Academic journal article Style

The Sense of Something More in Art and Experience

Academic journal article Style

The Sense of Something More in Art and Experience

Article excerpt

In Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, a sudden flash of lightning is said to reduce the silhouette of a poplar tree to no more than "an ink stroke on burnished tin" (217). Hardy's metaphoric image is meant to suggest the scale of an approaching storm. Yet by shrinking the tree into an ink stroke, he also inverts the mimetic process by which an ink stroke can give rise to the impression of a tree. One might even think of the lightning-quick way in which the novelist's own ink strokes make that poplar tree take shape in the reader's mind. In the flicker of a tree into an ink stroke and then back again, we find a self-referential demonstration of how a touch of the brush or a stroke of the pen can alternately seem powerfully evocative and formally limited. This essay examines the cognitive underpinnings of the aesthetic tension Hardy hints at here--and to which his own imagination is repeatedly drawn: at the same time that a few representational cues can be sufficient to bring to mind the concept of something more, they can then come to seem insufficient as a means for gaining further access to what has been implied.

Consider the fact that an artist starts from nothing--a blank page, a bare canvas, a block of marble--and begins to construct the semblance of something. While this something may consist of no more than a few cues, it can still be tremendously effective at bringing about the recognition of more: a poplar, a person, an extended life, an enterable world. In Ian McEwan's Atonement, Briony Tallis observes, "In a story you only had to wish, you only had to write it down and you could have the world;... You saw the word castle, and it was there, seen from some distance, with woods in high summer spread before it" (35). In fiction, the "childhood of a spoiled prince" can be "framed within half a page," while "falling in love" can be "achieved in a single word--a glance" (7). At any given moment of narrative representation, a reader encounters only a limited selection of information about the referred-to scene or state of affairs. Yet because of the mind's ability to recognize the potential existence of objects that are only partially available to the senses, a parsimonious set of cues can be sufficient to suggest something more. (1)

It is precisely the effectiveness of these cues, however, that can then bring a reader up against the limits of representation. While half a page, a sentence, or a word may be sufficient to prompt identification of something more, the given cues ultimately provide an underdetermined representation of the implied object. As Lubomir Dolezel observes, finite texts, which are "the only texts that humans are capable of producing, are bound to create incomplete worlds" (Heterocosmica 169). This essay examines the double-edged nature of the encounter with fixed, finite instances of mimetic representation. On the one hand lies the readiness with which perceivers can retrieve concepts implied by limited cues, while on the other hand we find the subsequent predicament of not being able to gain further access to precisely what those cues seem to promise. As much as we are able to recognize more than meets the eye, we have no way to bring those objects directly before us.

I will begin by demonstrating the remarkable ease with which a limited set of cues can prompt perceivers to retrieve the concept of something more. It is in this way that "an ink stroke on burnished tin" can seem to transcend its formal constraints. As a testament to the effectiveness of representational economy, The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, published in late seventeenth-century China, devotes one section to the "free-sketch style" of figure painting, indicated in Figure 1. The manual advocates "the power of expressing through absence of brush and ink":

   Figures, even though painted without eyes, must seem to look;
   without ears, must seem to listen. This should be indicated in one
   or two touches of the brush. … 
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