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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Horror and Magritte’s Visual Koans

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your new entry to your blog and found it very thought provoking from the writer's point of view.

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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