In “Eye and Mind,” Maurice Merleau-Ponty examines how art, specifically painting, displays the act of viewing the world with openness and immersion that is more truly representative of the continuum of existence. The essay opposes scientific thinking that, according to Merleau-Ponty, views all things in the world with an objectifying appraisal and fails to see the lived world as the site through which the body perceives and associates itself with others and its surroundings. Because it is through the body that consciousness extends itself and is affected, perception becomes the means through which consciousness establishes itself as an integral part of the world. This perception is not a channel that simply filters in information from a separate environment, but rather it is a kind of interconnectedness that allows for a simultaneity in which one both perceives the world through observation and interaction, and experiences the world revealing itself through its very essence.
The essay explores how a painter must offer her body (through her eyes and hands) into and through the world in order to manifest it most truly in art. Merleau-Ponty describes this vision as a movement that both extends the body through the act of looking and opens the body to the world through this extension. The body sees and is seen. It is within this merging between the perceiver and observer that distinctions break down between the subject and the object, the real and the imagined, and enclosure/encapsulation and space. The painter, with her endowment of a clairvoyant-like vision, unveils the object, while at the same time the object makes itself known to her. The invisible is made manifest through the painter’s enactment of her vision and the object’s revelation of itself to the painter.
“Eye and Mind” moves beyond the Cartesian notion that the act of painting is simply a way of manifesting thought or empirical observation, and it rejects the conception that space is an entity separate from, outside of, and indeterminable by perception. In fact, Merleau-Ponty examines space as that which directs the viewer and painter back to themselves. The body is both born out of space and functions as the core around which all space expands. He argues, “I do not see [space] according to its exterior envelope; I live in it from the inside; I am immersed in it. After all, the world is all around me, not in front of me . . . ” (178). The question becomes not how to understand space, but rather how to make oneself open enough to perceive it. Space and content merge in their coming-into-being through the visible. And while the painter seeks to express this fusion through a concentration on depth, line, form, and color, she must uncover a “secret of preexistence,” an “internal animation,” or a “radiation of the visible” that exists as a kind of Ur-force in what she sees, what exposes itself to her (182). Line, for instance, does not exist as a clearly defined boarder that distinguishes objects from each other. Rather, it is suggested by space and content in their genesis into the visible. There is no actual distinction between the body and its environment, but rather an extension and expression of Being which permeates the painter’s vision.
What distinguishes Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological investigations from those of other philosophers, such as Sartre and Heidegger, is his insistence on the body as the center of perception and the medium of consciousness. His study of vision as an extension of the corporal shows us that in order for consciousness to unfold into a part of the world—to exist as a flourishing—it must be embodied. To perceive the world and be shaped by it, one must be in and of its flesh.
Eye and Mind
What I am trying to convey to you is more mysterious; it is entwined in the very roots of being, in the impalpable source of sensations.
J. Gasquet, Cézanne
Science manipulates things and gives up living in them.1 Operating within its own realm, it makes its constructs of things; operating upon these indices or variables to effect whatever transformations are permitted by their definition, it comes face to face with the real world only at rare intervals. It is, and always has been, that admirably active, ingenious, and bold way of thinking whose fundamental bias is to treat everything as though it were an object-in-general—as though it meant nothing to us and yet was predestined for our ingenious schemes. But classical science clung to a feeling for the opaqueness of the world, and it expected through its constructions to get back into the world. For this reason it felt obliged to seek a transcendent or transcendental foundation for its operations. Today we find—not in
science but in a widely prevalent philosophy of the sciences—an entirely new approach. Constructive scientific activities see themselves and represent themselves to be autonomous, and their thinking deliberately reduces itself to a set of data-collecting techniques which it has invented. To think is thus to test out, to operate, to transform—the only restriction being that this activity is regulated by an experimental control that admits only the most “worked-up” phenomena, more likely produced by the apparatus than recorded by it.
Whence all sorts of vagabond endeavors. Today more than ever, science is sensitive to intellectual fads and fashions. When a model has succeeded in one order of problems, it is tried out everywhere else. At the present time, for example, our embryology and biology are full of “gradients.” Just how these differ from what classical tradition called “order” or “totality” is not at all clear. This question, however, is not raised; it is not even allowed. The gradient is a net we throw out to sea, without knowing what we will haul back in it. It is the slender twig upon which unforeseeable crystalizations will form. No
doubt this freedom of operation will serve well to overcome many a pointless dilemma—provided only that from time to time we take stock, and ask ourselves why the apparatus works in one place and fails in others. For all its flexibility, science must understand itself; it must see itself as a construction based on a brute, existent world and not claim for its blind operations the constitutive value that “concepts of nature” were granted in a certain idealist philosophy. To say that the world is, by nominal definition, the object x of our operations is to treat the scientist’s knowledge as if it were absolute, as if everything that is and has been was meant only to enter the laboratory. Thinking “operationally” has become a sort of absolute artificialism, such as we see in the ideology of cybernetics, where human creations are derived from a natural information process, itself conceived on the model of human machines. If this kind of thinking were to extend its dominion over humanity and history; and if, ignoring what we know of them through contact and our own situations, it were to set out to construct them on the basis of a few abstract indices (as a decadent psychoanalysis and culturalism have done in the United States)—then, since the human being truly becomes the manipulandum he thinks he is, we enter into a cultural regimen in which there is neither truth nor falsehood concerning humanity and history, into a sleep, or nightmare from which there is no awakening.
Scientific thinking, a thinking which looks on from above, and thinks of the object-ingeneral, must return to the “there is” which precedes it; to the site, the soil of the sensible and humanly modified world such as it is in our lives and for our bodies—not that possible body which we may legitimately think of as an information machine but this actual body I call mine, this sentinel standing quietly at the command of my words and my acts. Further, associated bodies must be revived along with my body—”others,” not merely as my congeners, as the zoologist says, but others who haunt me and whom I
haunt; “others” along with whom I haunt a single, present, and actual Being as no animal ever haunted those of his own species, territory, or habitat. In this primordial historicity, science’s agile and improvisatory thought will learn to ground itself upon things themselves and upon itself, and will once more become philosophy….
Now art, especially painting, draws upon this fabric of brute meaning which operationalism would prefer to ignore. Art and only art does so in full innocence. From the writer and the philosopher, in contrast, we want opinions and advice. We will not allow them to hold the world suspended. We want them to take a stand; they cannot waive the responsibilities of humans who speak. Music, at the other extreme, is too far on the hither side of the world and the designatable to depict anything but certain schemata of Being—its ebb and flow, its growth, its upheavals, its turbulence.
Only the painter is entitled to look at everything without being obliged to appraise what he sees. For the painter, we might say, the watchwords of knowledge and action lose their meaning and force. Political regimes which denounce “degenerate” painting rarely destroy paintings. They hide them, and one senses here an element of “one never knows” amounting almost to an acknowledgment. The reproach of escapism is seldom aimed at the painter; we do not hold it against Cézanne that he lived hidden away at
L’Estaque during the Franco-Prussian War. And we recall with respect his “life is frightening,” although the most insignificant student, after Nietzsche, would flatly reject philosophy if he or she were told that it did not teach us how to live life to the fullest. It is as if in the painter’s calling there were some urgency above all other claims on him. Strong or frail in life, but incontestably sovereign in his rumination of the world, possessed of no other “technique” than the skill his eyes and hands discover in seeing and painting, he gives himself entirely to drawing from the world—with its din of history’s glories and scandals—canvases which will hardly add to the angers or the hopes of humanity; and no one complains.2 What, then, is the secret science which he has or which he seeks? That dimension which lets Van Gogh say he must go “still further”? What is this fundamental of painting, perhaps of all culture?
The painter “takes his body with him,” says Valery. Indeed we cannot imagine how a mind could paint. It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings. To understand these transubstantiations we must go back to the working, actual body—not the body as a chunk of space or a bundle of functions but that body which is an intertwining of vision and movement. I have only to see something to know how to reach it and deal with it, even if I do not know how this happens in the nervous system. My moving body makes a difference in the visible world, being a part of it; that is why I can steer it through the visible. Moreover, it is also true that vision is attached to movement. We see only what we look at. What would vision be without eye movement? And how could the movement of the eyes not blur things if movement were blind? If it were only a reflex? If it did not have its antennae,
its clairvoyance? If vision were not prefigured in it? All my changes of place figure on principle in a corner of my landscape; they are carried over onto the map of the visible. Everything I see is on principle within my reach, at least within reach of my sight, and is marked upon the map of the “I can.” Each of the two maps is complete. The visible world and the world of my motor projects are both total
parts of the same Being.
This extraordinary overlapping, which we never give enough thought to, forbids us to conceive of vision as an operation of thought that would set up before the mind a picture or a representation of the world, a world of immanence and of ideality. Immersed in the visible by his body, itself visible, the see-er does not appropriate what he sees; he merely approaches it by looking, he opens onto the world. And for its part, that world of which he is a part is not in itself, or matter. My movement is not a decision made by the mind, an absolute doing which would decree, from the depths of a subjective retreat, some change of place miraculously executed in extended space. It is the natural sequel to, and maturation of, vision. I say of a thing that it is moved; but my body moves itself; my movement is self-moved. It is not ignorance of self, blind to itself; it radiates from a self….
The enigma derives from the fact that my body simultaneously sees and is seen. That which looks at all things can also look at itself and recognize, in what it sees, the “other side” of its power of looking. It sees itself seeing; it touches itself touching; it is visible and sensitive for itself. It is a self, not by transparency, like thought, which never thinks anything except by assimilating it, constituting it, transforming it into thought—but a self by confusion, narcissism, inherence of the see-er in the seen, the toucher in the touched, the feeler in the felt—a self, then, that is caught up in things, having a front and a back, a past and a future….
This initial paradox cannot but produce others. Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is one of them. It is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself. Things are an annex or prolongation of itself; they are incrusted in its flesh, they are part of its full definition; the world is made of the very stuff of the body. These reversals, these antinomies,4 are different ways of saying that vision is caught or comes to be in things—in that place where something visible undertakes to see, becomes visible to itself and in the sight of all things, in that place where there persists, like the original solution still present within crystal, the undividedness of the sensing and the sensed.
This interiority no more precedes the material arrangement of the human body than it results from it. What if our eyes were made in such a way as to prevent our seeing any part of our body, or some diabolical contraption were to let us move our hands over things, while preventing us from touching our own body? Or what if, like certain animals, we had lateral eyes with no cross-blending of visual fields? Such a body would not reflect itself; it would be an almost adamantine body, not really flesh, not really the body of a human being. There would be no humanity. But humanity is not produced as the effect of our articulations or by the way our eyes are implanted in us (still less by the existence of mirrors, though they alone can make our entire bodies visible to us). These contingencies and others like them, without which mankind would not exist, do not by simple summation bring it about that there is a single
man. The body’s animation is not the assemblage or juxtaposition of its parts. Nor is it a question of a mind or spirit coming down from somewhere else into an automation—which would still imply that the body itself is without an inside and without a “self.” A human body is present when, between the see-er and the visible, between touching and touched, between one eye and the other, between hand and hand a kind of crossover occurs, when the spark of the sensing/sensible is lit, when the fire starts to burn that will not cease until some accident befalls the body, undoing what no accident would have
sufficed to do…
Once this strange system of exchanges is given, we find before us all the problems of painting. These problems illustrate the enigma of the body, which enigma in turn legitimates them. Since things and my body are made of the same stuff, vision must somehow come about in them; or yet again, their manifest visibility must be repeated in the body by a secret visibility. “Nature is on the inside,” says Cézanne. Quality, light,color, depth, which are there before us, are there only because they awaken an echo in
our bodies and because the body welcomes them.
Things have an internal equivalent in me; they arouse in me a carnal formula of their presence. Why shouldn’t these correspondences in turn give rise to some tracing rendered visible again, in which the eyes of others could find an underlying motif to sustain their inspection of the world?5 Thus there appears a “visible” to the second power, a carnal essence or icon of the first. It is not a faded copy, a trompe l’oeil, or another thing. The animals painted on the walls of Lascaux are not there in the same way as are the fissures and limestone formations. Nor are they elsewhere. Pushed forward here, held back there, supported by the wall’s mass they use so adroitly, they radiate about the wall without ever breaking their elusive moorings. I would be hard pressed to say where the painting is I am looking at. For I do not look at it as one looks at a thing, fixing it in its place. My gaze wanders within it as in the halos of Being. Rather than seeing it, I see according to, or with it.
The word “image” is in bad repute because we have thoughtlessly believed that a drawing was a tracing, a copy, a second thing, and that the mental image was such a drawing, belonging among our private bric-a-brac. But if in fact it is nothing of the kind, then neither the drawing nor the painting belongs to the in-itself any more than the image does. They are the inside of the outside and the outside of the inside, which the duplicity of feeling [le sentir] makes possible and without which we would never understand the quasi presence and imminent visibility which make up the whole problem of the imaginary. The picture, the actor’s mimicry—these are not devices borrowed from the real world in order to refer to prosaic things which are absent. For the imaginary is much nearer to, and much farther away from, the actual—nearer because it is in my body as a diagram of the life of the actual, with all its pulp and carnal obverse exposed to view for the first time. In this sense, Giacometti says energetically, “What interests me in all paintings is likeness—that is, what likeness is for me: something that makes me uncover the external world a little.”6 And the imaginary is much farther away from the actual because the painting is an analogue or likeness only according to the body; because it does not offer the mind an occasion to rethink the constitutive relations of things, but rather it offers the gaze traces of vision, from the inside, in order that it may espouse them; it gives vision that which clothes it within, the imaginary texture of the real.
Shall we say, then, that there is an inner gaze, that there is a third eye which sees the paintings and even the mental images, as we used to speak of a third ear which grasps messages from the outside through the noises they caused inside us? But how would this help us when the whole point is to understand that our fleshly eyes are already much more than receptors for light rays, colors, and lines? They are computers of the world,which have the gift of the visible, as we say of the inspired man that he has the gift of tongues. Of course this gift is earned by exercise; it is not in a few months, or in solitude, that a painter comes into full possession of his vision. But that is not the question;
precocious or belated, spontaneous or cultivated in museums, his vision in any event learns only by seeing and learns only from itself. The eye sees the world, and what it would need to be a painting, sees what keeps a painting from being itself, sees—on the palette—the colors awaited by the painting, and sees, once it is done, the painting that answers to all these inadequacies just as it sees the paintings of others as other answers to other inadequacies.
It is no more possible to make a restrictive inventory of the visible than it is to catalog the possible expressions of a language or even its vocabulary and turns of phrase. The eye is an instrument that moves itself, a means which invents its own ends; it is that which has been moved by some impact of the world, which it then restores to the visible through the traces of a hand.
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