PRIMARY IMPRESSIONS

By William Markiewicz

The text below I found among the pages of a book that I brought with me from Europe. It is an old text from my university times. I don’t remember why I wrote it; probably I wanted to show it to some professor and never did. I don’t remember why I translated it into English. Obviously I had other things on my mind and subsequently I lost interest. I now doubt that this proposal is the way to find primary impressions but, for reasons of nostalgia I still want to present it, hoping for the reader’s indulgence. WM

The conscious life of the human individual, his mental mechanism, even on its most complicated level, acts on the basis of automatic response, routine. Even when confronted with things unknown to us, we react as if it were something to be remembered. From the point of view of perception, surprise doesn’t exist; we always, though unwillingly, find a comparison between things known and less known.

Thus, the mental process of humans, his conscious registration, is nothing else than an infinite series of analogies. But how could this process come to exist when ‘comparison’ is not yet at one’s disposal? If to perceive means to compare, then even a baby must have a way of doing this, otherwise consciousness could never come into existence. What can one compare to without any stock of experience? That is the subject of this study.

The purpose of this investigation is to encourage the subject to make comparisons until he’s gradually deprived of his stock of past experiences. Then we hope to recreate for him the mental conditions of a virgin mind, like a newborn who discovers the world and who can compare what he discovers only with something within himself. That’s what can be called the primary impressions level.

To reach this objective the subject is shown a design, as simple as possible, so as to remove any similarity with any objects. The simplest designs that exist are the line and the point; that’s why I’ve chosen them.

If the line is shown in this position | it gives the impression of being fixed in the ground, so it has a strong association with a tree, etc., It loses meaning in itself, it’s abstraction. Neither should the line be inclined in relation to the page because it then gives the impression of lack of equilibrium, so the subject pays more attention to the position of the line than to the line itself. In consequence, he’ll think of it as a part of a “triangle”:

The line should be shorter than the sheet of paper in order to seem detached from the background. That’s a position familiar to the subject so he doesn’t pay attention to it. We don’t show the line and the point together so the test remains as simple as possible. Neither do we draw the point before the line, because being smaller, it can embed itself in the line so that rather than being a homogenous structure it will seem a “spotted” one.

When the subject has the line before his eyes, we ask him to make associations. As they all say invariably: “the road”, “the stick”, “the snake”, etc., we tell them, “If you didn’t know all these things, to what would you compare it?” Thus, we eliminate one after another of the alternatives that the subject took from his baggage of experience until the moment when the subject ceases to compare. We continue to press him: “What if you had to explain the line to somebody without having any means of representing it? Try to describe the line by the impression it makes!”

Generally he answers: “The line doesn’t make any impression on me!” We start again: “To what, in your opinion, could a baby compare it to?” The subject generally answers: “The baby doesn’t compare, he just sees it!”

Sometimes we can start a discussion with the subject to prove to him that “to see” something is really not so “simple” but it’s something that requires an association. But to avoid misunderstanding, sometimes it’s better just to say: “Try it again, forget all you know, try to “feel” the line as if you just came to see if for the first time.”

Frequently the test can’t progress any further. The subject can’t progress. But at first he doesn’t want to, he’s not interested, and he’s “rebellious”. We deprive him of possibilities of comparison from his memory and force him to go back, to primary impressions. He loses interest in the collaboration as he cannot demonstrate his intelligence. Generally the best results are with the simple and spontaneous subjects as the others find it hard to liberate themselves from intellectual stigma. The best subjects are those who have a stubborn nature and have a tendency to get irritated, and, out of patience, they “explode and “get” it!

Here are some of these answers:

X. Borchard, 25 years old: “The line is for me like a whistle:” -- and he whistles, adding an eloquent movement with his hand. “It’s like a whistling arrow flying in the air.” I asked him “What’s the most important – the arrow, the whistle or the flying?” His answer was: “The flying.”

S. Christen, 26 years: “The line is something that continues, that throws itself forward.”

D. Ciechowska, 21 years: “The line – it’s acceleration.”

M. Martin, 20 years: “The line is free from both sides so it can continue to throw itself into the world.”

For the majority of subjects who wanted to really go “deep in”, the impression of the line was that of expansion.

Answers for the point:

X. Borchard: “The point is like a touch of my father’s finger on my stomach to make me laugh when I was a little child.” To my question, what is the most important in this comparison, he answered: “It’s the weight of the finger.”

J. Christen: “The point – it’s something heavy.”

D. Ciechowska: “The point has the tendency to annihilate itself; it’s something immobile and heavy.”

M. Martin: “The point is well chosen to mark the end of the phrase. For me, the point means nothing, the end.”

If, for the majority, the line represented movement, expansion, the point is the contrary: contraction, weight, passivity … as if the line represented kinetic energy and the point the potential one. And this impression of movement-immobility does not emerge from the stock of experience because the subjects are not spectators but participants. They “feel” the movement-immobility as part of themselves.

Then, we may deduce that a baby who doesn’t have a stock of memory can register exterior things only as interior feelings. These sensations don’t need to be taught because they’re specific to every living organism and may constitute the first form of consciousness. The feeling of heart pulsations, of respiration, may be the first guide to the external world.

That’s perhaps what happened to our subjects; they assimilate the line and the point “physiologically” as resonance of it in themselves.

During our existence, getting a stock of experience, we learn to distinguish objects from each other; we no longer see the object in the light of our personal impressions. Analysing external objects we’re acting as somebody who takes a distance from the object to see it better. Our observations gain in diversity what they lose in intensity. We see the things rather in their function; wheels are to turn, houses are to be lived in, the view of a tree makes us associate unconsciously with everything we know about trees, but we don’t see the objects as functions of themselves (painters may be the exception) – the stock of experience has enriched our horizons and made impoverished our sensibility.

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