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Magritte’s Dialectical Affinities: Hegel, Sade, and Goethe

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 43, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 111-136 | 10.1353/jnt.2013.0012

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René Magritte borrowed numerous titles for his paintings from literature and philosophy: Hegel’s Holiday, In Praise of Dialectics, and Applied Dialectics pay homage to the German philosopher; Philosophy in the Boudoir honors Sade’s novel; and Elective Affinities is the title of Goethe’s fiction. Hegel worked with words and ideas, as did Goethe, and Magritte worked with images. Despite the apparent limitations of art to express ideas, Magritte’s unusual juxtapositions of title and painting generate a playful “unity of opposites” that would allow even Hegel to go on a holiday. The purpose of this essay is to examine Magritte’s attraction to literature and philosophy and the way his art links them together in ways that surprise and defamiliarize.

In order to examine these affinities, we need to outline a theoretical frame of reference for a meaningful interarts discourse: how can literature and philosophy be refracted aesthetically in art? In other words, how do Magritte’s surrealist paintings express Hegel’s dialectics, the eroticism of Sade, or the binding, arguably illicit love in Goethe’s novel?

Paintings belong to a visual medium, philosophy plays with ideas, and fiction operates primarily, though not exclusively, in the realm of aesthetics. Philosophy and fiction depend on writing to communicate their message, and they belong to the temporal domain of words—producing a narrative discourse that evolves in time—whereas paintings, in opposition to words, are spatial. A verbal sequence can generate ideas that are expressed through movement in time, whereas pictures are, generally speaking, static. It takes time to read a poem, whereas a painting can be absorbed at a glance.

Despite this classic opposition between the visual and the verbal, the content of a Magritte painting, such as a glass of water on an open umbrella, when coupled with its title, Hegel’s Holiday (figure 1), also succeeds in generating a sequence that is no longer static. This image is perplexing, and the observer, if he or she is responding to it, will necessarily have to ask what a glass of water is doing on top of the umbrella. The question can only be formulated in words, and it is inevitably linked to the title. This linkage, in turn, elicits yet another question: why is the painting entitled Hegel’s Holiday? Cézanne’s landscape entitled Mont Sainte-Victoire is descriptive, and a Van Gogh self-portrait is representative. We expect titles to be one or the other, and we are startled by the fact that Hegel’s Holiday is neither. This puzzlement is the beginning of a verbal discourse—an ekphrastic reaction that initiates a rhetorical description. But the description is misleading because, although it may or may not describe the visual components of the painting, it must necessarily engage Hegel’s dialectical thinking, which is invisible. Hegel’s thinking can only be expressed in words, whereas Magritte expresses his thinking in images. The image is, so to speak, a pre-text, a point of departure for something that is more than visual. It is an invitation to think about ideas that Magritte deems important. Hegel’s Holiday illustrates how thesis and antithesis resolve into a higher synthesis; In Praise of Dialectics illustrates the simultaneity of inside and outside, that is, the topology of reversibility; and Applied Dialectics asks us to contemplate the consequences of bad political decisions.

Such interactions between the visual and the verbal date back to Homer’s descriptions of Achilles. shield in Book 18 of the Illiad, and they are considered to be the beginning of an ekphrastic tradition—the result of an implicit comparison between the visual and verbal means of description. Webster’s dictionary defines ekphrasis as “a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art”—a definition that also derives from Horace’s Ut Pictura Poesis which affirms the similitude between poetry and painting. Another frequently cited example is Keats. “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” a poem in which Keats, like Homer, mixes descriptions of

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Figure 1. 

René Magritte, Hegel’s Holiday [Les Vacances de Hegel] (1958)

© 2012 C. Herscovici, London/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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