Bypassing thought

“I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it” Robert Bresson once said in an interview. T. S. Eliot had said something similar: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Art can, in other words, bypass thought, and still affect us.

In one way, I rather like this. After all, I’m damned if I can understand Bresson’s Pickpocket, say, or Eliot’s “Little Gidding” – at least, I’m damned if I understand these works well enough to account for the effect they have on me. And yet, they do have an effect on me: I can’t deny it.

But in another way, it bothers me. If one can respond, even respond powerfully, to something before one understands it; or even, perhaps, without ever understanding; can one then not respond to any old thing? What then of our powers of discrimination that we so pride ourselves on?

Of course, I tell myself, there is much one can love deeply without understanding. If, after all, one had to understand the principles of counterpoint to enjoy listening to a Bach fugue, poor old Johann Sebastian wouldn’t be left with too many admirers. And similarly with visual arts. Earlier this year, as I stood in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, in those great oval rooms, surrounded on all sides by those vast water-lilies of Monet, by those dazzling, resplendent splashes of colours, I felt quite transported. But were I imprudent enough to try to write a blog post about them, I don’t know that I could say anything more interesting or more meaningful than “I like them, and think they are very good”.

Indeed, now I think about it, much of writing on arts, perhaps most, could be reduced to that. “I like it. I think it is very good.” Or maybe “It rocks”. Or, conversely, “It sucks”. For who needs articulacy when you don’t have much to say in the first place?

And this, I admit, bothers me, because, while I do accept the truth of Bresson’s dictum (and of Eliot’s), the logical end of their pronouncements seems to be the death of dialogue. If understanding is not the point, then why go beyond “It rocks” and “It sucks”?

I pose these questions rhetorically, of course, but if I cannot at least attempt an answer, much of what I write on this blog would be quite meaningless (if, indeed, it isn’t pretty meaningless as it is). And I think my answer may be along the following lines:

While gaining an understanding may not be essential to appreciation, it surely helps.

Recently, I watched Robert Bresson’s last film, L’Argent, made when he was an old man in his 80s. It is a challenging film, as I think the expression is; which, in other words, means it’s hard to figure out what the hell it’s about. Bresson seems, towards the end both of his career and indeed of his life, to take his trademark austere style to its very extremes. The narrative line is elliptical, with the causes of the various effects we see never quite made clear; the actors have clearly been instructed merely to speak their lines clearly, without the slightest hint of expression; and it is left entirely to the viewer to figure out what these characters’ motivations are, or, indeed, what it all signifies. For, presumably, it all does signify something: it is clearly not a set of random events strung together arbitrarily. But how do I know this? I mean, how do I know that this is not merely a set of random events strung together arbitrarily, when, to tell the truth, I can’t make too much sense of it all? I’d answer that the film affected me. Rather strongly. But is this enough? Is a mere subjective response on my part, a response I cannot account for in any objective terms, a sufficient criterion of artistic merit?

Well, yes, it is, if one believes that the very concept of artistic merit is merely subjective. But I don’t believe that. And there’s my problem.

For whatever reason, I cannot leave it there. I cannot just say “I like it” (“It rocks”) and leave it at that.  I had to think about the film as best I can, allow it to enter into my consciousness. The plot is based on a late novella by Tolstoy, The Forged Coupon. In that story, the simple act of passing on a forged coupon has all sorts of unexpected knock-on effects, and Tolstoy shows us a small act of evil – so small, indeed, that “evil” may seem too strong a word for it – escalating into something enormous. And then, in the second part of the story, Tolstoy shows the opposite effect: a single small act of human kindness similarly escalates, and has knock-on effects, but in a different direction. Tolstoy’s work is, of course, a moral fable, and while some, I know, think of it as evidence of the decline of a once great artist, I personally think of this novella as among the world’s greatest literature. But be that as it may, Tolstoy’s purpose, unlike Bresson’s, could not be clearer.

Bresson takes this story, and shows us only the first part. Two boys pass a forged banknote, and the cumulative effect of this thoughtless action grows, until it seems to engulf humanity itself. But the counter-action – the spreading of Good – Bresson does not show. He takes the spread of evil to its end – omitting quite deliberately many of the links in the process – and then leaves us there. So yes, Bresson’s film, unlike Tolstoy’s story, is a deeply pessimistic work: it sees evil as triumphant, and humanity helpless. But if this were all, it would not have affected me so very powerfully. “Evil is all-powerful and we are helpless” seems too trite an observation to be the basis of a great work of art.

So what else is there to this film that affected me so? To get a better grasp of the film, I needed not merely to feel, but to understand – to understand why the characters act as they do. And yet, those are the very aspects of the film that Bresson chose to leave out. So, naturally, it was up to me to try to fill in those gaps. I have felt the film, as Bresson had wanted me to: but I found it deeply unsatisfactory to leave it there. I needed also to understand. And maybe, if I did, I could feel even more intensely.

It isn’t easy: Bresson was not merely a devout Catholic, he was also a Jansenist, and the modes of thinking this implies are very alien to my sensibilities. But it does seem to me that the principal character, having already attempted to kill himself, becomes so filled with hatred of his own self that he wants to damn his own soul. Mere physical destruction isn’t enough: through some strange workings of his mind that are outside the normal orbit of my own, he has to destroy himself spiritually too.

Now, there is no point in wondering whether or not this is the correct interpretation: since Bresson himself refuses to explain, any explanation that is not inconsistent with what is in the film is valid. A work of art isn’t, after all, a crossword puzzle – a code one has to solve to arrive at a correct answer. However, having reached at least some sort of understanding, however inadequate and superficial, I needed desperately to know what others have made of it. For the perspectives of others can but deepen my own.

I searched on Google, but I must admit I didn’t really find anything that was particularly valuable. Maybe I was looking at the wrong places. But I am not looking for a solution: there aren’t solutions to these things. What I am looking for is dialogue – something a bit more substantial than “it rocks” or “it sucks”. For the more one can understand, the better one can feel.

Ultimately, all works of art, of any substance at all, ultimately lie beyond our understanding. Even works we are well acquainted with. I have known King Lear, say, since I was eleven: I have seen many performances, both on stage and on screen; I have read it and re-read it for nearly 50 years now; I have even read books and essays about it. But do I really understand it fully? Could I account for all this play makes me feel? No. Ultimately, these things remain a mystery. But without making the effort at least to understand what I can, I would not have been able even to approach this mystery.

Looking back at the quotes with which I started this piece, I notice there is one word they both use. “I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it.” “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” (My italics.) Feeling may indeed come before understanding, but that is not to say it replaces it. And nor does analysis (which is no more than structured thought) destroy feeling, as so many seem to think. Quite the opposite. True, we may never pluck out the heart of the mystery that any work of art of any substance, I think, possesses; but not even to make the effort reduces us merely to passive spectators. And to engage adequately with a work of art, we need to be far more than that.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Peace Om on October 9, 2018 at 1:31 am

    Great post.:)

    On Oct 8, 2018 5:34 AM, “The Argumentative Old Git” wrote: > > argumentativeoldgit posted: ““I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it” Robert Bresson once said in an interview. T. S. Eliot had said something similar: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Art can, in other word, bypass thought, and still affect us” >


  2. Posted by janet on October 9, 2018 at 4:49 pm

    I like this post. It rocks. Plus, it articulates the struggle to understand what it means to be human.

    Great works do more than merely represent the surface of things. Figuring out why a phrase or play of light affects us a certain way is to (first) recognize that we are being manipulated and to (second) ferret out and discover what it is inside us that is resonating with the work. Sometimes the affective cues are straightforward and meant to reinforce the text; sometimes a work “feels” beautiful and carries a horrifying message, or at least a message that one disagrees with. Why does one get a happy little smile on hearing the first bars of Mack the Knife?

    I’m not sure I agree that art bypasses thought; rather, I think it provokes thought by sneaking around behind and sticking a hat pin in it. Being moved by something that is beyond one’s understanding ought to provoke thought to a heightened level of activity. That’s the journey.


    • Hello Janet,

      I too find the concept difficult that art can bypass thought, but clearly, I can see from experience that this is true. There is so much in so many poems I have read that affects me deeply, but which I simply cannot explain. Take something like, say, Yeats’ poem “Byzantium”. I have some idea what it means : I should, having been acquainted with it for about 40 years But there is still so much in it I don’t understand – even after all the thought it has provoked. And yet I continue to be affected even by the bits I do not understand.

      There are other times when understanding has preceded appreciation. This, I think, is not often acknowledged, but I can think of examples of works that have not particularly affected me at first reading, but which, once I started to understand what the author is getting at, do affect me.

      What< i must admit, continues to irritate me is the inarticulate burbling of "It's great, isn't it?" without any argument in support. But were I to try to write a post on Yeats' "Byzantium", I'd be doing much the same thing.

      It's all very strange, isn't it?


  3. An excellent post. From time to time I have contemplated why (classical) music has such a strong effect on me, given that I know next to nothing about composition and musical theory. I don’t “understand” Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Wagner etc., so how come Le Nozze di Figaro, Parsifal or Mahler 2 arouse such powerful emotions? It goes way beyond “I like this” – after all, I like roast beef but have yet to be emotionally moved by it.

    I think it’s well nigh impossible for the layman to study his way into loving a piece of art. Much as I love most of Bach, I’ve never really got on with the Goldberg Variations, however much I have read up about them. On the occasions I meet people who want to explore music, I advise them to spend their time listening to music rather than reading turgid tomes with titles like “How to Listen to Music”. The music either speaks to you or it doesn’t. I would say that this applies to any art form; you can read volume after volume explaining the meaning and structure of a novel or poem, but if you still get nothing out of it, perhaps that particular work is not for you at that time.

    “Bypassing thought” is an excellent way of putting it. The best composers are able to communicate directly with the listener without the listener having to spend three years at a music academy; and we are very fortunate that this is the case. Of course, understanding what is “under the bonnet” can enhance one’s appreciation, though there is always the fear that this may be analogous to learning how magic tricks are performed.

    I always come back to Heinrich Heine, who said that “When words leave off, music begins.” If one of the greatest poets felt unable to use words to explain music, what the hell chance have the rest of us got?


    • Hello Neil,
      This is a problem I too often have. I don’t understand counterpoint, for instance. Oh, I can appreciate that it sounds good when lots of tunes play together, but all the complex rules and intricacy of counterpoint are well beyond my understanding. So what is it I am appreciating when I listen to Bach’s The Art of Fugue, say?

      This is why I often feel I shouldn’t really write about music. For I often feel that the only way really to talk about music is in technical terms. Toscanini, when asked what the first movement of the Eroica symphony says to him, famously replied “Allegro con brio”. Oh, we can talk about what it makes us feel, but that’s really talking about ourselves, not the music. And same with the other arts (though perhaps to a lesser extent with literature, on which I like to think I have at least a modicum of understanding). But then, we run into the danger of making the arts a preserve only of the connoisseur, and that’s surely not the way it should be. The various arts are certainly important in my life, and in the lives of many others who are not experts. And when something is important to me, I find it very difficult not to talk about it.

      So this formulation – that one may appreciate before one understands – is naturally rather appealing. The danger, of course, is that our discourse becomes little more than burbling, a mere exhibition of unreasoned and un-thought-out feelings. Music may well begin when words run out, as Heine said, but that does put me at a disadvantage when I want to describe what music means to me, and words are all I have!

      Best wishes, Himadri


  4. Borges also wrote about how artistic enjoyment takes place before understanding. He quoted, as proof, one of the, if not the, Spanish language’s most famous verses : “Y su epitafio la sangrienta luna”, “and his tombstone, the bloody moon”. When read in its original context, it’s almost unforgettable. And yet, as Borges explained, it’s merely an allusion to some petty robbery the Duke of Olivares had once perpetrated against Turkish merchants.

    Zen writings claim there’s a form of communication that lies beyond spoken language, going as far as to imply that the deepest truths cannot be explained with words.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: