A Philosophy and Art that is Vital
We require concepts and symbols that connect with life.
Sometimes, when we read philosophy or behold art, we obtain a new understanding of the world and our place in it.
Philosophy that illuminates reality opens a door that invites us in, and breaks down the walls of separation we sometimes create with our environment. Similarly, art that enchants and captures us opens a door to our own creativity, and provides a glimpse of a universe that is alive.
When concept in philosophy and symbol in art come together to illuminate and enchant we rise to an enhanced zest for life, a new vitality that empowers us to create our own unique image of ourselves and our environment.
Concept and Symbol
Concepts are the building blocks of philosophy: ideas expressed in language and logic. Symbols are often the building blocks of art: ideas expressed in signs that go beyond words, conveying meaning that exceeds language.
The symbolic in modern art attempts to lead us away from a world of mechanical representation, and into the otherwise inexpressible ecstasy of experience.
Via concept, the philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, similarly attempts to help us regain enchantment with the world: by thinking the new, finding new ways to conceptualize the otherwise inconceivable. Here in this world, and not of some other transcendent world.
Consider the modern art of Picasso, and his great painting, Guernica, a testimony to the terror and horror of total war.
The symbolism in the painting is subject to much debate. But we know Picasso painted Guernica in response to the bombing of the Basque Country town in northern Spain by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, at the request of General Franco and the Spanish Nationalists.
It was the first time the Nazis used their new aerospace and bombing technology to annihilate an entire town, and it would foreshadow the terror of the Blitzkrieg of World War II. It was the first time in history most of the people of a town, including innocent woman and children, were destroyed by modern military technology.
The scene seems to be depicting a clash of new technology and old traditions. The electric light bulb making the scene visible is symbolic of a new technology that is the cause of the horrific misery of the figures in the painting. Some are devastated, others look on in awe or confusion.
The bull and the warhorse are symbols from an older way of life. The bull, in particular, is important to the Spanish ritual of the bullfight. But he is also symbolic of an earlier mythology and way of life. He is the sacrificial bull of the prehistoric paintings, such as those found in the caves at Lascaux in southern France.
The bull is an immanent symbol of life, the circle of life. He connects us with this life, does not project us in to the transcendent. But in this painting, the old ways have been destroyed by a new technology that up until this point in history was unimaginable.
The light of reason slays the knight on his horse, as the bull looks on indifferent. The bull now is an old and tired symbol, emasculated of his power. He is a relic, a remnant of a living, empowering philosophy that is now dead.
Reason and rationality, taken to their extreme, divorced from a living philosophy, turn humanity on itself, and the only possible result is total destruction.
We are left with nothing more than a wasteland in which hollow men, faced with the absurdity that results from a disconnection with the universe, turn on life itself, demeaned of all value.
Deleuze and Symbol
The Deleuzian concept of difference-in-itself elucidates the One in the Many, just as does the immanent symbol. But it is the One in the Many that is real, is the force of difference, not a supernatural abstraction.
The epiphany of reality Deleuze attempts to deliver with the concept of difference-in-itself is connection with reality, and an end to our alienation from nature. He is attempting to provide us with a perspective that places us in our natural relationship with universe. In doing so, he attempts to reinvigorate meaning in life, bring life back to life, and inspire us to create with all of creativity.
From at least one perspective, concept and symbol are working stories that provide meaning, each with their own intricate logic and means of association. Difference, immanence, duration, eternal return, bring us back to life, as do immanent symbols. But they interact with our thought in a different way, engage the mind in a different manner, ask us to imagine and envision how reality works, or flows.
Deleuze does not reject symbols, he views them as connections with intuitive force; unlike allegory, beyond words, giving shape to perception.
Deleuze has no quarrel with the symbolic, provided it empowers, and does not sweep us out of this world and into the supernatural. He did not in any way wish to reinstate old symbols, myths and allegories, but instead sought to create new concepts and symbols to articulate that which cannot be fully articulated, to express that which is otherwise inexpressible.
Similarly, art achieves sublime significance when immanent symbols are expressed in fresh and new ways.
What is remarkable is art, or philosophy, that creates enchantment with the world, affirms life, vitality, the creation of the new, and the promotion of new connections.
In many ways, Deleuze’s project is all about vitality. In his own words:
Thinking’s never just a theoretical matter. It has to do with vital problems.
The creation of new connections is the vital principle of Deleuze’s philosophy; the creation of immanent signs and diagrams of life. His project is to transform our way of thinking so as to put on display the unmediated force of pure difference that is our reality.
And he does this by creating a new language that connects with us here and now. As did Blake:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower —
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
Metaphysically, life is affirmed, full stop. And in a universe in a process of becoming, everything is alive.
Everything moves, everything transforms, everything evolves. We are alive, not in a cold universe of science, stretched out over a meaningless straight line of time; but in a universe in which we participate in a never-ending process of experimentation and creativity.
Perspective is all important if we are to embrace this vision. If we can, then the possibilities are open and infinite.
For life is inherently innovative.
Life is experimental and creative, expressive of the new and the open. The force and power of life unfolds, forms new relations and connections.
A fulfilling life is one that participates in the flow; one that explores the dynamic forces and powers within and all around, and in doing so encounters novel and unfinished experience.
The universe is alive, time is alive, with difference. And we are alive when we come to embrace our place in it, and participate in the open whole.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.
For Man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.
Vitality and the Caves at Lascaux
We require a philosophy that illuminates human experience.
I hope you enjoyed this article. Thanks for reading!
Excerpt from my forthcoming book, Becoming: A Life of Pure Difference (Gilles Deleuze and the Philosophy of the New) Copyright © 2021 by Tomas Byrne. Learn more here.