The Hidden Lightbulb: Sketching Apophatic Literature


Photograph by Stefan Krause via Wikimedia Commons (cc)

by Ed Simon

Behind the neo-classical façade of London’s Tate Gallery in Milbank, all grey stone and Corinthian columned, its pediment topped with a grandiose visage of Britannia with her trident and Grecian martial helmet, there is a near-revolutionary work of art first displayed to great controversy in 2001. Winner of that year’s Turner Prize, English conceptual artist Martin Creed’s much-hated Work No. 227: The lights going on and off was the millennial culmination of a certain ironic ‘90s Cool Britannia aesthetic, the resultant natural progression of Oasis, Blur, Britpop, Blair and Damien Hirst’s diamond-crusted skull and shark in formaldehyde.

Work No. 227: The lights going on and off consists entirely of an empty white-walled gallery in which the lights flicker off and on for five seconds apiece. In the indomitable art-speak of gallery guides, exhibiting the great rhetoric of rationalization, curator Helen Delany argues on the Tate’s website that Creed’s work “confounds the viewer’s normal expectations,” that the piece “plays with the viewer’s sense of space and time and in so doing he implicated and empowers the viewer, forcing an awareness of, and interaction with, the physical actuality of the space.”

In a 2001 Telegraph article auspiciously noting the £20,000 monetary sum that Creed received as part of the Turner prize, Nigel Reynolds soberly reports that the announcement was “met with a mixture of incredulity, attempts at philosophizing and plain outrage.” Jonathan Jones, in a Guardian piece written upon the Tate’s purchasing of Work No. 227: The Lights going on and off (rumored to have sold for £110,000) explains with an admirably honest ambivalence that “One moment I am entranced by a simple, eloquent Creed gesture, the next I am wondering if this is not all a bit… pretentious?” To Jones’ grappling I can add my own critique of Creed, my feeling that the problem with Work No. 227: The lights going on and off is that it’s simply not pretentious enough.

I began by saying that Creed’s work was “near-revolutionary,” and I believe that Work No. 227: The lights going on and off was a missed opportunity to produce something truly aesthetically radical, as opposed to a work that walks a tight-rope between mystical profundity and gimmick. Something in the fact that there is a contingent of art critic who, fearing the insult of innate conservatism, will justify any Dadaist or Fluxus inspired contemporary art inspired practical joke as “Art,” and thus we have Maurizio Cattelan’s The Comedian, the infamous banana duct-tapped to a wall which sold for $120,000 at Miami’s Art Basel last year.

I’ve got no horse in the race of modern art criticism, so I’ll only break my silence to say again that if people find a lot of these things as absurd, funny, or outrageous, my biggest problem with Work No. 227: The lights going on and off, with its epileptic flickering of dull white light and shadow on sterile alabaster gallery walls, is that it’s far too traditional, far too conservative, far too old-fashioned. Indications of what could have been are hinted at in the gallery descriptions; from 2006 to 2007 it was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the description of the piece reads that this “work is almost nothing,” the Tate’s page is even more evocative. Where a picture of the piece would normally be displayed, the Tate’s web page simply reads “SORRY, NO IMAGE AVAILABLE.” Yet a Google image search will result in any number of photographs of Work No. 227: The lights going on and off, the Tate and MoMA’s respectable looking empty white gallery spaces bathed in a prosaic electric glow. If Creed’s work had fully lived up to its anarchic promise, then even this would have been impossible.

To embody the radical potential of artistic minimalism, the work shouldn’t have been “almost nothing,” it should have been nothing. There should have been no apology for “NO IMAGE AVAILABLE;” it should have read “IMAGE IMPOSSIBLE.” When first drafting this essay, I had misremembered Creed’s piece; I recalled it as having been behind a bricked-up wall, not visible to any museum-goers, and that belief in the existence of the flickering light was thus an act of complete faith. That would have been a much better version of Work No. 227: The lights going on and off, in my opinion. Even better would have been if the light bulb itself didn’t actually exist. A work of complete and utter idealism, a nonexistent God towards whom we can supplicate ourselves.

If Creed’s art had taken that form, I think that it would have unironically been the greatest work of our short century; art pushed to the absolute limit of what representation means, of what existence means. It would have been to craft the completely imaginary work, the non-existent piece, but to compel it into reality in the minds of the viewers themselves. Not familiar enough with Creed’s work to confidently make an argument one way or the other, I do note that he was raised as a Quaker, and as Alain Besancon argues in The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm, “’abstract’ art developed within a religious and, more precisely, a mystical movement.” The Quakers, as the truest and most complete of Protestant iconoclasts, perhaps exerted some sort of influence on Creed, though I don’t wonder that even if a bit of that divine Simplicity filtered its way into Work No. 227: The lights going on and off, if his faith wasn’t quite complete enough to plumb the complete Silence, that totalizing Nothing. What it gestures towards, but doesn’t quite accomplish itself, is a perfect iconoclastic piece, an immaculate apophatic work.

Which returns us to one of the strangest moments of art appreciation to ever occur in human history, when following the Roman general Pompey’s taking of Jerusalem in 63 BCE, he strode into the Jewish Temple. A century later and the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus would record that Pompey entered the Temple and “saw all that which it was unlawful for any other men to see but only for the high priests.” Assembled before the general was the “golden table, the holy candlestick, and the pouring vessels and a great quantity of spices.” Josephus records that despite having slaughtered some 12,000 Jews who were defending the Temple, Pompey demanded that the sacred objects not be molested, and that offerings continue as they had before, with one exception – he demanded to be brought into the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, the beating heart of the building and the sacred space whereby God’s indwelling presence was to dwell during the annual Day of Atonement.

Neither a Jew nor a priest, this space was forbidden to Pompey, but he bestrode into the Holy of Holies regardless, expecting no doubt that the room would be piled high with riches, with jewels, with an encrusted statue of the living God Himself. Tacitus records that Pompey rather discovered that the “sanctuary was empty and the Holy of Holies untenanted.” Thus, did one of the most powerful men in the world discover the theological and aesthetic sublimity of the Jews’ God, who could be circumscribed not in marble or gold, but was most fully encapsulated within the sacred absence that was the center of the holy Temple. Pompey envisioned something like the massive colossus of Helios bestride the bay of Rhodes, or the gilded ivory behemoth of Zeus in Olympia. What he discovered was all the more beautiful and powerful – he discovered nothing. Like a non-existent flickering light-bulb in an invisible room.

Judaism, Islam, and to a lesser extent, Protestantism (in some forms) are iconoclastic faiths, and insomuch as this relates to art history and questions of representation and abstraction, the figurative and the literal, there is something interesting and important about that fact. But should the prohibition on graven images, the Second Commandment for Jews, which is folded into the First Commandment for many Christians, be reduced to a simple issue of representation, then its true import is occluded (and besides, it should be emphasized that a prohibition on idolatry is not the same as a ban on images).

Yes, the prohibition on graven images has had a tangible material effect on art history; think of the intricate calligraphy born from Sunni Islam, or of mosques decorated with mosaics depicting complex non-figurative geometric patterns. And yes, iconoclasm has had profound social, political, and cultural implications as well; the iconoclastic fury that dominated Byzantine Orthodoxy during the eighth-century or the stripping of the altars during England’s sixteenth-century Henrician Reformation. All of these examples have a direct line going back to that empty room espied by Pompey, but iconoclasm is more than mere aesthetics; more even than mere enforcement of religious law. Iconoclasm, whereby there is the admission made that depictions of divinity aren’t just unlawful, but in fact impossible, is the fundamental axiom and paradox of all representation.

The Jews could have built a statue of Yahweh and put it in the Holy of Holies, some garish puppet of marble and gold, crusted in precious stones and rubbed daily with olive oil to preserve the illusion of a bright sheen. What they did was infinitely greater – they put nothing in the room. An ontological principle, a declaration about reality – somethings are fundamentally impossible to represent. Taken to its final, logical conclusion, for God’s immanence and transcendence are such that a statement about divinity can’t help but be a statement about everything else – iconoclasm implies that it’s impossible to represent anything, everything. Such is the cheeky point made by the Belgian painter Rene Magritte in his celebrated 1929 composition The Treachery of Images with its depiction of a pipe and the verbal reminder that “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

From that observation, the iconoclastic principle is inviolate. Not a prohibition so much as a statement about the nature of reality itself. Religions can have their rules, but as we think of the issue of representation as a broader metaphysical question, what the Commandment implies isn’t just that you shouldn’t make graven images, but that it’s literally impossible to do (or to make any “image” of a thing-in-itself). The map, to paraphrase Borges, isn’t the territory. Any representation, and any statement about a particular representation (whether we’re speaking of painting or poetry, and so on) is a statement about the paradoxical tension between the impossibility of depicting anything-in-itself while we continue to depict things all the time. All representations – every painting, drawing, sculpture, or literary description – is strung between something and nothing, presence and absence, image and lacunae. To critically understand all issues of representation, which is to say all questions of art, literature, and so on, is to toggle between iconoclasm and iconophilism; what it requires is an iconological analysis.

Rachel F. Stapleton and Antonio Viselli write in Iconoclasm: The Breaking and Making of Images that “All icons have their limits, their breaking points.” It could be said that this includes iconoclastic “images” as well; that the complex, baroque, and rococo are in their own way acts of iconoclastic fury enacted against abstraction and minimalism. To read iconoclasm or iconophilism in an overly literal way – as simply “image” and the “absence of image” – is to fall into a trap. Any creation or destruction of an image entails an equal and opposite reaction, if you will. Kristine Kolrud and Marina Prusac write in Iconoclasm from Antiquity to Modernity that “Iconoclasm depends on the power of image,” and I’d equally say that figurative representation depends on the potential of absence, on the haunting of nothing, on the possibility of non-existence.

When I say that we must view art and read literature through the lens of iconological analysis, this is not an aesthetic value judgement that says minimalism or abstraction should be valorized at the expense of the figurative or literal – far from it. It’s to say that any mode of representation can be understood as interpretable through both iconoclasm and iconophilism. Besancon implies something similar (albeit in a historical sense), writing that any triumph of iconoclasm or iconophilism is “ambiguous… secured by an unstable compromise” whereby any “theological resolution of the problem, which entails a reaffirmation of the Incarnation, does not of itself guarantee that the image expresses and realizes that goal of incarnation.” Jackson Pollock’s No. 5 has much to say about presence and representation; Francois Boucher’s The Triumph of Venus equally has much to say about absence and abstraction. The central conceit of iconological analysis is to understand that every representation is haunted equally by absence and presence, not dissimilar (though neither reducible either) to Jacques Derrida’s observation in Positions about the “systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences, of the spacing by means of which elements are related to each other.”

Work No. 227: The lights going on and off had the potential to be the greatest work of this century not because radical minimalism is or isn’t preferable to any other type of art – a work isn’t greater because it’s simpler. Creed’s piece could have achieved greatness, rather, because had it embraced the most radical of simplicities it would literalize the iconological tension that exists at the core of all representational work. As it is, no artist has created such a purely abstract work, one that would exist between the very space which separates atoms and words, a fully mystical work that is equal with sublime nothingness. Other media has embraced those paradoxes, none more completely than the American composer John Cage’s celebrated 4’33’’, which in its entirety consists of a single rest that endures for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the elevation of eternal silence to the realm of music. By skirting the edge of pure abstraction, 4’33’’ becomes a work played by everybody, everywhere, continually; it exists within every rest of every figurative song ever composed, it was played at the origin of the universe, it was played before that origin. Cage’s iconoclastic musical composition reminds us that this tension between presence and absence defines all representation, that is to say that it defines all aspects of reality except for those things-in-themselves. A gross error to assume that iconological analysis only applies to painting, or drawing, or the plastic arts, as 4’33’’ can testify towards.

With that in mind, it’s my contention that nothing more fully embodies the iconological principle about how representation must forever be in tension between presence and absence than specifically language – the literary arts. Language’s paradox is that it so fully conjures intricately created worlds, but nothing is more abstract that arbitrary symbols on a page, ink stains on the pulp of dead trees. Theology has long intuited the stunning absences that lay at the heart of language, for theology is a very particular type of literature that ostensibly has as its purpose the description of something which is by definition indescribable. While most Christian theology, particularly in Western Christendom, embraces what’s known as a kataphatic approach, whereby positive descriptions of the divine are privileged (i.e. “God is good, God is great”) there is a minority approach known as apophatic theology, whereby God is iconoclastically described in terms of negatives (i.e. “God is not not good, God is not not great.”)

Apophatic theology is an iconoclasm of ideas and language, it asks the adherent to strip away all of the constructed debris which accrues onto our conceptions of the divine and to thus approach that mystery in a reverential silence. Still a normative strain in Eastern Orthodoxy, apophatic theology has venerable roots throughout the Christianity, traceable back to the Neo-Platonism of late antiquity, and explicated by thinkers like Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the Medieval philosophers John Scotus Erigena, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, and more recently by figures as diverse as Soren Kierkegaard and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Erigena provides as helpful a summation of apophatic thought as anyone, when he explains that “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.”

Theology is a discourse of words, so that apophasis can credibly be expected to say something generally about language as much as divinity, which is to say that it informs literature and criticism (or that it should). Apophasis, in that it concerns itself with words, can be equally powerful as a means of secular literary criticism as much as it is a method of theology. William Franke writes in A Philosophy of the Unsayable that the “unsayable is what repels language, yet it requires language of some kind in order to be described, so as to register at all,” a succinct statement of the iconological tension. We see an investigation of that tension in aural and literary practices from glossolalia to asemic writing. He argues that a critic must cultivate “an attitude toward words that is at once skeptical and fideistic – unconvinced by the pretended adequacy of words, yet acutely attuned to what they must miss grasping and passionately open to what they cannot say.”

What this gestures toward is the possibility of an apophatic literature and an attendant apophatic criticism (though perhaps the two are identical). This is to imagine the possibility of criticism which considers literature in a via negativa manner, and of works which function like a silent musical score, or as if they’re the vacant Holy of Holies or a non-existent light-bulb in an empty room. Consider, if you will, the possibility that there are an infinite number of literary works that exist beyond language, that can only be described by what they are not, for their contents are ineffable, their narratives unsayable, their characters unimaginable, their themes inconceivable. The literature of sheer impossibility. Now consider that the only literary criticism worth reading is that which attempts to use the inadequate feebleness of words to describe those books.

What I suggest is that just as Creed’s work is apophatic art, even more so Cage’s composition, we must imagine veritable libraries of texts that can only be described apophatically, and that dwells all around us, bolstering the existence of literature that is uninteresting enough to actually exist. Approaching that null point is to engage in theoretical reflection on the only true literature, which ultimately is the mind of God. The only worthwhile literary theory is enmeshed with that text. Such literature and theory are finally identical with itself, but as is the nature of apophasis we can pull back from the abyss a bit and shape some things into words, gesture towards ineffability even if such gestures are by their nature illusory.

Let us turn to Giuseppe Ungaretti, the Italian modernist who despite his dubious political allegiances was able to compose a couplet of extreme parsimony that chimerically written in the apophatic mode – “M’illumino/D’immenso,” very roughly translated as “I illuminate myself/with the immense.” John Burnside writes in The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century that this “hermetic piece, almost impossible to translate into English… [tries] to reconcile, or fuse, the individual, that which is finite, with the immense – we might say the infinite, or even, in a particular sense, the sublime.” More than that, it marries presence and absence, nothing and the infinite, silence and cacophony, oblivion and immortality, into a glowing eternity. Like Creed’s art, Ungaretti’s short poem is no more or less apophatic than any other work every produced, for we all dwell in that gap between what can be said and what is forever occluded. Words beyond words, for it points at that gap, and in that honesty, it gives intimations to the shrieking silence that lay beyond – the word of God.


About the Author:

Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.