Monday, 8 June 2009

Robert Musil, some notes on his thinking on culture

The Serious Writer in Our Time, 1934


There are aesthetic and critical concepts for whose future application, after they themselves have been more precisely elaborated, there are great prospects. But that will still require all kinds of work. I would indeed say that not even the essence of truth has yet been sufficiently described; and the essence of beauty will follow only at a respectful distance.

In the sphere of aesthetic values, a child may easily ask more than nine wise men can answer. It is, nevertheless, perhaps worthwhile for the child to ask – but not to decree the answers himself.


But a thematic separation of the spheres of literature and politics can hardly still be effected, and potentially does not even exist; therefore the difference in the way they function must become all the more vivid in everyone's feeling.


I recall the old example of the beautifully painted picture of some horrible object: it is a platitude that the picture is beautiful. But what if the a beautiful face were to contain a reprehensible sentiment? It would be the same, of course. The face contains this sentiment not as a sentiment but as raw material, as a principle that is in no way self-sufficient and that has become unreal. It can happen that a serious writer does suddenly represent with the greatest devotion what he detests as as a private person. One could state flatly that his mind is capable of anything , but it is also capable of detaching everything from its ordinary meaning...

Here I would like to recall that just as there beautiful paintings of ugly objects, there can also be worthless paintings of beautiful objects.

The work of art is an abstraction from life and its ties; the enjoyment and understanding of art assumes an ability and a will to abstract that is not often met with, even in artistically minded people, although it always sets in as soon as the scent “something”. What is represented truthfully can only be built on the basis of this abstraction. All our higher feelings apparently originated from simple and instinctive feelings sometimes coming into conflict with each other and preventing immediate gratification. Art carries this on in similar fashion, preserving people's sense of not yet having come to closure: it keeps their impulse for progress alive.

I would say that whoever cannot look with pleasure at even the nastiest but wittiest caricature of himself has not yet quite understood this.!


“The readiest example of how it [this spirit] can be destroyed is the burning of the Library at Alexandria, and the pulling down of pagan statues is the most perfect expression for how the spirit can be brought into harmony with general progress. The spirit of antiquity, at the high level of its cultivation at the time, was dependent on institutions like libraries and schools; and the individuals who incoprorated it were dependent on the toleration and good will of their contemporaries. A change in the will of the times (summarily speaking) was enough to sweep everything away.”


Wilhelm von Humboldt charaterized significant indviduality as a power of the spirit that springs up without reference to the course of events and begins a new series. He saw nodal points and points of origin in creative people who absorb past things and release them in a new form that can no longer be traced back past their point of origin.

This picture is individualistic, in nature, but it also places this individualism within the totality.

Lecture; Paris, 1935

Culture is not bound to any political form. It is receptive to specific demands or inhibitions from any one of them. There are no cultural axioms that could not be replaced by others, so that on this new basis a different culture would be possible. The decisive factor lies with the whole, as one canno say of a person according to isolated principles or actions whether he is a idiot, or a genius, or a born criminal. I would especially remind you of Nietzsche's observation, in his posthumous fragments, that "the victory of a moral idea, is achieved by the same immoral means as every victory: force, lies, slander and injustice."

Culture presupposes a continuity, and respect even for what one is fighting. Even that is hard to leave out of account.

In that case, it may perhaps also be asserted that culture has always been supranational. The history of the arts and sciences is one long example of this. Even the culture of primitive societies shows this phenomenon. Especially, at its highest levels, culture is dependent on supranational connections, and genius too is distributed in the same way as the occurrence of other rarities.

And if culture were not international, it would certainly be, within a single people, something supratemporal that often jumps over long flat stretches, and connects with things that lie far back in the past. From this we conclude that those who serve culture are forbidden to identify themselves totally with a momentary condition of their national culture.

And culture is not a tradition that can simply be handed passed from hand to hand, as the traditionalists claim, but involves a peculiar process: it is not so much that the creative people take over what comes from the other times and places as that these are rather newly born within them.

We know further that the bearers of of this process are individual people. The community is involved in a most important way, but the individual is at least its independent instrument. This, however, opens up a larger and much more familiar circle of conditions for the rise of a culture, all those who to which the individual power of creation is subjected. I don't want to go into this further, but here many politically misused, outworn, and then rejected concepts recur, purified of historical elements, as indispensable psychological assumptions. Thus, for example, freedom, openness, courage, incorruptibility, responsibility, and criticism, criticism even more against what seduces us that against what repels us. These concepts must even include the love of truth, and I mention this especially because what we call culture is not directly subservient to the criterion of truth; but no great culture can rest on a distorted relationship to truth.

If a political regime does not support such qualities in everyone, they will not appear even in extraordinary talents.

Charles Baudelaire, Philosophic art

Charles Baudelaire, Philosophic art

Translated Jonathan Mayne

"What is pure art according to the modern idea? It is the creation of an evocative magic, containing the object and the subject, the world external to the artist and the artist himself."

"Every good piece of sculpture, painting or music evokes the sentiments and the dreams which it sets out to evoke."

Following his critque on "Philosophic art" Baudelaire states: "It should be noted moreover that in order to justify its existence, Pilosophic Art preusposes an absurdity – I mean the Public intelligence in matters of the fine arts.”

"The birthplace of Painting was the Temple. Its roots are in Religion. The modern Temple and the modern Religion are the Revolution. In other words, the modern Pantheon will contain the History of Humanity."

"Pan must kill God. Pan is the people."

Work in progress; readings

To say work has progressed slowly would be optimistic. so as a way of refocusing work the aims of this blog it will become a location for sharing readings I am working on and still pondering. I plan to leave them without comment as that will emerge in future writings and in any case there is far too much comment on texts and authorities in this pseudo scholastic age, and what is more these texts speak for themselve! Over time, as this dimension of the blog grows these entries should provide a useful, although no doubt eccentric and diverse, archive of thinking on the themes this blog seeks to address, which will prompt readers to seek out more of the authors cited and develop their own responses to these works.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Myths of light (and shadow)

Regardless of there being so fundamental to the visual realms, those few that remain conscious of their sight (it is dark days when the truly blind perhaps see more than the millions ignorant of the ocular powers they are granted or even blessed with!), pass over light and shadow as too obvious to examine, and live amidst, instead being fascinated with colour. A Newtownian legacy, perhaps?

But it may be that the move straight onto light, overlooking shadow and of course darkness, is rooted in some conceptual rut, even though the Judeo Christian creation myth, for example, describes darkness as existing before light.

It is therefore of some importance to reflect on the existence of darkness, not seeing it as the absence of light, as well as addressing the fact that God created darkness? Darkness is divine too.

So an additional strand of this slow entwining of ideas, and tracing of their sky bound aspirations, is to explore myths and tropes of the relationship of light and shadow.

So as a first and obvious step here is Genesis 1

1In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

2And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

3And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

4And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

5And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

Now being at present ignorant of the many learned scholars who have no doubt meditated on this passage and dedicated many a tome too it, I tentatively offer these initial reflections or are they shadows, a distinction which may seem vain and flippant, but that goes to show that light permeates discourse, (St John of the Cross and his medieval forbears are one such focus) as verse three suggests Light is logocentric, as well as being linked to matter. At this initial stage such issues can only be highlighted and saved for some crepuscular revelation

As verse 2 suggests Darkness is linked to formlessness, and the aqueous. However, the words "And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters" offers a shaded, glimmer of a possibility that Light was drawn from within the waters, from within darkness, or perhaps the creator even cast light into the water? Hypotheses to be explored.

Or are we to be astronomically literal and assume God created the sun and hence light. But can there be heaven without stars or even light. So perhaps light fell from heaven like dew thereby creating the stars in the earthly skies, and from there falling down to the very depths of the waters.

However, what strikes me is that there has been an emphasis on the dichotomy of light and dark, on which the Manicheans may well offer some digressions, however God seems to have worked along more dialectical lines, as one cannot create light without immediately creating shadow, the binding, blurring or fusion of light and dark. And it seems to me that this secondary and overlooked creation is significant. For the divine division of Light and Dark into day and night is not clear cut. Darkness met the newly created extravagance of light at every moment with a shadow. Just as no night is ever dark, light too lingers showing the traveller what he hoped to be a sign is just the faint outline of a distant tree. We live in a world of shadows as much as we do of light and dark.

Perhaps light and dark created the shadow, and light could scarcely exist without a shadow, save for when it glistened in reflected slivers on the waves.

It might be argued that light was and always has been subservient to darkness that bound its shadows to it. However to think in that way, one has to consider in some counter-gnostic move that while we accept that "God saw the light, that it was good" we know nothing about the divine understanding of darkness, nor do we know if God was as delighted by the play of shadows on the waves as he was by the dazzling reflections.

It would seem that Darkness too is good, as without darkness there is shadow. Shadows are the depths light lacks, we live in a world of shadows, and it is in shadow that the mystery of colour lies, rather than in its glistening and brightness.

Finally an epistemological metaphor, if light is knowledge, shadow is the frontier of what is unknown, darkness, and remains to be known, shadow signals mystery and what is beyond the superficial notions of truth, and the dazzle of light.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Doris Lessing, "this imaginative space"

The following quotation is from "Doris Lessing: On not winning the Nobel Prize" the Nobel Lecture read on December the 7, 2007.
Her words require no comment, only to be reflected on and listened too; the subtlety and simplicity of her insight is exemplary in these times when vacuity is too often dressed up in the guise of complextiy and depth.

"Writers are often asked, How do you write? With a wordprocessor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand? But the essential question is, "Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?" Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas - inspiration.
If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn.

When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. "Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?"

Let us now jump to an apparently very different scene. We are in London, one of the big cities. There is a new writer. We cynically enquire, Is she good-looking? If this is a man, charismatic? Handsome? We joke but it is not a joke.

This new find is acclaimed, possibly given a lot of money. The buzzing of paparazzi begins in their poor ears. They are feted, lauded, whisked about the world. Us old ones, who have seen it all, are sorry for this neophyte, who has no idea of what is really happening.
He, she, is flattered, pleased.

But ask in a year's time what he or she is thinking – I've heard them: "This is the worst thing that could have happened to me," they say.

Some much publicised new writers haven't written again, or haven't written what they wanted to, meant to.

And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears. "Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold onto it, don't let it go."


Wednesday, 27 February 2008

a 'fullness of time'

"If someone possessed the skill and the power to draw time and all that has happened in time during six thousand years or will happen before the end of time, into the Now of the present, then that would be the 'fullness of time'." Meister Eckhart, sermon on Luke 1:26,28.

Meister Eckhart's idea of a 'fullness of time' is a valuable idea for thinking about and understanding the experience of the "force" of paintings and drawings. The uncanny shifts in temporality that may be noted after the study of an artwork are the experience of a 'fullness of time', the artwork's 'fullness of time'. Naturally, this is not a re-launch of artists as the demiurge or divine creator. Instead it is a way of thinking: the person, place or thing artists represent only exist in the one, still and unique image, yet for the skilled artist this subject is never shown as atemporal, it always intimates a present, and thereby a past and thus a future too. So it is their paintings or drawings are charged with a 'fullness of time'.

Naturally, as with so much aesthetic reflection its theorisation is somewhat dry and even tedious, but a sensitivity to the 'fullness of time' in artworks offers an important way to look into and at them. Experiment with it. Indeed the capacity of an artist to capture the fullness of time, is a defining feature of the triumph of an artwork. So much of what masquerades as art is shallow and lifeless because it is empty of time, or else it encompasses a temporality akin to a stagnant puddle. Perhaps this is because so many artists are paid by the hour, or else they would gladly settle for a grubby weekly wage (with overtime paid in fame and status of course) if they were offered one by greasy palmed, blind picture hawkers; but let us not sully metaphysics and aesthetics with dirty street talk, we'll save that for a very, rainy day!