Living Things and Dead Things

Concept                     -                  Idea
Man                           -                  God
Closed                       -                  Open
Limited                      -                  Unlimited
Conscious                  -                  Unconscious
Known                       -                  Unknown
Intentional                 -                  Accidental
Left hemisphere        -                  Right hemisphere

Concepts are devices with which we hold the world still. They are structures that we stand upon and live within; and when viewed from 'Middle World' they seem solid enough.

However, walk a little further out, or dig a little deeper, and their supposed solidity is thrown into question. When viewed from outside Middle World our structures are not as consistent, or as solid, as they first appear.

By believing in our structures - that they are solid, real - we are able to create grand illusions: vast organisations, towering buildings, complex bureaucracies. It is through putting our faith in the idea of permanence - through taking our games seriously, and our stories literally - that we have been able to construct the monumental edifice of Western society, with its many boons.

Perhaps this is one reason why traditional societies, like the Blackfoot - who were less inclined to view things as static, or solid - did not build such edifices. They did not take things seriously enough.

The Idea is the unity that has fallen into plurality by virtue of the temporal and spatial form of our intuitive apprehension.

The concept, on the other hand, is the unity once more produced out of plurality by means of abstraction through our faculty of reason;

the latter can be described as unitas post rem, and the former as unitas ante rem.

Finally we can express the distinction between concept and Idea figuratively, by saying that the concept is like a dead receptacle in which whatever has been put actually lies side by side, but from which no more can be taken out (by analytical judgements) than has been put in (by synthetical reflection).

The Idea, on the other hand, develops in him who has grasped it representations that are new as regards the concept of the same name; it is like a living organism, developing itself and endowed with generative force, which brings forth that which was not previously put into it.

Now it follows from all that has been said that the concept, useful as it is in life, serviceable, necessary, and productive as it is in science, is eternally barren and unproductive in art. The apprehended Idea, on the contrary, is the true and only source of every genuine work of art.

The generation, in other words the dull multitude of any time, itself knows only concepts and sticks to them; it therefore accepts mannered works with ready and loud applause. After a few years, however, these works become unpalatable, because the spirit of the times, in other words the prevailing concepts, in which alone those works could take root, has changed.

Only the genuine works that are drawn directly from nature and life remain eternally young and strong, like nature and life itself. For they belong to no age, but to mankind; and for this reason they are received with indifference by their own age to which they distained to conform; and because they indirectly and negatively exposed the errors of the age, they were recognized tardily and reluctantly.

Now, if the purpose of all art is the communication of the apprehended Idea, this Idea is then grasped by the man of weaker susceptibility and no productive capacity through the medium of the artist's mind, in which it appears isolated and purged of everything foreign;

further, if starting from the concept is objectionable in art, then we shall not be able to approve, when a work of art is intentionally and avowedly chosen to express a concept; this is the case in allegory.

An allegory is a work of art signifying something different from what it depicts. But that which is perceptive, and consequently the Idea as well, expresses itself immediately and completely, and does not require the medium of another thing through which it is outlined or suggested. Therefore that which is suggested and represented in this way by something quite different is always a concept, because it cannot itself be brought before perception.

Hence through the allegory a concept is always to be signified, and consequently the mind of the beholder has to be turned aside from the depicted representation of perception to one that is quite different, abstract, and not perceptive, and lies entirely outside the work of art. Here, therefore, the picture or statue is supposed to achieve what a written work achieves far more perfectly.

[...] certainly no great perfection in the work of art is demanded for what is here intended; on the contrary, it is enough if we see what the thing is supposed to be; for as soon as this is found, the end is reached, and the mind is then led on to quite a different kind of representation, to an abstract concept which was the end in view.

If in plastic and pictorial art we are led from what is immediately given to something else, this must always be a concept, because here only the abstract cannot be immediately given. But a concept can never be the source, and its communication can never be the aim, of a work of art. On the other hand, in poetry the concept is the material, the immediately given, and we can therefore very well leave it, in order to bring about something perceptive which is entirely different, and in which the end is attained.

[Arthur Schopenhauer]
The World as Will and Representation, p.234-7, 240

We continue the iconoclast habit and destroy images in religion and literature through allegory and in psychology through conceptual interpretation. (This kitten in your dream is your feeling function; this dog, your sexual desire; this great snake coiled in the corner is your unconscious, or mother, or anxiety.)

The image is slain and stuffed with concepts or vanishes into an abstraction.

[James Hillman]
Healing Fiction, p.70-1

I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. 

I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

[J.R.R. Tolkien]

Calling a story an allegory is intellectually lazy, unless the author intended it to be so. It tricks people into forcing themselves to accept one possible explanation for any story, if it has a "lesson." 

 On some level it is also insulting to an author to suggest that their entire work is a one-to-one substitution to an actual event, unless it is strictly intended. Calling an Onion article an allegory wouldn't be insulting, as each article specifically tackles an issue of choice; it is a lampooning of one aspect of modern culture per article, and the whole production of works is great, because of the format. But it is intended.

LotR is often considered an allegory to WWII, and the Ring has been compared to nuclear weaponry or even nationalism. I personally don't find any of those interpretations to hold much merit, as they lack any of the metaphysical aspects of the object in question.

I mean, really, it's magic.

Some allegories really are timeless lessons in philosophy and folk wisdom and should not be discounted. No one argues the conversation that can result from discussing the Allegory of the Cave or any of the Parables.

However, these allegories all have an intended purpose and point to them, as well as a specific audience that is intended to hear them. To reduce the entirety of the story of LotR into one lesson or one point is reductive.

'Why did Tolkien hate allegory?' 

[...] men, that is to say, are now writing only with the male side of their brains [...] It is the power of suggestion that one most misses, I thought, taking Mr B the critic in my hand and reading, very carefully and very dutifully, his remarks upon the art of poetry.

Very able they were, acute and full of learning; but the trouble was that his feelings no longer communicated; his mind seemed separated into different chambers; not a sound carried from one to the other.

Thus, when one takes a sentence of Mr B into the mind it falls plump to the ground - dead; but when one takes a sentence of Coleridge into the mind, it explodes and gives birth to all kinds of other ideas, and that is the only sort of writing of which one can say that it has the secret of perpetual life.

[Virginia Woolf]
A Room of One's Own, p.117

Critics who want to escape from the mysteriousness of the work try to replace it by the intention they ascribe to the artist.

A few years ago, Robert Klein argued that it is no longer possible to judge a painting or sculpture without knowing who made it and in what spirit. When we look at a contemporary painting in a gallery, we search for the artist’s name and the title of the painting, if it has one. We do this not out of mere helplessness or curiosity but in the hope of seeing the work as the fulfilment of an intention.

What Klein meant, I think, was that the work of art now persists chiefly as an indication of an intention; it is as an embodied intention that it can best be studied. It is comforting to be in the presence of intentions we understand because the considerations of psychology and economics aren’t at all mysterious—discussion of them is easy.

You’ll recall the incident, a few years ago, when the Tate Gallery paid good domestic cash for a work called 'Equivalent VIII', a load of bricks laid on the floor by the artist Carl Andre. Andre’s intention was far more interesting than the bricks or the order in which he assembled them.

'I sever matter from depiction,’ he said, ‘I am the Turner of matter’. He meant that in choosing bricks, metal plates, or bales of hay, he chooses things that are associated with particular uses, and he diverts them from those uses so that he can give them intrinsic existence.

(Andre's materials have not already become what their manufacturer wanted them finally to be: as, for instance, a car-mirror (Joseph Bueys) or a lavatory seat (Duchamp).)

Normally we look at things mainly for their use; we deal with them as we deal with the wallpaper in our rooms, we would notice it only if it was gone, torn or daubed with black paint.

Carl Andre wants much the same result. Looking at his bricks, we see them as such, as objects: the artist has forced us to pay attention. He doesn’t claim that there is anything sacred in the bricks themselves, or even in his way of disposing them.

Andre regards the artistic event as a combination of the artist’s intention and our way of receiving it. Is there anything against this? No, except that art in this sense can have no history other than that of its intention.

Once we have taken the point and resolved to amend our lives accordingly, there is nothing more to do. Like any one of Andy Warhol’s films, it is not necessary to see it, it’s enough to understand that it is there, and why.

[Denis Donoghue]
The Arts Without Mystery, p. 36

The way I think about making exhibitions is less about having an argument I’m trying to prove to the world - that this is the right way to think, or to see - it’s more a hypothetical story that I’m trying to tell.

I’m trying to keep it as open as possible, to provide lots of different entry points for different audiences. I’m not interested in trying to hammer away at people's perceptions to make sure they only see it one way.

I do an exhibition because I want to know what the show is about, and if I already did know what it was about then I would not find much interest in doing the show, because it just becomes an exercise in illustrating an argument I’ve already figured out.

For me its more exciting, and more alive, to [not know what it’s about].

[Anthony Huberman]
'Anthony Huberman on For the Blind Man…' 

While the Western world, and particularly Western science, converts the world into a series of concepts that can then be manipulated in the mind, such concepts do not come so easily in the Blackfoot language.

Their philosophy deals with relationships to individual things rather than to collections of similar objects, or ideas into fixed concepts.

Likewise names of things are not fixed. A person's name will change several times during his or her lifetime and to reflect particular deeds and attitudes. Neither is there a fixed concept of personality.

Indeed, while we find multiple personality to be a mental aberration, the Blackfoot would view someone who believed they had only a single self, more or less fixed for life, as missing out on the richness of life's possibilities.

In place of fixed laws and organizations the Blackfoot have networks of relationships with all living things, including rocks and trees, as well as compacts that were negotiated by their ancestors with the spirits and energies of the cosmos. In a world of flux each person has an obligation to renew these relationships and compacts.

And so the Blackfoot world is one of ceremony and responsibility and the recognition of life's basic impermanence. How different their vision of reality is from that which has created our vast organizations, multinationals, and government bureaucracies.

As yet the deeper meaning of quantum theory and process reality has not permeated into our general culture. However, the world of the Blackfoot does show that a society can function in a world of process.

[F. David Peat]
From Certainty to Uncertainty, p. 69-70

The contextual versus abstract distinction is illustrated by the different use of symbols by each hemisphere.

In one sense of the word, a symbol such as the rose is the focus or centre of an endless network of connotations which ramify through our physical and mental, personal and cultural, experience in life, literature and art: the strength of the symbol is in direct proportion to the power it has to convey an array of implicit meanings, which need to remain implicit to be powerful.

In this it is like a joke that has several layers of meaning - explaining them destroys its power.

The other sort of symbol could be exemplified by the red traffic light: its power lies in its use, and its use depends on a 1:1 mapping of the command 'stop' onto the colour red, which precludes ambiguity and has to be explicit.

This sort of symbolic function is in the realm of the left hemisphere, while the first type belongs to the realm of the right.

[Iain McGilchrist]
The Master and His Emissary, p. 51

Any work of art which is simply a copy, simply a piece of knowledge, something which, like science, is simply the product of careful observation and then of noting down in scrupulous terms what you have seen in a fully lucid, accurate and scientific manner - that is death.

Life in a work of art is analogous with - is some kind of quality the work has in common with - what we admire in nature, namely some kind of power, force, energy, life, vitality bursting forth.

That is why the great [works of art] are called great, because we see in them not merely the surface, not merely the technique, not merely the form which the artist, perhaps consciously, imposed, but also something of which the artist may not be wholly aware, namely the pulsations within him of some kind of infinite spirit of which he happens to be the particularly articulate and self-conscious representative.

When this is lacking, when the whole thing is wholly conventional, done according to rules, done in the full self-conscious blaze of complete awareness of what one is doing, the product is of necessity elegant, symmetrical and dead.

This is something to do with the notion of depth [...] According to the romantics [...] what I mean by depth, although they do not discuss it under that name, is inexhaustibility, unembraceability.

[...] in the case of works which are profound the more I say the more remains to be said. There is no doubt that, although I attempt to describe what their profundity consists in, as soon as I speak it becomes quite clear that, no matter how long I speak, new chasms open. No matter what I say I always have to leave three dots at the end.

'Can the sacred be seized?' asked Friedrich Schlegel, and he replied, 'No, it can never be seized because the mere imposition of form deforms it.'

[Isaiah Berlin]
The Roots of Romanticism, p. 98-9, 103-4

A thing explained is a thing we have no further concern with. - What did that god mean who counselled: 'know thyself!'? Does that perhaps mean: 'Have no further concern with thyself! become objective!'- And Socrates ? - And the man of science'? -

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
Beyond Good and Evil, 80

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