Art and the Distinction Between Essence and Experience, with Some Lines by Edwin Muir

There’s a metaphysical ‘tradition’ that maintains the difference between essence and existence, or between God and finite beings. Neither is reducible to the other. Naturally we spend most of our time exploring finite beings like ourselves. But what would it mean to ‘explore’ essence? Usually we resort to a convenient skepticism—-except in art. Art somehow is given allowance to explore essence in light of what seems appropriate, the aesthetic aspects of the beautiful— color, shape, and so on.

But even in the analysis of art we come up against the distinction, a kind of line between what reflects existence in the modes of appearance and the sense of essence conveyed by the work of art. Art is irreducibly double. But we can think about art in the between. This doubleness that makes thinking about art possible also accounts for the wonder that is irreducible from the experience of art.

The experience of art may be said to involve a ‘breakthrough’ between the categories of existence and essence. In an essay on Edwin Muir Heaney quote an early poem ‘October at Hellbrunn’:

The silent afternoon draws in, and dark
The trees rise now, grown heavier is the ground,
And breaking through the silence of the park
Farther a hidden fountain flings its sound.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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