Archives for posts with tag: causality


Last night I heard a reference to Gesamtkunstwerk on the PBS Idea Channel available on YouTube. This morning The Globe and Mail contained an article by Russell Smith that referenced the same thing. I always enjoy a good coincidence, a pleasure I share with AndrĂ© Breton. I recommend his book Nadja. It elicits an aesthetic appreciation of coincidence, and once you’ve developed the habit of noticing such things, there’s a world of accidental art to be explored. Breton was an arrogant bastard, but I like him in spite of his faults.

The problem is, if you begin to suspect a real connection within a coincidence, its beauty begins to drain out. I’m not talking about the one world, all and everything, cosmic consciousness, clear light, nirvana kind of connection. That’s a whole different, perfect beauty. That doesn’t drain anywhere, it’s already there. I’m talking about causality, which ruins everything.

So it may be the case that the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk is fashionable right now, and as a fashion victim, I’m also trying to write about it. Wagner is associated with the idea, but let’s consider Wassily Kandinsky, author of Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1910), who was somewhat of a Theosophist, a synesthete, and the painter of the world’s first abstract, or non-objective painting in 1910.

From the very beginning there were various understandings of ‘abstract art’. It was something spiritual for Kandinsky and Mondrian, but formal, and a touch political, for Malevich and Tatlin. Today the term seems totally empty and its only reference is historical. Nonetheless, I’m surprised that I didn’t encounter anything written about the centenary of this event. It would have been fun to read.

This is where I would build a case for some kind of non-coincidental connection between synesthesia, or the desire for it, and the Gesamtkunstwerk. But I really don’t feel like it. I don’t sense any worthwhile aha in a conclusion

It’s claimed that Richard Feynman, Franz Liszt, and Vladimir Nabokov also lived with synesthesia. That might be interesting, then again, I don’t think so. It’s not a good coincidence.

Image: Wassily Kandinsky, untitled, watercolour, 188 x 196 cm., 1910, collection of Paris, Musee National Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou. As far as I know, this is the first abstract painting in the Western tradition.

I enjoy a cigar from time to time, something I do in the privacy of my back yard when weather permits. While self-indulging one day, I noticed Mike, my cat, doing something interesting. We have an old milk can in the corner by the back door and Mike caught sight of a mouse in this vicinity. He pursued the mouse, and it very reasonably ran into the corner behind the milk can. Here is the interesting part: Without hesitation, Mike went to the other side of the can to catch the mouse as it emerged. It didn’t emerge of course, opting to hide over running. I rescued the mouse by removing Mike.

Here’s why I found this interesting. The cat behaved as if he believed in the persistence of hidden objects. More than that, he behaved as if he believed in Newtonian space; that the mouse continued on the same trajectory, under the constraint of the corner which in its way makes up the x, y, and z axes. I’ll admit this might be pushing things a bit, but to push a bit further, the cat might be functioning within the same forms of perception as we do. For me, these are the Kantian ones of space, time and causality. To expand on that, space, time and causality are a priori (logically prior) to any knowledge we might have. They mediate our understanding, we understand in their terms.

As Richard Nixon said, let me make one thing perfectly clear. I’m not claiming that cats believe things, although they might, who am I to say? I’m suggesting that regardless of the sophistication of a living thing, it is successfully existing and reproducing because it behaves as if it knows something about its world. This is backing off somewhat from A. J. Ayers’ definition of knowledge as a true belief with sufficient reason to a more humble definition of knowledge being a behavior that looks as if it were a belief that’s confirmed by results. I know that’s a bit mealy mouthed, but it’s the best I can do. If you want to say something about the world of putative things, which Kant referred to as the noumenal world, I think that’s about as good as it’s going to get.

But to finish with a grander claim, the living things in the universe are like keyholes through which the universe catches a glimpse of itself.

I think physical things and awareness of them lie on the same continuum. They’re made of the same stuff, whatever that stuff might be. And obviously, matter, energy, and mind don’t cover enough ground to be that stuff. If anyone cares, this was also Carl Jung’s take on things. Here’s an interesting quote from the theoretical physicist David Bohm, who also agrees, if I understand him correctly:

“If the thing and the thought about it have their ground in the one undefinable and unknown totality of flux, then the attempt to explain their relationship by supposing that the thought is in reflective correspondence with the thing has no meaning, for both thought and thing are forms abstracted from the total process. The reason why these forms are related could only be in the ground from which they arise, but there can be no way of discussing reflective correspondence in this ground, because reflective correspondence implies knowledge, while the ground is beyond what can be assimilated in the content of knowledge.

Does this mean that there can be no further insight into the relationship of thing and thought? We suggest that such further insight is in fact possible but that it requires looking at the question in a different way. To show the orientation involved in this way, we may consider as an analogy the well-known dance of the bees, in which one bee is able to indicate the location of honey-bearing flowers to other bees. This dance is probably not to be understood as producing in the ‘mind’ of the bees a form of knowledge in reflective correspondence with the flowers. Rather, it is an activity which, when properly carried out, acts as a pointer or indicator, disposing the bees to an order of action that will generally lead them to the honey. This activity is not separate from the rest of what is involved in collecting the honey. It flows and merges into the next step in an unbroken process. So one may propose for consideration the notion that thought is a sort of ‘dance of the mind’ which functions indicatively, and which, when properly carried out, flows and merges into an harmonious and orderly sort of overall process in life as a whole.” David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980, p. 55.

IMAGE – Steve Armstrong, Box Painting, 2008.

I really hope some physics and philosophy type persons are moved to comment. I don’t doubt this post needs refining, and perhaps even rejecting. Go for it.

%d bloggers like this: