A Forest of Symbols: Art, Science, and Truth in the Long Nineteenth Century

A Forest of Symbols: Art, Science, and Truth in the Long Nineteenth Century
by Andrei Pop

Zone Books, NY, NY, 2019
320 pp., illus. 8 col., 80 b/w. Trade, $32.95
ISBN: 978-1935408369.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
February 2020

This is a most challenging book on symbols and Symbolism, whose first merit certainly is to thoroughly challenge our usual understanding of both symbol and symbolism. 

Let us start with the latter, the art-historical period at the end of the nineteenth century whose works and authors are often discarded as esoteric, hardly understandable, if not just crazy (Decadentism was and still is one of the synonyms of the Symbolist movement). In this book, Andrei Pop argues that Symbolism is actually a way of thinking, imaging and imagining that continues, yet in a more radical way, some of the fundamental insights and interrogations of the Romantic period. At the end of an increasingly empiricist century, Symbolism thus represents the rejection of “pure” observation and subject-free recording, not in order to praise a wholly subjective way of making sense of the world but as a warning against the illusion that experience and observation can take place without or outside subjectivity.

Pop’s long nineteenth century first highlights the pivotal function of Edgar Allen Poe, more particularly of his poem “The Raven” as well as the (in)famous commentary he wrote on this text. It then foregrounds the cross-medial reception of this work in Europe: Mallarmé’s quite literal translation and Manet’s highly unliteral illustration, each of them further read against a contemporary British background are analyzed as tokens that disclose what makes Poe’s text such a rich example of Symbolism avant la lettre.

But the long nineteenth century is also forward-looking. Indeed Pop suggests that Symbolism is as strong a turning point in art history as Impressionism, the usual suspect when it comes down to explain the shift from figurative to nonfigurative painting. What Symbolism then represents is no longer the bizarre intermezzo between proto-modernist Impressionism and avant-garde’s attempt to achieve full-blown abstraction, but the acme of a fundamental doubt on what it means to address forms and ideas not just in terms of pure forms (as in abstraction) or pure subjective experience (as in Impressionism), but in terms of meaning – and this is where the notion of symbol comes in.

A symbol, Pop convincingly demonstrates, should not be seen as a specific type of signs based on arbitrary, culturally accepted conventions (this is how the Peircean sign is commonly understood, when Peirce is reduced to the triad of index, icon, and symbol). Instead it is an umbrella term that refers to various types of logically structured units and structures, with the notion of “logic” referring to the articulation of the world (as it exists outside of any subject), the experiencing subject (who does not receive the world in a passive way), and the meaningful entities (images, texts, in short: pictures) that try to express or reflect, but never in a perfect way, the relationships between world and subject (in more disciplinary terms, Pop calls these fields: physics, psychology, and aesthetics).

In the Symbolist period, this broad take on symbols is not the privilege of artists and art historians alone, the notion of symbol is as powerfully present and as hotly debated in the scientific field (mainly mathematics, logics, philosophy). Moreover, the type of questions that are being asked in these apparently nonartistic domains converge with what is under scrutiny in painting and poetry: Is there something like a private language? Can we communicate feelings in ways that do not betray their singularities? How can one tell the difference between what belongs to the world outside and what is determined by the laws of our mind and perception – and if so, are these laws mechanical, biological, strictly material, or is there room for the individual, the unsayable, the immaterial?

As one easily infers from this presentation, Pop’s book, a mesmerizing read, is neither an art-historical study nor an illustration of the history of ideas, aesthetic as well as scientific. A truly interdisciplinary investigation, A Forest of Symbols is a book that aims at get a better understanding of the role and place of meaning in symbolic interaction (in this case through words and pictures, sometimes in synergy, sometimes in blatant conflict with each other). This better understanding, however, does not tend to solve the question of meaning by proposing a new theory of new methods of reading capable of delivering a more solid ground for reading and interpretation. Instead Pop’s endeavor is to enlighten the reasons why meaning or rather meanings are at the same time impossible to fix and absolutely necessary, unless one want to fall prey to one of the alternatives logical symbolist thinking decidedly questions: on the one hand empiricism, on the other hand subjectivism (or from a more collective point of view: social construction). Meanings, logical entities, mental images (and the notion of mental images supersedes the purely visual signification of the notion of image or picture) always emerge from the clash between world and mind (the “doubling problem” as Pop calls it), while also being the only possible way, in spite of their fundamental diversity and plurality, of negotiating between both as well as to better accept the internal divergences between competing meanings.

The conceptual and disciplinary scope of A Forest of Symbols is exceptionally broad. This is clearly not a book written by an art historian who is also interested in science, or an historian of science who also like painting and literature. Pop masterfully moves from one field to another without ever privileging one of them. The refusal to give plain answers to difficult questions (at the end of this study, there is no “quotable” short answer to the question, what is a symbol?, for instance) is subtly underlined by the extreme precision and wealth of the brilliant illustrations that accompany the author’s argumentation, as if it were possible (but of course it isn’t!) to grasp the meaning of the book by just reading the sequential organization of surprising and often not well-known images. Just as pictures bear meanings, which go beyond their mere referent or their mere subjective experience by a body and mind, texts bear pictures, which both skillfully illustrate and strangely destabilize the prose of Andrei Pop.