26 January 2010

A Way of Painting Nature

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:23 am

“I must tell you that I spent my time in my study, lying on a sofa facing the window, from which I could see  stretch of the sea, and the horizon. One evening, when the sun was setting and the sky was broken by clouds, I lay there a long while watching a white cloud taking on a marvelous shade of pure tender green. The clouds in the west were fringed with red, but a pale red, bleached by the white rays of the sun shining directly upon it. The light dazzled me, and after a while I closed my eyes. Then it was clear to me that all my attention and love had been given to that shade of green, for its complementary colour was produced on my retina, a brilliant red that had nothing to do with the luminous, but pale red of the sky. I gazed in enchantment at the colour I had myself brought into being. My great surprise came when I opened my eyes again, for then I saw that flaming red spread over the whole sky and cover up my emerald green, so that for some time I was unable to see it. So I had actually found a way of painting nature! I naturally repeated the experiment several times. The strange part was that I had actually endowed the colours with movement. When I opened my eyes again, the sky would not at once take on the colour from my retina. There was a moment’s hesitation during which I could just detect the emerald green from which the red had sprung, and which seemed to have been destroyed by it. It emerged now from within and spread in all directions like a giant conflagration.”

– Italo Svevo, Confessions of Zeno (1923)

This narrative reflection appears near the end of the novel in a chapter entitled “Psychoanalysis.” Zeno has entered analysis in the hope that it will help him quit smoking, an objective he had repeatedly tried and failed to achieve throughout his life. Zeno’s doctor has been encouraging him to report his dreams, looking for content that will reveal Zeno’s unresolved Oedipus complex. In order to palliate the doctor, Zeno invents an Oedipal dream. His imagination is so rich, his ability to persuade the doctor of the dream’s reality so effective, that, says Zeno, “I almost succeeded (and this is no contradiction) in deceiving myself too… It made me feel quite sick.”

As part of his analysis Zeno had written some “memory-pictures” — reminiscences of his childhood — and presented them to his doctor. Zeno had loved these waking dreams:

“And I did not simulate the emotion; it was really one of the strongest I have ever felt in my life. I was bathed in perspiration while creating the images, and in tears when I recognized them. The idea of being able to live again one day of innocence and inexperience gave me inexpressible delight. Was it not like plucking in October the roses of May? …I know now that I invented them. But invention is a creative act, not merely a lie. My inventions were like the fantasies of fever, which walk about the room so that one can survey them from all sides and even touch them. They had the solidity, the colour, and the movement of living things. My desire created these images. They existed only in my brain and in the space into which I projected them; I felt the air, I saw the light that was in this space, and even its hard corners, just as in any other space that I have walked through… I remembered them as one remembers an event one has been told by somebody who was not present at it.”

In one of these memory-pictures Zeno is being walked to school by the family servant, who seems enormous to him. Zeno is in his first year of school; his brother, a year younger, hasn’t started school yet.  The Zeno of this created dream knows that he will have to go to school forever and ever while the brother gets to stay home. Realizing that he may well be punished when he gets to school, Zeno pictures his little brother and thinks: “They can’t touch him.” When Zeno comes out of his reverie he remembers that in fact his brother envied him for being able to go to school, and that the enormous servant was in fact a short woman. The memory-pictures stopped when Zeno realized the memories were inventions.

“Now alas, to my sorrow I believe in them no longer, and know that it was not the pictures that fled, but my eyes from which a veil was lifted, so that they looked out again on real space, where there is no room for spirits.”

It is after the memory-pictures have stopped that Zeno begins his experiments with optical illusion: “I suddenly felt called to complete the physiological theory of colour,” he says of them. He reports his findings to his analyst, who is unimpressed.

“The doctor polished me off by saying that my retina had become ultrasensitive from so much nicotine. It was on the tip of my tongue to reply that in that case the visions that we had regarded as a reproduction of events of my childhood might also have been due to the same poison.”

In conclusion, it is perhaps worth recalling that the color of an object we see is generated by those wavelengths of light that are not absorbed by the object and that bounce off the surface of the object onto our retinas. Would it be fair to say that the real color of an object, the color that penetrates the surface of the object, the color that is absorbed into and becomes part of the object, is actually the complement of the color we see with our eyes?



  1. I love this book. It’s been a long time since I read it and I remember almost nothing specific about it, as is usually the case with things I read for pleasure without connecting them to some other agenda. In fact I have a whole shelf of books I read over and over again with pleasure but little recognition (mostly scifi). In a general sense I think of Zeno as one of the most beautifully laconic (perhaps because on the late side), along with Musil’s Man Without Qualities, of that wave of Central European culture usually called the fin de siecle. There’s this feel of, not indifference, but again laconic or bemused resignation, as a way of life implodes around a bizarrely overdetermined old elite. Lampedusa’s The Leopard has a similar feel although the elite in question is different.

    I like the idea that the color we see is the complement of the ‘real’ color. Rachel the artist just agreed readily with that idea, and saw the anti-correlationist point of rejecting the perception for the essence. But the fact is that color is perceptual and we cannot see the absorbed wavelengths, only the reflected ones. Now, if we want to see the ‘real’ color of something that seems red to us, all we need to do is turn the color wheel to green; but then we’re perceiving the reflected green. So the question becomes circular and might be resolved nominalistically: red is what we call the situation in which everything but red is being absorbed; green is what we call the situation in which everything but red is reflected; and so on.


    Comment by Carl — 31 January 2010 @ 1:55 pm

  2. Thanks for the recommendation to check out this book, Carl. Zeno’s reflections on color make some of the object-oriented ontological ideas tangible. Is it really informative to say that the eyes-open and the eyes-closed views are just as real as the “really real” color of the thing itself? Then there’s the issue of memory. Which is more real: the empirically accurate recall of events or the psychologically meaningful distortion of Zeno’s invented “memory-pictures”? I think it might be characteristic of late modernism to mourn the passing of verticality, hierarchy, depth, and layeredness of society, culture and selves, to make way for a flat and shallow democracy/marketplace of objects.


    Comment by john doyle — 31 January 2010 @ 8:51 pm

  3. Oh yeah! Glad you liked it.

    “Is it really informative” … “Which is more real” echo my questions about the flat ontology too. It seems to me that we can grant it and not have gotten anywhere at all. In fact because of its flatness it doesn’t provide any texture to leverage questions with; every single thing we might want to know about other than bare existence has to come from outside it. In a way I like how it hits the reset button on a lot of buggy software that’s cluttering up our buffers, but once the system reboots, we’re going to need applications. Where would they come from?


    Comment by Carl — 1 February 2010 @ 6:36 pm

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