Tuesday, December 17, 2013

the mysterium of aesthetics

The good, the true, and the beautiful are, I think, three related or complementary ideas. I further think they are three sides of an aesthetic pyramid. What is the fourth side and what constitutes the bottom, the foundation square?

Might it be that the fourth side represents our struggle with or our probing of the unknown, the mysterious, the numinous? And could the unknown itself be pictured as that bottom, that foundation square upon which all phenomenal experience rests or issues from?

The friction of our experiences brushing up against textures of the unknown can spark off religious belief and philosophical construction. But the deepest, most interesting forms of combustion happen as modes of artistic expression -- painting, sculpture, music, dance, poetry, stories.

Further down the scale of temperature one finds tepid mentations concerned with politics and science. From an atmosphere of stochastic particles of consciousness in a flurry of heated aesthetic movement, a contrasting torpor of soul makes politics and science -- focused on relational and material quiddity -- shapes of sleepwalking. The obscuring secretions of law and theory lead to spiritual amnesia. With those things, the Real has become so ordinary as to be drained of wonder and the perplexing reverberations of melancholy.

I was led, in part, to this musing after reading about Johann Georg Hamann (1730 - 1788). What an odd duck. 

In Königsberg, his translation of Hume made its way into the hands of his acquaintance Kant and inspired the latter's awakening from "dogmatic slumber." Hamann said some interesting things from his own head about language and what is beneath language. I'm especially curious about the linguistic aspects of aesthetics, so Hamann's head must be examined and tapped for any possible profundity. My interest is piqued because I'm infatuated with good poetry -- poems that are implicitly metaphysical, that indirectly probe a possibility of the noumenal, that contain an element of the uncanny, that refelct something of the mysterious within the everyday.

I've been fascinated with the problem of aesthetics for quite some time. I've even tried my hand at impromtu guesses about the nature and significance of aesthetics. But these guesses always have a hollowness about them. Or better to say, they end up being tautological, looping or mirroring back on themselves. I'm still searching for a kind of first principle -- a how come? -- for aesthetics. I tend to suspect that aesthetics is our deepest approach to the unknown ground (or Ab-grund, the abyss behind presence).

Gurdjieff once created a music-and-movement thing titled The Struggle of the Magicians. That's how I see the poems written by great poets -- brilliance or genius grappling with invisible materials, with what must always remain unsaid behind the said. Even the cadence of these poems is a symbolic gesture of strange dance toward the mystic dream of being. Consider the lines of poet Adam Zagajewski, how they move with a pensive and wondering grace, how the unsaid is as important as the pronounced -- the unspoken folded into dynamic figures of speech. 

Metaphor is the aesthetic shadow of the receding, what forever remains on the tip of the tongue. 
Everything profound loves masks.
~ Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Schopenhauer said that the noumenal is pure undifferentiated urge and that the phenomenal is its expression as substance in time, space, and causality. According to him, we can't suppose anything about the noumenal, only suspect it as being undifferentiated urge or force. That intuited fact -- the aggression of matter via mindless energy -- leads to human pessimism and spiritual despair. Our only existential relief is to become narcotized and lost from thought while experiencing works of art. 

But prior to Schopenhauer was Hamann. Instead of the noumenal causing bleakness and misery of outlook, it inspired in him an ironic spiritual humor, which later impressed Kierkegaard. He somehow intuited a God within the noumenal. That's interesting. And I can't figure out how he made such a blithe leap. I do know that for myself, an ambivalence is afoot -- I look upon the possible numinous as darkly macabre yet also darkly attractive. An affective leaning toward anything is an aesthetic orientation or disposition. 

What is behind all possible experience in which aspects of the good, the true, and the beautiful might be sourcefully located? That enigma continues to vibrate.

Hamann thought and wrote about how language has its source in the non-linguistic and the non-rational. Language is a form of life and as such doesn't belong to any of its own categories. Hence, language is a mysterium. So is life itself an unthinkable and radically free manifestation. Free from even the idea that it's radically free. The closest to the real of life we come is imagination -- the infinite dark flowing of aesthetic possibility. Can we call that "holy"? Heck if I know.

Regarding Socrates, Hamann said:

But perhaps all history is more mythology than this philosopher thinks, and is, like nature, a book that is sealed, a hidden witness, a riddle which cannot be solved unless we plow with another heifer than our reason.

According to Hamann, our language -- the spoken life -- is "from the tongue of angels," which eludes exegesis.  Our speaking is always already a translation beyond foundation and into metaphor. Who are the symbolists par excellence? -- the poet, the painter, the composer. Aesthetic beings.

In Keats's "To Autumn," he shows us life and nature, via personification. He knew instinctively that being and beings can't be defined or rationally analyzed. 

It seems like a hundred years ago that I read Robert Pirsig's Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The main thing I remember is his statement that the real (even the pleonasm "ultimate reality") has to do with Quality as such. I'm going to let that sit here for a little while and resonate through your eyeballs:
The abyss of the Real is a question of Quality as such.

Okay. I'm back again. Pirsig's realization nearly drove him crazy. I like the sound of that. Instead of the noumenal being Schopenhauer's undifferentiated, it might be an exact opposite. It might be instead the a priori (primal) reservoir of taste -- a Tao of Savor. From which a gnostic spectrum of discretion is extruded into our phenomenal world. In other words, the Real is an aesthetic ocean, its morphological waves our criteria of judgement and appreciation. At its most heartful depth is purest Quality.

F.W.J. Schelling (1775 - 1854) in his lecture course titled The Philosophy of Art wrote: 
I construe therefore in the philosophy of art not art as art, not as something particular. Rather I construe the universe in the form of art and the philosophy of art is the science of the All in the form or potency of art.
And from his System of Transcendental Idealism:
The fundamental character of the artwork is an unconscious infinity.

One thing about creativity, about aesthetic impulse and reception is that it takes place within the infinite freedom of imagination. Maybe the Real -- what brings anything at all to presence -- is also a kind of imagining into the vast "space" of thisness-is-better-than-thatness.  

Wittgenstein said:
It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.

To which I would add:
That anything is mystical is an aesthetic intuition.

The Birth of the World
Joan Miró, 1925

PS: One cool thing about the topic of aesthetics is that it allows a guy to string a bunch of words together with the mere semblance of having said something coherent or significant. It's like a loose goose dripping with uncatchable cooking oil. 

~ TB, 2013


  1. Tim, I don't even know where to begin, but somehow I began envisioning your putative pyramid as, perhaps, a version of Kandinsky's triangle -- except that yours exists in three dimensions. :)

    After Googling Hamann, I noted a quote of his, "reason is language". I like your phrase, "language is a mysterium."

    My utterly uneducated approach to aesthetics -- to most things, in fact, could be summed up by the phrase, "in relation to." A human being, which some say is composed of more than one dimension, including mind, body (paying special attention to the nervous system and senses), soul, spirit, does not exist in a vacuum accompanied only by philosophic postulates. The finite primate opens its eyes within a family, a community and a wider world, and --to me, this is the wonder-- those who have gone on before have devised this marvelous tool of naming an ever-developing web of information: language. Indubitably, the origin of language is a mystery. The mere fact that, leaning heavily upon what one has assimilated through reading and the great school known as Hard Knocks, associated with the University of Life, one can define forms, ideas, and even my dog, is incredible.

    Returning to the more serious portions of your post, it seems to me as if your position is similar to those who posit (perhaps simplistically) that we are the consciousness of the universe (which happens to contain a seemingly infinite variety of aesthetically pleasing objects), but may be lacking a response from its inhabitants. A universal, "Alleluia" if you will.

    From this vantage point, the work of the poet on his porch, the monk in his cell, the scientist gazing in wonder at a petri dish, the devotion of a nurse to her patients, the patience of a calligrapher poised, nib mid-air above a piece of parchment--all of these are aesthetically pleasing to me in their own fashion.

    However, the aesthetic sense you describe here, and depict, for the most part, in your writings, infers a depth and discrimination that manages, improbably, to achieve levitation. Vertinsky comes to mind as another such aesthete, whose "certain resolute ball...was tossed around from one corner to the other, until one day it leapt up to heaven." (my imperfect translation)

    My own understanding is not as clearly articulated, I do recall reading bits of the philosopher Martin Buber at one point. His descriptions of a world of relationships (I-Thou) resonate with my humble, gut instincts.

    Eureka, I found a Buber quote on art that you may or may not like, to add to the pile of paragraphs:

    “This is the eternal origin of art that a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him. Not a figment of his soul but something that appears to the soul and demands the soul's creative power. What is required is a deed that a man does with his whole being..”

    ― Martin Buber, I and Thou

    Returning to a less serious note: I find it slightly amusing that I am propounding a theory of relationships as a be-all-end-all in art and/or philosophy, because a great part of me is ravenous for solitude.

    1. I loved reading your comment and will try to reply in a thoughtful manner a little later.

      For now...

      I have a problem, intellectually and instinctively, with the idea of a personal God as the source of values. I also have a problem with the idea of ultimate meaninglessness. So I clumsily essay my way around the idea of aesthetics, as a possible middle way. The way of art as a mode or method toward some possible underlying Significance.

      I really liked what you said about levitation.