The Fleeting (The Evanescent)

It must be observed, that the cessation of pleasure affects the mind three ways. If it simply ceases, after having continued a proper time, the effect is indifference; if it be abruptly broken off, there ensues an uneasy sense called disappointment; if the object be so totally lost that there is no chance of enjoying it again, a passion arises in the mind, which is called grief"

Edmund Burke,
A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757)

A thing of beauty is a joy forever" and those works of art which are conventionally valued most highly - the plays of Shakespeare, the music of Mozart, the paintings of Cezanne - are ones to which audiences return again and again, and have returned to across generations. In Nature, too, there are objects - the Alps, the Lake District, the Grand Canyon - which continue in being and allow us to return. These are all enduring objects which are reckoned beautiful or awe-inspiring because they have stood the test of time.

But there are also fleeting objects which often evoke strong feelings - feelings which are without utilitarian qualities, feelings which belong to the realm of aesthetic experience. Among human contrivances, there are firework displays which are not normally and indeed should not be repeat performances of some pre-scripted work. In nature, there are lightning, the rainbow and butterflies. Each of these objects has different qualities that strike us in different ways. Edmund Burke, for example, reckons that it is the profusion and disorder of firework displays, akin to the confusion of the stars in the heavens which renders them magnificent, gives them splendour and makes them sublime (pp 140-41)

But fireworks are like lightning and the rainbow in that they are cast across the sky on a grand scale. These fleeting objects are all objects on a monumental scale. Unlike regular monuments, they are evanescent episodes.

Butterflies are, of course, the opposite of monumental. They are miniatures of natural life. In addition, they have frequently functioned in art as symbols or metaphor for the fleeting character, the transience of human existence.

This may also suggest that the fleeting may be thought of as itself a form. The formal quality of transience or evanescence produces distinctive experiences. Fleeting objects are lost to us before we are fully sated with them. They are thus - if we follow the lead prompted by my epigraph from Edmund Burke - sources of disappointment or grief. Or, at any rate, they bring us within the domain of such feelings, which one might lump together as the domain of the melancholy,

So the fleeting as a form of experience can have distinct tertiary qualities (see my essay on Mark Rothko, 'Aesthetic Engagement') in that it evokes or locates us in a specific domain of human emotion. The fleeting is not merely a matter of duration in time; it is capable of taking us into the world of human feeling, with a specific entry into the melancholy. It is thus an apt form for art.

The melancholy belongs within the wider domain of the sublime, rather than the beautiful, if the beautiful is thought of as that which gives us a positive pleasure.

Fleeting objects like fireworks and rainbows in virtue of their transitoriness, their evanescence, are or function as intimations of other objects lost before their time. As far as human life is concerned, two such objects are of paramount significance - the mother's breast and death. The mother's breast is the first of all lost objects, always and inevitably lost but often lost prematurely and abruptly. Life itself is the last object we lose, often before we are ready to let go of it.

To sustain this line of thinking I need to show that there is not a category of fleeting objects which do not pass out of existence before we are (fully) sated with them. And, of course, this can be turned in such a a way that it is not an empirical question. For we can truly say that we ascribe the quality of being fleeting, transitory, evanescent, only to objects which - on the human scale of pleasures and pains - could have lasted longer without producing surfeit or boredom. They are, by definition, things cut short.

Unlike the truly fleeting, sunrises and sunsets generally last long enough for us to be satisfied with them. They allow enough time for our engagement with them to be completed.

It is a curious fact, at least, that three of my examples of the fleeting are obviously linked to the sky, which forms their backdrop. And it may be a curiouser fact that one of the stranger realisations of Socialist realism in Stalin's Russia was the attempt to create monuments in the sky, in the form of projections of light into the night sky - projections such as images of Stalin. This endeavour strikes me very much as a denial of the negative qualities of aesthetic experience, the attempt to use art in a merely affirmative way. In such affirmation there is no room for disappointment or grief, which always imply - even in their melancholy way - the possibility that things might have turned out differently . The negative element in art just is this suggestion of a Utopian moment, the space in which another world can be imagined.

There may be in what I have said a simple way of understanding why holograms are so uniformly dreary: it is because they seek to monumentalise light. But light is at the heart of our experience of the fleeting and the negative. Holograms are manufactured positivity.

There are works of repeatable art which are tantalisingly brief, and so also make use of the formal property of transience, fleetingness. A good example is provided by Samuel Beckett's play Breath.

2000? Unfinished; not previously published