Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Put That in Your Pipe and Smoke It

Several years ago, I visited the Menil Collection in Houston, where I first saw René Magritte's L'empire des lumières (The Dominion of Light). I was very taken by it. I was one year into my Myth Studies program and had a new interpretive lens for making sense of the emotional impact of stories, images, and art. So when I looked at this painting, I immediately recognized the mysterious interplay of opposites that makes it such an arresting image.

Magritte had a way of fearlessly combining the impossible, or the incongruous. In this painting, it's broad day in the top half of the frame and night in the bottom half. What I thought of first on seeing it was the parallel to the conscious and the unconscious, an obvious Jungian interpretation. 

What I think makes the scene so striking is the lamplight in the midst of the darkness, which focuses your attention on the shadowy region. The bright sky above seems empty in comparison with the layers of light and shade in front of the building, and the sense of depth is emphasized even more by the reflection of the lights, trees, and building (but not the blue sky) in the softly rippling water below the trees. Even within the darkness, there is a lower level of unconsciousness in the mysterious pool, of which we only see the surface. 

There are many opposites in the painting: sky and water, nature and civilization, day and night, above and below. They blend into one another in subtle ways, although the painting seems at first to present two starkly separate realms. The trees reach up from dark roots into the bright blue sky, and the light from the lamp and the window echo the daylight above. The painting almost seems to map consciousness, from the everyday, somewhat vacuous persona to the ego to the personal unconscious to the deeper collective unconscious underneath it all.

I wasn't really planning to write about this painting, and the way it came about was this: I was thinking this afternoon about synchronicity and pure coincidence and the difference between them. That brought up an association with the famous statement that "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," attributed to Freud (which he probably didn't say, but that's a different story). That got me to thinking about Magritte's painting The Treachery of Images, with its iconic pipe and inscription, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe." ("This is not a pipe.") That led me to thoughts of L'empire des lumières, probably for the mere reason that it's also by Magritte and happens to be my favorite.

Back to the question that started all this, about the difference between synchronicity and coincidence: I think they're both real, but I'm not sure I can define what separates them. I would say that synchronicity seems meaningful, whereas coincidence doesn't, but who's to say what meaningful is? Some might argue that there really aren't any coincidences. I'm not sure I'd agree. It's a large metaphysical question, and I don't have the resources (or the chocolate) to puzzle it out at this time. Was it synchronicity that led me to this painting? Or just a rambling series of thoughts?

I don't know, but I do know that Magritte painted a series of Dominion of Light variants, so for some reason the image seems to have captured him. Another interesting fact: Jackson Browne's 1974 album Late for the Sky has a cover image inspired by Dominion of Light, and when you look at it you can easily see the influence. I just discovered that. Apparently, the photo was shot in South Pasadena. Huh, somebody was just talking about Pasadena yesterday. Do you think that means anything????

I would say no. I just watched a video of Mr. Browne singing "Late for the Sky," a song I don't believe I had heard before. I don't know what it has to do with metaphysics, or Freud, or cigars, but I'm glad I came across it. It was lovely.