Toward a Phenomenology
of Painting and Literature
IN ONE OF HIS STUNNING classroom lectures, Meyer Schapiro, I recall as if it were yesterday, allowed his prepared text to wander a little, to dwell on an aside rather longer than the occasion seemed to warrant. The thought that took his fancy has haunted me agreeably from time to time for more than fifty years. It seems to have been gathering strength in a completely unforced way. For instance, it has helped me to see a very natural connection between the analysis of the puzzles of pictorial perception and the sometimes awkward matter of what has been called the “moral function” of literature, which I might not have tumbled to otherwise and which simplifies our command of both issues.
On a quick scan, they seem to be quite independent of one another, but perhaps they're not. I see them as neatly joined through the analysis of the role of imagination in pictorial perception and literary understanding—a chance conjunction set in motion by Schapiro's little aside. In any case, the linkage seems to make short work of certain nagging paradoxes regarding pictorial representation and the moral function of fiction: the first, because we need to know what it means to say we see a pictorial world in seeing a painting; the other, because we need to know what it means to say our appreciation of the Active world of a novel enriches our moral sensibilities. Both questions are met by recovering a neglected feature of imagination's role in perception and in what may be called Bildung in the cultural sense.1
Quite recently, Schapiro's observation came to mind again while I sat through a small but thoughtful film about, of all things, young women