Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/April 1879/The Monstrous in Art

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MANY persons of culture and poetic imagination, with a keen sense of the beautiful, but with little knowledge of living nature, believe and maintain, and in one sense justly, that certain works of old and modern masters are works of high art, from color, grouping, elegance of figures, and the various accessories which, in themselves, or by ideas and emotions excited by them, make painting and sculpture very powerful agents in instructing and elevating kind. According to a recent definition of art, that of Mr. Benjamin, "Art may be said, in a general way, to spring from the poetic yearnings and emotions suggested by aspirations after the true, the good, and the beautiful. . . . the material means for expressing such feelings appealing to the imagination through the eye by the use of external forms." The highest art, according to this definition, must include the good, the true, and the beautiful; the physically beautiful, or the beautiful and the good, is not the aim of the highest art; the true must be added for a work that shall rank as such for all time.

A painting or a statue may be beautiful, as interpreting the emotions or religious beliefs of man at any particular epoch of bis history; but, if the ideas symbolized or suggested become untrue or unbeliefs, they thereby lose in artistic value, and no longer belong to the domain of the highest art. Nothing that is simply temporary, no mere conventionalism, however beautiful at the time, which becomes unnatural or impossible as man advances in knowledge, can, in my opinion, belong to the highest art.

Any one who discusses the principles of art from the point of view of the true, without reference to the beautiful, labors under great disadvantages, arising chiefly from the intimate connection between art and religion. Most of the best works of the old and modern masters, in painting especially, embody the theologic beliefs of the period, and suggest ideas of spiritual, not of physical truth. As there is evolution in nature and in theology, let us hope there is also evolution in art; we can not stand still in any matters of knowledge, for, if we go not forward, we practically go backward, as all the interests of humanity will leave us behind.

The faith in spiritual truths which artists embody by symbols, without being of necessity weakened, will be modified by knowledge, and thus render forms once suggestive of beauty and goodness now untrue and monstrous. I know that the old objection will be urged that, though scientific truths rest upon reason, there are spiritual truths incapable of demonstration, emotions above and beyond reason. Even educated persons have very indefinite and very different ideas on the nature of the mental evidence arising from religious aspirations, and the wish is very apt to be "father to the thought" in symbolic representations of supernatural attributes and powers.

There may be no contradiction in the belief in the existence of spiritual beings far above us in power, and that such may even communicate with mankind in various ways; but, if they assume to the eye the shape and functions of humanity, they should be made to conform to the laws of human anatomy and physiology.

Those who are easily and strongly moved by these spiritual emotions will not listen to reason, which they maintain has nothing to do in the premises. Let such cling to their spiritual truths, and to the artistic representations which embody and suggest them, and regard them as high art if they please; but, at the same time, let the truth as it is in nature and reason have a chance to appear in the field of art. If Theology and Art are sisters (and they are in one sense), let them be twin sisters, walking hand in hand, with the stamp of truth, as we know it, in every line, word, and feature, irrespective of any pious frauds or false rules of art bequeathed to us by past ages. Spiritual truth ought to be reënforced by scientific truth, and art as well as religion will be the gainer.

I know very well that I am treading here on debatable ground, and that those who follow, or think they follow, the ideal in art, will rise as a host against me. My object here is to show that art has too much neglected the laws of living animal nature; that mythology has been followed rather than zoölogy, where attention to the latter would have been just as good for all the purposes of art, and far better for the interest of truth. In one sense, the ideal is the ultimate aim of art, if by that is meant that it shall suggest true ideas, and excite emotions which shall educate and elevate; but not, if by the ideal we signify the merely imaginary, fanciful, unnatural, and impossible, however beautiful such creations may be.

Even admitting that a work of high art by the old masters may include the impossible, the unnatural, as symbolic, if judged by the knowledge of the times and the motives of the artist, that is no reason for advocating similar errors in the nineteenth century. It seems to me that the symbolic in art bears a relation to the natural and the true, similar to that which the hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptians do to the written languages of the moderns—the one indefinite, suggestive, but variously interpreted, local, and temporary; the other defifinite, positive, universal, and for all time unmistakable—and that we might as well go back centuries and adopt the hieroglyphic as the simply symbolic without reference to its truth in art. Symbolism is the visible expression of a myth, possessing a variable amount of truth and a large amount of error; both are characteristic, in the progress of civilization, of the lower phases of development.

I speak of art from the natural, not the imaginative point of view, and my arguments are addressed chiefly to such as have a fair knowledge of anatomy, physiology, zoölogy (living and fossil), and the laws of development in the animal kingdom. As, however, many deeply interested in the progress of art have very little acquaintance with living nature, it will be necessary for me to enter into some details, tiresome perhaps for the scientific expert, but important for the popular understanding of my argument.

While I do not deny the artistic value of the imaginative, symbolic, and ideal, I maintain that such, at the present time, if contrary to nature, is not the highest art, is not necessary for the expression of the most ennobling ideas, and is not demanded by the most exalted aspirations of humanity.

The Greeks and Romans, whose principles of art the moderns have chiefly imitated, personified certain ideas of their social state, deified and worshiped them. As a general rule, they found in nature the types which they idealized; in some cases, from ignorance, superstition, or love of the marvelous, they departed from nature, and to that extent, in my judgment, their art was false. Art, as I understand it, should be the interpreter of nature, without too servile an imitation; art may transfigure nature, but should never be false to it; unnatural and, I may add (as far as knowledge is concerned), supernatural art is monstrosity.

By monstrosity (which is here used in its scientific, not its popular sense) I mean nothing ugly, misshapen, gigantic, or dwarfish, or with any congenital anomalies of conformation, rendering impossible the accomplishment of the ordinary functions of life, but the union of parts incompatible with each other, and impossible when brought to the test of reason and natural laws, however beautiful or suggestive they may be, and however consecrated by unquestioning ages of social, religious, and æsthetic acceptance. It is true, as Goethe has well said, that "it is in her monstrosities that Nature reveals to us her secrets," which we now know are but the expressions of natural laws; I hope to show that in the monsters of art she only reveals to us her weakness.

To illustrate my meaning by a few examples: The ancients, when they represented Saturn as Chronos or Time, the father of the gods, as an old man devouring his children (hours and days and years), armed with a scythe by which he cut down the generations of man, conceived a beautiful, expressive, and natural idea; but when they put upon him a pair of wings, to indicate the velocity of his flight, he became a monster, for the reason that arms and wings and legs are incompatible, and can not exist in nature, as we know the vertebrate skeleton. Six pairs of limbs are conceivable with the vertebrate skeleton, but wings without bones to support or muscles to move them are not conceivable.

Among other winged and impossible monsters created by ancient art, expressing long-cherished ideas, is Cupid or Love—though if would be an anatomical impossibility to move said wings; he must drop either his arms, with the bow and arrows, or his wings. So Mors or Death, represented by a skeleton, has enormous wings, with not a muscle to move either bone or pinion; Morpheus the minister of Somnus or Sleep, Psyche the Soul, and Zephyr the West Wind, have the wings of a butterfly—a mixture of vertebrate and invertebrate characters entirely incompatible.

The wonderful adaptation of the human skeleton to its uses—the contour of the spine, which renders erect position and biped locomotion possible in him alone of mammals; the lower limbs for locomotion only; the upper limbs for prehension, and the service of the senses resident in the head—all these imply a certain bony structure and corresponding muscular developments. If you add another pair of limbs as wings, you make an anatomical nondescript, an impossible monster, devoid of truth, false to nature, odious to the highest art.

The smooth, comparatively hairless skin of man, angel, or devil, is incompatible with the feathers of a bird's wings; his bony tissue has not the air-spaces, nor does it communicate with the lungs, as in the bird, which is thus rendered specifically lighter. His thorax or chest is too movable for the support of muscles of flight, even if angels were made armless and winged; his breastbone is smooth, not keeled as in birds; so that flying angels must of necessity be deformed and pigeon breasted if they had muscles of flight. The biped attitude of the bird requires a change of posture, an horizontality, to get the center of gravity between the shoulders for flight, which would render man a ridiculous figure. As far as we know locomotion in the animal kingdom, the wings and the legs are not moved at the same time in progression in the air; it is seen only in some birds with very rudimentary or short wings, who use their wings to help them in running on the ground, which is not the ideal of the artist's angel. The ideal, or that which suggests the idea of a heavenly messenger, need not be false to nature; an angel without wings is just as ideal and suggestive, and not an anatomical impossibility. That the form of an angel need not of necessity have wings is shown by a painting in the museum at Naples of the "Holy Family," attributed to an artist of the Florentine school, in every respect admirable, and usually called the "Virgin of Purity." The angels have no wings, and carry lilies in their hands; wings would have added nothing to the picture, which is remarkable for its natural beauty.

It seems to me that an angel without wings, floating upon surrounding clouds (like the "hours" in Guide's "Aurora"), is a much higher symbol of a supernatural messenger than the conventional winged one; it indicates a spirit, an ethereal substance, a mere outline figure suggestive of motion; but if you add the unnatural and impossible wings to the arms, you make a monster in human form, defy the process of reasoning, rob the image of its spirituality, and degrade it to a coarse and earthy symbol, inconsistent with the idea it is intended to convey.

I will allude to a few other monstrosities in ancient art, copied by the moderns, to further illustrate my meaning.

It was natural that a barbarous people, at the first and distant view of men on horseback, should imagine that they were creatures half man and half horse; hence the fabled Centaurs, a people of Thessaly, who were among the earliest to bring the horse into the service of man. As is well known, the Centaurs had the head, arms, chest, and body of a man as far as the hips, joined to the chest, body, and four limbs of the horse. Though a Centaur at rest is a noble figure, symbolic of strength, swiftness, intelligence, and protection of man by the Olympian gods, the position which the creature was supposed to assume in his contact with man, as shown in many mural tablets found at Pompeii, and now in the museum at Naples, is ridiculous and impossible.

Just imagine, if you can, the condition and position of the organs in this case. Let it be all right to the point where the horse joins the man; the excretions of the man, with his mass of intestines and other organs of digestion and secretion, must pass through the chest of the horse, filled with this creature's lungs and heart and great blood-vessels, involving another set of digestive and excretory organs, another form of skeleton, with the muscles, limbs, and skin of the horse. The man must eat for the horse, as his is the only mouth, which would necessitate a diet repugnant even to the most fanatic vegetarian. We naturally inquire if he must also breathe for the horse; there must be double lungs, double heart, double stomach, double intestines, double body, six limbs, long tail, hoofs and hands—a monster considerably worse than the single-bodied but six-limbed art-angels above alluded to. If we accept Hercules and Achilles, we can not accept the Centaur Chiron, their instructor.

Among other monsters created by the ancients and adopted by the moderns is Pan, the chief of the rural deities, with his attendant Fauns and Satyrs, having the head, arms, and body of a man, and the hairy lower limbs and hoofs of a goat. How they managed to walk erect on such feet, and preserve their center of gravity where it ought to be, to say nothing of the incompatibility of the human pelvis and the hircine legs in bones and muscles, is a puzzle for the physiologist. The fact that the theologic devil is usually represented very much like the god Pan, with all his inconsistencies and impossibilities, shows at once the origin and the absurdity of the idea; to his extreme ugliness, exciting a panic fear, is doubtless due the selection of his figure to represent the theologic spirit of evil, upon whose existence and domain many a spiritual panic has rested.

Neptune, the god of the seas, was represented in an immense shell drawn by impossible sea-horses, and surrounded by equally impossible Tritons, half man and half dolphin, and Nereids, half woman and half fish.

There is a large class of ancient artistic conceptions, freely copied by the moderns, not anatomically monstrous, but physically and physiologically impossible—such as Atlas supporting the globe on his shoulders; caryatides, female figures used by architects to support roofs and heavy weights; and other similar conceptions, painful to look at if we apply the tests of reason and common sense. I would say here that, in mere ornamentation, conventional representations suggestive of the intended image may be legitimately and artistically used with good effect; but if they are contrary to nature, whether on a candlestick or a church tower, they must belong to the lower spheres of art; and no metaphysical subtilty, no assumption of æsthetic culture, no aspirations after an imaginary and impossible ideal, ought, in this nineteenth century, to raise them to the highest position in art.

As the so-called ideals of the ancients must have had some things in nature to suggest them, it may be well to examine, in the light of the present day, for their justification, but not for ours (who have copied them and ought to have known better), what they really had as foundation for these monstrous forms in truth, real or apparent.

The conception of the Centaurs, we have already seen, is easily explained by the appearance of a man on horseback. Workers in metals, exposed to the intense heat and glare of their fires, would naturally protect their faces by masks of wood or leather, as makers of plate glass, for example, do now, looking out through a single median hole—hence the fabulous Cyclops. The Satyrs were evidently derived from some of the large anthropoid apes, which must have been known to primeval man.

The above-mentioned monsters, and many others which admit of a natural explanation, did not originate with the Greeks; they obtained them from the Egyptians, and these from antecedent races long before the historic period. The existence of man with the mammoth, mastodon, Irish elk, cave bear and lion, among quadrupeds—with the dodo, dinornis, and epiornis, among birds—suggests that perhaps he may have lived with the pterodactyl and serpent-like marine lizards, or their modified descendants, in the Tertiary or a more remote epoch. The mastodon, or the mammoth (either), might easily have been made into the Minotaur killed by Theseus; the Nemean lion slain by Hercules may well have been the Felis spelæa of the bone-caves; the rhinoceros would make an excellent foundation for the unicorn; the cuttle-fishes of the Mediterranean, with their eight or ten arms, moving independently, and armed with terrible suckers, would readily suggest the many-headed hydra, also killed by Hercules.

The Sirens, and other marine creatures of human likeness, are the natural outgrowths of the imagination of sailors returning from long voyages, without the sight of a woman for months or years. Seeing manatees and seals reclining on the shores, holding their young in their arms while suckling them, like all mammals, the semi-human faces, the womanly position, and the tender care and anxiety for their young in this act—their hearts would be filled with such joy at thoughts of home, and their eyes with tears long pent up, that the combination of indistinct vision and excited imagination would transform the creatures they saw into the beautiful women they longed to see.

At Stabiæ have been found mural tablets representing Nereids, or horses with the tail of a fish, evidently suggested by the little sea-horse (hippocampus) of the Mediterranean; in some the head of the horse is replaced by the head of a tiger—not a very abrupt transition.

The fauna of the Tertiary age from the Miocene down, which there is some reason to believe passed before the eyes of primeval man, would afford ample material for gorgons, dragons, sylphs, and satyrs, leviathan and behemoth, and the whole list of ancient and modern fabulous monsters. The birds with teeth, and the winged lizard of the Secondary age (the pterodactyl), known very well by its fossil remains, if clothed with flesh and provided with limbs and wings, would make a creature in some respects like the dragon of fairy tales.

The mythical gigantic kraken of the northern seas has a legitimate descendant, and is simply an exaggerated type of the giant architeuthis of the coast of Newfoundland, of which a specimen has recently been exhibited in this city.

The "roc" of Sindbad the Sailor was not much larger than the epiornis of Madagascar and the dinornis of New Zealand, more than twice the size of the ostrich. The Eastern imagination, on the basis of these great birds actually coexisting with man, would naturally put on the wings which birds of this type did not possess, and then the transportation of a man into the "Valley of Diamonds" would be quite possible.

These forms could hardly have been imagined by barbarous man; they must have had their prototypes in nature: they are, therefore, not ideal forms, but, in a zoölogical sense, real forms.

An artist may be ignorant of history, chronology, and zoölogy, as well as of anatomy and physiology, and may be a perfect child in bis knowledge of common things beyond his immediate every-day sight. Even Raphael, Albert Dürer, Salvator Rosa, Vandyke, Paul Veronese, Poussin, and many others, have greatly erred in these respects. Instances might easily be mentioned, but I will merely allude to them to show that art has not always been true to nature and fact, and to say that we are not only at liberty, but in duty bound, to protest against all untruthfulness, whether it offend the eye or the reason.

Let me not be understood as pretending to say that there is no art or beauty in purely fanciful creations in painting or sculpture. There is a place, and a genuine one, for the allegorical, the symbolic, the mysterious, the unreal, if you will, in art; but such art, from the very fact of its unreality, untruthfulness, and impossibility, is, I maintain, a lower type than that which is strictly natural and true. Wings of angels, as messengers of glad tidings or guardian spirits, are, as fanciful creations, beautiful, though untrue; winged heads, as suggesting the swiftness of thought and intelligence, are acceptable as symbolic, though impossible: but all such creations should take a subordinate position in art, and in proportion as the symbolism departs from the true, the known, and the conceivable. We must not confound the results of the imagination, which exaggerates possible parts seen, or supposed to be seen, in nature, with the wholly unreal products of the fancy; we may admit their beauty, but, however definite and pleasing their outlines, if their combinations, when tested by reason, are impossible, they must be regarded as lower than the natural. They may answer for gas-fixtures, monuments, memorial windows, and various articles of household decoration, but not for anything demanding admiration and following as a work of high art.

Let me now bring to your remembrance a few celebrated works of acknowledged art, to show my meaning more clearly, and to give direction to the criticisms which I wish to make.

The Sistine Madonna of Raphael is without doubt the best and most admired representation of "motherhood" in the whole range of art. I think the experience of most persons who have seen it, even in engravings or photographs, will justify the assertion that they are so carried away by the beauty and grace of the mother and child, that they do not at first see the host of surrounding angelic heads, nor the two "cherubs" at the bottom of the picture. I allude here only to the latter, which, in my opinion, detract from the grand effect, and introduce a disturbing and inferior element which had better been left out. The expression of their faces is innocent, angelic, if you please; the attitudes are graceful, natural, and childlike; nevertheless, they are unnecessary, impossible creatures, and are, if anything, six-limbed or hexapod vertebrates, when, as naturally formed children, they would have been just as symbolic, though quite as insignificant and useless. Though their parts, separately, exist in nature, as a combination they are impossible, and therefore, except as misplaced symbols, not artistic.

In this connection I would remark that, in my opinion, man has never imagined, and can never imagine, any symbolic form in art or poetry not suggested by his surroundings; there are ugly things enough and beautiful things enough in nature to suggest any forms represented by art; but a compound of man and bird or beast or insect could never be suggested as a whole, without a previous knowledge of the parts.

It is not a very great step from the Aphrodite and Eros of the early Greeks (not the sensual Venus and Cupid of the later Greeks and the Romans), by which they represented all that was tender and lovable in woman, to the Virgin and Child. The step is still less from Cybele or Rhea, the wife of Saturn and the mother of Jupiter or Jove, whose name was in Greek Theotokos, in Latin Deipara, meaning the "mother of God"; Jove, the king of the gods, suggests in name as well as attributes the Hebrew Jehovah. The Madonna, it seems to me, is simply an evolution from pagan mythology to Christian art.

In some old religious paintings angels are represented as winged heads, without body or limbs. Now, these artists painted better than they knew; for, according to the acknowledged principles of philosophical and comparative anatomy, the anterior limbs, whether arms, wings, legs, or fins, are appendages to the occipital or posterior vertebra of the skull; in the fish, in fact, the pectoral fins, the anterior limbs, are attached by bony connection to the back part of the skull. But, though winged heads are anatomically legitimate, physiologically we can not understand the action or the origin of any muscles sufficiently powerful to move the head, to say nothing of the other incongruities, especially of the union of human hair, face, and skin with the feathers of a bird. As pure symbols these are acceptable for the infancy of the human race, but are not therefore to be perpetuated by the moderns. Mother Goose is well enough for the child, but distasteful and absurd for the man, even though under its symbolic language much truth be hidden.

In modern art, the "Night" and "Day" by Thorwaldsen, so well known and so much admired, are similar specimens of the "Monstrous in Art"; the symbolic beauty of the work is such that we do not notice the untruth and the impossibility of the wings. The "Theseus slaying the Centaur," by Canova, displays another form of six-limbed monster, whose impossibility is evident after what has been said above, without the excuse of symbolism. In all our large cities we find symbolic paintings of an "angel overcoming Lucifer," in which are seen the same feathery pinions, widely spread and in violent action, with no possible means for their support or movement.

Here, as in many paintings and statues which will readily be brought to mind, as in the wall decorations at Pompeii, the "Victories," etc., we see a pretense of motion more or less active, and a possible use for wings could they exist. But what shall be said of the large and conspicuous tablets at the corners of the "Museum of Fine Arts" in Boston, in one of which the central and principal figure, styled the "Genius of Art," and so indicated by letters, is one of these impossible winged monsters?

The idea, however, is not original, but is an imitation of ancient art, in which a genius or tutelar god of man or his industries is usually represented with wings as well as arms.

In the above-mentioned tablet we see a nude figure, seated comfortably upon a chair, presumably quiet, with outstretched arms welcoming the nations who are bringing their representative works as offerings at the shrine of art; and yet this "Genius of Art," not content with arms and legs, at rest, has immense outstretched wings, indicative, if of anything, of active motion—anatomically, an impossible six-limbed creature; physiologically, an absurdity, implying the contradictory states of rest and motion at the same time; and, therefore, artistically, an unnatural, nondescript monster. A similar tablet is upon the other corner, if possible, more ridiculous than the first; the genius of art has found a winged brother monster, called "Industry." The two, each with wings and arms, are quietly seated, with wings widely stretched—we see in this the same anatomical impossibility, the same physiological absurdity, the same degradation of symbolism. As man is never intentionally absurd, let us attribute these and similar monstrosities to ignorance of nature's laws. If this be art, there is no gulf of absurdity too wide for symbolism to clear at a single bound.

Other winged angelic hexapods may be seen at each corner of the tower of the church on Commonwealth Avenue, with trumpets at their mouths; it is difficult to see how the wings in this case add anything but the ludicrous.

No permanence of embryonic conditions—no excess of growth, no union of parts of more than one individual—can explain or justify these and similar monsters; and surely no rules of art can demand the continued perpetration of such absurdities, in painting or sculpture, even as symbols.

In my opinion, then, there can be no high art, as there is no truth and no real significance, in external forms unknown to anatomy and physiology; truth in art must not be divorced from truth in science, nor the truly beautiful from nature. The exterior should translate, as it were, the interior; and, whether we study the human or the animal figure, from the point of view of surgery, art, or philosophical anatomy, the natural type, the laws of structure and growth, the correlation and the organic harmony of parts, should in every case lie at the foundation. The idealism of ancient art is, I believe, a pretense of the moderns; their ideal is the real, magnified by the imagination. The modern ideal of much that is considered high art is too often the impossible, the absurd, the monstrous, the incomprehensible.

The conscientious and real artist, though he may be ignorant of, despises not anatomy; it is only the superficial and the conceited who fancy that it is a laudable and independent spirit which allows imagination, under the pretense of symbolism, unguided by knowledge, to dictate the rules of art. Albert Dürer, Leonardo da Vinci, Jean Cousin, were well versed in anatomy; it would have been better had the genius and imagination of Raphael and other great artists been tempered by an accurate knowledge of the real.

Herbert Spencer says, "Only when genius is married to science can the highest results be achieved"; to which Mr. Benjamin adds, in his essay already quoted, "But such science should be the intense study of nature even more than of art."

In our day, when reason is supreme, the thinking world can not be made to believe that progress means evil, even though it modify ideas of things once considered sacred and beyond reason; and any belief, practice, sentiment, or influence, which can not bear the light of reason, and hence can not be said to be founded on truth, deserves to be removed as a bar to human progress.

It has been said, and no doubt truly, that as knowledge increases, the imagination decreases; in such an event our ideal will soon become the real, without exaggeration, and nature and art will no longer be divorced, even in appearance. Increasing intelligence is the great and never-ceasing iconoclast which breaks to pieces the images created by imperfect knowledge of facts.

This is about the sum of the arguments in favor of symbols, once suggestive of the good and the sacred, but since proved to be fallacious and founded on error, namely, that those who originated and used them for purposes of good believed them to be true and beautiful, and therefore that for all time, or at the present time, they are worthy of imitation and belong in the realm of high art.

Must we, then, give up our saints, angels, and devils, and other venerable, beautiful, and ugly monsters in art, so endeared by childish memories and fears? United to and supported by ignorance and blind belief, they stood as truths in the infancy of the race; separated from these, and subjected to the light of reason and knowledge, they fall from our acceptance as beliefs, and from the highest sphere of art, where nature and truth should henceforth be the grand aims of the artist.

Should any object that following strictly the laws of nature will have a tendency to lower the aspirations of the artist, we may refer to a sister science in defense of our position. The signs of the times have convinced many a timid but reasoning soul that fidelity to truth and nature can never injure religion, however much it may shatter ideal theologies; nor in art can it injure anything but the false and the temporary—the grand underlying principles resting on the basis of eternal truth. Are we not justified, then, in saying, "The essentially beautiful must be in nature; it can not be beyond it, above it, nor below it; the merely ideal in inform can have no real existence in the mind of man"?