These Words Mean Something Different than What They Are

One of Rene Magritte’s most famous paintings is The Treachery of Images, though most simply know it by the writing on the work itself: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. The basic idea of the piece is that the pipe that Magritte painted is not actually a pipe, simply a representation of one. Therefore, the pipe and the representation are separate entities. The same thought process can be read in Michael Field’s poem “L’Indifferent” in which the authors describe a painting of a boy who is dancing. “Though old enough for manhood’s bliss,/ He is a boy,/ Who dances and must die.” These lines, while they could easily mean that the subject of the painting is physically old enough to be a man but still behaves like a boy and in general his own mortality is imminent, however these lines could be displaying the relationship between the subject and the art. The subject is old enough for “manhoods bliss” because so much time has passed since the rococo period in which the subject would have been a boy. Therefore, the representation of the boy is bound to dance for eternity, while the boy himself must die, because his youth and joy can not last forever.

In a way, this is similar to Saussure’s concept of the signifier and the signified in his ‘theory of the sign’, only instead of words, its is the painting itself that is the arbitrary signifier. The signifier, usually a word, is a jumble of letters used to represent a physical thing or a concept. The signified is the actual ‘thing’ be it conceptual or physical. What this ‘thing’ is internal to an individual because it is the way that they process or perceive it. Therefore the signifier is meant to portray the perceptions attached to the signified, but the sign can never be universal because the signified is perceived in different ways by each individual and therefore the signifier will have a different effect on each person. The painter would have their own thoughts behind why each stroke should be placed as it is, however the colors and lines that would have represented the abstract idea of this boy’s dancing in Watteau’s mind, can be interpreted with different subtleties by the individual. They might have different associations with the concepts that Watteau is portraying that impact their emotions or perceptions of the scene.

Therefore, the poem by Michael Fields is actually a signifier, or a signified, of a signifier, of a signified. The boy dancing is the original concept, the signified, which is then signified by the painting, which is then the signified of the poem, since the poem is a signifier of Fields’s perception of the painting. Therefore, Cooper and Bradley had their own thoughts and ideas about the painting itself that they then attempted to explain in the poem, which can never guarantee the same understanding from the reader, because the reader will have their own internal understanding of the poem that they’ll never fully be able to explain because words are arbitrary and will never have the exact same effect on each individual. Therefore, we, as readers, are so far removed from the feeling of the original moment itself, that we can only base our perception of the event on someone else’s inherently biased representation of it. Which I find fascinating, because even as you, as a reader, read this, you’re reading a concept or idea that means something ever so slightly different to you than it does to me, because of the way that we perceive and understand the words I’ve chosen to represent this idea.