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


Aesthetic Responsiveness Attention To Shapes facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail