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‘The Stuckness That Isn’t Exhaustion’: Beckett and Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘The Tetschener Altar’

By Richard Marshall.



[The Tetschner Alter]

The being in the street, when it happens in the room, the being in the room when it happens in the street, the turning to gaze from land to sea, from sea to land, the backs to one another and the eyes abandoning, the man alone trudging in sand, the man alone thinking (thinking!) in his box – these are characteristic notations having reference, I imagine, to processes less simple, and less delicious, than those to which the plastic vis is commonly reduced, and to a world where Tir-na-nogue makes no more sense than Bachelor’s Walk, nor Helen than the apple-woman, nor asses to men, nor Abel’s blood than Useful’s, nor morning than night, nor the inward than the outward search.’

[Samuel Beckett on ‘Tinker’s Encampment. The Blood of Abel ‘ by Jack B. Yeats.]

Try and walk in on the dark rooms of Caspar David Friedrich and Samuel Beckett, headway into the paradise space of ‘Two Men staring at the Moon’ and a few lingering reminiscences. Bon chance! There’s a barrier, like an inversion of the moonlit interior’s of Bunuel’s ‘The Exterminating Angel’. There the characters mysteriously can’t exit, here we can’t enter. What’s this stuckness about? I propose the strange necessary illusion of vagueness. Vagueness engenders the illusion of the sorites paradox. Beckett identifies it as his crux in ‘Endgame’: ‘“Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap. I can’t be punished any more.’ The old Greek problem of the heap – how many grains of sand make a heap? – leads to impasse. The transition looks like a zone of indeterminacy, a smeared threshold which itself is vague and therefore an infinite regress of higher order versions of the same. And hence the stuckness. It seems we must complete an infinite task in a finite time. In the Beckett quote the key word is ‘suddenly.’ The mystery is easily solved if we stick to simple everyday classical logic. There must be a particular grain that ‘suddenly’ makes the switch between non-heap and heap, and vice versa. So old Greek mystery is solved at one level and its mystery switches to: how come we don’t know which grain?

In all to be understood is the totality of voice, face, eyes, presence, dexterity, weight, violence, madness in whatever portion we can bear to find. Our stuckness is a kind of ignorance that bears down on near enough everything. Everywhere. I sketch an ecluse, a gate if you like, controlling a stretch of water in which barges change level. Friedrich’s and Beckett’s art is, suppose, a matter of switching levels like barges in a canal. They work at the suddenness of change where everything is seemingly stuck and the switching point genuinely unknown. Everything in them is a reevaluation. Darkness and storm are the elements. They are both Protestant after all, so their art is a version of humming ‘Now the Day is Over’ howled face-down in the mud, enjoining another exhausted metaphysics of impossible guff, asses to the unwiped sky. Both Friedrich’s paintings and Beckett’s theatrical objects are examples of deep sympathies between hymnals ‘Lead Kindly Light’ and ‘Rock of Ages’ and across these to the impossibility of knowing the first day of redemption, death, birth, spring, winter and damnation. Both are tireless. Their attitude towards the unknowability is a mix of comedy and the overwrought, in other words, baggy life in all its sweats, rather than perfumed exhaustion. Life is endured as a borderline, a threshold, as Killeney Strand shingle and dune imagined by Beckett between Dublin and 6 Rue des Favorites in 1948:

‘the way is in the sand flowing/between the shingle and the dune/the summer rain rains on my life/on me my life harrying fleeing/to its beginning to its end/my peace is there in the receding mist/when I may cease from treading these long shifting/thresholds/and live the space of a door/that opens and shuts.’

Also known as ‘The Cross On the Mountains’, Caspar David Friedrich had been working on his ‘Tetschener Alter’ throughout 1808. It was his first oil done in his own studio in Dresden. Presented in a darkened room, the painting on a table draped with black cloth within a frame by Gottlob Christian Kuhn of Eucharist signs of bread and wine, ‘The Tetschener Altar’ is a strange and discomforting performance. You can see emerging the beginnings of the great adventure you see in some paintings, an imploring reach to grasp something not secured, not yet given up, the stuckness that isn’t exhaustion but more, as Beckett has it, ‘fidelity to the prison house’ and ‘the afterbirth of the unfeasible.’ An essential vague threshold.

Friedrich Wilhelm Basilius von Ramdohr’s acerbic review in January 1809 listed its problems. One complaint was that the religious intentions were unclear. Another was that the painting failed ‘… to use the landscape as an allegory of a particular religious idea, or even as a call to worship…’ He saw it as an ‘… arrant presumption for a landscape painting to try and insinuate itself into our churches and crawl up onto our alters.’ For the astute Ramdohr the painting denies what he presumed to be the usual conventions of Christianity’s mystical attitude to nature. These aspects then – the religious ambiguity and the mishandling of landscape – have been the terms of ensuing critical responses to Friedrich’s work ever since. Au contraire, I see it in terms of a dodging whilst the hunt goes on. A rubbing against the furniture out of fear of being abandoned by all of it.

In a letter to Duthuit in 1949 Beckett writes: ‘ What Vigny says about contempt I would gladly say about this world, or this state, if you like, of which I can still only catch a glimpse, for a lifetime is not too long for us to get used to that darkness…’ And of some other painting: ‘ Because of that necessity of genius where he finds himself, to recognize, in his hole, even as he obstinately seeks to pull himself out of it, the freedom, the high places, the light and the only gods that concern him, and that there is no escape other than partial, and even then only towards mutilation.’ The artist in her hole with just partial escape, mutilation, as if in a mantrap where release leaves behind body parts. The solution of course is to cease; ‘What if we simply stopped altogether having erections? As in life. Enough sperm floating about the place.’ In ‘Disjecta’ he writes : ‘ I propose, as rough principle of individuation in this essay, the degree in which the younger Irish poets evince awareness of the new thing that has happened, or the old thing that has happened again, namely the breakdown of the object, whether current, historical, mythical or spook…The artist who is aware of this may state the space that intervenes between him and the world of objects; he may state it as no-man’s land, Hellspont or vacuum, according as he happens to be feeling resentful, nostalgic or merely depressed.’

Friedrich paints into this ‘…breakdown of the object, whether current, historical, mythical or spook…’ and his landscapes are peculiarly that ‘no-man’s land’, zones of silence, fields of non-movement, where he literally paints the void that has opened up, or closed down. Beckett in the same letter closes with this: ‘ Anything that lessens me, starting with my precious memories makes access to it easier. I shall be running no risks by living in it – I shall hardly have time to be born in it. And no doubt it will be at that birth that, at last, the work will have to stop. That way one can see a little better what has to be done, and by what means. It will be boundary work, passage work, in which as a result the old rubbish can still be of some use, while the dying is going on. A long, slow fading. One ceases. But with the help, all the same, of another being who, if he is never to find expression (and who knows?), is nonetheless heavily involved in… the business’ Friedrich’s work is exactly that ‘boundary work, passage work’, Hellespont or vacuum you takes your pick, a weird existential agnosticism that can only know scant and lonely epistemological remorse.

What makes the painting disturbing? Ramdohr points to deficiencies of it as landscape: its landscape forms are neither varied nor harmonious enough. It flouts the ‘rules of optics’, lacking the usual linear perspective nor expected pictorial layers leading the eye to the distance. There are no atmospheric effects. There is no clear standpoint for the viewer. Friedrich has ‘… positively and deliberately…’ broken the rules of landscape painting:

‘He has filled the entire ground of his painting with a single mountain peak – like a cone – with no noticeable indication of different planes. He has done away with any form of a real perspective, nay worse of all, he has cloaked the earth in darkness and, in doing so, has shunned all the propitious effects that the influx of light can provide.’ The lack of nuancing light and absence of perspective reduces the spatial and 3-D effect of the composition so that the mountain peak solid rock is ‘flat and unrounded.’

To make matters worse, the pictorial structure and composition is wholly orientated towards the picture plane. ‘The main motifs of the painting are placed so exactly on the canvas that they coincide with the lines that would define its golden section . Thus one of the verticals that would divide the painting laterally according to the golden section coincides with the upright of the crucifix.’ Its symmetries connect other details. The tip of highest bank of clouds lies on central axis. The second lower bank relates to the cross framed by firs presented symmetrically as being of almost the same height. Further symmetries emerge of the sunray rising vertically with four others fanning out beside it. All this accentuates the planitarity nature of the painting. Dividing lines refer to the surface of the picture plane and not its depth. The painting refused the landscape conceit of allowing the viewer to determine her own relationship to the landscape depicted within it. Contemporaries were used to being able to ‘enter’ a landscape. Friedrich was refusing them entry. He was continually drawing attention to a relationship between the pictorial structure and the picture plane. He denied the ability of landscape to transport the viewer to faraway places. Georg Sulzer (1720 – 1779) summarises this idea:

‘In its drawing and colours everything must be so natural that the eye is fully deceived and believes it is contemplating a real landscape, not a painted image; the viewer must feel warmth and cold, air that is fresh, invigorating or oppressive; the chattering stream, the rushing river must not only be visible, they must also seem to be audible; the hard stony ground and the soft mosses must be palpable from afar; in short, every object – depending on its distance and lighting – must be drawn and painted in such a way that it is not merely recognizable to the eye, for all the other sense must confirm that they also perceive it, exactly as in nature.’

Carl Ludwig Fernow (1763 – 1808) said that landscape painting allowed the viewer to ‘participate’ in it to a greater degree than, say, a history painting, ‘… to walk for themselves into the terrain , to wander through its delightful realms, to rest in its cool shade. We are no longer mere beholders; we ourselves occupy the natural scene we see before us.’ The aesthetic divide between pictorial space and real space is to be deftly removed.

Friedrich works against this. The viewer’s viewpoint is indeterminate. There is no place to enter. No detail invites the viewer to imagine tactile qualities of the scene. Rather she is continually reminded that she’s looking at a picture. The massive elaborate frame also detracts from any illusion. Rather than setting down forms he’s freeing us from them. He wrote that:

‘Any kind of illusion has a repugnant effect, like any deception. For instance, wax figures are always repellant the more deceptive they are. A painting must stand as a painting, made by a human hand; not seek to disguise itself as nature.’ He aggressively pursued this anti-panorama anti-illusionist view. Art that placed viewers in the landscape and disguised the fact that it was just a picture were rejected.

The refusal of the painting genre was joined by a fundamentally vague religious motif. Dethuit, writing to Beckett, closes in on what’s going on:

‘On the edge of this void stands a sign, a value just set there that offers a key to it, opens it up, breathes life into it.’ The life is a viper’s nest of infinite space and blankness, a light touch of discrete intensity, a sign of Vigny’s ‘… higher glorious minds/Ever disdain you, meet their contempt with contempt.’

So now the representation of the cross is ambivalent. For Friedrich the cross was more than just a pictorial motif. It’s the Christian image tainted by scandal and paradox being tainted again. Here there’s the benefit of being plural whilst remaining unique. Friedrich turns it away from the immediate visible without that in itself being of particular importance yet it remains a term of relation. In the picture, although on top of the mountain, the Christ figure is clearly metal sculpture and facing away from the viewer. By presenting the figure of Christ as merely a metal sculpture he signifies the presence of the human hand and not directly Christ. Literally, as Beckett would have it, ‘Instead of being in front of the precipitants he is in front of the precipitates.’ The fact that so much is not known is in fact the inner dereliction that the picture – if that’s what it is – can be played out satisfactorily. Our not clearing up obscurities becomes the indispensible stance to take before this art and its Reformist theological search.

The landscape and the cross show what appears immediately and repeatedly to elude the viewer’s grasp. The relation is that of the self to the I. It is a greedy effulgence confirming existence in a sort of bursting of visions, all of them hire-purchase. It is a representation that proposes the refusal of representation, a visual equivalence of the liar paradox that claims, in one version, ‘This is not a sentence’. The Christ figure is turned away from the viewer. The painting is without a path towards it. It is a landscape without any other means of entering it except by it being a picture. ‘The rigid composition, oriented exclusively towards the picture plane, serves as a constant reminder that the sight of this landscape is only communicated by means of a picture, thereby defeating any attempt by the recipient to even imagine entering the landscape.’ At the same moment and by the same means that we are invited to respond to it as a representation, that very invitation is withdrawn.

God’s presence can’t be simply pictured as an alterpiece. Here lies part of the strangeness of the painting, an easel shaken by a mistral vomiting a whole being. Christ is visible without being attainable. By appearing he is also absent – the ‘phenomenon of a distance no matter how close it may be’ creates the idea that whatever an illusion presents is not there. Beckett writes about another painting, not Friedrich’s: ‘ His painting is, if you will, the impossibility of reconnecting. There is, if you like, refusal and refusal to accept refusal. That perhaps is what makes this painting possible.’

Friedrich responded to his critics and their discomfort:

‘ The painting certainly has a meaning…And it is certainly the intention that Jesus Christ, nailed to the wood, here faces towards the setting sun, as the image of the eternal, all-quickening Father. Jesus’ teaching saw the death of an old world, a time when God the Father walked directly on Earth, when he said to Cain, why art thou wroth, and why is they countenance fallen? When he handed down the commandments on tablets in thunder and lightening, when he spoke to Abraham and said Put off thy shoes from off they feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. That sun sank down, and the Earth could no longer hold fast to the departing light. Hewn from the purest, most noble metal, the Saviour on the Cross gleams in the gold of red evening sky, and reflects, more mildly, its brightness upon the Earth. The Cross is raised high on a rock, solid and immutable, like our faith in Jesus Christ. And everlasting green, for all time, the firs encircle the cross, like our hope in Him, the crucified.’

In Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews we read: ‘ God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets , Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom he also made the worlds; Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the majesty on high.’

Opposing celestial fecundity with earthly disasters, our lives without rule, scandal and terror, the indisposal of erection without release flickers in a terror of being very much worse for wear, like transcendentalism in worn slippers. There’s a wretched worn downess here that hits below the belt, as truth be told , all art should in all calamity.

For Friedrich the Incarnation is the moment when God the Creator hides himself away. Thus the appearance of the Christ Redeemer is also the withdrawal of the Creator. This image is communicated directly by the setting sun, the Christ turned away from the viewer and the constant reminder that this is just a picture not an anointing of presence. In his painting of Goethe’s ‘The Shepherd’s Lament’ the same emphasis on the pictorial plane is developed for the same reason. There’s a strict symmetry between the shepherd figure with the tree and the arc of the rainbow connecting the two. In fact there are multiple symmetries: tree and shepherd, rainbow and hillside fix the viewpoint of the viewer rigidly. They preclude all attempts to see the landscape from any different viewpoint. He shows the limits of the picture plane ‘… which alone makes the symmetrical arrangement of the painting’s motif’s possible,’ according to Johannes Grave. From then on Friedrich maintains this anti-illusionist stance for the rest of his life.

The theology is a matter of looking back into a relation that has passed. And the impossibility of painting such a thing, a lack now of any relation at all but in the painting done so that it looks as if we’re being put into relation with the impossibility of the lack of all relations. For a lack of relation with God is the lack of relation with everything (God being infinite being etc etc) – so now what are we seeing? What is present? Perhaps it would have been better to leave the canvas blank (‘no more erections’ etc). Maybe what Friedrich does is submit to the compulsion to splash around paint, dab a little extensibility, compressibility, measurability to make the extremities bearable (Beckett’s ‘enough sperm floating about…’).

Is the theology he employs a proto-typical Barthian Protestant theology? In particular was he denying the possibility of any sort of natural theology whereby humans understand God outside of faith and scripture? In such thinking;

‘… the image of God is not just, as it is said, destroyed apart from a few relics; it is completely annihilated. What remains of the image of God even in sinful man is recta natura, to which as such a rectitude cannot be ascribed even potentialiter. No matter how it may be with his humanity and personality, man has completely lost the capacity for God… The reconciliation of man with God in Christ also includes, or already begins with, the restitution of the lost point of contact. Hence this point of contact is not real outside faith; it is real only in faith.’

Barth worked to insist that Protestant theology must return to the iconoclasm of the Reformers: ‘If we wish to maintain the reformer’s position over against that of Roman Catholicism and Neo-Protestantism, we are not in a position today to repeat the statements of Luther and Calvin without at the same time making them more pointed than they themselves did.’

Who is the theologic subject in all this? For Epicureans and Stoics we weren’t selves: Epicureans understood us as aggregates, and that everything that was possible happened somewhere. They believed everything we imagined – even the Gods – was real. If there were Gods they had nothing to do with our providence however. Stoics understood us as segments of a continuous whole and that what didn’t happen anywhere was impossible. Everything was animated by a single divine principle and everything would repeat itself everlastingly. Cicero writes: ‘Man himself has come to be in order to contemplate and imitate the world, being by no means perfect, but a tiny constituent of that which is perfect.’ The divine principle was providential and worked in every moment, being repeated for eternity, giving full value to silences regarding ourselves.

The Gods are withdrawn from our interests and perspectives. They see without perspective. Why suppose otherwise? The world is a prison, a nightmare. There are glories and signs of future glory to come if Christian. It’s the place of return if Pagan. Porphyry writes: ‘Plotinus recognized truths which we, whether we will or not, must call revelations, which are entirely strange to the modern consciousness and even excite the highest degree of indignation. And now the main point: when Plotinus had to decide between ‘revealed’ and ‘natural’ truths, he unhesitatingly took the side of the former; that which appears most real to common consciousness has the least existence.’ Stephen R.L. Clark writes: ‘Hesiod was not wrong to suppose that all things arose from Emptiness, from the ‘non-existent One’ of Egypt, for the origin of all things wasn’t itself a ‘thing.’

Empodocles wrote: ‘Even before this coming to be we were there, men who were different, and some of us even gods, pure souls and intellect united with the whole of reality; we were parts of the intelligible, not marked off or cut off but belonging to the whole; and we are not cut off even now.’ (Plotinus). Our exile is not entirely a mistake. We seek to help the Great God Spirit to create a lovely image of eternity but forget at our peril that this is not just our world.

Says Plotinus: ‘It is like a choral dance: in the order of its singing the choir keeps round its conductor but may sometimes turn away so that he is out of their sight, but when it turns back to him it sings beautifully and is truly with him; so we are always around him – and if we are not, we should be totally dissolved and no longer exist – but not always turned towards him; but when we do look to him, then we are at our goal and at rest and do not sing out of tune as we truly dance our god-inspired dance around him.’ From these NeoPlatonic origins and baffling images the monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam developed. The idea of the unknowable Power forces the human mind to work to complete an understanding of its situation. The withdrawn God both condemns us to dark ignorance and augers the enlightening of the natural mind to see through that dark.

Barth’s Protestant theology underestimates this latter natural knowledge of God and His works. Barth was formulating his position in the context of Christians accommodating Nazism and a theological drift towards existentialism, philosophy and science. But it betrays his own Protestant Reformism. Calvin speaks of three forms of knowledge of God: ‘ a corrupt, partial and extra biblical knowledge of God as creator, a biblical knowledge of God as creator, and a knowledge of God in Christ as redeemer.’ Calvin makes a distinction between God as creator and God as redeemer. He writes: ‘ There are innumerable evidences both in heaven and on earth that declares his wonderful wisdom; not only those more recondite matters for the closer observation of which astronomy, medicine, and all natural science are intended, but also those that thrust themselves upon the sight of even the most untutored and ignorant persons.’

‘For God has not given obscure hints of his glory in his handiwork of the world, but has engraved such plain marks everywhere, that they can be known also by touch by the blind. From that we gather that men are not only blind but stupid, when they are helped by such very clear proofs, but derive no benefit from them.’ Calvin celebrates Galen: ‘ Certain philosophers, accordingly, long ago not ineptly called man a microcosm because he is a rare example of God’s power, goodness, and wisdom, and contains within himself enough miracles to occupy our minds, if only were are not irked at paying attention to them.’

‘God is in himself invisible; but his majesty shines forth in his works and in his creatures everywhere, men ought in these to acknowledge him…. He does not mention all the particulars which may be thought to belong to god; but he states , that we can arrive at the knowledge of his eternal power and divinity, for he who is the framer of all things, must necessarily be without beginning and from himself.’ It is as if the many devastations could not stop the return of reason, a magician bringing a smile amidst ruins.

For Calvin God is knowable, but not clearly. So: ‘ It appears that if men were taught only by nature, they would hold nothing certain or solid or clear-cut, but would be so tied to confused principles as to worship an unknown God.’ And: ‘ … the manifestation of God by which he makes his glory known among his creatures is sufficiently clear as far as its own light is concerned. It is, however, inadequate on account of our blindness. But we are not so blind that we can plead ignorance without being convicted of perversity.’

Calvin’s position is thus not Barth’s. Calvin’s two facets of knowledge of God are creatoris et redemptoris – Christ is both the Creative Word and the Redemptive Word, where for Barth Christ is just Redeemer. Calvin’s more abundant theology feeds into Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. The Redeeming Christ is immersed in the creative world but is obscured and unclear. The viewer has nowhere to place herself and cannot enter the view. The fiercely protected picture plane refuses encroachment. Yet it isn’t a picture of total despair, of total refusal to find meaning and meaningfulness’s redemption. The creative word is still present, though withdrawn and impossible to enter. The later Barthean Protestant position that totally refuses access to the creative word – throwing believers into a total blind faith – is not here. The sharpness of Barth’s distinction between nature and revelation is refused, but subtly. There is a view but it’s crooked, to appropriate Emily Dickenson crookedly.

Post-Barthean theology has attempted to refuse Barth by objecting that no argument can result in the proof of God’s existence, on the grounds that God is ‘properly basic’. This approach interests Friedrich no more than a Barthean Reformed position would. Theistic argument of this nature refuses his understanding of God and the world as strange, beautiful and ungraspable save for fragments, hints, and the command to reflect on existence and nature in earnest. Friedrich attributes to Isaiah what was actually Moses in the passage quoted above, but it is telling that it was Isaiah who was on his mind, the Isaiah who invites humans to philosophy and science: ‘ Know you not? Hear you not? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood the foundation of the earth?’

The theology of Friedrich is pre-modern and pre-modern Reformed Protestant theology also. It also disturbs the humanist turn which assumes that a Providential Creator that cares for every sparrow that falls is somehow working through a project that we can understand. Gods aren’t people. And in this context we are sparrows. We fall. What befalls us is often horrible. That we can reason and properly attend with distaste to both deliberate cruelty and random acts of horror, plus natural decay, death, disease, is what we are enjoined to do. But ignorance of any providential plan is clearly the default state of the believer. Meaning is at best barely glimpsed. As we approach it, it begins to disappear. As we withdraw it again grows, but obscurely, as hard to pick out as if on one of Friedrich’s mountain peaks. Contemporary philosopher Michael Ruse speaks from a later sensibility infected with new anxieties many feel closer to when he writes : “I am with the character in ‘The Brothers Karamozov’ who simply says that salvation is not worth the suffering of one small child. For me, Anne Frank’s death in Bergen-Belsen was the end of matters.’ But how could he know the suffering is not worth it?

Friedrich’s mind works with this older anxiety. Assume the fact of Deathless Ones, as the Pagans put it, then they will be capable of unspeakable, unthinkable things. From this perspective, what does it matter whether we approve or not of them, what we understand, or if we choose to reject promises and guarantees without proof? The pitiless indifference of Deathless ones is the core anxiety. Of course we more up to date Moderns don’t believe there are Deathless Ones of any stripe. But what we are rejecting must encompass Deathless Ones that are inhuman by definition and don’t make sense. Atheists like Dostoevsky’s character and Ruse tend to reject only non-existent human-like Deathless Ones and don’t address these more enigmatic, unknowable non-existent versions.

The scale of this brings us to Friedrich’s picture again and ramps up the enormity of what he’s doing. It explains his contemporary Goethe’s reactions. Goethe was for a time a champion of Friedrich but then his ardor cooled as he recognized a fundamental difference in their positions. Goethe withdrew, disturbed by the strange trajectory of the paintings. The anxiety of Friedrich is that we are in the wrong sort of world for epistemological clarity. Goethe’s more modern anxiety, like Ruse’s, is that we are not.

What does the picture depict? A belief in the possibility and impossibility of knowledge of God. His belief in this possibility is independent of the truth of either disjunct. Being a picture, the painting is a species of the diagrammatical. Historically, pictures have been allowed to play a role in belief formation and expression. His painting presents us with a representation of which he then claims several features. It is a discovered and faithfully represented impossibility, portrayed accurately. It is an impossible object but not in the sense of a divisible contradiction where possible parts combine into an impossible whole, as in a Penrose triangle. We remind ourselves of Beckett’s lines quoted earlier: ‘ There is, if you like, refusal and refusal to accept refusal.’ And in the same letter he continues: ‘ But still, life goes on. But with such density, that is, simplicity, of being, that only eruption can get the better of it, give it movement, by forcing everything upwards in one single mass.’ It works itself out as a sequence of secret, unknowable relations and the artist is merely fighting not to look ridiculous, no less than une bitte dans les miches.

Friedrich is presenting us with the limit of what a picture can be. We can ask: what are we seeing? We can only see whatever counts as seeing it! What counts? Is the painting a picture at all? Or rather, does the painting have a picture in it? Or rather, is there a painting there at all? The agenda is set by ostensively asking: ‘What is that?’ Our visual systems are compulsive. After all, we are designed to see at night as well as in daylight. Even in darkness our visual system strains to identify hidden objects. So as a reflex we assume this, here before us is a picture. But Friedrich has created an impossible object which, despite our compulsion, denies this judgment.

His impossibility is better, because obscured, than those later versions of Ernst , Escher , Uribe , Mandelbrot and Hoffman et al. Friedrich is like an actor-painter, using a colour spectrum as his impossible object in its usual familiar and acceptable way of classifying. In language a contradictory statement can be grammatical and therefore meaningful, but still necessarily false. Chomsky makes this point. ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’ is perfectly grammatical and violates semantic rules. Hume’s theory of mind, his Theory of Ideas, was thought to be constrained by the impossibility of forming the idea of impossible things, such as mountains without valleys .

But thinking a thing and it being possible are different. Or so claim some philosophers. The mountain without a valley may be an impossible object but the sentence represents its logical impossibility well. It is necessarily false and an assertion of its existence is also false because the world is not something that can be self-contradictory. The Moorean sentence that so intrigued Wittgenstein in 1942 is both grammatical and semantically consistent. ‘I went to the cinema on Friday but I don’t believe I did’ is possibly true but impossible to assert. The unassertabilty derives from the assertability conditions of Gricean implicature whereby although ‘…some maxim is violated at the level of what is said, the hearer is entitled to assume that maxim… is observed at the level of what is implicated’. Although the semantics of the sentence are logically consistent, what such an assertion implies is that there is a hidden contradiction of belief.

Caspar David Friedrich’s object, and Beckett’s plays, are kinds of supertask of the sort written about by Laraudogoitia and imagined by James F. Thomson with his puzzle of the Thomson’s lamp of 1954-55. His painting imagines a task for the viewer that requires a quantifiable infinite number of operations occurring sequentially within a finite period. We switch between just two positions, the vertical and the horizontal on the pictorial plane, seeking the 3rd dimension. This becomes the state of bewilderment before the infinite. We confront the canvass. It is indeterminate what position we’re in at the end , and indeterminate whether whether anything remains of value. What is required to see the picture is contradictory – an infinite task in a finite time period and so the painting is an impossible object.

That would be to foreclose the way out: the end of an infinite series does not have to share properties of the series previous to its completion. For example, the decimal expression of 1/3 is 0.33333…, which is a number less than 1/3. But the end of the series is precisely 1/3 . The theological proposition encountered in diagrammatical form in Friedrich’s alterpiece painting may similarly be likened to a visual representation of a false impossible object such as the decimal expression of 1/3. After all, all flesh is not the same flesh, so also the resurrection of the dead sowed in corruption raised in incorrupton, to mimic Paul in Corinthians somewhere.

But Friedrich’s painting assumes that the epistemological supertask of actually perceiving the painting qua painting is restricted to the domain of possible psychology. Psychologies are hard wired to assume that the state of the system is a logical consequence of states it has been in before, that properties shared by the partial sums of a series are shared by the limit of those sums and that properties shared by a succession are shared by the limit even if they are a priori false. The Trinity may be conceived as an epistemological object that is not intrinsically impossible but is one that has to be conceived as such by intentionality of any sort. This imports its quality of absolutely unknowable thresholds. Trinitarian theology on this reading is paradoxical but not because of any inherent inconsistency in the notion of a Trinitarian view of the Divine per se. It is paradoxical in the way Moorean sentences are.

Friederich’s impossible painting of the mystery of Reformation theology exists, just as atomic peril exists. The painting has features that show the feature of Reformation theology that proposes an absence of any fact that would grasp its truth. The perceived absence of a natural limit to grasping runs aground on the beach-head principle that all propositions in natural language are necessarily bivalent. We are shown a relation in a single object that is being transported out of existence and reappearing elsewhere at the same time and place. This contradicts, among other junk, the principle of permanence. The principle of continuity requires that there is a precise position for every object. It seems physically impossible. This is the conundrum represented in the painting.

In the novel ‘Tristam Shandy’ the diarist hero is involved in a similar nightmare from the vale of health: it takes him a year to write an account of each day in his life: as a mortal his task will never be completed. As God lives forever he completes the same task.  Every day of his life is completed because there will be a year that corresponds with each day. Being God nothing is potential. Therefore everything is already written. The point is that Tristam Shandy, unlike God, is an impossible object embedding an illusion. Escher’s picture ‘The Waterfall’ is an example of an illustration of an impossible object. Ordinary onlookers see the picture as giving contradictory evidence of perspective simultaneously. The result is that the onlooker is perpetually baffled by the picture. The perplexing nature of the illusion continues even after it has been explained. The illusion is resistant to cognition. This contradicts people who think that once an inconsistency is understood as such it can’t be believed, contradicts thinking that belief can only be in non-empty possible worlds. Roy Sorensen argues that to mistakenly believe that it is impossible to believe the impossible would itself be a belief in an impossibility .

The painter Breughel the Elder painted an impossible gallows on which sits a magpie. Los de Mey has a painting of two Breughel-like peasant characters running towards a large impossible arch of stone. Marcel Duchamp’s’ ‘Apollinaire Enameled’ depicts a little girl enameling an impossible bed. There are whole websites devoted to illustrations of impossible objects. In music too there are impossible objects. Roger Shepherd has created an ever-rising tone.  Diana Deutsche creates auditory illusions and paradoxes. There are impossible mathematical objects. Roger Penrose’s triangle depicts a triangle with three right angles.

Friedrich’s Impossibility is a condition of a priori inconsistency. This strikes us as being more peculiar than a posteriori inconsistency because we are less likely to patrol them than the latter. Inconsistency is familiar and inconvenient at times. Sometimes it isn’t noticed. The world isn’t inconsistent because world’s aren’t things that can be inconsistent. Neither is language. ‘Language is unopinionated’ says Sorensen. Inconsistency is therefore a feature of representation. Friedrich works against his own painterly eye’s reflexes, the painterly eyes of aestheticism. It is a painting reduced to its own means, without time, without speech and acting, no drama and embellishments, a puritan directness. It speaks the language of Godot’s theatre. There Beckett is explicit:

‘That is Protestantism if you like, we are what we are. The setting has to come out of the text, without adding to it. … In ‘Godot’ it is a sky that is sky only in name, a tree that makes them wonder whether it is one, tiny and shrivelled. I should like to see it set up any old how, sordidly abstract as nature is, for the Estragons and Vladimirs, a place of suffering, sweaty and fishy, where sometimes a turnip grows, or a ditch opens up.’ And in case we don’t get it: ‘Nothing, it expresses nothing, it is an opaque no one bothers to question anymore. Any formal specificity becomes impossible.’ There is something speaking to this in Friedrich’s painting, as if what it seems is that we have a sky, a mountain, a cross, a metal Christ – apparently. A set of diagrammaticals, sans labels, inveighing against both meaning and the world, a spectacle without place, something that inaugurates picturing after the fact.

Our ragbag of old stratified reflexes subject us to haphazard and stubborn illusions that evolve from a dirty slate from pre-existing shit. Gary Marcus argues that the mind is a cobbled together Kluge. Undirected evolutionary principles leave us jealous of Satan and his everlasting torments. These cognitive systems are impenetrable aphorisms like our damned litigious moral systems that shut their knees to pricks of reason. Friedrich plays with our automatic and manual responses. An automatic setting for the human brain is Kantian, deontological, rule bound. The manual setting is utilitarian, consequentialist. Emotionalism links to the automatic settings. Cognitivism is linked to the manual. The visual systems work separately to deliver competing, contradictory conclusions. imagine that the colour spectrum is being processed by competing homunculi, each concluding their different tasks. Imagine the meaningfulness of the theology is processed deontologically, but against it are emotional, pragmatic, consequentialist terms of assessment that grind out a different set of perversions. Imagine the case of Friedrich’s landscaping, where part of the mind tries to make sense of the perception of the whole canvas as mountain, cross, sky etc – and another part is tasked to register at the micro level and sees just the paint and the canvas. The two messages conclude that there is both picture and no picture. There is no coordinator and so the mind is permanently left thinking contradiction. The perception is therefore one that sees both transition and no transition, a permanent unsayable, a permanent unseeable, an immense lingering dormitory.

Being reflexes, this perception is persistent even after the problem is explained. Explaining is not ‘explaining away’ because there is nothing to remove the a priori working of the mind that is structuring the perception. Being reflexes of our thought they are examples of a priori belief in contradictions. If we accept a priori thoughts then there are good reasons for believing in a priori contradictions.

In Beckett of course the illusion is linguistic alongside the visual and dramatic. The homunculus working out the best grammar to understand sentences will not always be coordinated with each other due to the accidental, ad hoc nature of evolutionary design. As with perception he works to expose or cohabit our inevitable linguistic a priori illusions caused by linguistic homunculi failing to coordinate. Our toleration of systematic cognitive and linguistic inconsistency is where he wheels his barrow. No animal camouflages itself using inconsistency dissonances but the artist is beating about the bush, a species of pervert who plays with more than emblems in an amorphous twilight. Whereby we are prone to round off in the same way pocket calculators round off 1 divided by 3 to a number less than a third, Friedrich and Beckett take this usually undetected and harmless psychological heuristic and translate its sources of inconsistency. By raising the stakes mere inconvenience becomes grave. If we see theology or divine thanatos, abstractions and symbols, then this is again a matter of reflexes that are both inevitable but a guarantee of nothing. Neither expressionism nor symbolism makes reason in the play nor the picture, if play and picture they survive to be. ‘Time that stands still, that skips over whole lives, space no easier to cross than the head of a pin, these perhaps are the true false gods of the play, if it absolutely has to have some,’ says Beckett of Godot.

Words and false gods appear to us as if only perceived or perceivable meanings are believable. The principle gives the illusion that knowability is part of its meaning. From this viewpoint, unknowability is often understood as a species of meaninglessness. Incomplete criteria and incomplete meanings are meaningless because they are beyond our knowledge. In this way meaninglessness does seem to track accurately enough an absolute borderline case. But it misrepresents it too through lost distinctions i.e. between ‘ Is Friedrich’s alter-painting a painting?’ and ‘Za za gazoo boo!’

Beckett’s characters refuse to think their language matures through use. Not for them the idea that meaning grows into vague language so that the potential for meaningless is mitigated by language users working it into sense over time. Friedrich’s Reformist theology denies that this maturation theory of language can accommodate classical logic, and that the theory is disingenuous even when they argue that ‘God is here’ is meaningless but ‘God is either here or not’ is true. It’s an approach that mishandles precisification ordering and the complexity of truth. Truth-values in classical logic require to be applied after we are clear what proposition is being asserted. Maturationists propose to do it before via a type of intra-subjective hermeneutical ballet.

Friedrich and Beckett settle on vagueness and its indeterminacy as resulting from an insurmountable ignorance. The Reformist theology of Friederich’s painting stands as a sign of value inside the void of his pantings(sic Paintings!). The performances represents our absolute ignorance rather than any absolute indeterminacy inherent in our systems of language and thought or even the world. When faced with indeterminacy in Beckett and Friedrich it’s because there is something that we don’t and can’t know. Others, famously Derrida, assume the indeterminacy is not because there’s something we don’t know. To do so is to deny the relevance of the half-lit, of ill perspectives and attentiveness.

Once we assume we are constantly in debt to a false sense of unity it is inevitable that to be an artist is to try and push through to the other side of the mistake. A herring gull has a reflex to remove red objects from its nest. It has a reflex to roll egg shaped objects into its nest. Confronted with a red egg shaped object the gull will roll the object in and then out, back and forth. In all seriousness we can’t average out the use of alternatives. Oxymorons like ‘brunch’ and ‘blind sight’ don’t average out but sit on fences, domesticate the conflict without resolving it, like cats both advance with their back feet and retreat with their front when they are faced with fight or flee conflict , creating their Halloween arched back. We can’t average out and we can’t use redirection like when robins attack the ground when angry with a foe that they calculate will kill them. Nor can we try fudge overlaps between old meanings and any newly stipulated ones so the meanings blur together. When we think ‘…by abandoning the original concept in favour of its more acceptable replacement… [o]ld inconsistent beliefs will just fade away because our credence can now be realigned around the rectified terminology’ we’re being opportunistic and utilitarian rather than ontological and principled. And belief is constrained by epistemic concerns, not ontological or pragmatic ones. Even if there exists a last moment when God the Creator is on earth we are not permitted to know it because competent language use forces us to believe that an adjacent moment also qualifies as the last moment. This is because it must strike us as tautologous. An attempt to overcome these constraints is to misconceive linguistic constraints. Language is normative, conditioning not just what we are actually able to think but also what we ought to think. This rules out the stipulatory, hermeneutic option .

A constitutive rule for assertion is that you only assert what you know. The painting, according to this, can’t assert ‘ I don’t believe God the Creator is here anymore but I believe He is.’ It can assert, however, ‘I know you won’t believe me but God the Creator is still here.’ This classical bivalent logical system uses sharp borderlines that force assertions that everyone knows are not believed. The picture has to avoid lying, even a lie without any intend to deceive. By presenting a vague picture we are in a position where we can’t know what is being represented. It is a response to a particularly Protestant problem of authenticity and bad faith. Honesty has to obsess on the absolute indeterminacy of existences’ epistemtic hostility. It results in Beckett saying, as the parting shot of one of his letters; ‘… I am at your disposal. But for saying who I am, where I come from and what I am doing, all that is quite beyond me.’

Outside this puritan mind the persecuted may be forgiven for making assertions that no one believed. Or treating assertions as being like bets, placing a wager on the future to support an assertion made now. Existential stress and duress may seem to eliminate the assertive force of any statement. Where there is duress “we may even say the act was `void’ (or voidable for duress or undue influence) and so forth”. And some say that “in a wide class of cases, duress seems to eliminate not merely the force of assertion, but also the relevance of content altogether, turning the utterance into a semantically structureless act of capitulation”. But the appeal to this species of ‘semantic inertness’ isn’t an option for either Friedrich or Beckett. They realize that even under duress they can make assertions. Indeed, they can make no sense of existence without duress. The existential predicament of the Protestant is one that can’t make accommodations like these. When Galileo was forced to recant his theory of heliocentricism and agree to restrain from spreading his theory he agreed to do so. Had he reneged later he would have been killed. Catholics differ from Protestants in respect of this; Catholics only burn heretics who return to their heresies.

The proper attitude towards the existential predicament presented in both sacred and secular Reformist mode art, by Friedrich and Beckett respectively, is a confidential, agonised agnosticism. Unlike Kafka they are both wary of accounts of disaster that read like a statement of accounts. Passionately withhold judgment in absolute borderline cases and assume that the matter is closed. No evidence will be forthcoming. Our ignorance of the Deathless Ones, recall, is not relative to an answer system but is absolute. They are unknowable in principle. The existential situation that results in its being presented as absolute vagueness arises from a priori commitments of our cognitive make-up. We can’t help but doubt the denial of the induction step of a sorites. We are built so that the counterfactual strikes us as overwhelmingly compelling. It is therefore not a theory but arises out of normative commitments of language and thought, including the reflexes of perception. Classical logic shows that these instinctual reflexes commit us to systematic falsehood. If this is a heap, a grain less is also a heap. These strike the competent language user as being tautologies. Linguistic and perceptual convention treats indiscernability as a tautology. To suppose that ‘heap, for example, could be sensitive to the fine-grained difference of a single grain would be taken to be evidence of linguistic incompetence.

The solution to the sorites is therefore a solution that flies in the face of this. The a priori commitment to take the induction step of the sorites (e.g. if n is heapish, then n+1 is heapish) as a tautology is precisely what the solution denies. Reformist Protestantism’s monistic commitment (which in secular garb is Nature ready and pimped out from science) to classical logic over-rules our own compulsion to treat the induction counterfactual as analytic truth (as tautologous). Each of these tautologies are false, yet striking us as they do as analytic truths they remain irresistibly compelling.

The futility of seeking further evidence to discover the whereabouts of any borderline is terrifying, compelling and intense when embedded within landscape or theatrical anti-conventionality. We experience an irresolvable conflict of norms resulting in absolute ignorance of thresholds and irredeemable agnosticism bordering on farce and tragedy. I take this as our existential ground in both Friedrich and Beckett. The counter-example to the false induction step of the sorites puzzle can’t be conceived. What would the counter-example to an analytic truth look like? It is not agnosticism as suspension of judgment nor Stoic agnosticism based on linguistic elitism that thinks borderline cases don’t express propositions nor Leibnizian agnosticism that doesn’t commit to absolute ignorance; its an agnosticism based on a priori reasons for the impossibility of knowing sharp borderlines. The resistance presents itself as a false analytic truth. It follows that we are committed to believing self-contradictions. The logic of self-contradiction is that everything is logically implied by one. Yet the chaos of everything being permissible is constrained by psychology. The ignorance is not a personal quality of anyone but a purely impersonal feature of the epistemic situation. The silence required by such a situation has several features that show this. It is inevitable and so obligatory, unlike situations where silence might be a chosen preference.

The conventions of landscape painting and drama are compulsive. The conventionalism of any philosophy seem so too. If conventionalism makes meaning a matter of stipulation and interpretation, then taking a statement to be tautologous would make it so. But the solution to the embedded vagueness of Friedrich and Beckett requires that this isn’t the case. We can’t stipulate words to mean what we conventionally take them to be. Wittgensteinian ideas about how meanings are derived from their conventional roles in ‘language games’ are suspect in this world. Voluntarism, the theory that beliefs can be chosen, becomes implausible.

Harold Hobson wrote in ‘The Sunday Times’ in August 1955: ‘When Vladimir is told by a young boy at the end of the play that the Godot for whom he has been vainly waiting all his life has a white beard, his awed exclamation , ‘Christ have mercy upon us,’ is the most solemn thing heard in our comic theatre for many years.’ It is an almost unintelligible ejaculation where we do well to keep our hats on. The solemnity is an unvarying evening light before sudden darkness . I watch paintings in passionate silence and stretch time to find the words, all much slower and broken, letting each day sink in them before passing. Friedrich and Beckett are stuck without tinctures of exhaustion. Their lyricism hovers amidst a lively dying threshold. It’s not just evasion.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
























First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 2nd, 2018.