indefatigable political thinker. Early in his autobiography he writes of his arrest in Beirut for partaking in the protest-demonstrations that followed Gamal Abdel Nasser’s announced resignation on June 8, 1967: “I recounted to the incarcerated how the [June 1967] war ended, as if convinced myself that the defeat was indeed so. Back in my cell behind a locked door, I took my head with both hands and wept.”12 Such candour is not rare in Trabulsi’s autobiography. Yet this passage holds more than pathos – it heralds the beginning of a long and tortuous political struggle that led him across the Arab world, through several attempts at political organizations and into the complicated arena of the Lebanese Civil War. Read linearly, the story of bitter tears shed in solitary confinement is a preface to what later grows into a significantly generative ideological formulation of postcolonial struggle for fundamental change in Lebanon and the Arab world. But autobiographies, at least those of any purport and relevance, are not constructed along a sequential temporal line. And Trabulsi’s is notable in this respect. Yet non-sequential as it is in its literary excursuses and lengthy economic analyses, it offers a structural counterweight to the above incident and the journey it prompted. Toward the end of the book, following a very memorable personal account of the fall of Beirut in 1982 and the first sentient sparks of local resistance to the Israeli occupying army, Trabulsi’s twelfth chapter takes the reader on a journey through his Parisian exile guided by the concocted character of Al Fawanjisi, a litterateur whose name is formed of the author’s own full name of Fawwaz Najib Trabulsi, who seems to have inherited the wit, dash, and irony of the Ottoman scholar, writer, and journalist Ahmad Faris Shidyaq (1804–87), known among many other things for his biting reviews of Parisian living published in a kaleidoscopic book lengthily titled Al-Saq ‘ala al-Saq.13 Are the many paragraphs of Shidyaq that punctuate the pages of this chapter merely quotations? Are we reading the work of an ingenious storyteller weaving his views with those of a renowned precedent who also projected himself into another characterful concoction named Al Faryiaq? Is this chapter a work of filiation?14 My argument does not aim to deprive the work of Trabulsi of intentional structural complexity. Rather, it proposes that the decision to quote adds a necessary complexity that attempts to speak differently the conditions of one too many exiles. For Trabulsi’s autobiography is clearly aware of the cost of exile and its consequences, as in the eighth chapter, which reconstructs his early forced exit from Lebanon in 1976, following the incursion of Syrian forces, and his temporary stay in Paris during which he and others like him steadfastly resisted the difficult job of exile through the practice of Arabicizing the names of places and locations:15 a café in the Place d’Italie is renamed Abu Khodr, and the suburb of St. Denis becomes Al Nab‘a.16 In this early experience of forced exile, Trabulsi’s account follows the familiar trope of the dislocated political activist who grapples with an estranging distance from the land of his struggle, a distance that turns his sight into an all-too-physical near-blindness: “But something has changed. You find yourself as someone suddenly aware that he is about to lose his sight. Homeland? Where is it? Your fingers grope for a face, once familiar, recollecting its countenance.”17 The ensuing reaction is a defensive move to safeguard what remains of his estranged self: “Not you whose sight is blurred by darkness, it is the homeland resembling one wounded and buried alive, moaning and barely moving its limbs under the wreckage.”18 The metaphors that construct this first exile are an extension of those founding tears shed in the isolation of the prison cell. For Trabulsi, the exile of 1976 cannot be spoken except in the language of a troubled longing for a localizable and nameable arena of struggle, a land from which he was torn and for which he gropes. The exacerbation of the relationship between the exiled and his homeland to the point of near-blindness comes to overshadow both with a necessary miscommunication, maintaining the presence of both through the signifier of loss. This is not the case in the description of his later exile in 1984 following the fall of Beirut. Then, Trabulsi forks his language and turns estrangement into a generative ironic distance, not from the remote homeland but rather from the place of exile of which he speaks, or rather ventriloquizes. To speak of irony as the carving of a distance from the conditions that could determine speech or even the muting of speech is to propose irony as a defensive measure, or rather a tactical dance with duress and danger. Consider the opening sentence of chapter twelve: “Of his observations in the Parisian underworld, Al Fawanjisi said…”19 What follows is therefore not an account straightforwardly written by Trabulsi and punctuated by a number of short and lengthy quotations in bold letters culled from Shidyaq’s book. Rather, it is a long chapter in which the third person address of Shidyaq’s Al Faryiaq is enveloped by the third person address of the concocted character of Al Fawanjisi: “The seated blonde facing Al Fawanjisi is encumbered by her short skirt…[it] rises above the knees, the thighs and their inner sides as she assiduously pushes it back down, perplexed, she places one leg over the other. Al Faryiaq, O deliver us.”20 What this chapter does, through Al Faryiaq and Al Fawanjisi, is put forth a speaking tongue that emits from elsewhere, a tongue that speaks from within a dense ingested internality. It is also a form of enunciation that gives the slip, so it seems, to the otherwise prevalent voicings of the estranged self as well as that of the wounded voice muted by the onslaught of a drastic event. In this twelfth chapter, the author’s voice descends into his belly in search of contiguity with another remembered or reconstructed tongue. Forked, it speaks the folly of Parisians, the dystopia of capitalistic democracy, the deadly solitariness of individuals, and the uninterruptible and unforgiving urban logic of circulation. In other terms, the tongue in this chapter is loose and verbose, dispatching reproaches, ridiculing and berating but also lamenting in a flow of observations that keep the exiled self if not anchored in its primary struggle then at least maintained as vociferous and irksome. Ingested, the drastic event makes for a noisy belly and a flatulent self, expelling a cloud of opinions into a world in which it no longer fully belongs and yet from which it is unwilling to merely fall. Can it be that the aesthetics of the impregnated witness are found and gathered on the shores of verbose ventriloquism rather than on those of wounded pathos and traumatized mutism?

The descriptive opening part of this essay on Memling’s altarpiece and Dürer’s woodcut was first published as an epilogue in the catalogue of an exhibition of rarely seen paintings, drawings and sculptures produced by artists working in Lebanon during the embattled years of 1975–91.21 The exhibition was titled The Road to Peace: Paintings in Times of War.22 It attracted much attention but in retrospect could be said to have been a missed opportunity. The debate over what distinguishes art produced during the war from that which is made after remained at the level of an intimated assumption that such art, because it comes from within the furnace of war, is somehow expected to manifest a greater degree of emotional strife and dislocated formal complexities. With this assumption left unexamined, the debate around the exhibition tellingly slipped back into a squabble over the proper assignation and vetting of the exhibition’s artifacts. Reconsidering the proceedings of that exhibition, I think that neither the organizers, nor the audience, nor the tentative critical texts, mine included, were capable of receiving and responding to its challenge. And I think that this was due to our misconstruing the proximity to war as something that would necessarily cause an increased pathos and an aesthetic of the tragic, if not the sublime. Truly, the works exhibited did pluck a strained chord and reveled in the imagery of the rubble-strewn. Cadavers abounded, horrified faces were many, and dripping painterly brushwork stepped in wherever the figurative receded. Notwithstanding very few exceptions that seemed to favor a slightly more reasoned pictorial construction and a preference for indirect allusions to war, the exhibition offered much in terms of the gruesome spectacle of a humanity mangled by the machines of war. More important, we all expected and even wished that this art of the war years would manifest precisely such a heightened iconographic and emotional intensity: the analogies were readily available in a maudlin litany of war and death, destruction and loss, and thus, it must be said, the discourse was, as is often the case, always already present in framing the exhibition and its reception. Could it be that the alleged missed opportunity to debate was in fact caused by an art that behaved as post-war art rather than an art drowned in war? Could it be that its heightened pathos and distressed iconography was already not within the crucible of war but rather was practicing looking at war from the distance of the wounded victim who survives the war and testifies to its violence? The puzzling story of the impregnated St. John of Patmos, extended into the construction of a subject with a verbose ventriloquial forked tongue, proposes that the work that carries the drastic event will most probably not exhibit pathos but rather give it the slip: levity instead of heightened emotion, irony rather than brutal imagery, and verbosity instead of the emblematic image or word. Impregnated by the event, the witness does not testify as much as release his tongue(s) in a dance of signifiers that register loss and initiate the process of weaving it in a flood of words or images seeking to reconstitute the speaking subject and the history for which he is responsible.

1. Published in ArtMargins, MIT Press, vol. 2, issue 2, June 2013, pp. 3–13.

2. Hans Memling, The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, oil on panels, triptych, 172 x 79 cm when opened, 1475–79, St. John’s Hospital, Bruges, Belgium

3. J.B. Phillips, The Book of Revelation; A New Translation of the Apocalypse (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1957), p. 55.

4. Bill Readings, Introducing Lyotard: Art and Politics (London: Routledge, 1991), p. xxxi. In one concise formulation, Lyotard writes of the incommensurability of the event with how we might come to speak or represent it: “In sum, there are events: something happens which is not tautological with what has happened.” Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), p. 79.

5. Phillips, The Book of Revelation, p. 23.

6. Albrecht Dürer, Apocalipsis in Figuris, Latin edition, 15 engravings, ca. 30 x 32.8 cm each, 1511.

7. Central to the extensive literature on trauma theory is the notion of latency, which keeps the drastic event unrepresentable to the person who experienced it. The notion was developed by Freud through the example of the man who experiences a frightful accident such as a railway collision and “leaves the scene of the event apparently uninjured.” Sigmund Freud, The Origins of Religion (London: Penguin, 1990), p. 309. For a lucid discussion of latency and traumatic neurosis, see Pnina Shinebourne, “Trauma and Culture: On Freud’s Writing about Trauma and Its Resonances in Contemporary Cultural Discourse” in British Journal of Psychotherapy, vol. 22, no. 3, 2006, pp. 335–345.

8. Fadi El Abdallah, “Thalath Shahadat” in the daily An-Nahar, 07/14/2009, p. 14. Translation mine.

9. Steve Connor argues that an understanding of the voice as an activity that begins in internality and moves toward an externality is a structural dissociation that is nevertheless constitutive of the unitary speaking subject. See his Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 3–7.

10. Fawwaz Trabulsi, Surat al Fata bil Ahmar (“A Portrait of the Young Man in Red”) (London: Riad El-Rayyes Books, 1997).

11. The Organization for Communist Action in Lebanon (OCAL) began in 1970 and was officially founded in May 1971. Although the organization defined itself first through political action, it gradually entered into armed resistance
alongside other pan-Arab and left wing groups in an effort to radically change the political system in Lebanon. For more, see Sami Thebyan, Al Haraka al Wataniyya al Lubnaniyya (“The Lebanese National Movement”) (Beirut: Dar al Masira, 1977), pp. 205–23.

12. Trabulsi, Surat al Fata bil Ahmar, p. 65. This and subsequent translations mine.

13. Ahmad Faris Shidyaq, Al-Saq ‘ala al-Saq (“One Leg Over the Other”), Beirut: Dar Maktabat al-Hayah, 1966.
Ahmad Faris Shidyaq, Al-Saq ‘ala al-Saq (“One Leg Over the Other”), Beirut: Dar Maktabat al-Hayah, 1966.

14. On the determination of a work by filiation as opposed to a text’s unnamable and untraceable citations, see
Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text” in Image, Music, Text (New York: Noonday Press Edition, 1988), pp. 159–60.

15. “In chapter 8, I write of when I left Lebanon in 1976 following the entry of the Syrian forces for a number of reasons which now seem vague to me. I was responsible for the external affairs of OCAL and so was based in Paris for a while. But I was also warned of being on the hit-list of the Syrian forces. I did not stay long away, came back and did not circulate much. I remember being taken to and from the airport by Yemeni diplomats and officers of the Arab Deterrent Forces.” Fawwaz Trabulsi, email to the author, December 16, 2012, slightly edited.

16. Trabulsi, Surat al Fata bil Ahmar, pp. 169–70.

17. Ibid., p. 170.

18. Ibid., p. 171.

19. Ibid., p. 237.

20. Ibid., p. 240.

21. Walid Sadek, “The Impregnated Witness: Notes on the Event Within” in The Road to Peace: Paintings in Times of War, exh. cat. (Beirut: Alarm Editions, 2009), pp. 55–57.

22. The Road to Peace: Paintings in Times of War, curated by Saleh Barakat, Beirut Art Center, June 17–July 14, 2009.