Amery’s Door

This world is the closed door. It is a barrier. And at the same time
it is the way through- Simone Weil.

In the final chapter of Amery’s On Suicide: a discourse on voluntary death he will talk about freedom. He will talk about various ideas of freedom and what it can mean to say a death has been freely chosen. He will talk of freedom in terms of a road and an opening. Before we get onto that road and before we get to the Open there is another opening to consider. Amery opens his book about suicide with the image of a door being opened. It is a heavy door and he tells us that it creaks when we push upon it. He tells us that it is a door that opens with great difficulty and we are enjoined already to imagine ourselves there: us, the reader, pushing upon that heavy door that we know opens onto darkness.

I want to stay there, at that door, pressed up against it. Before we enter ‘the thoroughly impenetrable darkness’ (1) beyond it, the darkness that is what Amery calls, after Al Alvarez, the closed world of the suicide. Prior to entering the closed world is this door. He paints it as imposing. We know it has a terrible weight to it and a resistance to our effort. We press against that door and feel its refusal to open onto an opening that remains closed. It must be solid and huge, the kind of door one easily conjures as the threshold for a Gothic ruin or one of those great Cathedral doors.

Picture it: there you are standing before the vast and inhuman arch, patterned with deep black carvings, the hinges and austere but imposing ornamentation composed of iron set deep into unyielding oak timbers. The doors of Cathedrals act as a threshold, certainly, a passageway between the exterior and the interior, but they are more than that alone. They function to keep things separate too; the sacred and the profane are placed at a distance from one, the door’s two sides serving to keep them apart, a contaminated partition that always fails. The failure of division is built into the cathedral doors and one can so they also fail at keeping out what might be smuggled into the sacred spaces, secreted in the hearts and minds of men: they cannot keep the sacred above the profane, and they cannot keep evil from walking right in to the heart God’s house. Sometimes there are exterior doors, several such doors and arches, that try to compensate for the failure of the partition in its necessary metaxy, and so divide up the approach carving the space up into smaller discrete spaces; but they are all compromised. The door is heavy but each of its faces are already exposed.

The idea of metaxy: the condition of in-betweenness. The term is usually traced back to the Greeks for whom it meant “between” in much the same way that we might say that the opening of the door is between the limits of its frame. It has a specific relationship to Plato, especially the Symposium where Socrates speaks Diotima definition of Eros as a daimon and further defines the daimonic is between the divine and the moral. Plato’s text also tells us that Eros is the mediation that bridges the abyss that opens up between divinity and the mortal. Existing as an “intermediate” Eros is thus neither divine nor mortal, and with that collapsed distinction comes a host of others that must be set up in order also to collapse: neither infinite nor finite, ideal nor material, unknowable nor knowable, neither singular nor multiple, absolutely continuous nor absolutely discontinuous. We are told that the nature of Eros is to be found in His function:

“And what,” I said, “is his power?” “He interprets,” she replied, “between gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods; he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in him all is bound together, and through him the arts of the prophet and the priest, their  sacrifices and mysteries and charms, and all, prophecy and incantation, find their way. For God mingles not with man; but through Love. all the intercourse, and converse of god with man, whether awake or asleep, is carried on.

It would be tempting to follow the way of the linguistic philosophers and talk about Eros as interpretation. That is, after all, his power; but interpretation isn’t solely linguistic and does not only occur on the page. A dancer may interpret a situation, a piece of music, another dancer’s body, while the psychiatrist interprets the nonlinguistic signs of the patient’s behaviour into a frame of reference so that immobility is a sign for depression. Mathematical models also interpret and the user-interface of a computer interprets data on behalf of the user to present her with an easily navigated interaction, much in the same way that the human brain interprets its environment in order to radically simplify the informational chaos into a coherent and functional world.

Intermediate; abyss; medium; neither/nor; interface. Perhaps it is the last of these, interface, that gets closest to the idea of the metaxy. We already have examples of the interface, our culture being one it is almost possible to define by one such particular exemplar: the screen. It is through the screen that we enter into the digital world without ever really leaving behind the physical one of our everyday lives. Unlike Alice we never truly pass through the screen into that other world but before the screen we are no longer in the world we were born into. Augmented and virtual reality shows us the power of the screen to radically interact with our perceptual system and the physical environment in order to add more layers of mediation that can produce an intensely immediate effect.

In such experiences the interface itself tends to disappear so that we can say we experience the virtual reality but not the screen itself. Despite this the screen remains there as physical as any other object but more cunning than any other. It is the cunning of its transparency that causes this disappearance effect so that we become engrossed or absorbed in the presentation of the images that play upon it. In Mereleau-Ponty’s phenomenological discussions of the body that recedes into the background in its activity we also see this disappearance effect. The interface always disappears.

It is in the disappearance effect of immediacy that the interface is known as a power. Eros takes and carries from one pole to the other traversing them and making it seem as though there is nothing to traverse, just as sms can depart from the earth to bounce of satieties to another part of the earth. The material infrastructure and the distance are made to vanish so that the world appears otherwise than i is. The world can become smaller than it is, smaller and much more manageable. Thus it is not just that the interface vanishes but it performs a strange magic on the world that large portion of it also become invisible. In his Interface Effect Alexander Galloway talks about  the inability of cognitive mapping, the capacity for drawing intelligible cartographies of our dense reality,  to accurately reflect the real. He tells us the discontinuity of the map and the territory produces what we call culture:

Culture emerges from this incompatibility. The same goes for the interface: it emerges from this incompatibility; it is this incompatibility (viii).

‘The same goes for the interface’: Eros is the incompatibility of Gods and men, the interface of being that existential psychotherapist Rollo May claims is experienced as ‘the yearning for mystic union’ (79) , Freud’s oceanic feeling. The need for mystical union comes out of the experience of incompatibilities: humans require Gods because we shit.

In Interface Effect Galloway is dismissive of understanding the interface via the door no matter how much the door might be an interface. It is a poor model. For Galloway the door-model is useless and worn out that only adds to our understanding of the interface by ‘admitting that  it may be closed from time to time’  (40). How boring the discussion becomes ‘trapped in a pointless debate between openness and closedness’ (40) and belongs to the tired and interminable Frankfurt School critiques, to talk of ‘thresholds and positions’ (30). Maybe so, but that is what we’re talking about…and the door is heavy.

Perhaps it is not so grand as a cathedral door after all. Amery doesn’t say it is. He just tells us it is heavy and that it creaks. We can infer it is old. Maybe it hasn’t been opened in a very long time. The lock- who locked it?- is rusted and the bolt has been difficult to shift. Maybe it has formed a kind of organic seal. You push hard against it and it resists you. The interface- the metaxy- does not disappear; it passively asserts itself by refusing your efforts as your muscles ache and your brow sweats. And if the interface refuses to disappear then the incompatibilities are laid bare in front of you.

In Amery’s opening essay the door is not just that between two rooms or between two domains of culture (the sacred and profane), but between two logics that operate so entirely distinctly from one another that their incompatibility is the very being of the door: it is the incompatibility that constitutes the closure of the “closed world” of the suicide; the incompatibility of voluntary death with the “logic of life”. The contradiction between suicide and everyday life, the world of the suicidal and the world of the un-suicidal, is as stark as any and at various times takes on the violence of antagonism or the sad isolation of incommunicability. It is a division that inspired fascination, pity, dread and horror as much as it does caring and oppressive interventions.

In this opening metaphor the door exists for us, the readers, who Amery supposes- and we might hope- lie on the exterior side of the doorway, having not having crossed the threshold and so still able to declare such metaphors boring or inadequate. Of course Amery, a survivor of Auschwitz who ontologized his status as victim, never able to recover himself or to truly leave the torture chambers of the camp, a captured Resistance fighter…he has already crossed over, stepped over the threshold to the interior. By the time he came to write the book he had already attempted to die by his own design once and, having been frustrated, would succeed in trying again later.

There is something undeniably banal about it though, this prosaic image of the door. It’s a door. So what? Doors do open so the world isn’t all that closed. This might be one of Amery’s little digs at people like Al Alvarez who think of the phenomenology of suicide as some exotic foreign country cut off from the rest of humanity and utterly incommunicable.

If the door opens a little easier than I have made out then it is because there he is on the other side- although we can’t see him- opening it from the other side. It is as if Amery himself is denying the closure and revealing the world of the suicide; we are being invited in to a domain where the logic of life no longer holds sovereignty.

Maybe we accept the invitation out of morbid curiosity or because we have lost someone or because we have flirted with the idea of suicide ourselves. If we are in step with the logic of life then we should be careful: Amery’s hospitality is neither straight forwardly benign nor benevolent. Later, when we have settled into the darkness behind the door and we have spent some time in the antechambers the anti-life, Amery will pose the question ‘don’t the suicidal know better? and isn’t what they know binding for all?’ (131). In bringing us over the threshold into a privated world- closed because shrouded with silence- Amery is distinctly partisan. We step out of the social world and into that of the tortured individual, the one for whom life and existence have become a burden. We step into a field of bleak and dreadful knowledge.

Speaking of the ‘Philosophy of the door’, architect Aldo Van Eyck asks ‘what is the greater reality of a door?’ and answers

perhaps the greater reality of a door is the localized setting for a wonderful human gesture: conscious entry and departure. That’s what a door is, something that frames you coming and going…a door is a place made for an act that is repeated a million times in a life time between the first entry and the last exit.

What is the entrance through Amery’s door but a terrible intimacy that constitutes a rehearsal? We are getting intimate with death as a decision and a response, the ambivalent desire for disappearance.

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