Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Aesthetics Jumble, with Schlegel

“Jumbled ideas should be the rough drafts of philosophy.
It’s no secret how highly these are valued by connoisseurs of painting.”

I have a pile of books before me: Cambridge UP's Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics, Ranciere's Aesthetics and its Discontents, and Heidegger's The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. There's a book I don't care to mention, and a notepad in there somewhere too. I didn't mean to pile all these together but they ended up that way, and now I'm writing "jumbled ideas."

I thought I would ground myself, before moving forward with anymore unshareable writing, by turning to a paper I wrote on Schlegelian and Heideggerian aesthetics about a year ago. So with Schlegel we will start near the beginning (of what we now call "aesthetics") in the late eighteenth century. I am not only reminding myself of what it is I liked about these philosophers and their aesthetics (and the general cuts of their jibs), but to remind myself (don't laugh!) of what academic writing sort of looks like! There were plenty of other Romantic German aesthetics buffs to write on, but of the two others I liked bunches, Holderlin is very challenging, prolific, and also an accomplished poet, and Novalis is too heady for a beginner to easily fill 15 pages on him with anything other than bullshit. Here is the short Schlegel portion (weird choice to write on too since 90 percent of what I had on him was in his characteristic fragments...) of that dusty old paper, my first stab at any work on aesthetics, which is miraculously cogent considering I was taking 20 credits then and probably didn't even know what I was talking about (all citations are from the Cambridge UP book):

"...by the late eighteenth century, [rationalism and empiricism] did not offer much for the consideration and critical examination of artworks or poetry, or the emerging novel genre. “Philosophical rationality in its role as mimic and defender of scientific reason” was essentially “displaced by the claims of aesthetics” (Bernstein ix), and new approaches to thinking about art had to be developed.

The Romantic philosophers did not have far to look for their inspiration. They turned to art itself to inform their philosophizing on it. In Schlegel’s “Athenaeum Fragments” (1798) he muses (because Romantic philosophers, unlike their predecessors, must have had muses) on art as philosophy and philosophy as art – both angles of the possible tension between art and what is trying not to be so much of a science (philosophy). He notices the artists’ resistance to analysis of artwork, saying that it often “disturbs the art lover,” but that “the real love just won’t let himself be disturbed!” (248). Schlegel is perhaps, at this point, dealing with the resistance to what artists and art lovers think philosophy does, and trying to persuade them (and himself) that aesthetics does something completely different. Schlegel also acknowledges, famously, that Romantic poetry, the art itself, is moving toward something of a rhetoric and a science rather than a mean art, and that it is “to poetry what wit is to philosophy” (249). That is, it is the connection to the other side of the philosophy/art duality. He calls this ability of his highly esteemed Romantic poetry to achieve a kind of union with philosophy “transcendental” (253), which suggests he believes that the gap between the art/science of art and the science/art of philosophy should be transcended whenever possible. From the reverse angle, he describes how a theory of art could come into being informed by art, by a “waver[ing] between the union and division of philosophy and poetry,” and “it would conclude with their complete union” (253-4). In fact, by the end of this collection of fragments, we see that Schlegel has given philosophy over to art – he concludes that philosophy can only “come into being” as “poetry and practice fuse into one” (256).

Moving back one year to Schlegel’s “Critical Fragments” (1797) we can see some of his own “jumbled ideas” that indeed led to his philosophy congealing over the next months. His focus on wit as the “art” in philosophy was his first step in learning how to find philosophy in art. He does not talk of wit as mere humor or satire, but as a sort of breach of the seriousness of analysis with something that seems to come from outside of philosophy, something almost divinely inspired as we would think of an artwork being inspired. He contrasts witty philosophy with purely analytic philosophy, saying, “The flame of the most brilliantly witty idea…can be quenched suddenly by a single analytic word, even when it is meant as praise.” If philosophy can undo its own genius in this manner, its application of an overly analytic method to art may detract from the art just the same.

Another theme in “Critical Fragments” is, as the title of the collection suggests, criticism. Criticism arguably came into its own as a practice as a result of the Romantic and pre-Romantic attempts at theorizing about art in these new ways. Criticism, ideally, would be that Schlegelian place where philosophy and art transcend their own limitations and “fuse.” The artist himself must learn to be a critic and a philosopher, and the philosopher as critic must also be an artist. He puts forth an early defense of criticism, foreshadowing his later defense of analyses of art, saying the only type of criticism that would exist without an appeal to analysis would be the one-word utterance “wow” (242). But for the most part, in 1797 Schlegel was still taken by the art, and sought to find a way for philosophy to embrace it without dominating it. His fragment concerning the “republic” that poetry creates shows his concern for what he might call a “monarchy” or a “dictatorship” of philosophy: “Poetry is a republican speech: a speech which is its own law and end unto itself, and in which all the parts are free citizens and have the right to vote” (242). This line also points to Schlegel’s obsession with paradox (all the parts are free, yet held together by a single law), something which poetry is clearly capable of but that confounds philosophy, as he is familiar with it. He closes this first year of “ruminations” with a doubtful thought. He wonders if philosophy can or should really illuminate anything about art without “ordering the given artistic experiences and existing artistic principles into a science” (245), yet interspersed in the other fragments of 1797 there still lurks his belief that he would come to hold as a truth, that “poetry and philosophy should be made one” (244).

While Schlegel writes himself into many corners and contradictions with his somewhat disjointed fragments, they mostly point at a theme of philosophy being able to successfully unite with art, not only to gain a poetic nature for its practice, but to be able to apply itself to art poetically as theory and criticism. The fragments also point to Schlegel’s disdain for an overly analytic sort of philosophy, and his fear of analysis coming to dominate everything by systematizing under a science. [and now we segue seamlessly into Heidegger!]"

There are so many things that I can expand on here (now that I'm certainly not taking 20 credits), especially the criticism as art stuff, and I didn't even touch on Schlegel as a poet himself. Now I'm going to go back and look at some of these fragments again. (That Cambridge collection, by the way, is a pretty awesome sampler if you've never tried out any of these fellers.) I guess what I learned here is a good way back into something is through a door you've already pried open, even if the doorstop you left there (this silly paper) is now all cobwebs. Schlegel may not have been the best point of entry, but I'm in! And now I can look around. I hope nothing falls on my head.

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