Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Beneath Platonism: Temporality and the Musical Idea According to Merleau-Ponty

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Beneath Platonism: Temporality and the Musical Idea According to Merleau-Ponty

Article excerpt

It is perhaps appropriate that much of Merleau-Ponty's late thinking comes down to us not in the form of narrative but in the rough outline of notes.1 For it is as if the late Merleau-Ponty deliberately employs language in such a way that his words work not so much to convey an explicit meaning but to articulate an empty space upon the page-as the space beneath thought, as the space that remains to be thought. "It is necessary," Merleau-Ponty writes, "to excavate below ideal identity, Bedeutung, Platonism, essence as given unity of the individual, of the world, and of history" (HP 16). For what the philosopher is called upon to investigate, according to Merleau-Ponty, is not the fixity of the word (nor the fixity of the idea), but rather the viscous link between words. In this way, the thinking that remains for us, through Merleau-Ponty's late sketches, stands as close to the artistic as to the philosophical tradition. Indeed, Merleau-Ponty's persistent attention to the language of oppositional pairs (visible-invisible, sensible-ideal, present-past, activity-passivity) reveals more than a penchant for "ambiguity." Rather, through investigation of the space beneath, between, and behind articulated words, his writing works to disclose the initiation of philosophical thought as truly creative. Merleau-Ponty characterizes his project, in The Visible and the Invisible, as "an elucidation of philosophical expression itself . . . as the expression of what is before expression and sustains it from behind" (VI 167). Merleau-Ponty seeks to elucidate the very depth of expression.

Indeed, he writes, in 1959, "philosophy is nothing other than the unconcealment of the depth dimension of all other activities" (HP, 18). And therefore it is of little surprise that Merleau-Ponty devotes a considerable portion of his lectures in 1960-1961 (L'ontologie cartésienne et l'ontologie d'aujourd'hui) to the interrogation of depth within different styles of "non-philosophy"-particularly painting and music. What distinguishes these last notes from those of his course given just two years previously (La philosophie aujourd'hui)-when Merleau-Ponty earlier explored the philosophical significance of painting and music-is precisely the emphasis upon the notion of depth within these two arts.

Depth in Painting: Cézanne

Because it is seeking depth, Cézanne's style of painting plays a significant role in Merleau-Ponty's later thinking. He writes, "The enigma [of depth] consists in the fact that I see things, each one in its place, precisely because they eclipse one another, and that they are rivals before my sight precisely because each one is in its own place. Their exteriority is known in their envelopment and their mutual dependence in their autonomy."2

This notion of depth demands philosophical attention because of its capacity to unite, in one sole gesture, otherwise contradictory elements: exteriority and envelopment, dependence and autonomy. As a relationship between oppositional (or "incompossible," as he writes) pairs, depth comes to be perceived not in itself but only through the presentation of these elements. That is to say, depth-despite our ability to describe its presence clearly among the situated objects on a painted canvas-does not show itself in the same way as a thing to be seen: it shows itself only through relationship, as (literally) the space between things. Moreover, it shows itself to the extent that the things themselves are obscured from view (as Merleau-Ponty writes, "because they eclipse one another"); depth shows itself as the other side-the unpresentable side-of things. Thus it is through investigation of the notion of depth that Merleau-Ponty can fairly claim that a painting "renders present to us what is absent" (EM 171).

Indeed, as a dimension shown through the presence of absence, depth can be conceived neither solely as a positive idea not solely as a sensible thing; it constitutes, rather, a divergence-a "negativity that comes to the world" (VI 250). …

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