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Michel Henry: Art and the Phenomenology of Life (iii)

September 27, 2008

Q: In Material Phenomenology you analyze the “invisible phenomenological substance” that is “the pathetic immediacy in which life experiences itself.” If, as you claim, life is “the principle of everything,” how can one envisage a phenomenology of the invisible or more exactly of the relation between the visible and invisible from the point of view of art? Related question, is the work of art visible or invisible, immanent or transcendant, objective or subjective, internal or external? Here we are referring to the phenomenological reflections of Roman Ingarden.

MH: The questions that you have posed are my questions… Marx says somewhere that Humanity only asks questions that it can answer. I would say, in all modesty, that insofar as being a philosopher working outside of the paths followed by modern thought, I have been in a precarious position in relation to what I have wanted to say, namely it has been very difficult for me to find the conceptual means to express a wholly other phenomenology. A phenomenology sure, but wholly other since my understanding of appearing is not only the appearing of the world, but pathetic givenness, pathetic revelation.

I have taken Kandinsky’s writings as support because his analysis puts into play the categories that I have distinguished in my own phenomenological analysis. I came to the idea that there is a “duplicity of appearing:” a way of giving oneself in a hetero-affection, as all that we see, and a pathetic way, what we never see. Why? Because, since there is no separation, there is no ek-static deployment as Heidegger understands it, no seeing is possible. In order to see, there must be some kind of distance. But there is no distance, revelation occurs solely in the flesh of affectivity, it occurs without any distance. In this sense, this dimension of life is invisible. In a radical sense, it can only experience itself pathetically. But it experiences itself pathetically in an indisputable manner, for it is absolutely impossible to dispute a suffering, the suffering of the one who is suffering. If one focuses on the experience pure and simple—basically it is Descartes’ cogito—there is no doubt about what was just said above. Fear, for example, if I consider, without interpretation, what I really experience, is indubitable. So there you have the so-called rationalism of Descartes…

Q: The passions of the soul?

MH: Exactly, the passions. So, if one accepts that, then how situate the work of art? I believe that Kandinsky’s argument is enlightening, because he made it in regard to painting. Now, by all accounts, painting is a visual art, it is composed of visual elements, from the basic elements of form and colour. That is why painting has always been considered as an art of the visible, the flesh of which is the visible.

Let’s begin with colours. Kandinsky shows how a painting is organized around a colour. In the woods around Munich, for example, he sees a colour and paints what is around it. He paints a canvas that is composed starting with red, with a red note, etc. But when he reflects on his subject, he realizes that this colour seems to be a fragment of exteriority. There is a kind of red spot, even if he no longer considers this red as the red of a blotting paper or the red lips of a woman or her scarf: it is however something that unfurls in a kind of first world, even if it isn’t the utilitarian world. Actually, he adds, the reality of this colour is an impression, a radically subjective impression. In his writings there are no philosophical references, but it is nonetheless phenomenological, I would say that it is the thesis of Descartes, as well as that of Husserl. Because in Husserl, before the colour would be a moment or a quality of the object, a “noematic colour,” it is pure impression, a cogitatio, similar to the fear in Descartes’ dream. That is how colour is double, it is first a red that I see on the palette, but at the same time I am fooled by an illusion in believing that the red is limited to this spot that I see on the palette. Actually the reality of the red is the impression that this red spread upon the palette created within me. And it is this impression that is the true essence of the colour.

This can be demonstrated metaphysically. Take the example of heat. If I place my hand on the table, I can say, “Look, this plastic is cool!” But that’s absurd: this plastic, if it is plastic, is not cool, it feels nothing. The coolness is purely subjective, I project it into my hand as well as into matter. Also, when I say, “the wall is warm,” it’s absurd, it’s fetishism. Descartes shrugged his shoulders before this illusion: the wall is not warm at all, I am the one who is warm! It is the same for the colour red. There is no red in the world. Red is a sensation, and this sensation is absolutely subjective, originarily invisible. Originary colours are invisible, but they are spread over things through a process of projection.

The painter makes a painting, it is a “composition.” That is the term that Kandinsky gives to all his paintings from a certain period, but they were always compositions. The composition of the painting is simply the artist’s decision to put a bit of red here, a bit of yellow there. Now, why put red here and yellow there? There are two possible explanations. The first is that the object that you are painting, for example the brick wall of a Dutch house, is red. So you use red. Above that you have a blue-grey sky, so you put some blue-grey. The painting has a model that is in the world that you want to recreate, even if you do not want to photograph it. But this explanation is worthless, for most of the great figurative paintings do not obey this law of construction. For example if you contemplate an adoration of the magi painted in the Quattrocento, you can admire the scene in which the magi arrive wearing marvelous robes, offering their gifts to the humblest of beings. This theme takes place in many wonderful compositions. It has been retained because it allows the aesthetic exploitation of a particular feeling. However, no painter has seen the adoration of the magi. Painters have no reason to clothe Gaspard or Balthazar in yellow robes rather than red. Nor do they have any reason to represent them in such and such a manner. The choice that seems to correspond to the opulent robes of that period, the choice of colours could only be found elsewhere, in another place than that of objective representation. Where is this place? It is the emotional power of colour; which has been an object of classical reflection since Goethe, but which became fundamental for Kandinsky upon undertaking the study of the emotional power of each colour. In this way he perceived that yellow is an aggressive colour that approaches the spectator, while blue a soothing colour that moves away from you. Thus one would put yellow here to produce the effect of the thing coming towards you, attacking you, or blue there in order to soothe you. All colour is the object of an emotional and dynamic analysis, and this analysis reveals the real reason why each colour is used. Now this reason no longer resides in the exterior, in the visible, but in the emotional, impressive capacity of colour. The laws for constructing a picture are snatched from the world to be placed in a radical subjectivity. One can no longer paint the world, instead people’s souls, their emotions. But one can also show that if the painter has chosen to represent such or such a thing, it is because that thing has, due to its colours, this impressionable effect upon him. Even so-called figurative paintings confirm this.

If one considers forms, the argument is even more startling. A form is not actually a kind of exterior entity, but the expression of a force. The point, straight line, broken line, etc., are the expression of specific forces that occur in different ways, continuous or intermittent, in the same direction or changing direction. And the theory of forms, which refers to forces, refers at the same time to subjectivity, because the forces inhabit our body, our lived body, our subjective body that is our actual body. Consequently the world of forms is, in some way, a coded universe the true meaning of amounts to the play of forces within us, hence to life, for the living body is a body that is made of forces: such is the origin of painting. Further, it is an invisible element, the invisible force with which the living body is identified, that is the principle of the composition of a painting.

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