1 Philip Guston, Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations (ed. Clark Coolidge). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011, p. 30.
2 Cézanne in Conversations with Cézanne. University of California Press; Editions Macula, 2001, p. 111.
3 Paul Cézanne, B. Dorival, trans. H.H.A Thackthwaite (London, 1948).
4 Tomás Maia, A incandescência. Cézanne e a pintura. Lisbon: Documenta, 2013, p. 11.
5 Cf. Paul Ricoeur, ‘Négativité et affirmation originaire’, Histoire et vérité. Paris: Seuil, 1955, p. 338. The following reflections on the body and character as the ‘finite openness of my existence’ owe a debt to Paul Ricoeur. Extension of Ricoeur’s Hermeneutics, Patrick L. Bourgeois, Kluwer Academic Publishers, p. 38
6 Cézanne and Giacometti: Paths of Doubt, Hatje Cantz, p. 212.
7 For a discussion of the difficulty of translating this term and the range of meanings that it has in classical Greek culture, see F. E. Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon. For an interpretation that approximates to the concerns discussed in my text, see Tomás Maia’s book Assombra. Ensaio sobre a origem da imagem. Lisbon: Assírio & Alvim, 2009, pp. 121-137.
8 Fragment 119 in Kirk and Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers. Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 129.
9 Kirk and Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers, p. 215.
10 ‘Le fond de l’homme est divin’ – translation by Roger Munier in Les fragments d’Héraclite. S.l.: Fata Morgana, 1991, p. 71.
11 From Giorgio Colli’s Italian translation: ‘La propria qualità interiore, per l’uomo, è un demone’. Giorgio Colli, La sapienza greca III. Eraclito. Milan: Adelphi, 1996, p. 103.
12 Martin Heidegger, ‘Letter on Humanism’. Basic Writings: Martin Heidegger, London: Routledge
14 It is this sense of place, in relation to animals, which is used in the Iliad (6.511 – ῥίμφά ἑ γοῦνα φέρει μετά τ' ἤθεα καὶ νομὸν ἵππων) and in the Odyssey (14.411 – τὰς μὲν ἄρα ἔρξαν κατὰ ἤθεα κοιμηθῆναι – ‘they shut the sows up in the place where they usually slept’); and in relation to humans in Hesiod’s Works and Days (167, 525) and Herodotus’ Histories: besides using ethos for the customary place where the sun rises (2, 142), the word is also used to refer to humans: as a dwelling, a domicile – when he states that the Cimmerians were taken from their dwellings by the Scythian nomads (1, 15) – or as a proper place with an identity, a land-nation – in reference to the native land of the Persians (1,157). For more on these and other uses of the word by Greek authors, see Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940 – consulted on 10 August 2013 at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0057:entry=h)=qos
15 Heidegger, Letter on Humanism.
16 Lack of knowledge as an inherent characteristic of man also arises in this other fragment: ‘One would never discover the limits of soul (psyché), should one traverse every road – so deep a measure does it possess’ (frag. 45). While, as some etymologies indicate, the daimon has some connection with the notion of division, here it encounters an image of endless paths that are constantly forking. For this reason, the longest voyage of our lives is inside of us.
17 Cf. Tomás Maia, Assombra, p. 131.
18 In Histories, Herodotus uses the word ethos to refer to the native land of the Persians (1, 157).
19 ‘If he doesn’t expect the unexpected, he will not discover it; for it is difficult to discover and intractable'.
20 Heraclitus, Frag. 18.
Heraclitus, Frag. 22.
21 This is a central concept in Aristotelian ethics: ‘it is the actions or the undertaking of activities concerning the human soul that we call happiness’ (1098b16). Happiness is the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue’ (1098b31). Happiness therefore involves a discipline and a habitual exercise.
22 Pierre Hadot, Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique. Paris: Seuil, 1995, p. 61. For further discussion of spiritual exercises, see also Michel Foucault, L’herméneutique du sujet. Cours au Collège de France. 1981-1982. Paris: Seuil-Gallimard, 2001.
23 Pierre Hadot, Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique, p. 22.
24 Simone Weil, La pesanteur et la grâce. Paris: Plon, 2002, p. 138.
25 Simone Weil, ‘Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God’, Waiting on God. Oxford: Routledge, 2010.
Paulo Pires do Vale
The gymnastics of attention
The artist who does not want to be buried by what he admires or by what interests him; who wants neither to be dragged along by the powerful winds that blow from the past nor to adjust to the tepid breeze of what is called current or contemporary; who does not want merely to repeat certain formulas or to fulfil the expectations of others; who does not want to be trapped by his ideas or convictions; such an artist repeats, in his artistic practice, the parabola that I learnt from the artist Philip Guston, who in turn seems to have learnt it from John Cage:
I think it was John Cage who told me once: ‘When you start working, everybody is in your studio – the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas – all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave’.1
The image is an impressive one: when an artist begins his creative work, his studio is full and noisy, with too many influences and references present. These influences may be conscious and unconscious, chosen or unsuspected – like the crowded Painter’s Studio that was painted by Courbet between 1854 and 1855. Through effort, patience, and persistent work, the studio gradually empties. Little by little. One by one they all leave: the opression of history, the suffocating presence of others, the influences and certainties of authority, the expectations and self-control of personal convictions... They do not all leave at once; it is not a quick process. It is necessary to keep on painting, without giving up. The process will go on until the artist is alone.
Alone? Is that really possible? Is not alterity always at the heart of the subject? Are we not, each one of us, a legion? However, while this seems to me to be undeniable, the original artistic gesture appears to stem from a form of forgetting. It is the fruit of a process of erasure, of the withdrawal of those presences so that something new can emerge. An opening up of space that allows whatever comes to be received. This elision even corresponds to a forgetting of the self, a sort of self-suspension. Emptying onself rather than merely emptying. While each of us is hospitality, inhabited by many foreign guests, the result of multiple influences, to make them leave is to leave ourselves. Ultimately, these others are ourselves. That is why Cage-or-Guston state that, in the end, when he is alone, even the artist must leave. Is this a form of ecstasy, of being outside the self? Once the artist has left his studio, can the work make itself?
Cage/Guston’s expression is curious: ‘if you are lucky, even you leave’. Active, conscious and voluntary effort does not seem to be sufficient: something more than that is needed. Control or mastery of the self is not enough, and might be the thing that must be lost. Raija Malka also told me in her studio that she never analyses when she is painting. These are two different areas of work that must not be mixed up. In this respect, as Cézanne wrote about the task of the artiste: ‘His entire will must be silent. He must silence all prejudice within himself. He must forget, forget, be quiet, be a perfect echo’.2
Here, Cézanne twice uses the word forget, which he associates with the silence and void that is needed for an echo of the world to exist within the artist. And he repeated this proposal of a work of forgetting: ‘A minute in the world’s life passes! To paint it in its reality, and forget everything for that. To become that minute, to be the sensitive plate. To give the image of what we see, forgetting everything that has appeared before our time’.3 This is the movement of desubjectivization, as Tomás Maia calls it in relation to Cézanne and the need to ‘suspend his desire for control’.4 It has nothing to do with ingenuousness or simplistic praise of inspiration. On the contrary, it is a struggle against ingenuousness and false ignorance. It is a deepening of and deviation from tradition. An ongoing task.
This form of forgetting, of impersonality, is a state of radical openness that is original and originating: the creative re-encounter with the first meaning of the body, before the awareness of finitude and limitation. The body is initially ‘open to’5 finitude and the understanding of the world as the limit of our bodies are not primary but posterior. The primary relationship of our bodies with the world is one of openness. The artist is the recoverer of this original tension. (Might this also be why artists are closer to their childhoods, as some authors claim? And Cézanne appears to concur: ‘There, facing my tubes of paint, the brushes in my hand, I am a mere painter, the last of the painters, a child’ 6.)
Although the ingenuous attitude does not understand it, our habitual relationship with the world is one of finite openness: our ability to receive the world is marked by finitude. It is always ‘a point of view’, just one. The work of desubjectivization is the task that must be undertaken to go beyond the finitude of my point of view: the limitations of perspective, its inadequacy in the face of the world: a struggle between personal finitude and the infinite nature of life, time and the world as horizon-of-possibilities.
Leaving the self – as the artist leaves his studio – is the expression that proposes the act of going beyond the narrow point of view to broaden one's personal openness to the world. This openness, a form of attention, is not merely openness to the exterior; it feeds not only on external perceptions but also on internal ones.
In the history of literature and art, that moment which some call inspiration (which, in breathing exercises, refers to the act of taking in air) has been understood as an experience of alterity and passivity: an outside breath coming from a Muse, a Hierophant, a sudden flash of enlightenment, a form of rapture or possession by a god or genie – a daimon that takes over the human. It is in this way that artistic enthusiasm (en-theos) is understood. An act of rapture. If it takes place, the artist is then full of grace.
Accomodating the daimon7 requires a loss, a renouncement: a kenotic movement, an emptying of the self. Thus, contrary to the habitual image in which the ego is central, the artist becomes the poorest of men, emptied of his subjectivity, of his self, in the process becoming closer to the divine, capable of being inhabited by the daimon. Closer to a truth about the self that was previously unknown because the daimon is at once the most characteristic of things (familiar, something that belongs to him) and the strangest (a stranger, an other).
What place – interior and exterior – is it that allows man to become what he is: the daimon?
In one of the most obscure and discussed fragments in the history of philosophy, Heraclitus united character (ethos) and the daimon in a single phrase: ‘ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαἱμων’.8 Rather than attempting a translation, I will undertake an operational leap to state that ‘the ethos of man is the daimon’.
The words ethos and daimon are so polysemous and ambiguous that interpretations and translations of Heraclitus’s fragment abound: ‘man’s character is his daimon’;9 ‘The essence of man is divine’;10 ‘The characteristic inner quality of man is a demon’;11 or, in a more interpretive manner, Heidegger forces the phrase: ‘Man, insofar as he is man, lives in intimacy with God’;12 or his second proposal: ‘for man, dwelling (familiar) is the opening to the presentification of God (un-usual)’.13
In its more archaic use, the Greek word ἦθος (ethos), which is usually translated as character (the interior quality of a man, his characteristic mode of finite openness), meant a customary place where animals or humans lived or spent the night.14 This preferred, protected and safe place, this dwelling or native land, would have given rise, as a metaphor, to that other inner place in man which is character, the place from which his actions spring. It is this archaic tradition, predating Aristotle, that Heidegger revisits: ‘ἦθος means domicile, dwelling place. The word denotes the open sphere where man dwells’.15
Ethos is therefore the domicile as open horizon. And what is in this open place, the essence of man, is – turning back to Heraclitus’s fragment – the divine itself (the daimon). Character seen no longer as an individual dimension of determined finite openness – the reductive point of view, the closed personal horizon, identity – but as a malleable space that is open to the unexpected, to the daimon.
The daimon, the divine, is that which man does not control or know completely.16 In this respect, if the essence of man is the daimon, the uncontrollable and unknown is what characterises him. The untamed and unsafe: the open is neither the fortress nor the pre-fabricated house. This intimate space of the ethos is unfathomable and therefore is identified with the daimon.
The daimon is another name for our personal experience of non- coincidence with ourselves. The human condition is therefore tragic, involving a tension between ‘a mortal and (his) immortal’.17 He who knows how to close his eyes and ‘listen to the logos’ (Frag. 50), as Heraclitus tells us, will hear a Nietzschean voice which says: you are your daimon, your daimon is you – why are you not what you are?
The ethos of the artist is the studio. A space that is at once external and internal. An attitude, a way of inhabiting the open, more than just a physical space and an exterior space that is the intimate dwelling of he who creates. The ethos, native land,18 is the studio where the artist undertakes his withdrawal. This emptied and available place is a uterus, with the work being the pregnancy, that which gives birth after being fertilized by the daimon. Like the primitive cave of the earliest artists, it is the secret place – but contrary to the Platonic myth, the more is invested in that cavernous darkness, the more deeply it is explored, the deeper one descends into it, the better.
Ethos, the studio, is the place of expectation without expectation, of the expectation that nothing can be expected – because what it is expected is the unexpected.19 The daimon is the un-expected which, in the emptied out place – the ethos, the studio – we expect without being able to expect. And this requires a great deal of effort: ‘those who seek gold dig up a great deal of earth and find little’.20
Luck? Fate? Practice?
In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle uses various sporting metaphors to reflect on ethics and the habitual, strenuous exercises that have to be carried out to reach the target, victory, the goal to be achieved that is happiness: eudaimonia, a good daimon.21 And he asks whether that desired happiness is a divine gift, fate, as some believed, a sort of luck, or whether it is acquired through exercise, discipline and learning.
Of all human things, Aristotle said, happiness is most likely to be given by the gods since it is the best of all things. And for that reason, even if it is not sent by God, even if, as the philosopher claims, it can be achieved through permanent activity in accordance with virtue, it is the most divine of human possessions (1099b9). This divine luck is therefore within the reach of anyone who strives for it, without any need to depend on fate: ‘to entrust to chance what is greatest and most noble would be a very defective arrangement’ (1099b24). Like an athlete, it is necessary to be prepared for the trials.
In this respect, the Greek institution of the gymnasion – so called because the athletes trained naked (gymnos) – provided more than just physical exercise. The spirit was exercised as much as the body in that physical exercises were accompanied by philosophy lessons: an intellectual gymnastics that involved not only theoretical knowledge or textual interpretation but the training of the self. A sculpting of the self. Character – ethos – is a place, a dwelling, that is under construction. Open. In the process of being made. What these techniques or practices of the self produce is the subject itself.
A parallel therefore exists between physical and spiritual exercise: ‘just as, by dint of repeated physical exercises, athletes give new form and strength to their bodies, so the philosopher develops his strength of soul, modifies his inner climate, transforms his vision of the world, and, finally, his entire being’.22
The Greek word for exercise (askesis) lies at the root of the concept of asceticism, whose original meaning did not refer only to the austerity, abstinence or restrictions on food, drink, conversation, property and sexual pleasure that we associate with monastic religious traditions. The philosophical tradition of Greco-Roman antiquity understood askesis to be a series of philosophical practices – which could be grouped under the name of spiritual exercises – whose aim was to ‘bring about a change and a transformation in the subject practising them’.23 Of these exercises, attention was considered to be one of the most important.
Gymnastique de l´atention24 is what Simone Weil calls this essential spiritual exercise. She describes it thus: ‘Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object. It means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of. [...] Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate it’.25
This text of Weil’s, in which she describes the plasticity of attention, can easily be related to Cézanne or Cage-or-Guston’s texts – and to the exercise in the studio. But Simone Weil adds a sexual connotation to this notion of attention and detachment: that of nudity and penetration by the object. Attention, ready to be penetrated, is the true origin of the world. The world is born of attention. Of its impregnatable plasticity.
This essay resumes the text written for
the exhibition catalogue Raija Malka, Gymnasion.
Lisboa: Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, 2014.
Translation: KennisTranslations (Sean Linney)