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The Character Of Shapes








IN my example of the Rising Mountain, I have been speaking as if
Empathy invested the shapes we look at with only one mode of
activity at a time. This, which I have assumed for the simplicity of
exposition, is undoubtedly true in the case either of extremely
simple shapes requiring few and homogeneous perceptive
activities. It is true also in the case of shapes of which familiarity (as
explained on p. 76) has made the actual perception very summary;
for instance when, walking quickly among trees, we notice only
what I may call their dominant empathic gesture of thrusting or
drooping their branches, because habit allows us to pick out the
most characteristic outlines. But, except in these and similar cases,
the movement with which Empathy invests shapes is a great
deal more complex, indeed we should speak more correctly of
movements than of movement of lines. Thus the mountain rises, and
does nothing but rise so long as we are taking stock only of the
relation of its top with the plain, referring its lines solely to real or
imaginary horizontals. But if, instead of our glance making a single
swish upwards, we look at the two sides of the mountain
successively and compare each with the other as well as with the
plain, our impression (and our verbal description) will be that one
slope goes up while the other goes down. When the empathic
scheme of the mountain thus ceases to be mere rising and
becomes rising plus descending, the two movements with
which we have thus invested that shape will be felt as being
interdependent; one side goes down because the other has gone
up, or the movement rises in order to descend. And if we look at
a mountain chain we get a still more complex and co-ordinated
empathic scheme, the peaks and valleys (as in my description of
what the Man saw from his Hillside) appearing to us as a sequence
of risings and sinkings with correlated intensities; a slope springing
up in proportion as the previously seen one rushed down; the
movements of the eye, slight and sketchy in themselves, awakening
the composite dynamic memory of all our experience of the impetus
gained by switch-back descent. Moreover this sequence, being a
sequence, will awaken expectation of repetition, hence sense of
rythm; the long chain of peaks will seem to perform a dance, they
will furl and unfurl like waves. Thus as soon as we get a
combination of empathic forces (for that is how they affect us)
these will henceforth be in definite relation to one another. But the
relation need not be that of mere give and take and rythmical
cooperation. Lines meeting one another may conflict, check, deflect
one another; or again resist each other's effort as the steady
determination of a circumference resists, opposes a "Quos ego!" to
the rushing impact of the spokes of a wheel-pattern. And, along with
the empathic suggestion of the mechanical forces experienced in
ourselves, will come the empathic suggestion of spiritual
characteristics: the lines will have aims, intentions, desires, moods;
their various little dramas of endeavour, victory, defeat or
peacemaking, will, according to their dominant empathic suggestion,
be lighthearted or languid, serious or futile, gentle or brutal;
inexorable, forgiving, hopeful, despairing, plaintive or proud, vulgar
or dignified; in fact patterns of visible lines will possess all the chief
dynamic modes which determine the expressiveness of music. But
on the other hand there will remain innumerable emphatic
combinations whose poignant significance escapes verbal
classification because, as must be clearly understood, Empathy deals
not directly with mood and emotion, but with dynamic conditions
which enter into moods and emotions and take their names from
them. Be this as it may, and definable or not in terms of human
feeling, these various and variously combined (into coordinate
scenes and acts) dramas enacted by lines and curves and angles, take
place not in the marble or pigment embodying those contemplated
shapes, but solely in ourselves, in what we call our memory,
imagination and feeling. Ours are the energy, the effort, the victory
or the peace and cooperation; and all the manifold modes of
swiftness or gravity, arduousness or ease, with which their every
minutest dynamic detail is fraught. And since we are their only real
actors, these empathic dramas of lines are bound to affect us, either
as corroborating or as thwarting our vital needs and habits; either as
making our felt life easier or more difficult, that is to say as bringing
us peace and joy, or depression and exasperation.

Quite apart therefore from the convenience or not of the adjustments
requisite for their ocular measurement, and apart even from the
facility or difficulty of comparing and coordinating these
measurements, certain shapes and elements of shape are made
welcome to us, and other ones made unwelcome, by the sole
working of Empathy, which identifies the modes of being and
moving of lines with our own. For this reason meetings of lines
which affect us as neither victory nor honourable submission nor
willing cooperation are felt to be ineffectual and foolish. Lines also
(like those of insufficiently tapered Doric columns) which do not
rise with enough impetus because they do not seem to start with
sufficient pressure at the base; oblique lines (as in certain imitation
Gothic) which lose their balance for lack of a countervailing
thrust against them, all these, and alas many hundreds of other
possible combinations, are detestable to our feelings. And similarly
we are fussed and bored by the tentative lines, the uncoordinated
directions and impacts, of inferior, even if technically expert and
realistically learned draughtsmen, of artists whose work may charm
at first glance by some vivid likeness or poetic suggestion, but
reveal with every additional day their complete insignificance as
movement, their utter empathic nullity. Indeed, if we analyse the
censure ostensibly based upon engineering considerations of
material instability, or on wrong perspective or anatomical "out of
drawing" we shall find that much of this hostile criticism is really
that of empathic un-satisfactoriness, which escapes verbal detection
but is revealed by the finger following, as we say (and that is
itself an instance of empathy) the movement, the development of,
boring or fussing lines.

Empathy explains not only the universally existing preferences with
regard to shape, but also those particular degrees of liking which are
matters of personal temperament and even of momentary mood
(cf. p. 131). Thus Mantegna, with his preponderance of
horizontals and verticals will appeal to one beholder as grave and
reassuring, but repel another beholder (or the same in a different
mood) as dull and lifeless; while the unstable equilibrium and
syncopated rythm of Botticelli may either fascinate or repel as
morbidly excited. And Leonardo's systems of whirling interlaced
circles will merely baffle (the "enigmatic" quality we hear so much
of) the perfunctory beholder, while rewarding more adequate
empathic imagination by allowing us to live, for a while, in the
modes of the intensest and most purposeful and most harmonious
energy.

Intensity and purposefulness and harmony. These are what everyday
life affords but rarely to our longings. And this is what, thanks to
this strange process of Empathy, a few inches of painted canvas, will
sometimes allow us to realise completely and uninterruptedly. And
it is no poetical metaphor or metaphysical figment, but mere
psychological fact, to say that if the interlacing circles and pentacles
of a Byzantine floor-pattern absorb us in satisfied contemplation,
this is because the modes of being which we are obliged to invest
them with are such as we vainly seek, or experience only to lose, in
our scattered or hustled existence.





Next: From The Shape To The Thing

Previous: The Movement Of Lines



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