Verbum caro Factum

“Verbum caro Factum,” by Jean-Luc Nancy (2002)
translation by Timothy Lavenz (2014)

In the time of a brief note, for the moment, let’s analyse this proposition central to Christianity: verbum caro factum est (in the Greek text of John’s Gospel: logos sarx egeneto). This is the formula for the “incarnation” through which God is made man, and this humanity of God is indeed the decisive trait of Christianity, and through it a determinant trait for the entire culture of the West– right to the heart of its “humanism,” which it marks ineffaceably, even if it does not ground it (thanks to a reversal in the “divinisation” of man, to remain very summary).

The term “incarnation” is usually understood in the sense of the entry of some non-corporeal entity (spirit, god, idea) into a body, and more rarely as the penetration of one part of the body into another, or of a substance, in principle foreign, as one speaks of an “ingrown toenail.” It is a change of place, the occupation of a body like a space that was initially non connatural to the added reality, and this sense easily extends to “figuration” (the actor “incarnates” the character). According to this current acceptation (which is certainly not the major theological one), incarnation is a mode of transposition and representation. One is in the space of a thought for which the body is necessarily in a position of exteriority and sensible manifestation, by distinction with a soul or with a spirit given in interiority, and not directly figurable.

It suffices to read  the formula of the Christian credo literally to realize that it does not at all, in and of itself, bear in the direction of this interpretation. If the verb was made flesh, or if (in Greek) it became it, or if it was engendered or engendered itself as flesh, it is not because it penetrated into the interior of a flesh that was at first there outside of it: it is the verb itself that became flesh. (Theology deployed superhuman efforts– now is the time to say so– to think this becoming that produces, in one single person, two heterogeneous natures.)


Let’s add here — reserving it for analyses to come later — two supplementary facts that it is not pointless to recall: even with the nuances and important differences between “Catholic,” “Orthodox,” and “Reformed” Christianities, the human maternity of the logos (with or without the virginity of the mother) and the “transsubstantiation” (real or symbolic, either way) of the body of Christ into the bread and wine of a “communion” represent two developments or two intensifications of incarnation: the one, by giving the god-man a provenance, already, in the human body, and in the body of a woman (in one sense, the incarnation takes account of the sexes), and, with the other, by giving to his divine body the capacity of converting itself back into inorganic material (thereby investing a tiny parcel of space-time with “god”, as well as a reality — bread and wine — that comes from a transformation of nature through human technique).


In this sense, the Christian body is totally other than a body serving as an envelop (or prison, or tomb) for the soul. It is nothing but the logos itself that is made body as logos and according to its most proper logic. This body is nothing but the “spirit” going out of itself or of its pure identity so as to identify itself not even with man but as man (and woman, and material). But this exit of the spirit from itself is not an accident that befalls it (we will allow ourselves here a vast ellipsis around the question of sin and salvation, which we can provisionally hold aside). In itself, the divine Christian spirit is already outside of itself (this is its trinitarian nature), and undoubtedly one must go all the way back to the monotheistic god common to the three religions “of the Book” to consider how he is already, himself, essentially a god who is put outside himself through and in a “creation” (which is by no means a production, but precisely the putting-outside-of-self).

In this sense, the Christian (even monotheistic) god is the god that is alienated: he is the god who is atheised or who atheologises himself, if we can for an instant forge these words. (It is Bataille who, for his account, created the word “atheological”). Atheology as a thinking of the body will then be a thinking of this: that “god” was made “body” inasmuch as he was emptied of himself (another Christian motif, the Pauline kenosis: the becoming-empty of God, or his “being emptied of himself”). “Body” becomes the name of the a-theos, in the sense of “not-of-God.” But “not-of-God” does not mean the immediate self-sufficiency of man or the world, but rather this: no founding presence. (In a very general way, “monotheism” is not the reduction to “one” of a number of gods in “polytheism”: its essence is the passing out of presence, of this presence that the gods of mythology are.) The “body” of the “incarnation” is thus the place, or even the taking-place, the event of this passing out.


Neither the prison of the soul (sensible or fallen body), then, nor the expression of an interiority (“proper” or “signifying” body, which I would even call the “raised” body of a certain “modernity”), nor however pure presence (statue-body, sculpted body, re-divinised body in the polytheistic mode where the statue is itself the whole divine presence): but extension, spacing, gap of the passing out itself. The body as the truth of a “soul” that slips away (concealed, robe dropped: baring an infinite breakaway).

But this syncope that the body is — and it is one of a singular dress, taut between a cry of birth and a sigh of death, a flair that is modulated in a singular phrasing, the discourse of a “life” — is not simply a loss: it is, as in music, a beat; it joins (syn-) in cutting (-cope). It joins the body to itself and the bodies between them. Syncope of appearance and disappearance, syncope of enunciation and sense, it is also the syncope of desire.

Desire is not a melancholic tension toward a missing object. It is a tension toward what is not an object: namely, the syncope itself, as it takes place in the other, and that is only “proper” by being in the other and of the other. But the other is only the other body so far as it, in its distance with mine, makes touch at the gap itself, to the body open over the syncopated truth.

A (Socratic) erotics passes through the (Christic) incarnation here as by a fold internal to the logos: this erotic wants the love of bodies to lead us to “conceiving the beauty in itself,” which is nothing other, in Plato, than to catch — or to be caught by — the only one of the Ideas that would of itself be visible.

A circle thus brings us back without end from the visibility of the Idea– or, from the manifestation of sense– to the syncope of the soul– or, to the breakaway moment of the truth. The one in the other and the one through the other, in a hand-to-hand whose body trembles and suffers and comes.

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