Looking for Hollow Faces

A philosophical opinion piece called ‘Do Thrifty Minds Make Better Brains?’ by Andy Clark, a professor of logic and metaphysics at Edinburgh, relates how our thrifty minds conserve energy and activity by being ‘engines of prediction’. He draws on research in neuroscience to argue that we amass a bank of stored images that replace (and sometimes cancel out) new sensory data about phenomena we’ve seen before. The mind uses its existing knowledge to avoid having to process everything that confronts us as though new; instead, the brain registers anomalies from the expectations it has created: ‘What is marked and passed forward in the brain’s flow of processing are the divergences from predicted states: divergences that may be used to demand more information at those very specific points, or to guide remedial action.’

Even at this point, Clark’s argument rings many literary bells for me (e.g. George Eliot (such as the squirrel’s heart-beat line I’ve mentioned before); or T.S. Eliot’s ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’, given an explicitly Christian reading here—there are religious ideas lurking near these arguments). Clark also alludes to possible literary applications when he meditates on the idea that perception and imagination are linked activities:

[P]erception (at least of this stripe) now looks to be deeply linked to something not unlike imagination. For insofar as a creature can indeed predict its own sensory inputs from the “top down,” [i.e. is knowledge-driven] such a creature is well positioned to engage in familiar (though perhaps otherwise deeply puzzling) activities like dreaming and some kind of free-floating imagining. These would occur when the constraining sensory input is switched off, by closing down the sensors, leaving the system free to be driven purely from the top down. We should not suppose that all creatures deploying this strategy can engage in the kinds of self-conscious deliberate imagining that we do. Self-conscious deliberate imagining may well require substantial additional innovations, like the use of language as a means of self-cuing. But where we find perception working in this way, we may expect an interior mental life of a fairly rich stripe, replete with dreams and free-floating episodes of mental imagery.

Clark uses the example of the hollow-face illusion, which is much more easily appreciated by watching the video attached to his article than by explanation. In essence, Clark takes this famous illusion (it turned up in the Royal Institute Christmas Lectures this year, with Einstein’s head instead of Chaplin’s) as a good example of how the mind’s activity affects our perception: we always see the rounded face because the idea of a hollow face is so foreign to us that we reject the incoming sensory data, and plump for a fictional, illusory perception.

The article doesn’t actually specify any view about what literature or the arts involve, but I do find a set of productively disagreeable implications (which I stress are not made in the article) that could grow out of it. If you were to define an artist as someone with ‘an interior mental life of a fairly rich stripe, replete with dreams and free-floating episodes of mental imagery’, in short someone wildly imaginative, then you might be led to think that arty types love to play with fictions and deal with counter-factuals. In this view the artist toys with reality and lets the mind run free. Clark’s line about ‘use of language as a means of self-cuing’ could imply that poetry is a literary form that encourages the mind to engage in such creative, associative play. The creative mind makes its own false rounded faces and indulges its fantasties.

This sounds reasonable enough, and there may be something in it. But I also disagree that this provides anything like an approximation of what artistic contemplation and creation may accomplish. For a start, this state only occurs when ‘the constraining sensory input is switched off, by closing down the sensors’, so you can forget any naturalistic observation, and this also shuts down any social engagement in the relevant art: Clark refers elsewhere to how our imagination stores prejudices. In fact, I think this model of artistic creation as unplugged from reality and left to engage in play is positively immoral because it would define artistic creation as the reorganization of false certainties, severed from truth, and unwilling to participate in the world.

When I watch the hollow-face illusion, I try to convince my mind to discard its illusion and to see the hollow face that’s really there. I do this in vain– but I don’t want to settle for the illusion. Similarly, I would always pick the blue pill in the world of the Matrix. Likewise, many great artists are intensely curious and inquisitive people who also don’t want to accept fictions, but want to use their imagination to re-route the mind so that it can see what’s there more clearly. There are many ways to try to see the hollow face, such as to observe it as closely as possible (realism), or to realize that the mask you see has a deeper meaning, i.e. a hollow face (symbolism).

I’ve been reading Wallace Stevens and his early critics recently, and there is a great deal of pertinent material to draw on here. Stevens has been seen as the ‘poet of consciousness’ par excellence. Here is verse about how a singer who ‘sang beyond the genius of the sea’ fashions her world through her singing:

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made. (The Idea of Order at Key West)

The singer’s voice creates her world, parallel to the world as it is, but still a beautiful fiction. The actual sea is as inaccessible as the hollow face. Stevens’ poem may seem to go against my argument, because he explores the impossibility of seeing or singing the sea as it is. But his poetry can be read as an exploration of how we reach and deal with this limitations, as human beings. He writes elsewhere that ‘I thought we had reached a point at which we could no longer believe in anything unless we recognized that it was a fiction [….] there are fictions that are extensions of reality [….] Heaven is an extension of reality’ (letter to Henry Church, 8 December 1942) and that ‘[poetic] truth is an agreement with reality, brought about by the imagination of a man strongly disposed to be influenced by his imagination, which he believes, for a time, to be true’ (‘Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet’). These are the serious thoughts of a man engaged in the world, not someone withdrawing to a domain of happy fancy.

For Stevens here the imagination is an instrument used to reach towards truth once we know that it is unreachable: there are necessary fictions. There is mystery on the land and in the seas. In his poetry Stevens uses language to test out these limitations, and to discover the point where the mind stops us from seeing more clearly. I doubt Stevens could have seen the hollow face either, but his poetry doesn’t just mess around with versions of the illusory rounded face either—his poetry is not divorced from the understanding, despite Yvor Winters’ view that Stevens gives us ‘the most perfect laboratory of hedonism to be found in literature [….] his ideas have remained essentially unchanged for more than a quarter of a century’. His poetry, and other poetry, is a different type of laboratory: once conducting advanced experiments in how we build our sense of reality, aware that any such investigations cannot ignore the fallibility of the investigator. The imagination can do more than juggle prejudices and preconceptions into new forms: it can help us to dabble in reality and try to see hollow faces.

Rickety Dichotomies

The Radio 4 programme In Our Time discussed the philosophical continental-analytical split this week. The speakers all offered massive disclaimers at the start: there is no clear-cut distinction, continental philosophy isn’t a coherent body of thought, the geographical distinction is nonsense, and no philosopher’s work can be reduced to one of two camps. When I’m asked about different approaches to studying English or what the differences between English departments at Oxford and Cambridge are, my explanation sometimes uses the same terms ‘continental’ and ‘analytical’ in passing, and with similar caution.

I endorse the same disclaimers, since I believe that each person holds an inter-locking set of beliefs and unspoken assumptions that can’t be guessed by assigning them to a particular creed or label. I believe that you don’t begin to know people until you’ve encountered them, in person or through what they’ve produced. Still, I find it instructive to think generally about larger differences in approach to difficult questions, so here’s my take on how the continental-analytical divide, as explained through the following garbled summary, could be applied to literary study. In particular, I’ll use it to answer another question I’m sometimes asked: hasn’t most of what’s been written about Shakespeare just been made up by critics?

Breezy summaries first. Analytical philosophy (Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein are among its notable proponents) seeks to establish what it is that we can know through reason and logic. It pursues objective analysis to cut through all that is unproven to locate irrefutable propositions about reality that must be true. It’s unified by a method that emphasizes precision and thoroughness, and has tended to dwell on the philosophy of language: how well does language describe the world? It currently prevails in academic philosophy today, the programme told us.

Beatrice Han-Pile’s excellent introduction to continental philosophy emphasized that its concerns are existential, arising from humans having a limited understanding of the world and being aware of this. Consequently, this provokes questions unique to humans, such as ‘how do I lead a good life?’, ‘what is beauty?’ or ‘do I have I soul?’ Answers to these questions cannot be established through reason alone, but require us to draw on subjective experiences and feelings to be able to answer them. These questions demand us to confront how we can come to understanding of the world as humans, through perception (phenomenology worries about this) or interpretation (hermeneutics is the theory of interpretation). It seeks to understand how we interact with the world as whole beings, and often speaks readily to political and social concerns.

Now—and here I start to add even more planks to this rickety rope-bridge—English studies had two different origins that could be perceived as corresponding approximately (and anachronistically) from this divide. English studies, as I understand it, began in nineteenth-century London. University College (UCL) initially promoted a more utilitarian approach to English language and literature (think Jeremy Bentham), emphasising composition skills, and the factual and historical study of language. King’s College, meanwhile, was more evangelical and taught sound moral principles based on the classics: it saw religion and education as intertwined. The University of Oxford established English as a professional discipline nudged, as I’ve been told, by a renewed need to train colonial civil servants (need to check this): it promoted philology (i.e. history of language) and historical studies of literature. In twentieth-century Cambridge a different type of degree course was set up, one more socially aware and which combined ‘life, literature and thought’. In particular, ‘Practical criticism’ was a skill of close reading conceived by I. A. Richards to have psychological benefits for students, and is still associated with Cambridge though most degree courses in Britain teach close reading. Just one more creaky paragraph to come….

As literature departments developed in the UK, then, one side tends to regard English language and literature as a discipline that can inform us about history, about language, and other objective matters. This is the more analytical approach, and is closer to what I’ve encountered during my time at Oxford (disclaimer with alarm-bells etc.). The other side takes literature as a social phenomenon that presents ideal ground from which to consider how humans describe, interpret and communicate about the world around them through language. This approach is more continental, and more attuned to work I saw and worked on in Cambridge. Both sides—and it’s wearying for me to keep on with these withdrawals, but we’re almost there—have great strengths, and I doubt either exists in a pure form: they can combine and correct each other. It happens that the more analytical approach is also more dominant, I would say, in continental European, British and American literature departments right now, and if so this is probably connected, among other things, to increased specialization as we accumulate more knowledge.

So in answer to the question whether critics are just making it up about Shakespeare, there are two answers. One: no, because academic Shakespeare studies establish what we can know about his dramas and poems using primary sources and analysis. Academics provide the context and historical basis to help others read and enjoy his works. Two: no, because from our contemporary perspective we can ask important questions that aren’t less important because Shakespeare wouldn’t have asked them, such as how he represented women or colonies, or held broad views about humanity. Academics open up these questions for others to pursue. Regardless of approach, very few critics would dare to explain exactly what Shakespeare was trying to tell us in his plays, that don’t just echoes through history.

If we want to run away with this split further we could start speculating a basic neurological foundation for all this, the much-skewered left- and right-brain distinction (Jonathan Sacks criticized here for this; Iain McGilchrist here, for example). And just to tip the tension into ridicule, we could imagine a humanistic theory of everything which also include thought/ feeling and science/ religion. The sheer adaptability of this same continental-analytical split into virtually every sphere of human endeavour makes me think that it is worthwhile as a tool for thinking (because it keeps on recurring), if not for describing reality.

More importantly, it reminds me once again that no individual mind or artifact can be slotted in one of two categories. In fact, such gross simplification goes against the basic nature of humanistic study as I and others pursue it. We learn this once we start analysing a text in all its historical complexity, and as we start posing theoretical questions. In fact, English studies ought to be superb at such self-scrutiny because language, the medium through which all these ideas are communicated, is its basic subject of study. It ought to be the first to resist the shackles of such dichotomies, even though individuals will naturally incline towards approaches similar to those previously adopted by others.

The Art of Concentration

Great art requires concentration from the artist, and demands concentration from those experiencing it. Artists concentrate their minds and energies for years in order to compose, paint, write or otherwise create work that reveals unusual sensitivity and mastery. Artists tend to have the talent and training to experience ‘flow’ or be ‘in the zone’. Education teaches concentration. Self-control is often said to improve your long-term career prospects (think of the Marshmallow Test). Concentrating fully on a single task is often more difficult than multitasking: it requires the whole body to move towards a single goal.

Literature demands and rewards concentration too. I was asked to talk about the following passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (Chapter 20) in an admissions interview at Cambridge. In what I now (but not then) understand as a deep, almost mystical insight into concentration, the narrator says that ‘keen vision and feeling’ allow you to push at the horizons of reality, to experience the world more fully:

That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.