The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World - Iain McGilchrist (2009)
Part II. HOW THE BRAIN HAS SHAPED OUR WORLD
Chapter 9. THE RENAISSANCE AND THE REFORMATION
THE PERIOD OF PERHAPS SEVEN HUNDRED YEARS THAT USED TO BE KNOWN AS THE Dark Ages, between the fall of Rome in the fifth century and what we now think of as the early Renaissance, in the twelfth, was by no means as lacking in vitality and colour as the name implied. That the term has fallen into disuse may be a recognition of the often remarkable quality of craftsmanship evident in what has survived from the period, or of the fact that it is no longer ‘dark’ in the sense that we know little about it – modern historiography has seen to that. It might also be due to its pejorative flavour; yet it would surely be a brave person who challenged the idea that the Renaissance was a remarkable, indeed unparalleled, step forward in the history of civilisation, akin to the developments of sixth-century Athens, in comparison with which the ‘Dark Ages’, whatever their merits, pale, relatively speaking, in significance.
In the next few chapters, I am inevitably going to have to use some much debated terms, such as the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism. To the left hemisphere these look like categories that should be definable; to the right hemisphere they are the products of experience of loose constellations of phenomena, which have a family resemblance. Conventionally, at this point, I should refer to a renewed interest, with the coming of the Renaissance, in the world at large, a thirst for knowledge of the natural world, and the historical world – the broader context in which we live, with the accent on how things are, rather than how they ought in theory to be, or are according to authority: the beginnings of modern science, history and philosophy. In the arts it is usual to speak of the new sense of the importance of harmony, of the relation of part to whole, a new spirit of conception that is both daring and tactful, graceful yet original. In all things, we learn, there was a new sense of the balanced reciprocities of individual and society, and of male and female. It is often said that it is in the Renaissance that the recognisably modern Western world begins. But, of course, it is more complicated than that.
That said, it might well look as if the Renaissance was the next great insurgence of the right hemisphere, perhaps even more pronounced than that of the Ancient World. But that, too, is an over-simplification. Once again there seems to have been a ‘standing back’, but this time a more self-conscious standing back than in sixth-century BC Athens. After all, from the outset there is a self-conscious retrospection towards that ancient world, a second level of self-consciousness. In view of the extended metaphor in the first part of the book, in which I related the activity of the frontal lobes to the ability to rise above the terrain, enabling the left hemisphere to see the world laid out as its territory, it is perhaps significant that one of the first great Renaissance writers, Petrarch, is also said to have been the first person to think of climbing a hill for the view, but it is striking that what he reports is, not the utility of the experience, but its beauty. This illustrates a feature of these turning points in Western civilisation, that they begin as symmetrical. The standing back is, if one can put it that way, in itself ‘hemisphere-neutral’, a function of the bilateral frontal lobes. But once again the fact of standing back necessitates a sharpening of the division of labour, a demand for abstraction and generalisation, favouring the left hemisphere; and at the same time it generates a leap forward in the right hemisphere's relation with the world around it, to which it now stands in a deepened and enriched relationship, through the achievement of what I have called ‘necessary distance’.
Fig. 9.1 Bishop blessing annual fair, from mediaeval pontifical vellum (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Lat 962 f.264/Bridgeman Art Library)
Petrarch's ‘view’ suggests an opening of the eyes: he saw what was there for all to see, but none had seen. This is a Renaissance characteristic, a sudden coming into awareness of aspects of experience that had unaccountably been neglected: in science, a return to looking at things carefully ‘as they are’ rather than as they were known to be; in painting, similarly, to what we see rather than what we know. This is bound up with the important rediscovery of perspective (contrast Figures 9.1 and 9.2). It used to be thought that this was a Renaissance invention, but it is clear that it was understood by late Greek painters, and in particular can be seen in Roman wall paintings. But the faculty had been lost for over 1,000 years, until the time of Giotto, in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, who is often said to have been the first Renaissance painter to employ perspective. It was taken further in the paintings of Masaccio, after Brunelleschi demonstrated practical perspective in the piazza of the Duomo in Florence in 1415. Alberti, in his De Pictura of 1435, gave the first systematic treatise on the geometrical basis of perspective.
In the first part of this book I have referred to the fact that depth relies principally on the right hemisphere. Each hemisphere, however, has its contribution to make to perspective. Perspectival space is also related to individuality, another classic element of the Renaissance world view, since perspective mediates a view of the world from an individual standpoint – one particular place, at one particular time, rather than a God's-eye ‘view from nowhere’. Like individuality, however, perspective is understood differently by the two hemispheres. Perspective is, on the one hand, the means of relating the individual to the world and enormously enhancing the sense of the individual as standing within the world, where depth includes and even draws in the viewer through the pull of the imagination; and, on the other, a means of turning the individual into an observing eye, a geometer coolly detached from his object's space. Equally the rise of the sense of the individual as distinct from the society to which he belongs enables both an understanding of others as individuals with feelings exactly like one's own, the grounds of empathy; and, at the same time, a detachment of the individual from the world around him that leads ominously in the direction of autism.
Fig. 9.2 Ideal City, by Luciano Laurana, oil on panel, after 1470 (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino/Bridgeman Art Library)
An example, that may stand for many here, of the way in which perspective re-establishes a context in which the viewer stands alongside the depicted subject, is the Adoration scene of Ghirlandaio (see Plate 5), which not only obviously illustrates perspectival depth in a spatial sense but also a sense of perspective in time, since it shows the infant Christ reposing next to a crib, which in this case is a Roman sarcophagus (despite the fact that the Magi are dressed as contemporary Florentines – ‘our’ representatives of the present in the 1,500 year perspective narrated).
The sense of lived time is also a right-hemisphere-derived property, which is analogous to depth and has its own ‘perspective’. ‘Lived time’ is not just an awareness of the fact of time, of the same laws of mutability existing immutably for everyone at all times and in all places, the grounds of the mediaeval moralising ubi sunt motif (‘Where now is Alexander the Great, the Emperor Clovis?’), the purpose of which was to teach us to scorn all earthly things. I am distinguishing this from a sense of the irreparable loss of particular individuals, and of the rise and fall of particular cultures, irreplaceable as they are, where it is the value of the transitory, not its worthlessness, that is celebrated. Seeing one's own age in a broader context of cultural history, which is conventionally a defining aspect of what we call the Renaissance, depends on the contextualising function of the right hemisphere.
In the poems of François Villon, for example, one can see this change in a dramatic form. His Ballade des dames du temps jadis (Ballad of the ladies of days gone by) begins in conventional form with a recital of the great beauties of the past, asking where they are, but already in its refrain – mais où sont les neiges d'antan?* – one can sense a more intimate, personal, melancholic note, that has nothing to do with moralising. The second half of the poem describes with great passion and pity the plight of old men and women, once beautiful and respected for their wit and charm, pushed aside and treated as fools, and ends by describing the ‘poor little women’, with nothing left to live on, supplanted by young pucelettes, asking God why they were born so soon and ‘by what right’:
Nostre Seigneur se taist tout quoi,
Car au tancer il le perdroit†
In his classic The Waning of the Middle Ages, Johan Huizinga wrote of the danse macabre des femmes by Villon's contemporary Martial d'Auvergne: ‘In lamenting the frailty of the lives of women, it is still the briefness of joy that is deplored, and with the grave tone of the memento mori is mixed the regret for lost beauty.’1
When one reads this and many other poems of Villon's whose theme is pity for the transience of everything beautiful and good, one has to remind oneself that Villon himself never experienced age, but died, it is thought, in his early thirties: a colourful, picaresque character, he narrowly escaped the gallows. His Ballade des pendus (Ballad of the hanged men), his own epitaph, opens with a call across the centuries:
Frères humains qui après nous vivez
N'ayez les cuers contre nous endurciz
Car, se pitié de nous pauvres avez,
Dieu en aura plus tost de vous merciz.*
This is a new kind of remembering, a remembering that takes into account death, Villon's omnipresent subject, not just as a physical fact, or a moral lesson, or a matter for theological debate, but as a matter of the individual, a matter of the heart.
In these poems there are at least three kinds of remembering with which Villon's art is entrained: remembering the long perspective of the historical past, as peopled by real suffering human beings like himself; a projection forward to a time when he can see himself retrospectively through the eyes of others after he is dead; and the remembrance of his own past and its losses. It puts one in mind of Ronsard, his polished successor, writing, Quand tu seras bien vieille, au soir à la chandelle, imagining how his mistress, when she is old and grey, sitting alone by the light of her candle, will remember that Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j'étais belle.† Villon is also one of the first writers to appear before the reader as an individual, as, to use Wordsworth's phrase, ‘a man speaking to men’ – as one might say of Skelton or, particularly, Chaucer in English. In his work, too, we start to see imperfections and failings, not as deplorable lapses from some ideal, but as both what make us individual and at the same time bind us together.
All of this suggests the standing forward of the right hemisphere at this time. It also sets man again in the light of the ‘being towards death’ that Heidegger saw. Erasmus, like other Renaissance scholars, such as Sir Thomas More, had always on his desk a skull, a memento mori; and one of Holbein's greatest and most powerful canvases, The Ambassadors, depicts two handsome, clever, self-confident young men, at the height of their powers, surrounded by the symbols of their knowledge, sophistication and prosperity, while across the canvas he has painted in such a way that it could be seen only by someone descending the staircase (apt metaphor!) on which the painting was designed to hang, a grinning skull (see Plate 6).
One of the first great English poets before the Romantic era to enshrine vividly remembered personal scenes of great emotional intensity in his work was Sir Thomas Wyatt, writing in the second quarter of the sixteenth century. In his famous poem about the loss of the love of Anne Boleyn, ‘They fle from me that sometime did me seke / With naked fote stalking in my chamber …’ his memory erupts with extraordinary vividness:
Thancked be fortune, it hath ben otherwise
Twenty tymes better; but ons in speciall,
In thyn arraye after a pleasaunt gyse,
When her lose gowne from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kysse,
And softely saide, dere hert, howe like you this?
In another remarkable, but lesser-known, poem2 he evokes the pain of love not on his own account but as it strikes the heart of his beloved (an achievement of the right frontal lobe if ever there was one), and speaking partly with her voice:
There was never nothing more me payned,
Nor nothing more me moved,
As when my swete hert her complained
That ever she me loved.
Alas the while!
And he continues:
She wept and wrong her handes withal.
The teres fell in my nekke;
She torned her face and let it fall;
Scarcely therewith coulde speke.
Alas the while!
Her paynes tormented me so sore
That comfort had I none,
But cursed my fortune more and more
To se her sobbe and grone:
Alas the while!
What we are being let into here is something profound about the betweenness of emotional memory. Our feelings are not ours, any more than, as Scheler said, our thoughts are ours. We locate them in our heads, in our selves, but they cross interpersonal boundaries as though such limits had no meaning for them: passing back and forth from one mind to another, across space and time, growing and breeding, but where we do not know. What we feel arises out of what I feel for what you feel for what I feel about your feelings about me – and about many other things besides: it arises from the betweenness, and in this way feeling binds us together, and, more than that, actually unites us, since the feelings are shared. Yet the paradox is that those feelings only arise because of our distinctness, our ability to be separate, distinct individuals, that come, that go, in separation and death.
Drama has come to the fore at those points in history when we have achieved ‘necessary distance’, when we have been sufficiently detached to be looking at one another, but not yet so detached that we are inappropriately objective about, or alienated from, one another. The plays of Shakespeare constitute one of the most striking testimonies to the rise of the right hemisphere during this period. There is a complete disregard for theory and for category, a celebration of multiplicity and the richness of human variety, rather than the rehearsal of common laws for personality and behaviour according to type. Shakespeare's characters are so stubbornly themselves, and not the thing that fate, or the dramatic plot, insists they should be, that their individuality subverts the often stereotyped pattern of their literary and historical sources: Richard II ill-suited to being king, more a self-absorbed poet; Macbeth overcome with scruples and visions of guilt, the reluctant usurper; Antony, love-besotted, his will suborned, hardly the fearless military commander; and so on. My favourite is the character of Barnardine, a prisoner awaiting hanging, whose only reason for being introduced into the plot of Measure for Measure is so that he can get on and be hanged, and his head substituted for that of Claudio; out of a sort of sheer bloody-minded refusal to be an idea rather than an individual, he will not ‘arise and be hanged’ when he should, and there is nothing for it, but a suitable head has to be found somewhere else. Shakespeare also famously confounded genres, introducing comic scenes into his tragedies, and characters such as Jacques into his comedies; at every level he confounded opposites, seeing that the ‘web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together’. Instead of standing outside or above his creation and telling us how to judge his characters, Shakespeare emphasises the inevitability of feeling for and with them, even with Shylock, again inherited with the story line as an a exemplar of moral corruption. Perhaps most importantly – and this was Maurice Morgann's brilliant insight – Shakespeare brought into being figures such as Falstaff, that are incomprehensible in terms of the elements into which they could be analysed, but form, Gestalt-like, new coherent, living wholes.3 A coward, braggart and buffoon when taken to pieces and the evidence judged in the abstract, he nonetheless has qualities of bravery and generosity of heart which redeem what would have been just a catalogue of imperfections, not by ‘outweighing’ them, but by transforming them into something else within the quiddity of his being.
One of the most mysterious expressions of the way in which the whole does not depend on the sum of the parts is in the art of caricature. Here gross distortions of every part can be compatible with immediate recognition of the whole. Caricature in the ancient world – and it existed both in Egypt and Greece – was always the exaggeration of a type, not the caricature of an individual. The first artist to deploy caricature of an individual, and the originator of the term ‘caricatura’, was Annibale Carracci (1560–1609). ‘A good caricature’, he said, ‘like every work of art, is more true to life than reality itself.’4 The genius of caricature is, as Gombrich and Kris point out, to have revealed that ‘similarity is not essential to likeness’. Carracci portrayed his friends and fellow creatures as animals. There the artist changes every feature, every single part of the face. ‘All he retains is the striking and individual expression which remains unaltered even when it is transferred to another creature. To recognise such similarity in different shapes … gives us all a shock of surprise to which we respond with laughter.’ The caricaturist's work, they comment, ‘is still somewhat akin to black magic.’5
From the earliest, all the Renaissance arts showed a newfound expressiveness, a delicacy of feeling which can be heard as early as in the troubadour songs of Adam de la Halle, or in the love poetry of Christine de Pisan. In the visual arts this was manifest from Giotto onwards in a preoccupation with the expressive powers of the human face in particular, which can be seen in Masaccio, or Gozzoli, even in grouped scenes, where it might be thought less important. It will be remembered that the researches of Hufschmidt, Grüsser, Latto and others revealed that during the Renaissance there was a peak in left-facing (right-hemisphere-favouring) profiles in portraiture.6 In keeping with my view that the Renaissance initially involves a standing forth of the right hemisphere, it seems that from the fourteenth century onwards, there begins a tendency for the light source in paintings to be situated in the left visual field. This tendency increased during the Renaissance, and declined from the eighteenth century onwards: during the twentieth century the mediaeval tendency for a non-directional light source returned, a change which was to be
correlated with the disappearance of apparent depth (illusionary perspective) and the tendency of the artists to remain in the two-dimensional plane. It should be noted that the wall paintings of Pompeii and Herculaneum (earlier than the first century AD) also exhibit a left dominance in light direction, as do the Byzantine mosaics in the churches of Ravenna.7
Intriguingly, there appears to have been a marked shift, according to James Hall, in the way the left and right sides of the body were viewed at around this time. The traditional view of the left side as, literally, sinister would appear to have softened at the Renaissance, and given way to an intuitive sense of its positive qualities. According to Hall, ‘the superior beauty of the left hand was an important component of the courtly love tradition’, right at the outset of the Renaissance.8 As the Renaissance unfolded, the claims of the left side were advanced at the expense of the right: it was seen as the more beautiful side – finer, more gentle, more truthful, more in touch with feeling. The entire left side of the body took on a cast of beauty, truthfulness and fragility.9 Given that it was centuries too early for these views to be influenced by knowledge of hemisphere differences, it looks like another possible instance of the brain intuitively cognising itself.
In music, there was the astonishing efflorescence of polyphony, with an emphasis on highly expressive melodic lines, and above all, for the first time, complex harmony, including false relations and suspensions, and the relationship of the parts to the whole. Though there is unquestionably much joyful music of the Renaissance, its greatest productions are melancholy in nature: the Requiems and the great devotional works associated with Passiontide, and in the secular realm its lute songs and madrigals celebrating love that is only occasionally requited. They can of course also be very funny, and wit and humour are also prominent features, often self-mocking in nature, of poetry, music and painting in this period.
Melancholy in the sixteenth century was commonly associated with wit, intelligence, wisdom and judiciousness, in a tradition that culminated in, rather than merely being derived from, Burton.10 In her book on the history of melancholy, Jennifer Radden notes that for Renaissance writers Aristotle's view11 that in certain thoughtful temperaments groundless melancholy sometimes ran deep introduced ‘a theme emphasising that the fear and sadness of melancholy are without cause’ [Radden's italics].12 She notes that ‘emphasis on the groundless nature of the fear and sadness of melancholia declined in the eighteenth century. But it returned in nineteenth-century analyses …’13 This ‘uncaused’ melancholy that is the evidence of a thoughtful nature can be found in Shakespeare, where Antonio in the opening lines of The Merchant of Venice is made to say:
In sooth I know not why I am so sad,
It wearies me, you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ‘tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn.
I suggest that the melancholy of the period, which is also a feature of its music and poetry, is an aspect of the dominance at the time of the right-hemisphere world, and emphasis on its ‘uncausedness’ is designed to make the point that it is not merely a limited, explicable reaction to an event, or chain of events, or a state of affairs in the visible world of any kind, but is intrinsic to a certain way of being in the world that was emerging at the time. The fact that this ceased to obtain during the eighteenth century and re-emerged in the nineteenth is consistent with what I shall be contending in later chapters.
William James, the greatest psychologist ever to have studied religion sympathetically, wrote that ‘melancholy … constitutes an essential moment in every complete religious evolution’,14 and that the ‘completest religions’ are those in which pessimism has best been developed. There is, at least, a strong connection between religious belief and melancholic temperament in the Renaissance period, as between music and melancholy (the connection between music and religion is a universal in all cultures and at all times: see p. 77 above). I would see these interconnected phenomena as necessarily related, given the right-hemisphere predominance in each of them and the relative prominence of the world ‘according to’ the right hemisphere at this time. An interesting study could be made of the place of tears in the art and poetry of the period – in the plays of Shakespeare, in the songs of Dowland and his contemporaries, and, with greater detachment, and an almost bizarre ‘dryness’, in the poems of Donne (see below), of Marvell (‘the Tears do come / Sad, slowly dropping like a Gumme’), of Crashaw (whose almost every poem is filled with tears, those ‘watery diamonds’, those ‘portable and compendious oceans’) – where they inevitably form implicit, and almost illicit, bridges between secular and religious devotion.
The Renaissance is also the time when not just apparently opposed or contradictory ideas could be entertained together, when not just ambiguity and multiplicity of meaning in language are rife (from the obvious love for puns, ‘conceits’, and so on, to the whole array of fruitful ambiguities in which Elizabethan poetry inheres and consists), but when emotions are experienced as characteristically mixed. Although Metrodorus anciently said that there is something akin to pleasure in sadness, mixed emotions were not commonly appreciated in the ancient world (Seneca thought the idea quite immoral),15 and that sadness and pleasure intermingle was hardly accepted till the Renaissance. Snell says that ‘not until Sappho are we to read of the bitter-sweet Eros. Homer is unable to say “half-willing, half-unwilling” instead he says “he was willing, but his thymos was not”.’16 Renaissance poetry, on the other hand, from Michelangelo's ‘la mia allegrezz'è la malinconia'* to the endless madrigals of sweet death and dying, reiterates the union of pleasure and pain, the affinity of sweetness and sadness. Because of its reliance on indirect expression, metaphor and imagery, and its tolerance of the incomplete and unresolved, rather than on explicitness and the resolution of contradictory propositions in the pursuit of clarity and certainty, the epistemology of the right hemisphere is congenial to ambiguity and the union of opposites, where that of the left hemisphere cannot afford to be.
It is worth saying something about the difference between desire and longing here. One of the tics, or tricks, whereby we nowadays dismiss anything that does not fit with the left-hemisphere view of the world, is to label it ‘Romantic’. Having done that we feel we have pulled the guts out of it. We have consigned it to a culture-bound view of the world which was relatively short-lived – not more than about fifty years or so – and long passé, with for good measure hints of excess, sentimentality and lack of intellectual rigour thrown in. Many of the views or attitudes that are so labelled turn out, however, to have enjoyed a rather more extensive and widespread existence than that would imply, as I hope to show later in this chapter. I would suggest that longing, not necessarily in the form of die blaue Blume of the Romantics, is one such concept, surely as ancient as humankind. It is present in Greek verse, beginning with Odysseus's longing – the original nostalgia (nostos meaning the ‘return home’ and algos ‘pain’) – for his native Ithaca; it is in the Hebrew psalms – ‘like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God'; it is in the Anglo-Saxon poems The Wanderer and The Seafarer – both as a longing for one's home when journeying, and a longing for the sea, when the spring comes to the land-dwellers. It is no exaggeration to say that the Renaissance starts with the deepest of longing, that of courtly love, the awe-struck worship of the unattainable ideal of womanhood, and the longing of the lover for the beloved, and progresses by Arcadian imagery and pastoral, in a searching out of the past, that was also a searching for a lost Golden Age. Longing is at the heart of much of the poetry and music of the high Renaissance, particularly perhaps in England, where the lament for the loss of the old order of the Catholic Church gave rise to some of the most beautifully elegiac music of all time, particularly in the many settings of the Lamentations by Tudor composers. One even finds prefigurements of the Romantic longing for what is lost with childhood in a poem such as Vaughan's The Retreate, or in the Centuries of Traherne.
In Anglo-Saxon, as in Old Saxon, Old High German and Old Norse, from which it derives, the roots of the verb ‘to long’, in the sense of ‘to yearn for’, relate to the word meaning ‘to seem, or be, or grow long'; hence ‘to reach out’ or ‘extend towards’. The word langian in Anglo-Saxon, like its equivalents in each of the other languages, is impersonal in grammatical form, with an accusative of the person who is longing: thus not ‘I long for’, but, literally, ‘it longs me [of]’, whatever it might be. This form suggests something about longing that differentiates it from wanting or desiring a thing. Wanting is clear, purposive, urgent, driven by the will, always with its goal clearly in view. Longing, by contrast, is something that ‘happens’ between us and another thing.17 It is not directed by will, and is not an aim, with the ultimate goal of acquisition; but instead is a desire for union – or rather it is experienced as a desire for re-union. This goes with there not necessarily being a simple explicit vision of what it is that is longed for, which remains in the realms of the implicit or intuitive, and is often spiritual in nature. Spiritual longing and melancholy share these more diffuse and reverberative features, of something that ‘happens’ or ‘comes about’ between ourselves and an Other, whatever it may be. In either case it is not necessarily possible to say what the ‘cause’ (or better, the origin) is – what the melancholy, or the longing, is about or for. Wanting is clear in its target, and in its separation from the thing that is wanted. Longing suggests instead a distance, but a never interrupted connection or union over that distance with whatever it is that is longed for, however remote the object of longing may be. It is somehow experienced as an elastic tension that is set up between the one that is longing and the object of that longing – the pull, tautness as in a bow string (in German, die Bogensehne) holding together the two ends of the bow that are never really separate. It is die Sehne and die Sehnsucht again.
‘Great art is the arrangement of the environment so as to provide for the soul vivid, but transient values’, wrote A. N. Whitehead, so that ‘something new must be discovered … the permanent realization of values extending beyond its former self’.18 Art therefore in its nature constantly impels us to reach out and onward to something beyond itself and beyond ourselves. Whitehead here contrasts the ‘transient values’ that the instantiated work of art embodies, with the ‘permanent realisation of values’ extending beyond its former self, which is the effect of art. This reaching out to something beyond what humans have made or can make, to something Other than ourselves, by means of art, which they have made, is the mode of the right hemisphere.
It has been said that Castiglione, in his Book of the Courtier, perhaps too knowingly advocates the principle ars est celare artem (skill lies in hiding one's skill). But is this too self-conscious? This has certainly been interpreted as encouragement to a form of benign deceit, whereby one pretends, especially if one is a gentlemanly courtier, to be able to do something effortlessly which in reality involves learning, and a degree of application. That may be true. However, skill is a process that is acquired – at times by mechanical and explicit methods, certainly – but increasingly, as one's skill progresses, by intuitive imitation and by unreflective experience, a topic of relevance when one considers the fate of skills in the twentieth century. It is fatal to the art of skilled practitioners for them to display, during performance, any hint of the conscious effort that learning their skill involved (as Hazlitt said of the Indian jugglers): they must have achieved such a degree of mastery that they can perform intuitively, or the performance will fail. The technique, in other words, must be transparent: our eye should not be falling on the performers, but on what they do. That is not deceit, but being respectful of the nature of skill, a right-hemisphere intuitive process that remains implicit and embodied – in that sense hidden. This, I think, is the true meaning of Castiglione's advice.
Individuality gives rise to a seeking after originality, a turning away from the received, communal and conventional patterns of behaviour and thought.19 If I am correct that the right hemisphere's orientation is towards experience of the Other, whatever it is, the world in as much as it exists apart from the mind, whereas the left hemisphere has its own coherent system derived from what the right hemisphere makes available to it, but which is essentially closed (‘bootstrapping’ itself), then both individuality and originality, and the relationship between them, are going to be different depending on which hemisphere dominates. My view is that the sense of the importance of individuality and originality come in essence from the standing back mediated by both frontal lobes, and that the consequences are picked up in different ways by either hemisphere. We see ourselves as separate: in the right-hemisphere case, still in vital connection with the world around us; in the left-hemisphere case, because of the nature of the closed, self-contained system in which it operates, isolated, atomistic, powerful, competitive. Thus once again individuality and originality are not in themselves viewable as the prerogative of one hemisphere or the other: both exist for each hemisphere but in radically different ways, with radically different meanings.
The new emphasis on originality and individuality changed the role of the artist (and incidentally of the artist's patron), which came into focus with the Renaissance, when the artist for the first time becomes a kind of hero. There are a number of stories of artists such as Leonardo, Michelangelo and Holbein being deferred to, or at any rate treated as an equal by, the noble or king for whom they worked: the Emperor Maximilian got a nobleman to hold the ladder for Dürer, and Charles V himself (an eccentric and sympathetically melancholic man by disposition) is said to have stooped to pick up Titian's paintbrush for him.20Once again the heroic status of the artist is not, as commonly supposed, a phenomenon peculiar to Romanticism. The deference shown is really a deference to the workings of the ‘divine’ inspiration within the artist, a concept supposed to have been exploded in our time, but in the terms of this book relating to the implicit, intuitive, unwillable skills that come from the right hemisphere. It is worth looking at some of the anecdotal literature about artists in the Renaissance, because not only does it establish the way in which the creative process was envisaged (whether the stories are apocryphal or not is irrelevant here), but demonstrates incidentally my point that what we dismiss as Romantic may be less limited in time and place than we imagine. In the Renaissance, the unconscious, involuntary, intuitive and implicit, that which cannot be formalised, or instilled into others by processes governed by rules, and cannot be made to obey the will, was respected and courted. All the qualities that are admired in the artist are those that come from the right hemisphere, including the skill that hides itself. They are all to be found later in Romanticism, it is true; but it will not do to bundle up half of human experience as ‘Romantic’ with an intention to dismiss it. It may turn out that it is we who have the unusual, more limitingly culture-bound, views.
An important source for considering Renaissance beliefs about the artist is the classic work of Kris and Kurtz, Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist: A Historical Experiment, first published in 1934.21 Many of the Renaissance commonplaces about art and the artist are summed up in Latin apophthegms such as ars est celare artem. One such is poeta nascitur, non fit – a poet is born, not made. In illustration of this there are stories about how artists from childhood exhibited untutored facility in drawing or painting. One famous such story concerns Giotto, who was supposedly discovered by Cimabue when, passing the place where Giotto, then a shepherd, was tending his flock, he saw the extraordinary lifelike pictures that Giotto, to pass the time, had painted on a rock. The point of the story is that skill is a gift, both in the sense that it comes unasked, and is not therefore the product of effortful learning of rules, and that it is intuitive, in both respects suggesting an origin outside the left hemisphere. This view of the artist was also common in the ancient world: for example, there are stories of Lysippus, Silanion and Erigonos, all confirming that their skills were untaught. The story of Giotto has its equivalents even further afield, and is reminiscent of the story, cited by Kris and Kurtz, of the Japanese painter Maruyama Okyo being discovered by a passing samurai, having painted a pine tree on a paper sack in the village store.22
This idea is connected to that of the gift of inspiration. Although inspiration cannot be relied on, not forced or willed into being, it could be indirectly courted by using chance as a way to limit the power of conscious intention, allowing a co-operation between what is given and what comes to be created by the artist. Thus famously Leonardo advised painters to take their starting point from the shape of a chance outline, created by, for example, damp stains on a wall, ‘because by indistinct things the mind is stimulated to new inventions’.23 According to Kris and Kurtz, Leonardo's recommendation is far from unique:
We become aware of how extraordinarily widespread these connections are when we learn that the eleventh-century Chinese painter Sung-Ti advised Ch'ên Yung-chih to create a picture of a landscape in accordance with the ideas suggested by a tumbledown wall: ‘For then’, he said, ‘you can let your brush follow the play of your imagination and the result will be heavenly and not human.’24
The view of the artist's creation as a discovery, rather than an invention, parallels the view of the artist's talent itself as a discovery, not an invention.
Similarly, since the work comes not from conscious effort, but from intuition or inspiration, first ideas are best. Thus it was that Ben Jonson reported that ‘the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out a line'; to which Jonson rather sharply retorted: ‘would he had blotted a thousand’.25 According to Vasari, Fra Angelico was said never to have reworked any of his paintings, since ‘that was how God wanted them’.26
Again what must be imitated is not the results of other painters’ work, but Nature herself, which is the artist's teacher: naturam imitandam esse. This touches on a number of interrelated themes: a preference for what Nature gives, over what humans have made; that the skill comes from Nature, not from what other painters may teach; a reliance on experience over rules. This is not confined to Romantic artists or Western artists at all, but often can be found in oriental views of the artist: according to Kris and Kurtz, for instance, ‘Han Kan is reputed to have said that the horses from the Imperial stables, not painters, had been his teachers.’27 Art is seen as a spiritual revelation of what lies in nature. There is intersubjectivity, artists entering into their subjects and the subjects into the artists and their art. Apparently ‘when Han Kan painted horses, he himself became a horse’.28 Otto Fischer speaks of ‘the Taoist-inspired endeavour to interpret art as the revelation of Being through a human medium … Since indeed the aim of Chinese art has been to render visible the life force of Nature, it is understandable that art has had to appear as a spiritual revelation of Nature.’29
The artist's copies of nature are not dead, but by embodying the life force of nature come to seem as if themselves living. The story of Zeuxis, that he painted grapes so lifelike that birds would come and peck at them, is well-known, but stories of works of art being mistaken for the living thing come not just from Greece, but from China, Japan, Persia, and Armenia, as well as from many Renaissance sources.30Renaissance artists were also fabled to have renounced wealth and material prosperity in the pursuit of their art, living in solitude and drawing their inspiration from nature. Again such stories are paralleled in Greek, Western and Oriental culture.31
This gives rise to the myth of the artist as possessor of magic powers. Magic is the way that the left hemisphere sees powers over which it has no control. This is similar to the paranoia which the left hemisphere displays in schizophrenia, in relation to the intuitive actions and thought processes stemming from the right hemisphere, ascribing them to alien forces, or malicious influence. Thus there is the artist as the conduit for something Other than human, the divino artista, the artist who is somehow one with God the maker, a metaphor of deus artifex himself, as intuitively understood by the right hemisphere, able to make an inanimate block of stone move, or come to life; and there is the flip side of this, the artist as deceiver and trickster, like Prometheus having stolen fire from Heaven, even diabolical, the Arch-deceiver, willing to go to any lengths to secure an accurate imitation of nature. Thus it was rumoured that Michelangelo tortured a young man to death in order to be able to sculpt his likeness. In both cases the myth, God or devil, is related to the artist's ability perfectly to imitate nature.
Such views about the nature of artistic creation, then, are not confined to one place or time, but are common in cultures less left-hemisphere-dominated than our own. And so is another phenomenon that characterises the Renaissance: an appreciation of the beauty of this world, to be seen no longer as something to be resisted or treated as a snare, no longer something from which our eyes were to be averted, but as an indicator of something beyond. It was seen, but seen through – what I call semi-transparency. This went hand in hand with the rehabilitation of earthly, embodied, sense-mediated existence, in contrast to the derogation of the flesh in the Middle Ages. For Montaigne, as for Erasmus, the body became present once more as part of us, therefore potentially itself spiritual, to be loved, rather than just seen as a prison of the soul:
Those who wish to take our two principal pieces apart and to sequester one from the other are wrong. We must on the contrary couple and join them closely together. We must command the soul not to withdraw to its quarters, not to entertain itself apart, not to despise and abandon the body (something which it cannot do anyway except by some monkey-like counterfeit) but to rally to it, take it in its arms and cherish it, help it, look after it, counsel it, and when it strays set it to rights and bring it back home again.32
One even begins to find an inversion of the until then usual assumption that the soul might be wiser than the body:
Forsake not Nature nor misunderstand her:
Her mysteries are read without faith's eyesight:
She speaketh in our flesh; and from our senses,
Delivers down her wisdoms to our reason
wrote Fulke Greville;33 and in Marvell one finds A Dialogue between the Soul and Body in which the last word, literally and metaphorically, goes to the body.34
The relationship between ourselves and the world that has depth was a source of endless fascination to the metaphysical poets, particularly Donne, Herbert (e.g. The Elixir) and Traherne (e.g. Shadows in the Water), who all use images such as the plane of the glass in the window, the flat surface of the mirror, and the reflective surface of a pool of water, to explore imaginative contact with a world beyond the plane of vision: seeing, but seeing through. The world is not a brute fact but, like a myth or metaphor, semi-transparent, containing all its meaning within itself, yet pointing to something lying beyond itself.
As I suggested earlier, a sense of depth is intrinsic to seeing things in context. This is true both of the depth of space and the depth of time, but here I would say that it implies, too, a metaphysical depth, a respect for the existence of something at more than one level, as is inevitable in myth or metaphor. It is this respect for context that underlies the sense in the Renaissance of the interconnectedness of knowledge and understanding, the uncovering of answering patterns across different realms, ultimately implying the necessity of the broadest possible context for knowledge. Hence the rise of what came to be dubbed ‘Renaissance man’, Heraclitus’ ‘enquirers into many things indeed’.
The return to the historic past, the rediscovery of the Classical world, was not a fact-finding mission, driven by curiosity or utility: its importance lay not just in the increase of knowledge in itself, but in the exemplars of wisdom, virtue, and statecraft that it yielded. It was recognised that human dignity lay in our unique capacity to choose our own destiny, through the models we choose and the ideals towards which we are drawn, not simply through the blind pursuit of reason wherever it might lead. This involved self-knowledge, and the fascination with the unique and different paths taken by different personalities towards their particular goals – hence the importance of the recording of individual lives, and the rise of both true biography (as opposed to hagiography) and autobiography.
One of the most famous and entertaining of Renaissance self-portraits must be that of Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, otherwise known as Pope Pius II. This is not only a landmark in the literature of self-exploration (as well as self-promotion), but importantly reveals a love of nature for its own sake, another feature of the new world of the Renaissance seen in Dante and Petrarch, as well as in some of the early German lyric poets, despite Jacob Burckhardt's generalisation that ‘the Italians are the first among modern peoples by whom the outward world was seen and felt as something beautiful’.35 In a characteristic passage Aeneas Sylvius writes:
It was the sweet season of early spring. All the hills about Siena were smiling in their vesture of foliage and flowers, and luxuriant crops were growing up in the fields. The Sienese country immediately around the city is indescribably lovely with its gently sloping hills, planted with cultivated trees or vines or ploughed for grain, overlooking delightful valleys green with pasture land or sown fields, and watered by never-failing streams. There are also thick forests planted by nature or man where birds sing most sweetly and on every hill the citizens of Siena have built splendid country seats … Through this region the Pope travelled in happy mood …36
Elsewhere he writes of a visit to Viterbo:
Masses of flowering broom gave much of the country a golden hue and some of it was covered with other shrubs or various plants that presented purple or white or a thousand other colours to the eye. The world was green in that month of May and not only the meadows but the woods were smiling and birds were singing sweetly … Almost every day at dawn he would go out into the country to enjoy the sweet air before it grew hot and to gaze on the green crops and the blossoming flax, then most lovely to see with its sky-blue colour …37
And it is not just the sweetness, but the grandeur, of nature, its ‘lofty cliffs’, high and ‘inaccessible’, its ‘unfathomable’ crystal clear lakes, that delight him. ‘Nature’, he says, ‘is superior to any art’. The date is May 1463.38
In the first chapter of Part II, I suggested that there are two ways in which the inauthenticity of re-presentation, of the left hemisphere's world, can stimulate a response. One is the tendency to redress the loss, through an urgent longing for the vibrancy and freshness of the world that the right hemisphere delivers; the other is quite the opposite – a rejection of it, since that right hemisphere world now comes to be seen as intrinsically inauthentic, and therefore as invalid. Instead of a corrective swing of the pendulum, therefore, there is a loss of homeostasis, and the result is positive feedback, whereby the left hemisphere's values simply become further entrenched.
Though we have been focussing on a return to the right hemisphere in the flowering of the Renaissance, with an almost magnetic attraction towards the newly discovered history, writings, arts and monuments of the ancient world, which opened eyes to the vibrancy of a living world beyond the mediaeval ‘world-picture’, the decline of the Middle Ages yields an example of both processes at work. One can see the second process (a rejection of the right hemisphere's world) in the way in which the decline of metaphoric understanding of ceremony and ritual into the inauthentic repetition of empty procedures in the Middle Ages prompted, not a revitalisation of metaphoric understanding, but an outright rejection of it, with the advent of the Reformation. This cataclysmic convulsion is said to have begun with Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, which he nailed to the door of the Schloßkirche in Wittenberg in 1517.
In the subsequent unfolding of events, however, Luther could be seen as a somewhat tragic figure. He was himself tolerant, conservative, his concern being for authenticity, and a return to experience, as opposed to reliance on authority. His attitude to the place of images in worship and in the life of the Church was balanced and reasonable: his target was not images themselves (which he actually endorsed and encouraged) but precisely the functionalist abuse of images, images which he thought should be reverenced. Yet despite this, he found himself unleashing forces of destruction that were out of his control, forces which set about destroying the very things he valued, forces against which he inveighed finally without effect. Describing the fanaticism of the time, ‘I have seen them return from hearing the sermon, as if inspired by an evil spirit’, wrote Erasmus, ‘the faces of all showing a curious wrath and ferocity.’39 There are, I think, interesting parallels with the fate of Heidegger, struggling to transcend the Cartesian subjective/objective polarity, committed to the difficult business of authentic encounter with whatever ‘is’, a process requiring careful and scrupulous attention; but soon hijacked by those who wished to take his ‘problematising’ of the concept of objective truth as the signal for a free-for-all in which all values are ‘merely relative’ (interpreted as meaning values have no force), in which there is no longer any ‘objective’ standard of truth (interpreted as meaning no truth), and in which ultimately an anarchic destruction of everything Heidegger valued and struggled to defend was unleashed in his name. Here too, as in Luther's case, I would say the original impulse, towards authenticity, came from the right hemisphere, but quickly became annexed to the agenda of the left hemisphere. Not by a revolutionary inversion, but by a slippage of meaning which repays attention.
Luther perceived that the inner and outer realms, however one expresses it – the realm of the mind/soul and that of the body, the realm of the invisible and the visible – needed to be as one, otherwise the outward show had nothing to say about the inward condition. In other words, the visible world should be a ‘presentation’, in the literal sense that something ‘becomes present’ to us in all its actuality, as delivered by the right hemisphere. This perception, which is simply part of, and entirely continuous with, the Renaissance insistence on the seamlessness of the incarnate world, inspired Luther to decry the emptiness that results when the outer and inner worlds are divorced. But his followers took it to mean that the outer world was in itself empty, and that therefore the only authenticity lay in the inner world alone. The result of this is that the outer world becomes seen as merely a ‘show’, a ‘re-presentation’ of something elsewhere and nowhere – not an image, since an image is a living fusion of the inner and outer, but a mere signifier, as delivered by the left hemisphere. The transition that is made in this important derailment of Luther's intention is not from belief in outer forms to belief in inner forms, but from a view of outer and inner as essentially fused aspects of one and the same thing to the belief that they are separate (‘either/or’). Thus it should not be thought that the impetus of the Renaissance was abruptly derailed by a contrary movement of the spirit at the Reformation: there was a seamless transition from one position into its opposite, the one morphed into the other. I shall have more to say about such processes in relation to the otherwise apparently problematic transitions from the Enlightenment to Romanticism, and from Romanticism to modernism, each of which has been seen as an earth-shattering inversion, whereas I would see each as a fluent transition, despite accepting the fundamentally opposed nature of the phenomena in each case.
The Reformation is the first great expression of the search for certainty in modern times. As Schleiermacher put it, the Reformation and the Enlightenment have this in common, that ‘everything mysterious and marvellous is proscribed. Imagination is not to be filled with [what are now thought of as] airy images.’40 In their search for the one truth, both movements attempted to do away with the visual image, the vehicle par excellence of the right hemisphere, particularly in its mythical and metaphoric function, in favour of the word, the stronghold of the left hemisphere, in pursuit of unambiguous certainty.
This was not, of course, the first time that iconoclasm had reared its head. In the eastern Roman Empire there had been a period of over 100 years (between 730 and 843) during which, with only one brief hiatus, the Byzantines were forbidden to venerate religious images. Paintings were whitewashed over, and images destroyed. This movement is thought to have been in response to the inroads made by the Arabs, whose religion proscribes religious images, deep into the Empire: they laid siege to Constantinople on three occasions. But such aversion to the visual image at the Reformation, following on, as it did, from the flowering of the Italian Renaissance, the greatest outpouring of religious art in human history, was something quite extraordinary. What is so compelling here is that the motive force behind the Reformation was the urge to regain authenticity, with which one can only be profoundly sympathetic. The path it soon took was that of the destruction of all means whereby the authentic could have been recaptured.
Here I take Joseph Koerner's recent magisterial treatment of Reformation theology, politics and philosophy through their relationship with the visual image, with symbolism, and with the written word, as a major source (there is no comparable work that so intelligently links these different aspects of Reformation culture).41 The problem of the Reformation was, according to Koerner, one of ‘either/or’, a ‘hatred based on the absolute distinction between truth and falsehood’.42 Because of the inability to accept the ambiguous or metaphorical, and because of a fear of the power of the imagination, images were objects of terror. Statues had to be reduced to ‘mere wood’. In fact the supposed ‘idolaters’ never had believed they were worshipping statues – that self-serving fiction existed only in the minds of the iconoclasts, who could not understand that divinity could find its place between one ‘thing’ (the statue) and another (the beholder), rather than having to reside, fixed, in the ‘thing’ itself. Luther himself said as much: ‘I believe that there is no person, or certainly very few, who does not understand that the crucifix that stands over there is not my God – for my God is in Heaven – but rather only a sign.’43
Decapitation of statues by the Reformers took place because of the confounding of the animate and the inanimate, and the impossibility of seeing that one can live in the other metaphorically. In a world where metaphoric understanding is lost we are reduced to ‘either/or’, as Koerner says. Either the statue is God or it is a thing: since it is ‘obviously’ not God, it must be a thing, and therefore ‘mere wood’, in which case it has no place in worship. To see that ‘mere’ wood can partake of the divine requires seeing it as a metaphor, and being able to see that, precisely because it is a metaphor rather than a representation, it is itself divine. It is not just something non-divine representing the divine, it is something divine. This is the difference between the belief that the bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ, and the belief that they are in some important sense the body and blood of Christ, metaphors of it. It was the explicit analytical left hemisphere attempt to untangle this that had led, in mediaeval scholastic theology, to an ‘either/or’, and resulted in the improbable doctrine of transubstantiation: that at the moment of the priest's pronouncing the words of consecration, what had been mere bread and mere wine became suddenly, and literally, the body and blood of Christ. What the right hemisphere had understood intuitively, being comfortable with metaphoric meaning, was forced into the straightjacket of legalistic thinking, and forced to be either literal bread and wine or literal body and blood. At the Reformation this problem re-emerged. To say it was not literally body and blood seemed to Catholic thinking to sell out to the view that it was just a representation, which clearly is inadequate to the reality of metaphoric thinking, in which the body and blood come about not just because of a few words spoken at a specific moment but because of the entire context of the mass, including all its words and procedures, the presence and faithful disposition of the congregation, etc. It is contexts, and the disposition of the mind of those who partake in them, another pair of right hemisphere entities, which enable metaphors to work.
What Koerner's book demonstrates at length and in detail is the way in which the Reformation replaces presentation with re-presentation (in the terms of this book, replaces the right-hemisphere realm with the left-hemisphere realm). What is experienced by the observer (itself a telling concept) is transposed to the meta-level. One well-known work approved by the Reformers, and emanating from their spirit, appears to deny the possibility that the work of art could be something greater than its transposition into verbal meaning: ‘its surfaces support words while its depths are filled only with what words refer to’. In such a canvas, ‘the choirboys sing from a hymnal displaying neither the text nor the music of their song, but the biblical command requiring them to sing. Words bathe in the grey light of what seems a useless significance.’44
There are several ways in which the Reformation anticipated the hermetic self-reflexivity of post-modernism, perfectly expressed in the infinite regress of self-referral within some of the visual images which Koerner examines (pictures which portray the setting in which the picture stands, and contain therefore the picture itself, itself containing a further depiction of the setting, containing an ever smaller version of the picture, etc). One of Cranach's masterpieces, discussed by Koerner, is in its self-referentiality the perfect expression of left-hemisphere emptiness, and a precursor of post-modernism. There is no longer anything to point to beyond, nothing Other, so it points pointlessly to itself. Rather paradoxically for a movement that began as a revolt against apparently empty structures, it is in fact the structures, not the content, of religion, that come into focus as the content. But such is the fate of those who insist on ‘either/or’, rather than the wisdom of semi-transparency.
In contrast with the brothers van Eyck's marvellous Ghent Altarpiece, The Adoration of the Lamb, of 1432, Koerner notes of Göding's Mühlberg Altarpiece (1568), an example of the infinite regress problem, that it ‘yearns in just the opposite direction: not toward a real presence materially before it, but toward an infinity endlessly repeated and deferred’.45 Referring to itself, it leads nowhere. A pietistic image of the lamb of God proclaiming that it is the lamb of God, ‘rather than transporting us from signifier to signified … keeps us shuttling between signifiers’.46 The problem is that the pictorial symbols are merely re-presentations, not presentations: they show the ‘caricature’ lamb of God, or Christ, or God the Father, and refer in shorthand, not, as earlier painting had done, incarnating in each marvellously realised exemplar, the very experience of the lamb of God, or Christ, or God the Father. The texts that accompany them are worse still. Koerner again notes inscriptions in engravings – ‘I am the way’, ‘This is the lamb, etc.’ – and comments: ‘note how, in the woodcut itself, the printed “etc.” objectifies the quote’.47 To my mind it betrays a bored impatience that is the correlative of its lack of content. The phrases have become empty stereotypes, representing nothing other than their own verbal nature, pointers to themselves, rather than being capable of exhibiting meaning that lies elsewhere and beyond. Such pictures as were permitted in the Reformation Church are self-referential, in that what they depict is what is actually going on in the church. In as much, they become redundant: they do not reach out to the Other, but remain stubbornly trapped within a system of signs.
Images become explicit, understood by reading a kind of key, which demonstrates that the image is thought of simply as an adornment, whose only function is to fix a meaning more readily in the mind – a meaning which could have been better stated literally. This anticipates the Enlightenment view of metaphor as an adornment that shows the writer's skill, or entertains, or aids flagging attention, rather than as an indispensable part of understanding. ‘Sacrament becomes information-transfer’, writes Koerner. ‘Its material elements convey not substances, but meanings, and these latter are immutably conveyed regardless of the form they take.’ In the twentieth century, too, we have seen liturgical reformers embrace a view that the ‘meaning’ is independent of the form, one of the most damaging legacies of the Reformation. Continuing the idea that sacrament has been reduced to information transfer, Koerner continues that the ‘seeming afterthought, that Christ's words need explaining, completes a scenography of data downloaded from a storage medium. Even the words of sacrament count only if they mean something, for all else “serve[s] no purpose”.’48
This is the era of the triumph of the written word, and words actually acquire the status of things. (I am reminded of Sam Johnson's wise admonition that ‘words are the daughters of earth’, whereas ‘things are the sons of heaven’.) ‘In Protestant culture’, writes Koerner, ‘words acquired the status of things by their aggressive material inscription.’ A compendium of consoling sayings consists mostly of ‘sayings about sayings’.49 It is fascinating that the way to get the meaning across is apparently to repeat the words endlessly, drumming it further and further into the realm of the over-familiar, again the domain of the left hemisphere. For example, the words verbum Domini manet in aeternum (‘the word of the Lord shall endure for ever’ – yet a further element of self-referentiality) became so familiar that it was reduced to the acronym VDMIE. (Note that these acronyms start with Roman bureaucracy (e.g. SPQR) and are, I would say, a hallmark of the bureaucratic mind – look at modern officialdom.) The letters VDMIE were embroidered and reproduced endlessly, ultimately becoming, despite the Reformers, a totemic, apotropaic device, a talisman with the status of an idol, as the reified words in their abbreviated form become the only available ‘thing’ for the sacred to attach to. As Koerner puts it, ‘materialised for display, words become objects of ritual action'; a point also made by Kriss-Rettenbeck: ‘the word freezes into an idol’.50 I would say that the abbreviations, like the impatient reduction to ‘etc.’ (‘the lamb of God, etc.’), betray the boredom and ultimate emptiness that attaches to signifiers that refer only to themselves, that have departed into the realm of the inauthentic through over-familiarity.
Pictures were defaced, often replaced by boards with written texts, and sometimes actually written over: a concrete expression of the triumph of language. To detached observation the rituals of Catholicism, lacking speech, cultivating rather what has to remain imprecise, implicit, but richly metaphorical, became ‘senseless and indecipherable’.51 ‘Image-breakers ceaselessly say that images cannot speak’: their failing is their silence. They do not use words.52
These different ways of looking at the world – ‘proclamation’ of the word versus ‘manifestation’ of the divine – are aligned with hemisphere differences. As Ricoeur demonstrated, the ‘emergence of the word from the numinous is … the primordial trait’ that differentiates proclamation from manifestation.53 For ‘emergence of the word from the numinous’ read the triumph of the left hemisphere over the right.
At this time, according to Koerner, pictures become ‘art’, moved out of their living context in worship, to an artificial context where they can become allowable and safe, with frames round them (often pictures had literally to be reframed because of the exigencies of smuggling them away from the iconoclasts to safety).
Contexts bring meanings from the whole of our selves and our lives, not just from the explicit theoretical, intellectual structures which are potentially under control. The power-hungry will always aim to substitute explicit for intuitive understanding. Intuitive understanding is not under control, and therefore cannot be trusted by those who wish to manipulate and dominate the way we think; for them it is vital that such contexts, with their hidden powerful meanings that have accrued through sometimes millennia of experience, are eradicated. In terms of the conflict that forms the subject of this book, the left hemisphere, the locus of will to power, needs to destroy the potential for the right hemisphere to have influence through what is implicit and contextual. Hence the Calvinists set about an erasure of the past, involving the destruction of everything that would nourish memory of how things had been – a sort of Red Revolution, ‘that will leave nothing in the church whereof any memory will be’.54
The body is the ultimate refractory context of experience. There was a revulsion against the representation of Christ's body and his bodily suffering, which was thought to show nothing of importance. A Manichaeism is at work here which rejects the body: ‘Christ says that his own flesh is of no use but that the spirit is of use and gives life.’55 This is related to the more widespread loss of the incarnate nature of metaphor as a whole, and its substitution by simile: in the Eucharist ‘this is my body’ becomes ‘this signifies (is like) my body’. But there is another reason for rejecting the body: it is equated with the transient, ‘earthly corruption’, whereas the word is equated with enduring changelessness, which is in turn how the divine is now seen.
Some further interesting phenomena begin to appear. Rejection of the body, and of embodied existence in an incarnate world, in favour of an invisible, discarnate realm of the mind, naturally facilitates the application of general rules. In other words, abstraction facilitates generalisation. Both retreat from the body and the seeking out and development of general rules are fundamental aspects of the world delivered by the left hemisphere, and they are mutually reinforcing. The Reformers were keen to do away with the concrete instantiations of holiness in any one place or object. The invisible Church being the only church to have any reality, the Church existed literally everywhere, and actual churches became less significant: every place was as good as any other in which to hold a service. The force of this was that every place was as holy as any other, provided the word of God could be proclaimed there, which by definition it could. But holiness, like all other qualities, depends on a distinction being made. In an important sense, if everything and everywhere is holy, then nothing and nowhere is holy. Once freed from having to consider the actual qualities of existing things, places and people, ideas can be applied blanket-fashion; but the plane of interaction between the world of ideas and the world of things which they represent becoming, by the same token, ‘frictionless’, the wheels of words lose their purchase, and spin uselessly, without force to move anything in the world in which we actually live. A recognisably similar development became familiar in the twentieth century, where the retreat of art into the realm of the idea, into concepts, enabled it to become a commonplace that ‘everything is art'; or that, properly considered, everything is as beautiful as everything else; with the inevitable consequence that the meaning of art and the meaning of beauty became eroded, and it has become almost a solecism, seen as betraying a lack of sophisticated (i.e. left-hemisphere) understanding, to interrogate artworks according to such criteria.
I have emphasised the left hemisphere's inclination towards division, as opposed to the apprehension of connectedness made by the right hemisphere. But there are two types of division and two types of union. In Part I, I made a distinction, which is central to the thesis of this book, between two ways of looking at ‘parts’ and ‘aggregates’. In the left-hemisphere view, there is at one level the part or fragment, and, at the other, the generalised abstraction, aggregated from the parts. In the right hemisphere view, there is the individual entity in all its distinctness, at one level, and the whole to which it belongs, at the other. It is, in other words, the special capacity of the right hemisphere both to deliver wholes and to deal with particularities: these are not contradictory roles. It is the special capacity of the left hemisphere to derive generalities, but generalities have nothing to do with wholes; they are in fact necessarily built from parts, aspects, fragments, of existing things – things which, in their total selfhood, individuality, or haeccitas, could never have been generalised. Every existing entity comes into being only through boundaries, because of distinctions: which is perhaps why the Book of Genesis speaks of God creating by dividing – the earth from the heavens, the sea from the dry land, the night from the day, and so on. The drive towards separation and distinction brings individual things into being. By contrast, the drive towards generalisation, with its effective ‘democratisation’ of its object (of the holy, of art, of the beautiful), has the effect of destroying its object as a living force.
Koerner draws attention to the bureaucratic categorisation that springs up in the Lutheran Church. And, as Max Weber emphasised, in his repeated explorations of the relation between Protestantism, capitalism and bureaucratisation, bureaucratisation (and categorisation, with which it is so closely related) is an instrument of power. Perhaps, more importantly, Protestantism being a manifestation of left-hemisphere cognition is – even though its conscious self-descriptions would deny this – itself inevitably linked to the will to power, since that is the agenda of the left hemisphere. Bureaucratisation and capitalism, though not necessarily themselves the best of bedfellows, and at times perhaps in conflict, are each manifestations of the will to power, and each is linked to Protestantism. Weber held that the cognitive structure of Protestantism was closely associated with capitalism: both involve an exaggerated emphasis on individual agency, and a discounting of what might be called ‘communion’. An emphasis on individual agency inevitably manifests itself, as David Bakan has suggested, in self-protection, self-assertion, and self-expansion, whereas communion manifests itself in the sense of being at one with others. ‘Agency’, he writes, ‘manifests itself in isolation, alienation, and aloneness: communion in contact, openness and union. Agency manifests itself in the urge to master: communion in non-contractual co-operation.’56 Success in material terms became, under Protestantism, a sign of spiritual prowess, the reward of God to his faithful.
As Weber saw, modern capitalism is anti-traditional – desperate, like bureaucratisation, to do away with the past. Tradition is simply the embodied wisdom of previous generations. It should change, as all things subject to the realm of the right hemisphere change, develop and evolve, but it should do so organically: it is not wise to reject it or uproot it altogether and on principle. But to the left hemisphere, tradition represents a challenge to its brave plan to take control, now, in the interests of salvation as it conceives it.
Removing the places of holiness, and effectively dispensing with the dimension of the sacred, eroded the power of the princes of the Church, but it helped to buttress the power of the secular state. The capacity for religion to crystallise structures of power and obedience was soon allied under the Reformers to the power of the state. ‘Sacred centres thus gave way to centres of attention’, writes Koerner, referring to the physical arrangement of the new church interior, in which the focus is no longer the altar, but the pulpit. The Lutheran assembly, despite its emphasis on the word, ‘controlled sight more rigorously’ than the Roman Catholic Church had ever done.57 Its emphasis on punishment for departing from the moral law, and its panoptical monitoring of the populace, are imaged in the exalted position of the pulpit, the place of dissemination of the moral law, often situated at a dizzying height over the heads of the masses near the roof of the church, high above the altar, with tiers of seating for the secular hierarchies in the galleries at the next level beneath, each positioned far over the heads of the obedient populace, ranged in geometric order below.
I would note that this geometricity of Reformed churches, the people neatly placed in symmetrical ranks on the floors which are laid out like graph paper (see Figure 9.3), is highly suggestive of left-hemisphere functioning.58
Remember that, for the left hemisphere, space is not something lived, experienced through the body, and articulated by personal concerns as it is for the right hemisphere, but something symmetrical, measured and positioned according to abstract measures. And this is something we can all recall from personal experience: in a congregation seated neatly in rows, one feels like an obedient subject, one of the masses, whereas standing in a crowd, as one would have done in a pre-Reformation church, one is part of a living thing, that is that community of living human beings, there and then: one of humanity, not one of ‘the people’. This is what Nietzsche is referring to, when he draws attention to the Reformed church's one
Fig. 9.3 Sermon in the Hall of the Reformed Community of Stein near Nuremberg, attrib. Lorenz Strauch, c. 1620
speaking mouth [the preacher] and very many ears [the congregation] … Standing at a modest distance behind both groups, with a certain tense supervisory mien, is the state, there in order from time to time to recollect that it is the purpose, goal, and model of this odd speaking and listening procedure …
the procedure of Reformed religion.59
The focus is on immobility and fixity. Where the Roman Church encouraged and incorporated movement, walking and processing, the new Church's chairs are everywhere the most visible feature of the Reformed interior, enforcing stasis and system, and (interestingly, despite its democratic rhetoric) social order and hierarchy.
Having repudiated pious donation as belonging to a false religion of works, the Lutheran confession discovered in church seating a new, lucrative and … continuous resource. People's desire to distinguish themselves in this world by sitting above or before their neighbour funded a church which preached that such distinctions were of no account.60
And Ernst Troeltsch takes the point further, emphasising the transfer of power to the state: ‘Thus the aim that was realized in Catholicism through a directly divine church order, Lutheranism, in its purely spiritualised form, stripped of every kind of hierarchical or sacerdotal organ, realized through the government and the civil administration, to which, however, precisely for that reason, there accrued a semi-divinity.’61 Instead of, as under the old dispensation, all being equal ‘below’ the priestly ministrants, representing the power of God, the people of the Reformed Church were thrown back on the petty gradations of secular difference. Significantly one sees in the iconography of the Reformers depictions of princes kneeling, not just before the anonymous priest, but before a particular human individual, Luther, where previously they would have humbled themselves before the anonymous power of the priesthood, representing Divinity.62
What I wish to emphasise is the transition, within the Reformation, from what are initially the concerns of the right hemisphere to those of the left hemisphere: how a call for authenticity, and a reaction against the undoubtedly empty and corrupt nature of some practices of the mediaeval Roman Catholic Church, an attempt therefore to return from a form of re-presentation to the true presence of religious feeling, turned rapidly into a further entrenchment of inauthenticity.
Of course the Reformation was not a unitary phenomenon: the Elizabethan settlement was very different from anything in Calvin's Geneva, and that too differed from the circumstances and beliefs of the Puritans who set sail for New England. But there are often common elements, and when we see them we are, in my view, witnessing the slide into the territory of the left hemisphere. These include the preference for what is clear and certain over what is ambiguous or undecided; the preference for what is single, fixed, static and systematised, over what is multiple, fluid, moving and contingent; the emphasis on the word over the image, on literal meaning in language over metaphorical meaning, and the tendency for language to refer to other written texts or explicit meanings, rather than, through the cracks in language, if one can put it that way, to something Other beyond; the tendency towards abstraction, coupled with a downgrading of the realm of the physical; a concern with re-presentation rather than with presentation; in its more Puritanical elements, an attack on music; the deliberate attempt to do away with the past and the contextually modulated, implicit wisdom of a tradition, replacing it with a new rational, explicit, but fundamentally secular, order; and an attack on the sacred that was vehement in the extreme, and involved repeated and violent acts of desecration.
In essence the cardinal tenet of Christianity – the Word is made Flesh – becomes reversed, and the Flesh is made Word.
THE BEGINNINGS OF ENLIGHTENMENT
‘I embrace most willingly those of Philosophy's opinions which are most solid, that is to say, most human’, wrote Montaigne, but:
to my mind she is acting like a child when she gets on her high-horse, preaching to us that it is a barbarous match to wed the divine to the earthy, the rational to the irrational, the strict to the permissive, the decent to the indecent … A fine thing to get up on stilts, for even on stilts we must ever walk with our legs! And upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses.63
In his classic analysis of modernity, Cosmopolis, the philosopher Stephen Toulmin, a disciple of Wittgenstein, saw two distinct phases to the origins of modernity. One was that of Erasmus, Rabelais, Shakespeare and Montaigne, a tolerant, literary and humanistic phase, in which horizons expanded – literally as well as metaphorically, since this was the age of the explorer, and a fascination with other peoples and their customs, a revelling in difference. The second, a scientific and philosophical phase, he believes turned its back on the earlier phase, in terms more rigid and dogmatic: ‘there are good precedents for the suggestion that the 17th century saw a reversal of Renaissance values’.64 One might think that odd in view of, for example, the received version of Galileo's dispute with the Church – a piece of hagiography that suits the dogma of our own age, that Galileo must have been the champion of reason in the face of irrational bigotry on the part of the Church. In fact his ideas were certainly not dismissed by either the pope or his cardinals, who indeed let him know that they admired his work; and, if it had not been for Galileo's personality, he would not have found himself placed under house arrest, which led to his canonisation in the chronicles of science. As Toulmin points out, the Church did end up becoming less tolerant, but this came about during the Counter-Reformation, a reaction to the excesses of the Reformation, at a time when, as he amply demonstrates, philosophy and science, too, became more inflexible and doctrinaire.
There was, according to Toulmin, a narrowing, not an expansion, of concern, as one moves from the sixteenth century to the seventeenth, from the world of Pantagruel to that of Pilgrim's Progress, from Shakespeare to Racine, from Montaigne to Descartes – a ‘narrowing in the focus of preoccupations, and a closing in of intellectual horizons’. Reason itself became narrower in conception, no longer respecting context, as Aristotle had insisted, when he held that what was reasonable in clinical medicine was different from what was logical in geometrical theory.65 A universal, timeless theory became the only true subject of philosophy: abstract generalisations and rules for perfection superseded acceptance of the contingency of difference. Toulmin identifies during this period a shift from the reciprocal oral mode to the fixed and unidirectional written mode, from the local and particular to the general, from concrete to abstract, from practical to theoretical, from time-dependent and transitory to timeless and permanent: in each case, where both had been previously held in equilibrium (right hemisphere with left), only the second became acceptable.66 But, as Aristotle put it, ‘that which lasts long is no whiter than that which perishes in a day’.67
Something, too, was happening to the self. The sixteenth century was the age of the autobiography and the self-portrait, of the voice of Montaigne, and the self-aware reflections of Dürer: in fact Montaigne, in taking himself for his subject, was consciously thinking of a portrait.68 It is also the period during which mirrors became a more common part of domestic life. This self-awareness does not (yet) equate with the objectification of the self, but with the achievement, rather, of ‘necessary distance’, which enhances an understanding of the self as part of a shared world of other, similar, beings. ‘Few are more aware of the power of imagination than I am’, wrote Montaigne,
everyone feels its force, but some are turned upside down by it. It makes such an intense impression on me that I prefer to avoid it altogether rather than try to resist it … the very sight of someone else's pain causes me real pain, and my body often takes on the sensations of the person I am with. Another's perpetual cough tickles my lungs and throat. I'm more reluctant to visit those I love and am bound to care for, when they're sick, than those I care less about, and mean less to me. I adopt their disease that troubles me, and make it my own.69
Here we find him observing, more than 400 years before the experiments were done, what we know about empathy and mimesis. And he was his own experimental subject. Empathic as he was, he observed himself with detachment.
This optimal relation of the self to others, and the optimal distance from oneself to achieve it, is embodied in the writings of many Renaissance writers, but as time wears on, one can feel it coming under strain. Donne has some fascinating passages, both in his poems and in his Meditations, on the eyes and self-exploration; on seeing oneself reflected in other's eyes. As Fanny Burney later trembled more to see the look of horror in her surgeon's eyes when he was operating on her cancerous breast than she did at her own pain, Donne describes in his last illness how he knows himself first through his physician's face:
I observe the physician with the same diligence as he the disease; I see his fears, and I fear with him; I overtake him, I overrun him, in his fear, and I go the faster, because he makes his pace slow; I fear the more, because he disguises his fear, and I see it with the more sharpness, because he would not have me see it.70
As the illness progresses, he writes that ‘they have seen me and heard me, arraigned me in these fetters and received the evidence; I have cut up mine own anatomy, dissected myself, and they are gone to read upon me …’71 Many of his poems involve the conceit of eyes and self-knowledge. In his poems Donne plays with a more literal sense in which one can be said to see one's own image in the eye of the beloved, the sense in which Plato said that one saw one's soul there: the word ‘pupil’ comes from the Latin pupilla, a doll, referring to the minute inverted image of oneself seen reflected in the eye of another. In Witchcraft by a Picture, he not only sees himself ‘burning’ in his mistress's eye, but ‘My picture drown'd in a transparent teare, / When I looke lower I espie …’ He fancifully chides her for conjuring with his image in order to kill, but then softens:
But now I have drunke thy sweet salt teares,
And though thou poure more I'll depart;
My picture vanish'd, vanish feares,
That I can be endamag'd by that art;
Though thou retaine of mee
One picture more, yet that will bee,
Being in thine owne heart, from all malice free.
His poems suggest to me the precariousness of keeping the hemispheres working together. What I believe Eliot was referring to in his famous formulation of the unified sensibility of the Metaphysical poets, and its ‘dissociation’ later in the seventeenth century, was the ability to bring together the diverging hemispheric worlds, though I believe that he was wrong to suppose that the Metaphysical poets are part of the ‘unification’.72 The relationship was more complex. Eliot elsewhere likened the analytic meaning of a poem to the meat that the burglar tosses to the dog while he burgles the house.73 Donne's self-observation certainly made him acutely aware of the ways in which attention can be divided:74 and he himself encourages us to attend in more than one way, teasing and analysing with half of our minds, while he may conjure something completely astonishing at a quite different level. Thus in The Relique, a poem in which he imagines his grave being opened and ‘he that digs it’ seeing the token of his love, a ‘bracelet of bright haire about the bone’, Donne waylays us with verbal and conceptual play about the religion of love, only at the end to seem to walk off into another realm:
But now alas,
All measure, and all language, I should passe,
Should I tell what a miracle shee was.
And with that the poem just breaks off.
The very fact that Donne and his contemporaries were so aware of two aspects of experience that needed to be brought together was a sign that the ‘dissociation’ was already established, though in parts of his greatest poems Donne is able to achieve a synthesis. At his best he manages to hold to the remarkable growth in self-awareness while simultaneously respecting the importance of what must remain implicit, subtle, indirect, even hidden, if it is not to be lost altogether. In the end his poems demonstrate, as does the music of J. S. Bach, that, at this point in history, it was still possible lightly to unpick parts of the whole without losing the Gestalt – in Donne's case, though, at times only just.
And they were aware of it. It is not just Hamlet's ‘the times are out of joint’, or Ulysses’ great speech in Troilus and Cressida (Act 1, scene 3): ‘Take but degree away, untune that string, / And hark what discord follows…’ It is Donne, too:
Then, as mankinde, so is the worlds whole frame
Quite out of ioynt …
And freely men confesse that this world's spent,
When in the Planets, and the Firmament
They seeke so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out againe to his Atomis.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All iust supply, and all Relation:
Prince, Subiect, Father, Sonne, are things forgot,
For euery man alone thinkes he hath got
To be a Phoenix, and that there can be
None of that kinde, of which he is, but he.
This is the worlds condition now …
While Shakespeare and Donne would inevitably have had in mind the political and religious upheavals of the age, it is surely something far greater than that, a different sort of power game, that they have intuited. They lament the loss of the relation of part to whole, of individual to community, of the context, the cosmos, to which each single soul belongs – each now standing alone. There is a loss of harmony (‘each thing meets in mere oppugnancy’, in Ulysses’ phrase), the whole has become a heap of bits and pieces (‘crumbled out again to its atoms’). And, as Ulysses reminds us, this can have only one ending:
Then every thing include itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite,
And appetite, an universal wolf
(So doubly seconded with will and power),
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.
‘The scientific revolution only gathered pace in the early seventeenth century, after the flowering of the Renaissance was over’, according to Peter Hacker.75 This would certainly fit with the publication of Galileo's Dialogue in 1632. But the spirit does evolve out of that of the Renaissance and the respect for the natural world. The move to phenomenal observation led to the flourishing not only of the arts, but also of the sciences, which were importantly, not yet distinct from them.
Francis Bacon's advocacy of empirical method is an important factor in the scientific revolution. He was certainly an enquirer into many things (according to Aubrey, he died trying to create the world's first frozen chicken), but the spirit in which his enquiries were undertaken has been mistaken by some recent commentators. It is true that he did coin the phrase ‘knowledge is power’, which in retrospect shows signs of less happy things to come; but it is often forgotten that the context in which he wrote those words was actually that of God's foreknowledge of the world he had created, and could therefore only ever be applied by human beings to the knowledge we have of our own creations (machines) – never of Nature herself.76 There has become current an idea that Bacon advocated putting Nature (personified according to convention as a woman) on the rack. While there is certainly something in Bacon's language that suggests forcing Nature to give up her secrets reluctantly, nowhere does he say that she should be tortured, or put on the rack, an idea that seems to have come from a casual remark by Leibniz in a letter to a colleague, and which was perpetuated by Ernst Cassirer.77 What Bacon says is that we learn more by constraining the conditions under which we make our observations, in other words by carefully designed experiments, than we can do from casual observation of Nature unconstrained – an acknowledgment that, in Heraclitus’ phrase, ‘Nature loves to hide.’ He was deeply respectful of Nature, and wrote that ‘Nature to be commanded must be obeyed … The subtlety of Nature is greater many times over than the subtlety of the senses and understanding.’78
It was not long, however, before Descartes, certainly, was saying, in very different spirit, that science will make us ‘the lords and masters of nature’.79 And gone is Bacon's careful recognition that, while observing Nature attentively is essential, she is many times subtler than our senses or our understanding. If Descartes had observed that caveat, he would never have made the fatal mistake of believing ‘that I could take it as a general rule that the things we conceive very clearly and very distinctly are all true’.80 That was the fallacy that was to derail the next three centuries of Western thought.
In this necessarily cursory review of a vast topic, I have tried to focus on elements that indicate shifts in our experience and understanding of the world which have meaning in terms of hemisphere discrimination. Once again, one does not find, I submit, a purely random pattern, suggesting no correlation with hemisphere differences. Once again, I believe, in the earlier phases of this movement (however one cares to think of it) in the history of ideas that is called the Renaissance, one sees a fruitful balance in the relation of the hemispheres. This operated to bring about the quintessential Renaissance achievements of perspective, both in spatial depth and in historical and personal time, and of the idea of the individual. For the most part, however, the changes that occurred at around this period do suggest the salience of primarily the right hemisphere's world. One of the defining features of the Renaissance must be its opening of the eyes to experience, initially almost exclusively personal experience, in preference to what is ‘known’ to be the case, the teachings of scholastic theory and received opinion. There is a corresponding respect for the quiddity of individual things and people, rather than their being seen as members of categories. There was a faithful imitation of, and close attention to, the natural world, and to what other people in other times may have thought or known; and in this breadth of concern, and the insistence on the interconnectedness of things and the importance of the fullest possible context, it again speaks of the right hemisphere's world. This also included the body and the soul equally and inseparably as the context of all living things. In its respect for the body as more than a thing, and an integral part of the whole person; in its rehabilitation of the senses; in its emphasis on spatial depth, and on time as lived, with man becoming the ‘being towards death'; in the rekindling of empathy in the arts, including theatre, and a preoccupation with the expressive powers of the human face in particular, in the portraiture that dominates the visual arts of the period; in the sense of the self as an individual, yet integrated by moral and emotional bonds to society; in the newfound expressiveness of all the arts; in the rise of polyphony, with the importance of melody, harmony and the relationship of the parts to the whole; in the rise of wit and pathos, and the predominant emphasis on the links between wisdom and melancholy; in its attraction to exemplars, rather than to categories; in its capacity to accept the coniunctio oppositorum, and to relish mixed emotions and the coming together of widely different ideas; in its emphasis on the importance of what must remain implicit, on inborn and intuited skills (as well as on the artist as a semi-divine being), and on the world as never just what it ‘seems’ to be, but pointing beyond to something Other, a world that is semi-transparent, pregnant with myth and metaphor – in all these respects, it seems to me that the Renaissance started out with a huge expansion of the right hemisphere's way of being in the world, into which, initially, the work of the left hemisphere is integrated. And it is this that accounts for the astonishing fertility and richness, as well as the remarkable breadth of concern, to this day memorialised in the concept of the Renaissance man, of this period.
As the Renaissance progresses, there becomes evident, however, a gradual shift of emphasis from the right hemisphere way of being towards the vision of the left hemisphere, in which a more atomistic individuality characterised by ambition and competition becomes more salient; and originality comes to mean not creative possibility but the right to ‘free thinking’, the way to throw off the shackles of the past and its traditions, which are no longer seen as an inexhaustible source of wisdom, but as tyrannical, superstitious and irrational – and therefore wrong. This becomes the basis of the hubristic movement which came to be known as the Enlightenment.
* ‘but where are the snows of yesteryear?’
† ‘Our Lord is silent and gives no reply, for if he had to defend himself against reproach he would lose.’
* ‘Brothers, fellow-men, you who live after we are dead, do not harden your hearts against us; for if you have pity on us poor wretches, God may the sooner have pity on you.’
† ‘Ronsard sang my praise in the days when I was beautiful.’
* ‘I find my happiness in melancholy.’