William Blake: The Eternal World of Vision
|Thomas Phillips, William Blake, 1802|
This World Is a World of Imagination & Vision. I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun, & a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes.... But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself.Blake champions the imagination because it gives him an entree to the significance of the external world: "To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination," and for the great poets -- he cites Homer, Virgil and Milton in particular -- Imagination is the vehicle for "Spiritual Sensation." As for his own works of visual art, he is particularly pleased that "Children ... have taken a greater delight in contemplating my Pictures than I even hoped." Not that there is anything inherently more receptive about children: "Some Children are Fools & so are some Old Men. But There is a vast Majority on the side of Imagination or Spiritual Sensation."
|William Blake, A Vision of the Last Judgment, pen and watercolor, 1808|
|William Blake, watercolor illustration for Robert Blair's The Grave, 1805|
For Blake, art is a rejection of mutability, of the impermanence of existence: "This world of Imagination is the world of Eternity; it is the divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the Vegetated body." It is also a rejection of materialism, "of Bad Art & Science. Mental Things are alone Real; what is call'd Corporeal, Nobody Knows of its Dwelling Place: it is in Fallacy, & its Existence is an Imposture." The material world is illusory, and Blake the visionary sees through it: The sun is not "a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea" to Blake. Instead it is "an innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, 'Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.'" The trick is to see through nature to the eternity behind it: "I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight. I look thro' it & not with it."
William Wordsworth: Natural Apocalypse
|William Wordsworth in 1789|
Imagination -- here the Power so calledImagination produces "a flash that has revealed / The invisible world." And so, at least for a time, the natural phenomena they encounter -- waterfalls, winds, rocks, crags, clouds, darkness and light -- become symbols of something beyond the material world, they
Through sad incompetence of human speech,
That awful Power rose from the mind's abyss
Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,
At once, some lonely traveleler.
Were all like workings of one mind, the featuresIt's probably worth noting here that "apocalypse" has come to denote the events attendant on the end of the world, when the word's Greek origins meant "uncovering" or "revelation." An apocalypse is a revelation of truths, and not the truths themselves. So what Wordsworth means here is not a vision of the end of the world, but simply the unveiling of the meaning behind the surface phenomena of existence. He senses, but can't articulate, something eternal, which is precisely what Blake was getting at when he asserted that the imagination gives one visions of eternity.
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree;
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first, and last, and midst, and without end.
Charles Baudelaire: The Temple of Nature
|Charles Baudelaire, c. 1863|
W.B. Yeats: Symbol as Revelation
|John Butler Yeats, William Butler Yeats, 1900|
He cites several lines of verse in which metaphor takes on a larger symbolic role, beginning with Robert Burns's
The white moon is setting behind the white wave,He says, quite correctly, "Take from them the whiteness of the moon and of the wave, whose relation to the setting of Time is too subtle for the intellect, and you take from them their beauty." And he's right: an 18th-century critic might object that neither the moon nor the wave is, strictly speaking, white. But we only have to go to Melville's great discourse on "The Whiteness of the Whale" to observe the symbolic power of the adjective. As Yeats puts it, "All sounds, all colours, all forms, either because of their pre-ordained energies or because of long association, evoke indefinable and yet precise emotions." The italics in that quotation are mine, to emphasize the seeming oxymoron: If precise, then why indefinable? But that's the point: Symbols evoke precise emotions, but if they were definable, we wouldn't need symbols to evoke them.
And Time is setting with me, O!
The function of the symbol in art, as Yeats sees it, is to bring unity out of multiplicity: "when sound, and colour, and form are in a musical relation, a beautiful relation to one another, they become as it were one sound, one colour, one form, and evoke an emotion that is made out of their distinct evocations and yet is one emotion." And it is the artist who, by perceiving the power of the symbol, translates that power to the rest of the world: "I am certainly never certain, when I hear of some war, or of some religious excitement or of some new manufacture, or of anything else that fills the ear of the world, that it has not happened because of something that a boy piped in Thessaly." Okay, that's a bit extravagant. But try this one on for truth: "I doubt ... that love itself would be more than an animal hunger but for the poet and his shadow the priest." (That subordination of the religious to the artistic is quite lovely.)
Poets and musicians achieve their effects by species of hypnotism, Yeats asserts:
The purpose of rhythm, it has always seemed to me, is to prolong the moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake, which is the one moment of creation, by hushing us with an alluring monotony, while it holds us waking by variety, to keep us in that state of perhaps real trance, in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded in symbols. If certain sensitive persons listen persistently to the ticking of a watch, or gaze persistently on the monotonous flashing of a light, they fall into the hypnotic trance; and rhythm is but the ticking of a watch made softer, that one must needs listen, and various, that one may not be swept beyond memory or grow weary of listening; while the patterns of the artist are but the monotonous flash woven to take the eyes in a subtler enchantment.And "enchantment" is the aim, or at least as long as it is in service of something of value. The emptying out of religious belief has, in Yeats's view, crippled the world turning it toward the materialistic. "How can the arts overcome the slow dying of men's hearts that we call the progress of the world, and lay their hands upon men's heartstrings again, without becoming the garment of religion as in old times?" If the piping of a Thessalian boy can cause people to go to war, then artists need to be conscious of the ends toward which their work can move people. Artists need to avoid the didactic, the moralizing, the anecdotal, and "that brooding over scientific opinion that so often extinguished the central flame in Tennyson." They need to discover the symbolic force of the world around them, to "return to imagination" and to understand "that the laws of art, which are the hidden laws of this world, can alone bind the imagination."
To return to the topic of rhythm, Yeats "would cast out of serious poetry those energetic rhythms, as of a man running, which are the invention of the will with its eyes always on something to be done or undone; and we would seek out those wavering, meditative, organic rhythms, which are the embodiment of the imagination, that neither desires nor hates, because it has done with time, and only wishes to gaze upon some reality, some beauty."
Paul Klee: Eternal Genesis
|Paul Klee, date unknown|
The deeper he looks, the more readily he can extend his view from the present to the past, the more deeply he is impressed by the one essential image of creation itself, of Genesis, rather than by the image of nature, the finished product.We are back here to the distinction between natura naturata ("the finished product") and natura naturans ("creation itself'" or the act of creating). Klee looks to the artist to create new things, not to reproduce the things already created.
|Paul Klee, Flower Myth, 1918|
The artist's role is "not to provide a scientific check on the truth of nature" but to demand "freedom," defined as "the right to develop, as great Nature herself develops." The source of it all is, of course, imagination, and "What springs from this source, whatever it may be called, dream, idea or phantasy -- must be taken seriously only if it unites with the proper creative means to form a work of art." He retorts to the critics of his own work, who have called it "childish," that the label "most have originated from those linear compositions of mine in which I tried to combine a concrete image, say that of a man, with the pure representation of the linear element.
Had I wished to present the man "as he is," then I should have had to use such a bewildering confusion of line that pure elementary representation would have been our of the question. The result would have been vagueness beyond recognition.
And anyway, I do not wish to represent the man as he is, but only as he might be.
|Paul Klee, Miraculous Landing, or the "112!" 1920|
|Paul Klee, Adam and Little Eve, 1921|
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Escape From Ideas
|Joseph Karl Stieler, Goethe age 69, 1828|
"It was ... not in my line, as a poet, to strive to embody anything abstract. I received in my mind impressions, and those of a sensual, animated, charming, varied, hundredfold kind, just as a lively imagination presented them; and I had, as a poet, nothing more to do than artistically to round off and elaborate such views and impressions, and by means of a lively representation so to bring them forward that others might receive the same impression in hearing or reading my representation of them."This is the artist as medium between the universe and the observer. But the role doesn't come with any responsibility to make the message simple and comprehensible: "I am rather of the opinion, that the more incommensurable, and the more incomprehensible to the understanding, a poetic production is, so much the better it is." (So much for anyone who has tried to find a simple message in Faust.)
As for the role of religion in art, "'Religion,' said Goethe, 'stands in the same relation to art as any other of the higher interests in life." What predominates for the artist is not dogma but the human element: "Art must address itself to those organs with which we apprehend it; otherwise it misses its effect. A religious material may be a good subject for art, on only in so far as it possesses general human interest." That's why portraits of the Madonna and Child have always been popular.
John Keats: Negative Capability
|William Hilton, John Keats, date unknown|
Gustave Flaubert: Art Without Conclusions
|Gustave Flaubert, date unknown|
Superficial, limited creatures, rash, feather-brained souls, demand a conclusion from everything; they want to know the purpose of life and the dimensions of the infinite. Picking up a handful of sand in their poor, puny grasp, they say to the Ocean: "I shall now count the grains on your shores." but when the sand slips through their fingers and the sum proves long, they stamp and burst into tears. Do you know what we should do on that shore? Either kneel down or walk. You must walk.The advice is not to cease from questioning, but to cease from hoping for a definitive answer. Strive, but don't overreach. "No great genius has come to final conclusions; no great book ever does so, because humanity itself is forever on the march and can arrive at no goal. Homer comes to no conclusions, nor does Shakespeare, nor Goethe, nor even the Bible." Thus Flaubert rejects not only religion but also politics, believing instead in "the perpetual evolution of humanity and in its ever-changing forms, and consequently I abominate all those frames which men try to cram it into by main force, all the formulas by which they define it, and all the plans they devise for it.... it seems idiotic to me to seek the best religion or the best government. For me, the one on its deathbed is the best, since it is then making way for another."