Showing posts with label Nietzsche. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nietzsche. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Book Review: On Moderation

On Moderation: Defending an Ancient Virtue in a Modern World
by Harry Clor. 2008.

In everything it is no easy task to find the middle. . . therefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble. –Aristotle

I have tried to imagine a reader who would not benefit from Harry Clor's On Moderation, to find someone for whom this volume is of no use. Surely this book must be redundant for the philosophically literate? No. Too esoteric for the layman? No. Too long? Certainly not, at 120 pages. On Moderation has enough of tempered sagacity to earn the trust of the old and enough challenges to common suppositions to stir the youthful. It is neither sententious nor witless, chastising nor therapeutic. It neither overwhelms with footnotes nor suffers from a lack of references. On Moderation is for everyone. Perhaps it is a banal, even hokey, compliment to say that a book titled On Moderation is itself of moderate proportions but such is quite a feat. How might we fare weaving the thread of one of Western Civilization's oldest ideas throughout all of its history? And not just through its treatment at the hands of philosophers but by authors and in the lives of political figures?  And then presenting it in a clear and useful form for any reader? Quite a feat.

Why attempt it, though? Why be moderate? To answer this question we obviously must define the idea and Clor divides the task into three categories: What does it mean to practice, 1) political moderation, 2) personal moderation, and 3) philosophical moderation. In each Clor seeks out the the proponents and examples of moderation and issues which seem to present challenges to moderation, i.e. people and problems who urge or seem to require some more extreme course of action. Present throughout is the author's own moderation. In particular Clor is always attentive to the alternative sides of an argument, the limits of what one may know of particular circumstances, the potential to gain insight from a position that seems generally wrong or unreasonable, and lastly that there exists a multitude of goods and one may not always attain them all.

Political Moderation

Clor begins discussing political moderation with a frank question. "Isn't political moderation just splitting the difference?" This is depressingly plausible, isn't it? We don't seem to be off to a great start. He then continues with an inviting and elucidating anecdote:
Once while teaching a course on the American Founding I thought it appropriate to stress the virtues of political moderation. An outstanding student (and congenital debunker) responded with a challenge: "So you would have been against the American Revolution or you would have looked for some compromise to avoid it!" At the time the question threw me embarrassingly off balance. [Clor, 11]
First off, anyone who has taught for any duration can spare a chortle for his experience. More to the point, though, Clor (citing the late Martin Diamond's amusingly-titled essay, "The Revolution of Sober Expectations") observes that the revolution was moderate as far as revolutions go. Unlike the French and Bolshevik ones it did not seek to overthrow all of society, to change man's nature, or to attain a massive list of rights. No one marched in the streets chanting, "We will have equality or we will destroy civilization," as in the French Revolution. Clor uses this example to demonstrate how moderation in political life consists in part of putting up with defects or limiting aspirations in order to bring about some good (presumably enough so that the defects are bearable.) Some may find this approach unsatisfying and tantamount to a revisionist approach in which certain events are demonstrated really to be moderate, yet another of the author's points provides a corrective to this criticism: that perspective and an impersonal distance are required for political moderation. One must step away and examine the issue, and its extreme positions, in order to perceive the moderate position.

Another aspect of political moderation Clor identifies is that of acknowledging a multiplicity of principles. Not mere conflict and strife, he points out, but multiple values deserving of your attention and which must be balanced, though preserving one may damage the other. Similarly, Clor identifies the principle of proportionality as appropriate to political moderation, finding it in the American system of government which achieves the balance of "constituted representative democracy" in contrast to "radical populistic democracy." Applying Burke's words to the American system, one may say that it "tempers together those opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work."

In contrast to the aforementioned principles of moderation Clor finds the so-called "value pluralism" unpersuasive as a force of moderation, for while its toleration is preferable to polarized struggles for control of the state, "tolerance by itself does not produce the sense of community on which it depends." [Clor, 20] That is, toleration is really only plausible when some underlying fundamentals, often unspoken, exist. Too, value pluralism, extolling diversity itself as a virtue, requires one to praise all walks of life and actions as good without recourse to any particular understanding of a "good life." Well how can they all be good?

One of the most important aspects of political moderation Clor picks up from Aristotle, who argued that we "ought not expect more precision from our study than the subject matter permits." This means not that there are no universal truths but that prescriptions to bring them about or abide by them may only be offered in outline because particular instances are variable. A few obvious examples follow, namely the two which philosophers have wrangled with and tried to, once and for all, proclaim as evil: lying and murder. Are they not sometimes the lesser of evils, for example if they prevented mass devastation? Too, does power really "always corrupt" or is it sometimes necessary as a force to counter evil? Clor infers two points from Aristotle's observation: 1) do not attempt to turn politics into an exact science, and 2) don't turn ethics into a body of categorical imperatives. Do so, and every political decision you make becomes an intractable one without any hope of negotiation. If all issues are moral ones, then no societies are possible except for ones in which everyone agrees about everything or about nothing. Most societies reach some degree of moderation, permitting some things and forbidding others.

A "moderate" political citizen then, with these "situational ethics" in mind, has much to observe in trying to negotiate what is and is not acceptable. Yet what happens when something is finally decided upon? It is usually made into some kind of law. How useful is this? Clor, again channeling Aristotle, notes that on the one hand laws are made by fallible men and thus may be biased and imperfect, and on the other they are still more dispassionate than any human judgment would be on the spur of the moment by virtue of their distance from the event in question. Again, on the one hand the law provides an impartial standard for a situation and on the other there are times when a "judgment call" is needed. It is hard to foresee every circumstance. Sentencing someone to life in prison for violating a rule which has been superseded or rendered defunct would be "excessive legalism." The rule of law itself, then, is a moderator in need of moderation.

Finally, then, the politically moderate man must be able to balance the demands of various principles, to calculate reasonable goals, to admit a degree of uncertainty to the situation, to refrain from moralizing, to be diligent about obtaining the facts, and maintain capacity for disinterested examination. Too, he must remember that all men are subject to passions and that even reason may find itself passion's instrument.

Personal Moderation

Nietzsche contest with the ancients for man's nature is at heart of this chapter. For both parties man may be of two natures, of reason and chaos, but in which does his ideal state exist? The former sees in  chaos the will to create and the latter in harmony the happiness of man. Does reason reveal the path to prosperity or does it simply saddle and devitalize one's passions and inner drive? After laying out the arguments for passion and reason, for order chaos and order, Clor makes a recommendation for moderation all the more powerful and sensible for its brevity: Are we not reasoning and social creatures, do we not carry various imperatives and entertain different claims upon us? Is an energetic or happy human really one in which many of these claims lay undeveloped? Relax control, maybe here and there, but only if you have a moral constitution as the norm. Clor concludes, "the demands of rationality may be relaxed by a mind in which reason retains a prominent voice." [Clor, 58] Such moderation feels almost like a relief from the extreme claims.

The author begins his discussion of love without much hope that he will find room for moderation. Who wants to be loved moderately? To recommend a "temperate ecstasy" is to invite parody. Yet if moderation has no place here than its overall usefulness to us is considerably less. Clor weaves through the extremes, though, noting, "if you don't want happiness and unhappiness to be a kind of lottery, you had better be in some position to judge the qualities of the person you consider giving yourself to and cherishing." [Clor, 60] As in political moderation, self-restraint and a rational consideration of character are called for. Yes, the act is the act regardless of whether it is good, but it cannot be fitting for man or you without some deliberation about life, self, and other. Love requires both dependency and independency. Love requires dedication, but general happiness requires investment in many pursuits, of which the attachment of love is but one. Clor finds in Freud just such a sort of pragmatic injunction for moderation. "Any choice that is pushed to an extreme will be penalized by exposing the individual to the dangers which arise if a technique of living that has been chosen as an exclusive one should prove inadequate." [Clor, 63]

While discussing man's capacity for passion Clor makes an interesting stop to discuss compassion. Yes, of course it maintains certain personal and social benefits. Yet is it somehow overrated? Perhaps, but perhaps one simply ought to distinguish more finely just what it is.  Sometimes compassion is simply rooted in a fear that the same thing could happen to you. Second, you may feel pity and empathy for someone's suffering but such is not the same as persistent concern for his well-being. Neither of these instances of "compassion" are quite so laudable as we might think. Lastly, one may indeed be deserving of compassion but also of anger or indignation. Compassion is not a virtue, something that refines a passion toward some good end, but a passion itself. As such, it requires guidance and consideration of goods since it can be properly or improperly directed.

Concluding Clor's discussion of the nature of man's passions he asks: are they wholly benevolent or do they need to be vigorously squelched? On the one hand we may consider if they are wholly benevolent, a position which Clor finds supported in some modern psychologies in which in which one needs to "grow" and "be oneself" and be "open to possibilities." In this thinking one must forge "contacts" through which the self will reconfigure and very little can be seen to be determinedly wrong. Though clearly unpersuaded by this immoderate approach, Clor, persistently moderate, accords gestalt psychology its due noting that, "the idea that personality develops through the experience and incorporation of connections with others is a sensible one as far as it goes, but the other side of wisdom is full recognition of the fact that not all contacts are good ones."[Clor, 74]

Yet if some passions are moderated, how is this accomplished? It seems foolish to think that one can "temper impetuous impulses by remonstrating with them." To Aristotle, one's habits and dispositions, the ways in which the passions are incorporated into one's disposition, moderate otherwise unrestrained desires. Repeatedly choosing an action, under whatever guidance or communal pressure, slowly makes that way of dealing with the passion part of who you are. Personal moderation, like political moderation, would seem to require much of the individual. In fact it requires nothing less than an awareness of self and society. It requires rationally choosing values but also understanding those which one has unconsciously acquired through habituation. It requires building a character but also understanding the values one has inherited as an individual in a particular family and country and even those one has by chance. It requires measured introspection and accordingly corrective action, not dogmatism or unlimited "openness" to any outcome. It requires having a character, which necessitates the ability to perceive a situation and reason what the right thing to do is, and then the will to temper oneself. One might say it requires both wisdom and virtue.

Philosophical Moderation

We have several times spoken of reason and therefore must defend it as legitimate. We must defend reason if we are to justify the habituation, education, and self-discipline that moderation calls for. A defense of reason is necessary, as Clor puts it, because, "one who has no respect for reason is ill-disposed to listen to argument, entertain viewpoints differing from those one currently holds, and cultivate that capacity for deliberation that is part and parcel of a self-controlling character." [Clor, 86]

Clor takes on a number of the postmodernist attacks on reason and his first is surprisingly simple. If it is so that "everyone is coming from somewhere" and that no one can escape his influences and circumstances, why bother with structures of any kind? Why bother with a liberal education, for example, if reason and debate are meaningless? Why bother with structures for legislative deliberation if it is really just a contest of wills? Clor makes an excellent and subtle observation about Plato's Republic
The persons Socrates encounters in the Platonic dialogues assert opinions that reflect their (diverse) personalities, backgrounds, or aspirations, and the encounters are designed to show the attentive reader both who difficult it is to make them entertain challenges to their received opinions and that it is sometimes possible to do so. Platonic dialogues recognize that everyone is coming from somewhere, but that where you are going is, at least on occasion and with the right person, open to effectual discussion. [Clor, 87]
Indeed, postmodernist anti-reason ideologies do not promote questioning traditional thought so much as they "render the injunction 'know thyself' virtually meaningless." [Clor, 88] Such attacks on rationality of course also affect all norms and standards, which "are dissolved under the acids of a critique that pronounces them to be groundless if not fraudulent." Clor refers to this as an "ultra-libertarianism," quoting Dostoevsky's disapproving observation, "everything is permitted." The postmodernist position also unravels society by rendering all lifestyles equal. Clor makes less than he could of the disconnect between these postmodernist ideas and the positions of some contemporary liberals that "equal respect is a categorical imperative." (Never to us a straw man, Clor uses Dworkin's 1977 Taking Rights Seriously as an example.) As with political moderation, there must be some recourse to values which transcend particular circumstances lest the whole enterprise of moderation be equally relativistic. Using Clor's example, a terrorist leader who compromises amongst the extreme demands of his followers cannot be considered a moderate.

At last Clor tackles Nietzsche's epistemology. If we take Nietzsche's philosophy to be true, with its conclusion that  philosophy is not reasoned inquiry but creativity driven by the will to power, then what do we make of it? If we do believe it, how can we believe it? Clor seems slightly offended by Nietzsche's own response to the question, that if you realize this conundrum, "So much the better." So much the better?" asks Clor. Truly? Yet Clor's moderation restrains him and he seeks a moderate view of Nietzsche, culling from the bluster that from Nietzsche's perspectivism we learn that our understanding is often only partial, that seeking the truth is not precluded but rather no one can presume to have grasped the whole of it.

Despite such observations about epistemology, which Clor, perhaps with tongue-in-cheek, calls "contributions to moral relativism," Nietzsche's philosophy itself praises something and discourages others. It affirms zeal over enervation and struggle over complacency. In Nietzsche Clor does not find the philosopher of "anything goes" but of "a demanding spiritedness." "What is to be admired is "energetic commitment, which is, at its pinnacle, self-creative." [Clor, 93] Whether or not one agrees with this reading of Nietzsche, it certainly is allows a moderate person to learn something from the philosophy without committing to its extreme prescriptions. It also casts considerable doubt upon it as anything workable on its own.

Perhaps the most novel attack on reason, though, comes not from Nietzsche but from Rousseau, who argued that reason (and imagination) produce desires which are distinct from our natural, necessary, inclinations. "Sensual desires are inflamed into lusts. . . thought makes possible egoism." [Clor, 99] Nature's impulses are simple, inescapable, and able to be sated. Appetites rooted in thought may not be. Clor counters:
Without thought, "know thyself" is impossible, and it is even quite doubtful that without thought you could come to have a self at all. . . Rousseau's original man has no ego about which to be egotistic. Who among us would want to trade places with that "man" and pay that price? [Clor, 100]
There is in this a bit of a challenge to the Rousseauian, Nietzschian, and post-modernist programs: if you want to live like that, go ahead, but you'll end up tempering it with something anyway.


On Moderation is a terrific and spirited read. It makes the task of living the good life, navigating its extremes, seem challenging, rewarding, and even noble. The text starts with simple examples using famous political figures like Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill and eases the reader into more complex discussions of Rousseau and Nietzsche. It is judiciously footnoted with a short suggested reading list of recommendations ranging from Jane Austen to George Will. Clor is so consistently even-handed and concerned with useful learning over proving, the book is as much a model for moderation as a discussion of it. One may tire of the many "what ifs" and "on the other hand" but such scrutiny and even-handedness, such work, well that's moderation.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Beyond the Infinite

Once again we will be considering Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Last time we considered it in the context of epistemology. This time I would like to consider it in the light of ontology. I offer a pair of ideas, the first via quotations from Thomas Aquinas (from his Summa Contra Gentiles) and then, from Nietzsche. In Kubrick's spirit of not forcing an interpretation of the film I will refrain from synthesis and merely offer these ideas as food for thought.

L. For whatever is imperfect in a species seeks to acquire the perfection of that species. Thus, whoso has an opinion about a matter, and therefore an imperfect knowledge about it, for this very reason is spurred to the desire for certain knowledge about it.

This immediate vision of God is promised to us in Holy Scripture: We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. It would be impious to understand this in a material way, and imagine a material face in the Godhead. Nor is it possible for us to see God with a bodily face. Thus then we shall see God face to face, because we shall see Him immediately, even as a man whom we see face to face.

It is through this vision that we become most like God, and participators of His blessedness, since God understands His substance through His essence, and this is His blessedness. Therefore it is said (I John iii.2): When he shall appear, we shall be like to Him; because we shall see Him as He is.

LII. However, it is not possible for any created substance to attain, by its own power, to this way of seeing God. For that which is proper to the higher nature cannot be acquired by a lower nature, except through the action of the higher nature to which it properly belongs. . . Therefore no intellectual substance can see God through the divine essence, unless God Himself bring this about.

If any two things have to be united together so that one be formal and the other material, their union must be completed by an action on the part of the one that is formal, and not by the action of the one that is material; for the form is the principle of action, whereas matter is the passive principle.

Hence it is said (Rom. vi. 23): The grace of God is life everlasting. For we have proved that man's happiness consists in seeing God, which is called life everlasting.

LIV.  There should be proportion between the one understanding and the thing understood. But there is no proportion between the created intellect, even perfected by this light, and the divine substance; for there still remains an infinite distance between them. Therefore the created intellect cannot be raised by any light to see the divine substance. 

. . . because it is not seen as perfectly by the created intellect as it is visible, even as one who holds a demonstrated conclusion as an opinion is said to know it but not to comprehend it, because he does not know it perfectly, that is, scientifically, although there be not part of it that he does not know. 

LIX. All the intellect sees in the divine substance, it sees at once. Hence Augustine says: Our thoughts will not then be unstable, going to and fro from one thing to another, but we shall see all we know by one glance.

LXI. Therefore this vision takes place in a kind of participation in eternity. Moreover this  vision is a kind of life, because the act of the intellect is a kind of life. Therefore by that vision the created intellect becomes a partaker of eternal life. . . The intellectual soul is created on the border line between eternity and time. . . therefore by this vision it enters into a participation of eternity. . .

For this reason our Lord says (Jo. xvii. 3): This is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God.

Regarding Nietzsche

(Picking up on our discussion of Nietzsche from our previous look at 2001.)

What of the man of the final scenes? What does he do? It is he who creates from the primordial soup or is it the monolith? Does he do everything or nothing? Is he creative or impotent? Is his final gesture one of supplication or resolve? Affirmation or negation? Clearly his final reaction to the monolith differs from the others. Is he the übermensch or the last man?

With both St. Thomas and Nietzsche in mind: 

Consider the title of the final act: Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. Consider the use of György Ligeti's Requiem in the famous "Star Gate" scene. Who dies and who is born? Lastly, is the monolith ever comprehended by anyone in the film? Does it actually affect the characters or is the film about man's dialogue with this unknown? How does the final encounter with it differ? Is the scene of the star child birth or re-birth?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Culture and Community

This essay is a sequel of sorts to Primitive Romance.

There could scarcely be two words which enjoy more esteem than art and culture. Indeed any man of letters would fancy himself a connoisseur of the these things. Yet the casualness with which these terms are bandied about ought to cause use pause.

Let us consider culture first. Culture is one of several words deriving from the Latin verb collere, to till. From collere we use colony, cult, and culture. Obvious differences aside, these words share several senses: that of a particular place and a particular value, and that this value ought to endure and must be tended to. To embrace all of these notions is the essence of the agrarian man, but culture does of course extend beyond him. Yet these general characteristics, no matter the specifics to which they are applied, have implications, all of which fall under the category of bounds.

Yet it is also possible to speak of culture as the opposite: culture as creativity, i.e. culture as breaking bounds. If we say that a culture has ideas which bind it together, we may also say its art is a creative act of expressing those ideas. Alan Bloom described this as "culture as art." [Bloom, 188] Now in Bloom's discussion of culture we see a similarity with T. S. Eliot's essay, "Notes Toward the Definition of Culture." There Eliot noted that various aspects of a culture, e.g. religion, politics, and science may struggle for dominance with creative result. He gives of course the example of Sophocles' Antigone which in this line of thinking is an even more extraordinary work, but extraordinary for perhaps what it is not. It is not a treatise on human nature, duties to family versus duties to the state, the rights of rulers and citizens, and religious obligations. Such a work could have been written by a philosopher or intellectual and read by no one. Yet that it is artistic, that it was performed and received  by an audience means that all of those complex conflicts were meaningful to the audience. Culture is here what Bloom said, "the house of the self, but also its product." [Bloom, 188]

Now speaking of Antigone, Bloom and Eliot both touched on what is the most obvious question of culture: where does it come from? Bloom emphasizes the aspect of cohesion and the "harshness" which is needed to create community, quoting Rousseau in II, 7 of The Social Contract where he discusses how the Legislator must transform individuals so they will function as a society. Rousseau writes that "if each citizen is nothing, can do nothing, except by all the others, and the force acquired by the whole is equal or superior to the sum of the natural forces of all the individuals, one can say that the legislation is at the highest point of perfection it can attain." This emphasis on unity was shared by Plato but criticized by Aristotle, who suggested too much unity would destroy self-sufficiency, the affection people have for their private property, and the bonds of friendship. In contrast Eliot acknowledged cohesion was necessary but also stated that culture cannot be made but must be "grown from the soil" and that you cannot encourage it culture but only remove what stands in its way. [Eliot, 19] In Eliot's conception an individual has a culture, so does a class, and so a society. He adds that a society ought to refrain from setting before the group what can only be the aim of the individual. [Eliot, 19] This is a rather fascinating addition which while it has implication for liberty ought not to be interpreted strictly or even primarily in terms of liberty.

Now how did we get from culture to politics? Perhaps because as with politics culture has personal and communal aspects. Indeed as the state's activities are what everyone politically has in common, so a society's culture is what everyone has in culturally in common. It would seem also that as federalism and republicanism describe the cascading effects of hierarchical laws on society, so Eliot's description of personal, local, and societal culture. Bloom argued that politics disappears into "subpolitical (economic)" or "what claims to be higher than political (cultural) activity." It seems to me we tend to separate all three. We consider that which is economic inherently banal and at best a necessary evil, we consider politics practical, and culture the most esteemed. What expression might we say acknowledges any connection amongst these features of life? It will be even more interesting to add this spin to the question: what expression is a celebration or affirmation? Whether political or artistic, we tend to consider positive affirmations to be either partisan or dogmatic. For example modern political movies are mostly partisan hit-piece documentaries, not films which extol particular virtues. Today we find the genre of encomiastic literature quite off-putting and we consider pieces like Horace's second ode and Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito propaganda. When it comes to economics we separate it too from art. We don't like to think of a painter receiving a commission for a particular work; he ought to be given a "grant" and allowed to make what he wants. We don't like to think of Shakespeare having to put seats in the theater, Bach re-using his cantatas in his oratorios, or Mozart adding arias to Don Giovanni to appeal to a different audience.

So of course creating art has political, economic, and finally cultural dimensions, but perhaps we should approach the question from another direction. Of course whoever creates art, like whoever creates anything to trade, does so to sustain himself; but who partakes in art does so voluntarily. So an artistic event is partly defined by the artist and part by the audience, at least insofar as the experience is defined to  some extent by a shared language (in the most general sense.) Now as we have noted before this language is largely inherited. We don't get to decide what culture we inherit and so an artist cannot come up with a completely new language if he hopes to share his ideas with anyone. Yet languages do change for a variety of reasons and clearly cultures do too. Clearly then culture is not simply something to be inherited and stored, but something to be lived.

We seem to have considerably complicated our discussion of culture for now we must consider the aspects of 1) participation (politics and economics), 2) expression (art), and 3) ideas. Before we move away from politics, though, let us make a digression. Let us consider Western liberal democracies and say, notionally at least, they are all founded more or less upon the notions that government exists to permit man his "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The first two of those ideas are essentially political and economic, only the third is philosophical. It is also rather vague and as a result, as Plato said, in a liberal democracy we will see constitutions of every kind. One of the features of a liberal country is that it pushes many questions/ideas/values which were once set as a national policy into the private sphere.

So how does this liberality square with culture? Well, it seems to make speaking of common values harder, but again we are speaking of politics. Is it not possible to have a culture, people with shared values, without the use of force by government? Our partial definition of culture as bounds sort of complicates this question. Notionally it is possible to have bounds not delimited by law, bounds no one will cross but which in fact carry no penalty for transgression; voluntary bounds, if you will. Can we still call these bounds then? If not, then can we be said to possess culture?

This then is a test of liberal democracy. They can certainly be said to be freer and more materially prosperous, but do they surpass the cultures of other societies? Do they create art which extols particular values? Do they use a rich and living language to make such expressions? If they do then they are vindicated, but if not, why?

Now I'm not fingering freedom as the enemy of culture and I'm not saying liberal countries do not or cannot have culture. Not at all. In fact we haven't really answered our question about culture: namely, what is it? We have, though, in attempting to define it, continually come back to the question of community by way of politics, economics, and art. Now apart from describing proximity the word community implies some shared idea. Now Bloom makes the interesting suggestion that "everything connected with valuing comes from religion." [Bloom, 211] He discusses this in the light of Nietzsche and the notion that myth-makers lay down values for a society. Sacred ideas, their protection in law, and the fact that they are shared ideas are central toward establishing a culture. This is of course in concert with the concept of "culture as bounds" that Eliot prescribed. Indeed the concept of religion, of religio to the Romans, is essentially the notion of constraint, the notion that something commands your reverence or awe. It commands your subordination and it is the pious man who submits to this, to the claims his gods, his family, and his country have on him.

Certainly a liberal man will balk at the notion of submission, or at least forced submission. Too he will be disturbed by the notion of the state funding cults of worship for particular deities. Yet to the Romans all of this was everybody's business, everyone shared in the danger of divine retribution and the need to perform the requisite ritual to ensure success. Now I mention this not to suggest the Roman way ought to be emulated but to emphasize the similarity between the religious impulse and the esteeming or valuing impulse. Now we have added religion to our snowballing discussion of culture. Let us not be afraid to make one more discursion and mention philosophy. Philosophy is perhaps the only notion to enjoy more esteem than either art or culture. Despite the obvious meaning of its name, we can distinguish two facets of philosophy, a desire for the truth and a desire to do good. Now note those two goals aren't entirely complementary. To seek the truth is to risk of undermining the culture one has inherited. Certainly you can have a culture based on ideas believed to be true, but can you have one based on truths acknowledged to be provisional? Can you have a wholly progressive culture any more than you can have a wholly conservative one?

Nietzsche thought the Romans at their height lived without philosophy, presumably in the earlier days of the republic before Augustus attempted to grasp the threads of the fraying culture and fasten them to the idea of the Empire to preserve them. They did not go poking into their myths. I think it would be worth looking at a few quotes from Nietzche's Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks in our discussion.

If philosophy ever manifested itself as helpful, redeeming, or prophylactic, it was in a healthy culture. The sick, it made ever sicker.  [27]

. . .an unrestrained thirst for knowledge for its own sake barbarizes men just as much as a hatred of knowledge. The Greeks themselves, possessed of an inherently insatiable thirst for knowledge, controlled it by their ideal need for and consideration of all the values of life. [31]

A period which suffers from a so-called high general level of liberal education but which is devoid of culture in the sense of a unity of style which characterizes all its life, will not quite know what to do with philosophy. . . [37]

Philosophy is then a two-edged sword, a truth-seeking discipline which runs the risk of undermining everything that has been inherited. Yet how does one use it then, how does one use it with a "consideration of all the values of life?" Ought one impose limits on it? Can one? If one did could you rightly call it truth-seeking? Let us look at a few more quotations.
If readily forced for once to speak out, philosophy might say, 'Wretched people! Is it my fault if I am roaming the country among you like a cheap fortune-teller? If I must hide and disguise myself as though I were a fallen woman and you my judges? Just look at my sister, Art! Like me, she is in exile among barbarians. We no longer know what to do to save ourselves. True, here among you we have lost all our rights, but the judges who shall restore them to us shall judge you too. And to you they shall say: Go get yourselves a culture. Only then will you find out what philosophy can and will do.'" [38]

Philosophy is propelled by. . . an alien, illogical power–the power of creative imagination. [40]

Philosophy is distinguished from science by its selectivity and its discrimination of the unusual, the astonishing, the difficult and the divine, just as it is distinguished from intellectual cleverness by its emphasis on the useless. Science rushes headlong, without selectivity, without 'taste,' at whatever is knowable, in the blind desire to know all at any cost. Philosophical thinking, on the other hand, is ever on the scent of those things which are most worth knowing, the great and the important insights. [43]
It is hard to reconcile different paths of discovering the truth: tradition, revelation, reason. Bloom seemed fond of the notion that man ought to be a "tense bow," that he should struggle with opposites and not harmonize them. Only that conflict will permit creativity and the creation of values. [Bloom, 198]

Yet what does Nietzsche say? Not that philosophy will lead to culture, but "Go get yourselves a culture. Only then will you find out what philosophy can and will do." Philosophy then is perhaps not an end in itself, it is not the sheer knowledge of science, but something which ought to enrich and ennoble. And ennoble what? The culture, the body of ideas which constitutes a people and their manners and festivals and all the expressions of those ideas. And it is an artistic expression, at once personal and communal, earthly yet sublime, inherited yet created, which is the strongest expression of and in a culture. Without these ideas and expressions, what is there for philosophy to glorify or ennoble?

Again: what is culture? Perhaps Eliot was on the right track when he suggested culture as the "incarnation of religion." It is the turning of an idea into a way of life, and it is doing so with vigor and joy.

Some may think that, like great cultures of the past, there needs to be some threat of force behind the bonds which compel. Yet force holds only bodies, not minds. In some respect a liberal democratic society is the ultimate proving ground for ideas: to grow and prosper and prevail there, without the threat of force, requires the strongest belief and the most glorious expressions. To lament a lack of culture in such a country then, is to lament either the lack of power to force people or the lack of strength in one's own expression. One need not embrace a Nietzschean perspectivism or the will to power to see culture as competitive. One need not see the philosopher as the "procreator" or the "creator of the world." (Beyond Good and Evil, s.206.) Yet Nietzsche can be most instructive. It seems to me often the case that when people seek to promote a value they seek to do so through law and to force people to behave a certain way. This commands obedience through fear and/or habituation. In contrast it also seems that to persuade through lifestyle, through creative expression, is far more persuasive, enriching to and respecting of the individual, and vivifying to the value and culture. There is no law which is as persuasive as artistic expression and the sight of a joyful man living his values.

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind:  How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. Simon and Schuster, New York. 1987.

Eliot, T. S. Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. Harcourt, Brace, and Company. New York. 1949.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (trans. Cowan, Marianne.) Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. Regnery Publishing. Washington DC. 1998.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Primitive Romance

A preliminary excursion to the crossroads of individual taste, society, culture, and art.

We'll look at these ideas in greater detail and with other examples in the future. Again, this is just a first look at the complex crossroads of many other ideas and problems. Comments, questions, and animadversions are welcome as usual.

It is not my custom here to reflect on things I dislike. I mostly only deviate from this rule to examine novel arguments but when it comes to art I'm particularly reluctant to discuss what I don't like. Such is because, first, that I do not want to endure the displeasure of experiencing bad art. Second is because such negative discussion serves less the purpose of persuading those who disagree than does praising what one sees to be good. This second reason is also more amicable to a gentlemanly disposition. Every so often, though, there is a piece of art which is very well made but not to my taste and such does have an interest for me. In those works are expressions by talented or intelligent, if not inspired or ingenious, individuals who simply have different taste than myself. That fact inspires inquiry: that reasonable people have different values. Also, such an inquiry might be reveal interesting aspects of culture.

The following work I am about to explore will likely be outside the taste of many readers. Feel free not to read the middle part of this essay: I won't take it personally! I have too much appreciation for what art can mean and be to an individual to blame someone for not wanting to see something they don't like. (Though I can blame them for their taste.)

Yet this piece has two additional interesting aspects which I would present in the light of statements from two different authors.

First from Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind"
Plato's teaching about music is, put simply, that rhythm and melody, accompanied by dance, are the barbarous expression of the soul. Barbarous, not animal. Music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror. Nietzsche, who in large measure agreed with Plato's analysis, says in The Birth of Tragedy (not to be forgotten is the rest of the title, Out of the Spirit of Music) that a mixture of cruelty and coarse sensuality characterized this state, which of course was religious, in the service of gods. Music is the soul's primitive and primary speech and it is alogon, without articular speech or reason.  It is not only unreasonable, it is hostile to reason. Even when articular speech is added, it is utterly subordinate to and determined by the music and the passions it expresses. [Bloom, 71]

To Plato and Nietzsche, the history of music is a series of attempts to give form and beauty to the dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul–to make them serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man's duties a fullness. . . Hence, for those who are interested in psychological health, music is at the center of education, both for giving the passions their due and for preparing the soul for the unhampered use of reason. [Bloom, 72]

Nietzsche, particularly, sought to tap again the irrational sources of vitality, to replenish our dried-up stream from barbaric sources, and thus encouraged the Dionysian and the music derivative from it. . . This is the significance of rock music. I do not suggest that it has any high intellectual sources. But it has risen to its current heights in the education of the young on the ashes of classical music, and in an atmosphere where there is no intellectual resistance to attempts to tap the rawest passions. . . The irrationalists are all for it. . . But rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire–not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. [Bloom, 73]
Please pardon the length of the quote from the late Professor Bloom, but I think he puts the situation, noticed long ago by Plato, particularly well. We do not quite, or perhaps at all, know why music moves us the way it does, but we know that it is powerful. We may also say rather safely, I think, that art is important to people. It gives life and expression to the innermost emotions. One's taste in art, and thus what it unlocks in you and what it vivifies, suggests what one likes having unlocked. The unique blend of emotions brought out by each artist and each work gives the artist and the work its unique character, and sometimes one may find it corresponds with his own to remarkable degree. Ayn Rand was right to say that when one finds such a work, one ought not say that "I like this work, but I am this work" [1]

Music and society are intimately related too. Adopting the positions from above, one can only imagine the significance of being able to play music. I reflected on a fugue from Bach's Art of Fugue a few weeks ago. [2] Consider that fugue, and then add the dimension of being part of it. Music is unique amongst the arts in that it requires a human to make it again and again. The composer brings it into existence, but it must be kept alive by others. Music is not the note on the page but the note as it is played; it exists only for a time and requires a human to give it pattern and, rather literally, life. Aside from solo works, music is uniquely collaborative too: music with multiple parts requires a particular degree of communication, affection, and unity amongst the players. It is by its nature a unifying, harmonizing, of individual parts. It is no wonder thinkers from Aristotle to Emerson have used musical analogies to describe the ideal natures of human relations.

Again, there is considerable mystery here. Why do certain cadences and intervals seem to have the characters they do? Why does one march to a march and waltz to a waltz? Many forms are of course formal inventions and conventions, but they are rooted in something natural to us. To return to Bloom and Nietzsche, the elemental power of music is undeniable. This is not a new discovery. Countesses swooned for Beethoven's sonatas and the Greeks certainly knew the strength of music. One is unsure whether Bach's audience knew to what heights they were being called or if Mozart's Vienna knew what he had gotten away with in Don Giovanni. We recently discussed two takes on Wagner's overwhelming scene in Act II of Tristan und Isolde [3]

All of the art we have discussed on this blog has used a sophisticated, traditional yet evolving, musical language to apply power toward different ends. Some composers were more conservative than others and some had varying ideas on when passion passed the point of being pleasing or elucidating. In September 1781 Mozart wrote his father to discuss Wolfgang's upcoming Opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
A person who gets into such a violent rage transgresses himself every order, moderation, and limit; he no longer knows himself.–In the same way the Music must no longer know itself-but because passions, violent or not, must never be expressed to the point of disgust, and Music must never offend the ear, even in the most horrendous situations, but must always be pleasing, in other words always remain music. [4]
Art then is not simply realism, but a particular representation of life. Such requires shaping, restraint, and taste, and there are as many variations as artists, as we said above.

Yet some music, it sounds curmudgeonly and passé to say 'rock and roll' as Bloom did and besides I don't really know what that genre is, either in essence or practice, so I'll just say "some music," and art does not utilize sophisticated and intellectual means of expression. It does not require appreciation of subtleties of structure or symbolism. It needs no "pattern." You need not bring anything to it. In discussing Dante and his travail in the underworld we saw the case of Paolo and Francesca and said "It is the vulgar moment that knows only itself." [5] To expand that, we might say the vulgar individual is who does not know the culture from whence he has sprung, his place in it, and the fact that he is contributing to create a new one. We may say precisely the same of art.

Such brings us to our second point, which we see in T. S. Eliot's 1948 essay, "Notes Toward the Definition of Culture." This is in fact a corollary of our definition of vulgarity, which is that culture requires participation and an overlapping of shared interests. [Eliot, 27] Both such interests but also conflicts must have meaning before they can be dramatized and perceived as significant as an audience. As such, individual, culture, and art are all inextricably linked. (This line of thinking has interesting implications for the nature of pluralistic societies, but we will discuss them, and the rest of Eliot's essay, at another date.)

One might even propose a "cultural way of thinking." Such may sound contrived or perhaps indistinguishable from being simply intellectual yet I believe the distinction is worth considering. Eliot wisely noted [Eliot, 22] that artists are frequently insensitive to other arts and that who contributes to culture is not necessarily cultured. Additionally, consider that humans are uniquely able to pass on their knowledge and experiences which crystallize into a larger conception of the past. Such "pasts" vary locally, regionally, nationally, and so forth. Thus a great deal of simply and strictly "intellectual" knowledge in fact has a tradition. For example, it is no simple act of endearment to write a sonnet for someone since a sonnet has a long and rich history. Names too have cultural histories, and even the most culturally insensitive person chooses the name of his child with care. (The invention of "new" names here is significant, I think.) This sense of cultural thinking is closely related to the importance of storytelling in a culture. [6] Words too, and many of them, have particularly interesting and significant histories, and though it sounds trivial to say it, to use a particular one means something. Using our definitions of culture and vulgarity, imagine a "vulgar" sentence: you wouldn't know what any of the words meant. It would be a different language.

What kind of "art" would result in the absence of culture? We'll revisit this questions after we look at a particular piece, but for now consider two possibilities: it would either be wholly new and so lacking a past would require one to learn it as a new language or it would be consciously primitive, using only the most fundamental means of communication to get its point across. I propose to examine such a piece now, with your indulgence.

Looking at
Bad Romance
by Lady Gaga

[see the music video on YouTube]

N.B. It was my original intent to make this a video review, but I didn't feel like wrangling with issues of copyright for posting my commentary over the whole video on YouTube. In this written form, though, it is impractical to add so many pictures so I suggest you keep the video open in another window and manually scroll it along as we look at it.

N.B. Certain words have been translated into Latin for courtesy and decorum.

The opening is surprising. It in fact begins with a canon [7] on a sort of harpsichord-sounding instrument. I don't suspect many people have noticed this, and such is significant in consideration of our discussion of culture. Significantly, she's playing the music from a recorder, which she shuts off. The canon and the language and world they represent are not the world of this video. Such is consistent with the title, Bad Romance. Putting aside the history of the word romance and its despoiling, we may take it at the obvious face value and say it simply refers to relations between men and women. Bad, usually a useless and generic word, is in fact significant and enough here. She's seeking out a bad romance, clearly indicating she knows not what the good is, but that something better is possible. (That these are relative terms here is not significant.) This is, then, at least a somewhat consciously primitive expression. Yet is expression the proper word. The title and opening suggests some (however general or peripheral, one cannot say) awareness of the cultural contrast we are discussing, and thus a deliberateness in construction. Such of course does not preclude drawing conclusions about the significance of its popularity.

Notice the visceral nature of the opening frame: the feline postures of the women and the aggressive postures of the men. Notice how offensive the back-lighting is, how the dog is pretty much on par with everyone else. Notice her baroque clothes and shoes in contrast to the poor dress of the others and the starkness of the room.

The first music is the video's only music, the vocal "oh" theme, the "caught in a bad romance" theme, and the thumping bass. Could it get any more "barbaric?" The lens flare in the dark evokes a vague sense of the cosmic. Notice I say, "evoke" since there is no significance of the cosmic here. There is merely effect and an appeal to the emotions evoked by the image of colored spheres against blackness. No relationship is suggested.

The title in the next scene, "Bath Haus of Gaga" is too an evocation: an appeal to, for Americans, the foreign and exotic. Surely something exotic happens in a bath haus, far away, no? Consider the dialogue:
Rah, rah, ah, ah, ah
Roma, roma, ma
Gaga, ooh, la, la
Want your bad romance

Essentially nonverbal grunting, again against the throbbing bass. When the characters come out of their cases, they introduce what becomes a motif throughout the video: the curled, claw-like hand gestures and the staccato swiping gestures. It is as if they are being born: they are blind and swiping about, and all they know is "want." Now the motion of the characters becomes synchronized to the beat, a feature which will remain throughout. Again, this synchronization is an old trick: anyone who has set slides to music knows the ease with which one may synchronize the two. This synchronization, here, fosters the frenetic mood of the video. To, say, syncopate the movements would have made a statement of contrast. Not to have synchronized anything, a la 2001: A Space Odyssey, would invite contemplation. This is a simple, primal, thumping: the libidinous rhythm.

Note the cacophonous and negative vocabulary:
I want your ugly, I want your disease
I want your everything as long as it's free
"Free" as in disconnected, without asking for anything in return, without bounds.

I want your drama, the touch of your hand
I want your leather studded kiss in the sand
Look at the contrast there: a pleasant image, a very human one, of the hand contrasted against "leather studded kiss in the sand," a nonsense phrase used for contrast and to evoke the primitive as she grasps her ilum. She proceeds to make a gun gesture with her hand, pointing up, a gesture simultaneously phallic and adversarial. Now this pink-tressed version of her takes the stage, in a gesture rolling her eyes back and partially sticking her tongue out, suggesting an ecstasy of abandon. Also, note the disproportionately large eyes. Human eyes being unique in size, proportion, et cetera, they are enlarged here to more strongly suggest humanity and innocence, since otherwise we would grow disconnected and disenchanted. We will see scenes of a far more pure version of her, clad in white and with white hair, inter-cut toward the same purpose. Yet she chants, "bad, bad, bad."
The following scene and dialogue again is all effect, with no particular connection or conceptualizations. It includes the taped papillae, (of course drawing more, not less, attention to them), the forced bathing, forced drinking, the spitting, the crying; none of this has any meaning other than the crudeness of it, to be associated with the baseness of the urge.

Consider more of the words and note their adversarial nature:

I want your love, and all your love is revenge
I want your horror, I want your design
'Cause you're a criminal as long as you're mine

Now we shift to two new scenes which will alternate. Starting with the second: she's in a sort of cylindrical semi-cage in a room with white tiled-walls and lit with white light from above. It's an antiseptic environment, essentially a sterile torture chamber. She's tortured by the urge. Again, realize all the images are deliberately evoked and consistent. See her protruding spine and the bald bat on her head. She looks like an animal in a cage.

To the return of the "gah gah" theme and thumping, she's stripped by the women down to what looks like an ancient ecdysiast's outfit, something worn long ago to please a far away potentate.

I shrink from the task of interpreting the following:
I want your psycho, your vertical stick
Want you in my rear window, baby, you're sick
Now we see the male figure. He is presented as the superior: seated, with a brass jawpiece, (emphasizing his jawline and thus masculinity and also his superior status by its artifice), drinking out of a glass. She, in her outfit, crawls towards him on all fours and the camera shot is from between his legs. The words illustrate a contradiction: "You know that I want you. . . Cause I'm a free canicula, baby!" More words, not reproduced here, escalate the innuendo.

Now she takes the stage. Even more scantily clad, she stands amidst clear jewels suspended in the air, as if a constellation revolves around her. A scene where she is adorned by a series of hoops follows, again another image of her centrality. These are both more cosmic invocations. Also, now she is the center of attention, encircled by men instead of having to approach them.

Rosary beads are draped around her and a clear crucifix is draped over her ilum. She proceeds to make the sign of the crucifix. Why? She is not using the rosary (i.e. praying the rosary) or venerating the crucifix. Such would in fact draw on cultural notions. It is invoked as a totem, perhaps even in a sense an example of sympathetic magic, wherein by having this object and making this gesture, what they stand for is hoped to be brought about. But what do they stand for? Merely, "something significant."

Now she chants mostly meaningless phrases as she walks about, adorned with colorfully studded costumes. This scene is redundant as it merely emphasizes her new success.
Walk, walk, fashion, baby
Work it, move that thing, crazy
Walk, walk, fashion, baby
Work it, move that thing, crazy
The coda is redundant. The final scene however, begins with another animal: a bearskin costume (with head) which she disrobes from, revealing her derriere. The bed, on which the man sits, is flanked by animal heads on the walls. She repeats the main phrase, only now in French, again only a gesture of exoticism (and euphony, here.) The bed bursts into flames and the final shot is of a charred mattress, her lover's charred skeleton, and her sparking mamillae. The "harpsichord-theme" plays but this is only to create a sense of symmetry with the beginning.

The release of her desire is of consumption and destruction, instead of consummation. There is release and destruction. Again, this is consistent: what else could there be? Using our earlier defined sense, this is vulgar, it is disconnected from a culture of ideas. The primitive music and symbols could appeal to the most undeveloped individual. I would suggest only in the actual absence of culture could this video be so popular as it is. What could the video mean to someone with a culture, with a way of relating to the world, a way both inherited and created? This video speaks no language. It is either acultural or a subculture of barbarism. In the absence of a shared culture, shared language and conceptions, we get the primitive.

To speak of the matter in the reverse: in the absence of inherited forms, i.e. mainly symbols and structures, a work is left either so that it can be understandable only on its own terms or appeals only to the basest experience of life. In the former case the work speaks only its own language, putting it at great distance. In the latter case, the work feels primal, without any layer of removal. Such art may have great power and indeed it is possible to have the forms without the sense of the fire and depths below. The use of a particular body of forms, though, creates a particular cultural identity, one inherited, added to, and passed on. When forms die they become relics, which are used without any sense of the intense connection to the concepts with which they were associated. One might argue they when that connection is lost they ought not to be used. Perhaps, but their passing should be noted.
In this respect it is possible to speak of a culture as alive, one which accepts its inherited forms and with enthusiasm reworks and modifies them. For such to happen the connection to the original concept, the passion for it, must endure, in the context of whatever emotion in particular.

This new acultural art would be desperate to re-kindle feeling and significance. Bad art, perhaps it might be, but it would represent a cultural bottoming-out and an attempt to start anew. (If not in the intent of its creation, then so if it is popularly well-received.) It would be primitive, consciously or not, because of the absence of the old, archaic, forms which have lost the power to communicate.

Instead of shared concepts we see invocations of items: images to bring about feelings but not ideas. None of the animals depicted (or mimicked) are symbolic, they are simply present as animals to evoke a sense of savageness. There are no symbols of sexuality, like the snake or a brace of hares (a Late Gothic symbol.) The functions of the imagery is not dissimilar from that of the roots of animistic cultures and those associated with fertility rites. Yet in the West those roots grew into structures and culture. Here we have the raw forces with no interpretive layer between us and those forces. There is simply yielding to the force and no conceptualization of it. There is only the rawness of the desire, no suggestion of what the human reaction ought to be. There is no attempt to understand the force as part of something larger. There is no sense of binding with or understanding the nature of things, of religio and reason. We have the the "dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul" but no attempt to make them "serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man's duties a fullness," by use of form and beauty. There is also, then, no elevation of such to the realm of the transcendent.

The following comparison is made not to contrast the quality of the music, but because the following is the perfect opposite of the aforementioned. Consider the final opera of Wolfgang Mozart, Die Zauberflöte.[8] In it he uses a wealth of language to elevate the opera's themes (love, the relation of men and women, knowledge, the good) to the level of the sacred. He uses all manner of symbols, instrumentation, cadences, harmonies, words, et cetera, to elevate the ideas to sacredness. Discussing Nietzsche, Bloom wrote, "a shared sense of the sacred is the surest way to recognize a culture. . . What a people bows before tells us what it is." [Bloom, 204]

Love proclaims the nobility of man and woman and together they reach toward the divine.

Act I: Dutet, Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen

Not only the moral world but the mood of The Magic Flute is the opposite of the music video we discussed. Here one does not yield to desires but channels them in particular expressions, sometimes the opposite of the emotion: to achieve knowledge you must go by the way of unknowing, to achieve unity you must go by the way of separation.

What ended in destruction, base release, and vulgarity above, ends in sacred, harmonious, unity in Mozart. He uses and builds on an inherited tradition and culture his audience knew to say to them, "See, see how glorious these things, our things, are!"

Act II, Finale.

[1] Citation needed. I'll provide it soon.
[4] Letter of W. A. Mozart to his father, in Salzburg. September 26, 1781 See, Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life. Edited by Robert Spaethling. W. W. Norton and Company. New York. 2000. (p. 286)
[7] for a primer on counterpoint, see introduction here:
[8] It is worth noting the trend of increasingly elaborate opera stagings, i.e. attempts to add easily-understandable spectacle and effects to make the opera more exciting, appealing, et cetera, instead of relying on the music to do such. Karajan's 1987 production is a great exception: see the "simplicity" of the cosmic dimension:

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind:  How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. Simon and Schuster, New York. 1987.

Eliot, T. S. Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. Harcourt, Brace, and Company. New York. 1949.

Allan Bloom on Nietzsche & Nihilism

On Teaching Nietzsche. Delivered at Boston College, 1983.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Dangerous Fascination

Updated: Please see below.

I feel remiss for not mentioning in our recent discussion of Santayana's Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe two points of intersection with the dramas of Richard Wagner. Here will will look at the first point of comparison, regarding Dante and his treatment of the lovers Paolo and Francesca. Santayana writes,
Love itself dreams of more than mere possession; to conceive happiness, it must conceive a life to be shared in a varied world, full of events and activities, which shall be new and ideal bonds between the lovers. But unlawful love here cannot pass out into this public fulfillment. It is condemned to be mere possession–possession in the dark, without an environment, without a future. It is love among the ruins. And it is precisely this that is the torment of Paolo and Francesca–love among the ruins of themselves and all else they might have had to give to one another. Abandon yourself, Dante would say to us,–abandon yourself altogether to a love that is nothing but love, and you are in hell already. Only an inspired poet could be so subtle a moralist. Only a sound moralist could be so tragic a poet.

Canto V, 127

Noi leggiavamo un giorno per diletto
  di Lancialotto come amor lo strinse;
  soli eravamo e sanza alcun sospetto.

Per piu` fiate li occhi ci sospinse
  quella lettura, e scolorocci il viso;
  ma solo un punto fu quel che ci vinse.

Quando leggemmo il disiato riso
  esser basciato da cotanto amante,
  questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,

la bocca mi bascio` tutto tremante.
  Galeotto fu 'l libro e chi lo scrisse:
  quel giorno piu` non vi leggemmo avante.

Translation: Allen Mandelbaum

One day, to pass the time away, we read
  of Lancelot–how love had overcome him.
 We were alone, and we suspected nothing.

And time and time again that reading led
  out eyes to meet, and made our faces pale,
  and yet one point alone, defeated us.

When we had read how the desired smile
  was kissed by one who was so true a lover,
  this one, who never shall be parted from me,

while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth.
  A Gallehault indeed, that book and he
  who wrote it, too; that day we read no more."

The tale is of course a familiar one, as Dante himself tells us earlier in Canto V:

Vedi Paris, Tristano; e piu` di mille
ombre mostrommi e nominommi a dito,
ch'amor di nostra vita dipartille.

"See Paris, Tristan. . ."–and he pointed out
  and named to me more than a thousand shades
  departed from our life because of love.

But the comparison here is rather more specific:

Tristan und Isolde: Act II
Isolde! Geliebte!... Tristan! Geliebter!
Jon Vickers & Birgit Nilsson


Mein! Tristan mein!

Mein! Isolde mein!

Mein und dein!
Ewig, ewig ein! 

The scene for all of its beauty is rather overwhelming and as such a little uncomfortable. The lovers are so seized, so heedless of time, everything. . . and we too grow transfixed by the scene which grows more and more detached and ethereal as the motives of transport and love weave together. Somewhat frighteningly effective, I think, which led Nietzsche to say how it exercises "such a dangerous fascination, such a spine-tingling and blissful (süssen) infinity." [1] (emphasis mine)

Indeed. "Why cannot these lovers shroud themselves forever in the sweet twilight of night and death that should indissolubly unite their souls and their destinies?!". . . Dante was filled with such pity he fainted after Francesca told her tale.

 René Kollo and Johanna Meier. 1991.

Update: I did not intend to suggest Wagner shared Dante's view of the lovers' situations, merely that  we might me inclined to compare them. Indeed one might find something quite different in Wagner, for example:

"The redemption through love that Wagner dramatizes in his mature operas is not an escape into another world in which the sufferings of this one are finally compensated. It is rather a demonstration of the value of this world by showing that something else is valued more. The sacred moment, in which death is scorned for the sake of love, casts its light back over the entire life that had led to it." –"Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde" by Roger Scruton. 2004.

See also:
Death Drive: Eros and Thanatos in Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde"
Linda Hutcheon & Michael Hutcheon
Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 11, No. 3. (Nov., 1999), pp. 267-293.

[1] Ecce Homo. Warum ich so klug, 6.