The Lonely Road of Solipsism

Forbidden Literature (The Use of the Word), René Magritte, 1936


“A disembodied finger looms, whilst the lemon-yellow stairs lead nowhere. Forbidden Literature’s subject matter is utterly banal; we all know fingernails and floorboards and yellow paint. But it is this familiarity that trips us up, that makes the inexplicable digit, upright like an ancient standing stone, so uncanny. Partially covered, a word is chalked out and we guess it says “sirène”. As in English, there is a double meaning: the sound of a police car, or the call of a mermaid; the enforcement of laws, or the temptation to break them. This ambiguity is characteristic of Magritte, who stated, “Everything tends to make one think that there is little relation between an object and that which represents it.” We recognise at once the shadow cast long across the floorboards, and yet it is not a real shadow. We notice the grain of the wood, but we know it to be only brushstrokes. The multiple uncertainties of Forbidden Literature cause us to test the ties that bind the object to its image, image to its word.

Though the painting is filled with light, we feel a sense of unease. The finger accuses, the chalk is reminiscent of the outline round a dead body. That unease deepens as we begin to ask the questions prompted by the piece. Are we to trust the finger or the staircase? Either one is enormous, or the other, small. Perhaps neither image is a truthful representation, despite the naturalistic detail. And the words we use to describe them, can they be believed? What relation do “finger” and “staircase” bear to their real or painted counterparts? Would not “sirène” do just as well for either? One could argue that the point of the pointing extremity is that there is no point. We will never find a way to express reality realistically because true meaning is impossible to communicate.

This line of thought, however, is as much a dead-end as that staircase. There would be no point in sending said stairs straight into a wall if Magritte did not believe this image contained any meaning. Every object, image and word is related to a thousand more, a tapestry of associations that unveils many more truths than it hides. Of course a picture of a staircase is not a staircase. But neither is an idea of a staircase. Googling the definition of “true”, one finds the description “in accordance with fact or reality”. If we begin to think our own ideas are not in accordance with fact or reality, we are led down the lonely road of solipsism, trusting nothing and no one. Magritte did not walk this road, as is demonstrated by Forbidden Literature. True meaning is not impossible to communicate, just because an image or word can never exactly represent an object. If we insist on absolute certainties, we smother meaning, for it is precisely the ambiguity of language and the visual that allows us to express reality truthfully.”

Ruth O’Connell-Brown


Three Sources of Gravity

Relativity, M. C. Escher, 1953


Relativity depicts a world in which the normal laws of gravity do not apply. The architectural structure seems to be the centre of an idyllic community, with most of its inhabitants casually going about their ordinary business, such as dining. There are windows and doorways leading to park-like outdoor settings. All of the figures are dressed in identical attire and have featureless bulb-shaped heads. Identical characters such as these can be found in many other Escher works.

In the world of Relativity, there are three sources of gravity, each being orthogonal to the two others. Each inhabitant lives in one of the gravity wells, where normal physical laws apply. There are sixteen characters, spread between each gravity source, six in one and five each in the other two. The apparent confusion of the lithograph print comes from the fact that the three gravity sources are depicted in the same space.

The structure has seven stairways, and each stairway can be used by people who belong to two different gravity sources. This creates interesting phenomena, such as in the top stairway, where two inhabitants use the same stairway in the same direction and on the same side, but each using a different face of each step; thus, one descends the stairway as the other climbs it, even while moving in the same direction nearly side-by-side. In the other stairways, inhabitants are depicted as climbing the stairways upside-down, but based on their own gravity source, they are climbing normally.

Each of the three parks belongs to one of the gravity wells. All but one of the doors seem to lead to basements below the parks. Though physically possible, such basements are certainly unusual and add to the surreal effect of the picture.

This is one of Escher’s most popular works and has been used in a variety of ways, as it can be appreciated both artistically and scientifically. Interrogations about perspective and the representation of three-dimensional images in a two-dimensional picture are at the core of Escher’s work, and Relativity represents one of his greatest achievements in this domain.

Within You (in the Labyrinth)

David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King. Movie still from Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986)



How you turned my world,
you precious thing
you starve and near exhaust me
everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you
I move the stars for no one
you’ve run so long
you’ve run so far
your eyes can be so cruel
just as I can be so cruel
though I do believe in you
yes I do
live without the sunlight
love without your heartbeat
I, I can’t live within you
I can’t live within you
I, I can’t live within you

David Bowie


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