The Movement Of Lines

ANY tendency to Empathy is perpetually being checked by the need

for practical thinking. We are made to think in the most summary

fashion from one to another of those grouped possibilities, past,

present and future, which we call a Thing; and in such discursive

thinking we not only leave far behind the aspect, the shape, which

has started a given scheme of Empathy, a given movement of

lines, but we are often faced by f
cts which utterly contradict it.

When, instead of looking at a particular aspect of that mountain,

we set to climbing it ourselves, the mountain ceases to "rise"; it

becomes passive to the activity which our muscular sensations and

our difficulty of breathing locate most unmistakably in ourselves.

Besides which, in thus dealing with the mountain as a thing, we

are presented with a series of totally different aspects or shapes,

some of which suggest empathic activities totally different from that

of rising. And the mountain in question, seen from one double its

height, will suggest the empathic activity of spreading itself out.

Moreover practical life hustles us into a succession of more and

more summary perceptions; we do not actually see more than is

necessary for the bare recognition of whatever we are dealing with

and the adjustment of our actions not so much to what it already is,

as to what it is likely to become. And this which is true of seeing

with the bodily eye, is even more so of seeing, or rather not seeing

but recognising, with the eye of the spirit. The practical man on

the hill, and his scientific companion, (who is merely, so to speak, a

man unpractically concerned with practical causes and changes)

do not thoroughly see the shapes of the landscape before them; and

still less do they see the precise shape of the funiculars, tramways,

offices, cheques, volcanoes, ice-caps and prehistoric inhabitants of

their thoughts. There is not much chance of Empathy and Empathy's

pleasures and pains in their lightning-speed, touch-and-go visions!

But now let us put ourselves in the place of their aesthetically

contemplative fellow-traveller. And, for simplicity's sake, let us

imagine him contemplating more especially one shape in that

landscape, the shape of that distant mountain, the one whose

"rising"--came to an end as soon as we set to climbing it. The

mountain is so far off that its detail is entirely lost; all we can see is

a narrow and pointed cone, perhaps a little toppling to one side, of

uniform hyacinth blue detaching itself from the clear evening sky,

into which, from the paler misty blue of the plain, it rises, a mere

bodiless shape. It rises. There is at present no doubt about its

rising. It rises and keeps on rising, never stopping unless we

stop looking at it. It rises and never has risen. Its drama of two

lines striving (one with more suddenness of energy and purpose

than the other) to arrive at a particular imaginary point in the sky,

arresting each other's progress as they meet in their

endeavour, this simplest empathic action of an irregular and by no

means rectilinear triangle, goes on repeating itself, like the parabola

of a steadily spirting fountain: for ever accomplishing itself anew

and for ever accompanied by the same effect on the feelings of the


It is this reiterative nature which, joined to its schematic definiteness,

gives Empathy its extraordinary power over us. Empathy, as I have

tried to make clear to the Reader, is due not only to the movements

which we are actually making in the course of shape-perception, to

present movements with their various modes of speed, intensity and

facility and their accompanying intentions; it is due at least as much

to our accumulated and averaged past experience of movements of

the same kind, also with their cognate various modes of speed,

intensity, facility, and their accompanying intentions. And being

thus residual averaged, and essential, this empathic movement, this

movement attributed to the lines of a shape, is not clogged and

inhibited by whatever clogs and inhibits each separate concrete

experience of the kind; still less is it overshadowed in our awareness

by the result which we foresee as goal of our real active

proceedings. For unless they involve bodily or mental strain, our

real and therefore transient movements do not affect us as pleasant

or unpleasant, because our attention is always outrunning them to

some momentary goal; and the faint awareness of them is usually

mixed up with other items, sensations and perceptions, of wholly

different characters. Thus, in themselves and apart from their aims,

our bodily movements are never interesting except inasmuch as

requiring new and difficult adjustments, or again as producing

perceptible repercussions in our circulatory, breathing and balancing

apparatus: a waltz, or a dive or a gallop may indeed be highly

exciting, thanks to its resultant organic perturbations and its

concomitants of overcome difficulty and danger, but even a dancing

dervish's intoxicating rotations cannot afford him much of the

specific interest of movement as movement. Yet every movement

which we accomplish implies a change in our debit and credit of

vital economy, a change in our balance of bodily and mental

expenditure and replenishment; and this, if brought to our awareness,

is not only interesting, but interesting in the sense either of pleasure

or displeasure, since it implies the more or less furtherance or

hindrance of our life-processes. Now it is this complete awareness,

this brimfull interest in our own dynamic changes, in our various

and variously combined facts of movement inasmuch as energy

and intention, it is this sense of the values of movement which

Empathy, by its schematic simplicity and its reiteration, is able to

reinstate. The contemplation, that is to say the isolating and

reiterating perception, of shapes and in so far of the qualities and

relations of movement which Empathy invests them with, therefore

shields our dynamic sense from all competing interests, clears it

from all varying and irrelevant concomitants, gives it, as Faust

would have done to the instant of happiness, a sufficient duration;

and reinstating it in the centre of our consciousness, allows it to add

the utmost it can to our satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

Hence the mysterious importance, the attraction or repulsion,

possessed by shapes, audible as well as visible, according to their

empathic character; movement and energy, all that we feel as being

life, is furnished by them in its essence and allowed to fill our

consciousness. This fact explains also another phenomenon, which

in its turn greatly adds to the power of that very Empathy of which it

is a result. I am speaking once more of that phenomenon called

Inner Mimicry which certain observers, themselves highly subject

to it, have indeed considered as Empathy's explanation, rather than

its result. In the light of all I have said about the latter, it becomes

intelligible that when empathic imagination (itself varying from

individual to individual) happens to be united to a high degree of

(also individually very varying) muscular responsiveness, there may

be set up reactions, actual or incipient, e.g. alterations of bodily

attitude or muscular tension which (unless indeed they withdraw

attention from the contemplated object to our own body) will

necessarily add to the sum of activity empathically attributed to the

contemplated object. There are moreover individuals in whom such

"mimetic" accompaniment consists (as is so frequently the case in

listening to music) in changes of the bodily balance, the breathing

and heart-beats, in which cases additional doses of satisfaction or

dissatisfaction result from the participation of bodily functions

themselves so provocative of comfort or discomfort. Now it is

obvious that such mimetic accompaniments, and every other

associative repercussion into the seat of what our fathers correctly

called "animal spirits," would be impossible unless reiteration, the

reiteration of repeated acts of attention, had allowed the various

empathic significance, the various dynamic values, of given

shapes to sink so deeply into us, to become so habitual, that even a

rapid glance (as when we perceive the upspringing lines of a

mountain from the window of an express train) may suffice to evoke

their familiar dynamic associations. Thus contemplation explains, so

to speak, why contemplation may be so brief as to seem no

contemplation at all: past repetition has made present repetition

unnecessary, and the empathic, the dynamic scheme of any

particular shape may go on working long after the eye is fixed on

something else, or be started by what is scarcely a perception at all;

we feel joy at the mere foot-fall of some beloved person, but we do

so because he is already beloved. Thus does the reiterative character

essential to Empathy explain how our contemplative satisfaction in

shapes, our pleasure in the variously combined movements of

lines, irradiates even the most practical, the apparently least

contemplative, moments and occupations of our existence.

But this is not all. This reiterative character of Empathy, this fact

that the mountain is always rising without ever beginning to sink or

adding a single cubit to its stature, joined to the abstract (the

infinitive of the verb) nature of the suggested activity, together

account for art's high impersonality and its existing, in a manner,

sub specie aeternitatis. The drama of lines and curves presented

by the humblest design on bowl or mat partakes indeed of the

strange immortality of the youths and maidens on the Grecian

Urn, to whom Keats, as you remember, says:--

"Fond lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal. Yet, do not grieve;

She cannot fade; though thou hast not thy bliss,

For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair."

And thus, in considering the process of Aesthetic Empathy, we find

ourselves suddenly back at our original formula: Beautiful means

satisfactory in contemplation, and contemplation not of Things but

of Shapes which are only Aspects of them.