Art as a Catalyst of Spiritual Experience
For many epochs the destiny of the human spirit and its works were
taken for granted. In our time, when the existence of the human spirit itself
is under question its destiny demands some special consideration.
The present notes are not a survey of any past or present theories
discussing the relationship between the spirit and art. I shall only indicate
the problems encountered by the semiotic approach when it attempts to
comprehend the relation between works of art and the life of the human
spirit. I shall then try to outline an alternative way of apprehending this
connection. Though I advance here some new considerations - new at least for
myself - I acknowledge, however, my debt to the thinking and terminology of
the Russian philosophers Alexander Pjatigorski and Merab Mamardashvili.
The present notes are no more than the modest result of my long meditations
on their writings, especially on their joint work Symbol and Consciousness.
2.0. By a semiotic approach I understand an approach to the text which
is concentrated on its sign nature and tries to explain or interpret it as a
phenomenon of language. There exist, in fact, a great number of semiotic
approaches. For methodological purposes they can be grouped into three
general approaches according to their definition of the text and the character
of its connection with meaning.
2.1. The first approach can be called "immanentism". The text is
considered as an autonomous and complex, highly organized integrity
/Lotman/, as a quasi-special configuration created by formal relations
between the elements of different orders and its levels. The formal (i.e.
structure) is that which generates meaning. The relations and hierarchy of
elements and levels are thought of as immanent, that is real and existing
before and independently of any analytical procedure. The audience or
analyst can only reveal that which is contained in the text. Such an approach
has been presented most clearly by classical structuralism.
Not only discrete texts but also the process by which they arise and
function can be described as immanent (cf., for instance, the Russian
Formalists' idea of the autonomy of literature; also the conception of the ideal,
or immanent reader).
2.2 The second approach can be called "intertextualism". Attention is
transferred to the relationship between texts. The notion of the "text" itself is
universalizing: it is claimed more or less categorically that the whole world is
a text and that language is "an universal medium of human experience"
The elements constituting a particular text are thought of as borrowed
from and referring to other texts. It is not immanent structure but Reference
and Quotation that become the main subject of interest and the generators of
a text's meaning. Analysis is directed not to the relations between elements
within the text but to the relations between elements and their constellations
within a "semiotic universum" containing in itself all real and potential texts.
Such a pan-semiotism, however, alongside the re-ontologization of
language, inevitably fails to deal with the problem of non-sign reality. As
Gadamer put it:
semantics and hermeneutics have abandoned their efforts to exceed the
bounds of language as a primary form of the giveness of every spiritual
The logical consequence of this is the development of the conception of
the non-referential sign, i.e. a sign which refers only to other signs.
Moreover, intertextual analysis erodes the boundaries of the particular
text and dissolves it in a limitless "intertextuality". This total openness of the
text implies its semantic voidness. This void may be arbitrarily filled by the
reader using various interpretative codes, i.e. those texts through which he
reads the text. If the criteria of verification are thus dismantled, as in
deconstructive thought, a crisis of truth occurs. In the loss of orientation
which results from this crisis, the world-text seems to lose sense and
2.3. The third approach concerns the investigation of semiosis, i.e. the
problem of arising sign structures from certain non-sign or pre-sign reality.
This reality has usually been identified with nature (as opposed to culture)
and designated as "life", "instinct", "psyche", "desire" etc.
From Bakhtin on, cultural acts have been conceived in terms of a
ceaseless interaction, a struggle or dialogue between a culture and its own
otherness. Attention has shifted to the frontiers of the field of culture, and
this problematization of the boundary has characterised approaches such as
The crucial problem of this approach is the continual slippage of the
non-sign which, caught up in an analytical frame, loses its identity by virtue
of signification. Thus the analyst finds himself dealing with secondary,
converted and culturally given forms instead of with "natural phenomena".
(As a matter of fact, the treatment of the (un)conscious as a natural
phenomenon entails its objective interpretation. This means that in trying to
observe the (un)conscious, we observe only its objectifications).
The problem of conscious, or spiritual experience must be posed as
the problem of consciousness realized by the subject in terms of personal
value, being at the same time essentially non-personal and neutral with
regard to value.
Conscious experience can neither be described in terms of cognition, i.e.
receiving information, nor in terms of knowledge of substantional structures.
Both cognition and knowledge relate to, or have place in, the sphere of signs,
while conscious life unfolds itself as understanding not of language, but of
some non- or trans-linguistic content.
Hence, the important consequence that consciousness in itself cannot
be described as a language, and, on the other hand, that it is impossible to
comprehend consciousness (as well as spiritual experience) through textual
This also means that the experience of consciousness cannot be
communicated but must continually arise anew. Thus conscious experience is
a result of auto-communication, or of the interpretation by consciousness of
the individual psyche as itself.
What then is the role of the text? The text serves as an occasion for, or
catalyst of this process of the self-objectification of consciousness (being,
therefore, neither actual "source", nor "content" of the process). The conscious
content of the text is an act, or occurrence, in the individual stream of
consciousness, reading this text as a text of consciousness.
(A note in parenthesis: "to be an occurrence" can only be that which one
experiences as a value, of either positive or negative quality. The
"occurrence", therefore, is the opposite of the "fact", and unlike the latter is
To see and understand the author of the work means to see and
understand a different, other consciousness and its world, i.e. the other
When he sees the specifics of understanding within the presence of a
dialogical moment, he misses the fact that the possibility of dialogue between
two consciousnesses is thinkable only if there is a place where they meet not
equivalent to either of them and that this is a structure of consciousness
The structures of consciousness can be considered as non-empirical and
non-personal facts or states of being, or as the meaningful and stable
disposition of consciousness in relation to itself. These structures are discrete
in space and indiscrete in time. The fact of conscious experience occurs when
my (or one's) individual continuum of conscious states crosses (or enters) the
locus where this fact is.
From this viewpoint, dialogue, be it with contemporary, predecessor or
posterity, is based on the ontological possibility of coincidence with the
interlocutor in the same structure of consciousness, and, regarded from the
viewpoint of the sphere of consciousness, appears as an observation by
consciousness of itself. In this sense every understanding is a process of
cognition, or recognition, of oneself (not, of course, as an empirical subject).
The special things which act as mediators for such a recognition are
symbols. Symbols, unlike signs, are not a designation of any objects or
substantial structures of knowledge. They are direct or indirect designations
of consciousness (or premises of its possibility). Unlike signs they are not
subject to cognition, but may only be understood (or not understood). They
serve not as means of transporting "information" but as an instrument of self-
In a symbolical situation some things develop a special meaning for the
subject, relating to his own mental states. This meaning is generated by
these mental states themselves (of which the subject is, of course, under
normal conditions unaware). The mentality of the subject responding to
symbols is realized by him in its thingness (i.e. as "not-I").
The symbolical reading of a text is, therefore, a reading of the text as a
description of our own mental states, or states which could be ours under
Such a reading is, of course, opposed to the semiotical interpretation of
the text which translates the symbols of consciousness into the signs of
culture. Consciousness which is reduced to signs appears as an ideology (i.e.
knowledge of things and of its order). The understanding of culture as a
realm of only-signs tends towards anti-consciousness and acts as a hindrance
to spiritual growth, i.e. the conscious life of the individual.
The science of texts (including artistic texts) can relate to its object
in two ways. Firstly, by regarding the text as sign-structures and seeing its
own purpose as the interpretation of their linguistic meanings and
connotations. In this case, it functions as ideology itself, which only
legitimates that which already is (in the sense of consciousness) in texts and
does not lead to any new conscious experience. (It might be even said that
semiotics acts as a mechanism of the alienation of language from
consciousness or, which is almost the same, of the individual subject from the
world, including himself).
In the second case, the target of the science of texts is to show texts as
an unfolding of primary symbols into "sign structures" and, also, to
investigate the condition of its understanding (or misunderstanding) or
introduction of the conscious contents into the individual stream of
© Евгений Горный / Eugene Gorny, 1993-2022.
© Сетевая Словесность, 2007-2022.
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