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The Movement Of Lines

ANY tendency to Empathy is perpetually being checked by the need
for practical thinking. We are made to think in the most summary
fashion from one to another of those grouped possibilities, past,
present and future, which we call a Thing; and in such discursive
thinking we not only leave far behind the aspect, the shape, which
has started a given scheme of Empathy, a given movement of
lines, but we are often faced by facts which utterly contradict it.
When, instead of looking at a particular aspect of that mountain,
we set to climbing it ourselves, the mountain ceases to "rise"; it
becomes passive to the activity which our muscular sensations and
our difficulty of breathing locate most unmistakably in ourselves.
Besides which, in thus dealing with the mountain as a thing, we
are presented with a series of totally different aspects or shapes,
some of which suggest empathic activities totally different from that
of rising. And the mountain in question, seen from one double its
height, will suggest the empathic activity of spreading itself out.
Moreover practical life hustles us into a succession of more and
more summary perceptions; we do not actually see more than is
necessary for the bare recognition of whatever we are dealing with
and the adjustment of our actions not so much to what it already is,
as to what it is likely to become. And this which is true of seeing
with the bodily eye, is even more so of seeing, or rather not seeing
but recognising, with the eye of the spirit. The practical man on
the hill, and his scientific companion, (who is merely, so to speak, a
man unpractically concerned with practical causes and changes)
do not thoroughly see the shapes of the landscape before them; and
still less do they see the precise shape of the funiculars, tramways,
offices, cheques, volcanoes, ice-caps and prehistoric inhabitants of
their thoughts. There is not much chance of Empathy and Empathy's
pleasures and pains in their lightning-speed, touch-and-go visions!

But now let us put ourselves in the place of their aesthetically
contemplative fellow-traveller. And, for simplicity's sake, let us
imagine him contemplating more especially one shape in that
landscape, the shape of that distant mountain, the one whose
"rising"--came to an end as soon as we set to climbing it. The
mountain is so far off that its detail is entirely lost; all we can see is
a narrow and pointed cone, perhaps a little toppling to one side, of
uniform hyacinth blue detaching itself from the clear evening sky,
into which, from the paler misty blue of the plain, it rises, a mere
bodiless shape. It rises. There is at present no doubt about its
rising. It rises and keeps on rising, never stopping unless we
stop looking at it. It rises and never has risen. Its drama of two
lines striving (one with more suddenness of energy and purpose
than the other) to arrive at a particular imaginary point in the sky,
arresting each other's progress as they meet in their
endeavour, this simplest empathic action of an irregular and by no
means rectilinear triangle, goes on repeating itself, like the parabola
of a steadily spirting fountain: for ever accomplishing itself anew
and for ever accompanied by the same effect on the feelings of the

It is this reiterative nature which, joined to its schematic definiteness,
gives Empathy its extraordinary power over us. Empathy, as I have
tried to make clear to the Reader, is due not only to the movements
which we are actually making in the course of shape-perception, to
present movements with their various modes of speed, intensity and
facility and their accompanying intentions; it is due at least as much
to our accumulated and averaged past experience of movements of
the same kind, also with their cognate various modes of speed,
intensity, facility, and their accompanying intentions. And being
thus residual averaged, and essential, this empathic movement, this
movement attributed to the lines of a shape, is not clogged and
inhibited by whatever clogs and inhibits each separate concrete
experience of the kind; still less is it overshadowed in our awareness
by the result which we foresee as goal of our real active
proceedings. For unless they involve bodily or mental strain, our
real and therefore transient movements do not affect us as pleasant
or unpleasant, because our attention is always outrunning them to
some momentary goal; and the faint awareness of them is usually
mixed up with other items, sensations and perceptions, of wholly
different characters. Thus, in themselves and apart from their aims,
our bodily movements are never interesting except inasmuch as
requiring new and difficult adjustments, or again as producing
perceptible repercussions in our circulatory, breathing and balancing
apparatus: a waltz, or a dive or a gallop may indeed be highly
exciting, thanks to its resultant organic perturbations and its
concomitants of overcome difficulty and danger, but even a dancing
dervish's intoxicating rotations cannot afford him much of the
specific interest of movement as movement. Yet every movement
which we accomplish implies a change in our debit and credit of
vital economy, a change in our balance of bodily and mental
expenditure and replenishment; and this, if brought to our awareness,
is not only interesting, but interesting in the sense either of pleasure
or displeasure, since it implies the more or less furtherance or
hindrance of our life-processes. Now it is this complete awareness,
this brimfull interest in our own dynamic changes, in our various
and variously combined facts of movement inasmuch as energy
and intention, it is this sense of the values of movement which
Empathy, by its schematic simplicity and its reiteration, is able to
reinstate. The contemplation, that is to say the isolating and
reiterating perception, of shapes and in so far of the qualities and
relations of movement which Empathy invests them with, therefore
shields our dynamic sense from all competing interests, clears it
from all varying and irrelevant concomitants, gives it, as Faust
would have done to the instant of happiness, a sufficient duration;
and reinstating it in the centre of our consciousness, allows it to add
the utmost it can to our satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

Hence the mysterious importance, the attraction or repulsion,
possessed by shapes, audible as well as visible, according to their
empathic character; movement and energy, all that we feel as being
life, is furnished by them in its essence and allowed to fill our
consciousness. This fact explains also another phenomenon, which
in its turn greatly adds to the power of that very Empathy of which it
is a result. I am speaking once more of that phenomenon called
Inner Mimicry which certain observers, themselves highly subject
to it, have indeed considered as Empathy's explanation, rather than
its result. In the light of all I have said about the latter, it becomes
intelligible that when empathic imagination (itself varying from
individual to individual) happens to be united to a high degree of
(also individually very varying) muscular responsiveness, there may
be set up reactions, actual or incipient, e.g. alterations of bodily
attitude or muscular tension which (unless indeed they withdraw
attention from the contemplated object to our own body) will
necessarily add to the sum of activity empathically attributed to the
contemplated object. There are moreover individuals in whom such
"mimetic" accompaniment consists (as is so frequently the case in
listening to music) in changes of the bodily balance, the breathing
and heart-beats, in which cases additional doses of satisfaction or
dissatisfaction result from the participation of bodily functions
themselves so provocative of comfort or discomfort. Now it is
obvious that such mimetic accompaniments, and every other
associative repercussion into the seat of what our fathers correctly
called "animal spirits," would be impossible unless reiteration, the
reiteration of repeated acts of attention, had allowed the various
empathic significance, the various dynamic values, of given
shapes to sink so deeply into us, to become so habitual, that even a
rapid glance (as when we perceive the upspringing lines of a
mountain from the window of an express train) may suffice to evoke
their familiar dynamic associations. Thus contemplation explains, so
to speak, why contemplation may be so brief as to seem no
contemplation at all: past repetition has made present repetition
unnecessary, and the empathic, the dynamic scheme of any
particular shape may go on working long after the eye is fixed on
something else, or be started by what is scarcely a perception at all;
we feel joy at the mere foot-fall of some beloved person, but we do
so because he is already beloved. Thus does the reiterative character
essential to Empathy explain how our contemplative satisfaction in
shapes, our pleasure in the variously combined movements of
lines, irradiates even the most practical, the apparently least
contemplative, moments and occupations of our existence.

But this is not all. This reiterative character of Empathy, this fact
that the mountain is always rising without ever beginning to sink or
adding a single cubit to its stature, joined to the abstract (the
infinitive of the verb) nature of the suggested activity, together
account for art's high impersonality and its existing, in a manner,
sub specie aeternitatis. The drama of lines and curves presented
by the humblest design on bowl or mat partakes indeed of the
strange immortality of the youths and maidens on the Grecian
Urn, to whom Keats, as you remember, says:--

"Fond lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal. Yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade; though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair."

And thus, in considering the process of Aesthetic Empathy, we find
ourselves suddenly back at our original formula: Beautiful means
satisfactory in contemplation, and contemplation not of Things but
of Shapes which are only Aspects of them.

Next: The Character Of Shapes

Previous: Empathy

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