It’s been foggy lately—the kind of fog that makes the edges of things blur into indistinctness; the kind of fog in which forms dissolve into the background, or loom again, imprecisely shaped, out of the greyness. I’ve been thinking a lot about fog lately, because I’ve been reading François Jullien’s book The Great Image Has No Form, or On the Nonobject Through Painting. The title is admittedly something of a mouthful, the first part coming from chapter forty one of the Daodejing, which reads 大象無形, dà xiàng wú xíng, “the great image is without form”, but it’s a fascinating read.
The central question of Jullien’s book is this: how did it become possible, in Western thought, to “posit an object of perception, simultaneously isolate it, and abstract it in a stable and definitive form?” (p. xxi). So Jullien sets out looking not so much at painting as representation, but as de-representation. This, in other words, is a book that is about vagueness, about that which is indistinct, about the mist and fog that swirls through Chinese painting, about the mountains that simultaneously arise out of, and are dissolved into, the cloud.
I don’t want to say too much about the book here, because I’m still in the process of thinking about it; and it is the kind of book that—like a mountain fog—creeps up on you, that works not so much by giving you something to get your teeth into, but by a kind of blurring of those things that had hitherto seemed clear. Nevertheless, a couple of things struck me. One was Jullien’s aside about the sketch—here, I think, he’s following Merleau-Ponty—as more closely mirroring human perception than the painting that follows from it, precisely because perception itself is sketchy, as demonstrations of inattentional blindness and change blindness amply demonstrate (incidentally, ever since I have become convinced of the sketchiness of perception, I have also become a bit spooked out by the strange voodoo by means of which my brain convinces me that perception is not in fact this sketchy). Another was the notion of the subject itself as something that is blurry and indistinct. Here’s a nice quote:
The Zhuangzi teaches us to de-occupy ourselves, but not because the “self” is detestable and we must flee it or ascetically deny it, but because we need to recover from the consistency of the subject, to rid ourselves of it and “forget” it, in the terms of the Zhuangzi… in such a way that we no longer have to posit the world as an object opposite us, to be known and manipulated. (p. 164)
Somewhere—either on this blog, or on its predecessor thinkBuddha.org—I wrote about the passage in the deeply strange German philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, where he suggests that most of the time our experience is simply not that of being a subject, separated off from the world, confronting a world of objects that is opposite us. We only become a subject (“I”) looking at an object (“a tree”, perhaps) when somebody says “what are you up to?” and we say, “Oh, I’m looking at a tree…” And it seems to me that this is a similar, but perhaps more far-reaching, insight.
As always with Jullien, there are huge vistas here, and if it is true that the devil is in the detail, the detail itself is often obscured by fog. Smoke and mirrors, his detractors might say. But perhaps there is also a virtue to thinking by means of smoke and mirrors, reflections and indistinctnesses. Perhaps the philosophers’ Cartesian obsession with that which is “clear and distinct” risks drawing them away from the truth to which they claim to aspire…
As I as thinking about all of this, I went to visit a good friend of mine, a poet, who lives out by Rutland Water, which is a large man-made reservoir. We drove through the fog to the reservoir, and then went down to the shoreline, where we took refuge in a hide set up for birdwatchers.
Fog hung over the lake. In the distance—it was impossible to say how far off—were the dark smudges of trees, appearing through the mist and disappearing again. I tried to trace the point at which the ripples of the water faded into the fog, the dividing line between one thing and another; but found all such attempts to draw boundaries (as if things were objects drawn by the pen of Hergé!) came to nothing.
And yet, this was not some kind of notion of oneness along the lines of certain vacuous new-age ideas, because this itself is a notion that itself is far too clear, far too distinct. It was rather a question, as I stood there, of a kind of de-occupying, de-positing, de-representing… It was a matter, that is to say—in this sketched world of blur and indistinct boundaries—of becoming sketchy myself. And I am aware, of course, that ‘sketchy’ is—in colloquial English, at least—a term used most frequently as an insult, applied in particular to people such as French philosophers…