INTAMS review | Volume 13 | Issue 2 | Autumn 2007 (November) | Pages 252 > 257
Promising Lifelong Commitment: René Magritte’s La résponse imprévue (Full-text)
Undoubtedly, the Belgian artist René Magritte requires little by way of introduction. He is widely known as one of the key figures in surrealism, an artistic movement that impacted on both painting and sculpture and that reached its height between 1925 and 1940. Yet, it could be that the 1933 piece La résponse imprévue (The Unexpected Answer), is somewhat less well-known than Magritte’s artistic reputation itself or than a number of other pieces from his rather large oeuvre. Works like La Trahison des Images (with the famous subtitle Ceci n’est pas une pipe) or Les Amants are more likely to ring a bell than The Unexpected Answer. Nevertheless, the latter is a clear example of Magritte’s inimitable artistic style. The painting depicts a door; the observer cannot make out whether it is made of ordinary wood or, indeed, of gold. What is striking is the large, irregularly shaped hole in the door that is vaguely reminiscent of the human form. Yet, it is not clear whether it is the outline of just one person or whether Magritte, in this painting, sought to depict the cut out silhouette of an embracing couple (1). Whichever it is, it is clear that the area cut away reveals a yawning darkness on the other side of the door. Just like the lion’s share of Magritte’s oeuvre, this work belongs, stylistically, to surrealism. Indeed, just as in a considerable number of his paintings, the almost cartoon-like simplicity of this oil on canvas seems at odds with the insightfulness and depth of Magritte’s message, namely, that truly ingenious breakthroughs are seldom, if ever, the result of using the predictable points of entry that passages and doors provide and the expected answers that they contain (2).
Although there is no univocal interpretation of the meaning of this artwork, we can see, in this work, a paradigmatic depiction of the promise to lifelong commitment. Magritte himself refrained from providing a detailed explanation of the abovementioned painting, as well as every connection made to the symbolic expressiveness of the future-oriented promise. Nevertheless, we think it justifiable to conceive of this painting as a metaphorical expression of the way in which couples promise the future to one another by means of a promise to lifelong commitment. Indeed, Magritte, in this picture, claims for himself a boundless space where imagination and expressive agility know no bounds. As a result, the painting reproduced above can be interpreted in various ways, which we readily do here in order to elucidate the way in which the painting can be a “meaningful” guide in the interpretation of the “meaningfulness’ of the promise to lifelong commitment.
The Unexpected Answer, with the Emphasis on the Unexpected
The first striking feature that we shall consider in this attempt to interpret Magritte’s work is the manifest presence of the darkness in the painting, by means of which the invisible couple is made visible. Is Magritte predicting a grim future for the lovers? Does the sword of Damocles hang above the heads of the couple that, at the moment, still love one another intensely? Perhaps the artwork does not need to be understood in such a pessimistic sense. Behind the closely entwined couple, the darkness does indeed loom, but the observer cannot make out exactly what it is that the darkness conceals, just as the couple are only a silhouette and not actually recognisable. It is no more likely that something negative should emerge from the darkness than something positive. In support of this interpretation is the fact that there is no evidence at hand that suggests that the darkness entails a threat for the loving couple. Rather, the figuration of the darkness seems to eminently epitomise the mysterious pregnancy that marks the future. That which is already present, the fertile soil in which the relationship can be cultivated, is clearly visible. This is subtly evoked in Magritte’s painting by the fact that the image of the couple is embedded in the illuminated doorway. That which is currently happening, i.e., the basis upon which the partnership is formed, is bathed in bright sunlight. In contrast to this play of light, there appears behind the newly formed and still actualizing relationship, the mysteriousness of the future. It is as yet impossible to catch a glimpse of what will occur after the present. On the basis of these observations, it is perhaps permissible to conclude that Magritte’s piece illustrates the impossibility of using a promise to make claims regarding the eventual course of the future. At the moment that the couple entrust themselves to each other, they are still “in the dark” with regard to exactly how the future will unfold.
Another element that supports this interpretation is the fact that the darkness speaks from the cut out silhouette itself. The loving couple are not surrounded by a dark shadow, which would indeed evoke an ominous feeling. If that had been the case, then the idea would be that the couple seek support from one another in the presence of a variety of threatening and destructive influences. But this is not the way in which Magritte presents the darkness. Instead, the lovers find themselves surrounded by a bright, warm light, while the darkness in fact makes its appearance through the bodies of the couple. This supports the interpretation of the dark area as a symbol of the unpredictability of the concrete narrative that is still to unfold and according to which the relationship will allow itself to be defined. What for the time being remains dark is, in other words, the concrete challenges that the couple will find themselves having to face in their task of broadening and deepening their actual perception of their relationship so that they, to the best of their ability, give shape to the integral meaning of love. This interpretation is also supported by the fact that the observer is given the impression that the couple have apparently (literally) left through the door. Together, they walk out of the room, but their destination is hidden from the observer’s view by the enveloping darkness, and perhaps also from the eyes of the lovers themselves. Arguably, in light of the vision of the promise to lifelong commitment outlined above, this expressive element could be understood as an illustration of the fact that they, by making a promise, enter into a commitment to a future that cannot be foreseen. And, precisely because it concerns a fundamentally invisible, uncontrollable future, they make a promise to one another, not to guarantee one another a certain future, but rather, in the face of an intangible future, to continually be committed to, with and for one another. It is precisely through this promise that the unpredictable future—sometimes surprisingly beautiful, sometimes painful—becomes possible. This also means that no matter how clear and lucid the moment at which the commitment is made may appear, the promise to lifelong commitment is in reality a leap “in the dark”, because they cannot now survey the route along which they will (have to) clear a path for their relationship.
Against this background, the title of this specimen of Magritte’s artistic skill can also be interpreted. The adjective in the title The Unexpected Answer shows that in the love that is realising itself, many unexpected elements that cannot be reasoned out in advance will come to the surface. In line with this insight, it is pertinent for couples who will be getting married to realise that they should not gloss over the fact that the effective development of their marital life will ask “unexpected answers” of them. That is to say that the ultimate realisation of the expression of love will call upon people to perform deeds of care, love, responsibility and/or perhaps even self-sacrifice, even though they would have previously thought it impossible that they could or might have to perform such deeds. In this sense, the title of the painting makes it patently clear that the answer to the question, “Do you promise to be true to him/her . . . all the days of your life?” is an “unexpected answer”, even for those who say “I do”.
Last, but certainly not least, this creative marriage, where they can only do justice to love by giving wholly “unexpected answers”, is symbolised in the totally unusual way that the loving couple have sought to make their exit. They did not walk through the doorway in the usual manner, but straight through the door itself. Not only does this remarkably illustrate how love can clear wholly unforeseeable paths, sometimes even compelling couples to do so, but at the same time, it underscores Magritte’s basic axiom, namely, that an authentically ingenious breakthrough is never achieved by sticking to predictable paths, a principle that is of course applicable to the lifetime commitment made between two lovers.
(1) See H. LOMBAERTS: “Artiesten knipogen naar katecheten [sic], maar merken zij het?”, in: Verbum: Tijdschrift voor jongerencatechese 57 (1990), 81-87, at 82. Lombaerts himself interprets the silhouette as the depiction of a loving couple.
(2) See J. T. CAVENDER: Breaking Down the Doors: A Review of James Doyle's The Silk at Her Throat, (May 1999). http://www.themontserratreview.com/bookreviews/review-04.html (accessed 17.08.2007).
H. LOMBAERTS: “Artiesten knipogen naar katecheten [sic], maar merken zij het?”, 82.
The Unexpected Answer, with the Emphasis on the Answer
So far, we have mainly focussed on the way in which Magritte’s artwork can function as an artistic reflection of the fact that with the promise to lifelong commitment, nothing can be said about the concrete form that the future will take. However, we may not overlook the elements of the painting that show that there is still a certain perception of the future present in the promise, perhaps even necessarily so. Even though there is no all-encompassing fleshing out of the future inherent in the promise to lifelong commitment, in the sense that they only promise always to love one another and that it is as yet unclear whether that will be chiefly in sickness or in health, for richer or for poorer, the promise as such does indeed actualise a certain future project. Namely, the “I do” creates, against the backdrop of uncertainties about what is to come, a united future. The perspective on the future that is revealed in the sealing of the relational commitment, then, must not be interpreted as if a concrete, well-defined image of the future has been called into being. Here, it is “only” stated that, regardless of what time might bring, they shall “bear” and “endure” it together. Paradoxically enough, they create an authentic perspective on the future precisely by refusing every anticipation of the future in favour of the promise that the future, irrespective of the form it takes, will be shared. One does not always control the fortunes or adversities that life may bring. The choice to face this future with a life partner, however, is not a decision dependant upon capricious fate, but on the will and the capacity of the couple itself. In this way, the promise manifests itself not as a rash filling in of a concrete image of the future, but as a simultaneous acceptance of and resistance to the unpredictable and unfathomable aspects of the future, which are in fact the conditions of the promise. When considered thus, the promise to lifelong commitment exemplifies Hannah Arendt’s vision of the promise as an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty. Time, and by that we mean above all the future, is characterised by a certain instability. All sorts of events are continually taking place, unforeseen, uncontrollable, chaotic and contradictory. In order to create some consistency and reliability therein, people can appeal to the promise. In the uncertainty and instability of the future, the promise indeed forms an anchor, not in the sense that one obtains some power over the future, but certainly as a perspective in which one can expand one’s possibilities so that the beloved “can trust in the future”, precisely because one, via the promise, puts oneself on the line. In short, the promise is a “commitment despite the future” through which those who make it make a future possible for themselves and for the other.
Artistically, in the painting under discussion, the insights just mentioned translate into the path of light that leaves a trail in the darkness. From the point through which the couple stepped out of the room towards their future, we notice a few rays of light penetrating the darkness. Perhaps we may read into this aesthetical element the “greatness” of the now-moment of the promise to lifetime commitment. As mentioned above, the promise indeed creates an island of security and continuity with regard to the unpredictable, capricious and uncertain character of the future. In other words, the moment in which the full commitment to the other is expressed expands further into every “future present” so that the moment of decision is absolutely irreducible to that one singular moment. Therefore, the now-moment of making the commitment is, from an existential perspective, much larger than a mathematical description of time would have us believe. Mathematically speaking, the moment when they choose each other lasts only a few seconds before it ticks away in time. Seen from a relational-ethical viewpoint, however, the promise must not be reduced to a single instant in ever-passing time. The present in which the lifetime commitment is confirmed remains preserved in the dawning future. In this context, looking at Magritte’s painting, one can see that the moment in which the couple embraced one another (the present) remains present in the darkness (the future) in the form of the trail of light that begins from the point at which they left together. The parquet floor that leads from the living room into the darkness is also suggestive in this regard. Attentive observers will note that the same flooring is found in both the illuminated room and the dark one. What might at first seem like an unimportant detail in fact also shows how the current commitment stands out unhindered in the darkness. The lovers, as it were, walk the path in the future that they laid in the present.
Conversely, this clair-obscur effect also means that the darkness filters into the illuminated room. Via the cut out silhouette, the mysterious darkness seeps, as it were, into the illuminated living room. The observer could interpret this to mean that, with the speaking of the binding “I do”, the future is already made present. Indeed, one makes a promise because one does not only live in the immediacy of existence, but, rather, wants to anticipate that which is to come. A promise that does not have the future in mind is, in other words, a contradiction in terms. It follows that every authentic promise already promotes the future to a central point of reference in the present. From these insights, it may be concluded that the future, grounded in the marriage vow, breaks through into the present.
The door, which is at the same time open and closed, is another element that can be interpreted as a confirmation of the fact that the promise to lifelong commitment erects a protective barrier against the unforeseen whims of the future. Obviously, the artist has left the door closed. The couple have closed the door against that which lies behind it. This device evokes the impression that the lovers seek to lock out the unfathomable future. Nevertheless, the mysterious and unexpected aspects of the future are not kept fully at bay. The silhouette of the lovers makes it patently clear that they do not wish to exclude the future, but instead they seem to want to walk towards it. Based on this surrealist mixing of closed-ness and openness, perhaps we might conclude that the future is stripped of its potential menace by the confidence that, according to the promise, they will welcome the future together. It is precisely by stemming the tide of inconceivable situations that they can accordingly become receptive to the future. In addition to this blend of reticence and receptivity, we must also refer in this regard to the outline of the presence of the couple, who, even after their departure, remain unrelentingly present. Together they walk towards that which is unforeseen in the future, but precisely in and through this choice-act for each other, the moment in which the couple embraced one another remains ever present against the background of a distant, still darker future. There is something else that is significant for our interpretive reading of Magritte’s piece as a symbolic representation of the way in which the promise puts limits on the unforeseeable future—the title of the work. Whereas, in the above analysis of Magritte’s work as an expression of the impossibility of anticipating the future, the adjective of the title of the work was turned to as an interpretive key, here, it is the noun that orientates the characterisation of the painting as a type of “winning of ground” against the future. The term “answer” indeed evokes the idea that, irrespective of what the future may hold, an answer will always be sought. In the promise to lifelong commitment, the loving couple assure one another that, regardless of the shape that the future may take as it becomes their present, they will try, to the best of their ability, to do justice to love.
From the above observations, we may conclude that, in Rene Magritte’s The Unexpected Answer, one can see a reflection of the fact that the promise to lifelong commitment, first of all, acknowledges that the concrete realisation of the future is not uncommonly thwarted by unforeseen and unexpected circumstances. Judging what the future will eventually look like is therefore impossible. Nevertheless, one succeeds, thanks to the performative power of the “I do”, in limiting the unsurveability of the future. Marriage vows indeed give life to a joint future, even though the couple seeking to bind themselves together have not the faintest idea of the proportion of good days to bad for which they promise each other their mutual commitment. This is exactly why it is only about a promise, which, as it were, places the “lives” of both partners on the line, and not about an insurance policy that one concludes, or a guarantee that one extorts. The promise is indeed in no way an “invocation” of the future, which would reduce the promise to the order of magic and in so doing sideline the person’s free will, effort and commitment. In this surrealist work, then, we could also see an affirmation of the will to anticipate, and the possibility of anticipating, the future through the marriage vow without already having the future under control.