Sunday, 29 July 2012
The sky above, the earth around, the sea beneath have always provided us with things good to think with (Lévi-Strauss's choses bonnes à penser ) . Pansies are for thoughts, but so are the stars above, the creatures in the forest, the fish in the sea.
In pre-literate and pre-scientific societies, the natural world provides most of what there is to think with. The resemblance of a wild pansy to a pensive human face can set in train a whole chain of thoughts which, woven together with others, creates a vast network - a matrix, a structure, a cat's cradle - into which future thinking can or must be fitted in a process which Lévi-Strauss called bricolage - a term made so familiar by his work that it no longer needs to be translated.
The arrival of Books brings with it Peoples of the Book who no longer seek understanding from the skies above or the earth around but from their guiding Texts, their portable things to think with. Marxists scour the texts of Marx in no different a manner from religious scholars combing the Bible or the Qu'ran. All experience the satisfaction that their Texts can be made to yield things with which to think any and every situation.
Science goes against our nature in telling us to seek from nature not things which suit our ways of thinking but things which challenge them. Nature was not made for us to think with, though unless we have evolved to have some natural bent towards understanding it then we have no chance of understanding it at all ( a doctrine expressed most clearly by Charles Sanders Peirce). Science seeks to discipline our wild thinking, to tame the natural habitat of our thoughts in analogy and association, metaphor and metonymy, allegory and fable. Sometimes it succeeds.
For the artist (at least, the artist of the past) clay and marble, sound and silence, oil and watercolour are also things to think with. They are not - very definitely not - things with which we render concrete previously formulated thoughts. We run our materials through our hands, attend to them with an inner ear, judge them with our eyes and, in the context of the traditions (the media) to which we are heritors, wait for them to yield something which we could not have said in advance or been led to by contemplating the world of objects alone.
Pansies are for thought - but also for botanising and for painting.
(The cover illustration above is from the edition I read as a student in Paris, 1971 - 72, attending lectures by Lévi-Strauss later published as La Voie des Masques. I write about that book on my website www.selectedworks.co.uk under the title "The Way of the Masks")