Magritte and Wallace John Dewey Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

The latter's dark waves unify experiences of a fearsome and truly elemental ocean in the winter; of a fish's waterside flopping as simultaneously pathetic, terrifying, and heart-breaking; and one's own experiences of helplessness. But I think we should be loathe to take these differences in degree of unity as differences in kind of experience. Viewing either Collective Invention or a Necker Cube constitutes an experience, rather than simply leading to one. We should say that each is a work of art.

Collective Invention, however, is perhaps great art. If so, then according to Dewey, it should not only be that viewing it constitutes an experience, as with the Necker Cube; it should be that viewing it repeatedly constitutes repeated experiences; and each successive experience of it is deeper -- which, I assume, is to say that each successive experience unifies more experiences.

I should now like to ask whether two works that I consider masterpieces do seem to be possessed of an inexhaustible depth of meaning. The works are Rene Magritte's painting Collective Invention and David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest. I conclude that each of these masterworks does indeed seem to contain an inexhaustible depth of meaning. But this is with some qualifications; most importantly, these are modern works, and I shall commit to their being inexhaustible only as they "speak to" experiences that I shall characterize as modern.

Let's begin by asking how it could seem that something -- anything -- continually unifies ever more experiences. Consider the relationship between close friends, lovers, or family members. The briefest interval of separation is often concluded with an excited exchange of details of what each did in the other's absence. A husband reports the details of his day to his wife, who responds in kind, and then they ask their child to do the same. Dewey has told us that conversations are exemplary of the self-sufficiency of an experience, and it's plausible that they're unifying as well. If nothing else, they unify the experiences reported with the experience of reporting and sharing with one's companion. In most cases, they are also unified with listening to and inquiring about one's companion's experiences.

These conversations do indeed seem to become ever richer and greater in their unifications. The dinner-table talking unifies each family-member's daytime activities with those of the other family members, and these with dinner-table discussion. Tuesday's dinner is unified with Monday's, the recent holiday's, and all those dinners the family had together last year. In more dynamic families, there is more than a simple accretion of experiences, though; maybe mom gives helpful feedback on her son's day, while sis cracks fond jokes. As Dewey says, each participant retains her own character while simultaneously revealing it; we can add that each participant also develops her character further and comes to understand the those of her companions in deeper subtlety.

Can one have such a "conversation" with Collective Invention? I believe so. The confirming condition is that every time I return to it, it unifies ever more of my experiences -- it "speaks to me" of all the things I've done since I last saw it, and it associates them with what I take to be the picture's theme, a near-universal feature of modern life, and the artist's intent in creating it. There's much to say about this, of course, but I should be brief, so let me focus on one aspect of the experiences I believe Collective Invention unifies for its viewer (setting aside the viewer's relationship with the painter, other viewers, etc.), and please excuse my heavy dependence on metaphors.

Jose Ortega y Gasset said, "to live is to feel oneself lost." Let me suppose that this is true at least for many of us in modern times -- perhaps this is not so in places or at times where/when Divine convictions dominate (d) an entire culture, or where/when indigenous humans commune (d) more completely with the Earth, or in the Garden of Eden. This experience, where it is felt, is pervasive. Though she might often claim that he makes her feel "at home," a wife can always doubt that her husband loves her; she can always suspect that she's massively deceived and all the experiences that ostensibly give her life meaning are in fact illusory. She has and can have no guarantee that the world she lives in is not completely foreign to her and, in the next moment, its thorough unfamiliarity will be revealed to her.

Collective Invention expresses these feelings perfectly. The figure in the painting is not just a "fish out of water," its situation is even worse. It has a fish's gills and a human's ungainly legs. Out of the water, it may walk, but it cannot breath. In the water, it may breath, but it is poorly equipped for swimming-its front is "made" to glide through the water side to side while its bottom is best suited for kicking like a propeller. The viewer sees in Collective Invention a creature that surely feels itself lost, and so it gives an image to the pervasive feeling of living. We might say, then, that not only does it "speak to" feelings of helplessness and being lost, it also "speaks for" them. It "gives voice" to them.

I believe these metaphors are apt, and I don't think it's a coincidence that we would say similar things about one's relationship with a close friend, lover, or family member. A friend's fears "speak to" our own, and when they listen to our hopes, their sympathy speaks for the hoped-for possibilities. Insofar as Collective Invention is a work of art only as it is viewed, as some viewer brings to it her own experiences; insofar as any potential viewer must have had, prior to viewing, some experiences living; and insofar as Collective Invention unifies, speaks to and for experiences of living, it contains a seemingly inexhaustible depth of meaning. That is, each interaction with it is an experience; and each time one returns to it, one has inevitably had more experiences feeling lost, and so it speaks more deeply to the viewer.

The same holds for Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace's sprawling masterpiece. It too speaks to the feeling of being out of place in life, and perhaps it chronicles the various other, more familiar emotions with which this feeling is associated: depression, striving, confusion. Its characters suffer from clinical depression, brood over the horrors of sexual abuse, aspire single-mindedly for athletic greatness, etc. One reviewer called it "an…encyclopedia of hurt."

It unifies a panoply of the reader's experiences with those of its characters, the late authors own, now-public depression, etc.

Let me focus on one of the novel's expressions of Ortega y Gasset's claim. One of the primary characters, Hal Incandenza, is a standout player at a high profile tennis academy; the following describes a recurring dream that has driven him to abuse marijuana in order to help him sleep:

I am standing publicly at the baseline of a gargantuan tennis court. I'm in a competitive match, clearly: there are spectators, officials. The court is about the size of a football field, though, maybe, it seems. It's hard to tell. But mainly the court's complex. The lines that bound and define play are on this court as complex and convolved as a sculpture of string. There are lines going every which way, and they run oblique or meet and form relationships and boxes and rivers and tributaries and systems inside systems: lines, corners, alleys, and angles deliquesce into a blur at the horizon of the distant net. I stand there tentatively. The whole thing is almost too involved to try to take in all at once. It's simply huge. And it's public. (Wallace, 67)

Hal is haunted by a dream in which what should be familiar is utterly alien. Playing tennis and doing so well has so far given his life purpose and direction; he strives to play better and much of his thought and energy are directed at improving his game. But, somehow, his sleeping life won't cooperate. It presents to him a world in which he has no idea how to play tennis, in which he cannot even fathom the rules, the dimensions of the court, or even the relevant divisions of the court. Its lines appear to him as overlaid; the court appears indeterminately long.

Above, we imagined a wife who may often feel "at home" in the world, but who recognizes, perhaps in moments of quiet reflection, that this feeling is at least penetrable. She can fathom the possibility that her relationships are founded upon deception, that her past has been mis-remembered, her convictions are false. Hal in Infinite Jest faces this prospect in the form of a dream. And, what's more, since the dream keeps him awake and thus renders him lethargic on the (real) tennis court, it's telling that he addresses it in a way that sabotages his very ambitions. The fear…

Sources Used in Document:

references in parentheses are to this work and edition.

Pylyshyn, Zenon. Seeing and Visualizing. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003. See, especially, chapters 1 -- 3.

Strictly speaking, self-sufficiency does not come in degrees. Anything short of sufficiency is insufficiency, and so it makes little sense to say that the experience of great art is "more self-sufficient." But we needn't be strict here, as we are not when we say that an individual is self-sufficient if she works and lives alone, even if she depends on the grocer for food, on her doctor for good health, and so on. So perhaps it can come in degrees. Still, I find Dewey's remarks on the self-sufficiency of an experience (especially) obscure; and since we shall already have much to say about the unity of experience, I have put the matter to one side.

Gehr, Richard. "Heavy." Spin March 1996: 120.

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