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
ctual 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


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.