Steve Armstrong cube

How can our writing do justice to the things we wish to say, assuming we’re even clear in advance on what those things are? Genetic Fractals posted on the subject of our habitual dualistic thinking, and how that limits our understanding and ability to communicate. That was the impetus for this post.

Carl Jung borrowed the word syzygy from gnosticism to describe the self. It means a union of irreconcilable opposites. I tend to agree with the idea that my “self” is such a union, and I would include with this the irreconcilable thought that the self both does, and does not exist. An organism with the power to observe itself and its environment is prone to draw some common-sense conclusions such as the existence of a self, but I’m unaware of any compelling reason to believe it. Besides that,there is evidence to suggest that there is no self – our continuous mental and physical change over time, obsessions, addictions, habits, and so on.

Thus, I don’t actually have any strong beliefs in the existence of the self, and the possible fact that it may consist of the union of irreconcilable opposites might just bolster that position. But in spite of my opinion on the subject, it’s also obvious to me that I behave as if I believe in a self.

Also, the language I’m obliged to use seems to presume the existence of a self. The ‘belief’ sentence above for instance, contains two “I’s”, a “my”, and a “me”. Jung didn’t make any such claims about the existence of the self either, “The Self is not a philosophical idea, since it does not predicate its own existence, i.e., does not hypostatize itself. From the intellectual point of view, it is only a working hypothesis”. (Psychological Types, Collected Works Vol. 6, para. 789.)

My working hypotheses include: there is no self without opposites, contraries, contradictions and dualities, but additionally, there is no self at all. My thinking and my experiences all arise from this strange state of affairs. How then, can I write anything that I approve of?

I want to be liked, so one motivation for my prose style is to be charming. And not just for the reader – I want to charm myself. But there’s more to it as well. As a former magazine publisher and editor, I view not being interesting as a fatal flaw and the desire to be interesting leads to wanting charm. This as an invitation to beauty.

Truth and beauty can be understood as opposites, not opposites, or both at the same time. Oscar Wilde’s, “The Decay of Lying” makes the point that truth and beauty are opposed, and John Keats in his “Ode to a Grecian Urn” said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. I agree with both of them, but it’s difficult to say this in a sensible or useful way. I also suspect that Wilde is telling us something true in a beautiful way, but he would never admit such a faux pas because the beauty would be damaged.

As an irrelevant aside, the word “charming” became important to me when I read Tristan Tzara’s dada manifestoes as a young man. I found the quote I wanted to share after a search through my piles of books, which feels pretentious to call a library although that’s what it is (I also cringe internally when asked what I do, and I say I’m an artist). The quote is at the end of this post.

Dada was much more compelling when I was an adolescent than it is now, and Tzara’s “great” writing has become a little tarnished. The love I had then has become somewhat nostalgic and wistful. Nonetheless, he loaded a lot into the word charming, and as I write this I remember my mother who would use “charming” dipped in acid after witnessing something particularly gauche. Some words are bigger buckets than others.

As another irrelevant aside, I generally find Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement agreeable, but he certainly seemed to have a strong bias against sensuousness. Thus, he overlooked the metaphorical potential of colour, “The colours which give brilliancy to the sketch are part of the charm. They may no doubt, in their own way, enliven the object for sensation, but make it really worth looking at and beautiful they cannot.” Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, J. C. Meredith trans. p. 67.

The profundity of charm escaped him, and more than likely, he wouldn’t see much in Oscar Wilde. He’d be baffled, like Russell on Nietzsche.

But to leave charm aside, if we suppose that the truth is useful, which seems like a pretty reasonable thing to suppose, Charles Baudelaire could enter the fray, “The idea of utility … is the most hostile of all to the idea of beauty”. (Charles Baudelaire “Further Notes on Edgar Poe” in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, J. Mayne trans. and ed., Da Capo Press Inc., 233 Spring St. N.Y., p. 102.)

And while we’re at it, here’s Schopenhauer, “The beauty of a work of art consists in the fact that it holds up a clear mirror to certain ideas inherent in the world in general … Beauty, however, in its general aspect, is the inseparable characteristic of the idea when it becomes known. In other words, everything is beautiful in which an idea is revealed; for to be beautiful means no more than clearly to express an idea. Thus we perceive that beauty is always an affair of knowledge, and that it appeals to the knowing subject”. (Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Comparative Place of Interest and Beauty in Works of Art” in The Pessimist’s Handbook, A Collection of Popular Essays, T. Bailey Saunders (trans.), Hazel E. Barnes (ed.), Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964, p. 593)

Schopenhauer was squaring off against Kant’s Critique of Judgement, and he also seems to be closer to Keats, while Baudelaire’s early Modernist viewpoint is in agreement with Kant and perhaps with Wilde as well. In a previous post I said, “Immanuel Kant’s theory of aesthetics, his Critique of Judgement, says that an aesthetic judgement is taking either delight in, or aversion to, something in a completely disinterested way – don’t want to have it, don’t even care whether it actually exists or not.” This is the lack of utility that Baudelaire praises and Schopenhauer disparages. Once again, I don’t have a problem agreeing with both of them (all five of them in fact). Art is useful, art is not useful. Beauty is truth, beauty is a lie.

I’m also inclined to agree with Carl Jung who was of the opinion that the more easily an idea can be clearly expressed, the less likely that it will be true. I’m sorry to say, I can’t pull up a footnote or an original quote for that one. You’ll just have to trust me. I read his entire collected works and letters between 40 and 30 years ago and I didn’t make note of it. Obviously though, he wasn’t intending tautologies or things true by definition to be included in this. It has to do with descriptions about the way things are, ontological claims. Jung neither agrees nor disagrees with the others mentioned above. It’s a meta-claim about claiming. But I have to say, he causes me to quibble about Schopenhauer’s claim that beauty is the clear expression of an idea and how that claim may have a vague connection with Keats’ truth/beauty idea. This connection has become more tenuous, unless I’m willing to revise my understanding of clarity. I’d actually be fine with that.

This brings me to ambiguity, which has nothing to do with being difficult to understand, that being mostly a matter of poor communication, and no doubt, I’m I’m guilty of this. Ambiguity however, does have something to do with complexity and that can be challenging. Sometimes the matter under consideration is quite complicated, but on the other hand, sometimes things just aren’t clearly apprehended.

Complexity and fuzziness are both ambiguous and I believe that ambiguity is the engine of beauty, truth, charm, utility and knowledge.
Ambiguous, fuzzy concepts soon pick up a context of metaphor and the resultant loss of conventional meaning can be exhilarating. I find ambiguous ideas and presentations to be beautiful and useful, true and false. Ambiguity is like a caress.

Here’s an example of the fuzzy and ambiguous: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from Pictures of the Gone World, San Francisco: City Lights Books, poem 5 (which is all caps in the original),

“A POEM IS A MIRROR WALKING DOWN A STRANGE STREET”

Mirrors are ambiguous. The fact that we can look at them and in them at the same time should be ample proof of that. Fancy European philosophers and psychoanalysts have written entire books about mirrors. I needn’t say more. Except that Ferlinghetti’s mirror may be connected with Schopenhauer’s, above. And also except there might be some uncertainty about what exactly is fuzzy: mirrors, mirrors with legs, or the statement that a poem is a mirror walking down a strange street. It’s mostly the last one.

For an example of the second thing (loss of conventional meaning), I turn to Albert Einstein, the ultimate in positive ad hominem persuasiveness, “The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead”.
Taken from the abridged edition of The World as I See It, Philosophical Library, New York, 1949. The essay appears on pages 1 to 5.

If we assume that conventional meaning is not mysterious, and the mysterious is both ambiguous and exhilarating, then it makes sense that Ferlinghetti and Einstein belong together. The two quotes illustrate my claim that ambiguity is the vehicle of metaphor, given that the desire to understand a mystery drives a person to metaphorical thinking. I highly recommend believing that and here’s why: When confronted with something new and strange, I think about what it’s like and what it’s not like, a refining process to try to see it as it is. By the way, the use of the term vehicle is a bit of a reference to Ogden and Richard’s analysis of metaphor into vehicle and tenor found in The Meaning of Meaning. That’s different though, and extremely irrelevant at the moment.

So how can I write something I approve of? I attempt it with metaphors, complicated and sometimes unnecessary syllogisms, meta-text, ambiguity, fuzziness, prevarication, parentheses, mendacity (in moderation of course), charm, qualifiers, caveats, and writing between the lines. I attempt the same things in my visual art. What else would a syzygy do? I’m one of Tristan’s people.

Tristan Tzara (written sometime between 1916 and 1920. Motherwell’s book doesn’t specify, and good luck finding out online):

“A few days ago I attended a gathering of imbiciles. There were lots of people. Everybody was charming. Tristan Tzara, a small, idiotic and insignificant individual, delivered a lecture on the art of becoming charming. And incidentally, he was charming. And witty. Isn’t that delicious? Incidentally, everybody is delicious. 9 below zero. Isn’t that charming? No, it’s not charming. God can’t make the grade. He isn’t even in the phone book. But he’s charming just the same. Ambassadors, poets, counts, princes, musicians, journalists, actors, writers, diplomats, directors, dressmakers, socialists, princesses and baronesses – all charming. All of you are charming, utterly subtle, witty and delicious.” Tristan Tzara, “Manifesto on feeble love and bitter love, Supplement: How I became charming, delightful and delicious”, in The Dada Painters and Poets, Robert Motherwell ed., New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, Inc., 1951, p. 97.

Nine below zero – early in his career, Bob Dylan sang, “And it’s nine below zero, at three o’clock in the afternoon.” Coincidence?

IMAGE: Steve Armstrong, untitled, acrylic on paper with brass nails, 2000.

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