Fly on the Wall—Out to Lunch with Munch

Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893) is paradigmatic of the sudden piercing realization that something is askew in one’s life.  Maybe we feel like we don’t belong where we are or that the world is all wrong.  Perhaps the painting represents a visual answer to Hamlet’s famous line: “the time is out of joint” (Shakespeare).  This sensation occurs easily at AU when a simple stroll can lead to a sudden bolt of fear that we really ought to be back at home working on coursework.  The struggle isn’t eternal, but, like Munch’s painting with its ominous red sunset, the mortal dangers between here and the horizon feel real indeed.

For Munch, the “actual experience of a scream piercing though nature while on a walk, after his two companions, seen in the background, had left him…must have been heard at a time when his mind was in an abnormal state” (The Scream) .  Maybe in that instant he was a bit nuts or maybe he was having a moment of clarity in the face of existential malaise, but what’s certain is that Munch’s facial contortion has become an icon of our modern times.  We all feel it; if we’re not screaming inside now and then it’s possibly because we’ve become totally numbed to life.  At AU, it’s useful to make peace with the existential angst that accompanies being simultaneously one’s own task master and court jester; wearing many hats merits a giggle and sometimes a shriek.  And anyway, life’s all about learning; one way or another we at AU become especially crafty at distilling our free time into academic progress.

Munch’s scream reminds us that each moment is personal—a sudden fracture opened a gap between him and his friends and his whole world felt different.  At AU, to momentarily lose oneself may be to remember the place of academic passion in our lives.  Others may be lost in their life drama, but we have our schoolwork to sweep us away from the mundane.  In art analysis terms, The Scream embodied “a subjective linear fusion imposed upon nature, whereby the multiplicity of particulars is unified into a totality of organic suggestion with feminine overtones.  But man is part of nature, and absorption into such a totality liquidates the individual” (ibid). We’re all absorbed in something and risk liquidation if we don’t stay balanced.

Munch’s scream was in response to a scream presumably audible only inside his mind, something triggered by, yet not reducible to, a cavalcade of sensory inputs including the redness of the sunset, the starkness of the horizon, the coldness of the wind or, perhaps, the lonely abyss betwixt himself and his companions.  He was with friends, maybe, but not ones who shared his precise mental space.  This is part of being at AU too; we navigate away from our normal realms and into the murk and mire of book learning; it changes us and, screams aside, we are bound (almost for sure!) to emerge feeling stronger and wiser and more radiant than before.  Like a toddler after a good cry, our screams will melt into dawning realization at the opportunities we behold.

See1 and See2: Perceiving and Imagining

When our courses are completed the textbooks will lie there looking a bit morose and just as inanimate as when we first opened them.  What was the spirit that enlivened the words that they lit upon our mind’s eye?  Rooted in our consciousness is a fuzzy fissure between “the kind of seeing that happens when I see a flowering tree ‘in my dream’ and the kind of seeing that happens when I see a flowering tree ‘in my garden’.  We might call them seeing1 and seeing2” (Wilson, 61).  For Rene Descartes seeing1 is “a state of awareness that does not imply the existence of an object or event that is perceived or misperceived” (Wilson, 61).  Seeing (or in Munch’s case hearing) can happen in a dream or a memory or a realization.  For Descartes it is the mental apparatus of thinking that forms the core of our being; we think therefore we are.  Thus, the imaginative seeing1 morphs and transforms the sensory seeing2 “as a way of getting to know the world outside myself” (Wilson 62).  Sensory inputs map onto cognition without which the world’s ocular visions and auditory vibrations wouldn’t make sense.

In terms of our senses, we can never be sure that even familiar sights are what they seem when we enter society: “the hat and coat-covered objects could be automata moving hither and thither and not human beings at all; … sensory experience of them would be no different” (Wilson, 65).  In this sense Munch’s scream was actually more real in his mind because his friends did not hear it; our private realms bequeath our reality more essentially than our actual physical surroundings.  This is why sitting and studying appears physically like a form of inactivity to someone who merely saw us working at our desk.  From raw sense data our minds deftly decide what to believe and how to forge interpretations.  With a sprinkle of imagination life springs abundantly into shape whenever our mind acts upon reality; think of a wood carver who sees a possible face in an old gnarled log.

The passing nature of consciousness, and life itself, like course deadlines and any sunset worthy of the name, is at the root of what The Scream represents.  Descartes writes of the essential magic of a candle as it melts and passes away from our senses but remains in our consciousness: “I put the wax by the fire, and look: the residual taste is eliminated, the smell goes away, the colour changes, the shape is lost, the size increases, it become liquid and hot; you can hardly touch it and if you strike it, it no longer makes a sound.  But does the same wax remain?  It must be admitted that it does; no one denies it, no one thinks otherwise.  So what was in the wax that I understood with such distinctiveness?” (Descartes in Wilson, 64).  While we wouldn’t burn a textbook (hopefully) our readings do illuminate the way to knowledge.  Magically, learning transforms us through an alchemy not explainable by the mere act of reading textbooks and writing essays.  Like the candle and its light, learning is more than the sum of its parts.  We learn by learning to see differently and to see things hermeneutically as what they are to us.  There’s no need to scream for more than an instant; we are the candle at the centre of our conscious academic progress.

Peanut Butter and Jain Sandwich: It All Died For You!

While there’s more than one way to pet a cat, usually they’ll let you know what they prefer.  But what about organisms that communicate in ways less obvious?  A moment of perplexity or horror, a scream akin to Edvard Munch’s archetypal imagining, may arise when our preconceptions are challenged.  Like our first anthropology elective where we learn that normal can mean many things we’d never dream of eating, piercing, or dancing, our core beliefs are often challenged in divergent directions as our learning progresses.

Noble sects such as the Jains practice vegetarianism and preach that we mustn’t bring harm to any living organism.  Jainist cosmology divides the universe into two types of things, the living and the non-living.  Simple enough, right.  “Jainists state that each living being, not only humans, but the smallest insects, plants, reptiles, and birds, has a soul, called jiva.  Non-living things, which lack a soul, are called ajiva.  Because each living being has a soul/ jiva, you are forbidden to harm any living being, even the smallest insect.  Jainism prescribes that we should not harm any life, and in particular we should not kill any life, because all life has equal rights on this earth.  You must understand that if you kill any living thing, you kill a soul” (Imamkhedjaeva, 2018)

This culinary pacifism seems fair, yet modern plant biology contends that there is a definite “continuity between humankind and plant existence” (Gagliano et al, 2017) Cue the scream; even a carrot stick once had a life to live out there in the garden.  So, for those about to try and resuscitate their salads, we salute you.

But wait, there’s more! We’re not quite akin to two peas in a pod with the plant kingdom so much as we inhabit a communicative spectrum with our tendrilled brethren.  This realization allows us to respectfully “transform our notion of plants as unresponsive beings, ready to be instrumentally appropriated” into an approach engendering more respect for all that we eat, be it vegetable or meat (ibid).  So, vegans can climb off their high horse, if not donate the old quadruped’s meat to their local food bank, and we can all consider the planetary consequences of respecting ecosystems chock full of living beings.  Screams, like bolts of sanity from the blue, can be productive acts indeed.

Breathe Deeply in Delicious and Deadly Inspiration?

At least we can enjoy nature without eating it, right.  A walk in nature is a great study break, especially out in our great Canadian forests.  Yet even a deep breath of fresh oxygenated air contains living yeasts and bacteria that quite possibly will perish in the teensy marshy wetlands of your lungs.  Remember the Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly? Well with a microscope slide we can see that a Musca domestica was not the smallest of her unwitting catch.  Every breath brings possible death to something and every footstep too.  Yet everything lives on in everything else; our very molecules are icons of reduce/reuse/recycle as they ebb and flow and replace one another.  There’s life and death everywhere and both must occur constantly for the system to proceed.  When the scream subsides you gotta smile; we’re all the killers and life-givers we’ve been waiting for, just as we’re our best study buddies and hooky-pressurers.  At AU we’re always learning, even as we dream and even as we doodle, and, somehow, we live to tell the tale.  Adding our studies to the natural processes of our cognition is about finding what feels right; our minds are natural sponges of learning and growth, after all.

Sometimes having our priorities straight means cocking our head to one side and seeing things in a new light.  Shattering preconceptions is key to critical inquiry.  In my case I read a lot less random articles on the internet when, as now, I have a course in active progress.  Maybe I miss learning some neat new facts and interpretations, but I have to sacrifice that time to the benefit of my grades.  We may always be learning in life (as with children for whom the world is full of so much new to do and see) but how we focus our learning is what gives it real impetus.

Anyone can do what feels right and natural in the moment; it takes true academic craftiness to make the magic happen on demand.  We must sort our sensory, sensible, even commonsensical gestures (as they appear in our mind) from the imaginative and intelligible interpretations that, hermeneutically, appear as modes of true understanding and hearty comprehension.  The heart comes before the mind or, as the ancient Taoist proverb states; “the eye envies the mind” And the mind is the key to how we see.

That we’ll bring both harm and renewal by walking in nature (if you’ve ever used a rototiller or aerator you know how great it is to stir up soil) is a reminder that we invariably will have wasted time during our days of scholarly study no matter how rigid our schedule may be.  No need to scream! Unless it’s a primal scream, that is.  Those can be epically cathartic.  What we do at AU is something special and life-affirming and the consummation of our learning is an event worthy of a good yelp, if not a howl of joy!

‘Chuang Tzu 17: The Floods of Autumn’.  Retrieved from
Gagliano, M., Ryan, J., Vierira, P.  (Eds.) (2017) The Language of Plants.  Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Imamkhedjaeva, O.  (2018).  ‘Non-Violent Voices’.  Philosophy Now.  Retrieved from
Shakespeare, William. (1914) Hamlet. In The Oxford Shakespeare. Retrieved from:
‘The Scream, 1893, by Edvard Munch’.  (1893).  Retrieved from
Wilson, C.  (2003).  Descartes’s Meditations: An Introduction.  Cambridge University Press: University of British Columbia.