1-1 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​7​7​4​2​/​I​M​A​G​E​.​i​n​a​u​g​u​r​a​l​.​1​-​1.6 | Ger­vais PDF

Bertrand Ger­vais [trans. with Guil­laume Bauer] |

The Vanished Child: An inquiry into figures and their modes of appearance

What is a fig­ure? When does it appear? How can we describe the moment of its appear­ance? By what process does an indis­tinct noise become a sound? How does a sim­ple thing become a sign, filled with meaning?

A fig­ure often appears in a moment of entice­ment. At first, there is noth­ing. Then, sud­den­ly, some­thing pops up and changes every­thing. It is a rev­e­la­tion, an unprece­dent­ed moment in which a pres­ence appears to us, in which a truth impos­es itself sub­tly and dic­tates its own law. Witold Gom­brow­icz described this pre­cise moment in his jour­nal. He iden­ti­fies it in a res­olute­ly sar­cas­tic manner:

[F]rom the immen­si­ty of phe­nom­e­na tak­ing place around me. I draw one thing. I notice, for exam­ple, the ash­tray on my table (the rest of the objects on the table slip into non-being).

If I can jus­ti­fy why I noticed the ash­tray in par­tic­u­lar (“I want to drop my cig­a­rette ash”), every­thing is all right.

If I noticed the ash­tray acci­den­tal­ly, with­out any inten­tion, and I nev­er return to this obser­va­tion, every­thing is still as it should be.

If, how­ev­er, hav­ing noticed this phe­nom­e­non with­out sig­nif­i­cance, you return to it for a sec­ond time … woe! Why did you notice it again if it is with­out sig­nif­i­cance? Ah, so it means some­thing to you after all, if you returned. … Oh yes, by dint of the fact that you con­cen­trat­ed unjus­ti­fi­ably on this phe­nom­e­non one sec­ond longer, this thing already begins to stand out, becomes remark­able. … No, no (you deny), this is an ordi­nary ash­tray! —Ordi­nary? Why are you deny­ing it if it is ordinary?

This is how a phe­nom­e­non becomes an obses­sion. (161)

We rec­og­nize eas­i­ly Grombrowicz’s caus­tic humor, but the sit­u­a­tion he describes delin­eates the ini­tial moments in the actu­al­iz­ing process of a fig­ure. It appears in this gaze that lingers and, all of a sud­den, invests itself in the cre­ation of an object, a semi­otic object, whose pow­er comes from this very gaze, which cap­tures and com­pos­es it. One sec­ond too many, says Gom­brow­icz, that is all that is need­ed for an ash­tray to be trans­formed into a sign, this haunt­ing sym­bol, which is a fig­ure. Fur­ther, the obses­sion, which can emerge from this intu­ition points to the way in which a fig­ure, if it appears at first sight as a truth for the sub­ject, remains always prin­ci­pal­ly opaque, illeg­i­ble. The fig­ure is a truth, but one that must be inter­pret­ed and whose effects just bare­ly begin to make them­selves felt. It attracts and, at the same time, resists appro­pri­a­tion by the sub­ject; it man­i­fests itself as an enig­ma that is both trou­bling, in its com­pelling demand for res­o­lu­tion, and reas­sur­ing, in the way that it is already set in place.

The fig­ure is an enig­ma; it sets the imag­i­na­tion in motion. This object of thought is giv­en a mean­ing, a func­tion, and even a des­tiny. Once appre­hend­ed, the fig­ure becomes the focal point of an imag­i­nary con­struc­tion, a con­struc­tion of the Imag­i­nary.2 It does not remain sta­t­ic, but calls for inter­pre­ta­tions through which the sub­ject simul­ta­ne­ous­ly takes hold of the fig­ure and los­es itself in its contemplation.


Imag­i­na­tion at work

In Don DeLillo’s novel­la, The Body Artist, we find a sim­ple, yet incred­i­bly effec­tive exam­ple of the process of fig­u­ra­tion. Lau­ren, the hero­ine, approach­es a town in her car. She catch­es sight of a man seat­ed on a veran­da. He is blond and his face is large:

She felt in that small point in time, a fly­speck quar­ter sec­ond or so, that she saw him com­plete. His life flew open to her pass­ing glance. A lazy and manip­u­la­tive man, in real estate, in fairview con­dos by a mos­qui­to lake. She knew him. She saw into him. He was there, divorced and drink-haunt­ed, emo­tion­al­ly dis­tant from his kids, his sons, two sons, in school blaz­ers, in the barest blink. (70)

Here is a fig­ure in all its spon­tane­ity: an imag­i­nary con­struc­tion, a thought that unfolds itself out of almost noth­ing, from a glance giv­en to a sil­hou­ette spot­ted between the branch­es. Lau­ren fab­ri­cates an entire life on the basis of a fleet­ing look. Despite its frailty, its ephemer­al nature, this fig­ure impos­es itself on her thoughts, but on ours as well because we eas­i­ly suc­ceed in imag­in­ing this bit­ter and dis­il­lu­sioned man. How­ev­er, this fig­ure is based on noth­ing. It is only a fan­ta­sy, a day­dream into which a woman ven­tures dur­ing a few instants, while sit­ting behind the wheel of her car. There is no man on the veran­da. As the text sub­se­quent­ly makes clear, when pass­ing in front of the house, Lau­ren under­stands that “she was not look­ing at a seat­ed man but at a paint can placed on a board that was bal­anced between two chairs. The white and yel­low can was his face, the board was his arms and the mind and heart of the man were in the air some­where […]” (70). The fig­ure is an imag­i­nary object, a prod­uct of the imag­i­na­tion that, even though it is more or less moti­vat­ed, springs up to crys­tal­lize oth­er­wise diverg­ing thoughts.

Lauren’s pro­jec­tion, this muse­ment ini­ti­at­ed by a fleet­ing vision, points to the way in which a fig­ure appears, to the sub­ject who approach­es and seizes it, as a com­plex sign hav­ing a pre­cise con­fig­u­ra­tion, com­posed of a set of traits, as well as a sin­gu­lar way of being (set­ting in motion, for exam­ple, its own nar­ra­tive and icon­ic log­ic), involved in both acts of imag­i­na­tion and rep­re­sen­ta­tion, made for one’s self and for others.

Play­ing an essen­tial role in this essay, the term muse­ment must be clar­i­fied. A sim­ple def­i­n­i­tion describes it as the drift­ing of thoughts, a kind of men­tal wan­der­ing, a pure game of asso­ci­a­tions, which begins when we drift into a con­tin­u­ous move­ment of thought. It is a rush, which runs through us until we free our­selves from it for one rea­son or anoth­er. It is a form of inter­nal dis­course, whose func­tion is not that of an occa­sion­al drift­ing, but, tru­ly, that of the motor of our thoughts.

The con­cept was ini­tial­ly defined by Charles S. Peirce in his arti­cle “A Neglect­ed Argu­ment for the Real­i­ty of God” (262-63).3 Peirce began by describ­ing muse­ment as a kind of day­dream, with no loss of con­scious­ness, no com­plete absence of the self. It is a form of play, of pure play, as he puts it, a play with no rules except the very nec­es­sary ones of lib­er­ty, of asso­ci­a­tions, and of the estab­lish­ment of new ties.

There is a cer­tain agree­able occu­pa­tion of mind which, from its hav­ing no dis­tinc­tive name, I infer is not as com­mon­ly prac­ticed as it deserves to be; for indulged in mod­er­ate­ly […] it is refresh­ing enough more than to repay the expen­di­ture. Because it involves no pur­pose save that of cast­ing aside all seri­ous pur­pose, I have some­times been half-inclined to call it rever­ie, with some qual­i­fi­ca­tion; but for a frame of mind so antipo­dal to vacan­cy and dreami­ness such a des­ig­na­tion would be too excru­ci­at­ing a mis­fit. In fact, it is Pure Play. Now, Play, we all know, is a live­ly exer­cise of one's pow­ers. Pure Play has no rules, except this very law of lib­er­ty. It bloweth where it lis­teth. It has no pur­pose, unless recre­ation. (262-63)

Muse­ment is imag­i­na­tion at work with all that this fac­ul­ty pos­sess­es by way of the unfore­seen. Think of Lau­ren imag­in­ing a man from a sim­ple branch, con­struct­ing a nar­ra­tive out of thin air.

Thomas Sebeok fol­lowed Peirce’s def­i­n­i­tion quite close­ly, putting the empha­sis on imag­i­na­tion, tak­ing up Jacob Bronowski's posi­tion (Sebeok 3). Michel Bal­at, the French semi­oti­cian, has gone on to present muse­ment as the con­tin­u­ous move­ment of think­ing, a stream that flows through us. We can silence this muse­ment, we can bury it away under the stra­ta of our ratio­nal­i­ty, keep it at a dis­tance, just like we can try to take hold of it, to make it mean­ing­ful dur­ing peri­ods of intro­spec­tion or with the help of var­i­ous process­es. But, we can­not stop it. It is at the root of our cog­ni­tive and men­tal activ­i­ty. Bal­at com­pares its process to free asso­ci­a­tion, prac­ticed in psy­cho­analy­sis, which is not muse­ment per se but rather a way to imi­tate its play. This com­par­i­son, how­ev­er, accen­tu­ates not so much the great free­dom of this form of asso­ci­a­tion, but its uncon­trol­lable, unin­ten­tion­al nature. There is some­thing impetu­ous in muse­ment, and what we recu­per­ate is only the small­est share of it, a fixed, stopped muse­ment, like water in a glass tak­en from a riv­er. As Bal­at writes, it takes:

[T]he form of that kind of thought to which we only have access when an impromp­tu, dis­cor­dant event reveals it to us. “Well, I was think­ing…,” a sen­tence we could read as “I was in the mid­dle of a thought” (or of a think­ing process). This first kind of muse­ment is not direct­ly acces­si­ble to us since, while we were mus­ing, we had no con­scious­ness of this. Muse­ment presents itself to us as pure hypoth­e­sis, pure pos­si­bil­i­ty, a walk in the orig­i­nal Uni­verse, the indef­i­nite­ly present moment irrepara­bly destroyed by actu­al­i­ty or actu­al­i­sa­tion which pro­vides a past tense. In its high­est activ­i­ty, muse­ment con­structs, builds up this kind of idea which may or may not pass the bar­ri­er of expres­sion with­out com­plete­ly fad­ing away but to which the evi­dence of its pres­ence real­i­ty tes­ti­fies.4

Muse­ment is that which goes on in the back­ground while our atten­tion wan­ders. It gives access to the shad­owy area of thought, which can only be seized by sud­den move­ments, by plunges into the pure play of pos­si­bil­i­ty. Because it is of the order of the unspeak­able, of that which breaks away, muse­ment does not give itself head­long to us in all the trans­paren­cy of a frank and direct glance, but rather it offers itself up to be con­struct­ed or recon­struct­ed by way of com­plex infer­ences. Con­tin­u­ing the com­par­i­son with psy­cho­analy­sis, Bal­at adds that:

Just as latent thoughts are inferred (by an infer­ence Peirce calls “abduc­tive”) from the man­i­fest con­tent of a dream, so musement—insofar as it is not part of the consciousness's domain—must be inferred from the ideas which, because they impose them­selves in actu­al­i­ty, cen­sure access to it while open­ing it up to us. From this moment on, the con­tent of muse­ment will be depen­dant on that which denies it, at least where access to con­scious­ness is con­cerned.5

Muse­ment can only be grasped through approx­i­ma­tions: that which we man­age to catch is giv­en up in a nec­es­sar­i­ly frag­ment­ed and raw man­ner, for it is the motor behind our thoughts, the very process by which they coa­lesce and stay dynam­ic. We gain access to some of its results only by chance, an impromp­tu acci­dent, a brusque movement.

What trig­gers it is also at stake. If we come out of it abrupt­ly, it seems that we just sim­ply slip into it, unknow­ing­ly or inad­ver­tent­ly. One way, as Lauren’s exam­ple shows, is to be sud­den­ly engrossed by a fig­ure, even one as flim­sy as an imag­ined man on a veran­da. Fas­ci­nat­ed by a fig­ure, our mind wan­ders eas­i­ly and we immerse our­selves in a world of thoughts and asso­ci­a­tions, of desires and long­ings, build­ing a nar­ra­tive as we go along, invent­ing, as Lau­ren does, a com­plete des­tiny. The sto­ry she invents is frag­ile, it blows away as rapid­ly as it is con­ceived; but, in its brief lifes­pan, a fig­ure coa­lesces and impos­es itself to her con­scious­ness as a com­plex sign, charged with meaning.

Fig­ure and muse­ment are intrin­si­cal­ly linked. To lose our self in the con­tem­pla­tion of a fig­ure is an apt rep­re­sen­ta­tion of muse­ment. The appear­ance of a fig­ure can trig­ger it, and it can also fuel it. In its weak­est ampli­tude, this muse­ment might resem­ble a sim­ple dis­trac­tion, a roam­ing sim­i­lar to that which takes hold of Lau­ren in her con­tact with the paint can. In its strongest ampli­tude, it leads to dis­pos­ses­sion. In Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, for instance, Gus­tav von Ashen­bach becomes mor­tal­ly obsessed by the fig­ure of the ephebe embod­ied by the young Tadzio. In Vladimir Nabokov’s Loli­ta, Hum­bert Hum­bert fol­lows a sim­i­lar path in his obses­sion for the fig­ure of the nymphet Loli­ta.6 Both char­ac­ters are destroyed by their fas­ci­na­tion for fig­ures who all at once enchant them and lead them to their own demise.


The Van­ished Child

The exam­ples tak­en from Grom­brow­icz and DeLil­lo allow for the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of two moments in the actu­al­iza­tion of a fig­ure, those of its per­cep­tion and its imag­i­na­tion. Indeed, there can only be a fig­ure if the sub­ject iden­ti­fies an object in the world, believ­ing it to be filled with mean­ing. The fig­ure only man­i­fests itself in this rev­e­la­tion of mean­ing to come​.In the same way, it only reveals itself if the sub­ject endows this sign with traits and a nar­ra­tion with which he or she can iden­ti­fy and is able to gen­er­ate for him or her­self. The fig­ure is the out­come of a semi­otic pro­duc­tion, a pro­duc­tion of the Imaginary.

To iden­ti­fy the third moment in the actu­al­iza­tion of a fig­ure, I will to give a third exam­ple that is the fig­ure of the Van­ished Child, dis­cov­ered while read­ing Sophie Calle’s Dis­pari­tions (or, in Eng­lish, Dis­ap­pear­ances). This exam­ple will enable me to show that a fig­ure, in order to emerge, requires not only to be per­ceived and imag­ined, but, more­over, to be manip­u­lat­ed, the third moment. To imag­ine a fig­ure is, indeed, to manip­u­late a form.

What does it mean to manip­u­late a form? It implies a vast array of process­es, among which are: to iden­ti­fy and name it; to play with its image, to devel­op it; to seek its ori­gin; to use it in var­i­ous sit­u­a­tions, real or imag­i­nary; to muse over it; to muse, there­fore, to lose one­self in its con­tem­pla­tion; then, to regain some form of con­trol, try­ing to tell its sto­ry and to explain the fas­ci­na­tion it induces; and ulti­mate­ly, to rep­re­sent it. The fig­ure is a dynam­ic sign, which has mul­ti­ple func­tions: it serves as a focal point, draw­ing atten­tion, but it is also used as an inter­face and a relay, a way of under­stand­ing as well as an inter­pre­tive prin­ci­ple. It will become clear as I describe the sin­gu­lar sit­u­a­tion at the core of Sophie Calle’s Dis­pari­tions.

In Heb­domeros, an extend­ed prose piece pub­lished in 1964, the painter Gior­gio de Chiri­co sug­gests the fol­low­ing exer­cise: “When you have found a sign, turn it back­wards and for­wards on all sides; look at it full face and in pro­file, three-quar­ter face and fore­short­ened; make it dis­ap­pear and notice what shape is assumed in its place by the mem­o­ry of its appear­ance” (51-2). The fig­ure is a spe­cif­ic form, which sub­sti­tutes itself for the van­ished object, but whose shape remains ever present in mem­o­ry. More­over, in Roman times, the words “fig­ure” and “form” were syn­onyms so that refer­ring to one was prac­ti­cal­ly the same as refer­ring to the oth­er.7

The fig­ure is a form, but one that is based on an ini­tial­ab­sence. In fact, like all signs, it takes the place of an object, des­ig­nat­ed as its ref­er­ent, of which it reveals its absence while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly giv­ing the illu­sion of its pres­ence. Yet, this pres­ence is entire­ly sym­bol­ic and, as a result, para­dox­i­cal. It is a pres­ence-absence. The absent is not there, yet nev­er ceas­es being there, by way of its fig­ure, and it gives rise to speech acts and thoughts. As Roland Barthes writes when describ­ing the act of speak­ing or of imag­in­ing anoth­er: “End­less­ly I sus­tain the dis­course of the beloved’s absence,” adding, “the oth­er is absent as ref­er­ent, present as allo­cu­to­ry” (15).

Absence is at the very heart of semi­otic process­es. Signs and fig­ures exist only because objects in the world are set at a dis­tance. Every trans­for­ma­tion of an object into a sign, from a speech act to a sim­ple mus­ing, is the manip­u­la­tion of this endur­ing absence, a game involv­ing fig­ures, which express­es noth­ing oth­er than the fragili­ty of their own con­struc­tion. For Barthes, absence, as soon as it implies dura­tion, neces­si­tates manip­u­la­tion. He writes that it is essen­tial to “trans­form the dis­tor­tion of time into oscil­la­tion, pro­duce rhythm, make an entrance onto the stage of lan­guage. […] Absence becomes an active prac­tice, a busi­ness (which keeps me from doing any­thing else); there is a cre­ation of a fic­tion which has many roles (doubts, reproach­es, desires, melan­cholies)” (16). As a dynam­ic sign, the fig­ure is the result of a manip­u­la­tion, which suc­ceeds in mak­ing the absent present, thus sus­tain­ing this pre­car­i­ous pres­ence of anoth­er, who is nev­er com­plete­ly there.

The fig­ure is an object of thought, an idea actu­al­ized in a spe­cif­ic con­text, and, as it is with all such objects, its real­i­ty is evanes­cent and frag­ile. Yet, it is on this basis that our think­ing unfolds, that our acts of read­ing become some­thing oth­er than the sim­ple pro­gres­sion through texts, but rather explo­rations into imag­i­nary worlds.

This rela­tion­ship with absence is illus­trat­ed in an extra­or­di­nary way through one of Sophie Calle’s texts. In Dis­pari­tions, the artist intro­duces a pecu­liar sit­u­a­tion. At the Isabel­la Stew­art Gard­ner Muse­um in Boston, a col­lec­tion of paint­ings has been stolen, includ­ing those by Rem­brandt, Manet, Ver­meer, Degas, and oth­ers. In her will, Mrs. Gard­ner had insist­ed that noth­ing would be touched after her death. “Fol­low­ing the rob­bery,” Sophie Calle writes, “the spaces left by the paint­ings and the objects were left emp­ty” (11).8 Tak­ing advan­tage of this unusu­al instal­la­tion, the artist asked the staff work­ing at the muse­um, includ­ing cura­tors, atten­dants, and oth­er employ­ees, to describe the stolen objects to her. The paint­ings, thus, became the pre­text to a fig­ur­al process in which the staff was active­ly involved. This sit­u­a­tion enabled the appear­ance, if not the appari­tion as if it was a phan­tom, of the intrigu­ing fig­ure of the Van­ished Child.9

Image 1. Sophie Calle, Dis­pari­tion, tableaux volés, Arles, Acte Sud, 2000, p. 21.

It is impor­tant to men­tion that Sophie Calle’s art con­sists in bring­ing into the lime­light the pres­ence of fig­ures. Dai­ly mun­dane objects, includ­ing address books, beds, tele­phones, pho­tographs tak­en dur­ing vaca­tions or birth­days, auto­mat­ic teller machines, post­ed let­ters, and dress­es, all serve as a pre­text in her art­work for the pro­duc­tion of nar­ra­tives, where fig­ures play a key note. In only a few words, her prose, which often serves as cap­tion for her pho­tos and instal­la­tions, suc­ceeds in cap­tur­ing the essence of a sit­u­a­tion and exploit­ing its sym­bol­ic and affec­tive dimen­sions. She knows how to bring to light the unex­pect­ed in the famil­iar, expos­ing the detail in a sit­u­a­tion, which trans­fig­ures it into some­thing tru­ly the­atri­cal. She makes a nov­el out of noth­ing. And out of this sin­gu­lar con­ver­gence of ele­ments, through small nar­ra­tives and unex­pect­ed sto­ries, she con­structs texts where images play an impor­tant role.

Hervé Guib­ert, the French writer, once said that Sophie Calle was a kind of mis­chief-mak­er. In French, the expres­sion used, “faire des his­toires,” means not so much to tell sto­ries but to com­pli­cate things. A “faiseuse d’histoire,” in this sense, plays both on Calle’s capac­i­ty to make a sit­u­a­tion con­fus­ing and to tell a good sto­ry, turn­ing the next to noth­ing into an event. Much like the lit­er­ary min­i­mal­ists (Ray­mond Carv­er, Don­ald Barthelme), Sophie Calle does not write exten­sive nar­ra­tives, but stays close to the core of her sto­ries. She takes hold of a giv­en mate­r­i­al, be it biog­ra­phy or anec­dote, and trans­forms it into a short fic­tion, nev­er more than a few pages long. These nar­ra­tives are like entries in a blog. How­ev­er, this under­tak­ing is car­ried out by the cre­ation of fig­ures. This is the case for one of her texts includ­ed in Dis­pari­tions that brings to light the fig­ure of a van­ished or delet­ed child. Like a fig­ure in the car­pet, this child haunts a stolen work of Rem­brandt, a por­trait paint­ed in 1633, enti­tled “Por­trait of a Couple.”

The strat­e­gy used in Dis­pari­tions has an essen­tial­ly inter­me­di­al qual­i­ty. The Rem­brandt chap­ter is com­posed of a pho­to­graph, depict­ing a space that has been left vacant as a result of the rob­bery of the paint­ing (a wall cov­ered over by drapes in front of which three chairs have been placed). There is a repro­duc­tion of a frame in which the twelve accounts have been tran­scribed with a label iden­ti­fy­ing the paint­ing and indi­cat­ing the date of the rob­bery (March 18th, 1990). In addi­tion, a French trans­la­tion of the twelve col­lect­ed accounts has been includ­ed, and each one of these texts has been placed end-to-end, sep­a­rat­ed by a very dis­creet lozenge.

Image 2: Sophie Calle, Dis­pari­tion, tableaux volés, Arles, Actes Sud, 2000, p. 20.

The first two accounts con­cern­ing the por­trait con­verge in their expres­sion of the uncanny.For the first wit­ness, the man and the woman paint­ed by Rem­brandt appear dis­tant. The man is said to be look­ing towards the view­er, where­as the woman seems to be look­ing at no one. Every­thing seems imper­son­al and sta­t­ic. As the sec­ond wit­ness puts it, they are in dif­fer­ent worlds: “One feels,” s/he said, “a tremen­dous impres­sion of soli­tude, in spite of there being two peo­ple. This impres­sion gives the paint­ing a mys­te­ri­ous qual­i­ty because you can­not real­ly under­stand this lack of con­tact. What are they look­ing at?” (24).

The absence of the paint­ing gives rise to words, in the form of a wit­ness account that lit­tle by lit­tle recon­structs a form, a fig­ure, that of a por­trait sub­tly gone amiss in which sep­a­ra­tion and a sub­dued sor­row avail over the feel­ing of love. The por­trait bares the hol­lowed out traces of a tragedy that divides the cou­ple. We have no dif­fi­cul­ty piec­ing togeth­er the scene, even if our only access to it is through brief accounts; and we might be famil­iar enough with Rem­brandt to imag­ine the stern black cloth­ing of the two spous­es, the somber char­ac­ter of their por­trait, and the chill evoked by the absence of any rela­tion­ship between them.

We learn quick­ly that the paint­ing has been mod­i­fied. Some­thing has been hid­den beneath the sur­face of the stolen paint­ing. Indeed, the third wit­ness explains the fol­low­ing: “When they exam­ined the paint­ing under x ray, they found a child between the two char­ac­ters, hold­ing the mother’s hand and tight­ly hold­ing what resem­bled to be a whip” (24). Thus, the strange­ness of the paint­ing derives from a mod­i­fi­ca­tion that had been brought to it, a fig­ure that had been removed. This fig­ure was that of a child, cov­ered up per­haps fol­low­ing his death.

This pres­ence of a blot­ted out child is echoed in the next accounts: “When you knew that there was a child,” the fourth wit­ness said, “play­ing between them, we had the impres­sion that a phan­tom was present. The paint­ing became more pro­found. It took on anoth­er dimen­sion” (24). As for the eighth wit­ness, s/he assert­ed that they “had tak­en away the lit­tle boy after the paint­ing had already been com­plet­ed, in such a way that their faces appear nei­ther sad nor trou­bled, since the child was orig­i­nal­ly there” (24).

The accounts are not in agree­ment with each oth­er con­cern­ing the atti­tude of the cou­ple. Cer­tain of the wit­ness­es see them as two peo­ple torn apart from each oth­er, a cou­ple who has already under­gone sep­a­ra­tion in spite of the paint­ing that brings them togeth­er. Yet, oth­er wit­ness­es describe them as atten­tive par­ents: the woman appears “very mater­nal,” “live­ly,” “respectable, strong, and well-nour­ished. Some­one who cares about your future and with whom you would be able to spend an entire life” (25). The wit­ness­es’ opin­ions dif­fer in accor­dance. On the one hand, with their knowl­edge of the dis­ap­pear­ance of the child, and on the oth­er hand, with their basic pat­terns of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, as their inse­cu­ri­ties and doubts are pro­ject­ed onto the depict­ed characters.

Our recon­struc­tion of the paint­ing is a patch­work of par­tial accounts. We must imag­ine a van­ished child in a paint­ing that has itself dis­ap­peared, and we can only do it tak­ing into account the man­ner in which the wit­ness­es rep­re­sent the paint­ing for them­selves, for their tes­ti­monies are based on their own knowl­edge of the painting’s his­to­ry, their own sub­jec­tive and esthet­ic per­cep­tions, and their unique process of identification.

More­over, there is not only one paint­ing, but two. The first one is the paint­ing of the fam­i­ly with the child. The sec­ond one rep­re­sents a strange­ly dis­tant cou­ple. The dis­crep­an­cy between the two paint­ings results evi­dent­ly from the dis­ap­pear­ance of the child, which goes to show that an absence eas­i­ly becomes a sign. As a mat­ter of fact, there is a third paint­ing, the one that appears through the wit­ness­es accounts, that of the Van­ished Child. This paint­ing is one in which the dis­tance between the cou­ple hides a tragedy that the palimpsest reveals by means of era­sure. For the paint­ing itself, the dis­ap­pear­ance of the child becomes a source of imbal­ance in its vol­umes, a sub­tle per­ver­sion, from which it suf­fers the after-effects. Adding to the pres­ence of this third paint­ing, we can even iden­ti­fy a fourth one: the stolen paint­ing whose where­abouts and des­tiny are unknown. Did the thieves know about the Van­ished Child? Was the paint­ing dam­aged or destroyed?

As read­ers, we can re-imag­ine the paint­ing, pro­ject­ing on to the can­vas of our mind a family’s trag­ic des­tiny, and we can even envi­sion the painting’s pecu­liar fate. The tragedy of the paint­ing is embod­ied in the fact that noth­ing remains of it in the muse­um oth­er than the vacant space left in the wake of its dis­ap­pear­ance. The paint­ing and the child have end­ed up shar­ing a mutu­al state of absence. Their des­tinies have become entan­gled as the result of a sur­pris­ing con­t­a­m­i­na­tion. Of all the paint­ings that were to be robbed, one bore the marks of a dis­ap­pear­ance under its var­nished surface.

The child is imbed­ded in a mul­ti­lay­ered dis­ap­pear­ance: dis­ap­pear­ance of the life of his par­ents, dis­ap­pear­ance of a por­trait, and dis­ap­pear­ance of the paint­ing itself. How­ev­er, despite all the lay­ers of absence, an embed­ding that goes deep­er and deep­er, the child impos­es itself as a fig­ure. Sur­pris­ing­ly, the dis­ap­pear­ance of the paint­ing ends up bring­ing to the sur­face the dis­ap­pear­ance of the child. The rob­bery gives rise to an act of rem­i­nis­cence, which dwells upon the tragedy at the very heart of the dis­fig­ured scene.

As it were, Sophie Calle’s inter­ven­tion undoes that of Rem­brandt. By tex­tu­al­iz­ing the wit­ness­es’ accounts, she ends up bring­ing to the sur­face what the painter had suc­ceed­ed in cov­er­ing up. What the image had kept hid­den, the words reveal, in its very com­plex­i­ty, for, undoubt­ed­ly, the fig­ure of the Van­ished Child is a semi­otic enti­ty of a sur­pris­ing intri­ca­cy. The fig­ure orga­nizes itself around a vacant cen­ter, a child that can no longer be seen by any­one, a child who the par­ents them­selves no longer want­ed to see. It is also char­ac­ter­ized by its sin­gu­lar way of being as well as its own nar­ra­tive and icon­ic log­ic.

This man­ner of being is ghost­li­ness. The child is a revenant who does not want to be for­got­ten. There­fore, the paint­ing is haunt­ed by a phan­tom that now, because the paint­ing itself has dis­ap­peared, is the only one left present. The fig­ure of the Van­ished Child is, there­fore, not just the result of an appear­ance, but of an appari­tion, with its over­tones of the uncan­ny and the super­nat­ur­al. This ghost­ly or spec­tral dimen­sion height­ens the sym­bol­ic aspect present in the process by which an object is trans­formed into a fig­ure, giv­ing it a spir­i­tu­al dimen­sion. The fig­ure becomes more than a sign, but becomes a pres­ence, a real pres­ence, which accen­tu­ates its expe­ri­en­tial nature.

The fourth wit­ness said that, “the spir­it of the dis­ap­peared child illu­mi­nat­ed the paint­ing with a melan­choly tone” (24). And, now, this spir­it endures alone as the sign of a tragedy at the very heart of this rep­re­sen­ta­tion. We do not see the Van­ished Child, but he sees us. Hid­den under a coat of paint, a veil con­ceal­ing him, he observes us. He attracts our atten­tion with his sin­gu­lar pres­ence. Sophie Calle’s text leads us to manip­u­late the child’s absence and opens up a scene that requires all our atten­tion. And, in the end, this scene is so pow­er­ful that we are left see­ing noth­ing else than the revenant. The por­trait becomes over­shad­owed by this image of the Van­ished Child whose pow­er comes pre­cise­ly from its invis­i­bil­i­ty. We eas­i­ly fill in the gap left by its absence. The vacant wall of the muse­um becomes a blank text, which we has­ten to fill from the very instant our eyes are set on it.

Here is a tragedy left to be imag­ined, a tragedy whose reper­cus­sions we can feel, despite our remote­ness from the ini­tial scene. This tragedy is at the core of an act of nar­ra­tion, which gives all its force to the fig­ure of the Van­ished Child. How­ev­er, this force does not stem from the tragedy of the par­ents or the trag­ic fate of the child, but from the des­tiny of the paint­ing, its unusu­al sto­ry. The fig­ure is dense with a series of enig­mas, each giv­ing rise to a poten­tial sto­ry, and open­ing the door to an active muse­ment. Why did the par­ents ask for the fig­ure of their child to be blot­ted out from the paint­ing? What tragedy brews under this dra­con­ian deci­sion? In what man­ner did Rem­brandt car­ry this out? What kind of fate has his paint­ing encoun­tered through­out the cen­turies? Who was this Isabel­la Stew­art Gard­ner, whose col­lec­tion is at the ori­gins of the muse­um? Did she have any knowl­edge of the exis­tence of this Van­ished Child? How was the rob­bery com­mit­ted? Where is the actu­al loca­tion of the paint­ing today? How was the deci­sion tak­en to leave vacant the walls on which the paint­ings were orig­i­nal­ly hung? Why was Mrs. Gardner’s will tak­en so lit­er­al­ly? Why did the cura­tors decide to fol­low her request to leave every­thing as it was after the rob­bery? How did Sophie Calle learn about this par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion, choos­ing, final­ly, to inscribe it at the heart of Dis­pari­tions? Mus­ing on these ques­tions, one can­not help won­der how labyrinthine des­tiny can be!

The fig­ure of the Van­ished Child com­pris­es all these ques­tions, all these sto­ries left to be told. This revenant does not only haunt a paint­ing. It marks its des­tiny. It is as if Sophie Calle’s artis­tic project had already been antic­i­pat­ed, serv­ing as the only way to erase the child’s absence from the sur­face of the paint­ing. It was nec­es­sary for the paint­ing to dis­ap­pear in order for the van­ished fig­ure, through the wit­ness accounts, to reap­pear and impose itself as its essen­tial fig­ure. This para­dox­i­cal move­ment resem­bles that which is described by Ben­jamin as an expe­ri­ence of déjà vu:

The phe­nom­e­non of déjà vu has often been described. Is the term real­ly apt? Shouldn’t we rather speak of events which affect us like an echo—one awak­ened by a sound that seems to have issued from some­where in the dark­ness of past life? […] It is a word, a rustling or knock­ing, that is endowed with the pow­er to call us unex­pect­ed­ly into the cool sep­ul­cher of the past, from whose vault the present seems to resound only as an echo. (Berlin 129)

This is a word, a rustling, writes Ben­jamin, but it is also a fig­ure, which out of the blue appears sud­den­ly to com­pel our atten­tion. The fig­ure at the heart of this déjà vu is sub­ject­ed to dou­ble dis­tance, being both near and far away; it is near, yet con­tin­u­al­ly shy­ing away, but also far, while reap­pear­ing with the force of some­thing that has been repressed.

What does the fig­ure of the Van­ished Child have to say? Evi­dent­ly, it speaks of us, since it is noth­ing oth­er than what we have invest­ed in it, with­out ever even think­ing about it.The pro­duc­tion of this fig­ure expos­es our own fears and desires. As a form, it sup­ports these emo­tions, enabling their expres­sion. We must all have in our prox­im­i­ty a van­ished child that nev­er ceas­es haunt­ing us, giv­ing rise to mem­o­ries and nar­ra­tives. This child says noth­ing, yet he nev­er stops chal­leng­ing us, tak­ing a per­va­sive hold on our imag­i­na­tion through his very absence.


Rethread­ing a figure

What type of inter­pre­ta­tions has Rembrandt’s paint­ing been sub­mit­ted to? What is the impact of Sophie Calle’s text on our under­stand­ing of the paint­ing? The dif­fer­ent accounts offered by the wit­ness­es can only give us a sub­jec­tive por­trait of the painting’s con­tent. And we can ask our­selves: where exact­ly was the child before being blot­ted out?

The clash between the paint­ing, as it can still be found in cat­a­logues, and its rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Calle’s text brings to light cer­tain unex­pect­ed prob­lems, which con­firm the inter­pre­tive aspect inher­ent to any descrip­tion. If the wit­ness­es’ descrip­tions of the par­ents posi­tion­ing in the paint­ing gen­er­al­ly respect its composition—the man described as stand­ing in place, the woman as sit­ting, the two appear­ing dis­tant, as if they were worlds apart—they prove to be much more ten­u­ous where the child’s place in the paint­ing is con­cerned. The third wit­ness indi­cates that the child held “the hand of the moth­er and strong­ly clutched what resem­bled to be a whip” (24). If it is impos­si­ble to com­ment on the whip (oth­er than the fact that this detail of the descrip­tion is in dis­agree­ment with the fourth wit­ness account in which the object in the boy’s hand is described as being a rat­tle), the actu­al loca­tion of the chair in the paint­ing tells us that this child could not be hold­ing the hand of his moth­er. The space sep­a­rat­ing the cou­ple is insuf­fi­cient for the child to be able to squeeze between them, and the mother’s hand lies propped upon the arm­rest of her chair.

Fur­ther­more, accord­ing to the fourth account, the child was seat­ed on a chair. Yet, the only chair in the por­trait is posi­tioned at a dis­tance away from the moth­er. The child, there­fore, could not at the same time be seat­ed and be play­ing between his par­ents. Accord­ing to the fifth wit­ness, in fact, the chair had been paint­ed in his place. Read­ing the accounts, it becomes impos­si­ble to decide where the child was. Was he stand­ing, or seat­ed in a chair? Was this chair present in the paint­ing from the begin­ning, or paint­ed in lat­er to cov­er up the child’s era­sure? In exam­in­ing the paint­ing, it is tempt­ing to con­clude that the chair has been added after the fact. Rem­brandt must have replaced one vol­ume (the child) by anoth­er (the chair) in order to avoid total­ly off­set­ting the portrait’s composition.

Indeed, despite the pre­ci­sions giv­en by the third and fourth accounts, which do not, in any way, con­tra­dict those giv­en by the oth­er wit­ness­es, the child was not “between his par­ents,” that is, in the space sep­a­rat­ing them. Actu­al­ly, the three of them con­sti­tut­ed a tri­an­gle, and the child was sit­u­at­ed at its upper apex. In the paint­ing, each one of the fig­ures occu­pies a dis­tinct space. Though slight­ly shift­ed to the left, the father is far­ther back and to the cen­ter.10 The moth­er occu­pies the right cor­ner, sit­u­at­ed halfway between the two fig­ures. She serves as a nec­es­sary inter­me­di­ary between them. The child is in the fore­ground, in the left cor­ner. If the man seems open to the world—his gaze affirm­ing this inter­pre­ta­tion, while the globe to his right con­firms it—, as for the moth­er, she directs all her atten­tion to the child. In addi­tion, her mater­nal gaze and her moth­er­ly face make this por­trait, oth­er­wise quite aus­tere, a friend­ly fam­i­ly scene.

How­ev­er, the dis­ap­pear­ance of the child turns this per­spec­tive on its head, mak­ing the paint­ing appear enig­mat­ic. What did the woman look at? The wit­ness­es can­not give a pre­cise answer: “She did not look at any­one,” she “looks into the void,” “[t]he woman had a remote gaze, but she did not look out­side of the paint­ing. She was prob­a­bly look­ing at the child” (24-5). The focus of her gaze is open to all kinds of vari­a­tions. Because the child has been blot­ted out, the moth­er no longer looks at any­thing. She con­tem­plates the void, and her gaze los­es itself in the space that has lit­er­al­ly been decon­struct­ed. She is mid­way between antic­i­pa­tion and obliv­ion. Her prog­e­ny has become an absence that her gaze inden­ti­fies by its awk­ward­ness. Some­thing attract­ed her atten­tion, which will nev­er be brought back. She seems to lose her­self in the con­tem­pla­tion of a fig­ure that she alone is still able to dis­cern. Yet, this object is no longer present in her world. It has become a pure object of thought upon which she mus­es. The enig­mat­ic dimen­sion of her gaze is explic­a­ble through the muse­ment in which the dis­ap­pear­ance of the child has caused her to become immersed.

Where was the child before being blot­ted out? The por­trait shows that he did not occu­py the space between the par­ents, but rather, a priv­i­leged posi­tion at an apex. His dis­ap­pear­ance opened the fam­i­ly tri­an­gle on a void. In his place, there remains only an emp­ty chair. Did the child look upon his moth­er or, as it is with his father, did the world open at his feet? Was he dressed in black, like his par­ents, or did he wear the same col­or as the chair cush­ions of which the red could be a veiled ref­er­ence to his era­sure? The chair, in any case, marks the absence of the child, for it is lit­er­al­ly turned toward the moth­er and emp­ty, an empti­ness that opens the mind to the mys­ter­ies of absence. Fur­ther, if the moth­er does not look at the chair, the chair, on the oth­er hand, looks at her. It con­fronts her. It is a sign that only tru­ly holds mean­ing for her, a sign that is moti­vat­ed by this fil­ial rela­tion that has been erased.

The unoc­cu­pied chair from Rembrandt’s por­trait is a dis­creet appeal to the imag­i­na­tion and to the act of refig­ur­ing. It is left to us to trans­form this void into a sign of absence, to sit a child there and to imag­ine a fig­ure, which could return the mother’s admir­ing gaze.


The Aurat­ic Child

A fig­ure is the result of an act of appro­pri­a­tion. It requires being per­ceived, imag­ined, and manip­u­lat­ed. Fur­ther, it requires being des­ig­nat­ed. Every fig­ure has a name, with­out which the process of fig­u­ra­tion remains uncer­tain. Thus, the fig­ure of the Van­ished Child is nei­ther in the paint­ing of Rem­brandt nor in Sophie Calle’s text, even though it draws its ori­gins from both these works. It appears through an act of read­ing. Above all, not only is this fig­ure a sign, an object of thought, it also serves as an inter­face, a dynam­ic inter­preter, giv­ing rise to inter­pre­ta­tion. Fur­ther, it talks to us about dis­tance and desire.

As soon as the Van­ished Child reveals him­self, his appre­hen­sion is the con­fir­ma­tion of a dou­ble dis­tance. He only appears present in the moment in which his absence reveals itself. Present and absent all at once, present because absent, the Van­ished Child inscribes him­self in a para­dox­i­cal space as an enti­ty hav­ing an aston­ish­ing tem­po­ral den­si­ty, which cul­mi­nates over time and dis­tance. He becomes the embod­i­ment of a past that looks upon us in the present. This fig­ure expos­es a ver­sion of the past of which we know noth­ing, yet, much like an enig­ma, becomes the source of an end­less muse­ment. In the words of Paul Ricoeur this dis­ten­tion of the mind (a dis­ten­tion of “our” mind) is divid­ed up between a dis­ap­pear­ance, its enig­ma, and res­o­lu­tion (34). It gives to the fig­ure a sur­pris­ing force, which is that of the Imag­i­nary. As long as it holds with­in itself an ele­ment of mys­tery, it is a pure poten­tial­i­ty. Its inde­ter­mi­na­tion opens the way to the forms of appro­pri­a­tion. This log­ic has no lim­it, and above all, it sur­pass­es the spectator’s gaze. “Under our eyes, out­side of our gaze,” Georges Didi-Huber­man writes, “some­thing here talks to us about a haunt­ing pres­ence, as if it came back from far away, some­thing which both con­cerns and escapes us” (102).11 The words of Huber­man per­fect­ly describe the fig­ure of the Van­ished Child. Behind the veil of its own era­sure, this fig­ure escapes our com­plete appro­pri­a­tion, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, pen­e­trat­ing us with his gaze.12

As a fig­ure, the Van­ished Child cor­re­sponds to what Didi-Huber­man calls, using Wal­ter Benjamin’s ter­mi­nol­o­gy, an “aurat­ic object.” Such an object is “close and dis­tant at the same time, but dis­tant in its very prox­im­i­ty” (102). From the sub­ject who gazes upon it, the fig­ure requires, “a kind of inces­sant sweep or back and forth move­ment, a heuris­tic process in which distances—contradictory distances—are expe­ri­enced dialec­ti­cal­ly” (102). The Van­ished Child respects this dou­ble dis­tance per­fect­ly. He remains both close and dis­tant at the same time. His appear­ance in Sophie Calle’s Dis­pari­tions and the illu­sion of his pres­ence ren­der him almost pal­pa­ble. Yet, on the oth­er hand, this same pres­ence remains evanes­cent because any direct trace of him has been elim­i­nat­ed (the paint­ing hav­ing been stolen). His fig­ure is only a phan­tasm, whose real­i­ty can­not be confirmed.

In the writ­ings of Ben­jamin, the notions of trace and aura are inti­mate­ly linked. They are two dif­fer­ent aspects of a same phe­nom­e­non. Ben­jamin thus affirms the fol­low­ing: “The trace is appear­ance of a near­ness, how­ev­er far removed the thing that left it behind may be. The aura is appear­ance of a dis­tance, how­ev­er close the thing that calls it forth. In the trace, we gain pos­ses­sion of the thing; in the aura, it takes pos­ses­sion of us” (Arcades 447). This ten­sion between appear­ance and dis­ap­pear­ance, between pos­ses­sion and dis­pos­ses­sion, is at the heart of every fig­ure and the process of entice­ment to which the sub­ject is exposed, giv­ing rise to muse­ment. Through its traces, its sin­gu­lar man­ner of exist­ing in the world, the fig­ure gives itself to the spec­ta­tor, yet in doing so, it expos­es the sub­ject to a process of seduc­tion and sub­ju­ga­tion, which is the expres­sion of its aura. This aura is actu­al­ly the very inscrip­tion of a figure’s desir­abil­i­ty. The fig­ure attracts and draws atten­tion unto its self, while con­tin­u­al­ly avoid­ing being ful­ly grasped. The Van­ished Child is exem­plary of this way in which a fig­ure appears, stim­u­lat­ing a desire to be seen, but dis­ap­pear­ing at the very moment its long­ing becomes insis­tent. After all, there is noth­ing left to be seen. To say that this fig­ure returns our gaze is to for­get that the only gaze in ques­tion is our own. The fig­ure acts as an inter­me­di­ary, since it is noth­ing more than a sign, a semi­otic enti­ty con­struct­ed from our read­ing of a text. Yet it acts as a form of trans­mis­sion and a way of cir­cu­lat­ing mean­ing. Its force resides in its capac­i­ty for mys­tery and the fact that the traces at its ori­gin have lit­tle to do with its expe­ri­ence and meaning.

The aura is the recog­ni­tion of unique­ness. It comes to light in the con­ver­gence of time, space, and per­cep­tion, whose inter­ac­tions pro­duce an aston­ish­ing expe­ri­ence. To this end, Ben­jamin explained the aura to be a sin­gu­lar web of time and space, in which the close and dis­tant, the present and absent, the almost pal­pa­ble and the con­stant­ly evanes­cent inter­link sud­den­ly in the con­sti­tu­tion of a com­plex sign. Ben­jamin gives an exam­ple in order to illus­trate the figure’s nature, which is both evanes­cent and imme­di­ate­ly appeal­ing, evi­dence of its inher­ent dou­ble dis­tance. In this exam­ple, a man mus­es fol­low­ing “with the eye—while rest­ing on a sum­mer afternoon—a moun­tain range on the hori­zon or a branch that casts its shad­ow on the behold­er is to breathe the aura of those moun­tains, of that branch” (Ben­jamin, “Work” 105). He los­es him­self, while becom­ing, in a cer­tain way, immersed in their aura.13

It is nei­ther the moun­tain nor the Van­ished Child him­self who pos­sess­es the aura. More­over, the aura man­i­fests itself under a com­bi­na­tion of pre­cise cir­cum­stances. The branch is not endowed with this aura. Sim­i­lar­ly, the Van­ished Child in Rembrandt's paint­ing only becomes a fig­ure with­in a sin­gu­lar set of con­di­tions. It took my read­ing of Calle’s text to make it appear.

In fact, any­thing can become a fig­ure. Any­thing can acquire an aura. This aura does not, in itself, belong to the object. It is the result of a pro­jec­tion made by a sub­ject, who attrib­ut­es a val­ue, dynamism, or even, a soul to any giv­en object or being. It is the result of a muse­ment, whose pure play man­ages to bridge all the gaps, to force asso­ci­a­tions and to actu­al­ize the cre­ation of sin­gu­lar imag­i­nary beings. Fur­ther, this trans­fig­u­ra­tion is the out­come of a process of appro­pri­a­tion, which does not leave the object intact, but con­verts it into a sig­ni­fy­ing form, an object in which the sub­ject has emo­tion­al­ly and sym­bol­i­cal­ly invest­ed. If there tru­ly was a boy who was elim­i­nat­ed from the paint­ing, the fig­ure of the Van­ished Child only appears as a result of a sin­gu­lar read­ing of Sophie Calle’s text. The fig­ure draws its ori­gins from a tragedy. Just as Benjamin’s branch has no aura in itself, this fig­ure impos­es itself only after it has been inte­grat­ed into the frame­work of a subject’s life and expe­ri­ences. It is by the act of read­ing that the absent son has become the fig­ure of the Van­ished Child.


A Fig­ur­al semiosis

The fig­ure is an aurat­ic object. It is a com­plex sign, which dis­tin­guish­es itself by its sin­gu­lar­i­ty, its val­ue, its semi­otic den­si­ty, its evanes­cent qual­i­ty, and its own log­ic of nar­ra­tion and cre­ation of (men­tal or actu­al) images. All of these char­ac­ter­is­tics define what is meant by aura. More­over, for Ben­jamin: “If we des­ig­nate as aura the asso­ci­a­tions which, at home in the mémoire involon­taire, tend to clus­ter around the object of a per­cep­tion” (Baude­laire 145). The fig­ure, as an aurat­ic object, cor­re­sponds to this type of com­plex sign, which calls for the pro­duc­tion of even more intri­cate images and nar­ra­tions. The Van­ished Child comes with his own set of images. Cer­tain of these are trag­ic, while oth­ers are anec­do­tal. This fig­ure is not a sta­t­ic and inert enti­ty. To the con­trary, it is a dynam­ic form, which gives rise to inter­pre­ta­tions as well as sym­bol­ic and emo­tion­al devel­op­ments, with just as large of a vari­ety as the read­ers who appre­hend them. How­ev­er, from the very instant it is per­ceived, a fig­ure impos­es itself on the sub­ject as a real­i­ty on which we can muse on our own. In this way, it also engages vol­un­tary and invol­un­tary mem­o­ry, feel­ings, and affects, all of which become inter­laced, giv­ing it meaning.

It speaks of us, through Sophie Calle’s text, because it is only what, with­out think­ing, we have pro­ject­ed on to it. When such a fig­ure appears, a sit­u­a­tion opens up, through which our fears and desires are played out. It is a form that sup­ports these feel­ings, while also enabling their expres­sion. Such a fig­ure fas­ci­nates by the inten­si­ty with which it oper­ates. And it is intim­i­dat­ing because it relies essen­tial­ly on an absence. It can­not say any­thing by itself, but its image nev­er stops haunt­ing and taunt­ing us, tak­ing a per­va­sive hold on our thoughts through its very absence.



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of Its Tech­no­log­i­cal Repro­ducibil­i­ty: Sec­ond Ver­sion.” Wal­ter Ben­jamin: Select­ed Writ­ings. Vol­ume 3, 1935-1938. Cam­bridge: Har­vard U P, 2002.

---, and Rolf Tiede­mann. The Arcades Project. Cam­bridge: Belk­nap Press of Harvard

U P, 1999.

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Image Notes

Image 1: Sophie Calle, Dis­pari­tion, tableaux volés, Arles, Acte Sud, 2000, p. 21.

Image 2: Sophie Calle, Dis­pari­tion, tableaux volés, Arles, Actes Sud, 2000, p. 20.



1 Guil­laume Bauer and Bertrand Ger­vais trans­lat­ed this arti­cle. A French ver­sion appeared in Inter­mé­di­al­ités (nr 7, spring 2006). The notion of fig­ure pre­sent­ed here was exten­sive­ly described in Bertrand Ger­vais’ essay Fig­ures, lec­tures. Logiques de l’imaginaire. Tome I, Mon­tréal, Le Quar­tanier, 2007, 243.

2 The French term, l’imaginaire, does not eas­i­ly trans­late into Eng­lish. Jean-Paul Sartre pre­sent­ed it as an act of con­scious­ness; Jacques Lacan defined it as an order, imbed­ded in a tri­adic rela­tion­ship with the Real and the Sym­bol­ic order. It is used here as an inter­face between the sub­ject and the world whose actions are revealed by spe­cif­ic figures.

3 A web ver­sion of “A Neglect­ed Argu­ment for the Real­i­ty of God” is avail­able at

http://​en​.wik​isource​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​A​_​N​e​g​l​e​c​t​e​d​_​A​r​g​u​m​e​n​t​_​f​o​r​_​t​h​e​_​R​e​a​l​i​t​y​_​o​f​_​God). The con­cept is a cen­tral part of my study on the labyrinth and the forms of for­get­ful­ness in La ligne brisée : labyrinthe, oubli et vio­lence. Logiques de l’imaginaire. Tome II, Mon­tréal, Le Quar­tanier, coll. « Erres essais » 2008, 207.

4 http://​www​.bal​at​.fr/​L​e​-​M​u​s​e​m​e​n​t​-​d​e​-​P​e​i​r​c​e​-​a​-​L​a​c​a​n​.​h​tml. My translation.

5 http://​www​.bal​at​.fr/​L​e​-​M​u​s​e​m​e​n​t​-​d​e​-​P​e​i​r​c​e​-​a​-​L​a​c​a​n​.​h​tml. My translation.

6 Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, Ban­tam, 1988 (1922); Vladimir Nabokov, Loli­ta, Paris, Olympia Press, 1955.

7 In “Figu­ra”, Eric Auer­bach reminds us that: “Orig­i­nal­ly figu­ra, from the same stem as fin­gere, figu­lus, fic­tor, and effi­gies, meant ‘plas­tic form’” (11).

8 Quo­ta­tions from Sophie Calle, Dis­pari­tions are my translations.

9 Sophie Calle repro­duces the same tex­tu­al strat­e­gy in Sou­venirs de Berlin-Est (Arles, Actes sud, 1999) and Fan­tômes (Arles, Actes sud, 2000). More­over, the edi­tor brings these three books togeth­er in a boxed set with a par­tic­u­lar­ly reveal­ing title: “ L’absence.”

10 The paint­ing is divid­ed into two parts, which are almost equal in dimen­sion. Its right side is pre­dom­i­nate­ly black and is occu­pied almost exclu­sive­ly by the moth­er who is seat­ed. The father and son are sit­u­at­ed on the left side, which is less somber in col­or. If the father seems indif­fer­ent to the child, the two share the same space. Their phys­i­cal con­ti­gu­i­ty brings them clos­er and assures a rela­tion­ship between them.

11 Quo­ta­tions from Georges Didi-Huber­man are my translations.

12 The Van­ished Child is much like the rev­erend Hoop­er, from the Nathaniel Hawthorne short sto­ry, “The Minister’s Black Veil” (The Hawthorne Trea­sury, New York, The Mod­ern Library, 1999, 110-20). The min­is­ter hides his face behind a veil, which, even at the point of death, he nev­er takes off. The mys­tery sur­round­ing the rea­sons why he has cho­sen to hide his face behind this acces­so­ry is nev­er revealed. There is no point in the sto­ry in which the pas­tor explains this choice, or, even, for what sin, it serves as pen­i­tence. How­ev­er, this veil trans­forms a man who was a sim­ple pas­tor into a fig­ure hold­ing great pow­er. He becomes a celebri­ty, his ser­mons become wide­ly known, and his influ­ence grows. What the veil hides and reveals all at once, an enig­ma of an exag­ger­at­ed sin nev­er to be iden­ti­fied, gives rise to the great­est of fas­ci­na­tions. Like that of the Van­ished Child, his aura orig­i­nates from the fun­da­men­tal inde­ter­mi­na­tion his veil entails.

13 Cas­ten Strathausen effec­tive­ly dis­cerned the sin­gu­lar nature of this sit­u­a­tion described by Ben­jamin, which is above all else an expe­ri­ence. Strathausen empha­sizes the way in which the aura is an ephemer­al specter, which is cap­tured in the web of time and space. As he writes, “It does not refer to an inde­pen­dent, mate­r­i­al thing, but describes a par­tic­u­lar form of human expe­ri­ence. “ (Carsten Strathausen, “Benjamin’s Aura and the Bro­ken Heart of Moder­ni­ty,” in Benjamin’s Blind Spot, Lise Patt, ed., New York: Insti­tute of Cul­tur­al Inquiry, 2001, 5).

This arti­cle is licensed under a  Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.