Death In Samarkand

An ellipsis of the sign, an eclipse of meaning: an illusion. The mortal distraction that a single sign can cause instantaneously.

Consider the story of the soldier who meets Death at a crossing in the marketplace, and believes he saw him make a menacing gesture in his direction. He rushes to the king's palace and asks the king for his best horse in order that he might flee during the night far from Death, as far as Samarkand. Upon which the king summons Death to the palace and reproaches him for having frightened one of his best servants. ! But Death, astonished, replies: "I didn't mean to frighten him. It was just that I was surprised to see this soldier here, when we had a rendez-vous tomorrow in Samarkand."

Yes, one runs towards one's fate all the more surely by seeking to escape it. Yes, everyone seeks his own death, and the failed acts are the most successful. Yes, signs follow an unconscious course. But all this concerns the truth of thé rendez-vous in Samarkand; it does not account for the seduction of the story, which is in no way an apologue of truth. :

What is astounding about the story is that this seemingly inevitable rendez-vous need not have taken place. There is nothing to suggest that the soldier would have been in Samarkand without this chance encounter, and without the ill-luck of

Death's naive gesture, which acted in spite of itself as a gesture of seduction. Had Death been content to call the soldier back to order, the story would lose its charm. Everything here is hinged on a single, involuntary sign. The gesture does not appear to be part of a strategy, nor even an unconscious ruse; yet it takes on the unexpected depth of seduction, that is, it appears as something that moves laterally, as a sign that, unbeknownst to the protagonists (including Death, as well as the soldier), advances a deadly command, an aleatory sign behind which another conjunction, marvelous or disastrous, is being enacted. A conjunction that gives the sign's trajectory all the characteristics of a witticism.

No one in the story has anything to reproach himself with - or else the king who lent his horse, is as guilty as anyone else. No. Behind the apparent liberty of the two central characters (Death was free to make his gesture, the soldier to flee), they were both following a rule of which neither were aware. The rule of this game, which, like every fundamental rule, must remain secret, is that death is not a brute event, but only occurs through seduction, that is, by way of an instantaneous, indecipherable complicity, by a sign or signs that will not be deciphered in time.

Death is a rendez-vous, not an objective destiny. Death cannot fail to go since he is this rendez-vous, that is, the allusive conjunction of signs and rules which make up the game. At the same time, Death is an innocent player in the game. This is what gives the story its secret irony, whose resolution appears as a stroke of wit [trait d'esprit], and provides us with such sublime pleasure - and distinguishes it from a moral fable or a vulgar tale about the death instinct. The spiritual character [trait spirituel] of the story extends the spirited character [trait d 'esprit gestuel] of Death's gesture, and the two seductions, that of Death and of the story, fuse together.

Death's astonishment is delightful, an astonishment at the frivolity of an arrangement where things proceed by chance: "But this soldier should have known that he was expected in Samarkand tomorrow, and taken his time to get there..." However Death shows only surprise, as if his existence did not depend as much as the soldier's on the fact that they were to meet in

Samarkand. Death lets things happen, and it is liis casualness that makes him appealing - this is why the soldier hastens to join him. ,

None of this involves the unconscious, metaphysics or psychology. Or even strategy. Death has no plan. He restores chance with a chance gesture; this is how he works, yet everything still gets done. There is nothing that cannot not be done, yet everything still preserves the lightness of chance, of a furtive gesture, an accidental encounter or ah illegible sign. That's how it is with seduction... i

Moreover, the soldier went to meet death because he gave meaning to a meaningless gesture which did not even concern him. He took personally something that was notj addressed to him, as one might mistake for oneself a smile meiant for someone else. The height of seduction is to be without seduction. The man seduced is caught in spite of himself in a web of stray signs.

And it is because the sign has been turned from its meaning or "seduced," that the story itself is seductive. It is when signs are seduced that they become seductive.

Only signs without referents, empty, senseless, absurd and elliptical signs, absorb us. j

A little boy asks a fairy to grant him his wishjes. The fairy agrees on one condition, that he never think of the colour red in the fox's tail. "Is that all?" he replies offhandedly. And off he goes to find happiness. But what happens? He is unable to rid himself of this fox's tail, which he believed he had already forgotten. He sees it everywhere, with its red colour, in his thoughts, and in his dreams. Despite all his efforts, he cannot make it disappear. He becomes obsessed with this absurd, insignificant, but tenacious image, augmented by all;the spite that comes from not having been able to rid himself ojf it. Not only do the fairy's promises not come true, but he loses his taste for life. Perhaps he dies without ever having gotten clear of it.

An absurd story, but absolutely plausible, for it demonstrates the power of the insignificant signifier, the power of a meaning less signifier.

The fairy was mischievous (she wasn't a good fairy). She knew that the mind is irresistibly attracted to a place devoid of meaning. Here the emptiness was seemingly provoked by the insignificance (this is why the child was not on his guard) of the colour red of a fox's tail. Elsewhere words and gestures are emptied of their meaning by unflagging repetition and scansion. To wear meaning out, to tire it out in order to liberate the pure seduction of the null signifier or empty term - such is the strength of ritual magic and incantation.

But it can just as well be a direct fascination with the void, as in the physical vertigo of a chasm, or the metaphorical vertigo of a door that opens onto the void. If you were to see written on a door panel: "This opens onto the void." - wouldn't you still want to open it?

That which looks onto nothing has every reason to be opened. That which doesn't say anything has every reason to never be forgotten. That which is arbitrary is simultaneously endowed with a total necessity. The predestination of the empty sign, the precession of the void, the vertigo of an obligation devoid of sense, a passion for necessity.

Here lies something of the secret of magic (the fairy was a magician). The power of words, their "symbolic efficacy" is greater when uttered in a void. When they have neither context nor referent, they can take on the power of a self-fulfilling (or self-defeating) prophecy. Like the colour red of a fox's tail. Unreal and insubstantial, it proves compelling because of its nullity. If the fairy had forbidden the child from doing something serious or significant, he would have pulled through easily, instead of being seduced against his will. For it is not the prohibition, but its non-sense that seduces him. Thus, against all logic, it is the improbable prophecies that come true; all that is required is that they not make too much sense. Otherwise they would not be prophecies. Such is the bewitchment of magical speech, such is the sorcery of seduction.

This is why neither magic nor seduction concerns belief or make-believe, for they employ signs without credibility and gestures without referents; their logic is not one of mediation, but of immediacy, whatever the sign.

Proof is unnecessary. Everybody knows that their spell is carried by the unmediated resonance of the signs. There is no official, intermediary time for the sign and its decipherment; it is not a matter of believing, doing, wanting, or knowing. Their attraction is foreign to the forms of discourse, as well as the distinctive logic of the utterance and statement. Their spell belongs to the order of declamation and prophecy, a discourse whose symbolic effectiveness requires neither decipherment nor belief.

The immediate attraction of a song, a voice or scent. The attraction of the panther's scent (Détienne: Dionysos mis à mort). According to the ancients, the panther is the only animal to emit a fragrant odour, which it uses to capture its victims. The panther has only to hide (his appearance strikes terror), and his victims are bewitched by his scent - an invisible trap to which they come to be caught. But this power of seduction can be turned against the panther: one hunts him by using spices, herbs and perfumes as bait.

But what does it mean to say that the panther seduces by its scent? Why is its scent seductive? (And why is this legend itself seductive? What sort of fragrance does it emit?) What accounts for the seduction of the song of the Sirens, the beauty of a face, the depths of a chasm, or the imminence of a catastrophe - as well as the scent of the panther or a door that opens onto the void? Is it some hidden force of attraction? or a powerful desire? No, these are empty terms. Seduction lies with the annulment of the signs, of their meaning, with their pure appearance. Eyes that seduce have no meaning, their meaning being exhausted in the gaze, as a face with makeup is exhausted in its appearance, in the formal rigour of a senseless labour. Above all, seduction supposes not a signified desire, but the beauty of an artifice .

The panther's scent is also a senseless message - and behind this message the panther is invisible, like a woman beneath her makeup. The Sirens too remained unseen. Sorcery is formed by what lies hidden.

The seduction of eyes. The most immediate, purest form of seduction, one that bypasses words. Where looks alone join in a sort of duel, an immediate intertwining, unbeknownst to others and their discourses: the discrete charm of a silent and immobile orgasm. Once the delightful tension of the gazes gives way to words or loving gestures, the intensity declines. A tac-tility of gazes that sums up the body's full potential (and that of its desires?) in a single, subtle instant, as in a stroke of wit. A duel that is simultaneouly sensual, even voluptuous, but dis-incarnated - a perfect foretaste of seduction's vertigo, which the more carnal pleasures that follow will not equal. That these eyes meet is accidental, but it is as though they had been fixed on each other forever. Devoid of meaning, what is exchanged are not the gazes. There is no desire here, for desire is not captivating, while eyes, like fortuitous appearances, cast a spell composed of pure, duel signs, with neither depth nor temporality.

Any system that is totally complicit in its own absorption, such that signs no longer make sense, will exercise a remarkable power of fascination. Systems fascinate by their esotericism, which preserves them from external logics. The absorption of anything real by something self-sufficient, and self-destructive, proves fascinating. Whether a system of thought, an automatic mechanism, a perfect and perfectly useless object or a desert of stones, a woman or strip-tease artist (who must caress herself in order' to "enchant" and exercise her power) - or, to be sure, God that most beautiful piece of esoteric machinery.

Or the woman with makeup, who is absent to herself, an absence of a focussed look, the absence of a face - how can one not be swallowed up in it? A beauty is one who abolishes herself, thereby constituting a challenge that we can only take up by the dazzling loss of what? Of what is not beautiful. The beautiful woman absorbed by the cares that her beauty demands is immediately infectious because, in her narcissistic excess, she is removed from her self, and because all that is removed from the self is plunged into secrecy and absorbs its surroundings.

The attraction of the void lies at the basis of seduction: not

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