Thursday, April 7, 2011

Aesthetic Impressions

The essay on Bodmer and the sublime ("Where Are the Mountains?") is reaching a conclusion. I had hoped to finish it by the end of January, and here we are in April. Well, this week I am working on the footnotes, so that must mean I will soon be finished, right?

I was going through Ernst Cassirer's The Philosophy of the Enlightenment this morning, trying to locate a reference he had made to Bodmer's "Lockean sensualism." I haven't found it yet, but I came across this gem: "The observation of an object under the microscope may reveal to the naturalist its composition and thereby its real objective nature, but its aesthetic imrpession becomes a total loss." This comes up in the section on Alexander Baumgarten and "the new science of aesthetics," which, as Cassirer writes, "abandons itself to sensory appearance, without attempting to go beyond it to something entirely different, to the grounds of all appearance." For example, a geologist could tell us about the composition of a landscape, from which we would gain much "scientific insight," but "not the slightest trace of the beauty of the landscape would be preserved."

Cassirer quotes a very early poem by Goethe (from his Leipzig student days), which gives poetic expression to the difference between scientific observation and aesthetic impression:

Fluttering the fountain nigh
The iridescent dragonfly
An hour mine eye has dwelt upon;
Now dark, now light alternately
Like the chameleon;
Now red, now blue,
Now blue, now green:
How would its hues appear
If one could but come near!

It flits and hovers, resting not --
Hush! on a willow bough it lights;
I have it in my fingers caught,
And now I seek its colors true
And find a melancholy blue --

Such is thy lot, dissector of delights!

Wherever one looks, Goethe is always there!

Photo credit: Butterfly blogspot

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