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Aspects Versus Things








HAVING settled upon a particular point of view as the one he liked
best, he remained there in contemplation of the aspect it afforded
him. Had he descended another twenty minutes, or looked through
powerful glasses, he would have seen the plain below as a
juxtaposition of emerald green, raw Sienna, and pale yellow,
whereas, at the distance where he chose to remain, its colours fused
into indescribably lovely lilacs and russets. Had he moved freely
about he would have become aware that a fanlike arrangement of
sharply convergent lines, tempting his eye to run rapidly into their
various angles, must be thought of as a chessboard of dikes, hedges,
and roads, dull as if drawn with a ruler on a slate. Also that the
foothills, instead of forming a monumental mass with the mountains
behind them, lay in a totally different plane and distracted the
attention by their aggressive projection. While, as if to spoil the
aspect still more, he would have been forced to recognise (as Ruskin
explains by his drawing of the cottage roof and the Matterhorn peak)
that the exquisitely phrased skyline of the furthermost hills, picked
up at rhythmical intervals into sharp crests, dropping down merely
to rush up again in long concave curves, was merely an illusion of
perspective, nearer lines seeming higher and further ones lower, let
alone that from a balloon you would see only flattened mounds. But
to how things might look from a balloon, or under a microscope,
that man did not give one thought, any more than to how they might
look after a hundred years of tramways and funiculars or how they
had looked before thousands of years of volcanic and glacial action.
He was satisfied with the wonderfully harmonised scheme of light
and colour, the pattern (more and more detailed, more and more
co-ordinated with every additional exploring glance) of keenly
thrusting, delicately yielding lines, meeting as purposefully as if
they had all been alive and executing some great, intricate dance. He
did not concern himself whether what he was looking at was an
aggregate of things; still less what might be these things' other
properties. He was not concerned with things at all, but only with a
particular appearance (he did not care whether it answered to reality),
only with one (he did not want to know whether there might be any
other) aspect.

For, odd as it may sound, a Thing is both much more and much
less than an Aspect. Much more, because a Thing really means
not only qualities of its own and reactions of ours which are actual
and present, but a far greater number and variety thereof which are
potential. Much less, on the other hand, because of these potential
qualities and reactions constituting a Thing only a minimum need be
thought of at any given time; instead of which, an aspect is all there,
its qualities closely interdependent, and our reactions entirely taken
up in connecting them as whole and parts. A rose, for instance, is
not merely a certain assemblage of curves and straight lines and
colours, seen as the painter sees it, at a certain angle, petals masking
part of stem, leaf protruding above bud: it is the possibility of other
combinations of shapes, including those seen when the rose (or the
person looking) is placed head downwards. Similarly it is the
possibility of certain sensations of resistance, softness, moisture,
pricking if we attempt to grasp it, of a certain fragrance if we breathe
in the air. It is the possibility of turning into a particular fruit, with
the possibility of our finding that fruit bitter and non-edible; of being
developed from cuttings, pressed in a book, made a present of or
cultivated for lucre. Only one of these groups of possibilities may
occupy our thoughts, the rest not glanced at, or only glanced at
subsequently; but if, on trial, any of these grouped possibilities
disappoint us, we decide that this is not a real rose, but a paper rose,
or a painted one, or no rose at all, but some other thing. For, so far
as our consciousness is concerned, things are merely groups of
actual and potential reactions on our own part, that is to say of
expectations which experience has linked together in more or less
stable groups. The practical man and the man of science in my fable,
were both of them dealing with Things: passing from one group
of potential reaction to another, hurrying here, dallying there, till of
the actual aspect of the landscape there remained nothing in their
thoughts, trams and funiculars in the future, volcanoes and icecaps
in the past, having entirely altered all that; only the material
constituents and the geographical locality remaining as the unshifted
item in those much pulled about bundles of thoughts of possibilities.

Every thing may have a great number of very different Aspects;
and some of these Aspects may invite contemplation, as that
landscape invited the third man to contemplate it; while other
aspects (say the same place after a proper course of tramways and
funiculars and semi-detached residences, or before the needful
volcanic and glacial action) may be such as are dismissed or slurred
as fast as possible. Indeed, with the exception of a very few cubes
not in themselves especially attractive, I cannot remember any
things which do not present quite as many displeasing aspects as
pleasing ones. The most beautiful building is not beautiful if stood
on its head; the most beautiful picture is not beautiful looked at
through a microscope or from too far off; the most beautiful melody
is not beautiful if begun at the wrong end. . . . Here the Reader may
interrupt: "What nonsense! Of course the building is a building
only when right side up; the picture isn't a picture any longer under a
microscope; the melody isn't a melody except begun at the
beginning"--all which means that when we speak of a building, a
picture, or a melody, we are already implicitly speaking, no longer
of a Thing, but of one of the possible Aspects of a thing; and
that when we say that a thing is beautiful, we mean that it affords
one or more aspects which we contemplate with satisfaction. But if
a beautiful mountain or a beautiful woman could only be
contemplated, if the mountain could not also be climbed or
tunnelled, if the woman could not also get married, bear children
and have (or not have!) a vote, we should say that the mountain and
the woman were not real things. Hence we come to the conclusion,
paradoxical only as long as we fail to define what we are talking
about, that what we contemplate as beautiful is an Aspect of a
Thing, but never a Thing itself. In other words: Beautiful is an
adjective applicable to Aspects not to Things, or to Things only,
inasmuch as we consider them as possessing (among other
potentialities) beautiful Aspects. So that we can now formulate:
The word beautiful implies the satisfaction derived from the
contemplation not of things but of aspects.

This summing up has brought us to the very core of our subject; and
I should wish the Reader to get it by heart, until he grow
familiarised therewith in the course of our further examinations.
Before proceeding upon these, I would, however, ask him to reflect
how this last formula of ours bears upon the old, seemingly endless,
squabble as to whether or not beauty has anything to do with truth,
and whether art, as certain moralists contend, is a school of lying.
For true or false is a judgment of existence; it refers to
Things; it implies that besides the qualities and reactions shown
or described, our further action or analysis will call forth certain
other groups of qualities and reactions constituting the thing which
is said to exist. But aspects, in the case in which I have used that
word, are what they are and do not necessarily imply anything
beyond their own peculiarities. The words true or false can be
applied to them only with the meaning of aspects truly existing or
not truly existing; i.e. aspects of which it is true or not to say
that they exist. But as to an aspect being true or false in the sense
of misleading, that question refers not to the aspect itself, but to
the thing of which the aspect is taken as a part and a sign. Now the
contemplation of the mere aspect, the beauty (or ugliness) of the
aspect, does not itself necessitate or imply any such reference to a
thing. Our contemplation of the beauty of a statue representing a
Centaur may indeed be disturbed by the reflexion that a creature
with two sets of lungs and digestive organs would be a monster and
not likely to grow to the age of having a beard. But this disturbing
thought need not take place. And when it takes place it is not part of
our contemplation of the aspect of that statue; it is, on the contrary,
outside it, an excursion away from it due to our inveterate (and very
necessary) habit of interrupting the contemplation of Aspects by
the thinking and testing of Things. The Aspect never implied the
existence of a Thing beyond itself; it did not affirm that anything
was true, i.e. that anything could or would happen besides the fact
of our contemplation. In other words the formula that beautiful is
an adjective applying only to aspects, shows us that art can be
truthful or untruthful only in so far as art (as is often the case)
deliberately sets to making statements about the existence and nature
of Things. If Art says "Centaurs can be born and grow up to man's
estate with two sets of respiratory and digestive organs"--then Art is
telling lies. Only, before accusing it of being a liar, better make sure
that the statement about the possibility of centaurs has been intended
by the Art, and not merely read into it by ourselves.

But more of this when we come to the examination of Subject and
Form.





Next: Sensations

Previous: Contemplative Satisfaction



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