Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Memory, Pictoriality, and Mystery: (Re)viewing Husserl Via Magritte and Escher

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Memory, Pictoriality, and Mystery: (Re)viewing Husserl Via Magritte and Escher

Article excerpt

Section 100 of Edmund Husserl's Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy ends with an allusion to Tenier's painting of a gallery of paintings. Husserl playfully recalls or is "namingly reminded" that this very painting of a gallery is in the Dresden Gallery. The pun is far from capricious, for one of Husserl's main concerns is how these minute paintings within a painting come to represent "legible inscriptions,"2 which spontaneously reverberate at various levels, bringing into motion a "concatenation of mental processes in the mode of presentiation."3 The image of the gallery within a Gallery is particularly paradigmatic for Husserl. It provides him with a concrete example of the effective or operative quality of a compound series of representation, which is a complex amalgam of the three simple series of representation: reproduction or recollection, imagination, and the sign (also called modes of presentiation-as opposed to simple perception).4 Gazing into a gallery within a Gallery enables Husserl entry into the aesthetic contemplation of remembering embedded within layers of remembering, or of adumbrations adumbrating within adumbrations. Yet the infinity of reproductions within reproductions cannot be sustained within the sphere of lived human experience. Galleries within galleries within galleries . . . ad infinitum eventually blur into sheer abstractions, phantoms too far removed from the original living perception to remain decipherable inscriptions. The infinite regress into paintings within paintings via memory spontaneously shatters, and we find ourselves again gazing into one painting within one gallery.

Rene Magritte's The Human Condition II, which was painted in 1935, returns to the theme of the painting within a painting. Yet to this, Magritte adds and brings to the forefront, the juxtaposition between the inside and the outside by propping up an easel with a painting of the sea against a delicately arched door which looks out onto the sea. Magritte's equal rendition of the sea upon canvas with the sea undulating in open space lends the painted sea a transparency that exists only in the mind for it actually obscures the sea outside and beyond. It is but a fine white vertical stroke that delineates the border of the canvas, leading the eye of the viewer to wander outwards onto the sea, and to return within, to gaze upon a painting of the sea.

Similarly, M. C. Escher's Print Gallery harks back to the visual motif of a mise en abyme, yet does so with greater sophistication, much more evocative of Husserl's glimpse of the infinite regress of memories locked in memories than Magritte's painting. We begin with entering the Print Gallery visually through a doorway at the lower right-hand corner, and encounter a man, with his hands behind his back, gazing at an exhibition of paintings. Further along, on the left, following the flow of prints within this print, we see a young man who stands looking at a print (within this print) on the wall. As the perspective of the print continues to expand circularly, the young man's head appears to bulge, as the print he gazes at also expands. Following his line of sight, we first see a ship on the sea, and higher up, or on the upper left hand corner, we see some houses along a quayside. If we follow the progression of houses leading to the far right, we see that the view ends in a corner house, whose base is the very entrance to the picture gallery in which the exhibition of prints is being held. Escher himself sums up the overall visual effect:

Thus having let our eyes rove in a circular tour around the blank center, we come to the logical conclusion that the young man himself also must be part of the print he is looking at. He actually sees himself as a detail of the picture; reality and image are one and the same.5

What both Magritte and Escher seem to have accomplished is the sustained tension of Husserl's aesthetic adumbration-or of Husserl's vision of attempting to maintain the infinite regress into paintings within paintings, or prints within prints. …

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