Lefort’s forward to The Visible and the Invisible reads well as a eulogy, DE PROFUNDIS, to his dead friend, colleague & mentor -- Maurice Merleau-Ponty. It rings true, expressing in philosophical language his profound sense of loss. Lefort discovers he has harbored an expectation: that which is -- will always be. He finds this expectation to be but a veil swiftly torn asunder by the sword of mortality. Here is the abyss opened by death now that the “living” voice has been silenced -- the conversation terminated; the possibility of dialogue nullified. Although the questions raised & the answers given in the editor’s forward are intriguing in their own right, I felt a strange discordance in Lefort’s proposition that upon the “death’ of the author the “work” changes drastically becoming something that “lives on the outside. Like things of nature, like facts of history...”[xiii] as a forward to the last & uncompleted work of Merleau-Ponty, the auteur of “phenomenological positivism.” [“These words define a position and launch a program in philosophy which Merleau-Ponty described in many different ways but which he has at least twice forthrightly called...” from the "Introduction" to The Primacy of Perception p.xvi]
The editor’s forward raises the question of how do we read [comprehend & respond] to a work once the author is no longer alive. Lefort seems to contend that with the author’s passing the work passes into “history,” and our relationship to it is drastically altered. With the author’s passing, the work becomes a finite entity unto itself, so that it is only “what it says and nothing more...”[xi]
In this view, death is the ultimate magic trick, whereupon the writer [author] disappears, leaving us only the work. Does death create an object without a subject?
Lefort provides an answer of sorts,” It is therefore not saying much to say that the work survives the writer, that when incompletion will be forgotten, we will know only the plenitude of its meaning.”[xiv] Actually, what it says to me is that Lefort’s forward was written not only as a eulogy but also as a pre-parry to the anticipated thrusts of the philosophical community towards the publishing of an unfinished work. And sure enough, in the subsequent paragraphs he goes on [and on... and on... and on... OK I ‘fess up: I found the “forward” interminable; reading it often made me feel like I was trapped in an endless bog that was so poorly written as to be on the verge of phenomenological parody.] to support the publication of the manuscript. Lefort concludes the eulogistic portion of his “forward” by making a case for the presentation of an unfinished work on the grounds that it is only differs from a “finished" work in the degree of its incompleteness. “Whether the writer’s labor seems to have come to its term or not is, therefore, of little importance: as soon as we are confronted with the work, we are faced with the same indetermination; and the more we penetrate into its domain, the more our knowledge increases and the less we are capable of putting a limit to our questions. In the end we have to admit that we communicate with it only by reason of its indetermination.” [xvi]
By reminding us that all texts are indeterminate and, more importantly, that it is by virtue of this indeterminacy that the Reader can embrace a text, Lefort seeks to quell any reluctance on our part towards engaging with this text as we would with any other text. [and what a relief I felt to finally arrive at a thought I could hang my hat on.] Although certainly we will need to keep this “unfinished” quale in mind as we read The Visible and the Invisible, just as when we read ancient texts we hold them within the context that they are but fragments.
It is at this point, about halfway through the “forward,” that Lefort delivers his gut-punch: that the work is an enigma “for it evokes an attention to itself only to render an impossibility of being. The work gives a singular figure to this impossibility but does not overcome it...... Thus again we discover death [emphasis mine] in the work, because its power is bound to its final impotency... In vain we try to brush aside the menace of this death...”[xvii] It is held in the grasp of this terrifying thought, Lefort suggests, that Merleau-Ponty embarked on all of his philosophical investigations -- not only those that we consider “unfinished” but also those that we think of as complete. Furthermore, he suggests that for us to behold this death in the work is the legacy Merleau-Ponty’s left to us.
Death is the UnKnowable. By throwing us up against it’s indecipherability, Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible reminds us of the paradoxical nature of a philosophical investigation that rejects the safe harbor of the acquired and, therefore, always sails on the sea of ambiguity. It is at this juncture, Lefort claims that the Reader may grasp that the philosopher’s works are not objects to be studied but rather a conversation to be entertained. Just as Merleau-Ponty “judges that he has work before him, not behind him...his acquisitions have value only because they give the capacity to continue,...”[xxi] so to the work beckons the Reader to embark on a journey of discovery.
The unfinished work serves to reminds us that philosophy, like most human endeavors, is always unfinished business. How easy it is to mistake the object-quality of the text for the quale of the text. The paper, the print, the binding -- all entices us to think: “Here are the answers,” rather than to say: “here are the questions.” It’s a familiar trap, one that readily awaits to seduce us on a daily basis. Do we remember to face our experience when we pick-up a newspaper or a magazine -- turn on the television or the radio -- go to a class or lecture? Or are we held in the grip of a habitual acquisition of knowledge from “outside” sources -- be it our parents, teachers, politicians, peers. How often is it that we are asked to build rather than to buy, to cultivate rather than to consume?
One of the most unpleasant sights to my eyes is the spectacle of museum visitors, their ears shrouded in a headset, dutifully watching a painting whilst the curator’s voice prescribes the meaning of the artwork. It’s all I can do to keep myself from tearing the contraptions off their heads and giving them a good shake -- after which [given that I was still intact & in the museum instead of on my way to lock-up for drunk & disorderly behavior] I would do my utmost to persuade them that the first order of business is to look at the work as if it is PRIMA FACIE evidence and therefore, to directly experience it. A fool’s errand, I know. For most of them have been led to believe that to understand a painting requires an “expert’s” exegesis of it - and that one such explication will suffice because a painting is singular, fixed object.
Now you are most probably wondering why I have wandered off on such a tangential subject. It is because I want to suggest that to read Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible in the spirit that Lefort suggests [and for that matter, by implication, to read any philosophical text] is to enter into an aesthetic stance similar to the active apperception of an artwork. Active apperception requires one to not be fooled into seeing only the “thingness” of [for example] a painting -- not only in the sense that is more than an amalgamation of paints & canvas but also in the sense that it is neither “finished” nor “fixed.”
One of my favorite paintings hanging in New York’s Metropolitan Museum is “The Forest In Winter At Sunset” by Pierre Etienne Theodore Rousseau. It is what is known as a “diary” painting. Diary paintings are the diametrical opposite of the abstract expressionist’s action paintings that encapsulate a specific, and relatively brief [in terms of painting] timespan. A diary painting is one in which the artist continues to paint on for years and years and years. Rousseau kept working on “The Forest” for over twenty years. He steadfastly refused to sell it. It was never “finished,” as he was still painting on it when he died.
Now this is not quite the same situation in respect to the “unfinished” nature of Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible. Except that I think it is safe to propose that, if Merleau-Ponty had lived long enough to complete and publish that work, he would have continued on with his philosophical investigations. “Thus the ‘ultimate truth’ upon which The Visible and the Invisible comes to an end is also that from which the work draws its origin: this truth does not constitute a stopping point; it does not give rest to thought; it rather designates the point of passage which is for the work that of its continued foundation.”[xxx]
In his introduction to The Primacy of Perception, James M. Eide chides us to remember that Merleau-Ponty “is presenting a thesis, a program for phenomenological research, which would have to be developed, criticized, and tested over a considerable period of time and which should not be taken as prematurely established.”[xiv-xv] Perhaps, the unfinished character of The Visible and the Invisible is best conceived of as if we have personally received Merleau-Ponty’s COUP DE MAIN -- a challenge to continue the interrogation:
"By these words, the 'primacy of perception,' we mean that the experience of perception is our presence at the moment when things, truths, values are constituted for us; that perception is a nascent LOGOS; that it teaches us, outside all dogmatism, the true conditions of objectivity itself; that it summons us to the tasks of knowledge and action.” [p.25, The Primacy of Perception]
So it becomes our task not just to read The Visible and the Invisible but also to write it. To respond, with analysis and criticism, but also to endeavor to develop and create, with thoughtfulness as well as ingenuity, a philosophy that allows us to see both the opacity of the world & its transparency simultaneously. Let us question that which “apparently” there is no need to question.