The Dialogue as Icon

By far the greatest impediment and aberration of the human understanding arises from [the fact that] . . . those things which strike the sense outweigh things which, although they may be more important, do not strike it directly. Hence, contemplation usually ceases with seeing, so much so that little or no attention is paid to things invisible.” — Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Aphorism 50.

What characterizes the material idol is precisely that the artist can consign to it the subjugating brilliance of a first visible; on the contrary, what characterizes the icon painted on wood does not come from the hand of a man but from the infinite depth that crosses it — or better, orients it following the intention of the gaze. The essential in the icon — the intention that envisages — comes to it as that elsewhere whose invisible strangeness saturates the visibility of the face with meaning. In return, to see, or to contemplate, the icon merely consists in traversing the depth that surfaces in the visibility of the face, in order to respond to the apocalypse where the invisible is made visible in the very manner by which the invisible that imparts itself therein envisages the visible — strictly, to exchanging our gaze for the gaze that iconistically envisages us.” — Jean Luc Marion, God Without Being (University of Chicago Press, 1991) p. 21.

For the invisible would imply first that a yet obscure aim stretches toward it in order to open it.” — Ibid., p. 13.

The distinction between idol and icon to which Marion refers is important and not only for theology. To represent the two different modes of appropriation of an invisible object of contemplation (note that the erasure is deliberate):

IDOL = OBJECT              ICON –> OBJECT

To take a Platonic dialogue and reduce it to series of stated assertions is to treat it as an idol, assuming that statement and idea are equivalent, that the latter can be made visible in the former. Form/eidos is thereby reduced to opinion/doxa and reality is flattened into image. Even the most literally precise statements of Platonic doctrine and dogma are falsifications of his meaning. This is one reason that Plato is so often dismissed out of hand. When reduced to a collection of opinions (e.g. forms are the really-real-perfect-realities-in-heaven of which everything else is an imperfect replica), Platonic philosophy is obviously wrong. (I would reject it too if it were nothing but that.) Instead, a dialogue must be engaged as icon to be properly understood. A dialogue does not attempt to adequately describe or define its object, but contrives to produce in its reader (by its defective pointers) an orientation toward an “intention that envisages.” An idol makes every effort to mask its defects; it becomes more perfect as it more perfectly represents. An icon, on the other hand, will not try to hide the imperfections of its representations. As I wrote before, “defects can only be experienced as defects if there is at work an anterior/immanent norm of completion or wholeness. The defect is “seen” by the “light” provided by the sense of wholeness/completion animating the beholder. The light is not seen, but seen by.” The object of search/desire/adoration is already at work as the light behind the gaze of its beholder. I am animated by a search for justice, struggle to produce something adequate in the light of what I know, notice the defect in my best available depiction, and become aware of the light of the virtue in order to grasp the contrast with what is before me. Justice becomes an active presence in my soul in searching for it. Those who hunger and thirst for justice/dikaiosyne are being satisfied in the searching. This accounts for the phenomenon noted by Marion: that we exchange “our gaze for the gaze that iconistically envisages us.” The measure that we use is measured back to us.

My characterization of the iconic intention of Plato’s written dialogues helps clarify his strictures against written doctrine in both the Phaedrus (274e – 278b) and the Seventh Letter (344). It seems clear to me that Plato’s teaching cannot be made explicit to a detached observer (i.e. one not smitten with the proper philosophical eros) without falsifying it. Plato clearly implies in the Seventh Letter that his dialogues cannot represent his teaching directly and still be serious/spoudaios. (Ironically, their very playfulness is the surest mark of their seriousness.) Let me end with the Letter passage:

It is only when all these things, names and definitions, visual and other sensations , are rubbed together and subjected to tests in which questions and answers are exchanged in good faith and without malice that finally, when human capacity is stretched to its limit, a spark of understanding and intelligence flashes out and illuminates the subject at issue. That is why any serious student of serious realities will shrink from making truth the helpless object of ill-will by committing it to writing. In a word, the conclusion to be drawn is this; when one sees a written composition, whether it be on law by legislator or any other subject, one can be sure, if the writer is a serious man, that the book does not represent his most serious thoughts; they remain stored up in the noblest region of his personality.”  — Plato, Seventh Letter, 344, from Phaedrus and Letters VII and VIII, translated by Walter Hamilton, Penguin Classics, 1973.

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