The Idol

“… The visitor to an ethnological museum at first considers statues with an interest that is incontestable as it is external, to which is suddenly opposed an idol where his gaze freezes in order to read the divine impression that the idolatrous artist had consigned in it: “He stood there, suddenly, without knowing how, before a primitive wooden figure, which, frightful and crude as it was, made such a forceful impression on him that he succumbed, body and soul, to the magic of that rough idol – for it was one.” This emotion has nothing “aesthetic” about it but incites – even more, physically constrains — on to adoration, certainly not of the image but of the very Eindruck that it exerts, and which is exerted as that very visibility: “a monstrous, dreadful desire suddenly took hold of him, to throw himself to the ground, to fall on his knees and to prostrate himself, in order to venerate with his body the dreadful image that had been taken from the deserts of Africa.” 239 (End Note)

“The idol never deserves to be denounced as illusory since, by definition, it is seen – eidolon, that which is seen (eido, video). It even consists only in the fact that it can be seen, that one cannot but see it. And see it so visibly that the very fact of seeing it suffices to know it – eidolon, that which is known by the fact that one has seen it (oida)”

“The idol fascinates and captivates the gaze precisely because everything in it must expose itself to the gaze, attract, fill, and hold it…. For the fabricated thing becomes an idol, that of a god, only from the moment when the gaze has decided to fall on it, has made of it the privileged fixed point of its own consideration; and that the fabricated thing exhausts the gaze presupposes that this thing is itself exhausted in the gazeable”

The gaze alone makes the idol, as the ultimate function of the gazeable… Instead of the gaze floating along unstable waves of “the sea, the sea perpetually renewed,” it must present itself in a mirror, a gaze as mortally immobile as coagulated blood: “The sun drowned in its blood which coagulates”

“When the gaze freezes, its aim settles… But that which renders a gaze idolatrous could not, at least at first, arise from an ethical choice: it reveals a sort of essential fatigue”

“Consequently, the genuineness and the limits of the idol can be defined: in the idol, the divine actually comes into the visibility for which human gazes watch; but this advent is measured by what the scope of particular human eyes can support, by what each aim can require of visibility in order to admit itself fulfilled.”

“For this reason, no one, not even a modern of the age of distress, remains sheltered from an idol, be he idolatrous or not: in order for the idol to reach him it is sufficient that he recognize, fixed upon the face of a statute, the splendid brilliance of the first visible where, one day, his gaze was frozen in its scope”

“Art no more produces the idol than the idol produces the gaze.”

Passages regarding the idol (pages 9-15) from Jean-Luc Marion’s provocative book, “God without Being.”

About JoeL

I completed a Master of Music degree from McGill University. I am currently working towards an Artist Diploma also at McGill. I like to do philosophy as a hobby.

3 thoughts on “The Idol

  1. One of the aspects of Marion’s account of idolatry that I find most interesting is that the idol is always our responsibility, it is always made by the gaze (whereas the icon seizes the gaze, and we can make no claim to be responsible or have possession of it, and if we do, we turn it into an idol). This corresponds roughly to traditional Christian claims about sin and grace, in which we are always responsible for the sin that we are enmeshed in, and yet can take no credit for the good work that we do, which is always enabled through grace. I find Marion’s analysis of the idol and icon compelling, but I worry that its implicit anthropology might be too simplistic and also rob of us any true agency. In regards to the icon I think the question we must ask is: what does it mean to be open to the icon, is there such a thing as this posture and is it possible to cultivate? In regards to the idol, perhaps the questions we should ask are about the “essential fatigue” *not* choice that causes idolatry.

    Do you think these are the questions to ask? How do you understand Marion’s use of “essential fatigue”?


  2. I think the essential fatigue might be something like this: If I interrogate any further, I may in fact be wrong and may be challenged all the way to the core (beliefs, practices, thoughts, etc.). The fatigue is a giving up on intentional. genuine, open investigation. Perhaps you have other ideas?

    I would add, though, that often this goes unnamed by the person. And it can even itself be its own idol. Perhaps you have had a teacher who will pretend to be open to new ways of thinking and teaching, yet one finds that their pedagogy is extremely conservative and in fact, they never actively search out new pedagogies that would suggest that their past work was not as effective as they thought. I mean, this goes back to: “if you really believed this, then these practices should follow. Otherwise, do you really believe it?” And the other way around.


  3. That sounds on track, though I hadn’t thought of it quite like that. I guess I was wondering more about the essential part of essential fatigue and how it might align with or elucidate ideas around original sin. “Idolatry comes from us, but only kind of, because it comes from this fatigue which is essential to us” is how I read it. So what kind of anthropology would this commit us to? The answer would seem to lie with fleshing out essential fatigue, but maybe it doesn’t really; Marion is far more evocative than precise in the opening pages of God Without Being.


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