Thursday, August 18, 2005

In which a strange but familiar image becomes strange all over again

Lately, I have been doing a lot of thinking about this painting by Magritte, The Human Condition. It's sort of watching me from the cover of an Intro. to Literature text I received in the mail last semester from yet another publisher wanting to suck yet another $60 or so from each of our students taking this all-but-required class. It's a familiar enough image (to me)--I have given brief talks about it, in fact, in a little lecture I give on postmodernism--so I hadn't initially given it much thought.
Until a couple of days ago.
Apologies in advance, by the way, if this seems painfully obvious to my reader(s).
What I say about this painting in my talks is that the canvas in front of the open window appears to provide the visual information for that which it keeps the viewer from seeing, but that we can't be absolutely certain whether or not it does. Its interposition--the "narrative" it supplies--obscures, indeed substitutes for, the reality that lies behind it. Magritte thus creates a visual image for a central tenent of Postmodernism: that language and, by extension, systems of thought, theories, etc., are all we have to explain ourselves and the world but, following Saussure, language's arbitrary relationship to the things of this world should make us suspicious of language's ability to fully convey the truth of this world. So far, so good. But a couple of days ago, I got to noticing that the canvas visually completes the clouds that we see through the window . . . but that those clouds outside would long ago have changed in some way before the painting was completed. Art is static, of course, but Nature never is. Yet here, the question is not that the image on the canvas may or may not conform to Nature; it's that Nature is made to conform to the image on the canvas. Nature itself becomes an artifice, a construct, when rendered into language or text. THERE lies the tyranny of images, to borrow another phrase from Magritte. It's somewhat akin to Oscar Wilde's claim, in "The Decay of Lying," that no one noticed that London had fogs until writers began describing them. What Magritte depicts here is, potentially, more insidious, though: Art's power to even cause us to see in Nature that which may not be there at all.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Just so you know, I'm borrowing your scan for a presentation I'm giving in which I argue that HoL p. 421 (Z's "diagram" of Delial) performs something similar to what's going on in this painting. So . . . Thanks!

Hope to see you back at the forum.

- MoleculaRR