Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Thoughts without a Thinker and Beauties without a Soul

Okay, there is a superabundance of great beauty in the world. But what is beauty? And how did it get here? Was it here before Homo sapiens arrived on the scene? Or is it only a meaningless projection of human sensibilities? But how did we get those sensibilities?

Well, whatever it is, we know that it was here before us. For example, when we look out into a starry starry night, we register events from millions of years ago, with light that has been traveling billions of miles in search of eyes to see it.

It reminds me of Bion's adage that thoughts are prior to the thinker, and that it is necessary for the thinker to come into being in order to think the thoughts. Otherwise the thoughts are all over the place, with no center and no coherence, like the Democratic platform.

"Beauty is a crystallization of some aspect of universal joy; it is something limitless expressed by means of a limit" (Schuon, emphasis mine). In this formulation, beauty is both the container (which Bion symbolized ♀) and contained (symbolized ♂).

Thus, beauty may be understood as a kind of explosive force within a limiting boundary (oops! a dirty world), but both of these are orthoparadoxically necessary in order for beauty to be presence (or presence to be beautiful). You need both ♀ and ♂ to create a baby. We refer to this as the "cosmic beauty-call."

In a painting, the boundary, or container, is the canvas and frame; in a poem, the meter or rhyme scheme; in a song, the rhythm, harmony, and melody; in a play, the stage. Remove the "limiting boundary" and there is no way to even perceive the work of art, because it is not set off from the rest of reality.

Note also that this explains how the work of the true artist "spills over," beyond the confines of its container. It is somewhat like the phenomenon of "headroom" in audiophile lingo. If you want to get the best performance out of a good pair of speakers, you need to have much more power than they technically require.

In my case -- at least since I splurged on a new Luxman integrated last year -- I barely have to turn up the volume in order to power my speakers. The distance between this and the full capacity of the amp is the "headroom." A less powerful amp will still power the speakers, but you will be able to detect the "strain" at high volumes.

I suppose it's a little like acceleration vs. speed. A Porsche and a Pinto can both travel 90 mph, but one of them is going to show the strain, like this metaphor. In fact, my first car was a Pinto Wagon, and its engine blew up at 40 mph. Literally.

There are a handful of singers who are instantly recognizable for the amount of headroom behind their voice, for example, Van Morrison, Sinatra c. 1950 to 1965, Ray Charles c. 1953-1961, Aretha c. 1966-1975, Howlin' Wolf almost anytime, Roy Orbison. There is so much power behind their voices, that it's always a little shocking. Inferior singers have to work to reach the same place, but you can always hear the strain. (I also think of Louis Armstrong's insanely powerful playing in the 1920s. So much force!)

It reminds me of something someone once said about Shakespeare: his writing must have come easily to him, because if it didn't, it would have been impossible. In other words, no amount of mere struggle could have achieved such an aesthetic grace.

As it pertains to the world -- well, first of all, let's see you create one! Even if you could, it would require straining all your abilities to the breaking point, to put it mildly. But the vast cosmic headroom between Creator and creation explains how so much beauty is effortlessly cranked out, with plenty of power in reserve.

The world is apparently the boundary, or frame, around God's canvas. This would explain how it is that when we are in the presence of a great natural wonder, we are always aware of the implicit power beneath the beauty. We call this intuition "awe."

Now, as our unKnown Friend explains, the idea of the world as a work of art is implicit in Genesis, being that existence is a result of a creative act. In my opinion, so-called creationists focus way too much on the inevitable result of the act, rather than the act itself, the latter of which constitutes the very source and essence of creativity.

While the boundary is necessary in order to see the painting, you don't go to a museum in order to admire the frames. Rather, they should become "invisible," so to speak, and be there in support of the "explosive force" within them. Just so, the world-frame always overflows with the unique stylings of its profligate Author.

In this regard, it is critical to bear in mind that the cosmogony of Genesis is an essentially vertical, not horizontal, one. When Genesis says "In The Beginning," it really means in the beginning of the eternal creative act that is always happening now and which sustains the cosmos.

This is not merely an eccentric Bobservation, but standard Thomistic philosophy. "In the beginning" refers not to the temporal beginning, but to the atemporal beginning, or the beginning of time as such -- which "flows" from (and back to) eternity. It is the metaphysical, not the physical beginning , i.e., the "big bang." The vertical bang of which we speak is neither "big" nor "small," since there is nothing to compare it to. In fact, it's not even a bang. Just.... O.

Therefore, as Aquinas knew, "God is necessary as an uncaused cause of the universe even if we assume that the universe has always existed and thus had no beginning. The argument is not that the world wouldn't have got started if God hadn't knocked down the first domino at some point in the distant past; it is that it wouldn't exist here and now, or undergo change or exhibit final causes here and now unless God were here and now, and at every moment, sustaining it in being, change, and goal-directedness" (Feser).

In short, the "first cause" is above, not behind. But because it is above, it is necessarily ahead, which is in turn why the present cosmos is the "shadow" of its final fulfillment: "I am Alpha and Omega."

Similarly, as Perry observes, "from the cosmological perspective, creation is a progressive exteriorization of that which is principially interior, an alternation between the essential pole and the substantial pole of a Single Principle."

Again, of the two, essence is the more interior, and therefore takes priority. Essence could never be derived from substance alone, which is one more reason why it is absurd to insist that consciousness could ever be derived from matter.


Oh yes. Petey would like to remind us that this is one of the points of the obscure phrase "One's upin a timeless," at the beginning of the book. It refers to the Creator's eternal activity. Translated into proper English, we might say something like "the One is always present up there in the timeless creative beginning that always is."

In any event, just as we must develop a thinker to think the thoughts, we must cultivate the soul in order to apprehend all the beauty. If you can both think and create -- or even appreciate their work -- you're roughly halfway home in this halfway house.


mushroom said...

And one of these days, God will turn it to 11.

Gagdad Bob said...

If that were ever to happen, it would be like making toast with an atom bomb.

Come to think of it, some researchers think the image on the Shroud of Turin is the residue of some kind of nuclear transformation.

mushroom said...

...and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead ... (Eph 1:19,20a)

You're right. Looks like He did turn it up.

John Lien said...

Mushroom, LOL!

"cosmic beauty-call" Heh, heh heh.

That "reserve power", "headroom" concept is is wonderful. I recognized it immediately, my being a machineophile and all.

julie said...

Note also that this explains how the work of the true artist "spills over," beyond the confines of its container.

I'm reminded of one of the early lessons I learned about drawing (or really, any sort of 2D art): that an image is (usually) more interesting if it breaks the frame. In other words, what's visible must imply a wholeness that can't be contained by the boundary. Thus, for instance, a small, complete figure in the middle of a page and surrounded by white space tends to be far less interesting than a figure that spills across the boundaries. There are exceptions, of course, but the exceptions work because they still manage to imply a whole world that just happens to be unseen.

Gagdad Bob said...

Hemingway said something similar about writing -- that you had to leave a word out in order for the sentence to point beyond itself, so to speak.

Gagdad Bob said...

In fact, bad art is completely contained within the frame, isn't it?

John Lien said...

"The argument is not that the world wouldn't have got started if God hadn't knocked down the first domino at some point in the distant past; it is that it wouldn't exist here and now, or undergo change or exhibit final causes here and now unless God were here and now, and at every moment, sustaining it in being, change, and goal-directedness" (Feser).

This is interesting. I heard a great program on the radio a couple of years ago about how similar thinking in the Islamic wold brought science to a grinding halt around 1200. A sufficiently large group of Imams convinced themselves that Allah creates everything all the time, no scientific laws, Allah does what he wills.

I think the example used was it is the spontaneous creation of Allah that makes words appear on paper and not the cause and effect of the pen strokes and ink guided by the mind of the writer. (I wish I could do this concept justice). So, everything is Allah's will, no need to study science.

Maybe they went horizontal with a vertical concept again?

Gagdad Bob said...

Re Islam -- yes, they essentially conflated vertical and horizontal. It's as if they drag the horizontal into the vertical, whereas our creationist and scientistic friends drag the vertical into the horizontal.

julie said...

In both cases, it is a way of completely encompassing creation in a two-dimensional frame. So in a way, it makes bad art out of good...

Gagdad Bob said...

It just occurred to me that the same process occurs in the case of severe mental illness. When in the presence of such a person, you can sense that what you are seeing is only the tip of the assberg. Think of someone like Keith Olbermann. No matter how crazy he is, there''s always plenty more. His one life could not possibly exhaust the madness inside.

julie said...

Re. great art, breaking the frame and keeping things open, it occurs to me that the reason it works (and perhaps I'm just reiterating the post here) is that it forces the viewer to become a participant, or rather a co-creator, when the whole is left to the imagination.

But re. the craziness of an Olbermann, I'm sure you're right. I'm just glad I can't even begin to imagine what the rest of his madness looks like...

Van said...

" Essence could never be derived from substance alone, which is one more reason why it is absurd to insist that consciousness could ever be derived from matter."

To believe it requires you to either beg the question or ignore it... which reduces all other questions to the abstract (in the bad sense). May be why abstract art is what they're left to shift with, having ejected beauty & truth from their garden.

Verdiales said...

What a wonderful post.

"Beauty is a crystallization of some aspect of universal joy; it is something limitless expressed by means of a limit"

Those sound like two different conversations. The limitless expressed by means of a limit, exceeding the frame, pointing beyond -- this is a conversation about the sublime, suggestiveness, mystery, minimalism. I distrust epics and find multi-volume sagas tiresome. Who can really knock short forms and miniatures when they're done well? Think of the best fairy tales, short stories, poems, snapshots, 32-bar tin pan alley tunes, … at their best, they're attractive because they're discreet about their means. They don't try like Obama to come off as a know-it-all and fail, or, like so-called progressives, bore us to tears. Instead, I think like Julie that they invite participation because they assume some kind of shared human experience and thereby invite real camaraderie. Plus, you have to meet them halfway, which is only fair.

But there's also this bit up there in Schuon about aspects of divine joy and their crystallization. I understand and love St. Thomas's thoughts about the one infinite creative Act, which is ongoing. It seems impossible to think that God, holding the universe in its existence by the power of his own, could continue to do that if He didn't absolutely love what He was doing. Maybe from there it's a short step from love to joy, because if love is real, so will be the pleasure in it.

Bob, I love all the musical references.

Gagdad Bob said...

Strange little coincidence -- my wife's photography teacher is here, and I overheard him mentioning that he has a gallery show coming up, and that the gallery wants him to give titles to his photos. He doesn't like to, because it may limit the viewers attention to something suggested in the title.

julie said...

Yes, he has an excellent point. In a sense, the title (especially if badly chosen) can serve to saturate the viewer's perception of the image. Quite often, a good work of art is perfectly capable of giving its own name to its viewers.

On the other hand, a good title can help to illuminate, too. It all depends.

julie said...


Verdiales said...



"Your Title Here"
"Mandated Title TBA"
"Title Unknown, Probably Delinquent"

Or just assign them random character strings, names of colors, etc.

julie said...

Verdiales - too funny. Not sure where I fall in that one, probably the "Second year artist" category, except I usually prefer to stick to one word. I'd leave most of them untitled, except it bugs me to have an untitled blog post.

robinstarfish said...

Headroom. Excellent, must use immediately. A red letter day.

Rick said...

"In 1923 Hemingway conceived of the idea of a new theory of writing after finishing his short story "Out of Season". In A Moveable Feast, his posthumously published memoirs about his years as a young writer in Paris, he explains: "I omitted the real end [of "Out of Season"] which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything ... and the omitted part would strengthen the story." In the opening chapter of Death in the Afternoon he compares his theory about writing to an assberg."

Rick said...

I made Mushroom say scythe once.
...based on the theory that Hemingway was right.

Van said...

Rick said "... he compares his theory about writing to an assberg."

I think an Assberg is a totaly appropriate comparison for Hemmingway.

Big fan.

No. Really.


Rick said...

I don't care for the man all that much, but he knew what he was talking about when it was about writing.

mushroom said...

But I could have said, "Cradle." And that's is part of what makes Rick's writing art.

My theory, which I just developed after reading today's post, is that a lot of modern art grasps the need for headroom but knows it lacks the amplifying power, so it opts for really tiny speakers.

Or it pulls the engine from a '73 Vega and uses it on a very small oval go-cart track.

Also, I could reject this theory tomorrow.

julie said...

No, that's a great theory, Mush. Reminds me of a girl I knew in art school, who never mastered the basics of drawing (much less composition), so in our advanced painting class she gave up trying to make something halfway good (art students rarely make it all the way) and opted for rows and rows of circles instead. The teacher, an abstract painter himself, loved it.

Verdiales said...


"grasps the need for headroom but knows it lacks the amplifying power, so it opts for really tiny speakers"

O ye of little faith!

Speaking of headroom, one piece of music that really troubled me in a good way was Penderecki's score for the film KATYN. I left the theatre shaking.

Verdiales said...

There's always room I think for art students to mess around with materials and form. Experimentation is good. The problem lies more I think with the art dealers, critics, and gallery owners who operate as middlemen. Sometimes they perform useful service (exposition, brokering), but the inflation of prices and absurd levels of critical puffery (obviously related) are ridiculous. The temptation for young artists to pass off noodling as valuable art must be great. I have a great quotation by Picasso somewhere which describes how knowing he was about making his schtick pay.

Rick said...

Thanks, Mush.

Good article on kitsch and modern art. By Roger Scruton. By way of Mizz E. (yes, I never go for long without your wonderfilled Tumblr)

ge said...

didja know Hem. was tennis pals with Joyce in gay paree??

Joan of Argghh! said...

This put me in mind of my little meditation on gesture drawing.

Discipline is the frame for such freedom.

Rick said...

ge, was that in A Movable Feast?

Rusty Southwick said...

The transcendence of beauty at once escapes me and returns to reward me, and only by the human eye am I patient enough to wait for it.

Here's proposing a toast with the atom bomb to produce mushroom's cloud...

ge said...

actually i may be confusing Pound w/ Joyce, sorry!---all knew one another, were pals with the dashing BLACK SUN publishers Harry & Caresse Crosby over there

Rick said...

Fitz too.
Btw, have you seen Midnight in Paris? I think you'd enjoy it. It's on DVD now.

Verdiales said...


Scruton: "Kitsch reflects our failure not merely to value the human spirit but to perform those sacrificial acts that create it."

Nailed. 1 John says it best: "Whoever fears is not perfected in love."

Kitsch is just another way of running away.

ge said...

[pardon the OT thread]
yes i got to give that WA film a try...
i have fond fantasy hopes of 2 other literary films of that era that a Hollywood of my dreams would produce:
The Harry Crosby story [could even suggest Brad & Angelina as the tragic Lost Gen lovers]...and Impressions of Africa the clinical surreal fantasy of Roussel. The current BOMB magazine has an interview between 2 of Roussel's translators who also dream of such a film's eventual fruition.
-maybe terry gilliam's last stand?

Rick said...

I'm still learning what it means, but I think Kitsch = comfortable.

RE modern art (whatever that is) similar to the kind of argument John Lien was making on Mush's blog, if 0.00001% is valid, beautiful, or worthy of the term Art, it's worth pursuing.
I've seen some great abstract sculpture, stone carvings by Isamu Noguchi that are "something" whether it has arrived at its archetype yet or not. Abstract art, to me, seems only interested in the essence of things. A flower's flowerness, for example.

Rick said...

ge, the recent film "The Artist" looks good -- have you seen it?

Verdiales said...

Here is the quotation from Picasso I was looking for. This is Picasso to Giovanni Papini, in an interview that appeared in Libro Nero in 1952:

"In art the mass of people no longer seeks consolation and exaltation, but those who are refined, rich, unoccupied, who are distillers of quintessences, seek what is new, strange, original, extravagant, scandalous. I myself, since Cubism and before, have satisfied these masters and critics with all the changing oddities which passed through my head, and the less they understood me, the more they admired me. By amusing myself with all these games, with all these absurdities, puzzles, rebuses, arabesques, I became famous and that very quickly. And fame for a painter means sales, gains, fortune, riches. And today, as you know, I am celebrated, I am rich. But when I am alone with myself, I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term. Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt were great painters. I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and exploited as best he could the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries. Mine is a bitter confession, more painful than it may appear, but it has the merit of being sincere."

And it has the ring of truth.

ge said...

picasso shares w/ our host the sunsign Scorpio.
ZE ARTIST: sis must have that will ask for...

it seems to me Hollywood for a while now is only best capable of self-parody---like Cruise's Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder...and in pop music my kinda favest band
mines that + sacred-cow-in-general slaughter like the MOTHERS used to

julie said...

Re. modern and abstract art, sometimes of course it is sublime. However, in my experience it is all too often as Picasso described.

The trouble with the girl I mentioned earlier was that, as she whined (oh, how she whined!), drawing was "too hard." Nothing inspired her, and when her first painting was gently critiqued (which was a real struggle, because one's first impulse was incredulous laughter), she simply gave up. The repetitive circles to which she turned after that seemed much less an open spiral toward growth than a series of closed loops marking the shutting-down of her creativity.