The demonic arts and the origin of the medium.

Author:Cole, Michael

Guiding us through his exercises in skepticism, seeking to show us how our world might be illusory, Rene Descartes first invokes the condition of the dream:

Let us suppose, then, that we are dreaming, and that none of these particulars--neither the opening of the eyes, nor the moving of the head, nor the putting forth of the hands, nor even that we have these hands or this whole body--are true; let us suppose, rather, that they are seen in sleep like painted images, which could not be fashioned except in the likeness of real things. (1)

For a moment, the dream seems to be a fair model for deception, a familiar experience that involves the feel of both sight and self-motion, but which any of us can also easily appreciate as "unreal." The dream, remembered from the moments of wakefulness, represents a kind of dispossession; it allows us to imagine how we might no longer have even the things that are most immediate to us, the hands that guarantee the world through their touch, or the bodies that we might think we are.

The dream, however, quickly proves insufficient for Descartes's purposes:

Nevertheless, we must admit that at least these general things--eyes, head, hands, the entirety of the body--are not imaginary things, but rather things that truly exist. For clearly painters themselves, even when they aim, with the most extraordinary forms, to represent sirens and satyrs, cannot assign them natures that are in every way new, but can only mix the members of different animals; or if by chance they should conceive something so novel that nothing similar has ever been seen before, something that is, therefore, wholly fictitious and false, it is at least certain that the colors of which they composed this must be real. (2)

Dreams cannot provide a model for true deception because dreams are made of real things. Like paintings, which, however rearranged for perception, nevertheless depend on the existing world for their being, dreams cannot be entirely false. Their most radical fictions are mere Horatian chimeras, and what's more, even the chimeras are hampered by their dependence on their substance; every invention is an invention built of colors. Dreams have sources in the very things of which they are supposed to dispossess us; they cannot take away our world, because they are made of it.

Dreams and paintings having failed, Descartes finally refers his readers, for their comprehension of deep skepticism, to the experience of demonic possession:

I will suppose, then, that not almighty God, the source of truth, but rather some evil spirit, one that is at once exceedingly potent and cunning, has set all of his industry to deceiving me. I will imagine that sky, air, earth, colors, figures, sounds, and all external things are nothing other than the mockeries of dreams, by means of which this being seduces my credulity. I will consider myself not to have hands, eyes, flesh, blood, or any of the senses, and to have falsely believed that I have these. I will remain resolutely fixed in this meditation, and thus, if indeed it not be in my power to recognize some part of what is true, I will at least, with strengthened mind, beware of what is in me, so that I do not assent to what is false, and so that that demon, however powerful and however cunning he be, not be able to impose anything on me. (3)

The demon, like the painter of dreams, is an artificer. Yet for the would-be skeptic, possession by a genio maligno overcomes the drawbacks of mere sleep in its total separability from reality. In this perfect nightmare, all that belongs to us--our bodies, our sensory apparatuses, as well as the colored, figured worlds they take in--can be reduced to the "mockeries of dreams." The condition of true skepticism is the condition of complete painting. Both in its total invention and in its pure illusion, possession promises to be an artifice with nothing behind it. Possession is an art of absolute fiction.

The following essay aims to suggest how Descartes's intuitions--that dreams are like paintings, that possession resembles, but also trumps, both--come out of a broader tradition, and how that tradition might bear as much on the history of art as it does on the history of philosophy. The idea of the demonic, it will argue, cuts across not only the early modern literature of magic and witchcraft but also that of art, making possible a kind of mutual refraction that illuminates both. In one direction, the figure of the painter provides a function for the demonic magician. Possession can be understood as a kind of art, and the possessive agent as a kind of artist. (4) In the other direction, the figure of the demon provides the artist with a conception of medium. The literatures of magic and demonology serve a notion of what the artist, who had always to channel expressions through a product, could control.

Some seventy years ago, Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz argued that the rise of pictorial illusionism coincided with the refiguring of the artist as a kind of magus. Semblance, they proposed, came to be a concern precisely at moments when the power of a culture's effigies--images magically inseparable from the subjects they depict--collapsed. (5) "Where the belief in the identity of picture and depicted is in decline," they wrote, "a new bond makes its appearance to link the two--namely, similarity or likeness. Formulating these remarks differently, we would say: the closer the symbol (picture) stands to what is symbolized (depicted), the less is the outward resemblance; the further apart, the greater is the resemblance." (6) Kris and Kurz viewed likeness as a means of revivifying the art object that had become untethered from its living subject. For them, accordingly, illusionistic art had two founding conditions: a difference, even an isolation, from the world in which it found itself, and an aspiration to the viv idness, the reality, of that very world. Under these conditions, the artist's charge came to be that of bringing pictures themselves to life, rehabilitating them to something like their former condition, which now meant spanning the gap between the pictures' own stoniness and the ensouled animation of their makers and viewers. (7) As an operator who, through effects of naturalism, created enlivened things, the artist became a kind of magician, an alter deus.

One of the remarkable aspects of Kris and Kurz's book was the attempt to consider illusionistic painting as much in relation to its maker as to its subject. The authors did not limit their argument to an account of pictorial traditions; in addition, they suggested that, given a set of pictorial conditions, the actions an artist performs might themselves be resonant in distinctive ways. For anyone now interested in the poetics of manner or facture, this broad perspective as well as Ens and Kurz's chosen example, the art that looks like magic, invite further thought. We might recall, for instance, how Renaissance artists, in conducting their operations, might call on supernatural help, asking muses, genii, planetary governors, and even angels to enable their work. (8) As all such attendant beings could be grouped under the general rubric not only of "spirits" but also (to allow for the congruence of D. P. Walker's famous categories) of "demons," the value of such work would vary from case to case. (9) Just as t he furor to which artists were subject had to be fenced off from its counterpart, demonic madness, so the assisted operations could be either evil or good. (10) One's genius might well be maleficent--even Lucifer, after all, was an angel (11)--and all knew that witches, no less than artists, pulled off their tricks by summoning demonic aid. (12) The artist's very assignment complicated the matter further. It could well seem, for example, that artifice, the opposite of creation but the basic task of the mundane artist, was the very thing that gave devils their own character. (13) The core image in Kris and Kurz's account, the artist who attempts to be divine, itself worried many thinkers, for if God was the first Creator, it was Satan who was the first dieu manque, the first actor to pretend overzealously to God's part. (14) Reginald. Scot, an important sixteenth-century English writer on witchcraft, affirmed that "[Lucifer] would needs be like God, and for his arrogancie was throwne out into destruction." (15 ) The Dominican theologian Andrea Gilio da Fabriano, one year before launching his important attack on Michelangelo's Last Judgment, dedicated an entire book to the demonic project of emulating the divine. (16) And Giovanni Battista Marino, giving an even more explicitly pictorial spin to the exegetical tradition, asked rhetorically, "Who was this Painter, who was so arrogant, so ignorant, that he wished to correct the perfect images of the great smith of smiths?" (17) As audacia (boldness) and fierezze (pride, fierceness) became newly valued as artistic virtues, as artistic giants attempted to build their way to the heavens, the divinity of the artist became thinkable as it had not been since antiquity. (18) Precisely for this reason, however, the seductive and dangerous proximity of the artist and the sorceror became a new kind of problem as well.

For Kris and Kurz, it was illusionism that made the artist a magus. The more convincing the painting, the greater the paradox that it was but a reflection or shadow, and the more the painter looked like a prestidigitator. With regard to early modern art, the point is of some consequence: that Narcissus, Leon Battista Alberti's inventor of painting, should die attempting to grasp the ombra he sees shimmering in the water, completes a theory that understood painting as a window, something one looks through no less than at. (19) If Renaissance painting would make the absent present, it would also allow for a new absence at its core. Insofar as Kris and Kurz also suggested that the making of illusions...

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