2.07.2009

Pythagorean basis : the Golden Mean

As a way of leading into what are, hopefully, discussions about our contemporaries, about the various streams & traditions from which they stem, & about our own work, I'll try to provide some context by putting forward an abstract image : that of the Golden Mean.

Much ancient art, science and ethics, in particular that of the Greeks, was anchored in a consideration of this Golden Mean. The Pythagoreans - early Greek mathematics & geometry in general - focused on the notion of a mean between extremes : beauty and proportion were seen to grow from the concept of mediation between polar binaries.

Mediation entailed not one, but two important consequences. It not only found the balancing center between two antitheses; in the process, it also rendered a clearer distinction, a more distinct, substantial impression, of the nature of each of these binary aspects in themselves. Fundamentally, mediation made possible a synthesis, a whole, in which the parts remained distinct, retained their integrity. Thus whole and parts were in proportion (therefore, beautiful).

It's hard to overestimate the importance of this concept for ancient canons of beauty and art. (Yeats, for one, was very explicit about this.) Moreover, with Plato and Aristotle, a point of mediation was found, in the notion of mediation itself, between art and ethics. The "good man" shunned excess of every kind. The extremes of too much or too little were to be avoided : the straight path led directly forward, through the center.

To repeat once more : these notions were central to ancient canons of beauty. And if we, as hopefully somewhat reflective artists & critics, wish to achieve a holistic or comprehensive view of our metier, we might consider how the idea of a "middle path" finds parallel expression in both art and experience. In other words, we might imagine how a range of artistic expressions reflect the comparable range of human experience : sadness/happiness, fear/joy, laughter/tears, ignorance/knowledge, pride/humility, honor/shame... these are mirrored in the tonal, modal ranges of various forms of art (comedy/tragedy being only the most obvious example).

With this in mind, it seems to me to make sense to imagine a sort of tonal center : a midpoint, a middling voice, a midrange : where a poem or other work might be balanced, so as to reflect or comprehend, to some extent, this range or variation in human experience.

A particular topic I have in mind, in this regard, has to do with the notion that we might be able to recognize a range of equilibrium, a mediating center, between representation and expression. Imagine a possible poem which adheres to this kind of balanced, tonal center. The poem's expressive means are in proportion to its theme or subject-matter. Neither end of the spectrum outweighs the other; they work together, they combine in a new and effective synthesis. In fact, it can be said that the poem essentially is the fusion or synthesis of matter and manner.

I think this particular notion might be applied, in a useful way, to a consideration of some of our own work, and that of our contemporaries.

1 comment:

J.H. Stotts said...

there's no notion that can't be bastardized--e.g., i was recently in a hotel where there nautilus shells on all the shelves, and da vinci quotes that could only be read in the interminable mirrors. ugh. the golden mean taken too far.