The art thing in the brain

Sometimes I’ll be writing a poem or a scene in screenplay or novel, and I know I hit it just right. I can feel it grow heavy with symbolic meaning that will transmit and stick. Why? Because the “symbolic meaning” behind the configuration at hand is easy to name and identify? No, quite the contrary.  It’s because I’ve set it up just right to hit the symbolic generator in the reader’s brain. We all have one. Part and parcel of our evolution is an instinct to search for the meaning behind events, behind all the visual and auditory signs that make up our daily life. All animals with optic powers might take note that the raven is black, but homo sapiens by nature drives toward a second plane of knowledge, a symbolic plane that stands at a distance from the visual percept but gives it the weight of meaning. What does it mean “when a raven flies to the right or a crow to the left,” as Cicero ponders it. The quest for the meaning behind things separates us from other animals, with whom we share the raw perception. This is what I call “the art thing in the brain” – the thing that makes us want to see a depth of meaning in an otherwise simple percept, the thing that makes us want to override the pleas of poet William Carlos Williams and read his “Red Wheelbarrow” as something rich in symbolic meaning.  And when you hit it right, you get the reader’s symbolic generator pumping, giving them a scenario pregnant with meaning but without fixing meanings and pre-empting the reader’s own process of symbolic generation.

The art thing in the brain goes to the heart of one of higher education’s dilemmas today. STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) do not have to explain their value to the parents of prospective college students. (See fellow blogger, Oxford Dphile.) Nor do the subject disciplines in the College of Business. But the Humanities are on the defensive. Parents frequently seem to have both monetary and philosophical concerns about their children majoring in the Humanities. Will he or she be on a line cook’s salary in ten years? And isn’t it frivolous, anyway, for a young man or woman to choose Art History or English Literature as a lifelong vocation?

To the first and monetary question, I’d say that if you think making money is the highest form of human achievement, don’t major in the Humanities. But consider that once minimal needs are met, a deeper understanding of the riches of cultural history and of the human imagination and of human subjectivity and connection is probably more fulfilling than generating profits and buying more and more stuff.

To the second and philosophical issue, I’d say that whether a lifelong vocation in the Humanities is frivolous depends on your frame of reference. Since roughly the time of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), homo sapiens has become increasingly defined as homo economicus. If you buy into that frame of reference, which views the human individual as essentially an economic unit, then you may conclude that such a choice is frivolous. But I’d argue that the representation of our species as homo economicus is an invention of capitalism, a modern-day mirage that serves the interest of a market economy but is itself frivolous in that it ignores the rest of our evolutionary history. In particular, it ignores the art thing in the brain. But pretending it isn’t there doesn’t make it go away. People will still crave to find deeper symbolic meaning behind the things they see and live through. Their symbolic generators will always be at work.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the disciplines of other university colleges. We need scientists who study the first plane of information, the plane of material observation that is prerequisite to any symbolic plane of meaning. We need engineers who can put their brains and hands together and make things work.  We need people with business skills to manage the enterprises of the other groups. But we also need theater and literature and art and most of all a body of intellectuals who understand inside and out how those symbolic generators work and have worked throughout human history. You can try to dismiss the value of that enterprise, but you will only be degrading the value of the human spirit. Be careful what you wish for, because without the Humanities we might truly become homo economicus, nothing more than units in a vast economic machine, without imagination or spirit or symbolic sensibility.

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For Whom the Bell Tolls (no spoilers)

I’ve always respected Hemingway’s writing but never really enjoyed it (in my limited reading). For Whom the Bell Tolls, though, I enjoyed thoroughly and found much more engaging than, say, The Sun Also Rises or short stories like the heavily anthologized “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”  For a Lost Generation tale of gentry drinking binges, give me Fitzgerald’s poetic Gatsby over Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises. But For Whom the Bell Tolls is a different matter. The prose has the simple directness of Sun Also Rises, but the subject matter turns on the life-and-death situations of guerilla warfare during the Spanish Civil War, giving a dramatic intensity to those clean, simple sentences. And to a large extent, Hemingway seems, like his contemporary William Carlos Williams, to want to keep the language transparent and give us the thing in itself. Indeed, he sounds as though he quotes Williams when he has his main character ponder “the confidence that” comes “from thinking back to concrete things.” This allows him to build a very powerful sense of place, both with the direct, no-nonsense descriptive sentences and with the bastardized (but accessible) English-Spanish dialogue.

But the prose is more subtle in For Whom the Bell Tolls, as Hemingway seems more sure of his voice here than he was in The Sun Also Rises. The occasional flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness shoots of prose mark this or that character with a special immediacy, with a reflective inner life. And the reflections may be terse and unadorned, but they are not simplistic philosophically. They seem fully commensurate with the life-and-death context, and indeed, from the vantage of this novel, it is the overwrought philosophies of the ivory tower that seem frivolous and simplistic.

So if it happens that you’ve read a few stories or The Sun Also Rises and found yourself less than fully engaged, you should still give For Whom the Bell Tolls a try. To each his own, but for me, the latter is more the Nobel Prize-worthy Hemingway.

The Red Wheelbarrow and Jung’s Synchronicity (plus Keats)

so much depends                                                                                                                     upon

a red wheel                                                                                                                       barrow

glazed with rain                                                                                                                 water

beside the white                                                                                                                 chickens

(William Carlos Williams, 1923)

The first thing readers often notice about Williams’s poem is that it seems so arbitrary – just an arbitrary set of domestic images, with no philosophical propositions, no apparent symbolic referents, no historical context. Just the “thing in itself,” as Williams liked to say. In some other context, a red wheelbarrow may have a practical function, but here the images are stripped of practical value. This is exactly what liberates us to see them through the lens of pure aesthetic wonder. At least that’s the imagist idea.

Formal construction of the poem supports this imagist project. The line structure breaks each substantive unit (wheel / barrow, rain / water, white / chickens) as if to retrain the eye, bringing you through a double-take back to the thing in itself. The one verbal unit – “glazed” – puts it all under a glass coat for aesthetic gaze.

So if that’s the agenda, the question remains, why these images? Why not “the pile of dog / shit / by the black / shovel”?  For the imagist, it’s a trick question. The arbitrariness is itself the key. Of all colors, red on white! The arbitrariness gives a fragile sensory beauty that cannot be achieved in more cerebral poetry.

When the poem rips its subject from practical and historical standards of value, you might say it rips away the causal nexus that brought the objects into this configuration. This is where the imagist poem intersects with Jung’s idea of synchronicity. For Jung, there are two modes of assigning value: via causality or via synchronicity. You can explain things by looking at the external string of causes that brought them here, or you can strip away the causal nexus and look at the things in themselves in their unique and arbitrary aspect. The imagist poem focuses through the lens not of causality but of synchronicity.

While I can appreciate the imagist project, I still like to think that I can appreciate the poem on both levels (despite the poet’s intention, as it were). I can place the imagist poem into historical perspective as a countercultural thread within modernism. Key features of modernism – fragmentation, the loss of depth and of transcendental meaning – which may cause paralysis and despair in the poetry of T. S. Eliot or the prose of William Faulkner – are turned by the imagist into a celebration of the arbitrary fragment, of the colliding surfaces themselves. One might in this respect align the fragmented, colliding surfaces of Picasso with the imagist poets, as a counterweight within the angst-ridden modernist movement.

But when the historical placement is done, it’s still nice to go back and bask in the immediacy of the imagist poem. It is, after all, the flash of synchronicity which re-opens a vista for modern Westerners who have in many cases lost the register for that kind of raw, meaningless beauty.

Compare, finally, to the closing lines of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819):

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Noteworthy is that Keats attributes these lines to the urn itself and not the speaker of the poem. Indeed, the lesson we might apply from the imagist poem is that truth is NOT beauty. “Truth” is the cornerstone of causal thinking. We compare a proposition to the world it references and determine its truth-value. “Beauty,” on the other hand, is the cornerstone of synchronicity. Its value lies in its immediacy. The urn in those final lines tries to marry the two together, but the real poignancy in the Keats ode lies in the fact that that marriage is tenuous. Keats may have already sensed at the writing of the poem the tuberculosis that would soon kill him. Certainly, in any event, the tension between the mortality of the poet and the immortality of the figures on the urn is an operative force in the poem. The young lovers depicted on the urn will remain “forever young,” and therein lies their beauty. But the truth is that they will never feel the warmth of the kiss, their lips forever an inch apart.

The poet has an advantage over the marble figures in that he will feel the human warmth of the kiss, but the cost of this warmth is that he and his beloved will soon wither. The urn’s beauty lasts forever, but the truth the poet must face is death – and very soon, in Keats’s case.

The image set in “The Red Wheelbarrow” is like the set of figures on the urn. Its beauty will last, as the poem has lasted for generations, its synchronic value unadulterated by time. But the imagist poem evades the truth of mortality. Or almost evades it. Williams’s first stanza (“So much depends / upon”) suggests a tiny hole in the imagist fabric, an element of urgency, an inkling of time and mortality, a slightest hint of the inexorable truth of causal reality breaking against the edges of its crisp and beautiful synchronicity.

A Digression on Abstract Art

With a secret preference for Renaissance and Impressionist styles, I don’t know if I can do this. Let’s start with language. Language is a conceptual mapping of the world.  It breaks the raw, unintelligible flux of experience into intelligible chunks (conceptually, not physically).  We first access the world conceptually not in simple chunks, but in complex but finite experiences, just as physically we see a table, not the atoms that make it up.  To see a table on its atomic level is more difficult.  We see the complex immediately, but to see the simples, perhaps ironically, requires some subjective mediation on our part.

In the visual arts, some works give us a holistic, complex scenario – a mother and daughter walking in the park.  This is immediately intelligible.  Thus, it almost guarantees some affect in the viewer.  We may or may not find it aesthetically pleasing or thought-provoking, but the artist has pretty much stacked the deck in terms of having the viewer process it on some affective level.  The amount of aesthetic value it has is not contingent upon its intelligibility, which is a given, but falls upon other matters of style, content, and cultural context.

Abstract art, on the other hand, “abstracts” the simpler, hidden building blocks of visual experience and recombines them.  There are of course many levels of abstraction between complex, holistic lived experience and absolute simples.  A Picasso painting may go one step deeper and depict a face with an eye on the chin and a breast hanging off the left ear (like a sheet of stained glass that’s been shattered and had the shards put back together in the wrong places).  An eyeball is still a complex, but is nonetheless not something we apprehend in the abstract in ordinary experience.  When we see someone, we don’t see an eyeball, an ear, and a breast.  So that painting has broken lived experience into smaller building blocks.  Part of the value of such a work will probably lie in how well it exposes for the viewer the abstract building blocks that are always already embedded (though not immediately recognized as such) in his/her lived experience.

A more abstract painting may go deeper toward even simpler, more abstract units of lived experience. Take Joan Miro’s compositions of straight or squiggly lines and half-formed figures, the archetypal fragments of geometry, or Rothko’s non-referential color patches, returning us all the way to the archaic building blocks of visual reality.

Bottom line: When the composition corresponds to a holistic unit of lived experience – a traditional representational painting – it is immediately intelligible (whether or not it has much aesthetic value).  The closer the compositional markings get to simple abstractions (i.e., the further from holistic, as-lived experience), the more subjective mediation is required for the work to be intelligible.

I think we will agree that it is silly to pronounce art at either extreme generically “good” or “bad.”  Great aesthetic value can be generated by art that deals in the holistic sequences of lived experience as well as by art that seeks to uncover and “make conscious” the hidden building blocks within lived experience.

20th-century poetry shows, generally but not universally, a much greater interest in the 2nd kind of art.  Call it the influence of a remarkable set of contemporaries – Einstein, Freud, Picasso, Joyce, Pound, etc.  This interest may take the form of imagist poetry, which isolates smaller and smaller chunks of lived experience, each of which remains holistic.  Take William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

so much depends                                                                                                                     upon

a red wheel                                                                                                                        barrow

glazed with rain                                                                                                                water

beside the white                                                                                                                 chickens

Because this backyard scene remains holistic, it is immediately intelligible – we know what is being said/depicted.  But because it so deliberately chips off such a small chunk of experience, we are unsure of the value/meaning of such a work.  I can tell you from having taught it repeatedly that despite anything Williams thinks or says, to see this poem as valuable or meaningful requires mediation.  Most readers immediately find it intelligible but do not immediately see any value or meaning in it.  To see it as valuable means rethinking your orientation.  The best imagist poems succeed in getting the reader to rethink his/her orientation; the worst fail to do so.  So this, tentatively, would be an important standard of value for an imagist poem.  And this standard of value – whether the poem succeeds in getting you to rethink your orientation toward smaller and less immediately meaningful chunks of lived experience– is more prominent in relation to 20th century imagist poetry than to other historical bodies of poetry.  It puts a different kind of pressure on the reader, and it also runs a different kind of risk – the risk of being too mundane to matter.  Naturally, some such poems succumb to the risk and some rise above.

Other poetry in the formative modernist years, say T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” or “Waste Land,” respond to the same changing world view (precipitated by Einstein, Freud, Picasso, the trench warfare of World War I, etc.) but respond differently.  Here the scene is larger but less holistic.  They strike the reader not as simple, digestible fragments whose meaning is in jeopardy (as in Williams), but as collections of incongruous fragments whose intelligibility is in jeopardy.  To take the simpler Prufrock, the path from line 1 to line 17 seems fraught with discontinuity.

Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening…

Each phrase, image, concept, is clearly a meaningful fragment – a building block – of language, but the fragments at first reading don’t add up.  We’re not even sure who is doing what in the landscape of the poem.  The intelligibility of the poem is in jeopardy, and it requires much mediation for the reader to render the compositional markings intelligible enough to be valuable.  The poem’s success or failure in achieving aesthetic value is contingent upon whether or not it can reach that threshold of intelligibility for a given reader.  And this contingency is at the heart of much 20th century poetry.  The best of such poetry reaches that threshold, leaving the reader with the feeling that we’ve just juggled the building blocks of conceptual experience and come up with an expanded conceptual register of the world.  The worst of such leaves the reader feeling that it was just a silly, self-indulgent word game that didn’t pan out.

The Frenchman Robbe-Grillet

To the lay literati, fiction writer and theorist, Alain Robbe-Grillet, is no longer a household word, though he may have come close to that in the 1950s and 60s. The essays in For a New Novel are a kind of manifesto for the “objective” or “imagist” type novel. At the center of this collection is an interesting contradiction. On the one hand, Robbe-Grillet seems a heady recruit for my army of Fashion Anarchists, attacking all normative criticism by saying that every novel must create its own genre and cannot be measured against a pre-existing standard (e.g., the Balzac novel). On the other hand, he makes his own work into a norm, suggesting that only an inferior writer today could write in that “Balzac” genre based on psychological depth and storyline nuance.

Thus when Robbe-Grillet speaks of a “new realism,” I can see the connection to Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner, and all of the stream-of-consciousness writers whom he praises, but I don’t see the loss of depth as an absolute. To be sure, older centers of meaning like religion no longer provide a deep and fixed anchor as we move into modernist culture. One response to this is to allow oneself to be absorbed in the surface play. Robbe-Grillet, says structuralist icon Roland Barthes, describes objects as mere optical surfaces, which have “neither function nor substance” and are “susceptible to no thematic index whatsoever.” One might recall in this light the imagist poems of William Carlos Williams and the sliced surfaces of Picasso – perhaps even the fascinating, glassy world of Richard Brautigan’s adult fairy tale, In Watermelon Sugar. (My more intrepid readers might wish to plot my stories [e.g., The Clown and the Tiger] or small poems [e.g., Impressions of Rachael in Spain and Morocco] against these aesthetic coordinates.)

But it seems that other responses to a vanishing ground of meaning might be just as valid. The colliding surfaces and subjectivities of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse stir up all kinds of interesting undercurrents at the psychological depths. I myself have much enjoyed what I’ve read of Robbe-Grillet’s prose art, and I can read Brautigan all day long with sheer delight, but I don’t see why an appreciation of these essentially non-psychological, non-plotted, descriptive prose artworks can’t exist alongside an appreciation of novels that locate meaning at a depth or at an external distance from the objective markings of the prose.