Monday, April 14, 2014

Pictures and Structures

"[T]he purpose of Playing […] was and is, to hold as 'twer the Mirrour vp to Nature; to shew Vertue her owne Feature, Scorne her owne Image, and the verie Age and Bodie of the Time, his forme and pressure." (William Shakespeare, Hamlet)

"How does this apply here, today?" (William Carlos Williams, "Against the Weather")

Pictures are to facts what structures are to acts. Structures transmit forces, pressures; pictures capture shapes, forms. "Think of a work of art—a poem—as a structure," says Williams. "A form is a structure consciously adopted for an effect" ("Weather", SE, p. 217). A work of art is a structure in the form of a picture, a picture impressed with a structure. (Long ago, I said the image is a concept backed liked an emotion.)

"The image in the flesh, reaching up to reality in the fact, reaching up to ideality in the act."

In "Danse Russe", Williams observes himself, naked in his room,

before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
"I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"

In the mirror, he is able to see himself, alone. But he must be standing on the floor, he must be grounded. The work of art is a mirror, something "to look at" to see ourselves. But we must stand before it, there must be some ground, some "bottom", a floor. (Too much, perhaps, depends upon these etymologies.) Williams sees himself—dancing, lonely—himself. And,

If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,—

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household.

In Heidegger, we have the Gestell—the apparatus, the frame—and, less famously, the Gebild—the structured image. They are outside us, beyond our skins, beyond the drawn shades, and constitute the "the verie Age and Bodie of the Time", as actual to us as the weather. As real.

Against this, says Williams, he puts his freedom and his discipline. He produces a work of art, an imagined structure, let us say, and an imagined picture. He "build[s] his living, complex day into the body of his poem" (SE, p. 217). The mirror is not simply a "true" picture of his "grotesque" body. His body stands before it and is shown his feature, his image. Even as he dances his poem is coming into being in the imagination of this "happy genius".

The imagination is the transmuter. It is the changer. Without imagination life cannot go on, for we are left staring at the empty casings where truth lived yesterday while the creature itself has escaped behind us. It is the power of mutation which the mind possesses to rediscover the truth. (SE, p. 213)

It is not that the work of art IS a "mirror of nature". It holds the mirror up. It shows you that you are happy when you are alone [, an emotion that is also beautifully noted down in Williams' "Waiting"]. The work of art teaches your body to absorb the pressure of the Time and (trans)forme it into a complex, daily act of living.

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