Aesthetics, Theory and Interpretation of the Literary Work 9004393668, 9789004393660

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Aesthetics, Theory and Interpretation of the Literary Work
 9004393668, 9789004393660

Table of contents :
1 Art, Beauty and Imitation in Plato’s Philosophy
2 Art and Imitation in Aristotle
3 Horace, Pseudo-Longinus and the Aesthetics of Literature in Hellenism
4 Plotinus, Neo-Platonic and Christian Conception of Beauty
5 The Middle Ages and Dante Alighieri
6 Humanism and the New Idea of Human Beings
7 Italian Neo-Platonism and Marsilio Ficino
8 The New Idea of the Human Being and Artist: The Renaissance
9 The Baroque: History and Poetry in Giambattista Vico
10 Baumgarten: Aesthetics and Sensitivity
11 Kant and the Origin of Modern Aesthetics
12 The Heritage of Kantian Philosophy in Romanticism
13 Moritz: Beyond the Concept of Imitation
14 Theory of Poetry of Early German Romanticism
15 Hegel: Art as a Form of the Absolute Spirit
16 Schopenhauer: Art as Disinterestedness and Knowledge of Reality
17 Nietzsche: Knowledge and Art
18 Symbolism and Aestheticism
19 Benedetto Croce: Art and Intuition
20 Linguistics and Criticism
21 Antonio Gramsci: The Role of Intellectuals in Culture
22 Structuralism
23 Martin Heidegger: The Work of Art and Truth
24 Hans-Georg Gadamer: Poetry and Interpretation
25 Critical Theory: A New Attitude towards Art and Society
26 Perspectives of Post-Structuralism
27 The Practice of Deconstruction
28 Contemporary Schools and Traditions in Literary and Critical Theory
29 Postmodern and the New Character of the Literary Work

Citation preview

Aesthetics, Theory and Interpretation of the Literary Work

Transgressions: Cultural Studies and Education Series Editor Shirley R. Steinberg (University of Calgary, Canada)

Founding Editor Joe L. Kincheloe (1950–2008) (The Paulo and Nita Freire International Project for Critical Pedagogy)

Editorial Board Rochelle Brock (University of North Carolina, Greensboro, USA) Annette Coburn (University of the West of Scotland, UK) Kenneth Fasching-Varner (Louisiana State University, USA) Luis Huerta-Charles (New Mexico State University, USA) Christine Quail (McMaster University, Canada) Jackie Seidel (University of Calgary, Canada) Cathryn Teasley (University of A Coruña, Spain) Sandra Vega (IPEC Instituto de Pedagogía Crítica, Mexico) Mark Vicars (Victoria University, Queensland, Australia)

This book series is dedicated to the radical love and actions of Paulo Freire, Jesus “Pato” Gomez, and Joe L. Kincheloe.

Volume 133

The titles published in this series are listed at

Aesthetics, Theory and Interpretation of the Literary Work By

Paolo Euron

leiden | boston

All chapters in this book have undergone peer review. The Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available online at

Typeface for the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic scripts: “Brill”. See and download: issn 2214-9732 isbn 978-90-04-39366-0 (paperback) isbn 978-90-04-39367-7 (hardback) isbn 978-90-04-40923-1 (e-book) Copyright 2019 by Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands. Koninklijke Brill NV incorporates the imprints Brill, Brill Hes & De Graaf, Brill Nijhoff, Brill Rodopi, Brill Sense, Hotei Publishing, mentis Verlag, Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh and Wilhelm Fink Verlag. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, translated, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior written permission from the publisher. Authorization to photocopy items for internal or personal use is granted by Koninklijke Brill NV provided that the appropriate fees are paid directly to The Copyright Clearance Center, 222 Rosewood Drive, Suite 910, Danvers, MA 01923, USA. Fees are subject to change. This book is printed on acid-free paper and produced in a sustainable manner.

To my parents

Contents Introduction xiii 1 Art, Beauty and Imitation in Plato’s Philosophy 1 1 The Concept of Art in Ancient Culture 1 2 Plato’s Ontological Criticism of Art 1 3 Plato’s Moral Criticism of Art 3 4 Beauty and Art 5 5 Poetry, Knowledge, and Madness 7 6 Dionysus, Mysteries, and Orphism 9 2 Art and Imitation in Aristotle 13 1 The Problem of Imitation 13 2 Work of Art and Knowledge 14 3 Poetics as a Specifijic Field 14 4 Catharsis 15 3 Horace, Pseudo-Longinus and the Aesthetics of Literature in Hellenism 18 1 The Hellenistic Period and the Birth of Literary Studies 18 2 Books and Men of Letters in the Western Tradition 18 3 Horace and the Ars Poetica 19 4 The Pseudo-Longinus and the Question of the Sublime 21 5 The Debate on the Sublime 23 4 Plotinus, Neo-Platonic and Christian Conception of Beauty 25 1 Plotinus: Beauty as Manifestation of the One 25 2 Neo-Platonism: Beauty as Revelation of the Deep Reality of Things 26 3 Creation, Beauty and the Concept of Work in Christian Thought 27 5 The Middle Ages and Dante Alighieri 29 1 Medieval Aesthetics and Theory of Art 29 2 Religious Attitudes 30 3 Arts in the Middle Ages 30 4 Dante Alighieri: Poetry and Beauty 31 5 Truth, Beauty and the Diffferent Senses of a Text 32



6 Humanism and the New Idea of Human Beings 35 1 Humanism and the Renaissance 35 2 Knowledge of the Past – Man as an “Historical Animal” 35 3 Philology, Interpretation and the New Intellectual 36 4 Francis Petrarch and the New Idea of Culture 37 5 The Birth of the Modern Book 39 7 Italian Neo-Platonism and Marsilio Ficino 41 1 The Platonic Academy of Florence 41 2 Marsilio Ficino: Beauty and Materiality 42 3 Beauty in Art and Nature and the New Function of Poetry 44 4 Beyond the Material World 45 8 The New Idea of the Human Being and Artist: The Renaissance 46 1 Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and the New Idea of Man 46 2 The Beauty of the Universe and Grace 47 3 Balthasar Castiglione: Grace and Spezzatura 48 4 Art and Nature in Leonardo da Vinci 50 9 The Baroque: History and Poetry in Giambattista Vico 54 1 Poetry in the Baroque 54 2 Giambattista Vico and Knowledge of the Human World 55 3 Vico: Philosophy and Philology 56 4 Vico: Poetry and Knowledge 57 10 Baumgarten: Aesthetics and Sensitivity 59 1 Sensitive Knowledge 59 2 Reason and Sensitivity 59 3 Sensitivity in the Experience of Art 60 11 Kant and the Origin of Modern Aesthetics 62 1 Knowledge of Nature and Beauty 62 2 Knowledge – Determinant Judgement and Imagination 63 3 Pleasure – Reflective or Aesthetic Judgement 64 4 From Knowledge to Morals through Beauty – Nature and Freedom 64 5 Imagination and Knowledge of Reality 66 6 Necessity and Universality of the Beautiful 68 7 The Sublime 69



12 The Heritage of Kantian Philosophy in Romanticism 72 1 The Freedom of Imagination 72 2 The Concept of Genius and the Connection between Art and Nature 72 3 Aesthetic Ideas 74 13 Moritz: Beyond the Concept of Imitation 76 1 The Sense of Sight and the Traditional Concept of Imitation 76 2 A New Concept of Imitation 77 3 Moritz: Beauty as “Uselessness” 78 4 Moritz: The Work of Art as a “By Itself Consisting Whole” 79 5 Moritz: An Outline of Romantic Aesthetics 80 14 Theory of Poetry of Early German Romanticism 82 1 The Concept of the Absolute 82 2 A Short History of the Absolute 83 3 The Work of Art as Structure of the Absolute 84 4 Poetry Is Reality – Deep Absolute Reality 87 5 Hyacinth and Roseblossom 89 6 Transcendental Poetry: Poetry, Criticism and Creation 90 15 Hegel: Art as a Form of the Absolute Spirit 95 1 Poetry and Reason 95 2 Art as Manifestation of the Spirit 96 3 Death of Art 98 4 System of Arts 100 5 Spirit as Content of Artworks and Natural Beauty 101 16 Schopenhauer: Art as Disinterestedness and Knowledge of Reality 104 1 The World as Appearance and the Will as Its Irrational Essence 104 2 The Emancipatory Power of Art 105 3 Art as a Holiday from Life 107 17 Nietzsche: Knowledge and Art 109 1 Tragedy and Philosophy 109 2 Socrates, the Rational Attitude and the Birth of Philosophy 110 3 Tragic Knowledge 110 4 The Origin of Scientifijic Knowledge 111 5 The “Discrepancy” between Art and Truth 112 6 The Flow of Life and the Intellect as a Creative Force 113 7 Art as a Return to Nature 113

x 18 Symbolism and Aestheticism 117 1 Decadent Aesthetics and Literature 117 2 Baudelaire and Symbolism 118 3 Rimbaud and the Task of Poetry 120 4 The Prophet of Aestheticism 122 5 Paul Valéry and the Poetics of Mind 126 19 Benedetto Croce: Art and Intuition 129 1 Intuition and Expression 129 2 Intuition, Expression and Art 130 20 Linguistics and Criticism 133 1 Ferdinand de Saussure: Language as a System of Signs 133 2 Shklovsky and Poetry as a Technique 136 3 Roman Jakobson and the Poetic Function 137 21 Antonio Gramsci: The Role of Intellectuals in Culture 143 1 Criticism of Ideology and Hegemony 143 2 The New Intellectual 144 3 Consent and Negotiation: Beyond Gramsci 145 22 Structuralism 147 1 General Characteristics 147 2 Claude Lévi-Strauss: Structuralism and Anthropology 148 3 Roland Barthes: Structuralism and Literature 150 23 Martin Heidegger: The Work of Art and Truth 154 1 Heidegger’s Criticism of Metaphysics 154 2 Truth and Being 157 3 The Work of Art as Set-in-Work of Truth 158 4 The Struggle between Earth and World 160 5 Inexhaustibility as a Character of the Work of Art 161 6 Shock and Experience of Truth 162 24 Hans-Georg Gadamer: Poetry and Interpretation 166 1 Truth as Experience 166 2 Art, Interpretation, and Truth 167 3 Game and Transformation into Structure 168 4 Fusion of Horizons and Historicity 169 5 The History of Efffects 170 6 Being and Language 171



25 Critical Theory: A New Attitude towards Art and Society 174 1 The Original Concept of Critical Theory 174 2 Critical Theory Today 174 3 The “School of Frankfurt” and the Critique of Instrumental Reason 175 4 Criticism of Culture Industry 177 5 The Critical Theory at Work 180 6 The Power of Art 181 7 Critical Theory and the Humanities 183 26 Perspectives of Post-Structuralism 185 1 The Criticism of Sign and Structure: Attitude of Post-Structuralism 185 2 Foucault: Archeology and Criticism of Knowledge 188 3 The Post-Structuralist Method 191 27 The Practice of Deconstruction 194 1 Derrida and Deconstructionism: The Diffference 194 2 The Primacy of Writing 195 3 Derrida’s Deconstruction and Literary Criticism 196 4 Yale Critics: Bloom, De Man and the Practice of Deconstruction 198 28 Contemporary Schools and Traditions in Literary and Critical Theory 202 1 Theory, Literary Works, and Critical Theory 202 2 Feminist Theory and Criticism 204 3 Gender Theory 205 4 Gay, Lesbian and Queer Theory and Criticism 206 5 New Historicism 207 6 Postcolonial Studies and Criticism 207 7 Cultural Materialism 209 29 Postmodern and the New Character of the Literary Work 211 1 A General Defijinition of Postmodern 211 2 The End of Grand Narratives 212 3 The New Legitimation of Knowledge 214 4 Umberto Eco: Open Work and Postmodernism 215 5 Italo Calvino: Postmodernism and Literature 219 References 227 Index 235


Introduction The aim of this book is to introduce the reader to the literary work and to an understanding of its cultural background and its specific features. In doing so, it refers to two main traditions: one of aesthetics and the theory of art and the other of literary theory. In this way, this book presents main topics, ideas, and representatives of aesthetics, theory, and interpretation of works of art. This book also offers a selection of essential excerpts from pivotal texts on the aesthetics and theory of the literary work, presenting basic topics and ideas in their historical context and development. In order to appreciate the specificity of works of art and, especially, of literary works, the reader needs to know the reason we have works of art and what a work of art is and why we have had such objects as works of art in Western history. A critical attitude requires historical knowledge, as we can read in the chapter on Humanism. An understanding of current trends, theories, and contemporary schools needs a critical perspective and an historical awareness. This awareness is provided by the cultural, critical and historical background presented in these pages. In Western culture what today is considered to be a literary work, and more generally a work of art, is the result of an historical tradition. It does not simply reflect the culture and society in which it has been created. In a certain way, it creates or determines at the same time the cultural and historical world. In order to understand it, we cannot avoid taking an historical approach. Critical theory, with its historical antecedents and its remarkable, recent developments, is the necessary tool for understanding the specificity of a work of art and its connection to culture and society. Students should learn to avoid generalizations and labels and to find the peculiarity of cultural and artistic phenomena. The book is conceived as a general introduction and it is aimed at a reader who may have some knowledge of Western cultural background and wishes a real experience of art and the literary work. The best way to approach a work of art is to enjoy it. In order to enjoy a literary work, we have to consider its correct context and its specific artistic qualities. The stress placed on aesthetics, linguistics, and structure, is an attempt to present the literary work in its specific characteristics as a work of art, or in its “literariness,” as the Formalists said. The book deals with the Western tradition of aesthetics, art, poetry as well as literary and critical theory. Compared to other similar books, it merges these fields and shows how they are connected and intertwined in the Western culture, and it shows how a huge part of Western culture is the result of this



historical tradition. In this perspective, the book is also an introduction to the Western concept of work of art and the related debate, and it is a simple, compact and useful overview for students, scholars and readers belonging to a different tradition, who need a general introduction to main characteristics of Western culture. The aim of this book is that the reader appreciates the work of art. In order to do it, the reader needs to understand it in its specificity. This book attempts to give only a basic outline of the mentioned issues and debate on main topics. For detailed analysis, as well as for further interpretations and perspectives, the reader is directed to the studies which are listed in the bibliography below. The reader will find in this book the most important and influential theories of art and literary works from Plato to the present day. I propose a choice of authors and theories based on certain criteria. First of all, I consider authors, topics and theories relevant to the contemporary debate, ideas we need to understand problems connected to present-day art and literature. In doing so I take into account authors and topics from the Western tradition in their chronological connection. The historical perspective proposed in these pages is fundamental. The essence of humanistic studies is the essential historicity of the human being. Such historical consciousness distinguished Humanism and the Renaissance when poets, artists and then philosophers and scholars recognized the normative values of classic tradition. In that period modern authors (poets and artists before philosophers) understood that in our past, we can find ideas, tools and examples to answer current questions and tackle contemporary problems. This attitude marked the beginning of the modern era. What is important is not tradition in itself but the use we make of tradition. At any rate, we need to know our past in order to create our future. Some authors presented in this essay could be considered minor authors but their writings can help us to understand a problem and to appreciate a work, or maybe they can give us adequate tools in order to understand the current artistic situation. The field of aesthetics (in the first two thousand years we will deal above all with art theories and then with the discipline of aesthetic) is very broad, and I concentrate my attention on theories concerning the experience of the literary work and, then, on linguistic, literary and critical theory. It is important to understand how classic topics, problems and questions are transformed and tuned to a new, critical perspective, so that we can answer new questions posed by the actual experience of a work of art. As far as the last decades are concerned, critical theory supplies strategies and critical tools for the interpretation and enjoyment of literary works of art. I consider critical theory, according to its original authors and to its original meaning,1 as a way to apply critical strategies to our everyday experience of culture and life. Art is an activity which defies the system imposed by the



political power or, conversely, it can be a new, more insidious, and camouflaged instrument of power. The literary work offers a great field of investigation and an interesting and living opportunity for experiencing the force of art. Moreover, principles we learn in the field of literary theory are needed far beyond the boundaries of the traditional concept of literature, since we use them to understand and appreciate novels and poems as well as movies and video clips, comics and advertisements, narratives and TV shows. The strategies we learn in the history and theory of aesthetics are necessary in our everyday experience of the world of culture. Art has not only a cognitive value, but an emancipatory function as well. From such a perspective reflection on aesthetics and the theory of literary works requires more and more a critical consciousness and critical tools. It is important to recognize the strategies, forces and logic playing inside and behind the art work. Secondly, in this book I give special importance to aesthetic tradition and categories. Western aesthetics proposes a particular attitude towards the work of art, creating a specific experience of art in general and a new need for reflection on art. Before we consider single works of art, it is essential to understand the specificity of the experience of art in its historicallyconditioned tradition. Thanks to Plato the experience of beauty is the first step to knowledge; thanks to Baumgarten beauty is a sensitive experience of a lower level of knowledge; thanks to Kant the experience of beauty has to do with knowledge, morality and our outmost and oversensitive nature; thanks to Schopenhauer art has to do with the experience of the irrational essence of reality; thanks to Heidegger, poetry is the foundation of being, and so on. Beauty, art and poetry are related to something which is beyond our senses and which we cannot name but of which we can have an experience, namely in the work of art. This is the way Western art and literature became what they are. We cannot understand the specificity of a literary work if we do not consider its specificity as a work of art. It is a part of its essence. To deny that means to be unaware of that peculiarity and of Western tradition. This is the reason I decided to integrate aesthetics and literary theory – in order to offer a comprehensive, complete and critical view of Western tradition. This book is not a systematic and complete historical survey but it presents some pivotal ideas or traditions which characterize the experience of art and the literary work. These include the birth and transformation of the idea of beauty; the idea of poetry; the status of the literary work; the effect of literary theory on philosophical thought and, conversely, the consequences of philosophical thought on the literary work; reflection on creative practice as a constitutive moment of poetry, hence self-reflection of the work on itself, the connection between theory and creation, the problem of interpretation, the problem of imitation… Poetry seems to be more and more a reflection on



poetics, on functions, and on the possibilities of poetry. Since the Romantic period artists and critics have elaborated this attitude and today it has become the condition of modern poetic creation. In these pages I will present the experience of a work of art and more precisely of a literary work, as an existential experience. What is at stake here is not just an understanding of the literary work and its strategies of meaning but it is an understanding of our life and the world and how the literary work can influence, mediate or determine an understanding of our existence and our world. It may sound strange but this existential experience is based on traditional forms, language, structures, signs, discourses, poetic mechanisms, and rhetorical and technical aspects which seem to constitute the exteriority of the literary work and not part of our inner and personal experience of life. This is a very specific trait characteristic of the literary work. Following the development of aesthetics and the recent reflection on literary theories, linguistics, and critical theory, we will see that the literary work, as well as the work of art in general, is always, as Gadamer remarked, an object of interpretation. In this way the work becomes the place of a real experience, which is always an experience of the inner life of the work, of its peculiar reality and of its specific truth. We should not forget that the aesthetic experience is not just a part of philosophy (that is to say of our understanding of the world with its systems of meanings and values) but it is our understanding of the world (with its meanings and values) in the experience of a single work. Interpretation is the decisive moment in the experience of the literary work. The postmodern assertion that we have interpretations rather than works asserts the power and possibilities of art and not its limits. I wish to give some practical advice to the reader of these pages. The reader should always consider and remember that: The historical perspective presented in this work aims to offer some basic issues and ideas which are a part of the Western conception of beauty, art and literary works. Such ideas are a constitutive part of the current Western debate on culture, art, and literature. They do not exhaust the debate on beauty, art and literary works, but they are the condition of any aesthetic approach to these issues. Our ideas about art, beauty and literary works are not only our individual and personal ideas, but they come from a long tradition. Knowledge of ideas of the past supplies us with essential conceptual tools for understanding our everyday experience of beauty, art, and literature. Our understanding of the contemporary debate is conditioned by our knowledge of the past. An understanding of Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas about art and beauty is necessary for an understanding of our ideas about art and beauty, the relationship between beauty and truth, and the relationship between



artistic imitation and deception. To understand Heidegger’s conception of a “work of art” means to understand a current trend in contemporary art and the close relationship between avant-garde artists and philosophers in the last century. The point is not to decide if Plato or Heidegger was right or wrong when they wrote about art and truth. For us, it is important to find the philosophical categories and conceptual tools in order to understand a problem, to set the problem within the right context and to consider it from the right perspective. We are no longer in Plato’s or in Kant’s age, but we owe them for our philosophical categories and conceptual patterns, which we use when we speak of beauty and of art, even if we are not aware of it. Knowledge of the ideas of the great philosophers, thinkers, artists and critics of the past is intended to develop our critical skills, so that we can understand questions concerning our actual experience of the works of art and current trends of our culture. I am grateful to Michael Crabtree of Chulalongkorn University for his help.

Note 1 See Chapter 25.


Art, Beauty and Imitation in Plato’s Philosophy 1

The Concept of Art in Ancient Culture

The first problem we meet when we deal with art in classical culture is the concept of fine art. Not all people had concepts of fine art and works of art as we know them today. The people of ancient Greece and Rome had no definition for what we call “fine art.” Now we have a general idea of what a work of art is: everybody has had the experience of a work of art such as a painting, a poem or a building, and everybody can recognize a work of art when they see one, even if they have no idea of what art is. In front of a painting, or a building considered today as a work of art, an ancient Greek or Roman would only see a painting, or a building, that is to say the result of the activity of an artisan. In ancient Greece there were works of art, and there was the experience of the work of art, but this experience was not related to categories such as “beauty” or “aesthetic quality.” What we call a work of art today was indeed the result of a technical activity and there was no common denominator among different technical activities such as painting, building or playing music. “Art” was not a general way to make different works of art like paintings or poems. The activity of producing “works” (now we say: “of art”) was called techne. We might translate this as ability or cleverness to create useful things. The “artist” (referred to as technites) was a “craftsman” or an “artisan.” Plato does not present any “philosophy of art.”1 The attempt to define a term such as “beauty,” “perception” or “truth” as related to different works of art, is a modern endeavour. We have to bear in mind that art was above all tragedy and the dramatic arts, so that when Greeks spoke of imitation (mimesis) they referred first of all to acting on the stage with music and words. Then there was another kind of imitation, derived from this one, which was the activity of painters and sculptors. It was not an art but rather a practical skill. Poetry was not a practical and individual skill but a kind of divine frenzy given by the gods.


Plato’s Ontological Criticism of Art

Plato (c. 429-347 B.C.E.) condemned art in general. Following Plato’s theory of forms, the essence of reality is an immaterial (i.e. spiritual), eternal, perfect, © koninklijke brill nv, leideN, 2019 | DOI:10.1163/9789004409231_001



changeless and unique (i.e. single) form. Each object of the material world is a copy of an immaterial, eternal, perfect, unchangeable and unique form. Material reality is nothing but an imitation of the immaterial world of forms, a world which exists “beyond the sky” (hyperouranios). This is the true reality of things. Forms (or ideas) are models or archetypes of material things. Material things are a copy of immaterial forms. Things we meet in our everyday experience are nothing but an imitation of the full reality of forms. The real world is the world of perfect, eternal and immaterial forms, not the one of everyday experience. Truth is only known by means of intellectual knowledge. Materiality is essentially bad and far away from the truth. This Platonic assumption will have great consequences on Western aesthetics and Western culture in general. Forms are objects of intellectual knowledge. The joiner, making a material table, looks at the eternal, perfect and immaterial form of “table” which is in the world “beyond the sky” with his mind’s eye. What about a thing that we would call today “a work of art”? A work of art is an imitation of reality. The artist paints a table and makes a copy of a material table which is already a copy of the immaterial form. The work of art is a copy of a copy, it is two times removed from reality, and is therefore a deception. Works of art deceive and artists are deceivers. True knowledge is the intellectual vision of forms. An artist is not a philosopher and he does not have any knowledge of the things he imitates. The imitator is a long way off the truth and can do all things because he lightly touches on a small part of them and that part an image. For example: a painter will paint a cobbler, carpenter or any other artist, though he knows nothing of their arts; and, if he is a good artist, he may deceive children or simple persons, when he shows them his picture of a carpenter from a distance, and they will fancy that they are looking at a real carpenter.2 Now, do you suppose, that if a person were able to make the original as well as the image, he would seriously devote himself to the image-making branch? […] The real artist, who knew what he was imitating, would be interested in realities and not in imitations.3 The imitative artist […] will go on imitating without knowing what makes a thing good or bad. […] He has no knowledge worth mentioning of what he imitates. Imitation is only a kind of play or sport.4 According to Plato, art is false knowledge of reality. An artist’s imitation can deceive common people, not the philosopher, who knows the essence of reality or the real being of things.

Art, Beauty and Imitation in Plato ’s Philosophy



Plato’s Moral Criticism of Art

Plato’s criticism concerns knowledge of the true being of things, and therefore it is said to be “ontological.” The being of imitations is two times removed from the being or essence of real things or ideas. This ontological blame is not the only reason for distrusting works of art. Plato is known for his moral blame, too. This blame is particularly against tragedy and poetical works. We have said that tragedy was the highest form of Greek art, if we want to stick to our modern definition of art. Tragedy was a mix of action, music and poetry which involved all the citizens of the polis as audience. It was a very important and involving representation. According to Plato’s moral philosophy, human right behaviour consists of following reason: A wise and calm temperament […] is not easy to imitate or to appreciate when imitated […] so the imitative poet, who aims to be popular, is not by nature made, nor is his art intended, to please or to affect the rational principle in the soul; but he will prefer the passionate and fitful temper, which is easily imitated.5 The poet concerns himself with the inferior part of the soul, not with the rational part, “therefore we shall be right in refusing to admit him into a well-ordered State, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason.”6 Even today we can agree that a work of imitation which tries to be popular (a movie, a novel, a piece of advertising) stresses and exaggerates extreme features and actions of the characters. Experiencing such a work evokes feelings of unusual strength so that our emotional and spiritual balance is impaired. In his ontological and moral criticism of art Plato puts together two different activities that the ancient Greeks could not find similar: poetry and figurative art. Plato is convinced that art (especially poetry) has tremendous power over man’s soul. The Greek tragedy, a representation of acting, poetry, and music, had a great emotional effect on the audience. Art can confuse knowledge and behaviour. Of course, we should remember that in ancient Greek society knowledge and wisdom were passed down from generation to generation by means of oral repetition and that poetry was a way to teach. Now our knowledge is based on history, science or philosophy books; on encyclopaedias or on the Internet. At the time of Homer, knowledge and education were essentially based on oral tradition, and poetry, recited by heart, was something like our encyclopaedia. History, geography, and anthropology (all of which concern our



“human sciences” and much more) were handed down from teacher to pupil and transmitted by poetry. The education of the ancient Greeks (paideia) was in large part based on an oral tradition. Philosophy itself was an oral activity. Plato’s ontological and moral criticism of art was a struggle of new philosophers against ancient poets, who wanted to have exclusive right to knowledge and wisdom. Plato’s distrust of poetry is motivated by the power of poetry in a society essentially based on oral tradition. How can we tell truth from a lie? By deciding who has the right to tell the truth. Plato himself was a great poet. His dialogues are great works of art. But he was a philosopher and he used poetry to tell the truth, though in a poetic form. We should also remember that in ancient Greece, the concept of imitation (mimesis) was different from ours. Imitation was, above all, the action of the actor, who imitated feelings on the stage. Today we would translate mimesis (in its old and original meaning) as “expression” or “acting” or “imitation of feelings” rather than as just “imitation.” This meaning remains partially in Plato’s conception of art, giving rise to his moral condemnation. From such a perspective, imitation (such as the imitation of a behaviour) always has a moral content, since imitation is a way to feel and to act, with consequences on the behaviour of other people. There is a type of artist “who aims to be popular” who is a danger to the people and a “well ordered State.” Can we share Plato’s advice today? Actually, if we consider our mass-art, we realize that in a lot of music videos and TV entertainment, as well as in advertising or in popular movies, we often watch representations of extreme feelings: anger, passion, love, hate…and, often, these extreme feelings do not reflect actual life and real human feelings. According to Plato, it is easier to represent an extreme character than a well-balanced one. Besides this, music, video-clips, and advertising have to convince the audience, they have to sell something: discs, an artist, or more simply a life-style. They have to be effective. They do not have to induce the use of reason. Plato would have said: “they have nothing to do with truth.” In Plato we can find another kind of imitation: the imitation of forms. Forms are eternal, perfect and immaterial models or ideas of reality. In the dialogue Timeus, Plato tells a myth in which the Demiurge (the “maker” or “artisan”) makes the material universe. The Demiurge looks at the eternal and perfect forms, orders the shapeless matter to follow them as models, and thus makes everything “necessarily beautiful.” This is a slightly different meaning of “imitation,” mixed with the previous one, but it is enough to say that Plato is not in general against “art” as imitation or production. In the myth of the Demiurge, Plato indeed connects imitation (of forms) not with deception, but with

Art, Beauty and Imitation in Plato ’s Philosophy


beauty. This connection between beauty and imitation will be developed in the Christian tradition, as we will see in a later chapter.


Beauty and Art

At the time of Plato there was no connection among the different forms of art (music, dance, poetry, painting…) and there was no connection between art and “beauty.” Beauty was only occasionally or by chance related to art. Beauty was a metaphysical topic: it concerned the theory of being in its general form. As we have seen, the Demiurge ordered the material world according to the world of forms, making it necessarily beautiful: beauty of material reality is a consequence of its similarity with the being (immaterial forms) and not a consequence of art. If we were to ask Plato: what is beauty? he would answer: “Forms are beautiful, the perfect being is beautiful, and among these forms, the form of good is the most beautiful.” In Plato’s philosophy beauty has to do neither with art nor with nature. For Plato beauty is the object of love (Eros). Eros is a “spirit” or daemon between gods and men. Philosophy is nothing but the result of the force of Eros, the desire to get what we do not have. Eros is a force which compels us to go in search of beauty and good. From this perspective beauty is the “shining” or “brightness” of forms which we recognize in material reality. The beauty of the human body is the “expression of divine beauty” of forms7 and love of beauty is the first stage for acquiring the wisdom of philosophy. This is the concept of beauty as brightness or brilliance. Such a conception of beauty is the oldest and most natural. Beauty as bright and light is indeed the concept of beauty as an immediate, visual experience. In the archaic period “beautiful” was used only to describe the human body. Then, later, the concept of beauty was extended to other visible objects, then to things in general, except for immaterial ones. Homer, for example, could not say “a beautiful voice.” Nevertheless, the concept of beauty, first used to describe physical beauty, was later used in a moral sense, too. The poet Sappho was perhaps the first one to propose the devaluation of the physical beauty of the body in favour of the inner beauty of the soul. Later in the classical period the concept of beauty received a wider range of meanings. It was applied to the description of many non-sensible objects: law, truth, virtues, psychological traits, morals, and behaviour. For an ancient Greek it was normal to think that there are beautiful things and that they are



also good. Plato’s philosophy changes this point of view: there is the Good (the form), and therefore there are also good things (material and individual things) and they are beautiful, too. But of Beauty, I repeat again that we saw her there shining in company with the celestial forms; and coming to earth we find her here too, shining in clearness through the clearest aperture of sense. For sight is the most piercing of our bodily senses; though not by that is wisdom seen; her loveliness would have been transporting if there had been a visible image of her, and the other ideas, if they had visible counterparts, would be equally lovely. But this is the privilege of beauty, that being the loveliest, she is also the most palpable to sight. Now he who is not newly initiated or who has become corrupted, does not easily rise out of this world to the sight of true beauty in the other; he looks only at her earthly namesake, and instead of being awed at the sight of her, he is given over to pleasure, and like a brutish beast he rushes on to enjoy and beget; he consorts with wantonness, and is not afraid or ashamed of pursuing pleasure in violation of nature. But he whose initiation is recent, and who has been the spectator of many glories in the other world, is amazed when he sees anyone having a godlike face or form, which is the expression of divine beauty […].8 For Plato sight is “the most piercing of our bodily senses” and beginning with Plato, Western philosophy is knowledge based on sight. “Idea” is the right translation of “platonic form.” We should remember that the word “idea” derives from lat. Idea < gr. Idéa < Indo-European Idēin = “to see,” “to look at.” The platonic “form” or “idea” is the object of “intellectual sight,” as things are objects of the physical sight of our eyes. “To see” and “to know” share the same etymology. “Theory,” as intellectual knowledge, derives from the Greek verb “theorein” which means “to look at.” Today our philosophy is completely based on the sense of sight, which presupposes distance and separation between subject and object, control and rule over the object, whereas for Plato sight was only the starting point of the process of knowing. Physical beauty is only the first step in reaching the intelligible world of forms. Even the desire for a beautiful body (Eros) is the first stage on an ascent to the upper level of reality, by which we learn to ascend from the material world to the world of forms. From the desire for a beautiful body we learn to desire all beautiful bodies, then to desire the beautiful “order” of institutions and laws, then the beauty of science, and finally beauty in itself, beauty in general, that is to say the beauty of forms. Therefore, beauty is not the object of art,

Art, Beauty and Imitation in Plato ’s Philosophy


but the object of philosophy. Beauty is a way of achieving knowledge. In the Symposium (one of the most important of Plato’s dialogues) we find the word “art” only by chance and in any case, it is not connected with “beauty.” Beauty is a quality of the body and of forms. Plato harkens back to a different conception of beauty as symmetry and proportion, a reflective conception of beauty not as an immediate and sensible experience, but as a result of reflection and thought. This less immediate conception of beauty is more recent and it is represented by Pythagoras’s philosophy. Beauty is a hidden harmony of things that only the philosopher can understand; beauty is present in mathematical relations, too. This Pythagorean tradition presents beauty as an intellectual experience which can reveal the hidden essence of things. Today when we say that something is “beautiful,” we judge it following and blending two different traditions, as Plato already did: beauty as brightness or shining and beauty as symmetry or proportion. On the other hand, if today we connect “beauty” with art, we do something that Plato could not do. In order to connect art with beauty we need the idea of a beautiful world “created” by God, and not just “ordered” by the Demiurge who imitates eternal forms. This perspective is only opened by Christian philosophy. God becomes the greatest artist. From the Christian perspective, the work of art is beautiful because it is a creation which imitates (on a lower level, but with similar effects) the beauty of the world created by God. Beauty is a central issue in Kant9 and in the romantic debate.10 Hegel privileges artistic beauty over natural beauty.11 Today there has been a resurgence of interest in beauty.12


Poetry, Knowledge, and Madness

In the ancient world poetry was not only a way of passing down information or an emotional experience. Poetry was a faculty given by the gods and a kind of knowledge beyond human limits. Poetry was not a form of art but rather a religious experience. In his dialogue Ion Plato deals with the topic of poetic knowledge. Socrates explains it to the rhapsodist Ion in this way: The gift which you possess of speaking excellently about Homer is not an art, but, as I was just saying, an inspiration; there is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripides calls a magnet, but which is commonly known as the stone of Heraclea. This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting



other rings; and sometimes you may see a number of pieces of iron and rings suspended from one another so as to form quite a long chain: and all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone. In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. And as the Corybantian revellers when they dance are not in their right mind, so the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains: but when falling under the power of music and metre they are inspired and possessed; like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus but not when they are in their right mind.13 Poetry is the result of a divine gift, and the soul of the lyric poet affects the reader too so that this divine influence spreads like the magic force of a magnet. Plato introduces the long-lasting idea of the poet as an oracle, as a seer, as an individual inspired by super-human forces: “For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him.”14 He does not sing by art but by divine power. In other words, the poet is not responsible for his creations. The function of poetry is to connect the divine and the human “[f]or in this way the God would seem to indicate to us and not allow us to doubt that these beautiful poems are not human, or the work of man, but divine and the work of God; and that the poets are only the interpreters of the Gods by whom they are severally possessed.”15 Rhapsodists, who sing poems, are nothing but interpreters of the poets and, more precisely, interpreters of interpreters. Even the rhapsodists and the audience are affected by the divine power of poetry and they are not in their right mind. Poetry is a kind of madness and this madness spreads like a contagion from the poet to the rhapsodist to the audience: ION:

For I must frankly confess that at the tale of pity my eyes are filled with tears, and when I speak of horrors, my hair stands on end and my heart throbs. SOCRATES: Well, Ion, and what are we to say of a man who at a sacrifice or festival, when he is dressed in holiday attire, and has golden crowns upon his head, of which nobody has robbed him, appears weeping or panic-stricken in the presence of more than twenty thousand friendly faces, when there is no

Art, Beauty and Imitation in Plato ’s Philosophy


one despoiling or wronging him;–is he in his right mind or is he not? ION: No indeed, Socrates, I must say that, strictly speaking, he is not in his right mind. SOCRATES: And are you aware that you produce similar effects on most of the spectators? ION: Only too well; for I look down upon them from the stage, and behold the various emotions of pity, wonder, sternness, stamped upon their countenances when I am speaking: and I am obliged to give my very best attention to them; for if I make them cry I myself shall laugh, and if I make them laugh I myself shall cry when the time of payment arrives.16 Plato points out very clearly the enormous power of poetry, its non-human origin, and the dangers and responsibility it implies. We can understand his distrust for poetry, since it appears to be the contrary of philosophy, rationality, balance and self-control. This attitude towards poetry and theatre characterizes the Western idea of the poet up to recent times. In Western tradition poetry can be a sign of madness or a type of preternatural knowledge. In the dialogue Phaedrus Plato describes different kinds of madness. The third kind is the madness of those who are possessed by the Muses; which taking hold of a delicate and virgin soul, and there inspiring frenzy, awakens lyrical and all other numbers; with these adorning the myriad actions of ancient heroes for the instruction of posterity. But he who, having no touch of the Muses’ madness in his soul, comes to the door and thinks that he will get into the temple by the help of art–he, I say, and his poetry are not admitted; the sane man disappears and is nowhere when he enters into rivalry with the madman.17 The rhapsodist can interpret the poet who interprets the god. This interpretation has to be understood as a direct influence of one on the other, according to the comparison of the magnet. But a man cannot be a poet by means of art or by means of a specific, technical kind of knowledge. Poetic knowledge is a gift from the gods.


Dionysus, Mysteries, and Orphism

The Platonic idea of poetry as madness and divine inspiration is based on a very old and generally accepted assumption. We have to go back in order to



understand what happened before Plato (and before the beginning of rational thought) and then after him. In the ancient world gods presided at poetic events or were even present in them. We have seen the awe and distrust of Plato towards tragedy. According to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), Greek tragedy has its origins in the Bacchus mysteries. Mysteries were ancient rituals to honour the god Dionysus-Bacchus. Such celebrations were based on dance, music, excess, and wine (Bacchus was the god of wine) in order to create an ecstatic and orgiastic experience and the loss of the principle of individuation. In such an ecstatic and orgiastic experience, the individual forgets what it is (a person) and feels itself as a part of the whole of nature and life. Greek tragedy is a formalization and artistic representation of the original Dionysian experience of the loss of the principle of individuation and a way to understand the tragic truth. According to Nietzsche, the Dionysian mysteries expose the tragic truth and are the original, tragic knowledge of life. What is the tragic truth? It is a non-rational truth. Existence is contradictory and without meaning, it is suffering and chaos. Rationality is a way to conceal this awareness, to cover the abyss and chaos of existence and to make life bearable.18 For this reason, Plato distrusted tragedy and representations like the Dionysian rituals in which acting, music, dance, and elation make you lose the principle of individuation and a rational attitude. In contrast, a non-rational knowledge of existence was proposed by poets so that poetry, acting and music offered a different approach to existence. Orphism is a long and influential tradition of poetry as a type of knowledge originating from the Dionysian mysteries. Orpheus was a mythical poet and musician; with his singing he charmed wild beasts and made the trees and stones follow the sound of his music. According to some ancient sources, Orpheus was Dionysus himself and created the mysteries. He descended to Tartarus (the ancient hell) to bring back his dead wife Eurydice, enchanting devils and suspending the tortures of the damned with the sound of his music. His instrument was the lyre (sacred to Apollo, god of the sun) and, in the most ancient versions, the alder-pipe, the same instrument played by Dionysus. Orphism, or Orphic mysteries, date back to the VI century B.C.E. but the remaining poetic texts were composed later in the Hellenistic period (II–V century A.D.). Orphism is a religious movement which attempts to transform the ecstatic and orgiastic Dionysian mysteries into a more ascetic and cathartic experience. The Dionysian content is tamed and ordered by a spiritual discipline. Poetry is a way to bring a kind of rational and intellectual harmony to the chaos of existence. Poetry is an attempt to present the Dionysian truth in a socially acceptable and civilized form. In this way poetry becomes a kind of

Art, Beauty and Imitation in Plato ’s Philosophy


knowledge. The mythological content gives a clue as to how humans can reach their divine and immortal nature. The soul is the divine part of the human being and can attain immortality. Special practices like vegetarianism and spiritual discipline distinguish the initiates of this esoteric cult. Only few people can share this knowledge and the inner freedom given by a spiritual principle. Among the various esoteric practices poetry has a central role and a pivotal importance. Poetry can erase the gap between human and divine nature and give a superior knowledge and save our higher, inner principle. In more general terms, poetry is a way to know (in a not-rational but sympathetic way), to have experience of a superior order of things and higher principles (not visible to all but the esoteric) and to be free (not on a material level but on a spiritual one). The Orphic tradition will have a great influence on the Western attitude to artistic creation. As esoteric lore it is more frequently represented by writers, poets and artists than by philosophers and critics who, usually, adopt a more rationalistic and traditional attitude. This idea of poetry, in contrast to rational knowledge and even a certain literary tradition (which presents poetry as an innocent play or as a set of rules), is a constitutive part of the Western conception of literary works and, more generally, of art.

Notes 1 Christopher Janaway, “Plato,” in Berys Gaut, Dominic McIver Lopes (editors), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (New York: Routledge, 2013), p. 9. 2 The Works of Plato, trans. by B. Jowett (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1964), Resp., X, 598. 3 Resp. X, 599. 4 Resp. X, 599. 5 Resp. X, 604–605. 6 Resp. X, 605. 7 Phaedrus, 250–251. 8 Phaedrus, 250–251. 9 See Chapter 11. 10 See Chapters 13 and 14. 11 See Chapter 15. 12 For example, see Arthur Danto, The Abuse of Beauty (Chicago and La Salle, Open Court, 2003); Umberto Eco (editor), History of Beauty (New York, Rizzoli International Publications, 2004). 13 Ion, 533–534. 14 Ion, 534.

12 15 16 17 18

CHAPTER 1 Ion, 534. Ion, 535. Phaedrus, 245. See Chapter 17 on Nietzsche’s interpretation of tragedy.


Art and Imitation in Aristotle 1

The Problem of Imitation

Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) has no ontological condemnation for art. He does not think, as Plato did, that there is an ideal order of reality (forms) and a lower order of reality (material things), and that truth and values of the second (material reality) are given by the first (forms). Consequently, Aristotle has no moral condemnation for art either. It is important to point out that Plato’s moral criticism of art is a consequence of his ontological one. Works of art have a lower rank than real objects. They are morally suspect. In contrast Aristotle starts from the actual experience of poetry and affirms that art is imitation. Where then does our instinct for imitation come from? It is found in human nature. It is clear that the general origin of poetry was due to two causes, each of them part of human nature. Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation.1 This is a legitimation of an artist’s work as well as of art imitation. And what can we say about the audience of the work of art? And it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation. The truth of this second point is shown by experience: though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to view the most realistic representation of them in art, the forms for example of the lowest animals and of dead bodies. The explanation is to be found in a further fact: to be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind, however small their capacities for it.2 We take delight or pleasure in watching an imitation, even if it is an imitation of a thing in which we would not take any delight in watching in real life. We take delight in seeing an imitation of something or, if we do not know the original, we are delighted to see the good execution of the work. In both cases we know 1) that it is an imitation and it is not a real thing, and we know 2) that it © koninklijke brill nv, leideN, 2019 | DOI:10.1163/9789004409231_002



does not belong to real life, that this imitation does not affect us as a real thing, so that we keep a distance from the imitation. We know that we are experiencing a work of art. This cognitive experience is part of the pleasure of the work of art as such. I can take pleasure in the experience of a work of art only if I know that it is an imitation of reality: as Arthur Danto said,3 even today, more than two thousand years after Aristotle, knowledge is a constitutive part of aesthetic pleasure.


Work of Art and Knowledge

Knowledge is a constitutive part of a work of art for another important reason. The work of art is a general model of reality. In poetry (Aristotle considers the tragedy) we do not face random, singular and concrete facts but we face possible, ordered, and necessary events. Poetry is a more philosophic activity than history: poetry is concerned with universal facts, whereas history is concerned with singular facts: The poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e. what is possible as being probable or necessary. The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse […] it consists really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that may be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since his statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singular.4 The principle of art is not the imitation of a real thing, but the imitation of a possible thing, “what is possible as being probable or necessary.” This term “probable” is understood as “likely,” something that might happen, in the way it might happen; “necessary” is what, in a given context, must happen


Poetics as a Specific Field

In his influential and authoritative Poetics Aristotle offers a treatise on poetics (= perì poietikes, “about poetics”) as an activity to produce tragedies. This activity is a techne, a practical activity, whose aim is to create works of art. For the first time in the history of Western thought we have a technical treatise upon art, as an activity different from philosophy or politics or persuasion or any other kind of knowledge.

Art and Imitation in Aristotle


According to Aristotle a work of art is not only a technical question: he thinks of the work of art as a structured whole. Only as a “structured whole” can a work of art relate to human emotional experience and knowledge. Art imitates nature, but differently from the way Plato intended it. Art does not just imitate a natural thing in order to deceive us. Art is an organized production in sight of an aim. Take the case of poetry. In tragedy we watch imitated events and persons (likelihood) in an order and clearness that we do not see in real life (necessity). We look at a whole and not at a part of reality. The poet being an imitator just like the painter or other maker of likeness, he must necessarily in all instances represent things in one or other of three aspects: either as they were or are, or as they are thought or said to be or to have been, or as they ought to be. […] There is not some kind of correctness in poetry as in politics, or indeed any other art. There is however […] the possibility of two kinds of error […]: if the poet meant to describe the thing correctly, and failed through lack of power of expression, his art itself is at fault. But if it was through his having meant to describe it in some incorrect way (e.g. to make the horse in movement have both right legs thrown forward) […] his error in that case is not in the essentials of the poetic art.5 The poem presents a world that is in itself consistent; it does not just represent a portion of the real world. In this way it presents the world in a new light, according to probability and necessity. The rules of poetics are not the same rules of real life, because the aim of poetics is not the aim of real life. As opposed to Plato, Aristotle argues that art is neither political nor moral. Only on this condition does art have to do with human behaviour and knowledge. In other words, art can show reality from a perspective and under a light that we cannot find in our chaotic, random, everyday life. Actually, if somebody wanted to understand what crazy love is, we would advise him to read Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, and not the paragraph on “psychosis” in a medical handbook like the Diagnostic Statistic Manual. Flaubert’s novel can present human facts, a case of madness caused by love, under a light of universality and likelihood that we can find neither in real life nor in a medical treatise.



Greek tragedy could be considered the most complex and complete form of Greek poetic expression, and poetry, as we have seen, was the highest form of



what today we would call “art.” The first part of Aristotle’s Poetics (the only part which is left) is dedicated to an analysis of tragedy. A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.6 This definition of tragedy has been a matter of discussion for many centuries. The first question is the meaning of the word “catharsis,” used by Aristotle only once in his Poetics. “Aristotle offers no theory of catharsis.”7 Nevertheless, it was a pivotal concept in the Greek experience of art. Catharsis means, in general, “cleansing,” “purification” or “purging,” first of all in a medical or physiological sense. For example, Plato uses the word “catharsis” in the medical sense of cleansing or purging and applies it to a political context (Resp. 8.567c): the ruler of the right State should keep good men and get rid of the bad ones. Still, we should remember that in Greek culture the medical significance of cleansing as purging cannot be clearly separated from the religious meaning of purification, and Aristotle probably has in mind both meanings. What about the cleansing of passions through pity and fear? What does it mean? Does the audience get rid of the passions of pity and fear, or are such passions purified and refined by means of the tragic representation? The first meaning of catharsis as purification (the poetic representation of emotion frees me from such emotion, so that art has a therapeutic function) has a more religious value and is consistent with the Orphic and Pythagorean tradition, so that poetry is a way to eliminate passions and to restore the magic balance of the soul. The second meaning of catharsis is more probable in Aristotle: poetry, as the representation of a fictional but consistent world, arouses emotions in me, in a refined and purified form, which I could not experience in the real world. Aristotle says, against Plato, that poetry is not concerned with politics nor morals, but follows its own rules and legitimacy. The cleansing of emotions provided by poetry is not (or not chiefly) the ridding of emotions in a medical or ethical sense. Also, Aristotle does not propose throwing poets out of the Republic, as Plato did. In the fictional world of the work of art, though it is only an imitation of the real world, we can have a real and strong experience of emotions that we could not have elsewhere. We experience powerful emotions in a pure and refined

Art and Imitation in Aristotle


form. The autonomy of art is saved and through catharsis art receives a wholly new moral relevance. The moral relevance of art proposed by Aristotle is not the Platonic one, because art is considered in the artistic context, which is its specific field. In the very experience of the work of art, through the experience of emotions, something happens to the emotions. You can feel differently, and you can see what – in the usual chaos of life – is perhaps not seen. The emotional experience of art can be an advantage for the audience insofar as it receives a feeling of pleasure from the representation of fear and pity. Art has a peculiar moral value because art can be considered as a kind of education of feeling, presenting passions in a clear, refined and controlled form. The effect of art on us is that our soul can be purified by the artistic representation. In a certain way, art can educate and refine our feelings, whereas bad examples, behaviours and circumstances can damage them.

Notes 1 Aristotle’s Works, edited by W. D. Ross (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1908–1952), Poet. 1448 b. 2 Poet. 1448 b. 3 Arthur Danto, The transfiguration of the Commonplace (Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 15. 4 Poet., 1451 b. 5 Poet. 1460b. 6 Poet. 1449b. 7 Pappas, Nickolas, “Aristotle,” in Berys Gaut, Dominic McIver Lopes (editors), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (New York: Routledge, 2013), p. 14.


Horace, Pseudo-Longinus and the Aesthetics of Literature in Hellenism 1

The Hellenistic Period and the Birth of Literary Studies

The Hellenistic period (II century B.C.E.–III century A.D.) or late antiquity came after the classic period of Greek culture. Greek became the common language of the Mediterranean basin and Greek culture spread across the Western world. Alexandria was the centre of Hellenistic culture. In the meantime, Rome rouse as the new military and political power and Latin became the basis of many future European languages. Tragedy and poetry no longer represented the public interest. Cities were bigger and tragedy could not emotionally and existentially involve all the citizens as in the time of Sophocles. Poetry became more the personal interest of a few individuals (like in the Orphic tradition, whose texts were codified in the Hellenistic period) than a matter of public concern. Generally, writers were men of learning who studied literary theory and philosophy. Literary works were erudite books with many literary, cultural and philosophical allusions. Hellenism was not a period of great creative works (like Greek tragedies) but of scholarly study and systematization, of theory, of reflection on works and of codification of rules used in classic texts. Poetry was mostly a learned art written by scholars for a select audience of scholars.


Books and Men of Letters in the Western Tradition

From the Hellenistic period we have influential treatises which formulate the rules of the Western literary tradition. Somehow, Hellenism gave birth to literary theory as a systematic and erudite approach to works of literature, an attempt to describe characteristics and codify rules. In Hellenism literary theory or “grammar” became a current trend and enjoyed great success. The study of texts and its support was a great concern, more than creative production, so that the library of Alexandria, before it burned in 47 B.C.E., housed a collection of 700,000 books. This interest in the classics was based on the assumption that Hellenistic scholars must rescue and preserve the great heritage of Greek culture. While Plato’s philosophy and knowledge relied on dialogue between © koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2019 | doi:10.1163/9789004409231_003

The Aesthetics of Literature in Hellenism


the philosopher and his disciples, Hellenistic knowledge relied on written words and their careful study and correct interpretation by philologists, critics and men of letters. Books and written texts came to occupy the highest rank and importance in the Western system of knowledge. Truth was to be found in books and no longer in spoken words. The Greek word “grammarian” (grammatikos) originally meant a writer. The equivalent Latin term is litteratus or “man of letters,” used both for writers and literary theorists, i.e. scholars who theorize about literature. Later we can find terms like “critic” and “philologist.” In the Hellenistic period the literary theorist and the writer received a defined profile and their professional identities were connected in the original concept of “man of letters.” Roman literature flourished between the end of the Republic (80–42 B.C.E.) and the beginning of the Roman Empire (42 B.C.E.–14 A.D.) or the Age of Augustus. Then men of letters such as Cicero, Caesar and Varro, and poets such as Lucretius, Virgil and Horace constituted the golden age of Roman literature and will be considered classic authors of the Western literary tradition in subsequent centuries. Classic means that their works form the canon of literature and are a normative and unreachable model of writing. The works of classic authors can be taken as the paragon of writing and thinking.


Horace and the Ars Poetica

Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65–8 B.C.E.) was born in Venusia, in south-eastern Italy and studied in Rome and in Athens. In Rome he enjoyed the support of Gaius Maecenas, a patron of artists, and of the emperor Augustus. Thanks to his position Horace was able to dedicate himself to the writing of poetry. His Ars poetica or Art of Poetry is a long letter addressed to a prominent Roman family interested in art. These biographical remarks give an idea of the political and social environment of literary activity. According to Horace poetry is not a form of madness like in Plato but it is an art and it requires technical knowledge and a precise theory. The poet needs to know conventions and rules; he should master technical skills, and he needs exercise, dedication and sacrifice. You writer must choose material equal to your power. Consider long what your shoulders will bear and what they will refuse. The man who chooses his subject with full control will not be abandoned by eloquence or lucidity of arrangement. As to arrangement: its excellence and charm, unless I’m very wrong, consist in saying at this moment what needs to be said


chapter 3

at this moment, and postponing and temporarily omitting a great many things, an author who has undertaken a poem must be choosy – cling to one point and spurn another.1 Writing is a controlled and rational activity, the result of a deep technical knowledge. It requires a respect for rules and it presupposes a long, practical exercise. Nevertheless, a perfect poem is not simply a correct technical achievement. Writing has a human value and possesses an existential relevance which far exceeds the rhetorical aspect. Wisdom is the starting point and source of correct writing. Socratic books will be able to point out to you your material, and once the material is provided the words will follow willingly enough. If a man has learned his duty to his country and his friends […] then he automatically understands how to give each character its proper attributes. My advice to the skilled imitator will be to keep his eye on the model of life and manners, and draw his speech living from there.2 Poetry had a social value at the beginning of civilization and it still has a social function today: “Orpheus, who was a holy man and the interpreter of the gods, deterred the men of the forests from killing and from disgusting kinds of food.”3 Horace does not believe that a poem is the result of art alone but, at the same time, he does not think that it could come from nature. On the one hand, he refuses the Platonic idea of the possessed poet and of creative madness. On the other hand, the study of art can achieve nothing if it is not supported by real talent. In the same way, genius which is not trained by study and exercise cannot do anything good. Horace’s Art of Poetry is written in short and effective verses, and its sentences are very vivid. Poems must have beauty and charm and lead the hearer’s soul where they will, writes Horace. Poems must mix profit and pleasure; they must delight and instruct the reader. Some statements became very famous and were often discussed: Poetry is like painting. Some attract you more if you stand near, some if you are further off. One picture likes a dark place, one will need to be seen in the light, because it’s not afraid of the critic’s sharp judgement. One gives pleasure once, one will please if you look it over ten times.”4 The Art of Poetry, with its concise and precise statements, will be considered a handbook of literary theory and poem writing for almost the next twenty centuries.

The Aesthetics of Literature in Hellenism



The Pseudo-Longinus and the Question of the Sublime

In Plato we saw that poetry is the result of a kind of divine madness. In the Phaedrus we read: “He who, having no touch of the Muses’ madness in his soul, comes to the door and thinks that he will get into the temple by the help of art–he, I say, and his poetry are not admitted; the sane man disappears and is nowhere when he enters into rivalry with the madman.”5 In the ancient aesthetic tradition there is an artistic beauty which is given by order, harmony and respect for rules and another kind which is the result of excess and emphasis. Poetry can be harmony, balance and cool application of rhetorical strategies as proposed by Horace in his Art of Poetry, and poetry can also be Orphic poems inspired by divine madness. In the Hellenistic period the question of different forms of beauty is a subject of debate. On the Sublime or On Sublimity is a famous treatise written in the first century A.D., originally ascribed to Cassius Longinus but now considered written by an unknown author, referred to as Pseudo-Longinus. The author deals with rhetoric, beautiful and persuasive speech, and he proposes a distinction between two forms of beauty: one based on the perfection of style attained by rhetorical techniques, and another based on the force of inspiration, emotion and noble passion. The second form of beauty is called “sublimity.” The sublime is an awe-inspiring quality, a certain grandeur in art or nature which touches our feelings in a way that is different from beauty. The aim of rhetoric is persuasion; the effect of sublimity is ecstasy and transport which ravishes the spirit of the audience and suggests noble thoughts and a kind of astonishment that words alone cannot cause. In sublimity the reader perceives the effect of a noble mind. The unknown author of On the Sublime starts from the current debate on rhetorical techniques and literary theory. Another scholar, Caecilius, in a similar treatise on the sublime, expressed his preference for the orator Lysias, and declared him superior to Plato. According to Caecilius the former, using common language and great lucidity, is a pure and faultless writer and the latter, using strong emotional force, makes mistakes and is not perfect. Pseudo-Longinus affirms that the emotional imperfection of Plato is superior to the formal and flat perfection of others. Now I am well aware that the highest genius is very far from being flawless, for entire accuracy runs the risk of descending to triviality, whereas in the grand manner, as in the possession of great wealth, something is bound to be neglected. Again, it may be inevitable that men of humble or mediocre endowments, who never run any risks and never aim at the


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heights, should in the normal course of events enjoy a greater freedom from error, while great abilities remain subject to danger by reason of their very greatness.6 According to Pseudo-Longinus, accuracy, neatness, and technical perfection alone are not enough to make a great literary work. He speaks from the rhetorical point of view and rhetoric, a current literary trend in Hellenistic culture, is the technique to write and speak correctly and to convince people. But, he argues, there is something beyond stylistic perfection. Strangely enough, he takes Plato as an example of a sublime poetic style. We have seen that Plato was a detractor of poetic madness and distrusted the irrational origin of poetic inspiration. He even banned most kinds of irrational poetry from his ideal Republic. Nevertheless, Plato is considered an example of a sublime writer, driven by a kind of poetic madness and irrational force despite his own intention and awareness. Pseudo-Longinus proposes a psychological interpretation of the literary work, from the point of view of its production and from the point of view of its reception. He considers the effect of the sublime on the audience along with its origin. Nature has adjudged us men to be creatures of no mean or ignoble quality. […] She has implanted in our souls an unconquerable passion for all that is great and for all that is more divine than ourselves. For this reason the entire universe does not satisfy the contemplation and thought that be within the scope of human endeavor. […] This is why, by some sort of natural instinct, we admire, not, surely, the small streams, beautifully clear though they may be, and useful too, but the Nile, the Danube, the Rhine, and even more than these the Ocean. […] In all such circumstances, I would say only this, that men hold cheap what is useful and necessary, and always reserve their admiration for what is out of the ordinary.7 We have quoted this excerpt because some of these images (great rivers, oceans, volcanoes, unconstrained forces of nature, and distant stars) will become the imagery of the sublime, rediscovered more than one thousand years later and proposed again by romantic writers. In the sublime style we do not enjoy formal perfection or detailed accuracy, but we experience “passion for all that is great and for all that is more divine than ourselves.” The universe appears to be something too small for our limited and ordinary

The Aesthetics of Literature in Hellenism


human concerns, and in sublimity, we recognize our original and unlimited nature. On the Sublime deals with technical and rhetorical aspects as well as with their psychological and emotional effects. Pseudo-Longinus considers the sublime as a power to conceive great thoughts and as a strong, inspired emotion. He says that “sublimity is the echo of a noble mind”8 and this nobility connects the soul of the writer to the noblest qualities of the soul of the reader. An ordinary man with low and ignoble thoughts cannot write a sublime work (and an ordinary reader cannot enjoy it). The emotions and psychological attitudes of the audience are dependent on the author’s. This is an important aspect of the treatise. Along with these psychological and emotional remarks the sublime is the effect of technical strategies and rational choices, and this part is more conventional and less important to the modern reader and, nowadays, less convincing. The emotional and spiritual aspect of the sublime is, in a certain way, a pre-condition of its rhetorical presentation.


The Debate on the Sublime

The first Italian translation of On the Sublime by Niccolò da Falgano appeared in 1560, followed by the French version by Nicolas Boileau in 1674, and subsequently, the treatise acquired more and more importance in the Western literary debate. Edmund Burke (1729–1797) wrote an influential A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) in which beauty and sublime are considered as two different and separate aesthetic experiences (it was not the case in Pseudo-Longinus). According to Burke, the sublime is the feeling given by something which is undetermined, obscure and disharmonic which communicates a sense of the infinite. After Burke, Immanuel Kant will develop the concept of the sublime in a new and influential way.9 We have to remember that the term sublime is used even today, for example by the postmodern critic Jean-François Lyotard.10 According to him, the sublime is an attempt to present the fact that the unpresentable exists. In other words, there is something that can be conceived but which cannot be seen nor made visible. In this way, the sublime means that we can conceive something which is not in our power to represent. According to Lyotard, this is the origin of modern art. Actually, much of modern art does not strive for depiction of the world as we see it, but for depiction of something (feelings, a spiritual essence, an intellectual content…) which is beyond the form of the visible presence we can represent. The sublime remains a key concept of our culture.


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Notes 1 Horace, The Art of Poetry, in D. H. Russell, M. Winterbottom (editor), Ancient Literary Criticism: The Principal Texts in New Translations (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 39–45. 2 The Art of Poetry, 309–318. 3 The Art of Poetry, 391–392. 4 The Art of Poetry, 361–365. 5 Phaedrus, 245. 6 Longinus, “On The Sublime,” in D. H. Russell, M. Winterbottom (editors), Classical Literary Criticism (London: Penguin, 1981), p. 143. 7 Longinus, “On the Sublime,” pp. 146–147. 8 Longinus, “On the Sublime,” p. 109. 9 See Chapter 11. 10 See Jean-François Lyotard, “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde,” in Joseph Tanke, Colin McQuillan (editors), The Bloomsbury Anthology of Aesthetics (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), pp. 531–542. For Lyotard, see Chapter 29.


Plotinus, Neo-Platonic and Christian Conception of Beauty 1

Plotinus: Beauty as Manifestation of the One

Aristotle thought of art as an imitation of nature and the work of art as a structured whole. We can say that in the experience of art we can have a cognitive and emotional experience, and pleasure too, in a form and in a degree which we cannot have in our usual experience of the natural world. The work of art is a structured and ordered fictional world. The consequence is that beauty is the result of a well-ordered structure. On the contrary, in Plotinus’s philosophy, beauty cannot be the result of a structure. Beauty cannot ensue from parts, but it becomes the symbol of unity and fullness of the perfect “One.” The philosophy of Plotinus (about 205–270 A.D.) harks back to the oldest tradition of beauty as brightness and lightness. Beauty is the brightness of Being, or better, of something which is beyond material reality and beyond Being itself: God or the One. Beauty is a quality of the One; it is the way by which the One presents itself in the material world. The One is the absolutely transcendent and unknowable God, which escapes all intellectual categories and descriptions. Below the One there is the realm of intelligence or the world of ideas or concepts (Platonic forms). Below the realm of intelligence there is the realm of immortal souls, and then the obscure material world (in which some souls are embodied), far away from the One and from its light. The One is the higher creative principle from which the lower level of reality receives its form. But creation is not the right word, because there is no intention in the One to create. The One emanates or overflows into the world of intelligence, like the light from the sun or like the smell of a flower, and the world of intelligence emanates or overflows into the realm of souls, and so on. Each lower realm of reality represents a fall and a decay from the higher, and the material body is the lowest level. The higher level of reality leaves an imprint in the lower one. Beauty is the impress or imprint of God and so it is nothing but the Being in what is not Being itself; beauty is beyond the principle of form; it is the brightness of the immaterial Being in the darkness of material reality; beauty comes from the

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upper level of reality and reveals the presence of the invisible God in the visible world. Shape is an impress from the unshaped; it is the unshaped that produces shape, not shape the unshaped; and Matter is needed for the producing; Matter, in the nature of things, is the furthest away, since of itself it has not even the lowest degree of shape. Thus lovableness does not belong to Matter but to that which draws upon Form: the Form upon Matter comes by way of soul; soul is more nearly Form and therefore more lovable; Intellectual-Principle, nearer still, is even more to be loved: by these steps we are led to know that the primary nature of Beauty must be formless.1 Since all entities aspire to return to the condition of perfection and immaterial form of their transcendent origin, beauty becomes the guiding principle to the One. To understand and follow beauty means to understand the essence of the highest reality. Plotinus does not propose a philosophy of art but a metaphysics of beauty. Beauty is the manifestation of the unity of Being (the One). On one side, material reality is decaying and departing from the One. On the other, the experience of beauty is a discovering of the origin of Being and a return to the full reality of the higher world. From such a perspective the beauty of a work of art is in direct relation to transcendent beauty, and the experience of art is an ascent to reality in its higher form. In our experience of a work of art, we go back to our transcendent origin and we recover our spiritual essence, because we recover the unity of the One before its dispersal into the material world.


Neo-Platonism: Beauty as Revelation of the Deep Reality of Things

Plotinus is the main representative of Neo-Platonism, a philosophical tradition which interpreted and developed certain esoteric aspects of Platonic thought. He was not a Christian but his Neo-Platonic philosophy, as well as Plato’s philosophy, were adopted, adapted, and absorbed by Christian thought and have an enormous effect on Christian philosophy. Neo-Platonism has a great importance in the Middle-Ages as well as in the Renaissance, and it comes back in Romantic philosophy and in contemporary thought. From the Neo-Platonic perspective, art produces beauty and so it becomes a way to get in touch with the Being itself, with God. The beauty of art cannot

Plotinus, Neo-Platonic and Christian Conception of Beauty


simply be considered a consequence of the structure of the work of art, but the work of art itself reveals the deep essence of reality; it is an imprint of the highest and supernatural level of reality in the material nature of things. The work of art is like a light in the darkness of the material world, by means of which we glance the higher reality of things. Some pivotal concepts of Medieval, Renaissance and Romantic aesthetics derive from Plotinus’s thought. First of all, the world of finite things or nature displays the order and harmony of the immaterial and infinite world, which is nothing but God’s emanation. Finite things of beauty participate in infinite beauty. There is a part of God even in the lowest and last being. Since beauty is a consequence of God’s creation, there is an element of beauty even in the ugliest thing. Secondly, material beauty is a symbol of cosmic harmony as well as a symbol of the superior, immaterial world from which the material world derives. Works of art are symbols of a higher reality and they provide us, by material means, the experience of an immaterial and supersensitive world. Beauty is the revelation of the deep essence of things. With Neo-Platonic thought, we notice the increasing importance of the concept of symbol in Western aesthetics. A work of art is the symbolic representation of a higher level of reality. From a symbolic perspective, a work of art, in its materiality, displays what is beyond materiality; its form hints at something which is beyond the form.


Creation, Beauty and the Concept of Work in Christian Thought

In many ancient cultures there is no idea of the creation of the world. Time is conceived as following the natural rhythm of the seasons. Nature is thought of as a circle, in which everything is born and dies without end. In contrast, the Christian religion proposes God as the personal creator of the world. The world is not only a creation of God, but it has a meaning in God’s plan and it possesses a direction of developing, which has been decided by God himself. History now has a linear direction, with a beginning (creation), a becoming (the history and birth of Jesus) and an end which reveals (this is the meaning of the Greek word “Apocalypse”) the meaning of the becoming. The model of any natural event is no longer the circle based on the cycle of the seasons. The model is now God’s creation: God created the world following His will, the world has a history, which is the progressive discovering of its destination, the “truth.” Then there will be an end, the apocalypse, or “unconcealment,” the end of the world which reveals the meaning of things.


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The world is God’s creation and beauty is a constitutive part of it. Nature is beautiful because it has been created by God and beauty is, first of all, a quality of the divine creation. A work of art is similar to the world and God appears as the greatest artist. An artwork produced by an artist can be thought of as a symbol of God’s creation, and artistic beauty becomes something more than the simple, accidental trait of an artisan’s work: beauty becomes an essential and constitutive quality of every created thing. We have seen that in Greek culture there was no concept of work as we conceive it nowadays when we speak of a “work of art.” Plato and Aristotle had a concept of work, but it was very different from the Christian one. In Greek culture, when nature was conceived as circularity and eternal repetition, a work of art (and man’s work in general) was only an accidental event. The works of man could not change definitively, once and for all, the natural order of the world. On the contrary, in Christian thought the world is a work of God, created by God, and the creator is the personal author or artificer of the world. Beauty is neither a character of Being (as Plato thought) nor a question of structure (as Aristotle said) but it becomes a quality of God’s creation; it is the sign of God’s hand. From such a perspective man’s work, and particularly a work of art, has a new importance. In the Middle Ages beauty is no longer just a metaphysical question (as Plotinus thought) but becomes more and more a character of nature and its symbols, human works of art.

Note 1 Plotinus, Enneads, trans. S. MacKenna (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), VI, 7, 33.


The Middle Ages and Dante Alighieri 1

Medieval Aesthetics and Theory of Art

The Middle Ages are a long and complex period between the end of the ancient world (476 A.D.) and the Renaissance (1492 A.D.). The fall of the Roman Empire and the discovery of America are conventional markers. “Middle Ages” is a late denomination too, since during that period nobody was aware of living in the Middle Ages. Instead, they saw themselves as continuing to live in the ancient culture. During Humanism there arose the idea of a dark and barbaric period in which the brightness of classical culture was obscured. The Middle Ages are also a modern definition which tells a lot about modern self-awareness and historical consciousness. Actually, it was a period in which modern civilization took shape. As far as aesthetics, literature and the theory of art are concerned, in the Middle Ages more traditions meld together: the Greek one, the Roman one, the German one and the Christian one. Plato and Aristotle became the basis of Western reflections on art, giving way to two different schools. The Platonic (and Neo-Platonic) school considered beauty as a characteristic of being itself and, consequently, as an opportunity for knowledge and a divine experience. During the Middle Ages, the universal characteristics of being were called “transcendentals” and were, in Latin, unum, verum and bonum, that is to say: unity, truth and goodness. Later, pulchrum, beauty, was added to the list and it was deemed the same as goodness. In medieval aesthetics, according to Thomas Aquinas (1221–1274), beauty is considered as the pleasure resulting from seeing and contemplation. Nevertheless, in general, beauty is a quality of being and of God and thus coincides with truth and goodness. Beautiful things are good and good things are beautiful; as Aquinas put it: we admire beauty and we strive for what is good. Conversely, the Aristotelian school stressed the concept of art as a technical production and prescribed a set of rules, first of all the one of imitation. Technical terms like “proportion” and “clarity” were used in order to describe beauty and became the condition of its metaphysical relevance. Nevertheless, art was considered in general as handicraft and there was still no concept encompassing the various fine arts. Plato and Aristotle, read in few or partial texts and known through indirect reports, were adapted to the Christian philosophy and world-view. © koninklijke brill nv, leideN, 2019 | DOI:10.1163/9789004409231_005

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Religious Attitudes

Actually, more central to the debate on art than Plato’s aesthetics was Plotinus and Neo-Platonic aesthetics. Thanks to Plotinus’s philosophy, art was considered the production of beautiful objects, but this production is not just the imitation of material objects, because beauty is “the shining of the One” and works of art reveal the immaterial archetype of material reality. Since beauty in the Middle Ages was considered as a transcendental aspect of being, it was generally not deemed to be an inherent quality of nature or of the work of art. Plotinus’s point of view offered a new and important perspective. Beauty is present in nature (the work of God, the Divine Artist) as well as in common works of art. Still, the beauty of nature is considered superior to the beauty of art, and art must follow nature. Renaissance art is the result of the complete development of such a perspective and the shifting of the concept of beauty from the philosophical and religious level to the artistic one. The idea of God as a creator supplied the concept of work, and more specifically, of the work of art as a beautiful object. The qualities of God’s creation are truth, goodness and beauty, so that we can see now a necessary connection between beauty, truth and art. The idea of the presence of God in the world also justifies the use of allegory in Medieval art. The world is like a work of art whose author, God, is hidden in signs, traces and symbols. Allegory reveals the presence of God in the world and his secret messages. Since eternal truth cannot be presented directly, we need to understand symbols. Similarly, a work of art reproduces the same pattern and we need to interpret it as an allegory which proposes its truth in an indirect and veiled way: as a system of connected symbols.


Arts in the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages the main interests of scholars were philosophical and theological. The Greek and Latin cultural heritage was enormous and the Christian religious framework was very cogent. According to ancient tradition, art was considered the ability to make things according to rules. The arts were not distinguished from the sciences and crafts, and this was still true, for example, in the case of Leonardo Da Vinci. Scholasticism was rich with detailed classifications but the arts (as we know them today) were not adequately classified. Art had a religious, moral or educational purpose; it was considered a practical activity and a craft but in the Middle Ages we cannot yet find a general concept of “fine arts” encompassing poetry, painting, music and so on.

The Middle Ages and Dante Alighieri


The artes liberales or liberal arts were part of the curriculum of studies and were the arts studied by free men, opposed to the artes serviles, the crafts practiced by slaves and workers. Liberal or theoretical arts were classified in trivium, the group of basic literary arts: grammar, rhetoric and dialectics, and quadrivium or the group of scientific advanced arts: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. They constitute profane study as preparation for the (far more serious) study of theology. With the birth of universities (the first was the University of Bologna, in Italy, founded in 1088) the study of such disciplines gave rise to the “Faculty of Arts.” This medieval concept of liberal arts had little in common with our modern idea of art. Music was considered a liberal art, but architecture, painting and sculpture were considered mechanical arts or had no allocation at all. Poetry was included since it was classified as “rhetoric,” but our idea of poetry (and Plato’s idea as well) is rather different. There was still no idea of art as an autonomous and creative activity. The Renaissance will bring a new awareness of the fine arts, grouped together and characterized by their necessary connection to beauty. By means of the same principle, beauty, handicrafts and the sciences will be distinguished from the arts. The modern age will bring a new connection between arts, beauty and creativity. As a consequence of that, later, poetry will find a new, specific relevance in the general experience of art, connecting art, beauty and truth; truth and interpretation will have a central position in the general experience of art as we understand it today, as a practice concerning the human spirit and revealing its inner strategies and secret mechanisms.


Dante Alighieri: Poetry and Beauty

The greatest representative of Medieval literature is Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) a gifted poet and writer with a deep knowledge of the philosophy and culture of his time. He was well-acquainted with theology, with the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and with scholasticism. His poetics and theory of art are not original and summon up the Medieval tradition, yet because of Dante’s great poetical authority, they are extremely influential in literary history and criticism. His aesthetics is an expression of Medieval culture but his theoretical works, as well as his Divine Comedy, foreshadow Humanism and the Renaissance and a new conception of art and poetry. According to the current ideas of his time, Dante considered beauty as proportion and clarity, which are conceptually different but substantially identical with goodness. Beauty can be of a perceptible kind (object of our sense organs)



and spiritual (like God’s beauty). These ideas are not original and summon up scholastic aesthetics. But Dante was a poet and concentrated his interests on the beauty expressed by poetry. He wrote on the interpretation of literary texts and on language, and his ideas about poetry are also expressed in his Divine Comedy. Art reproduces nature, which is a work of God, so that art itself is indirectly generated by God. In The Inferno Virgil speaks to Dante with this words: “Philosophy,” he said, “for those who understand it, Makes it clear, not only in one place, How nature takes her direction from The divine intellect and from its arts; And if you pay attention to your Physics, You will find there, somewhere near the beginning, That your art follows nature, as far as it can, Much in the way as a student follows his master; So that your art is the grandchild of God.1 Virgil refers to Aristotle and expresses a traditional ancient and scholastic idea about God and the creation. But the fact that art is worthy, because it is “the grandchild of God” and second in descent from God, is a pretty new interpretation of the tradition. Dante connected the concept of poetry to the idea of beauty, and in this way he anticipated the Renaissance. He did it in a medieval context so that in his Comedy we find the idea that everywhere is a divine manifestation, the medieval assumption that beauty, goodness and truth are different aspects of the same substance, and the certainty that the manifold nature of reality is connected and revealed by means of symbols. This justifies the didactic use of poetry, which is only one aspect of art and not its only function.


Truth, Beauty and the Different Senses of a Text

Poetry is beauty and beauty is truth, but why do we need poetry if we already know truth by means of God’s revelation? According to Dante, beauty always unveils the deep truth of things. Nevertheless, poetry is based on the élite idea that only few people can understand the deep (Neo-Platonic and scholastic) connection between beauty and truth. Most people enjoy only the superficial appearance of poetry.

The Middle Ages and Dante Alighieri


Dante describes how deep and complex is the fabric of a poem in his Convivio, a work in prose and verse where he comments on his own poems. The poem, like every other aspect of reality, is woven with several levels requiring very careful interpretation. Every element hints at another element in a symbolic and allegorical way. Interpretation has to consider the different levels of sense. I say then […] that this exposition must be Literal and Allegorical; and to make this explicit one should know that it is possible to understand a book in four different ways, and that it ought to be explained chiefly in this manner. The one is termed Literal, and this is that which does not extend beyond the text itself, such as is the fit narration of that thing whereof you are discoursing. […] Another is termed Allegorical, and it is that which is concealed under the veil of fables, and is a Truth concealed under a beautiful Untruth; as when Ovid says that Orpheus with his lute made the wild beasts tame, and made the trees and the stones to follow him, which signifies that the wise man with the instrument of his voice makes cruel hearts gentle and humble, and makes those follow his will who have not the living force of knowledge and of art; who, having not the reasoning life of any knowledge whatever, are as the stones. […] The third sense is termed Moral; and this is that which the readers ought intently to search for in books, for their own advantage and for that of their descendants; as one can espy in the Gospel, when Christ ascended the Mount for the Transfiguration, that, of the twelve Apostles, He took with Him only three. From which one can understand in the Moral sense that in the most secret things we ought to have but little company. The fourth sense is termed Mystical, that is, above sense, supernatural; and this it is, when spiritually one expounds a writing which even in the Literal sense by the things signified bears express reference to the Divine things of Eternal Glory; as one can see in that Song of the Prophet which says that by the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt Judæa is made holy and free. That this happens to be true according to the letter is evident. Not less true is that which it means spiritually, that in the Soul’s liberation from Sin (or in the exodus of the Soul from Sin) it is made holy and free in its powers. But in demonstrating these, the Literal must always go first, as that in whose sense the others are included, and without which it would be



impossible and irrational to understand the others. Especially is it impossible in the Allegorical, because, in each thing which has a within and a without, it is impossible to come to the within if you do not first come to the without. Wherefore, since in books the Literal meaning is always external, it is impossible to reach the others, especially the Allegorical, without first coming to the Literal.2 Interpretation of the poetical text becomes a crucial point. A poem needs a complex work of interpretation because different meanings or senses coexist in the same text. Dante is very keen to point out the depth and complexity of literary works because he wrote the deepest and most complex work of Western literature, The Divine Comedy. Dante’s famous Letter to Cangrande Della Scala repeats the same concepts of the Convivio, referring them to the Comedy. The subject of the Comedy is one when it is taken according to the letter and another when it is understood allegorically. “The subject of the whole work, then, taken in the literal sense only, is the state of souls after death […]. Whereas if the work be taken allegorically the subject is ‘man, as by good or ill deserts, in the exercise of the freedom of his choice, he becomes liable to rewarding or punishing justice’” A literary work is called “polysemous, that is having several senses.”3 In this way Dante expresses a medieval view of the world and, for the first time in such a complete form, of the literary work. The polysemy of the poem is a consequence of Dante’s medieval attitude and it unveils the hierarchy and secret connections of the world and how material reality is intertwined with the spiritual world. The polysemy of the literary text and the stress placed on the interpretation it requires will pass through the Renaissance and become a modern trait of the literary work.

Notes 1 Dante, The Divine Comedy, trans. C. H. Sisson (London and Sydney: Pan Books, 1981), Inferno, XI, 97–105. 2 Dante, Il Convito. The Banquet of Dante Alighieri, trans. Elizabeth Price Sayer (Munich: Hansebooks, 2015), 2, I. 3 Dante, Epistle to Can Grande, trans. A. G. F. Howell and P. H. Wicksteed (London: Dent & Sons, 1929), pp. 348–349.


Humanism and the New Idea of Human Beings 1

Humanism and the Renaissance

The Italian Humanism marks the threshold to a new era. During the Humanism (second half of the 14th century) and Renaissance (latter half of the 14th – 16th century) epoch we can identify the beginning of modern art and modern culture. Aesthetic theory has been the consequence of art production. Reflection on artistic creation followed the birth of modern art and the production of great works of art. Theory of art influenced artistic development later. Actually, during Humanism and the Renaissance, the rediscovery of ancient texts supplied theoretical material to the reflection on art, and therefore, a modern theory of art was not deemed necessary. The art of poetry by Horace was sufficient to explain poems, even modern poems. The modern scholar felt himself still in continuity with classical culture. Because of this, modern culture accepts and elaborates on classical culture. Plato, Plotinus and Aristotle are rediscovered and considered under a new light, with new attention, read in a philologically correct form. They are no longer adapted to the needs of a Christianized culture. They are restored to their historical dimension. The sources are old; what is new is a modern historical consciousness.


Knowledge of the Past – Man as an “Historical Animal”

According to Humanism, knowledge of the past is the most important issue and it discloses a new perspective and the beginning of the modern era. Considering the past as a different and valid tradition, we open the historical perspective. As human beings we are in history and history is the stuff of which we are made. We are what we are because somebody before us tackled certain problems, discussed them, gave rational answers and wrote about them. We are what we are not exclusively thanks to divine revelation or blind tradition but because somebody before us argued and decided what is a human being, what is art, beauty, virtue and so on. In this way we are a kind of “historical animal,” deeply embedded in history and formed by our historical past. By knowing the past, we have the opportunity to know ourselves better in order to plan and decide our future. Our future is not written as a defined condition of man. What we are is not expressed by a formula. We are open beings, to a certain © koninklijke brill nv, leideN, 2019 | DOI:10.1163/9789004409231_006


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degree free to decide what we want to be. But in order to decide, we need to know what we have been. The ancient writers tell us what we have been and are and offer the material to forge our future. Because of this humanistic tradition today we still study history and literature, philosophy and art. In doing so, we study the works of the past. It does not happen because we are exclusively interested in the past, or out of curiosity. We study the past because the statute of the human sciences, or “humanities,” was decided in Humanism and we are “historical animals.” Confrontation with the past is a constitutive part of our historical essence.


Philology, Interpretation and the New Intellectual

Knowledge of the past is a way to solve our problems, since we share the same human nature with Plato and Aristotle. Classical literature can be of use since it was written by human beings for human beings. In this way we can use the past in order to solve our problems. Two points are important. On one hand, the correct interpretation of ancient texts is essential. Philology and the interpretation of written works become central concerns of scholars. They have to understand the texts in their historical perspective so that we have a correct interpretation of the past and of the human condition. On the other hand, the human being in itself takes centre stage. The human being becomes the main object of interest and is placed at the centre of the universe. Human life is now considered with new attention under its specific aspect of earthly, material and worldly life. The interest is not concentrated on eternal life, on destiny after death and on God and the salvation of our souls. The epoch of Humanism puts a special emphasis on human values, that is to say characteristics, virtues, qualities and ideas which constitute the human world independently from the revealed truth of religion. The humanists found these human values in classical culture and in the rediscovery of the genuine meaning of the classics from Greek and Latin culture. In the Middle Ages scholars read a “Christianized” Plato and Aristotle, adapted to the Christian dogma. In contrast, Humanist scholars restored the original human message of the classical philosophers. Philology as the study or science of language becomes the pivotal tool to understand the authentic sense of a literary or philosophical work written in a non-Christian culture. Writers and philosophers from the antique world can still be of use even today since they were human beings and they wrote about human issues. Their heritage is still valid because we are human beings, too, and, in their works, we can find ideas, models of behavior, suggestions and answers to our problems. In

Humanism and the New Idea of Human Beings


this way the classics of ancient times gave a valid model of the human being independent from (but not against) Christian revelation. This new attitude towards knowledge, nature and human creativity gave rise to the new, modern intellectual. For example, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), the architect who built the dome of the Cathedral in Florence and the inventor of a method to explain and apply perspective to paintings, was emblematic. He studied classical architecture in order to design modern buildings. He used mathematics and a rational approach in order to solve technical problems. He was not just an artisan with practical skills and knowledge, capable of building great works by means of traditional processes. He was rather an artist who sought new solutions using rational methods and examples from the past. In this way he was a great representative of the Renaissance and at the same time the first modern intellectual who connected historical knowledge and a rational and mathematical attitude with artistic skills in order to create new works of art. He was the prototype of the modern artist and intellectual.


Francis Petrarch and the New Idea of Culture

Under Humanism, classical culture attained a new status. Francis Petrarch (1304–1374) was a poet, writer and scholar who rediscovered value in all the literary classics of antiquity and proposed them as an everlasting model. Classical culture appeared to him not just as a source of knowledge but as a great heritage and as an asset for the enrichment of the human spirit. The classical texts from Greek and Latin culture provided criteria and values for the appreciation of the human being in general. What we call today “humanities” was founded in this period by Petrarch and his followers. Studia humanitatis was the study of literature and poetry, of rhetoric, style and eloquence, which became objects worthy of study in themselves. Studia humanitatis was no longer subordinate to studia divinitatis or the study of God. Human studies deepened something important about the human being in itself. In this way the literary discipline became a spiritual discipline; clear and persuasive expression proved clarity of thought, and literary and artistic harmony demonstrated the deep harmony of the soul. Our modern idea of “humanities” conceived as the study of arts, literature and philosophy links concepts concerning literary theory, style and rhetoric to concepts related to the individual, its life and spiritual values, and its very existence. Understanding the harmony of the work of art means knowing better what we are as human beings (from the historical, psychological and existential point of view) and, in this way, maybe, such knowledge helps us to live


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better. This assumption dates back to Humanism, and since then it has been a part of our Western culture. Petrarch considered poetry a kind of art, according to the ancient and medieval Aristotelian tradition. But poetry is a particular art. It is a kind of beautiful speech or linguistic expression which represents things in a veiled way, concealed, hidden. Things represented in poetry appear beautiful in an indirect way, and the means which conceals the evidence of truth is the veil of allegory. I would fain call theology poetry about God. What else but poetry is it when Christ is called a lion, when at other times a lamb and a maggot? What of the parables of the Savior in the Gospels? How else do they resound if not with speech different from that of common meaning, with the speech of transference to use another expression for what is generally called allegory? And all of poetry is woven from this kind of vocabulary. Only the subject of poetry is different.1 Theology is poetry about God. Poetry itself originates from a religious practice and attitude. Poetry is admitted as fitted to propitiate the divinity with sublime words and offer up holy prayers in speech far removed from all plebeian discourse in rhythms intended to charm the listener and dispel his boredom. This has to be done in an uncommon fashion, in an artistic, elegant and new manner: since in Greek this manner was called: “poetic,” we have to call poets all those who use it.2 Dante already highlighted the importance of allegory. Now Petrarch recognizes that allegory is the main characteristic of poetry, a kind of “speech different from that of common meaning.” The task of the poet is to present “in artistic colours and cover with the veil of charming fiction the truth of insignificant, natural, or any other kind of things.”3 There is a difference of subject between different poetical discourses (the divine one, the plebeian ones) which use allegory as a poetical device. The reflection on allegory is a technical description: the poet writes “in an uncommon fashion, in an artistic, elegant and new manner.” Note that “uncommon” and “new” are very modern terms which will often be used in the twentieth century for the description of poetical works.4 In Petrarch the allegory of poetry reveals the truth, because the truth depends on the subject of the poem and “truth, when revealed, is all the more pleasant the more difficult it was to discover.”5

Humanism and the New Idea of Human Beings


According to Petrarch, in poetry truth is revealed and illuminated because truth is presented in a different form. It is not the everyday, ordinary and “plebeian” truth within everyone’s grasp. It is a difficult truth, embellished and refined. Difficulty is not a limit but rather a positive quality. Poetry allows for a new experience of truth, more pleasant because more difficult and not immediate. In this way the veil of allegory, which presents truth in a different form, requires interpretation. Interpretation in itself is an aesthetic experience (“more pleasant”) and an experience of truth at a not ordinary level. In this way poetry proposes a specific experience of truth, and poets are not deceivers, they do not lie about truth, they just present it in a more effective way.


The Birth of the Modern Book

Francis Petrarch was above all a poet. His poems, written in Italian, are the most influential poems in Western literature. Most modern love poetry and lyric derive from Petrarch’s poems. They have been collected in a book commonly referred to as Canzoniere or Poems (the Latin title given by the author was Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, Fragments in Vulgar Language, collected and revised throughout his life). Petrarch’s collected poems were edited by Pietro Bembo in 1501 for the publisher Aldo Manuzio in Venice. This edition marks a turning point in the history of the book and of Western culture. We can say that with the publication of Petrarch and Dante (1502) we have the first modern books. From the classical age to the Middle Ages, knowledge was passed down orally. Plato distrusted written words, and philosophy was always a dialogue between teacher and pupil. A written word was just an aid to memory. Knowledge and wisdom were not to be found in books, which were uncommon, expensive and heavy objects. Still in the medieval universities students were supposed to repeat and learn by heart the words said in Latin by the lecturer, repeated by his assistant, called a repetitor. In such a context, a book was written in order to be read in a loud voice and learnt by heart. Usually texts were written without spaces or punctuation. Books were rather different from the objects we know today, instruments of a mental activity of reading and an individual experience of the written text. The humanist Pietro Bembo created a new punctuation system derived from the Greek and Latin classics which he applied to modern poets, Petrarch and Dante, in order to prove the “classic” value of modern literature. Petrarch’s Poems became the first book to be read as a modern book, in the modality of


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mental reading. A new typographic body (still today we use the term “italic”), the separation of words, a new disposition of the text on the page, and the small size create the book as we know it today, an object we can carry, hold in our hands and read when we wish. This fact meant the birth of the Italian language as a classic and authoritative language and the origin of the modern concept of literature. From now on Romance languages have a new dignity and are recognized as languages of culture and their literature is considered as on the same level as the Greek and Latin classics.

Notes 1 Petrarch, Epistolae de rebus familiaribus, X, 4, quoted in Tatarkiewicz, History of Aesthetics, III, trans. A. Czerniawski (The Hague: Mouton, 1970–1974), p. 9. 2 Petrarch, Epistolae de rebus familiaribus, X, 4, quoted in Tatarkiewicz, History of Aesthetics, III, pp. 9–10. 3 Petrarch, Epistolae seniles, XII, 2, quoted in Tatarkiewicz, History of Aesthetics, III, p. 10. 4 See Shklovsky in Chapter 20. 5 Petrarch, Epistolae seniles, XII, 2.


Italian Neo-Platonism and Marsilio Ficino 1

The Platonic Academy of Florence

The Florentine Academy, founded in 1462 by Cosimo De Medici, became the center of humanistic studies and of intellectual life, expressing the new values and interests of the Renaissance. The Academy was not an official institution like a university or a school but rather a gathering of friends interested in art, philosophy, literature and religion. They were suspicious of the universities and condemned them because of their formalism, their interest in Aristotle and their anti-classical attitude. In the Academy, without any formal constraints or hierarchical structure, artists and scholars discussed Greek, Latin, and Hebrew culture, Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism and other less academic traditions like magic, Orphism and theurgy. Their general attitude was a religious syncretism, an intellectual eclecticism and a broad interest in ancient traditions, since they were persuaded that all past religions were different forms and manifestation of the same truth, the truth fully expressed only by the Christian religion. Granted that the final truth is the Christian revelation, the scholar of the Academy took a great interest in literary, religious and philosophical texts from classical culture and even from eastern traditions. The Academy became the place of the rediscovery of ancient culture and marked the beginning of the Renaissance and the Modern Age; in this way it proposed the model of the modern intellectual and a new image of the human being. The Florentine Academy was founded on the suggestion of Gemistos Plethon, a Greek Neo-Platonic philosopher. Plethon accompanied the Emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople to Italy in 1438, for the council aimed at reuniting the Roman and Orthodox churches (the schism or separation of the Orthodox Church of Constantinople from the Roman Catholic Church dates back to 1054). The council failed and Plethon went to Florence, taking with him (as did many other Byzantine scholars) new classical texts to the Western philosophical debate. He suggested to Cosimo De Medici that he found the Platonic Academy in Florence with the ideal task to continue, two thousand years later, the research and activity of the Platonic Academy of Athens, spreading Platonic thought all over Western culture. Actually Plethon aimed to contrast the presence of Aristotle in the universities and the prevalence of Aristotelian philosophy in Western culture. But the Platonic philosophy proposed and © koninklijke brill nv, leideN, 2019 | DOI:10.1163/9789004409231_007


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sponsored by Plethon was not true Platonism. It was rather a complex mix of Platonic theories and Neo-Platonic interpretations from Byzantine debate intermingled with religious interests. Nevertheless, the rediscovery of Plato’s dialogues and the Neo-Platonic tradition (that is to say the rediscovery of Plotinus, Proclus, Porphyry and other Hellenistic philosophers) had great consequences for Western culture and, above all, the interpretation and development of art in the Renaissance and in the Modern Era. The heritage of the Platonic Academy of Florence was decisive since it boosted Platonic or, more precisely, Neo-Platonic philosophy in the Western world and had a great influence on Renaissance art. From then on, the presence of Platonism in the Western debate will be indelible. Furthermore, the Academy shifted research and the cultural debate from the universities (more or less controlled by traditional political powers) and the Church to a new institution. The Academy was more free and open because it reflected the interests of a new and more ambitious power, the seigniory. The freedom of research and discussion created a new kind of scholar, interested in classical culture and even in non-traditional sources, deeply situated in Christian culture but open to religious syncretism and new suggestions. Then in the Academy artists like Leon Battista Alberti, an architect and a philosopher, meditated and worked together with scholars and philosophers like Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, who shared a common intellectual ground, to create a new kind of synergy.


Marsilio Ficino: Beauty and Materiality

One of the greatest and most influential scholars of the Italian Renaissance was Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) appointed the director of the Platonic Academy by Cosimo De Medici on the advice of Plethon. In 1459, Cosimo De Medici asked Ficino to translate Plato’s dialogues into Latin, and in 1482, Ficino published the first complete translation of Plato’s work. He also translated into Latin Plotinus and other Neo-Platonic philosophers and wrote the Theologia Platonica de immortalitate animorum, translated as Platonic Theology, an essay on Plato (or, more precisely, on Neo-Platonic philosophy). Thanks to Ficino, Neo-Platonism became a dominant trend in European Renaissance culture, and aesthetics and art won a special position in the system of knowledge. Ficino stated that beauty is external perfection, whereas good is internal perfection. In the wake of Plato, Ficino wrote that love is desire for beauty and

Italian Neo-Platonism and Marsilio Ficino


beauty attracts us in various guises, as a beautiful form, as a beautiful sound, as a beautiful virtue and so on. According to Plotinus, beauty does not consist of symmetry, proportion and harmony since these criteria apply only to complex objects made of parts and cannot apply to simple objects like a beautiful colour or a beautiful voice. Even if the external criterion of symmetry cannot explain the beauty of single things or virtues and of similar non-corporeal objects, Ficino indeed posited the existence of a corporeal beauty as well as a non-corporeal one. In order to explain these two different kinds of beauty, he accorded special importance to the sense of sight. Even in the case of the corporeal beauty of material things it is not the corporeal thing which is beautiful in itself but rather the image created by our eyes and presented to our mind. So, according to Ficino, beauty in general is always non-corporeal and the material object (a body, a statue) can be beautiful since its non-material image is caught by the sight or imagined by our mind. The appearance of a person may be pleasing to the mind, but it is not the appearance of external matter which is pleasing, but rather the image which the sight apprehends or the mind conceives. This image is in the sight, in the soul, and since these are non-corporeal, it cannot be a body. A non-corporeal appearance is pleasing. What is pleasing is agreeable and what is agreeable is beautiful; therefore, love refers to something non-corporeal, and beauty itself is more the spiritual image than the corporeal appearance of a thing.1 So beauty is a non-corporeal quality and materiality in itself is ugly. Non-corporeal beauty appears in a material body only when an idea, a spirit, a non-material principle appears in it. And the beauty of the body is the action, the animation of the idea which appears. In what does the beauty of a body consist? In the action, animation and charm of the idea which illuminates it. This brilliance does not enter into matter until it is most carefully prepared. And the preparation of a live body consists in three things: harmony, manner and appearance. “Harmony” of parts means the spaces between them. “Manner” signifies quantity, and “appearance” denotes contour and colour. Above all it is important that every member of the body should have its proper place: the ears here, eyes and nose there, and so on.2 The preparation of matter enables the splendor of an idea to enter into the dull materiality. This preparation is described in terms of traditional


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medieval aesthetics: ordo (harmony), modus (manner, moderation), species (form, appearance).3


Beauty in Art and Nature and the New Function of Poetry

Beauty concerns nature and natural bodies and not art. Even the beauty of material human works is a mental form which is independent from the corporeal and physical materiality. Nature is a kind of divinized art, and it has an ontological primacy on human art, which can only imitate nature. Human art is nothing other than the imitation of nature. Art creates works on the basis of certain principles just as nature does. But its art is higher and wiser, since it creates more effectively and produces things which are more beautiful.4 Art is based on knowledge and mathematics, on measuring; it follows rules and uses instruments. Architecture, music and paintings are considered arts but not poetry, which is a kind of divine madness, according to the Platonic tradition. “Through the power of divine madness man is elevated above human nature and enters the divine sphere. Divine madness is the enlightenment of the rational spirit by which God restores the fallen souls to the heights.”5 Ficino translated the Orphic hymns that represent the ancient religious tradition which mixed the Dionysian mysteries and poetry.6 In Orphism, salvation (the divine madness of the Dionysian rituals) is made possible through a poetic form (the order of poetry). In the Academy poetry had the highest consideration since its divine madness is based on and works by means of inspiration, mysteries and love. From this perspective poetry was closer to nature and to natural forces than art, which was based on imitation and measuring. At the same time, poetry was not a creative activity related to human faculties but rather a “divine enlightenment of the mind.” This element of divine madness can be present in other forms of art and characterizes the work of the artist as a creator. In this way, the concept of poetry as a kind of frenzy, although already Platonic, becomes the common trait of liberal or fine arts. Intuition and inspiration, and not just imitation and calculation, become the main characteristics of creativity and the new qualities of the modern artist conceived as a creator and not just as an artisan. At the same time, poetry becomes the highest form of creation and shows the secret life of works of art in general.

Italian Neo-Platonism and Marsilio Ficino



Beyond the Material World

Ficino’s conception of beauty accepts tradition and gives to beauty a higher position in human life and work. On one side, beauty testifies to the existence of God as the creator of the universe, with its beauty and harmony. Our soul, falling in love with the material beauty of the world, is enraptured and elevated to the contemplation of the non-material beauty which enlightens the world. Beauty becomes a metaphysical experience with religious, moral and cognitive values, in which “the knowing soul is active in an artistic way.”7 Since it is non-corporeal but reveals itself in the material world, beauty turns out to be an experience which only few people can appreciate, because only few people can understand it. On the one hand, beauty is no more an inherent quality of objects but something beyond the material object which is, in this way, subordinated and underrated, since beauty is not from this world; rather it is a shining from the superior one. In the Renaissance the experience of beauty and art extends beyond the material world and the surface of things. On the other hand, poetry, based on inspiration, makes the artist a true creator. Ficino is against the aestheticism of the scholars who saw in classical mythology only a collection of fables and a kind of ornament. The truth of poetry (like the one expressed in the Orphic tradition) is eternal and always valid, and it is passed down up to its latest form, the form of the Christian religion.

Notes 1 Ficino, Commentarium in Convitum, in Tatarkiewicz, History of Aesthetics (The Hague: Mouton, 1970–1974), III, p. 108. 2 Ficino, Commentarium in Convitum, 1334, in Tatarkiewicz, History of Aesthetics, III, p. 109. 3 See Tatarkiewicz, History of Aesthetics, III, p. 102. 4 Ficino, Theologia Platonica, 123, in Tatarkiewicz, History of Aesthetics, III, p. 110. 5 Ficino, Commentarium in Convitum, 1361, in Tatarkiewicz, History of Aesthetics, III, p. 111. 6 See Chapter 1. 7 Albertini, “Marsilio Ficino”, in Nida-Rümelin, Betzler (editors), Aesthetik und Kunstphilosophie (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1998), p. 273.


The New Idea of the Human Being and Artist: The Renaissance 1

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and the New Idea of Man

The spirit and values of the Renaissance are expressed at their best in the work of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) Oration on the Dignity of Man. This work expresses the ravishing perspectives opened by a new idea of the human being. Pico was a humanist and scholar. He wanted to show the convergence of all philosophies and religions and their compatibility with the Christian religion. His project proposed a religious syncretism which encompassed sources from classical culture to the mysteries and Orphism, from Plato to Plotinus, from the Arabian to the Hebrew tradition. Pico states that the human being is not defined and determined by any specific characteristic or feature. This is the reason for his greatness. In his Oration Pico describes the human being and states that “there was nothing to be seen more marvelous than man” and that “man is the most fortunate of living things and, consequently, deserving of all admiration.”1 Pico explains that such a specificity of the human being depends on God’s decision. After God created the universe, he realized that he had no more archetype or specific and defined model to create the human being. So God created man but could not assign to him a defined position in the hierarchy of natural beings; instead, God set him in the centre of the universe. We have given you, Oh Adam; no visage proper to yourself, nor any endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgment and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature.2 The human being is placed at the center of the universe. From that point he can see the other creatures and freely decide what to become. “To man had

© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2019 | doi:10.1163/9789004409231_008

The New Idea of the Human Being and Artist


been given freedom, mutability, and the power of self-transformation.”3 His essence summarizes the essence of all beings. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.4 According to Pico, the indetermination of human nature is a quality and not a limit. Platonic, Neo-Platonic, religious, moral and practical concerns are deeply connected in the new image of the human being which now receives a modern and almost pre-existentialistic definition. If the frame is Neo-Platonic, the argument is posed in a new spirit: God created the human being because he “still longed for some creature which might comprehend the meaning of so vast an achievement, which might be moved with love at its beauty and smitten with awe at its grandeur.”5 Now, “grasping the primordial beauty of things, we shall become the winged lovers of theology.”6 The human being is posed at the centre of the universe and our task is to understand it, to create according to our freedom, and to interpret the universe and its beauty. Knowledge, creation and interpretation become the most specific human faculties.


The Beauty of the Universe and Grace

According to Pico, the experience of beauty leads to religion and to the appreciation of truth, and as such, it involves all human beings. Beauty is not just for an elite of connoisseurs. The human being acts according to the only principle it knows: its inner freedom. It can appreciate the beauty of the universe. At the same time, it has the faculty of creating different forms of beauty. Beauty is not given once and for all but it is the free creation of the artist as a being whose essence is freedom. The creation has to be free and sincere. There are as many different forms of beauty as there are different styles. In art beauty is not only truth but it is style, too. The style of Leonardo is different from the style of Michelangelo, but both are perfect. In this way the experience of beauty is a kind of knowledge. According to Pico, we can have a twofold experience of beauty: first the experience of the beauty consisting in the material arrangement of the body,


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including the quantity of its parts and their proportion and reciprocal distance, and in the quality of shape and colour. The other kind of beauty is grace, “which appears in and transfigures all that is beautiful.”7 In this way Pico concentrates “on the concept of beauty as a revelation of the spiritual life.”8 Grace, according to Pico, does not come from the body but stems from the soul and it “is to corporeal beauty what salt is to every dish.”9 This idea of grace becomes an important topic in Renaissance circles and characterizes the new experience of beauty. Grace does not concern only aesthetics and art but it provides that this aesthetic concept is spread and applied outside the boundaries of aesthetic and philosophical reflection.


Balthasar Castiglione: Grace and Sprezzatura

The concept of “grace” as the harmonic expression of a work or of a behaviour has often been opposed to the concept of “beauty.” The old Platonic tradition proposed an idea of beauty as harmony and proportion. Renaissance NeoPlatonic thought found in grace the new leading idea. Grace derives from good proportions, and it is a sign of beauty, but grace has the power to enrapture, enchant, and persuade whereas beauty is considered as having more dignity and greatness. Later, in 1600, the scholar Pierre Charron (1541–1603) will define grace as “beauty in movement.” Beauty is stable and grace is moving or, like a beautiful gesture, suggests movement. We can say that grace is the essential condition of beauty and, more generally, it characterizes a beautiful disposition of things or a movement as well as a good behaviour in society. Beauty is the consequence of objective qualities such as proportion and symmetry; grace is a less rigorous and rational concept which makes something pleasant and beautiful. We can experience this property in our everyday life: the fur of a tiger is beautiful but its feline gait expresses grace. Baldesar Castiglione (1478–1529) was an ambassador and statesman who worked for the Gonzaga family of Mantua. His popular book The Courtier, published 1528, described the ideal man living at court and became a classic of Renaissance society. Training in beauty and art became a part of the education of the courtier. Beauty is not just a matter for philosophers and scholars, and grace is the keyword of its disclosure. “The Courtier must accompany his actions, gestures, habits, in short his every movement, with grace; and this you seem to regard as a universal seasoning, without which all other properties and good qualities are of little worth.”10 Grace is not just a quality of natural things or works of art but characterizes in general what is free and easy. We could call it also spontaneity or naturalness. Grace is common to movements, gestures,

The New Idea of the Human Being and Artist


behaviours, works made without effort and as if they were simple and easy. “True art is that which does not appear as art.” But having before now often considered whence this grace springs, laying aside those men who have it by nature, I find one universal rule concerning it, which seems to me worth more in this matter than any other in all things human that are done or said: and that is to avoid affectation to the uttermost and as it were a very sharp and dangerous rock; and, to use possibly a new word, to practise in everything a certain nonchalance [sprezzatura] that shall conceal design and show that what is done and said is done without effort and almost without thought. From this I believe grace is in large measure derived, because everyone knows the difficulty of those things that are rare and well done, and therefore facility in them excites the highest admiration; while on the other hand, to strive and as the saying is to drag by the hair, is extremely ungraceful, and makes us esteem everything slightly, however great it be. Accordingly, we may affirm that to be true art which does not appear to be art; nor to anything must we give greater care than to conceal art, for if it is discovered, it quite destroys our credit and brings us into small esteem.11 The term sprezzatura is an Italian neologism that we could translate as nonchalance, negligence or indifference. It suggests a peculiar naturalness, spontaneity and easiness which conceals art and effort. Grace is indeed a natural endowment and it is the condition of art. Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo as well as the other main representatives of the Italian Renaissance do not display their art, the labor of their meditated artistic creation, but they present something new; they show their different styles, and each style is personal and at the same time true to nature. Style is no longer a traditional set of technical and rhetorical rules concerning how to build a correct and persuasive text, but it becomes an individual and personal feature. “With the Renaissance idea of sprezzata disinvoltura (effortless nonchalance) the man of style will be he who has the wit (and social standing) to behave in violation of the rules – or to show that he has the privilege to break them.”12 It is the first step towards the Baroque concept of wit as intellectual liveliness and the romantic idea of genius.13 Developing the idea of the sublime as expressed in the Pseudo-Longinus, style becomes more and more a question of individual sensitivity than a matter of technical rules. The principle of sprezzatura has to be followed in everyday life. It has to be understood as an attitude and a personal ability to deal with life in a non-natural


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context like the court. The same concept is at the origin of grace as a quality of beauty and of the work of art, which now is no longer an exclusive concern of artists, poets, scholars and philosophers. The concept of sprezzatura is an attempt to employ an artistic and philosophical suggestion, borrowed from aesthetics, in order to describe the social context and ordinary life. This may be the most peculiar idea of the Renaissance and a vague anticipation of the concept of genius developed by the romantics.


Art and Nature in Leonardo da Vinci

“The Renaissance thrived on a determined ‘decompartmentalization,’ maintaining no strict division between different realms of human knowledge or experience.”14 Science, knowledge, mystic experience and artistic creation are not limited by the traditional boundaries. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) is perhaps the most typical representative of the Renaissance man. He was a painter, artist, engineer, writer, scientist (even if not in the modern sense of the term) and philosopher (even if he claimed to be “homo sanza lettere” denying to be a scholar). Leonardo is a modern man because of the manifold nature of his interests and the application of his peculiar experimental method. He is a modern man because of his curiosity, his restlessness, his inquisitive mind, and his broad knowledge. His culture is nevertheless the Neo-Platonic one which dominated in the Middle Ages and then in the Renaissance. His aesthetic assertions are full of personal biases and false assumptions. Nevertheless, Leonardo’s ideas about art and nature are brilliant and his paintings are among the most famous masterpieces ever created. These contradictions make Leonardo a modern man and his thought a milestone in aesthetics and reflection on art. According to Leonardo, the aim of art and science is knowledge of nature. Painting is a kind of science since it allows a certain knowledge of painted natural objects. Nature is written in geometrical characters and if we want to understand it, we need to know the universal language of mathematics. This was a Neo-Platonic assumption but it already foreshadowed Galileo Galilei’s method and the Scientific Revolution. Mathematics expresses the quantitative aspect of natural phenomena whereas painting grasps the qualitative aspects, the proportion of bodies which is the source of their beauty. Art can go even deeper than science since it understands qualitative relationships and the essence of things, so that the painter “embraces the primary truth of bodies.”15 Another of Leonardo’s anticipatory assumptions is that there is no true knowledge without experiment. We have to start with practice, and we need to test our ideas in order to bring them into contact with nature. This is true for

The New Idea of the Human Being and Artist


science as well as for art. In this way art, no less that science, becomes knowledge. Art has a cognitive function and reveals the secret mechanism of nature. Leonardo believes that art is essentially a reproduction of nature. He followed the Aristotelian aesthetic tradition. But Leonardo’s idea of imitation is new. Art is creative because it is reproductive and the artist knows by means of art because he imitates nature. We find here a new concept, the concept of art as creativity. The artist should be faithful to nature and not try to correct it. At the same time the artist is a creator like God, but on a lesser scale. This is an apparent contradiction, but it marks a great turning point in art theory. Truly this (painter’s work) is a science and the legitimate daughter of nature, since painting is born of nature. To speak more accurately, we would say the grandchild of nature, for all visible things are born of nature, and painting is borne of these. Therefore, we rightly call painting the grandchild of nature and related to God.16 This is true for painting considered by Leonardo at the top of art’s hierarchy. Painting is immediate; it represents nature which is the work of God; it uses the eye which is the most noble and reliable of the senses (Plato said: “the most piecing of our bodily senses”). Conversely, poetry uses words which are not immediate and which, moreover, are conventional and represent human creations. Leonardo has a deep prejudice against poetry and words. Painting is in continuity with God’s creation and makes the artist a little creator working on an analogous level. His creation is knowledge. Poetry is a human production and does not deserve the same attention. The same relation exists between the imagination of a thing and its actuality, as between a shadow and a body casting a shadow, and there is this same relation between poetry and painting. Poetry places things before the imagination in words, while painting really places the objects before the eye, and the eye accepts the likenesses as though they were real. Poetry offers things without this likeness and they do not make an impression by way of visual impact as does painting.17 The painter should invent and create the work of art in order to present a true reproduction of nature. But the artist is not just a mirror since he puts in his work something which is not in the original: knowledge of the natural world. Knowledge is not the Ficinian and Neo-Platonic experience of beauty. Actually, the artist has to do with nature and not with beauty. Beauty is not


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Leonardo’s first concern since nature can be beautiful as well as odd, frightening and even ugly. Leonardo proposed many ideas in the field of the theory of art which are his legacy to the modern era. His writings were collected and published more than two centuries later and the effect of his ideas was not on the Renaissance but rather on modern art and modern reflections on art. The relationship between art and nature is the basic characteristic of Leonardo’s thought and the basis of the cognitive value of art. His attention to natural varieties, the careful observation of natural phenomena and the importance of practice and experimenting represent a new direction in art theory. He reflected on art practice and “attempted to dissect the phenomena of art”18 more than anyone else. Moreover, he defended the cognitive value of art even in the experimental context which anticipates modern science. He developed three modern attitudes: experiment, mathematics and mechanics. Mechanics and its practical applications was certainly a major interest of Leonardo’s. When he went to Milan, he presented himself to the Duke as an engineer of war machines and not as an artist. Then in Milan he painted The Last Supper. His apparent contradictions are rather the result of his modern interdisciplinary approach to the complex issue of art and knowledge.

Notes 1 Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, trans. Robert Caponigri (Chicago: Gateway, 1956), pp. 3–4. 2 Oration, p. 7. 3 Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind (New York: Ballantine Book, 1991), p. 215. 4 Oration, pp. 7–8. 5 Oration, p. 5. 6 Oration, p. 27. 7 Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, Commento alla Canzone di G. Benivieni, in Tatarkiewicz, History of Aesthetics, III (The Hague: Mouton, 1970–1974), p. 124. 8 Stéphane Toussaint, Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, in Nida-Rümelin, Betzler (editors), Aesthetik und Kunstphilosophie (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1998), p. 626. 9 Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, Commento, in Tatarkiewicz, History of Aesthetics, III, p. 124. 10 Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. Leonard Eckstein Opdycke (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903), p. 33.

The New Idea of the Human Being and Artist


11 Baldesar Castiglione, The Courtier, p. 35. 12 Umberto Eco, On Literature, trans. Martin Mc Laughlin (Orlando: Harvest, 2004), pp. 161–162. 13 See Chapter 12. 14 Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind (New York: Ballantine Book, 1991), p. 230. 15 Leonardo da Vinci, Treatise on Painting, in Tatarkiewicz, History of Aesthetics, III (The Hague: Mouton, 1970–1974), p. 136. 16 Treatise on Painting, in Tatarkiewicz, III, p. 137 17 Treatise on Painting, in Tatarkiewicz, III, p. 137. 18 Tatarkiewicz, History of Aesthetics, III, p. 135.


The Baroque: History and Poetry in Giambattista Vico 1

Poetry in the Baroque

Renaissance culture accorded particular importance to architecture, painting and figurative art. These arts answered civil purposes and provided celebration for the powerful great families that ruled the Italian cities. But it was not the only reason. To Leonardo, the written word was considered as less than a painted image. Conversely, in the Baroque period, poetry enjoyed great attention and was above all considered in its specific and technical aspects, giving rise to a new idea of the literary work. After the Renaissance, fine arts are more defined by rules and have more specific functions (celebration, enjoyment, but also knowledge of nature and experience of the spiritual essence of man or the ideal reality of things). The artist now has a position in society and his work is regulated by rules and, at the same time, is characterized by his freedom. What is the limit of the artist’s freedom? The Baroque seems to grant boundless freedom to artistic creativity. Renaissance art was rational and essential; Baroque art is lavish and redundant. Renaissance art, imitating classical art, was balanced and represented a human dimension; Baroque art expresses a richness, vitality, and grandeur which strives for something beyond the human. The human being is no longer at the center of the universe but must create its world by itself and by means of its intellectual power. In the beginning, the term “Baroque” denoted not the style of a work but rather a weird or eccentric work, a strange, irregular or deviant work. A key word of the Baroque age is the term “wit,” or agudeza in Spanish and arguzia in Italian. Wit is something akin to the concept of sprezzatura (see Chapter 8) a kind of intellectual liveliness which shows creative freedom and originality. A witticism is a sharp, pointed remark which produces surprise. The Spanish theorist Baltasar Gracián (1601–1658) wrote that art is the complement of nature and, sometimes, art surpasses nature, revealing its beauty. The world is full of interconnections between things, similarities and secret links. The task of the artist is to present these concealed connections of nature where nobody else would see them. Agudeza is the ability to find them by means of art and © koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2019 | doi:10.1163/9789004409231_009

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produce surprise. The work of art has to be difficult. The more difficult the truth is, the more pleasant is the effect in discovering it. Allegories, metaphors, symbols, and wit become the necessary characteristics of art and, more specifically, of literary works. But the universe appears to be immense, mysterious, and complex. Poetry is a way to gauge and reveal the complexity of the world. Surprise and wonder, which are the effects of the poem on the reader, are the result of precise,technical devices. The poet becomes a specific, professional figure in the intellectual system. During the Renaissance, poetry was the expression of a social elite of intellectuals. In the Baroque age poetry is the result of a poet’s individual abilities and endowments, of his wit or agudeza, independent from his social position. This fact foreshadows a new position of the poet and a new function of poetry. Those who write or enjoy poetry can be considered as members of an egalitarian society based on human values and not on social privilege. We have to remember that some of our greatest poets belong to this age: Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca and Luis de Góngora in Spain, and Torquato Tasso in Italy. Outside of the specific Baroque tradition of these Catholic countries but deeply connected to it, we have to remember William Shakespeare in England, and Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine in France.


Giambattista Vico and Knowledge of the Human World

It is difficult to place Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) in an historical frame which fits his thought. He belonged to the late Baroque age but he anticipated Romanticism by a century. He rebutted the Enlightenment before its affirmation. His philosophy, which was largely ignored early on, later exerted a great influence starting from the nineteenth century. Vico argues against rationalism and against science based on a mathematical knowledge of nature. He writes that without fantasy and memory we have no knowledge at all. He stresses the cognitive power of poetry and the importance of the study of language as means of knowing reality and advocates the humanities and the use of rhetoric, eloquence, philology and etymology. Vico argues that there is not only one method for knowing the human world. Both science and poetry strive towards truth and what is necessary and permanent, the former by means of abstract thoughts and rational arguments and the latter by means of vivid, concrete images. In this way poetry presents the deep truth of reality by means of images and fictions. Actually, while Vico gives a special place to poetry, he is above all interested in the philosophy of knowledge and the creation of a new science of history.


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He wrote The New Science (published in three editions in 1725, 1730 and 1744) in order to define the basis of a new science of history and historical knowledge. The main principle is that we can understand an object as truth only if we are the author of that object, in Latin: “verum ipsum factum,” or “the truth is only what is done.” The consequence is that the field of our certain knowledge is only the field of history, since the human world (made of institutions, laws, languages, myths, poetry…) is created by men. Nature, created by God, can only be the realm of God’s certain knowledge. Moreover, human nature is not absolute but historical. We need to understand history in an adequate way.


Vico: Philosophy and Philology

The understanding of the human world is not only based on rationality or philosophy, but on philology. Vico considers “philology” as the correct and adequate attitude for understanding primitive and ancient forms of thinking and expressing our thoughts. Human beings change and rational thinking is not our only way of reasoning. The human world developed according to three epochs or ages: the age of gods, when people were “who were stupid, insensate, and horrid beasts”1 and believed they were governed by gods; the age of heroes, when aristocratic states ruled over the plebeians; and finally the age of men, when people realized the equality of men. The first age marks the beginning of civilization. As the first wisdom of the pagan world, poetic wisdom must have begun with a metaphysics which, unlike the rational and abstract metaphysics of today’s scholars, sprang from the sense and imagination of the first people. For they lacked the power of reason, and were entirely guided by their vigorous sensations and vivid imagination […]. This metaphysics was their own poetry, which sprang from an innate poetic faculty: for they were naturally endowed with sense and imagination.2 Primeval man was not capable of abstraction and rational thinking, but he was endowed with a powerful imagination, sensuality, and feeling. He was like a child that “we see picking up inanimate objects in play and talking with them as if they were living persons.”3 The result of mankind’s vivid imagination in the first age is myth. The mythical interpretation of nature (so that we see gods behind natural phenomena) is our first form of knowledge, a poetic knowledge which is the basis of civilization. The origin of our society is based on the pre-rational and poetic nature of human beings. Early man had poetic thought

The Baroque


and civilization derived from this vivid and pictorial representation of reality. The poetic metaphysics of early man had a reason. We cannot reduce myth and poetry to rationality; rather, we have to look for the primordial condition of rationality and civilization in the poetic nature of human beings. Poetry is a kind of metaphysics (that is to say a way to explain the basic principles of reality) that is pre-rational. Only later, after the poets have created their concrete and poetic metaphysics, did philosophers elaborate their abstract metaphysical systems. But the truth of poetic metaphysics is still alive, in poetry, art, and poetic feeling. Works of art contain a poetic truth which is at the same time a metaphysical truth. The character of a poem, Vico writes, may not be real, but it becomes the model of real persons and the touchstone to understand real persons. Hector may be only a poetical fiction, but if we want to be a hero we need to be like him.


Vico: Poetry and Knowledge

Myths are not allegories of the truth but rather the expression of an ancient, magic, and non-rational form of knowledge, created by people endowed with a strong sense of fantasy and a powerful imagination. This is a poetical knowledge which has its own autonomy and which we have to understand in its origin and necessity. Vico creates a science based on history and culture, and in so doing, he opens a kind of anthropological perspective with a critical approach. In tackling the old, poetical knowledge we should not try to find hidden knowledge according to our rational principles and expectations and using the modern standards of Western civilization. We should avoid contempt as well as the temptation to look for any secret, encrypted message. Today we can state that culture from a holistic perspective is the object of Vico’s study, and philology is his historical and critical method. A critical approach to culture requires an historical perspective and, at the same time, a distrust for a plain historical explanation. Our temptation is to recognize in the past the origin of our philosophical doctrines and our desire is to identify in the past the first manifestation of our civilization. But the past may have been different from what we wish. A critical approach means that we have to consider the past in its autonomy and originality. For example, poetry is the free production of the human soul in a determined epoch in the development of mankind. It is not an individual creation but the poetic creation of a nation, so that people (and not scholars) must judge it. Poetry originates from experience and creates myths in order to express its truth, which


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is a metaphysical truth, derived from concrete, real experience. Above all, we must consider poetry as the result of an irrational and barbaric force to which we cannot apply our modern patterns and values. The truth poetry conveys depends on a way of feeling and experiencing reality which may be lost and which we must recover philologically.

Notes 1 Giambattista Vico, New Science, trans. David Marsh (London: Penguin, 1999), p. 374. 2 Giambattista Vico, New Science, p. 375. 3 Giambattista Vico, New Science, p. 375.


Baumgarten: Aesthetics and Sensitivity 1

Sensitive Knowledge

In the eighteenth century we see the birth of aesthetics as a specific discipline. It is a turning point in the reflection on art and poetry. Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714–1762) is the first philosopher to employ the term “aesthetics” in a distinctly philosophical context. Baumgarten considered aesthetics as a particular kind of knowledge by means of sensitivity. At the beginning of his Aesthetics (1750–1758) Baumgarten gives a definition of the term. Aesthetics (as theory of liberal arts, as lower theory of knowledge, as art of beautiful thinking, as art of thinking analogous to reason) is the science of sensitive knowing.1 The “sensitive knowing” of the aesthetic experience is not subordinate to logical knowledge, but it possesses its own autonomy. Aesthetics has to do with the direct, sensitive apprehension of reality, in opposition to the logical or theoretical approach. Baumgarten attempts to show that sensitive knowing has a particular legitimacy and validity. What is the aim of this particular knowledge? How is beauty concerned with perception? The aim of aesthetics is the perfection (achievement) of sensitive knowing in itself, and this is beauty, and at the same time the aim of aesthetics is avoiding imperfection in itself that is ugliness.2 In the Latin text “perfection of sensitive knowing” has the meaning of “achievement of sensitive knowing,” like when we say “the achievement of success” or “scientific achievements.” Beauty is something that we reach, or better, it is a specific activity achieving its fruition.


Reason and Sensitivity

In the philosophical debate of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was a radical opposition between two schools: rationalism and empiricism. © koninklijke brill nv, leideN, 2019 | DOI:10.1163/9789004409231_010


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The former asserts that the foundation of our knowledge lies in our reason; the latter claims that our knowledge comes first from experience. René Descartes was the greatest rationalist philosopher. Descartes expresses the characteristics of rational knowledge in two terms: “clear and distinct.” The intellect (with logic) is the faculty of this kind of knowledge. Rational knowledge is a distinct knowledge. For example, if I consider the sea, I know, by means of my intellect, the properties of salt water, so that I am able to distinguish a sea from a lake. In contrast, sensitive knowledge is logically indistinct or confused. Baumgarten follows this distinction: sensitivity (with aesthetics) is the faculty of a second kind of knowledge, essentially different from the intellectual kind and not dependent on the intellect (and not dependent on logic). Aesthetic (or sensitive) knowledge is different from knowledge by means of reason (or intellect), but similar to it. The object of aesthetic knowledge (clear and indistinct) is different from the logical kind (clear and distinct). Aesthetics and the experience of beauty are the result of an innate faculty of our soul that fuses a perceived sensuous manifold into a coherent whole. The specific achievement or perfection of this perception of a clear but logically indistinct sensitive datum is beauty. Sensitive knowing is a clear but confused knowing; its object is not an abstract, universal object (as it is for logic) but a concrete and particular object. (An obscure, confused representation is an object neither of aesthetic nor intellectual knowledge.) With Baumgarten aesthetics receives a philosophical significance, and sensitive knowing has a specific importance that does not depend on the intellect. Sensitive knowledge, although logically indistinct, cannot be reduced or dissolved by conceptual knowing. Baumgarten gave to beauty a place in this specific kind of knowing (the perfection or achievement of it) and assigned to art the terrain of sensuous appearance.


Sensitivity in the Experience of Art

Baumgarten assigns to aesthetics the field of sensitivity. Is sensitive knowledge enough to describe a work of art? In a work of art there are some elements that are not sensitive. For example, in the experience of a work of art we are always aware that we are dealing with a work of art, that is to say: we are dealing with something that is not nature. If I read a poem, I need to know that it is a poem, written by a poet and in conformity with certainconventions. Such awareness or self-consciousness means that we need something more than a sensitive experience if we want to understand the work of art or the poem in



its specific character. Kant and the romantic philosophers will try to understand this “something more” which constitutes the essence of the work of art. The interest of aesthetics as a theory of beauty and works of art (and not only as a gnoseologia inferior, a “lower theory of knowledge”) is that aesthetics, in the domain of the senses, concerns something that is beyond the sensitive field. In the sensitive experience of a work of art we have a sensitive experience of elements that are not only sensitive. We can say that the work of art contains elements which are not the objects of our senses. For example, the pleasure we experience in front of the beauty of a Cézanne painting is not the pleasure we have when we taste some kind of exotic food or when we stroke a cat. When we read a poem, we experience something which is beyond the pleasing sound of the words and the beautiful, original presentation of concepts: neither rhetoric nor simple sensitivity can explain poetry. Aesthetics investigates this “beyond” of the work of art. At the same time, we could not have experienced the work of art in any other way, for example by intellectual knowing and without sensitivity. The paradox of aesthetics consists of the fact that we need the sensitive experience in order to have an experience of non-sensitive elements. We could not have it by means of our intellect or in any other way. We cannot reduce these elements to an intellectual knowing. Romantic philosophy will focus on this point: sensitive and non-sensitive experiences (that is to say theoretical and moral experiences) are tightly connected. We could not have the latter without the former.

Notes 1 Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, Theoretische Ästhetik, edited by H. R. Schweizer (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1983), § 1, p. 3. 2 Baumgarten, Theoretische Ästhetik, § 14 p. 11.


Kant and the Origin of Modern Aesthetics 1

Knowledge of Nature and Beauty

It is difficult to overrate Kant’s importance in the modern debate about beauty and art. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) offers a new perspective on the aesthetic experience. His Critique of Judgement (1790) is the actual beginning of modern aesthetics, conceived as philosophical theory of beauty and art, as we understand it today. The aesthetic experience has to do with the senses, but it is not only related to the sensuous apprehension of the material object. Aesthetic judgement is related to pleasure and displeasure: by the representation of the object, we judge our pleasure and displeasure in relation to the form of the object (and not to the material object in itself). Aesthetic judgement is not a kind of knowledge about the concrete object (distinct or confused), but it establishes a relationship between feelings of pleasure and displeasure and our knowing faculty (the intellect) by the representation of the object. Do we have a kind of knowledge by aesthetic judgement? According to Kant, no, we do not; we do not have any knowledge because it is not a knowing judgement. Kant calls cognitive judgement a “determinant” judgement, because it determines certain universal characteristics (for example, “existence,” “relation”) of the object. In contrast, aesthetic judgement is a “reflective” judgement, by which we obtain knowledge not about objects in nature, but about our faculties for knowing nature. In aesthetic judgement we know something about us. This is a very new perspective: aesthetic knowledge is a different kind of knowledge, not knowledge of nature’s laws (called by Kant “categories”) but knowledge about a single and particular thing, nevertheless an “objective” and “universal” knowledge. “The judgement of taste itself does not postulate the agreement of everyone. […] It only imputes this agreement to everyone.”1 The judgement of taste rests upon a special kind of universality, it is based on the idea of beauty, and this idea is common to all human beings, since human beings share the same cognitive faculties. In his Critique of Judgement Kant calls aesthetic judgement “reflective judgement” or “judgement of taste” by means of which we say that something is beautiful. What is beautiful? Beautiful is an object that you like, through a finality related to the play between the imagination (which becomes productive) and the intellect, by the representation of the object. We have to

© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2019 | doi:10.1163/9789004409231_011

Kant and the Origin of Modern Aesthetics


understand the meaning of this definition of beautiful. Before that, we have to see what happens when we know the world.


Knowledge – Determinant Judgement and Imagination

Kant explained in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781 and 1787) how our knowledge works. By the representation of an object, the intellect finds a concept (or category) for sensitive data. Categories are given in the human intellect and express the possible ways of conceiving reality. They are the same in the mind of every human being. They are like empty slots. Imagination, on the other hand, is a productive faculty which constantly creates images of objects. By knowing, the productive imagination creates an “image” or schema of the concept. This is the first application of the intellectual category to reality, without sensitive material. It is like a general rehearsal in the theatre, without an audience, just to check if everything is working as it should (Kant calls it the “spontaneity of intellect”). Imagination determines time (the human internal sense) and reproduces the general functioning of the mind without external perceptions. This point is very important because it means that our mind is not passive that it is always working, independent from external reality and from data we receive from the external world. When sensitive material (in the intuition of space and time) finds a place in the intellectual concepts, then we have knowledge (we have a determinant judgement). Why is imagination so important to knowledge? The English philosopher David Hume and the tradition of empiricism suggested that our knowledge is an “effect” of experience. Following empiricism our mind is passive; it is like a blank tablet (a “tabula rasa”) without innate ideas or spontaneous activity, like a blackboard on which no sensation has been written. Then experience writes our knowledge of reality like chalk writes signs on the blackboard. The Latin expression of this condition is: nihil in intellectu nisi prius in sensu; “there is nothing in the intellect which was not before in the senses.” From such a perspective our mind is passive and knowledge is a consequence of experience. In the first edition of his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) Kant writes that human knowledge is based on three faculties: sensibility, intellect and imagination. In the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (1787) the importance of imagination has been reduced to transcendental schematism, but it remains central to knowledge. Our knowledge is an act of spontaneity; our intellect is not passive in front of its objects. The imagination represents the spontaneity of the intellect that produces rules independently from sensibility


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and from experience. The same concept of imagination as a productive faculty of our mind returns in the Critique of Judgement (1790).


Pleasure – Reflective or Aesthetic Judgement

In the Critique of Judgement the imagination (now called “productive imagination”) presents an object to the mind. The purpose is not to understand the object of experience (to find a category for sensitive data). The representation of a beautiful object is disinterested (it is not useful, not agreeable, not good), but we have pleasure in seeing it. By the representation of a beautiful object we prove pleasure, because the imagination (faculty of intuition a priori, before experience) finds a spontaneous conformity to the laws of the intellect (faculty of concepts). This spontaneous conformity of imagination with intellect is the “free play of faculties.” The cognitive powers [imagination and intellect] brought into play by this representation are here engaged in a free play, since no determinate concept [intellectual knowledge] restricts them to a particular rule of cognition. (…) Now a representation, whereby an object is given, involves, in order that it may become a source of cognition at all, imagination for bringing together the manifold of intuition, and understanding for the unity of the concept uniting the representations. This state of free play of the cognitive faculties (…) must admit of universal communication.2 When we feel that something is beautiful, actually we feel that our mind finds an agreement with the laws of nature, we feel that our mind is in harmony with external reality, with nature. We feel that the world (nature, work of art) is fit for us and that we are fit for the world, that it is right for our desires. This philosophical explanation may sound difficult, but one thing is clear: in the experience of beauty we feel that our soul is in harmony with external reality. In the pleasure of an aesthetic experience, we feel that nature and the external world (which is nature in its necessity) are in conformity with our soul and our desires (which are free and not necessitated by natural laws).


From Knowledge to Morals through Beauty – Nature and Freedom

Judgement of taste is connected with pleasure and displeasure and so is related to the faculty of knowledge (sensitivity) and the faculty of desiring

Kant and the Origin of Modern Aesthetics


(morality). It is the connection of science to morality. Aesthetic judgement connects nature (necessity) and morals (freedom), and shows that the world of nature (with its natural laws) is not opposed to the world of our free will (morality). Between the faculty of knowledge and desire stands the feeling of pleasure, just as judgement is intermediate between understanding and reason. We may assume that since pleasure and displeasure [are] necessarily combined with the faculty of desire (…) [Judgement] will effect a transition from the faculty of pure knowledge, i.e. from the realm of concept of nature, to that of the concept of freedom.3 The beautiful is not the good (it has nothing to do with morals), and it is not the agreeable (it has nothing to do with the senses). The beautiful is not the useful. Why do we enjoy beauty? The object is not important, but the most important thing is the relationship between imagination and intellect engendered by the representation of the object. In aesthetic judgement the object and its content do not matter. The subject of a painting can be morally questionable; a novel can give us no knowledge of the real world; Baudelaire’s poem concerning an albatross cannot be useful if related to our everyday experience. But aesthetic experience has nothing to do with the moral, cognitive content of the work. In aesthetic experience the object and (moral, cognitive…) content of artistic representation (a painting, a poem, a movie…) do not matter. What matters is the relationship between nature (described by the laws of the intellect) and our imagination by the representation of the object. If we find something beautiful (a rose, a novel or a movie) it is because the imagination and the intellect agree, because they work in perfect harmony with each other. We find ourselves in harmony with the world surrounding us, even if we do not have any moral, cognitive or material need that the world could satisfy. We feel free and we feel that our inner freedom is endorsed by external nature. If we like a work of art because it is moral, useful or pleasant, for example because we like the actress in that movie, we do not express an aesthetic judgement, but we judge something related to our needs and interest. That is to say, we do not like it as a work of art. Moreover, according to Kant, if we spoke of a beautiful object or content as the result of a sensitive apprehension, we could only speak of something that we find beautiful or ugly, good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, but we couldnot speak of a universal law of beauty. Aesthetics would only be a “matter of taste” determined by personal preferences. Rather, Kant considers only structures of


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our mind so that he can speak of the universal and necessary experience of beauty. In the aesthetic experience we discover that there is only one world, in which our free desire agrees with the laws of nature. As universal laws of nature have their ground in our understanding, which prescribes them to nature (though only according to the universal concept of it as nature), particular empirical laws must be regarded, in respect of that which is left undetermined in them by these universal laws, according to a unity such as they would have if an understanding (though it be not ours) had supplied them for the benefit of our cognitive faculties, so as to render possible a system of experience according to particular natural laws.4 The experience of beauty does not reveal any objective, natural law of nature. It reveals that the world of nature is consistent with our desires. This is not to be taken as implying that such an understanding must be actually assumed [this understanding is not a law of nature] […]; but this faculty [reflective judgement] rather gives by this means a law to itself alone [a finality of nature, to be a unity to our benefit of knowledge and desire] and not to nature.5 The Critique of Judgement is the most important of Kant’s works for romantic philosophers. In this book Kant presents the “union” of man and nature, an image of harmony between freedom and natural laws. In the contemplation of beauty, the spontaneity of the imagination harmonizes with the rules of the intellect, and the world of nature meets the world of freedom as if it would meet its very essence. In the aesthetic appearance we glance the world’s truth.


Imagination and Knowledge of Reality

The aesthetic experience has nothing to do with knowledge but it is a deep, non-logical experience of reality. Is the imagination of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason the same kind of imagination we find in his Critique of Judgement? The productive imagination in the former Critique is “the faculty of representing an object without its presence in the intuition.” It is an effect of intellect on sensibility and produces “schemata” (a priori determinations of the inner sense, time); these are the first

Kant and the Origin of Modern Aesthetics


applications of intellectual laws to the possible intuition (for example, we can know what a circle is, without empirical experience of it; we can know what the relation of cause – effect is, without an empirical experience of it). The reproductive imagination in the latter Critique recalls an empirical experience in our mind (our mind reproduces in us the flower that we have seen and found beautiful). But the former and the latter kind of imagination are the result of the same faculty. The ground of knowledge the ground of aesthetic experience are the same, and in both activities (knowledge and aesthetic experience) we are concerned with an original power of our mind: the imagination. Not only the creation of the artist, but the very experience of beauty are based on this faculty: without imagination our intellect would be as good as dead: it would be neither empty (because it receives empirical intuitions), nor blind (because it contains categories), but dead as a blackboard on which only experience could write. Our mind is creative. The human mind has the power to produce its objects, as schemata of knowledge, and it is the same that happens in the experience of beauty: [The beautiful object] is estimated in reference to the free conformity to law of the imagination. If, now, imagination must in the judgement of taste be regarded in its freedom, then, to begin with, it is not taken as reproductive, as in its subjection to the laws of association [psychological sense], but as productive and exerting an activity of its own (as originator of arbitrary forms of possible intuition). And although in the apprehension of a given object of sense it is tied down to a definite form of this Object and, to that extent, does not enjoy free play (as it does in poetry), still it is easy to conceive that the object may supply ready-made to the imagination just such a form of the arrangement of the manifold, as the imagination, if it were left to itself, would freely project in harmony with the general conformity to law of the understanding. But that the imagination should be both free and of itself conformable to law, i.e. carry autonomy with it is a contradiction. The understanding alone gives the law.6 Imagination provides a synthesis of the manifold of the object of experience, to which intellectual categories are applied: “the object may supply readymade to the imagination just such a form of the arrangement of the manifold, as the imagination, if it were left to itself, would freely project in harmony with the general conformity to law of the understanding.”7 Imagination is free, it is powerful, and it is at work in knowledge as well as in aesthetic judgement. The romantic philosophers will continue in this direction: the imagination is not


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only productive, not only reproductive, but creative. It is the source, the origin of our knowledge of reality, as a “productive and exerting an activity of its own” faculty. That is to say: we can understand reality because we create it. Beyond the importance (and objective difficulty) of Kant’s philosophy we need to recognize and remember that imagination, after Kant, has a new power and a new role. Imagination is at the origin of our knowledge. It is the same faculty by means of which we write a poem. The reflection on art and literary theory finds in Kant a turning point.


Necessity and Universality of the Beautiful

Focus on the free play of the faculties and not on the object guarantees the necessity of the beautiful: “the beautiful is that which, apart from any concept, is cognized as object of a necessary delight” (Critique of Judgement, 71). We do not enjoy the beautiful object (we don’t use it), but we enjoy the functioning of our faculties by the representation of it. Above all, in the experience of the beautiful we enjoy feeling a part of mankind; our faculties are shared by other human beings. This is the aspect of the Kantian theory of beauty which makes him a representative of the Enlightenment. All men are equal because they share the same faculties and enjoy the same objects. This is one of the most important outcomes of Kant’s philosophy. We can disagree on beauty, and if you say that something is not beautiful, I think you are wrong, or you are joking, or you do not have the social or cultural conditions to feel it as beautiful. This is called by Kant the “subjective universality” of the judgement of taste. But it is a special universality. The judgement of taste has this universality because all members of mankind share the same sensitive and cognitive structure. An interested judgement is a judgement on something good (for me) or pleasant (for me), but not beautiful (for everybody). Beauty should be disinterested. It has to do neither with morals nor with sensuous pleasure in a direct way. Actually, interest is “the delight which we connect with the representation of the real existence of the object. Such a delight, therefore, always involves a reference to the faculty of desire.” But in the experience of beauty we have no interest in the real existence of the object: it is “represented” by the imagination; the delight is referred to as the “play of the faculties,” that is to say, our cognitive structures and not the object. The disinterestedness of aesthetic judgment and its separation from a judgment based on a moral or sensitive basis is a very important consequence of Kant’s philosophy. Following this way of thinking, natural beauty as well as

Kant and the Origin of Modern Aesthetics


works of art can be judged neither on the ground of their moral or cognitive content nor on the ground of a sheer sensitive experience. Nevertheless, sensitivity, morals and knowledge are deeply involved in any aesthetic experience of nature and art. Kant’s aesthetics will be very important to romantic writers and poets. Kant defined a new task and a new direction of philosophy. He “dispelled” the material world of experience in order to present the transcendental laws of experience. Thought should understand the limits and possibilities of thinking. Romantic poets, reading Kant’s aesthetics, will apply his philosophy to the literary creation, to poetry and to literary criticism. In this way poets will create a new idea and function of poetry and give a new status to poetic creation.


The Sublime

We have seen in Chapter 3 that Pseudo-Longinus, with his treatise On the Sublime, introduced a new and long-lasting concept into the literary and aesthetic debate. Kant developed the concept of the sublime and distinguished it clearly from the beautiful. The beautiful is what pleases without interest; it is not a property of the object. The sublime is what in nature is overwhelming, powerful, infinite, potentially dangerous, and which defies our attempt to grasp it. “Sublime is the name given to what is absolutely great” (Critique of Judgement, 78), as an infinite quantity without any possible comparison (mathematically sublime, for example the stars in the sky) or as an infinite power (dynamically sublime, for example a volcano). “Nature, therefore, is sublime in such of its phenomena as in their intuition convey the idea of their infinity” (85). In the experience of the sublime we try and fail to understand infinity. Why do we like the sublime? Actually, it is not an aesthetic experience and we do not like it. We are interested in it because of moral reasons. When the size of a natural object is such that the imagination spends its whole faculty of comprehension upon it in vain, it must carry our concept of nature to a supersensitive substrate (underlying both nature and our faculty of thought) which is great beyond every standard of the senses.8 Sublime is not about nature nor about our cognitive faculties. Sublime is about our moral nature. it is not related with beautiful. Just the aesthetic judgement in the judgement of the beautiful refers the imagination in its free play to the understanding, to bring out its


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agreement with the concepts of the latter in general (apart from their determination): so in its judging of a thing as sublime it refers that faculty to reason to bring out its subjective accord with ideas of reason (indeterminately indicated), i.e. to induce a disposition of the mind comfortable to that which the influence of definite (practical) ideas would produce upon feeling, and in common accord with it.9 First of all, we have to note that the disposition of our mind, and not the object, is sublime. Then, as in the case of aesthetic judgement, in which we refer the beautiful object to the intellect (without knowing anything), in the case of the sublime we refer the sublime event to our reason and we experience an unexpected accord between natural phenomena (starry sky, volcanoes, high rocks, storm, waterfall…) and our moral faculty. The sublime proves a connection between the world of nature and morality. We can experience and appreciate something which is greater than our material, sensitive and limited nature, and we recognize in “our rational faculty another non-sensuous standard” and our over-sensitive destination. In front of a sublime show of nature we feel that, despite our physical weakness and material nothingness, we are bigger than nature thanks of our moral destination. We discover “a power of resistance of quite another kind.”10 Nature can crush us as a physical being but not as a moral individual. In comparison with our rational faculty, everything in nature is small. We can “judge ourselves independent of nature and discover a pre-eminence above nature.” So nature is not sublime but “nature is called sublime merely because it elevates the imagination to a presentation of those cases in which the mind can come to feel the sublimity of its own vocation even over nature.”11 We can find in ourselves something infinite (reason and our moral destination) which is beyond our limited, material nature. With Kant, the sublime becomes a kind of moral experience, the discovery of a higher destination of the human being and the universe and, in this way, a bridge between morality and nature.

Notes 1 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. J. C. Meredith (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 47. 2 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, p. 49. 3 Kant, Critique of Judgement, p. 14. 4 Kant, Critique of Judgement, p. 16.

Kant and the Origin of Modern Aesthetics 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Kant, Critique of Judgement, p. 16. Kant, Critique of Judgement, p. 71. Kant, Critique of Judgement, p. 71. Kant, Critique of Judgement, p. 86. Kant, Critique of Judgement, p. 86. Kant, Critique of Judgment, p. 91. Kant, Critique of Judgment, p. 92.



The Heritage of Kantian Philosophy in Romanticism 1

The Freedom of Imagination

Kant leaves a decisive heritage to romantic aesthetics and our current conception of beauty and our experience of the work of art. Today when we judge something as “beautiful” or if we say that a painting, a poem or a song is “a real work of art,” we use Kantian concepts, even if we are not aware of it. For a long time, the principle of imitation has been a pivotal principle of aesthetics and the main link between nature and works of art, with advantages and disadvantages for both; according to the concept of imitation, the work of art finds a foundation in nature, but it is not an original experience of nature’s truth in itself; it results in being nothing but an inessential decoration of nature. The work of art gives neither a cognitive experience of nature nor of reality or the human mind. Everything we can find in the work of art can be found as well in nature. Before Kant’s aesthetics, poetics usually consisted of technical treatises presenting indications of “how to make” works of art so that they are similar to some natural object (this is the tradition of Aristotle), supposing in many cases that nature is beautiful in itself. Kant opens a new perspective. The judgement of beauty has to do with our cognitive structure: the same faculty of imagination is involved in the reflective (aesthetics) and determining (knowledge) judgement. Nature is no longer an external and normative reality. The power of the imagination grants us a certain degree of freedom in knowing reality and creating art. This is the first and most important aspect of Kant’s heritage to romantic philosophy. But Kant also gave to romantic philosophers two other important concepts: genius and aesthetic ideas.


The Concept of Genius and the Connection between Art and Nature

Genius is a word that we use today for a real and excellent artist. Aristotle would not have said that an artist is a “genius,” but rather that he is “a skillful artisan.” © koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2019 | doi:10.1163/9789004409231_012

The Heritage of Kantian Philosophy in Romanticism


Usually we think that an artist has genius, or a spirit, in himself. The artist is not a “normal” man, he has something more, an inspiration or an endowment. Even if we do not know what such “inspiration” is, we think it comes from God or that it has a supernatural cause. This conception persists in modern everyday language: we can say that an artist, a singer, even a scientist “is a genius,” and it means that he is neither a simple artisan nor an ordinary person. The concept of “genius” is different in Kant’s aesthetics: Genius is the talent (natural endowment) which gives the rule to art. Since talent, as an innate productive faculty of the artist, belongs itself to nature, we may put in this way: Genius is the innate mental aptitude (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art. […] Fine arts must necessarily be regarded as arts of genius.1 The connection between nature and a work of art is through the genius, and the genius is a man, but not a normal man: he is an artist. The reasoning of Kant is the following: art needs rules; fine art cannot bear intellectual rules (concepts) in order to produce its objects (works of art); nature must give rules to fine art (which is not a natural thing); nature gives rule to fine art through the genius. In this way the work of art is a production by means of freedom (the artist is free) but this freedom is not arbitrary (it is nature which creates through the artist’s hand). In this way we have a clear definition of fine art as art of the genius. The “primary property” of genius is originality, only in this case he is exemplary too, that is to say he becomes an object of imitation and “standard or rule of estimating.” The real artist creates by means of genius, while the minor or ordinary artist (or apprentice) imitates the works of the genius. Since genius belongs to nature, the art of the genius is a natural creation and not imitation, like the art of ordinary artists. In this way the work of art of a genius becomes the standard for judging minor works of art. Genius is the correlative of taste; the latter is responsible for the judgement of beauty and the former for the production of beauty. Kant explains that “genius” derives from the Latin genius, a guardian and guiding spirit given to each man at birth. The genius is the guarantee of the originality of art, of its link to nature, and it is the opposite of imitation. Spirit is the “animating principle in the mind.”2 We have to highlight that, if a work of art is a work of genius, and if genius is opposite to imitation, genius is the contrary of science, too. The scientist follows reason; what he says can be demonstrated and taught. In contrast, genius is natural originality without rules so that it is the opposite of science. Kant


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would not say that Albert Einstein was a “genius” because we can understand the theory of relativity by means of rational explication. We do not need a particular endowment in order to understand physics: we need only our intellectual concepts. Today we would not agree that a scientist does not need a “natural endowment” to develop a scientific theory. The philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, for example, thinks that the progress of science is similar to the progress of art, so he would not subscribe to Kant’s restrictive point of view.


Aesthetic Ideas

Kant said that aesthetic judgement is the play of our faculties, imagination and intellect, by the representation of the object.3 What power can set the faculties at play? This power is the principle of presenting aesthetic ideas. We have experience of them by our experience of natural and artistic beauty. What is an aesthetic idea? By an aesthetic idea I mean that representation of the imagination which evokes much thought, yet without the possibility of any definite thought whatever, i.e. concept, being adequate to it, and which language, consequently, can never fully capture or render completely intelligible. – It is easily seen, that an aesthetic idea is the counterpart (pendant) of a rational idea, which, conversely, is a concept, to which no intuition (representation of the imagination) can be adequate. The imagination (as a productive faculty of cognition) is a powerful agent for creating, as it were, a second nature out of the material supplied to it by actual nature.4 “Such representations of the imagination may be termed ideas. […] They strain after something laying out beyond the confines of experience […] no concept can be wholly adequate to them as internal intuition.” Once more we notice the power of imagination and its importance in our mind’s activity. For Kant art is related to sensitivity, but, first of all, art is a product of imagination. Art is something more than a sensitive experience – it has to do with morality (“so seek to approximate to a representation of a rational concept”) – because both (art and morality) have to do with the world which lies beyond our sensitive intuition and experience (phenomenon). In the paragraph of the Critique of Judgement on aesthetic ideas we can find a short synthesis of romantic aesthetics. The work of art (and nature as its origin) presents to us something for which we cannot find an adequate concept.

The Heritage of Kantian Philosophy in Romanticism


Aesthetic ideas give us a lot to think about, but nothing to know. And the experience of art has to do with the deepest secrets of our knowledge (intellect and creative imagination) and our non-sensitive destiny (morality). Sometimes, when we are in front of a work of art, we have the experience of something for which we cannot find adequate words. We feel that there is something more to be said but we cannot express it by means of words. With aesthetic ideas Kant intended an analogous sensation. Nature supplies “material” to the productive imagination: that is to say that a touching sunset over the sea, a beautiful body, as well as a brilliant colour or a pointed word, are nothing but natural materials. Imagination will create a second nature from them. The experience of natural beauty as well as a work of art is an experience of this created “second nature.” This second nature created by the imagination is full of unattainable objects (aesthetic ideas) which we cannot find in actual nature, but in which we put our highest human desires and longings, feelings and qualities. According to Kant, in the conditioned and sensitive frame of the work of art we find the opportunity to have experiences of the non-sensitive realm of reality. A work of art is evocative and full of suggestion not only because it soothes our senses, but because it brings to us some deep truth and real content about the human world. We could not present the same truths and contents by means of the intellect and through its concepts. Therefore, we need the experience of beauty and art. Art, conditioned by sensitivity, always presents a non-sensitive content, which we could not conceive without sensitivity. The heritage of Kantian philosophy will be developed during the Romantic period and then discussed and criticized. Hegel will deepen and rationalize the connection between art and truth, ruling out natural beauty from the field of aesthetics5; in more recent time Heidegger and Gadamer6 will question Kant’s aesthetics and, in doing so, they will open new alternatives.

Notes 1 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. J. C. Meredith (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 136. 2 Kant, Critique of Judgement, p. 142. 3 See Chapter 11. 4 Kant, Critique of Judgement, pp. 142–143. 5 See Chapter 15. 6 See Chapters 23 and 24.


Moritz: Beyond the Concept of Imitation 1

The Sense of Sight and the Traditional Concept of Imitation

Dealing with Plato and Aristotle’s conceptions of art, we considered the concept of the imitation of nature. The idea that art is an imitation of nature has lasted for more than two thousand years and it has been one of the leading concepts of art, even in literary art. According to Horace,1 “poetry is like painting,” a principle suggesting that the imitation of nature is the key concept of a literary creation. Following an intuitive concept of imitation, if art has a foundation in nature, the figurative art of painting has first place in the hierarchy of arts because painting presents a similarity with nature that other arts do not. For example, in the Treatise on Art of Painting by Leonardo da Vinci2 we read: A science is more useful in proportion as its fruits are more widely understood […]. The fruits of painting can be apprehended by all the populations of the universe because its results are subject to the power of sight, and it does not pass by the ear to the brain, but by the same channel by which sight passes. Therefore it needs no interpreters of diverse tongues, as letters do, and it has instantly satisfied the human race in the same manner as the works of nature have done. […] Painting represents to the brain the works of nature with greater truth and accuracy than speech or writing, but letters represent words with greater truth, which painting does not do. But we say that the science which represents the works of nature is more wonderful than that which represents the works of the artificer, that is to say, the works of man, which consist of words, – such as poetry and the like – which issue from the tongue of man.3 The value of painting is that painting is similar to nature in its essence and in its effects, or better: painting is similar to nature in its effects because it is similar to nature in its essence. Works of nature are imitated by works of art, but if we can choose, we prefer the works of nature, the original, while painted works are the first imitation of them. Human language made of words (poetry, literature…) is man’s representation. Nature is the world created by God; painting is nearer to nature than poetry. From a neo-platonic perspective the works of © koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2019 | doi:10.1163/9789004409231_013



man (and words are human creations) are farther and farther from the origin; from God. Painting has a higher meaning than poetry, and it makes the figures of the works of nature with more truth than the poet could do; and works of nature are more worthy than words, which are works of man; the ratio or proportion between works of man and works of nature is the same between man and God. Therefore it is more worthy to imitate things of nature, which are actually real similitude, than to imitate facts and words of men with words.4 This concept of imitation, which grants a particular importance to the sense of sight and the art of painting, is widespread until the end of the eighteenth century. Supported by Platonic assumptions (“the view is the most piercing sense”), Aristotle’s poetics and Neo-Platonic suggestions, it was accepted as common sense for two thousand years.


A New Concept of Imitation

Can we find another kind of relationship between art and nature which is not imitation? The German writer, scholar and art critic Moritz presents an original solution to the problem which provoked a crisis of the imitation principle. Karl Philipp Moritz (1756–1793) wrote On creative imitation of beauty in 1788. In this essay we find some of the most important ideas on romantic aesthetics and the modern idea of art. Imitation is a tricky question. As Tzvetan Todorov remarks, there are two possible objections to the imitation principle: if art imitates nature, why should we need a copy of nature? Then we state that a work of art obeys conventions and rules that do not have a counterpart in nature.5 Moritz considers imitation from a new perspective: it is not the work of art that imitates nature, but rather the artist. Art is the activity of the artist: the artist (and not the work of art) imitates nature, and he does it by creating works of art, just as nature creates. The artist imitates nature not its creations (objects or natural things), but imitating nature is a creative principle. From this perspective the moment of creation is more important than the created object, because the act of creation is the creation of reality; it does not matter if it is the reality of a work of art instead of the reality of a natural thing. In contemporary art since Surrealism, the moment of a work’s creation


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becomes more and more important, sometimes even more important than the work itself. We see that the romantic artist imitates nature in a new and different way. The artist’s imitation is not the imitation of the exterior form of a natural thing, but the imitation of an inner structure of reality, the imitation of a principle, and as such it has to do with the being of things and not only with their appearance.


Moritz: Beauty as “Uselessness”

Moritz starts from the concept of “uselessness” (das Unnützliche), which characterizes the concept of beauty: The concept of uselessness, since it has no aim and no purpose except itself, […] is closely connected with the concept of beauty, since this concept too has no purpose, no aim to be here, except its necessity, in contrast it [beauty] has its complete value and the end purpose of its being in itself.6 The Kantian concept of “disinterestedness,” closely linked to Moritz’s concept of “uselessness,” was a quality of Kantian aesthetic judgement, but for Moritz “uselessness” means something more: beauty has its complete value and the end purpose of its being in itself, beauty has an ontological status, which is superior to the status of good. In the consideration of the beautiful, however, I remove the goal from myself and I replace it in the object: I consider it as something accomplished in itself, and not in me: it thus constitutes a whole in itself, and gives me pleasure for itself…I love the beautiful object rather for itself, whereas I only love the useful object for myself.7 Beauty, each thing of beauty, is the ontological example of a perfect being, which needs nothing outside of itself. A beautiful thing is thus ontologically superior to a useful one. With the concept “useful” we think of the relationship of a thing, that we consider as a part, with the connection of things [Zusammenhang der Dinge], which we think as a whole [als ein Ganzes]. […] The whole, considered as a whole, in contrast, needs no relationship with something else except with itself.8



The whole is a model of reality as a connection of things, where things are given as a system and not as isolated objects. Where can we have experience of the whole “considered as a whole?” In fact, we always have experience of “useful” things, of objects considered “as a part” of a whole. In contrast, in beauty we have experience of a thing as a whole not related to other things. In this way Moritz proposes the concept of “a by itself consisting whole” (ein für sich bestehendes Ganze) as the definition of beauty. Now Moritz considers the artist’s task from this perspective.


Moritz: The Work of Art as a “By Itself Consisting Whole”

The artist should not directly imitate the beauty of a determinate thing of nature. He should rather imitate the “whole” of nature (of which the individual thing is always only a part), the structure of reality and so present the “connection of things” in a “by itself consisting whole.” Artistic imitation is the imitation of a structure, of a relationship, not of an object. The artist’s imitation is an imitation of reality in its very essence, which is a creative essence. The artist should imitate the creative power of nature (natura naturans) rather than the created product of it (natura naturata). The work of art is an experience of the essence of reality, the creative principle of nature, and not just a copy of existing things. Therefore, the work of art cannot be considered as the result of an imitation of a natural, defined thing, but it is rather a diagram or a scheme of reality. It presents reality in its essence, in its strict rules (feste Regeln), in its being or existence (Dasein). From such a perspective the work of art does not need to appear realistic. It does not need to be justified by a similarity to any natural thing. The work of art is not determined by any external object: nature has no normative function; the norms of a work of art are given by the work of art itself. Since the great connection of things is the only, true whole; every single whole in it, because of the concatenation of things, is only a product of imagination [ist nur eingebildet].9 The imagination of the artist reproduces, in the work of art, the strict rules and condition of existence of the “only, true whole,” the “great connection of things.” The work of art is similar to nature because it reproduces its structure, not its objects. Every beautiful whole from the hand of the creative artist therefore is, small as it is, an imprint [Abdruck] of the highest beauty in the great


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whole of nature. […] The sense for the highest beauty in the harmonic building of the whole, that the human representative power cannot conceive, is in the faculty of action. […] It catches the connections of things [der Dinge Zusammenhang] and whatever it touches, it creates an arbitrary and by itself consisting whole, as if it were nature.10


Moritz: An Outline of Romantic Aesthetics

Now we can recapitulate the main points presented by Moritz. The sense of beauty is in the faculty of action or creative power, and “the horizon of creative power gathers more than external senses, more than imagination, and more than the faculty of thought.”11 The knowledge of reality in its essence is possible through the work of art. The work of art is a self-sufficient and “by itself consistent” whole, similar in structure (not necessarily in appearance) to the whole of nature; since the work of art is similar to nature in its structure, it does not need to imitate it in its appearance. The work of art is reality, not in the form of imitation, but in the form of “imprint,” “diagram,” “scheme,” artifice that shows the structure (and not necessarily precise contents) of reality. Beauty is the whole or totality. Everything has a purpose in the external world; beauty is in itself complete and has no purpose except for itself. The essence of beauty is to be “a by itself consisting whole,” and in this case, it is an ontological “model” or image of reality. Actually a work of art cannot have any external purpose, and artistic activity cannot tolerate an external aim: a work of art does not have to be good or evil, cheap or expensive in order to be a good work of art. By creating the work of art, the artist should imitate the creative power of nature and not the created things of the natural world. In this way the work of art is a small representation of the world, but from a philosophical point of view, a work of art and the world of nature are on the same ontological level. Of the work of art we can only say: “it is.” Beauty is the necessary consequence of its being. Following Moritz’s perspective, romantic philosophers and poets will not consider the work of art as a reproduction of reality, but as reality and as a way to know the inner essence of things. The work of art does not have a “transitive” meaning, that is to say it does not mean something existing in the world, it does not mean something else and it has no meaning except itself. Art becomes a non-imitative activity, a source of knowledge of reality in its essence. The work of art receives a new ontological status: it is “arbitrary,” it is freed from rules,



from the will of representing reality, but this freedom and this “arbitrary” character reveal the essence of reality. In Moritz we can see the first complete treatise of the early romantic idea of art and the artist. Thanks to Kant, Moritz and other philosophers who develop Kant’s philosophy (first of all, Fichte) productive imagination is considered the essence of art and reality itself. Poetry, the “less imitative” form of art (along with music), becomes the model of the creative faculty. Poetry, more than painting or sculpture, shows the creative, productive and unrestrained power of the spirit. Poetry gives form and order to our human world and history. Vico12 is rediscovered and appreciated. Poetry is considered the foundation of reality itself. As the poet Friedrich Hölderlin wrote: “but what remains is founded by the poets.”

Notes 1 See Chapter 3. 2 See Chapter 8. 3 Leonardo da Vinci, Thoughts on Art and Life, trans. Maurice Baring (Boston: The Merrymount Press, 1906), pp. 66–70. 4 Leonardo da Vinci, Trattato sulla pittura (Roma: Savelli, 1982), pp. 11–12. 5 Cf. Todorov, Tzvetan, Theories of the Symbol, trans. C. Porter (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982), pp. 151–152. 6 Karl Philip Moritz, Über die bildende Nachahmung des Schönen, in Werke, II (Frankfurt: Insel, 1972), p. 556. 7 Moritz, Schriften zur Aesthetik und Poetik, in Todorov, Theories of the Symbol, pp. 155–156. 8 Moritz, Über die bildende Nachahmung des Schönen, p. 558. 9 Moritz, Über die bildende Nachahmung des Schönen, p. 560. 10 Moritz, Über die bildende Nachahmung des Schönen, pp. 560–561. 11 Moritz, Über die bildende Nachahmung des Schönen, p. 561. 12 See Chapter 9.


Theory of Poetry of Early German Romanticism 1

The Concept of the Absolute

The philosopher and literary critic Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829), the thinker and poet Friedrich von Hardenberg, known as Novalis (1772–1801), and the philosopher Friedrich Schelling (1775–1854) are among the representatives of the School of Jena. Their works constitute Early Romanticism, a non-unitary philosophical movement developed in the German town of Jena from 1797 till 1800 and presented in the pages of the journal “Athenaeum.” These men had a particular interest in the experience of art and especially poetry, which they considered a way of knowing absolute reality. From Moritz’s perspective, early romantic philosophers think that the work of art has a relational aspect. The work of art does not present any determinate content; it does not communicate a truth by means of concepts, but it presents a relation of things, a connection or a system. What is the system presented by a poem or by a painting? This is reality in its highest, ultimate and complete form: the absolute. The absolute is the pivotal concept of the romantic world-view. What is the absolute? In our life everything is determined: everything has dimension and duration. Everything was made, everything has a purpose and it is connected to other things, that is to say, it is in relation with other things: a book is on the table because it is not the table on which it lies; I see the student because I am the subject who sees and not the object (the student) who is seen by me. In our everyday experience everything is relative, because everything is related to other things. Is there anything which is not relative, that is to say which is absolute? For the romantic philosophers, absolute reality was the infinite (das Unendliche), or the “not conditioned” (das Unbedingte), or simply the absolute (das Absolute). Such a concept was held to be self-evident, and it was not a problem to accept it. For romantic philosophers the task of philosophy was to explain how to conceive finite reality, conditioned reality, and the relative things of everyday life starting from the absolute. The absolute is the non-conditioned: what is not conditioned by other things and what is not relative to other things. The absolute is freed from conditions; the absolute is free under any point of view. The word “absolute” derives from

© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2019 | doi:10.1163/9789004409231_014

Theory of Poetry of Early German Romanticism


the Latin adjective absolutus, meaning “not tied,” “not bound,” that is to say free, not conditioned by anything, without bond, without connection. How can something be real and, at the same time, without connection? The absolute is the only reality, it is object and subject at once (it could not be only an object, because it would need an external subject), it is infinite, without beginning and without end. Determined things, subjects and objects, every finite thing of the concrete world of experience are nothing but parts of the absolute, determinations inside the absolute.


A Short History of the Absolute

The concept of the absolute is unknown in the classical age: for Plato and Aristotle, measure and limit mean perfection whereas unlimited and infinite mean imperfection. Ancient culture could only conceive a finite and ordinate universe or cosmos.1 Nikolaus Cusanus (born 1400) is the first philosopher to use the word “absolute” referring to God: God is beyond our possibility of knowing and God is the first historical experience of the absolute. Something incommensurable like God, to which nothing can be compared, is the maximum being, and it is the absolute; since our knowledge proceeds by comparison, it cannot be an object of knowledge. Kant uses the word “conditioned” to refer to the world of nature which we can know by means of the intellect. The unconditioned, in contrast, is the world of rational ideas of Soul, God and World as a totality, which we cannot know by the intellect but of which we can have an experience with our freedom (morality). Kant’s grave has an epitaph with these words: “Two things fill me with increasing wonder: the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.” This epitaph recalls the two extreme infinities which are the central topics of Kant’s philosophy: on the one hand, finite reality and knowable nature, on the other hand, infinite reality attested by our freedom and moral law. These are two correlated infinities that the romantic philosophers attempt to unify. Romantic philosophers will think of the absolute in the Kantian meaning of unconditioned: the absolute is nature, but nature considered as a whole, not in its rules (object of understanding or intellect), but in its freedom. The whole as absolute cannot be conditioned; it is necessarily free. The romantic poet Novalis wrote: “We look everywhere for the absolute, and we find always only things.” (The contrast between the German words makes this romantic paradox more clear: “Wir suchen überall das Unbedingte, und finden immer nur Dinge.”) The unconditioned (absolute) cannot be an object of knowledge; in the world we can only find things (Dinge), but we look for the


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absolute (das Unbedingte), which is not a thing and which cannot be a thing. Therefore, the general attitude of a romantic hero was that passion, desire and longing for something satisfy him more than its possession. Romantic philosophers do not consider the infinite or absolute as an object of intellectual knowledge or material possession. Romantic philosophers try to conceive the relationship between finite and infinite in its necessity; they try to catch the unceasing movement of reality between the finite (things) and the infinite (absolute). The central interest of early romantic philosophers was not the possession of the finite (which cannot satisfy us), nor the infinite (which we cannot reach), but the necessary (and continuous) relationship between them (that we experience as desire and longing). The absolute is not a concept for every age and every culture. Even today in Western culture we have lost the sense for the absolute and the meaning of the word. In our life everything is relative. We prefer to possess something rather than to desire it or to long for it. Today we understand the absolute in a strict technical meaning, like “absolute power” or “absolute zero.” We may have an experience of the original meaning of absolute in some particular objects of experience like God or love. Still today, in our relativistic and materially conditioned world, a “relative” or “conditioned” love is not worth serious consideration.


The Work of Art as Structure of the Absolute

From the Early Romantic perspective the work of art presents reality in its relational structure: we are concerned with a relationship between things before we encounter the things themselves. The work of art presents the world because of its structure and not because of its content. The absolute is not conceivable as an object of our thinking or of our intellect. The imagination or creative faculty enables us to understand the absolute, because the work of art presents absolute reality in its structure rather than in its content. Friedrich Schelling writes in his System of Transcendental Idealism (1800) that the work of art is the core of philosophy and only by aesthetic intuition can the philosopher know reality in its fullness. Schelling declares that the work of art “is the only true and eternal organon (“principle” and “instrument”) as well as document of philosophy.” Art allows an intuition of the absolute, whereas philosophy cannot because philosophy explains reality in a rational way: Philosophy, as well as art, therefore rests upon the productive faculty, and the difference between the two depends solely on a difference

Theory of Poetry of Early German Romanticism


in direction of the productive power. For whereas production in art is directed outward in order to reflect the unconscious in products, philosophical production turns immediately inward so as to reflect the unconscious in intellectual intuition. […] For aesthetic intuition is precisely intellectual intuition become objective. The work of art merely reflects to me what is otherwise reflected by nothing, that absolutely identical principle which has already divided itself in the ego [Self]. […] If aesthetic intuition is only intellectual intuition become objective, then it is evident that art is the sole true and eternal organon as well as document of philosophy, which sets forth in ever fresh forms what philosophy cannot represent outwardly, namely, the unconscious in action and production and its original identity with the conscious. For this very reason art occupies the highest place for the philosopher, since it opens to him, as it were, the holy of holies where in eternal and primal union, as in a single flame, there burns what is sundered in nature and history and what must eternally flee from itself in life and action as in thought.2 Philosophy and art express the same truth but, according to Schelling, art is the highest form of knowledge because it shows the identity of what in life appears separate. For this reason, “beauty is the infinite expressed in a finite way.” The critic and writer Friedrich Schlegel writes more precisely about the construction of the work of art and, more specifically, about poetry. For the romantics, poetry means a literary work of art and, more generally, the creative principle of art. In the structure of poetry (rather than in its content) we can have experience of the infinite or absolute. Schlegel takes old classical mythology as example. Mythology, as a work of art, is the way by which the absolute reveals itself in the finite, in history. Mythology is such a work of art created by nature. In its texture the sublime is really formed; everything is relation and metamorphosis, conformed and transformed, and this conformation and transformation is its peculiar process, its inner life and method, if I may say so. Here I find a great similarity with the marvellous wit of romantic poetry which does not manifest itself in individual conceptions but in the structure of the whole, and which was so often pointed out by our friend for the works of Cervantes and Shakespeare.3


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In the poetical work (of which mythology is an example) the real matter of the work is the whole, the totality, whereas the finite determinations (the visible and concrete contents of the work, the word, the story…) are nothing but means, devices, artifices or tricks to achieve this whole. Indeed, this artificially ordered confusion, this charming symmetry of contradictions, this wonderfully perennial alternation of enthusiasm and irony which lives even in the smallest part of the whole, seem to me to be an indirect mythology themselves. […] For this is the beginning of all poetry, to cancel the progression and laws of rationally thinking reason, and to transplant us once again into the beautiful confusion of imagination, into the original chaos of human nature. […] In poetry everything is a sign, a means to express the whole. We usually understand single words and single meanings, but what we should rather see and understand is the structure of the whole they present: We are concerned only with the meaning of the whole; and things which individually excite, move, occupy and delight our sense, our hearts, understanding, and imagination seem to us to be only a sign, a means for viewing the whole at the moment when we rise to such a view.4 The poetic structure of the work reflects the “infinite play of the universe.” Poetry is the highest form of non-rational knowledge because it is the original form of nature. Nature, in its immediate, creative and non-rational condition, is poetry. All the sacred plays of art are only remote imitation of the infinite play of the universe, the work of art which eternally creates itself anew. […] The innermost mystery of all the arts and all knowledge are therefore a possession of poetry. Everything has emerged from it and must flow back to it. In an ideal condition of mankind there would be only poetry; the arts and knowledge would then be one. In our condition only the true poet would be an ideal man and a universal artist.5 Actually in the experience of poetry we have an experience of some new relationship (a new relationship to things, reality, people, ideas…) even if we think that we have only the experience of some content. The real experience of poetry reshapes the world as we see and know it. If you read Rilke’s Duino Elegies you will see and consider life, death, destiny, time, and love in

Theory of Poetry of Early German Romanticism


a new light not because of the concepts presented by the poet but because of the opportunity to experience them in the poem. The words of the poem, explained rationally, are not the experience of truth, love and life granted by the poem.


Poetry Is Reality – Deep Absolute Reality

The poet Novalis says that reality is a system rather than a thing or collection of things. A single thing, in its materiality, is only the starting point for reaching the system. As a system the work of art becomes a model of reality as well as a principle of knowing reality. The essence of the work of art is the essence of reality (ratio essendi) and the way to understand it (ratio cognoscendi). First of all, according to Novalis, language is not a description of reality, but it is the reality that reveals itself in its true essence: Nobody knows the peculiarity of language, that it is concerned only with itself. That is why it is such a fruitful and wonderful mystery – when someone speaks only in order to speak, he expresses the most magnificent, original truths. But if he wants to speak about something definite, capricious language makes him say the most laughable and perverse stuff. From this springs the hatred that so many earnest people have for language.6 Language is not a tool to describe things. Poetic language expresses reality because it is free and concerned with itself: If one could only make people grasp that it is so with language that it is with mathematical formulae – they constitute a world for themselves – they play only with themselves, express nothing but their miraculous nature, and just for that reason are they so expressive – just for that reason does the strange interplay of the relations of things mirror itself in them. Only through their freedom are they members of nature and only in their free movement does the world-soul express itself and make them into a delicate measure and outline of things.7 Language is essentially poetic because it mirrors the “interplay” (Spiel) of relations between things, and through the free play of words appears the “worldsoul.” Poetry as the art of language is the fundamental art, so that language in general and every work of art is “poetry” in its essence.


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“Poetry elevates each individual phenomenon through an original association with the rest of the whole” writes Novalis. But this does not mean that poetry is to be used as an instrument. Poetry works in this way, connecting the individual with the totality, because poetry is the essence of reality, or better it is reality in its secret essence. In his Fragments we read: “Poetry is the genuine absolute reality. That is the kernel of my philosophy. The more poetic, the truer.” The task of a poet is to create: “to make poetry is to create. All poetry must be a living individual.” The poem is like a living person, a natural creation of nature through the artist’s hand: The artist has animated in his organs the seed of life that forms itself – he has increased the irritability for the spirit, and he is therefore able to produce ideas at pleasure through them – without external pressures – and he is able to use them as tools in order to modify the real world.8 The production of the poem is not the result of a determinate will or plan: it would be the failure of art as a spontaneous and original activity. Once again, reality appears to be a system, and poetry mirrors the system of things and not the individual objects, so that by means of poetry we can know reality. Novalis shows a new task of poetry in relation to reality, and in this way he opens a new theoretical perspective and anticipates reflection on modern and abstract art. For example, Monet as an Impressionist is interested in light and colour perception; Kandinskij as an Expressionist is interested in the spiritual effect of painting; Dalí as a Surrealist is concerned with the unconscious aspect of art. These painters “dispelled” the object as an imitated reality in order to grasp the law of reality itself – a perceived, spiritual, unconscious, and in all cases deeper level of reality – through the work of art and through laws expressed autonomously by the work of art. Novalis (allegedly following the Kantian suggestion) attempts to distance himself from material things in order to reach general and universal laws of reality. Some aphorisms from the Philosophical Work (collected and published after Novalis’s death) deal with very current topics which anticipate the contemporary conception of art: The art of the poet is only the arbitrary, active and productive use of our organs.9 On the fairy tale as canon of poetry. Narratives without connection, but with associations, like dreams. Poems merely composed by sounds and full of fine words but without meaning and no connection.10

Theory of Poetry of Early German Romanticism


The poet uses words and things like buttons and the whole poetry is based on an active association of ideas, on an original, intentional and ideal random production.11 Free associations, randomness, active and non-imitative production guarantee the originality of poetry, which is reality instead of telling or representing reality.


Hyacinth and Roseblossom

In Novalis’s novel Followers of Sais we read a fairy tale dealing with the mysterious relationship between nature and the absolute. It is the fairy tale of Hyacinth and Roseblossom. Hyacinth is a young man living in a village. He is engaged to Roseblossom, a nice girl. They are happy together, but one day an old man with a long, white beard comes into the village. The old man has travelled a lot. He seems to be very wise and he tells Hyacinth some secrets about nature. Then he gives him a book and, from this moment on, Hyacinth loses his happiness. He has interest neither for Roseblossom nor for anyone else. Now he is longing for something that he does not know, because he is striving for the secret of nature. One day the witch of the forest burns Hyacinth’s book and tells him that he must go and meet the “veiled maid.” The “veiled maid” is none other than the goddess Isis, an Egyptian-Greek mythic goddess, the oldest personification of nature. Nature is veiled because she does not tell her secrets. Hyacinth quits Roseblossom, his family and his village and goes in search of the veiled goddess. After a long quest and after various experiences he becomes calmer and less eager to know and immediately grasp the secrets of nature. Now, at the end of his quest, he meets Isis, the veiled goddess. Now he can lift her veil and know nature’s secret. And what does he see under the veil? He finds, after a long search and endless wandering, his love, Roseblossom. Our quest for the absolute must start from the conditioned. Reality is a totality related to determined things, and we forget that these determined things constitute the absolute. We have to start and finish in the conditioned in order to be related to the unconditioned. We have to pass through what is far and different from us in order to know and grasp what we are. In other words, we need the finite in order to understand the infinite or the absolute. Hyacinth could not conceive that the secret of nature (Isis), the absolute, is in the nearest thing, in his beloved Roseblossom; but he must look for it far away, he needs to face a long journey and many experiences in order


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to recognize what is near him. Poetry is like a fairy tale: it tells us what we are, what we already know (maybe from a different point of view or from a rational perspective) or what we do not know yet; in doing so, it offers us the experience of something very far away and different, of unusual words and unexpected relations between things, words, concepts, so that we recognize what we are.


Transcendental Poetry: Poetry, Criticism and Creation

The term “transcendental poetry ” was created by Friedrich Schlegel and was also used by Novalis. The expression “transcendental poetry” connects the philosophical and literary fields, linking poetry and thinking. It is of great importance for understanding some specific features of modern poetry and some self-reflective characteristics of the modern literary work. The term “transcendental” was borrowed from Kant’s philosophy. Kant’s definition of transcendental means knowledge which does not directly concern the objects of experience, but which concerns our way of knowing such objects. It is a “knowledge of our way of knowledge,” or “knowledge of limits and possibility of our knowledge.” Romantic philosophers, poets and writers considered this kind of knowledge as a turning point of philosophy and human history. They wanted to show the mechanism and essence of the spirit: self-consciousness is the consciousness that the spirit has of its own activity. Since reality is determined, or structured, or even created by our spirit, self-consciousness is consciousness of the entire reality. We should remember that early romantic philosophers believe that reality is poetically produced. Art is a creative activity, not an imitative one. They mean that we can no longer claim that the artist imitates nature, because he puts in his work an order, a self-consciousness, a kind of reflection that has nothing to do with the immediacy of nature. Art is a production of spirit, and reality is an artistic result. Nature has a fullness of life, of course, but only art (as a spiritual production and so as a self-consciousness activity) gives unity to this fullness. A natural event is only an event in the infinite life of nature, unless it is connected to the infinity of the system; that is to say, unless it becomes a work of art. In the work of art nature become self-conscious, and the self becomes conscious of its creative power. This knowledge of the conditions of knowledge and this production of reality cannot be satisfied by any finite, determined object. Only the absolute is an adequate object of knowledge. According to the romantic world-view, finite

Theory of Poetry of Early German Romanticism


things have no true reality except in the absolute. But infinity shows itself only in a movement towards infinity, a movement which tries to grasp it. The absolute is not an object and it is only given in the form of an infinite movement. But, if infinity is movement, how can we grasp this infinite movement? Schegel proposes the idea of the system: a system exists before and independently from the individual parts which constitute it. The longing for infinity, which is the characteristic feature of romantic thought, is satisfied by the system as an infinite connection of finite data. The romantic system is an infinite movement that appears to be stable. We can take the example of a poem. A poem, since it is a finite piece of writing, cannot expose the infinity of the absolute. The absolute is not given in a poem, but a poem – as a determined part of infinity – reveals the system of which it is a part. In other words, a poem refers to other poems, to other books, to pieces of criticism, to the world, so that it shows the absolute in its only possible form: the form of conditioned reality, of the finite. But in the poem, finite reality reveals its true essence: its connection to infinity. The expression “transcendental poetry ” does not mean a poem which tells or presents a transcendental content, but it means rather a character of poetry, a feature which characterizes poetry as a cognitive-productive activity. The term “transcendental” has the meaning of a function, not of a content. Friedrich Schlegel defines transcendental poetry as the great achievement of the modern spirit expressed by idealism. There is a poetry whose One and All is the relationship of the ideal and the real: it should thus be called transcendental poetry according to the analogy of the technical language of philosophy. […] But we should not care for a transcendental philosophy unless it were critical, unless it portrayed the producer along with the product, unless it embraced in its system of transcendental thoughts a characterization of transcendental thinking: in the same way, that poetry which is not infrequently encountered in modern poets should combine those transcendental materials and preliminary exercises for a poetic theory of the creative power with the artistic reflection and beautiful self-mirroring.12 According to Friedrich Schlegel, transcendental poetry, like Kantian critical philosophy, “should represent the producer with the product”: transcendental poetry should present the act of artistic creation with the created object, the poem. In other terms, “this poetry should portray itself with each of its portrayals; everywhere and at the same time, it should be poetry and the poetry of poetry.”13 Now if we consider the consequences of romantic reflection on


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literary theory, we are not far from the definition of “poetic function” given by the linguist Roman Jakobson one and a half centuries later in his famous essay Linguistics and poetics.14 Jacobson’s poetic function stresses the message itself and its internal organization, and is therefore based on a mechanism of self-reflection of the language on itself: a poem is a message that stresses its internal signs organisation. Actually, an essential feature of transcendental poetry is the self-reflecting or self-mirroring effect: Schlegel writes that “in everything that it represents, it must also represent itself.” Transcendental poetry, reflecting itself, shows the “presenter” as well as the “represented,” and it presents itself as poetry, stressing the poetical procedure by which it is created, declaring itself as poetry, as an artistic creation. In this way transcendental poetry reflects on its own production, underlining the poetical principle at its origin rather than the content of the poem itself. The content is reduced to the rank of a sort of “occasion,” “opportunity” or “pretext.” By reflecting itself, transcendental poetry underlines its artificial nature and its poetic origin, its essence, the fact that it is a work of art. These are characteristics of works of art from any age but the full awareness of them characterizes romantic poetry; namely, awareness of the transcendental nature of poetry becomes a constitutive feature of modern poetic creation. Schlegel writes that “only a system is a real work of art.” A work of art is always a system of works and the absolute, as Walter Benjamin explained it, is nothing but the systematic connection of works in the medium of art. Schlegel thinks that every work of art is involved in an infinite cross-reference to other works; every work of art is the fabric with which the absolute is made. The system connects works in a whole by means of an infinite number of references, quotations, suggestions, imitations, pieces of criticism. We can find a similar idea of the literary work in Borges’s Pierre Menard, author of Don Quixote: a book can only be understood as a source of infinite connections to other books. Or, as Gadamer put it, a work of art is its own “history of effects” (Wirkungsgeschichte).15 A work is nothing in itself: it is the history of its interpretations and the effects of such interpretations. Criticism of a work of art is part of the same system and can be considered as an independent work of art. A complete work of art should contain its own criticism as a constitutive part of itself. Poetry is created on the basis of poetry, and since poetry is a synonym of creation, a piece of criticism is a kind of poetry and an absolute creative work. We have to admit that there is no difference between a work of art and a critical work; that is, every successful work of criticism is a poem and every complete poem should mirror itself, should represent its poetical principle, should

Theory of Poetry of Early German Romanticism


be “poetry of poetry” and, hence, a critical production. Criticism becomes a constitutive part of the creative work. Traditional criticism takes the work of art as an object and dissects it into its parts, describing it in its historical character. In contrast, transcendental poetry (considered as transcendental criticism) seizes the constitutive principle of the work of art and follows it and achieves it in a new and independent work. This kind of criticism follows the spirit of the work of art. The critic just has to develop and complete the logic of the work of art, creating a new work. It is criticism that questions the past and opens the future, in the very spirit of transcendental poetry. Such criticism is directed at the production of a new work; it has an operative function. This is a creative concept of criticism that projects new perspectives on the future, whereas traditional criticism has to do with categories and genres of the past. Almost a century later, Oscar Wilde proposed a similar idea of criticism: “Criticism is itself an art” and it should “treat the work of art simply as a starting point for a new creation.”16 If we think of the effects of this idea of creative criticism, we should think of Borges (the already quoted Pierre Menard or The Library of Babel) and, two centuries after Schlegel, Harold Bloom, who considered the relationship between poems according to Schlegel’s perspective. Bloom will develop an antithetical criticism and write that “the meaning of a poem can be only another poem.”17 Reflection on the poetic character of a work of art becomes a constitutive part of modern poetic creation, and it also becomes a constitutive element of the work of art. Friedrich Schlegel writes: «Every work of art brings its frame to the world; it must make notice the art»18 Actually, the loss of the absolute normative character of the mimetic principle increases the importance of the inner legality, necessity and consistency of the work of art. These characteristic traits appear only when the work of art reflects upon itself and does not mirror an external reality. Imitation of external reality is less important than reflection of the work of art. In this way we can say that in modern poetry, the movable horizon of the works takes the place and function of the stable horizon of nature, which no longer has a normative character. Poetry does not imitate nature, natural objects, situations, or facts, and it does not express pre-existing ideas. We can say instead that poetry imitates poetry, that books imitate books, as a more refined, elaborated, self-conscious nature, that is to say as nature raised to the second power, to a higher level of reality. A work of art is a starting point for a new poetical or critical creation. Transcendental poetry anticipates aestheticism and the “Art for art’s sake” school. Actually, the implicit nihilism of Schlegel’s formulation of the task of modern poetry is developed in Wilde’s statement: “nature imitates art” (see


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Chapter 18). Art is right and nature is wrong, and nature itself follows artistic strategies and processes. We have to consider that, whereas romantic philosophers always considered the finite and material reality of the work of art in its relationship to the absolute, aestheticism will develop unilaterally the finite aspect of the work of art. In the post-romantic world there is no more absolute, only finiteness. Actually the nihilism of Oscar Wilde is only a one-sided consequence of the romantic conception of poetry in a post-romantic context.

Notes 1 See Chapter 1. 2 Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, “System of Transcendental Idealism,” in Philosophies of Art and Beauty, edited by A. Hofstadter, R. Kuhns (Chicago: The University Of Chicago Press, 1976), pp. 356, 371–372, 373. 3 Friedrich Schlegel, “Talk on Mythology” in Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms, edited by Ernest Behler and Roman Struc (London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968), p. 86. 4 Friedrich Schlegel, “Talk on Mythology” p. 89. 5 Friedrich Schlegel, “Talk on Mythology” pp. 89–90. 6 Novalis, “Monologue,” in W. A. O’Brien, W. Arctander, Novalis: Signs of Revolution (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1995), p. 195. 7 Novalis, “Monologue,” p. 196. 8 Novalis Schriften. Die Werke Friedrich von Hardenbergs, II, edited by P. Kluckhohn, R. Samuel, H. J. Mähl, H. Ritter and G. Schulz (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1960), p. 574. 9 Novalis Schriften. II, p. 451. 10 Novalis Schriften, II, p. 449. 11 Novalis Schriften, II, p. 483. 12 Friedrich Schlegel, “Literary Aphorisms (1797–1800),” in Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms, edited by Ernest Behler and Roman Struc (London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968), p. 145. 13 Friedrich Schlegel, “Literary Aphorisms (1797–1800),” p. 145. 14 See Chapter 20. 15 See Chapter 24. 16 See Chapter 18. 17 See Chapter 27. 18 Friedrich Schlegel, Literarische Notizen 1797–1801 – Literary Notebooks, edited by H. Eichner (Frankfurt a/M.-Berlin-Wien: Ullstein, 1980), p. 80.


Hegel: Art as a Form of the Absolute Spirit 1

Poetry and Reason

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) systematizes many intuitions of romantic aesthetics and gives an ordered and complete form to aesthetic experience and categories of art. Hegel’s reflection on philosophy (and on art as part of philosophical knowledge) is so deep and all-embracing that he became the most influential thinker of the nineteenth century. In his system poetry becomes the highest expression of art and a form of the absolute spirit. The primacy of poetry over other forms of art and even over philosophy was a trend in early romanticism. Poetry does not mean just the highest literary form but the creative power which animates every form of art. When Hegel was a student in Tübingen, in 1796–1797, he wrote The Oldest Programme for a System of German Idealism with his friends Schelling and Hölderlin. In this first, short treatise, Hegel and friends present some of the central ideas of early romantic thought: Finally, the idea which unites everyone, the idea of beauty, the word taken in the higher, platonic sense. I am now convinced that the highest act of reason, by encompassing all ideas, is an aesthetic act, and that truth and goodness are only siblings in beauty. The philosopher must possess as much aesthetic power as the poet. Those people without an aesthetic sense are our philosophers of literalness [Buchstabenphilosophen]. The philosophy of spirit is an aesthetic philosophy.1 Philosophy should become poetical in order to propose a new “mythology of reason,” with philosophical concepts presented in an artistic form. Thus poetry gains a higher honor, it finally becomes what it was at its inception – the teacher of humanity, for there is no longer any philosophy, any history; the art of poetry alone will outlive all other sciences and arts.2 The philosopher and the poet must share the same aesthetic power and productive imagination. “Mythology must become philosophical, to make the people rational, and philosophy must become mythological, to make philosophy sensuous.”3 Through this aesthetic presentation of concepts, philosophy © koninklijke brill nv, leideN, 2019 | DOI:10.1163/9789004409231_015


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should become a “sensitive religion” for the people and not only for a few philosophers. This project of the young Hegel is completely consistent with the early romantic conception of art and philosophy. The idea of beauty presents the absolute; art reveals itself as a means of knowledge; reason needs a poetical force. In his later works, Hegel proposes a philosophical system in which reason and the absolute are two aspects of the same and only reality. In any case, in Hegel’s mature system reason, and no longer poetry, is the way to explain reality. From Hegel’s new perspective, the absolute can no longer be grasped by means of intuitive or poetical power, but can only be caught by reason and understood in the scientific form of a system. Spiritual reality is the content of works of art, but art is no longer the highest degree of knowledge of the absolute. Philosophy becomes the highest form of knowledge instead.


Art as Manifestation of the Spirit

In Hegel’s system art is one of the three forms of the philosophy of spirit, as he explains in his Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences (1812). Spirit is the moment of historical becoming in which the absolute (as all-embracing totality) is aware of itself. Spirit is the awareness that the absolute is the only true reality. The spirit has the self-awareness that everything is spirit and that there is nothing outside of it. In this condition of knowledge, the human mind comes to know itself and its highest and most specific activities (religion, art and philosophy). The first form of such self-knowledge is religion, which is a kind of knowledge in the form of representation. The second form of awareness of the absolute is art, or knowledge in the form of sensitivity. The third form by which the absolute knows itself is reason or philosophy, or the form of concepts, the most complete and definitive form. This final step is the absolute spirit. The content of these three forms of knowledge, that is to say religion, art and philosophy, is the same: the absolute. Art is different from religion and philosophy regarding its form, which is sensitivity, but not regarding its spiritual content. Art (and specifically poetry) is a form of knowledge of the absolute by means of sensitivity. In comparison with the principle of early romantic philosophy, art is no longer the main way to attain knowledge of the absolute, and philosophical conceptualization is now different (in the method though not in the content) from knowledge by means of art.



On these premises Hegel builds his aesthetics. Art has a spiritual content which presents the history of mankind, the soul of a people, the spirit of a historical period or of a State. Each civilization had a kind of art capable of expressing its soul, its culture, its identity, and its spiritual reality. In his Aesthetics Hegel points out three general periods of the becoming of art. In ancient times and in oriental cultures the principal form of art was the symbolic one. There was a disproportion between the content of symbolic art (God and supernatural reality) and the attempt to represent it by means of artistic expression. Symbolic art searches for the appropriate form for God, but the symbol cannot be fully adequate to the task, and it exaggerates its representations. Architecture is the most representative achievement of symbolic art. The Egyptian pyramids, the statues representing monsters or uncanny zoomorphic contaminations mixing human and animal elements, and oriental art in general (Hegel thinks of Egypt, Middle East and India) are examples of symbolic art. In contrast, classical art represents a perfect balance between content and expression. The form of classical art is the “free and adequate embodiment of the idea.” Greek classical art is still today a model of perfection. The human figure is the appropriate object of artistic representation of Greek art. Hegel thinks that “the spirit appears sensuously in a satisfying way only in the human body.” Greek temples, sculptures and above all statues representing human beings are perfect examples of balance; harmony between man and nature; intentions and results; form and content. Sculpture is the most complete representation of the perfect harmony of classical art. On the other hand, perfect harmony is the limit of Greek art, which cannot thoroughly express the depth and unconditioned freedom of the spirit. The perfect balance of classical art is broken by romantic art. Hegel thinks that romantic art begins with the Christian world-view. The human being is now aware of his freedom; he knows his supernatural essence, and man’s spiritual principle is now so powerful that there is no artistic form capable of expressing it adequately. Romantic art is the most spiritual art. The spirit as “infinite subjectivity” cannot be represented in any sensitive and material form; sensitive beauty is no longer the appropriate means to represent the spirit. The interest of art shifts from external nature to the inner spiritual life of the artist. The artist cannot find any balance between his soul and nature; he cannot express perfectly what he feels, and he is always longing for something that is beyond the sensitive world. In this way the artist experiences the absolute freedom of the spiritual life, no more conditioned by material elements. Art is no longer concerned with symbols of God or natural elements, but with the human inner life. “It is the actual individual person in his inner life who


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acquires infinite worth, since in him alone do the eternal moments of absolute truth, which is actual only as spirit, unfold into existence and collect together again.”4 According to Hegel, the highest form of romantic art (and of art in general) is poetry, considered as the art of words, which expresses itself in a conceptual form. Poetry does not need any material support (stone, colours…), only concepts expressed by words and, in this way, it is an immediate expression of human interiority as spirit aware of its freedom.


Death of Art

Nowadays art is no longer capable of expressing the spiritual content of human nature in an appropriate form, so art can no longer be an adequate expression of human reality. Only philosophy can express the spiritual content of the actual human condition, and it does express it, but in the form of concepts, that is to say in the form of thought. Hegel thinks that today the human being can express itself more adequately in the form of concepts and philosophy than in the form of sensibility or art. Historical periods and cultures differ, and we cannot expect to find always and everywhere the same forms of spiritual expression. From this perspective Hegel states that art belongs to our past. However all this may be, it is certainly the case that art no longer affords that satisfaction of spiritual needs which earlier ages and nations sought in it, and found in it alone, a satisfaction that, at least on the part of religion, was most intimately linked with art. The beautiful days of Greek art, like the golden age of the later Middle Ages, are gone. […] Art, considered in its higher vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past.5 Hegel does not write that art is dead but, rather, that art has lost its centrality in spiritual life. Art has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place. What is now aroused in us by works of art is not just immediate enjoyment but our judgement also, since we subject to our intellectual consideration (i) the content of art and (ii) the work of art’s means of presentation, and the appropriateness or inappropriateness of both to one another.6



Today, philosophy and reflection are more adequate to our spiritual condition. The philosophy of art is therefore a greater need in our day than it was in days when art by itself as art yielded full satisfaction. Art invites us to intellectual consideration, and that not for the purpose of creating art again, but for knowing philosophically what art is.7 In contemporary art (we can find its origin in Hegel and in the Romantic attitude) the interest shifts from the work to the artist. The spirit only occupies itself with objects so long as there is something secret, not revealed, in them. […] But if the essential world-views implicit in the concept of art, and the range of the content belonging to these, are in every respect revealed by art, then art has got rid of this content which in every occasion was determinate for a particular people, a particular age.8 Today the artist himself creates a work of art starting from criticism and self-reflection, and the reflection on the work of art has become a constitutive element of the modern artistic creation which reveals a new spiritual interest and artist’s freedom. Bondage to a particular subject-matter and a mode of portrayal suitable for this material alone are for artists today something past, and art therefore has become a free instrument which the artist can wield in proportion to his subjective skill in relation to any material of whatever kind. The artist thus stands above specific consecrated forms and configurations and moves freely on his own account, independent of the subject-matter and mode of conception in which the holy and eternal was previously made visible to human apprehension.9 The immediacy and naivety of the artists of the past are no longer possible today. Art still lives in a new sort of freedom, with the spirit’s freedom its only content. The sensitive form is no longer enough to express it, and only philosophy, reflection, criticism, and theory can attempt to describe the spirit’s richness and power. Hegel’s thesis of the “death of art” does not mean the end of art, but a new direction for artistic creation through the self-awareness and self-reflection of the artist on its limits and possibilities. It means the increasing importance of critical activity in artistic creation. Philosophical reflection becomes a


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constitutive part of artistic creation. Criticism takes more and more importance and sometimes overlaps with the creative work. In the next chapters we will see how literary theory can become creative and how theory, in general, becomes essential to the understanding of poetry and reality itself. Nowadays in our actual experience of poetry the limit between criticism and creation is fading. The poet has to reflect on his work and the philosopher has to consider the literary experience. Meanwhile, even the experience of art in general is no longer pure and immediate like in the past. For instance, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain requires a reflection on art’s function and on art’s essence if we want to consider it as a work of art. To write a poem today requires critical knowledge of poetry. We have to assume the critical awareness of the poet as well as the critical attitude of the reader.


System of Arts

Hegel orders the different kinds of arts in a hierarchical system. The reason for this art hierarchy is based on the degree of material conditions of each art or, by contrast, on the degree of spiritual freedom and independence from material conditions which each art allows. The most conditioned art, which suffers the constraints of the material world, is architecture. Architecture attempts to master the external world of wood, stone and in general, matter, in order to express a spiritual content. This task is better performed by sculpture, which has nothing to do with the practical purpose of providing a shelter from the weather and which represents a higher level of artistic creation, one that is more free and autonomous. Painting is a further level of artistic representation, in which the medium of art is more dematerialized, in which the painter is concerned with colours and the appearance of reality. With painting we are nearer to the realm of the spirit and farther from the world of materiality. With music we reach a further degree of freedom from materiality because sounds do not need any material medium and we are closer to the spiritual essence of reality. Poetry is the highest form of art. Hegel considers poetry (Dichtung) in a broad sense as what we might understand as the “art of words” or literary art, so that it encompasses theatre, novels, narratives as well as poems. In poetry the material substance of words is accidental because language is not a constitutive part of the work of art. Poetry consists of concepts; it takes place in the “inwardness” and not in the material world and, therefore, is the most spiritual and philosophical art.



From Hegel’s perspective art becomes actual only in a concrete, particular work and in a specific medium or material. Each work of art has to be considered in its historical and cultural context, and within its specific limits and possibilities regarding the material from which it is made. The spiritual content of a work of art made of stone is different from that of a work made of colours or of words. Art has a spiritual content, and this spiritual content depends on the historical context and material of the work of art.


Spirit as Content of Artworks and Natural Beauty

Nevertheless, the content of every work of art is the spiritual reality, the spirit in its objective form and in a sensitive manifestation. The work’s evaluation should contemplate the historical background and material conditions of the specific art, in order to appreciate the degree of expression of spirit. Poetry is the highest form of art because it is the least compromised by material conditions. Poetry expresses the freedom of spirit and its unconditioned reality. In Kant’s aesthetic judgement we have a subjective experience of the harmony between man and nature; man is considered between human freedom and natural necessity, spirit and matter. This experience is subjective because it is effective only for the subject who actually has the aesthetic experience. By contrast, Hegel attempts to show that aesthetic experience has an objective validity; that is to say, it is effective for everybody and in the reality of things. The spirit subdued the material world and the harmony between freedom and necessity, between man and nature, is presented objectively in reality, in history, in thought. Poetry represents this condition in which the spiritual world of human beings is absolutely, completely and objectively represented in the history of mankind. We should remember that Hegel’s concept of “spirit” indicates the human world in its manifold manifestations. Culture, political achievements, rights, beliefs, religion, thought, historical facts, buildings, creative works as well as destructive wars constitute the spirit of a historical people. The consequence of this is that works of art are always a representation of the human world, and beauty is nothing but the adequate artistic expression of spirit. This is the beginning of Hegel’s Aesthetics or Lectures on Fine Art: These lectures are devoted to Aesthetics. Their topic is the spacious realm of the beautiful; more precisely, their province is art, or, rather, fine art. […] By adopting this expression we at once exclude the beauty of nature.10


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Nature is not spirit. Art, and art alone, is a form of spirit and is related to beauty. Beauty of art is higher than nature. The beauty of art is beauty born of the spirit and born again, and the higher the spirit and its productions stand above nature and its phenomena, the higher too is the beauty of art above that of nature. Indeed, even a useless notion that enters a man’s head is higher than any product of nature, because in such a notion spirituality and freedom are always present.11 In Hegel’s system there is indeed no place for natural beauty. Nature is only a blind and raw condition of being, random and spiritless, without history, which provides material for the spirit’s works and deeds. Hegel’s aesthetics points out not only the spiritual content of the work of art, but considers the work of art above all as a spiritual fact. We should also consider that Hegel “suggests that the decline of art is a cyclical phenomenon, not its final end”12 and art is possible in new spiritual forms. Starting from Hegel, aesthetics becomes a philosophical discipline concerning works of art. Hegel sets apart natural beauty, which was the central question in the philosophy of Plato and Plotinus and which has been the starting point of modern aesthetics. Kant could appreciate nature as well as spiritual freedom, and he wrote: “two things move the mind with ever increasing admiration and awe: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” Hegel can see in the starry sky only something like a rash, a random and meaningless manifestation of nature, without freedom and self-consciousness, and therefore indifferent. After Hegel, philosophers will consider the work of art as the central problem of aesthetics and they will largely forget the question of natural beauty.

Notes 1

2 3 4 5

Schelling, Hegel, Hölderlin, “Oldest Programme for a System of German Idealism,” trans. Stefan Bird-Pollan, in G. M. Bernstein (editor), Classical and Romantic German Aesthetics (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 186. Schelling, Hegel, Hölderlin, “Oldest Programme for a System of German Idealism,” p. 186. Hölderlin, “Oldest Programme for a System of German Idealism,” p. 187. Hegel‘s Aesthetic: Lectures on Fine Arts, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), vol. I, p. 520. Hegel‘s Aesthetics, vol. I, pp. 10–11.

Hegel 6 7 8 9 10 11 12


Hegel‘s Aesthetics, vol. I, pp. 11. Hegel‘s Aesthetics, vol. I, pp. 11. Hegel‘s Aesthetics, vol. I, p. 604. Hegel‘s Aesthetics, vol. I, p. 605. Hegel‘s Aesthetics, vol. I, p. 1. Hegel‘s Aesthetics, vol. I, p. 2. Michael Inwood, “Hegel,” in Berys Gaut, Dominic McIver Lopes (editors), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (London, New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 71.


Schopenhauer: Art as Disinterestedness and Knowledge of Reality 1

The World as Appearance and the Will as Its Irrational Essence

The philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) has had a great influence on philosophers, even if they did not completely accept his metaphysics, as well as on artists, poets and writers, and it is still present in today’s culture. His poetic gift in writing prose and his sensibility for art and poetry made of Schopenhauer the most influential thinker for many writers and poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Schopenhauer rebutted Hegel and turned back to Kant. He considered oriental philosophies like Hinduism and Buddhism and took inspiration from them. Hegel thought that the absolute is rationality and that it is conceivable by means of reason. By contrast, Schopenhauer was convinced that the absolute is irrational: it is nothing but a blind, infinite, impersonal and irrational “will.” Schopenhauer considered Hegel an idiot: how could he affirm that reality is rationality? If we consider our body, we notice that we strive always for something. For the first time in the history of Western philosophy, a philosopher considered consistently and deeply the implication of the body. We are not only a mind. We also have a body, though philosophers have considered mainly the spirit. We feel that our body wants or desires things. Our essence is the desire or will for something, and desire, as the Buddha said, means suffering. If we reach what we desire, then we get bored; that is to say that we suffer again, and we start striving for something else. Our life is like a pendulum swinging between desire and boredom, between suffering and more suffering. “Happiness and well-being consist simply in the quick transition from wish to satisfaction and from satisfaction to a new wish.”1 The reason for this is the “will” considered as the metaphysical principle of reality. Nature is determined by causality; natural things appear by means of the intuitions of space and time, as Kant said. Nature is the Kantian phenomenon, or “representation.” But behind the appearance or representation of nature lies the essence of nature, the noumenon, or “the thing in itself,” and this is the will. The will has nothing to do with causality, space and time, and therefore it is irrational, blind, infinite, impersonal and ubiquitous; it is absolute and it strives for its own survival without a reason and without an end. © koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2019 | doi:10.1163/9789004409231_016



The will is the thing in itself, and the world is nothing but appearance caused by the will. We are “representations,” too, so we are nothing but parts of the unique will, though each of us believes that he possesses a separate and individual will. Still, we could not have any knowledge of the will by means of reason; we could not even notice it at all if we did not have our body, by means of which we experience the will as abiding desire and irrational striving. For the first time in Western philosophy, our body is considered as a condition of philosophizing. This is the metaphysical background of Schopenhauer’s aesthetics and it is necessary to consider it in order to understand the great importance of art in his philosophical system. Can we stop the activity of the irrational will? Yes, says Schopenhauer, for a while, in the aesthetic experience.


The Emancipatory Power of Art

Beauty is the essence of the work of art. When we have an aesthetic experience, we do not contemplate an object in the material reality of time and space, in the connection of causes and effects which constitutes the material nature, which Schopenhauer considers as a mere representation. When we have an experience of beauty, we do not desire to possess that beauty. In the contemplation of a thing of beauty we watch the “idea” of a thing. In his aesthetics Schopenhauer proposes a Neo-Platonic hierarchy of reality.2 The idea is the first objectivity of the will: Schopenhauer’s ideas are derived from Plato’s forms: they are models or archetypes of natural things. Ideas are beyond space and time, so they are unique and eternal, and they are not involved in natural causality. Ideas cannot be any object of willing for which we could strive. In the aesthetic experience we “look” at these ideas, and in such disinterested contemplation our will is suspended. For a while we do not desire anymore and we do not suffer, we are no longer stuck in the connection of causality. Ideas are between the will (as noumenon or essence of reality) and the representation (or delusion, our everyday delusive world). Schopenhauer’s aesthetics is based on the assumption that in the experience of a work of art we contemplate the universal (idea) and not the particular (individual thing). Art in general is concerned with universals so art is a true metaphysical activity. In the aesthetical mode of contemplation we have found two inseparable constituent parts – the knowledge of the object, not as individual thing but as Platonic Idea, that is, as the enduring form of this whole species of


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things; and the self-consciousness of the knowing person, not as individual, but as pure will-less subject of knowledge.3 The Kantian concept of disinterestedness is no longer concerned with individual aesthetic judgement: disinterestedness becomes a general and constitutive feature of artistic experience. Art, on the other side, becomes a specific ontological value and a metaphysical task. The experience of art is an ontological one because, through the work of art, we get closer to the principle of reality, its essence, the idea, the first objectification of the will. In this way we know something more about Being in its general form before it gives rise to a manifold of representations. The ontological-cognitive aspect is a constitutive part of aesthetic experience. In other words, the experience of art is a way to understand the essence of reality. Why do we enjoy a work of art? Why do we enjoy looking at the metaphysical principle of reality, if reality is nothing but suffering? We have to think that it is preferable to know reality in its principle than to be deceived by its representations. In the artistic experience we do not suffer from the evil which is a consequence of an irrational and infinite power. In the work of art we can consider the world in its essence and from a certain distance. Not merely philosophy but also the fine arts work at bottom towards the solution of the problem of existence. […] Every genuine and successful work of art answers this question [“What is life?”] in its own way with perfect correctness. But all the arts speak only the naïve and childish language of perception, not the abstract and serious language of reflection; their answer is therefore a fleeting image: not permanent and general knowledge.4 Art, in that it is a distancing from of the world of representations, is the first step on the way to liberation from the slavery of the will. This is the metaphysical task of art. The arts answer the question “What is life?” on the level of sensitivity, without a rational and permanent answer. By means of aesthetic experience, knowing reality on a higher level, we free ourselves from the power of the will and we are no longer stuck in the world of representations, even if for a short time. This is a negative task: art sets us free and gives us the means to escape the deception of appearance. Even today many artists, writers and poets read Schopenhauer and consider the emancipatory power of art as redemption from any totalitarian system based on rationality, political might or economic reasons. Art has a negative power so that by means of art we can get rid of social and traditional ties and have an experience of reality in its original form.



From Schopenhauer’s perspective, in the experience of beauty we are outside history and beyond the material world. The only content of the work of art seems to be the contemplation of the idea, and an evaluation of different forms of art has to follow this assumption. The hierarchy of art is based on the distance of each form of art from materiality. From architecture, which has to do with stone, to poetry, which deals with concepts, there is a great distance; but music is far beyond poetry, because music does not need any connection with the material world of representations; music does not imitate or express any natural object or content. Music is the direct presentation of the will in itself. The ontological status of music, which puts this form of art beyond ideas, makes it the highest type of artistic experience.


Art as a Holiday from Life

According to Schopenhauer, the contemplation of beauty is a disinterested contemplation, and this assumption has had great consequences for our conception of the work of art. The disinterestedness of art allows us to enter a space which is beyond material reality, beyond political, social or economic interests, even beyond our individual desires. Nevertheless, this disinterestedness is a condition for the knowledge of reality by means of art, which is knowledge on a higher level. Consider this example. If you see an apple and you want to eat it, the “will” as metaphysical principle is overwhelming you. You desire it, that is to say, you want to possess it. By contrast, if you look at a Flemish still life painting or one of Cézanne’s paintings of an apple, you enjoy it because it is beautiful, and the pleasure does not depend either on possessing the apple or on the possibility of eating it. This is a disinterested aesthetic pleasure. In this case you are not looking at the particular apple, but at the idea of the apple, so that the content of the work of art ceases to be particular and becomes universal. In the same way, if you look at an erotic picture of a human body which arouses your senses so that you desire it, such a picture cannot be a work of art, because it is nothing but a tool of the will. If you desire it, you cannot have any disinterested contemplation, only an interested one: your aim is pleasure, affirmation of the will of life, the desire to possess. This representation is not artistic but rather pornographic. By contrast, if the work of art is contemplation of the universal, the representation of a girl’s body in, for example, a painting by Gauguin is not directed at your senses and it does not excite your desire. You do not desire that depicted body just as you cannot wish to eat the apple in Cézanne’s painting. In front


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of a Gauguin painting you have a disinterested contemplation of the object and during this contemplation you are free from the will. In the experience of beauty, you like the idea and not the presence. Art temporarily suspends the will’s activity, so that in the aesthetic experience “we take a holiday from the servitude of willing.” But during this holiday we have a quick glance at the invisible essence of reality and at the deep drives of our existence. From Schopenhauer’s perspective, we can say that the aesthetic experience bestows on us the possibility of considering reality from a different point of view and on a different level. In an experience of art, we stand removed from our everyday life. Yet this experience is still an experience of reality in its structure or general form, and it can be a cognitive experience. Schopenhauer’s influence among poets, writers and artists in general has been enormous and difficult to gauge. Reality as an irrational principle and art as the possibility of peeping beyond the delusory veil of ordinary life and know the truth of existence is his greatest legacy to contemporary poetry.

Notes 1 Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J. Payne (New York: Dover, 1969), III, § 52. 2 See Chapter 4. 3 Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, III, § 38. 4 Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Supp., III, XXXIV.


Nietzsche: Knowledge and Art 1

Tragedy and Philosophy

We have already considered Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) when we dealt with his decisive interpretation of Dionysus and the Greek mysteries.1 His first book The Birth of Tragedy (1872) is generally considered his most representative about art and poetry. In fact, it contains the basis of his thought on philosophy, art and aesthetics. In Nietzsche’s works the problem of philosophy is indeed the problem of art and vice versa. His philosophy is a deep and unsystematic reflection on art, knowledge and morals. In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche observes that Greek civilization has always been considered as the highest example of balance, harmony, measure, order, and beauty. If we consider a classical statue of Apollo, we notice a harmonic feeling of life, a calm and measured attitude, a perfect balance between soul and body, interiority and exteriority, morals and beauty. We call this feeling or impulse to life “Apollonian,” from Apollo, the sun god. Greek art expressed the harmony between man and nature to the highest degree. In contrast, Nietzsche says that the Greeks were deeply sensitive to the atrocity of existence and the pain of life. “The Greeks knew and felt the terror and atrocity of existence” (Nietzsche Werke, III, I, 32). They were also aware that human existence is ruled by absurdity, pain, and contradiction. The world is constant becoming; everything changes, and nature is the continuous flux of all things. Like the river mentioned by Heraclitus: you cannot step into the same river twice because new waters are ever flowing past you, and you are no longer the same. This awareness of life as chaotic and meaningless becoming was the oldest and original Greek conception of life. This original impulse to life, based on thrill and unconditioned acceptance of life in its chaotic form, is named “Dionysian” and it takes its name from Dionysus, the Greek God of wine and drunkenness (see Chapter 1). The Greeks overcame their awareness of existence’s lack of sense (Dionysian impulse) by means of an ethics of measure and balance (Apollonian impulse) which made life tolerable and acceptable. By means of this Apollonian impulse existence is not explained but transfigured. The beautiful form concealed the abyss. The Greeks veiled the horrors of existence and made life possible by means of a beautiful illusion, and it is on this beautiful illusion that Greek civilization and our Western philosophy, art and culture are based. © koninklijke brill nv, leideN, 2019 | DOI:10.1163/9789004409231_017


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In Greek tragedy 2 we see an unstable balance between the Apollonian and Dionysian principles. The chorus represents the Dionysian impulse and says that life is pain and has no meaning. The poet presents a non-rational knowledge of existence. Tragedy as a theatrical representation, as a work of art, represents the Apollonian impulse, by means of which even the pain and the meaninglessness of life receive a form. Thanks to tragic art we are reconciled to life, but this artistic reconciliation of tragedy has a short life. Tragedy dies because this unstable balance between man and irrational nature is broken. The death of tragedy was caused by Socrates and the birth of philosophy as rational knowledge.


Socrates, the Rational Attitude and the Birth of Philosophy

In order to understand what art is, and its relationship with knowledge, morals and philosophy, we should also consider Nietzsche’s writings and fragments from The Philosopher’s Book. The Philosopher’s Book was written by Nietzsche as “a philosophical counterpart” to The Birth of Tragedy but it was never published. Socrates is considered the originator of western philosophy. With Socrates, inquiry into nature and the cosmos becomes an inquiry into man’s soul and interiority. The most important object of knowledge is not the universe and whether it is made of fire, earth, water or air, but human inwardness or the spiritual life. Socrates said that, when he was young, he read on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi the maxim: “Man, know thyself.” All knowledge has a connection with self-knowledge. Truth, goodness and happiness are three aspects of the same question. Knowledge is virtue and this is the core of “Socratic rationalism”: man’s task is to follow his own reason; if you do, you will be wise, good and happy. Reason is man’s nature and rationality is man’s natural attitude.


Tragic Knowledge

From the pre-philosophical and Dionysian perspective,3 nature is neither good nor bad, neither well-disposed nor evil-minded. Nature is indifferent to human beings. Nature has an innocent cruelty and the price of its perpetual life is the death of its finite determinations, the mortals. Actually, Greek gods act like



human beings, except for one thing: they are immortal. By contrast, a human being is “a mortal.” Nature repeats itself in an eternal cycle and does not care about human beings. The mortal looks for the meaning of his life, because he cannot live without meaning, but he cannot find it in nature. This is the content of the ancient, pre-rational and pre-philosophical tragic knowledge, before Socrates’ arrival on the philosophical scene. Nietzsche explains tragic knowledge by the myth of the satyr Silenus. The satyr is a mythological figure, half-man half-animal, and represents a condition of humanity between nature and culture, preceding the stage of civilization and philosophy as the exercise of reason. Satyrs traditionally followed and worshipped Dionysus. They are wise, but they do not consider nature in a rational way and do not speak willingly, since communication is a basic feature of a rational attitude although it is not an essential part of tragic knowledge. A king captured the satyr Silenus and compelled him to speak. The king wanted to know the most important thing for a human being. “Tell me,” orders the king, “what is the best for the human being?” And the satyr answers: “Why do you want to know? You have already lost the possibility of getting what is best for you. Best of all is not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is – to die soon.”4 The satyr’s original tragic knowledge presents life’s contradiction and lack of meaning, which are part of human existence. As Schopenhauer already said, rational knowledge is not the meaning of life. Nietzsche adds: civilisation and rational philosophical knowledge are based on the concealment of this truth.


The Origin of Scientific Knowledge

Socratic rationality is the basis of our modern science. Science is nothing but “a cunning self-defence against truth.”5 In fact, science is based on an illusory idea and an unshakeable faith: the illusory idea, that came into the world for the first time with Socrates, the unshakeable faith that thought can come, following the guiding thread of causal connection, into the deep abyss of being, and that thought can not only know the being, but even correct it.6 The reaction to the irrational and chaotic essence of reality (Dionysian awareness) is an ethics of measure (Apollonian attitude). This entire philosophy


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has a practical origin: the human desire for stability and certitude, the human need to hide the real essence of existence, the attempt to hide the frightening chaos of existence. But an ethics of measure is not knowledge. On this basis, Nietzsche affirms that rationality and rational knowledge are not a natural attitude. Rationality is just a form of self-defence and the human being was not born in order to know and understand reality. I am not looking for the purpose of knowledge: knowledge is accidental, i.e. it has not arisen from a rational intention towards a purpose. It is an extension, or maybe a hardening and a consolidation of a way of acting or of thinking that in some cases has been necessary. By nature, the man does not exist in order to know. […] A moral phenomenon, aesthetically universalized, produced the intellectual instinct.7


The “Discrepancy” between Art and Truth

In 1888, a year before he loses his mind in Turin, Nietzsche writes: “the relationship between art and truth was the first object of my thinking, and yet I am now, with a sacred dismay, before this discrepancy.”8 Truth is the result of knowledge; art is the creative faculty. Between art and truth, following Nietzsche’s thought, there is neither an immediate and easy identification, nor a radical difference; rather there is a “discrepancy” which makes art and truth irreducible to one another, but connected. This relationship is not a problem of philosophy, but the problem of philosophy. The essay On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense should have been the introduction to The Philosopher’s Book. In this essay we find a very short and radical theory of knowledge. The human intellect is an instrument which the individual uses in order to survive. Some animals owe their survival to sharp teeth, others to fast legs or to physical strength. The human body is weak and man does not have horns, claws or sharp teeth. But the human being has intellect. The human intellect creates, invents and pretends: As a means for the preservation of the individual, the intellect shows its greatest strengths in dissimulation, since this is the means to preserve those weaker, less robust individuals who, by nature, are denied horns or the sharp fangs of a beast of prey with which to wage the struggle for existence.9 The intellect exerts its force in fiction. Simulation, pretending, and lying, along with artistic creation, are essential actions in the fight for survival.




The Flow of Life and the Intellect as a Creative Force

The intellect demonstrates its power primarily in fiction. The intellect creates fictions. The first fiction is the cognitive one. The intellect creates fictions because from the continuously changing data of experience and the continuous becoming of reality (attested by sensitivity), it produces images of apparent stability and eternity. Concepts are stable images of a continuously changing reality, but they are delusory. In these images the intellect must forget differences between individual objects and must consider only similarities between data provided by the senses. First, the intellect lies in presenting to us reality as stable and immovable scenery. This is a lie on a theoretical level. Without this lie, we could not have any concepts, logic, language, or rational knowledge. But there is a more original level: the lie on a practical or moral level. This practical lie is necessary in order to stop men’s struggle for survival. Lying is also required for social living and peaceful coexistence. Individuals, instead of killing each other, draw up a contract and agree on something which they decide is “true.” This social pact stipulates that all agree to lie in the same way. Truth is a socially accepted lie. Concepts are solidified bodies in the flow of life. A concept is a human creation that fixes the chaotic form of life and stops its constant transformation. However, this crystallizing of life in concepts is the normal result of the transformation of natural into human, of outside into inside, and of world into consciousness. The human being shows his natural origin and natural destination. He creates a second, delusory naturalness. A concept, though apparently against nature, is a “natural” result of a nature that, in its continuous becoming, has no rest and no stable forms. A concept is a manifestation of this natural becoming that continually produces new forms.


Art as a Return to Nature

What is the meaning of knowledge in a world where truth is a shared lie? If knowledge were the destination of the human being, his fate would be very miserable: he could only confess his defeat, with an unsatisfied thirst for truth in a world of lies. Fortunately, Nietzsche says, the human being was not born to know, but to create: “our salvation does not lie in knowing, but in creating!”10 The impulse to create, unlike the impulse to know, is original. According to Nietzsche, art – considered as deception by a long philosophical tradition that dates back to Plato – is true. Art does not lie.


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Yet art is always based on a deception, but are we really deceived? In this case, art would exist no more. At any rate art is based upon a deception. But are we really deceived? Whence the pleasure connected with the attempted deception? From illusion, recognized as an illusion? Art deals with illusion as illusion, and what it wants is therefore not to deceive us: art is truthful.11 Art, therefore, exhibits a mechanism of nature that works before any human intentions. Art shows the deception that morality and science try to conceal in order to enable social life and a stable culture. Art is true because it shows the illusion as illusion. But this illusion is before any human intention and manifests itself as a force of life: without illusion (that is to say, without artistic creation) life would not be possible. Sincerity of art: only art is honest. So we did a long road, in order to return back to the natural behaviour (the Greeks). The construction of a culture only on knowledge proved impossible.12 Art puts man in continuity with nature; it reveals the laws of the intellect as “a force of surface,” working on the “surface” of things. What is deep is revealed only by art. Nietzsche defines the intellect as “a force of surface” because he has a specific polemical target: Socrates, who argued that the exercise of reason is the highest human activity and who believed that reason could explain everything and penetrate into the deepest secrets of being. But for Nietzsche, reason cannot understand life in its chaotic character, in its becoming, in its absence of stable forms, because life is essentially irrational. Because of the superficiality of our intellect, no doubt we live in a constant illusion: that is to say, we need art in every moment in order to live. Our eye keeps us attached to forms. But if we create gradually this eye by ourselves, then we will feel that in ourselves dominates an artistic force. In this way we will see, even in the nature, the mechanisms that are opposed to an absolute knowledge: the philosopher KNOWS the language of nature, and says: “we need art” and “we need only a part of knowledge.”13 Intellect as a force of surface catches the relationships between things; the “thing in itself” (as Kant defined reality beyond the appearance of things or experience) is the natural delusion of a deep and absolute object of knowledge that does not exist. Reality is a network of relationships between things, which



are known only through their effects. But the philosopher can discover in himself artistic force, which is the same creative force of nature. Nietzsche calls this new kind of philosopher “the tragic philosopher”: The philosopher of tragic knowledge. He tames the uncontrolled cognitive impulse, but not through a new metaphysics. He does not establish a new faith. He feels tragically that the ground of metaphysics has failed, and on the other hand he can never be satisfied with the colourful and swirling game of sciences. He works on a new life by giving back to art its rights.14 The process operating in art is the same process operating in nature. Man, when he creates, is in continuity with nature and thus creates as nature creates. “The cognitive impulse is tamed by art.”15 The philosopher as an artist does not try to master nature through rationality, but feels himself immediately part of nature, even in its horrors, in its deceptions and in its contradictions. In this way Nietzsche, who was also a poet and who was endowed with a poetic temper, criticized the scientific and rational attitude of the Western tradition. He proposed artistic creation not just as an alternative to rationality but as the very origin of rational knowledge. In doing so, he demystified the origin and rational monopoly of philosophy. His legacy in the theory of art and above all literature is today enormous.16 His thought, considered as a “school of suspicion,”17 helped to demystify social and cultural constructs, or to accept them as unavoidable, provided that they are recognized, demystified and presented as human (social, cultural, historical, political…) creations. Truth is something provisional, determined by social conditions, and which can change or even be changed. Critical theory18 will find in Nietzsche a forerunner. Nietzsche’s criticism of language is fundamental to modern literary theory. Nietzsche, along with Heidegger19 and Gadamer,20 discloses a new perspective on language and proposes a new function of criticism and theory. We have to understand and accept the limits and conditions of language and give up hope of finding a truth (Kant would have said: “a thing in itself”) or a real world beyond language. There is no real world except the one provided by our language. And language is an essentially poetical activity. Poetry is a lie. But it does not mean that language is an error. Society, culture and literature prove the contrary. We have always lived in language and we cannot live without it. Post-structuralism,21 Derrida and deconstructionism will develop Nietzsche’s thought: we cannot get rid of our linguistic nature: we have to stay in language and read texts “in a certain way.”22


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Notes 1 2 3 4

See Chapter 1. See Chapters 1 and 2. See Chapter 1. Nietzsche Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe, edited by G. Colli, M. Montinari (Berlin – New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1973), III, I, pp. 31–32. 5 Nietzsche Werke, III, I, p. 4. 6 Nietzsche Werke, III, I, pp. 100–101. 7 Nietzsche Werke, III, III, II, pp. 59–60. 8 Nietzsche Werke, VIII, III, p. 289. 9 Nietzsche Werke, III, II, p. 356. 10 Nietzsche Werke, III, III, II, p. 45. 11 Nietzsche Werke, III, III, II, pp. 232–233. 12 Nietzsche Werke, III, III, II, p. 39. 13 Nietzsche Werke, III, III, II, pp. 20–21. 14 Nietzsche Werke, III, III, II, p. 13. 15 Nietzsche Werke, III, III, II, p. 28. 16 See Alexander Nehamas, “Nietzsche, Modernity, Aestheticism,” in Bernd Magnus, Cathleen Higgins (editors), The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 223–251. 17 Expression proposed by Paul Ricoeur in his book Freud and Philosophy (1965). 18 See Chapter 25. 19 See Chapter 23. 20 See Chapter 24. 21 See Chapter 26. 22 See Chapter 27.


Symbolism and Aestheticism 1

Decadent Aesthetics and Literature

Kant’s aesthetics, the romantic conception of poetry, Schopenhauer’s pessimism and Nietzsche’s irrationalism exerted a strong influence on the modern concept of art, poetry and the function of the literary work. Boosted by these philosophical ideas and by the explosive growth of literary and figurative production, the second part of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries ushered in a great transformation in the idea of literature and art. During this time there appeared some of the pivotal and most influential literary works. Charles Baudelaire’s first edition of The Flowers of Evil was published in 1857; Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell was published in 1873; and 1922 saw the completion or publication of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and The Duino Elegies, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Paul Valéry’s The Graveyard by the Sea and the bulk of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, only to mention some decisive works among many others. This literary and cultural period which roughly stretches from Baudelaire to Valéry is called “Decadence.” Symbolism and aestheticism are characteristic trends or attitudes of the Decadence. These are nothing but approximate terms and sometimes useful labels which neither encompass all poets who were active in that period nor explain the individual particularity of most poems. Nevertheless, in the authors of this period we can find many works sharing certain common features. We can consider the Decadence as the extreme development of romanticism and its last manifestation.1 Actually many tenets of romantic lore about art and poetry2 are accepted and stressed in decadent poems. Usually, the decadents based their works on a more or less complex system of philosophical and aesthetic premises and reflexions, and they explicitly discussed the role and function of poetry, and their reflection became a part or an important aspect of their work. Moreover, they wrote influential pages about art, poetry and criticism. Art criticism and theory, in their turn, have been influenced by the decadent attitude towards the literary work and by artists’ philosophy, even when this philosophy is based on vague, personal assumptions. After the Decadence, the boundary separating works of art and criticism becomes very tenuous and is often blurred. According to symbolism and aestheticism, creativity is based on philosophical reflection and true criticism hides a spark of poetry in itself. The creative principle is common to © koninklijke brill nv, leideN, 2019 | DOI:10.1163/9789004409231_018


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poetry and criticism. The decadent poets will deeply influence contemporary criticism and literary theory. In general, French and English decadent poets intended to set art free from any influence and constraint. Art is free and not useful, since usefulness already implies a limit. They promoted the idea of art for art’s sake. Art is an autonomous creation, opposed to nature and immediateness, so that artificiality and calculation (and not spontaneity) appear to be artistic values. At the same time art is opposed to the materialistic interests of industrialized society, to the bad taste of the bourgeoisie and to the needs of the crowd. Along with the cult of useless beauty, decadents show a general interest in what is esoteric, strange, uncommon, exotic, and sensuous. Poetry is an experience of truth concerning few persons, a secret lore that only an elite can understand. This conception of poetry dates back to the Orphic tradition and then to the Neo-Platonic and Renaissance idea of poetry. The dandy who enjoys refined intellectual and sensuous pleasures, in his ivory tower, is the typical representative of the Decadence.


Baudelaire and Symbolism

We can say that modern poetry starts with the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) and his book Les Fleurs du Mal (1857 and 1861) translated as The Flowers of Evil. He is considered “the poet of modernity.” He proved “how [poetry is] possible in our commercial and technical civilization,”3 and his influence on Western literature has been deep and long-lasting. Baudelaire developed and systematically introduced in poetry the concept of symbol as the keystone of artistic experience. Nature is a temple where living pillars Murmur sometimes confused words. And Man must wander through a forest of symbols Watching him with familiar eyes. As long-drawn echoes from far away Mingle to one dark and deep unity Vast as the night and brilliant as the day, The scents and colours and sounds to each other respond.4 Nature is like a temple inhabited by a divine force, in which common things (here the trees of a wood) are nothing but the symbols of a deeper, spiritual

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reality, intertwined with the real presence of our material world. There is a correspondence between sounds, colours, and smells. The poet can see these secret correspondences between things apparently far away from each other. The task of poetry is to provide an experience of this symbolic level of reality. The more complex and difficult, the more distant from our everyday use of language a poem is, the more it can speak of an original and authentic reality beyond the visible one. The difficulty and complexity of a text are not for their own sake. They are the tools, the rhetoric devices for extracting a deeper meaning from the apparent world. In this way Baudelaire marks a distance from the trivial reality of modern life, while at the same time he brings into the realm of poetry the substance and soul of modernity (the city, streets, sex, passion, existential desperation, a continuous reflection on ourselves and on poetry) and revitalizes them. Baudelaire’s poems appear to be very sensuous and immediate (as a poet he was prosecuted and found guilty of obscenity) but, actually, they are deeply intellectual and carefully calculated. His prose on art and culture gives a more complex idea of the new critical approach to poetry and reality. For example, the very idea of nature is different from the one we usually have. The majority of errors in the field of aesthetics spring from the eighteenth century’s false premise in the field of ethics. At that time Nature was taken as ground, source and type of all possible Good and Beauty. […] But Nature teaches us nothing, or practically nothing. […] It is philosophy […] and religion which command us to look after our parents when they are poor and infirm. […] Everything beautiful and noble is the result of reason and calculation. […] Evil happens without effort, naturally, fatally; Good is always the product of some art.5 Baudelaire’s anti-naturalistic attitude grants to art and beauty (as a result of artistic creation) a special, spiritual value. Even the toilet or make-up [maquillage] has “a spiritual significance” and, in this way, “witness to a disgust of the real” and “the immateriality of the soul.” Fashion should thus be considered as a symptom of the taste for the ideal which floats on the surface of all the crude, terrestrial and loathsome bric-à-brac that the natural life accumulates in the human brain: as a sublime deformation of Nature or rather a permanent and repeated attempt at her reformation.6 Baudelaire states that the common idea of beauty is characterized by an ethical attitude. Following a rational argument we have to accept that beauty is


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the result of a rational order and calculation. Baudelaire does not separate art and morals, but he reverses their usual, current order. The Platonic connection between good and beauty is still valid but we have to consider it in a new context which is no longer the Platonic-Christian one. According to Baudelaire, we have to revise our idea of nature and our idea of art as a natural production (or as an imitation of nature). Human beings are not natural beings. Nature in itself is not good; culture makes it bearable. In this way, he defends the use of maquillage and cosmetics as an attempt to “reform” natural beauty by means of culture. Art starts already in everyday life with the need to embellish and transfigure our appearance. As a consequence of that we have to reconsider our concept of civilization and to see in a new light the depth of so-called primitive cultures or the spontaneous behaviour of children. From a non-natural perspective even the surface and appearance show an unexpected “spiritual significance” and, in the case of cosmetics as well as in the case of works of art, we have to revise our traditional values. Actually, if we apply this line of reasoning to poetry and art, we discover new possibilities and tasks of the artist. Art may be an experience of the surface and of the appearance of things but, because of its nature, art constitutes and determines the world as we know it. The poet knows reality at a deeper level. Poetry is a kind of knowledge opposite to the instrumental knowledge of positivism and its aims are different from the practical interests of materialistic society. At the same time, poetry is not the effect of a natural or supernatural force, as Plato said. Artistic creation is the result of a rational attitude, of calculation and reflection. The poet writes according to precise strategies and intellectual plans. He applies poetical processes which are not natural but rather the result of intellectual strategies. He is a critic and an intellectual whose vision is different from that of the crowd. Art does not open a spiritual or imagined world, but it is the key to human reality, even if only poets and intellectuals can recognize it. In this way Baudelaire marks the birth of the modern concept of art.


Rimbaud and the Task of Poetry

The consequences of Baudelaire’s concept of poetry are enormous. Reality is a fabric of symbols and the poet has to understand their relations and meanings. Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891) developed symbolist poetics to its extreme consequences. He was aware that the new poetry was essentially different from what came before. He was a poet but his two letters about his own poetics have had great importance in the interpretation and theory of modern poetry.

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They are also decisive as examples of self-interpretation: the poet’s reflection and extra-poetical purposes and assumptions become a constitutive part of the poetical task. Rimbaud wrote that the poet must become a seer. The aim of poetry is not to please or to teach or to express feelings or to represent something. The aim of poetry is to see and experience what only poetry can present: the secret essence of reality. The first study for a man who wants to be a poet is the knowledge of himself, complete. He looks for his soul, inspects it, puts it to the test, learns it. As soon as he knows it, he must cultivate it. […] But the soul has to be made monstrous […] Imagine a man implanting and cultivating warts on his face. I say that one must be a seer; make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses.7 The poet has a Promethean task. His poetic faculty of seeing changes his soul and his poetry changes human destiny. The poet discovers new languages and frontiers of knowledge. Poetry is a way to experience reality in a new, original form. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences. […] He becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed, – and the great learned one! – among men. – For he arrives to the unknown! Because he has cultivated his own soul, which was rich to begin with – more than any other man! […] So, then, the poet really is the thief of fire! He is responsible for humanity. […] A language has to be found – for that matter, every word being an idea, the time of the universal language will come!8 The function of poetry is in its essence. The aim of poetry is extra-poetical; it is the knowledge of human nature. But it is not the old Orphic-Platonic tradition. The poet is not possessed by some supernatural force. Poetry is a human force and there is no space for any other preternatural or divine presence. The way to knowledge is through poetry itself. A new language must be discovered and the poet creates new languages on behalf of humanity. For the modern poet the practice of poetry means a working out of his own soul, a process of


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self-knowledge. Poetry has a practical and operative function: it changes what we are, our way of perceiving reality, and our world. The practice of poetry is against nature and common sense. It is not a development of our natural attitude. The poet has to follow a rational refusal of all forms of ordinary feeling and thinking and practice a methodical disordering of his senses. Rationality, like in Baudelaire, is not only concerned with socially acceptable and well-balanced behaviour but leads to the deep essence of man and reality. In order to do it the poet needs to cultivate his soul, to develop his self. Actually, the self is not what it is supposed to be in our ordinary life. The poet has to create it by a rational activity which changes what we are, feel and know. Poetry changes what we are and how we see in order to change the world and reality. “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses.” Poetry has an operative and practical purpose. It is neither contemplation nor pleasure. Poetry is action which changes reality. Baudelaire proposed a world beyond the natural; Rimbaud offers a world beyond the human. Poetry is an anti-humanistic activity. According to his idea of poetry Rimbaud says: “I is another. […] I witness the unfolding of my own thought: I watch it, I hear it.” The poet considers himself from an external point of view, from a non-human perspective. Poetry is a kind of knowledge not flawed by any human perspective. The self is a poetical production and it reaches its full awareness by poetical means. The power of poetry was already a romantic issue. Now, in Rimbaud, poetry does not reveal a pre-existing order of reality or a lost condition of innocence. Poetry presents new worlds and creates new levels of reality by means of poetical language. From this perspective we cannot understand the effect of poetry on an individual or psychological level. Poetry changes reality since it changes the way we live, understand and see it; it changes what we are. “Poetry will no longer suit action to a rhythm. It will be in the vanguard.” The aim of poetry may be extra-poetical but its task is accomplished because of the essence of poetry which makes us see and experience reality in a new light.


The Prophet of Aestheticism

The decadents developed the Kantian concept of beauty and romantic poetics, stressing its nihilistic aspects. Art has to be disinterested, free, not conditioned by moral or practical purposes; in a word, art must be for art’s sake. Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) is the most representative writer of the literary trend called

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aestheticism. A devotee of the cult of beauty, he states his poetical purposes explicitly in the Preface of his novel Picture of Dorian Gray (1890): The artist is the creator of beautiful things. No artist desires to prove anything. The artist can express everything. Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. All art is quite useless.9 These well-known aphorisms prove Wilde’s famous epigrammatic wit and present art as the expression of beauty without any other meaning or use. The literary work (and the work of art in general) should be judged on its internal aesthetic properties. This is the first contribution of aestheticism to our modern experience of poetry and its most important legacy. Artists concern themselves with form, style and beauty. Truth and morals, like shared values and reality in general, are nothing but material or a pretext for the work of art. If they are purposes or functions of the work, they should be considered as shortcomings and defects. It is worth highlighting that even thought and language are deemed at the same level and are considered simple instruments of art. The artistic result depends on a certain use of thoughts and linguistic devices. This aspect of art will be developed by the formalists some decades later.10 Kant affirmed that beauty is disinterested. Novalis, a century before Wilde, declared that poetry is free; that is to say, poetry is not bound to express anything or to say any particular truth. “The peculiarity of language [is] that it is concerned only with itself. […] When someone speaks only in order to speak, he expresses the most magnificent, original truths.” Poetry is a free play of words and it has no content other than poetry itself. External reality just offers opportunities, pretexts, material to poetry. Actually, reality itself is poetical in its essence and the written poem mirrors the deep essence of nature. The poet’s freedom is necessary so that poetry can freely speak and reveal the highest truth about reality itself.11 A condition of that was the absolute as the common horizon of the poem and reality. Now, with the Decadents, the concept of the absolute has faded and we experience a more nihilistic attitude. Art is free to express beauty alone and, in this way, art expresses nothing but beauty. It seems that, on one hand, beauty is posited as the only relevant quality of the human world and, on the other hand, it happens that many different human experiences and facts (actually, the essence of human life) escape artistic representation.


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In fact, it is not that simple. Wilde led his brilliant and theatrical life as if it were a work of art. He was too witty to be disinterested in its poetic theory. He posed as the prophet of aestheticism with a clear didactic vocation and the desire to stun. We have to take into account this fact when we consider the meaning of art according to Wilde’s aestheticism. People tell us that Art makes us love Nature more than we loved her before; that it reveals her secrets to us. […] My own experience is that the more we study Art, the less we care for Nature. What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition. Nature has good intentions, of course, but, as Aristotle once said, she cannot carry them out. When I look at a landscape I cannot help seeing all its defects. It is fortunate for us, however, that Nature is so imperfect, as otherwise we should have no art at all. Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place. As for the infinite variety of Nature, that is a pure myth. It is not to be found in Nature herself. It resides in the imagination, or fancy, or cultivated blindness of the man who looks at her. […] I don’t complain. If Nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented architecture, and I prefer houses to the open air. In a house we all feel of the proper proportions. Everything is subordinated to us, fashioned for our use and our pleasure. Egotism itself, which is so necessary to a proper sense of human dignity, is entirely the result of indoor life. Out of doors one becomes abstract and impersonal. One’s individuality absolutely leaves one. And then Nature is so indifferent, so unappreciative. Whenever I am walking in the park here, I always feel that I am no more to her than the cattle that browse on the slope, or the burdock that blooms in the ditch. Nothing is more evident than that Nature hates Mind. Thinking is the most unhealthy thing in the world, and people die of it just as they die of any other disease. Fortunately, in England at any rate, thought is not catching.12 Along with Wilde’s wit and pointed humor we notice that art is a way to give meaning to nature since the former presents the latter in an order and with a consistency that are lacking in nature herself. Art completes nature. At the same time nature is something extraneous, distant, external and without a soul. We can say that art is not a reflection of nature but nature (and life in general) is rather the result of artistic strategies and artistic attitudes. Criticism itself is a form of poetry. Wilde even affirms the superiority of criticism over

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the literary creation. At any rate, a poem and an essay differ because of the style, and not because of the content. The content is the same: the creative faculty of the critic or poet. The subject is a mere opportunity. Life itself should be a form of art, as testified by Wilde’s tragic destiny. We have to understand aestheticism as the extreme development of the romantic theory of poetry in a nihilistic direction. Subjectivity is alone and cannot recognize itself in nature, and nature becomes an opponent. Nature is something old and elementary; she is always “out of date” and the spirit must revitalize her. The spirit is no longer represented by the romantic absolute which encompasses everything and all; instead, it is the individual and isolated spirit of the aesthete, of the poet alone opposed to nature, with his refined culture and artistic taste. From the perspective of aestheticism the human being is alone and separate from nature and from others and concentrated on himself. If we take Nature to mean natural simple instinct as opposed to selfconscious culture, the work produced under this influence is always old-fashioned, antiquated, and out of date. One touch of Nature may make the whole world kin, but two touches of Nature will destroy any work of Art. If, on the other hand, we regard Nature as the collection of phenomena external to man, people only discover in her what they bring to her. She has no suggestions of her own.13 Developing this line of thinking, Wilde says that the poet is against nature and poetry has to do with lies and artifice. “Lying and poetry are arts – arts, as Plato saw, not unconnected with each other – and they require the most careful study, the most disinterested devotion.”14 That is to say that artistic values depend on qualities that are internal to the work of art. The stress posed on the “lying” as a constitutive aspect of poetry is, once again, the result of the one-sided development of the power of poetry recognized by the romantics. According to them, poetry is free and does not imitate nature, but it is nature. Reacting to the utilitarian and materialistic values of the industrial age, Wilde argues against realism and its attempt to represent reality. His poetics harks back to that of Novalis, though only partially. According to Wilde nature imitates art (“before Turner there was no fog in London”) and, more generally, “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” But there is no absolute which guarantees the function (and the sense) of poetry, there is no nature. There is only the poet and his individual creative faculty, his wit, his pose (that is to say his life as a non-natural attitude). Lying as a negative term is his extreme form of freedom. Wilde deliberately avoids the term


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“imagination” because of its romantic connotation. The term “lying” expresses Wilde’s explicit intention to deceive, to stun, and to shock the reader. The critic expresses his own poetics and consistently follows the same strategies as the poet. His aim, like in the tradition dating back to Horace, is to instruct and entertain the reader, with paradox and irony if necessary. At the same time, like in the tradition dating back to Plato, Wilde poses the question of the power of poetry and its possibilities, of the task of poets and critics. He revitalizes the old issue about art and its possibility of telling the truth or of lying, posing the question in the form of a work of art. Since there is no nature (and no external truth) except the one we create by means of art, we cannot find any given truth in the world, only artistic creations and infinite interpretations or misinterpretations of works. From this point of view Wilde is very modern and in line with the next developments of literary criticism in the new century.


Paul Valéry and the Poetics of Mind

Since Plato poetry has often been considered as the result of divine inspiration. Symbolists, though creating a religion of art and granting to poetry a divine power, considered artistic creation as the result of calculation, reflection and rational processes. The outstanding French poet, essayist and critic Paul Valéry (1871–1945) considered poetics as a discipline of mind (before that of words) in which sensitivity and rationality meet, by means of which feelings and geometry come to a confrontation, where interiority and exteriority clash and, in so doing, he tried to formulate the general rules of the spirit and human thinking. Poetry is a very complex kind of play which imitates or reveals the secret mechanisms of our mind. Valéry ’s critical prose is sensuous and highly accurate (like a poem in prose), and his poems are based on reflection, conceptual order and symmetry. According to Valéry, what is important in writing (in poetry as well as in criticism) is not the poem (the final product of the work) but the work, which has value in itself. The object of poetry is not a given result (imitation of a fact, arousing of feelings…) but rather a function, “the expression of what is not expressible by means of the finite function of words.”15 Poetry is not a product or a fact but an infinite activity which mirrors a contradiction of the human condition, an impossible task. In this way poetry becomes a kind of exercise which foreshadows (by means of its form and not its content) human issues and an existential meaning. The poem is what remains of the creative work, but the activity from which it derives, “as far as they react on their author, form in him another product which is a more able man, who masters in a better way the realm of his memory.”16

Symbolism and Aestheticism


Language, Valéry writes, is a practical tool. A poem is something different. “A poem must be a feast of the Intellect. A feast: it is a play, but solemn, with rules, signifying; an image of what is not ordinary.”17 The poet must always start from ordinary language. “The problem of the poet is to obtain from this practical instrument the means to realize an essentially non-practical work. As I told you, it is about creating a world or an order of things, a system of relationships, without any connection to the practical order.”18 This rejection of language as a practical instrument is the condition required for a literary work to become useless on the practical level and meaningful on the spiritual and existential one. In this case, and only in this case, is creating a poem a spiritual operation: “to invent is nothing but to understand oneself.”19 Valéry is looking for the mechanisms and function of poetry in order to understand the secret mechanism of the mind. His aestheticism and his great attention to form convey a deep human interest. Poetry is the attempt to represent, or to give back, by means of the articulated language, those things or that thing which cries, tears, caresses, kisses, and sighs try darkly to express, and which the objects seem to be willing to express, as far as they have an appearance of life or a supposed intention. That thing cannot be defined otherwise.20 Poetry is a human activity based on human faculties. Systems, relationships, and the rejection of language as a practical instrument are ideas we have already found in the romantic context. Now, they have a new and different meaning. There is no absolute dimension to guarantee their validity. Form and calculation, intellectual discipline and reflection are the most important features of poetry. Nevertheless, poetry (or, more precisely, the action of creating a poem) has an existential function and a human meaning which we can explore only by means of poetry itself. “Thought has to be hidden in the verses like the nutritional virtue is hidden in the fruit.”21 The stressing of the formal aspect of the literary work will be carried on by linguistics, aesthetics, and literary theory in the twentieth century.

Notes 1 Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, trans. Angus Davidson (London, New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 1–16. 2 See Chapters 12–14. 3 Hugo Friedrich, Die Struktur der modernen Lyrik (Hamburg: Rohwolt, 1956), p. 35.


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4 Charles Baudelaire, “Correspondences” in Les Fleurs du Mal, Oeuvres Completes (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1980). 5 Charles Baudelaire, “In Praise of Cosmetics,” in The Painter of Modern Life, edited by Jonathan Mayne (London-New York: Phaidon Press, 1965) p. 31. 6 Charles Baudelaire, “In Praise of Cosmetics,” p. 32. 7 Arthur Rimbaud, “Letter to Paul Demeny,” May 15, 1871, in Collected Poems, edited by Oliver Bernard (London, Penguin, 1962), p. 10. 8 Arthur Rimbaud, “Letter to Paul Demeny,” pp. 10–12. 9 Oscar Wilde, “The Picture of Dorian Gray. Preface,” in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, edited by G. B. Foreman (London and Glasgow: Collins, 1988), p. 17. 10 See Chapter 20. 11 See Chapter 14. 12 Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying,” in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, pp. 970–971. 13 Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying,” p. 977. 14 Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying,” p. 972. 15 Paul Valéry, “Calepin d’un Poète,” in Oeuvres, I, edited by Jean Hytier (Paris: Gallimard, 1960), p. 1450. 16 Paul Valéry, “Calepin d’un Poète,” p. 1450. 17 Paul Valéry, “Littérature,” in Oeuvres, II, edited by Jean Hytier (Paris: Gallimard, 1960), p. 546. 18 Paul Valéry, “Calepin d’un Poète,” p. 1460. 19 Paul Valéry, “Calepin d’un Poète,” p. 1448. 20 Paul Valéry, “Littérature,” p. 547. 21 Paul Valéry, “Littérature,” p. 547.


Benedetto Croce: Art and Intuition 1

Intuition and Expression

The Italian philosopher and literary critic Benedetto Croce (1866–1952) had a great influence on the European aesthetic and literary debate in the first part of the twentieth century. His philosophy is based on the Hegelian system, which considered religion, art, and philosophy as different forms of the spirit. Unlike Hegel, Croce thinks that between the different forms of the spirit there is no real opposition but there is only a distinction. Opposition is given between beautiful and ugly in art, but between art and philosophy there is no opposition and no possible overcoming (Aufhebung). According to Croce, the four forms of the spirit: philosophy, art, economy and ethics are distinct and irreducible to each other. For example, art is the form of knowledge of the particular (in the individual work) whereas philosophy is the form of knowledge of the universal (in the concept). Knowledge has two forms: it is either intuitive knowledge or logical knowledge; knowledge obtained through the imagination or knowledge obtained through the intellect; knowledge of the individual or knowledge of the universal; of individual things or of the relations between them: it is, in fact, productive either of images or of concepts.1 According to this assumption, art is knowledge; it is an intuition obtained through the imagination and related to the individual. “These distinctions established, we must condemn as erroneous every theory which annexes the aesthetic activity to the practical, [ethics or economy] or introduces the laws of the second into the first” (8). Art is completely independent from intellectual knowledge; it is autonomous, disinterested, self-sufficient, and universal. Art presents a sentimental content in an intuitive form and in this way it is a “lyric intuition” which is indistinguishable from its own “expression.” In the work of art intuition and expression are identical and, more precisely, are the same act. Every true intuition or representation is also expression. That which does not objectify itself in expression is not intuition or representation, but sensation and mere natural fact. The spirit only intuits in making, forming, expressing. […] Intuitive activity possesses intuitions to the extent that it expresses them.2 © koninklijke brill nv, leideN, 2019 | DOI:10.1163/9789004409231_019


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In this way expression is opposed to the simple, natural fact of sensation. Each of us, Croce says, has in himself a little of the poet since each of us expresses his intuitions. An artist possesses the same faculty in a higher degree but his intuition or representation and expression of reality is based on the same spiritual principle. And indeed the spirit as the substance of the human being (think of an institution like a State or of a work of art) can only be the object of intuition and expression at the same time. Beyond that there are only “impressions, sensations, feelings, impulses, emotions,”3 that is to say just natural fact without history or substance. Intuition or representation on one side and expression on the other side are the same general faculties shared by all human beings. Expression is the inseparable part of intuition: we possess the intuition of a triangle only if we possess an image of it so that we can draw or express it on a piece of paper. As human beings we share to different degrees the same faculty possessed by the great poets and artists. Only the degree makes the difference.


Intuition, Expression and Art

Croce identifies intuitive or expressive knowledge with the aesthetic or artistic fact. What distinguishes a work of art from ordinary intuition and expression of everyday facts? According to Croce, art collects and presents intuitions and expressions which are wider and more complex than those of the general experience, and so in a poem, for example, we can tell apart what is art from what is not art. Artists are what they are because they have a deeper and more complex aptitude, though between the artist and the ordinary man there is only a quantitative difference. Certain men have a greater aptitude, a more frequent inclination fully to express certain more complex states of the soul. These men are known in ordinary language as artists. Some very complicated and very difficult expressions are not often achieved, and these are called works of art. The limits of the expression-intuition that are called art, as opposed to those that are vulgarly called non-art, are empirical and impossible to define.4 The concrete creation of the work of art implies another step which is possible to the artist and impossible to the ordinary man. Croce affirms that the work of art is above all the internal work of art and in doing so, in a certain way, he underrates the practical work of artists and the material, rhetorical, poetical and practical aspects of artistic production.

Benedetto Croce


The artistic fact is altogether completed in the expressive elaboration of impressions. When we have achieved the word within us, conceived definitely and vividly a figure or a statue, or found a musical motive, expression is born and is complete; there is no need for anything else. If after this we should open our mouths […] or to take up the brush or chisel, thus making on a large scale movements which we have already made in little and rapidly, in a material in which we leave more or less durable traces; this is all an addition, a fact that obeys quite different laws from the former, with which we are not concerned for the moment, although we recognize henceforth that this second movement is a production of things, a practical fact, or fact of will. It is usual to distinguish the internal from the external work of art: the terminology seems to us infelicitous, for the work of art (the aesthetic work) is always internal. What is called external is no longer a work of art.5 Art as intuition is a universal characteristic of the human mind and a general feature of spirit. The material work of art is considered on a lower level. The stress placed on the aesthetic work as an internal fact reveals, above all, the spiritual essence of the work. This spiritual substance allows the poet and the reader to share the same faculty and the same poem. Since the work of art is an internal fact, material and practical circumstances are not relevant or essential to art. Actually, in a poem language matters, as in a sculpture the stone matters. This aspect of Croce’s aesthetics is at odds with the other critical and literary traditions which where thriving in the Western debate at the time. Symbolists, Valéry and then the theorists of literature of the twentieth century consider the material and concrete aspects of poetic language, the way by which ordinary language can turn into a poem. Shklovsky highlights the “difficulty” of poetic language as its constitutive characteristic.6 In contrast, Croce renovated the Hegelian tradition, the spirituality of art and superiority of poetry. At the same time, he separated the spiritual aesthetic value from its materiality, from the form, from the concrete work of the artist. The development of aesthetics, linguistics and literary theory will take into account these concrete and material aspects.

Notes 1 Benedetto Croce, Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistics, trans. Douglas Ainslie (New York: Noonday Press, 1920), p. 1. 2 Benedetto Croce, Aesthetic, p. 8.

132 3 4 5 6

Benedetto Croce, Aesthetic, p. 11. Benedetto Croce, Aesthetic, p. 13. Benedetto Croce, Aesthetic, p. 50. See Chapter 20.

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Linguistics and Criticism 1

Ferdinand de Saussure: Language as a System of Signs

At the beginning of the twentieth century we can see a new approach to the work of art, firstly and especially to the literary one. There is new interest in language and in the linguistic aspect of the work and, in general, of culture. Linguistics becomes a new discipline and offers strategies for understanding the human world in general as a system, or more precisely as a system of signs. This new approach changes the understanding and, in some way, the object of the human sciences and has great consequences on aesthetics, literary theory and criticism. Actually, if we can find general principles to understand the mechanism of our language, we can explain a work of art or our very human world according to similar principles. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) was a Swiss linguist who adopted an ahistorical and synchronic approach to his investigation of language. How does language in general work? We cannot understand it by means of an historical and diachronic explanation, which considers permanent forms and their changes over time. We need to consider language as a system, as a consistent structure of connected elements. These elements have to be considered in their presence and not in their history or development. Language, according to Saussure, is a system of signs. These signs are not endowed with a natural meaning but they are arbitrary. A signifier (a sound) and a signified (a meaning) are put together in an arbitrary way to create a sign with a conventional sense. The usual meaning of the words in each language is a matter of convention. There is no natural connection between “horse” and the actual animal we can ride. But there is a difference between the sounds of “horse” and of “Morse” so that, when the telegraph was invented, the term “Morse” could be used to designate the code. The system is made up of differences between its parts (the sounds) and not of similarities. Since a linguistic sign is made up of a signifier (or a sound) and a signified (or a meaning) and this association is arbitrary, the same principle of difference is valid for the signified. Meanings are not given once and for all but they constitute an undifferentiated continuum. Without language, our thought is a “nebula” without defined forms. And we make differences between ideas in the same way we make differences between sounds. Without differences we could not define any meaning. So we can tell a horse from a pony (we have a different linguistic © koninklijke brill nv, leideN, 2019 | DOI:10.1163/9789004409231_020


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signs which distinguish them) but we cannot tell apart two horses of, say, different colour, since we do not have any specific sign for them. Saussure points out the arbitrariness and difference-based nature of our concepts. He states that the two elements involved in the functioning of language are ideas and sounds. Psychologically our thought – apart from its expression in words – is only a shapeless and indistinct mass. Philosophers and linguists have always agreed in recognizing that without the help of signs we would be unable to make a clear-cut, consistent distinction between two ideas. Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language. Against the floating realm of thought, would sounds by themselves yield predelimited entities? No more so than ideas. Phonic substance is neither more fixed nor more rigid than thought.1 There are no predelimited sounds and there are no predelimited ideas. Language is the creation of delimited sounds and ideas. Language creates a series of contiguous subdivisions marked off on both the indefinite plane of jumbled ideas (A) and the equally vague plane of sounds (B). The following diagram gives a rough idea of it:

The characteristic role of language with respect to thought is not to create a material phonic means for expressing ideas but to serve as a link between thought and sound, under conditions that of necessity bring about the reciprocal delimitations of units. Thought, chaotic by nature, has to become ordered in the process of its decomposition.2 Meaning (the content of our thoughts, for example) is based on differentiation, and the form (the signifier) is not just an external fact but it determines our possibility of conceiving a content. Form and content are deeply intertwined. Concepts (which we usually associate with a signified) are not given by the real world. They are not naturally present in nature. They are related to it, of course,

Linguistics and Criticism


but they are not a natural consequence or a necessary result of it. Concepts are created by human beings according to the mechanism of differentiation and do not reflect any intentional strategy. Neither are thoughts given material form nor are sounds transformed into mental entities; the somewhat mysterious fact is rather that “thoughtsound” implies division, and that language works out its units while taking shape between two shapeless masses.3 A term like “love” can signify so many different ideas, attitudes, and expectations that we cannot believe it has a univocal meaning. We can tell “love” apart from other ideas (from “friendship”, for example) in the same way we can distinguish the sounds “love” and “live.” The consequences of these simple linguistic observations are enormous. The human world is made up of differences rather than of similarities. Such differences are more relevant than contents, since they build the structure of the human world. To understand a form (which makes the difference) is decisive since it allows us to understand a content (produced by the structure). In this way we can understand human reality as a consistent system of differences rather than a given content. Signifiers and signified are arbitrary but at the same time rigorously determined by a system of differences we can explain. Differences allow us to create a consistent system from an amorphous mass which would be otherwise undifferentiated. According to such principles, Saussure’s linguistics does not just explain the working of language, but more complex linguistic systems like poems, works of art, and in general, most human creations and productions. In his work Saussure pointed out that language precedes thought and creates a structure according to which our thought works. From such a perspective our world, as we experience it, is more or less determined by our language. So we can state two main consequences of Saussure’s linguistics. On one hand, we can presume that many other human creations and activities can be explained like language or as a system of differences. In this case we can understand the human world by applying the same rules, and linguistics offers general strategies for understanding objects of the human sciences. We do not need any historical (diachronic) explanation of human facts but a synchronic one, which takes each element as part of a consistent system. This is an anti-humanistic perspective, which considers what is present or absent in a given structure and does not take into account supposed spiritual values, traditions, or history.


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On the other hand, language becomes decisive in the creation of the world as we know it. Our horizon is the horizon of our language. This statement was made by Ludwig Wittgenstein,4 a philosopher who in the same years started his inquiry on the world from rather different premises. Without language we would not have any thoughts. The work of art, and especially the literary work, has a new importance not only on an artistic or literary level but as an existential experience, since it presents the very fabric of which our world, or even reality, is made.


Shklovsky and Poetry as a Technique

In the same period as Saussure, other thinkers and critics put the accent on the linguistic aspect of the literary work. These are the Russian Formalists, a composite and complex intellectual and critical movement whose influence on modern criticism and literary aesthetics was decisive and is still felt today. A common feature of the movement is the orientation towards the formal aspect of the literary work and the work of art in general. The Russian Formalists developed a certain way of considering literature that changed the approach to the literary work. The specificity of literature is not in its tradition and subjects, in its depth and thoughtfulness or philosophical content. On the contrary, the content of the literary work is the result of formal devices; the specificity of the literary work resides in its linguistic aspect. This does not mean that the literary work has no content, but that the specific content (in terms of thoughts, ideas, feelings, emotions…) is the result of a linguistic strategy and awareness. The form makes the difference between literary and non-literary texts. The Russian theorist Viktor Shklovsky (1893–1984) starts from psychological remarks. Our everyday world has become familiar and normal. We have been overexposed to it and everything sounds known and usual. We recognize things but we do not discover them any longer. Our perception of the world becomes habitual and so automatic; our acts are often unconscious. We do not see objects but rather recognize them so that they fade and our experience of the usual world is nothing remarkable. In contrast, poetry removes the object from the sphere of automatized perception. Poetry makes us see the world de-familiarized, anew, out of the usual context, with new eyes. Art is a technique of de-familiarization that allows us to see a new object: In studying poetic speech […] we find everywhere the artistic trademark – that is, we find material obviously created to remove the automatism or

Linguistics and Criticism


perception; the author’s purpose is to create the vision which results from that deautomatized perception. A work is created “artistically” so that its perception is impeded and the greatest possible effect is produced through the slowness of the perception. […] Thus “poetic language” gives satisfaction. According to Aristotle, poetic language must appear strange and wonderful. […] The language of poetry is, then, a difficult, roughened, impeded language.5 Poetical language is a de-automatized language; things appear new or under a new light, it is a de-familiarized language which induces a higher state of perception. Note that this happens because of the form (and not the content) of literary language. This is what makes poetry necessarily difficult and complex: “we can define poetry as attenuated, tortuous speech. Poetic speech is formed speech.”6 The purpose of poetic language “is not to make us perceive meaning, but to create a special perception of the object – it creates a vision of the object instead of serving as a means for knowing it.” Nevertheless, the form allows a new experience of reality where the familiar appears strange and different. In the light of the literary work the world appears in a new and unexpected way, it is no longer usual, it is no longer the habitual one. Shlovsky named this technical device “de-familiarization” or “estrangement” (Russian: ostranenie) and proposed it as a constitutive trait of literariness. This concept will be adopted or reproposed by other theorists and critics in different contexts. It gives a precise and, to a certain degree, satisfying definition of the mechanism of the work of art, so that we have a term to distinguish poetical from non-poetical or ordinary language. It is based on a scientific attitude but, at the same time, it enables us to understand the inner device of the literary work and its effect on the reader. It does not just explain a psychological effect; rather it exposes an existential need: we have the experience of works of art in order to enjoy a new, authentic, de-automatized experience of reality. The human world depends on art and literature since it is not just automatic and self-evident. Finally, the concept of estrangement presents literary history in a new light, as a sequence of ruptures and breaks in which literary works are to be considered as moments of vital changing and not as moments of a continuous tradition.


Roman Jakobson and the Poetic Function

According to the Russian Formalists, the task of the critic is to identify the specificity of the literary work or its “literariness.” Such literariness is not to be


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found in ideas or contents but rather in the formal aspects of the work. These formal aspects depend on the linguistic nature of the work and are the result of its linguistic organization. Moreover, a literary work is a complex structure whose elements are interrelated and interconnected. If we explain the principle of language, we can explain the apparent paradox of literary art: on one hand, literature is literature since it is concerned with itself and its linguistic devices. On the other hand, literature refers to the external world and allows an experience of the world that ordinary language does not allow. The first point is the object of poetics; the second point marks the specificity of the literary work and of the work of art in general. The Russian linguist Roman Jakobson (1896–1982) proposed a linguistic approach to poetics. Jakobson asserted that poetic language is autonomous and different from ordinary language, though it is created from it and, in some cases, is similar to it. The literariness of a work is to be found in its linguistic nature. How can we identify what makes a poem? In an important conference in 1958 (then published as an article in 1960), Linguistics and Poetics, Jakobson elaborated a fundamental and extremely influential theory and proposed a scheme of communication to explain the working of language in its different functions. The poetic function works at different levels in any kind of communication. Jakobson explains that any speech event or act of communication in general includes six constitutive factors and functions. The ADDRESSER sends a MESSAGE to the ADDRESSEE. To be operative the message requires a CONTEXT referred to (the “referent”), […] a CODE fully, or at least partially, common to the addresser and addressee […] and, finally, a CONTACT, a physical channel and psychological connection. […] All these factors inalienably involved in verbal communication may be schematized as follows:




Each of these six factors determines a different function of language. Although we distinguish six basic aspects of language, we could, however, hardly find verbal messages that would fulfill only one function.7 The linguist considers language under these six different aspects. The literariness of a work consists in a specific linguistic aspect of the communication.


Linguistics and Criticism

This specific aspect is the poetic one, when the main interest is focused on the message in itself and on its own inner organization. In this case, in the communication, the organization and construction of the message as such become the first concern of the author or poet. As we have stated in the case of “transcendental poetry,”8 a poem presents itself as an organized whole; it highlights its inner organization and therefore its inner mechanism of self-reflection. Jakobson defines the literariness of a text in a similar way. A poem is a kind of message that stresses the organisation of its internal signs and in which the language reflects itself rather than an external reality. The set (Einstellung) toward the message as such, focus on the message for its own sake, is the POETIC function of language. […] Any attempt to reduce the sphere of the poetic function to poetry or to confine poetry to the poetic function would be a delusive oversimplification. The poetic function is not the sole function of verbal art but only its dominant, determining function, whereas in all other verbal activities it acts as a subsidiary, accessory constituent. This function, by promoting the palpability of signs, deepens the fundamental dichotomy of signs and objects. Hence, when dealing with the poetic function, linguistics cannot limit itself to the field of poetry.9 Jakobson refers six different linguistic functions to the six factors or aspects of communication. The poetic function is one of these, and it is an essential function of language which, in some circumstances (as in the creation of a poem) becomes the fundamental one. But, at the same time, the poetic function alone cannot describe the whole phenomenon of the literary work. Now that our cursory description of the six basic functions of verbal communication is more or less complete, we may complement our scheme of the fundamental factors with a corresponding scheme of the functions:




In order to explain the specificity of the poetic function and the “indispensable feature inherent in any piece of poetry,” Jakobson uses the terms of “selection” and “combination,” the two basic modes of arrangement of words used in speech.


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If “child” is the topic of the message, the speaker selects one among the extant, more or less similar nouns like child, kid, youngster, tot, all of them equivalent in a certain respect, and then, to comment on this topic, he may select one of the semantically cognate verbs – sleeps, dozes, nods, naps. Both chosen words combine in the speech chain. The selection is produced on the basis of equivalence, similarity and dissimilarity, synonymy and antonymy, while the combination, the build-up of the sequence, is based on contiguity. The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination.10 The model of language, according to Saussure based on similarities and differences, explains the specificity of the poetic function and the literariness of a text. Saussure said that in linguistic communication, the choice of words is made according to general principles of selection and combination. The speaker selects equivalent or similar words and then combines them in a sequence. These are two different and fundamental actions based on two different principles (similarity and/or difference and contiguity) by means of which we can communicate. Jakobson affirms that any sign is made up of constituent signs and occurs only in combination with other signs, so that any sign is always in a more complex linguistic unit. This is the principle of combination. At the same time, the speaker makes a selection between alternatives with the possibility of substituting one for the other. The terms the speaker selects are under certain aspects equivalent. This constitutes the principle of selection. Poetry is the result of a particular use of the same principles. In poetry we choose words because they are equivalent (similar, or dissimilar) and we put them in a sequence or combination because of their equivalence. Actually, in a poem a word is chosen because of its sound, because of its accents, because of the length of its vowels, because it rhymes with another word and so on. In poetry “Equivalence is promoted to the constitutive device of the sequence. In poetry one syllable is equalized with any other syllable of the same sequence; word stress is assumed to equal word stress, as unstress equals unstress […].”11 The ordinary speaker chooses between words with an equivalent meaning. The poet chooses between words he perceives as equivalent. For example, rhyme and meter make equivalent words which may have different meanings. We have said that in poetry, attention moves from the external world (referential function) to the inner organization of the message in itself (poetic function). In a certain way, poetry reflects itself and its internal mechanism, its fictional origin. Literariness is the result of a structural principle, equivalence on the axis of combination. But it does not mean that poetry is concerned only

Linguistics and Criticism


with itself. Poetry shows a mechanism of communication: how unusual and non-ordinary words in an unusual and non-ordinary sequence can convey new significations. Jakobson, as a linguist, allows us to look at the secret workshop of the poet. Actually, a poet chooses a word not only because of its meaning (if such were the case, he would write a report rather than a poem) but he takes a word because of its sound, its rhyme, its symbolic resonance, its connotation and so on. All these factors do not relate to external reality (the context or referential function of language) but they concern the organization of the message in itself, as an autonomous entity. The poet could choose another different word with a similar meaning but with another, poetical effect. Only under this condition can the poem speak freely (not constrained by the context to be referential) and of the real world in a new light because it is free and not conditioned by ordinary language. Actually, Jakobson’s definition of the poetic function, which puts the stress on the organization of the message itself, has a long history. Since the romantic period the work of art has been assumed as a “by itself consisting whole” and an autonomous creation. The poem, according to Novalis, is concerned only with itself; it is like free play, and in this way, it mirrors the construction of the whole and the wonderful play of the universe. Jakobson stresses the linguistic aspects of the self-sufficiency of the literary work and bases it on the premises of linguistics. In the Romantic period we noted a trend which has continued up to the present day. Poetry (and more generally art) takes itself as its own subject, reflects on itself and mirrors the process by which it is created and, at the same time, shows that the same process is at the origin of the world and reality as we know it. From such a perspective poetry, mirroring itself, presents reality on a more original level than the level of the sheer imitation of real objects. In the same period great poets like Paul Valéry 12 and Rainer Maria Rilke stressed the auto-referential character of poetry: a poem mirrors itself and its inner mechanisms. Only in this way can art show the laws and forces of reality and the original and superior order of things.

Notes 1 Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, edited by Ch. Bally, A. Sechehaye, A. Riedlinger, trans. Wade Baskin (New York – Toronto – London: McGraw-Hill Book, 1996), pp. 111–112. 2 Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, p. 112.


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3 Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, p. 112. 4 “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears, D. F. McGuinnes (London: Routledge & Kegan, 1961), § 5.6. 5 Viktor, Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” in Lee Lemon and Marion Reis (trans.), Russian Formalist Criticism. Four Essays (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), p. 22. 6 Viktor, Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” p. 21. 7 Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” in Style in Language, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok (Cambridge, Massachusetts: M.I.T. Press, 1960), p. 356. 8 See Chapter 14. 9 Roman Jakobson, Linguistics and Poetics, p. 361. 10 Roman Jakobson, Linguistics and Poetics, pp. 363–364. 11 Roman Jakobson, Linguistics and Poetics, p. 364. 12 See Chapter 18.


Antonio Gramsci: The Role of Intellectuals in Culture 1

Criticism of Ideology and Hegemony

The Italian thinker, politician and critic Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) discussed and redefined the position of artists and intellectuals and their influence on readers as well as their importance in society and political power. Gramsci was a Marxist philosopher but, unlike the orthodox Marxists, he thought that economic interests are only part of the structure of the social system. Values, commitments, beliefs and, more generally, cultural factors are also decisive. In simple terms, Marx affirmed that ideology is a system of beliefs and values which is the result of economic interests. These economic interests are individual but, at the same time, they express the ideas of the ruling class imposed on other classes and mirrored by the entire society. Gramsci criticized the Italian fascist regime and, more generally, the capitalist political system in Western states. He observed that the state exerts its political power by means of government and control. But this power is not just provided by the force of the army and police. It relies on a mix of coercion and consent. Hegemony is a general consent on which dominance is based. Actually, the hegemony of the ruling class binds society together without the use of force. Consent is provided by the hegemony of a ruling group over the rest of society. This group of a few individuals determines the political and cultural direction of the masses of individuals. This dominance is granted by different, formally private institutions of civil society (not directly controlled by the government) such as schools, universities, religious institutions, corporations, trade-unions, newspapers. The origin of political hegemony is to be found in civil society, not only in the political power of the government. Traditional intellectuals have usually been considered as a self-sufficient group of scholars, philosophers, writers, and poets speaking to a small number of learned readers and a relatively small audience. They were concerned with issues like art and literature, philosophy and culture, subjects generally considered of little political importance. Now, according to Gramsci, a social group which wishes to become a class, acquire political power, and become the leader of a state must, first of all, learn how to create consent and how to impose its hegemony. Since political power is based on intellectual and moral © koninklijke brill nv, leideN, 2019 | DOI:10.1163/9789004409231_021


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leadership, the group aiming to become a ruling class must create a new profile of the intellectual.


The New Intellectual

According to Gramsci, the new intellectual should not only be, like the traditional one, a specialist in his subject but rather a cultural and political leader with a specific function. The function of the intellectual has to be defined according to the needs of a determined society; he must create cultural and political hegemony. The intellectual must be recognized by its organic nature. Every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields.1 According to the traditional idea, it seems that intellectuals express, interpret and elaborate a pre-existing historical, social and cultural situation. Every ruling social group has had its own intellectuals. In other words, they represent an uninterrupted historical continuity which sees them as autonomous and independent of the dominant social group. However, every ‘essential’ social group which emerges into history out of the preceding economic structure, and as expression of a development of this structure, has found (at least in all of the history up to the present) categories of intellectuals already in existence. […] The most typical of these categories of intellectuals is that of ecclesiastics, who for a long time (for a whole phase of history, which is partly characterised by this very monopoly) held the monopoly of a number of important services: religious ideology, that is the philosophy and science of the age, together with schools, education, morality, justice, charity, good works, etc.2 The new intellectual, on the contrary, should be an organic intellectual, a specialized scholar with specific knowledge but who, at the same time, is able to direct and organize people. In other words, he must be aware of the task and responsibility of his position. He is not an intellectual because he represents

Antonio Gramsci


and expresses a given tradition but because he creates ways of thinking and feeling. He creates consent and, in this way, hegemony. The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organiser, “permanent persuader” and not just a simple orator. […] One of the most important characteristics of any group that is developing towards dominance is its struggle to assimilate and to conquer “ideologically” the traditional intellectuals, but this assimilation and conquest is made quicker and more efficacious the more the group in question succeeds in simultaneously elaborating its own organic intellectuals.3 Moreover, according to Gramsci, intellectuals are not a highly intelligent and morally endowed élite separate from the masses. “All men are intellectuals, but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals.”4 Intellectuals have a task in society and are responsible for other individuals. Material and intellectual work cannot be separated; production and understanding must go together: “homo faber cannot be separated from homo sapiens.”5


Consent and Negotiation: Beyond Gramsci

New intellectuals have to create the consent necessary to the hegemony of the new class. This consent is always articulated on a public level on which different voices and instances meet. Negotiation and consent are the basis of hegemony. Ideas, beliefs, systems of values, habits, ethos, morality, cannot be imposed by the use of force but must be negotiated through a confrontation between classes with different interests. Beyond Gramsci’s intentions, his thought has been adopted by the British tradition of cultural studies. Gramsci thought of the working class, but analogous terms can be applied to other confrontations and negotiations in more and more complex societies: class can express conditions and interests of any subaltern culture in competition with the dominant, hegemonic culture. In this way Gramsci’s analysis is essential for dealing with issues like race, gender, consumerism, colonialism and neo-colonialism, feminism and so on.6 Gramsci’s analysis of hegemony and the role of intellectuals in society opened new perspectives. Culture is not an individual activity dealing with tradition but it is an open contest of new ideas and spiritual attitudes, and intellectuals who win do not just publish a new book but create social consent,


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political hegemony and back a different kind of power. In this way artists and writers have new roles and responsibilities. Artists and writers cannot be considered, and they cannot consider themselves, as innocent and independent of power. They do not simply express the hegemony of the ruling class but they back it and even create the conditions of political power. At the same time, the reader and audience of any work of art are not free in their artistic and cultural tastes. Instead, these are determined by the cultural hegemony of a dominant class and, in a certain way, created by the intellectual work. The reader who reads a book or the audience who watches a movie has a social and political responsibility. The choice and understanding of the work of art have political relevance, since they have to do with consent and hegemony. All human beings are intellectuals though not all share the same responsibility. At any rate, to like a certain literary genre or subject, to choose a text and interpret it in a certain way is a political act and not only an individual one. We have to remember that even a popular movie has social and political relevance and the viewer should be able to understand it. For example, in order to understand a popular movie, we need to appreciate some stylistic and cultural rules and the possibility for the artist to contradict them. The task of the intellectual is to educate the audience to understand these aspects. The task of the artist is to remember that his creation always has a political and social value. Finally the task of the viewer, as an intellectual, is to understand if a movie has been created only for the purpose of the market, for entertainment, or if it offers any new ideas; he must be able to understand the different and complex aspects of the work and the deep connection between poetics, culture, politics, and power.

Notes 1 Antonio Gramsci, Selection from the Prison Notebooks, trans. Q. Hoare, G. N. Smith (New York: International Publishers Co., 1971), p. 5. 2 Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, pp. 6–7. 3 Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, p. 10. 4 Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, p. 9. 5 Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, p. 9. 6 See Chapter 28.


Structuralism 1

General Characteristics

The works of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson opened a new critical perspective and deeply shaped structuralism. The movement originated in linguistics but actually involved all human studies such as anthropology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and literary theory. Structuralism is not a single theory but rather an interdisciplinary method or theoretical attitude to understand the human world and human creations, art, society, and culture. The main point is that all human facts and cultural creations can be understood and explained as a language, since they share the peculiar structure of a language. Ferdinand de Saussure1 did not use the term “structure” in order to describe language, but he did explain language in general (not any particular language) as a system of signs. A system is something which can be understood starting from its parts and considering how they interact and work together. According to Saussure, a signifier is arbitrary but it works since it is in a system and it is different from other elements. A system is a structure, something which comes before its elements and which gives them a meaning and a sense. We can say that a structure is the abstract mechanism on which a system is based. Human facts and creations are structured like a language. If we understand their system, their structure, we can explain their meaning, not because of a necessary connection between words and things, but because we understand how the system works in general. Structuralism proposes main characteristics of linguistics. A system or structure is dependent on differences rather than similarities (a signifier works because it is different from other signifiers, and not because it is similar to its signified). A sign, according to Saussure, is made by the coupling of an arbitrary signifier to a signified. The signified does not exist in itself; it exists thanks to the signifier, which designates a portion of a continuum. The concept of sign is only possible in a system of differences. We also have to consider that a structure is determined by absences rather than presences (there is no material or objective connection between an idea and a word; there is a difference between ideas). In other words, we have to give up the hope of finding objective and concrete (historical, psychological, material…) connections and instead look for a moveable net of relationships in a system. The system © koninklijke brill nv, leideN, 2019 | DOI:10.1163/9789004409231_022


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in itself never has a concrete presence. We can speak a language and communicate with concrete and individual linguistic acts (what Saussure called parole) which are the partial and momentary realization of the language in itself (what Saussure called langue) which is never present as a whole and cannot be grasped. We can imagine human facts in this way: we do not possess the language as a whole, but we can speak and understand it. We do not dominate the structure but we are rather a part of it; we are “possessed” by the structure in which we exist. More importantly, in the perspective opened by structuralism, there is no historical explanation of the structure. Saussure called this the diachronic study of language. The focus on the diachronic axis implies that human facts can be understood without considering their historical origin and genesis but rather their synchronic structure. What matters is what is present in the structure. In other words, history is not relevant to the structural analysis of a system. We have to study the phenomenon according to its synchronic axis or as it is right now. Another essential point is the anti-humanist attitude of the structural perspective. The traditional study of humanities considered the human being at the center of any inquiry. This firm belief was expressed in different forms, for example: “man is the measure of all things” (Protagoras, 450 B.C.E.) or the human being is in the center of the universe (Pico Della Mirandola, 1493).2 We have seen that the object of human studies was human historical existence, or human afterlife, or human self-consciousness, or the unconscious. From the perspective of structuralism, there is no subject which offers a privileged point of view. There is no human subject, consciousness, will, or individual as the center of the system. There is only a structure. This structure is independent of acting subjects and individuals. The human subject is not the focus of the human fact, and therefore, structuralism deploys a fully anti-historical and anti-humanist perspective.


Claude Lévi-Strauss: Structuralism and Anthropology

Strangely enough, this anti-humanistic approach was first adopted by a French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009). First, he collected anthropological material and information about kinship structures, myths, religion, life, practices and beliefs during his fieldwork among the indigenous peoples of Brazil. Then after meeting the linguist Roman Jakobson in New York, LéviStrauss applied the structural method to the study of anthropology. The result was a new perspective on human facts, a real Copernican revolution. We can



understand kinship structures, beliefs, and myths as a language; that is to say as a system based on the relationship between elements. To understand a myth, we do not need to focus on its content, but on its structure. “It is the combination of sounds, not the sounds themselves, which provides the significant data.”3 Saussure and Jakobson proved it in the field of linguistics: a complex system can be constructed with a small number of elementary units of meaning. The facts narrated in a myth (like the set of sounds or the vocabulary of a language) differ from culture to culture. But all myths have a structure, like all languages have a grammar. (1) If there is a meaning to be found in mythology, it cannot reside in the isolated elements which enter into the composition of a myth, but only in the way those elements are combined. (2) Although myth belongs to the same category as language, being, as a matter of fact, only part of it, language in myth exhibits specific properties. (3) Those properties are only to be found above the ordinary linguistic level, that is, they exhibit more complex features than those which are to be found in any other kind of linguistic expression.4 What is relevant is not the content of the myth but the relation between its constitutive elements, which cannot be empirically stated (for example cannot be recorded) but which is common (in a variety of similarities and differences) to various myths from different cultures. The structure (and not the content) explains the function of the myth and its way of working. The consequences of the structural interpretation of myths reveal the deep mechanism of the human mind: Prevalent attempts to explain alleged differences between the so-called primitive mind and scientific thought have resorted to qualitative differences between the working processes of the mind in both cases, while assuming that the entities which they were studying remained very much the same. If our interpretation is correct, we are led toward a completely different view – namely, that the kind of logic in mythical thought is as rigorous as that of modern science, and that the difference lies, not in the quality of the intellectual process, but in the nature of the things to which it is applied.5 Myths allow us (no matter if we are savage or civilized individuals) to understand the world. They classify our world in categories based on binary oppositions. Myth, for example, reminds us of important differences (on a structural


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and pre-discursive level) and gives a symbolic answer to a practical question: who is a friend and who is an enemy? Who is part of the clan and who can be considered out of it? Whom can I marry? What is good and what is evil? What is day and what is night? And so on. Instincts provide an immediate and chaotic life. Myths offer a symbolic order. In other words, binary classification provides an order which replaces chaos and gives a meaning to the world, allowing human life as we know it, ordered and meaningful, at all levels of civilization. “The improvement lies, not in an alleged progress of man’s mind, but in the discovery of new areas to which it may apply its unchanged and unchanging powers.”6


Roland Barthes: Structuralism and Literature

Structuralism offered the utopian project of reducing human facts to a scientific system and the perspective of a method which seemed to be applicable to anything. Actually, the most influential representative of structural analysis in literature, the French critic and writer Roland Barthes (1915–1980) applied the structural method along with a personal intelligence and unique wit which set his writings far beyond the mere scientific analysis of texts. In fact, it seems that Barthes was highly unmethodical in choosing the subjects of his analysis, which ranged from literary texts to advertising, from fashion to Japanese culture, from erotic desire to photography. The point is that, according to Barthes, culture is structured like a language. The objects of analysis are disassembled in their constituent elements and these single parts, the signs, are considered in the whole structure of which they are a part. For example, in Mythologies Barthes considers objects such as the French iconic car Citroen or a night-club strip-teaser. These objects do not mean anything by themselves; at the least, their meaning is not what they may individually or personally signify or say. They acquire a meaning because of their difference from other elements of the system and they mean something solely because of the structure of which they are a part. Culture, as we have seen, is structured like a language and it works because it is a system. In order to understand the system, we need to take apart the single constituent elements (the signs) and consider their similarities and differences from the other elements of the chain. This science of signs is called “semiology” in the European tradition and “semiotics” in the American one. We can say that everything means something (it is a sign) because it is part of a larger system (a culture) and its meaning relies more on differences than on a given, intrinsic, and unchangeable content. From this perspective the meaning of a culture



(from clothes to food, from a piece of advertising to a poem, from literature to works of art) is a moveable scenario of signs waiting to be understood. As for collections of objects (clothes, food), they enjoy the status of systems only in so far as they pass through the relay of language, which extracts their signifiers (in the form of nomenclature) and names their signifieds (in the forms of usages or reasons): we are, much more than in former times, and despite the spread of pictorial illustration, a civilization of the written word. […] Thus, though working at the outset on nonlinguistic substances, semiology is required, sooner or later, to find language (in the ordinary sense of the term) in its path, not only as a model, but also as component, relay or signified.7 Our civilization is based more and more on words, despite the spread of images and visual media (think today of smartphones and virtual reality). Semiology has to take into consideration the spoken and written language (object of linguistics) and the systems of signification of cultural products Both systems work together and are interconnected. The language of cultural products “is not quite that of the linguist: it is a second-order language, with its unities no longer monemes or phonemes, but larger fragments of discourse referring to objects or episodes whose meaning underlies language, but can never exist independently of it.”8 At any rate our culture can only be understood in linguistic terms. Barthes highlights the intrinsic linguistic nature of our social and cultural products. According to Barthes, language has to be considered for how it works in a complex system, not simply for what it refers to or for what it designates. The signification of a popular narrative or of a literary text is not a simple mechanism referring to a given and determined meaning. There is no direct and necessary connection between a word and a thing and there is no direct denotative relation between a literary work and reality. A work (as a language) does not simply mean a fact or an existing or imagined event or thing: a work (as a language) exposes a system. In this way Barthes brings into question the ‘realism’ of narrative. When a telephone call comes through in the office where he is on duty, Bond, so the author tells us, reflects that ‘Communications with Hong Kong are as bad as they always were and just as difficult to obtain.’ Neither Bond’s ‘reflection’ nor the poor quality of the telephone call is the real piece of information; this contingency perhaps gives things more ‘life’ but the true information, which will come to fruition later, is the localization of the telephone call, Hong Kong.9


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This example shows that the realism of narrative is different from what we usually imagine. The function of narrative is not imitation. In all narrative imitation remains contingent. The function of narrative is not to ‘represent,’ it is to constitute a spectacle still very enigmatic for us but in any case not of a mimetic order. The ‘reality’ of the sequence lies not in the ‘natural’ succession of the actions composing it but in the logic there exposed, risked, and satisfied. […] Narrative does not show, does not imitate; the passion which may excite us in reading a novel is not that of a ‘vision’ (in actual fact, we do not ‘see’ anything). Rather, it is that of meaning.10 In the experience of narrative we are dealing with language. Referential function of language can be misleading. ‘What takes place’ in a narrative is from the referential (reality) point of view nothing; ‘what happens’ is language alone, the adventure of language, the unceasing celebration of its coming.11 Structural analysis offered the opportunity to study complex objects such as language, literary texts, and culture as a system. On one hand, the structural method granted the (often delusory) certainty of a scientific approach. We will see that the reaction of Post-Structuralism is based on the assumption that science itself is a cultural product and scientific attitude is not the ultimate answer. On the other hand, the structural method could be applied to many different objects of the culture and the human world. The same method is valid for linguistics, anthropology, and literature, as we have seen. But it can be applied to more detailed literary studies such as semantics (Algidras Greimas), narratology (Gérald Genette), and genre analysis (Tvetzan Todorov), as well as to other fields of human science such as psychoanalysis (Jacques Lacan), philosophy (Maurice Merlau-Ponty) and Marxism (Louis Althusser).

Notes 1 See Chapter 19. 2 See Chapter 8. 3 Claude Lévy-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf (New York: Basic Books Publishers, 1963), p. 208. 4 Claude Lévy-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, p. 210. 5 Claude Lévy-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, p. 230. 6 Claude Lévy-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, p. 230.



7 Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967) p. 10. 8 Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology, p. 11. 9 Roland Barthes, Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative, trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana 1977), p. 123. 10 Roland Barthes, Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative, pp. 123–124. 11 Roland Barthes, Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative, p. 124.


Martin Heidegger: The Work of Art and Truth 1

Heidegger’s Criticism of Metaphysics

Even outside the fields of linguistics and structural analysis, philosophers focused their attention on language, works of art, especially poetry, and interpretation in order to understand and explain the human condition. Language is not a tool but the condition of the human world; interpretation is the very form of existence; works of art and poetry are the way in which the world opens itself as an historical horizon. One of the most influential representatives of this linguistic turn of philosophy is Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). He had been the most important existential philosopher, but after Being and Time (1927) he had a reversal (the so-called Kehre): language, art, and poetry became central topics in his philosophy. Art and poetry become a central issue of his thought because the work of art or the poem show the primacy of Being and the possibility for the human being to relate to it. Consequently, language becomes important, since the original human language is poetry, and poetry is not only a form of art, but it is art in its essence. Poetry has primacy over ordinary and even scientific language and it has an existential value. As for the romantic poets, we have a world because we have poetry. The Origin of the Work of Art (1935–1936) is considered the most important of Heidegger’s texts on aesthetics. In this essay Heidegger indeed tackles the question of the work of art. But we should not forget that, following Heidegger’s thought, aesthetics is the result of a metaphysical way of thinking, that is to say thinking which considers everything (and Being itself, even if it is considered as God) as an object. The entirety of Western philosophy, beginning from Plato, is nothing but the oblivion of Being. The metaphysical concept of Being is the attempt to explain the contingent existence of things by reference to a necessary ground. Since Plato this ground becomes the eternal, changeless and perfect world of forms or ideas.1 In contrast, following Heidegger’s criticism, Being (object of ontology) is neither the human being nor the simple presence of things; it is neither God nor a Platonic form as model of reality. The case of aesthetics is an example of this oblivion of Being: we think of the work of art as a thing. “Aesthetics takes the work of art as an object, the object of aisthesis, of sensuous apprehension in the wide sense.”2 Aesthetics is only that part of philosophy which ensues when we consider the work of art as an object, as a © koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2019 | doi:10.1163/9789004409231_023

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being among other beings in its simple presence and not in its true relationship with Being. Heidegger, also, does not speak of aesthetics. And as a matter of fact, he does not speak of natural beauty. Following Hegel,3 Heidegger says that beauty is a quality of the work of art, created by man in man’s history. Nature has no place in Heidegger’s “aesthetic” thought. 1.1 But What Remains Is Founded by the Poets… The first public document of the reversal in Heidegger’s thought dates to a conference given in Rome in 1936. Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry is a comment on Hölderlin’s poems and on the line “But what remains is founded by the poets.” This document may be the easiest way to consider Heidegger’s thoughts on language and poetry. How can we attempt to think of Being more adequately? That is to say, how can we think of Being (the origin, the ground, the essence…) without starting from the presence of beings (individual things) and without considering the Being itself as a thing? The problem is a problem of language, too: our everyday language is a language for the presence. We use language in order to name things. Which is the language that is not simply the language of present things? How can we avoid using the metaphysical language of simple presence that names things as tools or equipment, a language for which words are nothing but labels to use these tools? How can we find a language that does not name what is present but that can name what is not yet? Poetry is a founding by the word and in the word. What is established in this way? What remains. But how can what remains be founded? Is it not that which has always already been present? No! Precisely what remains must be secured against being carried away; the simple must be wrested from the complex, measure must be opposed to excess. What supports and dominates beings as a whole must come into the open. Being must be disclosed, so that beings may appear.4 In our experience, the only language that is not used for a practical purpose (a language in which words are not simply tags for indicating things) is the language of poetry. Poetry is a language which does not depend on presence, but which can name what is not yet and, in this way, can open a new horizon. This new horizon is the “framework” in which the historical existence of a people is possible. Heidegger means that the poet, or better, poetry in its essence, opens this new horizon, and establishes what remains. Heidegger


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comments on Hölderlin’s line “But what remains is founded by the poets” in order to understand poetry in its essence. Poetry establishes what remains; poetry founds what previously did not exist. “Poetry is establishment of the Being through the word.” This is the relationship between Being and language: “only through language is man exposed to the disclosure of Being.” Poetry is not merely an ornament accompanying existence, not merely a temporary enthusiasm and certainly not excitement or amusement. Poetry is the sustaining ground of history, and therefore not just an appearance of culture, above all not the mere “expression” of the “soul of a culture.” That our existence is poetic in its ground cannot mean, in the end, that it is really just a harmless game. […] First it became clear that poetry’s domain is language. The essence of poetry must therefore be conceived out of the essence of language.5 Heidegger considers the relationship between language and poetry. Poetry makes possible that we have language. […] poetry never takes language as a material at its disposal; rather, poetry itself first makes language possible. Poetry is the primal language of a historical people. Thus the essence of language must be understood out of the essence of poetry and not the other way around. The foundation of human existence is conversation as the authentic occurrence of language. But the primary language is poetry as the founding of being.6 Heidegger is looking for the language that came before the established language of metaphysics. This language is poetry. In ancient Greece poets established Greek culture before philosophers. Art is the origin of civilization and philosophy. Poetry is not only the original language of humanity, but it is the condition of the historical existence of a people and, more precisely, the place in which Being occurs. Language (as poetry) comes before man and, above all, language does not depend on man. Language comes before man; it is not a tool which man can use. Language “uses” man because language occurs through man; that is to say that man depends on language. Language is “the house of Being,” man is at language’s disposal and language allows man to exist in history as a historical being (Dasein).

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From this new perspective, existence is not only based on language, but existence is a consequence of language, or better, language is the condition of existence of an historical entity as the human being: stones, plants or animals do not have any history, says Heidegger. They do not have any language. The language of a people has its origin in poetry because poetry (and only poetry) makes possible language in general. Poetry is the original language. It is not man who speaks, but language. Heidegger uses German etymology in order to explain the relation of language with the human being. Language speaks and man must listen (German: hören) to it and in this way he must obey (gehorchen) the voice of language when it calls him. In this listening, the human being belongs (gehören) to the language. Every work of art is based on this conception of language. Poetry as language of Being is the condition of every kind of art: “Art, as the setting-in-work of truth, is poetry.”


Truth and Being

Art is the setting-in-work of truth. This is Heidegger’s general definition of art. Now we need to understand the specific meaning of “truth.” Usually we consider truth as conformity or agreement of knowledge with facts, that is to say: the correspondence of a proposition with a fact. Plato, at the beginning of the history of metaphysics, considered Being as the eternal, changeless and perfect form of things, that is to say as a (higher) thing among other (lower) things, as presence. On the other hand, as Plato said, Being is seized by our sight in forms (this sight is theorein, from which derives our word “theory” as intellectual knowledge of reality), that is to say: when we look at the eternal and unchangeable form with our mind’s eye, we seize Being once and for all.7 In this case, truth can be only thought of as the conformity of knowledge with a fact. But this conformity between proposition and fact (“truth”) needs a condition. This condition is that there must be a fact. This is the original meaning of truth: there is something that previously was not. There is something new, something has happened. Heidegger translates the Greek word for truth alétheia with the word Unverborgenheit, “unconcealedness.” It means: what previously was hidden, now is not-concealed, now it is. Before we speak of truth as an agreement between a proposition and what is, it is necessary that something is not hidden, that something is unconcealed, that something is. Truth is the unconcealedness of something.


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Truth is not correspondence, truth is not a permanent and definitive condition, but truth is an “event” or an “occurrence.” “Truth does not exist in itself beforehand, somewhere among the stars, only later to descend elsewhere among beings.” The work of art is the occurrence of truth or the unconcealedness of beings, as Heidegger writes about a Van Gogh painting of a pair of peasant shoes: Van Gogh’s painting is the disclosure of what the equipment, a pair of shoes, is in truth. This entity emerges into the unconcealedness of its being. The Greeks called the unconcealedness of beings aletheia. We say “truth” and think little enough in using this word. If there occurs in the work a disclosure of a particular being, disclosing what and how it is, then there is here an occurring, a happening of truth at work. In the work of art the truth of an entity has set itself to work.8 Heidegger speaks of a work of art, but he does not concern himself with aesthetics, he concerns himself with ontology. Heidegger tries to think of Being in a different way, as the tradition of metaphysics did, which thinks of Being as presence and truth as conformity. The central point of Heidegger’s thought is that truth is not a permanent and definitive condition: truth is rather an event or an occurrence, a happening, and therefore truth has to happen in order to be.


The Work of Art as Set-in-Work of Truth

An occurrence or an event is something that occurs, that previously was not and that now is. Heidegger criticizes the Platonic conception of truth that became the metaphysical conception of Being as presence. If we think of truth as happening or as occurrence of Being we can no more think of Being as a definitive, stable and permanent structure, given once and for all. “The establishing of truth in the work is the bringing forth of a being such as never was before and will never come to be again.”9 The work of art is a set-in-work of truth and a happening of Being. This happening as “event” or “occurrence” is not a permanent and definitive condition. Heidegger compares Being as an occurrence with a “clearing.” Being is like a clearing (Lichtung) in the wood, where light (Licht) sometimes comes through the tree branches and allows the appearance of different beings (stones, plants, animals…). This clearing is not always the same; it changes, and it depends on something that is neither the clearing itself, nor an

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object in it (a stone, an animal…): the light in which things appear. This is the most important concept in a concrete and material language: Being (Sein) is neither a thing nor a particular being (Seiendes), but this is (like the light) the condition under which particular things are. The occurrence or truth is not a permanent state; rather, it is a disclosure, an opening of a new horizon in which things are. Within the event of Being, entities in the clearing find an order and a configuration. In other words, objects are present only in the light of truth, where “truth” is understood in the sense above defined as “unconcealedness.” Now this light in which things emerge as such should not be conceived as a stable and continuous light which shows what is. This would once again be the metaphysical conception of Being as a stable structure. Heidegger thinks that concealedness, like unconcealedness, is a constitutive character of truth. The light of Being can be thought of as a spotlight on a theatre stage, in that while it lights a portion of the stage, it leaves other parts in shadow. “The place opened in the middle of the being, the lighting, is not a motionless landscape. The non-truth is essentially the truth.” And on the other hand, “the unconcealedness of truth is not a normal state, but an event.” A work of art is a setting-in-work of truth, where “truth” is the unconcealedness in which different beings appear in the light of Being. The ontological question of Being is aesthetically relevant, first of all because from this perspective the work of art is not a thing. The origin of a work of art is the originality of art: art is at the origin of the work as well as of the artist. If we speak of a work of art, we have to start from art, from its originality and from the uniqueness of each work of art in its relationship with truth and not with traditions or models. Art is the origin. The question of imitation is completely misleading in art. Art is an origin albeit art does imitate reality: “The work is not the reproduction of some particular entity […]. It is, on the contrary, the reproduction of the thing’s general essence.”10 The work of art creates a world and compels us to consider our world from a new perspective. We have to accustom ourselves to living in the new world opened by the work of art because the work of art is the bearer of a new order and a new horizon which cannot be reduced to our old world. We have seen the importance of language in the relationship between man and Being. Heidegger writes that “only through language [is man] exposed to the disclosure of Being” and that “language, by naming beings for the first time, first brings beings to [the] world and to appearance. Only this naming nominates beings to their Being from out of their Being. Such a saying is a projection of the clearing […].”11 For this reason poetry is the fundamental form of art and


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establishes the original possibility of a relationship with Being or the possibility of the historical existence of man. Poetry is the condition of art in general and of the world. But there is a more important reason because the work of art is an essential way of establishing truth: in general, works of art show the structure of Being as happening (Ereignis) and of truth as unconcealedness (aletheia, Unverborgenheit). Only the strife between Earth and World that takes place in the work of art can wholly display Being in its non-metaphysical structure and truth as the result of concealedness and unconcealedness. Now we consider the meaning of Earth and World.


The Struggle between Earth and World

A work of art is neither a thing nor a tool. It is interesting in and of itself, in its usefulness; otherwise it would lose its character, it would not be a work of art. But in the disinterestedness and purposelessness of the work of art we can see what a thing is and what a tool is. Heidegger illustrates this with the peasant shoes of Van Gogh’s painting: “the art work let[s] us know what shoes are in truth. […] This entity emerges into the unconcealedness of its Being.”12 In the work of art the truth of what is has set itself to work, writes Heidegger. The work opens a world. It does not just refer to an existing world from which it comes. The truth of the work of art is only possible as being from a new, historical world. “The work opens up a world and keeps it abidingly in force.”13 What is the world? “The world is the self-disclosing openness of the broad paths of the simple and essential decisions in the destiny of a historical people.”14 The world is the historical context in which human beings live and build their history, opened by the unconcealedness of Being (the clearing). Human beings live always in an interpreted world, in a world made of meanings, of language. We have a world because we have a system of tools, words, relations, truth… On which ground is this system based? If this world is already done, complete and stable, we remain in the metaphysical conception of truth as a stable, definitive and permanent structure. That into which the world sets itself back and which it causes to come forth in this setting back of itself we called the earth. Earth is which comes forth and shelters. […] Upon the earth and in it, historical man grounds his dwelling in the world. In setting up [aufstellen = “to show”] a world, the work sets forth [herstellen = “to produce,” but also: “to set here”] the earth. This setting forth [herstellen] must be thought here in

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the strict sense of the word. The work moves the earth itself into the Open of a world and keeps it there. The work lets the earth be an earth.15 These words may sound obscure. But, for Heidegger, poetry shows the original dwelling of man on this Earth. Art is not a tool, not a world, not the truth, not a system of signification, but it is the condition and possibility of them all. Earth is impossible to name. We can experience the Earth only in the work of art. The work of art reminds us of the deep essence of things, the abyss of Being from which things emerge and which cannot be exhausted. In experiencing the work of art, we deal with things that we cannot explicate or explain but which are the ground of our existence. The World comes from Earth: Earth comes forth. But Earth closes itself in front of the World, protecting the inexhaustibility of Being: Earth shelters. Earth cannot be explained once and for all: it is like a reservoir of infinite interpretations, of possibilities, of imaginable and never yet attempted works of art… In contrast, World is the historical order in which we live, the culture we share, the poem we are reading. Earth and World cannot be separated and the struggle between them has no winner. “The world grounds itself on the earth, and earth juts through the world.”16 Earth is the ground from where the world arises, and it is the “sheltering agent.”17 The struggle between World and Earth is the struggle between open (unconcealedness of beings, truth) and closed (concealedness as a constitutive part of truth). “The work opens the earth itself into the Open of a world and keeps it there” but also, as Heidegger specifies: “The work lets the earth be an earth.”18 Earth is dumb, speechless, formless, impossible to speak of, impossible to tell about. In contrast, our existence occurs in language, our World is an explicit system of meanings provided by language, but language cannot exhaust Being. For this reason, man can only tell things of the World but he cannot tell the Earth, though he can glance at the Earth, doomed in the work of art.


Inexhaustibility as a Character of the Work of Art

The work of art shows the Earth in its materiality: In fabricating equipment the matter […] disappears into usefulness.” [The work of art] in setting up a world, does not cause the material to disappear, but rather causes it to come forth for the very first time and to come into the Open of the work’s world. The rock comes to bear and rest and so first becomes rock.19


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From the artist’s point of view, this means that the materiality of a work is a constitutive part of the work itself. In the experience of art, we have to notice the stone in the temple and perceive the word in the poem, as well as the colour in the painting. Thanks of poetry we have a language. In the poem the word becomes a word for its first time. And, moreover, in the poem we have the true experience of language, the materiality of the medium does not disappear but becomes an essential part of the work. Croce20 said the contrary and separated poetry from its material manifestation. Conversely, from Heidegger’s perspective we see that the essence of a work of art is not spiritual. Consciousness of its materiality is the condition of the right experience of it. Because of the work of art stone, colours, sounds, and words are what they are, and not the contrary. In other words, in the work of art what would otherwise remain hidden appears and that establishes the dwelling of man. Materiality is not a limit of the artwork, but it is its essence. Art focuses on this material and “unspeakable” aspect of things (Earth) upon which the World is based. On the other hand, what arises from Earth is a World of trade and explicit meanings, a system of relationships and values, in which the being is deployed and ordered. Only Earth can secure the character of the in-exhaustibility of Being and so Earth can always open itself in new scenarios.


Shock and Experience of Truth

Heidegger’s point of view is precise: in the work of art we do not relate with truth on a theoretical level, but we have an experience of truth as a new order of reality, in our world, in our life. What is an experience of truth? It can only be an experience that changes us and our usual relation to the world, which changes our life and our way of considering the world. In this way the work of art becomes the model of every experience of truth because the struggle between World and Earth presents the essence of truth. From this perspective truth is not a perfect, eternal and changeless order or datum but rather the result of a conflict. After the experience of a true work of art, we are no longer the same. We have changed and see reality in a different light. Several artists from the historical avant-garde had a similar idea of art: art should change society and the world, or change our cognitive relation to reality or, in general, change our normal relation to life. Despite Kant’s disinterestedness of aesthetic judgement, many modern artists claim that art should work on us, on our feelings, on our understanding of reality and acting in the world.

Martin Heidegger


From Heidegger’s perspective the work of art is what compels us to suspend our normal relationship to the world, our way to know and see it. Truth, in fact, can never arise from what is simply present and habitual, from our everyday experience. Art is the un-ordinary experience of reality in its originality. The work builds up a world, it does not simply testify to the world from which it arose. That is to say that the work brings with it its own world. This also means that the work of art cannot be placed easily and peacefully within the already existing world, precisely because the work is the bearer of a new horizon and a new order. The work brings into question what already exists and shows the dynamic character of truth. The experience of truth, from this perspective, is not a matter of finding confirmation of what we already know, but looking on the new, on the unknown, on a new perspective and a new constellation of meanings. It means putting into question the existing order. Heidegger uses the word “thrust” or “shock” (Stoß) to name the effect of the work of art on our usual vision of the world.21 In the same time period Viktor Šklovskij used the concept of “shock” to speak of the specific character of the work of art.22 The work of art presents the world as we are not used to seeing it. This “de-familiarization” or “estrangement” is a constitutive character of the work of art which suspends the automatic experience of our everyday perception of the world. Heidegger offers a philosophical explanation of this literary device. In the literary work we see the world from a new and unexpected perspective. A novel by Kafka or a poem by Rilke gives us the possibility of experiencing a new and unexpected perspective on reality. The experience of a work of art causes a shock or a feeling of extraneousness, because it does not present the world as we are used to considering it. In the work of art, we suspend our usual relation with the world as we know it and with its beings as we are used to seeing them. A new world (a new truth) takes its place, and constitutes the framework of our new experience. The work of art itself causes this thrust or shock: What is more commonplace than this, than a being is? In a work, by contrast, this fact, that it is as a work, is just what it is unusual. […] The more essentially the work opens itself, the more luminous becomes the uniqueness of the fact that it is rather that is not. […] [The thrust] transport[s] us out of the realm of the ordinary. To submit to this displacement means: to transform our accustomed ties to world and to earth and henceforth to restrain all usual doing and prizing, knowing and looking, in order to stay within the truth that is happening in the work.23


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The historical-becoming of the unconcealedness of Being is evident in the work of art, and the shock which derives from a new order of beings, persists in the work of art. Meanwhile, the work of art, on the other hand, expresses the structure of Being as an occurrence or event. As such, in some cases it may also irritate, disorient and hit emotionally. The work can do this for the simple fact that it is, when nothing forced it to be. Despite its cryptic language and conceptual difficulties Heidegger’s speculation on language has been very influential on literary theory and the interpretation of poetry. His redefinition of the concept of truth, the work of art as an event, poetry as a foundation of Being are pivotal points in the reflection on art. He presented many lectures on poets (Hölderlin, Rilke, Trakl, George) to highlight how poetry is the original language and how we dwell in the world opened by poetic language. Poetry offers an always new and ungeneralizable experience of truth, an experience which changes our world. In poetry we have an experience which goes beyond aesthetic pleasure and which concerns our very existence in the world. By means of poetry we have access to language in its creative essence, an idea already expressed by Vico24 and by the romantics,25 which Heidegger proposes in a new and consistent form: We human beings, in order to be who we are, remain within the essence of language to which we have been granted entry. We can therefore never step outside it in order to look it over circumspectly from some alternative position. Because of this, we catch a glimpse of the essence of language only to the extent that we ourselves are envisaged by it, remanded to it. That we cannot know the essence of language […] is certainly not a defect; it is rather the advantage by which we advance to an exceptional realm, the realm in which we dwell as the mortals, those who are needed and used for the speaking of language.26

Notes 1 See Chapter 1. 2 Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” in Philosophies of Art and Beauty. Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, trans. A. Hofstadter, ed. A. Hofstadter, R. Kuhns (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976), p. 701. 3 See Chapter 15. 4 Martin Heidegger, “Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry” in Elucidation of Hölderlin’s Poetry, trans. Keith Hoeller (New York: Humanity Books, 2000), p. 58. 5 Martin Heidegger, “Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry,” p. 60.

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6 Martin Heidegger, “Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry,” p. 60. 7 See Chapter 1. 8 Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” pp. 665–666. 9 Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” p. 687. 10 Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” p. 666. 11 Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” p. 696. 12 Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” p. 665. 13 Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” p. 672. 14 Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” p. 676. 15 Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” p. 674. 16 Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” p. 676. 17 Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” p. 671. 18 Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” p. 674. 19 Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” p. 674. 20 See Chapter 19. 21 About the relationship between work of art, shock and feelings in Heidegger, see Gianni Vattimo, Art’s Claim to Truth, trans. L. D’Isanto (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008) pp. 71–73. 22 See Chapter 20. 23 Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” p. 690. 24 See Chapter 9. 25 See Chapter 14. 26 Martin, Heidegger, “The Way to Language,” in Basic Writings, edited by D. F. Krell (New York: Harper, 1993), p. 423.


Hans-Georg Gadamer: Poetry and Interpretation 1

Truth as Experience

The work of Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) is proposed as a reflection on and, in some ways, a continuation of Heidegger’s philosophy on the work of art. Gadamer, however, emphasizes the literary and poetical work, focusing on the act of production and the moment of its aesthetic enjoyment. However, Gadamer’s reflection on the work of art is not separated from his philosophy of being. As in Heidegger, the artistic experience is not only a matter concerning traditional aesthetics but an experience concerning ontology, that is to say the very event of being. Philosophical hermeneutics is the central topic of Gadamer’s most important work, Truth and Method (1960). The main issue of this book is the interpretation of the work of art. Actually, the interpretation of the work of art becomes the model of interpretation of any kind of speech, since language (which is always the object of interpretation) is the general medium of any human experience of being (of the being of the work of art as well as the being of the material word we meet in our everyday life). Dealing with interpretation Gadamer tackles the specific problem of truth. Truth is not to be understood in an abstract sense; truth is given in the concrete experience of man, in his historical word. When do you experience truth? According to Gadamer, you have an experience of truth when you have a “true” experience, that is to say, when you have a real experience, an actual experience, an experience which transforms you, which changes what you think and what you are, which brings you something new, something that enriches you. In order to make clear this particular conception of truth, Gadamer highlights the etymological meaning of Erfahren, the German term for “to have an experience.” Erfahren harks back to the verb fahren, or “travel.” Actually, experience is nothing but travelling through unknown places, a trip which transforms you, because you are changed by the objects, by the people you meet, by the events which occur. While traveling (fahren) you can collect items and memories from the places you visit. This is experience (Erfahrung), and experience changes you. According to this model of experience as travelling, the experience of truth, in order to be true experience, must be a real and effective experience, one which transforms you, which does not leave you as you were before. Of course this concept of “truth as experience” does not match the © koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2019 | doi:10.1163/9789004409231_024

Hans-Georg Gadamer


definition of truth proposed by the scientific method, in which “experience” essentially expresses the correspondence between a proposition and a state of things. “Truth” in its original meaning, as an “experience” that changes the person who makes it, is therefore the contrary of the scientific method. Actually, you can only have an experience of truth in the understanding of history, in exposure to language, in the enjoyment of art not in adopting a calculating and objectifying scientific attitude. The experience of a work of art becomes the highest example and general model for the experience of truth.


Art, Interpretation, and Truth

Is it possible that art is an experience of truth? Generally speaking, you might rather think that art has to do with lies, or at least with a game, with relaxation, with something of no importance in real life. It is usual to separate art from the serious activities which are our real life. From such a perspective art can only be a kind of fun or leisure, or at most it concerns the spiritual forming of individuals. In any case, it is often considered as nothing more than an aesthetic experience, describable in terms of pleasure and displeasure. Actually, this is the point of view of the “aesthetic consciousness,” which, with the intention of shielding art from its enslavement to practical reality, eventually relegates it to a separate realm that has nothing to do with truth. The price paid by art in order to achieve its autonomy has been the considerable loss of reality and truth of the work of art. Kant was the philosopher who officially formalized this “aesthetic consciousness,” arguing that aesthetic judgment must be disinterested and only founded on the “free play of the faculties.” The museum is nothing but the correlate of the aesthetic consciousness. The logic of the museum, actually, is to steal works of art (no matter their creator, age or environment) from the original context that motivated them, in order to present them in a separate space, far away from the real world, as pure objects of aesthetic enjoyment. In this way the person who enjoys a painting becomes a mere spectator of the work of art, and his life is not affected by it. According to the aesthetic consciousness, the aesthetic enjoyment of a work of art is an experience similar to a dream, separate from reality, delivered to the domain of appearance.1 The work of art, in these terms, does not allow any experience of truth. Truth remains a matter of science concerning its method. According to Gadamer, however, the work of art is not the temporary or delusive expression of an “authentic” and “eternal” truth hidden behind the


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work. The work of art is its own truth. It is not a given object, defined once and for all, but rather an “event” in which those who experience it (the artist as well as the reader or viewer or audience) enter as a constituent element. At this point reflection on a work of art becomes a reflection on the problem of interpretation. We will consider a literary text (a poem, a novel…) as a work of art, but we can apply the same reasoning to a painting, a symphony or a movie and so on. If you have a “real” experience of the work of art you do not consider it from outside, as an impenetrable object, complete in itself. On the contrary, you make it your own work of art, you make it living and working according to your own rules (and the poem will work differently for the poet and for the reader). You make it part of your life, your feelings and your previous experience (and the poem may mean one thing to you and another thing to me). You are like a traveler who, in order to gain experience (Erfahrung), cannot just contemplate the road from a distance, you actually need to travel (fahren) and experience flavors, tastes, things, people… There is no work of art before this meeting, before this experience which makes the work of art living and which changes the subject who has it. The work of art is its own experience. In other words, there is notruth of a work separate from its interpretation, and the work of art is its interpretation. However, we should not fear that in this way the work of art is deprived of its specific and objective truth and reduced to a merely subjective experience. By meeting the individual and becoming an experience of his specific and historical world, the work of art shows its deep connection to truth. It is also clear that, on the basis of this kind of experience, we should redefine the concept of truth of the artistic experience as the opposite of that of the scientific method.


Game and Transformation into Structure

The concept of a game can help us to understand the ontological status of a work of art conceived in these terms. The player cannot control the game. First of all, the player cannot consider the game as an object. Actually, the subject of the game is not the player, but the game itself, which exists independently from the consciousness of the player who plays it. Moreover, “all playing is a being-played.”2 This condition fuses player and game and moves the subject away from its usual privileged position. The game transcends the player; it does not allow him to sit as a mere spectator; it involves him. But the game is also the representation of an accomplished and perfect totality. In this way Gadamer introduces another key concept for understanding the work of art. When the event described in the game comes to its perfection and represents an accomplished totality, we have the “transformation into

Hans-Georg Gadamer


structure.” This transformation into structure is the representation of something permanent, repeatable, independent from the representing activity of the players, something which is proposed as a consistent whole complete in itself. The work of art is precisely this representation of an autonomous totality. Any trace of the artist and any external element which has entered in its constitution disappear as such. Now the work represents itself as a world absolutely autonomous and provided with its own rules and its own meaning. It is endowed with an internal, specific structure which is not comparable to the external reality. Now, “the transformation [into structure] is a transformation into the true.”3 The world proposed by the work of art constitutes a new truth, it is a transfigured world which we are not accustomed to, and yet it is a world that convinces us with its intimate truth, its particular reality, and its inner consistency. In this way we see that truth in art is not the result of some content which the work of art communicates to us, but it is rather a structure, a form. This form of the work is a totality endowed with a sense: it is not a reality given to us through mediation, but it is rather something (an experience) which exists only in the mediation between the work of art and the reader or audience who enjoys it. By means of artistic representation we have an increase of truth of the represented object, and so an increase of its being. In art we have a new experience of reality. Usual objects in art appear as they have never appeared before in our everyday experience. In art, therefore, the being of things is changed, and the experience of art acquires a specifically ontological character. Both the artist and the reader (or the viewer, or the audience) are dealing primarily with an event of truth.


Fusion of Horizons and Historicity

A work of art characterized by such self-consistency and autonomy remains likely beyond any possibility of meeting the one who will enjoy it. We can take the case of a poem. How is a mediation between a formally accomplished and perfect poem and its reader possible? The poem represents a world; it is an event of being which is a matter of truth and it opens a new horizon which did not exist before. But this event which opens the world of the poem is the same which affects and changes the reader. We see here a “fusion of horizons” in which the horizon of the work of art and that of the reader melt and become a unique horizon. Reconstructing the question to which the text is presumed to be the answer itself takes place within a process of questioning through which


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we try to answer the question that the text asks us. A reconstructed question can never stand within its original horizon: for the historical horizon that circumscribed the reconstruction is not a truly comprehensive one. It is, rather, included within the horizon that embraces us as the questioners who have been encountered by the traditionary word. […] Reconstructing the question to which the meaning of a text is understood as an answer merges with our own questioning. For the text must be understood as an answer to a real question.4 In this way the poem, which is reality transformed into a structure, carries a world which must be mediated with the world of the reader. According to Gadamer, we cannot conceive a work of art in itself, without any mediation, without fusion of horizons, outside of any interpretation. What happens in the work of art is exactly the fusion of horizons, so that the world of the reader meets that of the poem. A poem without a reader is not a poem, as a concert not performed is not a work of art, because the concert consists of its performance and the fusion of the horizon of the work with the horizon of the performer and the audience. By definition, a work of art which is not a subject of interpretation cannot exist, because the essence of art is to be always its interpretation. Only in this way do you have that increase of truth caused by the fusion of horizons. “There is no more an isolated horizon of the present in itself than there are historical horizons which have to be acquired. Rather, understanding is always the fusion of these horizons supposedly existing by themselves.”5 In this way the problem of the work of art becomes a hermeneutical matter, an event concerning mediation and integration between two worlds, that of the work of art and that of the reader. Poem and reader become part of the same world. Personal points of view and even the prejudices of the reader are not a limit to interpretation. We have to remember that there is no objective work of art before its interpretation. Personal points of view and prejudices form rather the “historical” essence of the work of art, its “historicity” and, therefore, its “finiteness.” The work of art is always deeply embedded in history and human circumstances, and we can enjoy it only from an historical, limited and finite point of view.


The History of Effects

The historicity and finiteness characterizing our experience of art are the same historicity and finiteness that characterize our experience of truth. Only by means of the finiteness and historicity of our existence does interpretation

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become possible and, in this way, we can have an experience of truth. A work of art, like any other historical event, cannot be distinguished from the consequences and interpretations it arouses. Its history is the history of its interpretation, its historical meaning and the consequence of this meaning. Gadamer calls this essence of an historical event the “history of effects” (Wirkungsgeschichte). A work of art is nothing in itself and cannot be distinguished from the history of its interpretations, which the interpreter also belongs to. According to Gadamer, the work of art has no monolithic, ineffable essence. On one side, there is no work of art before its interpretation. The work of art has lost its opaque and objective reality, its being-in-itself independent from the mediation. On the other side, the work of art is a world with its own consistency and autonomy. These two seemingly antithetical conditions coexist because the event of truth, which is the work of art, is possible always and only in the mediation.


Being and Language

We will consider now how Gadamer’s hermeneutics (or theory of interpretation) becomes decisive for an understanding of literary works of art. According to a tradition which dates back to Romanticism, poetry is the pivotal form of art on which all other artistic expressions are based. Language is the condition of all mediation. Language is the “medium” on which interpretation is based. But this medium cannot in any way become a “tool” we can use as we like. The constitutive historicity of our existence is based on language as the means of tradition. Language is not just one of man’s possessions in the world; rather, on it depends the fact that man has a world at all. The world as world exists for man as for no other creature that is in the world. But this world is verbal in nature. […] Not only is the world only insofar as it comes into language, but language, too, has its real being only in the fact that the world is presented in it. Thus, that language is originarily human means at the same time that man’s being-in-the-world is primordially linguistic.6 Consequence of this is that without language human beings, unlike animals, do not have any world. To have a world means to have an orientation [Verhalten] toward it. To have an orientation toward the world, however, means to keep oneself


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so free from what one encounters of the world that one can present it to oneself as it is. This capacity is at once to have a world and to have language. The concept of world is thus opposed to the concept of environment, which all living beings in the world possess.7 In language the world displays itself in its various aspects as the specific reality of human beings. Language is the medium in which not only works of art present themselves, but everything can also be understood. Interpretation must therefore necessarily involve all human manifestations. To say what one means, on the other hand – to make oneself understood – means to hold what is said together with an infinity of what is not said in one unified meaning and to ensure that it is understood in this way. Someone who speaks in this way may well use only the most ordinary and common words and still be able to express what is unsaid and is to be said. Someone who speaks is behaving speculatively when his words do not reflect beings, but express a relation to the whole of being.8 Language is the only possible experience of being, the only possible ontology, so that “Being that can be understood is language.”9 Gadamer completes the reduction of being to language proposed by Heidegger. Nevertheless, in comparison to Heidegger, we cannot find in Gadamer reference to anything as “other” than the simple presence; in Gadamer there is no “Earth” as an inexhaustible ground on which the opening of the “World” is based. In this way we cannot find any deep and inexhaustible character of truth. In contrast, the work of art is an experience of truth and its horizon is completely unfolded in language. The work of art is the place where we meet truth, a truth we could not meet in any other way or by any other means. Poetry (the German term Dichtung means any literary form of art and, according to the romantic tradition, any form of art in general), from this perspective, has a primacy over all other forms of artistic expression, so that reflection on poetry has more and more importance in Gadamer’s philosophy. Poetry, too, often becomes a test of what is true, in that the poem awakens a secret life in words that had seemed to be used up and worn out, and tells us of ourselves. Obviously language can do all this because it is not a creation of reflective thought, but itself helps to fashion the world orientation in which we live.10

Hans-Georg Gadamer


The experience of poetry and art becomes a key event in understanding the world as an historical object and in self-understanding. Aesthetics is reduced to hermeneutics and hermeneutics, in its turn, becomes ontology or the philosophy of being. For this reason, we can say that Gadamer proposes “a critical destruction of aesthetics in the name of art.”11 Gadamer’s influence on contemporary theory is decisive. Both Derrida and the Yale Critics12 start from his hermeneutics. The function of poetry, the question of interpretation and the existential relevance of language have become central issues in contemporary literary theory. Concepts like “fusion of horizons” and “transformation into form” are essential to understanding the specificity of the literary work and its particular experience.

Notes 1 For a criticism of aesthetic consciousness, see Gianni Vattimo, Art’s Claim to Truth, trans. L. D’Isanto (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008) pp. 71–73. 2 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marsgall (London: Sheed and Ward, 2001), p. 106. 3 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 112. 4 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, pp. 366–367. 5 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 305. 6 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 440. 7 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, pp. 440–441. 8 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 465. 9 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 470. 10 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 446. 11 Grondin, “Hans-Georg Gadamer,” in Nida-Rümelin, Betzler (editors), Aesthetik und Kunstphilosophie von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1998), p. 296. 12 See Chapter 27.


Critical Theory: A New Attitude towards Art and Society 1

The Original Concept of Critical Theory

We have seen that the concept of “theory” dates back to Greek philosophy and that it became synonymous with scientific, objective knowledge.1 A theory does not change and it is independent of individual ideas and circumstances. This concept of theory was applied to the human and social sciences too, so that they have been considered ahistorical and non-subjective knowledge susceptible to empirical verification. The Frankfurt School and its representatives proposed the opposite perspective. Theory is always a subjective, historical and often non-disinterested activity. We need a critical position; we have to ask the meaning of apparently self-evident truths and commonly accepted theories. And, when we ask, we always have to think of what we are asking, why we are asking, what is at stake in our asking. Theory, according to the representatives of this critical theory, is not objective knowledge. The object of theory (or real knowledge) is not, like Plato said, in the eternal and immutable world of forms beyond the sky. On the contrary, it is possible that the very object of research has been created by the theory we want to demonstrate. For example, Plato’s theory of forms was created to demonstrate the superiority of intellectual knowledge over the senses, the superiority of philosophy over poetry, but it created what it wanted to prove: the concept of form or idea as the object of intellectual knowledge. In Plato, the concept of form justified the task of the philosopher. In general, we can say that, from a critical point of view, neither the subject nor the object of the theory can be taken for granted and as if they were already “given” before they meet. We have to be suspicious and critical of them.


Critical Theory Today

Today the concept of “critical theory” has become a general label applied to almost every subject in the humanities and social sciences. At the beginning the critical theory of the School of Frankfurt represented a specific and © koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2019 | doi:10.1163/9789004409231_025

Critical Theory


radical attitude. It was criticism of what was normally taken for granted in order to dispel the delusions of ideology through self-awareness and promote a free society. The works of Marx and Freud were the basic texts. Today many other authors can be ascribed to the sources of critical theory. Philosophers like Nietzsche and Heidegger, but above all authors like Saussure, Shklovsky, Jakobson and the representatives of structuralism, Gramsci, Gadamer, and then the representatives of post-structuralism, above all Derrida and Foucault, and the postmodern theorists like Lyotard. It seems that almost every theorist from the last eighty years can be ascribed to the trend of critical theory. Actually, almost every philosopher or theorist of literature, aesthetics and art advanced a kind of criticism against the dominant culture, in order to dispel the delusion of given and unquestionable concepts and categories. Using a current expression, critical theory is a kind of “school of suspicion.” Critical theory is above all a self-critical attitude; this means it is not external to the theory it proposes and it is aware, and critical, of the conditions and context in which it is elaborated. This self-awareness is its most innovative trait. Critical theory often has a social commitment. It has an emancipatory character and it shows the possibility of a better society and provides guidelines for human action. Is our society based on profit and instrumental reason the best one? Why do we accept a system which does not serve our actual interests? Is it possible to have a more free and happy society? Even if it deals with language and with literature, with movies and with cultural products, critical theory shows that the entire culture and society are implied in them. It is not just a denunciation of culture, society and ideology, but an attempt to present the mechanisms on which culture, society and ideology are based. We have to remember that, in the philosophical tradition from Nietzsche to Heidegger and Derrida, truth is camouflaged not just because of ideology or the social order. The history of philosophy itself, or the tradition of metaphysics, or the very language we use must be objects of our criticism. At the same time, it is impossible to find a point of view outside of philosophy, metaphysics or language. We are always in the tradition we have to criticize. In this chapter we will consider the origin of the critical theory, its characteristics and its main achievements, and we will understand the reason for its universal success and often misunderstood meaning.


The “School of Frankfurt” and the Critique of Instrumental Reason

In 1931, Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) became the director of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. The program, under this new direction, was


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interdisciplinary research into modern society in the wake of a revised and updated Marxian tradition. Philosophers like Horkheimer, Theodor Wiesgrung Adorno (1903–1969) and Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) worked together with psychologists like Eric Fromm (1900–1980), critics and thinkers like Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) and sociologists, economists, and scholars from different disciplines. Their interdisciplinary work emphasised the cultural aspect of social issues rather than the economic one and highlighted the interconnection between culture, economics, sociology, psychoanalysis, politics and power. According to Horkheimer, critical theory designates a kind of social analysis which is not scientific in the traditional sense. Scientific rationality, actually, is at the origin of the instrumental reason which characterises the Western attitude and that explains the horrors of the World Wars. According to instrumental reason, rationality – which means efficiency and success – is the best way to achieve a goal. What is important is the efficiency with which a prescribed goal is achieved. From this perspective means are less important than ends and what is objective is more important than what is subjective. The objective has a cognitive content whereas the subjective is an empty representation, an illusion. This rational attitude is called “Enlightenment,” and the historical Enlightenment in the eighteenth century is just a moment in the history of instrumental reason, which dates back to Plato and Parmenides and finds in modern science and technology its final form. For the Enlightenment, only what can be encompassed by unity has the status of an existent or an event; its ideal is the system from which everything and anything follows. […] The mythologizing equation of Forms with numbers in Plato’s last writings expresses the longing of all demythologizing: number became enlightenment’s canon. […] Bourgeois society is ruled by equivalence. It makes dissimilar things comparable by reducing them to abstract quantities. For the Enlightenment, anything which cannot be resolved into numbers, and ultimately into one, is illusion; modern positivism consigns it to poetry. Unity remains the watchword from Parmenides to Russell. All gods and qualities must be destroyed.2 Abstract quantities are all that matters because real qualities cannot be reduced to a mathematical order, and in this way they are considered art or poetry, subjective accidents, matters of no importance. Modern bureaucracy and concentration camps share the same principle of instrumental reason: what matters is not the means (the human being) but the end: efficiency and

Critical Theory


functionality to achieve a goal. Rationality, guided by the principle of instrumental reason, permeated Western philosophy, science, and technology. Actually, rationality and science could not prevent World War II and the genocide against the Jews. (Horkheimer and Adorno and other members of the Institute for Social Research escaped from Nazism in Europe to the US.) Actually, they were used to achieve an efficient extermination of human beings.


Criticism of Culture Industry

Today our society is permeated by the same instrumental reason (masked as a liberal attitude boosting rationality and progress) so that human beings are considered as things or, more exactly, as means to achieve a goal, and this goal is absolute power in a society in which profit is the only value. In order to get this power, mass media and art propose a simple and easy vision of reality, so that our critical faculties are dulled and atrophied. Critical theory is the struggle against instrumental reason and against principles which are given as self-evident and universally accepted but which actually express the attitude of the Enlightenment. Culture industry products such as Hollywood movies, pop music, mass literature, and art in general are the result of an industrial process of commercialization which implies production, distribution and consumption of works. Works of art are created according to market strategies and become a part of our everyday life. In this way, in the fruition of the work of art, we do not experience anything new and different, we are not enriched by it, we do not encounter anything different from our society, which is the capitalist society of consumerism and profit. In the experience of the work of art we feel confirmed in our basic attitudes and beliefs. The culture industry does not simply offer models or life-styles consistent with the social system but it rather presents its products as exceptions and transgressions of the rules of our society. Take an action movie. Think of the hero who transgresses the accepted rules (for example, not to kill) in order to impose the order of our Western society (which appears to be the best and only one, with its reasonable rules and acceptable exceptions, for example, do not kill, unless you have to kill an enemy of our society). The oversimplification of super-heroes weakens our critical faculties and we accept as true what seems to be just entertainment. Actually, it is not entertainment but advertising, propaganda, and social control. A system which exerts complete control on society is a totalitarian system. Why does a society prohibit some behaviours and, at the same time, present them as acceptable in the culture industry? Why does a society allow some


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behaviours and present them as transgressions? They are presented as a form of tolerated transgression. This tolerance makes a repressive society seem to be very human, tolerant and, above all, free. Actually, this tolerance is a repressive tolerance. Society prescribes a prohibition and, at the same time, a transgression, and by means of the culture industry it presents a cultural background in which prohibition and transgression seem to be natural and self-evident. Actual life reflects a similar level of tolerance. Our consumer society is rather free and liberal with regard to sexual behaviour. Is it real freedom originated by real tolerance? According to the theorists of the School of Frankfurt it is, again, a “repressive tolerance” where our real needs and actual opportunities for freedom are made to vanish. Films and radio no longer need to present themselves as art. The truth that they are nothing but business is used as an ideology to legitimize the trash they intentionally produce. They call themselves industries, and the published figures for their directors’ incomes quell any doubts about the social necessity of their finished products. Interested parties like to explain the culture industry in technological terms. […] What is not mentioned is that the basis on which technology is gaining power over society is the power of those whose economic position in society is strongest. Technical rationality today is the rationality of domination.3 The culture industry presents art and culture subjected to the modern capitalistic system of profit and serves its totalitarian impulses. Movies and works of art in general are standardized products so that they present little innovation and a lot of repetition. The current trend in the cinema industry to make sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and remakes of lower quality instead of proposing original subjects is a commercial strategy. Profit, and not innovation or creativity, is the point. But, beyond profit, there is something else: social control. They exclude what is new, what is different, what can potentially disturb the system. What is new in the phase of mass culture compared to that of late liberalism is the exclusion of the new. The machine is rotating on the spot. While it already determines consumption, it rejects anything untried as a risk. In film, any manuscript which is not reassuringly based on a best-seller is viewed with mistrust. That is why there is incessant talk of ideas, novelty and surprises, of what is both totally familiar and has never existed before.4

Critical Theory


For this reason, Horkheimer and Adorno call the culture industry a mass deception. “Industry is interested in human beings only as its customers and employees and has in fact reduced humanity as a whole, like each of its elements, to this exhaustive formula.”5 At the same time cinematic characters represent stereotypes with which people can identify and, in some way, find the meaning of their existence. But a complete identification is not allowed. The female starlet is supposed to symbolize the secretary, though in a way which makes her seem predestined, unlike the real secretary, to wear the flowing evening gown. Thus she apprises the female spectator not only of the possibility that she, too, might appear on the screen but still more insistently of the distance between them. […] Where the culture industry still invites naïve identification, it immediately denies it.6 The culture industry creates contradictory feelings. The viewer of the movie fancies and enjoys what she could be and is not. She is an “absolutely replaceable” individual and, at the end, since she is not the actress, a “pure nothingness.”7 For this reason “films emphasize chance.” Like in TV shows, success is a prize, a blind case, a random opportunity offered to anybody: By imposing an essential sameness on their characters, with the exception of the villain, to the point of excluding any faces which do not conform […] the ideology does, it is true, make life initially easier for the spectators. They are assured that they do not need to be in any way other than they are and that they can succeed just as well without having to perform tasks of which they know themselves incapable.8 Using the conceptual tools offered by philosophy, psychoanalysis, and Marxism, Horkheimer and Adorno criticize the apparently simple logic of the culture industry and stress the fact that there is nodefinite, rational answer to a system which uses instrumental reason and that there is no consolatory truth but only a lot of contradictions which puzzle the traditional, rational critic of society. For example, the culture industry, on behalf of the consumer society, creates the starlet of the moment, a girl endowed with sexual appeal. As a sexy actress she can be the ideal girlfriend of adolescents, and as a pin-up she can delight an entire army, and “it is accepted and approved, but prostitution behind the lines is not permitted.”9 The critical approach means that we always have to see what is hidden behind an apparent self-evident and universally accepted theory, fact, or behaviour. In the example, the point is not if the representation of a sexy woman is morally good or bad, or why a woman


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is represented in such a way. The point is: why is a woman arousing sexual interest represented and accepted as a model in the culture industry and, at the same time, why is she forbidden to be a prostitute in the actual society, where her sexual appeal would have a reason and a real purpose, where the desire she arouses could be actually satisfied? The social system itself is paradoxical and contradictory since contradiction and paradox are characteristics of instrumental reason, because the instrumental reason creates an irrational society despite all its rationalization.


The Critical Theory at Work

Critical theory applies principles from economics, psychoanalysis, sociology, and philosophy in an unsystematic way in order to reveal the hidden mechanisms of oppression and control working in our present world and culture. From Horkheimer and Adorno’s texts we can notice that authors do not propose a defined and systematic conceptual discourse. Rather, critical theory finds out the tricks and inconsistencies of a system which pretends to be rational, scientific, natural and inevitable. We have seen that critical theory does not share the scientific method and that it employs Marxian and Freudian concepts and strategies since they are not considered science and, in contrast, undermine the possibility of a univocal and unique social order. The cultural critic, psychoanalyst and philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), a prominent representative of the School of Frankfurt, proposes a fusion of Marx and Freud that since then has characterized the approach of critical theory. In his influential book Eros and Civilization (1955) Marcuse affirms, in revolutionary terms, that civilization is not necessarily based on the repression of instincts. Western society uses repression as an instrument to provide social order and ensure a stable political power. Actually, civilization is moved and animated by instinctual forces. From this perspective it is possible to imagine a society in which satisfaction of instincts, pleasure and happiness are granted, chaos is avoided and civilization is preserved. This would not be the consumer society and the capitalistic system, which are both based on repression of instinctual forces and on the eternal delay of a promised pleasure. Marcuse takes the concept of pleasure from Freud’s psychoanalysis and applies it successfully to society. At the same time, he takes from Marx the revolutionary vocation that philosophy has to change the world starting from the economic and socials level. As we have seen, in critical theory there is not a given set of rules and concepts but rather an attempt to see the problem from another point of view,

Critical Theory


questioning what seems to be normal, accepted and self-evident. A nonscientific tradition, then, can provide concepts and new perspectives and possible solutions. In the case of Marcuse, repression of instincts and unsatisfied desire seem to be instruments of power. Now we can better understand their connection to art and the culture industry.


The Power of Art

Satisfaction of desire is not the goal of the culture industry or consumer society in general. The culture industry creates desire and relentlessly promises pleasure but it cannot satisfy the promise “because its product ceaselessly reduces the pleasure it promises as a commodity to that mere promise, it finally coincides with the advertisement it needs on account of its own inability to please.”10 The commodity delivered by the culture industry is desire and not satisfaction and, at the end, the culture industry is the advertising of a non-existent goal. We can make an example. Mainstream movies which target a large audience (young people, adults, families…) present very standardized characters and situations. In such films the movie industry usually proposes actresses who are more and more young, beautiful, and sexually attractive. Their skimpy dress suggests nudity, but the naked body is never to be seen; their speech is often about sex, but sexual intercourse is never shown. It is strange, since a naked body is a rather normal occurrence in life whereas a hyper-sexualized and perfect body occurs less often, if ever. According to Freud, the sexualization of all of life (experienced as the desire for sex and the refusal to indulge in it, as flirting, as phantasies, and so on) along with the impossibility of satisfying this sexual drive, is the condition of hysteria. A world characterized by a constant desire which cannot (and does not need to) be satisfied is a hysterical world. You cannot live happily in it. Now, if you are not happy, you can be better controlled because you desire. If you desire, you can be used. You desire what you do not have, so you buy. Conversely, if you are happy, if you can satisfy your desire, you cannot be easily controlled. What in our society is presented as an apparent liberal and free attitude is actually proposed in the form of desire: a beauty which normal women cannot achieve, but only desire; the sexualization of all of life, but as a play which aims to increase desire but does not lead to satisfaction. In contrast, our consumer society proclaims that pleasure, full satisfaction of desire, and happiness exist like never before and that they are offered as available commodities ready for consumption.


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The work of art created and distributed by the culture industry is easy, enjoyable; it does not present the contradictions of authentic life and it does not require our critical faculty. We can experience it without thinking. “For the consumer there is nothing left to classify, since the classification has already been pre-empted by the schematism of production.”11 Actually, authentic art and non-industrial culture have in themselves a great disruptive and emancipatory power. Art, according to Adorno, should not offer any cheap consolation or vain hope but it should present the negativity of existence. A real, authentic work of art presents what is not assimilated, standardized, reduced to the order of things we know and accept. The novels and theatre of Samuel Beckett, the stories of Franz Kafka, and dodecaphonic music are examples of what art can be: something which is irreducible to the social and rational order of things. Something which is maybe difficult, unpleasant and uncanny, but art does not need to please and give satisfaction: in this case it would cheat you and be a commodity ready for consumption. Art in general, according to the thinkers of critical theory, represents the other and the different, what is not our ordinary life. Art is another dimension with respect to everyday life and because of this, art opens a utopian dimension. In art, according to Marcuse, we sublimate our sexual instincts (Freud called them “libido”); that is to say, we delay their satisfaction, in order to achieve an intellectual or aesthetic work. This mechanism of sublimation is the origin of the great works of art of the past and gave art a function in society. According to these premises, art is an experience of the other and of the different. Now, in the era of the culture industry and mass production, art permeates everyday life more and more and it appears to be more and more its reproduction. The whole world is passed through the filter of the culture industry. […] The more densely and completely its techniques duplicate empirical objects, the more easily it created the illusion that the world outside is a seamless extension of the one which has been revealed in the cinema. […] Life is to be made indistinguishable from the […] film.12 Today in industrial art we find the ordinary and not the extraordinary, despite cinematic special effects. In mass society art cannot negate reality, cannot offer a different, utopian perspective. Mass art simply affirms the existing order and the impossibility of resisting it. Sexual energy is no longer invested in creating and experiencing works of art, a process which Marcuse calls “desublimation.” Without the possibility of sublimating his sexual energy in a work of art, the

Critical Theory


human being lives in one dimension only, that of the present world. In this way desublimation is a repressive instrument in the hands of a consumer society based on profit and efficiency. It seems that sexual freedom is a great achievement of our tolerant, contemporary society. In fact, this freedom has reduced the utopian space of art and the possibility of experiencing the other and the different, and of resisting the present. Actually, an apparent freedom and false tolerance cause further enslavement and subjection to the instrumental reason, to the present and to its rules of efficiency and profit. This is what Marcuse called a “repressive tolerance,” which apparently grants freedom to people in order to control them. Art, when possible, seems to be the only real transgression and the only chance to change the order of things. Art, at any rate, is the only hope we have to be free.


Critical Theory and the Humanities

The school of Frankfurt left a great heritage to the study of the humanities and the social sciences. As we have seen at the beginning of this chapter, the label “critical theory” can be applied to many fields of research. In general, the study of literary theory and works owes a lot to the School of Frankfurt, and concepts like “instrumental reason,” “cultural industry,” repressive tolerance and emancipatory power of art are very useful. Today we can understand critical theory in a broader sense, as the systematic criticism (or at least the awareness) of the principle of instrumental reason, in situations in which human beings are considered as means and not as ends in themselves. It considers elements from society, from political theory, from psychology, from art, literature, and pop culture. It warns that what seems to be true is often nothing but a kind of camouflage of something else. It warns that we should not believe in the explicit assertions of a social and cultural system. Literary theory, aesthetics, and especially the study of popular entertainment (movies, comics, video-clips, and so on) has often adopted the critical attitude.13 In general, its strategies can be applied to many fields of research to great advantage. They can be useful in many situations in which a totalitarian system attains its goals by means of an apparent free and progressive theory. From post-colonial studies to feminism, from gay and lesbian studies to racial studies, and so on, the label of “critical theory” is used and, actually, means the emancipatory content of critical knowledge.


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Notes 1 See Plato, Chapter 1. 2 Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 4–5. 3 Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 95. 4 Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 106. 5 Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 118. 6 Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 116. 7 Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 117. 8 Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 117. 9 Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 126. 10 Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 131. 11 Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 98. 12 Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 99. 13 See, for example, Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (London, New York: Verso, 2010).


Perspectives of Post-Structuralism 1

The Criticism of Sign and Structure: Attitude of Post-Structuralism

Both terms, Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction, refer to something which was before and which we have to overcome or disassemble. In both cases the previous situation (a contingent situation of method or a given situation of facts or ideas) is the starting point to go beyond. We have to keep in mind the meaning of these terms in order to understand our current condition and the general situation of the human sciences and, more specifically, of aesthetics and literary theory. Post-Structuralism as a negative term in general means that the attitude of Structuralism was somehow inadequate or biased, and that we have to overcome it. The first case of an open and consistent criticism of Structuralism dates back to 1966, when, in a conference at Johns Hopkins University intended to present Structuralism to American scholars, Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) read a paper which called into question the structural method. In the late Sixties Structuralism was at the peak of its fortune. Structure was considered the constant and general feature of cultural phenomena. From linguistics to anthropology Structuralism was proposed as a scientific and anti-humanistic method. In his paper “Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences” Derrida criticized Lévi-Strauss and the very concept of the sign, the core of linguistics. The sign is based on a difference in which something always refers to something different (the signifier refers to a signified). For example, the word “horse” (signifier) refers to the animal (signified). Such a signified is considered as an original, permanent, stable principle or origin (Greek: arché) which is different from the play of moveable signifiers. As Jonathan Culler writes: “Traditionally Western philosophy has distinguished ‘reality’ from ‘appearance’, things themselves from the representations of them, and thought from signs that express it. Signs and representations, in this view, are but a way to get to reality, truth, or ideas, and they should be as transparent as possible, should not affect or infect the thought or truth they represent.”1 According to Derrida, without the supplement of the sign, we cannot experience the immediate, present reality of things. “Signs produce the immediacy of the thing they defer.” From this perspective the sign is no longer a tool, an instrument, or an intermediary to grasp the immediate reality of things. © koninklijke brill nv, leideN, 2019 | DOI:10.1163/9789004409231_026


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What we perceive as immediate is always the result of linguistic mediation. In this way Derrida states that “immediacy is derived. Everything begins with the intermediary.” Western philosophy is based on the assumption that there is a principle or origin (arché), or a final end (telos), which is different from the play of significations and which gives a meaning to it. This principle gives us the comfortable delusion that we can play (the play of signification) without being a part of the play itself. Structuralism is based on the same assumption of a permanent principle or a stable structure. The center is not the center. […] The concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a play based on a fundamental ground, a play constituted on the basis of a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which itself is beyond the reach of play. And on the basis of this certitude anxiety can be mastered, for anxiety is invariably the result of a certain mode of being implicated in the game, of being caught by the game, of being as it were at stake in the game from the outset.2 In order to master this anxiety for being implicated in the game, we look for a stable meaning, a “full presence,” an origin (arché, like the Platonic form), or an end (telos), which is beyond the game. On the basis of what we call the center […] repetitions, substitutions, transformations, and permutations are always taken from a history of meaning [sens] – that is, in a word, a history – whose origin may always be reawakened or whose end may always be anticipated in the form of presence. This is why one perhaps could say that the movement of any archaeology, like that of any eschatology, is an accomplice of this reduction of the structurality of structure and always attempts to conceive of structure on the basis of a full presence which is beyond play.3 Language cannot be considered as a stable system whose referent (object) is present, whose permanent or constant characteristics we can identify, and whose structures we can analyze. Language (or more generally the discourse of human sciences based on a linguistic model) is constantly changing and its rules are subject to variation. The idea of a stable and permanent center (a signified, a structure…) is rather a function, a continuous movement of “repetitions, substitutions, transformations, and permutations.” But behind these repetitions and transformations there is nothing given as a stable presence and as the origin or end of history. What happens is rather a process of substitutions,

Perspectives of Post-Structuralism


the infinite play in which the signifier refers to a signified which is not a stable and permanent principle. Henceforth, it was necessary to begin thinking that there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the form of a present-being, that the center had no natural site, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of nonlocus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play. This was the moment when language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse, […] a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences.4 The play of signification is infinite. We have neither a point from which we can start nor an end which we can reach. “The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely.”5 We are always in the play of infinite signification without a final presence given once and for all. Every signifier differs from its signified but this signified itself is already a result of the “system of differences.” A signifier cannot find a definite signified, a presence, but only an infinite system without beginning or end. There is not a privileged point of view outside of this system and a pure scientific and objective perspective is impossible. The result is that every thought (and in this way every concept, every idea, everything) is not exactly what we think it is. […] as soon as one seeks to demonstrate in this way that there is no transcendental or privileged signified and that the domain or play of signification henceforth has no limit, one must reject even the concept and word “sign” itself – which is precisely what cannot be done. For the signification “sign” has always been understood and determined, in its meaning, as sign-of, a signifier referring to a signified, a signifier different from its signified. If one erases the radical difference between signifier and signified, it is the word “signifier” itself which must be abandoned as a metaphysical concept.6 In this situation what can we do? How can we tackle the domain of the human sciences? How can we deal with signs? We cannot have certainties, we cannot hope for the definite interpretation of a text (or of a human phenomenon). Above all we have to remember that “language bears within itself the necessity of its own critique”7 so that we have to work infinitely on language (since we are in language and nothing human happens outside of language). We


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always have to find new interpretations and accept that things can appear different from what they were supposed or thought to be. We cannot get rid of our language, of our tradition, and of our traditional concepts, but we have to conserve “all these old concepts within the domain of empirical discovery while here and there denouncing their limits, treating them as tools which can still be used. No longer is any truth value attributed to them; there is a readiness to abandon them, if necessary, should other instruments appear more useful.”8 We do not need to change our concepts but we have to adopt a certain attitude by reading literary and philosophical texts in a different way, without the expectation to find in them a true and final meaning: “the passage beyond philosophy does not consist in turning the page of philosophy (which usually amounts to philosophizing badly), but in continuing to read philosophers in a certain way.”9 Life is permeated with signs and we cannot reach a privileged position to interpret them, we are deeply embedded in this process of signification so that we have neither immediacy nor external reality. We are always submerged in the text and “there is nothing outside of the text” (there is no outside-text; French: it n’y a pas de hors-texte).10 We can adopt a certain attitude; we can read texts in a certain way. We have to remember that when we read a text “repetitions, substitutions, transformations, and permutations are always taken from a history of meaning” but that there is no ultimate and original meaning outside the moveable system of signification of which we are a part. The very idea of an original is created by the copies and we have only to do with them.


Foucault: Archeology and Criticism of Knowledge

In later paragraphs we will consider in more detail the consequences of Derrida’s philosophy on literature and interpretation. Now we give an example of the application of the post-structuralist attitude to human science. Michel Foucault (1926–1984) was a French intellectual, historian, and philosopher. He came from Structuralism but the structural method left him unsatisfied. It is hard to explain his personal research methodology in general terms. According to Foucault, in doing historical research, we should avoid taking for granted assumptions and conventions and we should question our very thinking of history. Our idea of history and historical research should be questioned and should become the first object of our historical inquiry. The point is: why do we think according to certain concepts, terms, categories, and oppositions? A structural analysis can show the present situation but cannot explain the reason and origin of such concepts, terms, categories,

Perspectives of Post-Structuralism


and oppositions. Henceforth, we need what Foucault called an “archeology” of knowledge. We have to distrust the accepted categories, the perceived objects of knowledge, and we should research their origin. What we see as an object of knowledge is mainly the result of conventions. Our analysis should aim to reveal the origin of the object of knowledge which is made not of tradition but rather of dispersion and discontinuity, of transformation, of resemblance and repetition, of recurrence. We must also question those divisions or groupings with which we have become so familiar. Can one accept, as such, the distinction between the major types of discourse, or that between such forms or genres as science, literature, philosophy, religion, history, fiction, etc., and which tend to create certain great historical individualities? We are not even sure of ourselves when we use these distinctions in our own world of discourse, let alone when we are analysing groups of statements which, when first formulated, were distributed, divided, and characterized in a quite different way.11 Categories are supposed to be neutral but, actually, they are the result of a social, political, cultural system which is taken for granted and not analyzed. ‘Literature’ and ‘politics’ are recent categories, which can be applied to medieval culture, or even classical culture, only by a retrospective hypothesis, and by an interplay of formal analogies or semantic resemblances; but neither literature, nor politics, nor philosophy and the sciences articulated the field of discourse, in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, as they did in the nineteenth century. In any case, these divisions […] are facts of discourse that deserve to be analysed beside others […].12 The categories we use for analysis are the first object we should analyze. The object of history is not what was done but rather the set of conditions which made possible or, better, create the historical object. History is not linear and historical events are caused by dispersed and anonymous causes. The original cause of historical fact is not a subjective will, an idea, destiny, progress or Providence, but a discursive practice. A discursive practice is the system of rules which determines the production of statements in a given society and in a determined period. This rules decide what can be said and what cannot be said and, in general, what is possible to say. In order to speak of the author or a work, for example, it is necessary that the concepts of “author” and “work” exist and that the statement has a meaning. Rules are anonymous and


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objective; they do not come from an individual or collective will or from a decision. Foucault uses the terms discursive practice and statement to describe the origin of rules, but we cannot identify them with everyday language: They are, in a sense, at the limit of discourse: they offer it objects of which it can speak, or rather (for this image of offering presupposes that objects are formed independently of discourse), they determine the group of relations that dis-course must establish in order to speak of this or that object, in order to deal with them, name them, analyse them, classify them, explain them, etc. These relations characterize not the language (langue) used by dis-course, nor the circumstances in which it is deployed, but discourse itself as a practice.13 Sometimes there is a coincidence between language and discourse, but in general discursive practice means the anonymous, impersonal and not subjective character of the system of rules, which works like an autonomous linguistic system. In this way we can understand the discursive formation or a system of statements produced by an anonymous, discursive practice. A discursive formation appears as the result of tradition, or as the effect of an individual decision, or as the consequence of a choice made by a consciousness. For example, at a certain moment around the seventeenth century there was an increasing control of discipline in social institutions as prisons and schools. What happened in the society can be seen as the consequence of a tradition or of a linear development of history. A traditional historian could interpret it as a will to control, a desire for order, the consciousness of the need for good behaviour, the rise of authority and so on. Actually, it happened in very different places and institutions: in prisons, in schools, in hospitals and in factories… According to Foucault, there was a common discursive practice, that of “discipline,” which can explain dispersed and different facts occurring in very different places and without an apparent linear causality. The emergence of a discursive formation is random, anonymous and does not need any subject, any will, any intention or consciousness to be explained. And above all they do not have any aim. The forces operating in history are not controlled by destiny or regulative mechanisms, but respond to haphazard conflicts. They do not manifest the successive forms of a primordial intention and their attraction is not that of a conclusion, for they always appear through the single randomness of events. […] The world such as we are acquainted with it is not this ultimately simple configuration where events are reduced to accentuate

Perspectives of Post-Structuralism


their essential traits, their final meaning, or their initial and final value. On the contrary, it is a profusion of entangled events.14 We want to find a meaning in history, but this psychological need is at odds with the historical facts. “We want historians to confirm our belief that the present rests upon profound intentions and immutable necessities. But the true historical sense confirms our existence among countless lost events, without a landmark or a point of reference.”15


The Post-Structuralist Method

Now we consider the consequences we can draw from Foucault’s theory. There is neither subjectivity nor individual intention which triggers, orders or drives social phenomena. There is not a permanent structure which we can know with scientific attitude and objective certainty. We are always part of a discursive formation in which (and by means of which) we can say something. We cannot choose to change our discursive formation but only revise it in an “archeological” attempt. Knowledge in the human sciences is not an objective and definite kind of knowledge but rather a type of “archeology.” We have to discover our objects of knowledge and experience that can be very different from what they were supposed to be. The object of the human sciences is ruled by chaos, randomness, and chance and not by a general or universal law, not even by a permanent structure. Foucault gives a very clear example of this difficulty in researching a very common object. What is sex? It seems a very easy question. From a biological, social and historical point of view it seems to be clear what sex is. Today we can speak about sex with a freedom which was unthinkable in sexually-repressed Victorian society. Nevertheless, Foucault states, there is still a repression. If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression. A person who holds forth in such language, places himself to a certain extent outside the reach of power; he upsets established law; he somehow anticipates the coming freedom. This explains the solemnity with which one speaks of sex nowadays.16 Is it that simple? Can we say that sex is a natural fact and that its (relatively) free practice today tells us a story of emancipation? Actually, sex, repression,


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and freedom are interconnected elements of the same discursive practice. What we think of as “sex” did not exist before as such. Sex is an idea produced by different social practices, created by discourses. Psychologists, clergymen, medical doctors, writers, poets, and politicians all contributed to the definition of what we today call “sex.” We find medical, psychological, moral, political elements put together and deeply intertwined with novels, poems, narratives, religious prescriptions, philosophical treatises and so on. The biological fact of sex is indistinguishable from social, cultural, medical, religious, and artistic facts since they are all grouped under the same category of “sex.” This is an artificial creation which, paradoxically, serves to determine the identity of individuals. In our culture sexuality becomes the secret of human nature and its most signifying aspect (more signifying than the soul) so that we distinguish human beings according to their sex and sexual orientation. Foucault, in his analysis, considers sex as an effect of social, political, and cultural forces rather than as a cause. Sex is the result, not the (supposedly) given explanation. In this way we are encouraged to be suspicious of what is considered as identified and natural (male/female, heterosexual/homosexual…). Foucault says that “what is at issue, […] is the over-all ‘discursive fact,’ the way in which sex is ‘put into the discourse.’ Hence, too, my main concern will be to locate the forms of power, the channels it takes […].”17 A discursive practice always concerns the system and, as a consequence, power. There is not an isolated activity like “poetry” which is not connected to the discursive practice and which can be properly understood independently. Since there is not an objective and permanent system, knowledge is related to dispersed, random, different cases. The multiplicity and dispersion of the objects of knowledge are not the consequence of a weakness of critical theory. They are rather acknowledgement that theory has to follow and adapt to specific cases and to find adequate strategies according to each case or each field of research. There is not a general method, only that of distrusting the surface, the obvious appearance and the simplicity of the object of knowledge. In the human sciences the object of knowledge can be a small and particular portion of cultural production and the social world. In each case we have to inquire into particular objects and facts developing specific strategies, analyzing case by case. And in each case we have to find connections, dispersions, repetitions, concealments. In each case we have to distrust what can be easily explained in terms of tradition, suggestion, fashion, individual will or collective decision, in order to understand what actually is hidden behind what appears normal and understandable. And in our quest for knowledge we have to give up any hope of completeness; we have to accept that our object of knowledge

Perspectives of Post-Structuralism


is always the result of forces and events that we cannot fully investigate, and, possibly, we have to accept the final unknowability of our object.

Notes 1 Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 9. 2 Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), pp. 352. 3 Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play,” pp. 352–353. 4 Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play,” pp. 353–354. 5 Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play,” p. 354. 6 Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play,” pp. 354–355. 7 Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play,” p. 358. 8 Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play,” p. 359. 9 Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play,” p. 364. 10 Jacques, Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997), p. 158. 11 Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 16. 12 Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge, p. 17. 13 Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge, p. 36. 14 Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology. Essential Works of Foucault, II, edited by James Faubion, trans. Robert Hurley and others (New York: The New Press, 1998), p. 381. 15 Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” p. 381. 16 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), p. 6. 17 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p. 11.


The Practice of Deconstruction 1

Derrida and Deconstructionism: The Difference

Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote that there is no work of art, only interpretation and that “the being, of which we can speak, is language.”1 Jacques Derrida took to the extreme consequences the criticism against anything (a given meaning, a being in itself, a permanent substance) below or behind the interpreted world and the language. His criticism extends to the questioning of presence and immediacy, since what we perceive as present and immediate is the result of a linguistic mediation. His starting point2 is linguistics and he proposes a criticism of structuralism.3 The notion of or term “difference” is at the core of Derrida’s system (or unsystematic method) called “deconstruction.” As we have seen, Derrida starts with the basic concept of Saussure’s linguistics, the sign. He says that the sign differs, or is different, from the object it signifies. But the French term “différence” means “to be different,” or “to differ” and “to defer,” or “to delay.” The linguistic sign is different from the object it signifies and it “delays” the real meeting with the object it signifies. In this process of difference the presence of the object is permanently delayed. We think to meet the object but we meet its substitute, the sign. Derrida calls this particular condition “différance,” a French neologism which sounds like “différence” but which is written differently. The process of différance is the key term of any signification. Granted that we are in a world of signs, we cannot reach any ultimate, final and permanent signified. As we have seen in the previous chapter, traditional philosophy considered the signified as an original, permanent, and stable principle or origin (Greek: arché) which was different from the play of moveable signifiers. Now, we have to accept that we are deeply embedded in the play of signifiers and there is no position outside of it. Derrida expressed this condition with the statement: “there is no outside-text.” In other words, we are in the text we have to understand and there is not any original and true meaning behind it. Différance is a process involving signification which operates in space and time, whose origin we can never reach. There is not any substance or aim which is at the end of this process. The object we suppose as a presence at its origin (a referent, a real thing outside of the language) is always “different” and “delayed” by the différance. We can speak of a permanent process in which we never reach the real presence of things but always something we think of as a presence. © koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2019 | doi:10.1163/9789004409231_027

The Practice of Deconstruction


And, actually, the idea of “presence” is a leitmotif of Western metaphysics which Derrida criticizes. The very idea of an ultimate substance, or aim, or truth at the end of the process of différance is based on the assumption of presence. The concept of something which is being in itself (like a thing) and something else which is not being in itself (like a sign) affirms the priority of presence and the ontologically accessory status of the sign. But reality can be very different from what it was supposed to be. Western tradition is based on the opposition between substance and appearance, things and their representations or signs. According to common sense, our world is woven with signs but (according to metaphysics) what matters are things or thoughts, which are the immediate manifestation of the presence of things. As we already noted, “signs and representations should be as transparent as possible, should not affect or infect the thought or truth they represent.” On its turn, speech appears to be the immediate manifestation of the presence of thought. In contrast, writing seems to be derivative; writing is a graphic representation of speech, a sign of a sign, a representation further removed from immediate presence and truth. Now, Derrida turns this hierarchy between speech and writing upside down.


The Primacy of Writing

Our world is affected by signs; it is a text and there is no outside-of-the text. In our world any “immediacy is derived” through the process of différance. The very notion of presence is the result of a system of signs or “supplements.” A “supplement” is something which supplies and completes something else, which we believed immediate and complete in itself. Actually, considered from a non-metaphysical perspective, this supplement is not inessential, but it constitutes the very essence, the very presence of the thing we perceive as present and immediate. As a matter of fact, our experience of reality is never immediate but always mediated and “supplemented” by signs and previous significations. Derrida writes that “it is impossible to separate the signifier from the signified.”4 There is no starting point, no substance or truth, no sheer presence or objective data from which we can start. Through this sequence of supplements a necessity is announced: that of an infinite chain, ineluctably multiplying the supplementary mediations that produce the sense of the very thing they defer: the mirage of the thing itself, of immediate presence, of originary perception. Immediacy is derived. That all begins through the intermediary is what is indeed “inconceivable [to reason].”5


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As a consequence of that, writing is not the last derivative effect of an original presence. Writing is the starting point of our reality, interwoven with signs and significations which give us the delusory certitude of an immediate presence. The very neologism “différance” calls attention to the written word (in speech we cannot tell it apart from the usual French “différence”) and assigns to writing the task of performing the process of différance concealed by speech, concerned with presence. Actually, the delusion of presence is the result of the supplement or the sign. As we have seen, there is no outside-of-text and there is nothing but the text. Now, in the text, beyond and behind the real life of existences “of flesh and bone,” beyond and behind writers and characters, there has never been anything but writing; there have never been anything but supplements, substitutive significations which could only come forth in a chain of differential references, the “real” supervening, and being added only while taking on meaning from a trace and from an invocation of the supplement, etc. And thus to infinity, for we have read, in the text, that the absolute present, Nature, that which words like “real mother” name, have always already escaped, have never existed; that what opens meaning and language is writing as the disappearance of natural presence.6 Language, and writing in the first place, before speech, opens and articulates our world by making disappear the natural presence, something which has never existed except as a delusion created by the chain of supplements, by the infinite process of différance.


Derrida’s Deconstruction and Literary Criticism

Deconstruction has become a method and a kind of reading strategy. Applications and results may vary considerably from case to case and from critic to critic, but the general attitude is that we should avoid looking for a cause-effect connection between phenomena which are apparently related. What is obvious and consistent is worth deeper consideration. The method of deconstruction suggests the reversal of the usual and traditional order of things based on accepted oppositions (signifier/signified, writing/speech, cause/consequence, and so on) and then the deconstruction or dismantlement of the system on which these oppositions are based. Every object of knowledge (a text as well as a concept) hides in itself the conditions of its own deconstruction, since the origin of every object is different from what it seems to be according to

The Practice of Deconstruction


the history of causes and effects, tradition, or common sense. The practice of deconstruction considers texts (their ideas, authors, facts, rhetorical forms…) in their complexity and reciprocal interdependence and does not restrain from a free and personal choice of details, paradoxical interpretations and non-conventional strategies of reading, at odds with historical interpretation, conventional criticism and common sense. It is possible to find examples of deconstruction, but it is impossible to give a general method to follow. If it seems to us in principle impossible to separate, through interpretation or commentary, the signified from the signifier, and thus to destroy writing by the writing that is yet reading […] When we speak of the writer and of the encompassing power of the language to which he is subject, we are not only thinking of the writer in literature. The philosopher, the chronicler, the theoretician in general, and at the limit everyone writing, is thus taken by surprise. But, in each case, the person writing is inscribed in a determined textual system.7 In this work of “destroying writing” by means of our interpretative writing which is a reading, we cannot dwell outside of the text and we are always in play. There is not any higher authority (as an author or an external meaning) which can help us to decide the true interpretation. The result is that we cannot often decide the true and definite meaning of texts or concepts. In contrast, sometimes we have to accept that a text or a concept remains indecipherable and that our criticism can only state that something is neither this nor that and that a definite answer is out of the question. Our understanding is more the practice of deconstruction in itself than an ultimate truth. Deconstruction means to read texts and authors “in a certain way,” as Derrida puts it: we should distrust appearance, clear and evident cause-affect connections, common sense, and consider that reality can be very different from what it seems to be. From the point of view of interpretation, we have to be aware that a text cannot find a definite interpretation and does not have a unique meaning. Even a single interpretation is subject to constant variations and adjustments, since the practice of deconstruction does not stop at any result and it is rather conceivable as a permanent movement. Then, we have to accept that there is no difference between work and interpretation. Since there is no “outside of the text,” a work and its interpretation share the same value and ontological status. The extreme consequence of this fact is that a piece of criticism and a piece of narrative are similar works and, in the end, we have to consider them at the same level in the hierarchy of texts. Romantic poets and philosophers have already stated this fact8 and decadent


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writers stressed the essential equivalence of creative and critical works9 but they did it for poetic reasons and in an unsystematic way. Derrida offers a philosophical and critical approach to a question which will be extremely influential on literary theory.


Yale Critics: Bloom, De Man and the Practice of Deconstruction

Derrida’s deconstructionism has had a great impact on aesthetics, criticism, and literary theory. Nevertheless, it is impossible to remain true to Derrida, since deconstruction has not (and cannot have) a definite methodology.10 At Yale University some critics freely applied deconstructionist strategies to the close reading of literary texts. Texts of poetry and criticism (considered at the same level) have been read with original and interesting results. Harold Bloom (1930) affirms that there are no texts in themselves, only relationships between texts and that their interaction is meaningful. Bloom calls this relationship “influence,” and poets and critics always experience the influence of the works of their predecessors. The history of poetical and critical texts is the history of their influence. A strong poet or a strong critic revises, re-interprets, and re-writes the work of his predecessors, in order to overcome the anxiety of influence. A strong poet attempts to occupy the ground or the poetic realm of his great precursor. He creatively misreads his predecessor and creates his own poetic realm and his own original work. His misreading is a wilful act which requires force and courage. In contrast, Bloom says, a weak poet imitates his precursor and remains in his shadow because he cannot find the force or courage to misread his work. I propose, not another new poetics, but a wholly different practical criticism. Let us give up the failing enterprise of seeking to “understand” any single poem as an entity in itself. Let us pursue instead the quest of learning to read any poem as its poet’s deliberate misinterpretation, as a poet, of a precursor poem or of poetry in general. Know each poem by its clinamen and you will know that poem in a way that will nor purchase knowledge by the loss of the poem’s power.11 Bloom’s approach to the poetic text is personal and original. His terminology is creative and his imagery is free, corroborating the idea that between poetry and criticism there is no difference. He writes “a theory of poetry which presents itself as a severe poem”12 and uses terms such as clinamen which are extraneous to the critical tradition. Clinamen is from Lucretius’s poem The Nature of

The Practice of Deconstruction


Things and “it means the swerve of the atom so as to make change possible in the universe.”13 In Bloom’s theory it refers to “poetic misreading or misprision.” According to Bloom, the history of texts is the history of their misreading or misprision, a process which certainly owes to Derrida’s notion of différance and which makes of intertextuality a main concept of aesthetics and criticism and a key concept of poetic creation, too. Intertextuality means that a text can never be considered alone but all texts are made of other pre-existing texts which are in reciprocal interaction. Misreading is neither imitation nor tradition, but a more active and less controlled principle. It means also that a work cannot be considered as an isolated text and every literary work re-calls, refers to and calls into question other works. We have seen the first definite appearance of the concept of intertextuality in early Romantic poetology and the concept of “transcendental poetry.”14 Then we have considered its presence in Roman Jacobson and in structuralism.15 Now the principle of misreading proposed by Bloom anticipates the concept of “intertextuality” of Julia Kristeva (1941). We cannot find an intrinsic meaning of a text, since a text does not exist as an isolated item but is rather a mosaic of quotations from or references to other texts; a text is always in dialogue with other texts. In this way meanings in general are the result of a negotiation between already established meanings. Another influential critic who was active at Yale University is Paul De Man (1919–1983). He moves between criticism and poetry, challenging the limits of both. He states that in language there is a permanent conflict between its literal or referential meaning (what it says concerning the world) and its figural meaning (represented by its rhetorical use). All language is figural in its essence so that it resists interpretation and introduces an element of essential ambiguity. On the one hand, we have a literal meaning and on the other hand a figural meaning and it is impossible to decide, by means of grammatical devices, which of the two (maybe contradictory) meanings prevails. We cannot decide the true and definite meaning and when we are looking for the literal meaning we do not see the figural one and we are blind to the text. This paradoxical experience of blindness and insight (the title of De Man’s famous book) is the consequence of the ambivalent nature of language. Blindness and insight are two contradictory conditions which are always present when we read a text. This essential ambiguity of language means that we cannot find any final interpretation or any definite meaning of a work. A final meaning is nothing but a rhetorical figure itself, an allegory of our reading. Poetic language is a continuous attempt to tell something which is not in the order of the “real” or referential world, named by referential language. Dealing with terms such as nostalgia and desire in Romantic poetry De Man writes:


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One hesitates to use terms such as nostalgia or desire to designate this kind of consciousness, for all nostalgia or desire is desire of something or for someone; here, the consciousness does not result from the absence of something, but consists of the presence of a nothingness. Poetic language names this void with ever-renewed understanding, and […] it never tires of naming it again. This persistent naming is what we call literature.16 In the same way, fiction creates the illusion of reality. But this illusion does not need to be demystifies. The work of fiction invents fictional subjects to create the illusion of the reality of others. But the fiction is not a myth, for it knows and names itself as fiction. It is not a demystification, it is demystified from the start. When modern critics think they are demystifying literature, they are in fact being demystified by it; but since this necessarily occurs in the form of a crisis, they are blind to what takes place within themselves.17 The literal and referential attempt of criticism, which tries to demystify the meaning of literature (for example by referring the poem to an author’s life or to the historical period or literary tradition, and so on) cannot grasp the real meaning of the literary text. This literal and referential perspective is blind as far as the figural dimension is concerned. This contradiction of meanings is the specific trait of literary experience.

Notes 1 See Chapter 24. 2 See Chapter 26. 3 See David Novitz, “Postmodernism. Barthes and Derrida,” in Berys Gaut, Dominic McIver Lopes (editors), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (London, New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 155–165. 4 Jacques, Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997), p. 159. 5 Jacques, Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 157. 6 Jacques, Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 159. 7 Jacques, Derrida, Of Grammatology, pp. 159–160. 8 See Chapter 14. 9 See Chapter 18.

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10 See Wallace Martin, “Introduction” and Wlad Godzich, “The Domestication of Derrida” in Jonathan Arac, Wlad Godzich, Wallace Martin (editors), The Yale Critics: Deconstruction in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987). 11 Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence. A Theory of Poetry (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 43. 12 Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, p. 13. 13 Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, p. 14. 14 See Chapter 14. 15 See Chapters 20 and 22. 16 Paul De Man, Blindness and Insight. Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 18. 17 Paul De Man, Blindness and Insight, p. 18.


Contemporary Schools and Traditions in Literary and Critical Theory 1

Theory, Literary Works, and Critical Theory

From the perspective opened by Post-Structuralism it is even hard to decide what is today the definite object of critical theory and literary criticism. The very concept of “theory” no longer has the traditional, Platonic meaning1 and the scientific status of knowledge concerning a specific object of a definite field. According to Jonathan Culler, we can say that today theory means a “miscellaneous” genre “which has come to designate works that succeed in challenging and reorienting thinking in fields other than those to which they apparently belong. […] Works regarded as theory have effects beyond their original field.”2 We have already stated this interaction between different fields of knowledge, especially in the Romantic period and then in the last century. In linguistics, critical theory, structuralism, deconstruction, and postmodern, theory has become an open set of works about philosophy, sociology, linguistics, poetics, culture, and so on, even if the specific object of the study is a literary work. Sometimes, like in the case of Bloom or Derrida, it happens that it is even difficult to draw a precise line between creative and critical works. For instance, we have seen that critical theory in its original form3 was a kind of political criticism (a “school of suspicion”) with an explicit social commitment, which has found in the field of literary criticism a great opportunity for development and a fruitful application. Conversely, we have stated that the strategies elaborated and offered by linguistics and literary criticism are useful and can be applied in order to understand and explain social facts.4 We do not study literary theory only to understand an author or a literary work. “As a critique of common sense and exploration of alternative conceptions, theory involves a questioning of the most basic premises of assumptions of literary study, the unsettling of anything that may have been taken for granted. What is meaning? What is an author? What is it to read? What is the ‘I’ or the subject who writes, reads, or acts? How do texts relate to the circumstances in which they are produced?”5 In this way, today literary theory gives a clue about something which is beyond the text, tackles complex problems, for example how the human world is organized and structured and how it can be understood, what is the meaning of “understanding,” what is at stake in our understanding © koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2019 | doi:10.1163/9789004409231_028

Traditions in Literary and Critical Theory


of the world and which dangers we face in our attempt to understand it, why literary works always bring with them a theoretical meaning, and so on. Derrida’s interpretation shows the extent to which literary works themselves […] are theoretical: they offer explicit speculative arguments about writing, desire, and substitution and supplementation, and they guide thinking about these topics in ways that they leave implicit. Foucault, on the other hand, proposes to show us not how insightful or wise texts are, but how far the discourses of doctors, scientists, novelists, and others create the things they claim only to analyse. Derrida shows how theoretical the literary works are, Foucault how creatively productive the discourses of knowledge are.6 To understand reality as a structure, or as a discursive practice without a permanent structure, requires a literary attitude. The human world is a system of signs and the possibilities and strategies for understanding it are mediated by the criticism which is articulated as literary criticism. Derrida and Foucault, among many others, proposed a new strategy of reading texts and culture in order to deconstruct what is taken for granted and what seems to be obvious.7 The object of our inquiry can be a literary text or a cultural aspect of our world. Or, in many cases, it can be a literary work which exposes a cultural content, or a literary work whose structure and linguistic organization make understandable something which is beyond the accepted and conventional world. The post-structural attitude prescribes that we have to distrust what can be easily explained in terms of tradition, fashion, individual will or collective decision, and we have to find what is hidden behind what seems normal and socially accepted.8 Sometimes we have to acknowledge that the issue we are considering is rather the effect of forces, powers, and traditions that we cannot fully investigate. Nevertheless, it is important to read works “in a certain way,” to consider what is behind the surface of the given object of social and literary experience. This post-structural line of thinking, this attitude of distrust towards given categories and this questioning of traditions, culture, power and even our own questioning, has been adopted in many fields of research and by different schools and movements of literary theory. Post-Colonial Studies, Queer Theory, Minority Discourse, and Gender Studies can take advantage of Foucault’s strategies and, more generally, of the post-structural attitude. The result is that human sciences have been fragmented into a great number of critical practices, each of them inquiring into a specific portion of culture and society and


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following particular strategies and methods. In other words, in the human sciences we cannot find a unique method and general strategy with a universal validity. At the same time, the line which separates words and things, literary works and facts, discourses and social reality becomes very thin and often disappears. It exposes the theory to a danger: to which degree does the theory influence or invent its own object? The danger that the theory we elaborate or adopt determines or even creates the issue or the problem of research is a real one, and we have to take it into account. One of the tasks of critical theory in its broader meaning9 is to explain the emergence of its objects of knowledge. In the literary work something more than imitation or presentation of a supposed “real world” is at stake. In contrast, the “real world” outside of literature seems to be more and more permeated or, better, constituted by our discursive practices, by our narratives, by our literary works. In contemporary literary theory there are several schools, traditions, or movements which adopt a critical attitude to their fields of research. We remember some of these schools as examples of the contemporary debate and perspectives.


Feminist Theory and Criticism

Simone De Beauvoir (1908–1986) has written that woman is made not born. How is the feminine identity created? Femininity itself is a gender identity for woman changing from one historical period to another and from one country to another. Nevertheless, it is a set of rules which prescribe how women have to act, think, behave, feel… It appears that femininity is defined as something different from masculinity which seems to be the “normal” condition. The systemic nature may explain the concept of woman as other from man but it does not explain its pervasiveness, durability and force in society. What is the origin of this system of rules and why is it so long-lasting and ubiquitous? Is it the patriarchal tradition and the power held by men which has created this gender inequality? Are women victims or accomplices of their own condition? Is there a biological reason for this inequality? We can suppose that in the prehistoric and ancient world the biological condition determined the physical inferiority of women. Today technology and modern life create a new environment so that biology cannot be called on to justify a woman’s supposed inferiority. The question is important and our very culture is at stake. Johan Jacob Bachofen (1815–1887) proposed that at the beginning of our civilization societies were ruled by a matriarchal system in which power was held by women. This assumption subverts the traditions and accepted institutions

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of our society, like property and family, and even a symbolic order (symbols of earth and water instead of the traditional symbols of heaven of classical mythology). A male-ruled society is characterized by conquest (of new fields, new land and more power), whereas a feminine-oriented society is oriented toward conservation; the former is based on limits, the latter does not know any limits, like the unlimited life of nature. Can we imagine, today, a society which is not based on our patriarchal values and traditions? Feminist theory and criticism, one century after Bachofen, consider with a new self-awareness issues concerning gender, inequality of the sexes, and the condition of women in literary works and in the present society.10 It combines the study of woman writers with the analysis of women in literature and in other forms of art. Biological, cultural, social, historical, political, and religious questions can be discussed from very different perspectives and with different results. It can propose strategies to bring equality between the sexes and create literary worlds in which inequality of the sexes does not exist. Science fiction (for example Ursula Le Guin) can be a very interesting and challenging field to propose and discuss such a perspective. How does sexual difference determine a literary work? How is inequality of the sexes represented in it? Why are woman writers marginalized or excluded from literary history? What are the possibilities of a subaltern culture like the feminine one to be represented in a male-dominated culture? Is it a different perspective possible? And then, the questioning of the opposition man/ woman poses further issues: What are the creative and existential possibilities offered by a work of art not conditioned by a male-determined culture? Feminist theory is a very large and articulated intellectual movement. Its aim is the definition of woman’s identity and the specificity of woman’s writing as a specific experience. It calls into question the patriarchal tradition. At the same time, it can be a questioning of the opposition male/female as the basis of culture and identity. Among the main authors we can remember are Luce Irigaray (1932), Julia Kristeva (1941) and Judith Butler (1956).


Gender Theory

Is gender determined by nature or is it the result of social influence and a cultural construct? Gender describes the set of characteristics traditionally associated with masculinity and femininity and ascribed by culture to men and women. Conversely, “sex” can be considered as the sum of physical and biological characteristics which make up a man and a woman. Now, from a post-structural perspective even our understanding of biology, nature and sex


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is determined by our language and culture. In other words, a biological sex is a cultural construct. Gender identity has not only to do with behavior and psychology, but with culture and society. Its characteristics are rather created by culture and society than determined by nature, as biological determinism claimed. Gender is not given by the body alone but it is rather the identity one develops as a consequence of social and cultural pressure. How is gender created? What is its effect on literary production? From a very fluid perspective, we can choose one gender or another; but we cannot choose no gender. Our experience of reality (and of literary creation) is determined by the gender to which we belong. If gender is the result of a continuous process of linguistic and cultural production, how does this process work in artistic and literary creation? For example, the active hero of a narrative is conventionally a man and the passive object is a woman. More than the effect of a natural gender difference, the narrative contributes to the creation of a linguistic and cultural difference which does not exist in nature. Among the authors we can remember are Adrienne Rich (1929), Donna Haraway (1944) and, again, Judith Butler.


Gay, Lesbian and Queer Theory and Criticism

Heterosexuality has been traditionally considered as the natural, normal and accepted sexual attitude. Other attitudes appear to be non-normal, different, marginal, perverse or deviant. What is normal and what is different from the norm? Queer theory studies sexual identity in its cultural and social history. Why is sexual orientation so important in the social structure? Though sexuality is rather a continuum of possible, individual sexual attitudes, it is segmented in determined social and cultural categories, which are fixed and separate (straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual…), so that it becomes a reason for social inclusion and exclusion. Sexuality seems to be a cultural construct rather than a natural condition so that biological determinism alone (without considering culture) cannot explain the variety of sexual orientations and the history of and reason for different labels and attitudes. In this way queer, lesbian and gay theory questions culture, as well as society and literature, not only sexual issues. Queer theory tackles, from an interdisciplinary perspective, the presence of homosexual love and, more generally, the importance of the difference, the relationship between subaltern and dominant culture, the discourses which produce some behaviours as normal and others as deviant, and the creation of a social order. It is committed to a tolerant and less restrictive society where gender and sexuality can be lived in a creative and productive way and not as problems.

Traditions in Literary and Critical Theory


Literature is of great interest in queer studies. The point is not the declared, alleged or latent sexuality of the author. Many texts written by heterosexual authors show queer elements. Lesbian and homosexual elements express the anxiety of the text concerning sexuality and gender. The repression and sublimation of homosexual orientation makes that the sexual content is transformed in another, less disturbing issue. Among the authors of queer studies we can remember is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950–2009).


New Historicism

Stephen Greenblatt (1943) inaugurated New Historicism as a movement in literary and cultural criticism with Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980) and The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance (1982). According to New Historicism literary texts are agents of history, that is to say, they shape history. Like politics and religion, for example, literature is a practice which shapes the world. In this way a literary work is not a reflection or a product of a social reality but rather one of its practices. We can say that a literary work tells us something about the world outside of the text and the historical period to which it belongs. And practices are sometimes contradictory and antagonistic. From this perspective the interpretation of literary works helps us to understand history and the world in which they have been written. According to New Historicism, ideas, concepts, stories and all the elements of a literary text have their origin in the time of its creation. We always have to connect the literary text to its historical context and, in this way, we can use the text as a means to interpret and understand the context and historical period in which it was created. New Historicism reintroduces the historical dimension in the study of literature after the anti-historicism of structuralism, post-structuralism and deconstruction. It does not claim that history is a neutral and stable background to the literary text. It rather affirms that literary and non-literary texts are inseparable and determine each other, and that history is part of both, since it is part of facts as well as of texts.


Postcolonial Studies and Criticism

The label of Postcolonial can be applied to a large number of interdisciplinary studies in the fields of literature, anthropology and history, concerning the effect of colonization on culture. The interest of postcolonialism is devoted


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to the study of society and culture of the former European colonies. Both the cultures of the colonizers and the colonized are implied since they have had a reciprocal effect on each other. From the historical point of view, it considers nations after their decolonization and has been thriving above all in the field of literary studies. Colonialism is a matter of the past but in many countries and cultures the colonizer’s culture (along with economic interests, institutions, power relations, traditions, ideas …) is still present. What is the relationship between colonial tradition and indigenous identity? Identity is actually a main issue in postcolonial studies. The way a culture creates its identity is not always linear. One is the image one has of oneself. Another is the image that others have of one. In the case of colonialism these two images are not in harmony. How do these images interact? What are the effects of subaltern and dominant cultures on each other? Literary works not only reflect but also contribute to the creation of these images and identity. But national and cultural identity cannot simply be defined by means of general traits or tradition. Are there some particular characteristics which are essential to a culture? The essentialist perspective has been questioned by post-structuralism so that it is impossible to find essential qualities to define a culture. We can say that identity is not defined once and for all. What is Asian? It is misleading and impossible to give a general definition of Asia. At the same time, we can suppose a strategic essentialism which has no ontological or epistemological validity (which cannot explain anything real about the being nor the knowledge of the object) but which can be of help in defining a common ground for action. Asia is different from Europe and, despite the lack of essence of Asia and Europe, we have to deal with this difference and identify some “Asiatic” and “European” features. In Postcolonial studies difference is considered unavoidable and privileged over sameness. We have to make the best out of it and, more important than that, we have to understand its strength and its ambivalence. Difference can give rise to contrasting and even contradictory feelings and impulses and it can have complex and opposite meanings. For example, during the colonial period “hybrid” was a negative concept. Today it has another meaning and it shows the unavoidable interdependence between the colonizer and the colonized. There is not a pure national or cultural identity. Hybridity opens a new space between the subaltern subject and the idealized other and, in this way, the subaltern subject produces its actual identity. Literary works have pivotal importance in creating identity. They do not only reflect it but, more likely, shape it. Control over the representation of the “other” and the “different” is an exercise of power. For example, “Orientalism”

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has been a common label for a complex and multiform patchwork of cultures from China to Japan, from India to the Middle East. These countries differ in terms of geographic characteristics, history, traditions, religions, languages and much more. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Western orientalists created the object of their inquiry (often using second-hand material) and conjured up this image of an Orient which does not exist. The Orient turns out to be an exotic, irrational, deviant, sensuous, lazy and backward land. Actually, as Edward Said (1935–2003) points out in his book Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1978), this place is nothing but a discursive production which reflects the difference of military, political and economic power between West and East. The mystified image of this Orient has had effects on political and practical decisions. Among the more notable authors of Postcolonial studies are Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), Homi Bhabha (1949) and Gayatri Spivak (1942).


Cultural Materialism

Raymond Williams (1921–1988) was an influential Marxist literary critic. His work gave birth to the practice of Cultural Studies and it has had a great influence on contemporary criticism. The label “cultural materialism,” used to describe his method, has been applied to different critical approaches in a Marxist political and intellectual perspective. The two terms “culture” and “material” suggest that cultural practices are determined by material processes and, at the same time, that culture can be considered as a material practice and not just as the result of material conditions. Classical Marxism understands culture as the expression of the economic base which determines artistic, literary and cultural production. This determinism was already corrected by Antonio Gramsci11 who introduced the concept of hegemony. Gramsci stressed the social context in which a subaltern group can gain power over the dominant class only by creating its own cultural hegemony. This hegemony has always to be considered in the social-political context, that is to say, we always have to understand if a work endorses or rejects the dominant hegemony. From this perspective culture is a very broad and all-encompassing concept. According to Williams, culture is “a whole way of life” and concerns any expression and cultural production. It is not only high culture (poetry, philosophy) and literary texts but also popular culture (movies, comics, advertising, pop music and virtually anything which can be considered as a cultural production). This is the broad field of research of Cultural Studies.


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Williams used the term Cultural Materialism for his critical work which connects the literary criticism of texts to the material facts of history. In general, the perspective of Cultural Materialism stresses the relationship of the text to the “real” and “external” world of history. Presenting the relationship between history and text, it questions the relationship of the work to economic and dominant ideology. Cultural forms cannot be considered as isolated texts but are always a part of the historical and material process which created them. Today cultural materialism is a field of literary and cultural criticism which considers the material circumstances in which culture is produced and proposed. It focuses on the relationship between texts and dominant culture and points out how texts are determined by the dominant culture and, at the same time, how they can oppose it. According to the writings of Foucault, the dominant concepts and ideas of an epoch are shaped by discursive formations or cultural practices. One can be the dominant cultural practice, others can be the opposite or emerging ones, often in contrast with each other.

Notes 1 See Chapter 1. 2 Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 3. 3 See Chapter 26. 4 See Chapter 20. 5 Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory, pp. 4–5. 6 Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory, p. 13. 7 See Chapter 26. 8 See Chapter 27. 9 See Chapter 25. 10 See, for example, Sarah Worth, “Feminist Aesthetics,” in Berys Gaut, Dominic McIver Lopes (editors), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (London, New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 437–446; Rita Felsky, “Why Feminism Doesn’t Need an Aesthetic (And Why It Can’t Ignore Aesthetics),” in Joseph Tanke, Colin McQuillan (editors), The Bloomsbury Anthology of Aesthetics (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), pp. 571–580. 11 See Chapter 21.


Postmodern and the New Character of the Literary Work 1

A General Definition of Postmodern

‘Postmodern’ is a very comprehensive and generic label for a philosophical and cultural epoch which covers the period from modernity to the present day. What is modern? With a great deal of approximation, we can call “modern” what is characterized by the idea of progress, of emancipation, of newness. The avant-garde and its wish to get rid of the past is modern. Faith in the progress of science and technology is modern. The ideas of Enlightenment are modern, as well as the assumption that we are following a line of development from a past condition (ignorance, darkness, slavery) to a new and different status (knowledge, freedom, self-awareness, progress, and so on). In this very broad meaning, the modern condition stretches from the beginning of the Christian era to the beginning of the twentieth century or later. Actually, Positivism (and its faith in the power of science and progress) and Marxism (with its main tenet that philosophy should change the world and set men free) are very significant examples of modern thought, as is the assumption of avant-garde artists that we need (and can have) a completely new form of art. In contrast, the assumption that these conditions and perspectives are irremediably past represents a postmodern attitude. We can adopt the term “postmodernity” to designate the present historical period and use the term “postmodernism” when we speak of art and architecture, stressing its aesthetic meaning. The form “postmodern” conveys a more philosophical meaning and hints at the epistemological rupture between the modern past and postmodern conditions. These three meanings are usually mixed together so that, in current use, they are more or less synonymous.1 Actually, the artistic and aesthetic meaning was the first one in the cultural debate. Postmodernism in architecture was a playful and free style, based on bizarre quotations from past monuments, showing a general distrust of functionalism and rationalism. The use of brilliant, saturated and pastel colours like pink and green, the insertion of classical elements such as columns and Greek capitals in a modern structure, the contamination between pop culture (comics, advertising and cinema) and high culture may show a postmodern intention of the artist. The general assumption is that the idea of the future as © koninklijke brill nv, leideN, 2019 | DOI:10.1163/9789004409231_029


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a regulative principle and as the aim of our artistic creation no longer exists. Progress, development, history and the possibility of changing reality are questioned principles which cannot distinguish the past from the future2 and cannot give meaning to an artistic creation. The past seems rather to be a deposit or, better, a kind of supermarket where the artist can choose and take elements at whim. Free references to the past, quotations from other works, self-reflection of the work by means of which it presents its artificial nature, extreme (and aware) intertextuality, and suspension of rationality are the general hallmarks of a postmodern work of art. On these general premises, postmodern literary works show an eclectic approach, a large use of irony, pastiche, and parody, references to other literary works rather than to reality, and the general assumption that the literary work should appear as a fictive, created work (and not a delusive imitation of the real world). There is not a specific postmodern literary genre but rather the use (and inner transformation and fusion) of codified genres. It happens above all with the genres of popular culture: science-fiction, noir, detective, neo-gothic, and horror stories can be considered and appreciated as high-level examples of postmodern novels. A useful definition of postmodern literature could be “magic realism.” This term was used in the figurative arts to designate an artistic trend. Painters present smoothly painted and sharply defined still figures, with a strong realistic result. The realism of the representation is so accurate that it sometimes achieves a surrealistic effect, so that reality slips into dream and fantasy. From the German Neue Sachlichkeit to the American artist Edward Hopper the label “magic realism” means that a hyper-realistic representation of the world proves to be a surrealistic view of its deepest and most secret aspects. In literature the term has been applied to the work of the Argentinian writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1988), author of Fictions (1944), to the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927–2014), author of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), and to the Italian Italo Calvino (1923–1985), who wrote If on Winter’s Night a Traveller (1981) and The Invisible Cities (1972). In the cinema, the label has been used for the Italian director Federico Fellini (1920–1993) and movies like The Sweet Life (1960) and 8 ½ (1963).


The End of Grand Narratives

In his book The Postmodern Condition. A Report on Knowledge (1979) the French philosopher Jean François Lyotard (1924–1998) gave to the term “postmodern” a place in the cultural and social debate. According to Lyotard, postmodern

Postmodern and the New Character of the Literary Work


is the end of the grand narratives which marked modernity. An example of a grand narrative is the Christian idea of the creation and the salvation of human beings through the conversion of souls to the Christian narrative. Another example is the Enlightenment as the progressive emancipation of reason and freedom. Capitalism proposed the grand narrative of the unlimited enrichment of all humanity through the progress of science and technology. Marxism, on the other hand, offered the narrative of progress towards a righteous society without classes. Since these narratives are about other narratives and gave them a frame and a general meaning, Lyotard also calls them “metanarratives.” Postmodern is the end of these narratives which marked modernity so that there is no longer a general frame, aim, route, or tale giving a general meaning and direction to human thoughts and actions. Freedom, salvation, and progress are no longer unambiguous words. Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds, most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it. The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements – narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on.3 These grand narratives legitimated our practices of knowledge and action. They gave a consistency and order to our intellectual and social life. They created the very idea of the future and of a necessary project to be accomplished by our work and existence. These narratives are not myths in the sense that fables would be (not even the Christian narrative). Of course, like myths, they have the goal of legitimating social and political institutions and practices, laws, ethics, ways of thinking. Unlike myths, however, they look for legitimacy, not in an original founding act, but in a future to be accomplished, that is, in an Idea to be realized. This Idea (of freedom, “enlightenment,” socialism, etc.) has legitimating value because it is universal. It guides every human reality. It gives modernity its characteristic mode: the project […].4 Modernity has been characterized by hope in the future and the idea of the project. This project is the realization of universality. Now this idea of a universal


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project and the very idea of the future have been “liquidated” or destroyed by the postmodern condition. Capitalism based on science and technology considers success as the only criterion but is “incapable of saying what success is, or why it is good, just, or true.” We are unable to find a general frame to explain it. In the postmodern condition the legitimation of science, philosophy, ethics and knowledge in general is no longer given by metanarratives.5


The New Legitimation of Knowledge

According to Lyotard, in our post-industrial society and postmodern culture, that is to say in our contemporary world, “the legitimation of knowledge is formulated in different terms.” Since in the postmodern era the grand narrative has lost its credibility, we cannot find legitimation through unique and general systems (as idealism, positivism or structuralism). Actually, in the postmodern condition we have rather to do with “little narratives” incommensurable with one another. We do not necessarily need to establish stable language combinations, “and the properties of the ones we do establish are not necessarily communicable.”6 If this “delegitimation” is pursued in the slightest and if its scope is widened […] the road is then open for an important current of postmodernity: science plays its own game; it is incapable of legitimating the other language games. The game of prescription, for example, escapes it. But above all it is incapable of legitimating itself, as speculation assumed it could. The social subject itself seems to dissolve in this dissemination of language games. The social bond is linguistic, but is not woven with a single thread. It is a fabric formed by the intersection of at least two (and in reality an indeterminate number) of language games, obeying different rules.7 Lyotard takes from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein the image of the town and the term “language games.” A variety of incommensurable language games takes the place of a unique and totalitarian metanarrative as legitimation of knowledge. The social bond is linguistic, but there are different languages expressing the heterogeneity of interests, methods, specificities and particularities of the speakers. A “little narrative” can be about machine language and another one about genetic code, a third one can be about a popular genre of fiction and another one determined by its local or ethnic origin. These linguistic games present the heterogeneity of the linguistic bond in postmodern society.

Postmodern and the New Character of the Literary Work


We may form a pessimistic impression of this splintering: nobody speaks all of those languages, they have no universal metalanguage, the project of the system-subject is a failure, the goal of emancipation has nothing to do with science […]. Speculative or humanistic philosophy is forced to relinquish its legitimation duties, which explains why philosophy is facing a crisis wherever it persists in arrogating such functions and is reduced to the study of systems of logic or the history of ideas where it has been realistic enough to surrender them.8 Now we can better understand some general features of the postmodern condition and of postmodernism. In our contemporary society we can find a multiplicity of different languages; the present seems to be a collage of fragments from the past or from different (local and ethnic) traditions; styles from different periods and diverse cultural traditions can be freely mixed; the future no longer has a regulative function and a precise shape and it is not the aim of any project. The myth of progress, of a rational developing of history, of emancipation, and of the rational control of nature as a quantitative-mathematic knowable object are dismissed. Postmodernism can be seen as a general crisis of rationalism and scientific attitude in which other and different experiences of truth are possible.


Umberto Eco: Open Work and Postmodernism

Now we propose an example which shows how literary theory and creativity can be conceived in the contemporary literary work. The Italian philosopher and writer Umberto Eco (1932–2016) offers a very deep and interesting reflection on the work of art in postmodern culture. Dealing with modern aesthetics and contemporary poetry, he outlines the poetics of the “open work” (The Open Work, 1968). A work of art is open since it stimulates an infinite number of interpretations. A poem, for example, is not a text with a defined meaning, valid once and for all, but it is rather a dynamic and living whole which has to be integrated by the reader. Since the poem is somehow incomplete and requires the presence and action of the interpreter, it is always in movement and never defined. In this way, the poet is not separated from the reader and the act of interpretation is a creative activity. We have, therefore, seen that (1) “open” works, insofar as they are in movement, are characterized by the invitation to make the work together with the author and that (2) on a wider level (as a subgenus in the species “work


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in movement”) there exist works which, though organically completed, are “open” to a continuous generation of internal relations which the addressee must uncover and select in his act of perceiving the totality of incoming stimuli.9 The result is that a work of art is always open to an unlimited number of possible interpretations. This is the essence of the work of art and not its limit. Every work of art, even though it is produced by following an explicit or implicit poetics of necessity, is effectively open to a virtually unlimited range of possible readings, each of which causes the work to acquire new vitality in terms of one particular taste, or perspective, or personal performance.10 A work of art is open but, at the same time, it has a form which cannot be disregarded. A dictionary contains words but it is not a poem, it does not have a permanent structure. A poem, by contrast, is an open and dynamic work of art susceptible to a range of integrations allowed by its open, incomplete but precise and defined structure. The “structural vitality” is the first basic property of the work of art, which supports its second basic property, the openness. For the relevance of the form as the basis of any possible interpretation, we can remember Gadamer’s concept of “transformation into structure” as character of the work.11 This principle of openness can be applied to all works of art throughout the ages but “now is the period when aesthetics has paid especial attention to the whole notion of ‘openness’.”12 In the postmodern condition we must accept that we have interpretations rather than works of art and the fact that we have specific languages which are not intercommunicating and which work on different levels and according to different, specific logics. Which is the specificity of poetic language? Eco considers facts from information theory and psychology and then states that Art, in all its forms, has also evolved in a similar fashion, within a “tradition” that may seem immutable but which, in fact, has never ceased to introduce new forms and new dogmas through innumerable revolutions. Every real artist constantly violates the laws of the system within which he works, in order to create new formal possibilities and stimulate aesthetic desire […].13 The “aesthetic desire” for new forms can be understood as a psychological effect but, again, what is the specific content or information or meaning of

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the poetic language? Is it different from ordinary language? They use the same words and apparently refer to the same real world. What we most value in a [poetic] message is not “information” but its aesthetic equivalent: its “poetic meaning,” its “quotient of imagination,” the “full resonance of the poetic word” – all those levels of signification that we distinguish from common meaning. […] All deviation from the most banal linguistic order entails a new kind of organization, which can be considered as disorder in relation to the previous organization, and as order in relation to the parameters of the new discourse. But whereas classical art violated the conventional order of language within well-defined limits, contemporary art constantly challenges the initial order by means of an extremely “improbable” form of organization.14 Classical art and contemporary art work in different ways and with different effects. The obscurity and difficulty of contemporary art is not its limit, but rather its opportunity to convey more information. Whereas classical art introduced original elements within a linguistic system whose basic laws it substantially respected, contemporary art often manifests its originality by imposing a new linguistic system with its own inner laws. […] The contemporary poet proposes a system which is no longer that of the language in which he expresses himself, yet that system is not a nonexistent language; he introduces forms of organized disorder into a system to increase its capacity to convey information.15 The contemporary poet is in a new situation and has a new task. In the past the classical poet operated a partial rupture of the order of the linguistic code and introduced a new code which conveyed a “rather ordinary message” that could be understood “in only one way.” The contemporary poet proposes “as much poetic meaning as possible out of the very ambiguity of the message.” He “produces emotional tension by suggesting various gestures and emotions from which the reader can choose the ones that, by stimulating his own mental associations, best enable him to participate in the emotional situation evoked by the poem.”16 In this way the condition of contemporary poetry is shown in its continuity with the past, and the possibilities of the contemporary poet are defined in their specific and new characteristics. Years later, Eco wrote his first novel The Name of the Rose (1980), considered (by critics and by the author himself) as an example of a postmodern novel. Actually, it appears to be a detective story set in the Middle Ages, with a


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conventional plot and traditional writing. Is it at odds with the poetics of the open work and with modern literary aesthetics? Eco wrote a Postscript to The Name of the Rose (1983) in which he tells his experience as a writer (from the point of view of a philosopher and a literary theorist) and suggests that his novel is fully consistent with a postmodern poetics. The writer plays with a popular genre, he proposes something that the reader already knows. “I rediscovered what writers have always known (and have told us again and again): books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.”17 A book is not related to the real world but to other books; the plot can be a quotation of other plots. Eco considers postmodernism as an “ideal category” or better as a “way of operating.”18 “The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently.”19 In other words, the reader must be aware of its new postmodern condition, otherwise he will miss the meaning (or at the least some of the meanings) of the work. A postmodern narrative is always, in a certain way, a kind of metanarrative, since it tells us something about something that has already been told in another narrative. Literature rediscovers its meta-poetic and self-reflective nature, which we traced from the Romantic period20 to the linguistic turn of criticism.21 The future (with new and fresh possibilities) is exhausted so that we rethink of the past, but we are aware that it is already past (we know it and we are no longer innocent) and we make as if it were new. Postmodern is the age of lost innocence in which the reader knows that the writer knows that he knows. For this reason, the postmodern work of art is characterized by such irony and metalinguistic play. Irony can work at different levels. Irony can sometimes not be understood as such and it is its constitutive feature and a normal consequence of its essence. In this case a postmodern novel can be enjoyed as a traditional and popular piece of escapist literature. “The ideal postmodernist novel will somehow rise above the quarrel between realism and irrealism, formalism and ‘contentism’, pure and committed literature, coterie fiction and junk fiction.”22 Nevertheless, a novel is always a “cosmological matter”; it creates a new world and this new world motivates infinite interpretations. A work is always the infinite interpretation it arouses, and the point of view of the author is like the point of view of any other critic or reader. “A narrator should not supply interpretations of his work; otherwise he would have not written a novel, which is a machine for generating interpretations.”23 Criticism cannot exhaust the possibilities of creativity, even when critic and writer are the same person. At any rate, the cognitive element is a constitutive part of the aesthetic

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experience, and a critical self-awareness and reflection on the mechanisms of the work are constitutive elements of the literary experience, for the writer/ critic as well as (to a certain degree) the reader.


Italo Calvino: Postmodernism and Literature

The postmodern attitude towards narratives encourages a multiplicity of languages, the use of irony, the literary device of metanarratives, and the interchangeable roles of criticism and creativity. Creativity is based on a constant criticism and on a critical attitude; in its turn literary criticism considers the literary work as a living whole whose rules cannot be formalized once and for all. More and more often a writer has to be a critic and he has to reflect on the process of writing with an analytic mind whereas a critic has to think of the process of creation, adopt a creative language, and write a kind of narrative. Now we take another case in which literary theory and creation are closely intertwined in the postmodern work. The Italian writer and literary critic Italo Calvino (1923–1985) often reflects on and writes about the very process of writing, like in the preface of his trilogy Our Ancestors (1960). The genre of these three novels is romance, phantasy, or maybe they could be defined as moral allegories. Calvino tells us that, in writing these novels, his first concern was the choice of an anomalous genre. He was expected to write realistic novels according to the historical period and to his own previous artistic production. This is what we can read in the preface to the English translation of Our Ancestors: After my first novel, […] I had made efforts to write the realistic-novel-reflecting-the-problems-of-Italian-society, and had not managed to do so. (At the time I was called a ‘politically committed writer’.) And then, in 1951, […] I began doing what came most naturally to me – that is, following the memory of the thing I have loved best since boyhood. Instead of making myself write the book I ought to write, the novel that was expected of me, I conjured up the book I myself would have liked to read, the sort by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic.24 The choice of a fantastic genre is not the rejection of the problems of the real world. The genre is not followed as a prescriptive category but is used in a free and creative way. Calvino, in a postmodern mood, plays with popular, classical, fantasy, and historical genres in order to obtain a certain effect of


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estrangement. He uses a popular form of narrative to convey high, existential issues. We notice that the political commitment shifts from the content (the realistic description of a given social and political situation) to the form. The novel itself is politically committed since it reflects (even despite the author’s intentions) the existential condition of contemporary human beings. The last novel of the trilogy is The Nonexistent Knight (1959). The faithful, pious, brave, and excellent knight Agilulfo is perfect, but he does not exist. His armour is empty. Nevertheless, he will prove his qualities during its adventures. What the three stories have in common is the fact that they had a very simple, very obvious image or situation as their point of departure: […] an empty suit of armour that persuades itself it is a man and carries on through its own willpower. The tale is born from the image, not from any thesis which I want to demonstrate, and the image is developed in a story according to its own internal logic. The story takes on meanings that are always a little uncertain, without insisting on an unequivocal, compulsory interpretation.25 The story is always its interpretation but, at the same time, this interpretation is up to the reader. The author is not concerned with it. The reader must interpret the stories as he will, or else not interpret them at all and read them simply for enjoyment – which would fully satisfy me as a writer. So I agree to the books being read as an existential or as structural works […] but above all I am glad when I see that no single key will turn all their locks.26 What is the meaning of this story? The author himself does not know. It develops from the internal logic of the story. The story itself cannot have a definite meaning but it elicits many possible interpretations. From a postmodern perspective a literary work always offers the possibility of various interpretations. They are not strictly codified in a hierarchy (like in the case of Dante, for example, where we also find different meanings or senses coexisting in the same text,27 but they depend on the reader, on the different levels of the work, and on its codes (fairy tale, science-fiction novel, historical novel…). Sometimes the codes are not strictly defined (what is today a science-fiction novel? And what was it fifty years ago?) and the ambiguity becomes a constitutive character of the interpretation as well as a constitutive aspect of the literary work. In the note to the original Italian edition of Our Ancestors the author offers a very interesting answer concerning the creative process. He writes that, when

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he starts writing, first of all he has just an image in his mind. Then he develops this image into a story and “I convince myself that this image has a meaning. […] In the process of writing every part fits to the whole.”28 The critic’s interpretation of a text is often considered as an external action which supplies answers to a given text. The writer’s point of view may be different from the critic’s. Actually, in Calvino’s case, who is a writer and a critic at once, the narrative itself produces its own meaning, almost without (or even despite) the author’s intentions. The writer needs a text to find a meaning to his images. He has to rely on the specific mechanisms of writing in order to think or say something. Writing is not a neutral act but it is an existential action, with existential consequences. The story, with its beginning and its end, gives an answer and a form to a question that is still formless and without a given structure. About the first novel of the trilogy, The Cloven Viscount (1952), in which the main character is split in two by a cannonball, Calvino writes: critics could be wrong and say that I was interested in the problem of good and evil. No, I was not interested in that, I did not think at all of good and evil. Like a painter can use an obvious contrast of colours to bring out a form, in the same way I used an evident narrative contrast to show up what I was interested in: the division. Divided, mutilated, incomplete, enemy to himself – contemporary man is all of this: Marx called it “alienated,” Freud “repressed,” a state of ancient harmony has been lost, and he aspires to a new kind of completeness. This was the ideological-moral kernel I consciously wished to give to the story.29 The author works on the story and he does not impose any content, idea or interpretation. This is the reader’s task. Once the “ideological-moral kernel” is decided, rather than working on it in order to deepen it on the philosophical level, I took care to give the narrative a skeleton working like a good connected mechanism, then flesh and blood of free associations of lyrical fancy.30 The author is concerned with forms, images, and ideas and with the contrast between these elements. If we say that Calvino is not concerned with higher philosophical contents and meanings, it would seem to belittle the author’s intentions and aims. Rather we have to think that the meaning of the work is the result of its narrative strategies; it is not (or not primarily) the intention of the author. Now, as we have read, the author has some conscious and


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personal ideas, an “ideological-moral kernel.” But the work is an opportunity to elaborate ideas or, as Umberto Eco put it, a kind of “machine for generating interpretations.”31 Thanks to the narrative mechanism, a generic and vague idea (the division of the human soul) becomes a more precise and involving issue and gains social, philosophical, and historical implications and meanings, along with its narrative substance. Ideas like “division,” or “alienation,” or “repression” in themselves are always rather ordinary. But, even if the idea of human division is ordinary, the narrative makes it universal and involving, offering an opportunity for different possible interpretations. My aim was to fight against all human divisions, was to wish the full human being against the “dull wholeness.” Maybe was it because, borne in an epoch of division, the story expressed, despite itself, the divided consciousness? Or because true human integration is not a mirage of undetermined wholeness or availability or universality but it is the obstinate study of what you are, of your voluntary choice, of your self-construction, of your competence, of your style, of your personal code of internal rules and effective renunciations to be followed up to the end?32 We notice that such “self-construction,” such “style,” such a “personal code” are an existential attitude and, at the same time, they are the result of a literary device; they are experienced in the literary work. Here we are speaking of the effect of the narrative, of the literary work, which urges, creates, generates ideas and offers solutions to human issues. The narrative, suggests Calvino, works by itself and develops and gives meaning to ideas. Only the act of writing completes the creation of meaning. The reflection on literary strategies becomes a reflection on human problems and on the ways and possibilities to think of them and, eventually, to solve them. Calvino’s reflection on writing is useful to understand the postmodern connection between writing practice and criticism, between the autonomy of the work and interpretation, between style and morality. Writing practice has a specific originality even in the critical and existential domain. Today, in our postmodern condition, we can see the necessary historical development which connects (and in some cases and periods opposes) knowledge, beauty and art. We can better understand the reason we have considered authors and periods in the book. From Plato and the ancient culture to the new idea of the artist and of the human being in the Renaissance, from the new romantic perspectives of freedom and artistic creation to the concept of art as a form of the absolute spirit, artistic creation prove a pivotal relevance

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in human achievements. After the romantic period, Nietzsche’s questioning of truth and truthfulness of art, Heidegger’s stress on the work of art as an event of truth, and the application of the linguistic system to interpret and explain the human world, give to art a special relevance. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”33 The specific form of art which deals with the language, literature, becomes the pivotal activity in creating and understanding the world. The interpretation of our world as a written text (in which, as Derrida states, we are embedded since ever) is a way to understand and to demystify the mechanisms of language (and of power) which control our society and our life. Writing becomes an existential issue, related to our understanding of the world and to our project of living. Writing is always an existential question. In his book Six Memos for the Next Millennium (written in 1985 and published posthumously in 1988) Calvino writes about Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being: For Kundera the weight of living consists chiefly in constriction, in the dense net of public and private constrictions that enfolds us more and more closely. His novel shows us how everything we choose and value in life for its lightness soon reveals its true, unbearable weight. Perhaps only the liveliness and mobility of the intelligence escapes this sentence – the very qualities with which this novel is written, and which belong to the world quite different from the one we live in.34 Liveliness and mobility of intelligence are spiritual qualities which we can find completely deployed only in the literary work. In general, the work of art is the place where we can realize the intellectual and spiritual qualities we need in life, where the formless gets a form and chaos a meaning. The literary work offers such qualities to us not as a given content but as a living whole which is indistinguishable from life itself: A work of literature is one of these minimal portions in which the existent crystallizes into a form, acquires a meaning – not fixed, not definitive, not hardened into a mineral immobility, but alive as an organism.35 The specificity and fictionality of the work of art is not a limit, but it is its characteristic and, at the same time, it means its continuity with life and human concerns. A work closed in its mineral immobility would not be of interest to anyone. In this way writing is an existential issue. It is not just literature. It concerns our life, destiny, and existence. Why should we confide our existential secret to literature? Why should we trust literature? Because literature is our


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world, created by us and in a human dimension. At the same time literature is the place in which our transitory world becomes eternal, receives a form, an order and a clarity that it does not have in ordinary life. The literary work is the place in which our interiority meets the exteriority of the world and attests what is human and meets what is not human.

Notes 1 See Ian Buchanan, The Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 375. 2 See Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), pp. 154–156. 3 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. G. Bennington, B. Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p. xxiv. 4 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained, trans. J. Pefanis, M. Thomas (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 12. 5 On the interaction of cognitive, ethic and aesthetic experience in the postmodern society, see Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics (Oxford and Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1993). 6 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. xiv. 7 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 40. 8 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 41. 9 Umberto Eco, The Open Work, trans. A. Cancogni (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 21. 10 Umberto Eco, The Open Work, p. 21. 11 See Chapter 24. 12 Umberto Eco, The Open Work, p. 22. 13 Umberto Eco, The Open Work, p. 79. 14 Umberto Eco, The Open Work, p. 59. 15 Umberto Eco, The Open Work, p. 60. 16 Umberto Eco, The Open Work, p. 61. 17 Umberto Eco, “Postscript,” in The Name of the Rose, trans. W. Weaver (London: Vintage Books, 2004), p. 568. 18 Umberto Eco, “Postscript,” p. 570. 19 Umberto Eco, “Postscript,” p. 570. 20 See Chapter 14. 21 See Chapter 20. 22 Umberto Eco, “Postscript,” p. 572. 23 Umberto Eco, “Postscript,” p. 560.

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24 Italo Calvino, “Preface,” in Our Ancestors, trans. A. Colquhoun, I. Quigly (London: Vintage Books, 1980). 25 Italo Calvino, “Preface.” 26 Italo Calvino, “Preface.” 27 See Chapter 5. 28 Italo Calvino, “Prefazione” in Romanzi e racconti, vol. 1, ed. M. Barenghi, B. Falcetto (Milan: Mondadori, 1991), p. 1210. Page numbers refer to the Italian edition, since the English translation has a shorter and different preface. 29 Italo Calvino, “Prefazione” in Romanzi e racconti, vol. I, p. 1211. 30 Italo Calvino, “Prefazione” in Romanzi e racconti, vol. I, p. 1211. 31 Umberto Eco, “Postscript,” p. 560. 32 Italo Calvino, “Prefazione” in Romanzi e racconti, vol. I, p. 1213. 33 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears, D. F. McGuinnes (London: Routledge & Kegan, 1961), § 5.6. 34 Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 7. 35 Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, pp. 69–70.

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Index absolute 56, 82–85, 87–97, 104, 114, 123, 125, 127, 177, 196, 222 Adorno, Theodor Wiesgrund 176, 177, 179, 180, 182, 184 aestheticism 45, 93, 117, 122–125, 127 agudeza 54, 55 Alberti, Leon Battista 42 Althusser, Louis 152 Apollonian 109–111 Aristotle xvi, 13–17, 25, 28, 29, 32, 35, 36, 41, 72, 76, 77, 83, 124, 137 artes liberales 31 Bachofen, Johan Jacob 204, 205 Baroque 49, 54, 55 Barthes, Roland 150, 151, 153 Baudelaire, Charles 65, 117–119, 120, 122, 128 Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb xv, 59–61 beauty xv–xvii, 1, 5–7, 20, 21, 23, 25–32, 35, 42–45, 47, 48, 50, 51, 54, 59–62, 64–68, 72–75, 77–80, 85, 95–97, 101, 102, 105, 107–109, 118, 119, 122, 123, 155, 181, 222 Beckett, Samuel 182 Bembo, Pietro 39 Benjamin, Walter 92, 176 Bhabha, Homi 209 Bloom, Harold 93, 198, 199, 201, 202 Boileau, Nicolas 23 Borges, Jorge-Luis 92, 93, 212 Brunelleschi, Filippo 37 Burke, Edmund 23 Butler, Judith 205, 206 Caecilius 21 Caesar 19 Calvino, Italo 212, 219, 221–223, 225 Castiglione, Baldesar 48, 52, 53 catharsis 15, 16 Charron, Pierre 48 Cicero 19 Corneille, Pierre 55 critical theory xiii, 115, 174, 175, 177, 180, 183

Croce, Benedetto 129–132, 162 Culler, Jonathan 185, 193, 202, 210 Cusanus, Nikolaus 83 da Falgano, Niccolò 23 Dante Alighieri 29, 31–34, 38, 39, 220 Danto, Arthur 14, 17 De Beauvoir, Simone 204 decadence 117, 118 deconstruction 185, 194, 196, 197, 201 de Góngora, Luis 55 de la Barca, Calderón 55 De Man, Paul 198, 199, 201 De Medici, Cosimo 41, 42 Derrida, Jacques 115, 173, 175, 185, 186, 188, 193–200, 202, 203 de Vega, Lope 55 Dionysian 10, 11, 44, 109, 110, 111 Dionysian mysteries 10, 11, 44 Dionysus 8, 10, 109, 111 Early Romanticism 82 Eco, Umberto 53, 215–218, 222, 224, 225 Einstein, Albert 74 Fanon, Frantz 209 Fellini, Federico 212 Feyerabend, Paul 74 Ficino, Marsilio 41–45 Flaubert, Gustave 15 Florentine Academy 41 Formalists xiii, 136, 137 Foucault, Michel 175, 188–193, 203, 210 Freud, Sigmund 175, 180–182, 221 Fromm, Eric 176 Gadamer, Hans-Georg xvi, 92, 115, 166, 167, 168, 170–173, 175, 194, 216 Galileo Galilei 50 Genette, Gérald 152 genius 20, 21, 49, 50, 72, 73 Gracián, Baltasar 54 Gramsci, Antonio 143–146, 175, 209 Greenblatt, Stephen 207 Greimas, Algidras 152

236 Haraway, Donna 206 Hegel, George Wilhelm Friedrich 95–104, 129, 155 hegemony 143–146, 209 Heidegger, Martin xv, xvii, 115, 154–166, 172, 175 Hölderlin, Friedrich 81, 95, 102, 155, 156, 164, 165 Hopper, Edward 212 Horace 18–21, 24, 35, 76, 126 Horkheimer, Max 175–177, 179, 180, 184 Humanism xiii, xiv, 29, 31, 35–38 imagination 51, 56, 57, 62–70, 72, 74, 75, 79–81, 84, 86, 95, 124, 126, 129, 217 imitation xv, xvii, 1–4, 13, 14, 16, 25, 29, 30, 44, 51, 72, 73, 76–80, 86, 120, 126, 141, 152, 159, 199, 204, 212 intellectual 2, 6, 7, 11, 23, 25, 36, 37, 41, 42, 49, 54, 55, 60, 61, 63, 64, 67, 73, 74, 84, 85, 98, 99, 112, 118–120, 127, 129, 136, 143–146, 149, 157, 174, 182, 188, 205, 209, 213, 223 interpretation xiii, xiv–xvi, 9, 12, 19, 22, 31–34, 36, 39, 42, 47, 56, 109, 120, 149, 154, 164, 166–168, 170, 171, 173, 187, 188, 194, 197, 199, 203, 207, 215, 216, 218, 220–223 Irigaray, Luce 205 Jakobson, Roman 92, 137–142, 147–149, 175 Joyce, James 117 Kafka, Franz 163, 182 Kant, Immanuel xv, xvii, 23, 61–63, 65, 66, 68–70, 72–75, 81, 83, 90, 101, 102, 104, 114, 115, 117, 123, 162, 167 Kosofsky Sedgwick, Eve 207 Kristeva, Julia 199, 205 Lacan, Jacques 152 language xvi, 16, 18, 21, 32, 36, 39, 40, 50, 55, 73, 74, 76, 87, 91, 92, 100, 106, 113–115, 119, 121–123, 127, 130, 131, 133–142, 147– 152, 154–157, 159–162, 164–167, 171–173, 175, 186, 187, 190, 191, 194, 196, 197, 199, 200, 206, 213, 214, 216, 217, 219, 223 Le Guin, Ursula 205 Leonardo da Vinci 30, 47, 49–54, 76, 81 Lévi-Strauss, Claude 148, 185

index liberal arts 31, 59 linguistics 92, 131, 133, 138, 141, 142 Longinus 18, 21–24, 49, 69 Lucretius 19, 198 Lyotard, Jean-François 23, 175, 212–214, 224 Lysias 21 Manuzio, Aldo 39 Marcuse, Herbert 176, 180–183 Marquez, Gabriel Garcia 212 Merlau-Ponty, Maurice 152 Michelangelo Buonarroti 47, 49 mimesis 1, 4 Moritz, Karl Philipp 76–82 mysteries 10, 11, 44, 46, 109 mythology 45, 85, 86, 95, 149, 205 neo-Platonism 26, 41, 42 Nietzsche, Friedrich 10, 12, 109–117, 175, 193 Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg) 82 Orpheus 10, 20, 117 Orphism 10, 11, 41, 44, 46 Petrarch, Francis 37–39 Pico Della Mirandola, Giovanni 42, 52 Plato xiv–xvii, 1, 3–10, 13, 15, 16, 18, 19, 21, 22, 26, 28–31, 35, 36, 39, 42, 46, 51, 76, 83, 102, 105, 113, 120, 125, 126, 154, 157, 164, 174, 176, 184 Platonic Academy 41, 42 Plethon, Gemistos 41, 42 Plotinus 25–28, 30, 35, 42, 43, 46, 102 poetic function 92, 137–141 polysemy 34 Porphyry 42 post-structuralism 152, 185, 202 Proclus 42 Protagoras 148 Proust, Marcel 117 Racine, Jean 55 Renaissance xiv, 26, 27, 29–32, 34, 35, 37, 41, 42, 45, 46, 48–50, 52, 54, 55, 118, 207 Rich, Adrienne 206 Rilke, Rainer Maria 117, 141, 163, 164 Rimbaud, Arthur 117, 120–122, 128 Saussure, Ferdinand de 133–136, 140, 147–149, 194

index Schelling, Friedrich 82, 84, 85, 94, 95, 102 Schlegel, Friedrich 82, 85, 90, 91, 93 Schopenhauer, Arthur xv, 104–108, 111, 117 Shakespeare, William 55, 85 Shklovsky, Viktor 40, 131, 136, 142, 175 sign 9, 28, 48, 86, 133, 140, 147, 150, 185, 187, 194–196 Socrates 7, 9, 110, 111, 114 Spivak, Gayatri 193, 200, 209 sprezzatura 48, 49, 54 structuralism 115, 147, 148, 175, 194, 199, 202, 207, 208, 214 sublime 21–23, 38, 49, 69, 70, 85, 119 symbol 25, 27, 28, 97, 118 symbolism 117

237 Tasso, Torquato 55 Todorov, Tzvetan 77, 81, 152 tragedy 1, 3, 10, 12, 14–16, 18, 110 transcendental poetry 90–93, 139, 199 Valéry, Paul 117, 126–128, 131, 141 Varro 19 Vico, Giambattista 54–58, 81, 164 Virgil 19, 32 Wilde, Oscar 93, 94, 122–126, 128 Williams, Raymond 209, 210 Wittgenstein, Ludwig 136, 214