Rhythm, Essence, and Recursion: A Philosophical Investigation of Fine Art

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Rhythm, Essence, and Recursion: A Philosophical Investigation of Fine Art

by – Sonali Raj, Published in Vol.II, Issue.XIX – August 2016

Introduction to the Author:

Sonali RajSonali has master’s degrees in creative writing (poetry) from City University, Hong Kong and in linguistics from Delhi University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pink Pages, The Aerogram, Eastlit and a few other places.



I began on a quest to understand rhythm because I was intrigued by how some words tend to fit into a poem while I write it, without my conscious deliberation; similar to how when I whistle a tune that I am making up as I go along, there seem to be only some notes that will work at every stage; each of which will give rise to a different sequence of notes. And the ways of wrapping up a tune are really quite limited, depending on the notes that precede the end.

It seemed to me that there is a tendency for making patterns. And this naturally led me to wonder why.

Why are patterns?

That the elements of a piece of art are bound together by the pattern they are laid out in is a widely acknowledged notion in the literature of design. This phenomenon is easy to understand in the case of music – cacophony is caused by there being no discernible pattern and in such visualizations as paintings, in which there needs to be a balance of elements across space, i.e. you are unlikely to see a cubist figure in an impressionist painting of a picnic on the banks of the Seine, and yet if a number of cubist figures that are somehow related to the impressionist painting in the background are laid out in it, they will not seem so out of place. The principle is the same in music as well as in visual art: entities that exist need to bear a relation to what already is or there is chaos.


Of course, what exists first when a person perceives a work of art is his mind, and the work could, despite appearing quite random to one perceiver, seem a unified whole to another. This is because the perceiver’s mind is part of the larger pattern, of which the work is another part. That is to say, we will have to accommodate the fact that some people understand heavy metal and Jackson Pollock (or much of Bach for that matter,) and this curious tendency they have must be due to them seeing a pattern that eludes certain other connoisseurs of the arts, and further, that since there does seem to be such a thing as ‘taste’ in these matters, the perceiver’s mind clearly has a role to play in the ultimate value of art work, but I will return to this in a minute.

Before going further, it is important to point out that I take the terms rhythm and pattern to be nearly synonymous for the purpose of this essay; and, though not strictly, I use the word pattern in reference to visual art, and rhythm for video and audio. Poetry often can be described by both rhythm and pattern, such as in the poem Siesta of a Hungarian Snake by Edwin Morgan:

s sz sz SZ sz SZ sz ZS zs Zs zs zs z

The word rhythm refers to movement over time. Patterns are commonly understood as temporal or spatial repetition or periodicity. The word pattern doesn’t necessarily encompass any reference to time, but perception of a pattern cannot really exist unless it is over time, as can nothing that we know of, other than, possibly, the seed of the Big Bang event, if indeed there is such a thing – or was. Nevermind about time, though, it is too little understood to be of any use here. All that a study of rhythm requires is the notion of time as a linear progression in which one thing leads to the next, and in which repetitive elements can be laid to form patterns.

Patterns then, though they imply repetition, might appear not to have any, but it would probably be of more use to this study if we were to admit of degrees of repetition or periodicity, and therefore classify something that doesn’t seem to have a discernible pattern as being perceived as less rhythmic than something that does.

So far it is clear that patterns could be made of visual or auditory elements. There is no reason, though, to conclude that they are limited to these two senses and that they exclude touch, taste and smell. This generalization could seem to you as taking things a shade too far, but consider the notion of arhythmic sex, or clumsy sex; tomato ketchup with blue cheese, and so forth.


Hence, any observable change occurring over time would constitute a pattern. And, it is not unreasonable to suppose that ideas too form patterns. Thomas Kuhn, when he realized that the history of scientific investigation was marked by periodic paradigm shifts in fundamental ‘facts’, was arranging ideas along time, or in a progression. I will thus generalize further: any observed change occurring over time is in a pattern that includes (at one end if you will,) an observer. This is not to say that objects do not bear any pattern by themselves; because they do; only it is different from what it is perceived to be.

I mentioned earlier that patterns bind the individual elements of a work of art together. Each element makes a reference to what already exists, such that there is self-reference within the work. A very simple example of this you might have seen in a Bob Marley poster made of millions of little-little Bob Marleys. The graphic designer builds the poster of different Bob Marley pictures – in some Bob Marley stands, in some, he sings, lies, sits and so on, and then the designer gives the image a colour wash to obtain an overall picture of Bob Marley.

Both music and poetry have self-referencing forms, such as canons and pantoums. Three Blind Mice and Pachelbel’s Canon in D are simple canons. If you hum them you will notice the repetition – a loop leads to another like it, which leads to one that is slightly different and so forth until finally the complete loop sort of returns to a note that is similar to the beginning. A pantoum is quite like that: each stanza refers to the one preceding it, and the end refers to the start, thus making a full circle.

In these forms, it seems the starting point is of great significance. It establishes what comes after, and in the case of complex canons such as Bach’s Fugues, where the artist introduces a high degree of variety, all sorts of complicated sub-loops result, which need to be roped-in to the simpler underlying form. Similarly, while writing poetry, often the first line unfolds the rest of the poem, much faster than is possible for the poet to pick and choose from his repertoire of words. Thus it is said that man with his language haunted Jibrael’s tongue, that is, people who hear Jibrael speak God’s word, are actually only hearing themselves. It also means that God made Man so great that He made him greater than Himself – another bit of recursion.

That poems and tunes can be composed without the slightest deliberation means that there is such a thing as a ‘seed of a poem’ – an idea that refers to the essence of things. Why has a sketch the ability to range from being entirely wooden to strongly evocative? And how is it that the simplest sketch can be more telling than a highly detailed drawing (or even photograph) of the same subject? What makes two-year-olds draw portraits of their parents that anyone can recognize though you couldn’t see a resemblance in any one feature the child has drawn?

The Illusion of Life

Art that engages people relates to their minds; and the stronger this bond, the more engaging it is. A writer, wishing to capture a feeling that is common among many humans (such as love or embarrassment,) would have to portray that feeling in many dimensions if it is to be appreciated at all universally. One way of doing this would be to describe as many aspects of the feeling as possible; another is to capture its essence. If I wanted to evoke in someone (anyone) from the Gangetic Plain in North India the feeling of Monsoon, I could describe the clouds, the mangoes, winds, slush, spray… or I could describe the smell of when it rains after a long time. (In this particular case I won’t have to describe the smell, but can just mention it for as much effect because this is an overused concept that people by and large are familiar with.)

The essence of a thing captures a strongly characteristic aspect of it – something that describes it, yet differentiates it from similar things. Thus, Charles Reznikoff wrote:

Trees standing far off in winter

Against a polished blue sky

With boughs blown about like brown hair;


The stiff lines of the twigs

Blurred by the April buds;


Or branches crowded with leaves

And a wind turning

Their dark green light


And changed it seven years later to:



The stiff lines of the twigs

Blurred by buds

Have you seen yourself in a mirror that faces another? When you do, you quickly compute that since M1 reflects your face and M2 reflects M1, which reflects your face, and M2 is reflected by M1, reflecting M2 reflecting M1 reflecting your face, reflected by M2…you are looking at infinitely many reflections of yourself. You aren’t actually looking at all those images, or certainly not registering them all, but merely registering the essence of that infinity. That is to say you know the whole picture (as closely as it is possible to know it,) by knowing an essence of it. It is impossible to register each of those reflections because there are innumerably many, meaning that you would have to go on registering (given that things didn’t become blurry after a while,) for ever and ever, and we don’t know whether there is such a thing (as forever).

Now, if I were to ask you to pick out from this infinitude, one instant that captures you best, which would you pick?

I’d pick the real you.

When an artist creates something, he follows a process akin to what I have described; he captures a subject as an aspect or instance. Another way of thinking about this is to say that he captures its being. Van Gogh’s clouds, like a child’s sketch, look nothing like clouds do, but give a sense of how they are seen to exist in this world – how they move, how mysterious and magical they appear. A video of clouds captures the nitty-gritty (same as an elaborate visual description of a landscape does); a time-lapse video of clouds captures a wider panorama of the life of the clouds; and Van Gogh’s clouds capture what we feel when we stare at clouds for long. By referring back to us, these last clouds are more engaging than the time-lapse clouds are. Same as the scent of when it rains after a long time is a reference to how we feel when the monsoon arrives (a time that one feels more strongly about than one does about other times during the monsoon.) This is not to presume that everyone will like Van Gogh’s clouds better than the time-lapse video (though the likelihood is high,) for there could be people who have wondered how clouds look in the morning, day and night, but aren’t mystified by any other aspect of them.


For the artist, all this means one thing: that he captures more when he is able to describe (as closely as possible,) how something relates to another, rather than how it is per se. In the first instance, he infuses in his work a semblance to life far richer than in the second case. And it seems to me that he can do so if he understands (by observation, reflection and sensitivity to change,) how the world works; rather than if he is just a keen observer and manages thereby to capture a high degree of detail, but with no regard to change over time, or effect. And, someone who does have a sense of how things are in the world, will tend to make patterns, to not let his pattern go haywire, because he will feel the need to capture a pattern that describes how a thing would be in the world, or how we would think of it if it were to exist in the world.

Select Reading

Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Loop by Douglas Hofstadter, Penguin, 2000

(It is about recursion in mathematics, music and visual art, and about formal systems. This book contains the line: “…the more self-referentially rich such a loop is, the more conscious is the self to which it gives rise.”)

Time by Bradley H. Dowden, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Tense by Bernard Comrie, Cambridge University Press, 1985 (About time and infinity.)

Rhetoric by Aristotle

Essays in the Art of Writing by R.L. Stevenson

The Writing of the Short Story by L.W. Smith

(These books are free of copyright and are available freely on the internet. They talk of relations specifically with respect to the creation of characters.)

The Art of Color and Design by Maitland Graves, McGraw-Hill, 1941 (About rhythm in fine art.)

The Sound of Poetry, the Poetry of Sound, edited by Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin, University of Chicago Press, 2009 (Describes rhythm in poetry as a conceptual phenomenon rather than in terms of prosody.)

The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, W.W. Norton, 1997

A Course in Phonology by Iggy Roca and Wyn Johnson, Blackwell Publishing, 1999

A Course in Phonetics by Peter Ladefoged, Thomson Learning, 2001

Oral Tradition of Sanskrit, a presentation by Uma Swaminathan and S. Swaminathan, http://www.powershow.com/view/2ab9b4-MmQ5N/Oral_Tradition_of_Sanskrit_flash_ppt_presentation

Comparison of Rhythmic Processing in Language and Music: An Interdisciplinary Approach, a study by Cyrille Magne et al, http://www.lma.cnrs-mrs.fr/~kronland/JMM/Rhythm.pdf

(These publications helped me understand prosody, and ground my view that there is such a thing as the rhythm of a language or the rhythm of a musical school.)

The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, Walt Disney Productions, 1981 (Lent to me a title and many more ideas about motion and life, besides.)

Note: Given that we cannot observe a thing in all its multiplicity and must draw out a system of rhythm from it that we feel best describes it, I do realize that this essay is but a viewpoint from among many that could be.


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