Friday


Last August I wrote about the possibly apocryphal quote from Paul Valéry: to see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. I mentioned then that I am fascinated by this quote and often return to it. I found myself thinking about it again recently and find that I have more to say on it. A good aphorism is pregnant with meaning and can always be the point of departure for another meditation, as a text of scripture can always be the point of departure for another sermon.

To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. What is meant by “seeing” in this context?

Seeing — true seeing, genuine seeing — is seeing that transcends the ordinary experience of seeing. The ordinary experience of seeing gets lost in conventions. People scarcely notice the things around them. As soon as a thing is seen, it is immediately assigned to some familiar category and no more attention is paid to. In this way, seeing becomes an exercise in identification, and identification draws upon a familiar conceptual scheme, a Weltanschauung in which there is a place for everything and everything is to be found in its place. Such “seeing” is little more than an excuse to dismiss things with a glance, to ignore the world.

To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. This encapsulation of an extraordinary kind of seeing immediately suggests another kind of seeing, the kind of seeing that is ordinary seeing. What is ordinary experience? What defines the mundane? There is a passage from a posthumously published fragment of Wittgenstein that comes to mind:

“Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing a man who thinks he is unobserved performing some quite simple everyday activity. Let us imagine a theatre; the curtain goes up and we see a man alone in a room, walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, sitting down, etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; it would be like watching a chapter of biography with our own eyes, — surely this would be uncanny and wonderful at the same time. We should be observing something more wonderful than anything a playwright could arrange to be acted or spoken on the stage: life itself. — But then we do see this every day without its making the slightest impression on us! True enough, but we do not see it from that point of view.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p. 4e

Wittgenstein here observes an unexpected coincidence of ordinary and extraordinary experience. For Wittgenstein, extraordinary seeing is simply a shift in perspective away from ordinary seeing. And ordinary seeing is not an excuse to ignore the world, as I wrote above, but is an immersion in the world. The Wittgensteinian conception of extraordinary experience is immanent; Wittgenstein rejects the transcendent as a source of the extraordinary.

I can imagine someone not getting the point of Wittgenstein’s example; it is more in the nature of a parable than an argument. And like most parables, it is inherently ambiguous. Wittgenstein was, after all, from Vienna: a crucible of modernity in which thoroughly modern ideas were no sooner given their initial formulation than they were dialectically confronted with their opposite number. As I have noted elsewhere, reflexivity is of the essence of modernity.

Should we seek the extraordinary variety of seeing invoked in the possibly apocryphal Valéry quote in ordinary experience? Is there a dialectic of ordinary and the extraordinary experience that would reveal seeing as the seeing the forgets itself as seeing? For Wittgenstein, it is a change of one’s point of view that renders the ordinary extraordinary. Presumably, also, there is a change in point of view that would render the extraordinary ordinary.

Is there a changed point of view that would give us extraordinary experience from our ordinary experience? Can we find an unexpected coincidence of the two through a shift in perspective? Can a change within oneself make one see as one has not seen before? What is true seeing, genuine seeing? Vision. Thus the seeing with which the quote is concerned is visionary seeing. How does one attain a vision?

The ordinary might converge upon the extraordinary through repetition. Repetitive rituals — essentially, iterations of ordinary experience — have long been employed to induce altered states of consciousness, that is to say, extraordinary experience. I wrote about this in Algorithms of Ecstasy.

But Valéry would not likely have been sympathetic to this. In his famous essay, “Man and the Sea Shell,” Valéry wrote, “…it is the nature of the intelligence to do away with the infinite and to abolish repetitions.” It is perhaps unreasonable to take this line from Valéry out of context, for it is a line that means something in its context. But it is not entirely unreasonable. Elsewhere Valéry makes explicit criticisms of Cantorianism and the Cantorian conception of the infinite, and the simplest way to the infinite is the endless iteration of anything.

There is also, in Valéry, an implicit criticism of the extraordinary, and this criticism could well be of a piece with his rejection of Cantor. If the quote that concerns us is indeed from Valéry, it is not a paean to outlandishness for the sake of outlandishness. For Valéry, Cantor is too outlandish. For Valéry, even extraordinary vision would be ordinary in a sense, finite to be sure, not the excrescence of an altered state of mind. And thus we find ourselves back at the coincidence and convertibility of ordinary and extraordinary experience, of mundane seeing and visionary seeing.

In the difference between the approaches to the extraordinary by way of the transcendent or the immanent, Valéry and Wittgenstein represent the immanent. Cantor perhaps represents the transcendent, though he had little to say regarding experience, whether ordinary or extraordinary. But perhaps a theory of extraordinary experience, hence visionary seeing, might be derived from Cantor, and, once derived, placed in transcendental contrast to the immanence of Valéry and Wittgenstein.

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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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Friday


Paul Valéry

Paul Valéry

To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.” This is a quote frequently attributed to Paul Valéry, and the line has a quality that is at once both searching and poetic, making the attribution reasonable. I don’t know if Valéry actually said it (I can’t find the source of the quote), but I think of this line every once in a while: my mind returns to it as to an object of fascination, like an intellectual fetish. A good aphorism is perennially pregnant with meaning, and always repays further meditation.

If seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, and mutatis mutandis for the aesthetic experiences that follow from the other senses — e.g., to taste is to forget the name of thing one tastes, and so forth — we may take the idea further and insist that it is the forgetting of not only the name but of all the linguistic (i.e., formal) accretions, all categorizations, and all predications, that enables us to experience the thing-in-itself (to employ a Kantian locution). What we are describing is the pursuit of prepredicative experience after the fact (to employ a Husserlian locution).

This is nothing other than the familiar theme of seeking a pure aesthetic experience unmediated by the intellect, undistracted by conceptualization, unmarred by thought — seeing without thinking the seen. In view of this, can we take the further step, beyond the generalization of naming, extending the conceit to all linguistic formalizations, so that we arrive at a pure aesthesis of thought? Can we say that to think is to forget the name of the thing one thinks?

The pure aesthesis of thought, to feel a thought as one feels an experience of the senses, would be thought unmediated by the conventions of naming, categories, predication, and all the familiar machinery of the intellect, i.e., thought unmediated by the accretions of consciousness. It would be thought without all that we usually think of as being thought. Is such thought even possible? Is this, perhaps, unconscious thought? Is Freud the proper model for a pure aesthesis of thought? Possible or not, conscious or not, Freudian or not, the pursuit of such thought would constitute an effort of thought that must enlarge our intellectual imagination, and the enlargement of our imagination is ultimately the enlargement of our world.

Wittgenstein famously wrote that the limits of my language are the limits of my world (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 5.6 — this is another wonderful aphorism that always repays further meditation). But the limits of language can be extended; we can systematically seek to transcend the limits of our language and thus the limits of our world, or we can augment our language and thus augment our world. Russell, Wittgenstein’s mentor and one-time collaborator, rather than focusing on limits of the self, developed an ethic of impersonal self-enlargement, i.e., the transgression of limits. In the last chapter of his The Problems of Philosophy Russell wrote:

All acquisition of knowledge is an enlargement of the Self, but this enlargement is best attained when it is not directly sought. It is obtained when the desire for knowledge is alone operative, by a study which does not wish in advance that its objects should have this or that character, but adapts the Self to the characters which it finds in its objects. This enlargement of Self is not obtained when, taking the Self as it is, we try to show that the world is so similar to this Self that knowledge of it is possible without any admission of what seems alien. The desire to prove this is a form of self-assertion and, like all self-assertion, it is an obstacle to the growth of Self which it desires, and of which the Self knows that it is capable. Self-assertion, in philosophic speculation as elsewhere, views the world as a means to its own ends; thus it makes the world of less account than Self, and the Self sets bounds to the greatness of its goods. In contemplation, on the contrary, we start from the not-Self, and through its greatness the boundaries of Self are enlarged; through the infinity of the universe the mind which contemplates it achieves some share in infinity.

The obvious extension of this conception of impersonal self-enlargement to an ethics of thought enjoins the self-enlargement of the intellect, the transgression of the limits of the intellect. It is the exercise of imagination that enlarges the intellect, and a great many human failures that we put to failures of understanding and cognition are in fact failures of imagination.

The moral obligation of self-enlargement is a duty of intellectual self-transgression. As Nietzsche put it: “A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions!”

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Since the above I have written more on the same in Of seeing and forgetting…

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Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Arthur William Russell (1872 – 1970) formulated an ethic of impersonal self-enlargement.

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