On O’Keefe’s unknown infinity and Pascal’s eternal silence

Georgia O’Keefe has ventured out of doors and there finds the “sun under the clouds.” But not some dull thing this, not ennui loitering behind the shed. No, for O’Keefe, this is a painter’s sun. She recalls later, “[T]he color effect was very strange–standing high on a pale green hill where I could look all around at the red, yellow, purple formations–miles around–the colors all intensified by the pale gray green I was standing on.”

And what of it? What about this experience is significant? O’Keefe: “When I stand alone with the earth and sky a feeling of something in me going off in every direction into the unknown of infinity means more to me than any organized religion gives me.”

But then how could Pascal have remarked, in the 17th C., that “the eternal silence of infinite spaces fills me with dread”? Where O’Keefe is enveloped by the one-all, Pascal is crushed by the sense of nothingness.

It is not a question of seeing the same thing yet choosing between two different attitudes, that of wonder or that of despair. It is rather that O’Keefe and Pascal are talking about two different things–that is to say, about two different conceptions of infinity.

Pascalian infinity is mathematical. Pascal feels, as Koyre once put it, the opening up of the “finite cosmos” into the “infinite universe.” A universe of indefinite extension in all directions. A darkness without thickness or depth or curvature or metaphysical weight. Matter with mass functioning according to deducible physical laws. Mathematical harmony, yes, but the feeling is one of the emptiest emptiness, of the worst conceivable disorientation. Now that the world’s been disenchanted, where has man gone? And where shall he go to look for himself? The despair is sickening.

Unlike Pascal’s, however, O’Keefe’s infinity is aesthetic, her vision naturally artistic. Her meditation begins with the sensible. Objects around her she perceives in a certain light. It’s as if near and far were all one, as if all were woven together and, what’s more, all “intensified” by the particular spot where she now stands, in short, by her being-in-the-world. It appears that without her the world wouldn’t quite have this shading or texture or weight inasmuch as she wouldn’t exist or wouldn’t be a part of it. Her contribution is necessary, but it is not the only thing.

This last is a delicate point. In the mode of aesthetic vision, the self must be included in the landscape as the very percipient being open to the world in a hospitable act of thanksgiving. But this opening-oneself-to-the-world is neither the work of solipsism nor the product of introspection nor a deep inspection of the sensible properties of things. Nor ultimately is it a contemplative act undertaken in the spirit of enmity: for the concept of mineness has fallen away. Rather, this opening of oneself onto the world is a “dilation of the self” beyond itself, an energetic dispersal of oneself outward and upward and crossward into all things. A pantheism of anonymity.

Yet can O’Keefean pantheism replace organized religion, long the day and the night? And can aesthetic contemplation proffer us sufficient spiritual nourishment? And, also, can it deny or refuse the slough of our familiar ways of looking at nature, that rough-hewn resource? And, now, can it overcome our Promethean desire to conquer nature, that figure of enmity? And, yes, can it do all these things, or must we admit that we’re atoms and cannibals and shit?