Life of Pi: orange, blue, white and burning tigers


Towards the end of Ang Lee’s 2012 Life of Pi an unusually docile CGI tiger – in naturalistic orange stripey colourway – impressively and movingly Method-acts latter-stage emaciation. Image from

The tiger in Life of Pi eats a whole film. In other words, our wish to believe in stories is so strong we gobble them up whether they’re true or not. Those who think of themselves as hard-headed realists probably prefer Pi’s brutal ‘outer’ story – though of course any conception of ‘realism’ in fiction is self-evidently unrealistic. If I may not too egocentrically continue from my previous post, for me the fictive tiger is the living heart of the film. Unbelievably, it’s computer-generated; indeed, the whole film is illusory, but it ultimately endorses human imagination and empathy as the way we make what we conceive to be true.

The film asks the God question, but leaves it open; the openness is the answer. Like one of Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödelian strange loops, the meaning of a system (whether the film or the universe) cannot be internally derived, but must be extrinsically generated. The major artistic success of the film, for me, is the deliberate design/framing of the storytelling to make the design visible. What we make of that – film or universe – is our own cognitive replication of the creation, or our God-like choice.

Fairly feline, don’t you think? Neytiri from Avatar (James Cameron, 2009). Image from Wikipedia

Next: blue quasi-tigers – or, as Wikipedia puts it, 10-foot tall, blue-skinned, sapient humanoids. For a deeper understanding of Ang Lee’s film, how does it compare with James Cameron’s 2009 Avatar? In this movie, the crushing reality for main character Corporal Jake Sully is that severe wounds during military combat lead to the amputation of his legs; he finds freedom when his mind is uploaded into his (fully mobile) avatar in a new, strange and beautiful world. In Life of Pi the brutal story told to (invented for?) the insurance investigators frames but is subservient to the beautiful images of Pi’s compelling and richly imaginative tiger story. In Avatar, Jake is captivated by the beauty of the ‘natural’ (although of course computer-generated) world his avatar finds; at the end he stays both in this alien world and his lithesome blue-tiger-body. And we the audience in the cinema projectively replicate his complete immersion in an imagined world.

Of course the harsh ‘realities’ of severe disability and human predatory/colonialist exploitation are imagined too: it’s a movie. Our projective identifications remain intact – as with all films (except Life of Pi) until the final narratological violence of the rolling credits and the lights coming up on the banality of spilled popcorn and monster Coke cups littering garish moviehouse carpets. In Life of Pi the smashing of illusions happens within the film and three times, #1 when the tiger slopes off into the Mexican jungle without a second glance, #2 with the brutal story in the dull hospital, and #3 in the ordinary flat in Canada. ‘What I tell you three times,’ says the Bellman in Lewis Carroll’s own menacing sea story, The Hunting of the Snark, ‘must be true.’

8/10. Tiger visual references have intriguingly shrunk to the eyes above/below the i’s. Balram’s taxi has got tiger stripes but they are orange. Nice Indian references in the ornamental borders without being too crass. The lively bold lettering sells well from thumbnail images on the internet. Image from

The White Tiger, the prizewinning and bestselling 2008 novel by Aravind Adiga, is an unusual dig into the ever-rich seam of storytelling about the subcontinent of India. This time, according to The New York Times, ‘Mr. Adiga said his book was an “attempt to catch the voice of the men you meet as you travel through India – the voice of the colossal underclass.” “This voice was not captured,” he added, “and I wanted to do so without sentimentality or portraying them as mirthless humorless weaklings as they are usually.”’ The lowly caste and sycophantic disposition of the taxi-driving protagonist Balram Halwai initially seem to preclude connection with the killer instinct of the animal in the title … or do they?

Certainly the book is important in our symbolic order for reflecting new and renegotiated power relations between the former colonizeds and the former colonizers. The white tiger, symbolically speaking, stands for the economic and cultural dynamism of the ‘colossal underclass’ and country that Professor Lord Martin Rees, former President of the Royal Society, has predicted will be the intellectual and scientific centre of the world within 50 years.

In Life of Pi the tiger is not so specifically techno-economic – though the film does indeed hint at the strength and impact of Indian modernization and cultural/economic expansion. Mostly, though, the tiger is more like the psychoanalytical conception of the Other, the repressed and refused (in the West) dark side of human energy, instinct and oblivion, in conflict with civilization; it is unassimilable into language or rational understanding, but it is there, too, in us all. Pi’s struggle and accommodation with this powerful animal – whose life-force, he later realizes, keeps him alive – is an impressive negotiation we can trace back in the symbolic world to other Others, for example Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and, from popular culture, Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws. I’m also thinking of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, where the evil Captain Hook plays out a very different outcome in his uneasy relationship with the crocodile.

It is tiger as Other that William Blake writes about in his famous poem in the Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789–94): ‘Tyger Tyger, burning bright …’. Please remember the speaker of ‘The Tyger’ is not necessarily the poet, but a voice of ‘experience’. The voice could be just one of the poet’s many voices – the poet’s framing of innocence and experience as ‘two contrary states of the Human Soul’ suggests both he the writer and we the reader feel/believe multiple and different things at the same time.

Image from

William Blake (1757–1827), ‘Tyger Tyger, burning bright’. Drawn, lettered, engraved, printed and hand-coloured by the poet. Image from

The voice in the poem is a particular kind of adult voice, perceptive and disillusioned, though perhaps, Blake suggests, they simply have different and adult kinds of illusion. I was thinking of this kind of person when I read the NY Times review of Life of Pi I started with in my previous post. He says:

the narrative frame that surrounds these lovely pictures complicates and undermines them. The novelist and the older Pi are eager to impose interpretations on the tale of the boy and the beast, but also committed to keeping those interpretations as vague and general as possible. And also, more disturbingly, to repress the darker implications of the story, as if the presence of cruelty and senseless death might be too much for anyone to handle.

I suggest this kind of adult disillusion is actually adult ingenuousness. I repeat: it’s a movie. No animals – or people – were injured in the making of this film. Besides, no work of art can be about everything – why should it, and how can it? And anyway, when we willingly suspend our disbelief in the implausible we extend our capacity for empathy and imagination.

For comparison with the attitude of the reviewer, here are stanzas 3 to 5 of Blake’s poem. The speaker looks at a tiger in awe but is caged in by their relentlessly anthropocentric metaphors; he (surely male?) struggles to see anything more than his own terror – as if the tiger’s sole object of attention is him. In the fourth stanza (‘What the hammer? …’) notice the obsessional metaphors of the manufacturing processes in the early Industrial Revolution; in contemporary terms this is like thinking about Life of Pi in terms of the algorithms for the CGI rendering of hair. Is there any projective empathy here, outside all the egotism and self-centredness, for the Otherness of the tiger?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

In the face of such closed Dawkins-style scepticism and instrumentalism the speaker finds it impossible to see the utter tigerishness of the tiger, its innocence, that is such a fine achievement in Life of Pi. There is wonder and a sense of awe/dread in the speaker’s voice, but also a sense that this person simply cannot understand a world outside themselves.

What’s left? To borrow another Blake quote, ‘The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction’, which I take to mean that tigers in stories – particularly fiction – have more life and energy than the horses of exegesis and interpretation. Which sounds like a good place to stop.

In memory of Oscar (1998–2013)

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Life of Pi – a film review in six or seven facts

What does this film mean? Does it, as its hero Pi Patel says at the beginning, ‘make [us] believe in God’?

This post contains (as they say) spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happens, please don’t read it …

An establishing shot ( for The LIfe of Pi … Image from

An establishing shot ( for this review of Life of Pi … Image from

Fact #1: The story tells us a story about the telling of stories. This post is my story about Ang Lee’s film of Yann Martel’s book, which tells the story of a writer who writes a book about the story of a man who tells two very different stories about surviving a shipwreck. The giddy regress of mirrors of mirrors (‘mise en abyme’) makes the perceptive and critical reviewer in The New York Times reel: ‘The movie invites you to believe in all kinds of marvelous things, but it also may cause you to doubt what you see with your own eyes – or even to wonder if, in the end, you have seen anything at all.’

This is good because it gets near the truth. This is bad because the film aims at an ambiguity of believing/doubting that is clearly and completely deliberate. How can a first-class reviewer miss this?

So, moving on to the solid ground of Fact #2: Art always conceals artifice. Art hides its own making. Media contain other media, and the human drive to make sense is so strong that media seem to disappear. What then do we see? We (to invert Blake) behold what we become. For us, narcissus (to quote McLuhan) is narcosis – in other words, when we don’t notice we are reflected back to us in media we’re no longer fully awake or alive. We can extend this point to a God-bothering quote from William Blake, in the author’s own original illustrated/hand-coloured/engraved/hand-lettered form:

William Blake, Plate 11 from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Image from

William Blake, Plate 11 from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Image from

On to Fact #3: Repeated figures or tropes are signs of a maker’s craft and intent. They are evidence of intelligent design. I am talking about the maker of the film rather than a Maker, but the story plays with the parallels between creating and the Creation. The name of the ship carrying the animals from Pondicherry is Tsimtsum, a Kabbalistic term denoting divine cosmogonic retraction or constriction, in other words the formation of apparently empty space for the possibility of Creation/creation. In the film the metaphor is probably playful rather than earnest – the ship sinks. Perhaps the next phase – HaKelim (the making of vessels for holding the Creation) – would have been a better name for the ship. The subsequent Shevirat (shattering – the vessels were not strong enough) clearly connects with the sinking of the ship, suffering and disaster in the real world, and the difficulties of meaning in language/works of art. Indeed, Pi, the tiger, the filmmaker, the writer and we too are perhaps at the next stage, Tikkun: the repair of brokenness. We are all, metaphorically, the film suggests, in the same boat.

Let’s extend Fact #3 with Fact #4: Eating is one of the film’s central metaphors. During the film the tiger eats, in order, its hunter’s name (Richard Parker), a goat, a hyena, the (usable space on the) lifeboat, tuna, flying fish, meerkats, Pi’s heart out, and, finally, the film itself. (I’m thinking of when Jack Nicholson’s Joker stole the whole 1989 Batman movie.) Here I’m tempted to describe the tiger’s performance as Oscar-winning, except it’s an animal, er … I mean it’s a computer animation … Isn’t it fascinating we might even begin to think of it as a real creature? Doesn’t this mean something interesting and important – I don’t just mean the abundant talents of the Rhythm and Hues SFX team, but inside our heads?

The first story Pi remembers from his childhood (he tells the writer) is of the Hindu supreme deity Krishna, ‘who had become a human child out of sport, without any loss of His divine powers’. Krishna’s mother Yashoda sees him eating from the ground and tells him off for eating dirt. She insists on looking into his mouth, and then (as Vanamali beautifully puts it):

She bent forward to peer more closely and lo! she felt herself to be whirling in space, lost in time, for inside the baby mouth was seen the whole universe of moving and unmoving creation, the earth and its mountains and oceans, the moon and the stars, and all the planets and regions. She was wonderstruck to see the land of Vraja and the village of Gokula, herself standing there with the child Krishna beside her with a wide-open mouth, and within that mouth another universe, and so on and on and on.

Let’s, then, not be too literal about eating. May we try to broaden our conception of it? In a food chain of narratives and explanations each story is eaten by a bigger story. In another storytelling chain the bread and wine of the Christian rite of Communion is, in its own terms, disturbingly cannibalistic, but broadened it becomes an act of understanding, generative of life in body and spirit.

Comments in the blogosphere suggest most of us are hung up on the cannibalism meta-story. Its overt plausibility, bitterness and unacceptability doesn’t therefore mean it is true. Yes, people often and understandably lie when they think something is too harsh or cruel to say or even think. But does that mean cruel stories are more true than the beautiful and remarkable scenes we have watched? The images for Pi’s alternative story are stripped back to banal shots of insurance investigators and talking heads in a drab hospital in Mexico. Is this the ‘real’ world? To those who think that plain truth is truer than beautiful truth I offer Fact #5: This film is a work of fiction. It almost seems absurd to think we can debate which of its stories is ‘true’. But to see is to believe. If we see and fully digest the tiger story, what we feel and understand is true. If we are arguing about it, and writing/reading about it, it has become real for us.

Life of Pi water tank

It’s just a movie: the water tank for the sea scenes in Life of Pi. Image from

Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 helpfully called this the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. The themes of his own implausible but compelling sea story, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, are comparable to Martel’s. The mariner kills his Other, the albatross, but escapes Life-in-Death when he blesses the sea-snakes ‘unaware’; Pi survives because his symbiosis with the tiger (whatever this means to him or us symbolically) keeps him alert and alive.

Coleridge’s idea is valuable because it says writing and publishing go two ways. Viewers/readers make the meaning too. We don’t just consume. What’s the next step? What we see therefore tells us about the truth in here rather than out there. Can we watch a film and also understand we see ourselves?

Fact #6: Implausibility is not the opposite of truth. According to Claude Shannon’s information theory (1948), signal is different from noise because (a) it is unlikely (‘negentropic’) and (b) it changes the state of the recipient. Fiction clearly qualifies under both counts. In fact (?) one of the main problems for writers of stories is fact is stranger than …

The central figure of the floating island of millions of (CGI) meerkats seems to be intended to tax our (and Pi’s hearers) powers of belief. How can such a thing exist? More food than Pi and the tiger can eat, with fresh water that turns acidic at night and eats the eaters? How can there be a human tooth inside a flower? Aren’t these the delusions of the starved and the thirsty?

Previously too the story stretches credulity by inviting us to believe Pi’s family named him after a particularly elegant swimming pool in Paris: Piscine Molitor. Further, to avoid being teased about his name, he both changed it to the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter and learned it to some hundreds of digits – we see him writing them on a blackboard.

To borrow a fine phrase from an unlikely source (former Arsenal Premier League footballer Paul Merson), the film both has and questions ‘unbelievable belief’. On the God question itself, does the film actually ‘make [us] believe’? Firstly, the luscious visuals and boggingly plausible CGI, particularly the mesmeric tiger and the 3D images of luminescent sea creatures at night, are a feast for the eyes – but I can’t believe they’re belief-changing.

Secondly, to expect a rational and coherent answer to this question is to predetermine that the answer is no. Abstract discussion about a cardboard cutout deity is communicatively a broken and sinking vessel, incapable of holding whatever we can imagine to be the attributes of the unimaginable. I am always puzzled why self-defined ‘rational’ atheists assert their position rationally in an aprioristically meaningless universe, as if they and their argument – both extraordinarily like the theistic conception of a Creator – are somehow not part of it.

Thirdly, two key and conflicting moments, one near the beginning: Pi’s usually kindly father (a Richard Dawkins-style devotee of Western and instrumentalist scientific progress) tigerishly tries to devour Pi’s burgeoning inter-species empathy and Pi’s simultaneously Hindu, Christian and Moslem sympathies by making him witness the Richard Parker’s ‘savagery’ as it crushes and eats a goat. ‘The tiger does not feel what you feel,’ Pi’s father shouts. ‘What you see when you look at it is only your emotions reflected back to you.’

The other is near the end. The tiger walks off into the Mexican jungle without looking back; Pi sobs uncontrollably. Pi’s father was right all along, but in the story his reality principle is not enough to prevent his death; Pi is wrong, but it keeps him alive. It is his life. He weeps that his love for the tiger is foolish, but it is movingly and deeply human.

We project our feelings onto any and every story as we eat them up with our eyes. The film becomes the tiger for us, it becomes real for us; we want to live out who we are on and in these shadows on a wall that flicker at us at 24 frames per second. Our seeing is so poor we don’t even notice. Perhaps the God point in the film is this: we want to experience the world this way. Perhaps we will be surprised that the meanings we find are the ones we hoped/feared/wanted to put there – perhaps that is what we mean by ‘God’. But our errors and foolishness are also our successes and dignity, they’re certainly our humanity.

Finally, in this beautifully made and richly generative film, Fact #7: There are no facts. What you make of it is God, your world, your film. You choose.

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Have you tried the new reduced whiches and thats diet?

You don’t have to be a professional writer to benefit from making your writing sound more natural. The words which or that are often stodgy and unnecessary. Following Strunk and White’s helpful suggestion – under their banner ‘Omit needless words’ – it’s good to go which hunting.

Here is the first paragraph from the lavish prospectus of an English private school:

[School name] pupils receive an outstanding academic education from dedicated and well-qualified teachers, developing qualities which will equip them to face life’s challenges with self belief and optimism. In addition to our broad curriculum, girls and boys enjoy a fabulous range of activities which keep them busy, stimulated and entertained, helping them to find their niche. It is a source of pride to us that our pupils emerge as confident, competent and adaptable human beings.

A modest rewrite goes:

[School name] pupils receive an outstanding academic education from dedicated and well-qualified teachers. Our broad curriculum equips them to face life’s challenges with self belief and optimism. Girls and boys enjoy a fabulous range of activities, helping them find their niche and keeping them busy, stimulated and entertained. We are proud our pupils are confident, competent and adaptable.

The first version is stiff, over-anxious about wanting to be ‘correct’; here hyper-correctness in public seems to be more important than sense and self-expression. Worryingly, their writing style fights against the values they claim to endorse.

There are very few pieces of writing which cannot be improved by removing whiches. We can improve nearly everything we write by removing its whiches. Even the very minor change of which to that in the school prospectus would have helped – that seems more readable to me.

The words aren’t interchangeable, though. Describing the that/which restrictive/nonrestrictive clause distinction is horribly technical – how come language isn’t good at describing itself? But the distinction itself seems natural/sensible to me, and easy enough: if the subordinate clause needs commas, use which. Word’s automatic grammar check is also genuinely useful and almost reliable on this point. But often the resulting sentence is still clumsy. The New York Times 2008 discussion of mistakes in its own pages gives this example:

The depths of G.M.’s problems came to light in its federal filing that painted a bleak picture of a company that has lost more than $20 billion this year and is in danger of not being able to pay its bills in a few weeks.

Philip B. Corbett, The New York Times associate managing editor for standards, suggests they should have replaced the bold that with a comma and which. But the better suggestion is surely rewriting:

G.M.’s federal filing revealed a bleak picture of a company that has lost more than $20 billion this year and is in danger of not being able to pay its bills in a few weeks.

The way in which is one of my least favourite word combinations. I will, I state on public record, eat my cycling helmet if anyone can find it in Shakespeare or the King James edition of the Bible. On The Beatles’ Abbey Road album George Harrison sings ‘Something in the way she moves’. I cannot believe this would have been the second-most covered Beatles song (after ‘Yesterday’) if it had an added in which.

Removing thats is good too. Reading out loud, most thats sound as the toneless schwa vowel, such as the er in dinner, or e in the. This is a rather dull noise. But if we fully voice the a to sound like cat or Jack it sounds artificial and much too prominent, like quacking.

Most thats are the nervous written equivalent of hiatus-fillers like um or er. That is rarer in speech than in writing, so writing without it sounds more natural and direct. I was tempted to put a that in ‘We are proud our pupils’, i.e. ‘We are proud that our pupils’, but I think it sounds more natural without.

My most hated written word cluster ever is the fact that. Here is a very unfair example from Huw Price, Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy, University of Cambridge. It is unfair because my source presumably transcribes a telephone interview – but I’ll use it anyway because plenty of people write like this. He is explaining the thinking behind a new Centre for the Study of Existential Risk:

The basic philosophy is that we should be taking seriously the fact that we are getting to the point where our technologies have the potential to threaten our own existence – in a way that they simply haven’t up to now, in human history.

The fact that helps writers put ideas down in the order they think of them. But I am shocked. Writing is for readers; it is rude for authors to disregard the delicate and generous gift of attention their readers give them. I quite often come across The fact that [something] meant that [another thing] … For my private amusement I sometimes try to parody authors’ stylistic mannerisms using a well known and simple sentence. Here this becomes: The fact that there was a mat resulted in the fact that the cat sat on it.

In the perfect world, writing completely, simply and only makes sense. Meanwhile, until that world comes along, why not try fewer whiches and thats?

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Leonardo da Vinci: Philosopher and scientist? #2, People in landscapes

What does ‘philosophy’ mean when we look at paintings? Perhaps it’s a way of making sense of our place in the world – I’m thinking about places and worlds as painters might, specifically as landscapes. I’ve assumed painters see (literally) the world in a more thoughtful way than the rest of us – how is this the same as or different from scientific thinking? Ever conscious of media, I’ve written about how seeing is different from writing, and put some beautiful images in a sequence to make my points …

Leonardo writes as well as paints. In one of his anatomy notebooks he notes his drawings are more communicative than writing. One of his sketches of the heart has this rapturous commentary alongside:

O writer, with what words will you write with such perfections of the complete configuration which this drawing here composes? This you describe confusedly having no knowledge, and you leave little conception of the true shapes of things which you, deceiving yourself, make yourself believe capable of fully satisfying your auditors when you have to speak of the configuration of any corporeal thing surrounded by surfaces. But I advise you not to involve yourself in words unless you are speaking to the blind …

My points about media and sensory modalities communicate better if we can see this the way Leonardo did. Here’s the picture he was writing about, with his mirror-Italian words magically turned into English. The typeface (Myriad) is not as beautiful as Leonardo’s handwriting (understatement!) , but it is readable. It changes the notebook page from ‘art’ to something more functional, but this is perhaps closer to the integrity of Leonardo’s conception of what he really thought and felt:

From the wonderful Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist app by Touch Press, with the translation simulating the position of the original handwriting in mirror-Italian. (In the app you can see the ur-text if you prefer.) Leonardo here is talking to himself – these notes are records of dissections or reminders/drafts/tryouts for what to put in his anatomy textbook. This book was never finished and was not to be published in any form – even as copies of these sketches – for 400 years. Notice how the multimodal iPad brings us close to Leonardo’s worldview. At a very general level, in Marshall McLuhan-speak, will all the king's horses and men of digital media put together again – after Enlightenment literary and scientific fragmentation – the Humpty Dumpty gestalt of the integrated subject and object worlds?

From the wonderful Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist app by Touch Press. In the app you can switch to see the mirror-Italian if you prefer. Leonardo here is talking to himself – these notes are records of dissections or reminders/drafts/tryouts for what to put in his anatomy textbook. This book was never finished and was not to be published in any form – even as copies of these sketches – for 400 years. Notice how the multimodal iPad brings us close to Leonardo’s worldview. At a very general level, in Marshall McLuhan-speak, will all the king’s horses and men of digital media put together again – after Enlightenment literary and scientific fragmentation – the Humpty Dumpty gestalt of the integrated subject and object worlds?

Bearing in mind an artist necessarily believes the fullest representations/re-presentations of reality steer clear of language, this is how Leonardo wrote (c. 1492 – no app image available, I’m sorry to say) about some of the underlying principles of his philosophy of the relation of the mind to what the mind perceives:

Man has been called by the ancients a lesser world, and certainly the award of this name is well deserved, because, in as much as man is composed of earth, water, air and fire, the body of the earth is similar; if man has in himself bones, the supports and armature for the flesh, the world has the rocks, the supports of the earth; if man has in himself the lake of the blood, in which the lungs increase and decrease in breathing, the body of the earth has its oceanic sea, which likewise increases and decreases every six hours with the breathing of the world; if, from the said lake veins arise, which proceed to ramify throughout the human body, the oceanic sea fills the body of the earth with infinite veins of water; the nerves are lacking in the body of the earth – they are not there because nerves are made for the purpose of movement, and the world, being perpetually immobile, does not need movement, and, not needing movement, the nerves are not necessary. But in all other respects they are very similar. (MS. A, Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France, f. 55 recto)


See my previous post for more commentary on this point, originally made by Martin Kemp.

Note that Leonardo’s worldview helps him to conceive of human veins and the path of a river in the same frame of reference. This was hardly his invention – the ‘as above, so below’ system of correspondences and homomorphisms dates back at least to the ancient Greeks and indeed continues in the recursive analytical methodology of Stafford Beer’s impressive cybernetic viable systems model. But Leonardo’s unique achievement was to embed this view in a beautifully visualized, life-affirming and communicative body of work.

Leonardo’s orthodox mediaeval Aristotelianism here might present rather a soft target, though, to gung-ho contemporary atomistic materialists such as Richard Dawkins. Leonardo’s comparisons of the earth and the human body is definitely unconventional (‘bad’?) science, but surely his easily falsifiable conjectures (to use Karl Popper’s terminology) are intermediate hypotheses that help us see an extended, complex and interrelating reality we otherwise could not even start to imagine. In other words, to borrow a metaphor from Vygotsky, all theory and methodology is a kind of scaffolding – what is important is what we have built when we take it down. Militantly secular scientists’ claims their work is ipso facto ‘objective’ are no less a prioristic and idealist than the positions of those they seek to attack; the absence of self-reflexivity thereby paradoxically refutes the contingency of a human consciousness in a materialist universe and is thus oblivious to the possibility/impossibility of awareness of awareness. Such things, as Samuel Beckett knew well, are surely better maps of the glories and disasters – the fullest dignity as well as the grossest absurdity – of the human condition than we can ever reach via Dawkins and the school of scientific methodological bureaucracy.

(This is a subject I readily admit I don’t understand, but I can’t believe quantum/sub-atomic physicists or cosmologists investigating the Singularity would get far using Dawkins’ polemical paradigm – reality is too exciting. On the principle that any critique of anything should never perpetuate the same mistakes, in my opposing of reductionism I must add that Dawkins himself is a courageous, complex and interesting man who has gone on record that he would take J. S. Bach’s devotional St Matthew Passion to his imaginary desert island. In a very different spirit to his polemics, though, as Rupert Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Scientific Enquiry suggests, let science freely, daringly and self-awarely extend our curiosity and wonder about the world.)

Back again in the world of art practice, what do Leonardo’s insights lead him to? What can we see? Here’s a detail from the Louvre version of The Virgin of the Rocks:

Detail from The Virgin of the Rocks (15??), in the Louvre, Paris. I have heavily cropped the picture to show the rocks. Image from Wikipedia

Detail from The Virgin of the Rocks (1483–86), in the Louvre, Paris, showing the rocks. I am persuaded by the argument at – by a geologist – that the accuracy of the details of the rock formations here is indisputably from the hand of the author of the geological studies in the Codex Leicester. The careful choice of different types of plant for different microclimates is also deeply characteristic of Leonardo. By contrast, the National Gallery version in London has prettier colours but the rocks and plants look like stage scenery. Image from Wikipedia

The full version.

The full version.

None of this is translatable into language, of course – but here goes … What’s going on here? The rock formations are weird, implausibly alive and threatening. Remember from the quote above, ‘if man has in himself bones, the supports and armature for the flesh, the world has the rocks, the supports of the earth’. On first view, there are two timeframes: the inconceivable scales of geological time and change, and four people oddly meeting in a damp cave. But the people – posed as formally as the theology – are immobile compared with the extraordinary chthonic and chaotic vaultings of the rocks, which threaten but also protect. We sense these opposites – figures and rocks – belong together and complete each other. There is psychological intensity here, drama, a palpable representation perhaps of the dangerous and generative energies of what Freud termed das Es (the It, in natural English), or which the ancient Greeks mythologized as the first gods before the dawn of civilization: the Titans.

We feel the power and drama of Leonardo’s painting more clearly by comparison with Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews:

Gainsborough Mr and Mrs Andrews

Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88), Mr and Mrs Andrews (1748), in the National Gallery, London. Image from Wikipedia

John Berger’s Ways of Seeing gives us two contrasting philosophical interpretations. The first quotes art-history academic Lawrence Gowing: ‘the explicit theme of a contemporary and precisely analogous design by … Francis Hayman suggests that the people in such pictures were engaged in philosophic enjoyment of “the great Principle … the genuine Light of uncorrupted and unperverted Nature”.’ Berger draws our attention to the pinched and proprietorial expressions on the couple’s faces; he notes a little cruelly but with the voice of common sense that ‘among the pleasures their portrait gave to Mr and Mrs Andrews was the pleasure of seeing themselves depicted as landowners’ (London: BBC and Penguin Books, 1972, pp. 107–8; my emphasis). Neither interpretation is the only meaning: for example, left of the tree the clouds and Mr Andrews are dark and monochrome, whereas to the right there are colours and sunshine; the spectacular expanse of Mrs Andrews’ dress teeters on the brink of rapport with the sky and clouds. There seems to be some kind of investigation of the different worlds of this man and this woman.

Going back to Leonardo, here is some more scene-stealing geology, this time from The Virgin, St Anne and John:

Virgin, Infant Jesus, St Anne

Detail from The Virgin, Infant Jesus and St Anne (1508) in the Louvre, Paris. Image from Wikipedia

Virgin, Infant Jesus, St Anne

The full version. The restoration in 2011 by removal of later discoloured varnish has been controversial. I don’t know why the edges have been left darker.

The landscaping is very different from The Virgin of the Rocks – open, expansive, certainly not threatening. The colour temperatures move from blue/cool in the sky to grey/neutral in the background to warm earth tones/russets in the foreground. The figures again have Leonardo’s sfumato and characteristically blissed-out/gentle if rather bland expressions, whereas the craggy rock formations reveal the massive forces leading to the distortion of the strata, twisted near-vertically in contrast to the calmly horizontal laminae under the feet of St Anne. Note that Leonardo’s insistence on accurate observation of the subjectivities of perception requires him to blur the customary precision of his observation of the mountains.

The Virgin’s mother is not noticeably a different generation from her daughter, although she is manifestly larger; rather oddly, Mary is seated on her knee. This device sets up a composition where the gaze-lines of all four figures (including lamb) run along a strong diagonal axis, emphasizing bonds of affection between generations and – importantly for the ethically vegetarian Leonardo – species. The unusual hand-on-hip gesture of St Anne starts off the counter-diagonal running down to her right foot. In between is the (unfinished) grey mass of Mary’s robe, giving a strong-enough directional emphasis that Sigmund Freud (1910) famously interpreted the shape as a vulture – it is flying to the bottom left (with no visible head).

Like the dress in the Gainsborough, the grey of Mary’s robe connects the figures with the background, linking a brief moment of tenderness with the inconceivable passage of geomorphic time.

Here is a further enlargement of some delicious background:

Leonardo Virgin, Infant Jesus, St Anne – background

Detail, The Virgin, Infant Jesus and St Anne, on our left of St Anne’s head

Pollock, Lavender Blue

Jackson Pollock (1912–56), Number 1, 1950 (against the artist’s wishes sometimes known as ‘Lavender Mist’). National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Image from

My would-be jump cut here forces correspondences onto two radically dissimilar artworks – see if you can position them on your screen so you can see both of them at the same time. I thought it might be revealing to see what happens when we look for parallels and contrasts. In Pollock’s paintings, his quest for an ever-purer non-representationality imposes an absolute schism between object and subject, as if there can be no being-in-the-world, only being; the world in itself is painfully invasive and compromises the authenticity and integrity of his existential/artistic worldview and has to be excluded or obliterated – even from the painting’s title. (I am not criticizing him, I am paying tribute to his honesty.)

Leonardo’s position is the reverse: the energy of his obsessive and enraptured explorations of the massive complexity of the ‘natural’ world – notice that the contemporary concept of nature ipso facto and crassly assumes we human beings are not part of it – takes him close to a kind of emotional communion even with geology. (I am not saying this is necessarily ‘good’ – does Leonardo have much engagement and empathy with the people?)

Jackson Pollock. Photographs of cigarette smoke (I regret!) often seems to counterpoint beautifully

Jackson Pollock. Cigarette smoke (I regret to say!), solidified in photography, often seems to make a beautiful and evocative counterpoint to shapes and music. The uplighting from the white canvas subliminally suggests otherworldliness/sainthood … Photo by Martha Holmes, 1949. Image from 2012/01/20/the-discovery-of-an-american-icon-extract-from-jackson-pollock-by-evelyn-toynton/

Pollock’s psychical and philosophical redistribution of Affekt in his paintings abolishes ‘the natural world’ and projects it as the act of the non-referential (‘abstract’) expression of subjectivity. He thereby paradoxically creates in his paintings a complexity that reminds us of randomness/design or chance/necessity in natural objects. In the characteristic trope of modernism, therefore, the conception of meaning here becomes the responsibility of the viewer or perceiver – us. We may choose to see them as wonderful, beautiful and full of meaning or as empty, dead. Some people see them as pretentious. The worst get into a rage about how much money they sell for at auction.

Here I think we get close to the divisiveness that is typical of modern art. In what they see, some people are not prepared to be open to see themselves. Those of us on the ‘inside’ of modern art might wonder if these people might be afraid of the life of their own mind. So when people say of a Pollock painting that ‘a child could have painted it’, we should notice the overt disparagement of children’s perceptions – yet I hope we can all agree that one of the lasting rewards of being a parent is to learn from and be changed by our children. I fear that comments such as these about Pollock diminish the possibilities for fullness of life for the present and future generations.

Instead of emptiness and deadness, Leonardo offers us life, profusion, connection, meaning – although the evidence of his paintings is that direct human empathy seems to have been difficult for him. Pollock does the same kind of thing, but differently. He is fiercer, apparently not caring; people who are easily hurt don’t want to seem vulnerable. His paintings are existentially alone. If you were ever in any doubt that public reception does not complete the meaning of a work of art, their widespread popular acclaim bears witness this is something, paradoxically, we can all share.

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Leonardo da Vinci: Philosopher and scientist? #1

Benvenuto Cellini was a virtuoso Renaissance goldsmith, sculptor and wildly indiscreet autobiographer. Yet he soberly recorded King François I of France as saying ‘there had never been born another man in the world who knew as much as Leonardo, not so much about sculpture, painting and architecture, as that he was a very great philosopher’ (my translation from his Treatise on Sculpture, 1567, p. 253 [of 1811 edition]).

When we consider the reputation of Leonardo’s paintings – his sculpture and architecture have not survived – this is a big claim, even allowing for Cellini’s relish for extravagant overstatement. And we might also discount the implication that kings’ opinions are worth any more than anyone else’s.

[If I could interrupt my own post here, please note that later on it contains adult images – by one of the most remarkable artists in Western civilization. I hope my discussion of them is in the spirit of Terence (195/185–159 BC): ‘Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto’ (‘I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me’). If this isn’t your cup of tea, fair enough; please read something else. Thank you!]

Nonetheless this is an idea well worth exploring, for two reasons.

Firstly, it can help us better understand what Leonardo’s work means – how/why he chose to do what he did. (I’m referring, in continuation of my previous two posts, to Leonardo’s private notebooks of studies for a textbook on anatomy.) By looking at his ‘philosophy’ I’m hoping his artworks will make more sense; this is difficult to describe unless you already know what I mean, but if I think I understand something I feel more alive. If I might dwell on this, I’m not sure if there’s any kind of experience that is more valuable. For a beautiful and expressive restatement of this, here is one of my all-time favourite quotes, from Leonardo’s fellow Florentine, Dante Alighieri:

In its depth I saw ingathered, bound by love in one single volume, that which is dispersed in leaves throughout the universe: substances and accidents and their relations, as though fused together in such a way that what I tell is but a simple light. The universal form of this knot I believe that I saw, because, in telling this, I feel my joy increase.
(‘Paradiso’ 33.85–93, in The Divine Comedy, edited by Charles S. Singleton. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973)

Leonardo (according to at least one scholarly article) greatly admired and was an expert on the poet/philosopher Dante; here Dante’s complexly literary and metaphorical statement of universality rooted in individual/embodied sense-experience and love is close, I believe, to the view of the world that Leonardo enacts in his notebooks – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Secondly, in my previous post about Leonardo I was ‘trying to understand precisely what it is about [his] way of looking that helps him see things both in their uniqueness and in connection with each other.’ Did Leonardo have a system or formula for his thinking and creating? My own very big claims in this little blog are yes; furthermore, Leonardo’s philosophy might be fascinating and highly relevant to us, right now, in the modern world. So, what is it? …

Leonardo’s flying machine, realized by James Wink. Image from

Back in 1989 I remember going round the superb Leonardo da Vinci – Artist, Scientist, Inventor at the Hayward Gallery, London. This was in many ways complementary to the 2012 exhibition – which has supplied the theme for this series of posts – on Leonardo’s conception and investigation of the human body. The earlier one looked at Leonardo and techne, with some fascinating twists too. The centrepiece was an impressively large wooden flying machine. This was an example of the single main gag or magic trick, so to speak: all the spectacular machines and models turned Leonardo’s imaginings into something real. This, to use the language from my previous post, was the official story – another partial one, not the whole one I’m trying to explain.

In this particular exhibition story there is a happy ending: the tragic pathos of all those amazing ideas never fulfilled is wiped away by this technical, instrumental and triumphalist apotheosis. Interestingly, the official sponsor was IBM, during its glory years as world #1 supplier of personal computers; it was grabbing for its products some high-grade inspiration-by-association. (I’m not criticizing them; you may notice I’m doing exactly the same thing.) Stories always add to each other, mirroring the glorious complexities and confusions of human understanding. This 1989 exhibition, then, was also an oblique retelling of one of the most potent and odd narratives of our digital age: computers can and should turn your dreams into reality.

But here is what Martin Kemp said in his excellent catalogue (Leonardo, London: South Bank Centre, 1989) to the Hayward exhibition he curated. This is a rather different narrative to the one in the title, and more beautiful and interesting:

It seems to me that there is a core to [Leonardo’s] achievement, however imperfectly transmitted and received by different generations, that remains intuitively accessible. What has been sensed is that his artistic productions are more than art—that they are part of a vision embracing a profound sense of the interrelatedness of things. The full complexity of life in the context of the world is somehow implied when he characterises any of its constituent parts … I believe that his vision of the totality of the world as a kind of single organism does speak to us with particular relevance today …

I am deeply indebted to Professor Kemp’s insights, both in his writing and the curation of the 1989 exhibition, from which I have borrowed freely, at least to start with!

Here are two of Leonardo’s sketches from his notebooks alongside each other; one maps the course of the river Arno in Tuscany, Italy, the other shows the veins of the arm:

(Left) the river Arno, c. 1504, Drawings and Misc Papers Vol. IV, folio 444r. (Right) the veins of the left arm – those of an older person are compared with a young person‘s in the smaller inset sketch. 1507–8, from Anatomical Studies, folio 69r.

I can’t imagine that Leonardo deliberately drew these two sketches to make this point. I don’t suppose either that he intended them to be seen together. But nonetheless Leonardo seems to regard the plain of the Arno and the distribution of blood around the arm as equivalent and comparable.

It’s a shock to connect the two – topology and anatomy come in two separate compartments, don’t they? The more we think about it, though, why shouldn’t we see the two hugely different scales in the same frame of reference? If we really want to name them both by a single scientific category we could settle on hydraulics, but then we are still being reductive. We can call Leonardo ‘artist, scientist, inventor’, ‘anatomist’, ‘genius’ or anything, but if Leonardo is truthful about or truly reflective of the world, our partial/atomistic representations of him will only tell us about ourselves – not him specifically, nor the world in general. My concern is that we then miss his vivacious conception of integration, gestalt, pan-creational life-force.

Just in case you might think the collocations of dissimilarity in the previous examples are only accidentally similar, here’s another image, a detail from the well-known page with the foetus drawing:

From the Touch Press Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist app. Leonardo’s sequence of images is unknown and has been completely obscured by rebindings and removals: there are no page numbers or titles, so for academic reference (and internet search) here, the Windsor Castle Library catalogue reference is RCIN 919102

The small inset sketches show that Leonardo sees correspondences of the main image with what look like seed cases. (He also depicts the action of gravity on imbalanced spheres, and why objects in relief look different from those in 2D.) This is what Fritjof Capra, author of crossover religion/science bestseller The Tao of Physics, says about it in his The Science of Leonardo (p. 260):

his famous picture of a fetus in utero is accompanied by several smaller sketches that liken the womb to the embryo sac of a flower, picturing the peeled-off layers of the uterine membranes in an arrangement of flower petals. The entire set of drawings vividly shows Leonardo’s tremendous care and respect for all forms of life. They exude a tenderness that is deeply moving.

I can’t claim any expertise concerning foetuses, although I have seen my four children being born; I can say that the (near full-term?) foetus in this picture strikes me as unusually clean and tidy – where’s the vernix? The uterus is also implausibly round and spacious – I have always imagined it (from an outsider and male point of view) as a majorly tight squeeze. Perhaps what Leonardo really sees here is his metaphor: a ripe seed or rich-brown nut. I hope you can see clearly on the left here what he says (c. 1511) on another notebook page. The app strips away the original writing and gives us a translation that helps us to see easily the conjunction of word and image – but the words are not about the image. So we can see that for Leonardo, metaphors are mappings, homomorphisms, correspondences – they help him make connections between different things. Metaphor is not just a rhetorical/poetical device – though note the modern and reductive implication that rhetoric and poetry are not a kind of knowledge of the world. Rhetoric, myth and fantasy, from the pre-modern world, assert a relation of knower to known that is deeply philosophical.

Note that visual artists usually have a different conception of knowing than writers. Artists curiously are perhaps less fluidly imaginative, in other words generative of strings of visual images. Writers continually jump from one metaphor to another, most of the time without any jarring – that’s what writing does, so we don’t usually notice. Leonardo’s imagination consists of a linked series of inter-translatable visual metaphors, transposing – like figurative language – something of the known on to the unknown.

The etymology of science from the Latin scire, to know, suggests that science is deeply concerned with knowing, although the obvious question ‘How do we know that we know?’ does not (as far as I can see) feature much in contemporary science. It seems largely concerned with repeatability, technique and methodology – as if pragmatic compliance with procedure ipso facto guarantees the incremental and non-falsifiable veracity of the modern scientific model of the universe and all that therein is. Even if it ‘really’ does, what does this universe feel like? Are we and our world just a massive bureaucratic apparatus? How can subjectivity and emotionality – in short, our humanity and our life – be completely and deliberately absent? Leonardo’s approach is not of course anything remotely like conventional modern science. Dare I suggest it is more animated and interesting? We can see this in every sketch.

Maybe the big foetus image above (shown in full-page view untranslated here) depicts what a uterus and unborn child look like when dissected following a tragic accident. Certainly Leonardo’s notes here soberly if speculatively meditate whether the foetus and mother can be said to have two souls.

Curiously, the sense of life-force in the bigger image seems very strong. For such a popular image – much circulated on the internet – it would be emotionally curious if it was an image of tragedy. In the interest of understanding and compassion I believe we should always pay careful and respectful attention to what we want to believe, even if it is apparently ‘wrong’; for it is also is a kind of truth. The eye of the artist makes us see an energy that radiates out from the child – the hatching is a vortex swirling around, starting from the very heavy dark outline of the body up to the lightness of the head.

Here are some studies of the heart of an ox:

‘Studies of the heart, some architecturally stylized, of heart, probably ox, its valves, atria and ventricular orifices; notes on drawings.’ From c. 1513. Papworth Hospital cardiologist F. C. Wells, in his article ‘Leonardo as a paradigm for modern clinical research‘ ( in Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery 2004; 127:929–944), writes: ‘This drawing beautifully illustrates the importance of what we now refer to as the basal or strut cord of the mitral valve, antedating modern appreciation of its importance in left ventricular architecture and function.’ Image from The Royal Collection ,

My point here is that Leonardo seems to make a comparison between the chambers of the heart/ventricular architecture (at Propagandum Towers we take our metaphors very literally) and the configuration of rounded arches in a Romanesque church. Again, is this ‘proper’ science? I don’t think so.

Here are some tiny inset sketches, not the main picture on the page:

In an interview for the BBC, sculptor Henry Moore describes them as ‘beautiful flowers’. Perhaps it’s even more interesting than being right to see what we’ve said when we get something wrong. The problem for general readers is that prior to the iPad app, Leonardo’s notes in mirror-image Renaissance Italian are unreadable, so we could not expect to know just from looking at these florets that they are in fact representations of the anal sphincter. As is characteristic of Leonardo’s seeing and drawing, they have a sense of abundant energy and inner life. Notice too Leonardo’s impressive frank and dignified reverence for all of the human body. We can notice the cultural and philosophical differences in the historical development of subjectivity compared to Allen Ginsberg’s ‘The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! | The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole are holy!’ (‘Footnote to Howl’, 1956) and the cringemaking Christmas carol line ‘Lo, He abhors not the virgin’s womb’ (c. 1852) that mistranslates Gestant puellae viscera (i.e. ‘carried in the body of a young girl’ – 1751, possibly thirteenth century). I happen to think these differences are important and interesting.

But are Leonardo’s observations ‘properly’ scientific? According to modern anatomy, apparently, there are seven muscles – which Leonardo specifically refutes. For those who want to read what he actually says, the words are in the following picture. I think they further help show his intensity/focus of observation and his leaps of interconnection from one subject to another:

On the subject of frankness about the human body, here is a remarkable and comparatively overlooked sketch from the Queen’s collection:

This page was not in the Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist exhibition, not for any prudish reason – an equally explicit sketch was on display. It was probably simply just too odd.

The pen strokes of the main focus of the image have a Picasso-like energy and intensity. The shapes of the internal organs in the male torso, by contrast, are recessive and almost fluidly abstract. The red chalk hatching/scribble in the female figure is frenzied – the explosive energy suggests (at least in terms of style) the raw low art/primitivism of 1950s’ artists such as Jean Dubuffet, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

Certainly the greatest enigma of this page is the combination of three images of coition with the mechanism, a gear train, whose cogs Leonardo seems to have carefully counted. Perhaps it is a machine powered by the fall of water – there seems to be a drive train of containers or scoops. And there is a minutely calibrated scale running across the page.

What does it mean? The app commentary is not much help: ‘Above are sketches of weights and wheels, and calculations in a fainter, yellowish ink.’ That’s it. Perhaps the combination of images and measurement is purely accidental – but, as we have seen, elsewhere in his notebooks Leonardo’s apparently random collocations of images usually show his mind spinning off at a related tangent.

If we assume they are deliberately connected, what do we learn? (1) Leonardo’s mind works in a way that seems strange to us. His other images of coitus in his anatomical drawings in the Royal Collection have commentaries that suggest Leonardo believed (weirdly, as far as I know) the soul of the child-to-be is passed in a tube direct from the spinal column of the male to the fertilized egg. (I’m not saying that’s what he is trying to show here.) (2) If Leonardo is trying to say something else which is true, and that truth is interesting but complex or difficult, have we lost the ability to make the connections that can understand him?

I suggest Leonardo is, intriguingly, going down the same pathways as someone in the modern era but hardly less enigmatic: Marcel Duchamp. His self-punning Marchand du Sel (translated as The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, Marchand du Sel, Salt Seller, London: Thames and Hudson, 1975) largely consists of notes for the preparation of his iconic Large Glass (1923). Duchamp’s notes, unlike Leonardo’s, were published; like Leonardo’s, they take upon themselves no obligation to explain anything to anyone else. Among the bizarre and parodic mathematical/scientific and philosophical rationales it is clear that, at the very least, the upper panel is the organic ‘bride’ and the lower panel has the ‘bachelors’, surrounded apparently by the machinery of male sexual desire.

Marcel Duchamp (1923) La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même [The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even] – the ‘Large Glass’, in Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art. The work was smashed to pieces en route to an exhibition in 1926. The pieces were stuck together, and the damage declared part of the work by the artist. For my entertainment I imagine Leonardo doing the same for his painting of The Last Supper. Image from Wikipedia

Between Leonardo and Duchamp some of the machinery and anatomical detailing appears to have crossed over between male and female; the upper part of Leonardo’s female has the mechanisms, the man the internal organs. The wonky lines running from the cones left to the ‘nine malic molds’ (the bachelors) in the lower panel of the Duchamp are his ‘standard stoppages’. These are his commentaries (directly) on the Système International d’unités standard measurements and (indirectly) on rationality and scientific method. Duchamp’s lines were produced by letting string fall down on the floor and then copying the shape in wood to make a dysfunctional ruler. Leonardo’s equivalent – probably to a very different purpose – is the calibrated rule across the page.

Of course I am not saying that Duchamp knew or was influenced by the Leonardo page in any way. What I think is more interesting is that there are correspondences, as if the two artists might have drawn from a common pool of thinking and responding. Variations on these themes are copiously verbalized in contemporary (French) philosophy, for example by Deleuze and Guattari. And if theories are to reflect reality – which they must – we should expect to find their expression in popular culture – which we do. I’m thinking, for example, of James Brown’s iconic Sex Machine:

To attempt a philosophical exegesis (why not?) of the lyrics of James Brown’s song, ‘Get on up’ is a call to a life of fullness and heightened intensity (cf. Bob Marley’s ‘Lively up yourself’); a palpably physical metaphor for this is getting to our feet to dance. ‘Stay on the scene’ invites us to live fully in the present, a religious and meditative practice enjoined by sages in many cultures throughout history. ‘Like a sex machine’: the pleasures of the body in the industrial age are vividly re-enacted in his song but Brown uses the simile to make sure we know he knows that art, language and representation belong to the symbolic realm. ‘The way I like it / The way it is’: Brown reminds us of the ontological schism between apperception and reality; compare the distinction in Heidegger’s terminology between ‘things-for-us’ and ‘things-in-themselves’. ‘I got mine / Don’t worry about his’: Brown’s mindfulness is a proud self-possession – and notice his fears and self-comparisons are not so fearful he feels he cannot talk about them. The language of ownership he uses here also resonates with the analysis by Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, that contemporary capitalism deeply and increasingly commodifies and reifies all human relations, including even sexuality. Like Leonardo, Brown’s insights are so deeply embodied it seems as if they are not ‘philosophical’ at all. But the point of philosophy is not to draw attention to itself but to understand, reveal and encourage the life well lived.

So Leonardo, Duchamp and James Brown (in their very different ways) reflect back to us questions such as these: Are our best efforts at truthfulness going to be easy? How can we understand complexity with linear/atomistic cause-and-effect thinking? Can words help us communicate anything and everything? Is rationality the only filter for reality? How much can science tell us about what is really important in our lives? How much about our inner and outer worlds can we truthfully say we know?

I apologize if in this post I have over-emphasized the strangeness of Leonardo’s thinking. (I hope, in my next post, to show you some of the more obviously fruitful results of his studies, centring on the idea of the vortex.) I haven’t meant to be derogatory – the reverse is true. My intention has been to say that if there were no ‘errors’ there could be no truth. If we knew from the beginning what was an error we wouldn’t even need to start. In the philosophy he models in his writing and sketches, he insists, to paraphrase William Blake, that to know we must first imagine. And imagination is embodied in feeling and sense-experience. It acts as well as receives; imagination goes out from the subject too, hence the emotion and palpable life-force we can see in Leonardo’s sketches.

I hope we have at least started to see that Leonardo’s imagination is of the world and from the world and is in itself a world, full of the ‘substances, accidents and their relations’ Dante mentions at the quote at the beginning of this post. Notice too that Leonardo, like Dante and unlike materialistic science, insists that individual human perception and feeling is the beginning and end of knowledge.

Let’s leave the last (for now) words to Leonardo, from his anatomical notebooks (RCIN 919o48, c. 1510). Remember this is the sound of Leonardo talking/ranting to himself. As ever, literary style – the play of words and thoughts – is a philosophical position, a model of a very specific kind of being-in-the-world. It contains, metaphorically speaking, Leonardo’s philosophical DNA. His Dantean and anti-reductive credo here characteristically joins up parts to wholes, the human to the universal. It complexly speaks in a language of oblique self-criticism of his ambitions (‘to embrace the mind of God’) – note that, typically for Leonardo, even the mind of God is physical, embraceable. And there is the pathos of an old man who cannot complete his own project (‘not enough life … to acquire a complete knowledge of a single particular subject, such as the human body’). Do we find some bitterness here too about the anatomy project he spent so much of life studying? Please excuse my abbreviation …

The abbreviators of works do injury to knowledge and love, for the love of anything is the offspring of knowledge, and love is as much more fervent as knowledge is more certain. And this certainty is born from the integrated knowledge of all those parts which, being united together, compose the whole of that thing which is to be loved. Of what value is he who in order to abbreviate the parts of those things of which he professes to give integrated knowledge leaves out the greater part of the matters of which the whole is composed? It is true that impatience, the mother of folly, is she who praises brevity, as though some people had not enough life to use to enable them to acquire a complete knowledge of a single particular subject, such as the human body. And then they want to embrace the mind of God in which is enclosed the universe, carefully weighing and minutely dissecting it into infinite parts as though they were making an anatomy of it. O human stupidity! …

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Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist (exhibition review) #2

This excellent exhibition (in the Queen’s Gallery, London) has some fascinatingly different stories to tell of Leonardo’s extraordinary anatomical sketches. We can have our interpretations on the surface or we can dig for them, depending on whether we like our versions official or subversive. For me the subversive ones are pulsing with life and interest. Three main ones (of both kinds) I noted are:

1 Leonardo as information designer – in my previous post I was trying to see Leonardo’s sketches as experiments in how to communicate complex information. I think this connects deeply to all of us, particularly those of us in the communication industries in the complexly communicative twenty-first century. I will be looking at this Leonardo again in a bit more detail.

2 Leonardo as commercial packager/publishing entrepreneur of a potentially bestselling anatomy textbook. The exhibition clearly identifies the sketches as studies for a publishing project but does not attempt any serious analysis of what this means. I wondered for a while if I was wrong to think of Leonardo’s concerns as anything like my own, but as reality check I am confident it really is an objective fact that art exhibitions rarely discuss of art as commerce. This is a missed opportunity for empathic/communicative connection, because doesn’t art mean much more if we can understand that artists are real people, just like us, and have to earn a living too?

An official trope from the exhibition: science meets art. This is a little dreary because it assumes the models are ipso facto true – i.e. Leonardo is unreliable. But they do give a depth of visual field, which is stimulating to look at after all the 2D drawings. Image from

3 Leonardo as anatomist. This is, as the exhibition title indeed says, the ‘official’ story. The displays counterpose his sketches to a few rather odd-looking brightly coloured plastic educational anatomical models by Adam,Rouilly. The overt intention is to show the contemporary scientific rigour of Leonardo’s observations – OK, this is a bit predictable. More subversively – this is probably intentional in the exhibition design, and fun too – his sketches show up the deadness of the models’ (and the twenty-first century’s?) reductively scientistic conception of the human body as machine. By close analysis of some of the drawings I shall try to argue that Leonardo sees the world as a kind of unified field, part of which – in Leonardo’s convergent phenomenology – reveals what William Blake called ‘the human form divine’. I’m trying to understand precisely what it is about Leonardo’s way of looking that helps him see things both in their uniqueness and in connection with each other. In other words, is there a communicable formula for thinking Leonardo-type thoughts? We need Leonardo’s drawings to help us with this; words on their own just don’t work.

Meanwhile, here are three more stories the exhibition does not talk about:

Leonardo as artist. The anatomical sketches are fiercely observant of their subjects but they’re not deliberately or outward-facingly ‘artistic’. This helps keep the exhibition fresh and free of art-jargon/hyperbole.

5 Leonardo as failure. Leonardo never got anywhere near publishing his research. Outside the bounds of this exhibition, Leonardo’s planned massive (70-tonne) bronze of Ludovico Sforza on horseback reached the intermediate clay model stage (at finished size) of the horse, but this was used in 1499 by occupying troops for target practice. Time has destroyed (or has it?) his unfinished Battle of Anghiari and many of his other paintings; for all his scientific investigations the paint/ground medium he used for his masterpiece The Last Supper in Milan has been disastrous. He died in a kind of exile in France, materially comfortable and enjoying royal patronage, but how can his failure to complete his ambitious projects not have left him bitterly regretful? But I don’t think his failures diminish his achievements for us. I believe they help us get an emotionally complete and more moving sense of him as a human being, perhaps just a bit more like you and me.

6 Leonardo #5 is also the opposite of the unhelpful idea of Leonardo as genius. ‘Genius’ is a weary word, definitely not a word of power. It only works if you’re convinced already, so it’s not really a word that communicates at all. It doesn’t, to use Claude Shannon’s definition, count as information because it doesn’t change the state of the recipient; it has already given up on the effort of trying to understand in order to explain. The avoidance of #4 framing also helps the exhibition – to its benefit – steer well clear of the genius story.

So, let’s look at the first three stories in detail.

1 Leonardo as information designer

I was stunned by this sequence of drawings, on facing pages of Leonardo’s notebook, from the late period (in the red room in the gallery) of his researches:

Rotated views of the musculature of the right arm and shoulder #1 (b/w image). The inset image top right is a unrelated sketch of the throat.

Rotated views of the musculature of the neck, right arm and shoulder #2 (b/w image). The eight-pointed inset (bottom right) describes the schema for the eight drawings.

Leaving aside their elegance, human dignity, careful shading and (as the captions claim) scientific accuracy, I think we can see something else: a beautifully original investigation of a way to communicate complex information. The exhibition’s explanatory caption brilliantly claims they are a study in 3D imaging. Alongside there’s a video of a professor of surgery talking about these images, saying that contemporary computer-based 3D renderings of complex anatomical features are invaluable in improving the techniques of trainee surgeons. Just as contemporary airplane pilots safely learn about trial and error using 3D representations of reality, and computer gamers might have a sandbox level to help them learn the controls, Leonardo’s information design here enters wholly and empathically into the teaching and learning needs of those most likely to want to use (and buy! – see story #2) his work.

I am not going to claim that something from the past is ipso facto validated by its precursion of its contemporary incarnation. Time’s arrow doesn’t work like that. I hope it seems sensible enough, though, to suggest that insightful practitioners of information design will always tend to use techniques that match or reflect transhistorical human faculties of perception and understanding. Throughout history, people have tended to respond to the same things in the same way – there is such a thing as human nature. Leonardo seems already to have imagined, from first principles, communication techniques that have taken some 500 years to develop and prove their worth.

A schema for showing gradations of musculature and bone profiles in the leg, c. 1485–90. This is a study rather than the finished article; to make usable sense each ‘cut’ would have to have its own section alongside. Image from

Other graphics techniques he either created (according to the captions) or used with great fluency include an exploded diagram of the cortex, multiple sections of the leg – the principle of sampling/MRI scans – and cutaways/cross-sections. A particularly elegant double-sectioned skull reminds me that virtuoso handling of cross-sections alone was compelling enough to the minds of the book-buying public in the 1990s to generate million-plus sales for publisher Dorling Kindersley and artist Stephen Biesty, in the form of his Incredible Cross-Sections series.

The skull sectioned, 1489. Exceptionally elegant chiaroscuro effects from different thicknesses of diagonal hatching. Note the left-handed Leonardo’s cross-hatching goes from left to right. Note too an implicit philosophical conception of objects-in-the-world: the hatching delicately extends to the background. Even the context is enlivened by the perception of the artist. Image from

From Stephen Beisty’s Man of War. A very different aesthetic, but at least the information design (cutaway) technique is comparable. To make good enough sense you have to click to see it larger. Image from

2 Leonardo as commercial packager/publishing entrepreneur

I discussed this point fully enough in my previous post. In a move sideways towards some of the e-book, publishing and media issues I discuss elsewhere in my blog, I would like to draw your attention to a very impressive iPad app, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy, for iPad. Touch Press have been given full access to the high-resolution images under the care of the Royal Collection, which is the commercial wing of the Queen’s collection of pictures. The Royal Collection also curate and run this exhibition.

I went to a future-of-the-book debate in Cambridge earlier this year. One of the speakers, Jacky Colliss Harvey, Publisher at Royal Collection Enterprises, claimed (to my annoyance at the time) that the quality of the app’s images was ‘better than a book’. I now have to admit I agree with her.

Detailed study of these small-ish sketches is difficult in a gallery space – it seems rude to look at them for a long time and block off other people. Lighting levels are quite low, and the drawings are behind glass. This is good because they are well protected; we can go right up to them without worrying if breathing on them damages them. But the glass is reflective – curiously the images look as if they are on a screen anyway. On the iPad, at our own speed in our preferred location we can resize any part of an image to be as large as we want without any noticeable loss of image resolution. Scholars may wish to look at the original Renaissance Italian mirror-writing using a software mirror/looking-glass metaphor to flip the selected area left-right. Most impressively, by pressing a key we can see a translation into English of Leonardo’s backwards Italian that is fully readable and in the correct position. The sense of immediacy and human connection with this man’s thoughts and searching is – I am choosing my words carefully – a revelation.

A screenshot from the app showing the English translation in situ. Click on the image to enlarge. On the iPad the lettering is bigger, completely clear and much easier to read. Image from

It is also impressive that the app does not strain to turn the sketches into something they are not. I don’t see why an Alice in Wonderland app (for example) is better than a book because the pictures move. Is an e-book only a bad kind of movie? Is the iPad the very best kind of medium for communication because it is so fluidly interactive and multimodal? I don’t think so. Its main problem is it is too flexible. Our minds and our imaginations – not just our senses – decide what is a ‘great’ media experience. ‘Great’ art (for example) kicks against the limitations of the medium – the limitations are not a game or a pretence, they are real. Is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot any less memorable or intense because there is no scenery or changes of location? I (and the rest of my family) enjoyed the recent Doctor Who series but I can’t really enjoy the game of imagining what is going to happen next when the Doctor can simply transport himself to any point in space or time.

This app, by contrast, is notably restrained in its dignified use of only some of the possibilities of the medium; in sum it is admirably and maturely respectful of its subject matter. Because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should.

I will continue the final parts of this series of posts – the unofficial story in the exhibition about Leonardo as anatomist, that helps us see what I think of as the true and most interesting spirit of Leonardo – shortly.

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Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist (exhibition review) #1

This is an unusual start to any review, but the gallery’s beautifully panelled and French-polished rosewood doors and postmodern urinal dividers in the spotless toilets were so unusual in their generosity to the possibility of civilized public behaviour that I sincerely believe I enjoyed the exhibition more.

More conventionally, this exhibition has been billed as the largest-ever public display of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings. There are some 87 folios of illustrations from the royal art collection on show in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. Produced between 1485 and Leonardo’s death in 1519, they were acquired by an English monarch (probably bought by Charles II) some time before 1690. Shockingly, they were not published in any form until 1912. The public relations team for Elizabeth II has thoughtfully chosen to counter accusations of at least 222 years of regal dog-in-the-manger insularity by making these drawings publicly available now at this scale, in this the queen’s diamond jubilee year.

Leonardo conceived of the project of publishing a treatise on the anatomy of the human body in about 1485. He spent the remainder of his life – at varying degrees of intensity – preparing material for it. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the studies and research for it remained unfinished at his death; the book itself was never even started. Judging by these notes he would have beaten – by at least 25 years, in scientific accuracy, in artistic excellence and communicative energy – even Andreas Vesalius’ magnificent and startlingly beautiful/horrific De humani corporis fabrica (1543). Perhaps some of Leonardo’s anatomical insights during the later period of his research – freshly and precisely observed, undistorted by obeisance to classical tradition and the vested interests of professional elites – could, over hundreds of years, have changed medical practice for the better.

Perhaps one of the finest printed books of all time: Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica (1543). Illustrations by ‘studio of Titian’. A comparable project to Leonardo’s but completed – what would his book have been like?

What I am specifically looking at in this series of posts are some of Leonardo’s principles of information design, specifically the creativity of his conception of ‘user experience’ – contemporary jargon for what publishers, editors, writers, illustrators and web or graphic designers do. More simply, in terms Leonardo might have used, it is the maker’s consideration, in advance, for how someone else will see/read/experience what he or she has made.

More broadly, I am interested in the nature of representation: what is being represented, how, and why. I am clearly not qualified to talk about anatomy or scientific accuracy, so my comments on medical facts are based on the captions from the exhibition. But we can see that Leonardo has rethought the communication of his research results from first principles. These sketches how Leonardo is thinking, and how he imagined his readers might think.

Along the way, however, I shall at all times try to avoid the word genius – instead of implying that Leonardo is impossibly different from us, it’s much more interesting to analyse what Leonardo sees, how he sees it, and to what purpose. If some of his information design techniques seem modern, and we know they weren’t published until the twentieth century, doesn’t this prove that methods of effective communication arise spontaneously and convergently as insightful responses to problems that repeat themselves throughout history? Is not creativity, then, simply an open, honest and energetic attempt to reflect the truth? This is where we can start to find general principles and apply them to our work. We, like Leonardo, can always try to learn – and we don’t need to be a genius.

It is hard to imagine anyone other than a doctor taking on such an ambitious project – yet Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a peasant and a notary, only ‘informally educated in Latin, geometry and mathematics’ (Wikipedia); in later life he referred to himself as omo senza lettere (‘an unlettered man’). From the age of 14 his training was an apprenticeship to the studio/workshop of the eminent Florentine artist Verrocchio. (Remember painting in the fifteenth century was a trade, albeit highly skilled, with comparatively low income and status.) Perhaps the spur for the mature artist, aged 33, to begin this massive undertaking was to depict the human body more realistically or expressively. Perhaps Leonardo saw an opportunity to make some money from the rapidly growing market growing up around the new cutting-edge information technology taking Europe by storm: printing. A treatise (textbook) on anatomy is a classic publishing ploy aimed at the high added-value STM (scientific, technical and medical) market – think 5 million copies sold of Gray’s Anatomy.

Whatever his motivation, he chose to take on – from scratch – the heroic tasks of study, recording of results and preparation for publication. Making a virtue of his non-medical background, his primary source of information was the human body: he had to find out how to dissect. And, for a non-specialist, cadavers – as Doctor Frankenstein was to find out some three hundred years later – were not easy to get. (The exhibition commentary says there was, contrary to popular belief, no Church ban on human dissection.) At first he seems to have prepared by drawing the internal organs and skeletal structure of horses, cows, pigs or even bears. He also tried to follow the scientifically incorrect schemata of classical authors. The first, blue, room shows drawings from this period.

The introductory text to the blue room containing early sketches. The earliest binding (made after Leonardo’s death, and now empty) is at the front. I don’t mean to carp, but something more typographically delirious than bog standard Trajan and Times Roman would have been good. Late fifteenth-century Italy was not short of wonderful typefaces …

This is an early sketch (c. 1490–3), in this room, showing a lot more than the cross-section of a skull:

Leonardo’s sketch reflects classical (apparently!) rather than scientific ideas of brain topology. The damson-sized chambers in the middle of the cortex (main picture) represent, from left to right, the senso comune (‘common sense’, supposedly the connecting point for all the body’s sense receptors), imagination/reasoning, and memory. Image: surprisingly (at least for me) the Queen’s Gallery allows photography of the works on display.

This is both scientific research intended for Leonardo only and (to use publishing language) a rough that tries out different ways of presenting information before going to a final published form. In spite of the habitual gallery framing of their exhibits as ‘art’, surely these sketches are more practical – experiments with ways of recording and communicating complex information.

Neither is it what printers and graphic designers 20 years ago used to call ‘camera-ready copy’. Sixteenth-century hot metal typesetting couldn’t manage type on a slant. And the mirror writing is an obvious indication this is not meant to be read by anyone except the artist. As the exhibition captions explain, however, this unusual method wasn’t an attempt to keep his notes secret. They would have been readable, with a mirror, by any literate fifteenth-century Italian. So why mirror writing? Leonardo was left-handed; perhaps his acute sensitivity to the nature of materials and seeing suggested this typically radical and inventive design solution. It allowed him (a) to see what he wrote immediately, not covered up by his writing hand, (b) to label objects very precisely (note the densely packed labels above, all running from right to left) and (c), ever trying to be practical, to avoid smudging the ink. Or perhaps it was another example of the amazing brain-wiring that the largely autodidact Leonardo never had corrected by censorious teachers.

In terms of information design (the designer’s practice/choices that are intended to help others readily understand their work in a particular way), note the lateral small cross-section at the bottom, with, lower down to the left, a cutoff front view of a face (a familiar reference point) so we see the height of the section in relation to the skull. On the right we see Leonardo has outlined the top half of the skull hingeing away to the right; this is sketchy, but even his barely considered sketches show the palpability of embodied experience. Note the emotional content of the main drawing, the vertical section: a fully scientific (by contemporary standards) section would have sliced off more of the face and neck – Leonardo seems to want to show a recognizably human profile. (Compare this with the plastic anatomical model below.) And the baroque swirls of hair in every sketch are a feature of Leonardo’s astonishing perception of pan-creational life-force.

Back in the world of information design, note the extreme minimalism of the labeling conventions, where the plainest of keylines unambiguously connect referent to referred solely by differences in length. The written captions radiate out in expressive imitation of (and at a larger scale from) the drawn layers. An insert on the right, towards the bottom, mostly in blacker ink (done some while later?) shows Leonardo’s further thoughts. In the onion sketch on the left Leonardo notes correspondences between an onion and the skull. This isn’t conventionally good science because vegetables grow differently from people’s heads, but Leonardo vivacious conception of the unity of the created world – always embodied, always connected, always real and fully alive, never abstract or solely intellectual – gives us something different and (dare I say?) more interesting.

I am not excusing bad science, but I am suggesting that curiosity and openness to phenomena precede observation and scientific work generally. As Leonardo’s anatomical work attests, his predisposition to observe interconnectedness opens up his faculties of perception to new insights. This is not superhuman; this is the way all of us understand metaphor. If this is not duly (or dully) scientific, might there be something wrong with our conception of science?

Let’s look at one of the contemporary plastic models of the human body also on display. These anatomical models (‘SOMSO’) are by Adam,Rouilly (their spacing). This is an enriching idea by the exhibition organizers: we can compare the anatomical veracity of Leonardo’s observations with modern science. The plastic models are impressive and no doubt educationally useful, but the comparison with Leonardo’s work shows they are oddly non-human and simplistic; the sanitized and ‘educational’ use of highly differentiated/flattened colour and plastic has more than a nuance of the products of Fisher-Price.

An Adam,Rouilly section of the cranium

A Fisher-Price chatter telephone

To be fair to these models, competition with perhaps the finest artist/draughtsman in Western civilization was always going to be a struggle. But can it be, over the course of 500 years of improvements in medical knowledge, that something has been lost?

I don’t have any more space in this post to explore more of Leonardo’s insights in detail, but I hope to continue these themes shortly.

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