by Kimmo Rosenthal
“A true work of art in no way depends for its justification on its seeming connections with the place that many call the real world and that I call the visible world.” — Gerald Murnane, A Million Windows
The above epigraph encapsulates much of the appeal of the paintings of René Magritte, which repeatedly call into question the accuracy and trustworthiness of our perceptions of the real world, while exploring the impact of our invisible world of the imagination on these perceptions. His famous “ceci n’est pas un pipe” painting was actually entitled The Treachery of Images. At first reckoning, the pairing of René Magritte and Gerald Murnane might seem incongruous, nonetheless their paths have intersected at a personal crossroads on what Murnane would likely call my most private of maps. Reading Murnane’s novel The Plains has helped me begin to understand and find meaning in Magritte’s painting The Mysteries of the Horizon (sometimes also known as The Masterpiece).
I was looking at the various paintings in the book The Fifth Season trying to articulate for myself their enigmatic, yet wondrous appeal. Language often seems inadequate to capture the essence of art with different thoughts and impressions competing for primacy and the right words refusing to appear; this inadequacy is nowhere more evident than in the work of Magritte, although the essays in the above-mentioned book tackled this task with insightful perspicacity. I was wondering why The Mysteries of the Horizon had me so intrigued. Some elusive thoughts were floating at the edge of my mind, refusing to reveal themselves. In this painting, three of Magritte’s ubiquitous, anonymous, bowler-hatted men are standing in a barren landscape, each under their own lambent moon. They are enveloped by a melancholy blue twilight. In the distance is a narrow strip of paler blue with silhouettes of buildings on the horizon, seemingly as unreachable as Kafka’s castle. These bowler-hatted men with their affectless, stoic demeanor, and their black garb reminding me of cerements, have always evoked an underlying sense of disquiet, if not menace. They are not looking at each other, nor at the moons above them.
Claire Haskell records Magritte saying how this is a philosophical problem, namely that each person has their own vantage point and hence their own moon, yet there is, in fact, only one moon. There is an inherent dialectic between fragmentation and unity. This raises a question that has preoccupied much of my reading and writing. How does one view the world and how can we make sense of it? If, as seems to be the case, the answers will remain forever inaccessible, then why be preoccupied with it? As I contemplated this painting, which Magritte referred to as a “prodigious paradox,” I suddenly realized what had been waiting to break through the surface of my thoughts. Not too long ago, I had reread The Plains by Gerald Murnane (an annual rite) and this novel is in many ways about the mysteries of the horizon and the search for our own private plain (not that different a metaphor from observing a private moon.) It is about searching for one’s very own landscape in a private twilight to which no other person has access and, if they did, they would be unable to interpret it. It is the strangeness of Magritte’s paintings and their refusal to conform to preconceptions or yield to interpretations that makes viewing them a form of personal search.
The narrator of The Plains at the very beginning of the book says that the book is about the desire to see properly. Magritte’s work is also about seeing properly or, more precisely, about the difficulty in doing so; it is about the extent to which our senses and our view of reality may deceive us. The narrator of The Plains sets out to make the definitive film about the plains of Australia; it should come as no surprise that over several decades he never makes his film, for the plains are as unfathomable as life itself. Instead, he gets lost in his own vision of what the plains constitute. It would be apposite to say that he gets lost in the mysteries of the horizon. The horizon will symbolize something different for each person. The world presented to us is fragmentary, replete with obstacles and divagations and, as such, defies any possible unification. The cornerstone of Murnane’s fiction is the idea that the invisible landscape of the mind is crossed and recrossed daily and is, in many ways, more decipherable to us than this so-called real world. This invisible landscape predominates; we must wrestle with the dichotomies of reality and imagination, beyond and within. As Wallace Stevens has written in The Necessary Angel, our very existence is predicated on a delicate balancing act between reality and imagination.
When Murnane speaks of the search for points of recognition and familiarity in the disquieting terrain of the spirit, I realize I am beginning to understand the three bowler-hatted men. The phrase just quoted could have been the title of the painting. They are solitary beings, beyond communicating with each other (all facing in different directions) underneath their private empty moon (which they are wary of contemplating). With the crepuscular light fading, I imagine they are beginning to understand the subtle differences between absence and emptiness, loneliness and solitude. This brings to mind a line from the poem The Moon by Borges, who says, “there is so much loneliness in that gold.” We can never hope to see things as others see them, and although there is but one moon, there can never be accord as to its signification. Elsewhere, Murnane has written about the writer being a solitary witness to images from which they alone can hope to glean some meaning. The bowler-hatted man on the left becomes this solitary witness in Magritte’s companion painting The Schoolmaster.
Maurice Blanchot claims of a literary work of art that “each reading is the first one and each reading is the only one”. Replace the word reading with “viewing” and this is an apt description of the experience of looking at a Magritte painting. Magritte’s paintings suggest that there is no truth other than what each viewer perceives. We must discover or, perhaps it is more accurate to say, invent our own truth. Murnane describes the search for this truth as liberating and Magritte’s paintings are nothing if not liberating. The narrator of The Plains finds pleasure in discovering heretofore unrecognized connections between recondite ideas and that pleasure is enhanced by these connections being of no value to anyone else. Murnane suggests that the quality of being inexplicable to others is desirable and salutary and this very notion, seemingly counterintuitive, lies at the heart of Magritte’s appeal for me. Nonetheless, paradoxically, I have gone through sedulous efforts to try to explain The Mysteries of the Horizon.
Andre Aciman, in discussing Proust, talks about the true inner life and likens it to a ghost ship hovering on the horizon. We are perpetually aware of it, as well as of its inaccessibility. Thus, we are fated to remain solitary travelers on our private plain, under our private moon, as we contemplate the mysteries of the horizon.
Kimmo Rosenthal, after teaching and researching mathematics for many years, has turned his scholarly focus from mathematics to writing. His work has appeared in Prime Number (nominated for a Pushcart Prize), EDGE, decomP, KYSO Flash, The Fib Review, The Ekphrastic Review, and is forthcoming in Hinterland.