The 'Being' of Literature

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The 'Being' of Aesthetic Literature: Theoretical and Mythical Thinking
– Jan 28, 2015
– originally posted to the PDC Mar. 12, 2014

A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.

"A poem should not mean but be" — Archibald MacLeish


post title is from "Ars Poetica"
originally from Streets in the Moon (1926), also found here among other places


Bocola on Modernism and the "primitive," and Cassirer on theoretical and mythical thinking


The aim of this post is to present two interweaving ideas from two texts without adding too much commentary beyond the ideas being presented. The first is more demonstrative, the second wholly theoretic. I just want to lay them out for you and let you address them – and their interaction – as you will. Both concern the aesthetic. Both also concern art and language.

The first is a moment from Sandro Bocola's The Art of Modernism (Prestel 1999), which is to me the best survey of Modernism in the plastic arts that I have yet to come across: not so much in its inclusiveness but in its exploration of what was/is Modernism, and in turn what is a period of art, and in turn (though less to the fore) what is art. It succeeds greatly because it lets the artwork, and the social and intellectual currents influencing the art world, speak the nature of Modernism. That is, it is descriptive, not prescriptive exploration.[FN]

[FN] For example, even though much of Bocola's discussion comes out of the ideas of the psychologist Heinz Kohut, the use of Kohut does not act to define Modernism. It is but a tool through which the currents of Modernism can be described.

As I said, an excellent read, though if I may one critique of The Art of Modernism, it is that Bocola understates the importance of the occult in Modernism (and the period leading up to Modernism): taking that word "occult" in its most expansive, to include not merely spiritualist (to wit) explorations, but what underlay the popularity of the occult in art and society from the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries: a spiritual engagement with the cosmos and, ultimately, with the unconscious self. Likewise (though to not so great a degree) I think he understates also the importance of the importing of African and Polynesian art. Though, to be honest, that may be more a matter of space than of believed importance, for the presentation Bocola does give of the matter is, if brief, well stated.

Arguably, Gaugin (who is not quite Modernist) is the first artist to embrace the art and religions of Africa/Polynesia. (For him, primarily the latter, but not exclusively.) But Picasso, in Bocola's presentation, was the first of the Modernists to engage it full on for its aesthetic qualities:

While his colleagues admire the qualities of art nègre but do not make personal use of them, Picasso instantly recognizes its expressive potential on visiting the Musée de Trocadéro in 1907 and decides to exploit it in his own work. At that moment, he remarks in retrospect, I realized that this was what painting was all about. (168, emphasis his) [FN]

It is not a small statement, either in understanding Picasso, or Bocola's book, or Modernism. It is the unfortunate reader of Bocola who takes that line as hyperbole, and this small (eight page) moment in the book lightly.

[FN] Bocola is quoting William Rubin in the MoMA exhibition catalog "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art, which is another of the best books on Modernism I have ever come across. (Well, it's two volumes.) This book has become for me something of a acid test for critics and theorists who write about art and literature, for there was a great critical backlash to the exhibit by social critics (one that still goes on), though I have yet to read a piece of criticism against the exhibit that could withstand any degree of academic/intellectual rigor. Indeed, one of the ironies of the cultural critics' attack on the exhibit was the very terms primitivism and primitive, in the critics claiming the term was derogatory of African/Polynesian art and culture. In fact, it would have been to the Modernist artists the exact opposite: the value of the art objects lay in that they were free of the clutter and negatives of European culture. For pre-Modernist and Modernist artists, "European culture" was very much a negative concept, that which had to be overcome in the search into the aesthetic. Thus the reason why the word is put in quotation marks in the title of the catalog, and thus the irony within the arguments of the social critics: they are in fact forcing their preferred identification upon the African art, rather than engaging the works on their own terms, as did the Modernists. To note, while my initial want is to continue with the practice of the "inverting" quotation marks, I think the job was done with the catalog, and the reader should be able to undertand what definition of primitive is being here applied.

One of the reasons that African/Polynesian art was so influential on European artists was cultural. Art pieces like this had never been seen before. When they came in to Europe, they came in hodge podge, without cultural anchorings. As such, European artists were confronted with art objects that has two very key properties:

  • the works were devoid of any European cultural or artistic context or conventionality; and
  • because of how they entered Europe, they were equally free of any African/Polynesian cultural or artistic context or conventionality (in so much as such can be ascribed to the works)

As such, they were, as far as anything could be, pure art. To engage the artefacts as things unto themselves was to engage them wholly on an aesthetic level: there was no nomic conventionality attached to them. In MacLeish's words, they simply were, that which they were, on their own, in their own being. There was no nomic field getting the way. [FN]

[FN] Of course, this was predicated upon the artists being able to see the art objects aesthetically, a skill in which many contemporary cultural critics seem sadly lacking.

And what of the nature of these works that made them so potent? Bocola splits this into two aspects: which I will call their aesthetic resonance and their aesthetic form. I will take them in reverse order (and I will mostly use quotations from the book, since it is said well enough there).

As for form: "[The] dominant characteristic [in the art] is the tension inherent in the balance between repose and unrest, metrics and dynamics." (172)

African figures nearly always stand or sit in repose [Bocola is quoting Schmalenbach in African Art], largely because their activity is of another order than that of the human body. [. . .] If these figures were engaged in movement, and especially if seen performing specific actions, it would certainly detract from their mysterious potency, if not entirely neutralize it. [. . .] However, the power contained within the figure – including that of the wood itself – must not appear to be neatralized by the air of physical calm, but must be perceived as a potential force.

This entails a special approach to design. All expressive gesture is purged from this nonetheless deeply expressive art. Although certain figures show great physical dynamism, they retain their air of repose; the dynamic effect is created exlusively through the articulation and dramatic opposition of the different parts of the body. The rigor, the gravity, and the great restraint to which African sculpture owes its timelessness is generated by this balance between repose and unrest, between the metric and the dynamic." (172-3, emphasis his)

Notice especially the phrase "of another order" – it is any easy phrase to read right through, yet it is key to the excerpt. The art was made with an understanding (most likely a primarily intuitive understanding that came of out the experience of the results more than intellectual argument) that verisimilitude, narrative, duplication of reality, is not part of the desired experience, the generated aura of the art objects; in fact, it would only get in the way and thus diminish their purpose – which is here the same thing as the aesthetic experience – of the works.

Which leads us to the first element, the aesthetic resonance. What was the purpose of the art objects? What ends guided their design and making? Why am I able to conflate the aesthetic with the purpose of the art objects? I will, again quote at length.

For me the masks were not just scuptures, Picasso tells Malraux in describing his visit to the Musée de Trocadéro, they were magical objects [. . .], intercessors, [. . .] against everything – against unknown, threatening spirits. [. . .] They were weapons – to keep people from being ruled by spirits, to help free themselves. (170, emphasis his) [FN]

It of no small importance that Picasso intuitively understood upon seeing the works. In fact, it is of every importance; just as it is that the understanding was indeed intuitive, aesthetic.

[FN] Bocola is quoting André Malraux, date of 1987, but no work is listed in the bibliography.

Bocola continues (note that "religion" here should be read more as "spirituality," to remove any idea of established religion, which does not belong in the ideas):

In a brilliant contribution to the book African Art (1988), its editor Werner Schmalenbach similarly underscored the religious concepts of tribal societies. They recognize divine beings, but not as gods who are separate and higher than man: The forces of the universe are perceived as a constant presence, either as a menace or as guardians, as a comfort or as disruptive influences; they are anything but remote. They live in closest proximity to the people, in a neaby tree, in a rocky outcrop or in streams, in the souls of the dead, and often in the wood figures carved for them. Every last member of the tribe, each member of the community, is directly affected by their machinations, and even though priests and ritual specialists exercise their roles as intermediaties, they do not constitute some powerful priesthood capable of keeping such forces at bay. These forces are directly perceived as everyday presences, they attend one's every movement, and all of this has a definite effect on the art produced to appease them.

The art of black Africa functions primarily as a means of making life more secure, for it seeks to screen its people from the influence of potentially menacing spiritual forces. Its effect must be immediate and real, that is, it must be invested with supernatural powers itself. For those who use it in this sense, the African cult object does not represent a being in the way that, for example, a medieval scupture portrays a saint; rather, the object is the being. [. . .] In contrast to a medieval sculpture who material – used as a means to an end – is 'metamorphosed' into the object to be represented (as, for intstance, the folds of a garmant), an African sculpture is not the figure of an animal or a person made of wood, but rather a wooden body carved in correspondence to an animal or human body. (170, emphasis his)

The key phrase: "the object is the being." That is the nature of the aesthetic and of aesthetic creation. An aesthetic object is not duplication of life, it is not conceptual. It is the making of an object that creates an experience: as stated above, "the effect must be immediate and real, that is, it must be invested with the supernatural powers itself." (It is a phrase that gives understanding to the engagement with the occult stated above.)
[FN] The full title of Werner Schmalenbach's book is African Art from the Barbier-Mueller Collection, Geneva. I do not have this book . . . . . . yet.


The second text is Ernst Cassirer's small volume Language and Myth (trans. Susan K. Langer 1946; Dover 1953). While I very much want to go into section 5, "The Successive Phases of Religious Thought," I am going table that for another time and limit myself to presenting the central ideas of section 3, "Language and Conception": that is, theoretical thinking and mythical thinking. Mostly, I'm going to directly quote, as I want to limit the words here to the presented ideas, and let them work more in their natural in engagement with the above and less through any commentary by me (though some guiding explanation will be provided). (Note: unless otherwise stated, all emphasis is Cassirer's.)

First we need to begin with a little definitional work for those readers who may be unaware of the word concept as used as a term of art in philosophy:

According to the traditional teachings of logic, the mind forms concepts by taking a certain number of objects which have common properties, i.e., coincide in certain respects, together in thought and abstracting from their differences, so that only the similarities are retained and reflected upon, and in this way a general idea of such-and-such a class of objects is formed in consciousness. (24)

Which is as good a definition of concept as any. I want to add only that the word idea is not synonymous: concepts are a subclass of the much larger notion of ideas.

Cassirer immediately goes on to show the limits of the idea of "concept":

Thus the concept [. . .] is that idea which represents the totality of essential properties, i.e., the essence of the objects in question. In this apparently simple and obvious explanation, everything depends on what one means by a "property," and how such properties are supposed to be originally determined. The formulation of a general concept presupposes definite properties; only if there are fixed characteristics by virtue of which things may be recognized as similar or dissimilar, coinciding or not coinciding, is it possible to collect objects which resemble each other into a class. But – we cannot help asking at this point – how can such differentiae exist prior to language? Do we not, rather, realize them only by means of language, through the very act of naming them? (24, emphasis his)

Language and Myth is greatly about theories of the origin of language, and, as seen here, countering such theories that center language (and its origin) within the conceptual alone. But for our purposes, the above can be loosely paraphrased as "Who decides what characteristics make up concepts? It is not, in the end, something that originates in the object being classified. (That is, the word bird did not arrive from recognition of the class of birds. Rather, it had to be that the class was created around the concept associated with the word bird.)"

So we can move from concepts to theoretical thinking.

[. . . A]ll intellectual labor whereby the mind forms general concepts out of specific impressions is directed toward breaking the isolation ofthe datum, wresting it from the "here and now" of its actual occurrence, relating it to other things an gathering it and them into some inclusive order, into the unity of a "system." The logical form of conception, from the standpoint of theoretical knowledge, is nothing but a preparation for the logical form of judgment; all judgment, however, aims at overcoming the illusion of singularity which adheres to every particular content of consciousness.

Notice the direction of movement: there is an opposition observed between the singular experience of the individual in engagement with some moment of the cosmos and the concept, which is that moment pulled out of the individuality of experience and into the abstract framework of a system of classification. Thus:

The apparently singular fact becomes known, understood and conceptually grasped only in so far as it is "subsumed" under a general idea, recognized as a "case" of a law or as a member of a manifold or a series. In this sense every genuine judgment is synthetic; for what it intends and strives for is just this synthesis of parts into a whole, this weaving of particulars into a system. (25-6)

The idea of "totality" is key, and soon follows an important phrasing:

The will to this totality is the vivifying principle of our theoretical and empirical conception. (26)

This is what is the nomic nature of the human psyche: the "will to totality," which can only ever be an abstract system of classifications applied to the cosmos.

All theoretical cognition takes its departure from a world already preformed by language; the scientist, the historian, even the philosopher, lives with his objects only as language presents them to him. (28)

Which is not to be read as a negative: it is an essential part of our selves and our psyches, and arguable the essential part of our communal, social existence. Without it we would still be but simions. Without it there would be no science, no understanding of the cosmos except as an endless flow of undifferentiated experience. Though, what Cassirer is pointing out in passing, is that it is an error to think that knowledge, that concepts, are anything but an abstract system of thought, wholly dependent upon the initial conditions not of the cosmos but of language. As such, the negative side of theoretical thinking, that aspect of humanity derided by the phrase "herd mentality,"[FN] is when the theoretical is raised above the individual, and, more importantly, when individuals "subsume" their individuality to the collective of theoretical thinking.

[FN] That lopsidedness of mentality that lies behind Nietzsche's critique of religion (and praise of spirituality) in such as:
For this is usually how religions die. It happens when the mythical presuppositions of a religion become systematized as a finished sum of historical events under the severe, intellectual gaze of orthodox dogmatism, and people begin to defend anxiously the credibility of the myths while resisting every natural tendency within them to go on living and to throw out new shoots – in other words, when the feeling for myth dies and is replaced by the claim of religion to have historical foundations.
(The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Ronald Spiers) It is not for naught that the word law appears in Cassirer's description of the theoretical.

Which leads us to mythical thinking.

[In theoretical thinking] every separate event is ensnared, as it were, by invisible threads of thought, that bind it to the whole. The theoretical significance which it receives lies in the fact that it is stamped with the character of this totality.

Mythical thinking, when viewed in its most elementary forms, bears no such stamp; in fact, the character of intellectual unity is directly hostile to its spirit. For in this mode, thought does not dispose freely over the data of intuition, in order to relate and compare them to each other, but is captivated and enthralled by the intuition which suddenly confronts it. It comes to rest in the immediate experience; the sensible present is so great that everytying else dwindles before it. (32)

Cassirer speaks it quite clearly enough, so I will only continue on:

For a person whose apprehension is under the spell of this mythico-religious attitude, it is as though the whole world were simply annihilated; the immediate content, whatever it be, that commands his religious interest so completely fills his consciousness that nothing else can exist beside and apart from it. The ego is pending all its energy on this single object, lives in it, loses itself in it. Instead of a widening of intuitive experience, we find here its extreme limitation; instead of expansion that would lead through greater and greater spheres of being, we have here an impulse toward concentration; instead of extensive distribution, intensive compression. This focusing of all forces ona single point is the prerequisite for all mythical thinking and mythical formulation.

It is, as pointed to in the footnote just above, a spiritual thinking, a spiritual engagement with the cosmos, most dominantly in its more intense moments. Continuing:

When, on the one hand, the entire self is given up to a single impression, is "possessed" by it and, on the other hand, there is the utmost tension between the subject and its object, the outer world; when external reality is not merely viewed and contemplated, but overcomes a man in sheer immediacy, with emotions of fear or hope, terror or wish fulfillment: then the spark jumps somehow cross, the tension finds release, as the subjective excitement becomes objectified, and confronts the mind as a god or daemon.(32-33)

And there is where I will stop, having linked to the reception of primitive art described above.

Except to return for a brief moment to Bocola. His chapter on the reception of primitive art is followed – in a brilliant ideational flow – by a chapter on Henri Rousseau, an artist who "effectively defies art historical classification."

If I may but one brief excerpt, and if I may be forgiven for the slight clumsiness created by my plucking it out of its semantic context:

All his life he bemoans the fact that his parents did not enable him to train as a painter, for which such an education, he writes in a letter of 1882, I ought to be the greatest and richest artist in France today. He admires the academic skills of the professionals and does not realize that his technical ineptitude is not due to inadequate training but is rather part of the structure of his consciousness. Even so, he accepts and makes the best of his artistic limitations: like every great artist, he creates the artistic canon that corresponds to his abilities. He thereby replaces an irreal, unfruitful idealism with a binding idealizsed structure that meets the needs of his ego, with the pictorial canon of a pre-classical and pre-naturalistic, 'primitive' art. (180, emphasis his)



A final note: It may seem a bit arbitrary what with the title line. But reading "Ars Poetica" as a whole, the poem melds well.