Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Irregularity" in Art

In my last post I mentioned that Bodmer and Breitinger, in their defense of John Milton's Paradise Lost, made a case for "irregular" beauties, as against the symmetry and proportion demanded by neoclassical poetics. What could be more irregular than the Alps, with which both men were surrounded their entire lives long. And, indeed, those mountains are often invoked in discussions of the sublime in the 18th century. Joseph Addison, in Pleasures of the Imagination, writes of the delight occasioned by great objects: "the Prospects of an open Champian Country, a vast uncultivated Desart, of huge Heaps of Mountains, high Rocks and Precipicies, or a wide Expanse of Waters." He goes on to say that our "imagination loves to be filled with an Object, or to grasp at any thing that is too big for its Capacity." Immanuel Kant, in his pre-Critical Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1764), mentioned mountains with peaks above clouds, raging storms, and Milton's portrayal of hell as arousing "enjoyment but with horror."

What surprised me about Bodmer and Breitinger, however, is that neither mountain beauties nor mountain horrors play a role in their thoughts on the sublime. Still, I think that their advocacy of "irregularity" in poetry may owe something to accounts of travelers concerning the effect on the imagination of the Swiss Alps. A major account of the mixed feeling of delight and dread was written by an English cleric, Thomas Burnet. In Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681 in Latin; 1684 in English), he wrote of seeing in the Alps "vast Bodies thrown together in Confusion. ... Rocks standing naked round about him; and the hollow Valleys gaping under him." He found himself appalled at the "incredible Confusion" that broke down all his ideals of symmetry and proportion. "They are the greatest examples of Confusion that we know in Nature; no Tempest nor Earthquake puts things into more Disorder."

At the same time, Burnet also conceded that the majesty of the mountains produced awe in him. Though the mountains are "ruins," they also "shew a certain Magnificence in Nature."

As I said, neither beauty nor dread in Bodmer or Breitinger, but in their advocacy of art that grips the imagination they may have been influenced by such accounts.

Yesterday, when I was looking for images to illustrate the post, I came across this painting by Salomon Gessner, whose pastoral tales Goethe criticized for their tameness. The scene shows nymphs, to be sure, but what struck me was the setting. It definitely does not look like a tame landscape. For Gessner and for Bodmer, the sublime was not so much a pyschological category as it was a tool of artists or poets to stimulate the imagination of viewer or reader. Here, Gessner introduces some "irregular" natural forms, while Bodmer defended Milton's irregular diction and striking metaphors.

Picture credits: Harold's Planet (click on image to enlarge); Kunsthaus Zurich


Anonymous said...

One thinks of Nietzsche's comment on the "wild genius" Shakespeare...and reflects, "it takes one to know one." Our Holy Father describes his own taste, if I'm not mistaken, as "baroque." I guess that means "not too wild." Or, "orderly" and "ornate." I'm not sure. I do know that this great man and deeply spiritual (even saintly) person loves Bach and Mozart much more than say Beethoven and Wagner. Yet in the German-spoken comments on his "Alma Mater" CD, Benedict clearly utters the word Heidegger for some reason or other--I don't understand German but I can pick out words like Bach, Mozart and Heidegger! So, maybe SOMETHING in Heidegger is not totally IRREGULAR. Of course, like everyone else almost, the young Joseph Ratzinger was formed, in part, by the great German philosopher, who in turn was formed by the mad genius, Nietzsche. (Incidentally, Kathleen Parker actually refers to Nietzsche BY NAME on her show w/Elliot Spitzer, tonight, on CNN! Nietzsche's "word" to an impatient world: "Wait.")

Goethe Girl said...

That Benedict quotes Heidegger is a surprise to me. I would like to know more about his interest.

Anonymous said...

It is disconcerting and also somewhat surprising to read about the irregularities in Faulkner's life. He remained through it all, I believe, a "Southern gentleman," but Minter's biography of the man reveals a deeply troubled soul. Well, in words the great artist himself would approve, I think, trouble was his "fate" and "destiny." One wonders if there would have been any Nobel-level art at all if his mind and emotions had not been afflicted with the violence, perversion, cruelty and general dysfunctionality--some of this, but not all, the legacy of slavery in our afflicted land. It was as if his compulsion to write was proportionate to the "dysfunctional" aspects of his "heart." It's enough to make a body wonder whether a Michelangelo, a Shakespeare, a Beethoven or a Mozart isn't driven by "demons." There do seem to be artists, however, great artists, who are not quite so driven, not quite so alcoholic, so to speak. Goethe's life, though full of the range of emotions and even conflicts, does not appear, APPEAR to be quite as crazy as a Faulkner's. Tolstoy, too, lived to a nice old age. Yet these last two certainly have irregularities in their art, and Tolstoy's life was sublimely extreme in many wonderful and beautiful ways. No one's life is perfect, and all families, as Tolstoy famously said, have their "issues" vis-a-vis happiness. Yet we have so many works of art that appear to be well-nigh PERFECT. It seems fitting that, according to faith, one human being at least was perfect. And many many more grew in wisdom and saintly perfection.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure it's an interest, with Benedict, but I'm pretty sure he does refer to Heidegger in his remarks that are interspersed in various languages throughout his music CD, "Alma Mater." He is reaching out, in this CD, in a way that is very "multicultural" albeit in a traditional Catholic way. He reaches out, in styles of music, to the Far East and also the Middle East. Not to mention Africa. I understood enough of the Italian to know that he is trying to preach the "universal language of music."