Five Dispatches on Surrender

[Thought Scores No. 9]


“…it is because the world is not finished that literature is possible.” (Roland Barthes)

I want to surrender to this unfinished project, because ultimately I root my faith in happiness, which is a form of justice, and literature always takes side with the world, although of course the world’s meaning is unutterable, and the project remains unfinished for the simple fact that we keep trying to utter the world’s meaning.


My first impulse, on a second look at Julie Maroh’s painting, was to think that it is a woman’s prerogative to carry things across—and a man’s courtesy lies in his surrender to her strength. This sort of argument has nothing to do with gender roles. Instead it points to a realization that there are two duties in every interaction. The first is to carry things across. The second is to surrender to being carried.


A chorus ends The Bacchae of Euripides:

There may be many shapes of mystery,
And many things God makes to be,
            Past hope or fear.
And the end men looked for cometh not,
And a path is there where no man thought.
            So hath it fallen here.


The ill-fated Pantheus said to Dionysus: “In the hollow of thine hand I lay me. Deck me as thou wilt.” I do not want a version of surrender in which predestination is akin to destruction. There are children and women and men in northeastern Nigeria who are decked by the trauma of Boko Haram, whose capacity to imagine alternatives is being stolen by a Government that can’t tell the difference between an insurgency and a war. If justice will begin, it must address, and circumvent, ill-fate.


“For the writer, literature is that utterance which says until death: I shall not begin to live before I know the meaning of life.” (Roland Barthes)

The ultimate goal of surrender is to know the meaning of life.  The world’s meaning is unutterable, yes, but literature is an utterance—with literature we begin to live and have our being. Compared to photography, literature does not mediate between us and the known world. It is the meaning, not merely the surface that points to the meaning. Thus, we can surrender to literature in seeking to decode photography, thinking of the world not as a sprawl of images but as a giant body of text that signifies the unutterable meaning of life.


Julie Maroh, untitled, 2014. Acrylic on colored paper, A4.
Julie Maroh, untitled, 2014. Acrylic on colored paper, A4.


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