Arts & Culture / Convergence / Politics / Vol. 2 No. 1-2

Re-Punctuating Amiri Baraka and W.E.B. DuBois with Francisco de Honoré Goya

Franciso Goya, The sleep of reason produces monsters (No. 43)

Image Credit: Franciso Goya, The sleep of reason produces monsters (No. 43), from Los Caprichos, 1799

You see, when you are talking, you always have to know when to stop.
                       -Jacques Lacan, “My Teaching, Its Nature and Its Ends”

                                 But someone else/ b exactly/ who you are/ new
                                                 -Amiri Baraka

             Someone asked me if I still believe in the radical wager that is the Black liberation movement and if I am still a Marxist.1 In Jacques Lacan’s 20 April 1967 lecture to psychiatric interns in Bordeaux, entitled “My Teaching, Its Nature, and Its Ends” the rogue psychoanalyst recalls “a man of wit [that] I met a very long time ago” and was “sorry I didn’t know him better.” Lacan elaborates that he is “a charming man, of good family” who “wasn’t entirely stupid, not at all stupid in fact.”2 He is referring to British writer Aldous Huxley. Lacan recommends Huxley’s collection entitled Adonis and the Alphabet in the service of his talk’s next line of argumentation asserting that “a great civilization is first and foremost a civilization that has a waste-disposal system”. (65) What is puzzling about this passing reference to Huxley is that Lacan fails to mention Huxley’s commentary on the very artwork with which Lacan himself concludes his lecture (perhaps intentionally refusing to quilt together the linkages of his own leaps in argumentation). I am referring to Huxley on the Spanish artist Goya’s print from his 1799 Los Caprichos (the caprices or follies) series entitled “El sueño de la razon produce monstrous”—“The sleep of reason produces monsters”– the 43rd plate in Goya’s series of 88 12 ½ by 8 ¾ aquatints. Here is Huxley:

The moral [of Goya’s art] is summed up in the central plate of the Caprichos, in which we see Goya himself, his head on his arms, sprawled across his desk and fitfully sleeping, which the air above is people with the bats and owls of necromancy and just behind his chair lies an enormous witch’s cat, malevolent as only Goya’s cats can be, staring at the sleeper with baleful eyes. On the side of the desk are traced the words, ‘The dream of reason produces monsters,’ It is a caption that admits of more than one interpretation. When reason sleeps, the absurd and loathsome creatures of superstition wake and are active, goading their victim to an ignoble frenzy. But this is not all. Reason may also dream without sleeping, may intoxicate itself, as it did during the French Revolution, with the daydreams of inevitable progress, of liberty, equality, and fraternity imposed by violence, of human self-sufficiency and the ending of sorrow…by political rearrangements and a better technology. The Caprichos were published in the last year of the eighteenth century; in 1808 Goya and all Spain were given the opportunity of discovering the consequences of such daydreaming. Murat marched his troops into Madrid; the Disasters of War were about to begin.3

Lacan’s interest in Goya proffers him an example to demonstrate the analytic protocol we are calling (after Lacan’s own Écrits) “re-punctuation”.4 Lacan writes:

In the margins of a small etching by Goya, we find written: ‘The sleep of reason produces monsters.’ It’s beautiful and, as it’s by Goya, it is even more beautiful—we can see the monsters.

You see, when you are talking, you always have to know when to stop. Adding ‘produces monsters’ sounds good, doesn’t it? It’s the beginning of a biological dream. It took biology a long time to give birth to science too. They spent a long time dwelling on the calf with six hooves. Oh! Monsters, all that, the imagination! We love it…

So you have to know when to stop. The sleep of reason—that’s all. So what does that mean? It means that reason encourages us to go on sleeping. Once again, I don’t know if there is any danger of you understanding a little declaration of irrationalism on my part. No, no, quite the opposite. What we would like to get rid of, to exclude, namely the reign of sleep, finds itself annexed by reason, its empire, its function, by the hold of discourse, by the fact that man dwells in language, as someone said. [Heidegger] Is it irrational to notice that, or to follow reason’s line of thought in the text of the dream itself? It’s possible for a whole psychoanalysis to go by before what might well happen does happen: we’ve reached the point where we wake up. (82-83)

             Lacan sections off biology and signals it’s early, pre-scientific (monstrous) tendencies of scholarly pursuit: “You have to know when to stop.” The addition of ‘monsters’ constitutes a scary superfluity, a demonic addendum that dresses up the formulation in gothic spookiness, a formulation more generative when left alone. Move the punctuating period to the left two clicks and contingent possibilities abound. In a poignant recent interview psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster refers to sleep as a “washing machine” for the unconscious.5 Ozzy Osbourne with Black Sabbath musically ruminates from the topographic position of “Behind the Wall of Sleep.”6 Lacan’s re-punctuation wants us to resist making the leap to Freudian transference, rush not to evoke an artistic sublimation attuned to how the dream-state unleashes furies. Goya’s own Prado manuscript accompanying Los Caprichos posits some theory of transference avant la lettre: “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of their wonders” (unida con ella, es madre de las artes y origen de sus marabillas)7 In his impish sarcasm, there is a not-so-tacit recognition for Lacan that he is depriving his audience of some good, scary, fun—“Oh! Monsters, all that, the imagination! We love it…” Lacan does not abandon sleep as the sight of analytic curiosity. Instead, he wants to show how sleep itself is “annexed by reason” as opposed to veering off into monstrous fantasy space. Reason (in its waking and sleeping influences) short-circuits thinking and fails to allow us to, finally, wake up. There is a commitment to the actuality of the aesthetic in Lacan, an appreciation of the phenomenological concreteness of Goya’s art—Goya’s print-making acumen allows” us “to see the monsters”– the visual register is what constitutes it’s beautiful surplus (not just beautiful, “it is even more beautiful”). The Carnivalesque reversals and subversions constituting the eighty-eight plates of the Los Caprichos can be organized thematically as seduction sequences, critiques of pedagogy and manners, an anthropomorphized horse sequence, crime and punishment, and a kind of classificatory schema and anthropology of witches, demons, goblins, and (let us not forget) professors. Aquatint print making involves a procedure of coating a plate with rosin that unevenly resists an acid bath. The etching produces a beautiful atmospheric dark area on the plate. Los Caprichos is about, amongst others things, the uncanny terror-rush and fragility characteristic of sexual and emotional intimacy thought together and thought through an épater (read here monstrous reversal as decapitation) of Goya’s Spanish court in its pomp and decadence.8

             What I want to do here is stage a juxtaposition (in a sense, variations on the theme) between W.E.B. DuBois and Amiri Baraka and apply an interpretive protocol and reading procedure prompted by and egged on by Lacan’s evocation of Goya’s Los Caprichos. Consider the following from the chapter W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction in America entitled, “Back Toward Slavery”:

Such mental frustrating cannot indefinitely continue. Some day it may burst in fire and blood. Who will be to blame? And where the greater cost? Black folk, after all, have little to lose. Civilization has all.

This the American black man knows: his fight here is a fight to the finish. Either he dies or wins. If he wins it will be by no subterfuge or evasion of amalgamation. He will enter modern civilization here in America as a black man on terms of perfect and unlimited equality with any white man, or he will not enter at all. Either extermination root and branch, or absolute equality [Emphasis mine]. There can be no compromise. This is the last great battle of the West.9

             Baraka’s versioning of this passage in the context of numerous public speeches and in the context of our Unity & Struggle Newspaper organizational study circles, political formation, and editorial board is the following: “America will admit Black people on the basis of full equality or America will cease to exist.” In this speculative pairing, both DuBois and Baraka challenge Huxley’s timidity vis-à-vis the [French] revolutionary wager. I want to linger on these competing, overlapping, and intersecting productions of reason. My purpose here is not to emphasize an error in citation or privilege the militant significance of source over variation (or vice versa). Rather, I want to suggest that there is an overlapping dialectic of reform and revolution, the historical sedimentation and signpost of Black radical thought/struggle on display in both formulas. Consider DuBois’s toggling between paragraphs from capital to lower-case c in Civilization. In anticipating and conjuring an infernal and sanguinary struggle between opposing forces–Black folk and/as critique of so-called Western Civilization—the capital-C Civilization takes on a kind of reified force, the ensemble of social-relations, the mode of various productions that exclude those that have “little to lose” in its imposition of enclosures and refusals. The incorporation (by way of militant struggle) of the “black man” into “modern civilization here in America as a black man” de-capitalizes civilization from cosmic and worldly adversary (the Hebrew— שָּׂטָן‎, as non-anthropomorphic Satan) to a more humble lower-case locus of social organization. In the second passage there is a fascinating ambiguity whether or not the “the fight to the finish” marks the “finish”–the “extermination root and branch” of the American black man or America itself. Perhaps for DuBois, the commencement of the struggle, the “burst in fire and blood”, melds the fates of subject and locale, the American Black and American civilization with such dialectical interdependence that their respective un-delinking neutralizes the exclusion-practices and hubris of capital-c [American] Civilization. Modern civilization cannot begin till the defeat of the Black Reconstruction governments are revenged and therefore rectified. Here subject and object, historical actor, and historical locale meld in a maelstrom of revolutionary struggle, brimstone, and bullets: “My Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord”. Baraka’s citation places the crisis as being squarely at the foot of America as polity. There is still the possibility of a kind of co-existence as byproduct of revolutionary struggle but the ontological stakes are strictly America’s. This is a warning the nation still must heed. Baraka incorporates and amplifies DuBois’s refusal of “subterfuge”, “amalgamation”, and “evasion”, in his unwillingness to concede a historical trajectory in which Black folk’s revolutionary wager plays out as failure and non-existence. This DuBois/Baraka pairing is neither a neat example of Lacanian re-punctuation, nor Freudian parapraxis–slip of speech. Yet, in speculatively reading Baraka’s variation on DuBois one finds a distillation, crystallization, repetition-with a difference of DuBois. Baraka reorients and amplifies the emphasis between victors and vanquished, and presents the wager of Black Liberation Movement’s project as the willingness to risk all. Such juxtaposition provokes the question who or what ALL is taking the risk, and who or what ALL will survive to tell the tale.

             Immediately following his discussion of Goya, Lacan famously discuses a problem in translating Freud’s foundational psychic depth topography by way of Lacan’s meditation on Goya:

Somewhere Freud writes, Wo Es war, soll Ich werden. Even if we remain at the level of his second topography, what is this, if not a certain way of defining the subject? Where the reign of sleep was, I must come, become, with the special accent the verb werden takes in German, and we have to give it its import of becoming in the future. What does that mean? That the subject is already at home at the level of the Es. (83)

War—in the German translates as was, Werden, to become, Sein, to be. Werden constitutes a problem of verb-tense since it is a helping verb in the future tense and can double as a present-tense indicator.10 There is the related problem for translation whether or not one choses to capture these lines as ‘Where it was, shall I be’ or ‘Where the Id is, there shall Ego be.’ Regardless of whether or not the translator wants to capture the terminological landscape of Freudian depth psychology or present a formula on movement in general, she is faced with variations that blur person and place, psychic apparatus and locale, present actuality and future destination. A lover moves close to say, “I am dangerous. I can hurt you.” Re-punctuate that utterance and exorcise the object: “I am dangerous. I can hurt.” What is interesting here is not some cheap self-help insight on the cycle of abuse– but rather, how the truncated formulation foregrounds an entanglement—the proportions of force, counter-force, pleasure, sadness, and consent bound together in any authentic encounter. Thinking about this translation puzzle from Freud, its attendant ambiguity surrounding subject and locale and substitution-movements recalled for me the following Baraka drawing and poetic fragment.

The graphic whirl traversing the line figure’s face recalls Walter Benjamin’s evocation of Klee’s 1920 Angelus Novus (the bottom figure), whose head is famously turned to the past and body is propelled by the past’s layering of carnage and remain towards an unknown [radical] future. Despite saturating the critical literature on politics and aesthetics, Benjamin’s Klee as graphic and philosophical trope still has some lessons to impart. Benjamin’s critique of progress is precisely aimed at the progressive historicism of social democracy. This is a critique (in all due respect to the importance of contemporary currents of resistance) that needs to be brought to bear on our present conjuncture, whereas so-called social democracy is presented as radical alternative. Baraka’s sketch imparts a DuBoisian lesson. It echoes and amplifies its accompanying poetic line. It is the graphic-poetic analog of temporal messiness, the “Back Towards” (DuBois), the “One Step Forward, Two-Step Backwards” (Lenin), the “One Step Ahead of Heartbreak” (Aretha) motion of revolution and counter-revolution.

But someone else / b exactly / who you are/ new

In a speculative sense, one might read this fragment as signaling not the end of the love affair, but a meditation on substitution in general. It is a question of being housed in language, not a question of place or topography (a concept Lacan elaborates on and repeats abundantly in the collection of lectures that became My Teaching). In Baraka’s lines, there is a poetic blurring of place and being, subject-position and subject-location, a temporal messiness dependent on how you read the line breaks. The “someone else” as stand-in is not who you are then; but rather, [“exactly”] who you are in the new-now. Substitutions happen not just in function, but as and within place. In this sense, the drawing and poetic fragment continues the work of the DuBois recollection by other means. It is in fact war by other means. It accentuates the temporal messiness of DuBois’s Black Reconstruction’s chapter on counter-revolution, the back and towards of Dubois’s “Back Towards Slavery” Taken as a cluster of image and text, the slipperiness both in terms of temporality and subject-substitution bound up in an interrogation of what it means to “b” opens up the distillation of DuBois’s lines from Black Reconstruction to the complicated entanglements of the revolutionary [love] procedure. It seems to me that in our current political conjuncture we suffer from two complimentary “sleep(s) of reason”: a revolutionary maximalism that finally encourages complete political disengagement and a related reformism, willfully at war with radical historical pasts and divorced from an imperative coeval revolutionary project. Baraka’s drawing-poem, read alongside his variation on DuBois’s formula, functions as a reminder to not de-couple radical praxis from radical poesis. The fusing of praxis and poesis turns a dogmatic dialectic into a critical one.

Someone else be exactly who you are new; either extermination root or branch or absolute equality. The Black radical wager is still the only risk worth taking. And yes, I remain a Marxist.

Work Cited
1 This is a conscious sampling and tribute to the rhetorical strategies of the late great radical art historian John Berger in the following volume: John Berger, “Ten Dispatches about Place”, Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance, (New York: Vintage International, 2007), 119. It would be an interesting thought experiment to track Lacan’s discussion of locale and topography alongside Berger here in his discussion of “place”.
2 Jacques Lacan, “My Teaching, Its Nature and Its End”, My Teaching, (London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2008); 64-65.
3 Aldous Huxley, “Variations on Goya,” On Art and Artists, Morris Philipson, ed., (London: Chatto and Windus, 1960), 218-19.
4 As it does for Huxley, the French Revolution looms large for Slavoj Žižek who employs a strategy of Lacanian re-punctuation to theorize the needs of the state in revolutionary upheaval, utilizing the French Revolution’s so-called “Reign of Terror” as site of analysis. Pertaining to his point that, “the [French] Jacobins who proudly said, apropos Laplace, that the Republic does not need scientists,” Žižek in numerous discussions moves the period one click left to meditate on the truncated formulae: “The Republic does not need.”
Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times, 4th printing (London and Brooklyn: Verso: 2010), 150.
5 Behind the News Podcast with Doug Henwood, Interview with Jamieson Webster, 1/31/19.
6 Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath, “Behind the Wall of Sleep”, Vertigo Records, 1970
7 Francisco Goya, Los Caprichos, (Mineola: Dover Publications Inc., 1969), 43.
8 See Anna Maria Coderch and Victor I. Stoichita, Goya: The Last Carnival, (London: Reaktion Books, 1999); and John Berger and Nella Bielski, Goya’s Last Portrait: The Painter Played Today, (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1989).
9 W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880, 1935, (New York: The Free Press, 1998), 703.
10 I benefited greatly from this blog post on such a translation problem in Freud: Accessed July 19, 2019.

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