Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Week 05, Goethe's Faust

European Romanticism of Herder, Rousseau, Goethe, etc.
Neoclassical and Enlightenment thinkers tended to emphasize the orderly collective, the reason-based and structured community, with perhaps "the passions" yoked as instruments in the service of reason.  (See Plato's Phaedrus for its depiction of the fiery steeds of good and bad passion, both of which need to be controlled by Reason, which alone guides us towards the Good and the True.)

Romantics emphasize the potential of the individual – some of their favorite notions are imagination, genius, particularity, passion – that is, the individual in all his or her eccentricity and emotional intensity, in fact, is often set forth as the universal.  William Blake is the strongest advocate for that kind of striving towards the universal not as a neoclassical abstraction but instead as something inextricable from that which embodies it.  "One thought fills immensity," he says, and how about his opening to "Auguries of Innocence"?

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

Walt Whitman sings a "Song of Myself" that turns out to be a song about everybody else at the same time, no?  But all this is common to Romantic thought, in one way or another.  It is intuition, emotion, imagination, and in some versions (Wordsworth and Rousseau, for example) love of natural beauty and process, that grounds our hopes for progress, for transformation, and a more beneficial and free social order.

Neoclassical and Enlightened art sometimes amounts to a Horatian uplift or affirmation campaign based on "imitation" (mimesis), with the aim being to give you what you have already been led to think, only in a more elegant, memorable form: "whatever is, is right," as Alex Pope says.  The artist chooses to represent and ornament a good, rational order as the ideal, and make us fall in love with it.  (This need not involve lying about the way things really are at present.)

Romantic art can be isolated, brooding and withdrawn (examples would be Byron's Manfred, or Shelley's poet-nightingale singing to soothe itself), but often it is confrontational, expressive, ambitious.  Both expressive theory and mimetic theory tend to advocate an ethics and an agenda, but the ethics and agenda are very different.  Romantic art wants to change you, shake you up; Romantic lyric and music want to turn your head, refocus your attention, start the social and perceptual revolution with you – yes, you!  Neoclassical satire, by contrast, may be wonderfully confrontational, but in a piece like Candide, Voltaire wants to tear down your delusions and propose rational, particular "fixes" or offer limited, sage advice; that is because Enlightened thinkers deal with society and man as a kind of machine or edifice, while the Romantics conceptualize society as a living, changing organism, one moving pretty quickly towards liberation and self-expression.  Who knows where the changing will take us, or even whether it will end?

In an even broader context beyond art, this organic/emotional versus mechanical/rational contrast profoundly affects European politics from the C18 onward.  The American Founders, men of the Enlightenment, drew up contracts of sorts, documents enumerating grievances and setting forth rational, discrete "fixes" and constraints.  That's where we get the salutary notion (poorly defended today by so-called conservatives) that there ought to be strong limits on what government can do to us or make us do to others.  The French Revolution might have begun that way, but it turned into something much more organic, expressive, dynamic, violent, and transformational.  France was never the same after the Revolution of 1789: it led to a near-total alteration of society and politics.  I think our Romantic moment or baptism of fire came with the Civil War – Lincoln's Gettysburg Address reads like it was written by an expressive poet; he speaks of the birth and death of nations, and of souls struggling to break free.  But it's fair to say that America didn't come into its own until the First World War, when our power became manifest as we helped to settle a great European struggle.  Of course, the rest of the C20 pretty much belonged to us, and with the possible exception of the Roman Empire, the world has never seen the like of us for sheer importance and power.

I should add the following: Romantic art is not only ambitious, it is at the same time intensively self-reflective, self-questioning and philosophical – it turns on its own central concepts and submits them to the fires of introspection and critique.  It's true that the Enlightenment fostered the spirit of critique, most notably in the formulation of Kant's injunction sapere aude.  But Romanticism does this with unparalleled feeling and intensity.  So ideas such as intuition, imagination, revolution, social and poetic/linguistic organicism, etc. – are by no means left unquestioned.  Emotion or passion is construed as the ground of human universality, yet who has more closely looked into the risks of such deep passion, the possibility that it may take a tailspin towards mere fantasy, irrationalism, self-delusion, and despair?  Who has noticed and reflected more darkly on the potential that imagination has not only to renew the world but also to trap us with its own productions and isolate us from humane engagement with things and people as they are?  Who has more strongly emphasized that glorifying "the individual" at the expense of the community might well lead nowhere but to narcissism, solipsism, and incomprehensibility?  Or that it might in fact worsen the primal eldest curse, alienation, which, after all, Romantic poets and other artists tend to take as the absolute precondition of authentic humanity?  Count Manfred on the Alps is grand, but not a happy man.  Besides, the Romantics themselves weren't generally so superior and removed: Lord Byron died of a fever in 1824 helping the Greeks organize the fight for their independence from the Ottoman Empire (1821-30).  Not exactly an alienated recluse, was Byron – he was more like a rock star with a scandalous personal life and a principled politics.

With this mention of "passionate self-critique," we should move to Goethe, who was both an early proponent of emotionalist art or "Sturm [stormy passion] und Drang [impulse or stress]" (Werther) and a critic of that impulse when, along with Friedrich von Schiller and others, he moved towards what came to be known as "Weimar Classicism" (Weimarer Klassik) from the 1770's through the first decades of the C19.  To be sought were balance and perspective in and through art and artistic education.  The aim was to promote human integrity, wholeness, clarity well-roundedness – to synthesize the best of the Romantic and the Enlightened outlooks.  Read Schiller's brilliant Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man -- I can't recommend this book highly enough as a meditation on the difficult but ultimately promising relationship between aesthetics, society and political change.  Anyhow, in Goethe we see not only the propensity for self-criticism but also a particularly strong dose of wit and humor in doing so – he's quite the intellectual's poet.  In truth, his own erudition probably rivaled that of Doctor Faust, since there's just about no branch of learning in which Johann Wolfgang von Goethe didn't dabble in a long life that stretched from 1749-1832.  He was a true polymath – artist, scientist, philosopher, you name it.

The Protagonist, Heinrich Faust:
Marlowe's Faustus was nobler in that he at first made his pact with the devil's helper because of his desire for forbidden but genuine knowledge: ultimate understanding of the universe and its secrets.  True, he also wanted to experience the sensual side of life to the fullest.

Goethe's Faust makes his bargain when he has already rejected the quest for such ultimate knowledge.  Now what he wants is more human extremes, a total openness to experience of any kind, be it pleasure or pain.  In sum, he aligns himself with his own romantic or "Sturm und Drang" definition of human nature as restless, perpetually unsatisfied and striving.  The way up is through humanity itself, the inner space of human nature, so to speak.

Margarete, or Gretchen:
She is somewhat more complex than what we might expect: she isn't as pure as Faust insists she must be: she is easily seduced with gifts and kind words, and puts up no real resistance to Faust's advances.  She isn't bad – just ordinary.  After all, Mephistopheles had said the witch's potion would make Faust think every woman Helen of Troy.

Goethe has updated him and given him a wry sense of humor – a new tradition that lasts to this day.  Gretchen sees him in his lineaments nonetheless: repulsive, unsympathetic, antipathetic to love's attractive power.

What is Goethe apparently trying to accomplish with this respinning of the old story in which a learned doctor is condemned for seeking forbidden knowledge at the expense of his humanity?

He turns the usual moral fable neatly on its head: our incompleteness is our greatness; that's the new Romantic paradigm.  But the lesson and path are more complicated than that.  Goethe is mature enough to act as historian and philosopher to the movement with which he is associated, European Romanticism.  Faust's pursuit of extreme experience is by no means purely admirable: in fact, it begins with a species of utter boredom and a self-pitying kind of irony: "Was it for this empty, high knowledge that I've spent so much of my life?"  In the end, Faust isn't condemned in Part 2 as we expected he would be.  His movement away from narcissism and towards compassionate intersubjectivity is enough to earn God's favor.  But the narcissism is there, and it's acknowledged rather than papered over.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Week 04, Voltaire's Candide


What are the basic premises of the European Enlightenment and of philosophes such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Condorcet, d'Alembert, Diderot, and Montesquieu?

1.  Universe is intelligible and orderly, governed by natural forces we can comprehend by the use of reason and applied science.  Deism is a religious corollary, and so is an insistence on observing tolerance and following moral standards that we have drawn mainly from within ourselves.

2.  Individuals and indeed human history can be understood on rational terms.  Knowledge implies responsibility for exercising control over ourselves individually and our affairs collectively.

3.  Humanity is improvable, perfectible. Locke's tabula rasa notion of childhood stresses education since environment is critical.  We can make progress in science, government, and society.

4.  Notions of perfectibility, knowability, and control lead to a democratic impulse in Enlightenment thought, even if many intellectuals favored "enlightened autocrats" like Frederick the Great.  If we made our own institutions over time, we can change them when they no longer suit us.

The Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) sums up the European Enlightenment well.  Kant said that the essence of the Enlightenment could be captured in the phrase sapere aude, “Dare to Know.” Humans possess the power of reason, and they are responsible for knowing the sources, operational principles, and limits of that power. That is what the three famous Critiques are for: Critique of Pure Reason (how we can perceive and know); Critique of Practical Reason (Ethics); Critique of Judgment (Aesthetics). We are free rational and moral agents living in a world that we ourselves largely render intelligible by means of our powerful mental faculties.  We are not determined by nature or bound to naturaal necessity; we give laws to Nature, and our standards derive not from an external source (God) but rather from our own capacity to act morally.

Voltaire and the French philosophes were publicizers, popularizers, and practical reformers, not ivory-tower thinkers.

Voltaire was exiled for a while to England for insulting a French nobleman, the Chevalier de Rohan.  He favored a dash of English government and British empiricism – healthy alternatives for French Cartesian rationalists and political absolutists.  He opposed Europe's addiction to war, issuing the remarkable comment, "murder is strictly punished unless you do it in great numbers and to the sound of trumpets."  He also favored civil liberty and opposed the Catholic Church in his famous cry, "écrasez l'infâme," by which he meant superstition and bigotry, in particular the Catholic Church with its long history of persecution against free-thinkers and intellectuals.  This sentiment is optimistic because it assumes that removing obstacles systematicaly will open the way to improvement of the human condition.

In Candide Voltaire is considering the problems of personal autonomy, determinism, and the possibility of social and political justice.  It's all well and good to cook up theories and "oughts," but how have people always treated one another?  There's plenty of evidence for a strong search into that question, so let's have a look.  Well, let's have an an outrageously satirical, over-the-top look, anyway.  Yet, how far beyond realism are the events of Candide?  Is human history devoid of brutal sadism and torture, mass rape, horrible pestilence, total war, and so forth?  No!  It's an awful thought, but what you get in Candide – silly stuff about El Dorado and all the ridiculous recognition scenes aside – is concentrated realism.  A modern equivalent might be something like Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, though that film is considerably more pessimistic in its outcome than Voltaire's text.

In a sense, Candide is atypical of Voltaire as a philosophe thinker, or at least it isn't to be taken on its own, in isolation from his larger body of work.  Rather we should probably read it as an antidote to the mistaken assumption that Voltaire might run to extremes in his bold advocacy of humanity's prospects in the face of a long, ridiculously hideous history constituting evidence to the contrary.  Candide deflates the scientific pretentions, the cocksure absurdity of the -ism associated with the late C17 rationalist philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in particular: optimism.  Voltaire doesn't reject optimism in a general, non-philosophical sense. Rather he tries to prevent it from rigidifying into a system of the sort that Dr. Pangloss advocates.  Whenever that happens to a philosophy, it loses much of its insight and value.  He's a philosophe, not a dogmatist.  To be hopeful and positive-spirited is not to be an oblivious fool.  Vigilance is the watchword, and the upshot of Candide, the moral lesson, is simply we must cultivate our own gardens.  In other words, keep it real and do something tangible that benefits you and those around you.  Do not fail to see what's really going on, and don't build intellectual and desire-based sand castles in the air.  But don't give up, either -- that just runs against human nature and it makes life impossible, stagnant, intolerable.

Main Points about Candide: The text confronts you with raw experience, shocking stuff.  This representation dumps a vat of acid on C18 optimist and rationalist pretentions, corroding the frameworks commonly used to control and understand people and things.  The point is to reveal the underlying reality of events and circumstances.  Voltaire is, therefore, a good Baconian empiricist and an honest historian, and optimistic views don't correspond to real life.  We might be able to see that if we just stopped blurting out formulae and precepts and instead opened our eyes.  As they say, "denial isn't just a river in Egypt," and a huge amount of human energy seems to go towards the denial of everything from our own mortality to the atrocities we are capable of committing.  And truth, as Nietzsche will later inform us to our discomfiture, very often looks suspiciously like a species of error that makes us feel good about ourselves.  In the best sense, this philosophe Voltaire is anti-systemic in his insistence on vigilance, his opposition to religious and philosophical dogma.  For the rest, we will run through the text's highlights.

Week 03, Racine's Phaedra


Racine stages a central theme in ancient Greek tragedy: knowing things doesn't afford one control over them.  That is the disturbing insight to reckon with in the current play.  As always, cosmic irony is at work: the cosmos are indeed orderly, but not in a way that brings comfort to humans who thrive on predictability and nourish dreams of their own dignity.

With regard to Theseus, his savvy as a womanizer and martial adventurer hardly translates into insight into his domestic affairs.  Racine's Theseus isn't the one in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the hero who manages to get on fine with his earlier wife, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons.

Phaedra's ancestry matters – she is the daughter of Minos of Crete (son of Zeus by Europa) and Pasiphae (daughter of the sun) who fell in love with a bull: Pasiphae's destructive, unnatural passion seems to afflict her daughter, too.  Phaedra is fully aware of the quandary she is in, but can do nothing positive to escape from it: her gambit to drive away Hippolytus fails miserably.

In Euripides' version, Hippolytus is devoted to Artemis rather than Aphrodite, who is therefore angry with him.  Aphrodite represents passion denied in this case, the consequences of which are disastrous.  As in Euripides' Bacchantes, those who deny the erotic force in life are almost bound to meet with a bad end: in that play, Theban king Pentheus is torn to shreds by his mother Agave and the Bacchantes whom he scorns.
Racine's style is the epitome of early neoclassical excellence: as the Norton editors say, his ability manifests itself in a fine combination of genuine passion and stately form; the latter, rather like the masks that the ancients wore during a tragedy the better to bring out the character, helps intensify the passion.

Alexandrines – how they work, 12 syllables (13 if last one is unstressed), pause after the sixth (caesura), and four accent-points, major ones on the sixth and twelfth syllables.

A needless alexandrine ends the song
that like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along. 
(Pope's "Essay on Criticism")

Hippolyte (opening of first act)

Le dessein en est pris: je pars, cher Théramène,
Et quitte le séjour de l'aimable Trézène.
Dans le doute mortel dont je suis agité,
Je commence à rougir de mon oisiveté.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Week 02, Matsuo Basho

Notes on Matsuo Basho. The Narrow Road of the Interior.
This work has a bit of Henry David Thoreau about it, though obviously it doesn't have the American Transcendentalist or late-romantic emphasis on individualism and self-expression.  What it has in common is that it's sort of a literary pilgrimage, not just an unadorned trek through nature.  Thoreau's Walden wasn't only about nature, and neither was A Week on the Condord and Merrimac just a simple nature jaunt with no ulterior motive.

Concentrate on the near-constant minging of natural description/interpretation and Basho's interactions with worthy people he meets along the way, monuments, and so forth.  Consider why this is especially appropriate in an island country such as Japan, one with a lot of people in a fairly small amount of space.  Comment on Basho's haiku origins and how they fit into his travel narrative as focal points or summings-up and memorializings of his experiences.

2288. How does Shonagon conceptualize nature, how does she relate to it and describe it? I think she describes nature as if it were a work of art; we only have selections, but I find that she concentrates mostly on still-life tableaux, and not so much on natural process or activity, though of course that is always implied in any sensitive description of nature. Nature is presented to her as a series of distinct but related objects, aesthetic objects. She seldom speaks harshly about nature, but instead finds something good to say about most natural objects. She is not always so generous about human beings within the court system or outside of it. But that doesn’t bother me—people can take care of themselves; we should be indulgent with nature. Shonagon is very conscious of nature’s presence in literary tradition, both Japanese and Chinese, and she mixes in this awareness with her naturalistic descriptions. In the example of the pear blossom, it is Chinese literature that leads her to make a close examination of the blossom itself. She does not hesitate, either, to mingle observation of nature with comments about human affairs like coming home from a festival. She is not, in other words, a purist who must block out all things human to talk about nature—that is probably more a product of modern necessity. In Japan , as I’ve read, people once lived very close to nature, and then when the island became crowded, they had to work hard to recreate a sense of the natural, by means of artifice. Zen gardens epitomize this kind of artifice—they are at once natural and artificial, we might say.

 Buddhism's key concepts and how this early romance novel, while also containing elements of Daoism and Confucianism, fits within the Buddhist framework in spite of its whimsicality.  Just about everything that happens reinforces Buddhist notions about how desire and misprision bind people to the world, keep them from doing what they need to do, etc.

The Four Noble Truths and Three Laws
1.  life is suffering

2.  suffering is a product of attachment or desire

3.  it’s possible to let go of attachments

4.  there’s a true path towards liberation -- meditation, self-annihilation, detached action; see the Eightfold Path from Buddha's first sermon "setting the wheel of truth in motion": right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.

Three Laws: Anicca (impermanence); Dukkha (suffering, all phenomena unsatisfactory)' Anatta (non-self, no ego); the five precepts basically have to do with clean, peaceful living so that you don't get attached to the body and its desires or to material objects.

So the straightforward message is that misdirected desire makes us unhappy, but right conduct and attitude can bring us peace.  On the whole, Buddha counsels reorientation of one’s sensibilities and attentions away from the self and towards the community.