🌞 Transparency & Depth – Ian McGilchrist

In order truly to see the thing as it is, attention needs to do something quite different. It needs both to rest on the object and pass through the plane of focus. Seeing the thing as it is depends on also seeing through it, to something beyond, the context, the ‘roundness’ or depth, in which it exists. If the detached, highly focussed attention of the left hemisphere is brought to bear on living things, and not later resolved into the whole picture by right-hemisphere attention, which yields depth and context, it is destructive. We become like insects, as Merleau-Ponty says. It is similar with works of art, which as I have said have more in common with people than things. Explicitness always forces this sheering away, this concentration on the surface, and the loss of transparency – or more correctly semi-transparency. It is the analogue of the joke explained, the metaphor laboriously restated. In such circumstances, the mechanism of the joke, of the metaphor, becomes opaque and obtrudes. Metaphoric meaning depends on this semi-transparency, this being-seen-and-not-being-seen. Kerényi writes of Homeric symbols, for example, that they can be ‘seen through’, as ‘the visible sign of an invisible order … not as an element of “symbolism”, but as a transparent part of the world.’ If they obtruded as symbols, they would need to be explicitly decoded, and that would rob them of all their power.22 Making things explicit is the equivalent of focussing on the workings, at the expense of the work, the medium at the expense of the message. Once opaque, the plane of attention is in the wrong place, as if we focussed on the mechanics of the play, not on the substance of the play itself; or on the plane of the canvas, not what is seen there. Depth, as opposed to distance from a surface, never implies detachment. Depth brings us into a relationship, whatever the distance involved, with the other, and allows us to ‘feel across’ the intervening space. It situates us in the same world as the other. Thus, however distant the figures in a Claude painting, we feel drawn to them and their world; we are taken on a journey into the depth of space that surrounds them, as Hazlitt said. Diderot wrote a series of descriptions of seven walks he had taken with a certain Abbé for his companion through the most beautiful, wild scenery, and what they had seen and experienced there; only at the end does he reveal that these were imagined travels within the landscapes of Vernet’s paintings.23 What produces alienation is not depth, but lack of depth. Loss of depth forms an important feature of the Cartesian, objective view of the world, as if it were projected on the surface of the retina, or on the photographic plate. We are rebuffed by the two dimensionality of the plane that stands some distance from us, without depth, a two-dimensional world in which we can no longer stand alongside what becomes the ‘object’ of our vision. Depth is of great psychological significance, and it is relevant that in schizophrenia, which simulates an overactive left-hemisphere state, there is, as Louis Sass has shown, a perspectival slippage, a loss of grip on the frame of reference.24 Attention ceases to be paid to, say, the scene pictured on the paper, and is transferred to the plane of the paper itself. There is a loss of precisely the transparency that operates when we understand something in the normal way. A painting is not a thing in the world: nor is it just a representation of the world. In a marvellous phrase of Merleau-Ponty’s, we do not see paintings, as much as see according to them.25 They are, like people, and the forms of the natural world, neither just objective things, nor mere representations of things: they permit us to see through, and according to, themselves. They have a semi-opaque (or semi-transparent) quality, not disappearing altogether, in which case some reality or other would be seen in their place, a reality which they would no more than represent. No, they have reality of their own. But equally they are not mere things, existing ‘out there’ independent of us or whatever else it is that exists. We are aware of them but see through them, see the world according to them. To take the example of the Claude painting: we neither allow our eye simply to rest on the pure thing in front of us, a canvas measuring such and such, with so and so patches of blue, green and brown on it, nor do we see straight through it, as though ignorant that we are looking at a painting, and imagining we look through a window. Equally with poetry: language does often function as if it were transparent, when we are reading a piece of prose, and unaware of its facticity. But in poetry the language itself is present to us – semi-transparent, semi-opaque; not a thing, but a living something that allows us to move through it and beyond, though never allowing the language to disappear as though it played no part in the whatever it is beyond language that it yields to us. Drama, too, can be either completely absorbing or quite alienating, becoming a picture in which we do not participate. In order to absorb, the medium has to be translucent or transparent: we must not focus on the players – or the playwright (Shakespeare completely disappears in his work). That’s why bad acting can be so embarrassing. It draws our attention to the fact that the actors are acting, and to how they see themselves; they become like critics whose self-preening causes them to obtrude between us and what they claim to illuminate. The implicit becomes explicit and all is lost.