A Dream of Reason III. Floodtide and Borderline Notes: A Sociological-Psychological Fiction

Floodtide and Borderline Notes (1987)

We write against a resisted yet increasingly powerful tendency for pattern and abstraction to overwhelm unique existence, inwardness and presence…. Action, experience and discourse are progressively twisted from personal and dialogical moorings and captured by increasingly complex hierarchical systems.

Now at the edge of the overwhelming breakthrough of the cybernetic revolution into everyday life, the individual as person, moment and event has been imagined as a mechanically determined resultant of social forces, a wave upon the ocean of history, a “sentence” spoken by – and wholly resolved in – language and/or technics.

A central concern of these essays is reconstruction of a theoretical reason that will not exile potentiality, inwardness and uniqueness, autonomy and I-Thou connection.

Borderline Notes: A Sociological-Psychological Fiction (1990)


            Let us imagine several French painters contemporaneous with but uninfluenced by the post-impressionism of Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and Seurat…. We invite Van Gogh.

2.Henri Verdet

2.1. Statement

            Henri Verdet, student of a student of Ingres, respected academician, spared the pain of innovation, approached pure repetition (i.e., the actualization of rules in paint).

Verdet, giving nothing of himself, was not an artist: silk “flower” among flowers.

2.2. Exploration


            The post-modern, committed to “the death of the author” and the equality of all texts, cannot accurately register embodied inwardness (or its absence). Verdet (the academy defeated) has “an exile home” in the post-modern establishment, silk flower among plastic flowers.


            Because every authentic work of art is personal, it is unique. Yet this unique existence does not register as silence. It is “coded” along disciplinary lines as alteration or reconstruction.

The post-impressionism of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat is closer to a dialogue than to a single “style.” There were other wonderful “personal voices” outside this constellation (e.g., Lautrec, Degas’ freely rendered richly textured late pastels).

Post-impressionism required and built on, yet did not overcome, exhaust – terminate – impressionism.… Monet’s water lily series – the most wonderful impressionist creation – was painted long after Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cézanne died (after Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon).


       Within social and behavioral science the gesture of self-exile is so normal as to have become automatic, almost subconscious.

3.Edward Lamaire

3.1. Statement

            Edward Lamaire disregarded the dominant “academic” orientation of his time. He was content to be labeled “a genre painter.” There is a freshness of vision and “approach”: moments uniquely seen and directly registered…passages no one else could paint.

Among academic “machines” his unpretentious paintings are “a breath of fresh air.” Among impressionist works they are timid and unrealized.

3.2. Exploration

            Disregarding academic theory cleared Lumaire’s vision. Yet because he identified academic theory with art theory per se he did not attempt disciplinary reconstruction. Thus his work remained within “the gravity” of the orientation he would abandon.

4.Paul Floret

            Paul Floret achieved dependable academic competence. He experienced his own paintings as alien and empty.

He painted obsessively, adhered more and more rigidly to academic rules. Paintings died under his hands. Although his colleagues praised, he knew.

5.Robert Digni: The Self-Devourer

5.1. Statement

            Robert Digni painted then destroyed original distinctive post-impressionist works…. The post-impressionist painting would be slowly decomposed/ recomposed towards banal academic idealization. Once attained he registers its banality. The journey is reversed. The cycle repeats again and again. Only he will ever see his work.

5.2. Exploration 

            Digni is in worldly terms a failure. Failure is commonly explained by lack of talent and/or craft and/or determination. Exceptional talent and craft would be required for the autonomous 19th century creation, however ephemerally, of authentically post-impressionist paintings. Extreme determination is required to paint on and on “with nothing to show for it.”

Then why? One reason, an internal split between critic and creator, an inability to accept the difference between “the way to do it” as it emerges within the struggle to construct, and as given in received professional models…. There is openness, but it is openness denied: a refusal to open to openness.

6.Van Gogh

            We hypothesize that directly reconstructive (a.k.a., “contextual”) creativity[1] directly engages foundational, disciplinary problems. Van Gogh, for example, reconceived color, figuration and expression:

A man’s head or a woman’s head, well observed and at leisure, is divinely beautiful, isn’t it? Well, one loses that general harmony of tones in nature by painfully exact imitation; one keeps it by recreating in a parallel color scale which may not be exactly, or even far from exactly, like the model.

Always intelligently making use of the beautiful tones which the colors form of their own accord when one breaks them on the palette, I repeat – starting from one’s palette, from one’s knowledge of the harmony of colors is quite different from following nature mechanically and servilely. (1989, Letter 429, p. 253-254)

I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green.

The room is blood red and dark yellow with a green billiard table in the middle; there are four citron yellow lamps with a glow of orange and green. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most disparate reds and greens in the figures of little sleeping hooligans, in the empty, dreary room, in violet and blue. The blood-red and the yellow-green of the billiard table, for instance, contrast with the soft tender Louis XV green of the counter, on which there is a pink nose gay. The white coat of the landlord, awake in a corner of that furnace, turns citron-yellow, or pale luminous green. (1989, Letter 533, p. 320)

I should like to paint the portrait of an artist friend, a man who dreams great dreams, who works as the nightingale sings…to finish it I am now going to be the arbitrary colorist. I exaggerate the fairness of the hair, I even get to orange tones, chromes and pale citron-yellow.

Behind the head, instead of painting the ordinary wall of the mean room, I paint infinity, a plain background of the richest, intensest blue I can contrive, and by this simple combination of the bright head against the rich blue background, I get a mysterious effect, like a star in the depth of an azure sky. (1989, Letter 520, p. 313)

It is in life as in drawing, one must sometimes act quickly and with decision, attack a thing with energy, trace the outlines as quickly as lightening…. This is not the moment for hesitation or doubt, the hand may not tremble, nor may the eye wander but must remain fixed on what is before one. And one must be so absorbed in it that in a short time something is produced on the paper or the canvas that was not there before, so that afterwards one hardly knows how it got knocked into being. The time of discussion and thinking must precede the desired action. In the action itself there is little space for reflection or argument.… To act quickly is the function of a man, and one has to go through a great deal before one is able to do so. The pilot sometimes succeeds in making use of a storm to make headway instead of being wrecked in it…. Who is the master, the logic or I, is the logic there for me or I there for the logic, and is there no reason and no sense in my unreasonableness and lack of sense.   (1991, Letter 197)

In direct discipline reconstruction the person is not a mere observer, catalyst, or enabling field. S/he enters as an equal the dialogue of forms.

7.Epilogue: Homage to Van Gogh

We use Van Gogh to explore the methodology of reconstruction. Tribal reason suggests that to use without I-Thou recognition is unjust.

Van Gogh’s work is a borderline interflow of patterns, including stillness and motion, representation and enactment, necessary form and metamorphosis. There is an interplay of types: trees and mountains flow and gesture, houses almost dance.[2]

Every image shapes and is shaped by an incalculably complex dialogue of dialogues. Dialogue between content and form interpenetrates dialogue with (and within) artistic tradition,[3] interpenetrates dialogue between conventional labels and unique experience, between technique and spontaneity, between theory, autonomous practice and obsession…. The cypress tree is cypress tree, is also inseparably flame.… It is a profound discovery and a psychotic vision and a skillful construct.… It is solitary desire expending itself in the indifferent night and interplay of love fulfilled.

Above from A Dream of Reason by Avron Soyer Floodtide and Borderline Notes

Continue Reading A Dream of Reason III.

Part 3 John’s Vision: A Sociological-Psychological Fiction and The Author Descending


[1] We specify “directly reconstructive” because improvisatory drift can also contribute to positionally relevant (e.g., disciplinary) reconstruction.

[2] The issue is not the existence or non-existence of “subliminal” particular images (e.g., faces in clouds or in trees) but elemental formal interplay, with dancing clouds and flowing trees.

[3] With Rembrandt, Millet, Daumier, Delacroix, Monet and on and on.

Borderline Notes


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Writings and Interviews by Avron Soyer

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