Imagine men in suits and ties, wearing bowler hats and holding valises and umbrellas, raining from the sky as they maintain the same stationary, upright posture that they might adopt while standing at a bus stop; behind them, there is an apartment building.
Imagine the leaves of a plant turning into birds or, if you prefer, birds becoming the leaves of a plant.
Imagine a man in a suit, his head replaced by a circle of radiance.
Imagine a bird, wings spread against a stormy sky--but, where its avian shape appears, the sky is azure rather than gray and the clouds are fleecy white, not overcast.
Imagine a locomotive engine steaming through a chimney, below a mantle piece occupied by candlesticks flanking a clock, a mirror on the wall above.
Imagine a glass of water balanced perfectly upon the canopy of an open, upright umbrella suspended in midair.
Imagine Napoleon Bonaparte’s head--or death mask--colored blue, with white clouds scattered across his head, his brow, his cheek, his chin, his jaw, and his throat.
Imagine a painter at his easel, an egg his model, painting a bird with its wings stretched wide in flight.
Imagine ankles and bare feet transformed into boots, complete with veins, nails, and shoelaces.
Imagine a diner with four arms and four hands known, rather than as The Glutton, as The Sorcerer.
In doing so, you have stepped, as it were, into the sometimes whimsical, sometimes horrifying world of the surrealist Rene Magritte.
By his own admission, his work is intended to convey ideas, which makes his art philosophical enough to have captured the attention of Michel Foucault, who offers this explanation concerning Magritte’s art--or some of it, at least:
Magritte knits verbal signs and plastic elements together, but without referring them to a prior isotopism. He skirts the base of affirmative discourse on which resemblance calmly reposes, and he brings pure similitudes and nonaffirmative verbal statements into play within the instability of a disoriented volume and an unmapped space (Foucault, “To Paint Is Not To Affirm”).No one, perhaps, can offer a definitive understanding of the artist, one that captures the entirety of what the surrealist intends and accomplishes, nor, certainly, will this post.
Fortunately, that’s not our intention. What we mean to do is to look at Magritte’s art as representing a sort of visual koan the answer to which, inasmuch as koans can be answered, has to do with David Hume’s critique of causality.
A koan is a riddle or a fable that is meant to inspire satori, or enlightenment (that is, insight, as through an epiphany), by demonstrating the insufficiency of reason to provide understanding. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a brief example. The Online Dictionary, Language Guide, Foreign Language and Etymology website provides a longer example:
Zen master Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A young novice began to imitate him in this way. When Gutei was told about the novice’s imitation, he sent for him and asked him if it were true. The novice admitted it was so. Gutei asked him if he understood. In reply the novice held up his index finger. Gutei promptly cut it off. The novice ran from the room, howling in pain. As he reached the threshold, Gutei called, "Boy!" When the novice turned, Gutei raised his index finger. At that instant the novice was enlightened.Magritte said that his paintings were attempts to inspire ideas from the perception of phenomena by divorcing them from their ordinary context. In other words, he meant to make objects that we’d come to take for granted so much that they had become familiar and understood in a specific, set way and make them present and visible to us again in a new context that denied them the familiarity we’d assigned them. As a result, we could recover both the mystery of existence and the ability, once again, actually to see that at which we look, much as a young child, looking at something for the first time, actually sees it.
Magritte understood that most of us have lost the ability to observe in any true sense of the word. It was his self-assigned task to cure our blindness, to make us see again. To this end, his paintings are visual koans. They depict riddles, demanding that we try to figure out the meaning of the puzzles. His titles, which were often made up--frequently by friends, rather than by the artist himself--after the paintings themselves had been created, usually bear only a tenuous relationship, if any, to the images that Magritte painted; sometimes, the titles are intentionally and entirely ambiguous. The answers to his visual koans, the artist said, must come from within the viewer’s mind. The art itself is a mere catalyst for epiphany, somewhat as Socrates’ questions were verbal midwives through which the philosopher brought to birth, as it were, the enlightenment of his students.
How does this apply to Hume’s critique of causality?
According to Hume, the idea of cause, like the idea of effect, is a thought in the mind, not an object in the world. Therefore, causality cannot be confirmed through observation. In observing a sequence which is alleged to involve cause-and-effect relationships, all one may actually observe is the occurrence of an incident, “A,” followed by the occurrence of another incident, “B.” We see a guillotine blade sever the neck of a condemned prisoner, and we ascertain that the person dies. Whether we watch this same event once or a million times, all we will ever see is incident “A,” the falling of the guillotine blade severing the head of the condemned prisoner, followed by incident “B,” the death of the executed person. Never do we see a cause or an effect as such, because they are in the mind, if anywhere, not in the incidents themselves--the phenomena--that we observe. Delusions, dreams, hallucinations, illusions, mistaken impressions--all show that perceptions and our interpretations of them are subject to doubt. The concept of causality is also subject to doubt.
What if there are uncaused phenomena? What if the very idea itself of cause and effect is bogus? The world of science comes crashing down around us. The impossible becomes possible. Order becomes chaos. Metamorphoses become likely, if not inevitable. We can imagine men in suits and ties, wearing bowler hats and holding valises and umbrellas, raining from the sky as they maintain the same stationary, upright posture that they might adopt at a bus stop, behind them an apartment building. Wonders can materialize; miracles can appear. Existence regains the mystery it had in pre-scientific times. Science’s “dull realities” are extinguished. The Hamadryad is back in the wood, the Naiad in “her flood,” the Elfin in the “green grass,” and Poe’s “summer dream beneath the tamarind tree” is restored!
We are no longer “unscientific postscripts,” and the world lies open before us, full of potential for discovery and pregnant with discoverable meaning. We no longer know it all (or think we know it all); we are humbled, having discovered, as Socrates and Albert Einstein knew, that we know virtually nothing. The world, returned to us, returns us to both the world and to ourselves. If we are not careful, we may entertain “Intimations of Immortality.”
Of course, in reality, Hume’s critique of causality did not overturn science. If anything, it applied the brakes to a then-runaway scientism. It made scientists more cautious and caused them to forego speaking of certainties in favor of probabilities. Weather phenomena were no longer certainties, and meteorologists would say not that rain was inevitable, for example, but, rather, that there was a 98 percent chance of rain. (One was still well advised to postpone the backyard barbecue.) Hume’s critique humbled the scientists of his day and of every day. Hume showed that there is doubt at the very root of the empirical method. If this is so, others have since argued (notably, most recently, Soren Kierkegaard) that there may be other ways by which to understand reality and by which to relate oneself to the world and to the cosmos. Art is such a way, the Danish thinker insists.
Art allows us to posit possibilities, to consider alternatives to the way things are--
--which brings us to horror.
Most horror stories start with the occurrence of a series of wonderful, albeit bizarre, incidents that could easily be portrayed in the images of a Magritte painting (or those of an Hieronymus Bosch, a Salvador Dali, or an H. R. Giger, for that matter). The reader (or moviegoer) wonders what is behind these mysterious incidents, what is causing them, so, yes, the concept of cause and effect is alive and well, even in the world of horror, but it is a concept that allows Samuel Taylor Cole ridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief”; it is a much more loosely woven concept of causality than that which scientists are wont to claim. It is an embracing of the possibilities of otherness, of strangeness, of weirdness, and it is this openness to both the grotesque and the appalling that allows the types of forays into the unknown--and, perhaps, the unknowable--that scare the hell out of horror fans and delight such accomplished practitioners of the art as H. P. Lovecraft, who confessed:
My reason for writing stories is to give myself the satisfaction of visualising more clearly and detailedly and stably the vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions of wonder, beauty, and adventurous expectancy which are conveyed to me by certain sights (scenic, architectural, atmospheric, etc.), ideas, occurrences, and images encountered in art and literature. I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best--one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of Nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or "outsideness" without laying stress on the emotion of fear. The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.The next time you read a narrative poem, a short story, or a novel or see a movie devoted to horror, its premise is apt to be the same as the basis for Magritte’s art, and, especially if it happens to be a narrative by the likes of an Edgar Allan Poe, a Stephen King, or an Alfred Hitchcock, it may also suggest, as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (and Rene Magritte) does, that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy”--some of them horrible, indeed.