The Dissolution of Esthetics, by Ricardo Nirenberg.
The words “esthetic,” “estheticism,” “esthetician,” etc., are primarily understood today not as philosophic terms but as having to do with fashion, with cosmetics, with spas and hair or nail salons. The same can be said of the words “beauty” and “beautician,” as well as of “taste” and “tasteful.” The devaluation has occurred not only in English, but in all European languages, and, so far as I can see, it started in earnest right after the First World War. The enthusiasm greeting G. E. Moore’s 1903 book, Principia Ethica, in which the esthetic experience is taken to be the greatest intrinsic good, would have been quite dampened had it appeared fifteen years later. In a 1922 cartoon by Olaf Gulbransson in the German satiric journal Simplicicimus, titled « Ruhige See » (calm sea), we see an elegant couple on a pleasure steamship; reclined on a deck chair, she says, « Sie sind reizend, Fred ! Ich bewundere Ihre geschmackvoll zusammengestellte Individualität. » “You are charming, Fred! I admire your tastefully composed personality.” In a 1930 essay Georges Bataille wrote this about the word esthète: « Étant bien entendu que personne n’adopte maintenant une pareille dénomination… » “Being understood that no one now calls himself by that word.” Indeed, by that time the word was being used among European literati as a choice insult. Hermann Broch, in his novel Die Schlafwandler (1931-2), has whole chapters about esthetics, especially modern architecture, but he is careful to state, ironically, that, “I am not an esthete, and unquestionably never was one, although I may unwillingly have given that impression…”
Benjamin Fondane, in his Faux-traité d’esthétique of 1938, summed up the situation: « Il est vrai que la contemplation, que le beau, sont choses absolument périmées. Vrai que l’humanité, assoiffée de justice, ne peut plus se permettre le luxe, le superflu. » “It is true that contemplation and beauty are positively defunct. Humanity, thirsty for justice, cannot afford superfluity and luxury any longer.” Fondane was a poet, yet for him poetry had nothing to do with the Beautiful, nor with the Good; it was, he thought, a sui-generis natural function, harmed rather than helped by critical judgment.
One cannot be blamed for suspecting that the catastrophe of WWI had a big role in the fall of the esthetic into disrepute. Whatever European artistic culture had been up to before that terrible event, had been proved evil after the fact, or at least very ill judged. And what had European artistic culture been up to during the so-called Belle Époque? Like the cicada of the fable, it had been singing for the pleasure of it, with no heed for the approaching winter. Art had been assumed to have no other purpose than itself. It was decadence, L’art pour l’art. Oscar Wilde had expressed it frivously and succinctly: “The first condition of creation is that the critic should be able to recognize that the sphere of Art and the sphere of Ethics are absolutely distinct and separate.” Such “aestheticism,” Gulbransson’s cartoon suggested, can be sustained by the elite while the seas are calm, but let the storm strike, and the whole thing will be shown as fatuous, selfish, even criminal. By such ways, one may plausibly argue, the word “esthetic” and its relatives acquired their despicable aura.
But let us be honest: the science of beauty and the beautiful had run into serious trouble long before World War I. The Beautiful had ever been in closest communion with the Good, and not infrequently with the True; yet barely a few decades after Baumgarten baptized that science “esthetics,” Kant sharply distinguished between ethics (the study of the good, grounded on the notion of the categorical imperative) and esthetics (the study of the beautiful, based on the notion of design). That boded ill for both, and in fact, barely a few decades after that, Hegel in his Vorlesungen über die Aesthetik curtailed the realm of esthetics, excluding from it most of what had been included up to his time: beauty in nature, which had been prominent for Kant, beauty in human actions, character and behavior. Esthetics became exclusively the study of the fine arts, die schöne Künste (poetry included). Furthermore, according to Hegel’s lessons, the time was approaching when the fine arts themselves were to cease playing any necessary spiritual role in human life. Things would become too complicated, thought Hegel, and people would be too busy planning ahead, for art to be of significance, other than as ornament, decoration, entertainment, and as a matter fit perhaps for some philosophical reflection. Such a development, however, according to Hegel, should be looked upon as a welcome liberation, for in philosophy (and perhaps in religion) Man will be able to find all he needs—whatever ideas of sense his life may require—without the unnecessary sensuous, fleshy envelop that is essential to art. Marx borrowed that idea from Hegel too: pictures, sculpture, and so on, he predicted, would not be necessary when man’s surroundings would become beautiful, at long last, in the socialist society. After Hegel and the Hegelians, esthetics became the science, or the study, of something which would be soon superseded: a gloomier and more superfluous study can hardly be imagined.
It has been argued, notably by Robert Musil, that the troubles with art and beauty began long before Hegel. Their root, said the author of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften in an essay of 1925, Ansätze zu neuer Ästhetik, was at the beginning of the reign of Christianity, “when art suffered from the jealousy of true believers and was allowed by its defenders to escape, as it were, into a second-class existence (ein Leben zweiten Ranges).” This verdict, unjust as it will appear to readers of Augustine’s Confessions, owes much to Nietzsche’s influence on Musil.
One can easily argue, in philosophic language, how that second-class existence supposedly came about: for once the highest possible idea—God—has donned the envelop of flesh and become Christ, little interest can be possibly left for all sort of minor ideas being fleshed in words, pigments, marble or bronze, and that little only in so far as those minor incarnations point to, or serve to recall, the great and glorious One. After Christ, ideas do not need a sensuous envelop, if it is not to instruct in Sacred History those who cannot read or are unskilled at thinking.
Similar arguments, however, can be adduced to show that the trouble with poetry and art has an even earlier origin, that the root lies not at the beginning of the dominance of Christianity but already in Greek philosophy and, more precisely, in the Aristotelian division of the soul which proved to be enormously influential and long-lasting(On the Soul, 403a, 413b, passim.) Indeed, thinking (noeîn) and intellect (noûs) was taken to be the highest function of the soul, the only one which could possibly be independent of the body, the only one that can be called incorruptible and immortal, while imagination (phantasía), the function on which art mostly depended, and memory (mnéme), were definitely attached to the body, hence inferior and subject to decay. Aristotle’s three-part division ruled the field at least until Johann Nicolaus Tetens, in Philosophische Versuche über die Menschilche Natur und ihre Entwicklung, Leipzig, 1777, proposed a different tripartite division of the human soul into reason, feeling and will, which influenced Kant and, through him, most 19th-century philosophers; note, however, that reason is the one function common to both systems, and that in both reason sat up on top. The long-standing, infinite superiority of reason over imagination and memory in the Western soul entailed a similar superiority of mathematics and philosophy over poetry and the other arts. An artist like Homer or Phidias could depict or evoke the gods in dactylic hexameters or in gleaming bronze; but when Archytas was proving a geometrical theorem, or when Plato was thinking about how things participate in the eternal forms—at those moments they were gods, and they knew it. As Spinoza put it much later: “Mens aeterna est, quatenus res sub aeternitatis specie concipit”—Mind is eternal in so far as it conceives things from the standpoint of eternity.
In Western classical thought, it can be argued, poetry and the arts have always enjoyed at most a second-class existence; the difference in value separating them from the logical, mathematical and empirical disciplines has been usually considered infinite, and it was only a spirit as profound and universal as Leibniz who consented to reduce that gulf to finite proportions: “I am glad indeed that Dryden received a thousand pounds for his Virgil,” Leibniz wrote in a letter, “but I wish that Halley could have had four times as much, and Newton, ten.”
All this by way of introduction, to show that the assignment of inferior status to esthetics is of very long standing. Now I will endeavor to trace the source of beauty’s troubles even farther back, well beyond the birth of Greek philosophy. Philosophers should not end up taking all the blame for the misfortunes of poetics and esthetics: the poets themselves, and their poetic tricks, have much to answer for.
The source of beauty’s troubles lies in what Mary Midgley, in her book Beast and Man, calls “the bizarre cult of the Future itself as a kind of mythical subsistent realm enshrining value—a cult invented by Nietzsche, filled out by Wells and the Futurists, and still very influential.” Except that the cult of the Future is much older than Nietzsche.
Let us take a look at the myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus, as told by Hesiod in Works and Days. The recurrent, major theme in the first one-hundred-and-five lines of that didactic poem is the personalization of polar opposites, one definitely good and the other unmistakingly bad, in the characters of two brothers or two sisters. In lines 27-41, Hesiod himself confronts his brother Perses. The occasion seems to have been a lawsuit concerning their father’s inheritance, which Perses won because (so Hesiod implies) he bribed the judges. But Perses did not manage his part of the inheritance well, and found himself destitute, whereupon, coveting still more of his brother’s holdings, he threatened Hesiod with another lawsuit. The poem’s pretext is the poet’s exhortation to his brother to abandon his evil ways.
To that end, Hesiod personifies Strife (Éris) not as a single goddess but as two sisters (lines 11-26): the first-born is the good strife, the one we call emulation and competition, and thanks to which mortals thrive and prosper, whatever their business be. The other, the bad strife, feared and hated by men, is the cause of wars and destructive contention. Good strife, needless to say, is the one guiding Hesiod as a farmer and poet; but Perses is led by the other, the bad strife.
Lines 42-105 contain the myth of the titans Prometheus and Epimetheus, and of the wondrous woman, Pandora. Here, as before, we have a pair of brothers: Prometheus the good one, Epimetheus the bad one. Prometheus, whose name means forethought, is called by the poet agkulométes, crafty, aux pensers fourbes—literally, the one whose thoughts are angular, that is to say, crooked (line 48). For only angular thoughts allow us to look ahead into the future, just as light must be bent if it is to illuminate what is hidden from us, around the corner. Stealer of fire, benefactor of mankind, crafty Prometheus cared for our future. Where would we be if we did not have fire under our control? Of all things, fire is the one most demanding forethought, both to keep it burning for tomorrow, and to keep it within safe boundaries so as not to burn down the whole place. Epimetheus, his brother, bears no epithet in Hesiod, but his name means afterthought, hindsight. The only thing we can say about Epimetheus, other than that he minded the past, is that he was a sucker for beauty.
The woman, Zeus’ instrument to wreak divine vengeance on the human race, was fashioned by Hephaestus, adorned by Athena and Aphrodite, bedecked by the Graces, the Hours, and by queenly Persuasion, and finally provided by Hermes with a bitch’s mind (literally). Because of this collaborative effort, she was named Pandora, “the All-endowed,” or, “she who is a gift from all the gods” (lines 80-2). Hermes brought her down to Epimetheus, and even though the titan had been warned by Prometheus his brother not to accept any gift, however small, coming from Zeus, he could not resist Pandora’s supreme beauty, and took her to wife. Alas, too late Epimetheus understood the evil he had caused: Pandora opened the jar and let out the afflictions which would forever after plague mankind (line 89).
Good, beneficient Prometheus, always caring for the future, over against bad, plague-causing Epimetheus, with his gaze turned toward the past: with this opposition, Hesiod was the first to formulate what was to become the bum rap against beauty and song. Of course, just as in a magnet the two poles go always together, no man (or titan) has ever lived who does not gaze now into the future, now into the past: Hesiod’s opposition is not realistic, but it is the scheme of an ideology. I mean the notion that we go through life facing the future, with our back to the past, and all the notions which go with that. In his discharge, we may imagine that Hesiod was using a poetic devise known as hendiadys, or one-through-two, “a figure of speech in which a single complex idea is expressed by two words connected by a conjuction,” as the OED defines it. Prometheus and Epimetheus would then be a single titan, viewed poetically under two different aspects. If that were the case, bravo for Hesiod, but what fatal results a poetic device can have!
The structure of all practical activity is Promethean, that is to say, oriented toward the future. The same is true of logico-empirical science, since scientific laws are concerned only with events which can be indefinitely repeated in the future, and are of the form: whenever the events A, B, C,… are present, the events X, Y, Z,… will be present as well. By contrast, the esthetic experience has been traditionally (and not only by Kant) characterized as being impractical, disinterested, detached from the values of use. I doubt the validity and usefulness of the preceding characterization of the esthetic, but I will argue for a different proposition: that the esthetic experience is by essence (although not exlusively!) Epimethean, a looking backward. What I mean is this: my esthetic experiences entail remembering—the coming into play of all of my life up to that point—and only under that condition are they esthetic experiences, as opposed to cognitive, or affective, or whatever else they might be.
I will first give some examples, not from the arts but from mathematics or the sciences, because (a) they are simpler, and more amenable to logical analysis, (b) I happen to remember some of those experiences vividly, and (c) the mathematical sciences are for us what the domestication of fire was for our ancestors: the most precious gift from Prometheus; the more striking, then, if we can show that their beauty is still Epimethean.
I was fifteen; the plane Euclidean geometry text for that year’s course had been written by Federigo Enriques, an illustrious mathematician, and the chapter on the circle began with a definition: “If r is a non-negative number and O a point in the plane, the circle C of radius r and center O is the locus of all points that are at the distance r from the point O.” Nothing surprising here. But the following theorem did surprise me; it read: “The center of a circle is unique.” The first thing that crossed my mind was, “But of course the center of a circle is unique. Doesn’t the definition say that we have a point O and that it is called the center of the circle?” After I read the definition several times and thought about it, I realized that there could conceivably be another point O’ with the property that all points in the circle C be equidistant from O’ (and not only from O). Up to that day, however, I had never conceived of such a possibility. There was a feeling of newness, of the never-yet-conceived, followed by the intimation that there are many more such concepts in this world waiting to be conceived: that even when dealing with something as simple as a circle, the conceivable world is one of hardly imaginable complexity. Then another question came up: Isn’t it obvious, just by looking at it, that there is only one center to a circle? And then I understood for the first time what mathematics is about. “Just looking” at the diagram is a valuable help for thought, a heuristic tool, but we are supposed to prove the uniqueness of the center by logic, and that means to derive it logically from the axioms. Which in turn means that, were we to adopt another set of axioms, circles might have many centers. All those thoughts, then present to my mind for the first time, constituted a cognitive and an esthetic experience, but the esthetic component depended on my awareness of many social, historical and biographical facts: memories from my past. I was acquainted with circles and their centers (wheels and axles were ubiquitous; compasses were one of the tools required at school), and teachers invariably referred to the center of a circle. Also, the sort of thinking typical of mathematics—Platonic—was far removed from the sort of thinking I encountered with most people every day. Without the background consciousness of those facts, and no doubt of many others belonging to my past and to the life of my community, my experience with Enriques’ chapter on circles would have been instructive or not, boring or interesting, easy or hard, but not, properly speaking, esthetic.
For another example: what was so remarkable about Newton’s falling apple? Those who say, “He discovered that things fall because of gravity,” have no idea of how beauty must have swollen Newton’s soul when he realized that Kepler’s elliptical orbits, the ebb and flow of the tides, and the falling of apples from the apple tree, are all aspects of the same phenomenon and all obey the same law. To fathom Newton’s esthetic experience, we must translate ourselves to a situation in which tides and falling apples are common events, but Kepler’s three laws, recently discovered, constitute a deep, resonant mystery. Part of that mystery, we must not forget, was that Kepler had found an ususpected role for the curves which the Greeks had been the last to study, as sections of a cone by a plane: the same curves, now it turned out, were the trajectories of planets and comets. And that is not all: we must also keep in mind the other things which occupied much of Kepler’s and Newton’s mental space: astrology, alchemy, prophecy, biblical chronology; in brief, all they had inherited from the previous centuries. We must try to get an imaginative glimpse at how all those other regions, very much alive back then, may have interacted with the new discoveries in those minds.
The esthetic experience, always more dense than mere surprise, must be also a recollection, a looking to the past. You might say that beauty is, always and to a large extent, in the past (hence in the eye) of the beholder.
The Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz enjoyed scandalizing an educated public. He delivered himself against Dante, against the poets in general, against modern music, etc. By the end of his life, in the late 1960s, when he was living in Vence, Alpes Maritimes, he corresponded with his neighbor, the artist Jean Dubuffet. Gombrowicz attacked modern art (excepting the art of his correspondent, of course) on the basis that it is an acquired habit, like smoking cigars. Well, it is true that modern art is an acquired habit, but so is older art, and so is the art of all ages, even that of our own tradition. What is wrong with that? In my own experience, only after travelling far and wide and spending quite a bit of money on museum entrance fees did I start enjoying Poussin, and it was longer and harder with Gianbattista Tiepolo. I had noticed something masterful about those painters, but at first both seemed too declamatory, too formulaic, and the Venetian too decadent. As for cigar smoking, it was never a habit of mine (nor of Gombrowicz, who smoked pipes and cigarettes), but I can conceive of situations where it too could be an esthetic experience, if the smoker had superb senses of smell and taste, and if tobacco from different lands and times were sufficiently distinct and sufficiently entwined with the cigar smoker’s life stages.
There was a bit of truth in the Surrealist dogma that beauty consists in the bringing together of disparate objects—a sewing machine and I don’t remember what else, on top of an operating table. Breton’s was a simplified, objectified version of the traditional definition of beauty as variety in unity or unity in variety. There is—and this is my main point about esthetics—more useful truth in the following observation: we feel beauty when disparate active regions of our brain and body are felt to be functioning together—coinciding—and getting along famously. I am not qualified to get into neuroscience, and I am afraid I have to leave the term “active region” imprecise enough to cover a wide variety of cases. It does not have to mean a faculty, a function, or a set of cells. But before going into some examples, let me note that the medieval definition of truth as adaequatio is closely related to the above observation; the truth of propositions, for instance, is viewed as the coincidence of an active region of “matters of fact,” perceived or remembered, and another region connected to the semantics of language. Those regions may be disparate or not: only in the first case, when the coincidence was in some way unexpected, will truth be accompanied by esthetic pleasure. Marcel Proust wrote somewhere, « Le plaisir esthétique est précisément celui qui accompagne la découverte d’une vérité » : The esthetic pleasure is precisely the one which accompanies the discovery of truth.
Take, for example, my experience with Enriques’ geometry textbook: the region of the mind dealing with visual patterns (for which the uniqueness of the center is obvious), and the region that processes logical sequences—the right and the left brain, as they say—come here together and collaborate in producing a logical proof. Or take a familiar and simple occurrence: two persons you have met at times widely apart, appear in a dream together, or perhaps fused into one, like a hendiadys; whereby you become aware of symmetries in the roles they have played in your life. Or recognizing the traces of three centuries of Venetian painting expressed in the exquisitely nervous gestures of Tiepolo’s wrist. Or listening to the desintegration, semi-tone by semi-tone, of a chord bursting with tensions, soliciting the fancy we have kept from adolescence in some corner of the mind: the voluptuous sinking into nothingness. Or when a hundred muscles, helped by inner rhythm and a silent mind, succeed in letting me stand on one foot for an hour, like a flamingo, or like Socrates.
Why the functioning in unison of disparate active regions of the mind should have pleasurable and often powerful, astonishing effects, I am unable to say; but I imagine it was this which led the Neo-Platonists to place the One and its unifying force above all else. Conversely, and borrowing a pun from Alberto Savinio, in Italian: disparate / disperate—disparity and despair go together. Hope is always and foremost a hope of unity. The affirmation of disparity, of the adiabatic unconnectedness of mental spaces, is, at once and more radically than suicide, a removal of hope, of spes, the definitive act of de-spe-ration. We must remember that when Epimetheus’ wife Pandora opened the jar and all the plagues and misfortunes flew out, hope remained inside. That is usually interpreted as, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never Is, but always To be blest.” Thus Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man. Here hope is projection toward the future, as Christian hope ought to be. But it would be more attuned to reason and to the facts to look for hope in Epimetheus’ house, where the jar was left. If hope is first and foremost a hope for unity, it cannot be for the murderous utopias where everyone shares the same ultimate purposes and the same vision of the future, but rather for the unity of one’s mind, the integrity of one’s soul, which means, in chief particular, the shame-free integration of one’s past.
Strictly speaking, a pessimistic poetics is self-contradictory. Insofar as it is successful, the active region of our mind where desperation holds court will meet other active regions—humor, punning, reminiscences from Milton or Joyce (as in Samuel Beckett), or what have you—and desperation must then give place to pleasure and hope. In any esthetic experience we are left wondering at the coming together and fruitful, collegial getting-along of different powers, faculties, agencies, nervous centers: what I’ve been calling active regions. It may be before a lemon tree amid roses that the esthetic experience takes place, or before an ocher-and-pink house in some working-class suburb, or a piece of plastic art: emulation must naturally follow, and we must wish that our mind, or rather our self in possession of its memory, exhibited the same kind of beautiful unity, which is such that any element in it is a synecdoche of any other. Before a bust of Apollo Rilke said, “Du mußt dein Leben ändern”—and Delmore Schwartz translated, “You must be reborn.” This is an interesting mistranslation. The German original says, “You must change your life,” which allows for the possible, and in my judgment the aptest, understanding of the injunction, namely: you must change the way you have interpreted your life up to this point and you must change your attitude towards it; you must make your life beautiful. But the American poet’s “reborn” implies forgetting, erasure and starting again from scratch, and it carries, besides, connotations of Christian conversion, plus a whiff of the American resource of moving to another state and starting life all over. Now, is erasure the effect of an active region of the mind? Can we call forgetfulness a power? Hardly, and anyhow, the operations of forgetfulness, however important they may be for other purposes, by themselves or in conjunction with other mental or bodily functions do not make us say, “How beautiful!”
Forgetfulness and erasure are the everyday tools of the practical man. The CEO of a company assembles his senior staff because they must retrench: it must be decided who stays and who’s “let go.” They review each division, and every time a partial decision is reached, tough-mindedly moving his hand across the table as if sweeping crumbs away, the CEO says, “Let’s move on.” And so a timely plan is put together. No going back. A few must be sacrificed if the many are to be saved. We must imagine Prometheus similarly averse to agonizing over decisions already taken, and that is perhaps why all-knowing Zeus condemned him to an eternally periodic torture. Artists, too, are often practical men and great erasors: “The man who regards his past is a man who deserves to have no future to look forward to. When one has found expression for a mood, one has done with it,” wrote Oscar Wilde, with no less finality and Promethean ferocity than a CEO—the most frivolous thought in his essay “The Critic as Artist.”
Epimetheus delights in going back. Vague and dreamy, he has read Kierkegaard and knows that “repetition, if it is possible, makes a person happy”; he knows that “repetition is the new category that will be discovered,” and that it “precisely explains the relation between the Eleatics and Heraclitus.” When Nietzsche at Sils-Maria came upon the idea of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same, supreme happiness and ecstasy overcame him: Becoming was thus marked by the seal of Being. Kierkegaard’s idea, prior and more economical, is that a single repetition is enough for the purpose. A single repetition will conjoin Heraclitus’ flux and Parmenides’ unchanging and perfect symmetry.
For the professional Prometheus, by contrast, past life coincides with his resumé or his CV: for him repetition would be catastrophic. “In 1992 you went back to the old job you had in 1978? Hm…” Hm indeed: and incidentally, forget all possibilities of advancement. In the present job market, repetition is a seal which marks the losers. What’s important about Epimetheus is that he is able to give a sense to the past without borrowing senses or schemes from other people’s pasts, but rather by looking at the one he must bear along—looking at it in his own peculiar way: the esthetic way, the way one looks at something without a wish to change it, and with no thought for self-justification. Though when you think of it, he, of all people, should have the keenest causes for guilt and regrets. And yet, just as Marcel was transported back to Piazza San Marco as soon as he stepped on an irregular stone at the Guermantes’ court, just so, when a soft breeze brings the chirp of cicadas and the odor of thyme, Epimetheus is again opening his door to the ravishing gift from all the gods.
You are a poet, trying to decide between several words, or between several positions for an accent. You must evaluate all possibilities, and soberly calculate the results. No doubt that is necessary, but it is not enough; those Promethean activites by themselves may produce a successful poem, but not a beautiful or even a true one. It is a basic professionalistic sophism that those two qualities, being successful and being beautiful and true, are one and the same—but are they? That has been our most important metaphysical question for some time, the more so as the global market engulfs all. Musil (“Der deutsche Mensch als Symptom”, 1923), thought he had an answer here: “The capacity to calculate soberly and evaluate is only one of man’s important attitudes. In contrast to facts, actions, business, the politics of force (and it is politics even when force serves the cunning of goodness) stand love and poetry. These are conditions that rise above the transactions of the world.” Liebe und Gedicht are the two words Musil chose, love and poetry. Setting love and poetry “above the transactions of the world” (“über die Händel der Welt”), however, seems to beg the question, since we must then ask in what ways Musil’s superior Liebe und Gedicht differ from the love and poetry already appropriated by the marketers.
It is at this point, indeed, and because of this problem, that esthetics comes into its own and to the forefront of philosophical speculation. For only esthetics can deal with the question, What does it mean for a poem to be beautiful and true?
Here is a very brief, tentative, necessary condition: behind the choice of a word, a pause or a rhythm, there should be the backing of your whole past. I mean, not only all previous experiences with words, pauses and rhythms—that is the technical part—but all else that your powers—your poetic memory, imagination, and Musil’s kind of love, if you wish—are able to bring up. I prefer not to get into the question of whether ‘bringing up’ is conscious or unconscious: it is, of course, both. With such a backing from the past—a backing which should not be confused with nostalgia or the fetishism of what’s gone—successful poetic work may be also true.
The same, of course, can be said of all human action, not just of poetic work: ethics and esthetics are not two separate “disciplines.” Hesiod enjoyed making two of every unity, and perhaps in didactic poetry that is a good tactic, to split men and things into, and then oppose, the villain and the hero. But in reality there is only one discipline—and it is truly titanic—by which we keep alive, like Epimetheus, the memory of our past, and keep, like Prometheus, the fire going for tomorrow, and keep holding the world, like the other brother, Atlas. All those survival tasks are our responsibility, moral and esthetic at once.
The Hesiodic poem may not be true, but nobody can deny it was successful: a hundred generations were persuaded to associate all good things to those who are “forward”-looking, and to think of the ones who look “back” to the past as either decrepit or melancholic wretches. In the latest four or five generations, that persuasion has been stronger than ever: it has become the common heritage of otherwise very different minds. The entrepreneur looks toward the future for profits, the academic or the writer for still another publication, the avant-gardist for how to be “absolument moderne,” the trend-setter for some hint of where to go next, the existentialist for angst.
And how about that most important metaphysical question, whether success, beauty and truth are the same? It, too, has been answered, by Heidegger, with emphasis on the future and on nothingness; his Sein zum Tode and his Entschlossenheit, the Being Towards Death and the Resolution, so many hoped, would ensure the authenticity of Dasein in a non-frivolous fashion. Looking toward the future, ultimately to our death, and keeping it present in our spirit, appeared more noble than looking back to our past life and keeping that present in the mind.
That generation’s past, we must admit, included unsavory stuff: the insouciance of the Belle Époque, the joy of that summer of 1914, when the war had been declared, a joy which may have endured among the Futurists but was elsewhere succeeded by a vast mourning. In the 1920s and 30s mourning itself, trauern, became a kind of trend, and the absence of all ground, the feeling of being suspended above nothingness, a mark of genuineness. From Kierkegaard the “existential thinkers,” chiefly Heidegger, took up the anguish and left aside the repetition; yet it is remarkable that another reader of Kierkegaard, Miguel de Unamuno, who pioneered existential and tragic thought in his Del sentimiento trágico de la vida (finished before the War, in 1912), had got the balance between Epimetheus and Prometheus about right: “Se vive en el recuerdo y por el recuerdo, y nuestra vida espiritual no es, en el fondo, sino el esfuerzo de nuestro recuerdo por perseverar, por hacerse esperanza, el esfuerzo de nuestro pasado por hacerse porvenir.” “We live in remembrance and by remembrance, and our spiritual life is but our remembrance’s effort to persevere, to turn itself into hope, the effort of our past to make itself into future.”
That is, in a nutshell, Unamuno’s tragic sense of life. And now, since no esthetics, old or new, has ever been judged to be worth its salt unless it can account for the beauty we find in tragic plays, I will, in conclusion, mention the true poetry of the great Greek tragedies. This example must suffice. No one’s past could be more full of shame than Sophocles’ Antigone’s, the daughter of her own grandmother, and of a father who could not bear the light as soon as he recognized himself; yet, no one acts in such firm possession of her past as she does (see especially lines 890 ff.). It is from that firm possession of her past that she looks with firm resolution towards her death, and it is from the same ground that the thought of her brother being the prey of dogs and birds of prey, and of her doing nothing about it, is unbearable—unbearably ugly, impossible to incorporate, much less to integrate. I suggest that we, raised and used to viewing attention to the future and attention to the past as disparate active regions of the mind, find it beautiful when both come together, in harmony, in the person of the tragic hero. Even though frail and mortal like us, Antigone, Oedipus or Philoctetes do seem to experience time differently, more solidly, more whole: they are not suspended above the abyss, le gouffre, der Abgrund—no: they stand firmly on their past. From which, one would like to say, they usurp eternity.
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