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The Rhythm of ThoughtArt, Literature, and Music after Merleau-Ponty$

Jessica Wiskus

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780226030920

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226031088.001.0001

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Cézanne: Depth in the World

Cézanne: Depth in the World

(p.13) 2 Cézanne: Depth in the World
The Rhythm of Thought

Jessica Wiskus

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explains why Cézanne stands as a key figure in Merleau-Ponty’s work, and how this is related to Merleau-Ponty’s engagement with the visual arts, particularly with painting. It is argued here that understanding the development of Merleau-Ponty’s thought requires applying ourselves to the heart of the changes that his work underwent instead of his most well-known conclusions. From his notes, one could gather a subtle but important shift in emphasis, underscoring “depth” as a philosophical notion. Depth, like the silent space of poetry, becomes in painting a means of expressing a fundamental structure of noncoincidence. Merleau Ponty takes up this theme by contrasting his own reading of depth with that of Descartes, who believed that a world of noncoincidence is merely a world of illusion.

Keywords:   visual arts, Cézanne, merleau-ponty, painting, depth, poetry, noncoincidence, descartes, illusion

The painter “takes his body with him,” says Valéry.

MERLEAU - PONTY, “Eye and Mind”.

Merleau-Ponty’s engagement with the visual arts, and in particular with painting, spans the whole of his career. And, as is well-known, from Phenom enology of Perception through “Eye and Mind” Cézanne stands as a key figure in Merleau-Ponty’s work.1 However, if we are to enter into the development of his thought, we must apply ourselves not to his most well-known conclusions, but to the heart of the changes that his work underwent. This can be traced through the working notes, The Visible and the Invisible, and the course notes of “L’ontologie cartésienne et l’ontologie d’aujourd’hui” (1960– 61). What one gathers from these notes is a subtle but important shift in emphasis, underlining depth as a philosophical notion. Depth, like the silent space of poetry, becomes in painting a means of expressing a fundamental structure of noncoincidence.

Merleau-Ponty takes up this theme by contrasting his own reading of depth with that of Descartes.2 Indeed, for the Cartesian, a world of noncoincidence—of silence, of space, of depth—is only a world of illusion, for the truth is that of a world of positivity. In such a world, thought captures itself, and reflection, rather than suffering from a dislocation, directs its attention to the perceptual realm with exact coincidence. Thus perception is the domain of the mind, not the senses—”an inspection of the mind”—and, similarly, “reflection is only the perception returning to itself.”3 The Cartesian mind is flush with the world; there is no distance between thought and the world because thought is the world.

Or, rather, the modest Cartesian recognizes that his or her thought offers only a partial view of the world, like that seen through a window or in a painting. Although the Cartesian’s thought recovers perception completely, perception itself is limited according to the position of his or her body within (p.14) space. The Cartesian who stands at the foot of Montagne Sainte-Victoire cannot see to the other side of the Haut Var; the trees, rocks, and jutting cliffs conceal the hills that lie beyond. But our Cartesian knows that what he or she sees at that moment—the sense of the landscape that stands in front of him or her as a view of objects that block other objects—is not really how things are. The trees truly are never in front of or behind one another: standing from another position, this tree whose view is currently blocked by the foreground of shrubs and rocks would appear in its fullness; likewise, climbing from the foot of Montagne Sainte-Victoire to the summit would enable the Cartesian then to see the hills of the Haut Var stretching out beneath his or her gaze. And so the hiddenness of the Haut Var as experienced from the foot of the mountain in no way constitutes an aspect of its actual being. The truth would lie in going around the mountain, flattening the depth and bringing what was previously hidden into pure positivity. Our Cartesian would well appreciate the advances of the twentieth century, whereby he or she could confirm this hypothesis by looking over the landscape from the seat of an airplane, so that all that had blocked his or her view would appear flat, leading our Cartesian to see as width that which he or she had previously considered to be depth.

Merleau-Ponty writes that, according to the Cartesian system, “space remains absolutely in itself, everywhere equal to itself, homogeneous; its dimensions, for example, are by definition interchangeable.”4 What this means is that depth (and the apparent shrinking in size of objects that are far away) is only a sort of perceptual illusion, because at its root depth is equivalent to breadth and can be measured as a definite distance between things. According to this system,

what I call depth is in reality a juxtaposition of points, making it comparable to breadth. I am simply badly placed to see it. I should see it if I were in the position of a spectator looking on from the side, who can take in at a glance the series of objects spread out in front of me, whereas for me they conceal each other—or see the distance from my body to the first object, whereas for me this distance is compressed into a point.5

The perception of depth can thus be thought of as the apprehending of an obstruction: things block the clear view of other things, effectively reducing the distance between them “into a point” (insofar as the shrubs and rocks that obscure the view appear to be right up against the edge of the tree that is blocked). For the Cartesian, it is thanks to this obstruction that we experience something like a dimension of depth. But depth as an obstruction is there to be overcome; simply by reorienting my position to take a view from the side, I realize that there is a distance to be measured between the shrubs and the (p.15) tree, and that it can be measured as breadth. And so, for the observer who repositions him- or herself, depth is reduced to an illusion.

And it is precisely this that is the key to the Cartesian assessment of depth. Cartesian philosophy requires that the observer constantly reposition him-or herself, or at the very least imagine a repositioning. The Cartesian would like to overcome the limit that the body places upon him or her (that he or she is bound to a certain time and a certain place owing to the insertion of his or her body within the world). The Cartesian obtains to pure mind; indeed, he or she would like to view the world according to a Godlike perspective, whereby what was earlier perceived as depth would now be displayed as a broad plane of breadth. Better than our twentieth-century Cartesian flying above Montagne Sainte-Victoire in an airplane, the mind of God would see not only the whole of Provence, but the whole of the world laid out before it. Everything that had previously seemed obscure would become a completely transparent object; all would exist in positivity.

Therefore, what we begin to recognize in the Cartesian assessment of depth is the outline of an ontology, specifically a system of Being arranged according to a fundamental bifurcation of subject and object. If we wish to get at the truth, we must lift ourselves up above the world and view it from the mind of God. We must cast ourselves as a kosmotheoros. We must be pure subject, making no contact with the things but observing everything below our gaze exactly as it is, coincident with our thought. And such a gaze would never disturb or change the object of its attention because, as pure subject, it would make no contact with the things; it would simply observe from above.

While the Cartesian philosopher strives to install him- or herself at the “zero point of Being” of the kosmotheoros,6 the closest that the artist might come to a vision of the pure subject is made possible through the Renaissance technique of perspective. Writes Merleau-Ponty, “Perspective is much more than a secret technique for imitating a reality given as such to all humanity. It is the invention of a world dominated and possessed through and through by an instantaneous synthesis.”7 This “instantaneous synthesis” discloses the totality that would be present to the mind of the kosmotheoros. Merleau-Ponty observes that, when I employ the technique of Renaissance perspective, “I think of and dominate my vision as God can.”8 That is to say, I do not succumb to the ceaseless change and flow of the phenomenal realm; I am not seduced by the calling of the sensible world of things—that which ever slips away when I attempt to seize it. Rather, knowing full well that I am not God—that I cannot see everything revealed to me all at once—my representation operates according to a certain ruse: perspectiva artificialis. How (p.16) is it that the technique of Renaissance perspective constructs this knowable, coincident world?

According to Merleau-Ponty, perception operates through a certain principle of dislocation, for the more fixedly I stare at an object, the more it begins to vibrate—to lose its solidity. If I wish to grasp a sense of the object as stable, I must, paradoxically, keep my gaze in motion by, in effect, looking at the object in several different moments in time. Just as our Cartesian wished to annihilate depth by looking at the landscape before him or her from several different positions in space, the Renaissance painter must look at the object from several disconnected “positions” in time. And just as the Cartesian would aspire to a view from which no aspect of the landscape would be hidden—the view of God—the Renaissance painter would likewise try to reach a synthesis of various perceptions of the object across time, resulting in the representation of one solid object placed in relation to a single vanishing point, fixed within the constraints of the canvas. Therefore, what the technique of perspective achieves is not only to be regarded with respect to the realm of space; what it achieves is also a conflation of time. “The whole scene is in the mode of the completed or of eternity,” writes Merleau-Ponty.9 Contrary to the primary experience of perception, where the world offers up a depth of teeming, changing things (our access to which is mediated through noncoincidence), the scene that is represented in the Renaissance painting appears comprehensible and immediate, organized according to the positivity of geometric lines and planes: “Landscapes painted in this way have a peaceful look, an air of respectful decency, which comes of their being held beneath a gaze fixed at infinity. They remain at a distance and do not involve the viewer.”10

But it is precisely this distance that calls our attention to the bifurcation of the subject and the object. From this distance, the subject has no access to the objects. The subject consists, rather, in an entirely different being from that of being object; the subject is not implicated in the realm of objects. For this world is not one in which the subject participates; instead, it is laid out before the subject, obedient to the laws of geometry—a “space without hiding places which in each of its points is only what it is, neither more nor less.”11 When the Renaissance technique of perspective organizes the depth of objects according to a dimension of breadth—a certain line that leads to the vanishing point—it effectively denies a subject’s ability to enter into the teeming life of objects, for it is only from the “outside” of the world, from the view of the kosmotheoros, that depth appears as breadth. Therefore it is an “objectified depth detached from experience and transformed into breadth” that underlies the bifurcation.12

(p.17) In contrast, Merleau-Ponty searches for a kind of “primordial depth” that could thematize a more profound relationship between subject and object.13 For, according to Merleau-Ponty, it is this primordial depth that

announces a certain indissoluble link between things and myself by which I am placed in front of them, whereas breadth can, at first sight, pass for a relationship between things themselves, in which the perceiving subject is not implied. By rediscovering the vision of depth, that is to say, of a depth which is not yet objectified and made up of mutually external points, we shall once more outrun the traditional alternatives and elucidate the relation between subject and object.14

It is his interest in depth as a theme of philosophical significance that leads Merleau-Ponty to engage with the works of Cézanne. In “Eye and Mind,” Merleau-Ponty writes, “Four centuries after the ‘solutions’ of the Renaissance and three centuries after Descartes, depth is still new, and it insists on being sought.”15 But what was this particular depth that Cézanne was seeking?

Clearly, it is not the illusion of depth presented by the perspectiva artificialis; it is not a depth equated with breadth. Primordial depth does not consist in the measurable relationship between things: one could not, as a sovereign geometer, take a ruler to the landscape and calculate this dimension of depth. (What Merleau-Ponty describes as primordial depth is, in fact, quite difficult to comprehend, because of the influence that Cartesian geometry still holds over the everyday notion of points fixed within space.) He writes, rather, that depth is “a voluminosity we express in a word when we say that a thing is there.”16 That is to say, depth is not a dimension that presents itself to be seen in the way that a line is seen and measured; it is not, in this sense, merely a kind of object that one could grasp, look at from several points of view, or see openly deployed. Rather, it serves as that through which the measurable dimensions of breadth and height are seen: “a voluminosity.” In this sense, it is an opening—”openness upon the world.”17 Moreover, Merleau-Ponty writes that there is a certain “enigma” associated with depth, which “consists in the fact that I see things, each one in its place, precisely because they eclipse one another, and that they are rivals before my sight precisely because each one is in its own place—in their exteriority, known through their envelopment, and their mutual dependence in their autonomy.”18 Therefore, depth is the “voluminosity” of space that not only allows for things to be seen (as “openness upon the world”), but allows for things to have an unseen side (“because they eclipse one another”); it is thanks to depth that the unseen side is constitutive of the things themselves. Like the work of rhythm in Mallarmé (through which a silent, past, or unheard relationship maintains expressive potency), (p.18) the ontological significance of depth lies within its capacity to provide an expressive opening not only for the visible but also for the invisible, other side of objects. Indeed, Merleau-Ponty writes that depth “is pre-eminently the dimension of the hidden.”19

It is this aspect of depth—that of the hidden or the absent—that Cézanne presents on his canvases. Cézanne abandons the technique of the perspectiva artificialis in order to explore a realm of depth that would not be measurable according to breadth. Some of the clearest indications of his experiments in this realm are to be found in his treatment of the still life, where, notoriously, he has a propensity to break apart the lines that would otherwise operate in measurement. For example, in Still Life with Apples and Peaches, the front aspect of the table makes an unpredictable shift in the lower left-hand corner of the canvas; the table that appeared slightly turned away from the viewer in the right half of the canvas suddenly becomes parallel to the viewer in the left half of the canvas. What is important is the principle of noncoincidence that works upon the canvas; it effects the distortion of the table’s length, shattering the viewer’s expectations of a space that would operate according to Cartesian principles.20

Yet we are perhaps better able to appreciate the process of Cézanne’s painting, and specifically the process through which he creates a sense of depth, by looking at his landscapes of Provence. If we contemplate, for example, Houses on a Hill, Provence, an unfinished work, we find an entry into the way that Cézanne deploys color and texture—rather than linear perspective—as a technique of depth. In this work, there is no vanishing point to organize the landscape, nor does the apparent size of objects diminish according to their position relative to the horizon. (The brushstrokes present patches of color that are similar in size all across the canvas, from the bottom “foreground” to the upper “background.”) In fact, aside from the two houses in the foreground that seem to provide the connection to the work’s title, there are very few “objects” to be seen in this painting. Rather than objects, we seem to perceive movement of color and texture—movement evoked through the harmonization of blues (for the exact tone of the sky is woven throughout the assemblage of trees) and the broad horizontal brushstrokes that make up the distant ocher hill as well as the two houses in the foreground. And this constitutes a remarkable achievement in Houses: the landscape is presented as if within a temporal cycle of formation—it is dynamic (that is to say, not in the mode of “eternity”). That the blue in the distant sky is the same blue echoed throughout the trees, and that the texture of the distant hill is the same texture as the houses, make for a painting that does not freeze the representation of its objects. Through reconfiguration and resonance a harmony (p.19) arises, and one is immersed within the assembling of the colors and textures. This is a painting that cannot be viewed coolly and from a distance.

Cézanne: Depth in the World

Figure 2.1. Cézanne, Still Life with Apples and Peaches, c. 1905, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Of the significance of Cézanne’s style, Merleau-Ponty writes eloquently:

If many painters since Cézanne have refused to follow the law of geometrical perspective, this is because they have sought to recapture and reproduce before our very eyes the birth of the landscape. They have been reluctant to settle for an analytical overview and have striven to recapture the feel of perceptual experience itself. Thus different areas of their paintings are seen from different points of view.21 The lazy viewer will see “errors of perspective” here, while those who look closely will get the feel of a world in which no two objects are seen simultaneously, a world in which regions of space are separated by the time it takes to move our gaze from one to the other, a world in which being is not given but rather emerges over time.

Thus space is no longer a medium of simultaneous objects capable of being apprehended by an absolute observer who is equally close to them all, a (p.20) medium without point of view, without body and without spatial position— in sum, the medium of pure intellect.22

Cézanne: Depth in the World

Figure 2.2. Cézanne, Houses on a Hill, Provence, 1904–6, oil on canvas, The White House.

Cézanne’s refusal “to follow the law of geometrical perspective” in creating his landscapes represents a refusal as well of the kosmotheoros. There is no “absolute observer” at work upon Houses on a Hill, Provence. This canvas overcomes the convention of representing an object as if from eternity and without hiddenness, because the beauty of the canvas is to be appreciated in precisely what is not directly presented upon it, but instead in what arises through the (invisible) harmony of (visible) color and texture. The unseen forms the theme of the painting, and what Cézanne offers to his viewer is a canvas that teems with life because the viewer is implicated in the landscape. A viewer from above—a kosmotheoros, “without body and without spatial position”—could not perceive an unseen; he or she could only see the things completely displayed. And so what one can sense through the painting is the reinsertion of the viewer into the world. Merleau-Ponty writes, “Space is not what it was in the Dioptrics, a network of relations between objects such as would (p.21) be seen by a third party, witnessing my vision, or by a geometer looking over it and reconstructing it from outside. It is, rather, a space reckoned starting from me as the null point or degree zero of spatiality. I do not see it according to its exterior envelope; I live it from the inside; I am immersed in it.”23

Space unfolds from the viewer, who lives from within the world. That is to say, our experience of this space—the space of perceptual depth—arises through embodiment, and not by means of a reflection of the incorporeal mind. It is thus that Merleau-Ponty, who in his later works turns from phenomenology to ontology, emphasizes bodily structure as it relates to the visible: not because he reduces Being to the materiality of the body but because depth as experienced through the body serves as a “prototype of Being.” Depth is an exemplar.

Merleau-Ponty’s many investigations into the bodily experience of depth must be understood within this context; in particular, in a range of works from Phenomenology of Perception to The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty investigates the significance of binocular vision. Why the extensive expositions on a phenomenon that, from a scientific perspective, is already well understood? It is thanks to these accounts of binocular vision that we may catch an analogue to the more ontological principle of depth for which Merleau-Ponty searches.

Thus I look out upon an object before me, perhaps an olive tree, and my body is immediately implicated in the look. For what I notice is that my vision does not give me one, single version of the tree revealed in its positivity. Rather, there are two versions, as in the double image of a stereoscope; the world before my left eye does not coincide exactly with the world before my right eye.24 Moreover, like the two-dimensional pictures used in the stereoscope, what I see with each eye individually appears flat, lifeless. I may approximate a sense of depth by taking account of the relative size of objects that I see according to monocular perception and then calculating a certain distance between the objects. But clearly I am not able to see depth in itself; I employ a dimension of breadth in measuring the gap between objects. And all of this takes place under the careful attention of the mind: grasping, comparing, and calculating.

Yet, when I look at the olive tree with both eyes, I do not sense conflict between the image of the left eye and the image of the right eye. There is no need for consciousness to measure the difference between the two. In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty writes that “we pass from double vision to the single object, not through an inspection of the mind, but when the two eyes cease to function each on its own account and are used as a single organ by one single gaze.”25 Because the shift from monocular to (p.22) binocular perception is a transformation rooted in the body, consciousness does not direct it. Consciousness might compare one image to another, but binocular perception is not the result of comparison; through it there is, indeed, a transformation of vision. It is this transformation that Merleau-Ponty emphasizes when he writes, in The Visible and the Invisible, that “binocular perception is not made up of two monocular perceptions surmounted; it is of another order.”26 Yet what is initiated is not an order that would exist parallel to or beyond the realm of experience. For it is the body alone—the body that has two eyes—that makes this possible.

In response to the function of my two eyes, the olive tree leaps into life, for now the tree and I inhabit the same world. And this counts as one of the great enigmas of our experience. When we mistakenly equate depth and breadth, we are measuring a distance that spreads out between our body and the object. This distance allows us to “objectify” our relationship with the object. But, paradoxically, primordial depth has the effect of making us feel close to the object. Only when the tree is laid out flat—without depth—is it inaccessible, held away as the limit of our vision. To view the tree in transparency is to view it from the perspective of the kosmotheoros—from the realm of the eternal and the omniscient. But binocular vision presupposes a kind of unity between the world of myself, as subject, and the world of the tree, as object. Merleau-Ponty writes, “The thickness of the body, far from rivaling that of the world, is on the contrary the sole means I have to go unto the heart of the things.”27 I see the tree in its depth because I, too, exist in depth; I see the world according to the insertion of my body into that world—according to the formula that binocular perception elucidates. The phenomenon of depth is the proof that I am not kosmotheoros.

Thus, because perceptual depth does not arise according to a vision that would see everything displayed in positivity, it is rooted within the body schema; it is visible, in particular, only because we have two eyes that see the same object differently. What we see, then, is not equivalent to one or another of the images that the left or right eye would offer; what we see is something else—something that the gaze of neither eye could confirm alone—some-thing of another order that the total body effects.28 Perceptual depth is, in a sense, the experiential space that unfolds from this noncoincidence. As such, it serves as an emblem of a more fundamental noncoincidence that is constitutive of Being. To think of the body as “sensible for itself” is to disclose a new type of relationship between the subject and the object: that of encroachment.29 Recall that, in Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty claimed that “by rediscovering the vision of depth, that is to say, of a depth which is not yet objectified and made up of mutually external points, we shall once (p.23) more outrun the traditional alternatives and elucidate the relation between subject and object.”30 It is later, in The Visible and the Invisible, that he clarifies this remark:

When I find again the actual world such as it is, under my hands, under my eyes, up against my body, I find much more than an object: a Being of which my vision is a part, a visibility older than my operations or my acts. But this does not mean that there was a fusion or coinciding of me with it: on the contrary, this occurs because a sort of dehiscence opens my body in two, and because between my body looked at and my body looking, my body touched and my body touching, there is overlapping or encroachment so that we must say that the things pass into us as well as we into the things.31

The dehiscence of which Merleau-Ponty speaks—when we think of it in terms of opening a space of difference and noncoincidence—is what makes the body schema so significant, as flesh. For our relationship to the world is never completely one-sided; literally, there is depth. We are not pure subjects before whom all things would appear in transparency, because we are also related to objects. We can be seen, as an object would be seen; we can be touched, as an object would be touched. So complex is this relationship that it also works upon our own body. In Merleau-Ponty’s famous example, my left hand may reach out to touch the surface of this wooden desk. My hand is an extension of myself—myself as subject—and it feels the desk as an object. But at the same time, I may reach my right hand over to touch my left hand as it explores the surface of the desk. Now, my right hand is the extension of myself as subject, but what is the left hand? There is “a veritable touching of the touch, when my right hand touches my left hand while it is palpating the things, where the ‘touching subject’ passes over to the rank of the touched, [and] descends into the things.”32 That is to say, the left hand crosses over to the world of things even as it maintains its bond with me as a subject. It “opens finally upon a tangible being of which it is also a part.”33 Thus my body applies itself to the world, but it is also of the world. In an important passage from The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty writes:

The visible can thus fill me and occupy me only because I who see it do not see it from the depths of nothingness, but from the midst of itself; I the seer am also visible. What makes the weight, the thickness, the flesh of each color, of each sound, of each tactile texture, of the present, and of the world is the fact that he who grasps them feels himself emerge from them by a sort of coiling up or redoubling, fundamentally homogeneous with them; he feels that he is the sensible itself coming to itself and that in return the sensible is in his eyes as it were his double or an extension of his own flesh.34

(p.24) This “coiling up” or “redoubling” articulates a more general intertwining that is characteristic of the sensible realm, as those who make a thorough study of it, particularly artists, have often expressed: “Inevitably the roles between the painter and the visible switch. That is why so many painters have said that things look at them. As André Marchand says, after Klee: ‘In a forest, I have felt many times over that it was not I who looked at the forest. Some days I felt that the trees were looking at me, were speaking to me … I was there, listening.’ “35

This beautiful passage is evocative in many ways, not the least of which is the way in which it describes the entering of the world into the body of the subject: through listening, because for the listener waves of sound enter the interior passage of the ear and are translated into “waves” or neural signals that the body itself generates. It is thus that the flesh responds: to an external stimulus that it transcribes internally. This transformation from the external world to an internal attitude of the subject, explored not only by the visual artist but by the poet as well (as in Paul Claudel’s The Eye Listens), is readily understood in terms of sound but does not fail to provide a model for the visual as well. “Quality, light, color, depth, which are there before us, are there only because they awaken an echo in our bodies and because the body welcomes them.”36 This “echo” discloses our ultimate intimacy with the world that we see lying before us; for it is not simply the case that we, as subjects, are capable of being viewed—from the point of view of a stranger, for example—as objects. Our relationship to objects is much more profound. There is encroachment between subject and object because the world has a way of inhabiting us, through the flesh, as a vibration of air, of light—as a certain molecular pattern that inspires an interior response. And this phenomenon—that the world of objects inspires an internal response within the subject—must be emphasized. “We speak of ‘inspiration,’ “writes Merleau-Ponty, “and the word should be taken literally. There really is inspiration and expiration of Being.”37 There really is an exchange between the visible and vision, between the audible and hearing, between the touched and touching. This exchange, as an intertwining, necessitates a revision of the Cartesian notion of the bifurcation of subject and object, for it takes place precisely at the noncoincidence opened between the two, which, as we can now understand, functions at once as opening and as encroachment.

Thus the body, far from becoming an obstacle to our view of the world, proves itself as the very means through which we have access to that world. “It is the body and it alone,” Merleau-Ponty writes,

that can bring us to the things themselves, which are themselves not flat beings but beings in depth, inaccessible to a subject that would survey them (p.25) from above, open to him alone that, if it be possible, would coexist with them in the same world. When we speak of the flesh of the visible, we do not mean to do anthropology, to describe a world covered over with all our own projections, leaving aside what it can be under the human mask. Rather, we mean that carnal being, as a being of depths, of several leaves or several faces, a being in latency, and a presentation of a certain absence, is a prototype of Being, of which our body, the sensible sentient, is a very remarkable variant, but whose constitutive paradox already lies in every visible.38

This paradox is one of distance and proximity: there is always a noncoincidence between ourselves and the totality of the world, viewed as depth; yet, at the same time, we owe our remarkable contact with the world to the implication of our body within it—we are of the world. On the surface, the notion of “the sensible sentient” as articulated by Merleau-Ponty might appear to be somewhat simple—in fact, to amount to nothing more than a rather poetic description of our proprioceptive ability. Yet to think according to the flesh—according to “the sensible sentient”—is to necessitate the development of what Merleau-Ponty describes as an entirely “new ontology,” calling for a remarkable transformation in Western philosophical thought.39 Merleau-Ponty makes this clear when he writes, “It is imperative that we recognize that this description also overturns our idea of the thing and the world, and that it results in an ontological rehabilitation of the sensible.”40

Indeed, the “rehabilitation” is what leads Merleau-Ponty to turn with particular interest to the work of Proust. For in Proust, the flesh occupies and secretes a depth not only of space, but of time as well.


(1) . Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting, ed. Galen A. Johnson, trans. ed. Michael B. Smith (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993). Originally published as L’oeil et l’esprit (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1964). Hereafter cited as “Eye and Mind,” with pagination of the English translation followed by that of the French original.

(2) . For a subtle reading of Merleau-Ponty’s relation to Descartes, see the chapter “Dwelling in the Texture of the Visible: Merleau-Ponty’s ‘Eye and Mind’ (1961)” in Lawlor, Early Twentieth-Century Continental Philosophy, 141–73.

(3) . Merleau-Ponty, Visible and Invisible, 37/58.

(4) . Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” 134/47 (emphasis in original).

(5) . Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962), 297. Originally published as Phénoménologie de la perception (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1945), 303. Hereafter cited as Phenomenology of Perception, with pagination of the English translation followed by that of the French original. Merleau-Ponty’s analysis is made in reference to Berkeley.

(6) . Merleau-Ponty, Visible and Invisible, 113/150.

(7) . Merleau-Ponty, “Indirect Language,” 87/81.

(8) . Ibid., 87/80.

(9) . Ibid., 87/81.

(10) . Merleau-Ponty, World of Perception, 40/20.

(11) . Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” 134/47.

(12) . Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 310/316.

(13) . Ibid.

(14) . Ibid., 298/305.

(15) . Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” 140/64.

(16) . Ibid., 140/65 (emphasis in original).

(17) . Merleau-Ponty, Visible and Invisible, 35/56. Cf. chapter 1.

(18) . Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” 140/64–65.

(19) . (p.131) Merleau-Ponty, Visible and Invisible, 219/268.

(20) . See also Still Life with Fruit Basket. Besides exhibiting a distortion of the breadth of the table, this painting also articulates different points of view by means of subtle shifts in aspects of the ginger jar and basket. An analysis is provided in Erle Loran, Cézanne’s Composition: Analysis of His Form with Diagrams and Photographs of His Motifs (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 76–77.

(21) . Loran’s investigation of this technique, a technique which was certainly of great consequence for the cubists, extends from the still life to landscape and is founded upon photographs that he took while traveling across Provence in search of Cézanne’s views. Indeed, the comparisons between the photographs and the paintings are remarkable. In reference to The Bibémus Quarry (c. 1895) for example, Loran shows how Cézanne dramatically shifted points of view within his painting in order to expose certain rock configurations. But it would perhaps be misleading to draw the conclusion from Loran that the use of different points of view was Cézanne’s most significant contribution to modern painting. In a very real sense, even Renaissance painters worked from different points of view within the same painting, for although the vanishing point served as a central structure of organization in the work, the physical limitations of the eye had still to be overcome: the inability of the eye to perceive images at the limits of vision with the same clarity as images within the center of vision meant that the painter, when portraying the outer regions of a canvas, would necessarily have been forced to shift his or her focus. Therefore one could make the claim that a Renaissance painting brings together on one canvas an artistic synthesis of different points of view. And thus the innovative nature of Cézanne’s work cannot be reduced to this simple formula. As Merleau-Ponty writes, the enigma of depth is not the juxtaposition of these different points of view: “The enigma … lies in their bond, in what is between them.” Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” 140/64 (emphasis added).

(22) . Merleau-Ponty, World of Perception, 41/21–22.

(23) . Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” 138/58–59.

(24) . In Innovation and Visualization: Trajectories, Strategies, and Myths, Amy Ione gives an account of the invention and significance of Wheatstone’s stereoscope: “The instrument [was] designed to show that our two eyes merge the two slightly different images we perceive into a singular form. Wheatstone was able to convey the fusion accurately because the stereoscope’s design was based on measurable distances between our eyes. This means the instrument was able to clearly accommodate for the fact that we normally converge two perceptions when we see, although we think we see one image with both of our eyes. The noteworthy feature … was the instrument’s capacity to convincingly demonstrate how the two slightly different images formed on the retina of each eye are due to each eye’s different position in space. More concisely, since Wheatstone’s demonstration produced what appeared to be a 3-dimensional form to the viewer, he was able to experientially convey that the fused result we see is neither a flat image nor an exact counterpart of a physical object as the object is extended into space…. Instead, two slightly different visual experiences are merged to appear as a whole and the singular whole has a quality that differs from the perspectival depth of a singular form drawn on a flat surface…. [This] demonstrated that the way we perceive the world does not correspond to the kind of one point linear perspective artists have presented since the Renaissance. (In Renaissance perspective the sense of depth is technically created using vanishing points that are constructed using a one-eyed or monocular vantage point.)” Amy Ione, Innovation and Visualization: Trajectories, Strategies, and Myths (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 2005), 110–11. It should be noted that the stereoscope forms a common trope in Proust’s Recherche. See chapter 3.

(25) . (p.132) Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 270/279.

(26) . Merleau-Ponty, Visible and Invisible, 7/22.

(27) . Ibid., 135/176.

(28) . Merleau-Ponty writes: “The unity of binocular vision, and with it the depth without which it cannot come about is, therefore, there from the very moment at which the monocular images are presented as ‘disparate.’ When I look in the stereoscope, a totality presents itself in which already the possible order takes shape and the situation is foreshadowed. My motor response takes up this situation. Cézanne said that the painter in the face of his ‘motif’ is about ‘to join the aimless hands of nature.’ The act of focusing at the stereoscope is equally a response to the question put by the data, and this response is contained in the question.” Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 305/311.

(29) . Merleau-Ponty, Visible and Invisible, 135/176.

(30) . Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 298/305.

(31) . Merleau-Ponty, Visible and Invisible, 123/162.

(32) . Ibid., 133–34/174.

(33) . Ibid., 133/174.

(34) . Ibid., 113–14/150–51.

(35) . Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” 129/31.

(36) . Ibid., 125/22.

(37) . Ibid., 129/31–32.

(38) . Merleau-Ponty, Visible and Invisible, 136/177. Remarking upon this passage from Merleau-Ponty, Françoise Dastur writes, “If in fact the body is indeed an exemplar sensible, it is because this separation between the within and the without which thus creates a being with two dimensions, with two leaves, with two lips, constitutes its ‘natal secret.’ This secret is the secret of the genesis of all being, which is none other than the general movement of the segregation of within and without.” Françoise Dastur, “Thinking from Within,” in Merleau-Ponty in Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Patrick Burke and Jan Van der Veken (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1993), 31.

(39) . Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Themes from the Lectures at the Collège de France, 1952–1960, trans. John O’Neill (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970), 91. Originally published as Résumés de cours: Collège de France, 1952–1960 (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1968), 128. Hereafter cited as Themes from Lectures, with pagination of the English translation followed by that of the French original.

(40) . Merleau-Ponty, Signs, 166–67/271.