Swimming against the tide during the past few decades Michael Francis Gibson, critic (“emeritus” International Herald Tribune, New York Times, et al.) and author of such books as The Mill and the Cross, which was made into a highly successful motion picture by Lech Majewski in 2011, has been something of a fly in the ointment to the promoters of official art. And so, when a minor figure of the French art world recently tip-toed up behind him and pinned the word “revisionist” on his back. Gibson decided that the time had come to show just how right the man was. His first blog www.lheresiarque.wordpress.com was launched in French early September, This is the English version. An earlier photo, now replaced, showed Gibson holding a tomato, which is sometimes seen as an offensive vegetable. Gibson, however, prefers to view his blog as a basket weighted with Golden Apples of Paradise. For more about the author, see his publisher’s website http://www.the-university-of-levana-press.com . But also www.greaterdream.com; www.themillandthecross.com and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Francis_Gibson (Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org).
* SEVENTH APPLE WHICH DEALS WITH SYSTEMS OF SURVIVAL AND THOSE WHO DO WITHOUT THEM
I spoke of the laws of imitation in my last post.
Their command is simple: “behave exactly like all the others do” But things get more complicated in time for, history having managed to get under way, we see some people cut out territories and defend them, while others choose to acquire goods here and sell them there.
These two fundamentally different ways of life are assorted with implicit customs, rules of conduct and good manners. A child born into either group will soon assimilate the rules. He may be a bit surprised to discover others who do not conform to them and may even be inclined to despise them for this reason.
In my own case, my parents being products of these two different worlds, I quite soon began to have misgivings. I merely bring this up as an example.
My father was born in California. He was middle class, Protestant and believed in democracy. My mother was born in Brussels. She was upper class, Catholic and believed in monarchy. They were both sterling products of these two types of not always compatible societies.
As for myself, I often found myself in a state of inner incompatibility. What’s more, as a consequence of incessant travels through childhood, I constantly had to make adjustments. In American, for instance, you could greet men and women with a mere wave of the hand. In Belgium, good manners required one to shake the men’s hands and kiss the hands of the ladies. – a practice which may provoke a smile here or there, but which survives to this day in the Polish working class.
Language also imposed certain rules. French, for instance, uses the intimate Tu with friends and family, the formal Vous with others. English speakers assume that the general usage of You marks a form of egalitarian progress, without realizing that You is in fact the formal plural of Thou – the latter form being now used exclusively in addressing God.
In other words, the English uses the informal singular in addressing God and the formal plural in all other cases.
In Belgium, in my parent’s day and in the circles in which my mother grew up, children used the plural form with their parents – which made sense in a hierarchical society. Letters I sent to my father in English concluded with the word “Love” (or “Much love”). Those addressed to my mother in French required greater circumlocution : “I embrace you affectionately, your respectful son”.
And that was only the tip of the iceberg.
Let’s return to the division of humankind into two categories, “landowners” and “merchants”, and note in passing that the landowner could never have hoped to keep his land if he hadn’t become a warrior and taken up service with a king. With this in mind, it seems worth noting that nobility, in Spain, is signified by the word Hidalgo – which literally means “son if something” or, in Latin, ‘”haeres bonorum” heir to goods.
One is naturally inclined to analyzer this sort division in social or political terms without taking the existential experience of the people concerned into consideration. Jane Jacobs, however, an outstanding American town-planning activist set out to study the question from this point of view and through an ingenious method which aimed at defining the implicit rules on which both systems are based and are instilled into children at birth.
Jacobs’ method consisted in reading a great number of period novels while drawing up a list of the qualities, virtues, forms of behavior and traits of character generally approved by other characters in either group. This method gave rise to a curious little book entitled Systems of Survival, which assumes the shape of a philosophical dialogue.
Systems of Survival belatedly allowed me to identify the two tendencies which, though incompatible, stood intimately woven within me.
Jacobs’ theme can be summed up thus:
There are only two ways of ensuring the survival of a society. Trade or the control of territory. A society can survive only by such means. There are no other options, she holds. At first sight, trade seems to be the option best suited to our present values. But things are not all that simples, and Karl Marx himself, as we shall see, qualifies his views of the aristocracy but nonetheless, and predictably enough, finds both systems to inadequate.
In short, warriors are at pains to control the territory on which they have settled, and their strength resides in their military virtues: in their cohesion, their readiness to obey orders, and, of course, in their ability to exert armed violence. Loyalty is a fundamental aristocratic and military virtue and it should take precedence over the more bourgeois virtue of honesty. It was indeed for this motive that so many German officers who had sworn allegiance to Reich’s Chancellor Adolf Hitler before the war, found themselves with an insoluble moral dilemma when they were called upon to overthrow him. Loyalty was the bolt that had held their entire system together over the centuries and the breach of a single oath could lead to the collapse of the entire system.
Tradesmen, meanwhile, traveled about the territories controlled by these forces, and sold their wares. In doing so, they were required to yield part of their gains to the “heirs of goods” who controlled the land. The traders’ main asset lay in the trust their customers put in them. Honesty, here, took precedence over loyalty.
Jacobs thus drew up two lists enumerating some two dozen virtues that were implicitly expected of members of either group. Tradesmen were expected to shun violence (which would obviously make them lose their custom), while warriors were expected to shun trade, since any such activity would deprive them of their higher status. There could certainly be no question of flipping from one to the other. And it is for this reason, too, that the warrior could not be allowed to marry a tradesman’s daughter. In principle, at least, for some tradesmen, through sheer accumulation of wealth, wound up as members in good standing of the dominant class.
All these rules are implicit and they only become explicit on the occasion of some scandalous breach. The rest of the time, everyone has an implicit understanding of what is “done” or, better still, “just not done”.
For the sake of clarity, here is an excerpt from Jacobs’ list:
Warriors must shun trade, tradesmen must shun violence.
Warriors must be loyal, tradesmen honest.
Warior must respect hierarchy, tradesmen must respect contracts.
Warriors must display largesse, tradesmen must prove thrifty.
Warriors must make rich use of leisure, tradesmen must be industrious.
Warriors must adhere to tradition, tradesmen must prove innovative.
Warriors must be fatalistic, tradesmen optimistic.
Warriors must be obedient and disciplined, tradesmen must follow consensus
Warriors must exert prowess, tradesmen must be efficient.
Warriors must be exclusive (not socialize with tradesmen or marry their daughters), tradesmen, on the contrary, must work easily with strangers.
So here, on the one hand, we have a man who must prove loyal, obedient, disciplined, generous, faithful to tradition, respectful of hierarchies, brave, inclined to make an abundant use of leisure, fatalistic and exclusive in his social life.
Meanwhile, the other group, while shunning violence, must prove honest, industrious innovative, optimistic, consensual, respectful of contracts, and inclined to work easily with strangers.
Lists of this sort presumably embody ideal views, the author having merely drawn up an inventory of the actions and attitudes that earned the approval of an entire society of fictitious characters. They nonetheless reflect the expectations of the people for whom these novels were written. I actually shortened both lists (some fifteen further approved actions are part of Jacobs’ original list but are not quoted here), since those I have quoted provide an good outline of both categories. The also strike me as pretty faithful portraits of my own parents.
So we have, on the one hand, an aristocratic ethics, whose expectations are admirably illustrated by the Queen of Naples in Proust’s narrative. The scene is memorable enough: returning unexpectedly to Madame Verdurin’s salon, the Queen finds her cousin, the Baron de Charlus standing alone, humiliated and ridiculed. She promptly holds out her arm, saying: “Lean on my arm. Be assured that it will always uphold you… You know that in the past it held the populace at bay. It will shield you, too”. (see my third Apple). The scene stands as a perfect illustrations of the virtue of loyalty so highly prized in aristocratic circles.
On the other hand we have a tradesman’s ethics. Both of these are eminently respectable and even admirable at times, and both work well on their own, but they are like oil and water – they cannot mingle without being corrupted and losing their efficacy. Jacobs concludes her book by a fascinating study of the deleterious effects of such mixtures (imagine a merchant society that regularly resorts to violence), but there’s no need for me to venture onto that ground now.
The aristocratic society was consequently an exclusive social order, based on a relation of trust, which found its justification in the metaphor of which it was seen to be the embodiment. Commercial (bourgeois) society, meanwhile, was a democratic order. It appealed to a discursive (rather than symbolic) logic and to universal and abstract values and found justification in its manifest efficiency. It presents obvious advantages in our sight (equality and social mobility) along with the drawbacks inherent to all forms of abstraction, which inevitably lead to a depersonalization not only of one’s work force, but also of one’s clientele. These effects are clearly apparent today in the fields of labor and finance.
In this respect, it may be interesting to note that Karl Marx viewed the aristocracy with unexpected indulgence. He took a much dimmer view of the bourgeoisie.
“Wherever the middle class gained the upper hand, it put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It pitilessly tore the motley feudal ties asunder … and left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest… It drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm… in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, it set up a single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for a form of exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions, it substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. The middle class stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It turned the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, 1into paid wage laborers.” (The Communist Manifesto).
Certain characteristics features of the right hemisphere seem to be dominant in feudal society, while those of the left are clearly expressed in “bourgeois” society. But it is not my intention here to criticize or praise these systems. I merely want to identify the two systems which, in view of historic circumstances, have proved equally valid and equally respectable. Each has its own ethics and remains incompatible with the other. Each cast must, in fact, keep its distances with the other and mind its own business – failing which each runs the risk of seeing its virtues turn to vice.
Jane Jacobs’ enumeration also allowed me to understand the disarray of certain elements of a highly idealistic European nobility who, in the fifties and sixties, found themselves totally at sea in the commercial world of the 20th century. In the sight of these men and women, brought up in the ideal of a close and considerate personal relationship founded on mutual trust and loyalty, the manners of this new world could appear brutal indeed – as though the hand to hand violence of the battlefield had taken over in the workplace. This was not always the case, to be sure, and a good part of the European nobility adjusted very well to the ethics of trade, and even began to do so in the late 19th century.
In the absolute, to be sure, a nobleman must be ready to die for his honor. And if he looses his honor, not only is he overwhelmed with shame, he becomes a pariah – hence the sepuku of the Samuraï. A far less radical example, found in the memoirs of an aristocrat, offers a good illustration of this ethical stance: immediately after the war, Prince Alfons Clary, threatened by the new communist régime in Czechoslovakia, could not bring himself to make use of the counterfeit passport someone had kindly given him. The very idea made him uncomfortable.
A tradesman, on the other hand, must be ready to go bankrupt rather than make himself guilty of embezzelment. And if he does make the wrong choice , he is overwhelmed with guilt and, if found out, he also becomes a pariah.
I obviously not don’t have our present world in mind, but let me evoke my American grandfather at this point.
Of Scottish descent, he (and his sisters) had moved to California with their father, a Methodist pastor who had been hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to run a reservation in that state. After his father’s death, my grandfather went into finance in Los Angeles and acquired such an exceptional reputation of integrity that he was drafted to open the First National Bank in the wake of a banking crash. It was assumed that his reputation would restore public confidence.
This turned out to be the case, but my grandfather, for all his honesty, was not in a position to prevent a further crash, and the confident investors nonetheless lost their savings.
So what did my grandfather do? He held himself responsible for these losses. Hadn’t these people put their trust in him? And took it upon himself to pay them back out of his earnings, and was still doing so on the day of his death. This is not current practice today. But in those days, predation had not yet become the most characteristic feature of the banking community.
A comment may give further support to the conclusions reached by Jane Jacobs while also throwing some light on certain prejudices against the Jews who were, let it be noted, a nation of landless traders and transients.
The Jews, some claimed, had proven “cowardly and servile” in the face of the countless exactions and persecutions to which they had been subjected over the ages. But to the extent that we accept Jacobs’ findings, we shall have to admit that this was a misunderstanding. They only proved “cowardly” in regard to a warrior ethic that was utterly foreign to them. Their behavior was however in perfect conformity with the tradesman’s ethics which enjoined them to shun violence. It is presumably for the same reason that their collective behavior changed radically as soon as they acquired a territory of their own, for they promptly acquired the very same warlike qualities that other sedentary societies had been practicing for centuries.
If we are to believe Jacobs, these two systems of survival are the only ones at our disposal. There is no other.
And yet… Countless men and women have managed to escape their commands in all periods of history. Such was the case of Francis of Assisi, but also of Marcel Duchamp and countless other people living on the fringe of society, not to mention the monks, nuns, and hermits of all ages and all religions.
Jacques Le Goff’s biography of Saint Francis shows that the young scion of a wealthy merchant family initially enjoying the company of young aristocrats and even going to war with them. The money his fathergave him in abundance could probably have allowed him to fit into that class, but one day, he took his distances from both systems, bade his noble companions farewell, handed back to his father the very clothes he happened to be wearing and made the choice of poverty. He yearned for neither plunder nor profit. The game he chose to pursue was of another kind. It I am not mistaken about the nature of the chase, what happened at that point was that he distanced himself from the “village” where traders and warriors mingle, and wandered off into the “vacuity” to become a spiritual hunter.
The chase, as I have already said, was initially an existential ordeal, a prowess and even a mystical relationship. And the hunters, according to the Mandenka wise man whom I quoted earlier, “do not dwell in any village…They are always departing… This is the fame of the hunters as long as they remain afar … One day, they return to the village, but the thought of the chase remains attached to the remoteness… It is in reference to such thoughts that the griots speak of the ‘ropes of remoteness…’ Inner vacuity is the ground of the chase”.
This interesting statement leads me to the conclusion that the spoor left on the ground by a passing piece of game and later transposed, in the form of a sign on the rock face of a cavern, became the point of departure of a spiritual chase – the pursuit of an inexpressible game.
Marcel Duchamp, in his way, followed the same path.
He renounced the production of serial works (such as the market demanded) which would no doubt have provided him with some revenue, but which did not strike him as worthy of the spiritual hunter he had chosen to become. In short, he gave up both plunder and trade and, in 1914, he even felt obliged to flee France and its wartime hysteria, and later to flee this same hysteria when it suddenly swept over America in 1917. All that, in his sight, was beyond enduring.
All through his career, he merely flirted with the commercial aspects of art, fed on the crumbs that fell from that table while occasionally launching some little commercial “deal” which generally flopped. And instead of earning a living within the framework provided by either of the systems of survival, he chose to adjust his expenditures to the means at his disposal and lived, rather like Francis of Assisi, though certain more comfortably than he had done, by begging…
For art, in his sight and as I have already noted, had turned out to be a spiritual discipline and the artist, a hunter. And Duchamp, like the hunter, acted “in the manner of a mediumnistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way to a clearing”. The clearing, one may assume, in which the game he is pursuing awaits him.
* HERE BEGINS THE SIXTH APPLE WHICH DEALS WITH IMITATION
Imitation is my theme today – the inexplicable need that grips us in childhood and follows us into maturity, but which also assisted the first man in his day.
What am I talking about?
Here’s an example: When I was seven, I spent a few months as a boarder in a school in Nazi Germany.
Every morning when we woke up, the boys would run downstairs, wash their hands and faces and after having combed their hair, they would turn to one another and ask:
“Habe ich ein Hitlerscheitel ?”
I didn’t have the slightest idea of what a Hitlerscheitel might be, but I nonetheless did exactly what they did, turned to the boy next to me and asked him the same question.
He looked at me with obvious commiseration and said:
“Aber nein !”
And taking hold of my comb, he kindly pulled my forelock down over my righjt eyebnrow.
“So ist’s gut-…!”
I now had my hair parted like Hitler.
Children are resolute imitators. Indeed, so are adults, for imitation, says Gabriel Tarde (The Laws of Imitation, 1882) is the true cement of all societies. In view of my own experience I readily believe him. Every member of a society, wishing to be accepted by his peers, makes a point of wearing the same sort of clothes, eating the same food, speaking the same idiom and subscribing, as far as possible, to the same political and religious views. And every child, on his way to school, has only one thought in mind He fervently wishes to melt into the background and to be dressed exactly like all his little playmates. Every parent is aware of this, and so are the CEOs of all brands of clothing or shoes.
A child has a passionate yearning to be part of the world. So does the adult.
Indeed an adult, even without being all that aware of the fact, yearns to be involved in the overall project of his species. This yearning, in the adult at least, probably also reflects an awareness of the brevity of life. He wants to survive in the duration of the world by participating in this project.
This doesn’t mean that the material world itself has a plan. The world has no project – it just happens. But ours is the only species that seems to have set itself a purpose of sorts. Some of us aspire to the total mastery of its natural world – an undertaking which increasingly appears to be leading to disastrous consequences. Others, no matter how tentatively and uncertainly, yearn to become true human beings.
It’s for this same reason, alas, that some people chose to support Hitler’s undertaking. In doing so, they imagined that they had finally come to understand what the general purpose of the world was all about.
This was something they had in common with the engineer who had concocted some Sarin gas for the Aum sect in Japan. “Why did you do that?” a journalist asked him at the time of his arrest. “Because I didn’t want my life to be meaningless”, the unfortunate man replied.
In any event, my little German schoolmates were perfectly delighted at the prospect at being admitted to the Hitlerjugend where, as they happily informed me, they would be allowed to play with rifles, bayonets, canons and tanks.
They were naturally attracted by the prospect of playing with life-size toys. And so was I, of course. Every child would fall for that sort of bait, without seeing death lurking in the background.
Indeed, I sometimes wonder what I might have become if I had been German, if my parents hadn’t been there to provide a counterweight and if I hadn’t taken my distances when we moved to another country.
The laws of imitation are one thing, but other laws are quite as imperious. This holds true of the form of ritual behavior that held the first animal societies together, and would in time make us what we are. To understand this, let’s go back to the beginning.
We are so thoroughly used to the story of a single first man and a single first woman who woke up in a garden on the first morning of the world, that it may not even occur to us that if the evolutionary narrative is right, as I assume it to be, it then follows that the first men and women could not have appeared in isolation, for they were already nested at birth in the bosom of an established society of pre-human primates.
The pointy appears pretty obvious really: the very first sapiens was delivered from the womb of a mother who must have been almost, but not yet quite a sapiens. And this mother was surrounded by a certain number of other individuals, who were also almost sapiens but perhaps a little less so than she was.
And this implies a consequence to which we may not have paid sufficient attention.
These very ancient societies of primates would never have managed to hold together if their cohesion hadn’t been asured by the phylogenetic rituals that are also practiced by wolves, seals, whales, birds, primates and other social animals.
It follows from this that the very first social laws to which our ancestors were subject, long before sapiens himself had appeared on the horizon, were those that had long ruled their own forebears – the innate rituals of social behavior which Konrad Lorenz and his fellow ethologists believe to be derived from a certain number of existing simply gestures and attitudes which were put to a different use.
This is a process that Julian Huxley calls ritualisation. “A phylogenetically adapted motor pattern, says Lorenz, which initially allowed the species to respond to certain necessities of the environment, acquires a new function – the function of communication”. This ritual, he adds, is characterized by “mimic exaggeration, superabundant repetition and typical e intensity”. One only needs to observe certain social animals, and above all one’s own dogs, to understand what this means.
This type of exaggerated, repetitive, superabundant and intense behavior serves a variety of purposes. It serves to divert aggression (your dog flattens his ears and looks at you appealingly), but it can also serve to reinforce bonds between two or more individuals. This is the case with grooming as practiced by chimpanzees or the welcoming ceremonies observed in many species (you dog frolics about wildly when you finally turn up).
These ceremonies, Lorenz notes, cannot be called the expression of an attachment. They themselves are in fact the bond, since they prompt various forms of behavior in others. If you started grooming our friend Meng, the mountain gorilla, sooner or later he’d start grooming you. And we ourselves practices similar rituals without even being aware of the fact.
You’re sitting at home, reading a book, when someone walks across the room. Should he fail to greet you, or even look at you or gratify you at very least with a perfunctory grunt, you might well assume that offense was intended. We call this “manners” but, like “hello” and “goodbye” it is nonetheless a ritual. .
So what does follow from the fact that our first parents were born into this sort of society is that the very first law to which they submitted was that of the ritual then in fashion.
Can we really be sure that this is what happened? After all, what ultimately does differentiate our firs sapien, ancestors from their forebears was their totally unprecedented emancipation from these older genetic constraints, wasn’t it? And if this is indeed the case, it raises a further question: how did our ancestors acquire this autonomy?
The most likely explanation is the following: in all the species in which this sort of behavior is observed, the juveniles behave in one way and the adults in another. Juvenile behavior prompts the adults to become protective. Adults, on the other hand, acquire other reflexes by which to respond to the challenges of adult life. Now, there is an interval between the two, in the course of which the juveniles discard their old ways without having acquired the new ones yet. At that point, they are momentarily free to do as they choose.
One might suppose that the development of the first individuals of our species was somehow interrupted at this stage and that it was this interruption that granted our earliest ancestors the unprecedented freedom of action and improvisation so characteristic of our species. Zoologists sometimes describe sapiens as an immature ape – and this even became the them of Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan.
Now it’s precisely at this point that another problem arises – for the first man at least. For at that point he found himself surrounded by a lot of people who still assiduously practiced this sort of (exagerated, repetitif superabundant, etc.) behavior, but since he had not received the necessary genetic instructions, he no longer had the slightest idea of what he was supposed to do.
And so, our first man, who obviously wanted to keep out of trouble, just had to learn how to behave like everyone else – by imitation. The matter was urgent, really, for we know what happens to those who fail to live up to expectations in human and animal societies. They are thrown out on their ear after having been rather badly roughed up. This is what happens to the bad-manned seagull, but also, presumably, to the bad-mannered sapiens.
This being so, our first man would somehow have to manage to behave exactly like everyone else. And whatever he did not know by instinct, he would have to acquire by imitation. Which is probably where the laws of imitation kicked in.
I argued this point some years ago in Ces lois inconnues, (Métailié, Paris, 2002) aftr which I went on to wonder what might have happened next.
This prompted me to imagine a situation in which two individuals, who were already fully sapiens genetically, found themselves engaged in the imitation of just such an (exaggerated, repetitive, etc.) ritual.
It would probably have sufficed for these two individuals to look one another in the eye, whereupon they would both have noticed the spark of a question in the other one’s gaze. And this that spark would, in due course, change the world.
“Why are we behaving like this?”
This is sheer astonishment, and astonishment, we are told, is the root of all philosophy.
This is in fact the question raised by Marcel Proust, when he evokes “these unknown laws” (ces lois inconnues) to which we submitted because we bore their commands within us, without knowing who had set them down there….”
And it is this question concerning ritual behavior which, unless I am mistaken, is also the point of departure of all human culture.
For once a question of this sort has been raised, even implicitly, nothing can ever remain the same: the question has to be answered.At the same time, of course, the matter wasn’t all that simple since our two first men were not really in a position to refer one another to the publications of Lorenz or his colleagues.
Indeed, they couldn’t possibly have had the slightest clue about what could possibly have impelled them to behave in that fashion. And yet they just had to provide an answer. Which no doubt explains why the answer, when it finally did appear, had much in common with the sort of answer a sleepwalked might provide when we ask him what he is doing barefoot in the woodshed at three in the morning..
And while the answer may not have turned up immediately, one may imagine that it took more or less the following form when it finally did appear:
“If we behave like this, it is because an animal, a spirit or a god appeared to our first parents in the first days of the world and told them that this was the way they had to behave if they wanted to become real human beings.”
That’s the sort of reasoning we get from sleepwalkers when we rouse them from their sleep. And while it may sound confused, the mere fact that they are providing an answer does at least suggest that they are no longer sound asleep.
And so, if I am not mistaken, we have ever since been involved in a sort of dance movement in three-quarter time which rests initially upon an (exagerated, repetitive, etc.) ritual, which pretty soon prompts a questioning (or even just a glance): “Why are we behaving like this?” , which, in turn demands an answer or an explanation which, at that stage, cannot be more than a metaphor or a myth – in other words a narrative which fails to provide any sort of precise information, but which nonetheless gives an orientation to further questioning.
As for the animal, spirit or god who first traced this teaching within us, he could not possibly be anything other than the phylogenetic ritual itself, whose commandments are still perpetuated within us, in the patterns behavior currently enforced by the laws of imitation.
Which may explain why our questioning species still needs rituals, myths and questions.
But wait! Didn’t I claim, in an earlier post, that culture was “a human inclination to improve the properties that nature has set at our disposal?” And now, here I am claiming that it is some sort three-quarter time waltz which takes its departure from ritual, challenged at a second stage, and ultimately fittedit with a mythic explanation”.
Nor is that all. For I remember using yet another helpful definition proficded by Clifford Geertz: “Culture is the fabric of meaning in terms of which human beings interpret their experience and guide their action”.
As it happens, the American anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn once drew up a list of about one hundred definitions of culture, which may appear valid from a arious points of view. This being the case, we shall probably have to admit that culture sometimes resembles the story of the three blind men and the elephant, which changes shape according to whether you grasp his trunk, hi ear or his tail.
Do I really have to tell the story?
Three blind men visit a zoo and are invited to approach the elephant in his cage. There, at the keeper’s invitation, each extends his arm and feels the part that happens to be within reach.
A moment later they join their sighted guide who is delighted by their luck.
“Now at last you know what an elephant looks like!”
“We do!” the three blind men enthusiastically repluy.
“An elephant”, says the first one, “is a sort of long, flexible tube …”
“Where did you get that?” objects the second. “An elephant is a large, flat, rugged leaf-like form!”
“I can’t believe it!” objects the third. “An elephant is a sort of stick tipped with a short tuft of hair!”
This being the case, allow me to add a fourth proposal: culture, which is indeed “a human inclination to improve the properties that nature has set at our disposal”, would consequently be human innovation intended to remedy the various inadequacies of Nature who no longer guides us at every step. Did we let go of nature’s guiding hand, or did she let go of ours, like a father lets go of the bicycle saddle as soon as he realizes that his child has found his balance? This is where Blaise Pascal’s observation stands revealed in the fullness of its meaning: “custom is our second nature”. Custom (or culture) steps in where nature has become remiss. Culture has become our second nature.
But that’s not all, for I have some reservations to make about our “three-quarter time waltz”. The idea may have appeared coherent at the outset, bbut it soon became apparent that this waltz couldn’t possibly have unfolded within the span of a single human life. This suggests that the question just went on being asked quite insistently throughout the generations: “Why do people behave like this?” – until someone came up with an answer; The fact is that every teen-ager asks himself the very same question as he looks at his parents and at the world into which he was born.
And so too, the answer gradually took form, but only as the sort of explanation that a sleepwalker might provide when asked what he was doing barefoot in the woodshed at three in the morning.
And so my theory finally appears to resolve itself into a metaphor, or perhaps even a myth: we are all commanded by a body of implicit laws: the laws of life (“Live – and devoir all other edible beings!”) the laws of sexuality (“F***k whatever is f***able!”), the laws of attachment (“latch onto that breast, Baby, and never let go”), and the laws of imitation (“behave exactly like all your little playmates”).
But if it’s true that our culture rests upon the genetically determined ritual of our earliest ancestors, yet another difficulty arises, which would appear to jeopardize the very foundations of our notion of political freedom – I have in mind the ritual of submission to the dominant male which our sapiens ancestors also practiced.
Ever since the dawn of our species, we he have been under authority.
This idea may trouble some of my readers since they would have to admit that all homo sapiens are not born equal. The idyllic vision of the old narrative, with its dream of primitive equality gives way to another one which, it seems, may also have its idyllic1 aspect (remember of Sigourney Weaver, sitting hand in hand with the huge dominant gorilla in Gorillas in the Mist), but which nonetheless shows us living under strong authority.
In which case another question arises: if equality is not to be sought in our origins (since it did not exist then), nor in the more recent advances of contractual reason (which arose far too lake in human history to play this sort of role), where did equality, or at least the idea of equality, initially arise?
We’ll come to that in due course…
*THE FIFTH APPLE WHICH DEALS WITH GORILLAS, HUNTERS AND THE BIRTH OF ART
Australian rock art (in Emmanuel Anati, Aux Origines de l’art, Fayard, 2003).
Could our forebears have ever become artists if instead of being carnivor, they had been vegetarians like the gorillas?
This question came to me one day and while it may sound unusual, I pretty soon came to realize that it did indeed have a direct bearing, not only on the origins of art (as might be expected), but also of language and the emergence of such specifically human characteristics as consciousness of, tendency to, and freedom to – in other words, a certain ability to strive after what we all too familiarly call “awareness, purpose and freedom”.
So I intend to claim that it would never have occurred to Homo sapiens to trace imprints upon a cavern wall if he hadn’t been a hunter. What’s more, he would never have achieved awareness, he would never have been in a position to take at least partial charge of his own fate, and he would never have acquired the small measure of freedom he enjoys in regard to material determinism that has become a singularity of our species.
I was nonetheless surprised that day, and even a bit intimidated, to discover that just by raising that rather implausible question I had unforeseeably burst in upon an august company of several imposing concepts whose huge faces, heavily marked with centuries of painful experiences, sat observing me with an earnest and mildly surprised expression. But there I was, and so, assuming it would be discourteous to withdraw without a word, I sat down in their company to ask them a few questions, including the one mentioned above : “Could our forebears have ever produced artists if they had been vegetarians like the gorillas instead of carnivore?”
The question had come to me quite innocently as I sat reading Julian Huxley’s June 1942 letter to Nature in which he called the attention of scientists to the surpassing behavior of a boarder of the London Zoo – a young mountain gorilla named Meng. Intrigued by his own shadow, projected by the declining sun on the white wall of his cage, Meng had thrice run his long, hairy index finger along its outer edge – as might have done a human portrait painter.
Nobody had ever seen anything like that before, thought Huxley, and if only he could record it on film, it might well prove to be an important scientific document.
Whereupon he rushed off in search of a camera and klieg lights. These being installed outside the cage, the gorilla’s silhouette repapered on the wall. But Meng was no longer interested and nothing could induce him to repeat his action for the benefit of posterity.
So Huxley was reduced to writing a letter to à Nature suggesting that the action he had just witnessed might bear “a relationship to the possible origins of human graphic art.”
A relationship? Yes and no, I’m tempted to say, for after having taken into account what Meng had actually done, one might do well to ask oneself what he had not done.
And what had he not done? Well, for one thing, he had not hailed one of his kin to point to his silhouette. Nor had he taken advantage of this action to communicate an idea, a command or an emotion to some other gorillas. And if he did not do this, it was because he felt no need to do so – for the simple reason that he was a herbivore.
Let me explain:
Meng, being a herbivore, had never felt the need to take an interest in graphics, and this for the excellent reason that his ancestors had never needed to cultivate the the sort of fine discrimination of spoors and footprints so indispensable to all human hunters.
The leaves upon which they fed could not have been more sedentary. They never did canter off, like Birnam wood, when a gorilla appeared on the horizon. This being the case, these gorillas never felt the need to elaborate certain strategies of the chase which would have allowed them to capture the tasty foliage on which they fed. And consequently they never had to decipher the tracks that the fugitive foliage might have left behind it in its flight.
Unlike the forest habitat of the gorillas (whose ancient Greek name, gorilai, incidentally means “the tribe of hairy women”) the savanna of our earliest ancestors must have been a veritable palimpsest of appetizing tracks and trails. And they deciphered them with the same sort of impatient fascination that a spy thriller arouses in us today. I have already suggested something of the sort earlier, when I quoted the common sense observation of James Février who, in his Histoire de l’écriture, noted that humankind had learned to read long before it learned to write.
This implies that when our hunter forebears started to examine the first piece of graphic art traced by a human hand on a cavern wall, they had already accumulated several hundreds of millions of years of professional experience in the interpretation of animal tracks– not to mention all the other signs, spoors and imprints of heaven and earth.
But how did we make the transition from the interpretation of tracks that wild game had left on the ground to that of a graphic work drawn on a rock face? And if the first of these was motivated by the needs of the chase, what might have been the needs that motivated to second one? If we suppose that the rock paintings might have been be perceived as the transposition of a process of writing on the ground (by the game) and of reading (by the hunter) what can possibly be said about the imprints inscribe by men, no longer on the ground, but on a cavern wall, which other hunters promptly set about examining with a discriminate eye? What sort of game might they have then been prompted to pursue after observing an image traced on a wall?
It might be a good idea at this point to try to imagine the intimate experience of the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers.
When we speak of hunting today (bearing in mind that Americans use the word to designate what the English call “shooting”) we are more inclined to think of fox, duck hunting. Now, none of these practices have kept the element of prowess and, above all, the mystical quality which marked the chase in societies of hunter-gatherers. .
The following story provides a highly suggestive illustration of what I mean by prowess.
Jan, a Polish schoolboy in Yorkshire at the beginning of World War II, was of short stature by lively temper. After the war, he would work as a gentleman rider and earn his living thanks to his equestrian activities (breeding, training, etc.).
That day, armed with a scout knife, he left school and went rambling through the Yorkshire woods in search of a stag. You don’t just walk up to a stag like that, of course. You have to imagine what such a pursuit could represent for a lone boy, who kept it up, all through the day, through wood and bracken and moor. It only ended towards evening when Jan finally broke cover, leapt upon the great animal, seized it by the neck and slit its throat. After which he gathered wood, lit a fire, and triumphantly devoured a stag’s leg for dinner.
This solemn game which marked Jan accession to manhood was undertaken no more than one or two years before he volunteered to serve in a Polish tank unit that was soon to land in Normandy. And we should not doubt bear in mind the historic context – his own country ravaged, his exile, the inconceivable worldwide disaster which touches him to the quick, and a determination to show himself equal to any challenge that awaited him. All these threads lead up to the startling undertaking that the boy managed to bring to a successful conclusion.
The sort of chase practiced in prehistoric times was naturally not a perpetuation of some venerable tradition like fox hunting today, nor was it a convivial recreation like duck hunting, but an existential ordeal, a prowess, and also, at times, a mystical relationship.
In the sight of our species, game as no doubt the first intelligible form of a goal whose still uncertain presence is suggested by a sign. We know it’s somewhere out there, but we still need to flush it out. And this is where the chase begins to show affinities with a mystical discipline. For in such circumstances, one must learn to put a damper on any too easy rationalization and also to give free rein to the “broad and vigilant attention” that characterizes the right hemisphere..
Which calls to mind the words of a Mandenka wise man that I happened to read some years ago, and which may attest to a tradition that harks back to the Paleolithic.
Hunters, says this wise man, “do not dwell in any village…They are always departing… This is the fame of the hunters as long as they remain afar … One day, they return to the village, but the thought of the chase remains attached to the remoteness… It is in reference to such thoughts that the griots speak of the “ropes of remoteness…” Inner vacuity is the ground of the chase”. (Reported by Sony Camara in Chasseurs et Guerriers, Musée Dapper, Paris, 1998, pp. 131 seq.).
The village, with its trade and its agitation, stands opposed to all remoteness and to vacuity just as the characteristic mentality of the left hemisphere stands opposed to that of the right. Trade in the village does indeed concern matters that are “known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualized and explicit”.
The chase, on the other hand, remains unutterable in actual practice, for it unfolds in a world populated with “individual, changing, constantly evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate and living beings, within the context of the lived world but, in the nature of things, never fully graspable, never perfectly known… and to this world it exists in a certain relationship rather than in an objective stance”. Language fails to get a grip on this sort of game, and it’s only after its death and the hunter’s return to the village, that everyday language stands up and reduces the glorious game to the status of mere “meat”.
The correspondence may appear disturbing, I admit, to the extent that we remember that this last quotation (which the reader will have recognized if he has read my earlier posts), is McGilchrist’s characterization of the right hemisphere. And if this correspondence does indeed trouble me, it s because it leads me to imagine, incautiously perhaps, that the right hemisphere received its present shape during the hundreds of thousand years exclusively devoted to the chase, and that it took this shape because it possessed the relational capacities which facilitated proper coordination between hunters, but which also allowed the hunter, through empathy, to anticipate the next move of their game. The left hemisphere, on the other hand, would presumably have evolved in a more recent and possibly more sedentary age. You might say that it’s the hemisphere that best corresponds to the needs of the village and its trade.
And so, in view of the qualities and characteristics of the left hemisphere, it would seem that trade, in daily life, assumes the shape of a manipulation of objects (the living game reduced to the state of meat, for instance), while the chase remains a relational situation and even an (intuitive or mystic) dance of the hunter with the game. Just as the artist’s approach may be viewed as a relationship and even a game in which the artist and his elusive spiritual game take part together.
Before going any further, it may not be a bad idea to undertake a roll-call of the actors and factors that come into play here. We have the single hunter, but also the (other) hunters. The hunter examining the spoor. The other hunters stand with their eyes fixed on the spoor, but also on the hunter as he studies it. And finally we have the hunters in pursuit of their game. We also have the village and the remoteness, the village and the game (which turns into meat when it is carried into the precincts of the village) And finally the two hemispheres with their distinctive perspectives which both take hold of all this in order to draw their own singular and contradictory conclusions. And lastly, unless I am much mistaken, comes the interaction between all these elements, which will at one point give birth to the dazzling band formed by awareness, purpose, freedom, art and language.
I’m inclined to suppose that it is the interaction of all the elements just enumerated above, and consequently of all the familiar procedures of the chase, that led up to this truly prodigious outcome. Each stage of interaction reinforces this growing awareness of the capacities of all participants, and each expedition reinforces the symbolic link between the spoor and the game – and thus between the symbol and the indefinite and hypothetical presence it appears to designate. And this slow progression reaches its climax with the inscription of a mark on a rock face which, in turn, signals the inception of a new type of chase.
Let’s suppose for a moment that all I have suggested so far bears some resemblance to fact, and let’s try to imagine what that single, truly astounding event – the inception of a new type of chase – could really signify.
Consider this: ever since the Big Bang (assuming that it remains relevant in the sight of physicists) and until that single, unprecedented event, the universe had been utterly unacquainted with any sort of purpose. No intent presided over its destiny. The ability to imagine and pursue a desirable purpose, the capacity that determines an agent to undertake and action in view of a desirable goal, this capacity, according to the Christian religion, had been present from all eternity in God alone. Yet now, according to the current view, this purposeful capacity never did guide the elaboration of the universe. It only appeared some 50 000 years ago, and thus in a relatively recent period in the history of our venerable planet.
And yet, here we have a single living species, subject like all others to the harsh dictates of cause, which manages to set itself a purpose (however modest at first) and to devote all its energy to attaining it. Until that incredible day, our ancestors had been entirely subject to the law of cause – and we still remain subject to it to this day, since we both yearn and die – but that unique moment witnessed a truly extraordinary event: a member of our species somehow managed to conceive a symbolic and immaterial goal, and take off (mentally) in its pursuit. And he did so in pretty much the same way as he had formerly taken off in pursuit of some wild game. We should also note that this new human capacity only displayed itself (or so it seems) in an infinitely modest form, since it was still being fashioned from day to day by the familiar procedures of the Paleolithic chase.
How should we understand that?
As Hubert Reeves pointed out to me long ago, the scientific method s has to steer clear of any thought of purposefulness. This was no doubt a practical way of removing God from the creation narrative in order to getting a clearer view of the causal process.
But all too soon, a rather too rigid application of this principle ventured to extend it to man himself – which amounted to amputating him of one half his own self. For man, as we are just beginning to realize after a long and painful interval, somehow managed to endow himself with this unique capacity and became he has become the tiny geometric point where cause and purpose meet and purpose takes over. Man is the only living being to search for meaning and purpose. He is also the only one in a position to imagine either of them and to invest all his energies in their pursuit.
Just as the female breast managed to generate the more primitive form of attachment, to which we are now striving to lend a more universal function, so too, it would seem, the procedures of the prehistoric chase created the conditions which, through a subtle interplay of multiple mirrors, led to the emergence of human awareness, purpose and freedom. None of these are actually triumphant. They are in fact remarkably hesitant, always more implicit than explicit and, in that sense, very much like the process of artistic or poetic creation. Consider the sacrificial existence of Rainer Maria Rilke and his ultimate reward, the Elegies and the Sonnets, the great final climax of his entire poetic production, which yielded themselves to him only a few years before his death.
What might Rilke’s life have looked to his contemporaries? He was a failure. I remember a German aristocrat who had met him and who, in response to to my questions had said: « Rilke ? Eine Halbeportion ! » – a runt, a cipher. And he probably looked like that in the sight of society, but the other, hidden part of Rilke and his true greatness could only be found in quite another world.
The act of creation, free-will and awareness could be viewed from the outset as “weak forces” of negligible importance in comparison to the great causal forces of the universe. It’s in the nature of things. But they are nonetheless creative, willful and free – even if these improbable capacities, (as I have already said), are methodologically invisible to the eyes of science. Indeed, they never perform their task with the explicit certainty of a mechanism, but implicitly rather, by capillarity or osmosis or through the subtle and almost invisible operations of a mental chemistry whose effects, like those of the dew or the hoarfrost, only become apparent at sunrise.
One thing at least may appear to support the above speculation: when Pascal Picq describes the swift worldwide propagation of the symbolic revolution some 50 000 years ago, he adds that this initiative of « the a few populations of Homo Sapiens …spread like wildfire across the Sapiens world”.
The term “wildfire” suggests that the foundations had long been laid in the minds of the species as a whole, which was thus in a position to receive this stunning innovation. This is indeed what I suggested a moment ago, when I declared that a long familiarity with the tracks of various types of game allow our sapiens ancestors to grasp the nature and import of the symbol and thus to actually invent the symbol as we know it – even though it would presumably remain implicit for a long time – as a present sign pointing to an absent game.
These men didn’t need to be philosophers. A long familiarity with the chase had familiarized them with the symbol in its latent from over a period of hundreds of thousands of years. It was latent then, but it would soon become explicit and conscious, thanks to the form of detachment favored by the very procedure of collective chase. For what is conscience, indeed, if not the form of detachment that we experience when we are involved in some collective action and that allows us to observe what is unfolding and also to observe our own person as it is involved in all this. And isn’t this precisely what a hunter perceives when he observes the actions of the other hunters while empathetically identifying with their actions.
I have suggested that the inscription of a symbol on a cavern wall allowed the transformation of a symbol into the track of some spiritual game, and that this track, in turn, hinted at an unutterable presence and made it an object of pursuit.
But what exactly do I mean by such a presence?
In the days of our remote ancestors, animals still covered the walls of their caverns. They were no doubt supernatural up to a point. Only later could they become spirits and gods. But in every age, game of this sort was an active and familiar denizen of the human imagination and thus, the titular residents of what Donald Winnicott has called the transitional realm – a ream which every child, accompanied by his usual comforter, knows how to find without any assistance from a grown-up. His comforter knows the way.
Gods and spirits are the figures that allowed us to mark out the unexplored depths of the inner world, and thus to shape the very first aspect that any question could possibly assume. This was of course long before we were even aware of the fact that such figures were questions and had we actually acquired words by which to name them.
As Friedrich Hölderlin says of the coming of the gods:
“Now man names what is dearest to him.
Now, now, words for such things must unfold like flowers”.
If this is indeed the case, art (which first summoned these gods and spirits and allowed us to see them) obviously was and remains a crucial tool of the human cognitive process which is constantly taking its departure from an image in order to work out a concept.
One final remark:
Most of the early gods or spirits were personifications of causal forces (think of the Greek gods, for instance) and it was thanks to them that the notion of cause first took shape in our minds. It only did so very gradually of course, at a time when our forebears had no clear notion of what a cause might actually be. Other gods aros to embody the identity of a group – as Athena would later do in Athens. As symbols, these gods served to designate various unknown qualities, and in this they may remind us of a comparable procedure which allows mathematicians to use symbols in order to calculate with unknown quantities.
In the earliest times cause was surely the main problem. It was cause, after all, that decided who was to lives and who to dies. Only in the religion of the Hebrews (and perhaps in the Prometheus myth) do we see a purposeful God gradually take shape, although he still remains heavily weighted with causal force. But it was with Christianity, and with its paradoxical construction of a threefold God – part causal (the Father), part model of a deified humankind (the Son) and part inner drive that impels us towards the fulfillment of the world and of ourselves (the Holy Ghost).
All this is an indicator of how the human cognitive process has always worked, by initially resting on an image in order to grasp a concept.
But if we want to know more about these figures that suddenly rose up to populate the human imagination, we shall no doubt have to consult the Iranian philosophers (and mystics) already thoroughly studied by Henry Corbin, since they were the first in our part of the world to develop an unusually refined theory of the imagination – which presumably puts them in a better position than others to answer our questions on such matters.
“All the events observed or related as unfolding outside the soul”, says Corbin, “are so many symbolic expressions of events unfolding within the soul, and the soul becomes aware of its own events, thanks to the transparency of their symbols”.
Which suggests that an almost random imprint on a cavern wall may prove to have been the very first stage in the tremendous undertaking of all human cognition a process which is still under way and which has allowed us to become aware of many of the “events of our souls” – in other words, of the thoughts and feelings that arise within us, though we only become aware of them by seeing them reproduced in the outside world. This implies that we are rarely directly aware of what is actually happening within us. Only when such an event is reproduced on a stage, in a painting, in a poem or indeed in everyday life, do we suddenly experience a shock of recognition, and only then does this unutterable experience within us finally stands revealed.
And this being so, every true artist must be seen as a hunter who ventures into the distance. And each work he brings back to the village must be seen as a spiritual conquest.
HERE BEGINS THE FOURTH APPLE TOUCHING UPON LOVE AND THE FEMALE BREAST
He wanted to make the imagination
an instrument of compassion.
he wanted to understand to the very end
the rise and fall of an oak
the rise and fall of Rome
and so to bring the dead back to life
to preserve the covenant.
Zbigniew Herbert, Mr. Cogito and the imagination
Marcel Duchamp Please Touch
As I’ve already pointed out, two entirely different cognitive systems, and consequently two utterly different worlds and personalities stand lodged side by side under the skull of each and every living soul. This often leads us into arguments with ourselves.
I have insistently dwelt upon this duality, established by thousands of experiments and clinical observations and further corroborated by the sum of human experience over several thousands of years and some readers may have found this insistence somewhat tedious. All this may indeed appear rather obvious to them and they may feel that it doesn’t really reveal anything we didn’t already know.
I don’t agree with this. New and highly significant conclusions can indeed be drawn from the singularly functional duality described by Iain McGilchrtist and others – among them the fact that the conclusions yielded by the sequential, abstract and distanced analysis characteristic of the denotative language favored by the left hemisphere remains largely incomprehensible to the other half of our own minds. The latter is embodied, empathetic and responsive to emotions, and it can best grasp things in the form of a narrative heavily weighted with emotion and purposefulness. This also suggests that if we fail to undertake some adjustments that render the conclusions of either hemisphere intelligible to the other, we are going to find ourselves trapped in a very depressing environment indeed, an environment which rather calls to mind the mood the novels of the French author Michel Houellebecq. These novels are indeed a perfect illustration of what our world would inevitably look like under the exclusive control of the left hemisphere.
But what does actually set the mood of Houellebecq’s novels? What makes them so terribly depressing? The author would most likely say: their uncompromising lucidity. And I suppose he would be right – up to a point. For his novels offer an insightful portrait of a society in which people could only handle matters that are “known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualized and explicit”. A world in which the implicit no longer exists and where everyone stands stripped bare and despoiled of even the slightest hint of implicit human purposefulness.
This would surely be disastrous, since we are all, each and every one of us, creatures of purpose, and have indeed been so ever since our early ancestors hit upon a strategy that allowed them to become aware of their own purposefulness. This is something they managed to do thanks to the invention of symbols (a subject I’ll come to in my next post). But -this highly unlikely freedom remains utterly invisible to science for the simple reason that science is obliged to set aside any notion of purpose if it wants to be considered scientific. Also, this freedom of ours never functions in the obvious and explicit fashion of a machines, but implicitly, by capillarity, you might say, or osmosis or through the subtle and practically invisible workings of out mental chemistry. As a result of which the effects of this implicit freedom of ours only become apparent, rather like the effects of the dew or the hoarfrost, after the sun rises.
SPEAKING TO BOTH MINDS
Some thirty years ago, my friend the astrophysicist Hubert Reeves led me to understand that the scientific method has to ban any hint of purposefulness. And this (as Konrad Lorenz also pointed out), is particularly important when it comes to understanding the workings of evolution. Cats don’t have claws in order to catch mice. They did manage to survive however and to become good mousers, because evolution happened to provide them with claws, which turned out to be particularly useful in this pursuit. This restriction, to which the scientific method submits with good reason, rather reminds me of the rifleman who shuts his left eye in order to take aim. A trick which doesn’t prevent him from having two eyes when he is not taking aim.
This suggests that each half of our minds has a hard time understanding what the other is saying And this being so, we are going to have to develop the knack of translating the most recent findings of a predominantly left-hemisphere science, into a narrative form that the right half of our minds can understand. At which point a further problem arises: so many of us have been encouraged to neglect this metaphoric language and have indeed done so for so long, that they have practically forgotten it. This tragic loss of the oldest of our two native languages is all the more unfortunate that it tends leave us with badly damaged minds.
This is surely a result of the tremendous disdain in which the imagination is held today – a disdain which makes our more imaginative half feel utterly unqualified to deal with such matters. All human discourse unfolds on an imaginative ground which lies beyond its reach. This ground, which I have called the Great Metaphor, needs to be constantly revised and reshaped. It is the ancient, ongoing narrative that allows us to get a grip on the world, and on what we are actually doing here.
It once looked as through all knowledge, all power and all love stood capitalized from day one in the person of an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving God who dwelt beyond time. He was, you might say, the great Central Bank of Being. Scientific thought has led us to give up any thought of eternity and to envision a world that unfolds in time. This tremendous shift has not yet been worked out by our imagination. And so, even those who no longer believe in any God, and who have taken considerable pains to demolish each and every one of the monuments to the divinity that formerly studded their mental landscape, do not appear to realize that the imaginative foundations on which all these monuments were initially raised remain deeply buried in the subsoil of their thoughts, overgrow with weeds and brambles, to be sure, but still massively present.
As a number of recent thinkers (bothe Christians and atheists) have rightly observed, atheism in the western world is more often than not raised on the foundations of Christianity itself. As the materialist philosopher Ernst Bloch noted in his day (and as the theologian Adolphee Gesché declared in 2002 in the Revue Théologique de Louvain) atheism has always been one of the facets of Christianity itself. Without actually going into the matter here, I suspect that this has some connection with the mindset of the hemispheres.
This being the case, it would seem that atheism still has a lot of work to do if it wants to escape the gravitational pull of the religious tradition. And so too will Christian thought have to do a lot of revising if it wishes to restore the full power of the great metaphor of which it is the vehicle.
In this perspective the atheists may find some form of “theology without God” helpful. Theology after all, has all the maps and knows where the foundations lie buried.
In any event, and whatever our views, we shall have to revise the history of the world, or at least that part of it that concerns us directly, and do so, no longer in the perspective of eternity, but rather in that of a vast and infinitely slow process, which gradually gave birth to all the aspects of our familiar world. And in this outlook, as I have already suggested, the fullness of being, the moment of Genesis, is only reached at the very end.
And what remains to be said of love in this perspective? The word, today, is all too often taken to designate a predatory passion, or a dubious sublimation of a not entirely glorious drive. I don’t find either view satisfactory and shall suggest a more promising view of the matter by putting love in the broadest possible historical perspective – by which I mean: in the perspective of the whole body of drives or commandments, whose contradictory injunctions are constantly shaking up our lives.
THE FOUNDING COMMANDMENTS
Life, then, was the first of these commandments to turn up on our still lifeless planet. That was some three and a half billion years ago. And with it came a simple and straightforward command: “Live – and devoir all other edible beings!”
Then, after a very long interval, sexuality turned up some 1200 million years ago and with it an equally simple command (cast in regrettably crude language): “F***k whatever is f***able!”
While sexuality could at times prove quite as ferocious as life itself, it soon appeared that some measure of cooperation between (more or less consenting) partners presented certain advantages from the evolutionary point of view. So this may be the point at which a first faint glimmer of mutual recognition made its appearance on earth.
And finally, a mere 70 to 85 million years ago (and to the general satisfaction of all parties concerned), came the truly unlikely invention of the female breast. Such an invention which could indeed appear surprising from the strictly evolutionary point of view since, as Sidney Mellen points out in his fascinating Evolution of Love (first edition W. H. Freeman and Co. Oxford, 1981 now available in PDF at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/aa.1982.84.4.02a00360/abstract), the unexpected development of the mammary gland presented a serious handicap when it developed as a method of feeding offspring, since the device could only be effective to the extent that both mother and infant felt irresistibly drawn to one another by the force of an irresistible attachment.
This was something utterly new. Parents, until them, (I have in mind birds, reptiles and fish) could leave their offspring and wander off in search of food. Reptiles and tortoises could even be content to lay their eggs on a beach and take off immediately without a thought for the little creatures that would soon be snapped up by an army of predators. Some would survive, after all.
This is not at all the mammalian point of view. Mammals never had this option, to be sure. In their case, the child had to go along with its mother, wherever she went. And just to make sure that this actually happened, only those infants who had, along with their mothers, developed this vigorous, exclusive and reciprocal attachment actually did survive. As a result of which this disposition was soon generalized.
Let me repeat myself. This new method gave full satisfaction in practical terms to the extent only that it was reinforced by this innovative manifestation of what we now call “love”. This love proved totally disinterested from the outset (where the mother was concerned at least), but also tender and unconditional. Indeed, this fierce attachment prompted the mother to take all necessary initiatives to feed, pamper, protect, warm and foster the tiny creatures that life had entrusted to her care. And this, come to think of it, does rather look like a primitive form of article 25 of the Declaration of Human Rights and of Matthew’s chapter 25? (See my preceding Apple)
Skeptics who wish to evaluate the actual power of this attachment may find a simple experiment sufficiently convincing. Stride into any public square any day, lift a sleeping infant out of its pram and move off at a brisk pace, preferably in full sight of the mother. In such cases, the power of attachment is measured in decibels and I don’t believe the hardy experimenter will be disappointed by the reaction of the two parties concerned.
This, then, is how this form of perfectly utilitarian and genetically determined attachment actually laid the foundations of what was to become, under the influence of culture, the very motor of our ongoing process of humanization.
Sexuality, would naturally condition this form of attachment (it is, after all the female who is fitted with breasts), but its influence would nonetheless remain secondary under the circumstances, for the huge and reciprocal force of attachment alone determines the ultimate accomplishment or annihilation of a child’s life. As McGilchrist points out, “a child spends much of his early years engaged with his mother’s face. This is how children crucially develop the sense of a secure self, distinct from, but not entirely separate from, others”. For those who want to delve into the subject John Bowlby’s Attachment, Separation and Loss remains the definitive statement of the case.
HOW CULTURE APPEARED
AT this point, life, sexuality and attachment being firmly in place, the world stood ready to receive Homo sapiens. And what did he do next? Well, he took a good look at all the things laid before him and told himself: “Hmm! It looks like there are a few things that could stand some improvement!”
To give an idea of what this actually means, let’s move a bit closer to our own time and pause for breath in the vicinity of 13 000 BP. At this point women presumably devoted themselves to gathering fruit, roots and grain while the men went hunting and so, one day, a clever and forever anonymous woman went out to gather seeds and suddenly realized that she could feed her family with the punier seeds while planting the sturdier ones outside the settlement. And so, today, after some 13 000 harvests of this sort, the heavy ears that sway in the wind every summer in our modern fields have little in common with their puny ancestors.
Humankind has this passion to improve whatever it finds at hand. This is what we call culture. And the same procedure also works quite nicely in matters of the mind and spirit. Some populations were quick to realize that selection and education could also serve to improve and generalize some of the more desirable human qualities. Skill and strength were certainly appreciated at the outset and remain so to this day. But another mammalian singularity would soon enjoy a quite considerable development: attachment. Education, from one generation to the next, would attempt to generalize this disposition and spread it through society.
This quality was a mere by-product of what amounted to a chance development of biological evolution which would in due course equip the female of our species with this undeniably pleasant but (initially) not entirely practical organ. But after being cultivated through the millennia, just like wheat, barley or oats, it would in time rise to truly astounding heights – and ultimately to the unattainable pinnacles of Dante’s Paradise where it stands, in the poet’s final, ecstatic vision, as the ultimate blooming of “the love that moves the sun and the other stars”.
I suspect that this attachment, thus transfigured into a wholly disinterested love for every living soul, remains the driving force of the groping process of humanization that some of our sapiens ancestors set in motion some 50 000 years ago.
The appearance of human culture is surely a tremendous upheaval in the overall process of the world. It implies that the species itself somehow found its way to taking charge of its own character and its own fate, by setting in motion a process ultimately aimed at establishing a society founded on love and justice. It is pretty obviously that we failed to accomplish anything of the kind so far but then (for heaven’s sake!), we’ve only been working at it for 50 000 years, and the process is still under way.
I am thus suggesting that it was neither a preexistent God who, from the inconceivable heights of his eternity, dictated his laws of love to humankind, nor even an inbred natural law that irresistibly impelled us. It was, rather a truly, original and purely human initiative, to which some members of our species subscribed freely, resolutely and sometimes heroically, and have continued to do so, through the 250 000 generations that separate us from the dawn of our humanization.
A MATTER OF TASTE
In due course, this process became institutionalized. This was not entirely a good idea, and it would, in time, induce a brutal backlash, as a result of which the 20th century no doubt inspired by the uncompromising logic of the now dominant hemisphere was moved to reject the slightest hint of human compassion as a manipulation and a fraud. The practical consequences of these views have become the historical landmarks of that (late and unlamented) century. But they have at least had the advantage of showing us just what a society that voluntarily put an end to the age-old project of self-humanization would actually look like.
All too many men and women, swayed by a perverse or perverted ideal, proudly broke away from the ranks of those who still aspired to become human beings. The outcome was instructive. These people had forceful and resolute leaders and subscribed to a clear and assertive ideology.
Those who failed to follow their example were not so self-assured, but they nonetheless persisted in their hesitant progress without even being urged on by any Church, any school, any philosophy or any leader. Their choice, in the words of the poet Zbigniew Herbert, was merely “a matter of taste”.
Ours, then, is not a triumphal march, but rather a fumbling progression. For love is not enough – the problem confronting each one of us is: just how do I go about doing this?” The goal is hazy and indefinite and it rather reminds me of what Marcel Duchamp so perceptively said of the artist: “by all appearances, the artist works in the manner of a mediumnistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, gropes his way to a clearing.” The same can surely be said of humankind as it gropes its way to its ultimate and as yet undefined purpose.
I shall return to Duchamp in a later post and I plan to develop a new approach to the man and his work. But meanwhile, the statement quoted above may remind one of “Please Touch”, one the artist’s minor works reproduced at the head of the present post. It represents an eminently touchable foam-rubber reproduction of a female breast, and I am inclined to think, as I look at it, that somehow, in the continuity of the entire body of his work and without even being aware of the fact (for, as he himself insightfully noted “an artist doesn’t know what he’s doing”) the same Duchamp somehow managed to lay a lackadaisical finger on the tangible root of our still emerging humanity.
HERE BEGINS TH THIRD APPLE WHICH TOUCHES UPON THE LAST JUDGMENT, HUMAN RIGHTS AND THE QUEEN OF NAPLES
A balanced personality holding both hemispheres in hand (Matthieu Gibson)
In 1980, the astrophysicist Hubert Reeves published the original French version of his book, Atoms of Silence, (Harvard University Press, 1990), in which he declared that “we are made of the same substance as the stars”.
In the strictly scientific sense and in straightforward prose, this merely means that certain molecules, ejected from distant stars, crossed the light years and the ages to land on earth where, in due course, they found their place in the physical composition of all living beings. The idea doubtless appears thrilling to a scientist, but I wouldn’t have expected it to stir the masses.
And yet, the masses were indeed stirred and the idea continues to move them thirty years later.
What’s this all about?
I once told Hubert (who had been a schoolmate of mine in Montreal years ago), that a great part of the huge success of his Atoms of Silence probablyresided in the fact that his words had been invested with a metaphorical (or mythic) significance.
Those who are already aware of the fact that we humans are bilingual animals, and that we always and simultaneously express ourselves in words and images, already know why.
Hubert was not at fault. A scientific statement is univocal and explicit. A metaphor is ambiguous and implicit. He had spoken as a scientist (and also, no doubt, from his heart), whereupon his words were received all at once as a scientific statement and a prophetic utterance. For no sooner had his words found their way into the auditory canal of his listeners, that they ceased to be a statement of fact and became a metaphor.
And what a metaphor!
Hubert’s statement had qui naturally found its niche in the overarching mythic narrative that humankind has been weaving ever since it looked up at the stars. Long before the invention of language, the metaphor, a splendid tool of cognition, aroused the deeper levels of human intelligence and became the appropriate vehicle for the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation. Today, for lack of an adequate theory of the imagination, the metaphor has suffered a humiliation demotion, even though it still begins to resonate when certain voices happen to touch its strings.
Our species has lived a great story of love and anguish with the universe, whose manifestations, night after night, appeared to be ciphered messages – if only we could find a way of reading them! It was always tempting to receive them, now as promises, now as commands or warnings, while simultaneously, and with considerable intelligence, laying the imaged foundations of what would in time unfold into philosophy and theology. This is pretty much what one of Wittgenstein’s notation s seems to suggest: “the image which is the ground of all thought deserves to be respected”. Images have haunted us long before the appearance of language, and it was in fact by meditating on their shapes and patterns that the first and most ancient forms of wisdom were articulated.
All too often, however, the views held by the only hemisphere to be directly tied to the world are no longer taken into account by the other hemisphere, chiefly because it cannot decipher the metaphors (night dreams, deaydream, images or impulses) that the other hemisphere occasionally sends its way. As McGilchrist puts it:
“Broad vigilant attention must come before we can focus on one part of the field; we see the whole before we see the parts, not put the whole together from the parts; we experience everything at first with the right hemisphere, not the left;language originates in the body, and is implicit, not something that functions at the abstract level, as something explicit; affect is primary, not the result of calculation based on cognitive evaluation of the parts; as Libet has demonstrated, the unconscious will, more closely related to right hemisphere functioning, is well ahead of anything our explicit verbalising consciousness can be aware of”.
I intend to stress the necessity of thinking in images, but before I do so, one thing probably needs to be pointed out. True, the first part of McGilchrist’s book (which is in three parts), is devoted to an overview of the present state of our knowledge of the brain and its workings, but the entire second part is designed to demonstrate that
“ … in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, both mathematics and physics (for example Cantor, Boltzmann, Gödel, Bohr), and philosophy (I am here thinking particularly of the American pragmatists, Dewey & James, and the European phenomenologists, Husserl, Heidegger, Scheler, Merleau-Ponty and the later Wittgenstein), though starting absolutely from the premises of the left hemisphere, that sequential analysis will lead us to the truth, have ended up with results that approximate far more closely to – which in fact confirm the validity of – the right hemisphere’s way of understanding the world, not that of the left. That is in itself a remarkable fact, since generally speaking the preconceptions with which you start will determine where you end”.
It would be inaccurate to say that the author of these lines was intent on reducing everything to the brain. Instead, he is pleased to demonstrate, in scientifically receivable terms, that the European phenomenolgists, the American pragmatists and the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty were quite aware of the bifid workings of the brain, à function which injects an unusual dynamic quality into our thinking. Also, they were able to take this into account long before science had established that the functional workings of evolution had endowed us with two starkly different, globally incompatible but equally indispensables instruments of thought.
The attitude that would allow one to acquire the type of balance illustrated in the drawing above can no doubt be acquired by an assiduous reading of the philosophers quoted by McGilchrist, but also by mediation upon some poetic or religious intuition by those who still know how to deal with metaphors – and how to recognize their import. For it is not just a matter of welcoming the much needed messages our out “broad vigilant attention” but also of acquiring the capacity of rethinking the world along lines that would allow one to reach a better understanding of the half of our mind that is endowed with wisdom but speaks only in images. For that half also needs to be kept informed of progress in left-hemisphere knowledge.
A rather spectacular instance allows one to compare the two distinct idioms we use according to the hemisphere that happens to be in charge. I have in mind article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the one hand, and chapter 25 (a telling coincidence!) of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew (verses 31 ff.)
Let’s begin with the modern text couched in a typically bureaucratic idiom that satisfies the expectations of sequential analysis:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowh”ood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
And now, consider the other text, which voices the very same ideas in spectacular and metaphorical form.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
The first text, as I have pointed out, expresses itself in a bureaucratic form of the sequential idiom which the left hemisphere understands best. It mentions such things as food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services. The other enumerates a number of verbs designating actions that tend to foster a relationship: “feed, clothe, welcome, take in, visit, care”.. This is the world of the right hemisphere and the actions of feeding, clothing, etc., constitute an implicit acknowledgement and an acceptance much more precious than any sort of food or clothing could ever be.
What’s more, the second text expresses itself in pictures. And this leads to an important point: if we decided to take these pictures factually (a serious mistake), it would appear to convey a terrifying message: God, who created us all will come on the last day to judge the actions of his unfortunate creatures. And those who have not done the right thing will fry in hell for all eternity.
Au moutier vois, dont je suis paroissienne
Paradis peint, où sont harpes et luths
Et un enfer où damnés sont boullus
L’un me fait peur, l’autre joie et liesse.
(“In the monastery, where I attend mass, I see a painted Paradise, full of harps and lutes and a hell, too, in which the damned are boiled. One affrights me, the other gives joy and delight”).
These are the words that the 15th century French poet and vagabond François Villon put into the month of his good, simple and unlettered mother, at her request and they clearly express the lesson that so many, over the centuries have drawn from this splendid text by lending it a literal meaning.
But what does it reveal, if we pay attention to its metaphorical nature?
First and foremost, a vigorous plea in favor of the hungry, the penniless, the homless, the stranger, the sick and the imprisoned. This highly charge text, calls for a total reversal of an everyday reality in which persons who deem themselves human are inclined to behave like kindergarten children left to their own devices. And it was obviously out of a desire to endow this plea with the greatest possible weight, that its words are put in to the mouth of the most imposing figure one might imagine – the schoolmistress who turns up after having been held up in traffic – or, in the present case, the Supreme Judge of the universe who appears at last at the hour determined from all eternity.
And who is this Judge in fact? He is… the Judge. Right, but all the same, who is it that actually judges our actions? None other than our own selves, it would appear.
Every one of us bears his burden of lost opportunities, but also of far too many silly initiatives, blunders and harm unthinkingly inflicted. All these burden us with remorse when we have nothing else on our mind. Isn’t this something we all go through? Each man is his own judge and each one rewards his actions, daily, with the Kingdom or with fire.
« Whoever touches upon man touches upon God », says a theologian (Adolphe Gesché) in summing up this passage. Interestingly enough this interpretation may strike one as even more convincing in the absence of any God who imposes it upon us. For the imposition remains, engraved within us. And the theological formulation of the scene also changes. It becomes: who touches upon man touches upon the very thing that man hopes to become – and thus upon the God who is the ultimate metaphor of his chosen goal.
A variant upon the same theme is found in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Time Lost. I have in mind a scene that I am tempted to call the Damnation of Madame Verdurin.
The stakes are different here, of course, for the salvation or the damnation or Madame Verdurin is perceived in terms of social success. The silly woman wanted to be avenged of an affront inflicted upon her bt the Baron de Charlus. With revenge in mind, she sets out to turn Charlus’ protégé, Morel, against him. Morel, a gifted, ambitious and cynical violinist, feels humiliated by his modest origins (his father was a valet). He sleeps opportunistically with the Baron, but Madame Verdurin having served him a pack of lies which Morel is pleased to believe – Charlus, she says, is on the verge of ruin, nobody invites him any more (an obvious lie, since he happens to be in the same room with them), and this incongruous relationship is making de Morel the laughing stock of the Conservatory. Morel takes the bait and when Charlus minces up to him to inform him that he has just managed to obtain an honorific distinction for him, Morel, in the presence of all the guests, scornfully repulses him and calls him a pervert².
Charlus, to everyon’s surprise, says nothing. He is disconcerted, overwhelmed.
But then, coup de theater! Even as he stands there alone, wild-eyed and wounded, the terrible Judge of the Last Judgment steps into the room in the person of the Queen of Naples. She had left the house earlier but had returned to pick up a lost fan. The good woman immediately understands the situation. She is quite indignant about what has just been done to poor Charlus and she takes things in hand.
For just then, Madame Verdurin approaches her to introduce Morel. But the Queen, who senses that this woman is responsible for the state in which she has found Charlus, pretends not to notice her. The woman insists: “I am Madame Verdurin, You Majesty doesn’t recognize me?” “Very well indeed”, » the Quen dryly replies, and all the guests catch her meaning: « All too well! » And with these words szhe takes Charlus by the arm: “You’re not looking well, my dear cousin. Do lean on my arm. Be assured that itwill always support you… You know that in other times it held the rabble at bay. It can still serve you as a rampart”.
“And so”, Proust concludes, “leading the Baron by the arm and without have allowing Morel to be introduced, the glorious sister of Empress Elizabeth left the room”.
Charlus is saved. Madame Verdurin is damned… and publicly dismissed as mere rabble in her own salon by the most prestigious of all her guests.
But social salvations, like social damnation, is not eternal.
The event related by Proust nonetheless remains a perfect duplication of the Last Judgment, in which Baron de Charlus, that paradoxical and susceptible homosexual Don Quixote, plays the part off “the least of my brothers”.
That’s why I chose to quote this episode in the hopes of better shoring up the philosophical and moral interprétation of the earlier narrative. The full passage extends, with an abundance of commentaries from page 310 to page 323, of the 3rd volume of the French Pléiade edition of Proust’s works.
The moral of Proust’s story is that if you want to be on the best of terms with the Queen of Naples (and without necessarily loving the man like a brother), you must at very least show respect for this arrogant, capricious, absurd and deeply trouble man. But Queens pass away, and who gives a fig today for the Queen of Naples, despite all her outstanding qualities so aptly analyzed by Proust? In order to establish the authority of the command which requires all nations to demonstrate their neighborly love by daily marks of solicitude and kindnes, an even more imposing figure than this great lady was needed: a figure that would come in glory, escorted by all the angels. He would sit himself on his throne of glory and assemble all the nations before him. One can hardly do better than that, can one? Especially if this figure se is already nested in our heart of hearts.
In view of which I conclusz that we need to ensure the regular upkeep and adjustment of out metaphors and myths for the same reason that we ensure the upkeep of our roads and bridges. For metaphors and myths, roads and bridges all facilitate regular human contacts and exchange.
HERE BEGINS THE SECOND APPLE WHICH TOUCHES UPON TRANSCENDENCE
A reader of my preceding post was surprised to see me bring up the notion of transcendence in a discussion of the workings of the brain. In his view, transcendence was a theological category inseparable from the Jewish, Christian and Moslem divinity. This was not the view of the materialist philosopher Ernst Bloch, when I met him some forty years ago. In his view “transcendence is our calling, and perhaps our destiny. But transcendence in immanence and not into transcendence.”
Ernst Bloch, a talk with Michael Gibson, Peter Stein and Pierre Furlan, published in Tagtraüme vom Aufrechten Gang, edited by Arno Münster, Suhrkamp Verlag, Francfurt 1978.
The point appears all the more important to considering that a total lack of transcendence leaves many inhabitants of the industrial world with a severe (but generally unnoticed) handicap. So let’s see whether any justification for it can be found in a contemporary perspective.
Certain aspects of the history of a once splendid but now unfortunate land are worth considering. Colonized in the 19th century and decolonized in the nineteen-sixties, it fell into a swift declined under a succession of corrupt and incompetent regimes. I’m glad to say that recent events appear to be changing all this.
Children of this country were taught a game akin to hopscotch, which requires the player to make his way through a square of nine points drawn on the ground. This square was also a riddle and every child was expected to learn how to connect all nine points without making more than three turns.
Adults called the game Ananta (children pronounced it Anaan) and every child over two knew that it the nine points could only be connected by venturing outside the frame of the nine points. This game was so much a part of everyday life that godfathers traditionally offered their godchildren three tokens, which were made of bronze, gold, silver, tin, baked earth or wood depending on their means. The players were taught to position two of these tokens outsidethe square, on the spots at which two of the turns needed were to be made. The third token (called Animula) was tossed across the board in accordance with rules akin to those of hopscotch. The most obvious conclusion drawn from this game is that one cannot expect to solve any problem without venturing outside the frame implicit in the terms of the question.
This same diagram has also beern used to illustrated a number of philosophical or mystical teachings, all them unusually elaborate especially, developed over the centuries at the famous monastery of Fata Morgana, where the nine points spawned seventy different schools of thought. The nine points also serve as the country’s official seal (see above).
The Colonial Authorities banned the game in 1904 (along with kites, whose triangular shape and tail clearly evoked the solution to the riddle) and it was only authorized again in 2004, after the return of the grandson of the former ink king who had been packed off into exile a century before earlier and had died in enforced residence in Reduth, Cornwall.. I’m inclined to believe that the country’s decline resulted in part, from the prohibition laid upon this game …
I evoke all this here because this game is a perfect illustration of the principle of transcendence as I see it. For if it is true that one cannot resolve this riddle without stepping outside the frame of the nine points, how can one expect to resolve the riddle inherent to the very existence of the world without venturing outside the frame of the world? Without transcending it ?
Eminents philosophers and logicians are aware of this problem and one occasionally comes across it in popular science magazines. They solved it to their satisfaction by pointing out that the problem was merely the result a mistaken assumption, since one tended to assume that one must remain inside the frame formed by the nine points.
These logicians naturally assume that they have resolved the problem but they are mistaken. The problem still stands since they, as logicians, must remain inside the fram which encloses all things known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualized and explicit. This being the case, and while never ceasing to be excellent and indeed outstanding logicians, they must voluntarily remain within the frame of the very problem they set out to solve – victims, as logicians, of the very same mistaken assumption they had quite rightly defined. For if they were indeed to solve this problem in metalogical terms, they would have to extract themselves from the frame imposed upon them ny their own discipline, and step out into a realm no longer populated by general propositions and fixed elements, but rather with “individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings”.
Lame Deer, a Sious shaman of the 20th century put the current singularity of the western world in a nutshell when he declatred that : « the symbol of the white man is the frame. (Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions, Simon and Schuster, 2009)). As symbols go, this one appears thoroughly purged of any conceivable content – which cannot, by definition, be the characteristic of any symbol. This is indeed the problem. One might also note in passing that while the nine points of the seal (reproduced above) are indeed enclosed in a square, the square, in turn, stands enclosed in a circle – a symbol of totality – and this circle might be thought to symbolize the transcendence of the logician.
I’m going to attempt, in this post, to define transcendence anew and in a perspective that some may find unusual. And in doing so, I have some hopes of contributing to putting the world back on its feet.
To begin with, instead of assuming that any such transcendence must descent upon our heads like tongues of fire upon the apostles at Pentecost, let’s try to visualize the dazzling possibility that it might be found to rise out of the depths of the material world and of our own selves like a sudden epiphany of the possible which still remains latent in the material world.
For what could the notion of transcendence really mean in the perspective of an Experimentum Mundi, ofa material world whose history might be viewed as an perpetual exploration of its own potentialities?
This much being said, I can envision at least four distinct forms of transcendence, all of which are compatible with a scientific or materialist view and I propose to bring up, by turn, the ideas of the philosopher Ernst Bloch, those of the paoeontologist Pascal Picq (see my earlier post), those of the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott and those of Iain McGilchrist himself (ditto).
TRANSCENDENCE ACCORDING TO ERNST BLOCH
In Bloch’s view and in the view of physicists today, matter cannot be restricted to the atomic and subatomic levels alone. It is not so much the tangible aspect of the world (like wood, stone or clay), not so much an object as it is a process still under way and, to the extent that is is a process, its history needs to be viewed as that of a bundle of emerging qualities or, if one prefers, as an ongoing and increasingly complex elaboration of forms, activities and possibilities, and while the more recent phases of matter may stike us as increasingly immaterial – they nonetheless remain rooted in materiality, just as thought remains “rooted” in the brain.
Definitely so, if we bear in mind that a gesture or a glance prompted by the phylogenetic ritual of some animal species may induce a precise form of response among one or several of his fellows, and do so without any transmission of substance. The same applies to human behavior, to be sure, on a number of levels.
And matter, being a whole ongoing processes, it has constantly passed from one level of complexity to the next. Yet this does not prevent its various manifestations from remaining a characteristic part of matter and of its ongoing process of self-experimentation. This, at least, is how Bloch views it in his last book Experimentum Mundi – “theworld as an experiment upon itself”.
This experimentation is no doubt difficult to perceive as such, especially since all the scientific disciplines (as I have just said) must enclose their observations within a narrow frame, and concentrate on only one of the many levels of the elaboration of matter, preferably to th exclusion of all others. It therefore appears desirable to turn to a quite different mindset, less typical of the left hemisphere, in order to visualize matter in it entirely. Which is fortunate for us, since this is precisely a specialty of the other hemisphere.
We also need to imagine matter as a proces in which inconceivable possibillities are still latent, just as life or language were in the day of their emergence.
This being the case, let us take care never to reduce matter, in our usual absent-minded way, to the atomic, subatomic or even cellular levels. Innovation is currently being pursued at the highest levels of complexity which is now taht o the human mind and that of thought and of human society. The others have already run their course. They now belong to in the realm of fact – of the Latin factum est – and this is why they are accessible to scientific study.
One could perhaps imagine that one of our primate cousins might one day acquire the power of speech – Washoe, a female chimpanzee, had indeed learned the language of signs and had gone on to teach it to her young companions. But if anything of that kind should come about, as a result of some necessary transformations on the anatomical level, it would be no more than a repetition of something that our species has already achieved some 50 000 years ago.
For if the material world is not just a closed system, its future transformations will have to unfold at the experimental frontier of matter as it is now embodied in human thought which has become a virtual world which has a definite impact on the practicalities of life. This is the level at which being is still unfolding. As Bloch put it (once again): “Genes is at the end”.
It is consequently on this frontier alone that the as-yet-unexpressed potentialities of matter, still latent within us, that the first form of transcendence I have in mind may be said to reside – in the shape of the authentic and fundamentally innovative futur that Bloch distinguishes from the merely repetitive future. This is, in fact, the difference that is apparent between the living (which the right hemisphere understands so well) and the merely mechanical (which remains the preferred realm of the left hemisphere).
Indeed Bloch’s conception of matter as process is a typically holistic, right-hemisphere representation. As McGilchrist points out, you cannot hope to come up with a coherent conception of totality by the simple addition of the various parts, which is what the left hemisphere attempts to do. Any attempt on its part to cobble together a representation of the whole by assembling its parts will inevitably produce some sort of a Frankenstein monster. This strikes me as a telling illustration of the complementary nature of the two hemispheres, as presented by McGilchrist.
TRANSCENDANCE ACCORDIUBG TO PASCAL PICQ
The ideas of the paleontologist Pascal Picq suggest the possibility of a second form of transcendence, which is a consequence of the symbolic revolution. I mentioned it succinctly in my first post, but it is worth noting that the uniqueness of this revolution resides, according to Picq, in the fact that it was in no way an effect of biological evolution and that it by projecting our aspirations onto a symbol, it managed, up to a point, to free our species from causal determinism. From that time on, we becam our own cause thanks to the symbolic mediation of the gods who appeared to stand assembled on the walls of our caverns.
This brings to mind a remarkable mental patient who, as a result of his artistic talent, was made the subject of a documentary film I saw on French television some years ago. At one point he made this profound remark: “you cannot see the gods. You can only paint them”.
Let me speculate a bit. And as I do so, I’m inclinded to invoke the authority of Sigmund Freud who held that “without speculating or theorising – I’m tempted to say without fantasizing – one cannot progress by a single step”. So let’s fantasize by following up on a provided by James Février, in his History of Writing (Histoire de l’Ecriture) where he points out that man knew how to read long before he learned to write. Février naturally had in mind the spoors of the wild game that the first men had learned to decipher over tens, with a fine discrimination and of thousands of years, in the snow, the mud or the dust. Which may suggest that the first humans who thought to pick up a spiritual spoor were hunters and that, in doing this, they were still behaving like hunters.
Let’s suppose that one of our ancestors had the novel idea of sketching the spoor of a desirable piece of game he had spotted in order to prompt his brothers and cousins to join him in the hunt. One might also imagine that this same ancestor went on to paint a mark on a rock face, and there, to the extent that any picture or pattern solicits our right hemisphere, which is « interconnected, implicit and incarnate », (rather than distanced and objective), we may imagine that our first painter, and all the other member of his little group, began to view this outline as an authentic presence keeping them company and watching over them. And one might further suppose that this presence would, in time, appear to hem advice and counsel. Surely, this sort of advice could never be more than a reflection of what was unfolding within their own minds. The Iranian philosophers studied by Henry Corbin devised a perceptive philosophy of the imagination and held that: “in view of the transparency conferred upon (all symbolsà by the law of correspondences, all the events observed or related as unfolding outside the soul, are so many symbolic expressions of events unfolding within the soul, and the soul becomes aware of its own events, thanks to the transparency of their symbols”.
To conclude, this sudden, and truly astounding appearance of the symbolic function some 50 000 years ago, provided us with figures that seemed to be charged with intentions. These figures were obviously “outside”» nature, indeed white foreign to nature and to its determinist constraints And this was indeed so, since they were the bearers of an as yet unwitting human purpose. Thanks to these pictures and symbols, our ancestors were in a position to project their unacknowledged purpose upon an outward sign, and they could only discover what they had in mind by observing these figures and telling stories about them.
So it was only through such a projection upon the admirable and mysterious figures which they themselves had painted, that our ancestors became aware of these purpose and gradually leaned what it was they they really yearned for.
Unless I am much mistaken this situation still obtains to this day.
And this is how all sprits, angels, demons and gods were born, and appeared before us as the bearers and heralds of our ownaspirations. This too is, by definition, a transcendent realm, si none of us can hope to reach by stepping through th rock face on this these figures stood painted.
TRANSCENDANCE ACCORDING TO DONALD WINNICOTT
I’ve already mentioned Donald Winnicott, admired for his original and wonderfully perceptive theory of child analysis. The child, he says in substance, first explores the world by projecting a familiar object (a Teddy Bear, for instance) into a realm which is neither fully real not fully imaginary, but which lies in between the two. Winnicott calls it a transitional realm. The term is apt, for this realm is indeed an imaginary realm that gradually leads the child from his mother to the world. The best children’s books know this implicitly, and they lead the child into another world by way of a strange book, a painting, a seemingly ordinary cupboard or a white rabbit in formal attire. Some critics blame such books for “encouraging children to flee reality”’. The truth is quite the opposite, of course. The playful imagination is the main highway to the “real world”.
This transition world also stands a transcendence of sorts, and we don’t just leave it behind us when we row up, for it then becomes the realm of art, and even of religion. This is what Winnicott implies: religion itself is a transitional realm which allows people to project themselves outside the frame of the world in order to deal with the problems which they could not properly graps while remaining within it. This is also the essence of all culture. Members of our surprising species cannot live their life “for real” without having first experienced a life of “make believe”. And they cannot hope to interpret their real life without first having examined it in its make believe form.
What I have said about religion calls for further explanation.
Theologians make a distinction between the sacred and the divine. God is not sacred, of course, he is divine. The sacred, in the theological view, is “a person or an object of the natural world that mediates between humankind and the divine”. The Catholic vestments and the various objects used in religious ceremonies are sacred objects of this sort and, as such, they have an obvious kinship with the Teddy Bear that leads children into their transitional world. This is hardly surprising and the statement is not intended to demean the sacred objects, but rather to suggest that the weightiest matters, like our own selves, have small beginnings. God, all theologians agree, is invisible and unknowable. But the rituals of the Churches favor a relationship with God which must inevitable unfolds in a transitional realm. As this suggests, any work of art can also serve as a transitional object. That is indeed its primary function.
TRANSCENDANCE ACCORDING TO IAIN McGILCHRIST
I’ve quote Iain McGilchrist abundantly in my first post, and why should I not do so here as well, for he shines new and wonderfully useful light on many ancient disputes. (See http://www.iainmcgilchrist.com).
Consider what he says about the behavior of birds, whose brains, like our own, are bifid.
Sparrows, robbins and other birds, he says, share out certain tasks between the hemispheres and they do so exactly as we ourselves do.
When they survey the ground for seeds, they do so with their right eye, which allows their left hemisphere to focus its characteristically close and sharp attention upon a narrow field in order to sort out the coveted seeds and distinguish them from the surrounding gravel. This might be described as the specialized, small screen, black and white view of things. This highly specialized type of attention allows both birds and humans to manipulate things which, (like the seeds mixed into the gravel) may be described as “known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualized and explicit”. In this way, the left hemisphere produces clarity. But the world it displays is no more than a spectacle, an assemblage of objects which it considers with a singularly distanced eye.
Meanwhile, the bird’s left eye (which serves the right hemisphere) covers a vast panorama of the world (the full-color, wide screen you might say) populated with birds of the same feathern but also with predators, whose presence in the neighborhood he also needs to note.
For us, humans, too, the world of the right hemisphere appears to be inhabited by “individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings”. And we approach these beings not as objects (as does the other hemisphere), but as living beings with whom we are willing to establish a living relationship. In view of which this hemisphere is not so much a panoramic screen, as I suggested earlier, but rather a wide-open door that leads one into the very heart of life. It is this hemisphere which links us to others, but also relates to poems and works of art which are perceived as so many distinct individuals, not analytically, but globally.
Indeed, as I suggested in regard to the supposed attitude of our prehistoric ancestors, our relationship to art is not analytic but relational and the meaning of any work (poem, painting or play) does not unfold in the manner of a sequential analysis but in the form of a dialogue, as a global and living perception. This is still McGilchrist’s position.
The difference between the two approaches characteristic of each hemisphere becomes apparent in the relationship which each one establishes – or fails to establish – with the living world. And since the left hemisphere can only perceive the world as a spectacle or an assemblage of objects to be consumed, devoured or manipulated, it’s hardly surprising that it should be incapable of forming any form relationship with anything. Nor can one expect any form of ethics can hope to develop in this context. This last appears obvious enough in an industrial world almost exclusively ruled by attitudes characteristic of the left hemisphere.
This same distanced perception of the world also seems to account for what Guy Debord called “society as a spectacle”. This refers to a society shaped by a radical theory of manipulation and consumption – a truly autistic society, in fact, which only knows how to appropriate or devour things and people and hasn’t a clue as to the meaning of the word relationship. Under the circumstances, why should anyone be surprised to learn that employees working for certain large corporations are sometimes driven to suicide?
To complicate matters, the world of the right hemisphere lies quite beyond the awareness of the left. It does however appear that the right manages to devise ingenious ways of transmitting its judgments and constructive suggestions to its closest neighbors in the form of impulses, images, daydreams and occasional nighttime dreams. The intuitions of great artists, thinkers and scientists arise out of this unknown territory – others view it as a form of divine inspiration, which is easy enough to understand for, as so many wondered through the ages; where else can these images and visitations come from? .
It appears significant (and regrettable, too), that western civilization has failed to develop a philosophy of the imagination comparable to the one worked out by Moslem philosophers and mystics, particularly in Iran and as early as the 11th century,. This also led them to work out a theory which anticipates Winnicott’s transitional realm, after a fashion.. We should perhaps take a closer look at their achievements. (see Henry Corbin for further details).
Transcendence as Bloch understood it is ontological in nature; it differs radically form the transcendence of the philosophers of Antiquity and of the Scholastics, since it place Being the fullness of at the end rather than at the beginning of the world process. In Bloch’s sight, being develops gradually, in accordance with the principles of development characteristic of matter. He makes this notion palpable in the proposition I have already quoted: “Genesis is at the end”.
The transcendence which I deduce from the Pascal Picq’s theory is anthropological in nature to the extent that it allowed a group of sapiens to conjure up symbolic figures which allowed them to designate the still unaccomplished goal of our own humanization. The world is not as abominable as some may think. It just has not been properly humanized yet. And to the extent that we want it to be humanized, the decision rests with each one of us, individually.
The type of transcendence suggested by Winnicott is psychological and, its most readily intelligible form, it is an obvious part of daily life to every human child by the age of two or three. As for the transcendence suggested by McGilchrist (who does not actually describe it in these terms), is fundamentally functional and anatomical – the unknown which lies on the far side of our corpus callosum. I also suppose that it is the most persuasive of the lot, in the sight of a culture like our own which is a culture of the frame.
It would now seem that the human species has acquired a fairly substantial amount of information and concepts of the sort that we need if we are to work out a new representation of the world. But we must still undertake a fundamental revision of the way we picture this world, for the picture to which we currently subscribe remains deeply archaic, and this is so because we have forgotten how to use our imagination as a tool of knowledge.
And this, I believe, is the most urgent undertaking that now awaits us.
HERE BEGINS THE FIRST APPLE WHICH TOUCHES UPON THE DIVIDED BRAIN
Here is something I wrote some forty years ago:
“Polyphemus, with a single eye in the middle of his forehead, has made his home in the dark socket of a cave which he seals up with a heavy stone. Bottled up in there with his companions, Ulysses (who claims his name is Nobody), is destined to die. Polyphemus, according to his promise, is saving him for the last, but he will devour him in the end.
“Ulysses imprisoned is a figure of our present situation. Only we know that Ulysses will manage to escape, whereas in our own case nothing is assured”..
Having thus outlined our current predicament I went on to define:
“The mark of the Cyclops is that single round eye. He only has half of the vision that humans enjoy. The depth which our eyes perceive, and which allows us to move with ease about the world, is a product of those two distinct and apparently irreconcilable angles from which we approach all things: the lucid glance which seeks out the given and perceives all causes, and the prophetic glance, which senses the possible and defines our purpose. This double vision catches all things under two different aspects. Yet we do not sense this difference in everyday life, and our view of the world is a peculiar, paradoxical synthesis which fails to surprise us, until we stop to think”.
And I concluded that if we were to escape somehow from this cave, we would have to find some way to convert the Cyclops and make him admit “that part of the world lies beyond his grasp.”
“Suppose a beyond that might be foreign to the world that Polyphemus is capable of recognizing, but which would nonetheless be founded within it. Such a beyond, if it exists, would constitute the specific realm of the philosophy of culture, just as the realm of the philosophy of science is embodied in the propositions of the sciences of nature. Some sort of “outside the world” must be found if a meaning is to exist, an answer to the questions that solicit us. But if we are to escape from the sealed cave in which we have been trapped, this “outside” must also be made to appear legitimate to the hungry keeper blocking the exit. Polyphemus must be made to acknowledge that a portion of the world lies beyond his grasp, and that the propositions of the natural sciences do not account for every aspect of reality. As things now stand, however, Polyphemus is determined to take no other proposition into account“.
A Cyclops found in an abandonned garden
But how are we to achieve this? How can any argument hope to “convert the Cyclops” or make him realize that part of the world actually does lie beyond his grasp? I felt that the solution was there, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
The difficulty lies in the fact that the Cyclops can only acknowledge hard facts expressed sequentially in a denotative language.
Intuition and metaphor are not only taboo to him, they’re way over his head.
But then last year, I happened upon The Master and his Emissary The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, (Yale, 2009) by the Scottish psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Iain McGilchrist – (See http://www.iainmcgilchrist.com) – and I immediately realized that this man had indeed found a way of converting the Cyclops, and had laid out his plan in such exhaustive detail and in such unprecedented breadth that it could not fail to impress the world – and presumably the Cyclops himself. The reception has in fact been enthusiastic among scientists and laymen alike: it looked as though the sciences and the humanities had finally reached the end of their respectivbe tunnels and met halfway through the mountain.. Cheers on all sides!
And today, even as I post this on the web, the Royal Society of Arts in London is making ready for a workshop designed to shape a constructively critical response to McGilchrist’s thesis, a thesis which, it holds appears “profound, fundamental and exacting enough” to deserve such treatment. On November 5th, 2012, the Royal Society will meet to examine McGilchrist account of “how the relationship between our brain hemispheres plays out in the world” and to explore practical implications.
For as it now appears, the Cyclops is actually part of our own mind that has gotten somewhat out of hand, and his triumph in our own minds has given us the world in which we now live.
So far my preamble. And now, to substance.
Working as an art critic and historian, I could not fail to notice that out singular species is bilingual. We express ourselves in words and in pictures.
This duality is pretty obvious, really, and it results from a curious anatomical and functional duality whose huge significance the neurosciences have been making apparent over the past fifty years. It is not just a matter of the physical shape of the brain, (it is indeed, like a walnut in its shell, deeply divided down the middle) but also, and above all, of how the whole thing actually works. Our minds are divided this way because each half of the brain is specially “devised” to handle a task that the other half cannot fathom.
This has nothing to do with the fad that swept the world in the sixties and seventies, when it was assumed that one hemisphere (the right) was creative but inarticulate while the left was rational and loquacious. Spoilsport neuroscientists have since shown that this is not so. Both hemispheres are in fact involved in absolutely all the activities of the brain. And while it remains true that only the left hemisphere commands speech (not language, mark you), the difference between the hemispheres does not lie in what they do, but in how they does it.
McGilchrist makes this quite clear in the first section of his book, in which he sums up the findings piled up by the brain sciences over the past fifty years or so – an impressive synthesis supported by a bibliography listing 2500 sources. And perhaps the most important observation he makes at the very outset is precisely that one. We live in two different and incompatible worlds, he says, because “the world changes according to the type of attention we pay to it”.
This first part is followed by two others, one devoted to an overview of phenomenological philosophy which, as he points out, stubbornly sought to get a grip on this perceived but as yet unexplained duality and to evaluate its impact on how we perceive and know things. And finally, a third part offers an overview of western history from Greek Antiquity to the present.
This part suggests that cultural dispositions have at times favored a fruitful balance between the hemispheres (the Renaissance, for instance), while other times favored the dominance of the left hemisphere, a dominance which can at times become “an obstacle to human life” – to quote the forceful words of the philosopher Michael Steinberg: “the pretentions of language”, he writes, “have become and obstacle to human life”..
As it happens, and as my analogy of Ulysses and the Cyclops suggests, this is precisely our situation today.
But why should this sort of situation be deemed “an obstacle to human life”? ?
This is the question that McGilchrist seeks to address in his bool.
The right hemisphere, he points out, lacks the power of speech and can only express itself through images, but it is also the one constantly and directly connected to the living world. The left, meanwhile, remains so to speak in the rear, poring over the map it has drawn up and trying to decide what to do next. The problem with this hemisphere lies in the fact is sometimes inclined to respond to information from the other hemisphere in the manner of the legendary general who, hearing a scout complain that the map did not jibe with the terrain, brushed his complaint aside by declaring that “the terrain must be mistaken.”
This division of the brain is nonetheless useful and indeed indispensable, because it allows us to perform two incompatible tasks at the same time. Some tasks call for sharp attention to be paid to known facts isolated within a narrow field (chess, for instance, or picking berries, while others call for broad attention to a boundless field (looking for a lost dog, for instance). Taken together, notes McGilchrist, their conjunction may remind one of the exercises which consists in patting the top of our head with one hand while rubbing our tummy with the other.
In short, as he says in a lecture at the Royal Society for the Arts:
“The world of the left hemisphere is dependent on denotative language and abstraction. It yields clarity and the power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualized, explicit, disembodied general in nature but ultimately lifeless, within a closed system.
“The right hemisphere by contrast, yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings, within the context of the lived world but, in the nature of things, never fully graspable, never perfectly known, (as we think), and to this world it exists in a certain relationship rather than in an objective stance.
“The knowledge mediated by the left hemisphere however, as it lives in a closed system has the advantage of perfection, but this perfection is ultimately bought at the price of emptiness, of self-reference. It can mediates knowledge only in terms of a mechanical arrangement of things it already knows”. (See http://www.thersa.org/events/vision/vision-videos/iain-mcgilchrist.
These three short paragraphs put the whole matter into a nutshell, and if we weigh each word carefully, we should discover an unusually promising perspective. We should also bear in mind that the left hemisphere possesses the mastery, not of language but of speech (it is, as McGilchrist nicely puts it, “the Berlusconi of the brain, because it controls the media”), while the right is speechless, though it occasionally communicates its judgments, hopes and apprehensions through images.
This casts a radically new light on the origins of art, a does indeed a remarkable essay by the French paleontologist Pascal Picq (L’Humain à l’aube de l’humanité, dans Qu’est-ce que l’humain? le Pommier, Paris, 2003. pp. 63 seq.) who holds that the invention of the symbol, which launched the symbolic revolution (ca. – 50 000 ans) “was not a matter of species (in this instance of our own species, Homo Sapiens), but the achievement of a few populations of Homo Sapiens who, as far as we can tell, then lived in South Africa. These people invented and developed our Sapiens modes of symbolic representation… and once they had embarked upon this revolution it spread like wildfire across the Sapiens world”. This meant that this “revolution” was an extraordinary breakthrough, which heralded the dawn of human freedom. For this new-found form of symbolic expression allowed out species to set itself goals in the form of symbols and thus to take gradual charge if its own destiny.
From the very first day that the realm of symbolic representation opened its doors to our species it became an object of infinite philosophical and religious speculation, and finally, thanks to the huge amount of research piled up in the field of the neurosciences in recent decades, it stands revealed in its full biological and moral scope, not as something that is “merely” a matter of interaction between neurons, but a revolutionary achievement through which our species lifted itself to a new level of existence. For it is thanks to symbolic thought that our species began to reason in terms of purpose, rather that of mere needs.
We now know a good deal more about the interaction between the hemispheres than we did a few decades ago, but it nonetheless remains mysterious for two reasons. In part, no doubt, because we still don’t know all that much about it, but on the other, quite simply, because our left hemisphere hasn’t got a clue as to what is actually going on in the other half of our minds and never will. These limitations actually serve a purpose in both hemispheres – for both must be allowed to do their job without undue interference from the other. It remains, nonetheless, that while we clearly do need this radical separation between the hemispheres, a balanced personality and a balanced society can only be achieve when a balance is reached between the two.
This sort of balance is sometimes termed spiritual, and that’s no doubt what it is in fact, for while the symbolic world that we ourselves have brought into existence is indeed materially imprinted in our brains, is a construction of immaterial images and can easily give the impression of being inhabited by living and conscious entities. In fact, however, they are all an emanation of our bifid nature and they remain with us to this day in order to acquit themselves of an indispensable task.
Some of this may appear aggravating to those who have consented to let themselves be locked into the dogmatic perspectives that characterize the left hemisphere which, as McGilchrist points out, suffers from a severe handicap. It remains utterly convinced that it already knows everything and it also displays an unsettling degree of optimism in regard to its own capacities and to the consequences of its decisions.
All this calls for serious and sustained reflection, but I find no trace of any such reflection in an art world organized for the convenience of the market. It certainly opens new perspectives that appear rather more interesting than any “art theory” tailored to the needs of commerce, which rejects any authentic questioning with a determination that is hardly surprising in views of the financial rewards that are at stake.
McGilchrist’s views fortify me in my own conclusions which I reached as a result of the simple observation that the sapiens species, which came into existence some 200 000 years ago, only acquired the mastery of speech some 50 000 years ago. This means that our earliest ancestor managed quite brilliantly for 150 000 years (or some 7500 generations), during which they successfully survived, found their sustenance, brought up their children, and organized their annual migrations while reasoning solely in terms of images and patterns and without the slightest assistance from any form of spoken language.
This appears to suggest that the type of knowledge dispensed by the right hemisphere, (the Master of McGilchrist’s title), is more direct, more fundamental, subtler and richer in content than that provided by the left hemisphere (my Cyclops or McGilchrist’s usurping emissary), who nonetheless has the merit, in any balanced society, of providing a useful synthesis of our intuitive understanding of things.
Meanwhile, images emerge endlessly beneath the fingers , so to say, of our remote ancestorsand in their dreams and daydreams, like an manifestation of the wordless wisdom of the imaging hemisphere. The other hemisphere could not help seizing upon all of these and shaping another order of reality. This suggests that the human cognitive process as a whole takes its departure in the right hemisphere which works with the images and patterns that it perceives, and these only later come to the attention of the left hemisphere. And in this way a continuous dialogue unfolds within our own selves, between our two hemispheres and between ourselves and the world.
This also suggests that the present form of conceptualism in art almost always represents a reversal of the great mental Gulf Stream which drovee the human cognitive process from the outset. This process initially propelled the warm current of the image northward to the polar waters of the distanced intellect to infuse them with warmth. Today the cold current of the intellect is driven South to refrigerate the waters of the imaginative mind.
However fragmentary, these indications appear to open perspectives which deserve to be explored, to the extent at least that we care to shape a humanist approach to art – an approach which would understand that art is part of the human cognitive process, which depends all at once on the lived experience of the body and on the particularities of the brain.
The French philosopher Jean-Marie Schaeffer, in his remarkable L’art de l’âge moderne, comes to the conclusion that there can be no art in the absence of some form of transcendence. There now appears likely that this indispensable transcendence actually lies within us, lodged in the terra incognita of the right hemisphere, which no doubt also represents the better part of ourselves.
“If there is any mediator of wisdom”, Meister Eckhart declared with penetrating intuition some six centuries ago, “it is the image”. And I might add for the benefit of those who get flustered at the mere mention of this old spiritual master, that he was much admired, not only by Hegel and so many others, but also by the eminently materialistic philosopher Ernst Bloch, who was, incidentally, branded a “revisionist” and dismissed from his professorship in 1958, by order of the government of the German Democratic Republic.
What had been the nature of his crime? He had stood up before the frightened professors of the University of Leipzig at the height of the Soviet repression in Hungary and proclaimed in a strong voice: “it’s time we stopped play tiddlywinks and began to play chess”.
Michael Francis Gibson
For more information about MFG and his publications