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art & illusion
Anyone who's bothered to look at my "recently read" list on the lower right will notice two titles by Tim Parks, one of my favourite novelists. 3am has a great tape-transcript interview with him. Here he talks about the main character of Desinty, about a man tortured by the responsiblity he bears for his schizophrenic son's suicide. What does one do when the mind's controls for well-being just won't work?
How much literature is about a character struggling to control his/her perceptions, adjusting their thought and behaviour in order to achieve reconciliation with the world? In this case, a mind in crisis is trying to force a stark and brutal reality into flattering, mythic significance. This is the sickness Parks is talking about. It's also a theme in John Banville's novels and I recommend The Newton Letter in this regard. Nabokov too, who is an obvious influence on Banville, if not Parks.
Parks is actually close to describing Peceptual Control Theory (PCT), which will be the subject of my next post.
This makes a connection similar to Shlain's point about masculine cones and feminine rods:
The eye uses two types of vision, foveal and peripheral. Foveal, or direct vision, is excellent at picking up detail but is less suited to picking up shadows. "The elusive quality of the Mona Lisa's smile can be explained by the fact that her smile is almost entirely in low spatial frequencies, and so is seen best by your peripheral vision," Prof Livingstone said. The more a person stares fixedly ahead, the less useful is their peripheral vision. Prof Livingstone said the best example of this effect was if someone was to stare at a letter on a page of print. Concentrating on one letter made it difficult to pick out other letters even a short distance away, Prof Livingstone said. She said the same principle was used by da Vinci on the painting. The smile only became apparent if a viewer looked at her eyes or elsewhere on her face.
Now, what of those stories that the Mona Lisa is a self-portrait of the artist? Imagine Da Vinci activating the feminine vision of his male viewers as they stare at him and wonder.
"The modern experience of the inadequacy of words has met a generation that thinks doodles can make up for it."
Splinters, my favourite arts/ literary blog.
A quotation from Newman's 1947 essay "The First Man Was an Artist" appears in John Golding's review of a recent Newman retrospective:
Speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication. Original man, shouting his consonants, did so in yells of awe and anger at his tragic state, at his own self-awareness and at his own helplessness before the void. ...Man's hand traced the stick through the mud to make a line before he learned to throw the stick.
My friend Peter Roosen-Runge pointed me to this wonderful article by Virginia Woolf. His eloquent justification is copied from his email in full:
E.H. Gombrich's Symbolic Images is a good source for understanding how the mind relates to images, as are all his books for that matter. I'm currently reading the essay "Icones Symbolicae" and came across the following:
Warburg described as 'Denkraumverlust' this tendency of the human mind to confuse the sign with the thing signified, the name and its bearers, the literal and the metaphorical, the image and its prototype. We are all apt to 'regress' at any moment to more primitive states and experience the fusion between the image and its model or the name and its bearer. Our language, in fact, favours this twilight region between the literal and the metaphorical. Who can always tell where the one begins and the other ends? A terms such as 'a heavy burden' may be a dead metaphor, but it can be brought to life with the greatest ease by an orator or cartoonist.
Here's what you get when you plug denkraumverlust a> into google. Google's translator turns it into "thinking space loss", but a friend prefers "loss of mental space". Much like loss of detachment.
David Lodge is perhaps the first novelist to hit the books on consciousness studies. In this article he sets upon the "qualia" debate, or the problem of the irreducibility of first-person experience--how can the experience of the taste of pineapple be accounted for scientifically? He doesn't have the answer of course, but notes that novelists have been interested in qualia from the beginning, which was about the time the printing press was invented, and their interest coincided with that of philosophers in "memory, the association of ideas in the mind, the causes of emotions and the individual's sense of self":
'It is probable that the fairly recent invention and rapid development of printing contributed to that process. The increasing availability of books in which exactly the same story could be experienced privately, silently, by discrete individuals, was a marked departure from the usual transmission of stories in preprint culture by means of oral recitation or dramatic performance in front of a collective audience. The silence and privacy of the reading experience afforded by books mimicked the silent privacy of individual consciousness.'
David P. Barash and Nanelle Barash want Darwin's name next to Derrida in the English departments:
'Several decades ago, the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky gave this title to a now-famous article he wrote for American Biology Teacher: "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution." We suggest that Dobzhansky's dictum applies to literary criticism just as it does to biology, albeit with some softening. It may be that much literature makes sense in the light of the current warhorses of critical analysis: Marx, Freud, textualism, postmodernism, "queer theory," and so forth. But it is equally likely that a good deal of literature (just as life itself) makes more sense in the light of evolution.'
Their plea is missing two really important things: 1) a coherent theory of culture, as opposed to just human behaviour, deriving from biology and Darwin; 2) any mention of writers, such as Lawrence and Hughes, who addressed the Darwinian problem of species priority and individual fate. We won't see Darwinism cross over to the humanities until it wins respect as a whole philosophy. No scientist has yet made the case.
The New York Times's obit, requires free registration.
The Guardian obit.
The Independent's obit.
The Telegraph's obit, requires free registration.
Mario Vargas Llosa makes a case for the novel as mental amplifier and that some truths are better accessed via illusion: "So literature's unrealities, literature's lies, are also a precious vehicle for the know ledge of the most hidden of human realities."
Novelist Leonard Michaels nicely describes the paradox of literary truth."The impulse toward truth," he says, "is built into our existence just as the shape of our eyes is built into our genes, and the truth, like murder, wants out." Yet it can only be revealed through form, or artifice: "When writing about myself, I find that I am interested in the expressive value of form and its relation to the personal more than I am interested in particular revelations of my individual life."
"Interactive and polyvocal, favoring a plurality of discourses over definitive utterance and freeing the reader from domination by the author." This is the Barthesian creed of the hypertext author. But in making ideology flesh, they have proceeded "with a literalness that Barthes would have found disconcerting", says Keith Gessen. The link, that liberator from the tyranny of the sentence, is "a blue-fonted exit sign in every paragraph. It is an illusory freedom, and for the wrong person at that: it merely traps the reader in the author's associations instead of his own."
"Contending that 'all perceiving is also thinking, all reasoning is also intuition, all observation is also invention', he attacked the established assumptions that words, not images, are the primary ingredients of thinking, and that language precedes perception. Rather, Arnheim argued, 'the remarkable mechanisms by which the senses understand the environment are all but identical with the operations described by the psychology of thinking'. Like scientific discovery, he wrote, artistic expression 'is a form of reasoning, in which perceiving and thinking are indivisibly intertwined. A person who paints, writes, composes, dances, I felt compelled to say, thinks with his senses.'"
"There is a persuasive resemblance between gestalt principles and the Japanese-inspired aesthetics that Dow and others propagated. For example, the gestalt emphasis on the dynamic interplay of parts and wholes had been anticipated as early as the third century B.C. in China by a passage in the Tao Te Ching that states that although a wheel is made of 30 spokes, it is the space between the spokes that determines the overall form of the wheel. The phenomenon of reversible figure-ground has precedents in the yin-yang symbol and, in Japanese art, in the compositional equivalence of light and dark, called notan. The gestaltists' ideas of structural economy and closure (the tendency to perceive incomplete forms as complete) are echoed in the Japanese emphasis on elimination of the insignificant and in the ideas of implicitness and the active complicity of the viewer, because genuine beauty, as Okakura explained, 'could be discovered only by one who mentally completed the incomplete'."
Summarizes the debate over the evolutionary role of music. "Auditory cheesecake" or life-giving lullabyes?
about this category
art & illusion
This category is named after Gombrich's great book. Like the book, it is concerned with the psychological mechanisms by which we construct and are seduced by artistic illusion. The arts externalize illusion and provide insight on how normal perception works. The unwilling suspension of disbelief which occurs in everyday life is best understood with reference to the willing suspension induced by art.