Sunday, November 21, 2010

Aesthetic Thinking II

The other day I noticed a young child dragging his fingers along a chain-link fence. Touching it, as if to get to know it. That sight made me think more about how we, as children, acquaint ourselves with the world. Johann Jakob Bodmer, following John Locke, wrote that we come into the world knowing nothing, possessing only our senses to make "sense" of things: "Die Welt ist eine Academie, und der Mensch ein Schüler, welcher bey dem ersten Eintrite in dieselbe von aller Wissenschafft entblösset ist, und allein darin von todten Wercken der Natur sich unterscheidet, daß er Instrumente besitzet, welche ihn tüchtig machen etwas zu fassen und zu erlernen, nemlich die fünf Sinnen" (The world is an academy, and the human being a pupil who, with his first entry into it is denuded of all science and is only distinguished from other dead works of nature by the possession of instruments that make him industrious to grasp and to learn, namely, the five senses).

He continues: "And an attentive avariciousness (Wundergierigkeit), in addition to a love for everything that is new, excites us to employ these tools of knowledge (Werkzeuge des Wissens)."

The senses are our first "instructor," and through them we are moved by what we touch or see or taste and form concepts of things. But our knowledge of the world would be quite narrow if we only had the senses. After all, we spend half of our days asleep. How would it be if every evening, with the departure of light, we put aside everything we had experienced during the day and had to start again anew in the morning? The Creator, however, having a special purpose for humans, endowed the soul with a special capacity: the imagination, which allows us, at will, to recover all the concepts and sensations we felt in our original contact with the objects. He goes on to say that attention and practice help us to cultivate our imagination. Indeed, poets must have a great store of imagination and make readers forget that they are reading only words and to believe instead that the objects are before their eyes.
The senses are something that we have in common as humans, and we all seem to agree on the pleasure associated with certain experiences (or the converse): most small children like to run through puddles. With time and experience we develop our individual taste for things and, indeed, probably set aside many of the things that gave us pleasure as children. I remember when I first went to college about half the girls in my dormitory had a copy of a painting by Margaret Keane (although back then everyone thought the artist was her husband).

Something about those big-eyed girls moved us, which is, according to Bodmer, the purpose of art. Of course, back in my college days our professors were trying to draw us away from our appreciation for the Keane paintings, to develop better judgments about art, but that initial reaction of pleasure was a first step. And for Kant, it is our ability to respond subjectively, whether to the beauty of sunsets or even to the Keane paintings -- that make our other cognitive accomplishments possible. In other words, because we feel, we can think. That is aesthetics, in a nutshell.

(By the way, a movie is currently being made about Margaret Keane, appropriately titled Big Eyes.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Aesthetic Thinking

"As spectators of art we enter a state of calm passivity and enhanced objectivity, and the various art forms allow us to recognize diverse aspects of reality from a vantage point where our own individual will is not engaged."

The above is from an essay in the Times Literary Supplement (Oct. 15, 2010) by Christopher Janaway, who is here discussing Arthur Schopenhauer's view of the value of art, namely, its disinterestedness, which allows us to escape from the demands of "will." The sentence struck me, reminding me of something I read long ago in Freud. Though I have not been able to rediscover it since, Freud wrote something to the effect that reading a novel allows us, as in no other way, to enter into the "head" of another person. In other words, to see the world from another's viewpoint. I think he may also have been suggesting that reading of novels allows us to develop empathy for others.

When I reflect on my own thinking, it seems that it is characterized by two things. One is obsessiveness: I go over (and over) a subject, as if trying to solve a problem. Unfortunately, the subject is usually very banal. The other is "aesthetic." Often this second manner of thinking concerns art, though in a very broad sense, in that I am often absorbed by the beauty or ugliness of my surroundings. But aesthetic judgments are even broader than that, characterizing my reactions to people. Sometimes my reaction is pleasure (in the case of someone really pretty or handsome); sometimes it is revulsion (do I need to give examples?). Those reactions I would almost consider "objective," since many people might have the same reaction. But my judgment also includes reactions to people's behavior: approval, disapproval, and the like. Once upon a time, say, when I was growing up back in the 1950s, there were some "universal" standards for judging behavior. We all knew who the juvenile delinquents were. Now, of course, you can't even use that term.

It was in the 18th century that the arts -- literature, music, painting, sculpture, and so on -- became subject to discussion on a wide scale. There was a sense that the traditional authorities -- Aristotle, Horace, and so on -- no longer provided direction. Longinus appeared in this fluctuating situation as a gift, requiring that art move us. Thus, the role of feeling entered into the judgment of "taste," the word that suggests a standard but at the same time withdraws the imprimatur of objectivity. We know what is beautiful, and we expect others to feel the same.

In a sense, however, the arts are beside the point. We judge, and we expect others to share our judgments.

German philosophers since Kant have been particularly interested in the arts, for instance, Hegel and Schopenhauer (both of whom Goethe knew), Nietzsche. This interest reminds me of the Greeks: Plato and Aristotle. The Germans might be said to have returned to Western philosophy's origins and preoccupation with the mind.

Picture credit: Jeff Hopkins

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Last days of summer ...

This lovely picture, previously unknown to me, was forwarded by Harry Spitz, a fellow kayaker at the Downtown Boathouse. Actually, Harry is a kayaker extraordinaire, in contrast to the piker that I am. I saw him on Saturday afternoon, returning from an outing, wearing a dry suit of course. He even builds his own kayaks, Eskimo style. Harry is also an artist, as can be seen on his blog.

Here in Manhattan the water temperature today is 53 degrees, actually warmer than the air temperature (as I write) of 48. If we have a day of 70 degrees, which could happen before the end of the month, I hope get out for a paddle, wearing my wet suit. We are reaching the point, however, when one has to wear a dry suit, usually when the water temperature is 55.

The lady in this painting by French Realist artist Gustave Courbet, from 1865, is seated on a "podoscaphe." On page 108 of Velocipedes, Bicycles, and Tricycles by David Glasgow Velox, one learns that the podoscaphe is a marine velocipede, vélocipède marin in French. (This book, originally published in 1869, has been recently reprinted and is said to be an "unusual book [that] will appeal greatly to all who are interested in the history and manufacture of the bicycle.")

Picture credit: Ricci Art

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Goethe and Hot Air Balllooning

Wie ein Luftballon hebt sie uns mit dem Ballast, der uns anhängt, in höhere Regionen und läßt die verwirrten Irrgänge der Erde in Vogelperspektive vor uns entwickelt daliegen.

(Like a hot air balloon it raises us, with all the ballast that we carry, into higher regions and allows us, from a bird's-eye perspective, to see the pattern in the confused pathways of the world labyrinth.)

Goethe is writing here, in his autobiography, Poetry and Truth, of the power of literature. The reference to hot air balloons, however, is one of the indications that Goethe kept abreast of all that was new in the world of science and technology. Though he never ascended in a balloon, he got the picture, so to speak, of how the earth would look from above. Because of his lifelong geological pursuits, I like to think the image above, of balloons flying over the Cappadocia region of Turkey, would have interested him. It shows lava and white ash mixed with floodwaters to form the hard, sun-baked layer known as tufa. The spectacular geological formations are called "fairy chimneys." On the other hand, maybe Goethe was just as glad not to have such a view of the earth, instead allowing his imagination to do the work.

In any case, he was present in 1784 at several attempts at sending a hot air balloon into the air in Germany, made a year after the first experiments in France by, among others, the Montgolfier brothers and the Roberts brothers. The latter were responsible for the first "manned" flight. (Why are these earlier inventors of flight brother teams? Think the Wright brothers.)

One of the first experimenters in Germany was the chemist Samuel Thomas Soemmerring, one of Goethe's science correspondents. (Goethe occasionally wrote him asking for animal fossils and skeletons.) He visited Soemmerring in Cassel in late 1783 and attended an unsuccessful balloon trial. (Later, Soemmerring got a balloon off the ground.) In 1784, Goethe was present in Weimar when the local apothecary, Wilhelm Sebastian Buchholz, also made an unsuccessful attempt. As Goethe wrote to Knebel: "He torments the air in vain; the balls refuse to rise." The same summer, however, Buchholz was successful, and Goethe wrote down his reminiscence of the occasion many years later in Der Verfasser teilt die Geschichte seiner botanischen Studien mit (The Author Communicates the History of His Botanical Studies):

"At the time that the scientific world was busily occupied with determining the qualities of air, he didn't neglect to bring the newest scientific experiments before our eyes. So it was that he let ascend one of the first montgolfiers from our terrace, to the delight of the instructed and to the speechless astonishment of the otherwise assembled, while the pigeons, in consternation, fled in all directions."

These thoughts on Goethe's experience with ballooning were prompted by a review in the Times Literary Supplement of a book on the history of ballooning: The Sublime Invention: Ballooning in Europe, 1783-1820, by Michael R. Lynn. I haven't been able to get my hands on a copy -- none of the New York City libraries has a copy on its shelves -- but the reviewer calls the book an invaluable source for future study. What caught my eye, of course, was the word "sublime" in the title of Lynn's book.

Picture credits: Yoray Liberman/Getty; Xplanes

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Blogging and Letter Writing

Well, I have certainly been missing in action, with nothing posted since October 16. The past two weeks I have been under the gun, finishing all the details that are involved in submitting a manuscript (in this case, the volume on the origins of freedom of speech in the 18th century) to a publisher. One has to do literally everything these days. The numbers of errors, misprints, and the like in books these days had long suggested to me either that publishers no longer provide basic copyediting or that the copyeditors are illiterate. So, I spent a long time with basic copyediting of the contributors to my volume. I also wrote what will eventually be the jacket copy for the book, and I will post that soon.

Shortly after I initiated this blog, I realized I could not keep up blogging on a daily basis. To write about Goethe, after all, requires some thought. Still, I had hoped to make this a record of my work, both on Goethe and on other subjects. For the most part I think I have been successful in that aim, though I would like to have posted more. Thinking, and then putting down one's thoughts in writing, takes a lot of work!

Recently I read a review essay by the classics scholar Peter Green in The New Republic. The subject was a new biography of the novelist William Golding with whom Green was friends many decades ago, when both lived with their families on some Greek island. (Those were the days.) Professor Green, a classics scholar, mentioned in his review that he and Golding had also exchanged long letters, and gave some details from those letters.

I still write letters occasionally. (In fact, I even wrote one to Professor Green, with whom I have earlier corresponded, after reading the review.) Before the computer and emails, however, I wrote often and long letters at that, especially when I lived in Asia. Letters were a way of keeping up with friends and family, letting them know what I was up to. It struck me on reading the review of the Golding biography that the blog has become my way of keeping up, with letting people know what I am up to. Thus, the "Etc." in the name of this blog, since Goethe is not my only subject of research and writing.

Still, I long to get back to Goethe. Though my knowledge of the 18th century has expanded considerably, the free speech volume has diverted me somewhat from my main area of literary interest. I barely have a chance to read anymore. And I am also falling behind in my "letter writing," i.e., blogging. When I can read again, I can get back to thinking and writing.

Picture credits: Clipart ETC. ; Gopal Khetanchi