The Simile of the Wax Mass

Post #21 of my commentary on Heidegger’s anaylsis of Plato’s Theaetetus, written in the lead up to my exhibition: The Aviary

Assume then, by way of simile, that our souls contain something like a wax mass, sometimes larger, sometimes smaller, sometimes purer, sometimes more impure, sometimes harder, sometimes softer, and sometimes of just the right quality. [Everything that we immediately perceive, and also everything that we take in and comprehend, is imprinted upon it] … This wax mass, we say, is a gift of the mother of the Muses. (210)

The simile of the wax mass
Heidegger’s Interpretation

The soul contains a wax mass, into which all experiences are imprinted, its capacity to receive these impressions varies with the individual: “sometimes larger, sometimes smaller…” We can draw upon the impressions retained in this wax mass, in order to hold before ourselves that which is no longer present, or we are no longer with. We have a “connection of being” to what is absent, in the same way that an artist can “visualise and freely form their work in its entire fullness, prior to and without the help of any outline.” i.e. without a body being present. This capacity is the gift of the mother of the Muses, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, which belongs to the essence of the soul as a “primordial dowry.” (210)

Heidegger says this gift of Mnemosyne is not memory as recollection but as the faculty of mindfulness, the innate capacity of the soul to make-present that which is not physically there. In making-present that which is absent, we do not orient ourselves towards an inwardly stored image, but outwards towards the thing itself in its full appearance, which we betake ourselves to “without removing ourselves from our factual location.” (212) Since we do not have the thing itself before us from which to draw its eidos, its look, we orient ourselves to its eidolon, its look-alike [also simulacrum] retained in the wax mass inside the soul.

Thus our stance, through the soul, towards those beings retained for making-present, is that of mnemoneuein, the retaining of what is retainable, which Heidegger describes as a “faculty of the soul.” Yet what is retained is not unchanging, our relationship to it can change, we can forget, or the thing itself may change, so that our knowledge of it becomes distorted.

The making-present of the wax mass is essentially a passive having of what is retained. The simile of the aviary demonstrates a more active making-present of that which is retained.

Next post: The Simile of the Aviary          Previous post: What Lies Between

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