Our Relation to the Word: Window Or Mirror?

Our Relation to the Word: Window Or Mirror?


In his intriguing essay, The Despotic Eye: An Illustration of Metabletic Phenomenology and Its Implications, Robert Romanyshyn, offers a very well-presented, easy-to-grasp introduction to Van den Berg’s Metabletic Phenomenology. He then proceeds to illustrate why reality is a mirrored reflection of human life. Romanyshyn uses the poignant example of linear perspective, its origin, and how it differs from the way artists previously viewed the world.

According to Romanyshyn, before the advent of linear perspective, artists portrayed the relation of humanity to the world from the point of view of the entire body (not just the eye), since the body is how we relate to the world. The following painting from 1359 presents a view one would experience while walking through the streets of fourteenth century Florence. According to S.Y. Edgerton, an expert on the history of linear perspective, the painter “believed that he could render what he saw before his eyes convincingly by representing what it felt like to walk about, experiencing structures, almost tactilely…” Romanyshyn comments:

The artist’s eyes which saw 14th century Florence and portrayed on that canvas what was seen, also portrayed a way of seeing. The artist portrayed a see-er whose eyes are embodied, that is, whose eyes are as much a matter of active muscle as they are of receptive nerve, eyes which take hold of the world by moving through it as much as they may behold it from a point fixed in space. That anonymous artist and his canvas depict eyes whose sensing of the world is a sensuous contact with it, eyes which in looking at what they see caress and are caressed by what they see, eyes in the midst of the world, surrounded by it as it were, rather than an eye removed from the world in order to confront it head on, as it were, along the straight lines sketched out by the geometry of linear perspective (Romanyshyn 512).

This painting is really a look back in time at the way the artist experienced his world. Romanyshyn believes that

What reality is is, in other words, inseparable from how humanity imagines or envisions it. In this respect humanity’s psychological life is visible as the specific and concrete historical manifestations of an age. The way in which an age paints its paintings and builds its buildings, for example, mirrors the way in which that age dreams its dreams and understands its reasons. (ibid. 506).

The second image discussed by Romanyshyn is a painting from circa 1480. The artist is anonymous, but he/she has obviously fully embraced the principles of linear perspective developed by Filippo Brunelleschi several years prior to this.

Linear perspective takes as preconceived assumptions that space is infinite and homogeneous. The primary foundational stone of linear perspective is that of the vanishing point, what the Italians called the punta di fuga, the point of light. Through this new way of seeing that which is seen, a new relationship between humanity and the world is born. This new relationship would lead to the notion of an objective observer, one removed from what one is seeing. The new science that was just on the horizon would embrace this view of a dichotomy between humanity and the world, which would lead to Descartes’ schism between the mind and the world. Again, I defer to Romanyshyn:
The relation between humanity and the world which the fifteenth century artist newly imagines and makes visible before the scientist, will turn that relation into a method, and the philosopher will transform it into an epistemological principle; that relation, which the technique of linear perspective originates, makes the body, as vehicle of knowledge and as humanity’s ground in the world, dispensable. It installs in place of the body a detached eye, a disincarnated eye, as the vehicle of relation. It originates an eclipse of the body in favor of an eye that is fixed, an eye of singular vision, an eye which has withdrawn itself from the world (ibid. 507-509).

Our previous relation to the world was like gazing into a mirror. Soul and the world were mirror images. Now, we have been conditioned for over five centuries to believe we are objective observers to a world that we see through an idealistic window, while we are safe and warm inside. As an illustration of this point, notice the painter in the lower right-hand corner of the second image, above. He is not participating in the city below, as the artist of the first image was. He is perched on a hill and appears to have separated himself from the reality and being of the city below. I would suggest this idea is one of spirit and not soul, for soul would be wandering the streets and alleyways of Florence, not transcending the world by perching oneself above it!

I believe we experience the world with our entire body, not just the eye. This is contrary to the scientific method, which deals only with quantifiable and observable (via the detached eye) “facts.” As it is, science only offers us a partial view of reality. There is so much more. 

I highly recommend Romanyshyn’s article. It is a fascinating read.

Romanyshyn, Robert D. The Despotic Eye: An Illustration of Metabletic Phenomenology and Its Implications. Janus Head 10.2(2008): 505-527.

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