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  • Personal Effects: Rilke, Barthes, and the Matter of Photography
  • Kenneth S. Calhoon (bio)

“Give light to the metal.”

—Ezra Pound, “The Alchemist”


One of Rilke’s New Poems describes a blind man testing his way through the streets of Paris, his path, from which the city itself is effectively absent, likened to a dark crack running through a bright cup:

Sieh, er geht und unterbricht die Stadt, die nicht ist auf seiner dunkeln Stelle, wie ein dunkler Sprung durch eine helle Tasse geht. 1

The simile is proper to a lyrical corpus in which, for example, a flamenco dancer’s sudden first flourishes are compared to the combustion of a sulphur match, or the perceived iridescence of a marble torso to the shimmering coat of a predatory animal. Such comparisons may well be the business of poetry generally, but Rilke’s “thing-poems” are striking in their emphasis on the material and on the resistance that matter poses to meaning. It is as if each poem faced anew the task of transubstantiation—of converting the signifying object into a medium for what it otherwise only dissimulates. The cup, its density giving way to luster, registers in turn a trace of the [End Page 612] supersensible, though as negativity, as shadow. The crack is a function of physical properties of which it does not partake; it articulates the cup’s delicacy without itself being delicate. This transparency is the achievement of the alchemy (taken more or less literally) that produced both porcelain, the cup’s apparent substance, and photography, in particular the process by which a light image is recorded on the silverized plate of the daguerreotype. The cup, with its bright/dark dyad, emulates a photographic surface, and points to the role of photography proper in reviving the classical semiotic ambition of “arresting the flight of the signified.”

Something else that aligns Rilke’s portrait of the blind pedestrian with photography is the opening enjoinder to behold (“Sieh”). “Behold” has a more haptical connotation than “Sieh” but is consistent with a biblical order of proof in which to touch is to know. As if blind, Thomas desired to touch the wounds of the resurrected Christ. Roland Barthes, for whom the photograph is “never anything but an antiphon of ‘Look,’ ‘See,’ ‘Here it is,’” 2 invokes the story of Thomas (79–80) and with it implicates the myriad aspects of photography that converge on the finger. The finger and not the eye, he insists, is the photographer’s true organ (15), and the punctum, by which he names the poignant detail that results from the sheer contingency that weighs on the operator’s finger, connects the finger that points to the wound it indicates. He describes the “almost voluptuous” pleasure he takes at the metallic sound of the camera’s shutter being tripped (15), which echoes later when he recognizes, in an old photograph of his mother, an ivory powder box familiar from his childhood (“I loved the sound of its lid” [64]). The box rings with a materiality that links it both to the true beloved object, the mother, and to the camera itself, whose one-time proximity to her the photograph authenticates. It is by virtue of this proximity that “one can never deny that the thing has been there,” i.e., that the photograph is “somehow co-natural with its referent” (76). 3

This state of being “co-natural” has its analogue in the myth of [End Page 613] contiguity from which the ancient synonomy of mater and materia is derived. On this count, Barthes cites a familiar source: “Freud says of the maternal body that ‘there is no other place of which one can say with so much certainty that one has already been there’” (40). The recent death of Barthes’s mother is the occasion for writing Camera Lucida, part of which is concerned with the difficulty in finding a photograph adequate to his memory—his knowledge—of her. Provisionally, he rediscovers her not in a photographic likeness, but in certain images containing objects that belonged to her—the powder box, a cut-crystal bottle, or pieces of furniture and fabric. These items, some of...

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