L'Angoisse de Penser / The Anguish of Thought


. . . thought, at the level of its existence, in its very dawning, is in itself an action – a perilous act.

Michel Foucault, The Order of Things



Who has not experienced at least once that irksome feeling of indeterminate disquiet that silently swells and proliferates, radiates and returns in waves: a knot in the pit of your stomach, your throat constricted, making it impossible to breathe, palpitations, a tightening around the ribcage or the painful cramping of muscles? In his early writing, Antonin Artaud transfigures the symptom: “an anguish that comes in flashes, that is punctuated by abysses as dense and serried as insects, like a kind of tough vermin whose every motion is arrested, an anguish in which the mind strangles and cuts itself off—kills itself.” He was to add a little later on: “One must have known this suction-like rise of anguish whose waves cover you and fill you to bursting as if driven by some intolerable bellows. An anguish that approaches and withdraws, each time more vast, each time heavier and more swollen. [. . .] It is a kind of suction cup placed on the soul . . . .”

    Something vile keeps trying to force its way in. One feels an uncertain foreboding, an ill-defined threat. So the entire body contracts as though it were hastily trying to seal off the exits, batten down the hatches. Some, when struck by anxiety, curl into a ball, close themselves off; petrified, they wait for the attack to subside . . . . The next stage of severity is a full-blown anxiety episode, panicked fear, the emotional ictus of which psychiatrists speak. Mostly, however, nothing of the sort occurs: our anxiety is an easy-going one.

    The nausea that Jean-Paul Sartre describes is another form of the same disquiet, an unnerving sensation, like a hole opening up within. It is a tear through which I escape myself and stream out: a hemorrhage of being. I seep and flow outside, while the outside threatens to surge in, to engulf me, in the backwash . . . . It is a nauseous ebb and flow that exposes the shortcomings of our corporeal and psychic envelopes. In anguish, being returns to a porous state, is disarmed—it is a hideous, infantine distress.

    At the heart of modern writing, anguish designates that which occurs in closest proximity to thought. It is the narrow gate (angustia) through which one must continually pass, barred by powerlessness [impuissance] and disgust; it is the price to be paid, the pound of flesh, for the spark of an idea—what we still call, and by no coincidence, “inspiration.” Anguish is the obligatory gateway into writing: it is the impower [impouvoir] of which Artaud spoke, and later Maurice Blanchot and Jacques Derrida; for Samuel Beckett and Michel Foucault, it is the dizzying prospect of “how to begin”; for Jacques Lacan, the “abject experience” into which analytical writing delves; it is Georges Bataille’s “I feel rotten”; and Emmanuel Levinas’s shapeless swarming of being. All experience it differently, and yet there is a profound commonality to all these experiences in that they all rattle the assured bases of what we believe to be our own thought, our own identity. Thought is a trait of anguish. Martin Heidegger asked, “What is That which calls on us to think?” Here, the question is rather, “How does thought emerge in such close proximity to the seemingly destructive and dehumanizing experience of anguish?” How can a nauseous anguish, that yawning gap to which Bataille eludes in Inner Experience, lead to inspiration (the voice of the Other in me; the “spirited-away” speech [parole soufflée] that Derrida heard in Artaud’s work) and thereby transform the speaker or author so that he or she is no longer merely him- or herself (one person thinking and writing)? Writing is, then, this profound experience of depersonalization undertaken by the writers and thinkers of the twentieth century.