Very Last Thing: Rousseau, Shelley, Hujar

Jacques Khalip (Brown University)

In his essay “The End of All Things,” Immanuel Kant zeroes in on what he calls “the last thought, the last feeling in the thinking subject [who] will then remain forever the same without any change” (227). This congealed and apocalyptic condition, in which “all alteration . . . ceases” and “outrages the imagination,” is an unblinking nightmare for the philosopher: “For then the whole of nature will be rigid and as it were petrified” (227). With some ambivalence, Kant puzzles over what it would mean for a subject “to think itself into such a state,” which, as you might expect, he says is impossible, for it would mean that the subject who thinks its own non-existence craves destitution, or a life “equivalent to annihilation” (227). And yet, Kant gets at something obscure here, as if reluctantly putting his finger on something he would otherwise not like to touch, but still does. What does it mean to come as close as possible to a last thought or a last feeling as if it were the last? And how does one dwell with the “end of the world” otherwise?

This essay begins with another kind of very last thing:

My thanks to Sonia Hofkosh and Joel Faflak for inviting me to the Keats-Shelley Association panel, The Futures of Shelley’s Triumph, at the 2016 MLA, and to my fellow panelists: Tres Pyle, Libby Fay, and Orrin N.C. Wang. I would also like to thank Stephen Koch of the Hujar Archive for all of his help.

the third-to-last line of Shelley’s The Triumph of Life—“as if that look must be the last.” Looking at the Bodleian manuscript,


I am reminded of Mary Shelley’s sense of helpless fascination while editing the Posthumous Poems: “Did any one see the papers from which I drew that volume, the wonder would be how any eyes or patience were capable of extracting it from so confused a mass, interlined and broken into fragments, so that the sense could only be deciphered and joined by guesses” (Reiman 119). Scanning the guesswork of The Triumph’s last page (if seeing is even possible here), another opaque desideratum appears: the faint notation of the words “Alas I kiss you Julie” just above the dangling deletion of “from whose limbs the.” What does one make of the barely marked errancies of a last look and a last kiss? Both are minor affects that equivocally fall “by the way side” of a poem that remains unfinished, materially illegible, and an echo-text of other writings that ghost it.

Shelley’s Poetry and Prose 541. All citations of Shelley’s writings come from this text unless otherwise noted. Line numbers will be given parenthetically.

Shelley seems to conjure a virtual and diffuse infrastructure that traffics at all limits between a “public way” and a “way side” (43, 541)—two ways that conceptualize the poem’s silent inscriptions and render it discontinuous with its own borders.

In his study of the manuscript, Donald Reiman lists its “contents”: financial calculations; the poems “Lines Written in the Bay of Lerici” and “To Jane”; drawings, doodles, and sketches; various “apocrypha” or texts deleted from the final version; aborted openings, tryouts, and fragments (226–27). Additionally, we know that The Triumph bears complex subterranean traces of the drama Shelley was researching since 1819: Charles the First, a work he abandoned in 1822 in order to write the poem. It is worth pondering how these jottings, inter-texts, or graffiti also tug at The Triumph like a cog in the editorial wheel of the car itself, as if to delay any kind of last take or last look cast upon it. This elemental mass constitutes the poem’s “hidden transcript,” a concept James C. Scott uses in his book Domination and The Arts of Resistance to describe “a critique of power spoken behind the back of the dominant” as a strategy of covert, unavowable resistance from within power relations (xii). Thus Shelley’s hidden transcript isn’t just the shapeless sum of all other texts within the poem’s folios, nor is it something to be excavated and interpreted exclusively through recourse to social or political lenses. Rather, the transcript gestates through its own mute, virtual resistances and underperformances that operate from within and in excess of the boundaries that inform it, disturbing them while simultaneously remaining below the radar of capture. The hiddenness of the transcript refuses and exhausts a text—it amounts to a negativity or désoeuvrement that, with varying nuances, stops and starts, ends and begins the “Life” that the triumph burdensomely bears along: “little profit brings / Speed in the van and blindness in the rear” (100–1).

Tilottama Rajan writes that to look at The Triumph of Life in its pre-published state is “to experience an enormous gulf between its chaos and the iconic clarity of the printed text . . . That The Triumph survives only in manuscript may be an accident. But the accident is part of the text’s history and produces that history as a kind of mirror-stage on which the identity of editing, of philology, and of reading is projected and broken” (341). “The iconic clarity of the printed text” brilliantly evokes how a drive for perceptual coherence vainly repairs the messy “broken” gulf of the poem in its two states, or its two worlds. Within the context of The Triumph, it isn’t hard to hear how that rift becomes the mirror stage for all the scholarship that has followed the poem: writing over thirty years ago, Paul de Man famously asked how reading The Triumph required us to wonder what we should do with the scene of the unburied body “within” the text: ‘This defaced body [Shelley’s drowning] is present in the margin of the last manuscript page and has become an inseparable part of the poem. At this point, figuration and cognition are actually interrupted by an event which shapes the text but which is not present in its represented or articulated meaning . . . The final test of reading, in The Triumph of Life, depends on how one reads the textuality of this event, how one disposes of Shelley’s body. (120, 121)’ The question of disposal might be juxtaposed with Derrida’s remark in a reading of Paul Celan: “When the world is no more, when it is on the way to being no longer here but over there, when the world is no longer near…then I must carry you, you alone, you alone in me or on me alone” ( “Rams” 158). What Derrida emphasizes is the recession of that rift, the intervallic indeterminacy that turns the end of the world into a kind of “epistemological therapeutics”:

I borrow this term from Rei Terada’s Looking Away (71).

‘For each time, and each time singularly, each time irreplaceably, each time infinitely, death is nothing less than an end of the world. Not only one end among others, the end of someone or something in the world, the end of a life or of a living being. Death puts an end neither to someone in the world nor to one world among others. Death marks each time, each time in defiance of arithmetic, the absolute end of the one and only world, of that which each opens as a lone and only world, the end of the unique world, the end of the totality of what is or can be presented as the origin of the world for any unique living being, be it human or not. ( “Rams” 140)’ For Derrida, death generically enacts this apocalyptic end, again and again, as an ethical injunction: attend to the end of the world as the Other’s end, but do not make it your own, even as “the end” occurs throughout life at the risk of always cannibalizing the other in our thoughts. In what follows, I read the end of the world for its form, which is to say as a non-catastrophic structure or formula that performs extinguishments at micro-levels. Turning to the line “as if that look must be the last,” I want to consider this comparatively brief and under-read textual moment as opening up an ethico-aesthetics that emerges for Shelley out of a formal quandary: what happens in the poem after the last look has been drained? And what is an after-look? I admit that for years, I have been perplexed by the minimal yet arresting force of The Triumph’s last words, to the point where the whole apparatus of the poem dissolves for me like a stone in a river. The line has also been so powerful to me because of its resonance with an earlier moment where the poet deplores the coercive logic of The Triumph’s spectacular visuality: “Mine eyes are sick of this perpetual flow / Of people, and my heart of one sad thought” (298–99). One might call this “ideological fatigue,” Siegfried Kracauer’s term for what he diagnosed as the profound “apathy” and “insensitivity” of American culture reflected in postwar Hollywood cinema, where confrontations with historical trauma expose a lack in values and total social and political paralysis (79). The sick eyes of the poet, like Mary Shelley’s, become passive precipitates of a fatigue that succumbs to the imperatives of ocular reason, but at the same time, the poem counters this passivity with a queerly erotic openness to disabling and world-ending encounters that flash up with last looks and last kisses. In these non-appropriating and partial moments, lifeless bodies and things approach each other as seductive “evidence” of pleasures that blur the lines between seeing, reading, and looking at last sight.

For a poem that frenetically begins (as Faflak has described it) like the musical 42nd Street and “works like hell to bring the world prosopopoeically to life” (“Dancing” 168), the springing forth of the sun and the subsequent “unclosing” of all things in the proem are no sooner choreographed than everything soon disappears in an end of the world that overworks its own resources (9). The poet experiences a “scene . . . / As clear as when a veil of light is drawn / O’er evening hills they glimmer” (31–33), one which gives way to a “trance of wondrous thought” (41). In turn, it effects a “Vision . . . rolled” on [the poet’s] brain (40)—a mechanized rolling that prefigures the last roll of the chariot of Life itself (“the car which now had rolled / Onward”), and annuls his gaze which is trained at the unclosing world. William Jewett notes that “Shelley’s daemonized aubade explicitly revises a topos of revolution poetry: the appearance of the day’s new light as an emblem of a new age abruptly dissociated from the time of an ancien régime” (225). If we are confronting something like the revolutionary unclosing of the first eyes of the world—“All flowers in field or forest which unclose / Their trembling eyelids to the kiss of day” (9–10)—the proem introduces seeing as not only an originating way of being, but as a forced act of unblocking an opening, an unclosing that rearranges perceptions. It recalls Schopenhauer’s puzzling reflection in The World as Will and Representation (1818) that ‘the existence of the whole world remains forever dependent on that first eye that opened, were it even that of an insect. For such an eye necessarily brings about knowledge, for which and in which alone the whole world is, and without which it is not even conceivable . . . This world is the succession of the representations of this consciousness, the form of its knowing, and apart from this loses all meaning, and is nothing at all. (1: 30) ’ Even though the world precedes the first eye, for Schopenhauer it can only exist as something a priori insofar as it occurs as a world by virtue of and for that first eye. In this way, the eye’s aubade is also, generically speaking, its address of the lover through a song of separation and farewell: to wake is to part at the limit of dawn.

What kind of world is left after the last eye goes misty? Is it the “world after the end of the world” (Derrida, “Rams” 140)? For Shelley, there is never the opening of one eye, but multiple eyes, disconnected from any autonomous entity; in their multiplicity, no one line of sight predominates. And at this point, “unclosing” suggests something else: not another kind of opening nor a deprivation of closure, but a seeing with and through negativity, one that proceeds to veil things just as they glimmer. If a “poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth” as Shelley claims in A Defence of Poetry (515), his ontology of the image is essentially not amenable to the visible. The “wondrous trance” opens onto a topology of things seen as unseen—stanzas (or rooms) unfurnished, not so much noumenal as absent, forgotten, unmade, and emptied out. For example, later on in the Defence he states the following: ‘All things exist as they are perceived: at least in relation to the percipient. ‘The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’ But poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subject to the accident of surrounding impressions. And whether it spreads its own figured curtain or withdraws life’s dark veil from before the scene of things, it equally creates for us a being within our being. It makes us inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know. It creates anew the universe after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration. (533) ’ William Keach reminds us that Shelley’s post-Lockean formulation of the image staked its ground on its non-picturable possibilities: delinked from sense-perception, Shelley’s images are often produced by an inside/outside mode of perception that (re)creates what the world does or does not give—what it ostensibly closes. The line between giving and not giving, like the one between opening and unclosing, is impossible to firmly draw (42–78). For example, in the preface to Prometheus Unbound: “Imagery which I have employed will be found in many instances to have been drawn from the operations of mind, or from those external actions by which they are expressed” (207). Poetry is other to itself: on the one hand, if it is an ostensibly equalizing medium, one which “creates a being within our being” and “reproduces the common universe,” it has a power of apprehension which seizes the common—it “purges . . . the film of familiarity” and renews the universe after its “annihilation” by the everyday. But for poetry to make something happen as a faculty, it operates by way of cuts and endings—it “defeats” and “purges,” as if overcoming or deleting the very concepts it endlessly generates into legibility. As an image of life and a faculty for seeing such a life, poetry closes and uncloses the aperture towards a life that is discontinuous with it, a poetic life that “poetry” can never wholly see because, like a camera, it always sees for others and sees things as other—a look without a seer. Shelley’s poetry is on the cusp of what one sees and doesn’t see—a limit or borderline that takes time to unclose. It has a long exposure—like the undetermined route of The Triumph, there is no end in sight to life/Life. When it uncloses, things and places patiently open up but not for our eyes only. And because we can only see or read through another, we submit or yield ourselves to the insistence of a life beside itself that has become so vividly absent at its edges.


When Rousseau casts an eye at the car, what does he look at? Is it a defensive response, an automated reflex? Between “What is Life?” and “Happy are those for whom the fold / Of,” these two units bookend the last look as something that transpires imperceptibly in the middle of things. From one point of view, the unfinished conversation between Rousseau and the poet takes place in the poem’s foreground while all other actions and events outside the quotes fall into the background noise. But if we recall that the manuscript of The Triumph did not have quotation marks (a posthumous editorial add-on by Mary Shelley), looking and speaking blend into one another like a queerly textual assemblage or melée. In a poem of extraordinary light imagery and various instances of vision, looking, beholding, and seeing, this small moment is confounding. The word eye appears in the text more than any other figure for visualization: at my count, it appears ten times, whereas “gaze”=3; “vision”=4; and “look”=2. Thus the casting out of the eye, or its de-eyeing, becomes a significant topos for Shelley in The Triumph of Life and in its parallel text, Charles The First. Jewett has shown how in the drama, the figure of the Sun “is a tyrannical Sun King, modelled not, as critics have suggested, after Louis XIV, but after Charles I rejoicing in his courtly spectacles” (227). The assault, moreover, on “courtly spectacles” like The Triumph of Peace (performed in 1633), which “arose out of a wish by City lawyers to defend the court’s spectacles from the antitheatrical attacks of Puritan iconoclasts like their colleague William Prynne” (232), would not have been lost on Shelley.

Jewett surmises that The Triumph of Peace at the court of Charles I would have brought to mind the contemporary excesses of the Prince Regent.

When Charles the First imagines himself as the “golden sun” of the court while “[t]he wild million / Strike at the eye that guides them” (Poetical Works 144–45), he conceives of the body politic “like Oedipus . . . [which] strikes out its own eye” (Jewett 244). The line echoes “the million with fierce song and maniac dance/Raging around” in The Triumph (110–11), or “the throng of Life that not only obscures but permanently extinguishes the illumination Rousseau might have shed” (Jewett 244). Jewett underscores this parallel in order to argue that Shelley’s mobile imagery of light and obscurity depicts history not as traditionally successional but “as a nontemporal repetition of obscurings that blot a light shining from a realm beyond time” (231–32). If the poem works to forget what the past remembers, then the abandonment of the play for the poem was, in Jewett’s estimate, Shelley’s anxious “political dilemma,” or the question of how to think beyond the embodiment of history on stage (253) even as the poem “engenders an unquenchable nostalgia for the doings and sufferings that once could be found in history” (252).

I want to suggest, however, that Shelley’s casting out of the eye enacts another gesture, one that ends a world but in a manner that is involuntary and intentionless—an abjecting or throwing out of what comes to configure itself as what Kristeva terms the “in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (4). Rousseau throws out the eye like a futile apostrophe or address, abjuring or discarding the very organ associated with the possibility of perception (hence his eyelessness). Additionally, the line allows for the thought that the eye throws and attaches itself to the moving triumphal car, as if to let the car carry the eye “onward” and put an end to the look while also absorbing its expulsion into the engine of the car. The million that strike the “eye that guides them” might be like Hegel’s work of art, a “thousand-eyed Argus, whereby the inner soul and the spirit is seen at every point” (1: 153–54). And like the heart which manifests its inner workings all over the human body, art must “convert every shape in all points of its visible surface into an eye” in order to confirm and see such affects as revelations of the spirit (1: 153). But for Shelley, the heterogeneity of the million that “rage around” the chariot disturb the work of art’s spectatorial privilege. Rather than convert and homogenize, the throng explodes around Life as “in-between” and “composite,” at once fascinated and bound to it but also called to it as a situation waiting for its event, implicitly displacing it as a source or center of attention.

I draw here on Alain Badiou’s definition of the event in Being and Event.

It isn’t that there are more lines of sight that open up; instead, Shelley’s weariness with The Triumph imitates the depleting movements of figures within it that challenge spectatorship as a world-making project. Indeed, this reversal of the eye’s observational capacities is what Michel Foucault locates in Georges Bataille’s work—rather than persist as the (Romantic) figure of a “mirror and lamp,” the eye works differently: “Sight carries it away in this luminous stream (an outpouring fountain, streaming tears and, shortly, blood), hurls the eye outside of itself, conducts it to the limit” (81). The eye is removed from its own operations by sight just as “the philosophizing subject has been dispossessed and pursued to its limit” (82). Visualization becomes a cutting force, a non-reactive limit-experience achieved via abjection and eyelessness: “And in the place from which sight had once passed, only a cranial cavity remains” (81–82).

The hegemony of that project proves catastrophic for Shelley; to reject it becomes a speculative pursuit for him, and he evokes it with the words “as if”: raising a possibility one might dwell with, but not conclusively put down. In a reading of Kant’s own as ifs, David L. Clark reminds us that the philosophic form of the als ob appears throughout Kant’s writings as a regulatory principle supposing an action outside of actual experience. This capacity Kant calls abstraction, or “negative attentiveness” in Anthropology From A Pragmatic Point of View (1798): “Either the paying attention to (attention) or the turning away from an idea of which I am conscious (abstraction).—The latter is not the mere failure and omission of the former . . . but rather a real act of the cognitive faculty of stopping a representation of which I am conscious from being in connection with other representations in one consciousness” (19). Clark notes that “a turning from that is also always a turning to, and that works to separate worlds without making them inaccessible to each other . . . [“negative attentiveness” [negative Aufmerksamkeit]] means never having finally to say no to no” (266). Here we are asked to imagine how looking away from something—the “misfortune of others, yes, even from our own good fortune” (20)—is at once affirming and negating. It isn’t a dialectical movement per se, but a way of seeing and acting upon things simultaneously and differently, as if spinning possibilities both against and with each other. The as if thus lets one thing stand with another without relation; it turns things to address themselves under conditions where ordinarily such an address would be impossible. And it does so to suggest that the turn, if it happens there in the moment of the as if, will also happen again. The last look might suggest a way of never perceiving the last look as the last—never thinking we could see the last world and the last look—but also never entirely saying no to lastness outright because in each case, lastness must happen one more time beyond itself. And to further emphasize the severity of that movement, the look must be the last: it is as if it must be so. The must insists and requests with all the austerity of a sovereign imperative, although in this case, it occurs without sovereign authority—an obligation to be the last in the absence of knowing from where such a decree is summoned. It must be and it ought to be. And as one adjusts oneself to that must-ness, one looks upon and reads the last look as an unreal symptom of that obligating statement. One looks just as one is told to stop looking—the last look on the world here is infinitely repeatable—one does not look, one does not look, one does look, etc.

I have made the argument elsewhere that one question which goes unnoticed and unspoken in The Triumph concerns the untranslateable “language” spoken or translated between the English poet and the Swiss philosopher (Khalip 184). In the context of this chapter, I rephrase my observation: what do the poet and Rousseau see when they look at each other? If the language of poetry is, according to the Defence, already foreign in the sense of being a medium of “evanescent visitations . . . always arising unforeseen and departing unbidden” and derived from “words which express what they understand not,” then there is also an untranslateability or an “unapprehended inspiration” in looking (534, 535). To look is to perceive something from a position where we have not made ourselves available to be looked at. We cannot but fail under such conditions of looking. “Vision can only proceed,” notes Faflak, “on the basis of what it cannot see, what is unavailable to or left out of perception” (“Difficult” 59), which is to say that looking proceeds through an inhibition that looks at what is imperceptible to it, or an unclosing intrinsic to the look; otherwise, there would be no reason to look at all. When Rousseau looks upon the car, in that interval nothing is seen, or rather, what is seen does not solely pertain to the image of the car. Remember: where “the holes it vainly sought to hide / Were or had been eyes” (187-88). Rousseau’s disfigurement is also (to extend the trope) uncorrected, incorrigible, and impenitent (“as one between desire and shame / Suspended” [394–95]. In the non-capacity to see, looking occurs in spite of itself, as if in this interval. And with all the quickness of a photographic shot, an image appears just as it abstains from visibility.

I allude here in my thinking to Didi-Huberman’s Images in Spite of All.

In Specters of Marx, Derrida reminds us that while it is difficult “to make or to let a spirit speak,” it is also the case that “the last one to whom a specter can appear, address itself, or pay attention is a spectator as such . . . As theoreticians or witnesses, spectators, observers, and intellectuals, scholars believe that looking is sufficient. Therefore, they are not always in the most competent position to do what is necessary: speak to the specter” (11). A sufficient looking is one that is content with mutuality, recognition, and likeness. It respects the boundaries in things drawn together and apart, like the difference between a human and a ghost, death and life. Such a looking is sufficient insofar as it thinks it is just enough and nothing more, as if looking were directed by the teleology of an address that has reached what it wants to know. I look and see the other and no other: “And for despair / I half disdained mine eye’s desire to fill / With the spent vision of the times that were / And scarce have ceased to be” (231–34).

One comes to believe that figures of speech are somewhat inadequate here for reading the materiality of a look as if it “must be the last,” precisely because Shelley is tending towards something inexpressive and non-phenomenological, a refusal of the communicable contract of words themselves. In an essay entitled “The Look of the Portrait” (and which in part reads Miguel Barceló’s 1994 painting Double Portrait) Jean-Luc Nancy cites Wittgenstein’s statement that “We don’t see the human eye as a receiver . . . When you see the eye, you see something go out from it. You see the blink of an eye [Blick des Auges].” Nancy continues: ‘The look, Wittgenstein’s Blick, is the thing that leaves or takes its leave, the thing of leaving. More precisely, the look is nothing phenomenal; on the contrary, it is the thing in itself of a departure from the self through which alone the subject becomes a subject . . . In truth, it is no longer even a look upon but a look as a whole, open not on but through the evidence of the world . . . it is nothing less than the presentation of a world rising up into its own vision, into its own evidence. (245)’ The look, as a thing in the world, a “thing of leaving,” dispenses itself as the world and of the world, an unclosing of the world as both affirmation and dismissal. It “happens” separately, away from any spectator or subject. This “departure from the self” marks the irruption of the very thing we cannot see because the look uncloses a world in the absence of our perspective, after the last. It hints at a genre of the non-apocalyptic that frees itself over and over, a “thing that leaves or takes its leave”—a poetry of the after-all, to adapt a term by Peter Szendy.

In Apocalypse-Cinema, Szendy describes the disaster at the end of Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia thus: “The end of the movie is the end of the world . . . [it answers the demand that] the last image be the very last image, that is, the last of them all—of all past, present, or future images” (2). In this way, the film presents us with “a cinema of the after-all” (3), a cinema that doesn’t merely survive after the annihilation of the planet, but rather a cinema that incinerates itself—a negativity at the very center of the medium’s own aspiration to show, to represent the world.

The last look ends the world, and a compulsion to have a certain kind of life with that world. Such a look is less a means for sight than it is an end unto itself, retreating from the “self” to present a world in its departure.

Thus the impossible gazes of the poet and Rousseau are less about solidarity than about their irreconcilability, an asymmetry of desires that confounds the pedagogical relationship between the two. For Shelley, learning painfully emerges as “thought’s empire over thought” (211). If “what was once Rousseau” (204) is the philosopher of the poem’s last word for Shelley—indeed, its Virgilian representative—he is also quite strikingly an actor and spectator ofthe last look—the so-called “first” or radical Romantic (again, “an old root”), now become its last and eyeless spectator—the last Romantic of the triumph, as well as implicitly the last of “Life” itself. “Whence I came, partly I seem to know . . . / Whither the conqueror hurries me still less” (300, 304). The poet, upon lamenting that he is “sick of this perpetual flow / Of people,” turns to Rousseau, who goes on to stand-in for the poet by seeing and thinking for him. His re-presentation of looking, however, implicitly hands over pedagogic vision as a void or abyss—an inaccessible and unlearned knowledge that uncloses between the two of them: “And what thou wouldst be taught,” says Rousseau to the poet, “I then may learn / From thee” (307–8). Rousseau counsels the poet, however, to “from spectator turn / Actor or victim in this wretchedness” (305–6), and accept a painful vulnerability that renders indiscernible acting and not acting. The poet disdains his own desire to see because that desire cannot not look away from the “spent vision” of a stale and cumulative history of all those that have “ceased to be”—Voltaire, Frederick II, Kant, Catherine the Great, and Leopold II. The eye fills with a half-full history that must come to an end. Thus when the poet cries out “Let them pass” (243), his wish to let the figures move along becomes interchangeable with the hint that they (and their historical narratives) might die a second time and disappear from sight altogether.


If Shelley’s The Triumph of Life conjures a last look that greets things at last sight, Peter Hujar’s photograph


replaces the chariot with the actual British Triumph as the vehicle of the last look—a spectral, postwar commodity on one of the nighttime streets of New York City that Hujar cruised and captured on film in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Triumph in the photograph is a conspicuously older model, a last thought and last feeling that appears anachronistically out of place in a place of desertion. With exemplary force, Hujar’s car illustrates the kind of object of desire that subtends Walter Benjamin’s notion of “love—not at first sight, but at last sight,” the love that waves “a farewell forever” through its commodified look, fleetingly glimpsed by Baudelaire’s flâneur in the urban crowd (169). Like a drag on the surface of the photograph’s visual field, the car tarries or brakes with a last look that is somehow there but not quite there. What kind of demand does such a farewell make? And is this a portrait, an urban landscape, or something infinitely more inarticulable? In what way is a farewell endlessly performed here—a wish to leave that expresses itself as a wish and not a resolution, an adieu that repeats itself with each end? The photograph almost suggests that these questions are the car’s own: it timelessly sits on a street without traffic or persons. It might move onward, but it doesn’t; parked close to the curb, it is suspended somewhere between movement and stasis—a suspension, moreover, accented by several markers that conspire to tie together its holding environment: the curb’s parallel lines, the elevated railway above, the piece of wood or cardboard on the ground by the tires, and the three white stripes around the central column that bisect the photograph. These stripes, in turn, are offset by the pale verticality of the columns on which a one-way sign in the background points to something beyond the frame. The crisscrossing parallel and perpendicular lines in the photograph stall a movement of relations that it wants to invalidate. It is as if Hujar wants to nullify the implied vehicular pressure of all elements within his plane, and in so doing, he shoots a photograph that requires no agents at all. Nor does he secure the car as an object of anyone’s interpretative desire—in other words, he has us think it as a figure for the asubjectivity of desire itself. Like Keats’ Grecian urn which depicts a “little town . . . emptied of [its] folk,” and whose “streets for evermore / Will silent be” (Keats 462), Hujar’s car is embedded in a site of relational desolation—without drivers or passengers, Triumph depicts a last world with one last car left in it after driving and riding have been eliminated.

This is a riff on Fisher’s “A Museum with One Work Inside.”

In this photograph, désoeuvrement shades into driverlessness and riderlessness. The darkened, underexposed tones of the photograph compose a field where the car seems bathed in an exacting and precise light, drawing the spectator towards something that enigmatically correlates with the eye’s longing for focus. But only the front part of the car is lit whereas the rest of the body is dappled or brushed with shadows that hold it down in the swathe of black that blots the car’s right front and rear tires. In Hujar’s monochromatic chiaroscuro, the wheels kiss the road, pooling downward in what appears to be a rectangular, box-like void between the tires and the curb. And as if to further emphasize a light that cannot not look away, Triumph visualizes the suspension of a suspension in the small blot of illumination caught in its upper left-hand corner—an overexposed shot of a train signal (possibly a yellow light) that flashes permanently between “go” and “stop.” The light is marginal in the sense that it is literally to the side of the foregrounded car, but it also doesn’t light (or enlighten) it. In a certain sense, it is as if the substance of Hujar’s photograph is like the “tain of the mirror”—Rodolphe Gasché’s term for a mirror’s “silver lining, lusterless back” that negatively enables a mode of thinking that is not reflective but the “systematic exploration of that dull surface without which no reflection and no specular and speculative activity would be possible” (6). At once holding back and pulling the Triumph in several directions, Hujar’s tain-like night evokes an ethical and epistemological quandary that one hears in Maurice Blanchot’s reading of the myth of Orpheus: by turning back towards Eurydice, Orpheus’s “forbidden gaze destines [him] to lose everything: not only himself, not only day’s reality, but night’s essence” (174). Orpheus’s relation to his work depends on not turning back to Eurydice in order to keep to the work implied in his gaze; but, so that he can “carry the work beyond what assures it,” the look must be broken or forgotten. “In this gaze, the work is lost . . . Thus it is only in that look that the work can surpass itself, be united with its origin and consecrated in impossibility” (174).

Hujar presents this impossibility of the look—its loss with the work—just as Shelley presents Rousseau’s “new Vision”: this is not an alternate life, but an encounter with and a greeting of bodies and pleasures that are late to arrival, already realized after they have come to term—negatives without positive prints. It is for this reason that Giorgio Agamben, in his little essay “Judgment Day,” describes photography as “represent[ing] the world as it appears on the last day, the Day of Wrath . . . the judgment concerns a single person, a single life: precisely this one and no other . . . In the supreme instant, man, each man, is given over forever to his smallest, most everyday gesture . . . A good photographer knows how to grasp the eschatological nature of the gesture” (23, 24, 25). The last day of the photograph is, however, also its “demand for redemption” (26), as if the last day can never be the last, can never give up on a future rescue of the petrified last thought or last feeling that the photograph eschatologically captures. But Hujar’s Triumph is irredeemable: it doesn’t presume a world where the relation between the photograph and the person can be confirmed. Experimenting with a photography without life or a life after New York (un)closes its last queer eye, Hujar roams the city like the poetic scavenger Shelley evokes looking at the “charnel” of the earth. His photograph receives or addresses phenomena that are there and not there, as if “‘waiting for the person to come to him and just being very present’” (Carr, Fire In the Belly 188). Such presence insists on being here amidst a queer world that bears a right to exist and not exist in the sense of abjuring legibility, rights, and documentation. Triumph is not a portrait of a car, nor is it a last look given by it. It is an image rent by a marginality that tears at the image, and queerly loiters around its multiple lines of force.

For me, light and dark smear Hujar’s Triumph with the same spellbinding effect that I read in the handwriting that ripples Shelley’s illegible manuscript pages. And as one instant of the erotically intervallic or minor in that poem, the phrase “Alas I kiss you Julie” has stayed with me as something at once unfinished and discreet, erotically unreleased into the edited life of the published text. As a standalone, this last kiss appears (as Reiman describes it) between “And sank fell, as I have by the” and “Those soonest, from whose limbs the,” written “in an extremely fine hand after the quill had been sharpened (probably after ‘limbs the’ below); the word [G.M. Matthews’s 1960 article on the poem and its various discarded passages in the Times Literary Supplement] reads as ‘Jane’ I believe to be “Julie”: At least there seems to me to be five rather than four letters, two of which rise above the level of the others” (Reiman 211). What would it mean to read this line as an afterthought, a superfluous addition, or a commentary without a speaker or an addressee, all of which “happen” after the deletion of other words and phrases on the page? Think of “Alas I kiss thee Julie” as a written speech act of a kiss—or more plainly, the act of a kiss—that is planted after a word or a poetic line, something after-all or after an infinitesimal world ends (erases, deletes) with the last drop of ink before the quill is sharpened. Like the rest of the “dialogue” in The Triumph, the kiss is unbound from quotation marks in the Bodleian manuscript, a kind of silent non-speech; like Hujar’s Triumph, it is caught in-between the margins of various intersecting lines of sight. The fact that “Julie” could have been also “Jane” hints that any name could be an anonymous or neutral placeholder within the phrase’s ghostly, blank address. And if “Alas I kiss you Julie” resembles on the surface a speech act, the resemblance is very much short-lived: tucked in almost unseen as something small and tactfully noted, it comes after the quill, quietly deposited between The Triumph’s lines. The phrase is not much of anything: it doesn’t need publicity at all.

But how does the last look look at the last kiss, or how does the last kiss kiss the last look? To think this, the key remains Rousseau: Reiman helpfully excavates elements of Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761) in The Triumph, especially the paralleling of Julie’s garden in Clarens with Shelley’s depiction of the visionary world where Rousseau encounters the “shape all light.” “Alas I kiss you Julie,” however, explicitly cites Letter XIV where Saint-Preux, Julie’s tormented tutor and lover, mourns the “fatal kiss” he shared with her in the garden: ‘What have you done, ah! what have you done, my Julie? You meant to reward me and you have undone me. I am drunk, or rather insane. My senses are impaired, all my faculties are deranged by that fatal kiss. You meant to alleviate my sufferings? Cruel woman, you make them sharper. It is poison I have culled from your lips; it festers, it sets my blood afire, it kills me, and your pity is the death of me. (51) ’ In this memory “of illusion, of delirium and enchantment” (51), Saint-Preux writes to her recalling the triangulated “fatal moment” of their kiss: having gone to the garden with Julie and her cousin Claire at sundown, Saint-Preux is at first taken aback by Claire’s own request for a kiss. Sensing Julie’s “signals of complicity” (52), he is possessed by a more overpowering desire that comes after—an after-kiss: “But what became of me a moment later, when I felt . . . my hand is shaking . . . a gentle tremor . . . your rosy lips . . . Julie’s lips… alighting on mine, pressing mine, and my body clasped in your arms?. . . Every part of me came together under that delightful touch. Our burning lips breathed out fire with our sights” (52). For Rousseau, Saint-Preux’s kiss is the emblem of a ruptured intensity of thinking, an intimacy of shared separation. In a novel that begins with the line, “Il faut vous fuire, Mademoiselle, je le sens bien” (“I must flee you Mademoiselle, that I can see”) a certain world ends with the first kiss: “tu m’as perdu” (“you have undone me”) writes Saint-Preux as he is consumed by a devastating perdition that puts him beyond death. As an emblem of romantic love, Julie has to reinvent itself as a novel by going back to the romance of Abelard and Héloïse in order to explore the kiss as just this kind of truth of betrayed knowledge—a betrayal, moreover, whose errors split the self in language, elegizing it and its mistaken desires through fiction. The novel thus cannot be read as a fiction in the service of decipherment, but as a betrayed form whose “old world” has ended. Saint-Preux’s punishing “alas” affectively imparts just this kind of philosophy of the last kiss, as fatal as it is pleasurable: “Thus alarm extinguished pleasure, and my happiness was no more than a flash” (52). To read and to desire, Rousseau suggests, is to elegize a look and a kiss as the last signifiers of a world that is now no more. Saint-Preux’s flash, like Hujar’s camera and Rousseau’s cast out eye, is a love at last sight that hovers over its own self-extinction in a last world where things like Julie, “Julie,” or “Jane” bleed into each other.

In one of his fragments, Novalis cryptically muses: “One must never confess to oneself that one loves oneself. The secret of this confession is the life principle of the one true and eternal love. The first kiss in this understanding is the principle of philosophy—the origin of a new world—the beginning of absolute chronology—the completion of an infinitely growing bond with the self. Who would not like a philosophy whose germ is a first kiss?” (58–59). This first kiss, like Schopenhauer’s first eye, opens a world of difference that discovers the self in its “confession” to the other. In Nicolas-André Monsiau’s engraving of the novel’s first kiss,


this “germ” is starkly depicted: the central, oval-like entwining of the couple excludes Claire just as they require her to witness the crystallized heteronormative bond that seals the selves of Saint-Preux and Julie into the reproductive “beginning of absolute chronology” inaugurated by the kiss. What Saint-Preux actually finds, as we have seen, is a darker betrayal, a mistaken and negative philosophy that derealizes itself through the kiss: “I no longer see you the same” (52). Parceled out in an epistolary form where sender and receiver, addresser and addressee try to exchange conversation, the kiss comes to be disposed or cast out within the form of letter-writing where the return of an address becomes indistinguishable from its revocation—something Julie, in her response to Saint-Preux in Letter XV, herself stresses: “It is important, my friend, that we separate for some time” (52).

Thus the queerness of Saint-Preux and Julie’s “fatal” love turns on first and last looks and kisses that traverse each other in the evening. In “Typewriter Ribbon,” Derrida writes: “forgiveness or pardon, the excuse, and the remission of sin, absolute absolution, are always proposed in the figure, so to speak, of the ‘last word.’” The pardon’s “disturbing proximity . . . to the last judgment” evinces the impossibility of a forgiveness so total that it annihilates the world in which it takes places (100). A pardon that only forgives what it knows, what it sees, what it sympathizes with, is ineffective. It is as if pardoning were the gesture through which one could, in some way, speak the last word or see the last look in such a way that an end impossibly happens. Both Shelley and Hujar’s works, I suggest, forgive life— life as the unforgiveable which is always already there, incessantly, at once seen and not seen, kissed and not kissed, known and unknown. The absence of any kiss in Hujar’s Triumph is the sign of it not only being everywhere, but rather that we should expect it everywhere, like the light of the train signal or the ubiquitous light in Shelley’s poem. The last is unforgiveable because, like life, it is always the last, and thus impossible to conclusively, catastrophically, forgive. Hujar instructs us not try to capture it with the camera, but to receive it. Shelley, writing after Rousseau, would have understood this: to greet life, to anonymously kiss and be non-fatally consumed by what we cannot look at, and to look at what we cannot kiss.

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1. My thanks to Sonia Hofkosh and Joel Faflak for inviting me to the Keats-Shelley Association panel, The Futures of Shelley’s Triumph, at the 2016 MLA, and to my fellow panelists: Tres Pyle, Libby Fay, and Orrin N.C. Wang. I would also like to thank Stephen Koch of the Hujar Archive for all of his help. [back]
3. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose 541. All citations of Shelley’s writings come from this text unless otherwise noted. Line numbers will be given parenthetically. [back]
4. I borrow this term from Rei Terada’s Looking Away (71). [back]
5. Jewett surmises that The Triumph of Peace at the court of Charles I would have brought to mind the contemporary excesses of the Prince Regent. [back]
6. I draw here on Alain Badiou’s definition of the event in Being and Event. [back]
7. I allude here in my thinking to Didi-Huberman’s Images in Spite of All. [back]
8. In Apocalypse-Cinema, Szendy describes the disaster at the end of Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia thus: “The end of the movie is the end of the world . . . [it answers the demand that] the last image be the very last image, that is, the last of them all—of all past, present, or future images” (2). In this way, the film presents us with “a cinema of the after-all” (3), a cinema that doesn’t merely survive after the annihilation of the planet, but rather a cinema that incinerates itself—a negativity at the very center of the medium’s own aspiration to show, to represent the world. [back]
10. This is a riff on Fisher’s “A Museum with One Work Inside.” [back]