Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Art of Doubting: Merleau-Ponty and Cezanne

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Art of Doubting: Merleau-Ponty and Cezanne

Article excerpt

Merleau-Ponty's essay, "Cezanne's Doubt,"1 appeared in December of 1945, the same year he published his Phenomenology of Perception, which would become a classic manifesto of "existential phenomenology," and collaborated with Jean-Paul Same to found Les Temps Modernes. While the ostensible aim of Merleau-Ponty's essay is an examination of Cezanne's painting, it is no less a thumbnail sketch of his own philosophy as developed in Phenomenology of Perception. Given that Merleau-Ponty seeks in Cezanne an artistic parallel to his own philosophical ruminations, our caution should be alerted; as Sabine Cotte noted while Curator of France's National Museums, "Cezanne's theories are contradictory enough to enable one to justify anything."2 But, while there is the danger that Merleau-Ponty finds in Cezanne only what he has put there, it must also be mentioned that Merleau-Ponty's examination continues to influence art historians and interpreters of Cezanne.3 It might be claimed, in fact, that the very malleability of Cezanne's work has its parallel in Merleau-Ponty, whose Phenomenology one early critic labeled "a philosophy of ambiguity."4 To stick with only one ambiguity at a time, I will leave aside the question of how Merleau-Ponty's examination of Cezanne relates to that of other interpreters,5 and instead focus on the positive characterization he offers of Cezanne and its parallels with his own philosophy. I will begin by discussing the explicit themes of Merleau-Ponty's essay, namely (a) the importance of Cezanne's "return to nature" and (b) the relation of the artist's life to the meaning of his work, particularly as these themes elucidate the nature of the "doubt" peculiar to Cezanne. In the second part of this essay, I will explore the significance of this "doubt" for understanding Merleau-Ponty's own work and especially his relation to Jean-Paul Sartre. Giacometti, Sartre's paradigm artist, also manifests "doubt." But, I will argue, the doubt shared by Giacometti and Sartre differs significantly from that of Merleau-Ponty and Cezanne, and it is within the space of this difference that we can distinguish Merleau-Ponty's brand of existential phenomenology from Sartre's existentialism.6

Metaphysical Doubt

As the title of his essay indicates, MerleauPonty is interested in Cezanne's "doubt," that is, in his uncertainty, his lack of self-confidence, the struggle and tension of his life. When Cezanne first made his decision to become a painter, this lack of self-confidence prevented him from asking his father to send him to Paris. When he finally did embark on his career, chastised by his childhood friend Zola for his "instability, his weakness, and his indecision" (CD, 14/60), his attempts met with complete critical rejection. Described as "a kind of madman who paints in delirium tremens,"7 an "artist with diseased eyes,"8 and "nothing but a lamentable failure,"9 critics wrote that "of all known juries, none could even in a dream entertain the possibility of accepting any pictures of this painter."10 And in fact the government, art authorities, and the public all cried out for the refusal of a collection donated to the Musee du Luxembourg, and later transferred to the Louvre,11 which contained several Cezannes, calling it a "collection of rubbish which publicly dishonors French art."12 In the face of such criticism, it is perhaps no surprise that Cezanne himself came to wonder if the novelty of his painting were nothing more than an "accident of his body" stemming from "trouble with his eyes" (CD, 13/59).13

But Cezanne's anxiety ran deeper than doubt about his painting ability. He often said he found life terrifying, while his fear of death drove him to create a will at the age of forty-six and to begin practicing religion in his fifties. As he grew older, he detached himself more and more from those who admired his work, would motion from a distance for friends not to approach him, avoided new situations, and relied on the established habits of his life of solitude. …

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