Monet’s Waterlilies and Some Free Association

A nice image of Monet’s waterlilies, c. 1915, via Wikipedia Commons:


The feel of this image for me is not of tranquility and coolness, but of heat and melting. First there is the white flower echoing a fried egg; then there is, to the upper right, a cauldron of undifferentiated lilies over a low flame of green (made by the reflection of the tree upon the water), dribbling down a syrupy waterfall of blue into separation, differentiation, and multiplicity: a depiction of the Fall. The waterlilies move in a leisurely S to the Word–this is the Hegelian course of History (with a capital H)–and the creator’s signature on the outskirts of blue (at the lower left) reveals the name of their god. The creator, Monet, manifested to the lilies by his signature, is the final cause to which the lilies tend and turn toward, but do not touch.

And every garden needs a snake. I see one in the pink flowers, with two eyes, a mouth, and multiple oracular tongues, like the apostles at Pentecost, but of green fire. Its body veers left, and the snake has a message for you: Look at that white flower again–the one that is also a fried egg. Carpe diem. All flesh is grass.

So this painting is, for me, about time, change, and the ontological mystery. It is Heraclitus of Ephesus saying, “Nobody steps into the same Monet twice.”

This Monet also has me thinking of a work of David Hockney’s, “Man Running Towards a Bit of Blue” (1963), which I cannot find on the Internet, but which is a pencil and crayon drawing of a naked man running toward a square patch of blue (as the waterlilies are moving toward the blue patch with Monet’s signature).

Hockney likes this heading-into-blue theme, and I did readily find a different example–“A Bigger Splash” (1967):

File:Hockney, A Bigger Splash.jpg


And here’s a depiction, from the 17th century, of Heraclitus–presumably agonizing in prayer and thought over the nature of change and of the turning world:

File:Utrecht Moreelse Heraclite.JPG


Lastly, Monet’s painting has me thinking of Hinduism; of a busy surface and busy reflections on a basin of water that is, at bottom, still; of the simple and undifferentiated blue (Atman) birthing the lilies into a flaming green differentiation (Brahman) that languidly returns to blue, which is ultimately one. Quiet, the mind.


Image sources: Wikipedia.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to Monet’s Waterlilies and Some Free Association

  1. Monet did not see with focus of intent or thought but with the casualness of visual subconscious processing. He points always to his single focus.. in this case, the flowers amidst a sea of ever changing environment. The beauty of a Monet painting is in the singular focus he presents. Sometimes it is as simple as a flower amidst the ebb and flow of life. Much like you might find in the lady who always takes your shirts in for laundry each week.

  2. helgamatos89 says:

    it was very interesting to follow your description and come back to the painting again and notice the little details you mentioned! although I am still looking for the snake.. I really cannot perceive any. congrats for your nice work! 🙂

  3. shorewalker says:

    It may be that you see the flower as a fried egg because you don’t spend much time looking at waterlilies. But I’m willing to bet that Monet saw it as a waterlily. He was a gardener as well as a painter. He spent a lot of time looking at flowers. (Also. his waterlily has blue tones in it, which happen in flowers but do not occur in my fried eggs, whatever the light.)

    Put another way, sometimes a waterlily is just a waterlily.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Fine, but that’s also why I called the post a free association, not an interpretation. A work often says more than an artist or author intends, and time and audience contingencies can bring in associations the creator could never have anticipated. Put another way, lingering with art invites play.

      And sometimes that play can open up vistas that do bring one back to legitimate interpretation. It was by playing around with the image imaginatively that brought me to seeing relations between Monet, Hockney, and Hinduism.

      So if I hadn’t hung around and looked for a time, I would just have seen some waterlilies. Thus sometimes a waterlily is more than a waterlily, and the decisive factor is how long you want to linger and let the imaginative and associative mind rest before an image.

      And this raises one more issue: the longer humans do art history, interpretation, and reflection, the more they’ll “see” in art, and the more connections they’ll make. If you take the attitude of not over-reading into things–keep the waterlilies waterlilies–you put out some of the fire that makes connecting up the world joyous–and you might even miss some signals in the noise.

      Of course, you are right that playing this game can lead to the equivalent of correlation-causation fallacies: seeing things in the data of the painting that are not really there. But I am pretty tolerant of, say, offering interpretations of Rothko paintings, aren’t you? They’re not wholly ridiculous (usually). And certainly it’s no more ridiculous than theology, and a safer outlet for speaking to the ontological mystery than sectarian religion.

      And one more thought: literate people tend to want to turn images into text (as theologians want to turn God into understandable attributes and lovers want to describe their love in endless love letters that never quite capture their love). I see that there’s a tension and a dubiousness to this–and a diminishment of the image qua image in some ways–but the alternative is silence or the barest conservative description of the artist’s biography and conscious intent (insofar as we can know this). By contrast, I’m glad Freud brought his psychoanalytic ideas to Michelangelo’s Moses–though, of course, Michelangelo could never have anticipated Freud’s interpretation.

      And I find the argument of Susan Sontag in “Against Interpretation” unconvincing (though necessary to keep in mind). Not bringing theory or ideas to a thing, and trying to just have a direct encounter with it, is an illusory act as well. Everybody brings colored glasses to art, acknowledged or not. Like Adam’s finger and the finger of God, there’s always a gap for association, interpretation, and play.

      • Peter Smith says:

        Santi, I think this is a most important insight:
        literate people tend to want to turn images into text (as theologians want to turn God into understandable attributes and lovers want to describe their love in endless love letters that never quite capture their love). I see that there’s a tension and a dubiousness to this–and a diminishment of the image qua image in some ways–but the alternative is silence

        Not everything is knowable and nor everything is describable. We cannot know Monet’s full motivation and our text can never adequately describe it. And, as you point out, the same problem touches other important parts of our lives, concluding that we nevertheless should do it, despite the diminishment, because the alternative is silence.

        This is precisely the problem of the scientism of people like Alex Rosenberg, Lawrence Krauss, etc. They would reduce us to silence because they have made a metaphysical committment to the stance that only the provably knowable exists, that only the accurately describable is worth describing. It is incoherent because they have made an unprovable metaphysical committment while demanding proof. It is circular because this metaphysical committment was made to provide justification for a deeper metaphysical prejudice.

        If we accept their scientism we are diminished. So, thank you for the lovely description and important insight.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Okay, I agree with you in most respects here. There is always the danger of saying too little in both conservative art criticism and positivism. We all have within us, as Orwell once argued (in an essay, I forget the title of it), Don Quixote (the imagination-driven idealist and hero) and the reductive and fat tag-along, Sancho Panza, who sees things for what they are (windmills, not dragons, etc.), and would protect his own skin in conflict.

        I suppose you’ve got to walk a sensible line (somehow) between both of these parts of us. In a recent essay in The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor at TNR, calls this binocular vision (keeping an eye on both life and death). There is truth in both, and they don’t tidily go together–and yet neither can be neglected. Helen Vendler, the literary critic, calls poets who pull off this trick, those with “binocular style.”

        So it’s the problem of aspect seeing (as when you look at the same thing and it alternates between, say, a vase and two faces). You, Peter, look into the heavens and see the glory of God; Krauss looks and sees stars and says, “What’s your evidence that God did this?” Your response is fair, but Krauss also asks a fair question.

        And the historical reality is that, after Francis Bacon’s call in the 17th century to become more methodical about the gathering of evidence before making claims, that humanity has advanced spectacularly. Systematic epistemology and science grounded in evidence works. It’s hardly surprising that many educated people nowadays would say, “Science not only works, it’s probably science all the way down. If you think otherwise, show me the evidence.” It’s not an unreasonable way to think about the world. It’s certainly cold water cast on theology (as conservative criticism is cold water cast on the playful interpretation of art), but it’s undeniable that the attitude has led to human progress.

        Science shows you the money. Theology shows you, well, what? Ambiguity and inconclusiveness. It’s uncertain that there’s value in it at all (and if so, which parts are valuable, since theologians so frequently contradict one another).


      • Peter Smith says:

        I like the analogy of binocular vision. It seems to me that Krauss is stubbornly closing one eye while peering through the binoculars.

        To see why this is so, imagine a creator God, who has created the universe, the laws of nature, with the universe running according to the laws of nature. In this case, what would Krauss see? He would see “Science not only works, it’s … science all the way down>“.

        Of course!!!!!! Of course!!!!!!

        What else would he see? What else could he possibly see?

        I mean this so cryingly obvious. Does anyone think that God created the laws of nature as a decoration? How on earth could religion(properly understood) and science possibly be in opposition? The mere idea of it is ludicrous. By definition, a creator God created a universe running according to the laws of nature, which is why He created the laws of nature. A scientist investigating such a universe would find exactly what God intended, a universe running according to the laws of nature. Concluding therefore that there is no God is to stubbornly keep one eye closed while using the binoculars.

        Science shows you the money.”
        It all depends on what you call the money. You conveniently dodge that issue. Science shows you how the world operates, it reveals the laws of nature that God created. This in turn allows us to adapt the world to us, whereas before science we could only adapt to the world.

        But science says nothing about why the world was created or how we should behave in that world. Religion supplies answers to the ‘why’ of creation and the ‘how’ of behaviour. In other words religion supplies answers to existential, intentional and moral questions, not to scientific questions.

        The ‘money’ you talk about has two sides to the coin and science only explains one side of the coin.

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        Let’s say that your inference from the way the cosmos is to the existence of God is more than plausible, even probable. What does this achieve? Very, very little. Why? Because you can’t get any further. You might be wrong, you might be right. Even if Krauss follows you to this minimal deist conclusion, he gets up in the morning and goes to work and does everything the same. Again, why? Because God ain’t talking.

        God, in other words, could settle all doubts and clear up all inferences, theist or atheist, about the cosmos by simply speaking. But God is silent.

        So now we’ve got a new problem. Why is God silent? And now we’re in the realm of speculation about the mind of God. In other words, it’s a parlor game.

        Even Aquinas conceded that reasoning–and reasoning about the cosmos–can only get you so far.

        You need revelation. You need God to speak. But nobody can agree that God speaks, or what He speaks (or even whether God is male or female or a blobby thing or outside of time, etc.).

        You, for example, call yourself a Catholic, but so does Andrew Sullivan (a homosexual who thinks God’s okay with gay marriage).

        Who speaks? We speak. But God never speaks.

        I’d like you to read the following post and perhaps comment on it. I think it’s troubling, and would be curious what your take is on it. It’s a version of my argument above:

  4. Peter Smith says:

    Let’s say that your inference from the way the cosmos is to the existence of God is more than plausible, even probable.
    Yes, I believe it is probable and I can mount strong arguments in support of that assertion.

    But, we have to be careful in this discussion. There is considerable ground shifting going on here. We started with the idea of an unknowable and un-describable God (from your Monet allusion), moved on to the false opposition between science and religion and from there moved on to the problem of the silent God. Any moment now I will be called on to demonstrate that God exists! Or perhaps you will bring up the evidentiary problem of evil. All these are interesting things but soon we will have a book on the philosophy of religion(and bored everyone else to death). We need to stick to one topic.

    I take it you have ceded the point that the popular atheist argument of religion and science being in opposition is false. To me this is so transparently obvious that it is hardly worth debating. It is simply a dishonest argument used by fundamentalist atheists to dishonestly beat their opponents about the head.

    First, we need to note that the arguments for God’s existence stand independently of the problems of silence/hiddenness and the problem of evidentiary evil. These problems, by themselves, do not disprove God’s existence, they merely argue against our understanding of God.

    Second, I am going to reply in two parts. Part one will be an allegory, intended to illustrate my main points, part two will be a deeper philosophical reply.

    But I am immediately replying to one point:
    You need revelation. You need God to speak.
    Exactly. Jesus Christ was that revelation and you can read that revelation as it was imperfectly preserved in the the Four Gospels. The revelation was a moral one of how we should behave and its warrant, why we should behave that way. It was a simple revelation in narrative form that was easily accessible to all people of all backgrounds, independent of context.

    It was not a philosophy handbook and it was not a textbook on science, for really obvious reasons that I should not have to spell out.

    You of course will dispute the historicity of the revelation and we will have shifted the grounds of the argument once more. My allegory follows in the next comment.

  5. Peter Smith says:

    My allegory of The Scientist and the Formicarium.
    First a cautionary note. Allegories are suggestive devices intended to convey certain essential ideas in a symbolic way and technical accuracy is not their goal.

    The Scientist wished to study the evolution of ants through various stages until they developed a high level of cognition. To this end he constructed a large formicarium in the basement of his lab. The conditions were very carefully controlled for optimum conditions for evolution. It was carefully guarded against extraneous influences such as light, heat, vibration, shock or the presence of the observer Scientist. It was intended to be a fully self contained environment such that the evolution of the ants was not influenced by extraneous factors. This was a good Scientist.

    Over time the ants went through various stages of Darwinian evolution and eventually developed significant cognitive skills. With the cognitive skills came a spirit of curiosity and they started asking ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. Some ant philosophers deduced that there was a larger order and constructed the Scientist hypothesis to explain the larger order. Some ant scientists replied that formicarium was all there was, there was no Scientist because he was invisible and silent. And in any case, it was science all the way down. When challenged with the origin of the evident order of formicarium design, the ant scientists replied that the formicarium had obviously self constructed randomly from nothing and that clearly there were countless other formicariums spontaneously bursting forth out of nothingness. Some daring ant scientists even claimed the formicarium was automatically recycling itself

    Let’s leave the philosopher, theologian and scientist ants to their debates. What they could not understand was that even if the Scientist had stood before them they would not have seen the Scientist, that if the Scientist had spoken they would not have heard the speech or understood it. Moreover, if the Scientist had conveyed his speech, the things he would speak about would be utterly incomprehensible to the ants. For example, the Scientist’s love of Handel’s Messiah would be beyond their comprehension. The ants were trapped by two assumptions. The first assumption was that they could observe everything that was to be observed(clearly untrue). The second assumption was that they could understand everything that was to be understood. But how could they when they lacked the cognitive processing power, experiential faculties and mental categories? This was obvious to the Scientist but ant philosophers were so consumed by arrogance that they insisted they had the sole access to the knowable.

    Before you dismiss my Scientist and the Formicarium allegory out of hand it would be well to consider that some good minds are thinking exactly along these lines. It is called the Simulation Hypothesis and goes along the lines that we are a simulation in someone else’s world. See Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument

    Naturally some thinkers have asked how we can detect if we are living in someone else’s simulation. It is rather difficult to detect this(in a good simulation) but interesting ideas are emerging.

    In the same way some ants asked if they were living in someone’s formicarium. A few perceptive ants saw good evidence for this, despite the perfection of the formicarium.

    • Peter Smith says:

      I left my allegory incomplete.
      Some ant theologists, having concluded that a Scientist was the origin of their formicarium, were now confronted with the problem of describing the Scientist. This was a concept that defied all their categories. Different ant theology groups inevitably constructed different descriptions that reflected the local ant culture. They visualized the Scientist as a vaguely ant-like creature and attributed an ant-like personality to the Scientist. The Scientist descriptions multiplied until they reflected the diversity of the ant cultures. One particularly astute ant philosopher said no, the Scientist cannot be described, he is simply the ground of being. And he was right, the language, concepts and categories of ants did not allow a useful description of the Scientist, hence the disagreement, diversity and ambiguity in their descriptions.

      Naturally the ant atheists had a field day with this and loudly proclaimed that the disagreement, diversity and ambiguity of the descriptions of the Scientist was evidence of the falsity of the Scientist concept. Ant atheists were not noted for the subtlety of their thinking, they were more interested is scoring debating points.

      The observer Scientist smiled tolerantly as he observed this behaviour and wrote out the title for his next paper, The Diversity and Ambiguity of Local Descriptions of Non-local Entities.

  6. Peter Smith says:

    Now for the philosophic background which is encapsulated in the following question.
    Why would God create?

    This is a serious question. On the face of it there is no need for God to create anything. Given the principle of causal determinacy, the precise operation of the laws of nature all the time, everywhere, without exception it would seem that given any starting conditions, the outcome at any time in the future can be known with perfect accuracy. This is also known as Laplace’s Demon.

    Since God has perfect knowledge and perfect power, every possible future outcome will be known to God with perfect clarity. in this case the act of creation would seem to be redundant. The act of creation would merely replicate all that God already knows.

    But God has created. Why should that be? There are two possible answers to this question:
    1) the act of creation has unknowable consequences, even to God,
    2) God wishes/needs to experience his creation. Knowing the outcome is not the same as experiencing the outcome. Think of the difference between perfectly observing ice cream and tasting ice cream.

    I am going to argue that God has created for both reasons, but right now, I will only deal with (1), the unknowable consequences of creation. To be creative, in its most basic terms, is to create something new and new means, in this case, unknowable to God.

    How could God launch a universe, operating strictly according to the laws of causal determinacy, and still produce the new, the unknowable? The answer to that question is cognitive life. Cognitive life has been endowed with free will and free will is the power to defy causal determinacy. The highest levels of free will are to be found in the human species but lesser kinds of free will are found in other forms of cognitive life. How free will defies causal determinacy is right now a mystery and the occasion of fierce debate.

    Cognitive life, through the exercise of free will, is extending creation in new and unexpected ways. We have quite literally become co-creators with God. We have become the instruments of God’s creative activity. These creative acts are both physical and intellectual. Creative intellectual acts are essentially unbounded in scope and it is possible that this is where our true destiny lies. The physical world is merely a supportive environment that makes the intellectual world possible.

    The use of free will, though, requires an environment that allows the freedom to act. This requires:
    1) sufficient random variation in the environment that we are continually presented with new opportunities for choice.
    2) sufficient mastery over our environment that our choices are not all dictated by our environment.
    3) an invisible and silent God, otherwise the presence of God would inevitably shape our choices. We must have the freedom to make the wrong choices as well as the right choices. Right and wrong in this case means good or bad consequences for ourselves.

    (1) explains the problem of natural evil and (3) explains the problem of moral evil. (2) explains why we have such an advanced cognitive apparatus which makes the world explicable. It gives us knowledge of science and technology which in turn gives us increasing mastery over our environment and that in turn gives us greater freedom for choice.

    None of this explains why God would ‘want’ to create. It has happened and is therefore in some sense necessary or essential to God.

    In my next comment I will deal with the second answer to the question, Why would God create? I claim the answer is that God wishes or needs to experience his creation.

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