Academic journal article The Romanic Review

"Le Dernier Coup De Pinceau": Perception and Generality in 'Le Chef-D'oeuvre Inconnu.' (Balzac)

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

"Le Dernier Coup De Pinceau": Perception and Generality in 'Le Chef-D'oeuvre Inconnu.' (Balzac)

Article excerpt

In what amounts to a primer of holistic studies, Gregory Bateson asserts, "Science probes, it does not prove".(1) Science can only enhance certain hypotheses and discard others. The changing paradigm of what constitutes scientific knowledge is only part of a new epistemology, a forma menus shared with artists and humanists. If "science is a way of perceiving and making what we may call `sense' of our percepts," since "all experience is subjective," then the gap between scientific and aesthetic discourse has been narrowed.(2) Henceforth any search for truth is tinged by narrative interferences, imperfections in the measuring device or procedures, the impact of the questions not asked, or, in the case of the easel-painted portrait, the details not rendered.

This changed theory of knowing and learning, advanced in parallel with the cybernetic revolution, has its philosophical predecessors in such figures as Leibniz, Whitehead, and Wittgenstein. What these thinkers had in common was a view of thought as interactive process, always dependent on a context and engaged in an ongoing dialectic between generality and truth. "Mind" is seen a self-corrective analogical system, the biological extension of which is an "event". One of the benefits of this paradigm shift has been to promote dialogue between scientists and humanists, and an appreciation of the dual aspect of dialectics, as empirical and verbal, but also intuitive and visual. Analytical reason now belongs to the poet as well the scientist, and successful logical argumentation is invariably a maieutic process. The resultant elevation of what is called artistic knowledge is of obvious importance to aesthetics. What now constitutes artistic proof? How does it differ from scientific proof? What are the perceptual characteristics of aesthetic evidence?

Like forensic determinations of attribution, in which the circumstantial means of identifying an individual "signature" are necessarily approximate, the nature of certitude in aesthetic matters is also limited. That is, the problems of assessing authorship are replicated on a higher logical plane by the problems of attributing mastery, an action which must occur in the public sphere (since "mastery" implicates one in a tradition, forwards and backwards in time).(3) A masterpiece is considered to be a crystallization of human "genius," a timely or prophetic validation of the human spirit.

This essay examines the issue of artistic proof in the context of Balzac's Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece), a story which is at once a metatextual example of the aesthetic debate it posits. As one of Balzac's "philosophical tales," it straddles the generic boundary between an excursus and a story. By fictionally representing his position on the arts, Balzac seems to presuppose the theory of ut pictura poesis. He does this at a time when the Horatian notion of the harmony of the "sister" arts, still accepted in the 18th century, had yielded to its opposite: a view of maximum tension between two contrastive forms of expression. He thus raises the level of debate on these issues, much in the manner of William Blake, who had argued for the "multiplication" of painting "times" poetry so as to yield an allegorical "product".(4) By eschewing a formal argumentative apparatus, Balzac seems to be saying that, with respect to aesthetic matters, deduction and induction are no more reliable means of truth-gathering than the abductive means of metaphor and intuition, and that human interaction and perception are the raw materials of any masterpiece. As such, Balzac's story is a radically anti-illuministic and anti-encyclopedic (and therefore paradoxical) addition to the modern Western paedeia or encyclopedia of learning.

Over the years I have habitually misstated Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu as Le Chef-d'oeuvre d'un inconnu. For me it was the master, not the masterpiece who was unknown; it was the painter and not the work. …

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