Facility And Difficulty Of Grasping

OF this we get further proof when we proceed to another and less

elementary relationship implied in the perception of shape: the

relation of Whole and Parts.

In dealing with the ground upon which we perceive our red and

black patches to be extended, I have already pointed out that our

operations of measuring and comparing are not applied to all the

patches of colour which we actually see, but only to such
as we

look at; an observation equally applicable to sounds. In other

words our attention selects certain sensations, and limits to these all

that establishing of relations, all that measuring and comparing, all

that remembering and expecting; the other sensations being

excluded. Now, while whatever is thus merely seen, but not looked

at, is excluded as so much blank or otherness; whatever is, on

the contrary, included is thereby credited with the quality of

belonging, that is to say being included, together. And the more the

attention alternates between the measuring of included extensions

and directions and the expectation of equivalent (symmetrical or

rythmical) extensions or directions or stresses, the closer will

become the relation of these items included by our attention and

the more foreign will become the excluded otherness from which,

as we feel, they detach themselves. But--by an amusing

paradox--these lines measured and compared by our attention, are

themselvesnot only excluding so much otherness or blank; they also

tend, so soon as referred to one another, to include some of this

uninteresting blankness; and it is across this more or less completely

included blankness that the eye (and the imagination!) draw such

imaginary lines as I have pointed out with reference to the

constellations. Thus a circle, say of red patches, excludes some of

the white paper on which it is drawn; but it includes or encloses

the rest. Place a red patch somewhere on that enclosed blank; our

glance and attention will now play not merely along the red

circumference, but to and fro between the red circumference and the

red patch, thereby establishing imaginary but thoroughly measured

and compared lines between the two. Draw a red line from the red

patch to the red circumference; you will begin expecting similar

lengths on the other sides of the red patch, and you will become

aware that these imaginary lines are, or are not, equal; in other

words, that the red patch is, or is not, equidistant from every point of

the red circumference. And if the red patch is not thus in the middle,

you will expect, and imagine another patch which is; and from

this imaginary centre you will draw imaginary lines, that is you

will make by no means imaginary glance-sweeps, to the red

circumference. Thus you may go on adding real red lines and

imaginary lines connecting them with the circumference; and the

more you do so the more you will feel that all these real lines and

imaginary lines and all the blank space which the latter measure, are

connected, or susceptible of being connected, closer and closer,

every occasional excursion beyond the boundary only bringing you

back with an increased feeling of this interconnexion, and an

increased expectation of realising it in further details. But if on one

of these glance-flickings beyond the circumference, your attention is

caught by some colour patch or series of colour patches outside of it,

you will either cease being interested in the circle and wander away

to the new colour patches; or more probably, try to connect that

outlying colour with the circle and its radii; or again failing that, you

will "overlook it," as, in a pattern of concentric circles you overlook

a colour band which, as you express it "has nothing to do with it,"

that is with what you are looking at. Or again listening to. For if a

church-bell mixes its tones and rythm with that of a symphony you

are listening to, you may try and bring them in, make a place for

them, expect them among the other tones or rythms. Failing

which you will, after a second or two, cease to notice those bells,

cease to listen to them, giving all your attention once more to the

sonorous whole whence you have expelled those intruders; or else,

again, the intrusion will become an interruption, and the bells, once

listened to, will prevent your listening adequately to the


Moreover, if the number of extensions, directions, real or imaginary

lines or musical intervals, alternations of something and

nothing, prove too great for your powers of measurement and

comparison, particularly if it all surpass your habitual interplay of

recollection and expectation, you will say (as before an over

intricate pattern or a piece of music of unfamiliar harmonies and

rythm) that "you can't grasp it"--that you "miss the hang of it." And

what you will feel is that you cannot keep the parts within the whole,

that the boundary vanishes, that what has been included unites with

the excluded, in fact that all shape welters into chaos. And as if to

prove once more the truth of our general principle, you will have a

hateful feeling of having been trifled with. What has been balked

and wasted are all your various activities of measuring, comparing

and co-ordinating; what has been trifled with are your expectations.

And so far from contemplating with satisfaction the objective cause

of all this vexation and disappointment, you will avoid

contemplating it at all, and explain your avoidance by calling that

chaotic or futile assemblage of lines or of notes "ugly."

We seem thus to have got a good way in our explanation; and indeed

the older psychology, for instance of the late Grant Allen, did not

get any further. But to explain why a shape difficult to perceive

should be disliked and called "ugly," by no means amounts to

explaining why some other shape should be liked and called

"beautiful," particularly as some ugly shapes happen to be far easier

to grasp than some beautiful ones. The Reader will indeed remember

that there is a special pleasure attached to all overcoming of

difficulty, and to all understanding. But this double pleasure is

shared with form-perception by every other successful grasping of

meaning; and there is no reason why that pleasure should be

repeated in the one case more than in the other; nor why we should

repeat looking at (which is what we mean by contemplating) a shape

once we have grasped it, any more than we continue to dwell on, to

reiterate the mental processes by which we have worked out a

geometrical proposition or unravelled a metaphysical crux. The

sense of victory ends very soon after the sense of the difficulty

overcome; the sense of illumination ends with the acquisition of a

piece of information; and we pass on to some new obstacle and

some new riddle. But it is different in the case of what we call

Beautiful. Beautiful means satisfactory for contemplation, i.e.

for reiterated perception; and the very essence of contemplative

satisfaction is its desire for such reiteration. The older psychology

would perhaps have explained this reiterative tendency by the

pleasurableness of the sensory elements, the mere colours and

sounds of which the easily perceived shape is made up. But this does

not explain why, given that other shapes are made up of equally

agreeable sensory elements, we should not pass on from a once

perceived shape or combination of shapes to a new one, thus

obtaining, in addition to the sensory agreeableness of colour or

sound, a constantly new output of that feeling of victory and

illumination attendant on every successful intellectual effort. Or, in

other words, seeing that painting and music employ sensory

elements already selected as agreeable, we ought never to wish to

see the same picture twice, or to continue looking at it; we ought

never to wish to repeat the same piece of music or its separate

phrases; still less to cherish that picture or piece of music in our

memory, going over and over again as much of its shape as had

become our permanent possession.

We return therefore to the fact that although balked perception is

enough to make us reject a shape as ugly, i.e. such that we avoid

entering into contemplation of it, easy perception is by no means

sufficient to make us cherish a shape as beautiful, i.e. such that

the reiteration of our drama of perception becomes desirable. And

we shall have to examine whether there may not be some other

factor of shape-perception wherewith to account for this preference

of reiterated looking at the same to looking at something else.

Meanwhile we may add to our set of formulae: difficulty in

shape-perception makes contemplation disagreeable and impossible, and

hence earns for aspects the adjective ugly. But facility in

perception, like agreeableness of sensation by no means suffices for

satisfied contemplation, and hence for the use of the adjective