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The Rhythm of Thought

Art, Literature, and Music after Merleau-Ponty

Between present and past, visible and invisible, and sensation and idea, there is resonance—so philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued and so Jessica Wiskus explores in The Rhythm of Thought. Holding the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, the paintings of Paul Cézanne, the prose of Marcel Proust, and the music of Claude Debussy under Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological light, she offers innovative interpretations of some of these artists’ masterworks, in turn articulating a new perspective on Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy.
More than merely recovering Merleau-Ponty’s thought, Wiskus thinks according to it. First examining these artists in relation to noncoincidence—as silence in poetry, depth in painting, memory in literature, and rhythm in music—she moves through an array of their artworks toward some of Merleau-Ponty’s most exciting themes: our bodily relationship to the world and the dynamic process of expression. She closes with an examination of synesthesia as an intertwining of internal and external realms and a call, finally, for philosophical inquiry as a mode of artistic expression. Structured like a piece of music itself, The Rhythm of Thought offers new contexts in which to approach art, philosophy, and the resonance between them.

184 pages | 4 halftones, 20 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Art: Art--General Studies

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Music: General Music

Philosophy: Aesthetics, General Philosophy


“Wiskus sets forth stimulating ideas with considerable attraction for readers.”

M. Dineen | Choice

The Rhythm of Thought is an engrossing book. Wiskus’s philosophical acumen and depth of insight into the artworks under review is impressive. She maintains a balance that confounds many philosophers, neither treating art as fixed object for definition and description, nor as mere means to a philosophical end. As Merleau-Ponty describes the experience of viewing a painting: ‘rather than seeing it, I see according to, or with it.’ Wiskus manages to see, hear, and read according to and with the works she richly engages, and readers would do well to approach her book in the same manner.”


“In this pioneering and original study, Jessica Wiskus shows how Merleau-Ponty leads philosophy to a creative threshold—the place where thought and music merge. Bringing the work of Debussy into conversation with that of other modernist artists like Cézanne, Proust, and Mallarmé, she brilliantly investigates artistic notions often ignored in traditional philosophy: mythical time, musical depth, and the dynamic expressions of transcendence. The style of the writing is as innovative as the content, unfolding through rhythmical layers that mime the musical forms it is sounding. A captivating experiment in thought and expression.”

Richard Kearney, Boston College

“There is no other book that studies Merleau-Ponty’s late writings in relation to this assemblage of figures and ideas and no other book that engages so deeply his late writings with musical ideas. By placing these lesser-known writings into dialogue with Mallarmé, Proust, Cézanne, and Debussy, Jessica Wiskus offers a ‘new’ Merleau-Ponty bristling with crisp, fresh insights. The effect is powerful, even dazzling.”

Galen Johnson, University of Rhode Island

“In The Rhythm of Thought, Jessica Wiskus presents a reading of Merleau-Ponty’s late writing and his engagement with art, literature, and music. Many people have already written about this, but Wiskus, better than anyone else, really draws out the philosophical importance: the development of a philosophical ‘operative language,’ one that expresses rather than represents. Her structure is very interesting. There is a sort of rhythm to the book itself. Each chapter presents not only an interesting reading of Merleau-Ponty, but also—and this is more impressive—an interesting reading of each artist. It is truly an impressive book.”

Leonard Lawlor, Pennsylvania State University

“Jessica Wiskus’s The Rhythm of Thought takes on an extraordinary journey through the art works and music which inspired Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. Wiskus draws on her expert knowledge of music and painting to comment in illuminating detail on Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetic sensibility, a sensibility that informed his overall vision of the world. This is a remarkable, highly original, fascinating, and deeply thoughtful book, a ‘must’ for anyone who wants to understand one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century.”

Dermot Moran, University College Dublin

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations

1   Mallarmé and a Proffer of Silence
2   Cézanne: Depth in the World
3   Proust through the Fold of Memory
4   Debussy: Silence and Resonance
5   Cézanne and the Institution of Style
6   Proust: In Search of the True Albertine
7   Harmony and the Movement of Style in Debussy
8   On the Musical Idea of Proust
9   Debussy: The Form That Has Arrived at Itself
10 Synesthesia, Recollection, Resurrection


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