My favorite piece of art is an oil on canvas painted by the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte. After working as a commercial artist for a number of years, he painted a picture of a large wooden pipe, and underneath wrote “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, or literally “This is not a pipe”. To tie it all together, he titled the painting The Treachery Of Images, to remind us of the dangers that images can pose.
Years later, when he was questioned about the image, he replied firmly that what he wrote was correct; it was not a pipe, it was a representation of a pipe. You couldn’t put tobacco into it, you couldn’t light it, because it was only an image of a pipe. In fact, he went on to say “if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’ I’d have been lying!”
As a writer, it reminds me of Alfred Korzybski stating “The map is not the territory - the word is not the thing”. It’s a constant reminder that words, no matter how beautifully written, are still just representations of the actual thing. I could spend paragraphs detailing Magritte’s beautiful pipe – which is, I remind you, not a pipe – the fantastic shine of the bowl and stem, the glow of it against the golden background, the thin, almost fragile lettering underneath, and yet that description is still a pale comparison to seeing the actual picture in person.
I imagine many of us feel that way about our degrees; I can tell you about the nerves I experienced leading up to it, the scent of the room, the feeling when I was first brought to light… but none of this can live up to having been there, in that room, in my skin. Yet, in the act of describing it, I remember that night ten years ago, as if I was still there.
Neither can I put the sound of a brother’s voice in your head the way I hear it, clear as day, whenever I get up to give what I still consider to be “his” lecture. The best I can give is a representation of it, kind, loving, yet firm in his demand that I never let that lecture be read from the book or be performed without feeling.
Our symbols are like that too; while you may have some of the symbols as physical representations (doesn’t every lodge have a square and compass?), they are still just that – representations. The compass in our lodges, for instance, is generally not a compass one could actually use to circumscribe a true circle. What’s more, I’ve yet to find a lodge with an actual beehive, although I do think selling Masonic Honey sounds much more interesting than flipping pancakes.
The Treachery Of Images is a fantastic reminder of the place our symbols belong in Masonry – as mental placeholders for complex teachings and morality instruction. The symbols themselves only contain the meanings we put into them, and as such should not be deified in and of themselves.
Of course, the phrase “The word is not the thing” should bring a special meaning to the Master Mason, which I will point out for those who are inclined to ponder without expounding the substitution principle to the uninitiated.
So Adam, I hear you thinking, what’s your point? Has all of this been a rambling opportunity for you to have an excuse to write about your favorite piece of art? Yes, obviously. Perhaps I should have titled this “The Treachery Of Education” and include the disclaimer “Ce n’est pas une conference educative”.
Perhaps I could trick you into reading paragraph upon paragraph, expecting to find some hidden nugget of wisdom that I subtly snuck in but that you are starting to doubt is in there. Perhaps I already have.
Perhaps the point of all Masonic Education really shouldn’t be to teach necessarily, but to encourage you to think and discover meaning for yourself. Then again, to paraphrase Magritte, this is not a Masonic Education piece. Unless, of course, it was.