Symbolism

Caspar David Friedrich

Now, from a practical point of view, what has been the influence of symbolism on the soul?

And Durtal answered himself: the Middle Ages, which knew that everything on earth is a sign and a figure, that the visible is valuable only for what is invisibly concealed beneath it, the Middle Ages which, as a consequence, wasn’t duped as we are today by appearances, studied this science very closely, and made of it the procuress and the handmaid of mysticism.

Convinced that the only aim that was important for man to follow, that the only goal that was necessary here below, was to enter into direct communication with heaven and to outstrip death by merging himself, by unifying himself as much as possible with God, it carried souls away, subjected them to the sobering diet of the cloister, pruned them of their earthly preoccupations, their carnal ambitions, always pointing them back to the same thoughts of renunciation and repentance, the same ideas of justice and love, and then, in order to hold them, to preserve them from themselves, it enclosed them with a fence, placed God always around them, under every form and under very aspect.

Jesus cropped up everywhere, attested to himself in the flora, in the fauna, in the structure of buildings, in decorations, in colours; whichever way man turned, he saw him.

And he saw also, as if in a mirror reflecting it, his own soul; he could discern, in certain plants, the qualities he had to acquire, the vices against which he had to defend himself.

And he had other examples before his eyes, because the symbolists didn’t limit themselves to turning treatises on botany, mineralogy, natural history, and other sciences into a course of catechism; some, Saint Melito among them, ended by applying their interpretative procedure to every object that came their way; to them, a zither turned into the chest of a devout man; the members of the human body metamorphosed into emblems: so the head signified Christ; the hairs were the saints; the nose, discretion; the nostrils, the spirit of faith; the eyes, contemplation; the mouth, temptation; the saliva, the sweetness of the inner life; the ears, obedience; the arms, the love of Jesus; the hands, good works; the knees, the sacrament of penance; the legs, the apostles; the shoulders, the yoke of Christ; the breasts, evangelical doctrine; the belly, avarice; the bowels, the mysterious precepts of Our Lord; the trunk and the loins, thoughts of lust; the bones, hardness of heart; the marrow, compunction; the cartilage, the feeble followers of Antichrist … and these writers extended this method of exegesis to the commonest objects of daily use, even to the tools and utensils that were within reach of everyone.

It was an uninterrupted succession of pious lessons. Ivo of Chartres tells us that priests instructed the people in symbolism, and Dom Pitra‘s research shows that in the Middle Ages Saint Melito’s treatise was popular and known to all. So the peasant knew that his plough was an image of the cross, that the furrows it made were like the freshly tilled hearts of the saints; he was not unaware that sheaves of corn signalled the fruit of repentance, that flour was the multitude of the faithful, the granary, the kingdom of heaven; and it was the same for many other professions; in short, this method of analogy was a constant invitation to everyone to observe more carefully and to pray better.

Used like this, symbolism served as a brake, bringing the forward march of sin to a grinding halt, and as a set of points, shifting souls and helping them pass through the stops of the mystical life. No doubt this science, translated into so many languages, was only intelligible in broad outline to the masses, and at times, when it was extruded through intricate minds such as that of the worthy Durand of Mende, it appeared overwrought, full of contradictions and accidental meanings. Then it seemed as if the symbolists took pleasure in splitting hairs with embroidery scissors; but in spite of these exaggerations, which it tolerated with a smile, the Church succeeded nevertheless through this tactic of repetition in saving souls, in carrying out the work of the saints on a large scale.

Then came the Renaissance, and symbolism foundered at the same time as church architecture.

J.-K Huysmans, The Cathedral, 1898

Oligarchy

Giotto

Michael Hudson: Every kind of reform, from Mesopotamia to Greece, was put forth as if it simply restored the way things were in the beginning. There was no concept of linear progress in Antiquity. They thought that there was only one way to do things, so any reform must be the way the world was meant to be in the very beginning. All reformers would say that in the beginning everybody must have been equal. Their reform was aimed at restoring this state of affairs.

That’s why, when Plutarch and even the Spartan kings in the third century BC talked about canceling debts and promoting equality, they said that they were simply restoring the original system that Lycurgus had created. But there was no sign that Lycurgus had really done these things. It was made up. Lycurgus was a legendary figure. So was Moses in the Jewish tradition. When the Bible was redacted and put together after the return from Babylon, they put debt cancellation and land redistribution —the Jubilee Year — right in the center of Mosaic Law. So it seemed that this was not an innovation, but what Moses said in the beginning. They created a Moses figure much like the Greeks created a Lycurgus figure. They said that this is how things were meant to be. This is how it was in the beginning — and it just happened to be their own program.

This was a projection backwards: a retrojection. Felix Jacoby wrote that Athenian history was that way, basically party pamphleteering projecting their ideal program back to Solon or to whomever one might choose as a good guy to model. Writers would then say that this original good guy supported the program that they were proposing in their epoch. This was the ancient analogy to “Constitutional Originalism” in the United States as a frame for right-wing policies.

John Siman: So, ever since the 500s BC, the surefire way to critique the status quo has been to say you are trying to go back to the Garden of Eden or to some other pristine Saturnian Golden Age.

MH: Yes, you want to say that the unfair world around you isn’t what was meant, so this couldn’t have been the original plan, because the past had to be a successful takeoff. So the program that reformers always turned out to be what the Founding Fathers meant.

JS: That’s very inspirational!

MH: The key is to appear as a conservative, not a radical. You accuse the existing status quo as being the beneficiaries of the radicals who have distorted the original Fair Plan that you’re trying to restore.

JS: So in the 500s BC we have Cyrus — and his inscription on the Cyrus Cylinder — boasting that he freed the Babylonians from their tax debt and bonds, and we have the post-exilic Jews proclaiming d’ror [דְּרֹ֛ור] in Leviticus 25, proclaiming “liberty throughout the land.” We also have the reforms of Cleisthenes in Athens, isonomia [ἰσονομία, literally, equality under the law], a genuine attempt at democracy. But let’s start with Rome. What do you want to say about the nova libertas, the “new liberty” proclaimed in Rome after the last king was expelled and the Republic was founded? Didn’t Brutus and his wellborn friends boast that they were the institutors of true liberty?

MH: Liberty for them was the liberty to destroy that of the population at large. Instead of cancelling debts and restoring land tenure to the population, the oligarchy created the Senate that protected the right of creditors to enslave labor and seize public as well as private lands (just as had occurred in Athens before Solon). Instead of restoring a status quo ante of free cultivators — free of debt and tax obligations, as Sumerian amargi and Babylonian misharumand andurarum meant — the Roman oligarchy accused anyone of supporting debtor rights and opposing its land grabs of “seeking kingship.” Such men were murdered, century after century.

Rome was turned into an oligarchy, an autocracy of the senatorial families. Their “liberty” was an early example of Orwellian Doublethink. It was to destroy everybody else’s liberty so they could grab whatever they could, enslave the debtors and create the polarized society that Rome became.

JS: OK, but this program worked. The Republic grew and grew and conquered everyone else for century after century. Then the Principate became the supreme power in the Western world for several more centuries.

MH: It worked by looting and stripping other societies. That can only continue as long as there is some society to loot and destroy. Once there were no more kingdoms for Rome to destroy, it collapsed from within. It was basically a looting economy. And it didn’t do more than the British colonialists did: It only scratched the surface. It didn’t put in place the means of production that would create enough money for them to grow productively. Essentially, Rome was a financial rentier state .

Rentiers don’t create production. They live off existing production, they don’t create it. That’s why the classical economists said they were supporting industrial capitalists, not British landlords, not monopolists and not predatory banks.

Michael Hudson and John Siman, “The Delphic Oracle Was Their Davos

Astonishing

Henri Matisse

In order to test the Queen of Sheba, and ultimately to demonstrate his superiority over her, Solomon orders the construction of a sarh covered with or built of slabs of glass or of crystal (27. 45). The exact meaning of the word sarh is the subject of much controversy and it may be easier to think of it as some sort of constructed space, without trying to be more precise. The peculiarity of whatever it is that Solomon built is that it is supposed to be interpreted by the Queen of Sheba as a body of water, as something different from what it really is. The pious implications of the story need not concern us here, but what is important is that a work is manufactured in order to create an illusion of reality. Two aspects of the story are pertinent to Islamic attitudes toward the arts, in partial contradiction with each other. One is that a work of art is something to wonder about, to be amazed by; it belongs to the category of wondrous things that became known as the ajaib (pl. of ajib, “wonderful” or “astonishing”), a term used constantly to praise manufactured items of all sorts. The other implication is that a work of art is a falsehood, a lie, because it gives you the impression of something that it is not.

Oleg Grabar, “Art and Culture in the Islamic World” in Islam: Art and Architecture, 2004

The Sentimentality of Science

Jacques-Louis David

. . . it is ‘common sense’ that sees only the world of the senses as real, and that admits of no knowledge other than the one that comes from the senses; moreover, it ascribes value to this narrow form of knowledge only insofar as it offers a possibility of satisfying either material needs or a certain sentimentalism, for in reality sentiment—and this must be frankly stated at the risk of shocking contemporary moralism—lies quite close to matter. In all this there remains no place for intelligence, or at most only insofar as intelligence may consent to serve for the attainment of practical ends, and to become a mere instrument subordinated to the requirements of the lowest and most corporeal part of the human individual—”a tool for making tools”, to quote a significant expression of Bergson: it is an utter indifference to truth that begets pragmatism in all its forms.

Under such conditions, industry is no longer merely an application of science, an application from which science should, in itself, remain completely independent; it has become the reason for, and justification of, science to such an extent that here too the normal relations between things have been reversed. What the modern world has striven after with all its strength, even when it has claimed in its own way to pursue science, is really nothing other than the development of industry and machinery; and in thus seeking to dominate matter and bend it to their service, men have only succeeded, as we said at the beginning of this book, in becoming its slaves. Not only have they limited their intellectual ambition—if such a term can still be used in the present state of things—to inventing and constructing machines, but they have ended by becoming in fact machines themselves.

René Guénon, The Crisis of the Modern World, 1927

Big Tent

The fourteenth-century North African philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun singled out tents as one of the emblems of royal authority and luxury. Certainly, they could be of palatial dimensions. According to Clavijo, the Castilian ambassador, one of Timur’s tents, pitched on the plain of Kani-Gil outside Samarqand, was large enough to shade ten thousand people. Clavijo, who was in Samarqand in 1404, described another of Timur’s tents as having gates, a domed ceiling, upper galleries, a turret, and battlements. A fortune was spent on the inner furnishings, including tapestries, silks, and gold brocade; and it is illuminating to know that Timur, who had grown up among the nomadic Chagatay Mongols, relegated the Gok Saray, his palace in Samarqand, to the role of a storehouse and prison.

Robert Irwin, Islamic Art in Context: Art, Architecture, and the Literary World, 1997

Sacred Art

The love of ‘formulae’, that is, of formal syntheses which are both concise and rich in possibilities, is characteristic of every sacred art. Buddhist iconography is made up of type images of this kind, and the same is true of Hindu and Taoist art, as well as of the icons of the Eastern Church , whose colouring and composition are fixed by tradition. In each case the imagination of the individual artist is subordinated to the traditional model; his imagination is free only in an inward sense in that he endeavours to attain to the spiritual kernel of his model and to remake the image from that. In the case of Islam, it is in architecture and ornamentation that one must look for the formulae of prototypes which the artist ceaselessly reproduces and varies according to circumstance. These prototypes are inexhaustible because they are true.

This fidelity to models, which religion does not actually prescribe but which the consensus of believers has in a sense consecrated, has earned for Islamic art the stigma of being the victim of ‘stagnation’, as if its stability over the centuries had been the result of inertia or lack of awareness. In reality, the alternatives of stagnation are highly inapplicable to sacred art, which is either faithful to its principles, and hence active and aware, or forgetful of them, thus entailing decadence and collapse.

Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, 1976

Islamic Art

The methodological importance and intellectual interest of Islamic art, at least in its formative stages, lies in the encounter between extremely complex and sophisticated uses of visual forms and a new religious and social system with no ideological doctrine or behavioural need for them.

Richard Ettinghausen and Oleg Grabar, The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650-1250, 1987

The Poverty of Modernity

. . . what is called the Renaissance was in reality not a rebirth but the death of many things; on the pretext of being a return to the Greco-Latin civilization, it merely took over the most outward part of it, since this was the only part that could be expressed clearly in written texts, and in any case, this incomplete restoration was bound to have a very artificial character, as it meant the re-establishment of forms whose real life had gone out of them centuries before. As for the traditional sciences of the Middle Ages, after a few final manifestations around this time, they disappeared as completely as those of long distant civilizations long since destroyed in the cataclysm; and this time nothing was to arise in their place. Henceforth there was only “profane” philosophy and “profane” science, in other words, the negation of true intellectuality, the limitation of knowledge to its lowest order, namely, the empirical and analytic study of facts divorced from principles, a dispersion in an indefinite multitude of insignificant details, and the accumulation of unfounded and mutually destructive hypotheses and of fragmentary views leading to nothing other than those practical applications that constitute the sole real superiority of modern civilization–a scarcely enviable superiority, moreover, which by stifling every other preoccupation, has given the present civilization the purely material character that makes of it a veritable monstrosity.

René Guénon, The Crisis of the Modern World, 1927

Amour Propre

DOLMANCE: . . . What is it one desires when taking one’s pleasure? that everything around us be occupied with nothing but ourselves, think of naught but of us, care for us only. If the objects we employ know pleasure too, you can be very sure they are less concerned for us than they are for themselves, and lo! our own pleasure consequently disturbed. There is not a living man who does not wish to play the despot when he is stiff: it seems to him his joy is less when others appear to have as much as he; by an impulse of pride, very natural at this juncture, he would like to be the only one in the world capable of experiencing what he feels: the idea of seeing another enjoy as he enjoys reduces him to a kind of equality with that other, which impairs the unspeakable charm despotism causes him to feel. ‘Tis false as well to say there is pleasure in affording pleasure to others; that is to serve them, and the man who is erect is far from desiring to be useful to anyone. On the contrary, by causing them hurt he experiences all the charms a nervous personality relishes in putting its strength to use; ’tis then he dominates, is a tyrant; and what a difference is there for the amour-propre! Think not that it is silent during such episodes.

The act of enjoyment is a passion which, I confess, subordinates all others to it, but which simultaneously unites them. This desire to dominate at this moment is so powerful in Nature that one notices it even in animals. See whether those in captivity procreate as do those others that are free and wild; the camel carries the matter further still: he will engender no more if he does not suppose himself alone: surprise him and, consequently, show him a master, and he will fly, will instantly separate himself from his companion. Had it not been Nature’s intent that man possess this feeling of superiority, she would not have created him stronger than the beings she destines to belong to him at those moments. The debility to which Nature condemned woman incontestably proves that her design is for man, who then more than ever enjoys. his strength, to exercise it in all the violent forms that suit him best, by means of tortures, if he be so inclined, or worse. Would pleasure’s climax be a kind of fury were it not the intention of this mother of humankind that behavior during copulation be the same as behavior in anger? What well-made man, in a word, what man endowed with vigorous organs does not desire, in one fashion or in another, to molest his partner during his enjoyment of her? I know perfectly well that whole armies of idiots, who are never conscious of their sensations, will have much trouble understanding the systems I am establishing; but what do I care for these fools? ‘Tis not to them I am speaking; soft-headed women-worshipers, I leave them prostrate at their insolent Dulcineas’ feet, there let them wait for the sighs that will make them happy and, basely the slaves of the sex they ought to dominate, I abandon them to the vile delights of wearing the chains wherewith Nature has given them the right to overwhelm others!

Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Bedroom, 1795

Onanism

Marcel Duchamp

In considering the question of abstinence, far too little distinction is made between two forms of it, namely, abstention from any kind of sexual activity at all, and abstention from heterosexual intercourse. Many who are proud of maintaining abstinence successfully have only been able to achieve it with the help of masturbation and other similar means of satisfaction, which are connected with the auto-erotic sexual activities of early childhood. But this very connection makes these substitutive measures of sexual satisfaction by no means harmless; they predispose to the numerous forms of neurosis and psychosis, which are conditional on a regression of the sexual life to its infantile form. Nor does masturbation at all correspond to the ideal demands of civilized sexual morality, and it therefore drives young people into the same conflicts with the ideals of education which they design to escape by abstinence. Further, the character is undermined in more ways than one by this indulgence; first, because it shows the way to attain important aims in an otiose manner, instead of by energetic effort, in line with the view that the attitude to sex is the prototype of the attitude to life; and secondly, because in the phantasies accompanying this gratification the sexual object is exalted to a degree which is seldom to be reproduced in reality. A witty writer, K. Kraus in the Vienna Fackel, has, as it were, expressed this truth paradoxically in the cynical saying: “Coitus is merely an unsatisfactory substitute for onanism!”


Sigmund Freud, “Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervousness” (1908)