‘Is this the helmet of Mambrino?’

The professor smells slightly and meetings in his office should therefore be avoided. He smells because he always wears the same sweater. Impeded by his own body he must force himself into the range of the microphone and towards us. The lectern creaks. So we listen to him – pens hovering over pages – waiting for the nuggets of truth that he will give to us about this painting, that monument in Rome, or this particular year of significance on the historical map.

We are waiting for his answers without recognising that there is an over-assurance and maybe a childish haughtiness in finding answers. “Why” is the child’s favourite question: we were born full of questions and seek constantly to answer them. Yet if the child were to look up from their chair to Maurice Blanchot for answers (in the impossible case that he could be there), he would suggest to that child that an answer is their question’s adversity – its misfortune. For the question unseals a void, giving us a wondrous version of the ‘thing’ we seek before it is terminated by a realisation in its answer: ‘Through the question we give ourselves the thing and we give ourselves the void that permits us not to have it yet, or to have it as desire.’1 Thus to receive that beautiful semblance of the ‘thing’, the petulant desire in us to search and find must be willingly curtailed. Yet stability is razed by the question and the desire ‘to have and to hold’ an answer can overcome us. (It is this apparently satisfied desire that makes our art history professor appear smug and indignant as he looks out at his crowd of expectant faces and reads answers from his book.)

The void that Blanchot’s vision of the question creates might be like Kant’s vision of the sublime, for they both share a shaky kind of wonder in the moments before their conclusion. For Kant, the aesthetic judgment we yield over something that is beautiful (as opposed to sublime) is bound to the immediate form of that thing we acknowledge before us in its beauty.2 Yet when faced with the sublime prospect, we falter. Reason and imagination must play out within our experience of the sublime and this transaction will not come immediately, it will arrive only after some duration. The duration is the time that it takes for us to recognise our place in relation to that sublime vista. One must become attuned to it and for a moment – like the duration before an answer terminates the desires of the question – its possibilities are terrifying in their magnitude.

Laid gently on my table once was an image I did not ‘understand’. The artist who built it suggested that I apply some words to it nevertheless, knowing that I would not manage to read the Urdu script of its calligraphic abstractions. A British writer engaging with an artwork from contemporary Pakistan, I was released from ‘proper understanding’ of the kind our professor would advocate. So I wrote a story, a script, and a once-upon-a-time about that image. In giving me the permission to not understand, the artist knew that the writing could have been anything. The work I would produce was never expected to be an answer that might haughtily aspire to terminate his image, for within my marriage of an ‘understanding’ and a uniquely-enabled sense of imagination, in this text there could follow new questions alongside new revelations. In a Kantian sense, the attunement came when imagination was able to play itself upon the image along with a liberated kind of understanding.

Once upon a time, the famous Don Quixote and his squire Sancho had a particular tryst of words on their escapades-errant. Don Quixote had clumsily attacked a barber wandering the road, to obtain for himself the bowl that the barber was carrying. It was the kind of bowl a barber in those olden’ days would have used as a guide to cut even-and-straight the hair around their customer’s head. To Don Quixote however, this particular basin was worthy of a more noble employment.

Yet Sancho, sick with travelling, was exasperated: “If anyone heard your grace calling a barber’s basin the helmet of Mambrino without realising the error after more than four days, what could he think but that whoever says and claims such a thing must be out of his mind?”3 In his agitation Sancho shouted such words at his master. Don Quixote meanwhile, happily wearing that barber’s basin upon his head as if it were in fact the mystical and legendary helmet of Mambrino, responded to his faithful squire: “Is it possible in all the time you have travelled with me you have not yet noticed that all things having to do with knights errant appear to be chimerical, foolish, senseless, and turned inside out?” He looked down on his squire from his seat on the armoured donkey. “What seems to you a barber’s basin seems to me the helmet of Mambrino, and will seem another thing to someone else.”

Artworks-in-hand for the writer or the viewer, are much like that object Don Quixote wore on his head. He might have been a great art writer had he lived in a ‘real life’ beyond Cervantes’ masterpiece. Don Quixote allowed himself the hazard of imagination. He understood the ‘falter of knowing’ that Kant talks about in the experience of the sublime and he showed noble patience and sympathy for Sancho’s reservations, however certain as he was of the basin’s mystical powers.


  1. Maurice Blanchot, ‘The Most Profound Question’, The Infinite Conversation, (1969). University of Minnesota Press: Minnesota and London, 2008. p12.
  2. See Immanuel Kant, ‘Analytic of the Sublime’ in Critique of Judgment, (1790). Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Hackett Publishing Company: Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1987. pp97-140.
  3. Cervantes, Don Quixote, (1605). Trans. Edith Grossman. Vintage: London, 2005. p195.