Saturday, 3 July 2010

Is There Beauty in Hegel?

It goes wherever it goes, like a noble sage,
Fills grasses and trees with lovely sounds.

How strange. A wise man as musician and artist. Being no classicist I can only guess; but in ancient history wisdom appears to have been linked to rhetoric and poetry; and it was often written in the latter. It was accepted, or so it appears, that in Greece wisdom had an aesthetic quality…

…Plato was a poet, and poetry preoccupied him. He was also a man of the world, and a writer of formidable literary skill…. The dialogues of Plato are infinitely charming, sharply intelligent, and express an intellectual wisdom not unlike that of Montaigne. (Peter Levi)

This feels very old indeed; with most knowledge today manufactured in the universities; ripe with its own jargon, designed almost to repel the receptive reader. Are there any benefits to this new obscurantism, a new depth and precision? The answer is doubtful:

The portrait photograph is, then, the site of a complex series of interactions – aesthetic, cultural, ideological, sociological, and psychological. In many ways it simultaneously represents the photographic image at is most obvious and yet at its most complex and problematic. As has been suggested, ‘the portrait is… a sign whose purpose is both the description of an individual and the inscription of the social identity’. The portrait photograph hovers between opposing terms of meaning - a constant dialectic of significance in which the problems of individual status and self is held. Part of the problem, of course, lies in the questions of what constitutes a ‘portrait’ to begin with.(Graham Clarke)

This book contains some great photographs but the prose is execrable (what Jonathan Rabin calls polytechnic prose, in another context). It is also representative of the literary-art criticism scene (it’s part of the Oxford History of Art series). The author’s position is supposedly radical, ‘deconstructing’ the racism and class bias of the past. Yet the understanding and knowledge of history and politics is sadly limited – a few stock ideas and assumptions, garnered from the Paris school of Derrida and Foucault, and filtered through their epigones. We may not want to go as far as Keith Thomas, who immerses himself in all its literature, but to understand a historical period is to study it in depth, with skill and subtlety… But understanding, perhaps, is not what is intended here. Rather, it’s the construction of a political line; and like all political sloganeering it is both superficial and dull.

And what does this passage say? A portrait is a snapshot of life, the person’s own and his surrounding environment; and will contain elements of his personality and signs of his position in society. Chomsky has noted that so much post-modern thought either states the obvious, but in the most arcane way, or is nonsense on its own terms. He could have been reading this passage. But what is interesting in this quote, and in the book more generally, is how uninterested is the author in aesthetic questions (compare with Geoff Dyer's fabulousThe Ongoing Moment). Yet the lack of political, philosophical and historical penetration is laughable. Ernest Gellner once wrote that if he wanted to discover that knowledge was impossible he would turn to the philosophers; not a literary theorist. The reasoning is obvious.

Why should this be the case? One could surmise that there is a limit to the number of people who are aesthetically sensitive; and with the expansion of the university system there will be a large number of academics without a feel for the subject they teach and research. In the 1990s the Late Review interviewed a Shakespeare professor who said he never liked the bard; and it was even possible that he didn’t understand him. A Shakespeare professor? Yes, because a significant thrust of then current research was not the plays and poems, but concerned the historical and political background to these texts; all, of course, pulled through the Derridean mangle.

The system becomes self-perpetuating by the second and third generation, as the subject becomes highly technical, and academic; alienating those with genuine literary touch and feel.

So ugly! And then we try to make sense of it:

The eye subjugates the subject as it replenishes itself without fear or restraint. (Graham Clarke again)

And is it really so? Is the eye really independent of the mind and the rest of the body; does it really control the organism…

Discussing how we still don’t know very much how about visual perception Chomsky quotes a problem formulated by Helmholtz in 1850:

[E]ven without moving our eyes, we can focus our attention on different objects at will, resulting in very different perceptual experiences of the same visual field.

Shouldn’t stuff like this be in a discussion of the photograph? That is, if we wanted real aesthetic insight and understanding?

Perhaps even this is not possible – as Chomsky notes, so much is unknown. However, literature and the arts have tried to elucidate these questions, not with facts and arguments but with insight, by capturing the atmosphere, by having a certain feel, and presenting it for us to sense if not to understand. To be charitable to the post-modern theorist perhaps this is what they try to do – thus the tortuousness of the passage above, where the author tries to tease out ambiguity upon ambiguity. It’s a kind of literary language, sadly too clunky for the job; like trying to sing in a gas mask. Wallace Stevens does it better.

I am what is around me.

Women understand this.
One is not a duchess
A hundred yards from a carriage.

These, then are portraits:
A black vestibule;
A high bed sheltered by curtains.

These are merely instances.

Another noticeable feature in academic literature is the unwillingness to quote anything bar other academic texts. Compare this with Bertrand Russell who will quote from Tacitus, the Gospels and Byron, to name just a few. There’s a width here, and a recognition that knowledge comes in all forms, and is, ultimately, about us. It is not a collection of facts, or the latest intellectual fashion (linked to a career path?), but material which we must use in our attempts to grasp and elucidate our world.

And true insight, a real grasp of the world – a truth – this can make us sing! It’s like Gulley Jimson before his Sara Monday. How many times has this happened? Too many for me to recall, but the experiences are highly suggestive, pointing to some aesthetic quality in thought. Here is Su Tung-p’o.

Something you can love but never name

It goes wherever it goes, like a noble sage,
Fills grasses and trees with lovely sounds.

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