Friday, October 7, 2011

Ceci n'est pas un cigare

The Belgian artist René François Ghislain Magritte (1898-1967) was famous for his surrealist paintings, in particular those that seemed to challenge or at least ask questions about reality. One of his frequent techniques was to place familiar objects in unusual contexts. Contrary to another surrealist, Salvadore Dali, Magritte's purpose was not to shock or disgust, but rather to evoke the sense of mystery, of mystère. But Magritte's brain was a little muddled in that he spent much time mulling over the likes of Hegel, Heidegger, Sartre, Saussure, and Foucault. He might have been better served by reading Aristotle and St. Thomas and learned about the sanity of a philosophy of moderate realism.

Perhaps one of his best-known works is The Treachery of Images (La trahison des images). It shows a realistic depiction of a standard pipe, but below it, in writing which looks like that of a schoolboy's hand, he put, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," which means (in French) "This is not a pipe." (In French, by the way, "pipe" is pronounced something like "peep," which makes it fun to say. A sentence like "I've got a pipe in my pants," becomes quite humorous if the word pipe is pronounced like the French would pronounce it. But I'm straying. Muhammad once condemned a man to hell because he had peep in his pants. But now I'm really straying.)

The painting is obviously meant to get us to think about the relationship between reality and concept and the representation of that concept, either in painting or in language. To get to the point, of course, there is truth and there is untruth in the statement "This is not a pipe" because it is ambiguous. Magritte insisted that had he written, "Ceci une pipe," "This is a pipe," below his depiction of the pipe, he would have been lying. But would he? If, before this discussion, I held out a picture of a pipe before you and asked you, "What is this?" You might have answered, "Why, it is a pipe," and you would not really be lying. You would of course would not be lying because you would be referring to the concept that is behind the painting. You would know that it is only a painting of a pipe, but you would know that it was communicating the concept of "pipe." Some things, however, are unexpressed: hence the ambiguity.

The problem, as I said, is one of ambiguity. It is unambiguously a problem of ambiguity. For one, what does the work "This" refer to? The painting? The painting of the pipe? The concept behind the painting? The sentence? The pipe that was the model for Magritte? What does "a pipe" refer to? A particular pipe, the "universal" or abstracted concept of a "pipe" or "pipeness," or the representation of a pipe? (We have been enlightened since Magritte's time, by that great mind and philosopher from Hope, Arkansas. We now know the copula "is" can mean some many things. To the ambiguity of "this" and "pipe" we can also ask, "It depends what you mean by 'is'?")

What, by the way, ties the sentence to the painting? If the sentence below the pipe had read, "Ceci n'est pas une piment," this is not a pepper, we would not even be able to have this discussion, because it would be true on all grounds: all the ambiguity is gone. But if the painting had read "Ceci n'est pas un piment" and had a painting of a pepper, the ambiguity is all in again.

Literally speaking, the painting of a pipe in Magritte's painting is not an actual pipe, a pipe in the concrete. This, of course, everyone knows. It is a representation of a pipe, and bears within it the ability to communicate the concept of a pipe, and perhaps even an individual pipe that lay before Magritte as he painted it. Thus the painting may encapsulate in representational form, both a concrete pipe and the concept, the abstracted idea of what a pipe is, of "pipeness." Conceptually speaking, however, the representation of a pipe does grasp in some way the concept of a pipe, even perhaps the individual characteristics of a particular pipe, and so it is false to say that the painting does not express, in some way, the concept of a pipe, the idea of what "pipeness" is, or even the whatness of a particular, concrete pipe. There is something of "pipeness" in the painting, maybe even the "pipeness" as expressed in one particular pipe that Magritte had before him that is communicated from the pipe, to Magritte's brain, back onto the canvas, even into the words "pipe," and from the canvas into our own brains, where we recognize the abstract concept "pipe" based upon our own experiences with pipes.

If we did not know what a concept of a pipe was, if we had no idea of what "pipeness" was, and if we did not have the ability to separate concepts or ideal objects from concrete objects or representation of concrete objects, then it would be impossible to know that a painted pipe is not a pipe. But obviously we see that a painting of a pipe has "pipeness" in it, just like an actual concrete pipe does, or just like the idea of a pipe in our own minds, or the the idea of a pipe in Magritte's own mind. Otherwise, we would not be able to be speaking of concrete, individualized pipes, paintings of pipes, and concepts of pipes or "pipeness." Indeed, we would not be able to even understand what the word "pipe" (whether pronounced "peep" or "pype") means.

It's all rather interesting, and it drove that erratic but brilliant Michel Foucault to write a monograph on it in 1968 (expanded in 1973) which (predictably) is entitled Ceci n'est pas un pipe. The work has been translated into English as This is Not a Pipe. It is almost ninety or so pages of ramblings, some of which makes sense, some of which does not. None of which is very important, and it is difficult to believe that the world is a better place for Foucault having written it. Did one person become better for reading it? Did one person come closer to truth for reading it? That is doubtful. I have looked at Foucault's work on Google books, and it is full of all sorts of interesting thoughts, including the concept of "calligram," which seem to dissipate as if they were so much smoke coming from a pipe. I wonder if it is my weak mind, but then I remember, that this is Foucault I'm reading. I'm not a better human for having glanced at it, but perhaps I need to mediate upon that.

Magritte got so much mileage off of his first painting that he painted a second which adds even more complexities, including perhaps a critique of Platonic or Hegelian notions of Idealism. I will not address those, as I already have said too much.

Anyway, what does Magritte's painting have to do with cigars? We are a cigar club, not a pipe club. Well, Magritte's selection of a pipe ("peep") betrays a hidden ambiguity which even the brilliant Foucault missed. The ambiguity is not one of painting or of the written language, but is one relating to the homphonic identity of "pipe" (pronounced "peep") and peep (pronounced "peep").

For that matter, there is a further ambiguity arising from the homophonic quality of the French "pipes" (peeps) and the famous if scurrilous diarist Samuel Pepys (pronounced, "peeps"). There are many pipes, but only one Pepys. But that aside, we can still have fun with the not ver savory Mr. Pepys. Others have observed this and have made a joke about it:

This homophonic ambiguity is disastrous, sloppy, problematic. It is a philosophical and artist faux pas. Had Magritte been thinking, he would not have painted a pipe, and he would avoided the homophonic ambiguity with "peep" and "Pepys." A clear thinker would have chosen a cigar, as a cigar suffers from no such pipe/peep/Pepys homophonic problem. A cigar is a cigar: there is no homophonic problem.*

It was very short-sighted of this artist. Even Homer nods. Magritte stumbled. I have therefore scoured the internet and found some folks who realized Magritte's lapse, and so I offer the club a modified version of Magritte's visual conundrum: Ceci n'est pas un cigare and (for the Spanish speakers) a version in Spanish, Esto no es un cigarro. These paintings are philosophically superior to Ceci n'est pas une pipe. Moreover, it makes me want to smoke a cigar.

One last thing. Magritte stumbled. But he did not do so because of a bias against cigars. Indeed, he painted a painting of a cigar below a bike in a painting entitled L'état de grâce, "The State of Grace." We'll get to that in our next posting.
*There is a charter boat called "Sea-Gar" which might present a problem. But it did not exist in Magritte's time.


  1. That's the point. It's just kind of silly jabberwocky to lead to the cigar paintings.

  2. My daughter and I had a debate on whether the last photo should read, "Esto no es un cigarro," or "Este no es un cigarro." What's you're take?

  3. Esto. Why would it be este? o.O

  4. "Ceci n'est pas un cigare" came into my mind when I saw one of Henry Holiday's illustrations to Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark".