A Back Way Into Eden: Elaboration on Kleist
To be innocent is to be on the right side of the law, to have avoided crime. But if you’re ignorant of the law, that alone is enough to render you innocent—if not legally at least morally. And of course if there were no law at all one would be innocent always. No action is in itself enough to stain one’s innocence, to render one guilty; knowledge of right action is needed as well. (There are men who in their whole lives will never be as entirely innocent as a cat tormenting a half-eaten mouse.) It is not the criminal act itself but its relation to a law—its difference with respect to law—that makes for sin. Yet even to obey a law (to act not merely in accordance with it but because of it) is already to know the seed of this difference. Christ taught that even merely to lust after a woman is already to commit adultery in one’s heart, and we understand very well that this is so: in lust one part of our soul is already over the line. But if Christ is right, no one has ever obeyed the commandment against adultery: both those whose lust led them to act and those who resisted temptation out of respect for the law are equally at fault. Innocence became impossible from the moment this commandment was given. This is a formal characteristic of moral law as such, independent of which particular acts are forbidden; the moment there is law, obedience is already too little, already sin. The moment an “ought” cracks through the unbroken surface of what is, sin is there; obedience, as such, can never restore what was lost. Christ saw this and drew his conclusions (not to abolish but to fulfill the law)—but he was not the first to see it. The intimate relation between law and sin is already inscribed with exacting clarity in the story of the Fall.
The problem of law, considered formally, extends beyond the moral domain to spheres with which we moderns are perhaps more familiar. Think of the “self-consciousness” which prevents a person from dancing well, or conducting himself charmingly. Isn’t it precisely the same story? One becomes conscious of a difference between how one is and how one ought to be; every effort to correct it is futile, because real grace is precisely effortless. (Again, cats come to mind.) One knows this, one decides to relax and simply be oneself, but alas! It’s too late. Effort is futile, and the subterfuge which tries to stop trying is equally so, since it still hopes. The harder one tries, the more evidently one is “trying too hard.” To know what would be right is immediately to act wrong.1
* * *
Physical grace, then, is analogous to spiritual grace in at least this respect: both are beyond the rule’s dilemma, or before it, and neither is to be attained through conformity with a rule. This analogy orients Heinrich von Kleist’s elegant 1810 story, “On the Marionette Theatre.” The story takes the form of a dialogue between the narrator and his friend, a talented professional dancer. Yet he is often to be found at the local puppet theatre, watching the show. His friend asks what could attract him to such a vulgar entertainment; he answers that “any dancer who wished to perfect his art could learn a lot from [the puppets].” What is to be learned, however, turns out to be rather sad: no human dancer can “perfect his art.” “Where grace is concerned, it is impossible for man to come anywhere near a puppet. Only a god can equal inanimate matter in this respect.”
A dancer more than any other artist attempts to embody his art, to be the beauty he creates; but this dancer believes his effort to be in vain and envies the puppet. He’s tragic, maybe, but he’s also ridiculous, and his friend is skeptical. What advantage could a wooden puppet have over a human? His friend offers three.
First, a puppet moves as a whole. The narrator has always wondered how a puppeteer can manage, without dozens of strings, to control each movement of every limb of his puppet—but his friend explains that the puppeteer doesn’t need to. He simply moves the whole body, and the limbs swing in relation to it like pendulums; they follow the same curves as planets in orbit, and with the same necessity. A human dancer must control every aspect of his every movement separately in order to generate a whole; the puppet, just because it is not human, can’t help but present unbroken completeness in every gesture.
Second, the puppets have a negative advantage: unlike human dancers, they are incapable of affectation. And what is affectation?
“Affectation is seen, as you know, when the soul, or moving force, appears at some point other than the centre of gravity of the movement... Take that young fellow who dances Paris when he’s standing among the three goddesses and offering the apple to Venus. His soul is in fact located (and it’s a frightful thing to see) in his elbow.”
The dancer’s center of gravity is the place where he most fully is; his soul is the place from which he moves. In a human these loci scarcely ever overlap—it’s as hard to ground your action in the place you find yourself as it is to concentrate your mind in the present moment. Only the unsouled, who do not act at all, who move in perfect obedience to necessity, can achieve this grace perfectly.
Finally, a puppet does not need the ground. According to the dancer, puppets do not need the ground, because they “are not afflicted with the inertia of matter, the property most resistant to dance.” This appears true in one sense: lifted by its strings, a puppet can fly through the air in a way no dancer could. Yet it appears to contradict the dancer’s argument. Puppets are matter, mere objects, and this was supposed to be their advantage over human dancers . In what sense are they not subject to inertia?
The dancer explains:
Puppets need the ground only to glance against lightly, like elves, and through this momentary check to renew the swing of their limbs. We humans must have it to rest on, to recover from the effort of the dance. This moment of rest is clearly no part of the dance. The best we can do is make it as inconspicuous as possible...
The contradiction is only apparent: We have been imprecise about the condition of the puppet’s grace. For a human, the ground and the need for rest are a limit. A human is spirit embodied, the dance is the spirit’s expression, the rest is the body as border: opacity and the tremor of death. The puppet has no inertia (the tendency of a body to resist changes in motion, as the schools say) because it knows nothing of resistance. It does not strain against itself. It is a machine for dancing. The condition of its grace is not that it is matter but that it is only matter, one thing entirely, at one with itself. 2
* * *
When the narrator remains skeptical even after these weighty arguments, the dancer becomes frustrated:
It seemed, he said, as he took a pinch of snuff, that I hadn’t read the third chapter of the book of Genesis with sufficient attention. If a man wasn’t familiar with that initial period of all human development, it would be difficult to have a fruitful discussion with him about later developments and even more difficult to talk about the ultimate situation.
The narrator defends himself: he does indeed understand “how consciousness can disturb natural grace.” To illustrate, he tells a story. He once knew a charming and graceful boy hardly afflicted with vanity. One day, when he and this boy were dressing after a bath, the boy caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and was reminded of the famous “Boy with Thorn” statue which he had recently seen. He told the narrator of the discovery, and the narrator, chuckling, asked him to demonstrate by repeating the pose. The boy tried once, twice, ten times, but was unable to do it!
From that day, from that very moment, an extraordinary change came over this boy. He began to spend whole days before the mirror. His attractions slipped away from him, one after the other. An invisible and incomprehensible power seemed to settle like a steel net over the free play of his gestures. A year later nothing remained of the lovely grace which had given pleasure to all who looked at him.
The tale naturally calls to mind the story of Narcissus—but only to remind us of how superficially we have understood it. Narcissus’ story is in no sense a parable of vanity; Narcissus does not recognize himself in his reflection, he simply falls in love. If the story teaches us anything, it is not the folly of the vainly beautiful but that of their lovers. Beauty in its pure form does not know itself, not even face to face; it is perfectly unselfconscious, therefore perfectly at one with itself. Narcissus’ fate suggests, strangely, a certain ideal of love: do not lovers wish to be a single being? Isn’t their difference the limit of their love? Vanity merely reproduces this difference within the subject, but Narcissus enthralled by his own image is otherwise: a being in love with itself, therefore in love absolutely. Poor Echo, to chase such a thing! What can she hope to hear from it but the sound of her own longing?
Kleist’s mirror-boy is quite different: he’s human, so he can recognize himself. His vanity is a fault in the surface of his beauty. He identifies with a work of art and is trapped by his image—but his image is just what he himself can never be. He deserves his friend’s laughter, in a way, just for this. Still, the punishment is dire: He will stare into the mirror day after day, seeking the secret of his own body which allowed him for a moment simple grace, and the more closely he looks the more certainly he’ll never find that moment again.
* * *
The dancer responds with an anecdote of his own. Once he was staying with two brothers who had recently become interested in fencing. The elder brother in particular brags of his skill, till at last he faces the dancer—but the dancer beats him thoroughly. The two brothers laugh and ask if he’d like to see a bear their father is raising. Astonishingly, the bear stands on his hind legs in a fencer’s stance, and the brothers ask him to try his luck with the animal. And what should occur but that the bear is a perfect fencer. He parries every thrust simply and efficiently, and all the dancer’s efforts to find a hole in his defenses are in vain. What’s stranger, though, is that the bear is never fooled by a feint: when the dancer’s thrusts are not in earnest, the bear simply ignores them and remains motionless.
Evidently this story teaches a lesson about bragging: the elder brother fences in words before he fences in deed, and his self-consciousness renders him ineffective. The bear is the opposite: he says nothing. And for this reason he also can’t be fooled. For him there is no difference between intention and action; he cannot wonder whether at a given moment the dancer intends to attack. He simply sees the attack, or the lack of one. Feints must appear as random motion to him, an empty gesture to be ignored.
* * *
To summarize: Puppets are better than dancers because they move as a whole, because they are not limited by the need to rest and can be in the dance entirely. They are better than dancers because they cannot be affected, cannot think something different from what they do. Self-consciousness is a kind of doubling and a kind of tripping. It’s also a kind of vanity: knowledge of beauty destroys beauty, as in the story of the mirrored boy. An animal can neither lie nor comprehend lies, cannot understand the difference between action and intention, and this renders action perfect.
A sad story for human beings! And yet the dancer has more to say.
“Now, my excellent friend,” said my companion, “you are in possession of all you need to follow my argument. We see that in the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.”
“Does that mean,” I said in some bewilderment, “that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?”
“Of course,” he said, “but that’s the final chapter in the history of the world.”
The problem for humans, the barrier to grace, is not consciousness or self-control as such but its limits. Knowledge is not infinite, self-control has its limits; therefore it presents a task and demands effort. And effort is incompatible with grace. But an infinite knowledge, a pure reflection of the world, would give grace purely. The dancer’s view has at least this to recommend it: without human knowledge and human effort, grace would be unknown. As Nietzsche says, vindicating conscience and consciousness: “For what would be ‘beautiful,’ if its opposite had not yet come to an awareness of itself, if ugliness had not already said to itself, ‘I am ugly’?”
If we accept the dancer’s view, though, a question remains: why must we eat again of the tree of knowledge? Why is the cure a repetition of what brought on the disease? Surely not because we didn’t get “enough” knowledge the first time—knowledge of good and evil isn’t a matter of quantity, and we have crossed the border once and for all.
If Kleist ends by suggesting a repetition, it is repetition with a difference: Adam and Eve committed the original sin before they knew what sin was. They transgressed, but their transgression was innocent. The serpent promised them something they had no way of understanding: “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” What could this have meant to them? For discovering what it meant they were cursed, cursed to bear children in sorrow, to earn bread with the sweat of their brow—cursed to effort, in short. Knowledge and effort are the marks of the fall, and every human still bears them. We stumble under burdens we did not choose; how can we be graceful? But to choose the very burden we cannot escape—to eat again of the fruit of the tree, to sin knowingly and affirm this curse as one’s own, to do the very same thing with open eyes—this would break the curse. Knowledge of good and evil came from a sin, it is already a sin; only by affirming this sin can it become innocent.
1 Kant says that the beautiful is that which pleases us not according to a rule. The peculiar rightness of a beautiful object can never be brought under a general concept, hence never understood exhaustively, never taught and never learned. Hence according to Kant the great artist is necessarily a “genius” in a precise sense: even she does not know the rules which order her creation. She works according to a daimon, an instinct, a “gift.”
2It is a strange fact about contemporary culture that our preeminent cultural representation of physical grace is not the ballet, which held that position for so long, but the movie action sequence. Kung fu movies take as their theme the very completeness described here: the fighter is indistinguishably active and passive, reacts with perfect instinct to his surroundings, uses his opponent’s attacks as though they were part of his own dance. So completely do these movies treat the topic that they even inquire into the psychological and pedagogical presuppositions of grace: the ubiquitous martial arts training montage, so lovingly parodied in Kill Bill 2, with its focus on perfect obedience to a master-teacher, devotion to a perfection which is higher even than victory, and repetition of simple but painful movements until they are inscribed in instinct and flesh, bears comparison with the ballerina’s training. The Matrix is evidently a bastard child of this tradition just because it misunderstands grace: the perfect martial artist, according to The Matrix, would do away with limits entirely, ignore weight and control time. True grace does not do away with limits but lives into them so completely that they disappear. Hence the rich risibility of the action sequences in the Matrix sequels, when Neo has become a tiresome superhero; hence the real beauty of Yuen Wo-Ping’s choreography in movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Kill Bill.