Continuing with this discussion of depth, I was exploring the experience of depth in perception as an access into a different way of relating to depth in psychoanalytic work. We live the experience of depth in the relationship between form and its field. With visual phenomena there’s a connected distance between some ‘thing’ and the context in which it appears. It’s very sense or meaning is found in the interaction, the shifting back and forth between figure and context. In this shift, there is a movement between what is revealed and what is obscured, continually disclosing some views and eclipsing others, a process of creative shifts that come before we think about them, shifts that organize, dissolve and organize again.
In the room next door, my son has a noise machine that he uses for sleep humming away unnoticed until I write these words. It has snowed overnight, several feet, and even in this hum there’s a blanketed silence to the morning. Streets are not yet plowed and I can hear the absence of motors and tires on the roads around us. My dog snoozes at my feet, his steady breathing accompanies the click of these keys as letters and words come one at a time. And as I shift, there’s my personal noise machine, the high-pitched hum of tinnitus that occasionally accompanies me as background (but right now foreground) in the mornings. I don’t intentionally organize these sounds, they move seamlessly from foreground to background to foreground in an unending flow. Experiences unfold over time but are layered in this unfolding, shifts between presences and absences, coming together and falling apart, new organizations replacing old, ever new but also repeated over and over like my dog’s breath.
I want to show how his first relationship of figure with its ground is found within a second relationship. This shifting movement of experiencing something in its context brings the perceiver into the creative process of what is perceived. Just like the connection/separation between form and field, there is also a connected/separated relationship between this form-field relationship and myself as the experiencer of that relationship. I mentioned in another paper that “The perceiver is part of the field. The object of experience is never separate from the subject who experiences it. Put another way, perception or experience is always situated. We find ourselves in meaningful situations that we shape and that shape us in turn.”
The perceiver is the ever-present third point of connection between form and field. Depth captures both the separation or distance between me and my world and also captures the fundamental connection and interpenetration with the world, something that leads Merleau-Ponty to call depth “the most existential” dimension (1945/2012, p. 267). Rather than being part of the object itself, like height and width, depth “belongs to perspective and not to things. …It announces a certain indissoluble link between the things and me by which I am situated in front of them…a relation between subject and object” (p. 267). We are situated in the field. The apples in the bowl are over there but graspable by me here. Before reaching for them, I already grasp their contour, texture and color as part of the depth of the field. Although separate, their very depth allows connection and indeed even penetration as my eyes receive their vivid form.
This kind of immersion finds its expression in painting, where Merleau-Ponty elaborates how depth discloses one of the enigmas at the heart of experience: “…the enigma that my body simultaneously sees and is seen. That which looks at all things can also look at itself and recognize, in what it sees, the ‘other side’ of its power of looking” (1961/1993, p. 134). The other side refers to the fact that in perceiving, the world looks back. In a way, the world perceives me. Klee said it was not only he who looked at the forest, but he felt that the forest looked at and spoke to him, and Cézanne said: “Nature is on the inside” (Merleau-Ponty, 1961/1993, p. 125).
This suggests a more complex notion of immersion. The system of exchanges between figure and field explored above are mirrored by a system of exchanges between perceiver and perceived, where self and world exchange roles. Just as form becomes field and field form in the formation of meaning, the subject who engages is engaged by the world. We sense the world in a way that puts it in touch with us. When we cradle a hot mug of coffee, our hand becomes hot with it. Our sensing involves being affected by what is sensed. I rub my hand over the rough bark of the tree and not only feel the roughness, but my skin is roughened by it.
Through this reversible overlapping of the sensing and sensible, the painter becomes caught up in the seen, where things become “a prolongation“ of self, and self is “caught or comes to be in things” (1961/1993, p.125). Whereas most photographs only represent this reciprocal nature of experiencing in depth, paintings can capture and engage the very experience of it. Rather than conveying a literal representation of his apples, Cézanne’s genius was of following the swell of the apple through distortion, modulation of color and multiple outlines in blue. This creates an experience in looking where, “rebounding among these [enfolding modulations], one’s glance captures a shape that emerges from them all, just as it does in perception” (1948/1993, p. 65).
It might help to look at an example that makes clear how depth occasions both the interpenetration of sense and the sensible and yet simultaneously holds them separate. In one of his most beautiful but dense portrayals of depth, Merleau-Ponty describes the experience of tiles seen at the bottom of a pool:
When through the water’s thickness I see the tiled bottom of the pool, I do not see it despite the water and the reflections, I see it through them and because of them. If there were no distortions, no ripples of sunlight, if it were without that flesh that I saw the geometry of the tiles, then I would cease to see it as it is and where it is–which is to say, beyond any identical, specific place. I cannot say that the water itself–the aqueous power, the syrupy and shimmering element–is in space; all this is not somewhere else either, but it is not in the pool. It inhabits it, is materialized there, yet it is not contained there; and if I lift my eyes toward the screen of cypresses where the web of reflections plays, I must recognize that the water visits it as well or at least sends out to it its active living essence. This inner animation, this radiation of the visible is what the painter seeks beneath the words depth, space and color. (1961/1993, p. 142, italics in original)
Depth is the “thickness” through which I see the tiles. It separates the surface from the bottom of the pool not simply as a dimension of space, a measurable distance, but as a way of seeing. The water is both the medium through which depth is experienced in this example, and it is the metaphor for depth in any experience. Merleau-Ponty uses the term “distortions,” but he does not mean by this a divergence from geometric regularity. The “shimmering” movement and ripples are the very means through which this particular vision becomes visible, the means through which this water-filled pool is present to me.
Rather than being a distortion of the ‘real’ nature of tiles, or an opacity that hides the real tiles from view, it is the medium through which I see. The syrupy element isn’t “in the pool” as a spatial set of coordinates; it inhabits my gaze as medium, connecting surface, tile, cypress and embodied self in an active living essence. Merleau-Ponty calls this kind of immersion flesh (1964/1968), the connected envelopment of sense and sensible, where in the reversible movement between perceiving and being perceived (i.e., affecting and being affected by what we perceive), the duality of subject and object blurs.
But even while the things of the world (including my embodied awareness) are interpenetrated through depth, they are also separate. Like the figure-ground tension where depth is found in both the meaningful connection between form and its field and the difference between them (écart), the immersion of depth described as reversibility shares a similar tension. I am enfolded in a reciprocity with the world, but I never lose myself completely in it. Depth is a sustained separation between the world and me, the same kind of gap as between a figure and its ground in which meaning finds its shape. The surface of the water and the bottom of the pool are connected yet separate. We do not confuse the scalding hot coffee mug and our burning hand (although this is not completely true as we shall see).
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968). The Visible and the Invisible. trans. A. Lingis. Evanston, IL: Northwestern Universities Press. (Original work published 1964)
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1993). Cézanne’s doubt. In G. A. Johnson (Ed.), The Merleau-Ponty aesthetics reader (pp. 59-75). Evanston, IL: Northwestern Universities Press. (Original work published 1948)
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1993). Eye and mind. In G. A. Johnson (Ed.), The Merleau-Ponty aesthetics reader (pp. 121-149). Evanston, IL: Northwestern Universities Press. (Original work published 1961)
Merleau-Ponty, M. (2012). The Phenomenology of Perception. (D. A. Landis, Tr.). London: Routledge. (Original work published 1945)