'Death and the Labyrinth' by Michel Foucault (1963)

A selection from 'Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel' by Michel Foucault, 1963.


"The characters are all marked with the same sign; each is prey of the same imagination, which carries earth and heaven on its head. All the stories in the world are woven out of their words; all the stars in the world are at their foreheads, mysteroius mirrors of the magic of dreams and of the strangest and most miraculous events."  (Review by Paul Eluard of one of Roussel's plays published in La Revolution Surealiste, 1926).

The forge of the soul is a strange underground cavern that remains open to the sky.

A whole language arises, liquid and incandescent, forged by untiring workers on the high ground where the mouth of the mine opens. There the metal co...ols, is given shape by skillful hands; metal becomes verse; and the ferment starts to rhyme.

Paradoxically inspiration comes from below. In this current from the underneath of thing, which liquefies solid ground, a language is revealed which comes before language: raised up to the level of work- to the workers who come and go like the shuttles between the threads of the chain- it is ready to solidify into a hard and memorable metal, the gold thread of a sanctified fabric.

The forge of the soul needs fuel: coal, solid black fire, conveyed by boats from the most distand lands. From this comes a confusion of masts, wagons, sails, forges, chimneys, and sirens... . And the soul-furnace, voracious mouth and open belly, absorbs everything that is poured into it.

The diamond in Locus Solus is completely aerial, as if suspended in midair; its luster is perfect- promising survival, but nevertheless disquieting: has not the coldness of death slipped into it, the coldness one will soon find again in the refrigerated morgue? At ground level, the first soul is stifling:... the thick smelting is cast in a menacing but abundant furnance; everything is weighty in these raw materials. Everything is weightless and clear in the crystal; the marvelous water... is a sort of transparent carbon, resolved, already without substances: pure flame, light gas, a diamond fluid as water. What is thrown into it floats, or dances, or effortlessly follows the graceful alternation of rising and falling. ... It is at the same time pure expansion and complete reserve. It tells of the enchantment of a place... in which the soul can find the repose of time."

The forge, on the contrary, was deafening: hammers, metal being struck, poking... .

One has the impression that on emerging form the ground where it was originally buried, the heavy machinery of the mine, without changing the order of its parts in any way nor the direction of its mechanism, has now become earnest, light, transparent, and musical. The values have been reversed: coal has become shimmering water; the embers, crystal; the melting, freshness; the dark, light; noise, harmony. The confused work of the anthill has abated; henceforth all movements revolve without friction around an unseen axis- the great internal silent law. Haste and bustle have forever been lulled to sleep in the ceremony of repetitions. Eart...h has become ether.

And then all these lovely aerial machines... which will land on solid ground according to their own cycle. .. this eternally repetitive machine, this forge... beyond death becomes winged crystal.

The material displayed to the spectators depicts the story of the Flood (the reverse image of the machine: the force of water not controlled, the flux that overwhelms the world, driving to the mountaintops the 'wretched condemned,' perhaps as the extraordinary dangers of langauge threaten those who do not master them). The loom is the opposite of this twilight destiny; it defines what it is by drawing the Ark- the vessel of reconciliation, the sovereignty of the process, the place where every being in the world can with its own kind find its parentage: 'Rising calm and majestic on top of the waves appeared the regular and massive shape of Noah's Ark, adorned with tiny figures wandering in the midst of a large menagerie.' [Editors note: see Hegel's On the Spirit of Christianity and its Fate, 'Spirit of Judaism' on Noah's ark.]

It's in this necessay opening that the whole ambiguous nature of the mask is summed up: it enables the masked person to see (the others and the world are no longer masked for him) and take in the impression made by his mask (in this way it becomes indirectly visible to this own eyes). But although it enables others to be seen by the mask, because of it, they see that it's a mask and nothing more. This tiny opening into which the whole mask can vanish is at the same time what displays it fully for viewing and the basis of its real being. It's the flaw which reduplicates the double and immediately restores it to its marvelous oneness.

There seems to be a succession of things in a void where they are suspended between a forgotten support and a shore not yet sighted... , where words hurl themselves in pursuit of objects, and where language endlessly crashes down into this central void.

This virtiginous enumeration accumulates without stop in order to achieve a result which was already a given at the beginning but which seems to receede with each repetition.