Saturday, November 24, 2007

IV Nonne: Are Feminists Asking the Wrong Questions?

However, in Christianity, paradox functions in addition as a descriptor: it describes something empirical. Paradox, not contradiction. They are not the same. Paradox is a gateway; contradiction is a dead end. For example, ‘Who loses life shall gain it’. First, the mind initially can’t get round the sentence and is given a tantalising nano-second of silence, freedom—salvation—from the tyrannies of the diabolical 8-track tape-loop that is our self-conscious discursive mind, which, we must add, is distinct from consciousness taken as a whole. Second, it is describing an empirical process: when the tyranny of self-consciousness is by-passed, the rest of the mind, which in a theological context includes far more than what we casually call ‘the unconscious’ can come more freely into play.

Language can effect this shift. In the 21st chapter of the Apocalypse, the mind is doubly stopped in v. 21 when it is first confronted with pearly gates—the surface of a pearl is apophatic in the sense that light and dark play on it without image and again give the mind brief quies. This is immediately followed by a description of streets of gold—the second most dense metal—that are somehow translucent. My colleague and I call such images ‘apophatic images’, and one of the functions of such images is to release the person from the linear into the multidimensional, from the three-storey universe into the holographic quantum universe, from the earthly kingdom of time and noise and syntax into the apophatic, the ‘kingdom of God’, the ‘world to come’. In order for texts to function in this way, the reader must be willing to be subject to the ‘wyrd’ or fate of the text, to be carried through its passages into the ineffable. In order to escape time, one must first be subject to it. In order to be able to interpret a text, one must first enter into it. If the text draws from the chaos of life chained by time, then one must find meaning by imposing a syntax that can fetter time, still the noise and set one free. For Christians, that syntax is Christ.

These same principles can be observed in painting. If you go to rooms 54 and 55 of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery you can see the progression from the Byzantine to the insertion of horizons into perspective in the 14th century, when multidimensionality was lost, and religious art, like the doctrine that was its cultural context, ceased to have the transparency and multivalence of icons, and took on the opacity that arises from the illusion of control over three dimensions. As David Hockney pointed out at his recent exhibit in Bradford, perspective dislocates the person outside the painting; it is only when perspective is reversed that the viewer is surrounded by infinity.

And fluidity of perspective is absolutely vital to sacred signs. One element that makes visual or verbal texts timeless and enduring is that they are not bound by culture, but their context is rather within the reader or viewer, and in the case of icons, in their painters as well. Icon painters attest to the need for purification of self-consciousness as a prerequisite for their task, thus reflecting the same motion they require from the observer, who allows the mind to be focused by the icon. The icon is a catalyst for the suspension of self-consciousness, while the paintings that insert horizons are reflexive, seeming all too often merely to advertise the cleverness of their creators. In addition, they trap the viewer into the linear.

Fra Angelico’s work indicates an exact understanding of this principle. His public paintings are, as my colleague puts it, full of bells and whistles, whereas the frescos in San Marco, done for presumptive contemplatives, lead the eye into apophatic surfaces from which figures barely emerge, and into which they elide.


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