‘Man shall not live by bread alone’, says Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Essentials are one thing, but they are not everything. Food to live on and sustenance alone are not enough – not enough for the wholeness of the human spirit. ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,’ This is problematic for a literalist, for where do we find God, that we might hear his words?
The issue is one of meaning. How do we convey meaning ourselves, and how do we interpret meaning arising from others – those who are verbally present to us, but also through non-verbal ways of present and past – especially in pictorial images and the written word?
I began reading an introductory chapter in a a book on Symbolist Art, a movement from the latter part of the nineteenth century. It had turned its back on the Impressionist movement that gave naturalistic depictions of places and nature in certain light conditions – merely. As captivating as such art seemed to be, it lacked anything more. It had captured a moment, and rendered it accurately, but what else? What else was there in those paintings?
Symbolists wanted to find a deeper language and they were able to tap into an older strand of artistic tradition whose paintings had layers upon layers of meaning – such as the paintings of the Renaissance. The ‘language’ of symbols which the Renaissance artists incorporated into their works, arose from a shared cultural-language of symbols that most people were conversant with. Thus a painting of white lilies beside a young woman was a pictorial symbol of her sexual purity and an indicator that the young woman was the Virgin Mary from the Christian tradition. In Renaissance paintings different strata of meaning could be conveyed through visual means.
This could also be conveyed in written form, in poetry, where the name and inclusion of a word could convey an expanse of meaning – through symbolism – by the briefest mention. A rose that had been picked could convey a young maiden’s virginity having been taken, as much as it could a description of a gardening activity.
Of course, for symbolism to work it requires a shared language arising from common knowledge. Some artists at the turn of the twentieth century wanted to retrieve the depths and richness of meaning that could be conveyed, but their ‘language’ now seemed like a foreign language, an unknown tongue. Another language had become commonplace – the child of the developing scientific world view. In this language, facts were predominant – descriptions of aspects of the world present to us. Facts were amazing, as those descriptions had never before been known with such accuracy or in such detail. And facts could not be contested: water was composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. No interpretations were necessary.
While scientific descriptions remain incredible feats of human knowledge, a problem has arisen when meaning is regarded as having worth only if it is a fact. The reduction of meaning to facts has the effect of levelling language:- it robs language of its voluptuousness and reduces it to an emaciated skeleton. The great symphony of meaning has been reduced to a monotone – a clear, sharp, pitch-perfect monotone, but a monotone none the less.
‘Man shall not live on bread alone’: the basics of life, even while they sustain us at one level – are not sufficient for the fullness of what it is to be human. ‘But by every word that comes from the mouth of God’: humans also need the intangible aspects of inspiration and transcendence – that which is conveyed to us by artists and poets, musicians and mystics – Beauty, which makes our hearts soar and sets our spirits free.
‘In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts.’ This was the principle on which the character Thomas Gradgrind educated his own children and others under his influence in Charles Dickens’ novel. But as the novel unfolds, it becomes apparent that facts alone imprison a vital and beautiful part of the human spirit. If we have only facts, we are indeed in Hard Times.
- Stanley Spencer: Visions from a Berkshire Village, by Duncan Robinson
- Symbolist Art, Edward Lucie-Smith, Thames and Hudson, 1972