Worldlessness and the Worst in Goya’s Disasters of War

Although often heralded as a passionate denunciation of the mayhem of the Peninsular War, Francisco de Goya’s The Disasters of War (1814-1820) was not published during the artist’s lifetime. My wager is to treat Goya’s desistance not as evasive but as intrinsic to the Disasters itself, now seen as an artistic practice and an experiment in living that takes on ruination without necessarily metabolizing it. Goya releases his images by denying them refuge in the visibly social. In what ways are traces of this abstention legible in the aquatints themselves? The fact that the prints remained uncirculated during Goya’s lifetime threads together life and work, wartime and the aesthetic, survival and ruination in ambiguous but mortalizing ways, and puts to us that, for a time, for the decade that they took to engrave, and then for the remainder of his life, the inventor and then the archivist of the series learned to live alongside disaster in a condition that I call “worldlessness.”

Worldlessness and the Worst in Goya’s Disasters of War

David L. Clark
McMaster University

The war and the constellation it brought with it has led me to set down certain thoughts about which I can say that I have held them safe with myself for almost twenty years, yes, even from myself. [1]  — Walter Benjamin to Gretel Adorno, April 1940 (qtd. in Ferris 130–01)

1.        Recent discussions of the Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes’s assemblage of influential prints that came posthumously to be known as The Disasters of War (c. 1810–1820; published 1863) locate the artist’s unsparing vision of wartime degradation in a necropolitical context in which proliferating sovereign power fuses indistinctly with the unrestrained destruction of others and otherness. [2]  [3]  The genesis of the text lies in the singular circumstances in which Spain found itself in 1808. As Gonzalo Anes describes it:

The king, queen, and heirs were in captivity. There was no government. The people, abandoned by the royal family when they left the court to meet Napoleon in Bayonne, claimed sovereignty for themselves . . . There was no constitutional authority that could assume responsibility to “arrojar a la nación a una lucha tan desigual” [hurl a nation into such an unequal fight]; there was no organized army, weapons, or money. (xxxv)
A year later, the poet Manuel Jose Quintana noted that “the fatherland” faced nothing less than a “holocaust” (en holocausto) (qtd. in Vega 185). Much worse was to come. But what could be worse than a holocaust? In this world—if it is in fact a world, and not the annunciation of the end of the world and of the end of the very concept of a world—targets of opportunity abound without limit: soldiers, insurgents, and civilians; men, women, and children; humans and nonhumans, not to mention the environments, both built and natural, that these fragile creatures inhabit or occupy. A frenzy of violence, shown to be at once unregulated and highly targeted, threatens to obliterate histories, knowledges, obligations, solidarities, futures, and perhaps thinking itself. Art too is destroyed, including work by Goya, [4]  whose vividly realized scenes of combat, starvation, torture, humiliation, menace, execution, and dismemberment can be hard to look at and harder to understand. And yet, despite—or perhaps because of—their difficulty, Goya’s images have remained impossible to ignore since they were printed and published, long after the artist’s death.

2.        Goya’s focus is prephotographically tight. Jettisoning the convention of depicting the battlefield from a panoptic distance, which presumes that the spectator can and indeed wants to take the measure of war, his images zero in on the toll of combat on individual bodies and small groups of bodies whose agonies and indignities fill and overfill his pages. Some men are castrated; another is impaled on the trunk of a tree. Women join the fight, but they are also hunted down and sexually assaulted. Goya is the first artist to depict the rape of women not as a battlefield aberration, much less as an aesthetically pleasing scene of passionate struggle, but as a weapon of war. [5]  The gendered brutality of combat hangs like a pall over the battlefield whose boundaries are no longer visible. Even corpses—as well as living bodies that are treated as already dead—are subjected to desecration that is beyond killing, beyond the point in which violence is imagined to exhaust and resolve itself in fatality, as Steven Miller has recently argued (1–50). In the artist’s disjointed images we observe pervasive war suffering and war deaths, and then something even more appalling, namely, “war after death” (Miller). How then to draw bounding lines and etch images of war whose contours have dissolved into excess and whose authorized self-descriptions no longer apply? What does the human form look like when war extinguishes that form?

                        Plate 39: Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (Great deeds! With the dead!). Courtesy of
                        the Pomona College Museum of Art, Gift of Norton Simon.

Figure 1. Plate 39: Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (Great deeds! With the dead!). Courtesy of the Pomona College Museum of Art, Gift of Norton Simon.

3.        Perhaps no scene in the Disasters captures the bleak unruliness of war more vividly than plate 39 (Figure 1), Great deeds! With the dead! (Grande hazaña! Con muertos!), which I treat in this essay as concentrating in one ghastly place many of the problems, questions, and possibilities with which Goya’s assemblage thrums. Three mutilated corpses are hung in a tree and displayed like trophies or presented as triumphs. Two of the men have been castrated and hung upside down. One of the men has been beheaded and has had his arms severed just below the shoulder. Those arms are bound together at the hands and strung from a branch, the same branch upon which the decapitated head is mounted. We cannot be certain that the body parts are in fact parts of one whole—that is, whether the limbs and head belong to the torsos at hand or to remains elsewhere. The staged nature of the scene puts to us that there are perpetrators for whom violence must not only be done but seen to be done, an imperative that, of course, complexly implicates Goya’s decision to engrave the scene and ours to parse it. Cataloguing the wounds and locating the bodies and the disposition of the body parts, we find ourselves shadowing the artist to whose hand and eye the scene was a horror but also a formal puzzle, a question of arrangement, orientation, spacing, shading, and so forth. We come to see that looking at what Goya unabashedly calls “the worst”. [6]  and working closely with formal questions are not mutually exclusive practices and indeed that the form of the engraving, which deliberately invites us to go over it, “part by part, limb by limb,” (Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama 176) is the particular way that Goya caches the worst. The tree on which these horrors are hung provides an occasion for the remains to be brought together and presented, to be sure, but it is also Goya’s way of reminding us that what we are seeing is the result not of an extraterrestrially malevolent will but of something proximate and imaginable. The fact that the tree to which mutilations are fastened is verdant, showing a stylized sprig of life amid these unnatural deaths, serves as the punctum of a deeply sobering knowledge: the desecration that Goya pictures may be fantastically grim, but it happened, it is happening, in a place on Earth. [7]  In this image we see that there are fates worse than death, and part of what makes scenes like this an example of the worst is not that they are sublimely unimaginable but that they are, in fact, all too available to be executed, observed, remembered, imagined, engraved, and thus in some sense both taken in and lived with. What we see is not sublime, unless there is a sublimity of radical desublimation, the dispiriting solidification of the human form into its insensate segments and volumes. By an accident of history, we have eighty-two or so images to consider, but the lack of any persuasive overall narrative in the series, including the total number of prints making up the assemblage, [8]  suggests both that the series comes to an end but does not conclude and that many more images could well have been created. As Georges Didi-Huberman notes, Goya is among a special group of artists who “know . . . that disasters are multipliable to infinity” (124). Goya registers the importance of making and captioning pictures even and especially if that work is without end. What is centrally important to Goya is the insolent fact that dismembering and displaying the corpses of the enemy dead “was thought; it was therefore thinkable,” (Didi-Huberman 25), [9]  just as “all-out-war”—where, as Susan Sontag observes, “expenditure is all-out, un-prudent, war being defined as an emergency in which no sacrifice is excessive” (99)—was executable, and it was executed. Goya is quickened by the need to think this executability and to say it in the form of images whose very existence repudiates the desire to look away or not to look, or to look and not to see, or to look and be told that there is nothing to see, or to say that it happened somewhere else, during a “war,” for example, when anything can happen, or that it happened, yes, but not in my experience, not to me or in front of me, or that it struck me in a traumatizing manner that I am not willing or able to imagine or experience. Goya makes the inability to know how to look at the worst a central part of the agon of looking at the images of the worst, an agon, I want to argue, that leaves indelible if subtle traces in the images themselves. The Disasters are not so much the aesthetic site where we imagine Goya to be overcome by the worst or to be working through the worst as they are the occasion for him to put the aesthetic into the service of thinking the worst, and, importantly, courageously, of affirming that the worst can be thought, in the name of ensuring that there is a place in which its iniquity and enormity can pool or eddy amid the grotesque torrent of violence that is wartime Spain.

4.        Goya’s assemblage is a fiercely self-contesting text, roiling with difficulties, obscurities, and sudden shifts in visual styles. The refusal of the Disasters to align unproblematically with any of the belligerents that they depict contributes to a dystopian picture of ambient violence in which, as Ian Baucom argues, “there is no party innocent of the most horrific violence, no revolution whose coming . . . betokens the possibility of progress” (182-3). Nada. Ello lo dice (Nothing. That is what it says), one of Goya’s most memorable captions announces, an unadorned and guttural assertion, as much a catch in the throat as it is a phrase, evoking both the waste of war and the strange void to which the labor of watching war is consigned when even loss appears to be lost. If Goya grieves, he grieves that grief that can teach him nothing, nada, which, far from a condition of emptiness or vacancy, is what survival or living-on looks like without the prospect of flourishing or transformation. [10]  By preserving the Disasters in their unpublished state, after all, the artist makes nothing happen. But as Tilottama Rajan says with regard to Romantic poetry, this is “not a sign of its difference from a history where things happen” (“Keats, Poetry, and ‘The Absence of Work’” 335). “For poetry makes ‘nothing’ happen,” Rajan argues, by “disclosing a negativity that is in history as much as in poetry” (335). After Stephen Whicher’s remarks about Emerson, we can say that the grief that the Disasters cannot grieve is the form that grief takes. [11]  Goya grieved the unfathomable losses of the war, of that I have little doubt. But his text also touches on grief, demonstrating by example that there are relationships or perhaps adjacencies to ruination that are sorrowful but irreducible to grieving. And so it is that Goya finds himself in a placeless place in which it is neither possible nor advisable to determine with any confidence whether history is changing or time is passing. The Disasters are a creature of this ambiguous impasse, in which, as Rei Terada observes of Keats’s Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion (poems that are contemporaneous with the creation of Goya’s engravings), “the open-ended intolerability of the present is as impossible not to see as it is to assimilate” (“Looking at the Stars Forever” 280). Not not to see and not to assimilate: this is the condition of creative refusal that characterizes Goya’s relationship with the worst, beginning with what he did and did not do with the assemblage once he had brought it to the threshold of publication—or rather to the threshold of a conventional understanding of publication. What I want to emphasize is this: Goya did not publish the Disasters during his lifetime. He bequeathed a single set of proofs to his friend, the artist and collector Juan Agustín Ceán Bermúdez, and otherwise withheld them from publication (assuming publication was indeed ever Goya’s interest or intent and thus the desideratum from which the Disasters then could be said to have been withheld). Indeed, the assemblage would not be published until 1863, some thirty-five years after Goya’s death and half a century later than the gruesome events that inspired them. To bring engravings to the proof stage and then to halt the process of publication of which the printing of proofs is conventionally the penultimate move is provocative to consider, especially if we treat the interruption as the dynamic culmination rather than the regrettable qualification of the work. I say “dynamic” because for Goya to have set the assemblage aside for thirty-five years meant he did so not once, around 1820, after the wars were said to have ended, but continually, repeatedly deciding or returning to the decision—across shifting circumstances, both biographical and historical—to shelter and affirm their studio rather than social state, even after leaving the proofs and plates for the Disasters behind when he moved to France in 1824 (Gassier and Wilson 220). [12]  Over the course of Goya’s life, and then for some time afterward, the publication of the Disasters is interrupted without interruption. To create proofs, hand them to a trusted friend, but not publish the Disasters, and not publish them forever, is itself an artistic practice and irreducibly a part of what the assemblage is and does. It means to publish the Disasters without publishing them, or perhaps to publish them without circulating them, a publication without publicity—this, as a way to demonstrate that publication is irreducible to publicity. What if we were to treat the setting aside of the Disasters in its own right, making the assemblage generically closer to a Romantic fragment and an example of what Balachandra Rajan calls “the form of the unfinished”? As Rajan argues, the Romantic fragment distinguishes itself by no longer being answerable to a normative idea of completion: “It contributes to a whole which is neither beginning nor end but only history,” (249) Rajan writes. “The unfinished, in such a view, carried with it no natural citizenship, no whole from which it was disinherited, or from which its incompleteness has been made to proceed” (Rajan 249). Goya’s abstention from publication remains mysterious to everyone except the historicists, who say that he feared the displeasure of the Spanish monarchy, his long-time patrons (Hughes 303; Gassier and Wilson 218). Since Goya otherwise could sometimes show little concern for the sensibilities of the Bourbons, whose benumbed insensibility he didn’t hesitate to capture in a famous portrait of the royal family, the reason for his decision not to print the engravings probably lies there, but elsewhere too. [13]  With the Disasters, Goya makes himself scarce, certainly not the only time his practice as an art took such a turn. [14]  My wager is to treat Goya’s desistance not as merely politically evasive or professionally shrewd but “positively,” as intrinsic to the Disasters themselves and as part of their otherwise often forgotten perlocutionary materiality and force. Not doing something with the Disasters is also a way of doing something, traces of which are legible in the composition, content, and captions of the images, as well as in their materiality as images. The fact that the engravings remained uncirculated and without meaning-to-be-circulated during Goya’s lifetime threads together life and work, wartime and the aesthetic, in ambiguous but mortalizing ways, and puts to us that, for a time, for the decade that they took to engrave, and for the remainder of his life, the inventor and then the keeper of the Disasters lived disastrously; that is, he tarried with the worst in a condition of complex asociality, schooling himself, but always also in the company of others (for Goya went on to produce many other works that were prepared for spectators other than the artist to see), to live alone in the void of catastrophe, now, forever, without the ameliorative props that his public persona as fashionable portraitist and principal royal painter had furnished. Goya’s redaction, the lifelong scarcity of the relation of his engravings to public view, attests not only to the intolerability of the war world they depict but also to the intolerability of the violent—because politically frozen—postwar world in which they were finally set aside, the difficulty that Goya discerns in discovering a consequential space in which to see war and to be seen to see war. So Goya releases his images by refusing them a “refuge in visibility” (Lippit 14) and in the visibly social. One could almost say that, under these conditions, when one’s eyes fail, Goya chooses to see the disaster by touching it, feeling its unmistakable force, with all the grimy physicality that comes from laboring with acid and ink, paper and copper, hand and burin. This tact or recessiveness, this unusability about the Disasters, reminds us that the political and the historical are irreducible to the publically declarative. But this negation and abstention is otherwise difficult to discern if your optic is calibrated to the legible and the social, the same optic, as it happens, through which sovereign power arbitrarily parses the difference between who lives, whose lives are worthy of protection and preservation, and those who are made to die—which is to say between those who remain discernible to the law and those who are deemed to be unworthy of discernibility. [15] 

5.        Goya’s captions are very strange: This is the worst; There was nothing to be done and he died; Why?; There is no one to help them; This is what you were born for; I saw it. These and dozens of other declamations, ranging in tone from head-shaking disbelief to helplessness, resignation, bitterness, and dark humor, come across to contemporary ears like hashtags for the end of the world. They follow one another and sometimes communicate laterally with each other, but they track no sustained progress, no phenomenology of spirit. Their pointedly legible—if laconic and agonistic—“voice” ensures that Goya becomes an active figure in his own composite text, at once engraver and inaugural “reader” of the engravings. Their almost strangled brevity, as if Goya were caught between being at a loss for words and compulsively unable to hold his tongue, embodies the crisis that overtakes the artist and that, in effect, becomes his subject matter, namely, the unwillingness to look away coupled with the inability to know how to look at what he is seeing. The captions are often pronounced as if Goya were referring to someone else’s images, the estranging effect being not unlike speaking of himself in the third person. Whether the captions are a gloss that activates, schools, or even preempts viewers or whether they are there to demonstrate a certain self-sufficiency about the assemblage and thus a reticence about the participatory role of spectatorship is not entirely clear. Goya may well be “reading” his images, and “reading” them in such a strong way, in order to signal his ambivalence about the supplement of spectatorial seeing, and doing so at the precise point where—momentarily—we are struck blind to the images because we are reading words. What is evident is how passionately Goya—or the ardent persona who writes in the artist’s unmistakable hand—is in dialogue with his own engravings, his often exclamatory words in striking contrast to the unerringly steady hand of his silent engravings. Yet we might well ask: for whom were the captions written during the long latency period when Goya lived with the unpublished Disasters in his studio, not to mention the more difficult to describe state in which the assemblage found itself after his death and before their publication? It is hard to shake the impression that the captions form one-half of a conversation that Goya is having with himself. The captions generate a dialogue with the images that we do not necessarily “hear” as participants who are presumed to be the primary subjects of the engravings’ visual and verbal address but “overhear” as always belated arrivals. In other words, the captions aren’t so much confidential as a means by which to reshape our understanding of the meaning of a public’s participation with art and of art. In them we observe how the Disasters exhibit a care of the self rather than giving itself entirely over to a presumed spectatorship.

6.        Goya’s Disasters are not privative in the sense of being occult and unrecognizably idiomatic, but they were nonpublic until the historical accident of their being printed and circulated more than three decades after his death. That unexpectant delay ensures that spectatorship and the giving-to-be-seen of images are not givens but questions worthy of consideration. The interaction between the captions and the images, which is between them as much as it is with us, reproduces elements of the relationship that Goya forges with the Disasters while they remained in his custody. That dialogue ensures that when they were eventually published, they remained haunted by their lifelong condition of having-been-set-aside. Goya is hardly alone in this experiment. Rajan describes an analogous practice in the work of British Romantic poets who sheltered texts in various generative ways: written but never completed, completed but sutured into new poems, or completed but never published, as was the case with Goya’s assemblage (“Coleridge, Wordsworth, and the Textual Abject”). British poets early in the nineteenth century experiment with what she calls the “textual abject,” the publically uncirculated text that is not inert or abandoned but the scene of dynamic recreation. As she suggests, the abject “protects . . . a space for another self to emerge” (“Coleridge, Wordsworth, and the Textual Abject” 814). But in Goya’s case, what are the qualities of this “self”? And what is the nature of this “space”? The captions brim with a wit by turns scornful, exhausted, and sorrowful that can be so piercing and acerbic as to constitute a kind of attack on the images that they caption. Great deeds! With the dead! is a case in point. Goya’s exclamation cannot help but form a taunting gibe about the extraordinary feat of his own engraving and, by extension, the project of which it is such a memorable part, as if he were castigating himself for voyeuristically harnessing the worst to the visible or for treating the worst as something that is meant to be seen in a shared place, and indeed to contribute to the orderly formation and management of such a place. Perhaps that is what makes seeing the Disasters in a gallery or paging through them in a classroom so compelling and strange; these contemplative experiences, which of course are not without enormous merit, also help reproduce the two imbricated illusions with which the Disasters have a deeply agonistic relationship: that the worst is elsewhere, and that here and elsewhere are separate spaces in a larger but ultimately continuous “world.” To look at the Disasters and to think with them is to feel the assemblage pushing back against being put to this worlding work, even as it uncontrollably contributes to it in the act of being taking up as published.

7.        When Goya imagines the worst and dwells with it, this is what he can see: a view of humiliation and torture, dismembered bodies strewn about a battlefield, heaped in piles but also hung up, arranged like trophies to be observed, as if in a macabre tableau vivant. We are reminded that war is always already its reenactments, a stagy repetition that Goya’s images mimic uncontrollably. After such knowledge, what forgiveness? In what world could these losses be economized? For now, forever, time feels frozen, at a standstill. The presumed scopic pleasure taken by the torturers mixes uncomfortably with the horror or dismay that we are asked to feel. It is tempting to say that the image captures the outer limits of sovereign power over life and death, except Goya’s point would appear to be to register the effects of the complete derangement of the political, not its maximum projection; the desecrated body and the will to sport “playfully” with its remains marks the point at which the political enemy morphs into the enemy of the political, the phantasm who is no longer an adversary against whom one might fight in a “world” or for a “world” but a thing or a thing-like animal (and isn’t one of the barely submerged discomforting features of Goya’s bodies and body parts that they are hung like carcasses in an abattoir?) with which and to which anything is permitted and against which no harm, strictly speaking, can be done. The artist draws attention to the ensuing chaos, and the negatively creative power that flourishes in that pandemonium, where killing becomes overkilling, and when fury is brought to bear on bodies “whose death is no longer what needs to be assured” (Debrix and Barder 122). Because this is the work of the bone collectors, we can be sure that there will be more of it, since it is in the nature of collecting not to be able to stop. Beyond the murder of human beings lies the demolition of the human form and the becoming-animal or becoming-thing of the enemy. Spinoza’s question, “What can a body do?,” is overwritten by its cruel correlative, “What can be done to a body?” Where the Dutch philosopher expressed wonder at the anonymous capacities of life, irreducible to volition, the Spanish artist looks on the fate of anonymous dead who are utterly exposed in death, as the dead always are, to another’s volition. Amid the waste of war, Goya’s exclamation of “Great deeds! With the dead!” all but drowns out Spinoza’s cry. The stillness of Goya’s macabre still life puts to us that war destroys not only bodies but also futures, all that a body might have done, all that makes a particular body particular. “We never know how we’re organized and how modes of existence are enveloped in somebody,” Gilles Deleuze argues. For those bent on defiling corpses, not knowing and having no prospect of knowing these particularities, which are extinguished in death, is the source of a murderous rage. Goya depicts an overgoing violence that is driven by a mad desire to tear the secret of embodiment from the body, dead or alive. [16] 

8.        The Spanish resistance against the French is also the scene of a ferocious civil war, but both are but a prelude to another war altogether, or perhaps an other of war: both war and its unbecoming, war that brings out how it was always already its unbecoming. Or is the more radically sobering point of engraving images of men doing awful things to corpses to demonstrate that custody of the dead always lies entirely and uncontrollably with those who come after, whether for good or for ill, whether to inspire faith or fear? Does the source of the plate’s uncanny power lie in making luridly visible the work of the living others in whose shaping hands the dead find themselves delivered, and delivered not contingently, according to this or that circumstance, but essentially, as if commanded by an irrevocable law that commands the living to follow the dead and to take up the dead without necessarily knowing what this going before the living and this inexistent relation means or knowing ahead of time what form it will take? But who is the enemy when the objective of warfare is not simply to defeat others who are said to be belligerents but, as Jean-François Lyotard says, “to kill their dead” (160)? Goya’s mutilated corpses put to us that even the dead will not be safe if the enemy prevails. Great deeds! With the dead! may well depict the unrestricted violence that the insurgency inflicts on itself, the extrajudicial killings that swept the countryside as suspected collaborators and Enlighteners were executed and dismembered in the field. In other words, the artist denies us the opportunity to determine whether we are looking specifically at a Spanish or a French atrocity, one of several ways in which the image refuses spectatorial desires as well as captivates them. His point is that the nationality of the corpses doesn’t matter anymore, not only because the dead are indifferent to such distinctions but also because, through a macabre form of wartime chiasmus, the living now prove to be insensate to the dignity of the dead; they are dead to the dead. The plate’s bitter caption is shouted into a void where the dismemberment of corpses does not invert heroism, replacing courageous acts with cowardly ones, but, more disturbingly, demolishes the benumbed emptiness of narratives that resort to understanding war in such moralizing terms. In the place where slaughter becomes an end in itself, there is no why. [17]  Among other things, the caption expresses the self-cancelling futility of feeling outrage at the demise of outrage. Great deeds! With the Dead! is, in effect, the aesthetic form that that futility takes.

9.        Even worse . . . This is worse . . . The worst is to beg . . . This is the worst! With this desperate chain of captions, Goya evokes the impossibility of taking measure of the disasters at hand or of judging them proportionally. Instead, the artist experiences them as intensifying both inexhaustibly and repeatedly. We are here denied the minimal consolation that the worst has taken place because Goya’s captions make it feel as though worsening and the worst are doomed to occur without end and in the absence of any organizing narrative or clarifying perspective. By deciding against publication, Goya refused to let the Disasters form part of that perspective, and thus from becoming a vantage point from which one could say, the disasters were then but this is now. The ad nauseam repetition—worse and worst—marks the brute passage of potentially endless wartime in which, to recall Paulson’s remarks, “one crime simply follows another,” (337) except even to say this is to miss the stranger thing, the more difficult thing to think, namely, that “one [worst] crime follows another” (337). There must be more worsts out there, we imagine, waiting to be seen and unable not to be looked at. With no world, no outside-the-disaster or other-than-the-disaster from which to determine or rank degrees of suffering and cruelty with any confidence, the disasters worsen, and the worst happens in the way that nothing happens in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, namely, more than once. [18]  Somehow we find ourselves observing the brute seriality of the most atrocious. Goya thereby uses his captions to signal a willingness to tarry with the disasters, but in a fashion that frankly embraces a certain inoperativity of thought—and spectatorship. For what are we looking at if what we are said to see is, recurrently, the worst? If there is no “exterior,” then where do the engravings position themselves vis-à-vis the disasters? As Jan Mieszkowski elegantly argues, the “Napoleonic dilemma of how to tell a war story when there was no longer an outside to the war grew even more vexing as it ceased to be clear whether one could speak of an ‘inside’ to the participants” (152). We could say that the disasters worst Goya, but they do so without blinding or destroying him and, conspicuously, without provoking any attempt to better them or to inscribe them into a recognizable war narrative—except, perhaps, one that turns on itself and is the site of its own disaster. The disasters are the phenomena to whose maximal atrocity Goya is returned again, meaning that the worst is not a singular event that he takes in psychically but, rather, a pandemonium for which he provides accommodation in the form of his unpublished engravings. The insistence on the worst reverses the expectation, perhaps more powerfully felt today than in Goya’s day, [19]  that the psyche’s elemental relationship with disaster is to protect itself and to diminish violence, not allow for it more fully as humanly possible, a position that includes thinking beyond the human, and in ways that do not take the form of the human as a given. The Disasters are like a Tardis box of horror, composed of an unfurling “interior” space that must make itself much more expansive than should be the case. [20]  Although he is speaking of the drawings from Goya’s Album D, T. J. Clark precisely captures this curious quality characterizing the artist’s images: “There is never a feeling of the trauma being dwelled on in order to be mastered. There is not even the feeling that the horror is a trauma, or that drawing it necessarily lessens it. Maybe the opposite. It isolated it; it specifies it; it gives it the blank of the page to live in” (33).

10.        Goya is not absent to the experience of the disaster but time and again presents himself to its utter ruinousness, as if compelled to look persistently at that which, strictly speaking, can be seen but once, and then only because that vision is framed by the capacity to look away or to have seen otherwise or to have seen less. The Disasters in their entirety constitute an act of looking not in spite but precisely because of what Didi-Huberman calls “our inability to know how to look at them today” (i). To look but not necessarily to know how to look means observing the worst without apprehending ahead of time or in the aftermath what the worst summons from us specifically as observers. Goya says “This is the worst,” but, strictly speaking, he cannot mean what he says because there is always worse and more of the worst in a milieu of worldlessness that lacks redemption, orientation, or even the hint of relief that might come with the slackening of atrocity leading up to and falling away from the worst. The whole idea of a regressive worsening and the advent of the worst starts to disintegrate before our eyes, and yet Goya hangs on to it, reproducing the conceit of responding to the disasters in a measured and measuring way, as if art could metabolize or comprehend the horror by putting it into pictures, while also creating images whose captions remind us that we can do nothing to lessen the worsening and the worst—except to cede a “page” to it, one of many, without end. With “the worst,” Goya does not gesture to the end of the disaster, nor does he try to mark its extreme outer limit. For the artist, the worst is that the worst that arrives afresh as if he were to unable and unwilling to do anything but acknowledge its arrival and look at its hideousness. The worst is that he has survived the worst and that he is living with the worst in the moment when he says, “This is the worst,” while knowing that he will need to say this again. The worst is to see the worst more than once and to see it each time as if for the first time and for the last time.

                        Plate 69: Nada. Ello lo dice (Nothing. That is what it says). Courtesy of the
                        Pomona College Museum of Art, Gift of Norton Simon.

Figure 2. Plate 69: Nada. Ello lo dice (Nothing. That is what it says). Courtesy of the Pomona College Museum of Art, Gift of Norton Simon.

11.        “For it is not in the name of a better and truer world that thought captures the intolerable in this world,” Gilles Deleuze argues, “but, on the contrary, it is because this world is intolerable that it can no longer think a world or think itself” (qtd. in Terada, “Looking at the Stars” 290). What does no longer being able to “think a world” look like? Plate 69 (Figure 2) of the Disasters may offer a clue because of its commitment to tarrying with a disaster that is so complete and so completely absorbing that nothing appears to escape its gravitational pull. Nada, as we have seen, is in fact the title Goya gave the print, as if to bring the viewer into the closest possible proximity with nihilation while also preempting the thought of “a better or truer world.” Nada would appear to name the design or desire that the print thoughtlessly has on us, putting us at the scene of the crime, so to speak, but without offering the means or hope that we might make much or for that matter make anything of it. The caption invites us to dwell with the disaster and do nothing more, an almost impossible task, to be sure, but one worth experimenting with in a way analogous to Kant’s notion of an aesthetic judgment that sees as the poets do, that is, attentively wide-eyed but without a thought of assimilation or comprehension. Nothing is what thinking the worst feels like. Nada. Ello lo dice, Goya’s caption reads: “Nothing. It says as much” (or “Nothing. It says [nothing]” or “Nothing. That’s what it says”). The mysterious engraving for which this “nothing” is both the caption and a word scrawled into an otherwise blank page in the body of the image calls strenuously for an understanding that it also bluntly refuses. That the handwriting and the writing hand are the same once again makes Goya into a figure in his own text. Without any confidence in the concept of a world, and thus bereft of the assurance that, as Colebrook puts it, “the world is given as this world for us,” (Death of the Posthuman 135) Goya abandons his image to the questionable provenance of a nihilating stutter. A morass of shadings and hatchings dominate the top half of the engraving, some yielding barely discernible if surreally incongruous shapes, including a floating scale and a cluster of faces that fade into uncertain scratchings from which faces might or might not be made. Shapes that were not there at some imagined outset now are there, or scarcely there. Below, a skinned and skeletalized figure, its monstrous features contorted in effort, appears at first either to be sinking into or struggling from an inky grave . . . until we realize that it is the planar surface of the engraving itself in which the figure’s bare shape is most palpably immured. Against a chaotic background we observe fragments of human forms—bodiless heads, half a body stripped of its flesh—trapped between the birth and death of their own emergence as forms. The tachiste effect is profoundly estranging, as if the print were flickering between the illusion of a dark depth and the depthlessness of the print as such, as between pictorialism and the materiality of the picture. In this way, plate 69 self-referentially gives us what Goya’s caption says it gives us, nada, the strange substanceless thing that the print elementally is, as Timothy Morton might say: “a spectral quasi-object suspended in nothingness, an inconsistent bunch of squiggles that cannot ever know itself as such” (198). Nada thus functions as a kind of interdiction, emanating from both within and without the picture frame, pointing in words to what the image has already accomplished, that is, refusing unequivocally to be an image of something other than itself. The nothingness of the nonrepresentational ground of the image stops us in our tracks, as it were, commanding us to stay with the inscriptive surface where we may be less likely to believe that the aesthetic can apprehend the disasters of war, or embody the sublimely negative knowledge that that disastrousness cannot be comprehended. Goya’s assemblage does not appear to have comprehension or appropriation of any sort as its goal. Quite to the contrary, it is more a question of letting rather than making the worst matter, assuming that such a distinction could be imagined, and of staying close to its grim unfurling without necessarily attempting to metabolize its hurtfulness or to create sense out of its senselessness. Not, as Michael Naas, reading Derrida, puts it “to idealize or incorporate the other’s world into my own, not to make of that world a world” (233). But strictly speaking, “to live with the . . . end of the world” (233) would mean living with the end of a world of life, by which I mean a common world normatively given over to the living, to the principles of preservation, progress, and productivity, and thus to the immuno-logic of war. Central to that logic is the sanctification of life that forms an alibi for a homicidal power so hyperbolically enormous that it can seek to kill the dead by mutilating their remains. To live with the end of the world means bearing lifelessness and worldlessness—what I have called “scarcity”— but eschewing, for a moment, the consolations of mourning and the economization or putting-to-work of loss. In Derrida’s words, recalling Celan, “‘the world is far, the world has gone, in the absence or distance of the world, I must, I owe it to myself to carry you, without world, without the foundation or grounding of anything in the world’” (105). This taking-on, he adds importantly, occurs “even before carrying the other in oneself in mourning” (105). In other words, prior to there being “me” and “you” and the picturable world or worlds that we imagine inhabiting, there is a worldless portage. Perhaps to create proofs but abstain forever from publication is a way of acknowledging that before shouldering a burden one has already carried a weight which is nothing less than the weight of the world. Or, to be more precise, a carrying, a giving-over of a blank page, and little else, is the anarchically worldless space in which the burdened subject materializes and finds itself compelled to form and reform a world.

                        Plate 44: Yo lo vi (I saw it). Courtesy of the Pomona College Museum of Art,
                        Gift of Norton Simon.

Figure 3. Plate 44: Yo lo vi (I saw it). Courtesy of the Pomona College Museum of Art, Gift of Norton Simon.

12.        Among the strangest captions that Goya added to the engravings is perhaps the most ordinary one: I saw it (Yo lo vi) (Figure 3). Appending the phrase “I saw it” was in Goya’s time a banally familiar convention in poetry and engraving, meaning not “I saw this with my own eyes” (Goya appears not actually to have seen most of the horrors that he depicts) but instead functioning as a promise of two things: first, this happened, this event really took place, and second, I am a “war spectator,” the one who can “create the illusion of being there when dreadful things happen” (Hughes 272). Mieszkowski would describe this as an example of “Napoleonic war imaginary,” (5–6) but to do so would perhaps understate the curious rhetorical substitution by which Goya’s signature is underwritten. For “I saw it” is a kind of conjuring, the routing of authorship through its citation, and the invention of a seeing and imagining artistic subject that is imposed on the blank anonymity—the “it happened”—of the disastrous event, an event, moreover, that that fictional “I” hails as the spectral ground of its own authority. Put simply, “I saw it” is made to stand as a proxy for that which I did not see, except figuratively, day for night. “I saw it” posits a world available to sight and knowledge, but draws attention to itself as a positing and little more. The insentient operation of rhetoric suggests that Goya is leaving traces of being present to the disaster in ways that are in excess of the imaginary and the phenomenological. Hidden in plain sight, Goya’s citation repurposes an otherwise tired convention to register something new and very hard to say, namely, the permeation of the artist by the worst—which is not quite the same thing as seeing it imaginatively as a spectator or testifying to it as a witness, although Goya was also caught up in the terrible labor of both those practices. In its self-arresting brevity or inhibition, “I saw it” instead recalls something Michael Herr says about the experience of another disastrous war, that is, the disaster before Iraq and Afghanistan, before Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Herr writes, “A lot of it never made it in at all” (20). “It just stayed stored there in your eyes,” (20) his stressed syllables slowing time down, as if one could have the experience of “it,” an unnamed catastrophe in Southeast Asia, and not so much miss the meaning, as in the case of trauma, as be stuck with it or stuck to it, visually.—To experience or imagine not much more than that, not much more than that happened and “I saw it” . . . and for now, forever, to hold those two things in one place, eyes wide shut. In its bareness or scarcity, “I saw it” is a declaration of adequation and just-enoughness, of a moment of sheer commensurateness with the worst, whatever this coming together might mean or come to mean. “I saw it” thus withholds itself, abstaining from moving too quickly to what we are schooled normatively into wanting to think, namely, “I saw this, but I wish that I saw something else, something better.” When, near the end of his life, Goya left behind the plates and proofs for the Disasters and moved to France, perhaps he acknowledged something that had always been the case, including all the years in which he lived with them in his studio—namely, that the worst remains stuck to the assemblage, and the assemblage stuck to it—with or without the supplement of the “I” who sees.

13.        Nada. That’s what it says (Ello lo dice): Goya’s caption tries to give the engraving over to a kind of anonymous stammering, “it says what it says,” as if it were a nothing forever on the brink of something. Not for nothing did subsequent editors of Goya’s engravings mutilate this inscription most of all, revising it to Nada. We shall see or It will say (Ello dirá), the expectation of future meaning, uninsurable as it is, being so much more preferable to the scarcity of the predicament of sheer expectation. That this significant recuperative change in the caption’s meaning could be made by only slightly doctoring the caption’s characters returns us to the materiality of the letter and to the nonphenomenal vision that fragments language into its meaningless parts. What would it mean then to say “I saw it,” and leave it at that, to experiment with the very idea of living that letting be among all the other ways that one lives with others? The indeterminacy of the referent “it” redounds back upon the “I” who is posited as seeing, for it is possible that the pronoun refers to the engraving itself, and so functions as a prosopopoeia, an animating projection on the engraving that “sees” without ever knowing what it sees. What would it mean to see as the engraver or perhaps as the engraving sees, to store the worst for now, forever, to dwell with disaster but in an unknown because asocial, unproductive, untimely, and nondeclarative way? In giving itself to be read rather than seen (writing perhaps being the most vivid instance of a nonmimetic image), “I see it” reminds us that in their mimetic aspect, Goya’s images call for a moral judgment while also allowing for another form of judgment, if judgment is what it is, something closer to what Forest Pyle calls a “blank opening onto futurity” (35). It goes without saying that that futurity includes us, contemplating scenes engraved by Goya’s hands but not sent to us or meant for us, scenes without an addressee and scenes that, were it not for an accident of history, we could just as easily have not seen. What then can it mean to tarry with an image, to see and not to understand, to engrave and not to be printed, taken up, and consumed? One answer to that impossible question comes unbidden from a not entirely unexpected place, that is, from another artist who lives amid perpetual war brimming with the inimicalization of life that the Peninsular Wars modeled, god help us. I am reminded of the novelist David Grossman, who wonders aloud about what it means to occupy the catastrophe of the war between Israel and the Palestinians, the war that saw his son, Uri, killed by an antitank rocket in Lebanon in 2006. Grossman stands still, and that is the unknown way in which he still stands, now, forever: “I touch on grief and loss like one touching electricity with bare hands,” he says, “yet I do not die. I do not understand how this miracle works” (n.p.).

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[1] Benjamin is referring here to the manuscript of “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” BACK

[2] Substantial portions of this essay appeared originally in “Goya’s Scarcity” in Constellations of a Contemporary Romanticism and are reproduced with the gracious permission of Tom Lay and Fordham University Press. Let me take this opportunity warmly to thank Jacques Khalip, with whom I have an ongoing discussion about the limits and possibilities of the image once it is released from the concept of the representational. Danielle Martak helped prepare this essay for publication. BACK

[3] See Baucom as well as Miller for insightful work on this topic. Both studies have had a tremendous impact on my thinking here. BACK

[4] Three large altar paintings for the San Fernando de Monte Torrero church in Zaragoza were either destroyed or lost during the sieges of the city. See the “Description” for the “Apparition of Saint Isodoro to Saint King Fernando in front of the walls of Seville” (Aparición de San Isidoro al Rey Fernando el Santo ante los muros) from the National Museum of Fine Arts of Argentina. I thank Reva Wolf for graciously helping me track down the fate of these altar paintings. Amid wartime shortages that included a dearth of materials the artist needed to pursue his work, Goya gave up fine canvas for bandages that were badly needed by the townsfolk defending Aragón, his birthplace. That gift is made aslant of the wartime economy that otherwise harvested the clothes of the battlefield dead to produce paper. See, respectively, Hughes 283 and St. Clair 178. Mary Favret drew my attention to the use of the clothes of the war dead in her book, War at a Distance. BACK

[5] For a discussion of the question of Goya, war, and sexual violence, see Sliwinski’s Human Rights in Camera (50–53) and her “Sexuality in the Time of War: Or, How Rape Became a Crime against Humanity.” BACK

[6] The caption for plate 55 is “The worst is to beg” (Lo peor es pedir). As we shall see, Goya’s captions repeatedly return to what is “worse” and “the worst.” BACK

[7] I am recalling Wieseltier, who speaks of the effect of viewing color—rather than black-and-white—images associated with the Holocaust: “You realize, almost as you never realized it before, that the Jews were murdered in a place on earth” (90). BACK

[8] Goya appends three etchings depicting the torture of prisoners as an appendix to the volume of proofs for the Disasters, thereby complicating the idea that the assemblage comes to a definitive end at plate 82, “This is the truth” (Esto es lo verdadero). For a brief discussion of the prisoner images, see Sánchez and Sayre 210–11. BACK

[9] In this passage Didi-Huberman, citing the French historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, notes that “[the genocide] was thought, it was therefore thinkable” (25). BACK

[10] I recall Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation, in the wake of his son’s death, that “I grieve that grief that can teach me nothing” (472). BACK

[11] Stephen Whicher writes, “The grief that he cannot grieve is for Emerson the form grief takes” (491). BACK

[12] I use “state” as William Blake does, that is, as a condition through which to pass rather than an identity that is already there to assume. And I do not say “studio rather than social life” because it strikes me as important to describe the Disasters as an example of what Claire Colebrook, in “Earth Felt the Wound,” provocatively calls “the unlived,” emphasizing the phenomenon—from acts to objects to concepts—for which productivity, potentiality, or vitality don’t easily apply. The Disasters do not “reach their potential” on their publication, nor are they “latent,” awaiting their public “manifestation,” while they were uncirculated. And yet it is almost impossible not to speak of them in these sorts of terms, which says less about the Disasters and more about the pervasiveness of the biopolitical in criticism, the naturalization of “the natural” in how we speak about the aesthetic. BACK

[13] The nineteenth-century poet and critic Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier described the members of the royal family in Goya’s portrait as looking like “the corner baker and his wife after they won the lottery” (qtd. in Licht 127). As Fred Licht notes, “Even if one takes into consideration the fact that Spanish portraiture is often realistic to the point of eccentricity, Goya’s portrait still remains unique in its drastic description of human bankruptcy” (128). BACK

[14] As Gassier and Wilson put it: we have the extraordinary example of the “many important works which Goya painted for himself and kept in his house” (214). Sometimes Goya treated his work as a mode of interrogating and fashioning himself as an other rather than as an artist who painted for others. BACK

[15] For an elegant and powerful critique of hermeneutical frameworks that value publicity over recessiveness, see François. BACK

[16] I am recalling Gilles Deleuze’s extraordinary remarks about Spinoza: “The point of view of an ethics is: of what are you capable, what can you do? Hence a return to this sort of cry of Spinoza’s: what can a body do? We never know in advance what a body can do. We never know how we’re organized and how the modes of existence are enveloped in somebody” (par. 149). BACK

[17] As a prisoner in Auschwitz, Primo Levi recalls reaching for an icicle to quench his thirst before it is knocked out of his hand by a Nazi guard. “Warum?” [Why?], asks Levi. “Hier ist kein warum” [Here there is no why], the guard replies (Levi 29). BACK

[18] I am recalling Vivian Mercer’s often cited remark about Waiting for Godot as a play in which “nothing happens, twice” (6). BACK

[19] What is the history and the historicity of the relationship between the psyche and violence? Are there periods in which trauma is more likely to be naturalized as the psyche’s experience of the worst, that is, the experience of nonexperience? What other modalities of tarrying with the worst, or, for that matter, memory and experience, are otherwise screened out by the emphasis on trauma? Are there relationships with the worst that are not, strictly speaking, mournful or melancholic, relationships which are not on the side of work but worklessness? For an extraordinary exploration of these questions, see Terada’s “Living a Ruined Life: De Quincey beyond the Worst.” BACK

[20] The “Tardis box” of course refers to the fictional spacecraft and time machine in the British television series, Doctor Who. The “TARDIS” (or “Time And Relative Dimension In Space”) is a device that resembles a police telephone box on the outside but whose interior is considerably more expansive. BACK