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The Rhythm of Thought: Art, Literature, and Music after Merleau-Ponty

The Rhythm of Thought: Art, Literature, and Music after Merleau-Ponty

by Jessica Wiskus

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Between present and past, visible and invisible, and sensation and idea, there is resonance—so philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued and so Jessica Wiskus explores in The Rhythm of Thought. Holding the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, the paintings of Paul Cézanne, the prose of Marcel Proust, and the music of Claude Debussy under


Between present and past, visible and invisible, and sensation and idea, there is resonance—so philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued and so Jessica Wiskus explores in The Rhythm of Thought. Holding the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, the paintings of Paul Cézanne, the prose of Marcel Proust, and the music of Claude Debussy under Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological light, she offers innovative interpretations of some of these artists’ masterworks, in turn articulating a new perspective on Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy.   More than merely recovering Merleau-Ponty’s thought, Wiskus thinks according to it. First examining these artists in relation to noncoincidence—as silence in poetry, depth in painting, memory in literature, and rhythm in music—she moves through an array of their artworks toward some of Merleau-Ponty’s most exciting themes: our bodily relationship to the world and the dynamic process of expression. She closes with an examination of synesthesia as an intertwining of internal and external realms and a call, finally, for philosophical inquiry as a mode of artistic expression. Structured like a piece of music itself, The Rhythm of Thought offers new contexts in which to approach art, philosophy, and the resonance between them.

Editorial Reviews

Richard Kearney
“In this pioneering and original study, Jessica Wiskus shows how Merleau-Ponty leads philosophy to a creative threshold—the place where thought and music merge. Bringing the work of Debussy into conversation with that of other modernist artists like Cézanne, Proust, and Mallarmé, she brilliantly investigates artistic notions often ignored in traditional philosophy: mythical time, musical depth, and the dynamic expressions of transcendence. The style of the writing is as innovative as the content, unfolding through rhythmical layers that mime the musical forms it is sounding. A captivating experiment in thought and expression.”
Galen Johnson
“There is no other book that studies Merleau-Ponty’s late writings in relation to this assemblage of figures and ideas and no other book that engages so deeply his late writings with musical ideas. By placing these lesser-known writings into dialogue with Mallarmé, Proust, Cézanne, and Debussy, Jessica Wiskus offers a ‘new’ Merleau-Ponty bristling with crisp, fresh insights. The effect is powerful, even dazzling.”
Leonard Lawlor
“In The Rhythm of Thought, Jessica Wiskus presents a reading of Merleau-Ponty’s late writing and his engagement with art, literature, and music. Many people have already written about this, but Wiskus, better than anyone else, really draws out the philosophical importance: the development of a philosophical ‘operative language,’ one that expresses rather than represents. Her structure is very interesting. There is a sort of rhythm to the book itself. Each chapter presents not only an interesting reading of Merleau-Ponty, but also—and this is more impressive—an interesting reading of each artist. It is truly an impressive book.”
Dermot Moran
“Jessica Wiskus’s The Rhythm of Thought takes on an extraordinary journey through the art works and music which inspired Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. Wiskus draws on her expert knowledge of music and painting to comment in illuminating detail on Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetic sensibility, a sensibility that informed his overall vision of the world. This is a remarkable, highly original, fascinating, and deeply thoughtful book, a ‘must’ for anyone who wants to understand one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century.”
Choice - M. Dineen
“Wiskus sets forth stimulating ideas with considerable attraction for readers.”
The Rhythm of Thought is an engrossing book. Wiskus’s philosophical acumen and depth of insight into the artworks under review is impressive. She maintains a balance that confounds many philosophers, neither treating art as fixed object for definition and description, nor as mere means to a philosophical end. As Merleau-Ponty describes the experience of viewing a painting: ‘rather than seeing it, I see according to, or with it.’ Wiskus manages to see, hear, and read according to and with the works she richly engages, and readers would do well to approach her book in the same manner.”

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The Rhythm of Thought

Art, Literature, and Music after Merleau-Ponty



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-03092-0



Mallarmé and a Proffer of Silence

The definition of philosophy would involve an elucidation of philosophical expression itself (therefore a becoming conscious of the procedure used in what precedes "naïvely," as though philosophy confined itself to reflecting what is) as the science of pre-science, as the expression of what is before expression and sustains it from behind. MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY, The Visible and the Invisible

In reading the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, one must navigate both the opacity of his language and the incompleteness of his work. His penchant for holding in tension the relationship between oppositional pairs—visible and invisible, activity and passivity, sensible and ideal—as well as his development of a unique vocabulary nevertheless replete with traditional Christian terms—"chiasm," "advent," "flesh," "Word"—has led to more than one characterization of his work as something close to that of the mystic's vision. Indeed, anyone who reads the final completed chapter, "The Intertwining: The Chiasm," of The Visible and the Invisible cannot help but note the changed tone of Merleau-Ponty's discourse. His writing seems charged with philosophical revelation, and the unexpected tragedy of his death following so closely upon a claim of "ultimate truth" can tempt one to question fate. Why should this philosophical voice have been wrested away so immediately after it had declared its aims? But better than succumb to such speculation, we might ask what has been left for us, now, to gather from his travail. For we have only this: a few books, a few essays. The greater portion of his work was never brought to complete expression; rather, it lies within pages upon pages of fragmentary notes.

Yet it is perhaps appropriate that much of Merleau-Ponty's late work comes down to us not in the form of narrative, but in rough outline. For instead of offering us the sedimentation of a philosophy spoken from the end of thinking, his work promises an opening—an initiation to a philosophical discourse that by its very nature could be nothing other than ongoing and incomplete. In this sense, the course notes and working notes contribute to our understanding of his philosophy precisely in the degree to which they illustrate that philosophy in practice. When we read the notes, we participate in a movement of thought.

And so the difficulties that one encounters when engaging with these notes invite us to develop a sensitivity to his writing that would take into account not only the fixed meaning of each word or phrase, but also the process through which the word or phrase arrives at an original sense. We must turn to the viscous link that binds the words into meaning, for beneath the conceptual content of each word—beyond our everyday employment of language as representation—lies a dynamic and creative realm of expression. Thus Merleau-Ponty can write, "The words most charged with philosophy are not necessarily those that contain what they say, but rather those that most energetically open upon Being, because they more closely convey the life of the whole and make our habitual evidences vibrate until they disjoin." It is the play of ideas across disjuncture that inspires the philosopher. Thus we begin to understand Merleau-Ponty's work toward crafting a specific language of oppositional pairs; the tension inherent to these oppositions allows them to "open upon Being" and offers a sort of philosophical energy not entirely unlike the aesthetic vibration of a green that calls for a red in Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe. Here, the power of the words or colors emerges from the space that is cleared between a contrast of elements. Yet even considered not in pairs but individually, terms like "chiasm," "advent," "flesh," and "Word" work in much the same way, insofar as Merleau-Ponty implicitly draws upon their own charged history as counterpoint to his realization of them. His use of these terms does not so much make ambiguous a vocabulary that would otherwise appear as transparent to our minds, but calls upon us to recognize a dimensional meaning. Only then might we see that "language in forming itself"—or, we might say, language in performing itself—expresses "an ontogenesis of which it is a part."

It is in this sense that Merleau-Ponty's writing is poetic—poetic in the etymological sense—for it consistently works to disclose the creative generation of philosophical thinking as emerging from the depth between (or beneath, behind, or before) articulated words. In this way, it might seem that the thinking that remains for us, through Merleau-Ponty's late sketches of notes, stands close to the tradition of poetry. Indeed, the notes are significant not only with respect to their content but also in the way that they expose lacunae upon the printed page. It is as if the later Merleau-Ponty deliberately employs words in such a way that they work not so much to convey an explicit meaning as to articulate the empty space upon the page: as space—as an opening—for a continuous reinitiation to philosophical thought.

Thus the status of his written work as unfinished is in harmony with the nature of the work itself. Though we feel his death to be the tragic cause of its incompleteness, how, even if he had lived for many more decades, could we ever have called his work complete? Would not that work, from a MerleauPonty of 1971 or 1981, also have left us with more questions, more openings, if it were truly philosophical work? Philosophy lives precisely through its incompleteness, offering its richness according to the demand that it be taken up again.

As we grapple with the distinct difficulties (and, it should be noted, pleasures) of engaging with a dynamic work of this sort, it is not altogether unexpected that we should find ourselves in good company. Many of the challenges that confront us in taking up the "incomplete" work of Merleau-Ponty are similar to those that he himself encountered in his engagement with the writings of Edmund Husserl. Indeed, what better guide could we find, in facing these challenges, than Merleau-Ponty? With respect to Husserl's philosophy, Merleau-Ponty asks: "What if its conclusions are merely the results of a progression which was transformed into a 'work' by the interruption—an interruption which is always premature—of a life's work? Then we could not define a philosopher's thought solely in terms of what he had achieved; we would have to take account of what until the very end his thought was trying to think."

Merleau-Ponty suggests that we would miss the import of the philosopher's work if we were to regard it as complete and finished. Above all, it is the very nature of Husserl's philosophy as irreducible to "a system of neatly defined concepts" that necessitates a dynamic and creative approach. One can "take account of what until the very end his thought was trying to think" not by fleshing out a more thorough analysis of conclusions or concepts (as if Husserl's work offered a closed system that had only to be clarified), but by attending to the generative movement of that thought—by attending to what Merleau-Ponty describes as "the expression of what is before expression and sustains it from behind." For genuine philosophical inquiry does not complete itself first within the mind (fully formed and even clothed in an accessible style), only then to spring forth, Athenalike, into the world through language. Rather, it is through the process of expression that truly philosophical thought comes to be known. As Merleau-Ponty writes, "Speaking and writing is [sic] not a codification of an available piece of evidence. Speaking and writing make it exist."

And herein lies the crux of our own difficulty in engaging with the work of Merleau-Ponty. We cannot presume to complete a life's work whose creative quality resonates with its incompleteness; we would be foolish, indeed, to think that our own "speaking and writing" could bring the unfinished manuscripts and course notes into a codified version of the whole of Merleau-Ponty's philosophy. "What until the very end his thought was trying to think" is not available to one who would analyze that thought through the language of concept; in aiming to coincide exactly with his conclusions, we would consistently miss the mark. What we seek, therefore, is not to think about the content of his thought, but to think according to the movement of his thought; we seek "participation in an operative thought." Rather than codifying or completing his work, we recognize that the "miss"—the gap between a work and the engagement it inspires—in fact confirms the generative capacity of expression. And thus our very endeavor serves as an exemplar of a principle that, according to Merleau-Ponty, characterizes all philosophical reflection: that of noncoincidence.

* * *

Ordinarily, we may think of consciousness as the seat of a certain command center, as that power of organized mental and perceptual faculties which enables us to reflect upon the objects of the world absolutely, in their own place. We think that we meet the objects as they actually are, or as they would be if they were unobserved. But this notion of reflection as a hold upon the things of the world does not take into account the temporal dimension of perception. Merleau-Ponty asks us to attend to this process as a kind of uncertainty principle of reflective thought: even at the moment that consciousness feels it has grasped the object, the original or "brute" perception of that object has already suffered a temporal dislocation. What consciousness grasps, therefore, is not the thing itself but the reflection—the image—of the initial perception of the thing. There exists always a lacuna, a gap, between reflection and the thing; consciousness does not obtain to the world directly but only, as it were, through a "cycle of duration that separates the brute perception from the reflective examination." Thus, in describing this cycle, Merleau-Ponty characterizes our perception of the thing as consisting of a "thing-perceived-within-a-perception-reflected-on." What we thought we could grasp—the thing itself—is not at all available to us. But how is it that we fail to notice this dislocation? How is it that we miss the lacuna? Reflection would propose to offer us the very thing—the very world; reflection would set itself up as a bulwark against discontinuity. Yet, according to Merleau-Ponty, in order to achieve this—in order to sustain the perception of the thing across a cycle of duration—reflection "presume[s] upon what it finds and condemn[s] itself to putting into the things what it will then pretend to find in them." It constructs a sustained sense of the thing by retroactively identifying the reflection with the initial perception. In so doing, however, it operates according to a deception: it conflates the distinction between brute perception of the thing and reflection upon the perceived thing. And while that conflation enables consciousness to claim that it has grasped the thing and not a momentary image, it nevertheless exposes a limitation inherent to the structure of reflective consciousness: reflection is incapable of opening upon the world at the level of brute perception.

But it is just as sure that the relation between a thought and its object, between the cogito and the cogitatum, contains neither the whole nor even the essential of our commerce with the world and that we have to situate that relation back within a more muted relationship with the world, within an initiation into the world upon which it rests and which is always already accomplished when the reflective return intervenes. We will miss that relationship—which we shall here call the openness upon the world (ouverture au monde)—the moment that the reflective effort tries to capture it, and we will then be able to catch sight of the reasons that prevent it from succeeding, and of the way through which we would reach it.

By means of proposing a new understanding of the noncoincidence of reflective thought and the thing itself, Merleau-Ponty claims that "we are catching sight of the necessity of another operation besides the conversion to reflection, more fundamental than it, of a sort of hyper-reflection (surréflexion) that would also take itself and the changes it introduces into the spectacle into account." This operation of hyperreflection would set itself up within the dynamic process of thought, attuned to noncoincidence. It would not, that is to say, utilize reflection to effect conflation, as the power of a kosmotheoros who looks out over the world and claims to see things "as they are" because, being pure mind, it has no contact with the things. Rather, philosophy would attend to the prereflective by investigating thought as a dynamic system involved in the world.

In The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty initiates this investigation by turning toward dialectic thought. The process of dialectic thought, like that of reflection, manifests a temporal dislocation. The distinction between dialectic thought and reflection, however, hinges upon the way that the two operations meet this dislocation. Reflection works upon brute perception and, as Merleau-Ponty phrased it, "put[s] into the things what it will then pretend to find in them." That is to say, reflection circles around noncoincidence and, thanks to the temporal dislocation, projects backward into perception what it had already formulated. Thus it is that reflection deceives us into believing that we had grasped the thing, when in fact we are left with a reflective image and no contact with the thing at all. But the dialectic seizes upon the lacuna between brute perception and thought and, in contrast to reflection, operates from within its complex temporal structure. It seeks not to produce a single fixed image, but to return through a continuous cycle of perception and reflection. It owes its authenticity to this return—a return that does not seek only what it wishes to find, but develops according to the other-than-itself that is there: latent difference or possibility that is the expression of the lacuna. It is indeed only because of the lacuna that dialectic thought can be dynamic. As dialectic thought turns back toward the brute perception, it takes the measure of the separation between itself and the past perception now held within the present; rather than to effect a conflation, it can be said to embrace this difference, to reconfigure itself according to this difference, and to find within the difference the potential for movement and transformation. This is why Merleau-Ponty writes, of the dynamic stages of dialectic thought, "Hence there is a question here not of a thought that follows a pre-established route but of a thought that itself traces its own course, that finds itself by advancing, that makes its own way, and thus proves that the way is practicable." Practicable: as operative thought—thought that works from within the relationship between our brute perception of the thing and the task of consciousness in arriving at the thing to be thought.

Therefore, this operative thought discloses a specific notion of the dialectic— a dialectic without synthesis. Merleau-Ponty writes: "In particular it does not formulate itself in successive statements which would have to be taken as they stand; each statement, in order to be true, must be referred, throughout the whole movement, to the stage from which it arises and has its full sense only if one takes into account not only what it says expressly but also its place within the whole which constitutes its latent content." That is to say, dialectic thought continually goes back to take account of the noncoincident structure of reflection and advances according to this complex movement. It therefore does not arrive at a complete, fixed statement. "It has never been able to formulate itself into theses without denaturing itself," because to arrive at a fixed thought would be to betray the operative thought that lies at the heart of the dialectic. By its very nature, it makes no claim toward disclosing a realm of the predetermined; rather, it consists in openness—openness to that which has never been formulated or spoken. And so Merleau-Ponty carefully distinguishes between his own understanding of the dialectic and what he terms the ordinary or "bad" dialectic (where "the thought ceases to accompany or to be the dialectical movement, converts it into signification, thesis, or things said"). Searching for a means to describe his dynamic notion of the dialectic, Merleau-Ponty adopts the term "hyperdialectic" as an expression for the "good" dialectic: "What we call hyperdialectic is a thought that on the contrary is capable of reaching truth because it envisages without restriction the plurality of the relationships and what has been called ambiguity. The bad dialectic is that which thinks it recomposes being by a thetic thought, by an assemblage of statements, by thesis, antithesis, and synthesis."

Excerpted from The Rhythm of Thought by JESSICA WISKUS. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Jessica Wiskus is associate professor of music, chair of the Department of Musicianship Studies, and director of the Center for the Study of Music and Philosophy at Duquesne University.  

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