Dancing at the Border

Reality                              -                      Dream
Centre                               -                      Periphery
Consolidation                   -                      Exploration
Known                              -                      Unknown

Imaginative art forfeits interpretation and calls instead for a comparable act of imagination.

Your dream evokes a dream in me, mine in you - not literally as such, not mutual sharing and confession (which loses the image in personal subjectivism) - but dream as reveries, fantasy, imaginative response, a piece of soul-making whose aim is not hermeneutic, not a gesture of understanding.

Along the mirrored border one does not hear the language of meaning; understanding each other is not the aim and so translation falls away. There is instead a miming dance back and forth of the border guards, the greetings of images, exchange of gifts, ceremonies.

[James Hillman]
Healing Fiction, p.30

Whilst watching Synecdoche: New York I became aware that I was looking for a message; or rather, the message.

'What is this all about?' a worried voice within me urged. 'What can it all mean? ... maybe becoming aware of looking for a message is in fact the message ... '

Synecdoche is a bewildering experience, due in part to the way it consistently pulls the rug from under your feet, time and again denying the passive comfort of an overarching 'message' to make sense of things.

It made me think of how often we watch a film with this expectation; that, when the film ends, we will have had some kind of truth imparted to us: from the film - the active party, the one with something to say, something to tell - to us, the student, eager to receive.

Which isn't to say that Synecdoche is lacking in truth; in fact, the opposite seems to be the case - it feels like it is bursting with truths (as many truths as it has characters, which, including extras, is a lot), firing off in all directions, and often cancelling each other out.

Synecdoche is a time bomb for the mind, its detonation sending thoughts colliding into other thoughts in an ever-increasing flurry of synapses. It left me feeling excited and full of energy and ideas.

Through refusing to pin down a meaning, to point towards one path and say 'here, this is it!', it entertained possibilities, allowing the mind to explore numerous avenues of thought. Its possibilities engendered discussion, and the chance of more doors being flung open.

Its characters think, but they think for themselves, not for us. In this sense, the creation of meaning is in our hands; fiction compelling fiction.

Psychologist James Hillman describes this refusal to pin down meaning - to make it practical - as 'entertaining ideas': "For ideas to be therapeutic, that is, beneficial to the soul and body politic, they must gather into themselves, garnering force, building strength, like great movers of the mind's furniture, so that the space we inhabit is rearranged. Your thoughts, feelings, perceptions, memories have to move around in new ways, because the furniture has been moved."

The film facilitates this rearranging, providing the energy we may need for the move, whilst refusing to dictate what gets moved where: what we move, what we make, is our decision.

[What artists are doing is] going out into the unknown and representing it imaginatively. What does that painting mean? Well if the artist knew that he’d just write it down. The art is beyond what’s articulable; otherwise its not art, its just propaganda.

The artist and the dream are out on the frontier - that’s the open imagination. And so when you’re conceptualising new things, the dream and the imagination can bring you places that you don’t even know you can go.

[Jordan B. Peterson]
'2017 Personality Lecture 12: Phenomenology: Heidegger, Binswanger, Boss'

In a theatre, the audience is informed by the curtain and the framing of the stage that the action on stage is "only" a play [...] in dream, unless the sleeper be partly conscious of the fact of sleep, there is no curtain and no framing of the action. The partial negative - "This is only metaphor" - is absent.

I suggest that this absence of metacommunicative frames and the persistence in dream of pattern recognition are archaic characteristics in an evolutionary sense. If this be correct, then an understanding of dream should throw light both on how iconic communication operates among animals and on the mysterious evolutionary step from the iconic to the verbal.

Under the limitation imposed by the lack of a metacommunicative frame, it is clearly impossible for dream to make an indicative statement, either positive or negative.

As there can be no frame which labels the content as "metaphoric," so there can be no frame to label the content as "literal."

These characteristics of dream may be archaic, but it is important to remember that they are not obsolete:

that, as kinesic and paralinguistic communication has been elaborated into dance, music, and poetry, so also the logic of the dream has been elaborated into theatre and art.

[Gregory Bateson]
Steps to an Ecology of Mind ('Redundancy and Coding'), p.427-8

Walsh: Do you admire any living filmmakers?

Dumont: No, dead ones. I have a great admiration for the great filmmakers, for the poets; those who made of cinema a true art, cinema of poetry. I think of Bresson, Pasolini, Rossellini, people like that.

When I leave that sort of film I don't know what to think.

It takes me a long time to work over. The hour and a half in the cinema is not the end. Kiarostami is a great master.

These films nourish me for days, for years. Films that try to be spectacular, afterward, they leave you nothing

Walsh: Why do you make films?

Dumont: For that reason, to live. That is to say, not for money, but to make sense of things. To approach people, to reach people, to bring myself closer to them, to search: to live.

[Bruno Dumont]
Interview with David Walsh, full text here.

Asked why Anthology Film Archive has survived when so many other underground and alternative venues have been taken over and closed down, Mekas says 'It's because we are crazy! Everybody else had a more sensible way of thinking than us. They were practical, so they are no longer here.'

It's a vital thought. It reminds me why I keep trying to mess up my head with art.

It's art, rather than life, that keeps me crazy. And only the crazy survive.

Taken from his essay, 'Edinburgh 2002'

Of Miller's many and complex contributions, I want to single out his method. For it is less his assiduous scholarship, the research and ideas drawn from it, but the simultaneous deliteralizing of the scholarship and ideas by means of Adler's "junktim," the metaphor, the verbal juxtaposition, off-reversals and odd-combinations of thoughts, fields, and periods, especially through humour, that allows a sense of fiction to shine through every sentence.

His style opens into a psychotherapeutic method of intellect because it is a seriousness that prevents the ego's literal earnestness.

He attempts a poiesis of the borderline trying to keep the mind from breaking into divisions called sane and insane.

[James Hillman]
Healing Fiction, p.116

Andreyev: One of the things that fascinated me when I was a teenager is that I would be listening to a piece that might be extremely short, that might be two minutes long, but I would not be able to comprehend it. And that fascinated me, the idea that I would not be able to comprehend a piece of music. Obviously that has something to do with my personality, because not everybody is going to be fascinated by a piece of music that they find impenetrable.

Peterson: […] It’s a lovely thing to experience when you listen to something complex, say the fifth or sixth time, and pieces of it start to fall together. I had that experience with Bach’s ‘Well-tempered Clavier’ which I had to listen to maybe twenty times before I had anything remotely like enjoyment as a consequence. And that clicking together of those patterns also seems to be beautiful in some sense. Its like you meet the music with your understanding, and in that meeting […] is that tremendous revelation of beauty, and depth, and harmony […] it’s life-affirming.

Andreyev: I would say that being open to the possibility that you could enjoy something, even though its difficult going the first few times you listen to it, is probably a key aspect.

Peterson: That brings me back to this ‘contract’ between the composer and the listener. I think what stops a lot of people - and I would include myself in that, particularly with regard to avant-garde art - is that in order to put in the time and effort that would be necessary for me to understand and appreciate something like the ‘Well-tempered Clavier’ say, I have to trust that there’s actually something there and that I’m not just having the wool pulled over my eyes and that I’m some kind of fool.

The problem with a lot of avant-garde - at least the potential problem - is that its very difficult to dismiss the notion that you’re being played for a fool by tricksters and jokers and frauds. 

And of course you are more likely to be in that situation if you’re [approaching] something new. So I think part of people’s hesitancy and unwillingness to throw themselves into something that’s truly new is the suspicion that the emperor has no clothes and that they’re being played for a fool.

[Jordan Peterson and Samuel Andreyev]
'Interview with Composer Samuel Andreyev'

“I often think that the beauty of being an artist is that there’s no policing of fantasy, that the kind of liveness of the world is never calcified by art and, as precarious as the artist’s statement is, it at least suggests a sort of provisional way forward for thinking about the world at large.”

Artists are Sherlock Holmeses working on mysteries which are not criminal in nature but visual. And, like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, I expect their activities to save both themselves and me from boredom, and perhaps also from various kinds of soul-sapping anxieties, alienations and addictions.

The below-the-line / above-the-line tension [...] has always been particularly noticeable when mainstream media covers art. The comments under the Helen Marten Tateshot are familiar enough to be, unfortunately, exemplary. ATL (in the video itself, in other words) we get the statement that “there’s no policing of fantasy” [...] 

But below the line a very different tone prevails [...] BTL, the message is: art is bullshit designed for a 0.05% minority, The Shock of the New was published in 1981 and yet people are still trying to shock us with the new, “feck next year i should rub shit on a white canvess and call it shitty art” and — yes, that old chestnut! — “Remember the story about the emperor’s new clothes…?” (At least the apostrophe is in the right place.)

When Helen Marten talks about the world getting “calcified”, and art being a force that can keep our thinking supple, she means exactly this kind of sclerotic, reflexive dismissal, this kind of cliché-ridden, self-righteous conformism: the barking of the sheep.

In a Guardian interview about her Turner win she says that the exposure she’s had winning prizes “makes you realise that the art world as a whole is operating in a very hermetic bubble of sign language that is not necessarily generous to a wider public audience which is not initiated in that kind of language or visual information. Putting something here and seeing what the public perception of it is is very humbling and educational, it makes you think maybe my work is not universal, maybe the themes I’m employing are not immediately understandable.”

Personally, I hope that Marten isn’t too humbled, and doesn’t change her working methods. Art has a lot more to teach the BTL world than it has to learn from it, and the fact that BTL people are inherently resistant to education (believing that emperors are naked, bureaucrats post-factual and experts wrong) is not a reason why porous, curious and sensitive people — experts in their fields, no matter how esoteric — should buckle under, deciding to change themselves instead of changing the world. The bozos and bumpkins of this world may not know it, but they need bigger, better, less calcified heads.


Anyone who proposes to manage the arts can claim at least this justification, that the arts are themselves ways of managing more primitive impulses.

Form is management: or if you want to think of it rhetorically, it is a paper chase in which the artist carefully drops bits of paper, arbitrarily, as it seems, but not sufficiently arbitrarily to prevent a competent initiate from picking up the trail and sensing the master’s direction.

The master, in other words, leads the initiate a dance that, seen from the vantage point of a successful conclusion, can be regarded as having been merry.

What more piquant, as a form of management, than that the manager should arouse one’s desires, frustrate them, thus intensifying them, and eventually relent sufficiently to satisfy them; ideally, just when the victim is on the point of deleting the whole episode, as in rage?

[Denis Donoghue]
The Arts Without Mystery, p. 82

In childhood, experience is relatively unalloyed by re-presentation: experience has ‘the glory and the freshness of a dream’, as Wordsworth expressed it.

Childhood represents innocence, not in some moral sense, but in the sense of offering what the phenomenologists thought of as the pre-conceptual immediacy of experience (the world before the left hemisphere has deadened it to familiarity).

How to recapture this in adulthood? Wordsworth's answer is given in his entire life's work: in and through poetry, which with its reliance on metaphor and implicit meaning allows the right hemisphere to circumvent the ordinary processes of everyday language which inevitably return us to the familiar, and reduce the numinous to the quotidian.

Language, a principally left-hemisphere function, tends, as Nietzsche said, to ‘make the uncommon common’: the general currency of vocabulary returns the vibrant multiplicity of experience to the same few, worn coins.

Poetry, however, by its exploitation of non-literal language and connotation, makes use of the right hemisphere's faculty for metaphor, nuance and a broad, complex field of association to reverse this tendency.

‘Poetry’, in Shelley's famous formulation, ‘lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar … It creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.’

[...] It was this authentic ‘presencing’ of the world that Romantic poetry aimed to recapture [...]

[Iain McGilchrist]
The Master and his Emissary, p. 359, 373, 378

Related posts:-
Centre / Periphery
Living Things and Dead Things
The Shock of the Unintelligible
Entertaining Ideas
Stay with the Image 
Contain Conflict
Memory Lane
Where language ends and art begins
Escaping Uncertainty
Open Wound
The Colour Wheel
Making Connections
Active Imagination
Separations and Bridges
The Space Between
Create or Consume? 
Wild Things
Step toward madness
Boxed Off
Do Not Disturb
Status Quo
Joining the dots
Be Yourself 
Mind Your Language