What it Means to Behold

28 February 2010


All of the examples I mention below are musical, but I also experienced what it is like to behold in the presence of the Nike of Samothrace.

Near the end of Music, Mathematic, Phenomenology I made an observation to the effect that early modern vocal polyphony constitutes, “a particularly systematic and thorough method for attaining to a consciousness in which the music that one hears ‘disappears’ in terms of any utilitarian or instrumental presence and becomes something that can only be beheld.” This is not the happiest formulation I might have arrived at, but I realized as soon as I wrote it that there is something of importance in the thought, however imperfectly expressed. I find myself once again groping toward an adequate formulation for which I do not yet have the right words, and I beg the reader’s indulgence in following me so far as possible in this context of discovery, knowing how different it can be from the context of justification.

What is important in the above formulation is the emergence of what it is to behold as a category of perception and, more importantly yet, as a category of thought. What is it to behold? What is it to be beheld? What is beholding? Has beholding ever been properly the focus of philosophical analysis? if not, it certainly should be, for it represents a unique, sui generis relation to the world, or, rather, to the object that is beheld.

I‘ve started my research into what it is to behold by skimming some of my philosophical dictionaries. There is nothing in Antony Flew’s Dictionary of Philosophy (Revised Second edition), nothing in Mario Bunge’s iconoclastic Dictionary of Philosophy, nothing in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy edited by Robert Audi, nothing in the old Runes Dictionary of Philosophy: Ancient-Medieval-Modern, nothing in the Edwards Encyclopedia of Philosophy (neither article nor index), nothing in The New Dictionary of Existentialism from St. Elmo Nauman, Jr., no index entry on “behold” or any cognate in A Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations edited by A. J. Ayer and Jane O’Grady, nothing in the index volume of the Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Are you noticing the pattern that I’m noticing? The next step would be to start looking in the indices of a more broadly-chosen sample of philosophical works. Perhaps I might find something in the philosophy of religion, but my personal library is pretty thin in that area, so it will have to wait until later.

I have, next to me, an old paperback copy of The Writings of Martin Buber (edited by Will Herberg), and it strikes me at the moment that there is something of the I-Thou relationship in the experience of beholding. Reading a few pages into I and Thou I can find many suggestive quotes, such as, “The Thou meets me in grace — it is not found by seeking.” So far, so good. But then Buber writes, “The Thou meets me.” Well, what I understand so far about beholding, as I conceive it and as I experience it, does not involve the beheld object as meeting the beholder. One of the paradoxical things about the relationship of beholding is that it is clearly a two term relationship — x beholds y, as it were — but it is not a relationship of any kind of reciprocity.

In the language of the logic of relations, x beholds y doesn’t seem to exemplify any of the usual categories, but does not necessarily escape these categories either. We cannot rule out symmetry, as the object we behold may behold us in turn, but we can’t count on it either. Similarly, we must acknowledge the possibility that one might behold oneself, making the relation of beholding possibly reflexive. The relation of beholding does not seem to be transitive, as it seems unlikely to hold that if I behold x and x beholds y, then I will also behold y. Possible, yes, but not likely.

I started thinking about beholding as a result of listening to Monteverdi’s madrigals, specifically Book VI. I just now finished listening to Beethoven’s Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131. Beethoven’s late quartets are profoundly meditative works, and one must bring considerable powers both of concentration and reflection to one’s listening. I cannot pretend that I do justice to Beethoven’s quartets. But as soon as I say, “one must bring…” I am acknowledging that, whatever the profundity of Beethoven’s late quartets, the listener can in fact bring something to them. The difference here is that one can bring nothing to the great works of early renaissance vocal polyphony. Thus one brings nothing to the relationship of beholding.

The object that is beheld thrusts the beholder out of the causal order. As long as one beholds, and to the extent that one beholds, one can do nothing except behold. For this reason I compared the experience of beholding to the phenomenological epoché, because it would appear that both involve a suspension of the natural standpoint and a turn away from any consideration of existence. Both exemplify an anti-ontological stance. But what is otherwise than being (to borrow a phrase from Levinas) is difficult in the extreme to characterize in any thorough, systematic, or rigorous way. But this is at least one thing that makes the music of Claudio Monteverdi, Luzzasco Luzzaschi, Michelangelo Rossi, and, certainly not least, Palestrina so astonishing: it is thorough, systematic, and rigorous.

Like Husserl’s rigorous method for attaining an intuitive grasp upon the world, music also constitutes a rigorous method for attaining intuitions. Paul Klee wrote in his Credo, “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” (“Kunst gibt nicht das Sichtbare wieder, sondern macht sichtbar.”) In the same spirit we can say that music does not reproduce the audible; rather, it makes the audible. And, in a sense, in so far as it makes the audible, it makes the world… if we will but listen with the mind’s ear.

I can easily imagine writing an entire treatise on the attitude of beholding; it is a concept that suggests a wealth of exposition.

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