le-deluge

Le déluge (1911) – Léon-François Comerre

Morbid tableaux like this one flood their subjects’ postures with the ecstasies of static: of, that is, staying still, and of having everything drowned out. Wherever rain marks bodies in Le déluge, they howl, or shrink into horrific (self-)cradling amidst the apocalyptic weather; they wail, or splay (ambivalently or fervently) into exposure to self-dramatizing entreaty; they roar, or arch back, out of the crowd, onto something approaching neutral sensation.

Begin with the howling dog. It’s set between the composition’s center — a body cradling itself — and the figural group’s lowest right edge — a serenely unconscious mother still holding her wailing child.

Move from the wailing child’s mouth to its repetition in the mouth of the woman furthest left melodramatically gasping and clutching at nothing as she sinks into the flood.

Then move along a line from her gasping mouth straight up to the roaring mouth of the lion.

At the middle of that line you’ll find the androgyne described, above, as arching back onto the oblivious sensations of rain. Apocalypse takes ecstasy; this figure is out of it: outside the tableau of horror, but also thereby coordinating one of the tableau’s outsides. Namely, a final line of figures beginning with the lioness’s cryptic indifference, through the androgyne, and coming to rest at the drowned body at bottom; (the other floating corpses I’ll exclude from this line, for now).

Why should the above itinerary through the painting’s composition come to rest at the drowned body in the closest foreground?

What we find, here, is the water line. It underlines the compositional field or tells us our orientation to the picture plane. It presses against the painting’s fourth wall — and this is part of how we know it’s a tableau.[1] Seeing the water line puts us out of the picture. As if to seal the scene behind glass, not the way a vitrine does, but like a terrarium — as if the scene were sealed off but noise from inside could still be felt vibrating against the wall separating it from us.

Maybe this enclosure promises something like the self-distantiation that allows the sublime to give pleasure; maybe it promises the tableau’s aesthetic autonomy.[2] Its biblical sourcing (almost a Peaceable Kingdom, if the menagerie hadn’t gone so extinct) could reinforce this work by putting the scene into an allegorical / typological beyond. However the scene enframes itself, though, the effect is basically the same: show the borders of a world-engulfing event.

But why would it need to? Doesn’t the picture plane already formally assert its ontological autonomy from or incommunicability with the spectatorial world?


Several orifices – linking the child’s wailing to the drowning woman’s gasping to the lion’s roaring – collect at the edges of the tableau’s systemic enclosure. 

It is the “ordinary seriality” of weather, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick tells us, that lets it “offer a kind of daily, ground-tone pulsation of mémoire involuntaire.”[3] Making demands on the elements, she finds, asks for satisfaction not from any discrete object’s action, but rather from an environment’s “reliable ability to resist pressure from [the subject] or damage by it” (28). It is from D.W. Winnicott’s work on transitional objects and Barbara Johnson’s use of that work in “Using People: Kant with Winnicott” that Sedgwick draws these terms; Winnicott, she notes, gives the name “‘holding environment'” to this set of “satiable object relations” (28-9). Neither of psychoanalysis’s classical drives (pleasure / death) need be invoked to account for the unspooling of “existential urgency” in the “terror attached to survival.” If analysis is to fully describe that terror (or any affect, really) in its own “qualitative intensity,” then libido ought not be conflated with drive as such. (And neither should the death drive). Not libido, but the drive to live through and thereby keep making demands on a holding environment’s attrition or unyielding tendency toward chaos: not the death drive, but the “existential functions” are what should “represent drive in its existential urgency” (29). 

What happens if that seriality builds to an event of the weather’s systemic autonomy from any human need to be held? In Le déluge,  what we see is not the weather’s absorptive capacity – its ability to not act, but simply passively take damage and make it dissipate – but rather the inevitability of its own laws at work beyond human survival. No redemptive promise holds these naked bodies together, (even if we can parse this death as unfolding its own kind of negative of utopia), just their shared occupation of high enough ground to survive for a little longer.[4] 

Seeing this painting now, one cannot help but see a catastrophic effect of climate change. Perhaps call this the tragedy of the atmospheric commons. What generates the effect is, after all, a kind of systemic presumption: to advance endlessly into a speculative future, as capital thinks it will, is to presume the environment’s serial continuity. And, if not an absolute cushion against human damage, then, at least, one fantasmatically spongy enough to recover so long as each subject commits to indefinitely recycle their commitment to commodity chains (neither reduction nor reuse inhabits / encodes public space the way recycling bins do). 

[1] John Bender and Michael Michael Marrinan’s The Culture of Diagram (2010) finds in Diderot a formulation of tableau in which the scene seals itself off from its viewing public.

[2] A subject’s subsumptive recognition that it retains its sovereignty over what’s happening, for Kant, is what generates the negative pleasures of the sublime. I would describe this as a form of self-distantiation insofar as it consolidates sovereignty by dissociating from the person’s actual paralysis by a scene. Aesthetic autonomy is from Theodor Adorno; what’s interesting about the aesthetic autonomy of tableau is that it escapes the logic of the everyday not exactly by asserting a closed system of “immanent consistency” but rather by joining up with other such closed systems — tableau, in other words, conventionalizes affects by inserting their intensities into a codified set of passions, and by conventionalizing them lends the scene an immanent consistency from without.

[3] From The Weather in Proust (2011)

[4] Jose Esteban Muñoz’s engagement with Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno’s conversations about utopia in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) is behind this formulation; also behind the above thing about apocalypse taking ecstasy.

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