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.
A creature didn’t think in order to move; it just moved, and by moving it discovered the world that then formed the content of its thoughts. —LARISSA MACFARQUHAR, “The mind-expanding ideas of Andy Clark,”
EVERYTHING IS ALWAYS IN MOTION. PHYSICISTS TELL US THAT IF the quivering molecules in your desk moved in sync, the desk would leap from the floor. Even sedentary plants grow and sway and turn toward the sun and open and close. They have to; they would die if they didn’t move. Space places two fundamental constraints on movement, constraints that are reflected in thought: proximity—near places are easier to get to than far ones; and gravity—going up is more effortful than going down. Thought, too, is constantly moving, and sometimes hard to catch. Ideas leapfrog over ideas. But there it is: idea. I’ve frozen it, reified it into something static, the only way to catch it. From the never-ceasing flux around us, we carve entities out of space and out of time: people, places, things, events. We freeze them, turn them into words and concepts. We change those moving things into static things so that we can act on them with our minds. Constant motion in space is a given, the background for everything that has happened and that will happen. No wonder it is the foundation of thought. Action in space came long before language, as did thought based on action in space. Our actions in space change space, change ourselves, and change others. Our actions create things we put in space that change us and others. They change our thought and the thought of others. The things we create (like these words) stay there, in space, changing the thought of people we will never know and can’t even imagine. We don’t just freeze the stuff in space and time. We study its form and look for its structure: in our bodies, in our actions and reactions, in the world, in the events that happen in the world, in the language we speak. We find the parts and how they connect to form a whole. The parts and how they fit together tell us what the things can do and what can be done with them. We look for patterns, lines, circles, shapes, branching. We create structure, too, in actions, in talk, in communities, in science, in art—painting, sculpture, film, dance, poetry, drama, opera, journalism, fiction, music. Structure is what holds the pieces together; without structure, things fall apart. And sometimes we do just that, deconstruct and even destroy, to see what happens, to shake things up, to find new structures. Pick Up Sticks. Rearrange the furniture. Reorganize the company. Select musical notes from a random number table. Read Hopscotch in any order. Revolt. Spew chaos on the world. Prose is linear, one word after another. Narratives have a linear structure driven by time, theories have a linear structure directed by logic. In theory, that is. The structure of Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual is place, an apartment building and a puzzle, not time. The linearity of prose doesn’t harness readers, they can jump back and forth. Speaking is linear, one word after another, but that doesn’t stop speakers from interrupting themselves with tangential thoughts nor does it stop listeners from doing the same. Then there are our own thoughts, frequently articulated in inner speech; they hardly walk a straight line and sometimes fly out in too many directions at once. Music is linear in time but spatial over the instruments, which can come in at different times and play different notes at different paces and places. Painting has composition, not linear, but center and periphery. Until Pollack and Rothko. Structure is complicated. It gets done, undone, and redone. Pleas, plays, sermons, campaign speeches. Like music, they zig and zag between the earthly and the lofty, the logical and the emotional, stories that become parables with messages; they zig and zag emotionally, pensive, spirited, ominous, wistful, joyful. They change pace, slow and ponderous, fast and light. Narrative does that, too. Formal gardens are arranged in perfectly symmetric patterns, with distinct straight paths among the beds of flowers and pruned trees; everything is clear and certain; don’t dare go off the paths. Chinese gardens are different. The paths curve and twist this way and that, up and down, always new vistas around the bend pulling you onward; little is clear, nothing certain; you get lost, and then found. Writing a book makes you, or me, think of structure. There is structure to this book, but you don’t have to stay on the paths, you are free to explore it like a Chinese garden rather than a formal one. The book means to show how we think about space and how we use space to think. These are the two parts of the book. The premise is audacious: spatial thinking, rooted in perception of space and action in it, is the foundation for all thought. The foundation, not the entire edifice. Try describing the faces of friends, places you love, events that were meaningful. The memories and images may be vivid, but words flail and fail to capture them. Think about rearranging the furniture in your living room or how to fold a sweater or how many windows were in your childhood home or where the X key is on the keyboard. You might feel your eyes moving or your body squirming. Words alone won’t do it.