An image of the abstract

Hello all! I hope that everyone had a superb new year (I certainly did) and is ripping into 2010 with appropriate gusto. Today I thought that I would share some idea that I discovered in the extremely erudite book The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 by Mary Carruthers, who is my new hero.

Firstly, i’d like to share a little paragraph from something i’ve been working on this week from my first chapter:

As with all entities of great symbolic power, the hydrological cycle and its constituent parts has a long tradition of signification and representation within the collective imagination of the human race. Through its potent and life-giving force, its mobility, its formlessness and changeability, its mysteries and illusions water provides a conduit to the unimagined, the invisible, the non-sensible. Aqueous dynamics are never simple, never singular and never fixed – they have vigour, power and flexibility in equal measure. Nature makes itself present to our empirical senses in a way that the realm of ideas cannot: our minds seek desperately for something tangible with which understand the hidden.

So within this paragraph, I am in effect arguing that in order to imagine a spiritual or abstract concept, the medieval memory sought to hang a principle within the world of empiricism and experience on a concept that cannot be qualified or quantified in this fashion. This is in effect the theory of signification, that things serve to represent ideas. The thing might be language, a visible object, a sound, a smell, a colour or a shape, but through representation or symbolism, they become more. I am arguing that water symbolism represents a whole raft of concepts, and that the tropes present within the image of the fons philosophiae (see my previous post) compress a wide range of abstract concepts – in fact not only the concepts themselves but their contextual relationship to each other also – into a single commodious image. A picture is definitely worth a thousand words when you’re reading medieval philosophy.

Now comes the material from Carruthers’ book, in which she deduces that “composition [of medieval contemplative thought] begins with clearly and deliberately locating oneself in a place, which may be an actual location but is most importantly conceived of as a mental position, both a habitation for the mind and a direction.” She quotes the 12th century philosopher Peter of Celle, who wrote that “spiritual seeing is constructed by means of our recollection of images of corporeal things.”

To illustrate this point, she tells a story from the writings of John Cassian, a desert father of the 4th century. The elderly monk brother Sarapion is scolded by Origenist reformists visiting his monastery for his overly iconic imaginings of God as a giant human being, for when it says in Genesis that humanity was created in God’s image, this was not a literal interpretation, merely a symbolic or allegorical one. Humanity was like God, but this didn’t mean that God looked exactly like a human. Sarapion became very upset, answering as follows:

“[t]hey’ve taken my God away from me, and now I don’t have one I might hold on to. I don’t know whom…to call out to”

Poor old fella. These rude revisionists come along and tell him that the image of God that he fixes in his mind as he prays is wrong, because God cannot be portrayed in human form. Relenting a little, the reformists concede that

“[w]hile we still hang around in this body, we must reproduce some image [similitudinem quamdam] of that blessedness promised for the future of the saints.”

Thus, although it isn’t correct to imagine that the spiritual world can be experienced as a visual or otherwise empirical place, it is nevertheless necessary to find images with which to narrate it. Once must not fall into the trap of confusing the image with the thing itself, but may profitable understand the thing through its likeness of its higher companion.

In other news, i’m currently making my plans to go to the UK on a part exchange/part research trip later this year, which involves finding myself a host supervisor for when i’m there. I’m also planning to write an abstract for this conference about mapping abstractions (perhaps with a little fons philosophiae action?), which should keep me entertained next week.

I lol’d hard at this post from Got Medieval about medieval marginalia following the same rules as Super Mario Bros cartoon video game physics. I also found this article by Dr Nokes from Unlocked Wordhoard really interesting, as would anyone in the Arts/Humanities. It’s not very long, so i’d definitely recommend reading it. I also really enjoyed this little story by an anonymous friend of mine, and found it really touching. I too have found little pieces of people’s lives scribbled, stapled to or otherwise hidden in a series of library books. I even found someone’s list of life priorities in a philosophy book once.

Anyway, best wishes to all of you out there in the intertubes, and I bid you adieu for now.




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