He strikes a pose, but his thoughts elude us

September 29, 2006

The Thinker - Rodin
Royal Academy of Arts, London.
Until January 1, 2007

Thought doesn't draw attention to itself. It is usually about something else. We cannot even see thinking taking place. Philosophers will tell you that it goes on silently and invisibly in the mind. But folk know better. "What were you thinking of just now?" someone might ask when they see another lost in thought. Not surprising, then, that Auguste Rodin should have chosen to portray the activity through the bodily posture of The Thinker .

But did he? The small hunched, but graceful, bronze was originally known as The Poet . Part of a larger work, The Gates of Hell , it was commissioned for a museum the city of Paris never built. In its intended setting, above the fray, the resigned figure, representing Dante, Hugo, Baudelaire and even Rodin himself, would have gazed down mournfully at the doomed souls below. Not surprising, then, people should find the now liberated figure brooding and melancholy.

With its independent existence, it took its new name, The Thinker , and was frequently copied - embarrassingly so, in the case of George Bernard Shaw, who allowed himself to be photographed naked striking the familiar pose.

Rodin was persuaded to recast the figure, larger than life, in plaster. In the process, it lost its grace and took on hulking, muscular proportions.

It is this massive, gloomy figure that people think of when contemplating Rodin's contemplative poet. Artists and writers such as Shaw were flattered by the representation of their kind as a powerful and muscular thinker. But it was the genuinely muscular Rodin who benefited most from the comparison with thinkers and writers: a case of mutual flattery, perhaps.

Nowadays, intellectuals are likely to be tormented by a public who mock their idle musings by copying the pretentious pose of deep thinking. Yet, strangely, the tormentors usually fail to copy the gesture correctly: placing the knuckles on their foreheads, not as Rodin did, against the chin. The image, it seems, has taken on a life of its own. Not surprising, perhaps, because the posture is already a strange one. The elbow of the arm supporting the chin is on the opposite knee behind the other draped hand: an uncomfortable position, as you'll find out if you try it. How natural a posture is this for thinking? Besides, the figure is naked except for a cap (a thinking cap?). Yet it has come to be a near universal symbol for thinking, almost as recognisable as the flourish of the hand by which one signals to the waiter for the bill in a restaurant.

The figure of The Thinker retains its hold on the popular imagination, yet no one wonders what he is thinking in the way they wonder what makes the Mona Lisa smile. Perhaps that's because, in the final analysis, we simply cannot portray thoughts - the products of thinking - by bodily postures.

Unless we speak or write down our thoughts, they remain private to the thinker. Thus the public are right to treat this outward attitude as just a case of going through the motions. The image we are left with from this twice-removed figure is not a deep reflection on human existence, not a vision from the poet: in the end, it is just a pose.

Barry Smith is a senior lecturer in the School of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, and deputy director of the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London, School of Advanced Study.

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