Thursday, August 21, 2014

Art & Beauty - Part I, Section IV: Symbolism & the Imaginative Power

The essential part of any work of art is its symbolic component. We have discussed the pressing need to know the specific nature of an artwork, its first and second perfections, its formal and intellectual qualities, and so forth. But while all of this is useful and important for conceptual reasons, in order to attain a full understanding of art as it operates in the world we must first understand its actual role in the mind of man, and to do this we must know the value of the symbol.

First of all, as we will discuss at greater length in the next Part, the symbol is often seen as something 'illusory', as an image meant to distract from the thing in itself - and is therefore considered to be 'unreal'. What this perspective fails to account for is the precise relationship between the formal thing and its symbolic representative, which consists in the idea dressing itself in the garments that sensible reality offers it and thereby creates the symbol. The idea is not 'obscured' in this operation, nor does it remain an abstraction; on the contrary, in partaking of the material substance and participating in reality as we see it, the idea is elevated in a way that it could not be if it had remained aloof from the sensible domain. The matter contains the idea in a symbiotic relationship that at once presents the formal thing in a concrete, tangible shape, and imbues the material with the principled organization that allows it a real identity. The idea of the Parthenon, insofar as it remains unmade, is virtually unreal, existing as a concept alone; the matter of the Parthenon would likewise remain a mass of marble and stone if these materials were not used to make that idea a fact in every sense of the word. The Parthenon as a construction is a symbol at once of itself, of the idea of the Parthenon, but even more it is a symbol of at first the Greek Goddess Athena, and later the Holy Theotokos, the Mother of God, because that was its ordained function.

We can see, then, how this relates to what we have already discussed concerning Plato's theory of mimesis, albeit with more of an Aristotelian angle. What we mean by 'symbol', however, is more directly influential in human society, because it is something that is made exclusively by humans; the symbol is the principal way by which we establish contact with the transcendentals and, eventually, with God. We cannot understand a transcendental except insofar as it reveals itself in this world, dressed in this world's attire; the creation of symbols is our way of dressing these ideals, specifically in the garments germane to our own particular traditions, whatever they may be. The Christian virtues of love, mercy, forgiveness, etc., are therefore given symbolic form in ecclesiastic iconography much like the Indian concepts of detachment, inner peace, and the outer wars of this world are given symbolic form via their own colourful mythologies. The symbol does not distract or detract from the ideal, but offers us a clarity and a tangibility through which we can approach that ideal:

'[It] is easy to see in a general way that in a civilization [the arts] have a character all the more manifestly symbolic as the civilization itself is more strictly traditional, for their true value lies less in what they are in themselves than in the possibilities of expression which they afford, beyond those to which ordinary language is confined. In a word, their productions are above all destined to serve as ''supports'' for meditation, and as foundations for as deep and extensive an understanding as possible, which is the very raison d'etre of all symbolism....' (Rene Guenon, 'The Arts and their Traditional Conception').

All symbolism, and by extension all art, is therefore more of a means than an end; a symbol is the visible and comprehensible image through which the invisible and incomprehensible presents itself. The contemplation of that image, whether through story, music, painting, or the ornamentation of a cathedral, leads one to a more immediate and impacting grasp of the idea behind the image. This is useful because we cannot wholly understand something without the aid of our other faculties; the consequence of trying to do so is the separation of mind from body, which means an empty abstraction on the rational side and an unrefined materialism on the sensible side. The symbol is what connects the mind to the senses - it connects what we see to what we know; and, from the perspective of the artist, it connects what he knows to what others see and therefore know.

Kant proclaimed that the noumenal, conceptual domain was something isolated, that we cannot truly access the 'thing-in-itself' except as it appears to us through the phenomenal domain, when it ceases to be the 'thing-in-itself'. This is similar to what we have spoken of as Plato's metaphysics, but is different in that Kant believes these things to be inaccessible by reason, while Plato of course is confident in the ability of disinterested discursive power to attain sufficient knowledge on a level independent of mind and matter. Kant's argument makes reality into something that is represented by one's mind, by one's perspective of it; Plato considers reality as something independent of how anyone perceives it. The Good exists regardless of whether we know it or not, but the point is that we can know it, even in its 'pure' state thanks to the capability of discursive knowledge.

While this is all very well in theory, this line of thinking, particularly Kant's with his more solid disconnect between knowable things and unknowable things, tends to become dried out with the dust that abstraction brings. The noumena are lost, distant principles that, because they cannot be known, are sufficient in philosophical terms but vague and remote on any other terms; Kant was little more than a skeptic in this way, for, while he did suppose that there was something that caused the appearances which the skeptics thought was the entirety of reality, he nevertheless left that something unqualified and doomed to remain in doubt due to the limitations of our understanding. By reducing reality to the confines of our perception, Kant and the other idealists shut us out from self-transcendence, from the authentic overcoming of the human condition and the fallen world which we inhabit; this conception is unable to lift itself beyond the sphere of the immanent, which makes its claims about the 'ultimate reality' mere abstractions, and which causes Charles Taylor to ask: 'how does a Hegelian philosopher pray? ....What he can do is contemplate his identity with cosmic spirit, which is something quite different' (Charles Taylor, Hegel, 1975). Without a truly transcendent entity, there can be no faith.

Contrary to the idealist's belief that we are hopelessly cut off from the underlying reality, traditional philosophy in the West has ever maintained a strong balance between a reason capable of the apperception of being and an intuition capable of experiencing being. Not only can we know to a certain degree Kant's 'external' reality, but we can also live it in a way. This is essentially what the Christian tradition has achieved, in the theoretical sense in the Scholastic classrooms, but more tangibly in its ecclesiastic life, where the living stream of religious consciousness is imbued upon those willing to receive it. This is where symbolic knowledge comes alive. The things which are taught and conceived rationalistically are thereafter introduced as new avenues for man to understand them in their fullness: 'Symbolism alone, by a delimitation of the spheres of spirit and nature, by putting a barrier to the competence of rational knowledge, and by opening up new ways of knowledge, safeguards the inalienable rights and the eternal truths of religious life' (Nikolai Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit, 1935).

One can never make a spiritual ethos out of the immanent, objective, viscerally arid philosophy of Immanuel Kant; to do so would result in the same abstractions, the same ouroboric circling that results from Cartesian philosophy. The rationale of these systems does not allow for them to have true, existential life, because their epistemology is a cul-de-sac. What breaks that dead-end wide open is firstly the existence of a reality independent of our individual representations of it, and then the symbolic understanding that enables us to perceive that reality without in any way diluting it to our consciousness; as a matter of fact, as the idea is transformed into the vivid, visually incisive allure of the symbol, it actually attains a greater meaning for us than if it were to remain in its purely intellectual form. The idea is comprehended in the symbol in its complete form, because it is perceived from every angle of the human person who now understands the idea as part of himself:
'Rational knowing operates with concepts, and presupposes the intentional abstraction of the knower from his subjectivity, whereas the participatory knowledge of existential knowledge presupposes a basis in metaphor and symbol, and can only come about where the whole person as thinking, feeling and willing subject is totally involved' (Georg Nicolaus, C.G. Jung and Nikolai Berdyaev: Individuation and the Person, p. 91).

Symbolic understanding is moreover important because of its location at the core of the human person. It is at the centre of everything, lying in the 'middle' of the senses, the memory, the imagination, and the intellect. It is not a faculty in itself, but is rather the conduit through which every other faculty receives and utilizes its information. Language itself is a form of 'symbolic understanding' because of how we use it to communicate what would otherwise be abstract, intangible concepts. Every word is a sign of something else, and a series of words are strung together to form a composite whole that allows us to understand one another in a relatively fluid manner. The arts are simply a more eloquent expression of this; Aristotle called this 'rhetoric', the pleasing patina of something that is meant to provide it with a more effectively persuasive character. The arts, when properly constructed and received, are indeed the 'language of the gods', the means by which the divine can communicate with the human, and vice versa. The delight we take in Hesiod's epic myths or in the fugues of Bach is this very process of communication; the portions of reality that were seized on by such artists and represented in musical and poetic form are conveyed to us in these forms which are innately delightful to men of sensibility. This supreme pleasure is innate because of our intuitive yearning for the real, and this yearning is therein satisfied because of the intensely real nature of such arts.

When we perceive something of symbolic value, identifying it with something we already know, identifying it as something true, we experience the real pleasure of art, which is as we have already explained at once intellectual and sensual. This is what happens when we call something created ex materia beautiful: we sensually perceive the object, intellectually recognize its form, and unite the two together symbolically to thereby complete the experience. We not only gain moral and metaphysical knowledge through the contemplation of symbols, we do it in such a way that the whole human person engages in the experience, which makes it the most complete means by which we view the world. The intellectual and sensible functions share equally; the entire soul rejoices.

'In principle everything in the realm of existence is a symbol of a reality above, the only exception being the Divine Principle which is only itself and not the symbol of anything else. This doctrine also deals with the process whereby symbols descend from the purely intelligible realm... through the power of creative imagination to their manifestation in an external form' (Seyyed Hossein Nasr, foreword to Every Man an Artist, ix-x).

This brings us to the most important component of the creation of a symbolic lexicon, namely, the imagination. When we perceive something, say a sword on the ground, we potentially see two things: the first is that it is simply a steel sword lying where it should not be, with its hilt extended away from us; the second is that of a cross, with the cross-guard forming the intersection between the hilt and the blade. The first is strictly empirical or ratiocinative or literal reasoning, the act of determining what the thing is based only on what our memory and inductive knowledge tell us what it is; the second is an act of the imagination, speculating what the thing could also be based on the creative part of our intellect. This again hearkens back to the dual uses of our instruments, how something used for one specific thing could also be symbolically considered as something very different; it is no coincidence that the Crusaders venturing into the Middle East bore broadswords that resembled the religious image of their spiritual leader par excellence. Or maybe it was coincidence at first, but it is an indisputable fact that these soldiers saw in their weapons something useful for destroying their enemy - and something explicitly Christian in their imaginative figuring. Julius Evola makes this very observation in Revolt Against the Modern World:

'In the Middle Ages we witness a blossoming of treatises in which every weapon of the knight was portrayed as a symbol of spiritual or ethical virtues; symbols that were almost intended to remind him of these virtues in a visible way and to connect any chivalrous deed with an inner action' (Julius Evola, Revolt Against the Modern World, p. 84).

In order for art to create a valid symbolism, the artist needs to possess a thriving imagination, because it is by this tool that he 'connects the dots', so to speak, this tool by which he can sensibly express what he apperceives on the intelligible level. It is one thing to claim to reveal the nature of feminine beauty by drawing a beautiful woman, and that is well enough; but it is something else, something more subtly poetic, to reveal that nature by the exposition of lunar or oceanic splendour; in focussing on these other things, which are virtually omnipresent characteristics of femininity in traditional symbolism, he can directly unveil his thesis with more rhetorical conviction, and he can directly approach those things which are the essential qualities of feminine beauty. Her grace, her fluidity, her nocturnal dependence, etc., are all explicated in this symbolic artwork.

There is moreover the tendency to represent archetypal feminine qualities through the mythological creation of female gods who express these qualities; these include, for example, the goddess Freyja, who in the Norse vision symbolized the pre-eminent feminine quality of fertility, and the goddess Diana in Roman mythology who was the personification of the relationship woman has with nature, sharing the same passivity and unpredictability that characterizes the elemental dimension. This was sometimes even made literal, an historical presence, as in the Vestal Virgins who fuelled the spiritual fires of Rome, or in the Christian convents which served as pillars of chastity, and whose inhabitants had love only for God. This reflected not only the healthy relationship that man had with the divine, but also that he felt the need to 'sacralize' his world by making it into something of a mirror image of the heavens; he did this through symbolism, the medium by which archetypal ideas are given material life, and through the imagination, the faculty by which we can visualize things that cannot be seen or heard by our eyes or ears.

The imagination is not only needed for the creation of symbols, but also in our understanding of symbols. It would indeed be futile for the artist to create a whole pantheon of accurate and endearing symbols only for them to be misinterpreted or missed altogether by the intended viewer. Like the artist, the viewer must also 'connect the dots'; in order to understand the work he must be mindful of the tradition in which the artist is working, of the transcendental things as eternal and influential objects, of their metaphorical values, and finally of how they are all connected inside the work. He does this chiefly through that part of the intellect called the imagination, or the picturing of things which have no direct equivalent in sensible, mundane reality. There are no positivistic properties that suggest the inherent royalty of the sun; but nevertheless traditions from time immemorial have attached kingship to the sun, from the Egyptian God-man called Pharaoh to the universal God-man called Jesus Christ ('But unto you that fear my name, the Sun of righteousness will arise, with health in his wings', Malachi 4:2). They do this by the natural spiritual associations these things have with one another, associations that are more real than the empirical fact that rocks are associated with the quality of being hard or with shades of grey. The imagination is the retrieval of these spiritual associations within the inner confines of man's being; he reaches deep into his 'psyche' and locates what every man possesses by the right of his being another member of the human species. The organization of this imaginative process is mythology, the stuff that the great religions are composed of.

When we experience a work of symbolic art, it is our imagination that can gaze beyond the immediate meaning of the work and comprehend their full meaning. Our sense of storytelling, the healthy pleasure that we take from the narrative is no doubt important, but this is a pleasure that exists at first only on the literal, surface level; the real pleasure is the intellectual one that emerges when we finally understand the symbolic import of the story, its meaning as a whole, and how the artist has managed to convey all of this with the material he has at his disposal. There is in this respect the Medieval theory of the 'four-fold' or 'polysemous allegory', which refers to the four ways in which a work of art communicates its ideas. The first is the literal meaning, which is simply what the text means in the most concrete way, for example, 'the bird escaped its cage and flew out of the window' means that the bird literally flew out of the window. The second is the allegorical (or typological) meaning, which is a connection made between two natural or visible things; the bird fleeing his cage might allegorically mean, in the context of the story, the future progression of a child character growing into adulthood and leaving the house of his family. The third is the moral (or tropological) meaning, which is of course the moral significance of an event; again depending on the context of the entire story, the bird flying out of the window could either be a warning to the character, say, to not disobey his family, or it could be an encouragement, an optimistic sign prodding him to make his own way. The fourth and most important meaning is the anagogical, which is like allegory except that it signifies transcendent reality, not natural reality; the bird fleeing the cage could be anagogically understood as the ascension of man towards the heavenly, as the triumph of the character's will to vanquish his worldly constraints and advance into the freedom of God. This whole act, both the creation of the story and its fourfold understanding, is effectively an example of symbolism; the bird and its escape scene forms a symbolic impression on the mind of the viewer via his imagination because of all that it represents.

'The first [sense of a text] is called the literal, and it is the one that extends no further than the letter as it stands; the second is called the allegorical, and is the one that hides itself under the mantle of these tales, and is a truth hidden under beauteous fiction. As when Ovid says that Orpheus with his lyre made wild beasts tame and made trees and rocks approach him; which would say that the wise man with the instruments of his voice maketh cruel hearts tender and humble; and moveth to his will such as have not the life of science and art; for they that have not the rational life are as good as stones.... The third sense is called moral.... Thus we may note in the Gospel, when Christ ascended the mountain for the transfiguration, that of the twelve apostles he took with him but three; wherein the moral may be understood that in the most secret things we should have but few companions. The fourth sense is called the anagogical, that is to say ''above the sense''; and this is when a scripture is spiritually expounded which even in the literal sense, by the very things it signifies, signifies again some portion of the supernal things of eternal glory; as may be seen in that song of the prophet which saith that when the people of Israel came out of Egypt, Judea was made whole and free. Which although it may be manifestly true according to the letter is none the less true in its spiritual intention; to wit, that when the soul goeth forth out of sin, it is made holy and free in its power' (Dante, The Convivio, Second Treatise, Chapter I).

William Blake said that 'Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is only a faint shadow'. The imagination is what Blake calls the anagogical method of communication; they both refer to how we understand the 'real and eternal world', namely, by wrapping the eternal things in the guise of things wholly durable. Dante's Commedia, perhaps the finest example of the 'fourfold allegory', conceives of the cosmos in this way by telling a story that expresses all of the above but none quite so well as the anagogical; every other element, the literal, moral, and allegorical meanings, are there merely to support the fundamental conclusion conveyed by the anagogical reality. The collapse of the self into the dungeons of hell, and the slow but inexorable progression back into the warmth of love and heaven, anagogically reveals the quintessential story of the human being and more or less everything in between; we are shown the overpowering realness of the transcendent through the ebb and flow of the story, through the particular events that take place as short but archetypal examples of the human experience.

William Blake does the same thing in his own poetry, in which he says, 'All Things are comprehended in their Eternal Forms in the divine body of the Saviour, the True Vine of Eternity, The Human Imagination'. His cosmology (one could arguably call it a mythology, even) seeks to express eternity through his heroes and villains, gods and devils, his whole array of characters who wage war over the soul of fallen man. The most important to him, however, is Los, the symbolic figure of the imagination who fights his rational counterpart Urizen, who in turn strives to dominate man. Los is envisioned as working in the furnaces of the world, tirelessly creating things to combat the strict, ratiocinative control of the tyrant; creative energy is thus supposed to be the true fount of human health, not a merely empirical reason that governs by looking downwards instead of upwards. He is right, too, for reason as such must be subservient to the objective demands of the eternal reality; if it considers only the literal and historical dimensions, it fails in its role, it cannot understand the higher dimensions. If it is enlightened by a creative intuition and an active imagination, on the other hand, the intellect will be able to symbolically reconstruct the cosmos in a meaningful, concrete, and decidedly non-abstract way. It will be able to understand the world in which we live in every aspect. Through the imagination we can conceive of things in their eternal sense and communicate that conception in a language that appeals to the inner compartments of our being: 'Around the Throne Heaven is open'd; the Nature of Eternal Things Display'd, All Springing from the Divine Humanity. All beams from him'.

In conclusion, then, the symbol is the most important piece of any work of art because it unites the sacred with the mundane, a union whereby man man can easily comprehend how and why he exists in what might otherwise seem to be a chaotic and random universe. The imagination, as the creative part of the intellect, is precisely how the symbol is created and comprehended; by picturing things that have little material relevance but whose spiritual associations are of the most fraternal nature, man can unveil those deeper parts of his nature that connect him to the whole of humanity in ways that all those other particular, fragmentary things cannot. The mystical significance of how we grasp the eternal truly goes beyond language, art, politics, all culture; being dependent only upon God, the forms exist independently of all that. The way that we interpret them might be different on a superficial level, but at the heart of the matter traditional man in whatever society is united in that he shares a common language of the transcendental, which he called mythical truth.

In a word, the Imagination is the visualization of the divine in all the shining sensibility of the material world - its quintessential result is the Symbol, which breathes life into remote concepts to familiarize ourselves with their total meaning.

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