Thursday, September 29, 2016

"After the Avant-Gardes"

The Southern Cross, Milky Way and Carina Nebula, viewed from Kenya
Yes, I am here, back from the Northwest, but I have been occupied these few weeks since my return to New York with several writing projects, including a book review that had to be turned around in one week. Amid the stack of mail on my return was a book that my Goethe colleague Elizabeth Millán very generously sent me. Elizabeth, who teaches in the philosophy department at De Paul University in Chicago, edited the volume After the Avant-Gardes: Reflections on the Future of the Fine Arts. It contains ten essays. I have not yet had a chance to immerse myself in the volume although I have the feeling that the "fallen" status of art weighs heavily. I notice that Elizabeth's essay, which I have only scanned, is hopeful in its predictions, particularly concerning art's humanizing power.

In this connection, I noticed that she quoted Alexander von Humboldt. It is not surprising, as she has done considerable scholarly work on Humboldt. Humboldt traveled in Latin America between 1799 and 1804. The results of his immense scientific research there appeared in the multi-volume Kosmos. Upon first seeing the Southern Cross in the night sky as he approached the South American continent, however, he did not think about measuring the sky in order to advance our knowledge of the constellations: a scientific enterprise that would in turn help us in predicting weather patterns. Humboldt's first thought was the lines of a poet:

"Impatient to explore the equatorial regions, I could not raise my eyes to the sky without dreaming of the Southern Cross and remembering a passage from Dante."

Humboldt goes on to quote the relevant passage, in Italian (see Purgatory, canto 1, 22–27).

As Professor Millán writes: "Dante's work made a mark so strong in the mind of Humboldt that lines from his poetry became part of the experience of seeing the night sky and understanding the meaning of the Southern Cross for the human observer gazing upon its brilliant light."

(Click photo at the top to enlarge.)

Picture credit: Babak Tafreshi/National Geographic Society, via Corbis

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