Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Nietzsche Excavated



Excavations of The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, On Truth and Life in an Extra-Moral Sense & Twilight of the Idols, edits in The Critical Tradition by David H. Richter

Nietzsche writes that

The Greeks were keenly aware of the terrors and horrors of existence; in order to be able to live at all they had to place before them the shining fantasy of the Olympians. Their tremendous distrust of the titanic forces of nature: Moira, mercilessly enthroned beyond the knowable world; the vulture which fed upon the great philanthropist Prometheus; the terrible lot drawn by wise Oedipus; the curse of the house of Atreus which brought Orestes to murder his mother: that whole Panic philosophy, in short, with its mystic examples, by which the gloomy Etruscans perished, the Greeks conquered – or at least hid from view – again and again by means of this artificial Olympus. In order to live at all the Greeks had to construct  the Olympian hierarchy of joy by slow degrees from the original titanic hierarchy of terror, as roses are seen to break from a thorny thicket.

We ourselves are the very stuff of such illusions, unfolding in time, space, and causality – what we label “empiric reality”-  conjuring  a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms; in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically heightened, transferred, and embellished, and which after long usage, seemed fixed, canonical, and binding to a people. Truths that are illusions that we have forgotten are just that; metaphors that have become worn out and being considered only as metal, no longer as coins. 

We still do not know where the urge for truth comes from; for thus far we have heard only the obligation that society imposes in order to exist. To be truthful just means using the customary metaphors; that is, in moral terms, the obligation to lie according to a fixed convention, as a herd, in a style binding upon all. Now man forgets, of course, that this is how things stand for him.. Unconsciously and after centuries of getting into the habit of it, he thus lies and arrives, through just this unconsciousness, this very obliviousness, at his sense of the truth.

Only by forgetting the primitive world of metaphor, only by hardening and stiffening the primal mass of images that gust in fervid fluency from the original wealth of human fantasy, only by means of an unconquerable faith that this sun, this window, this table is a truth in itself, in short, only by forgetting himself as subject, that is, as an artistically creative subject,does man live with any tranquility, security and constancy. If he could escape the prison walls of his faith for only an instant, it would be over at once for  his “self-assurance.”

The intellect, that master of deception is free as long as it can deceive without doing harm, relieved from the slave duty it otherwise performs, it thus celebrates its Saturnalia. It is never more profuse, rich, and proud, more nimble and daring; with creative pleasure it makes a muddle of metaphors and shifts the boundary stones of abstractions so that, for example, it calls the stream a moving path  that carries man where he would otherwise walk. Now it has cast off the token of servitude thus far engaged in cheerless activity, attempting to show a poor individual the ways and means of the existence he craves, like a servant who goes out to pillage and loot for his master, it now has become master and may wipe away the expression of want from its features. Whatever it now does no longer bears the mark of distortion, as before, but that of disguise. It copies human life but takes it to be something good and seems quite content with it. That enormous scaffold and framework of concepts to which the needy man clings for dear life is merely a stage and plaything for the boldest feats of a liberated intellect; and when it smashes, jumbles, and ironically reassembles this framework, pairing what is most foreign and separating what is closest, it reveals that it has no need for such makeshifts of need and that it will no longer be guided by concepts, but by intuitions.

There is no regular path which leads from these intuitions into the land of ghostly schemata, the land of abstractions. No word exists for them, man is speechless in their sight or else he talks only in a great many forbidden metaphors and unheard-of phrasings so that by smashing and mocking the old conceptual barriers he might at least creatively approximate the impression of intuition in its mighty presence.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Critics Corner 8: Mathew Arnold


The two works of Mathew Arnold [1822-1888) considered here are "The Functions of Criticism at the Present Time" [1864] and "The Study of Poetry" [1880].


I read Culture and Anarchy out of my mother's library years ago. I have little doubt that my 19th century  bourgeois ancestors considered him a wonderful authority or at least an ally  in the great liberal project of expanding the benefits of public education in both England and America (Arnold was an inspector of schools).  Some of Arnold's thoughts on criticism ought to be weighed in light of the fierce sectarianism and party partisanship which characterized the fight to establish public education in the United  Kingdom.


"It is of  the last importance (meaning the first) that English criticism should clearly discern what rule for its course, in order to avail itself of the field now opening to it, and to produce fruit for the future.The rule may be summed up in one word, - disinterestedness. And how is criticism to show disinterestedness? By keeping aloof from practice, by resolutely following the law of its own nature, which is to be a free play of the mind on all subjects it touches; by steadily refusing to lend itself to any of those ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas which plenty of people will be sure to attach to them, which perhaps ought often to be attached to them, which in this country at any rate are certain to be attached to them quite sufficiently, but which criticism  really has nothing to do with. Its business is, as I have said, simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas."

The statement clearly reflects the notion of an Ivory Tower, or a specifically academic mission ( as it is sometimes said about some question: "It is an academic one so don't get  too excited'). Perhaps more so than the ontological 'disinterestedness' of the 'Kantian" sense. To get public education you have to assure people that what goes on there will be 'neutral' to some effective degree, not just a vehicle for promoting the views of, as we say today, 'special interests'. Of course even now, more than a hundred years after the Education Acts, 'the public' always suspects that some political agenda in being pursued in schools, or, even contrarily express the thought that 'academic pressure' in itself is a bad thing, imposing  undue 'emotional burdens' on the spontaneous currents of their children's development.


  The example he gives of Edmund Burke gets closer than Kant to what Arnold had on his mind.


"Burke is so great  because, almost alone in England, he brings thought to bear upon politics, he saturates politics with thought; it is his accident that his ideas were at the service of an epoch of concentration, not an epoch of expansion; it is his characteristic that he so lived by ideas, and had such a source of them welling up within him, that he could float, even in an epoch of concentration and English Tory politics, with them. It does not hurt him that Dr. Price and the Liberals were enraged with him; it does not even hurt him that George the Third and the Tories were enchanted with him. His greatness is that he lived in a world which neither English Liberalism nor English Toryism is apt to enter, - the world of ideas, not the world of catchwords and party habits. So far is it being from really true of him that he 'to party gave up what was meant for mankind," that at the very end of his fierce struggle with the French Revolution, after all his invective against its false pretensions, hollowness, and madness, with his sincere conviction of its mischievousness, he can close with a memorandum on the best means of combating it, some of the last pages he ever wrote, the "Thoughts on French Affairs in December 1791, -with these striking words :

The evil is stated, in my opinion, as it exists. The remedy must be where power, wisdom, and information, I hope, are more united with good intentions than they can be with me. I have done with the subject, I believe, forever. Itu has given me many anxious moments for the last two years. If a great change is made in human affairs, the minds of men will be fitted to it; the general opinion and feelings will draw that way. Every fear, every hope will forward it; and then they who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs, will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself, than the mere designs of men. They will not be resolute and firm, but perverse and obstinate.


This  is what I call living by ideas; when one side of the question has long had your earnest support, when all your feelings are engaged, when you hear all around you no language but one, when your party talks this language like a steam engine and can imagine no other, - still be able to think, still to be irresistibly carried, if so be it, by the current of thought to the opposite side of the question, and, like Balaam, to be unable to speak anything but what the Lord has put into your mouth. I know nothing more striking, and  must add that I know nothing more un-English."

For all that, in the rest of the essay, Arnold overstates the distance between the normal course of practical affairs and free play of the mind.



"What then is the duty of criticism here? To take the practical point of view, to applaud the liberal movement and all its works- the British College of Health or its New Road religions of the future, - for their general utility's sake? By no means; but to be perpetually dissatisfied with these works, while they perpetually  fall short of a high and perfect ideal.  . . I have wished, above all, to the attitude which criticism should adopt towards everything; on its right tone and temper of mind. . . I am bound by my own disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world."


These are just general statement more suggestive than definitive of the functions of criticism. He sets himself up as a kind of arbiter of 'true criticism, tone, temper, play of mind and proper interest.' without putting his fingers too close on it.  But for all that, as early as 1864, Arnold forms in his mind the idea of a European Union:

"After all, the criticism I am really concerned with, the criticism which alone can help us most for the future, the criticism which, when so much stress is laid on the importance of criticism which, throughout Europe, is at the present day meant, when so much stress is laid on the importance of criticism and the critical spirit, is a criticism which regards Europe as being, for intellectual and spiritual purposes, one great confederation, bound to joint action and working to a common result. . ."  That is, I suppose, a more advanced  confederation than what already existed in Arnold's day with respect to banks, large commercial enterprises and student exchanges.


In "The Study of Poetry"  Arnold writes, repeating himself on numerous occasions without adding much analytic clarity:

,
"In reading poetry, a sense for the best, the really excellent, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it should be present in our minds and should govern out estimate of what we read. But this real estimate , the only true one, is liable to be superseded, if we are not watchful, by two other kinds of estimate, the historical estimate and the personal estimate. . .  natural fallacies (as he calls them.)"


What the real estimate might be, however, Arnold admits that "It is much better simply to have recourse to concrete examples." On the historical estimate  he thinks the albeit lively and accomplished critic M. Charles d'Hericault, editor of Clement Merot, goes too far when he says that "the cloud of glory playing round a classic is a mist as dangerous to the future of a literature as it is intolerable for history. It hinders us from seeing more than a single point, the culminating and exceptional point; the summary, fictitious and arbitrary, of a thought and of a work. It substitutes a halo for a physiognomy, it puts a statue where there once was a man, and, hiding from us all trace of labor, the attempts, the weaknesses, the failures, it claims not study but veneration; it does not show us how the thing is done, it imposes upon us a model. Above all, for the historian this creation of classical personages is inadmissible; for it withdraws the poet from his time, from his proper life, it breaks historical relationships, it blinds criticism by conventional admiration, and renders the investigation of literary origins unacceptable. It gives us a human personage no longer, but a God seated immovable amidst His perfect work, like Jupiter on Olympus; and it will hardly be possible for a young student, to whom such work is exhibited at such a distance from him, to believe that it did not issue ready made from that divine head."

"There can be no more useful help for discovering what poetry belongs to the class of the truly excellent, and can therefore do us the most good, than to have always in one's mind lines and expressions of the great masters," Arnold concludes his rebuttal.







Critics Corner 7: Hegel & Marx

Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831) is not an author I would read with the expectation getting much pleasure. The passage presented in The Critical Tradition, an excerpt from 'Introduction to the Philosophy of Art", however, performs an interesting trick. Conventionally the word 'concrete' suggests a substantial material presence. Hegel turns that signification on its head; 'concrete' has its address in the responses of the soul, as an appeal to the hearts and minds of men, participating in the essence of the World Spirit as a unity of the universal and particular. The concrete in Hegel's sense is the genuine and real, not like poured cement.

"Only beyond the immediacy of sense and external objects is genuine reality to be found. Truly real is but the fundamental essence and the underlying substance of nature and of the spirit, and the universal element in nature and in spirit is precisely what art accentuates and makes visible. This essence of reality appears also in the common outer and inner world, but it appears it the form of a chaos of contingencies, distorted by the immediateness of sense perception, and by the capriciousness and conditions, events ,characters, etc. Art frees the true meaning of appearances from the show and deception of this bad and transient world, and invests it with a higher reality and more genuine being than the things of ordinary life."

Hegel is more interested in the motions and, indeed, the progress of the World Spirit- what's 'concrete', true and genuine about life- than what role art plays in expressing it. The categories to which he assigns various artistic productions -Symbolic, Classical and Romantic - are more or less drawn arbitrarily on the basis of his own taste, prejudice or incomplete knowledge of the societies and cultures(contemporary or historical) from which his exemplars are selected. He establishes a hierarchy of high and low stages, the  civilized and primitive, of the 'self-unfolding idea of beauty."


The unfolding of the idea of beauty occurs  in transcendentally dialectical fashion, summarized by the triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. An aspect of life becomes a thesis when it is abstracted from the background of nature and made into an absolute. Each absolute calls into being its Other [why? how so? we might ask], the antithesis, which it negates and which in turn negates it. At length the conflict is mediated by a higher transcendental being (idea) that can resolve the negations and contradictions.

Perhaps a passage like this is better understood if one substitutes 'a skeptical attitude' or 'sneaking suspicion" for 'negation.' Of course that all this struggle goes on in the world of ideas, as a matter of Spirit, and it seems even as a matter of Pre-Destiny, is preposterous, as Marx recognized- 'turning Hegel on his head'- as the saw goes- but did not succeed in adding all that much more clarity to the situation.

Both Hegel and Marx posited man's alienation from the world and himself, in the Romantic literary tradition. Hegel was like : "Don't worry, be happy, everything is on course". Marx was like "be very worried", you are more of a puppet than you realize, fight back". Hegel believed that human progress was a spiritual achievement. Marx believed it was a material achievement.

" In direct contrast to German philosophy, which descends from heaven to earth, we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real active men, and on the basis of their real-life process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life process (productive force). The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound on material premises."

Marx was excited by this idea, much in the same way Hegel was excited by his. They both proceeded to add more weight to their 'carts' than they could reasonably bear.

"Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. . ." and so on. You can tell by the way he keeps repeating such bald statements that he has not quite grasped the complex interactions that take place between the productive forces of men and their consciousness, though his passionate engagement with the fate of the working class men of his day is excuse enough.

I doubt that either Hegel or Marx will fail to appear in the remaining 1,600 pages of the book of which these notes give an account.

Critics Corner 6: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats & Shelley


Poets themselves might not be the best ones at Critical Theory. How could they be, in Kant's terms, 'disinterested' enough to apprehend the beautiful and sublime in their own works? Didacticism , the rigors of philosophy, can hardly be their strongest fort, though whatever sound thoughts can be gleaned from the Prefaces and After-Words to their published poems or the occasional lecture might be of historical interest and reflective of certain general trends  analogized together as representing a school of poetic endeavor, namely, in the case of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats, Romanticism.

Wordsworth's (1770-1850) poems, by his own light, 'follow the spontaneous outflow of powerful organic feelings natural to men, modified by thought; that thought being itself representations of past feeling. 'Organic" in the sense of arising out of sensual rather than conceptual experience . Wordsworth exemplifies these feelings as paternal, maternal, fraternal,  the feelings perplexity, fear and others of a more obscure character that he -

"will not abuse the indulgence of my reader by dwelling on  the subject; it is proper that I should mention one other circumstance which distinguished these poems from the popular poetry of the day; it is this, that the feelings therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling." Organic in the sense of arising in the soul of the poet.
It is a 'natural' feeling which-

"for a multitude of causes, unknown in former times, now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion are reduced to a state of almost savage torpor. The more effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces cravings for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. To this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country conform themselves. The invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespeare and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse. I am almost ashamed to have spoken of the feeble effort which I have endeavored to counteract it, reflecting upon the magnitude of the general evil. I should be oppressed with no dishonorable melancholy, had I not a deep impression of certain inherent and indestructible qualities of the human mind  which will in the future, systematically oppose these evils by men of greater powers than I, and with far more success."

But in all modesty, Wordsworth admits that for the poet the outflow of natural feeling depends more on his capacity for removing what would otherwise be painful in passion than putting up directly those emanations of reality and truth which his fancy or imagination can only suggest, but words cannot express.

Coleridge (1772-1834) seconds Wordsworth's thought about organic feeling, or maybe it was his to begin with:

" The organic form is innate; it shapes and develops itself from within: nature humanized as a genial understanding, self-consciously directing a power and an implicit wisdom deeper than consciousness." Coleridge, however, allows a co-existing or secondary imagination  responsive to the conscious will which reshapes the perceptual world into an idealized and unified picture , creating a less real but more fantastical kind of art. Thus he accounted for the difference between Wordworths  art and his own.

Keats( 1795-1821) says of Coleridge that he 'would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the inner sanctum of mystery  from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. Shakespeare, in his view, was a poet of great achievement because he possessed a "Negative Capacity" that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

Keats did not write much theory. We just have a few brilliant flashes from his correspondence. He describes his 'mode of operation' as Imagination, which he compares to Adam's dream in Paradise Lost- he awoke and found it to be true. Truth is 'authentic reality' rather than 'verifiable fact'. 

Following Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) in "A Defense of Poetry" one might illuminate the  foregoing distinction by saying reason acts within the realm of verifiable fact whereas imagination makes authentic reality. Reason enumerates and brings relationship to what's given to our apprehension whereas imagination synthesizes what's given to the point where it can be felt as the real. Reason organizes and translates, imagination creates. This is the sense in which Shelley's famous statement that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World" is perhaps best understood.

Much of what Shelley writes along critical lines have the aspect of ancient hieroglyphics, before the discovery of any Rosetta stone. Some clues can be gained by examining the essay by Thomas Love Peacock ( 'The Four Ages of Poetry') to which "A Defense of Poetry" is said to be a response. Raymond Williams analysis of Shelley's essay ( from "Culture and Society 1780-1950") provides at least some partial interpretative assistance with the suggestion that Shelley's work falls into the category of a general growth in the idea of the artist as a special kind of person.

found the remark editor of The Critical Tradition particularly useful: "For Shelley, the world is veiled from human participation by dead thought and language, and it is the poets alone who are to penetrate and 'lift the veil from the hidden beauty of the world'. A thought familiar to anyone acquainted with Sufi mysticism and it would not be surprising if some evidence were discovered that Shelley was in some direct way influenced by it.  Alternatively, Shelley may have been working with the notion found in 1 Corinthians 13:12 :"For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know part; but then shall I know even as also I shall be known." Or just the general idea that the majesty of creation and the human capacity to apprehend its unity fail to line up, even the message Holy Scripture being but a partial inscription of divine will and wisdom calibrated to the limited understanding of humans of which, in the Romantic tradition, the poet is a kind of mediator, by means of love and grace.

There might be a kind of proto-Semiotics in Shelley's 'Defense" as well but I do not have the inclination or time to pursue that angle at this time.

  

Critics Corner 5: The Vindication of Women


Mary Wollstonecraft [mother of the author of "Frankenstein"] wrote 'Vindication of the Rights of Women' in 1792:

I wish to sum up what I have said in a few words, for here I throw down my gauntlet, and deny the existence of sexual [gender defined] virtues, not excepting modesty. For man and woman, truth, if I am understanding the meaning of the word, must be the same; yet the fanciful female character, so prettily drawn by poets and novelists, demanding the sacrifice of truth and sincerity, virtue becomes a relative idea, having no other foundation than utility, and of that utility men pretend arbitrarily to judge, shaping it to their own convenience. Woman, I allow, may have different duties to fulfill; but they are human duties, and the principles that should regulate the discharge of them, I sturdily maintain, must be the same. To become respectable, the exercise of their understanding is necessary, there is no other foundation for the independence of character; I mean explicitly to say that they must bow to the authority of reason, instead of being the modest slaves of opinion.

In her "Essay on Fiction" (1795) Germaine de Stael wrote:

"If most men had the wit and good faith to give a truthful, clear account of what they had experienced in the course of their lives, novels would be useless - but even these sincere narratives would not have all the advantages of novels. We would still have to add a kind of dramatic effect to the truth; not deforming it, but condensing it to set it off. This is the art of the painter: far from distorting objects, it represents them in away that makes them more immediately apprehended. Nature sometimes shows us things all on the same level, eliminating any contrasts; if we copy her too slavishly we become incapable of portraying her. The most truthful account is always an imitative truth: as a tableau, it demands a harmony of its own. However remarkable a true story maybe be for its nuances, feelings, and characters, in cannot interest us without the talent necessary for the composition of fiction. . . .a scrupulously detailed account of an ordinary event diminishes verisimilitude instead of increasing it. Thrown back on a positive notion of what is true by the kinds of details that belong only to truth, you soon break out the illusion, weary of being unable to find either the instruction of history or the interest of a novel. . .

" Even if purely philosophical writings could predict and detail all the nuances of actions, as novels do, dramatic morality would still have the great advantage of arousing indignant impulses, an exaltation of the soul, a sweet melancholy - the various effects of fictional situations, and a sort of supplement to existence*. The impression resembles the one of real facts we might have witnessed, but it is less distracting for the mind than the incoherent panorama of events around us, because it is always directed towards a single goal. Finally, there are men over whom duty has no influence but who could still be preserved from crime by developing within them the ability to be moved.* Characters capable of adopting humanity only with the help of such a faculty of emotion, the physical pleasure of the soul, would naturally would not deserve much respect; nevertheless, if the effect of these touching fictions became widespread enough among the people, it might give us some assurance that we would no longer have in our country those beings whose character poses the most incomprehensible moral problem that has ever existed. The gradual steps from the known to the unknown stop well before they reach any understanding of the emotions which rule the executioners of France. Neither events nor books can have developed in them the least trace of humanity, the memory of a single sensation of pity, any mobility within the mind itself for them to remain capable of that constant cruelty, so foreign to the impulses of nature - a cruelty which has given mankind its first limitless concept- the complete idea of crime.


* italics mine

Critics Corner 4: Kant



 Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)'s Transcendental Critique of Aesthetic Judgment offered a variety of innovations in the way scholars evaluate Art, 'reversals' or 'radical turns' as they are sometimes called. He was looking for the conditions of mental life that create the possibility for the apprehension of beauty and the sublime- an epistemological project  which is said to have contributed to the foundations of modern psychology.

How is it that beauty appears in the eyes of the beholder? It’s the result of the workings of the mental faculties of reason, understanding and imagination, cognition and feeling. 

'Transcendental" in Kant's usage is not outside or above us, as we might conceive God to be, but within , the ground from which all that we perceive that is outside of us proceeds and for which we are in the most fundamental way responsible, as individuals.

 By "critique" Kant meant an analytical investigation into the quality, quantity, relations and modalities of human mental faculties, of an intent and scope not previously seen before. Beyond these simple assertions, however, Kant often becomes quite obscure. Reading Kant, and many who followed in his philosophical turn, is a confrontation with dumbfounding definition, dizzying distinctions, diabolical doctrines and heaps of jargon. It's very difficult to understand what Kant means by the individual 'moments of taste' comprised in the mental faculties which constitute an aesthetic judgment. For one, the word 'moment" is not used in the temporal sense. "Quality' denotes a unique subjectivity which is never-the-less universal. Quantity is pervasive, something that 'lights the whole room' not just the object we happen to be looking at.  'Relation' refers to the self-generating, purposeful purposelessness of the apprehension of a beauty that surpasses the mere sense of a pleasant or gratifying experience. Exactly what Kant means by modality I have not yet been able to discern.

Perhaps what Kant was trying to say in his rather pseudo -scientific manner - brushing aside the multiple categories in his juggling act- was that art brings together the things of nature in way that generates a sense of a new way of being or sense of wonder and extraordinariness, expanding of the horizon of what we can think, where we find our freedom, the dignity of self-rule and autonomy.  Kant believed this --  the experience of the beautiful and the sublime-was a matter of our feelings rather than specific knowing, an act of the (unbound) imagination rather than of reason or understanding. The beautiful is accepted as a complete end unto itself, having no agenda, no proofs, free of prejudice or restraint, or any ideology.

Put in such terms Kant's critique of aesthetic judgment seems a bit sentimental, an excessive piling up of love for art which is belied by actual experience but, paradoxically, at the same time,  making the claim that the perception of beauty in its broadest sense embodies no personal interest and is a universally shared experience.

Well, our capacity to embody paradox may be what ultimately distinguishes us from animals, so give credit where credit is due.

No doubt we will be hearing more about Kant as we proceed along in The Critical Tradition.

Critics Corner 3: Pope, Johnson & Hume




Pope’s Essay on Criticism (1711)


Some beauties yet no precepts can declare,
For there’s happiness as well as care.
Music resembles poetry, in each
Are nameless graces which no methods teach,
And which a master hand alone can reach.
If, where the rules not far enough extend
(Since rules were made but to promote their end)
Some lucky license answers to the full
 The intent proposed, that license is the rule.
Thus Pegasus, a nearer way to take,
May boldly deviate from the common track.
From vulgar bounds with brave disorder part
And snatch a grace beyond the reach of art,
Which without passing through judgment
   gains
The heart, and all its end at once attains.

But though the ancients thus their rules invade
(As kings dispense with laws themselves have made)
Moderns, beware! or if you must offend
Against the precept, ne'r transgress its end;
Let it be seldom, and compelled by need
And at least their precedent plead.
The critic else proceeds without remorse
Seizes your fame, and puts his law in force.

Some to conceit alone their taste confine,
And glittering thoughts struck out with at every line;
Pleased with a work where nothing's just or fit
One glaring chaos and wild heap of wit.
Poets, like painters, thus unskilled to trace
The naked nature and the living grace,
With gold and jewels cover every part,
And hide in ornament their want of art.
 Tis not enough your counsel still be true;
Blunt truths more mischief than nice falsehoods do.
Men must be taught as if you taught them not
And things unknown proposed as things forgot.
Without good breeding truth is disapproved
That only makes superior Sense belov'd.


Tis best sometimes your censure to restrain,
 and charitably let the dull be vain;
Your silence there is better than your spite,
 For who can rail so long as they can write?

 By any account Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was a moralist.  That is, he conceived the purpose of literature to be the instruction in morals, even if that entailed a didacticism which Pope would disapprove. Johnson’s Sermons accomplish that purpose effectively by which I mean he does not reduce the Gospel to any series of commonplaces or catch phrases but preserves the obscurity that one encounters in attempts to apply its measure to everyday judgements, though not  with such grand ‘metaphysical’ obscurity that one finds in the Sermons of John Donne. It was only with great difficulty in  the performance tact that Johnson could preach the Gospel to the men of his age without giving great offense. The men and women of his age appreciated his efforts even above the efforts those who were specifically assigned to the task of preaching in Church and on solemn public occasions.

Well , anyone familiar with Johnson would likely recognize the influence his style and manner has had on my own. I’ve read a lot of Johnson. This is a good example of his best work:


Supposedly, Johnson was the first to recognize that theater-goers were not necessarily expecting an accurate representation of life as it is lived in a unity of time and space but took their pleasure in the performance they witnessed as fiction. If they did not regard the show as a fiction, a pretense, they would not be likely to enjoy it. Who wants to witness real murder, heartbreak or tragedy? That the first act of a play takes place in Athens and moments later the second in Rome is no imposition of the imagination of audiences, as some critics of Johnson’s time liked to claim.


Johnson’s criticism of Shakespeare runs along these lines:

‘His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books and men. He sacrifice virtue to convenience, and this so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose. From his writings indeed a system of social duty may be selected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally; but his precepts and axioms drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good and evil, nor is always careful to show in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carries his persons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close dismisses them without further care, and leaves their operations to chance. This fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate; or it is always the writer’s duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independent on time or place.”

Besides the fact that unpacking the dense  condensations in this paragraph would expose several weak arguments, he’s pretty much dead wrong. Amoralism ( be sure that there is a distinction between that and immorality) is one of the true pleasures and foundation of whatever ‘instruction’ is to be gleaned from literature, when fiction better encompasses the real than science, philosophy, religion or history. As Hans-Georg Moeller put it:

“...for an empirical point of view, in everyday life and even in most of our important decisions, ethics or morals do not provide useful guide. It is doubtful, for example, that becoming righteously angry with an obnoxious colleague, boss or family member is more beneficial than avoiding a moral a mindset altogether . Actually, when moral discourse prevails, disaster often appears. The demand for “moral smartness” ( as in the “smart diplomacy” advocated by the present U.S. Administration, or the debate over immigration) is a symptom of social crisis and a society verging on hopeless disorder and accumulating misery.”


It is the amoralism of Shakespeare which provides a space for the catharsis and sublimity in his plays which Johnson  attributes, some what contradictorily, to the bards experience in the rough and tumble of the London theatrical scene, his connections to the common audiences and popular books of his day rather than an extension of formal education in the ‘classics’; his origins in the artisan class.  Strict probity is not how  most people get on in life. Even for those who can afford it, it is more often than not a self-delusion. It’s hard to imagine Johnson didn’t understand that. Owing to the apparent contradiction perhaps we must conclude that at least in some respects Johnson was  quite mad, which is not far from the depiction in Reynold’s portrait.

David Hume (1711-1776), a  paragon of philosophical excellence in many quarters, always seemed to me to take the stance of lecturing to fools. Perhaps because what once was uniquely enlightening is now taken as pre-suppositionally commonplace. Between various opinions that abound in the world definite judgments  as to their truth or falsity can be made. The moon is not made of green cheese. We’ve gone to the moon and discovered tha it is made of rock. In the matter of sentiment and taste, the proofing of the puddling is not so simple. Never-the-less, Hume did believe some aesthetic judgments were better than others based on the experience of the judges. What attention, deliberations, comparisons, allowance for different points of view in both time and space, what ends are being pursued in judging make a difference, establishes validity and sets up a hierarchy. It’s the same story the editor of The Critical Tradition mentioned in his Introduction:  the vicious conundrum that ‘to know something you must know everything’, as it may apply to beauty or any of the literary graces.

This is a highly debatable proposition which has a tendency to ‘go around in circles,” somewhat solipsistically. In her article “Contingencies of Value” in Critical Inquiry no 10, (1983) Barbara Herrnstein Smith made the argument that

“There is a tendencious conviction among those who argue these questions that unless one judgment can be shown to be more ‘valid’ than another, then all judgments must be ‘equal’ or ‘equally valid.” Indeed, it is the odor or apparent absurdity of such egalitarianism that commonly gives force to the charge that “relativism” produces social chaos or is a logically untenable position. While the radical contingency of all value certainly does imply that no value judgment can be more valid than another in the sense of  being a more accurate statement about the value of an object ( for the latter concept then becomes vacuous), it does not follow that all value judgments are equal or equally valid. On the contrary, what does follow  is that the concept of “validity” is inappropriate with regards to evaluations and that there are is no non-trivial parameter with respect to which they could be “equal”.

The goodness or badness of an evaluation,  a judgment of taste based on sentiment with respect to the beauty and graces of any literary or other artistic production, is not a matter of abstract truth value but how well it performs various desired/ desirable functions for the various people who may at any time perform them.

Whatever else David Hume might have said about Art- I have not read all that he did- it is consistent with what he said about Religion, that they do not have abstract truth value.