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

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