Posts Tagged ‘art’

Power, not expression

2014/07/15 1 comment


It is very rare for an essay by Emerson to insist on a single point without a countermove­ment. Let whatever have its say, some opponent also demands a voice, and Emerson grants it. Yet in his essay on “Power”, Emerson defers this movement to later chapters of The Conduct of Life.

I have not forgotten that there are sublime considerations which limit the value of talent and superficial success. We can easily overpraise the vulgar hero. There are sources on which we have not drawn. I know what I abstain from. I adjourn what I have to say on this topic to the chapters on Culture and Worship. (985)

It is telling that Emerson imposes this delay on himself. He has just been defending the fundamental role of power in human life. Life itself he defines as the search for power, and immediately connects this to a favorite theme: selectivity. Genius is selective, Emerson teaches again and again. This may be applied to life as the search for power, for such life takes events as the ore in which power is found, that is, as something to be sifted. “He can well afford to let events and possessions, and the breath of the body go, if their value has been added to him in the shape of power.” (971)

Emerson’s picture of power is not a humanized one. He is not playing games with the word, making it mean something softer, lighter, than in a generic context it conveys. No, power is power, the ability to control and dominate, to subject some material – be it inert or animate, animal or human – to one’s will. Given the choice between power and ethics, Emerson will take power – “if it be only a question between the most civil and the most forcible, I lean to the last” (977) – and he considers seriously the worry that “conscience [is] not good for hands and legs.” (978)

Nor does Emerson see such a reliance on power as harmful. If “this power, to be sure, is not clothed in satin,” nonetheless “it brings its own antidote.” (976) The solution to the problems power raises is more power, of a different sort – counterbalancing power. Politics, with its brute clash of forces, becomes a model of self-reliance writ large: it is not goodness, conformity to civil standards, that makes for sustainable politics. It is that each comes “with a mind made up to desperate extremities.” (975) This paragraph, by the by, is a strong plank in the case for seeing Emersonian self-reliance as it must be seen: as a form of egotism.

Power is fundamental. It is because power is fundamental that Emerson defers the coming movement. To be sure, Emerson hints at it in the essay. “Physical force has no value, where there is nothing else.” (980) But Emerson cannot disparage physical force, for without it, nothing else has value. Emerson is clear where value lies:

Everything good in nature and the world is in that moment of transition, when the swarthy juices still flow plentifully from nature, but their astringency or acridity is got out by ethics and humanity. (980)

The value of power lies in its ability to be directed, when it is not an end in itself, but put toward some aim. The power, however, comes first. The aim without the power is “idle seeing,” and accounts for nothing. (982) Ethics and humanity without power leaves only tamed and neutered animals – that is why Emerson chooses the forcible over the civil. Emerson favors the moment of transition precisely because power is preserved in it. When the transition is complete, all that remains is undiluted ethics – conformity. Then brute power is again required.


Emerson draws from these views on power a consequence for the artist. As someone who has recently begun writing poetry (again, if my horrid teen years are to be counted), I found the following passage of especial significance:

The triumphs of peace have been in some proximity to war. Whilst the hand was still familiar with the sword-hilt, whilst the habits of the camp were still visible in the port and complexion of the gentleman, his intellectual power culminated: the compression and tension of these stern conditions is a training for the finest and softest arts, and can rarely be compensated in tranquil times, except by some analogous vigor drawn from occupations as hardy as war. (980)

Aside from my pet interest in the connection between Emerson and Nietzsche – who, familiar with Nietzsche, can fail to see how the German on so many occasions rewrote this very passage? – the passage is interesting for treating fine arts and intellectual endeavors as only one step removed from war, and as degenerate when further removed. Just as in politics and business, the material side of life, where self-interest and the crudest egotism rules, so also in poetry and painting, power is fundamental.

That origination of art in power has an interesting consequence:

The friction in nature is so enormous that we cannot spare any power. It is not question to express our thought, to elect our way, but to overcome resistances of the medium and material in everything we do. (984)

Art is not about expression. How many turn to poetry or other arts to express themselves, or to express a message about society, or… – in any case, to express something! And how much terrible, unreadable poetry results! What results from such endeavors is a chaos of words held together only by their meaning, a distended organization of unrecognizable shape.

This because art – as all else – is about power, is about overcoming the “resistances of the medium and material.” It is not about expression, not even about beauty. It is, in the case of poetry, about dominating words, forcing them into position, making them do the work the poet commands. (Vladimir Nabokov once said, “My characters are galley slaves.” He knew.*) There is resistance imposed by meter, by the sounds of words, by the conventions of form – all of which require power to be overcome. It is in that overcoming that the successes of poetry lie.

[*Nabokov also, to my great surprise, appears to have found Emerson’s poetry “delightful.” I can’t say I’m displeased.]

This is not to say that expression and beauty have no role. It is just: their role is secondary. They are sources of constraints. Not only must meter be obeyed (and in meter-lacking verse other constraints take over this role), but meaning must be conveyed. Thus the resistance of the medium increases. Not only must meter be obeyed and meaning be conveyed, but the result must be beautiful. The resistance of the medium becomes nearly impervious to the poet’s effort.

I have permitted myself to write the above not just because it is, I believe, true to Emerson, but because it corresponds with my own experience. I can certainly not claim a single pure success in what I have written so far, except perhaps in an isolated line here or there, but the joy I have found in writing has not come from expression, but from the thrill that comes at each moment that the material yields even a little, at each correct placement of a single word. No such joy attends the successful expression of an idea – every half-baked line of mine expresses something – and I would banish meaning from my poetry if I would not thereby lose a rich source of friction, and hence a rich source, eventually, of joy.

This realization I came to before I read Emerson’s essay and its striking claims. As I wrote in my journal, earlier in the day: “Poetry: a struggle for power over words, words that fight back.”

Art as goad and as pleasure

2014/01/25 1 comment

In the past week, in the course of fulfilling my teaching (assistant) duties, I have been attempting to impress on young minds the emptiness of arguing that something is good because it is natural or bad because it is unnatural. For how do we determine what is natural other than by allowing as natural just what we think is good? So it was a rude surprise when, in reading Emerson’s “Art” (Library of America, Essays & Lectures, as ever), I came across this:

They reject life as prosaic, and create a death which they call poetic. […] Thus is art vilified; the name conveys to the mind its secondary and bad senses; it stands in the imagination as somewhat contrary to nature, and struck with death from the first. (439)

Is my beloved Emerson so crass as to make this ancient and ubiquitous error? A proper answer to that question would require a careful study of his shifting uses of the concept ‘Nature’, but I can make at least a move in the direction of his defense. Nature here stands in for the absolute union of usefulness and beauty. The artists Emerson is considering forgo this union and take art to be merely beautiful, and not just that, but also a correction of imperfect nature: nature without the prosaic details. Let us explore this idea.

Moreso than most Emerson essays, “Art” contains a fairly direct line of thought, one sustained across the essay’s entire course. But his method is to begin by accepting the thought he rejects, and work his way to its rejection. In the second sentence of the essay, Emerson writes: “This appears in works both of the useful and the fine arts, if we employ the popular distinction of works according to their aim, either at use or beauty.” (431) Emerson mentions, without endorsing, the popular distinction between use and beauty. We might, then, expect him to question it, but as the essay proceeds he seems to accept it. Already in the first paragraph Emerson is confidently stating that the artist should omit “the details, the prose of nature […] and give us only the spirit and splendor.” (431) Art improves upon nature, and it brings us pleasure in doing so. It is not useful, not necessary, but it is beautiful and hence pleasant.

So, for the time, at least, Emerson accepts the distinction. But as the essay progresses he begins to offer reasons to be skeptical of this hedonistic conception of the value of art. Emerson works himself out of his acceptance of the popular distinction. To understand how he does so we might start with the recognition that the sentence I have been considering is the essay’s second. It begins with the word “this”, referring to its predecessor’s contents. What is this “this”? It is the productive activity of the progressive soul. It is consideration of that activity that breaks us free of the division between the useful and the beautiful. Specifically, the distinction must be rejected because it is dangerous to the productive activity of the soul. Emerson considers four dangers, that I have discovered.

First danger. Art becomes about the exhibition of talent, and not about that “passion for form which [the artist] could not resist, and which vented itself in these fine extravagances.” (439) But talent is a dangerous concept, because it makes possible a universal exculpation. To experience art as the showcase of talent is to experience it in terms of what you, the person experiencing, lack. You do not have the talent to paint as did Raphael, so you can only admire passively. And you are excused for this, because you do lack the painter’s talent. We admire in art what lies beyond us, and thence comes our pleasure. In just this way, our experience of art strangles our incipient activity: we lack the requisite talent, so we need not act. Leave that to the talented. Kierkegaard is even stronger on this point than Emerson. In his diary, he rails against the concept of genius—his use is closer to Emerson’s use of “talent” than his use of “Genius”—because, in treating something as a work of genius, we negate any demand it makes on us, by denying that we are genius enough to receive any such demand. The work of art becomes something outside us, and so activity is lost.

Second danger. If art is beautiful alone, aimed only at producing pleasure, art becomes something final and not something initial. The worth of art comes to lie in its ability to produce pleasure, comes to reside in that psychological state. The pleasure lasts however long—if one is lucky, it may last even after one has parted from the work—and then it is through. Pleasure is in this way a stopping point: it does not lead onward to anything. And so the work of art, too, becomes final: it produces pleasure, or it doesn’t, and that is the end of it. There is nowhere left to go.

But art, for Emerson—for anyone with a progressive soul—should be initial and not final. Their “real value” lies in their being “signs of power.” (437) It should be the product of the artist finding “in it an outlet for his whole energy,” and should point others in that direction.

Art should exhilarate, and throw down the walls of circumstance on every side, awakening in the beholder the same sense of universal relation and power which the work evinced in the artist, and its highest effect is to make new artists. (437)

Whereas pleasure is final, being awakened to a “sense of universal relation and power” is initial, because the exercise of power still follows. Far from placing itself above the one who experiences it, art must be “practical and moral,” must “make the poor and uncultivated feel that it addresses them with a voice of lofty cheer.” (437) It has a use, it is productive, has effects beyond pleasure, and does so precisely through its beauty.

Third danger. If use is split from beauty, and the latter made art’s sole province, the progressive soul is led into an error: following the judgments of critics. It is an old notion that some pleasures are higher than others, that some have a better developed capacity to feel pleasure than others. Some find this thought inherently elitist and abhorrent. I do not. I find it obvious. A person with a thorough knowledge of music theory will hear far more in a piece of music than I—who know nothing whatsoever of the subject—and so their pleasures will respond in a more fine-grained way to the relevant details of the music than will mine. And this training, this talent, as it were, has its value. I do not find it elitist in the slightest to commend those who have trained their sensitivity to works of art for having done so.

No, the elitism comes in earlier, when use and beauty are separated. Once this happens, it is inevitable that the cultivated should be the best judges of beauty, since they are more sensitive to the actual workings of the artwork than most. That is not to say that their pleasure is really more intense than mine, though it might be, but rather to say that it is more sensitive. If they contest my judgment, they will be able to point to features of the work that I never noticed, and I will have to take this into account going forward. I will have to listen to the experts. And this easily leads to the dangers of imitation, of adopting another’s views for one’s own.

Only when art is viewed as essentially useful is this danger overcome. “The knowledge of picture-dealers has its value, but listen not to their criticism when your heart is touched by genius.” (437) But why not listen to them? Because the usefulness of art comes from nowhere else than from your making use of it. And you are the only adequate judge of that. The open-endedness of art lies in its usefulness, but even more in its not having any predetermined usefulness. Its use, or lack thereof, will depend on into whose hands it falls, and no one can say in advance what use another will make of a work of art.

A friend of mine has remarked to me that artists tend not to be very good critics. Perhaps this helps to explain why. Gripped as they are by their own vision, their criticism of art by others is subordinated to that and distorted by that. Their criticism of art then gives a better insight into their own art than that which they critique. And perhaps that is as it should be.

Fourth danger. The fourth danger is that, if use and beauty are wrenched apart, art may become an escape from life, from the ugliness of life. Art becomes something selective, picking only select aspects of the world to affirm. It becomes a correction of what is found in human life, and of necessity makes that life appear as something mean, base. “They reject life as prosaic, and create a death which they call poetic.” (439) If poetry is beautiful alone, and not useful, then it cannot be connected with all those tasks of living that cannot be avoided, and poetry must then call them mere tedium. The ideal becomes something apart from “the day’s weary chores” (439), and life gets split in two: the tediously useful and the ideally beautiful. And it is just this that is “contrary to nature”—not in an empty sense but in a quite definite sense: when use and beauty are separated, art becomes a rejection of life, something set apart from it. If art corrects life by rejecting it as prosaic, then it cannot be useful to the one who has to live. And the progressive soul is nothing other than the living soul. “In nature, all is useful, all is beautiful.” (440)

Insecure safety. To escape these dangers, “beauty must come back to the useful arts, and the distinction between the fine and the useful arts be forgotten.” And this fundamentally requires a way of approaching art that is not hedonistic. “As soon as beauty is sought, not from religion and love, but for pleasure, it degrades the seeker.” (439) To seek beauty from religion and love, however, brings its own dangers. When art becomes initial, becomes a goad to activity, a sting, it becomes unpredictable. It lies at the doorstep of an uncertain future. But that is, I think, preferable to the alternative insecurity.

Nietzsche at Sea

2013/11/10 1 comment

Mindful of this situation in which youth finds itself I cry Land! Land! Enough and more than enough of the wild and erring voyage over strange dark seas! At last a coast appears in sight: we must land on it whatever it may be like, and the worst of harbours is better than to go reeling back into a hopeless infinity of skepticism. Let us only make land; later on we shall find good harbours right enough, and make the landfall easier for those who come after us. (UD 116)

What is it that could bring Nietzsche to cry “Land! Land!”? From what skepticism is he running? Above all, what is the mood of this passage, and of the essay that contains it? Might there be a situation in which Nietzsche could celebrate the sea and skepticism? (Citations to On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, designated UD, are from the Cambridge edition of Untimely Meditations, edited by Daniel Breazeale. Citations to On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, designated TL, are to the Cambridge edition of The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, edited by Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs.)

In both On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life and On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, Nietzsche attempts to characterize the liberated intellect, which is to be contrasted with the enslaved intellect. To achieve this, he plays with the theme of the human/animal boundary, using it now for one purpose, now another. A brief summary of these uses will then be helpful.

The opening paragraph of On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense could not be clearer: humans are animals; we achieve nothing that extends beyond human life, which is just a sort of animal life; all we get from cognition, which supposedly separates us from the animals, is an ungainly and bloated pride. At the same time, Nietzsche does allow our intellect to separate us from the animals: we turn our metaphors into concepts—or, in other words, we let our metaphors die. In all of this, we are characterized by forgetting: we forget how language originates in dissimulation and metaphor, and from this we get our drive to truth; we forget ourselves as artistically creative subjects, and so we become slaves to the facts—facts that amount to little more than conventions we’ve established. Our truths capture little more than the relations of things to humans. The enslaved intellect erects these inventions into a life raft to which we can cling as we move through life. The liberated intellect, by contrast, smashes up concepts, brings unlike things together, and proceeds via intuition rather than concept. The liberated intellect is, in this way, quite animal.

Things are less straightforward in On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life. Nietzsche characterizes animal life as fundamentally unhistorical, characterized by forgetting, whereas human life involves memory and thus history. The contrast between the liberated and enslaved intellect arises again: the enslaved intellect treats history as a science, and overwhelms life with history. The enslaved intellect is chained to memory, and will not allow itself to forget even the slightest detail. The liberated intellect, by contrast, uses history in the service of life. Sometimes, as in the case of critical history, this involves remembering details and faithfulness to the facts, but in the case of monumental history, a great deal of falsification and forgetting is required. When the intellect is in chains, Nietzsche claims, we are permitted Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum, but not vivo, ergo cogito. We do not live. Instead, “the feeling that tells me I exist warrants to me only that I am a thinking creature, not that I am a living one, not that I am an animal but at most a cogital” (UD 119). Here the animal is placed above the cogital. Yet Nietzsche earlier says of the great man that his body does not contain his life, and when his body dies all that is left behind is “the dross, refuse, vanity, animality that had always weighed them down” (UD 69) and which was an object of his contempt. Nietzsche here seems caught between two tendencies: the one to lower the human to a place below the animal, the other to suggest something more than animal that the human can achieve. Some sense is made of this by Nietzsche’s later admission of “the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal – doctrines which I consider true but deadly” (UD 112). Nietzsche thinks the animality of the human is a truth that must be handled delicately, in a way that preserves and engenders rather than destroys life. Nietzsche’s oscillation reflects his attempt to do just that.

The desire to suggest something higher than the animal in Nietzsche’s essay on history is the key to understand his cry of “Land! Land!” In the finest passage of On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, there is no such desire for land.

That vast assembly of beams and boards to which needy man clings, thereby saving himself on his journey through life, is used by the liberated intellect as a mere climbing frame and plaything on which to perform its most reckless tricks; and when it smashes this framework, jumbles it up and ironically re-assembles it, pairing the most unlike things and dividing those things which are closest to one another, it reveals the fact that it does not require those makeshift aids of neediness, and that it is now guided, not by concepts but by intuitions. No regular way leads from these intuitions into the land of the ghostly schemata and abstractions; words are not made for them; man is struck dumb when he sees them, or he will speak only in forbidden metaphors and unheard-of combinations of concepts so that, by at least demolishing and deriding the old conceptual barriers, he may do creative justice to the impression made on him by the mighty, present intuition. (TL 152)

I take the “vast assembly of beams and boards” to be a boat, for Nietzsche earlier describes it as erected on “flowing water” (TL 147). I confess also that I cannot help but reading this passage anachronistically, in light of Neurath’s boat. Neurath’s boat metaphor runs as follows:

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction. (I took it from here)

Nietzsche’s account of the liberated intellect is that of one who, instead of clinging to this boat, uses it as the springboard for acrobatic leaps—perhaps at the cost of destroying and sinking the boat. What is absent is any sense of reaching land. Neither Neurath’s nor Nietzsche’s boat ever reaches land: there is no indication that it reaches any destination, or even that there are any destinations it could reach. In this way it is like animal life: it serves no purpose, has no end goal. There is simply play, then death.

Nietzsche’s cry for “Land! Land!” is a cry for some solid resting ground after a voyage through the sea of skepticism. How do we end up in this sea? “The madly thoughtless shattering and dismantling of all foundations, their dissolution into a continual evolving that flows ceaselessly away, the tireless unspinning and historicizing of all there has ever been by modern man, the great cross-spider at the node of the cosmic web…” (UD 108). Nietzsche is clear: this skepticism is the result of the “concept-quake caused by science” that “robs man of the foundation of all his rest and security, his belief in the enduring and eternal” (UD 120-121). In so robbing us of all foundations, Nietzsche thinks that science may tyrannize over life, and life enslaved to science is weak and fearful. The liberated intellect and life should reverse this relationship and dominate science, using it to its own ends. And what is life? In great individuals, at least, the purpose of life is to “form a kind of bridge across the turbulent stream of becoming” (UD 111) and so to be a foundation for those with whom they live contemporaneously—i.e. the great individuals of other ages.

This is something stable, permanent, and eternal—or at least untimely. The vision of On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense is a lonesome, animal vision of the individual playing at sea, for no audience, present or future. That of On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life is more social and more human, if not more cogital and not less animal. The historicity of humanity, set against their forgetful animality, leads to the extinguishing of life. But when unified with that animality, when yoked to the service of life, it makes possible something above the animal, something that ignores, perhaps willfully, the dangerous truth that humans are just another sort of animal, no more.