Cezanne's Doubt | Maurice Merleau-Ponty

| quinta-feira, 20 de janeiro de 2011
We should not take Leonardo's fantasy of the vulture, or the infantile past which it masks, for a force which determined his future. Rather, it is like the words of the oracle, an ambiguous symbol which applies in advance to several possible chains of events. Cezanne's Doubt
Maurice Merleau-Ponty
It took him one hundred working sessions for a still life, one hundred- fifty sittings for a portrait. What we call his
work was, for him, an attempt, an approach to painting. In September of 1906, at the age sixty-seven—one month before
his death—he wrote: "I was in such a state of mental agitation, in such great confusion that for a time I feared my weak
reason would not survive.... Now it seems I am better that I see more clearly the direction my studies are taking. Will I
arrive at the goal, so intensely sought and so long pursued? I am working from nature, and it seems to me I am making
slow progress”. Painting was his world and his mode of existence. He worked alone without students, without admiration
from his family, without encouragement from the critics. He painted on the afternoon of the day his mother died. In 1870 he
was painting at l'Estaque while the police were after him for dodging the draft. And still he had moments of doubt about this
vocation. As he grew old, he wondered whether the novelty of his painting might not come from trouble with his eyes,
whether his whole life had not been based upon an accident of his body. The hesitation or muddle-headedness of his
contemporaries equaled this strain and doubt. "The painting of a drunken privy cleaner," said a critic in 1905. Even today, C.
Mauclair finds Cezanne's admissions of powerlessness an argument against him. Meanwhile, Cezanne's paintings have
spread throughout the world. Why so much uncertainty, so much labor. so many failures, and, suddenly, the greatest
Zola, Cezanne's friend from childhood, was the first to find genius in him and the first to speak of him as a "genius
gone wrong." An observer of Cezanne's life such as Zola, more concerned with his character than with the meaning of his
painting, might well consider it a manifestation of ill-health.
For as far back as 1852, upon entering the College Bourbon at Aix, Cezanne worried his friends with his fits of
temper and depression. Seven years later, having decided to become an artist, he doubted his talent and did not dare to ask his
father—a hatter and later a banker—to send him to Paris. Zola's letters reproach him for his instability, his weakness, and
his indecision. When finally he came to Paris, he wrote: "The only thing I have changed is my location: my ennui has
followed me." He could not tolerate discussions, because they wore him out and he could never give his reasoning. His
nature was basically anxious. Thinking that he would die young, he made his will at the age of forty-two; at forty-six he
was for six months the victim of a violent, tormented, overwhelming passion of which no one knows the outcome and to
which he would never refer. At fifty-one he withdrew to Aix, where he found landscape best suited to his genius but where
also he returned to the world of his childhood, his mother and his sister. After the death of his mother, Cezanne turned to his
son for support. "Life is terrifying," he would often say. Religion, which he then set about practicing for the first time,
began for him in the fear of life and the fear of death. "It is fear," he explained to a friend; "I feel I will be on earth for
another four days—what then? I believe in life after death, and I don't want to risk roasting in aeternum." Although his
religion later deepened, its original motivation was the need to put his life in order and be relieved of it. He became more and
more timid, mistrustful, and sensitive. Occasionally he would visit Paris, but when he ran into friends he would motion to
them from a distance not to approach him. In 1903, after his pictures had begun to sell in Paris at twice the price of Monet's
and when young men like Joachim Gasquet and Emile Bernard came to see him and ask him questions, he unbent a little.
But his fits of anger continued. (In Aix a child once hit him as he passed by; after that he could not bear any contact.) One
day when Cezanne was quite old, Emile Bernard steadied him as he stumbled. Cezanne flew into a rage. He could be heard
striding around his studio and shouting that he wouldn't let anybody "get his hooks into me." Because of these "hooks" he
pushed women who could have modeled for him out of his studio, priests, whom he called "pests," out of his life, and Emile
Bernard's theories out of his mind, when they became too insistent.
This loss of flexible human contact; this inability to master new situations; this flight into established habits, in
an atmosphere which presented no problems; this rigid opposition between theory and practice between the "hook" and the
freedom of a recluse—all these symptoms permit one to speak of a morbid constitution and more preciselyas , for example,
in the case of El Greco, of schizothymia. The notion of painting "from nature" could be said to arise from the same
weakness. His extremely close attention to nature and to color, the inhuman character in his paintings (he said that a face
should be painted as an object) his devotion to the visible world: all of these would then only represent a flight from the
human world, the alienation of his humanity.
These conjectures nevertheless do not give any idea of the positive side of his work; one cannot thereby conclude
that his painting is a phenomenon of decadence and what Nietzsche called "impoverished life or that it has nothing to say to
the educated person. Zola's and Emile Bernard's belief in Cezanne's failure probably arises from their having put too much
emphasis on psychology and their personal knowledge of Cezanne. It is nonetheless possible that Cezanne conceived a form
of art which, while occasioned by his nervous condition, is valid for everyone. Left to himself, he was able to look at
nature as only a human being can. The meaning of his work cannot be determined from his life.
This meaning will not become any clearer in the light of art history—that is, by considering influences (the Italian
school and Tintoretto, Delacroix, Courbet, and the impressionists), Cezanne's technique or even his own pronouncements on
his work.
His first pictures—up to about 1870—are painted fantasies: a rape, a murder. They are therefore almost always
executed in broad strokes and present the moral physiognomy of the actions rather than their visible aspect. It is thanks to
the impressionists, and particularly to Pissarro, that Cezanne later conceived painting not as the incarnation of imagined
scenes, the projection of dreams outward, but as the exact study of appearances: less a work of the studio than a working
from nature. Thanks to the impressionists, he abandoned the baroque technique, whose primary aim is to capture movement,
for small dabs placed close together and for patient hatchings.
He quickly parted ways with the impressionists, however. Impresionism was trying to capture, in the painting, the
very way in which ojects strike our eyes and attack our senses. Objects were depicted as they appear to instantaneous
perception, without fixed contours, bound together by light and air. To capture this envelope of light, one had to exclude
siennas, ochres, and black and use only the seven colors of the spectrum. The color of objects could not be represented
simply bby putting on the canvas their local tone, that is, the color they take on isolated from their surroundings; one also
had to pay attention to the phenomena of contrast which modify local colors in nature. Furthermore, by a sort of reversal,
every color we perceive in nature elicits the appearance of its complement; and these complementaries heighten one another.
To achieve sunlit colors in a picture which will be seen in the dim light of apartments, not only must there be a green—if
you are painting grass— but also the complementary red which will make it vibrate. Finally, the impressionists break down
the local tone itself. One can generally obtain any color by juxtaposing rather than mixing the colors which make it up,
thereby achieving a more vibrant hue. The result of these procedures was that the canvas—which no longer corresponded
point by point to nature—afforded a generally true impression through the action of the separate parts upon one another. But
at the same time, depicting the atmosphere and breaking up the tones submerged the object and caused it to lose its proper
weight. The composition of Cezanne's palette leads one to suppose that he had another aim. Instead of the seven colors of
the spectrum, one finds eighteen colors—six reds, five yellows, three blues, three greens, and black. The use of warm colors
and black shows that Cezanne wants to represent the object, to find it again behind the atmosphere. Likewise, he does not,
break up the tone; rather, he replaces this technique with graduated colors, a progression of chromatic nuances across the
object, a modulation of colors which stays close to the object's form and to the light it receives. Doing away with exact
contours in certain cases, giving color priority over the outline— these obviously mean different things for Cezanne and for
the impressionists. The object is no longer covered by reflections and lost in its relationships to the atmosphere and other
objects: it seems subtly illuminated from within, light emanates from it, and the result is an impression of solidity and
material substance. Moreover, Cezanne does not give up making the warm colors vibrate but achieves this chromatic
sensation through the use of blue.
One must therefore say that Cezanne wished to return to the object without abandoning the impressionist aesthetics
which takes nature as its model. Emile Bernard reminded him that, for the classical artists, painting demanded outline,
composition, and distribution of light. Cezanne replied: "They created pictures; we are attempting a piece of nature." He said
of the old masters that they "replaced reality with imagination and by the abstraction which accompanies it." Of nature, he
said, "the artist must conform to this perfect work of art. Everything comes to us from nature; we exist through it; nothing
else is worth remembering."
He stated that he wanted to make of impressionism "something solid like the art in the museums." His painting
was paradoxical: he was pursuing reality without giving up the sensuous surface, with no other guide than the immediate
impression of nature, without following the contours, with no outline to enclose the color, with no perspectival or pictorial
arrangement. This is what Bernard called Cezanne's suicide: aiming for reality while denying himself the means to attain it.
This is the reason for his difficulties and for the distortions one finds in his pictures between 1870 and 1890. Cups and
saucers on a table seen from the side should be elliptical, but Cezanne paints the two ends of the ellipse swollen and
expanded. The work table in his portrait of Gustave Geffroy stretches, contrary to the laws of perspective, into the lower part
of picture. In giving up the outline Cezanne was abandoning himself to chaos of sensation, which would upset the objects
and constantly suggest illusions, as, for example, the illusion we have when we move our heads that objects themselves are
moving—if our judgment did not constantly set these appearances straight. According to Bernard, Cezanne "submerged his
painting in ignorance and his mind in shadows." But one cannot really judge his painting in this way except by closing
one's mind to half of what he said and one's eyes to what he painted.
It is clear from his conversations with Emile Bernard that Cezanne was always seeking to avoid the ready-made
alternatives suggested to him: sensation versus judgment; the painter who sees against the painter who thinks; nature versus
composition; primitivism as opposed to tradition. "We have to develop an optics," Cezanne said, "by which I mean a logical
vision—that is, one with no element of the absurd." "Are you speaking of our nature?" asked Bernard. Cezanne: "It has to do
with both." "But aren't nature and art different?" "I want to make them the same. Art is a personal apperception, which I
embody in sensations and which I ask the understanding to organize into a painting."' But even these formulas put too much
emphasis on the ordinary notions of "sensitivity" or "sensations" and "understanding"—which is why Cezanne could not
convince by his arguments and preferred to paint instead. Rather than apply to his work dichotomies more appropriate to
those who sustain traditions than to those—philosophers or painters—who found them, we would do better to sensitize
ourselves to his painting’s own, specific meaning, which is to challenge those dichotomies. Cezanne did not think he had to
choose between feeling and thought, as if he were deciding between chaos and order. He did not want to separate the stable
things which we see and the shifting way in which they appear. He wanted to depict matter as it takes on form, the birth of
order through spontaneous organization. He makes a basic distinction not between "the senses" and "the understanding" but
rather between the spontaneous organization of the things we perceive and the human organization of ideas and sciences. We
see things; we agree about them; we are anchored in them; and it is with "nature" as our base that we construct our sciences.
Cezanne wanted to paint this primordial world, and his pictures therefore seem to show nature pure, while photographs of
the same landscapes suggest man's works, conveniences, and imminent presence. Cezanne never wished to "paint like a
savage." He wanted to put intelligence, ideas, sciences, perspective, and tradition back in touch with the world of nature
which they were intended to comprehend. He wished, as he said, to confront the sciences with the nature "from which they
By remaining faithful to the phenomena in his investigations of perspective, Cezanne discovered what recent
psychologists have come to formulate: the lived perspective, that which we actually perceive, is not a geometric or
photographic one. The objects we see close at hand appear smaller, those far away seem larger than they do in a photograph.
(This is evident in films: an approaching train gets bigger much faster than a real train would under the same circumstances.)
To say that a circle seen obliquely is seen as an ellipse is to substitute for our actual perception what we would see if we
were cameras: in reality we see a form which oscillates around the ellipse without being an ellipse. In a portrait of Mme
Cezanne, the border of the wallpaper on one side of her body does not form a straight line with that on the other: and indeed
it is known that if a line passes beneath a wide strip of paper, the two visible segments appear dislocated. Gustave Geffroy's
table stretches into the bottom of the picture, and indeed, when our eye runs over a large surface, the images it successively
receives are taken from different points of view, and the whole surface is warped. It is true that I freeze these distortions in
repainting them on the canvas; I stop the spontaneous movement in which they pile up in perception and tend toward the
geometric perspective. This is also what happens with colors. Pink upon gray paper colors the background green. Academic
painting shows the background as gray, assuming that the picture will produce the same effect of contrast as the real object.
Impressionist painting uses green in the background in order to achieve a contrast as brilliant as that of objects in nature.
Doesn't this falsify the color relationship? It would if it stopped there, but the painter's task is to modify all the other colors
in the picture so that they take away from the green background its characteristics of a real color. Similarly, it is Cezanne's
genius that when the overall composition of the picture is seen globally, perspectival distortions are no longer visible in
their own right but rather contribute, as they do in natural vision, to impression of an emerging order, an object in the act of
appearing, organizing itself before our eyes. In the same way, the contour of an object conceived as a line encircling the
object belongs not to the visible we but to geometry. If one outlines the shape of an apple with a continuous line, one
makes an object of the shape, whereas the contour is rather ideal limit toward which the sides of the apple recede in depth.
Not to indicate any shape would be to deprive the objects of their identity. To trace just a single outline sacrifices
depth—that is, the dimension in which the thing is presented not as spread out before us but as an inexhaustible reality full
of reserves. That is why Cezanne follows the swell of the object in modulated colors and indicates several outlines in blue.
Rebounding among these, one's glance captures a shape that emerges from among them all, just as it does in perception.
Nothing could be less arbitrary than these famous distortions which, moreover, Cezanne abandoned in his last period, after
1890, when he no longer filled his canvas with colors and when he gave up the closely-woven texture of his still lifes.
The outline should therefore be a result of the colors if the world is to be given in its true density. For the world is
a mass without gaps. a system of colors across which the receding perspective, the outlines, angles, and curves are inscribed
like lines of force; the spatial structure vibrates as it is formed. "The outline and the colors are no longer distinct from each
other. As you paint, you outline; the more the colors harmonize, the more the outline becomes precise.... When the color is
at its richest, the form has reached plenitude." Cezanne does not try to use color to suggest the tactile sensations which
would give shape and depth. These distinctions between touch and sight are unknown in primordial perception. It is only as
a result of a science of the human body that we finally learn to distinguish between our senses. The lived object is not
rediscovered or constructed on the basis of the contributions of the senses; rather, it presents itself to us from the start as the
center from which these contributions radiate. We see the depth, the smoothness, softness, the hardness of objects; Cezanne
even claimed that we see the odor. If the painter is to express the world, the arrangement of his colors must bear within this
indivisible whole, or else his painting will only hint at things and will not give them in the imperious unity, the presence,
insurpassable plenitude which is for us the definition of the real. This is why each brushstroke must satisfy an infinite
number of conditions. Cezanne sometimes pondered hours at a time before putting down a certain stroke, for, as Bernard
said, each stroke must "contain the air, the light, the object, the composition, the character, the outline, and the style."
Expressing what exists is an endless task.
Nor did Cezanne neglect the physiognomy of objects and faces: he simply wanted to capture it emerging from the
color. Painting a face "as an object" is not to strip it of its "thought." "I agree that the painter must interpret it," said
Cezanne. "The painter is not an imbecile." But this interpretation should not be a reflection distinct from the act of seeing.
"If I paint all the little blues and all the little browns, I capture and convey his glance. Who gives a damn if they have any
idea how one can sadden a mouth or make a cheek smile by wedding a shaded green to a red." One's personality is seen and
grasped in one's glance, which is, however, no more than a combination of colors. Other minds are given to us only as
incarnate, as belonging to faces and gestures. Countering with the distinctions of soul and body, thought and vision is of no
use here, for Cezanne returns to just that primordial experience from which these notions are derived and in which they are
inseparable. The painter who conceptualizes and seeks the expression first misses the mystery— renewed every time we look
at someone—of a person's appearing in nature. In La peal de chagrin Balzac describes a "tablecloth white as a layer of
fresh-fallen snow, upon which ,the place settings rose symmetrically, crowned with blond rolls." "All through my youth,"
said Cezanne, "I wanted to paint that, that tablecloth of fresh-fallen snow.... Now I know that one must only want to paint
'rose, symmetrically, the place settings' and 'blond rolls.' If I paint 'crowned' I'm done for, you understand? But if I really
balance and shade my place settings and rolls as they are in nature, you can be sure the crowns, the snow and the whole
shebang will be there."
We live in the midst of man-made objects, among tools, in houses, streets, cities, and most of the time we see
them only through the human actions which put them to use. We become used to thinking that all of this exists necessarily
and unshakably. Cezanne's painting suspends these habits of thought and reveals the base of inhuman nature upon which
man has installed himself. This is why Cezanne's people are strange, as if viewed by a creature of another species. Nature
itself is stripped of the attributes which make it ready for animistic communions: there is no wind in the landscape, no
movement on the Lac d'Annecy; the frozen objects hesitate as at the beginning of the world. It is an unfamiliar world in
which one is uncomfortable and which forbids all human effusiveness. If one looks at the work of other painters after seeing
Cezanne's paintings, one feels somehow relaxed, just as conversations resumed after a period of mourning mask the absolute
change and restore to the survivors their solidity. But indeed only a human being is capable of such a vision, which
penetrates right to the root of things beneath the imposed order of humanity. All indications are that animals cannot look at
things, cannot penetrate them in expectation of nothing but the truth. Emile Bernard's statement that a realistic painter is
only an ape is therefore precisely the opposite of the truth, and one sees how Cezanne was able to revive the classical
definition of art: man added to nature.
Cezanne's painting denies neither science nor tradition. He went to the Louvre every day when he was in Paris. He
believed that one must learn how to paint and that the geometric study of planes and forms is a necessary part of this
learning process. He inquired about the geological structure of his landscapes, convinced that these abstract relationships,
expressed, however, in terms of the visible world, should affect the act of painting. The rules of anatomy and design are
present in each stroke of his brush just as the rules of the game underlie each stroke of a tennis match. But what motivates
the painter's movement can never be simply perspective or geometry or the laws governing the breakdown of color, or, for
that matter, any particular knowledge. Motivating all the movements from which a picture gradually emerges there can be
only one thing: the landscape in its totality and in its absolute fullness, precisely what Cezanne called a "motif." He would
start by discovering the geological foundations of the landscape; then, according to Mme Cezanne, he would halt and look at
everything with widened eyes, "germinating" with the countryside. The task before him was, first, to forget all he had ever
learned from science and, second, through these sciences to recapture the structure of the landscape as an emerging organism.
To do this, all the partial views one catches sight of must be welded together; all that the eye's versatility disperses must be
reunited; one must, as Gasquet put it, "join the wandering hands of nature." "A minute of the world is going by which must
be painted in its full reality." His meditation would suddenly be consummated: "I have a hold on my motif," Cezanne would
say, and he would explain that the landscape had to be tackled neither too high nor too low, caught alive in a net which
would let nothing escape. Then he began to paint all parts of the painting at the same time, using patches of color to
surround his original charcoal sketch of the geological skeleton. The picture took on fullness and density; it grew in
structure and balance; it came to maturity all at once. "The landscape thinks itself in me," he would say, "and I am its
consciousness." Nothing could be farther from naturalism than this intuitive science. Art is not imitation, nor is it
something manufactured according to the wishes of instinct or good taste. It is a process of expression. Just as the function
of words is to name—that is, to grasp the nature of what appears to us in a confused way and to place it before us as a
recognizable object—so it is up to the painter, said Gasquet, to "objectify," "project," and "arrest." Words do not took like
the things they designate; and a picture is not a trompe-l'oeil. Cezanne, in his own words, "writes in painting what had never
yet been painted, and turns it into painting once and for all." We, forgetting the viscous, equivocal appearances, go through
them straight to the things they present. The painter recaptures and converts into visible objects what would, without him,
remain walled up in the separate life of each consciousness: the vibration of appearances which is the cradle of things. Only
one emotion is possible for this painter—the feeling of strangeness— and only one lyricism—that of the continual rebirth
of existence.
Leonardo da Vinci's motto was persistent rigor, and all the classical works on the art of poetry tell us that the
creation of art is no easy matter. Cezanne's difficulties—like those of Balzac or Mallarme—are of a different nature. Balzac
(probably based on Delacroix's comments) imagined a painter who wants to express life through the use of color alone and
who keeps his masterpiece hidden. When Frenhofer dies, his friends find nothing but a chaos of colors and elusive lines, a
wall of painting. Cezanne was moved to tears When he read Le chef-d 'oeuvre inconnu and declared that he himself was
Frenhofer. The quest of Balzac, himself obsessed with "realization," sheds light on Cezanne's. In La peau de chagrin Balzac
speaks of "a thought to be expressed," "a system to be built," "a science to be explained." He makes Louis Lambert, one of
the abortive geniuses of the Comedie Humaine, say: "I am heading toward certain discoveries . . ., but how shall I describe
the power which binds my hands, stops my mouth, and drags me in the opposite direction from my vocation?" To say that
Balzac set himself to understand the society of his time is not sufficient. It is no superhuman task to describe the typical
traveling salesman, to "dissect the teaching profession," or even to lay the foundations of a sociology. Once he had named
the visible forces such as money and passion, once he had described the manifest workings of things, Balzac wondered where
it all led, what the impetus behind it was, what the meaning was of, for example, a Europe "whose efforts tend toward some
unknown mystery of civilization." In short, he wanted to understand what inner force holds the world together and causes the
proliferation of visible forms. Frenhofer had the same idea about the meaning of painting: "A hand is not simply part of the
body, but the expression and continuation of a thought which must be captured and conveyed.... That is the real struggle!
Many painters triumph instinctively, unaware of this theme of art. You draw a woman, but you do not see her." The artist is
the one who arrests the spectacle in which most men take part without really seeing it and who makes it visible to the most
"human" among them.
There is thus no art for pleasure's sake alone. One can invent pleasurable objects by linking old ideas in a new way
and by presenting forms that have been seen before. This way of painting or speaking "second hand" is what is generally
meant by culture. Cezanne's or Balzac's artist is not satisfied to be a cultured animal but takes up culture from its inception
and founds it anew: he speaks as the first man spoke and paints as if no one had ever painted before. What he expresses
cannot, therefore, be the translation of a clearly defined thought, since such clear thoughts are those that have already been
said within ourselves or by others. "Conception" cannot precede "execution." Before expression, there is nothing but a vague
fever, and only the work itself, completed and understood, will prove that there was something rather than nothing to be
found there. Because he has returned to the source of silent and solitary experience on which culture and the exchange of ideas
have been built in order to take cognizance of it, the artist launches his work just as a man once launched the first word, not
knowing whether it will be anything more than a shout, whether it can detach itself from the flow of individual life in which
it was born and give the independent existence of an identifiable meaning to the future of that same individual life, or to the
monads coexisting with it, or the open community of future monads. The meaning of what the artist is going to say does
not exist anywhere— not in things, which as yet have no meaning, nor in the artist himself, in his unformulated life. It
summons one away from the already constituted reason in which "cultured men" are content to shut themselves, toward a
reason which would embrace its own origins.
To Bernard's attempt to bring him back to human intelligence, Cezanne replied: "I am oriented toward the
intelligence of the Pater Omnipotens." He was, in any case, oriented toward the idea or project of an infinite Logos.
Cezanne's uncertainty and solitude are not essentially explained by his nervous temperament but by the purpose of his work.
Heredity may well have given him rich sensations, strong emotions, and a vague feeling of anguish or mystery which upset
the life he might have wished for himself and which cut him off from humanity; but these qualities cannot create a work of
art without the expressive act, and they have no bearing on the difficulties or the virtues of that act. Cezanne's difficulties are
those of the first word. He thought himself powerless because he was not omnipotent, because he was not God and wanted
nevertheless to portray the world, to change it completely into a spectacle, to make visible how the world touches us. A new
theory of physics can be proven because calculations connect the idea or meaning of it with standards of measurement already
common to all human beings. It is not enough for a painter like Cezanne, an artist, or a philosopher, to create and express
an idea; they must also awaken the experiences which will make their idea take root in the consciousness of others. If a work
is successful, it has the strange power of being self-teaching. The reader or spectator, by following the clues of the book or
painting, by establishing the concurring points of internal evidence and being brought up short when straying too far to the
left or right, guided by the con-fused clarity of style, will in the end find what was intended to be communicated. The painter
can do no more than construct an image; he must wait for this image to come to life for other people. When it does, the
work of art will have united these separate lives; it will no longer exist in only one of them like a stubborn dream or a
persistent delirium, nor will it exist only in space as a colored piece of canvas. It will dwell undivided in several minds, with
a claim on every possible mind like a perennial acquisition.
Thus, the "hereditary traits," the "influences"—the accidents in Cezanne's life—are the text which nature and history
gave him to decipher. They give only the literal meaning of his work. But an artist's creations, like a person's free decisions,
impose on this given a figurative sense which did not exist before them. If Cezanne's life seems to us to carry the seeds of
his work within it, it is because we get to know his work first and see the circumstances of his life through it, charging
them with a meaning borrowed from that work. If the givens for Cezanne which we have been enumerating, and which we
spoke of as pressing conditions, were to figure in the web of projects which he was, they could have done so only by
presenting themselves to him as what he had to live, leaving how to live it undetermined. An imposed theme at the start,
they become, when replaced in the existence of which they are part, the monogram and the symbol of a life which freely
interpreted itself.
But let us make no mistake about this freedom. Let us not imagine an abstract force which could superimpose its
effects on life's "givens" or cause breaches in life's development. Although it is certain that a person's life does not explain
his work, it is equally certain that the two are connected. The truth is that that work to be done called for that life. From the
very start, Cezanne's life found its only equilibrium by leaning on the work that was still in the future. His life was the
preliminary project of his future work. The work to come is hinted at, but it would be wrong to take these hints for causes,
although they do make a single adventure of his life and work. Here we are beyond causes and effects; both come together in
the simultaneity of an eternal Cezanne who is at the same time the formula of what he wanted to be and what he wanted to
do. There is a relationship between Cezanne's schizoid temperament and his work because the work reveals a metaphysical
meaning of his illness (schizothymia as the reduction of the world to the totality of frozen appearances and the suspension of
expressive values); because the illness thus ceases being an absurd fact and destiny to become a general possibility of human
existence confronting, in a consistent, principled way, one of its paradoxes—the phenomenon of expression—and because in
this to be schizoid and to be Cezanne are one and the same thing. It is therefore impossible to separate creative freedom from
that behavior, as far as possible from deliberate, already evident in Cezanne's first gestures as a child and in the way he
reacted to things. The meaning Cezanne gave to objects and faces in his paintings presented itself to him in the world as it
appeared to him. Cezanne simply released that meaning: it was the objects and the faces themselves as he saw them that
demanded to be painted, and Cezanne simply expressed what they wanted to say. How, then, can any freedom be involved?
True, the conditions of existence can only affect consciousness indirectly, through raisons d'etre and the justifications
consciousness offers to itself. We can only see before us, and in the form of goals, what it is that we are—so that our life
always has the form of a project or choice, and thus seems to us selfcaused. But to say that we are from the start our way of
aiming at a particular future would be to say that our project has already been determined with our first ways of being, that
the choice has already been made for us with our first breath. If we experience no external constraints, it is because we are
our whole exterior. That eternal Cezanne whom we see springing forth from the start and who then brought upon the human
Cezanne the events and influences deemed exterior, and who planned all that happened to the latter—that attitude toward
humanity and toward the world which was not chosen through deliberation—may be free from external causes, but is it free
in respect to itself? Is the choice not pushed back beyond life, and can a choice exist where there is as yet no clearly
articulated field of possibilities, only one probability and, as it were, only one temptation? If I am a certain project from
birth, the given and the created are indistinguishable in me, and it is therefore impossible to name a single gesture which is
merely hereditary or innate, a single gesture which is not spontaneous—but also impossible to name a single gesture which
is absolutely new in regard to that way of being in the world which, from the very beginning, is myself. There is no
between saying that our life is completely constructed and that it is completely given. If there is true freedom, it
can only come about in the course of our life by our going beyond our original situation and yet not ceasing to be the same.
Such is the problem. Two things are certain about freedom: that we are never determined and yet that we never change, since,
looking back on what we were, we can always find hints of what we have become. It is up to us to understand both these
things simultaneously, as well as the way freedom dawns in us without breaking our bonds with the world.
Such bonds are always there, even and above all when we refuse to admit they exist. Inspired by the paintings of da
Vinci, Valery described a monster of pure freedom, without mistresses, creditors, anecdotes, or adventures. No dream
intervenes between himself and the things themselves; nothing taken for granted supports his certainties; and he does not
read his fate in any favorite image, such as Pascal's abyss. Instead of struggling against the monsters he has understood what
makes them tick, has disarmed them by his attention, and has reduced them to the state of known things. "Nothing could be
more free, that is, less human, than his judgments on love and death. He hints at them in a few fragments from his
notebooks: 'In the full force of its passion,' he says more or less explicitly, 'love is something so ugly that the human race
would die out (la natura si perderebbe) if lovers could see what they were doing.' This contempt is brought out in various
sketches, since the leisurely examination of certain things is, after all, the height of scorn. Thus, he now and again draws
anatomical unions, frightful crosssections of love's very act."2 He has complete mastery of his means, he does what he
wants, going at will from knowledge to life with a superior elegance. Everything he did was done knowingly, and the artistic
process, like the act of breathing or living, is not beyond his ken. He has discovered the "central attitude," on the basis of
which it is equally possible to know, to act, and to create because action and life, when turned into exercises, are not
contrary to detached knowledge. He is an "intellectual power"; he is a "man of the mind."
Let us look more closely. For Leonardo there was no revelation; as Valery said, no abyss yawned at his right hand.
Undoubtedly true. But in Saint Anne, the Virgin, and Child, the Virgin's cloak suggests a vulture where it touches the face
of the Child. There is that fragment on the flight of birds where da Vinci suddenly interrupts himself to pursue a childhood
memory: "I seem to have been destined to be especially concerned with the vulture, for one of the first things I remember
about my childhood is how a vulture came to me when I was still in the cradle, forced open my mouth with its tail, and
struck me several times between the lips with it."3 So even this transparent consciousness has its enigma, whether truly a
child's memory or a fantasy of the grown man. It did not come out of nowhere, nor did it sustain itself alone. We are caught
in a secret history, in a forest of symbols. One would surely protest if Freud were to decipher the riddle from what we know
about the meaning of the flight of birds and about fellatio fantasies and their relation to the period of nursing. But it is still a
fact that to the ancient Egyptians the vulture was a symbol of maternity because they believed all vultures were female and
that they were impregnated by the wind. It is also a fact that the Church Fathers used this legend to refute, on the grounds of
natural history, those who were unwilling to believe in a virgin birth, and it is probable that Leonardo came across the
legend in the course of his endless reading. He found in it the symbol of his own fate: he was the illegitimate son of a rich
notary who married the noble Donna Albiera the very year Leonardo was born. Having no children by her, he took Leonardo
into his home when the boy was five. Thus Leonardo spent the first four years of his life with his mother, the deserted
peasant girl; he was a child without a father, and he got to know the world in the sole company of that unhappy mother who
seemed to have miraculously created him. If we now recall that he was never known to have a mistress or even to have felt
anything like passion; that he was accused—but acquitted—of sodomy; that his diary, which tells us nothing about many
other, larger expenses, notes with meticulous detail the costs of his mother's burial, as well as the cost of linen and clothing
for two of his students—it is no great leap to conclude that Leonardo loved only one woman, his mother, and that this love
left no room for anything but platonic tenderness he felt for the young boys surrounding him. In the four decisive years of
his childhood he had formed a fundamental attachment, which he had to give up when he was recalled to his father's home,
and into which he had poured all his resources of love and all his power of abandon. As for his thirst for life, he had no other
choice but to use it in the investigation and knowledge of the world, and, since he himself had been "detached," he had to
become that intellectual power, that man who was all mind, that stranger among men. Indifferent, incapable of any strong
indignation, love or hate, he left his paintings unfinished to devote his time to bizarre experiments; he became a person in
whom his contemporaries sensed a mystery. It was as if Leonardo had never quite grown up, as if all the places in his heart
had already been spoken for, as if the spirit of investigation was a way for him to escape from life, as if he had invested all
his power of assent in the first years of his life and had remained true to his childhood right to the end. His games were those
of a child. Vasari tells how "he made up a wax paste and, during his walks, he would model from it very delicate animals,
hollow and filled with air; when he breathed into them, they would fly; when the air had escaped, they would fall to the
ground. When the wine-grower from Belvedere found a very unusual lizard, Leonardo made wings for it out of skin of other
lizards and filled these wings with mercury so that they waved and quivered whenever the lizard moved; he likewise made
eyes, a beard, and horns for it in the same way, tamed it, put it in a box, and used the lizard to terrify his friends."4 He left
his work unfinished, just as his father had abandoned him. He paid no heed to authority and trusted only nature and his own
judgment in matters of knowledge, as is often the case with people who have not been raised in the shadow of a father's
intimidating and protective power. Thus even that pure power of examination, that solitude, that curiosity—which are the
essence of mind—only developed in da Vinci in relation to his personal history. At the height of his freedom he was, in that
very freedom, the child he had been; he was free on one side only because bound on the other. Becoming a pure
consciousness is just another way of taking a stand in relation to the world and other people. Leonardo had learned this
attitude in assuming the situation into which his birth and childhood had pout him. There can be no consciousness that is
not sustained by its primordial involvement in life and by the manner of this involvement.
Whatever is arbitrary in Freud's explanations cannot in this context discredit psychoanalytic intuition. True, the
reader is stopped more than once by the lack of evidence. Why this and not something else? The question seems all the more
pressing since Freud often offers several interpretations, each symptom being "over-determined" according to him. Finally, it
is obvious that a doctrine which brings in sexuality everywhere cannot, by the rules of inductive logic, establish its
effectiveness anvwhere, since, excluding all differential cases beforehand, it deprives itself of any counterevidence. This is
how one triumphs over psychoanalysis, but only on paper. For if the suggestions of the analyst can never be proven, neither
can they be eliminated: how would it be possible to credit chance with the complex correspondences which the
psychoanalyst discovers between the child and the adult? How can we deny that psychoanalysis has taught us to notice
echoes, allusions, repetitions from one moment of life to another—a concatenation we would not dream of doubting if Freud
had stated the theory correctly? Unlike the natural sciences, psychoanalysis was not meant to give us necessary relations of
cause and effect but to point to motivational relationships which are in principle simply possible. We should not take
Leonardo's fantasy of the vulture, or the infantile past which it masks, for a force which determined his future. Rather, it is
like the words of the oracle, an ambiguous symbol which applies in advance to several possible chains of events. To be
more precise: in every life, one's birth and one's past define categories or basic dimensions which do not impose any
particular act but which can be found in all. Whether Leonardo yielded to his childhood or whether he wished to flee from it,
he could never have been other than he was. The very decisions which transform us are always made in reference to a factual
situation; such a situation can of course be accepted or refused, but it cannot fail to give us our impetus nor to be for us, as
a situation "to be accepted" or "to be refused," the incarnation of the value we give to it. If it is the aim of psychoanalysis to
describe this exchange between future and past and to show how each life muses over riddles whose final meaning is nowhere
written down, then we have no right to demand inductive rigor from it. The psychoanalyst's hermeneutic musing, which
multiplies the communications between us and ourselves, which takes sexuality as the symbol of existence and existence as
symbol of sexuality, and which looks in the past for the meaning of the future and in the future for the meaning of the past,
is better suited than rigorous induction to the circular movement of our lives, where the future rests on the past, the past on
the future, and where everything symbolizes everything else. Psychoanalysis does not make freedom impossible; it teaches
us to think of this freedom concretely, as a creative revival of ourselves, always, in retrospect, faithful to ourselves.
Thus it is true both that the life of an author can teach us nothing and that—if we know how to interpret it—we
can find everything in it, since it opens onto his work. Just as we may observe the movements of an unknown animal
without understanding the law that inhabits and controls them, so Cezanne's observers did not divine the transmutations he
imposed on events and experiences; they were blind to his significance, to that glow from out of nowhere which surrounded
him from time to time. But he himself was never at the center of himself: nine days out of ten all he saw around him was
the wretchedness of his empirical life and of his unsuccessful attempts, the debris of an unknown celebrations Yet it was in
the world that he had to realize his freedom, with colors upon a canvas. It was from the approval of others that he had to
await the proof of his worth. That is why he questioned the picture emerging beneath his hand, why he hung on the glances
other people directed toward his canvas. That is why he never finished working. We never get away from our life. We never
see ideas or freedom face to face.

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