Thursday, October 4, 2012

A complex symbolic rendering of emotional life

While, in my memory of Susanne Langer's work on symbolic form, she seemed too quick to assign certain aspects of experience to one art form or another, her ideas on 'livingness' in a work of art -- as opposed to the quality of the 'dead' in an unsuccessful piece -- still explains so much about what is worth having and keeping in writing. In Philosophical Sketches, she writes that works of art are 'forms expressive of human feeling' and, for her, form includes 'a permanent form, like a building or a vase or a picture, or a transient, dynamic form like a melody or a dance, or even a form given to imagination, like the passage of purely imaginary, apparent events that constitutes a literary work.' I would only add that some literary works -- for example, those by Borges, Bernhard, Sebald, Murnane -- somehow spill beyond her event-focussed definition of a literary work.

Kenneth Wright, in Mirroring and Attunement, describes her approach:

For Langer, then, the work of art is a complex symbolic rendering of emotional life in a form that enables apprehension of its being rather than comprehension of its meaning. Its non-verbal symbols articulate the shapes and textures of living experience rather than its cognitive definition, and because they present this semblance in analogical form, she called them presentational symbols. Art does not, in the manner of language, describe experience but offers it directly to our senses through iconic forms. It is not an alternative means of expressing emotion but a means of revealing its forms in a concrete, yet quasi-abstracted way.

I have to admit my fondness for this definition, if only because it resonates with my very first thought on this blog.

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