Sunday, March 28, 2010

Vision and Allegory

‘He whose thought is stable and for whom time no longer flows lives in the eternal present, in the nunc stans... This eternal present is no longer a part of time, of duration: it is qualitatively different from our profane “present” – from that precarious present that peeps out faintly between two non-entities, the past and the future, and will cease with our death. The “favourable moment” of enlightenment may be compared with the flash that communicates a revelation, or with the mystical ecstasy which is prolonged, paradoxically, beyond time.’ Images and Symbols, Mircea Eliade

Vision is that ‘favourable moment of enlightenment… the flash that communicates a revelation’; it is simultaneously the immediate and the eternal, the profane and the sacred; it is the terrific union of temporal existence with supernal reality. Vision is supra-sensual, for it sublimates the lower faculty of perception into a direct and active correspondent with the Heaven above us, making divine beauty a tangible truth available to the terrestrial sphere.  The function of allegory sits in plain contrast to Vision, for the truth that it conveys is pure relative and therefore cannot transcend mimesis, or the imitation of the natural world; the rest of this essay hopes to further delineate the boundaries between Vision and Allegory.

’Allegory and Vision ought to be known as Two Distinct Things.’ Vision of the last Judgment, William Blake

The clearest area where we might observe the evidence of such a ‘conflict’ lies in the sacral domain of Art. First of all, it is both highly typical and highly tedious of scholars to persist in reducing the eminent works of Dante Alighieri to mild comparisons and allusions to things of a much lower category than what the artist is really stressing; these observations might even be factual but are entirely misplaced when studying The Divine Comedy or The New Life, and this is because they are by nature allegorical, and can thus only relate to things that are of a worldly type. We know that such methods are inadequate simply because we are aware of the visionary, anagogical understanding that perceives the sublime, esoteric beauty that emanates from the superior doctrine underlying the text, revealed to those endowed with a ‘healthy intellect’; this is not to say, however, that this ‘hidden’ level of beauty is at all isolated from the whole of the art; on the contrary, it is the potent force that effectively governs the very meaning of the art, and its comprehension thereby allows the art’s witness to properly integrate all levels of the work according to their hierarchical significance. We close this point with some poignant words from Northrop Frye:

‘The ultimate significance of a work of art is simply a dimension added to its literal meaning, which can no more be separated from it than the depth of a pool of water can be separated from its surface. Dante says that the profoundest understanding of poetry, which he calls anagogy, even in the literal sense, by the very things it signifies, signifies again some portion of the supernal things of eternal glory. All moral, historical, political, biographical and other “interpretations” should lead us directly from the superficial to the complete apprehension of the same thing, the single image of reality which the work of art is. Fearful Symmetry, Northrop Frye

There is no ‘modern’ artist more astutely alert to the vast chasm that resides between vision and allegory than William Blake, who says that our perception and understanding must be ‘not by deduction, but Immediate by Perception or Sense at once’.  He is presently referring to pastoral, augustan, and romantic artwork when he accuses poets and painters of pointing their focus away from their own art in a cheap and awkward comparison, which he calls allegory. The healthy alternative, therefore, is something that is direct and distinctive, an image of a man that conjures up not a lion in the imagination, but of a perfect, idyllic human being, standing erect in the radiant love of God. This kind of art is called ‘Vision or Imagination’, and which ‘is a Representation of what Eternally Exists’.

In Book X of the Republic, Plato expounds upon his metaphysic by speaking of the artistic function, of how it is even further removed from the ‘ultimate reality’ than the sensible realm is; this is called mimesis (at least in Plato’s case), or his idea that art is a mere representation of something that is already a representation of the ‘thing-in-itself’. While Plato was (in this exceedingly rare instance) somewhat shortsighted in failing to presently announce the higher, visionary qualities of art, something which Aristotle was actually much closer to in his Poetics, he nonetheless provides us with an accurate criticism of allegory. If something already mimics the ‘Eternal Idea’, and is thereby its phenomenon, it is of small necessity or utility that we should once again represent the representation; and that is precisely what allegorical artistry sets out to do. We know the fundaments of morality due to the visionary expositions of Scripture or to philosophical discourse, so the fables and folk tales and political rhetoric serve no greater cause than the education of lesser-minded men who cannot on their own approach the understanding of higher knowledge. The better artists, or Plato’s philosophers, can effectively visualize the intelligible realm, so far as they are able, and this results in the Aristotelian conception of art that demonstrates an idea’s stasis and immutability, and the Platonic conception of a principle’s security from the seemingly incessant river of change.

The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness.’ Luke 11:34

Amongst traditional texts and teachers, visual perception is widely regarded as the highest of the senses; the eye is the gateway to the soul, they say, and the eye is the window through which our Intellect can see; not the ear, nor the nose, nor the tongue; none of these occupy the prestigious position that the eye proudly holds. God and His angels, the pagan deities and their avatars, do not make their full majesty known through sound, touch, or thought, but through a glorious revelation made manifest in human eyesight; not even rational discourse can truly conceive of infinity’s grandeur, of the awesome Absolute; it must be like Arjuna’s sudden humility when faced with the transcendent Krishna, or as the prophet John was blessed by God with the gift of Revelation through the medium of the angel. Human perception is not, of course, vision as we properly understand it; but it is the means by which we may know the real faculty of Intellect, namely, the discernment of all things created by God.

In summary, allegory is often mis-appropriated to something which it can have no serious bearing on, viz. the spiritual path and all of its dominions; for all of that which transcends the realm of the demiurge requires something much more potent than the dialectic method of ‘comparing’ and ‘contrasting’, of reducing the supernaturel to the merely natural. Dante’s opus is not prophetic and revelatory for its ability to make perennial events allegorical substance, but for the spiritual current that unites the entire text into a single comprehensive unit that does not bring God down to man, but actually lifts man to God, and this is climactically achieved through the sublime power of Intellect, the source and driving power behind our ever triumphant Vision. 

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