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  • Mona Lisa's Smile

    This is Chapter 21 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see http://www.netfuture.org/.

    Virtual reality has its precedents. Pygmalion, the artist of Greek myth, sculpted the image of a young woman in ivory. Stricken by her beauty, he prayed to Aphrodite for a bride in her likeness. The goddess granted his wish by bringing the statue to life.

    "Without the underlying promise of this myth," wrote the eminent art critic, E. H. Gombrich, and without "the secret hopes and fears that accompany the act of creation, there might be no art as we know it." Gombrich goes on to quote the contemporary English artist, Lucien Freud:

    A moment of complete happiness never occurs in the creation of a work of art. The promise of it is felt in the act of creation, but disappears towards the completion of the work. For it is then that the painter realizes that it is only a picture he is painting. Until then he had almost dared to hope that the picture might spring to life. /1/

    The creative urge runs strong. Alone among earth's creatures, we contribute creatively even to the shaping of our own lives. "It is our nature to work upon our nature." Therefore we should not be wholly surprised by the yearning to create new worlds -- even worlds unconstrained by the laws of our own genesis. And I think it is fair to say that in the current efforts to sustain virtual realities, our creative faculties have in some sense achieved their furthest and most impressive reach.

    One wonders, though: does our preoccupation with virtual reality also correspond to some sort of alienation from the world? Here a historical perspective is desirable. Indisputably, our history has entailed an increasing "distance" between man and thing. Since the time of the ancients' vivid participation in a world alive with spirits, we have won our independence -- our clear separation as subjects -- from a world of no-longer-ensouled objects. As C. G. Jung puts it, the spirits have fled into the interior of the human individual, where they now conjure themselves only as the fading and scientifically disreputable images of our subjectivity -- or rumble incoherently in the deep disturbances of our psyches. In our latter- day, academically nourished wish to eradicate the ghost from the machine, we would play the executioner in the final act of the world's dying. First the ghost in the world, and now the ghost in ourselves.

    Could it be that this death of the world is what engenders our passion for virtual realities? Do we seek again the spirits that the ancients once found so easily within stream and meadow, tree and mountain? Behind the success of every new Stephen King movie, every advance in special effects, is there a secret hope and fear that the effects might somehow burst through into reality, and that some ancient Harpy might suddenly reach out and grab us? Is it our real yearning simply to become alive again, and to know the world as living?

    Before we pray the gods of technology to grant full life to our creations, we should ask ourselves what it is we're really after.

    A new interior, a new exterior

    Most of us still take some form of "real inner life" for granted, even if we must set it within the doubtful quote marks of a reductionist science. Our pervasive doubts, we recognize, are historically recent -- from which one reasonable conclusion is that the inner life seemed more real (less doubtful) to our forbears. Which in turn points to certain changes in consciousness. But how far can we characterize such changes -- if indeed they have really occurred? Can we realistically look for the point where the peculiarly private -- and now increasingly doubt-ridden -- modern consciousness was first establishing itself and waxing strong?

    Dutch psychologist Jan Hendrik van den Berg writes about the mysterious smile of Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. /2/ People came from far and wide to see this smile -- for it was, as van den Berg says, "the face of later generations," the revelation of a new way to live. Mona Lisa was smiling over the delicious and unexpected discovery of an interior secret, a hidden subjectivity, powerful enough to remake the world. The sudden flowering of the Renaissance, the childlike fervor of the Scientific Revolution, the compelling urge that sent Columbus and the other great voyagers steadfastly beyond the edges of the world, where sea monsters once dwelt -- all testified to a humanity waking up from its medieval enchantment. We stretched, blinked, rubbed our eyes, looked out upon a fresh world we were seeing for the first time. And, in that moment, we became aware of the one who was inside, looking.

    The new subjectivity was thus married to a new objectivity. It was not only Mona Lisa's smile that became famous, but also the landscape behind her.

    It is the first landscape painted as a landscape, just because it was a landscape. A pure landscape, not just a backdrop for human actions: nature, nature as the middle ages did not know it, an exterior nature closed within itself and self-sufficient, an exterior from which the human element has, in principle, been removed entirely. It is things-in-their-farewell, and therefore is as moving as a farewell of our dearest. It is the strangest landscape ever beheld by human eyes.

    Van den Berg proceeds to quote Rilke: "This landscape is not the portrayal of an impression, it is not the judgment of a man on things at rest; it is nature coming into being, the world coming into existence, unknown to man as the jungle of an unknown island. It had been necessary to see the landscape in this way, far and strange, remote, without love .... It had to be almost hostile in its exalted indifference, if, with its objects, it was to give a new meaning to our existence."

    Owen Barfield on some occasions speaks of the peculiarly valuable reverence or devotion toward nature, and the selfless, disinterested study of it, made possible only by our experience of it as something separate from ourselves. From this experience modern science was born. It is a way of relating to nature, he says, that we should not relinquish even if we go on to rediscover our deep, inner connection to the world around us.

    But if our own challenge is to find our way back to a meaningful world, in Da Vinci's time the prospect was one of newly impending separation. The world was only beginning to move away from man -- the modern subject was emerging from out of the world -- and Da Vinci was one of the first to notice the newly independent landscape. He also noticed the noticing subject, and the subject could not repress a smile.

    The bloated subject

    In the eighteenth century, Rousseau wrote the first modern autobiography. He said in his Confessions, "I am going to attempt something that has never been done before and will never be attempted again." He was right in his first claim, notes van den Berg, but wrong in the second. Wrong? How could he even have dreamed such an insanity? Was no one ever again to write his personal confessions? But, really, we must sympathize with Rousseau, for how could he have known? How could he have known that James Joyce would spew out more words to describe the internal adventures of a day than he, Rousseau, required to relate the story of half a life? How could he have known that when all qualities were finally shifted, not only in theory, but, consequently, in human experience, from the primary side of the ledger to the secondary -- from the objective side to the subjective -- we would be left facing a world of sheer abstraction, while our own interiors overflowed with a perplexing subjectivity we knew less and less what to do with?

    Rousseau did not know. He was, as we say today, on the "leading edge" of history's advance -- but yet was too close to the "action" to see where it was leading. As nature gained ever greater independence, man's inner life tended inevitably toward the subjective -- a vaguely meandering, mist-enshrouded stream no longer bound to the world's increasingly sharp, objective contours. And not all the books in all the libraries could contain the rising flood.

    Van den Berg describes how

    the inner self, which in Rousseau's time was a simple, soberly filled, airy space, has become ever more crowded. Permanent residents have even been admitted; at first, only the parents ... finally it was the entire ancestry .... The space was divided, partitions were raised, and curtains appeared where in earlier days a free view was possible. The inner self grew into a complicated apartment building. The psychologists of our century, scouts of these inner rooms, could not finish describing all the things their astonished eyes saw. It did not take them long to surpass Joyce, and their work became endless in principle. The exploration of one apartment appeared to disturb another; and if the exploration moved to the next place, the first one again required attention. Something fell down or a threat was uttered; there was always something. The inner life was like a haunted house. But what else could it be? It contained everything .... Everything that had previously belonged to everybody, everything that had been collective property and had existed in the world in which everyone lived, had to be contained by the individual. It could not be expected that things would be quiet in the inner self. (p. 232)

    Most of us -- especially if we are engineers or scientists -- try to ignore the unwelcome tenants, even as the pop psychologists drag them out before the public in a kind of traveling sideshow of freaks and wonders.

    Excursions to the Alps

    It happens to have been Rousseau as well who exhibited, in those same Confessions, what subsequently became known as a "sense of nature." Later, in Julie (1761), he wrote more completely of the emotion felt upon traveling through the Alps. Apparently he spoke for many others.
    Like an epidemic the new sensation spread through Europe. Every one wished to see what Rousseau had seen, to experience the same ecstasy. Everybody visited Switzerland and climbed the Alps. This had not happened before Rousseau. It was then that the Alps became a tourist attraction. Previously they had been an obstacle .... Even in 1750, Henault, a poet and a friend of Voltaire's, crossed the Jura and the Alps without the least enthusiasm, merely observing, "There is always a creek at my side and rocks above my head, which seem about to fall in the creek or upon me." These words would nowadays disqualify him as a poet.... /3/

    These changes make a difference. "The economic and social structure of Switzerland," writes Barfield, is owing in part to the tourist industry, which in turn depends upon the fact that "the mountains which twentieth-century man sees are not the mountains which eighteenth-century man saw." /4/

    If there is a certain ideal esthetic distance, a point of maximum fascination, a stance of "objective subjectivity" wherein man and world resonate in the most exquisite tension, then it was the Romantics who lived most fully in that tension. /5/ It is the point where man is sufficiently detached from "things" to appreciate their independent life, but not so detached that he has lost all consciousness of his inner connection to them. His separation from the world only allows him to savor all the more his union with it.

    The distancing process, however, was not arrested by the Romantics, so that van den Berg is correct in observing how "the estrangement of things, which brought Romanticism to ecstasy, belongs, for the most part, to the past." We are no longer close enough to the world even to feel the conscious fascination of our estrangement:

    Many of the people who, on their traditional trip to the Alps, ecstatically gaze at the snow on the mountain tops and at the azure of the transparent distance, do so out of a sense of duty. They are only imitating Rousseau; they are simulating an emotion which they do not actually feel. It is simply not permissible to sigh at the vision of the great views and to wonder, for everyone to hear, whether it was really worth the trouble. And yet the question would be fully justified; all one has to do is see the sweating and sunburned crowd, after it has streamed out of the train or the bus, plunge with resignation into the recommended beauty of the landscape to know that for a great many the trouble is greater than the enjoyment.

    To look or not

    Most of us will recognize something of ourselves in this description. Strangely, however, our alienation from nature is matched only by our passion to "capture" these bland encounters, to reproduce them in the more easily grasped two dimensions. "There, I've got it," we say as we click the shutter and turn away. This is not really reproducing nature, however, for the experience was not of nature, but of taking the picture.

    "I've seen people in the Everglades come onto the walkway with their video equipment, take a picture, and go away," says Massachusetts naturalist John Mitchell. "They will go home and put it on and they will see the image they have captured of it. They will never have seen the real place." /6/

    This happens even more curiously where nature's governing course was once so urgent as to be acknowledged in rites of passage. Coming of age, betrothal, marriage, birth -- on such occasions today the camera is redefining the events themselves, so that a derivative activity replaces whatever original significance may have remained. I must get the picture before I lose the too-quickly-passing moment -- before the world departs from me -- and then I can enjoy it forever after. If the technology is clever enough, I can even hope the replay will give me a little shiver of thrill. But why expect to be thrilled by what I couldn't be bothered to see in the first place? Pygmalion received a living bride from cold marble; on my part, I willingly exchange real life for a secondhand image.

    There is a strange, double-sided gesture here -- a reaching for something even as I avert my face from it. The present moment seems so filled with meaning that I must capture it for eternity, and yet seems so devoid of meaning that I can spend the "eternal moment" fiddling with my lenses, happily deferring to the later contemplation of a flat image. It's not clear what that image will enable me to recall, if I have shunned the original experience.

    Our culture's fascinated obsession with images has often been remarked. What I want to suggest is a simple reason for it -- one that accounts for the double nature of the obsession: if I dare not really look at nature, it is for fear that I will only draw a blank. The sense of profound meaning quivering just beneath the surface of my consciousness may turn out to have been only the random twitching of nerves. Worse yet, I will not know: is the blank in nature, or in me? /7/

    At the same time (this is the other side of the gesture), I hope to overcome the blank. I desperately pursue the sights because, in a dim sort of way, I seek the ground of my being. I seek some kind of self-affirmation, a connection to the foundation of things, a reminder that I really am possessed of a significant existence, because the world in which I am rooted is significant.

    But this is not yet quite adequate. Mere blankness -- nothing at all -- cannot inspire fear. Darkness can, however, and the blank I speak of is a kind of darkness. One never knows what the darkness may hold. So the question becomes: what is it that lives and stares back at me from nature's darkness, that I cannot bear to recognize, let alone return its gaze? What is it that I find tolerable only when it is reduced to a picture, a reflection, the safe abstractions of science?

    The answer will, I hope, have been suggested by all the preceding: the source of my fears is what the ancients reveled in. It is what -- in its gradual departure from the world -- fascinated Da Vinci's contemporaries, enchanted Rousseau, and provoked the Romantics to something like pagan worship. But now it has retreated so thoroughly into the interior of things -- which is at the same time the human interior -- and been so long lost from sight that I can scarcely imagine the monstrous forms into which the pagan deities have twisted themselves in their hidden darkness. So I shield myself from the loathsome visages, reimagining the world as a collection of objects -- surfaces without interiors, which is exactly what the photograph gives me. "Fear," writes Barfield, "is the true origin of materialism":

    Perhaps ... it is just the desire of avoiding [the beings of whom the interior consists], perhaps it is even the fear of such a recognition, which has made the word "pattern" so popular of late. And there is Gestalt, too .... We glimpse a countenance, and we say hurriedly: "Yes, that is indeed a face, but it is the face of nobody." /8/

    We swim within a veritable sea of images -- printed, televised, and now computerized -- and the one thing most people seem to agree on is that these images are in some sense artificial, virtual, unreal. And so they are. Desiring to feel alive, we invite them to "scare" us or otherwise to create memorable moments. But the results are never quite real enough, so that we must resort to an endless crescendo of special effects. No wonder; these images are a kind of barrier -- something we can "paste over" the world to preserve our distance even as they deliver a safe, surrogate thrill. They are tamely cerebral artifacts, increasingly generated and controlled by "electronic brains." Projecting our wonderfully precise, uncontaminated, mathematical coordinates upon the world's screen, we disguise the blank, unruly darkness behind.

    Facing the darkness

    We have yet to make peace with our haunting ghosts -- this despite the sometimes overly eager claim that they are "only" within us, duly chastened and awaiting their final dismissal by science. The monsters that once prowled the edges of the known world were fully acknowledged; now, however, having long denied them due recognition, we find that they are everywhere -- just behind the mirror surfaces that bear our artificial images. To say they have retreated into the interior of man, is not to deny their presence in the world, for the significance of this retreat is precisely that man's interior has become the world's interior. /9/

    The more thoroughly we banish our unwelcome spirits from "objective" spaces, the more menacing and intimate becomes their approach to us. Nothing in the history of this century suggests that their ravening appetites have been sated. We glimpse their powers on the one hand when we prod nature into a nuclear outburst (reassuring ourselves all the while that we fully understand the theory of atom-splitting) -- and on the other hand when the fission of a much-too-brittle self leads to the mental ward. These are not altogether unrelated phenomena. I have previously cited Barfield's remark that

    the possibility of man's avoiding self-destruction depends on his realizing before it is too late that what he let loose over Hiroshima, after fiddling with its exterior for three centuries like a mechanical toy, was the forces of his own unconscious mind. /10/

    There are other observations that, if taken seriously, testify to the intimate, creative relation between man and nature. Earlier in this chapter I alluded to the dependence of the Swiss economy upon changes in mountains during the last few centuries -- changes correlative to the evolution of consciousness. Similarly, Oscar Wilde once asked, "Have you noticed that Nature has recently begun to look like Corot's landscapes?" /11/ And E. H. Gombrich reminds us that the "picturesque" qualities we now discover in nature could only have arisen from our own habits of picture-making. /12/ Even the physicist, in his drive to purify the phenomenal world of all "contamination" by subjectivity, has found the influences binding observer to observed finally inescapable.

    These, however, are indications of a relation to nature that remains largely unconscious. They point rather to what remains of an older condition than to the basis for a new, conscious relation such as Barfield is signaling. But a sober recognition of the one relation can perhaps stimulate us toward a responsible pursuit of the other. From the thunderings of a Mount Sinai that threatened all who were foolish enough to look upon it -- to the striking, precipitous landscape behind Mona Lisa, just then preparing to receive the self- assured, scientific gaze of the future -- to the ecstatic Alps of Rousseau -- to our own rather baffling wilderness areas whose secret we can no longer guess -- if we begin to see these external changes as the inevitable correlates of changes within ourselves, then we can also begin to accept responsibility for the changes outside us by taking in hand the changes within us.

    Art and the technological image

    One might reasonably ask whether the rapid ascendancy of the computer-generated image in our day represents a further fleeing from the world's interior, or somehow a reversal of the flight. There are, unfortunately, few reasons for optimism. If the camera shields us against reality, the broad convergence of imaging techniques upon virtual reality bespeaks a desire to convert the shield into the full surround of an impenetrable fortress. I have spoken of a double gesture: the scarcely conscious fascination that requires me to look, and the simultaneous dropping of an artificial screen to intercept my gaze. Virtual realities promise endless fascination without any apparent risk that the horror of the real world might leak through.

    There is at least this to be said for computerized imagery: so far as it becomes interactive, it invites a kind of creative participation on our part. We begin to experience a certain inner power with respect to the images around us. But so long as we exercise this power in isolation from the world, it threatens to become arbitrary, unrooted, destructive. Anyone who is aware of the images in video games, for example, will understand Barfield's concern when he says: given how far nature has evolved during the few hundred years since the medieval era, it isn't hard to imagine our now moving, over a similar or shorter period, "into a chaotically empty or a fantastically hideous world." He goes on:

    We should remember this, when appraising the aberrations of the formally representational arts. Of course, in so far as these are due to affectation, they are of no importance. But in so far as they are genuine, they are genuine because the artist has in some way or other experienced the world he represents. And in so far as they are appreciated, they are appreciated by those who are themselves willing to make a move towards seeing the world in that way, and, ultimately therefore, seeing that kind of world. We should remember this, when we see pictures of a dog with six legs emerging from a vegetable marrow or a woman with a motorbicycle substituted for her left breast. /13/

    This suggests another concern. Pygmalion was an artist. During the Renaissance it was the artisan-scientist who observed and devoutly portrayed the world's recession. The true artist cannot be content merely to tinker with exteriors like a mechanic, but must work from within outwards. Today, however, no one will dare to claim that much art remains in the engineering organizations spawning ambitious virtual realities. All has been reduced to abstraction and calculation. If it is my own spirit I rediscover in the virtual artifact, then I must admit that it is a clean, antiseptic spirit distilled down to its mathematical grasp of three-dimensional images.

    Yet there remains hope that our technological exploits will disturb ancient memories of a primal, creative fire -- fire that even now we might steal and so make of ourselves (not our machines) a furnace to warm and revivify the world-hearth from within. Such creative responsibility is, in any case, being thrust upon us -- as both the challenge of the global environment and the conundrums of bioethics testify. We are not allowed a safe, technological fiddling with the exterior of things. We are given a choice: to nourish unawares the spirits who rose in grotesquely beautiful prayer over Hiroshima -- and who today in their hiddenness have multiplied and scattered to every corner of the globe even as they have burrowed yet more invasively into our subconscious -- or to risk the unknown horrors of our own darkness in the hope of unearthing there the deeply creative images of a renewed world.


    1. Gombrich, 1969: 94.

    2. van den Berg, 1975: 230-31.

    3. van den Berg, 1975: 233.

    4. Barfield, 1965a: 145-46.

    5. Barfield somewhere makes this point.

    6. Dumanoski, 1990.

    7. David Sewell draws my attention to these lines in Emerson's essay on "Nature": "The ruin or the blank that we see when we look at nature is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opaque. The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself."

    8. Barfield, 1965b: 60, 160.

    9. See appendix A, "Owen Barfield: The Evolution of Consciousness."

    10. Barfield, 1973: 36.

    11. This is Andre Gide's paraphrase of more extended comments by Wilde. See van den Berg, 1975: 52fn.

    12. Gombrich, 1969: 315.

    13. Barfield, 1965a: 146.

    Steve Talbott :: The Future Does Not Compute, Chapter 21

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