Prolegomenon to the Writing About Art

A Prolegomenon to the Writing
of a Thesis or Essay
upon a Work of Art

Junior Essay, 1970

“Nature, the art whereby God has made and governs the world, is by the art of men, as in many other things, so in this also imitated.”

Hobbes’ Leviathan

Much of men’s intellectual endeavor is divided among scientists, historians, and artists. Let us look at some authors which fall under these broad categories:
Scientists Historians Artists
Aristotle Herodotus Homer
Euclid Plutarch Plato
Appolonius Thucydides Aeschylus
Ptolemy Tacitus Sophocles
Copernicus Gibbon Euripides
Kepler Virgil
Descartes Bible
Newton Dante
Galileo Chaucer
Lucretius Rabelais
Lavoisier Shakespeare
Dalton Cerventes
Avogadro Milton
Galen Swift
Mendel Fielding

Any such generalization as this is a problematic one, to be sure. Some will complain that Lucretius wrote in dactyls, that Galileo wrote a dialogue, that Thucydides availed himself of poetic license in recording the plague of Athens, that Homer was an historian, that Plato was a philosopher, or that the Bible is a work of divine revelation. Others will ask “Where are the philosophers and the theologians?”. But this classification must be regarded as a device by which I will familiarize the reader with the subtle and delicate problem which has goaded me into this writing. I think the reader will soon see the great utility of this generalization and will forgive it for any secondary difficulties which it may introduce.

Scientist attempt to render understandable those things which are outside of men’s authorship and whose laws are not obvious. Such things have traditionally been called nature, a term which is difficult to use with precision.

Historians record those factual events which men are authors of, but authors only in a partial sense of the word. For though these events are indeed products of men’s wilful actions, men are not full masters of these products, neither always anticipating their outcome nor always understanding the reason for their outcome. Historians speculate upon the thoughts and motivations of men in order to gain some knowledge, not of the art of causing events to happen as they ought, but of how and why they happened as they once did, in order to recognize the signs of present change.

Art is concerned with those things which men are author of in the full sense of the word; poems, novels, plays, and dialogues. The artist is free to create whatever he desires; characters, events, moral codes, and deities, He is in full control of their behavior.

The endeavor of art is divided among the few authors who create works and the countless numbers who read and interpret them. Men see art as more than mere narrative, description, and beautiful language. To them a work of art is a seeming diversity which has been organized by the artist with great design and intention. men study and write upon works of art in the hopes of explaining the design and intention of the author. The problems which a work of art presents are problems of the artist’s own invention It would seem that men could most easily find solutions to problems which are other men’s inventions.

My assumption is that men do not persist in that which is hopeless nor dwell upon that which is obvious. In any intellectual endeavor, men seek that which they may call true and certain. Sciences grow and are accumulative in these truths. QUestions, once answered, need no longer be asked again as other than rhetorical questions. A majority of men can be persuaded of the truths which the sciences possess. Several scientists will arrive at the same conclusions independently of one another. The enterprise of art is dissimilar from that of science in these respects. In a period of forty years, four men, Mendel, de Vries, Correns, and Tschermak, independently of one another discovered the basic laws of heredity. Yet the two thousand years of uninterrupted conjecture upon Homer, Plato, and the Bible show none of the striking examples of such independent concurrence which the sciences have to offer but, on the contrary, considerable discord and schism. The circulation of the blood has been proved. We know that the earth moves. We know that matter is composed of atoms. But why do Aeneas and the Sibyl leave Hades thought eh gate of false dreams? Were such questions in a work of art answerable, as those who write upon works of art presume, then such a writing would be a science of which one could say “Learn it and it will convince you irresistibly and irrevocably of the truth.”1 Yet writings upon works of art bear no such irresistible and irrevocable character. If such questions in a work of art were unanswerable, men would cease their efforts. Intelligent men no longer attempt to square the circle. Yet men study art and nature with equal zeal. The fact that men continually endeavor to interpret works of art indicates that they consider art to be comprehensible and see hope for success. I have been lead by all of the above considerations to ask of those who would write upon works of art the question which Kant asked of Metaphysics. “If it is a science, why can it not, like other sciences, obtain universal and permanent recognition? If it is not, how can it keep the human mind in suspense with hopes, never ceasing, yet never being fulfilled.?” 2

At this point, the reader may accuse me of having made the foolish blunder of asking of art “Why are you not a science?” or of asking that works of art be treated scientifically. With what right do I ask writers on works of art if they have a science? I shall appeal to the distinction between implicit and explicit writing in order to vindicate myself.

Of the scientists, the historians, and the artists; the works of the scientists are the most explicit and unequivocal, the works of the historians are in some places explicit and in other places equivocal and implicit, and the works of the artists are the most implicit and equivocal. In fact, it is by considering the degree of explicitness and implicitness in a writing that I judge it to be scientific, historical, or artistic. The scientist and the historian stand before their work as its author and openly admit that they are asserting in their work what they believe to the the truth. The artist does not stand before his work as its author. The artist may present his work anonymously, or present himself as the witness of a dialogue, as the narrator of an event, as the mouthpiece of a divinity, or as the translator of someone else’s work. One reads an explicit book in a manner different from that in which he reads a book which he believes to be implicit and veiled. One takes the explicit author seriously on his major assertions and pardons any small peculiarities and variations in his language. The implicit author makes no assertions for the very reason that he has written in an implicit style. One scrutinizes with the greatest care the smallest peculiarity or variation in his language in order to form an hypothesis as to that to which the author is alluding. And explicit work makes one uniform assertion. A work of art, in one sense, asserts nothing, and, in another sense, asserts may things. In light of today’s knowledge, Aristotle is in error in certain of his assertions concerning astronomy and biology. Plato, however, is in no way wrong by today’s knowledge, nor can any conceivable discovery place him in error. This is because the Dialogues do not admit of error in the same manner that De Caelo or Historia Animalium. The author of a treatise is subservient ot his subject. The burden of explaining the subject rests upon him. He must make overt assertions and denials concerning his subject and then must account to us for any inadequacies which we ay find in thim. The artist is first creator and then master of his subject. The burden of understanding his work is upon us and it is we who must account to ourselves for our own inadequacies in the face of his artistic perfection. If we cannot comprehend the designs which a mortal has woven in words, so much less can we hope to comprehend divine designs woven not in words but in objects, space, time, and in ourselves. Paradox, which is awkwardness in a science, is beauty in a work of art. Self-contradiction, the downfall of an expository writer, is for the artist, being at his height. Nature and works of art are both veiled creations. Those who write on works of art are in the same relation to the work as scientists are to nature. Both take that which appears to them as diversity hidden laws which may be uncovered and articulated in an explicit fashion. It is by this that I justify myself in asking of those who write upon works of art whether they have a science.

I will now investigate the realms of the explicit and the implicit in order to determine the possibility of writing a paper which must be explicit upon a work which is implicit, a work of art. I choose Pascal as my Virgil, to lead me through these realms, because he was a man capable of moving through both science and art. The very fact that he articulated the difference between l’esprit de geometrie and l’esprit de finesse indicates that he was a rare man endowed with both spirits.

Laboring to show that Christianity is the one true religion, Pascal set himself three tasks in the Pensees; to determine the nature of man and his ills, to reconcile both by literary and historical means the Old Testament with the New Testament, and to show how a true religion provides all the necessary remedies for man’s ills. In all three tasks, Pascal employed the concept of opposing extremes as a device to aid him, much as a physicist employs calculus to aid himself in the study of nature. I am laboring to show that a genuine thesis cannot be written upon a true work of art. I must determine the nature of man, reconcile the works of art with the theses, and show how a true work of art best serves the nexus of human nature. I too, as I draw my conclusions, will resort ot the concept of extremes. This concept of extremes might be called a calculus of art. It is an exceedingly important concept which should be studied in great detail by anyone who would write upon a work of art. We may begin this study as I accompany Pascal on his journey.

The Nature of Man

(72)-“What is is man in Nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, and All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything.” Pascal sees man as the bastard offspring of an illicit affair between beauty and ugliness, heir to opposite qualities at war within hi sbreast, abandoned to aimless wandering through a wilderness of extremes. Even the virtues within him, such as courage and gentleness, are in conflict with one another. Virtues themselves may become vies when carried to extremes: courage becomes mania, gentleness becomes cowardice. In order to avoid such extremes, man must possess both a virtue and its opposite. The mean is best.

Man looks at nature and sees the beasts of whom he is lord. And yet he knows he is not lor of nature. He sees only one half of a proportion clearly. Man is a divine among beasts. But he is also an animal. Is there something which stands above man in the same ration with which man stands above the beasts, so that one may say “As man is to the beasts, so is this to man?” He searches nature for something to complete the proportion. This third term could only be a god. He looks to nature and sees neither the manifest presence of a god nor manifest evidence that there is no god, but only the implications of a god who hides himself. “Perhaps there is not third term”, he says. “Perhaps I am only a beast. But if I am only a beast, what despair! What can I hope for? All my striving for virtue is to no avail. I remain a beast and there is no one to see me in my righteousness. The road to virtue is such a painstaking journey to make. Why deny myself the pleasures which other beasts enjoy?” But in thinking himself a beast, man falls prey to appetites more insidious than any beast knows. They gnaw at his soul. “I have no proof that I am not a beast. But I still I know I cannot be a beast, for to believe so gies rise to so many evils. Perhaps I am a god, the only god of which feeble nature is capable.” elieving that he is a god, he refrains from every sin except the greatest sin of all, pride. It gnaws at his heart. “I have no proof that I am not a god. But still, I know I cannot be a god, for to believe so gives rise to the greatest evil.”

The implicitness in nature is imitated by the implicitness which the reader finds in the work of art. Man’s search for God in nature is the reader’s search for the author in the work of art. There are strong analogies between the author of a work of art, which is an imitation of reality; God, who is the divine author of reality itself; the reader, who searches the work for the intentions of the author; and the scientist, who searches reality for those laws placed there by God. These analogies may be expressed in the following two proportions: author : work :: God : nature , reader : work :: scientist : nature.

Now art is a unique imitation of Nature. The degree of perfection in the words, deeds, and circumstances of a work exists in the world only in such isolated and unconnected instances as are sufficient to suggest to the artist that higher degrees of perfection could exist in a work. One generally thinks of an imitation as having a lesser degree of perfection than its imitation, the work of art. By the above criterion, nature would appear as an imitator of art rather than as it’s model. This is the deceptive quality of art to which a reader easily and perhaps fortunately may succumb. I say fortunately because I believe that morality is more important to man than the truth to be found in science. The truth of an hypothesis or theory lies in how accurately it accounts for the phenomena, say the setting of a star. The truth of an history lies in how accurately it corresponds to and accounts for actual events, say the decline of a nation. The truth of art lies in how it affects the man who cherishes it, whether it leads him to a better or a worse way of life. We must consider whether art may afford a device to maintain man in a mean-extremes relationship.

It is a wondrous empirical fact that the mean-extremes relationship manifests itself in several authors. Homer portrays Odysseus as the mean between swift-footed Achilles and Ajax, “The Wall”, 1 . Plato portrays Theaetetus as the perfect blend of quickness of intelligence and gentleness of spirit.2 Socrates is both the gadfly who stings the despairing with myth, and the “narke” (stingray) who numbs the pretentious with refutation.3 The mean is implicit in the inscription at the Delphic Oracle, “Meden Agan”.4 Virgil places Aeneas between the arms and the man , the alternatives of fighting in defence and of fleeing for self-preservation.5 Dante’s Divine Comedy is a journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven. The Inferno is set into motion by three beasts; a lion, a spotted leopard, and a she-wolf.6 Satan has three heads whose jaws hold Judas, Cassius, and Brutus.7 Each book consists of thirty-three cantos. Pascal initially presents the Bible as a problem of extremes and the mean. Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained is patterned after Pascal’s notion of Adam-Christ.8 Heaven is at thrice the earth’s radius’ remove from hell.9 One third of the angels fall with Satan. 10 Swift placed Gulliver as a mean both between the Lilliputians and the Brobdingnagians and also the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms. The various mechanisms of innuendo at the artist’s command do not prescribe or limit the sorts of things which may be connoted. Each author might employ this machinery to imply any number of relationships which might together bear no characteristic similarity with one another. We must therefore consider why it is that this mean-extremes relationship manifests itself in this way, never neglecting the possibility that the mean-extremes relationship may be not only an empirical fact but also an intellectually necessary law for human nature, and so fundamental a law that all worthy authors must address themselves to it in their works.

Pascal finds a strange inversion in human nature. Man dwells upon trifling problems and is insensible to those of the greatest concern, such as death and afterlife. He desires peace from striving after all his desires and yet the few moments of peace which he can achieve are filled with the melancholy of self-contemplation. And yet self-contemplation and the consideration of great problems are necessary for his well-being.

Poetry has often been called an idle pursuit. Men look upon art as a diversion. Men turn to art to escape their trifling problems. Yet when men seek diversion in art, their gaze is unwittingly turned to the greatest problems and to introspection. Art, in distracting man from himself and his petty problems, turns him to himself and his greatest problems.

Pascal asks, “What remedy is there to maintain man in this mean?” He turns to philosophy but finds no answers. Philosophy too is plagued with extremes; the dogmatists and the skeptics, the Stoics and the Epicurians. He turns to religion for an answer. I turn to works of art, for works of religion are unique productions of mortal and, perhaps, divine art. “But which is the true religion?”, he asks. I ask, “What is the true work of art?”

The true religion must be the center to which all things tend historically, it must not be at odds with itself, if it is to be comprehensible. It must teach man his ills and their cause, and it must provide a remedy for his ills. Pascal turns to the Bible in search of the true religion.

Historical Justification of the Bible

The jews are a people who have existed longer than any other. They are the most persecuted race of men, and yet they have miraculously survived longer than any other. Their preservation was foretold in prophesy. They have always prophesied the coming of a savior who would redeem them. Christ was born in the manner prophesied and proclaimed himself their savior. The figure of Christ is an historical center. The majority of the Jews rejected Jesus as their true savior.

Literary Justification of the Bible

The old Testament is filled with obscurities, contradictions, and paradoxes. We must see through the obscurities, find one meaning which resolves all contradictions, and be taught the necessity for the existence of paradoxes if we are to rely upon the Old Testament as a testimony to the Christian religion. Why was the Old Testament written in this manner?

Pascal shows the Old testament to have two levels of meaning, a carnal and a spiritual. David foretold that a Messiah would deliver the people from their enemies. The carnal meaning of the word enemies signified the Babylonians. The spiritual meaning signified mens’ sins, which are also their enemies. Without the carnal meaning, which the Jews loved, to conceal the spiritual meaning, which they hated, the books would not have been preserved. It was necessary that the Jews not see the spiritual meaning, in order that they might reject Christ when He came, thus fulfilling the prophesy. Otherwise the testimony of the Jews would not have been credible. But the spiritual meaning could not be hidden to all, for then it would not have served as a proof of the Messiah. The figures of the Old Testament, with their explicit carnal meaning and their implicit spiritual meaning, act as touchstones for the hearts of these men who read them. He who supposes the carnal meaning has a carnal heart. He who supposes the spiritual meaning has a spiritual heart. Why are works of art written in an implicit manner? Men have a need to exercise the faculties of their minds. THis need may be satisfied through discovery in art. The sensation of discovery in science is what art imitates. Discovering an interpretation in a work of art gives a feeling of satisfaction which is an imitation of the sensation of discovering order in nature in the form of a physical law or a geometric proposition. Physics and geometry are less available to men than art is, for those two disciplines require long, difficult study. Few may participate in science and mathematics and yet many have a need for insight and discovery.

Any who doubt the Bible’s status as a work of art will understand why I have placed it in this category if they consider Pascal’s treatment of the Old Testament; (690) “The Old Testament is a cipher.” Jesus and the Gospel writers are to the old testament what thesis writers are to the works of art. (677) “How greatly then ought we to value those who interpret the cipher, and teach us to understand hidden meaning, especially if the principles which they educe are perfectly clear and natural! This is what Jesus Christ did, and the Apostles, they broke the seal; He rent the veil and revealed the spirit.”

All contradictions are resolved in Christ. He is typified by Joseph. Both are betrayed and sold. Both are between two criminals. (552)”Jesus is in a garden, not of delight as the first Adam, where he lost himself and the whole human race, but in one of agony, where he saved himself and the whole human race.”

Christianity as the Remedy for Man’s Ills

It is for our best interests that we both see and do not see God. For in seeing and not seeing we recognize both our former greatness, and the fact that we have lost it. The obscurity makes man sensible of his corruption. Knowing God without knowing his wretchedness makes man prideful, knowing his wretchedness without knowing God causes his despair. Adam and the mystery of the Fall teach man both his former greatness and his present wretchedness. Christ keeps man in the mean between pride and dispair.

We are subject to pride as we feel ourselves approaching an understanding of the subtleties of a great author and to dispair as our certainty disappears.

Whenever, in the Old Testament, God manifests himself to the Jews, they would become prideful, seeing His glory and their likeness to Him. This would anger God and He would withdraw from the Jews and conceal Himself. They would then fall to dispair and sin. The Psalms are a succession of praises and lamentations. There was no middle ground for man and God. Christ was a union of God’s glory and man’s wretchedness. Man could praise Christ’s glory without falling prey to pride, for he would also see His wretchedness. Man could humble himself before Christ without falling into dispair, for he would also see His greatness.

Pascal summarized the remedy of Christianity tersely. (435) “So making those tremble whom it justifies, and consoling those whom it condemns, religion so justly tempers fear with hope through that double capacity of grace and sin, common to all, that it humbles infinitely more than reason alone can do, but without dispair; and it exalts infinitely more than natural pride, but without inflating; thus making it evident that alone being exempt from error and vice, it alone fulfills the duty of instructing and correcting men.”

I must now answer my own question concerning the true work of art and show how the true work of art, if it exists, can serve man’s needs.

One may imagine three kinds of works. A work of art may be so obscure as to render no hope of comprehension. Such a work would be the foolish product of an author who had not meaning to convey. If all works of art were like this, men might resort to the beauty of their language as a pleasant source of diversion from themselves and their troubles, but few would attempt to articulate a meaning which is not there. However, men timelessly study and write upon works of art.

A work may be like a jig-saw puzzle whose pieces a clever author has disassembled and scattered in the hopes that some clever reader will collect and reconstruct them. If all works of art were like this, men would be perfectly capable of writing theses upon works of art. The thesis would consist in the reconstruction. But then different men would surely arrive independently at the same discovery concerning a particular work. Their theses would be irrevocably and irresistibly convincing to all who read them. This is certainly possible with minor works which have been composed by lesser authors. But I am considering the greatest works which have been cherished through the ages. Diotema said that we do not love something which we possess. If men have written final definitive interpretations of these works, the work of art would have been reduce to the interpretation. If we could completely explain the work, we would possess it and would no longer love it. Men would no longer read Homer, but would read some scholar’s thesis upon Homer. Perhaps this is why St. John’s reads the Great Books rather than commentaries or texts written about them. Perhaps this is why the enterprise of the seminar consists more in asking questions than in giving answers.

If a work of art is to be neither a foolish obscurity nor a clever puzzle, it must occupy the middle ground between them. This third kind of work must offer the ope of profound meaning and yet must never completely yield it. It must tantalize, as did the gods poor Tantalus.

We must decide what our criterion for a true work of art will be. The obscurity and puzzle are poor candidates. But this third kind of work is doubtful. What would be the value in creating such a work as this?

Man’s nature requires a continuing process, not an end achieved. His vision must be turned in a certain direction by question which he may always ask himself. In many respects, the unanswerable question is the unmoved mover of the soul. Consider the question “What is virtue?” I challenge anyone to write a genuine thesis answering this question. And yet a great dialogue, the Meno, has been constructed around it. The foundations of our morality rest upon our continually asking ourselves these unanswerable questions. A true work of art maintains man in the mean by providing him with a process which is an end in itself. It is only be regarding a process which is an end in itself that I am able to understand Christ saying (552)”Thous wouldst not seek me if thou hads not found me.”, “Thou (554) woulds not seek me if thou didst not possess me.” Man’s need for such a process is illustrated by the following myth.

There was once a god of ends, a god which all the gods worshipped. Hitherto, he had inhabited the remotest corners of the heavens. But one day the earth and its mortal inhabitants aroused his curiosity. He descended from the sky and found himself in the midst of an athletic field where runners were training for their races and their much coveted prizes. He saw their contorted faces and their sweat-covered bodies and took pity on them. He waved his had over them and granted them the boon which before only the immortals had enjoyed, that wherever they should desire to be, there they would find themselves transported. The athletes lined themselves up for their usual race across the field. No sooner had the signal been given for them to start, when, to their amazement, they found themselves standing at the other end of the field. Throught the day they tried to run. But however short a course they chose, they found themselves effortlessly transported across it. As the months went by they lost their spirit. Their bodies lost their strength and became fat and flaccid. “We have surely committed some great sin,” they said, “for such divine wrath to have fallen upon us.” They prayed ardently for relief. From the heavens, the god of means, the god which the mortals unknowingly worshiped, looked down and saw that tall was not right with his creatures. he gave a nod and undid the mischief which his father had unwittingly created.

I see grounds for arguing that a genuine thesis cannot be written upon a true work of art. This is not to exclude the possibility of writing any number of legitimate essays (or attempts). By thesis I mean a paper which offers successful proof of fact. The word thesis comes from the Greek THESIS, a placing or setting; ekeon th., setting of words in verse, th. nomon, lawgiving, th. anomatos, giving of a name. But essay I mean a paper in which an attempt is made to persuade someone of an opinion. The word essay comes from the French essayer, meaning to try or test, which is related to the Latin exagium, meaning a weighing or a balance. If a thesis could explicitly articulate an exhaustive interpretations, the work would be reduced to the interpretation and would be no true work of art. A thesis might only hope to capture and preserve the essence of the work. Such a thesis would be itself a work of art, preserving the connotative ambiguities of the work by being connotative and ambiguous itself. Thus a work of art can be captured only by another work of art. Not even the poet can have a completely explicit understanding of his work. For if the author were capable of being totally explicit, then surely a reader would someday discover and articulate the explicit structure. The work would then be reduced to the interpretation and would be no true work of art. The ways of God are not completely known to man. Therefore, if the artist is to imitate God in creating a work of art as an imitation of nature, his own ways must not be completely known to himself.

My assumption is that no man has or ever will produce a definitive interpretation of a true work of art which is persuasive to many, but that all who devote themselves to the study of such works see the outlines of some definitive interpretation which may constitute a legitimate essay.

The mind of one man, using similar methods of reasoning, produced both the Pensees and a treatise on conic sections. How ironic it is that so many accept the treatise and so few are persuaded to accept the Christian faith. How appropriate it was for him to write (395) “We have an impotence to prove, invincible by any dogmatism, and we have an idea of truth, invincible by any skepticism.”


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