Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Sublime

I will be participating on a panel at the German Studies Association in October. The panel concerns "The Pre-Kantian Sublime." In preparation I am doing a lot of reading. I will be posting thoughts on my reading as I go along, but today I would like make a couple of prefatory observations. It strikes me that the aesthetic discourse of the sublime in the 18th century is heralded by two important philosophic ideas.

The first is Cartesian rationalism, which emancipated humans from the authority of tradition, handing the authority for arriving at truth to humans themselves. Descartes himself declared that his program was to construct a foundation that was all his own and should not necessarily be imitated by others. The point, however, was this: individuals, using their own powers of cognition, can discern what is true.

The second is Lockean philosophy, according to which the materials of our reason and all knowledge derive from our experience, which we then, through reflection, assemble into principles.

The one separated the mind from the body, and indeed gave the former control other the latter. The other was the reverse, giving precedence to the body. The result of both, however: "subjective" truth.

I mention these two because aesthetics, as it came to be articulated in the 18th century, was not about "principles" of art but, instead, about "affective experience." The grounds of knowledge about the world were to be found in the individual. In other words, subjectivity. The sublime was the opening movement in this modern sense of aesthetics, right after the turn of the 18th century. Stay tuned.

I'm heading to Washington, D.C., for a few days of visiting friends and museums.

Picture credits: Daniel Smith; Daniel Dostal

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It seems Nietzsche appropriated aspects of both Descartes (his pre-Voltaire autonomy) and Locke (his focus on sensation). However, Zarathustra's comment, "The body is a great reason," appears to land Nietzsche more on the side of Locke's (and Goethe's) empiricism. I'm looking forward to more on this discussion of the sublime.... Kant's "Critique of Judgment," I'm told, stands as a kind of source of the New Criticism, which de-emphasizes "subjectivity" and "experience" (similar to Straussian textual analysis). Deconstruction, structuralism and post-modernism, on the other hand (if I may paint with a broad brush), emphasize (New Critics tell us)...subjective "feeling," arbitrary "language," philosophy of "symbolic forms," the "death of the author," and moral relativism. Much of which can lead to: individualism running wild: extreme "lifestyle" promotion (as subtext) and vindication/validation, e.g., aspects of gay and gender and racial studies. (Or, put otherwise: much of the extreme left's social "agenda.") In light of all this, Kant, a student of Hume and Rousseau, appears a "modern" who is nonetheless very conservative--compared to, say, Derrida. At any rate, many Straussians love the "objective truth" of Hume's atheism. Not to mention Nietzsche's and Socrates'. Myself...I'm interested in the faith, in the "desert experience," the apophatic, mystical, "dark" and nameless zone of Nietzschean truth and its ironic source, perhaps, in "desert" theology, e.g., "negative" theology: the Ascetic Ideal, the Cloud of Unknowing, Mother Theresa's periods of "darkness," Carthusian emptiness and namelessness--in short, the "mystical" things that Christ might have taught "in private." These things, like Nietzsche's bizarre philosophy, may be only apparently "contradictory." (See Pope Benedict's recent "audiences" on Saint Bonaventure, his mentor, after Augustine.) IRONIES: Nietzsche's critique of the "ascetic ideal" in light of his own extreme asceticsim; our Holy Father's "conservatism" in light of his manifest interest in and passion for certain aspects of Bonaventure's transcendent mystical investigations. Not to mention recent, papal homilies showing the profound influence of "existential" German theologian par excellence, Bultmann (student of Heidegger). See his homily of a few years ago on the Ascension of Our Lord...our task, to paraphrase, is not so much to "look up," as it is to get to work ON THIS EARTH. Very progressive, Pope Benedict XVI! Also, very orthodox and VERY conservative! Plus, the recent emphasis in papal homilies on human joy, pure and simple (albeit Christian and saintly joy) clearly owes something to the 19th century criticism of Christianity as utterly lacking in joy in the human body and joy in things natural. John Paul's "theology of the body" clearly seems to have taken this Nietzschean critique to heart.

Sorry about that...I got carried away.