Monday, November 15, 2010

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed

Friends who email us their family pictures without resizing them first: we all have them. The photos in question are generally of children, but at first when you click all you can see on the screen is the extreme close up of the top left corner of a window frame, or some floor tiles, or random foliage. Sometimes you can’t even tell what it is that you’re looking at, or if it’s the right way up. By the time you’ve finally located the critters, their terrifying grins span across half the screen. Who are these enormous children, and how can we stop them from destroying the world?


One of the commonplaces of the critique of new media and the Internet in particular is the depth vs. shallowness argument. I’m diligently queuing for my library copy of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, so I can’t comment on it yet, but his earlier, well-known essay for The Atlantic is probably the single most widely circulated and debated formulation of the argument that the Net is biased towards short and instantly accessible texts, as opposed to longer texts requiring greater concentration for longer periods of time characteristic of book culture. Greater concentration leads to deeper reading, and for Carr, citing Maryanne Wolf, deep reading is indistinguishable from deep thinking; ergo the shorter bursts of concentration and the scanning, skimming style favoured by the Net must lead to shallow thinking – the kind of thinking that might have counselled, say, the dim-witted and sensationalistic title of Carr’s piece: ‘Is Google making us stupid?’

But I’m not interested today in countering that argument, at least not directly. I just want to contrast that image with another, see if thinking of digital texts in terms of their resolution might suggest another way of looking at seeing and reading, detail and meaning, what is deep and what is shallow.


When you open an image that doesn’t fit your screen, most viewers – including web browsers – will generally show the top left corner of it.

Do you even know at this point what you’re supposed to be looking at? Maybe not. Perhaps you just clicked on a semi-random link, or have been told to ‘check this out’. So many of our encounters with texts on the Net are blind dates. In this case, it’s a date with a high resolution image. In some browsers you could instantly resize it to fit the screen, but let’s suppose that you don’t – not yet. What kind of judgments do you make about the nature of the image, at first glance? You can tell that it’s a painting, perhaps you can date it with good approximation. You may be something of an expert, and be able to recognise it right away – but again, let’s suppose you’re not. How long before you start scrolling?

We’re getting towards the middle of the image. It’s a pastoral scene, by the sea, likely somewhere in Northern Europe, judging by the style. Is the sun setting or rising? If we’re in Belgium or the Netherlands, then we must be facing West towards the sea, and it’s the evening. More scrolling reveals the figure in the foreground to be a ploughman, patiently toiling even at this late hour. The metal coulter of his plough slices the earth with surgical precision, while the thick wooden share lifts the grassy top layer in neat strips.

Not far from the ploughman lies a sword in its scabbard. The sixteenth century was a time of (often bloody and disastrous) peasant uprisings: perhaps the painting signifies here that the humble ploughman knows that his place is in the fields, and the sword is best left sheathed; or perhaps to the contrary that the ploughman likes to keep his sword close by, and reserves the option to unsheathe it again.

Unable to see the whole picture, one is drawn towards more details. A fisherman;

a galleon packed with goods sailing in the direction of the harbour we encountered in the top left corner of the painting.

Does the purse next to the ploughman's sword denote the profits from the sale of agricultural goods? Everything in the painting thus far has conveyed a sense of quiet, languid industry, within an environment seemingly designed so that primary goods can be extracted from it and then traded for honest gain. And we may be content with that interpretation, and move on, for at some point after all one must stop reading.


Had we seen the whole picture, and had we known its title – Landscape with the Fall of Icarus – we would have searched for the mythical character, and we would have found him in short order in the bottom right corner of the canvas, where our eyes accustomed to the Latin script are trained to travel and come to a stop.

And around that detail, small but significant – all the more significant in fact because it is so small – we would have constructed an entirely different reading, the classical reading from Ovid: that of an act of hubris that fails to transform humanity. While Icarus plunges headfirst into the sea, his legs thrashing about pathetically, the life of earth-bound humans goes on, as does their work.

To see whole pictures, and in their proper context, is what book culture prepares us for. To have these images fit our textual environment, instead of having to uncover them bit by bit, pixel by pixel. At times a computer screen is a mask that hides more than it reveals precisely because of what falls outside of its margins, and you may be persuaded of this in spite of the specious, ad hoc nature of my example. But I still wouldn’t call this shallow.

Conversely, to approach the painting with advance knowledge of its title will produce a correct reading every time, one that you will find echoed and validated in the poetic reinterpretations of W.H. Auden’s and William Carlos Williams’. It is a perfectly satisfactory outcome. But I still wouldn’t call it deep.

The problem with this particular painting’s title is in fact precisely that it predetermines its meaning, and packages it so neatly that we can just stop there, content with the, yes, superficial explanation. But we should in fact regard this with suspicion: what are the chances that a renaissance artwork could in fact be so transparent to us?

Suppose that we had really encountered the image at too high a resolution, and had had to make sense of it little by little, in the manner that I have just described. We might have noticed along the way a lighter patch in the bush above the horse.

Suppose we had magnified it.

Do you see it? It's a human head: there is a corpse hiding in the undergrowth. And no, I'm not making this up – although Wikipedia's reasonably detailed entry on the painting makes no mention of it. It is in fact covered by several commentators, albeit mostly in passing. The most popular explanation is still Gustav Glück's, according to whom the detail originates in the German proverb 'Es bleibt keiin Pflug stehen um eines Menschen willen, der stirbt' (No plough comes to a standstill because a man dies). I defer to such learned authority, of course, but wouldn't the proverb be covered quite nicely by poor Icarus yonder? Couldn't it be rather that the detail was mischievously inserted by the artist to destabilise the straightforward interpretation of a painting that is itself about misdirection in the way it refuses to foreground its overt subject?

Surely not. I won't even point out the irony here – that Glück concurred at the time of his analysis (1936) with the prevailing view that the painting was by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a hypothesis that has since been disproven. But I'm sure he was right about the other thing. Just like the eminent van Leppen was right when he explained the sword and the purse by means of another proverb, 'sword and money require careful hands' (meaning the hands of the ploughman). This is the same van Leppen who put forward the alchemical reading of the painting, which I shall briefly summarise here: the sun low on the horizon – instead of being high in the sky like the circumstances of the myth would suggest – symbolises the dawning of the philosopher's stone and perhaps alludes to the figure of the labyrinth (don't ask me how); the sea represents mercury, so treacherous for the inexperienced alchemist; the galleon is the crucible; the fall of Icarus is analogous to the precipitation of a substance; the ploughman is the farmer (for alchemists sometimes likened themselves to farmers); and the shepherd is the god Hermes, who tended sheep as a youngster. Thus the painting as a whole would be a visual compendium of the art of alchemy.

Now if any of the above sounds far fetched to you, may I suggest it’s because, like me, you’re not a renaissance art scholar? And that it may in fact be quite common in the study of paintings of this era to have a relatively straightforward interpretation overlaid onto others that are far more removed from contemporary sensibilities and modes of knowledge? Which is not to say that van Leppen is bound to be correct, either, nor that anything goes; but rather that it is appropriate for experts and lay people alike to approach these dense artworks and many other texts and artefacts –ancient and modern – at a high resolution, applying layers of interpretation on top of one another and discarding the ones that no longer seem convincing once the evidence is tallied; and furthermore, that it is a process that aims to go deep, as opposed to being satisfied with superficially plausible explanations, and that engages high level critical faculties and interpretive skills, along with new, or newly recovered, forms of literacy.

I am not putting this forward to defend the Net against its critics, but rather to call into question one specific critical frame. I contend that it’s not an issue of depth vs. shallowness, but not that there are no issues – and one could point to the proliferation of conspiracy theories on the Net as the flip side of where an over-developed attention to detail can lead us. On this too, I’m afraid, I’ll have a lot more to say in due course.

On the complexities of reading this painting and their broader implications, see Patrick Hunt's excellent 'Ekphrasis or Not? Ovid (Met. 8.183-235 ) in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'.

Robert Baldwin. 'Peasant Imagery and Bruegel's Fall of Icarus'. Konsthistorisk Tidskrift, LV, 3, 1986, pp. 101-114. (Also for the attribution to Glück of the interpretation of the corpse in the bush)

Piero Bianconi (ed.). L'opera completa di Bruegel. Milano: Rizzoli, 1967.


Fatal Paradox said...

"Who are these enormous children, and how can we stop them from destroying the world?"

Almost sounds like you are channelling Werner Herzog there!

On a more serious note though, like you I have only read Carr's Atlantic essay and so only have a précis of his argument, but it does seem to me as though there is some merit in what he says. This impression is based on my own purely unscientific evidence in the form of personal anecdotal experience - namely that since my early 20s when I became a full-fledged citizen of cyberspace I have found that my ability to sustain long periods of concentrated reading seems to diminish steadily year-on-year.

I find that I am always skimming ahead and impatient to reach the critical denouement of a novel (or even long prose poem), in a way that I never would have been in my teenage years. As you say, there is a debate to be had over whether this mode of reading is necessarily inferior to the conventional "deep reading" technique, but I for one must say that I do find it rather unsettling...

The only reassuring note seems to be that whenever, by dint of circumstance (such as a camping trip to some remote part of the South Island), I am separated from the cybernetic world for more than a day or two some of my ability to read deeply and without this prevailing sense of impatience/restlessness does return.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Carr may well have a point. What I was trying to question here is whether a long, uninterrupted period of reading 'on task' of a bound and finite - as opposed to open ended or fragmentary - text necessarily constitutes 'depth', and by implication the reverse constitutes 'shallowness'.

Unknown said...

Look to the small ;-)
All that exists within exists without.

Unknown said...

Arrrrgghhhhh I killed the thread with an old alchemical allusion :-(

Giovanni Tiso said...

I would say you're responsible for the comments tally not stopping at two, actually.

Unknown said...

I think for a comments boost you may have to consider being entirely more unreasonable and less erudite ;-)

Giovanni Tiso said...

Do you think I should mention Whaleoil more often?

Seriously, though, two years into this thing, I am all but completely unable to predict in advance what will generate a discussion and what won't. There is almost no relationship between number of comments and number of readers however, which I find intriguing.

Unknown said...

That's a tricky one ;-) More eyes are fixed on more words than ever before...I am waiting for the next year or so when we enter phase 3 - life after iPad 4.2 when you will be able to wirelessly print from it and watch the interdoink on your tv.
There will be an exponential increase in the need for content.
The money angle wont cut it, think copyists, they did it for God.

George D said...

If you're like me, once you see a large image you press the red X at the top left corner of your screen.

The quota is insufficient, screen not large enough.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Oh in that case you really, really don't want to click on this image (3.18 megabytes, 2500x3334 pixels), that merc sent a while back and I originally wanted to base this post on, except I asked the artist for permission to use it and he never got back to me.

Seriously, don't do it.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I clicked :)

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I clicked :)

Stephanie said...

My immediate thought at the point where you addressed the ploughman, and the sword, was - 'swords into ploughshares'.

You are right to raise this matter - I always enjoy the lengthy read your posts entail. As much for the argument, beautifully laid out and expressed.However, it was some months of following your blog before I felt able to comment, and I think this is the real interest in blogging: the number of comments and the number of readers are not clearly related because I believe few readers comment.

As to shallow versus depth - lengthy texts do not necessarily mean text worth reading at length. A lot of 'stuff' on the Net is just burble - for example, Mr Laws' former girlfriend, to mention one I read recently, skimming to see what the .... it was all about. And the giving up before the end.

Stephanie said...

PS I should have 'previewed' my comment!

"real interest in blogging" - by this I meant the question of interest in blogging is ....

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you Stephanie, you're very kind. I can also confirm that "swords into ploughshares" is central to Baldwin's interpretation of the painting in the essay I cite at the end of the post. Of course that's nothing compared to the fun that simply must be had when confronted with Bruegel's Proverbs, very nicely summarised by Wikipedia.

lengthy texts do not necessarily mean text worth reading at length

That's a key point I think, and goes hand in hand with how the Net is causing so many people to write. Writing is a heuristic process, it's how you work out what you think. You can do it in blogs or on twitter or in comments, at exhausting length or in five words per day. But it's always inherently a deep process.

(In fact, here's my contribution to follow friday: Masha Tupitsyn's twitter feed, which is both aphoristic and theoretical.)

George D said...

Perhaps I'm thinking of larger file-sizes. I was for a few years a regular contributor to Wikipedia's featured picture program - not being a photographer or image-maker, I would trawl through digitised archives. 10-20mb is standard there for large historical works, particularly those of restoration standard.

We're only at the narrow end of digitisation.

Megan Clayton said...

My thought, a hook
on a Hammond beak;
with Rococo blue birds
I watch and wait

while Mary Stanley,
at kitchen window,
thinks ready or not,
here comes the drop.