The Paradox of the Phasmid


The only things that appear are those which are first able to dissimulate themselves. Things already grasped in their aspect or peacefully resembling themselves never appear. They are apparent, of course, but only apparent: they will never be given to us as appearing. What then is necessary for an apparition, the event of appearing? What must happen just before appearing closes itself within a presumably stable or hopefully definitive aspect? There must be a unique and momentary opening that will mark the apparition as an apparition. A paradox bursts forth because, in the very moment that it opens itself to the visible world, appearing is destined to be something like dissimulation. A paradox bursts forth because, for but a moment, appearing gives access to the here below, to something that suggests the contrary or, better yet, the hell of the visible world—the realm of dissemblance.


I want to acquaint you with my favorite animal or, rather, the animal that afforded me, one day, the most exquisite terror, the terror of the dissimilar. Remember the place in the Jardin des Plantes called the vivarium, the vivier? It's an enclave of lives and dangers, where the Ancients held eels and snakes, toothed and poisonous beasts (undoubtedly to unleash them, one day, on an enemy). A deathly silence habitually reigns in these places—for who knows if the meanest beasts are not also the most silent? Today, however, the vivarium rang with the charming little cries of a child amusing himself by tapping his nail, and even his fists, on the glass that barely separated him from a big black scorpion. The glass confers true power, a secure and invisible border; the child rejoices in the face of the false danger. His hand on the glass can caress a lethal stinger, a theoretical and fascinating caress permitted to him by a few millimeters of hard transparency. Soon the child will break clear through, realizing that the glass is cracked: the enemy animal, too, caresses the border, but in order to cross the breach in the other direction; and it is, of course, to take his revenge on you, guilty child, anxious child.

A vivarium always displays scenery, mineral or vegetal. The game in front of its glass panes consists by and large of locating the captive, discerning the animal. Why do we tap on the glass? To see movement. The word vivarium tells us that it is exposing life. But at first, nothing moves. It is not only that the unknown animal—on the sign I read "Silver Oxybelus"—may show itself to be utterly immobile, like the three crocodiles holding an intolerable vigil in the next room. But it can happen, it usually happens, that nothing shows itself. Then the game is to seek the form, the living form that is supposed to be there before me, on an indifferent ground of sand, pebbles or plants, all the elements appropriate for "recreating", as we dare to call it, the beast's "environment."

Thus, against two big dark stones I saw a third that was barely distinguishable from the others. The glass could not tell me what it would be to the touch. But it was breathing imperceptibly: could this vacant mass, coiled upon itself, be the "Great Salamander of Japan" indicated by the sign? I had to admit it. In another case, as I struggled to distinguish some shades of green from other greens, I suddenly found myself in front of a tree viper entwined around a tangle of exotic plants. And the mygale was hiding behind the trunk of a small shrub—or at least I think so, for one must think something even about the cases which are actually empty, in disuse, in repair, waiting for a new animal, etc.


1. Phasmid. Paris, vivarium of the Jardin des Plantes. Photo G. D.-H. [ click to enlarge ]


Thwarted mimetic play only amuses us when its outcome is already played out. Otherwise the visual world is playing off us and then we are its prey, then we are rubbing shoulders with terror. Besides, the signs in the vivarium are there to make us anxious and to tell us more or less what to look for. But in front of the case of phasmids—what is a phasmid? the word alone inspires anxiety—nothing really appeared (fig.1). If I had wanted a quick solution to the mimetic enigma, I would have pronounced this case void of any animal. And the following case—phasmids again—with its half rotten foliage turning brown (a sign of abandon), concealed neither the head of a snake nor the tail of a scorpion. There was not a living soul, insofar as a head or a tail indicates a soul.

In the preface to his "mystery" Heriodias, Mallarmé gives the substantive appeared to the decapitated head of Saint John the Baptist, placed on the "suspect and mute vacuity of a platter," at the moment when it touches the reader with a haunting fear (56). Could one imagine the experience of a symmetrical kind of haunting, the haunting fear provoked by an apparition consisting of the absence of a head? I mean, an apparition in which what appears suddenly proves to be not exactly a body?

Such is the phasmid, which, however, is not a phantom. As I looked at the scenery, the "ground" void of any animal, I understood in a moment—a moment in which all doubt, but with it all certainty, collapsed—that the life of this animal, the phasmid, was the scenery and the ground themselves. It's hard to explain. Usually when you are told there is something to see and you see nothing, you move closer, thinking that what you should be seeing is an unperceived detail of your own visual landscape. To see phasmids appear requires the very opposite, de-focusing and moving back a bit, giving myself over to a floating visibility. This is what I must have done more or less by chance, or because of a movement anticipating fear. But the two steps back suddenly placed me before the terrifying evidence that the vivarium's little forest was itself the animal it was supposed to be hiding (fig.2).

2. Phasmid. Paris, vivarium of the Jardin des Plantes. Photo G. D.-H.


So what is a phasmid? An insect, undoubtedly. Where does its name come from? From phasma, undoubtedly, which simultaneously means apparition, a sign from the gods, a prodigious or even monstrous phenomenon; and also simulacrum, an omen, in a word. What does it feed on? This forest, undoubtedly, whose form it has taken on, whose matter it will soon take in. For the phasmid is not content to imitate a certain aspect of its environment, like color for example, as so many other animals are. The phasmid makes its own body into the scenery which hides it, by incorporating the scenery where it was born. The phasmid is that which it eats and that in which it lives. It is branch, bine, bough, bush. It is bark and tree, thorn, stem and rhizome. I quickly realized that the rotten leaves turning brown in the second case were also living phasmids. Because all of it, all over, was quivering very slowly, as in a bad dream.


The phasmid—the mythic animal of the anti-Platonist, as you will see—acquires its power from the following paradox: by realizing a kind of imitative perfection, it shatters the hierarchy that can be demanded of all imitation. There are no longer a model and its copy: there's a copy that has devoured its model, and the model no longer exists, while the copy alone, by a strange law of nature, enjoys the privilege of existing. The imitated model thus becomes an accident of its copy—a fragile accident in danger of being engulfed—and no longer the other way around. Less-than-being has eaten being, possessed being, it is in its place. (Or, to the contrary, couldn't one say that what we have here is the mythic animal of the Platonist, for whom the model that is truly adopted, digested, would provide the most perfect illustration of the power of the idea? But let us move on.)

This paradox produces another in the very moment—that moment of near horror—that the apparition emerges: the phasmid can elicit such fear and so closely resemble an omen only insofar as, fundamentally, it dissembles. Why say this of the prodigy, or better yet, the extreme form of mimesis? Precisely because at the extremities things are reversed. The first reason (hyperbolic, of course) is that the phasmid can be said to dissemble because, as it eats, it destroys what it imitates. Is a resemblance still intact when one of the two terms of the resemblance has disappeared? But more importantly, the phasmid dissembles because once it has been recognized as an animal that moves, clings, and mates, we are no longer able to recognize that animal in itself. The terrifying power of the phasmid consists in the fact that it belongs to a biological order but rejects even the most elementary form of orientation. It is an animal without head or tail, a dissimilar animal which, strictly speaking, we could never envision head-on like a living thing whose motions I can predict or, simply, whose mouth I can locate and thereby locate myself in front of it. And any hopes of imagining the substance that makes up a phasmid—a living branch—I must definitively renounce.

Such is the demon of dissemblance. It entails a third paradox which consummates the incontestable feeling of a nightmare. For this it is enough to abstract or break the glass of the vivarium: then you will understand that the tropical forest where, until now, you avoided the mygale or the tree viper—you will understand that the forest you are strolling through is the animal that will soon devour you. Now do you understand, guilty child? All that appears to you proves to be a power of the dissimilar, and all that dissembles proves to be, at heart, no more than the menacing quality of place— a place in which, that day, you should not indeed have set foot.


Translated by Alisa Hartz


Works Cited

Mallarmé, Stéphane. Les Noces d'Hérodiade, mystère. Ed. G. Davies. Paris: Gallimard, 1959.