In 1998, the National Gallery of Victoria mounted an exhibition titled, Beyond Belief – Modern Art and the Religious Imagination. The exhibition appealed to me not because of any strong religious beliefs of my own, but I was drawn (and continue to be so) by the pairing of different types of imagination, in this instance, the spiritual and the visual. I did not know which artists were to be included, but I understood from the advance publicity that many were well-known.
The day I visited the exhibition there was quite a crowd. I was alone and in no hurry, so loitered beyond the outer edge of onlookers, waiting for the crowd to thin. And so it was that I walked around a screen and there, several metres away, I saw a small Rothko (it was Black, brown on maroon, 1957). My first response was delight at the unexpected meeting with one of my favourite artists, my second response even while the delight continued, was tears. I stood there in an open space beyond the crowd gazing at this Rothko with tears rolling down my face.
The painting affected me in a way I did not understand. But something profound HAD happened. If I say about the experience that I was moved (and I clearly was moved) it does not do justice to what was an intense and complex reaction. If I say that I was overwhelmed by intense emotion, it still gives little indication of what I was feeling at the time.
There are certain experiences, intense and significant, for which common language usage all too often fails. The appreciation of music, for example, or the expression of pain, or a description of wonder, or my unexpected reaction to Rothko’s painting. More often than not the attempt to explicate, actually leeches the experience of its essence.
So what happened when I caught sight of that Rothko hanging on the gallery wall?
I was waterlogged with wonder
I stumbled into paradise
I gazed into the face of God
I fell into a Mahler symphony
As to which metaphor I might use, that would depend both on my experience and the person to whom I was attempting to share it with. Gazing into the face of God might hit the spot with someone of a religious disposition, the Mahler metaphor with someone musical, natural world metaphors with those connected with the natural world.
Too often we treat language as if it were arithmetic, wherein an equivalence is assumed/sought between symbol and referent. But as Magritte so aptly demonstrated in his Ceci n’est pas une pipe, language is not the thing. We might speak of the infinite nature of language, can actually show how it works in theory, but in practice, language usage is all too finite. We have nailed language to the mast of unambiguity. We have stripped it of its music. We have smoothed out its paint strokes. We have made words into Lego blocks.
When language in this unambiguous and hobbled form is used to describe an experience like my Rothko experience, of course it fails, of course it falls short. So much of my Rothko experience was non-verbal, or extra-verbal, and only language that spills its usual boundaries will do the experience justice. We humans live in a language dictatorship. Like the Russian poets during the years of Stalin, we need to go underground.
It’s not vocabulary we are wanting (although the impoverished vocabularies of most of us could do with considerable expansion), rather we need to bring imagination to language usage, we need to impregnate our language with tone and texture and sensation and atmosphere.
Of all the tools of language and communication it is metaphor that subverts the whole notion of sign-symbol equivalence, that smashes the ties of immutability between language and its referents. Metaphor is the wild child of language, the recalcitrant offspring which can turn around and teach its elders what they did not realise they did not know. Metaphor makes the familiar strange and different. Metaphor brings music to language, it brings sensation and emotion. Metaphor subverts routine ways of seeing and thinking and communicating, and thereby it illuminates the shadows of meaning.
The right metaphor can portray complex emotional and intellectual responses with great power and economy – which is why poetry, good poetry, can have such a profound effect, and bad poetry, of which there is an inordinate amount, feels like such a betrayal. But in fact prosaic and routine language usage is no less a betrayal. If an artist were to restrict his palate to green, if a composer were to confine herself to a single octave, we would feel betrayed. So, too with banal and hackneyed language usage. It’s treating the great gift of language in cavalier fashion, it is also denying what marks we humans off from other animals: language and the imagination.
And why be concerned about this now? Public language as seen in the two second rehearsed grabs of our politicians, as seen in the mindless talking in exclamation marks of comperes of reality TV shows, has never been so impoverished. If we don’t act soon we will lack the language to describe what has gone wrong, much less fix the situation.