DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Tripartite Being

Filed under: Art and Philosophy — Tags: , , , , — fred @ 18:07

"The Sea is the Body, the two Fishes are Soul and Spirit", engraving from The Book of Lambspring, by Nicholas Barnaud Delphinas, 1599, illustrator unknown

The Sages will tell you
That two fishes are in our sea
Without any flesh or bones.
Let them be cooked in their own water;
Then they also will become a vast sea,
The vastness of which no man can describe.
Moreover, the Sages say
That the two fishes are only one, not two;
They are two, and nevertheless they are one,
Body, Spirit, and Soul.
Now, I tell you most truly,
Cook these three together,
That there may be a very large sea

This is from the first plate of the 1599 publication The Book of Lambspring.  The excerpt from the text is translated by Arthur Edward Waite.  In Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries alchemical craft and the Hermetic philosophy were expressed in “emblem books”, which consisted of series of often surreal images and baffling texts full of mythological and religious allusions, in which the language of chemical operations and that of spiritual transformation are inseparably alloyed.

The alchemical style comes from a pre-scientific era, when the study of Nature was called “natural philosophy”, and principles were described analogically rather than analytically.  The modern scientific method, with quantification and controlled variables and testable hypotheses, was just beginning to be developed.  It would soon prove far more efficacious than the old analogies, but the transition was not instantaneous.  Sir Isaac Newton, one of the most important figures in the development of analytical science, was also an alchemist and wrote extensively in the alchemical mode.

Three-headed monster in an alchemical flask, from "Splendor Solis", 1582, by Salomon Trismosin

Alchemical writings are deliberately confusing, to protect “secret knowledge”, which could include trade secrets of craftsmen as well as heretical philosophy.  I suspect the emblem books were intended to be used as teaching tools within an oral tradition.  Some of the weird images are not so far from the kind of thought-illustrations, such as Schrödinger’s cat, used by present-day scientists.

Nowadays we mostly lack the initiates who can explain alchemical writings and illustrations to us, but I’ve had a long fascination with these old riddling texts and strange pictures.  They emerge from deep study of the nature of material and spiritual transformations, and they retain the power to stimulate imagination and insight.  C. G. Jung adapted alchemical concepts to the methods of depth psychology, and alchemy has informed the work of many modern and contemporary artists, such as Anselm Kiefer.  After all, creative work cannot be reduced to a purely analytical approach, and thinking about it still takes place largely through analogy.

Resurrexit, 1973, by Anselm Kiefer

Let’s return from that tangent to the Book of Lambspring.  Its images are simpler and its way of speaking more direct than the typical alchemical style.  It consists of a series of animal images and an odd parable of a son reborn after being devoured by his own father.  It all seems to be based around the central idea of Hermeticism, that everything is in reality one thing, and that a process of separating and recombining can reveal this fundamental unity of the all.  (The entire text and illustrations are available here, it’s easy to read the whole thing in one sitting.)

The first division the book makes, and to which it returns again and again, is of our own being into three parts:  body, spirit, and soul.  The body is clear enough.  It is our physical being, our material aspect.  Mind and matter is a distinction that makes sense to us and that we still use today.

But what is the distinction being made between spirit and soul?  Let’s look at the words.  Spirit means breath, as in the root of respiration, inspiration, expiration and aspiration.  Most of the ancient languages describe spirit as breath.  In Greek the word for spirit is pneuma, in Hebrew ruach, in Arabic ruh. All of these words mean breath.   The concept is similar to the Chinese qi and the Sanskrit prana.  The salient characteristic of breath is that it is a current that moves through us but is not of us.  To live we must continuously take air in, and let it go.  It represents a vital force that flows through everything.  When we die, the breath stops moving through us, but it does not stop moving through the world.  It is energy and movement, universal and eternal.

The soul is anima in Latin, the root of animal and animated.  In Greek it’s psyche.  It’s nephesh in Hebrew and nafs in Arabic.  It is the self, the essence of a being.  It is personality, character, individuality.  It is the part of us that experiences the highs and lows of the human condition, and that relates to others through compassion.  Unlike the spirit, the soul is bound to the body.

Returning to our more modern distinction between mind and matter, then, is mind soul or spirit?  It is both.  The flow of experiences and sensations, the experience of time, the constant current of ideas and thoughts with which our intellects engage, are spirit.  All of these things exist independently of the individual, yet our lives consist of their constant coming and going.  Our particular tastes, our individual responses to experiences, the character we build through our struggles with the world, our memories and our achievements, are soul.  (Others may understand these terms differently; this is the distinction that speaks most clearly to me.)

But this is an art blog.  What does all this mysticism have to do with art?  For me, it informs my way of seeing things.  It’s an attempt to see multiple levels of reality together.  Since I’ve built my own creative process around figurative drawing, let’s see how this tripartite view of being would apply to drawing.

For me, a drawing of a living being must have body, spirit, and soul.  If it is missing any one of these aspects, it is an incomplete depiction.  There is nothing wrong with an incomplete depiction, of course.  Here are some lovely examples of such one-faceted images.

An anatomical illustration shows the structure of the body.

Torso, from "Livre du Pourtraiture" by Jehan Cousin, 1608

A gesture sketch depicts the energy of the body.

Gesture drawing by Bill Shelley, 2009

A caricature focuses on the individuality.

Frank Sinatra, by Al Hirschfeld, date unknown

I usually strive to get all three aspects, and to get them unified.  To me there is a magic that happens when all three of these aspects of the human can be seen harmoniously portrayed in a drawing.

Aimi, 2009, by Fred Hatt

I think a similar criterion could apply to other artforms.  A playwright, for instance, might try to convey the physical reality of a setting, the action of outside forces upon characters, and the individuality of their responses.

Remember the point of Lambspring is that these three aspects are really one.  Making the divisions reveals to us the underlying unity.

We can see similar three-part divisions in the Christian holy trinity, in the Ayurvedic gunas (sattva, rajas, and tamas), in the shamanic three worlds, and so on.  They’re all really arbitrary divisions of a continuum.

One particular continuum, the color spectrum, was divided into seven parts by Newton, into six by Goethe, into five by Munsell, and into four by Hering’s opponent process theory.  But the division by three has been most useful for practical methods of industrial color reproduction.  Three legs are just enough to make a stool stable, three dimensions just enough to give us space.  The number three has the power of simplicity and the beginnings of complexity.

Color wheels based on the divisions of Newton, Goethe, Munsell, and Hering, from left to right respectively

Dividing the whole helps us to move within its dimensions, to explore its facets and work with its qualities, and finally to restore its oneness.

All the illustrations in this post that are not my own work were found on the web, and clicking on the pictures links back to where I found them.

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