Archive for the ‘ Word Sketches ’ Category

Beauty and the Beautiful

Cinematography, especially when treated as a ‘specialized’ branch of filmmaking, is often pre-occupied with the beautiful. But indeed, what is beautiful?

When making aesthetic judgments, we find that the attribution of beauty to a work is often misleading. For in calling something beautiful, we usually mean something we find personally pleasing, or something that agrees with accepted ‘models’ of images. For no doubt the recognition (and therefore acceptance) of different kinds of art also affects our recognition of different kinds of beauty.

However, these observations seem to indicate that calling a work ‘beautiful’ is more a statement about ourselves, the viewers, than about the work itself. It is therefore hardly a compliment for an artist to hear that his or her work is beautiful, especially if that is where the conversation ends.

For the artist is perhaps in pursuit of something quite different, perhaps beauty itself – a universal, an ideal, an archetype – where the question of beautiful does not even arise.

Beauty could be argued to be a characteristic of the aspired image, not the image itself. It is not an intentionally created commodity, but a revealing of the intention behind all creations.

The search for beauty as such is a search for wisdom. This is communicated to the viewer when the sensuous aspects of the image are not divorced from the attempt to engage (emotionally as well as intellectually). We reach for beauty in the marriage of form and meaning.

Let us not entangle ourselves in the linguistic differences and parallels between beauty and beautiful. Is beauty beautiful? Or does beauty consist in the totality of all things beautiful? Etc. These questions will lead us in circles, as they stem from the fallacy of expecting the logic of language to explain the logic of things.

But we are all familiar with the experience of watching a film and feeling the distraction, if not discomfort, of the narrative and its execution taking contradictory tangents. We may not be able to articulate exactly what is ‘off’, but whatever it is, it has hindered our engagement. This might be intentional, and used to great effect (Brecht comes to mind), but most often it is not. Either way, we must ask ourselves what our intention is in producing the work in the first place. For honesty is primary in art, as finally that is all that shows and endures.

In our everyday conversations there is always a lot more happening than the words exchanged. We ‘listen’ not to the dictionary meanings of words, but to the intentions of the speaker – conveyed by tone of voice, context, prior experiences, gestures, and so on – as well as the learnt meanings of the said words. Perhaps these intentions cannot be articulated, but they are certainly felt. It is similar when we look at a work of art, except here there might not even be words. Yet our intentions permeate and reveal themselves in everything we do, and their beauty, or ugliness, is that they can’t be clothed.  Maybe this is why it is so difficult to ‘fake’ art.

In any case, to return to the present debate, is the distraction and discomfort we feel in certain works of art a result of faulty articulation? Or perhaps insincerity? When the work seems to say one thing and mean something quite different?

The factors that contribute to this feeling in a painting or a piece of music are quite subtle, but are present nevertheless. But in film it is perhaps more evident because of the simple fact that it is made by more than one person, and so the increased likelihood of it falling ‘out of sync’.

The ‘image’ of cinematography is a plurality, as is the sound, the performances, the rhythm. All the ingredients are like chemical elements reacting with one another. A good film is a reaction that produces the ‘right’ resultant in its audience. In this sense, the pursuit of beauty can perhaps be likened to the pursuit of taste in cuisine. Which brings us to the chef.

How does a director, with a certain intention, or ‘vision’, achieve its honest articulation on screen? When all the organs of communication – hands, feet, eyes, voice – belong to so many different individual people, all having their own set of intentions?

A film can be a clumsy Frankenstein, or it can be a choreographed dance. No doubt the latter is what is usually desired, but it is frightening how easily the dance can fall apart. One wrong step, a word out of place, a laugh when everyone else is crying.

Cinematographers, when they care nothing about the film, or do not understand what the director is trying to do, or when put into a situation where it is just another ‘job’, busy themselves in making beautiful shots. They train for it, they pride themselves in it. But this is far from being a pursuit of beauty, it is a means of procrastination! And often directors, to hide their own confusions or incompetency, encourage and participate in this procrastination.

It must be stressed: cinematography is not an art in itself, it is only an art in so far as it contributes to the art of cinema! This is true of all the facets of film craft. The art is the whole, and the imagination it stimulates.

Sadly it is a common practice, especially in commercial filmmaking, to treat the different branches of cinema as independent specializations. This attitude permeates into the teaching of cinema, even in the best institutions. But once severed from the source of nourishment, all branches wither and fall.

The tree reaches for light. Beauty is not where the journey ends, but where it begins. Beauty is the vehicle of transcendence. It is pure yearning.

Saumyananda Sahi
3rd December 2012


From the Kitchen Sink

Our time is always borrowed time,
it has never been ours.
Impossible dreams –

There is only selfishness in Feeling.
It is this sin of being
to walk deliberately, without thoughts,
without mind, without reasons…
The questions are always asked
on the other side of the table.

But the poverty is unfathomably deep.
In that bottom there is darkness. Still.
Silence of dying – time, dream, everything.
Knowing the inevitable end, living intensely.
Between loving and hurting
the life lived in the void
of Nightmares and Real.
Our time is borrowed time that we


monsoon landscape 02

rain, rain, all of them
chiseled clouds
felt falling and stay
suspended pendant shapes
laced, necklaced
ornamenting the frame
of a beloved face

skin has landscapes
the mind has more –
lush green, green growth
leaves wet with waterfall
mud made melt
streams running, stumbling
as mountains make love
to pregnant rivers

yet this window
this whirling, winding
framed, screened, washed over
a curtain
hiding and revealing
that beloved face

saumyananda sahi

waters of muscle, waters of hair

waters of muscle
waters of hair
with moss growing like skin
on soaked still walls

the house is empty

a cup stirs ceramic with tea
it is the morning            after

when sheets lie naked
with tussled imprints embracing
.                     absence

for she has left

waters of muscle
waters of hair
the wetness

– Saumyananda Sahi

Image Wandering

‘For the Eye altering alters all.’  – William Blake, ‘The Mental Traveler’

1. Preparing the Ground

Let me open by trying to sketch out where we are beginning, the ground from which we will take our first steps.

The question, in good Socratic tradition, is a confusion of definition, and the search for what is. Images are so much part of our daily existence (indeed to the point of bombardment!) that it seems out of place to ask what exactly we mean when we say such-and-such are images, why we call them so, or how they arise. For of course we all use the word ‘image’, and we have no problem in understanding it when it is used by others either – and so already demonstrate our grasp of the concept. However, when pushed to articulate exactly what this concept entails, we run into unanticipated difficulties.

A quick glance at the New Penguin English Dictionary presents us with a spectrum of meanings for the word ‘image’.

As a noun:

1a exact likeness: So God created man in his own image – Bible. b a person who strikingly resembles another specific person: He’s the image of his father. 2a a reproduction, e.g. a portrait or statue, of the form of a person or thing. b an idol. 3a the optical counterpart of an object produced by a lens, mirror, etc. or an electronic device. b a likeness of an object produced on a photographic material. c the pattern of light that enters the eye from an external subject. 4 a typical example or embodiment, e.g. of a quality: She’s the image of goodness. 5a a mental picture of something not actually present. b an idea or concept. 6 a conception created in the minds of people, esp the general public: He’s very worried of his public image. 7 a figure of speech, esp a metaphor or simile. 8 an element in the range of a mathematical function that corresponds to a particular element in the domain.

As a verb:

1 to reflect or mirror (somebody or something). 2 to describe or portray (someone or something) in language, esp vividly. 3 to form an image of (somebody or something) in one’s mind. 4a to create a representation of (somebody or something). b to represent (something) symbolically. 5 to exemplify or typify (something).

John Ayto’s ‘Word Origins’ tells us that the word image evolved from the Latin imago which meant a ‘likeness of something’ – making it a cousin of sorts of the word imitate. It subsequently developed a range of secondary senses, such as ‘echo’ and ‘ghost’, which have not survived the journey via Old French into English, but the central ‘likeness’ remains in place. Derived from the noun in Latin was the verb imaginari ‘form an image of in one’s mind, picture to oneself’, which became English imagine. (Latin imago, incidentally, was used in the 1760s by the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus for an ‘adult insect’ – based on the Latin sense ‘natural shape’, the idea being that the insect had achieved its final perfect form after various pupal forms – and English took the term over at the end of the 18th century.)

If our search was one of meaning, here already we have enough to mull over and expand upon. However, how does the common usage of a word help us understand the what is? Even after the very clear and succinct definitions given above are we in a position to say what exactly we mean when we say something is an ‘image’? What is it, the thing? How is it that they shape, where does their existence draw root, how do they take possession of us? Let us pause here for a second. We are making a mistake if we assume the second set of questions to be an extension of the first. For elucidating a concept will only give us an analytic statement, i.e. one dependent on language and the meanings of words, while the latter is synthetic and asks how a certain phenomena comes to be. The Socratic confusion leads to traps of metaphysics if we move from words (definitions) to things (actualities) and back again as if the one was merely a picture of the other, and the other merely an anchor for the former.

Ludwig Wittgenstein showed that the question of meaning must be distinguished from the question of essence – for the same words can have many meanings, depending on the particular instances and manner in which they are used. Moreover, all the meanings might not be directly related to one another. (Consider for example the word ‘game’ – the kill of a hunting expedition is very different from solitaire, yet we call both by the same name.) Wittgenstein goes on to argue that what holds the open-ended cluster of a word’s meanings together is not one (we are almost tempted to say ‘real’ and ‘underlying’) meaning, but rather a kind of family resemblance. We have seen that the word image too has a family of meanings, extending to relations as far apart as imagined pictures to adult insects! However, let us not tie ourselves into knots trying to find what is common to all, because there may be no such thing. Each meaning, each usage, must be seen in its context. The problems of philosophy, Wittgenstein tells us, occur when language packs its bags and goes off on holiday.

To infer the truth of the world from the syntax and semantics of our language is to beg the question. Yet language urges us towards such inferences continuously. For example, when we talk of words referring to objects, the sentence structure itself points to the word and object being different, separated by a gulf we cannot understand how to bridge.

In our attempt to unravel the concept and phenomena of ‘image’ we therefore need to be aware of this tendency, and pay particular attention to the words we are using and the implicit assumptions we might be making with each.

In talking of images, we need to look before we speak. So, to begin with, let us be concerned not so much with the meaning of the word but with images per se. I propose to limit myself here to the images we are most familiar with – those in art, literature, newspapers, television, etc. I will further confine myself to the visual image. (If you consider the term visual image redundant, consider the images created in your mind when you hear a waterfall, while listening to some of the music of Maurice Ravel, or the image you have of a character after listening to a radio-play.) The interplay between physical embodied images and mental images will also be important, for I wish to argue that neither is possible without the other. Through the following, what I hope to delve into are the conditions of possibility, the what is of an image. And let us note that this what is need not be objective or relative, all it needs to be is true.

2. Perceiving the World.

All visible images are of something – they are representations of either real objects, imaginary objects, or a combination of the two. Let us consider the images we have of real objects, of the external world. These are formed by means of our vision. However, how are we to know that the image we see is indeed a true representation of something ‘out there’ and not a self-generated illusion? What grounds do we have to believe in an external world at all?

Science teaches us that the external world is composed of matter, the smallest unit of which is the atom – which itself can be understood in terms of energy. The truth of this claim, however, is as difficult to ascertain as the metaphysical claims to substance, that unknown and unknowable substratum of things, that led the Empiricists to solipsism. In any case, let us agree for now that we are not the only beings in existence, that something – indeed, many things – exist around and alongside us as well. Our proof of this is the data given to us through our sense organs. Let us take this as our first premise.

However, we must note that our senses can fail to be consistent even over our own experience, with the contradictions gaining strength when compared with the experiences of others. Also we have the case of dreams, where sensation occurs without an object, and which we yet believe as real while asleep – leaving us to wonder at the possibility of our waking experience being similarly illusory. However, we need not discard the information our senses give us as completely unreliable and false.

The discrepancies can be accounted for by appreciating how what we hear and see is the product of not only sound and light, but also the sensitivity of our sense organs to this energy in-put, as well as how the collected data is then interpreted by our mental faculties. Vision can be understood as happening in four stages:

a)     Light reflecting off objects and entering the eye through a lens,

b)     Forming a ‘real’ image on the retina, the light energy causes the cones and rods to react.

c)     The reactions produce neuron signals, which are transmitted to the brain through an optic nerve.

d)     These signals are then finally interpreted by the brain, forming the image we see.

The mind is thus not a passive receptacle of data, but an active originator of experience. It is the representation that makes the object possible in the mind, rather than the object making the representation possible. Our knowledge of the world of our experience is inevitably a knowledge that is constructed through our own frameworks. We have a software which determines the range and way that we register the data our hardware collects. We can never see the world outside of ourselves, unmediated as it were, but this does not mean that it does not exist nor that we cannot talk about it! For we humans all share this software of ours, and it is this that enables us to communicate about what we hear, touch, smell, taste and see. Language is a key element of this software, as well as memory, psychology and our biological make-up – our form of life. We will take this as our second premise.

3. From Perception to Art

One serious implication of the above argument is that we must accept that our world is comprised of representations, not actualities. Perhaps touch, taste and smell do bring us closer to things in themselves than our sight and hearing, but even here we must appreciate the fact that our sensations are mediated, and that they are dependent on the sensitivity of the organ in question as well as the perceiving brain. With vision this becomes most obvious: what we see is reflected light, processed through perception to form a continuous stream of images. It is not the thing itself.

However, while we do call what we see an image, just as we call the light passing through a lens and falling on a screen an image, these are very different from the images we find in art. In the case of perception, image basically refers to something that happens in nature, it is governed by laws. But in art the image is intended, it has significance. Art is not the product of laws, but of imagination. It is to this second kind of image that we will now turn our attention.

If our perception is the product of an object, our sense organs and the software of our mind, I wish to argue that the image of significance is produced either by

a)     perception transcended by imagination,

b)     the coupling of memory and imagination, or

c)     a combination of both a) and b).

The separation of these elements, however, is merely conceptual – it is difficult to know where the work of one faculty really ends and the other begins. Perception needs memory for recognition, sometimes even imagination (to see a work of art, for example), and the clay of our imagination is our perceptions, past and present. They are all spokes of the same wheel.

Luis Bunuel writes in his autobiography that memory is our coherence, our reason, even our action – it is our memory that makes our lives. Memories can also be understood as stories. But stories, like pictures, need to be imagined in order to be meaningful. Indeed the difference between seeing and merely looking is that when we see we also imagine!

What is important here is that the image of significance is significant because of the way we look. It is our form of life, and our being in the normative space of language, that allows us to transcend the real to the imaginary and thus into the domain of art.

 4. Analogues to the Imaginary.  

However, how is it that we make this leap from perception to seeing? What is it in certain things that makes us see works of art? What is the relationship between the physical objects we perceive and the images we see in them?

 Jean Paul Sartre, in his essay on art, begins by questioning the common assumption that the artist first has an ‘idea’ which he then ‘realizes’ on the canvas, which gives rise to our belief that some kind of ‘transition’ must have occurred from ideas to real objects and painted lines.

However, when we look at the Mona Lisa, for example, what is real is the paint, the brushstrokes, etc. – but no one would claim that the Mona Lisa is nothing but these things we can touch and feel.  The painted object exists as a painting only in the realm of the imagination. Indeed no idea can be realized – the idea and the real are separated by an ontological chasm.  All that the artist does and can do is create a material analogue through which everyone can see the image if they approach it with an imaginative attitude.

How are we to understand this? Sartre does not expand or spell out what he means by ‘analogue’ but merely gestures towards it, as Heraclitus would say, with a sign. Let us now try to make what is implicit explicit, even if the result is nothing more than a further set of gestures.

A Platonist would argue that the relation between an object and its correlate is one of participation, where the object merely partakes in its ‘form’ as a copy, while the form itself remains as a separate entity. An Empiricist, on the other hand, would rather argue that the ideal component – as a concept – is merely a label on perceivable objects and activities.

What Sartre seems to intend by his ‘analogue’ is that the ideal object is neither identical with its physical counterpart, nor distinct from it either. He thus parts with both the Platonists and the Empiricists in wanting to show that both are somehow true – both the ideal object as well as the physical objects are ‘things’ – i.e. they have boundaries, and can be distinguished from other things.

The relationship between the two is perhaps best demonstrated with the example of a word and its meaning. Here the meaning is not separate from the word, but this does not mean that the word is the meaning. Rather, to use phenomenological vocabulary, the word is the ‘foundation’ on which the meaning rests.

What needs to be noted is that Sartre’s ‘analogue’ does not have to be a representation of the ideal image, but merely something onto which the ideal image can be mapped. The ‘art object’ cannot appear without a physical base. The real painting is thus spoken of as being ‘posessed’ by the image, which manifests itself in or ‘visits’ the real canvas, paint, etc. every time the a viewer takes an imaginary attitude towards it.

Sartre also notes that the sensuous enjoyment of a colour has nothing to do with its aesthetics – as each colour or brush stroke in a painting is only grasped as a part of an organic, unreal whole in the imagination.

Sartre extends his argument to show that even the other arts present themselves as unreal objects to the imagination through various kinds of analogues. In poetry there are verbal analogues, and in theater the actor himself becomes an analogue for the character he is playing. Although music seems to refer to nothing but itself, by pointing out how we judge a musical piece by how ‘perfectly’ it is performed and by the fact that we do not date the music but rather a performance of it, Sartre shows that it too exists in the imagination, where the real succession of its performance attains an absolute, non-temporal succession in the mind.

For Sartre ‘beauty’ is not even applicable to the real, as ‘beauty’ can only be apprehended in the imagination, which is a negation of the real. To see a tree, a man, or a woman as beautiful is to see them as analogues of themselves.

5. Image Wandering.

 So far we have been tackling the grounds of possibility, the processes and elements necessary in creating an image that we see. However, let us now move from the how question to the more difficult and fundamental what question… the what is of an image.

When we approach a painting imaginatively, what is formed in our minds is whole – it is a network of related elements that are organized into a self-contained universe of different shapes, colours, textures, light and so on. Wittgenstein once said that the central aim of aesthetics was to ‘draw or attention to a thing’ and to ‘place things side by side’. Each image does exactly this, through contrasts.

Another related but important aspect of an image is that is differentiated, it is separated from a background. This quality of being identifiable and distinguishable is perhaps what E. E. Cummings was alluding to when he said that his poems were also ‘things’ to be clubbed in the same category as roses and locomotives. With images the frame makes this even more obvious than with a poem or piece of music, but even when the boundaries are blurred the fact that we see something as an image already sets it apart from the rest of the world. An image is a stabilization, it has been captured as it were.

There is certainly a feeling of power in creating and possessing an image of something, as if one has gained control over it in the process. Robert Browning explores this idea in his poem ‘My Last Duchess’, where the Duke, unable to control his wife, has an artist make an image of her and murders her immediately after. The image then takes her place as his property, as something he can have absolute authority over.

This element of power has grown in importance with the technological advances of image making. The more ‘accurately’ an image can replicate the ‘reality’, the more its functional potential. Photographs classify as information, and provided they are of the right kind and of the right subjects, can claim large sums of money in order to be acquired, used or hidden away. The film director in Wim Wender’s ‘Lisbon Story’, Friedrich Monroe, despairs the loss of innocence in images, for today they are a currency, an advertisement, a goods to be bought and sold.

However, as Winter reminds Monroe in Lisbon Story, the capitalist image need not replace the image of art, or deny the latter’s possibility. The two are merely different. For in art the intention behind the image is not so much to capture but to express, to invite, to form. Here the image, through the vehicle of the imagination, becomes a means to come close to the nature of things. Martin Heideggar talks of this as an ‘unconcealment’.

Images lie at the heart of any culture, and fuel our subconscious and understanding. Images also constitute a vocabulary; visuals and language are very closely related to one another. We mean things by images, making them symbols, metaphors. Kamal Swaroop once said that it is impossible for an individual to create an image, as the image grows out of a consciousness shared and passed on over time through communities. We don’t create stories, stories create us. The same could be said of images.

Just as the word has a family of meanings, the image as a thing spreads out like a Banyan tree, branches becoming roots and spreading further branches. The world of images is a world of language, just of a different kind. It resides in a way of looking, in the normative space we are socialized into, in the mysteries of our subconscious, in the latticework of our software. It is the play which reveals what is true.


Saumyananda Sahi