Addendum on Beholding

2 March 2010

Tuesday


Martin Schongauer’s treatment of the Ecce Homo theme — Behold the man! I once had the good fortune to see an exhibition of Schongauer’s graphic works, when I visited the famous Unter den linden Museum in Colmar, France, where I had made an aesthetic pilgrimage to see the Issenheim Altar.

A couple of days ago in What it Means to Behold I suggested that the relationship of beholding belongs to a unique epistemic category. I didn’t think of it at the time (though it seems obvious now), but the quote attributed to Paul Valéry that I have discussed on several occasions — to see is to forget the name of the thing one sees — could be said to exemplify at least one aspect of beholding.

There is, in the Valéry quote, a recognition of a mode of both perception and of cognition that has become removed from the familiar order of things. The suspension of familiar linguistic conventions and categories implied by the quote is part of this (and this is what the Russian formalists called “defamiliarization”). But beholding goes father than this. One could say that to behold is to forget the name of thing one beholds, and also to forget oneself and to forget the world entire. In the attitude of beholding there is the object that is beheld and nothing else, nothing more.

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