Eye and Mind and Flesh (Merleau-Ponty)

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I just taught for the second time Merleau-Ponty’s two major essays on painting. The first one, “Cezanne’s Doubt” was written in 1945 and is typically seen as a complement to Merleau-Ponty’s completed opus from the same time, The Phenomenology of Perception. Reading along with the introductory essays in Galen A. Johnson’s The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting, one is given to see how the combined emphasis in both “Cezanne’s Doubt” and The Phenomenology of Perception is a worldly one. In the essay, color is the dominant aesthetic mode by which to understand both the world as a primordial being prior to human consciousness and the formation of a world given to consciousness.

“Eye and Mind” was the last essay published by Merleau-Ponty, and it is usually interpreted in light of his unfinished masterpiece The Visible and the Invisible. Usually it’s the case that “Eye and Mind” is interpreted with reference particularly in relation to the concept of “flesh,” understood as a concrete emblem of a general manner of being, the ever coiling, always immanent but never realized reversibility of being as (e.g.) the body that senses (sees, touches) is “always on the verge” of being sensed (seen, touched). Body and world cross over into each other. The hand that touches is the hand that is touched. The subject-body no longer looks simply at the object. The object now looks back. With a nod to Paul Klee, this is how the relation is reversed and made uncanny in “Eye and Mind.”

Instead of or in addition to interpreting the essay in terms of the main text, we can reverse the relation in order to interpret The Visible and Invisiible (i.e. a philosophical concept like “flesh”) in light of painting. Again with a nod to Klee, the late works in particular, the figure of painting is defined not in terms of color, as was the case in the essay on Cezanne, but on the moving line. Color was seen as breaking the external envelope of a shape to reveal its internal construction. Inside the object, no longer solid things begin to move (M-P Aesthetic Reader, p.140). But now we see that the essence of painting is no longer color, but line, not the prosaic notion of line as that which outlines an object, but the “flexuous line” that moves freely in its “constituting power.” It’s Klee who has has “let the line muse,” making its way in space, to show how “every visual something” is lined by the invisible,” “occulticly perceived. (pp.142-3, 147).

Playing around on the chalk board this is what I came up with by way of illustration. A meandering thin line, and then, when queried by a student, the meandering fat line, both lines crossed and crossing internally inside its own ambit, and both lines crossing with each other. That’s how I’m going to imagine what “flesh” “looks like” as a concept or as a conceptual emblem, not like the Greek letter chi (χ), but rather something more meandering, more extended or extensive.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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3 Responses to Eye and Mind and Flesh (Merleau-Ponty)

  1. dmf says:

    something more baroque?

  2. emmambrodeur says:

    I love this recap of Merleau-Ponty. I wish I was there. I’ve never been able to separate MP’s aesthetics from his philosophy, or to think about his philosophy without his aesthetics as so many do, but I never thought through the transition from color to line. You’re right, though, the final works are all line. I’ve always had a “wandering” DNA helix in my mind as a figure for flesh.

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