Saturday, November 28, 2015

Nietzsche, nausea and the birth of tragedy, Section 7

Nietzsche writes "For the rapture of the Dionysian stage with its annihilation of the ordinary bounds and limits of existence contains, while it lasts, a lethargic element in which all personal experiences of the past become immersed.  This chasm of oblivion separates the worlds of everyday reality and of Dionysian reality. But as soon as this everyday reality re-enters consciousness, it is experienced as such with nausea:  an ascetic, will-negating mood is the fruit of these states."  What exactly does he mean by Dionysian reality?   There seem to be at least three meanings for this term. First it refers to the extremely pessimistic vision of human reality offered by the demigod, Silenus.  Second, and perhaps more important, it represents the experience of oneness with nature associated with Dionysian ecstasy.  But here it probably means a third thing, the "reality" on stage in the Greek tragedy.  The paragraph begins with a reference to "the rapture of the Dionysian stage with its annihilation of the ordinary bounds and limits of existence."   The annihilation of ordinary bounds of existence would be a fictional one.  As we rapturously experience the events on stage it seems that the bounds of existence are broken down.

Why, however, would this be related to lethargy?  Here I feel the limits of not working with the German, but I will continue with Kaufman for now.  Writers on Nietzsche generally associate the lethargic element with the lethargy of Hamlet in the sense of his inability to act.  And the next paragraph indicates that Nietzsche is indeed thinking of Hamlet.  So somehow Hamlet represents for Nietzsche a recognition of "Dionysian truth," although there is a great distance between religious ecstasy of oneness and Hamlet's inability of act.  And we have the problem of explaining his idea that "all the personal experiences of the past" are somehow immersed in the lethargic element (immersed in the lethargy?).  So we have a rapture that certainly Hamlet is not experiencing at any time in Shakespeare's play and the lethargy which contains personal experiences of the past, as though the personal experiences themselves impede action, although one might think that rapture itself would be enough.  

The next sentence indicates that the world of everyday reality is very unlike the world of Dionysian reality: in fact, there is a chasm between them, and this chasm is doubled since it is a chasm of oblivion.  The chasm must be related closely to the oblivion, must be the oblivion of Dionysian oneness which is experienced, as we saw previously, with ecstasy.  Again, "Dionysian reality" is unclear: surely it means something related to truth of Silenus, but also something related to the rapture of Dionysian oneness, and is perhaps also related to what happens on stage in a Greek tragedy, the reality of that world.  

The next sentence puzzles again:  "But as soon as this everyday reality re-enters consciousness, it is experienced as such with nausea:  an ascetic, will-negating mood is the fruit of these states."   What would the everyday reality re-enter conscious after, and how? Would it be after an experience of religious ecstasy as had by the Dionysian revelers or would it be after leaving the theater? In connection with the second, think of the theater-goer leaving the theater, no longer under the rapturous spell of the Dionysian.  But why would he or she then experience everyday reality with nausea? Why would he/she be in a pleasure-denying and will-negating mood?  For that matter, why would the person returning from a pre-art Dionysian religious festival experience this?  Well there would be a disappointment in discovering that the world of oneness presented on stage, or experienced in the religious orgy, disappears in the everyday world.  There is no redemption, and hence nausea. But also, clearly this is not a good end-point as far as Nietzsche is concerned.  Isn't art supposed to redeem us? And aren't we supposed to say yes to the will and to sensuous life? The state that follows leaving the theater, if this is it, cannot be considered good by Nietzsche.  In reading the Birth of Tragedy I constantly think of stages.  This appears to be yet another stage, hopefully leading to something higher.  

The next paragraph observes that the Dionysian man is like Hamlet in this respect.  Presumably the Dionysian man is the man who has experienced Dionysian ecstasy, has entered imaginatively the world presented on stage, and is now faced again with dull everyday reality.  I would think also that he is confronted once again with the wisdom of Silenus, the ever-presence of suffering, without the balm either of the Apollonian world of gods or the rapturous oneness associated with the Dionysian.  Now the claim is that both he and Hamlet have seen the essence of things, and that they have "gained knowledge" and that this causes nausea that inhibits action.  The knowledge could be the knowledge that Silenus is right or perhaps that suffering may be redeemed by the combination of the Apollonian and the Dionysian that great art provides.  (This interpretation is defeated below, however.) Nietzsche just does not make clear at this point which knowledge is being discussed.  Of course, if you accepted the wisdom of Silenus then this would kill action.  But then perhaps the knowledge that the only redemption is to be found in the experience of Greek tragedy or something very much like it could also kill action. Action in the world is then radically opposed to action on stage.  Those in the audience are passive spectators, but action is still present, i.e. on stage (except when Hamlet dithers.) 

Aristotle has us leaving the theater with a very different feeling: we have experienced something purgative, a catharsis of pity and fear. We will, he thinks, be able to act even more effectively in the world after seeing a Greek tragedy.  Plato, by yet another contrast, thought that you left the theater with bad habits, for example a tendency to weep when decisive, clear-eyed action is necessary. Plato might well agree that lethargy is a natural response to the theater experience. So is Nietzsche agreeing with Plato and disagreeing with Aristotle here?  This would not be the usual response for Nietzsche, who is mainly against Plato. 

The reason Nietzsche gives that nausea inhibits action is that "action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things." The world, as Hamlet sees, is "out of joint," but it would be ridiculous to try to set it right.  In fact, in order to act one must have "the veils of illusion," which knowledge of the eternal nature of things tears away.  Nietzsche is generally more positive about veils of illusion than most philosophers.  Perhaps the redemption of art is that after the death of God we need new illusions, and these are offered by art. In this view, art makes action possible, as we shall see.

This knowledge that eliminates the veils of illusion (belief in the gods, belief in Christianity, belief in the Forms) is "insight into the horrible truth."  This leads us back to the more simplistic reason for the lethargy, i.e. that the Dionysian man and Hamlet has seen the horrible truth of Silenus.  But the truth of Silenus is not the truth of Nietzsche.  Nietzsche is not telling us that it is best we die soon.  In fact, he seems quite admiring of the Greeks insofar as they invented their Gods to deal with this wisdom in a more cheerful way.  The message of Silenus is not given us either by the Greek invention of the Apollonian gods or by the ecstatic experience of the Dionysian rapture.  

Nietzsche continues:  "Now no comfort avails any more; longing transcends a world after death, even the gods; existence is negated along with its glittering reflection in the gods or in an immortal beyond."  Our puzzlement is compounded.  Is the problem that the experience of Dionysian ecstasy somehow negates any possibility of living under the gaze of the Apollonian gods?  Why cannot we have comfort in the possibility to return to Dionysian ecstasy, perhaps through going to more plays, perhaps by practicing Zen meditation, perhaps by becoming a genius artist?  Or is it that the passage into and out of the theater entails the death of the Greek gods?   I suspect that Nietzsche is telling us that neither the Apollonian nor the Dionysian will do alone.

To say that existence is negated is to say that our own existence seems meaningless, which would be true with the illumination of the "glittering reflection in the gods" and yet there is a solution, which is Greek tragedy itself.  Isn't it ironic that the nausea that Hamlet experiences is experienced by a figure on stage in our greatest post-Greek tragic drama?  So we see him experience nausea, lethargy, and then action that is itself deeply tragic.  But then also are we supposed to experience nausea when we leave the theater? 

Or is it something closer to catharsis?   "Conscious of the truth he has once seen, man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of existence."  Now he understands the wisdom of Silenus and is nauseated.  This is a strange sentence.  The participant becomes conscious of a truth he saw in the past?  When did he see it?  He sees the horror or absurdity of existence everywhere?  Why would this happen after coming out of the theater?  Nietzsche seems to be confusing the disease with the cure. It might be that the philosopher (Greek or modern) would become convinced by the suffering around him and then begin to believe that the gods (or God) does not exist, and then find horror and absurdity all around him, and yet surely he cannot stay there, and surely the Greek tragedy, and great art in general, is the only cure available for that, unless perhaps he can achieve the cure through an atheistic form of meditation.  

"Here, when the danger to his will is greatest, art approaches as saving sorceress, expert at healing."  The whole story was supposed to be about what happens after leaving the theater.  But perhaps I misunderstood "Dionysian stage" which refers not to the theatrical stage but to a stage in a sequence of being!  Notice that Nietzsche does not even distinguish between Apollonian and Dionysian art here, and in fact Apollo is associated with the art of healing.  "She [art] alone knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror and absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live.."  So it sounds as though we are told about the experience of entering the world of the theater, and this does seem to be something like catharsis:  catharsis transformed pity and fear into something with which we can live, the tragic theater transforms nausea similarly.  We come back out without the oppressive nausea.  

N. writes that "these are the sublime in the artistic taming of the horrible, and the comic in the artistic discharge of the nausea of absurdity."  The sublime for Nietzsche is very unlike the sublime for Kant or for Burke.  It is subjectively oriented, as for Kant, but in this case what happens is that the consciousness of the world as absurd after the death of God is tamed, or made funny.  Where does this happen? In the theatrical experience:  "the satyr chorus of the dithyramb is the saving deed of Greek art"  That chorus provides us with an "intermediary world" a world between the world of on stage and our own world, and it is through this that our feelings of nausea can be exhausted.  

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Burke's Sublime as an aesthetic concept useful for radical environmentalism, unlike Kant's

Burke's concept of the sublime is necessarily connected with a certain concept of religion, a certain concept of politics and a certain concept of human flourishing.  What fascinates me first about Burke's conception of the sublime is the close connection he makes between it and the Book of Job as well as certain passages in the Psalms that describe God's power.  But why are the things described by God in his dialogue with Job considered to be sublime by Burke?  This is where things get interesting.  For Burke, only wild animals are sublime. Reading these things from the perspective of our own time, for example a time in which thousands of species are going extinct in the Amazon, we find here a delight in a fiercely independent wild animals.  It is, Burke (mis)quoting from the Bible, the horse who "swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage" that is sublime: it is the "gloomy forest" and the "howling wilderness" and the lions and tigers within that are sublime.  The useful horse is not sublime. Nothing natural employed for our benefit and pleasure are sublime. The things that are subject to our will are not sublime.  The contrast between Burke's concept of the sublime and that of Kant could not be greater here.  Kant believes that what is truly sublime is the recognition of our own power as against that of nature.  Burke is almost the opposite: it is recognition of nature's power as against our effort to control it.  I am reminded here of Stan Godlovitch's approach to the aesthetic of the natural environment.  It is said that Burke is misquoting the Bible, I suppose the King James version. Here are the King James passages Burke misquotes on the wild ass and the unicorn.  God here is speaking to Job and reminding him of what he cannot do, how powerless he is in relation to God.  However, I do not think that the differences between the original and Burke's version is important for our purpose since we are speaking now of Burke's concept of the sublime, not that of early Hebrew writers.  Here is the passage from Burke:

"The description of the wild ass, in Job, is worked up into no small sublimity, merely by insisting on his freedom, and his setting mankind at defiance; otherwise the description of such an animal could have had nothing noble in it. Who hath loosed (says he) the bands of the wild ass? whose house I have made the wilderness, and the barren land his dwellings. He scorneth the multitude of the city, neither regardeth he the voice of the driver. The range of the mountains is his pasture. The magnificent description of the unicorn and of leviathan, in the same book, is full of the same heightening circumstances: Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee? canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? wilt thou trust him because his strength is great?—Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook?—will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever? shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him? In short, wheresoever we find strength, and in what light soever we look upon power we shall all along observe the sublime the concomitant of terror, and contempt the attendant on a strength that is subservient and innoxious."

The key is not that we have God telling Job how powerful He is but how the wild ass insists on his freedom and is defiant of mankind. The unicorn and the leviathan also are unwilling to serve mankind. (God seems to represent this intense anti-human big for animal freedom.) The point is that the Burkean concept of the sublime, unlike the Kantian one could be an aesthetic idea or ideal useful for the radical environmentalist.  The radical environmentalist could say that they want not merely to preserve the beauties of nature but even more the Burkean sublime qualities of nature.  In a sense Burke gives (by way of his misquotes from the Bible) wild animals a voice against human dominance. 

This may also lead us to a different approach to Burke on God as well. Regardless of what Burke himself may have believed, the 18th century reader of his book could easily have been a deist, someone who believes in God, but not of the Christian sort, but rather a God roughly equivalent to nature itself.  Burke stresses violent natural phenomena in reference to our awe of God, for example by way of a quote from the Psalms:  "The earth shook (says the psalmist) the heavens also dropped at the presence of the Lord."  He thinks it interesting that even when God is using his power for good in turning rock into standing water we still experience awe. This event of turning rock into water is much like the natural event of an erupting volcano, except for it being for our benefit and being miraculous.   If God were nature and nature God then we find that both the natural and the miraculous in nature are sublime.  Is there then an equivalence between the power of the untamed ass and the power of nature itself?  Burke sees our awe in God/Nature as the high point of the sublime, speaking of a ladder of the sublime:  "we have traced power through its several gradations into the highest of all, where our imagination is finally lost; and we find terror quite throughout the progress, its inseparable companion, and growing along with it, as far as we can possibly trace it."  Of course this is also coupled, for Burke, with delight, perhaps also increasing as does the terror, leading to a kind of ecstasy of the sublime. 

A second point is that all of this could be seen as a deception or illusion and nonetheless powerful.  Burke writes of infinity that it is "the most genuine effect, and truest test of the sublime" and yet "there are scarce any things which can become the objects of our senses that are really, and in their own nature infinite."  He then says, "But the eye not being able to perceive the bounds of many things, they seem to be infinite, and they produce the same effects as if they were really so."  He goes on to discuss how the parts of some large object can continue indefinitely and hence can deceive us since the imagination has no check.  One does not have to be a Theist to benefit from Burke's idea of the sublime.

I also want to make one comment about Stonehenge and its rudeness.  This may in a way be connected to the previous comment.  It is not the disposition or ornament of Stonehenge that impresses us, says Burke.  It is our sense of the immense labor that it took to erect such a monument, and also the very rudeness of the stonework, which he believes to increase the sense of grandeur insofar as it "excludes the idea of art, and contrivance."  One could say that the sublime quality of Stonehenge is based, for Burke, on the very thing we find in the wild ass and the untamed unicorn: power, independence, artlessness.  Writing at roughly the same time as Rousseau, Burke is giving the name of an aesthetic quality, the sublime, itself associated ultimately with God and Nature and with "the infinite," to something totally other than what humanity produces with civilization.  This is not to deny that the creators of Stonehenge created a civilization of their own, but perhaps theirs was more respectful, even in awe of, the fierce independence of nature, than we post-Kantians.        

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Kant's Mathematical Sublime

I am working now with the Pluhar translation of the Analytic of the Sublime from Kant's Critique of Judgment, found in Korsmeyer's textbook Aesthetics:  The Big Questions.  This is an extremely difficult bit of material, and it is abridged too!  My focus is on the sentence "If the human mind is nonetheless to be able even to think the given infinite without contradiction, it must have within itself a power that is supersensible, whose idea of a noumenon cannot be intuited but can yet be regarded as the substrate underlying what is mere appearance, namely, our intuition of the world." So, to start off, I do not think that the mathematical sublime has much to do with mathematics and actually has a lot to do with the aesthetics of nature as well as the aesthetic experience of great works of art.  It mainly is concerned with a particular kind of experience, one that is aptly illustrated by the example of the Egyptian pyramid.  Kant makes a distinction between apprehension and comprehension, and by the first he simply means the progressive adding of units or numbers.   Apprehension is associated with mathematics.  It is the second concept, comprehension, that is interesting, and it is illustrated by the example of the pyramid.  There is a sweet spot in our appreciation of an Egyptian pyramid: we cannot be too far away or we will not be able to appreciate the individual units of which it is made, but we cannot be too close as then we will not be able to include all of those units in one intuited whole  I like to think of this in relation to appreciation of another great work of art known for another kind of complexity, The Night Watch by Rembrandt.  The point is to try to hold the entire experience of such a work in one's mind, to contemplate it in such a way as to try to intuit it as a whole.  This might be a matter of how one positions oneself spatially before it, although perhaps more important is the amount of time one spends contemplating it: again, not too much or too little.  Although The Night Watch is not as enormous as an Egyptian pyramid, it is great in its complexity, and the number of its parts or appreciable aspects can be seen as, if not infinite, at least indeterminately large. Absolute magnitude, which, Kant believes, aesthetic experience of the sublime gives us, is just a matter of taking the whole thing with its indefinitely large number of appreciable parts in with one intuition. The problem with being too close to the pyramid is that, as one looks at the stones, the earlier parts of the experience are "extinguished."  So, again, this is a temporal as well as a spatial matter.  

Another factor in the experience of the mathematical sublime for Kant is that the judgment of the sublime only happens when the imagination is unable to exhibit the concept of the magnitude. This idea seems to conflict with the main theme of the preceding paragraph.  Our intuition is supposed to grasp the object as a whole, in comprehension, and yet our imagination is not up to the task.  I suspect that by "imagination" here, Kant is not referring to creative imagination but simply to apprehension (associative imagination), i.e. to the ability to put things together in an associative and relatively mechanical way.  So, when the imagination in this mechanical sense gives out, then we have an intuition that hooks us up to something grander.  I take it that this grander thing is much like Aristotle's notion of an organic whole.  Aristotle brings in his concept of the organic whole in the Poetics when he discusses beauty.  As with Kant, and perhaps Kant was thinking of Aristotle when discussing mathematical sublime, he sees magnitude as something valuable, although he associates it with beauty.  He also associates it with the mind's ability to intuit something as a whole. A play is more beautiful if it has magnitude and is still comprehensible, that is, can be apprehended as an organic whole.  

Kant goes on to argue that, unlike mathematics operating under the relatively mechanical concept of apprehension, when the mind listens to what he calls "reason" (Kant's notion of "reason" seems to bear little relation to what we mean by reason and does not for example have anything to do with logic or giving good reasons or arguing well) it demands "totality" even of magnitudes that we never can apprehend completely.  It "demands comprehension in one intuition" and it requires that we experience the infinite in its entirety.  But since the infinite is so large, everything else in relation to it is incredibly small, and to be able to think such an infinite one must go beyond imagination, which is based ultimately on sensation.  There is, here, no determinate relation between things expressible in terms of numbers.  

Again, this is not about mathematics but about the limits of mathematics, even of the mathematical concept of infinity. Although Kant never mentions the phrase, I find myself thinking of that old saying:  "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts." The experience of the sublime is a matter of experiencing a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Kant speaks of the limitations of ordinary intuitions in terms of following standards of sense.  So what is this mental power that goes beyond the standard of sense? It is the capacity to perceive totality.  Kant explains this in one fascinating sentence quoted above, and quoted again here:  "If the human mind is nonetheless to be able even to think the given infinite without contradiction, it must have within itself a power that is supersensible, whose idea of a noumenon cannot be intuited but can yet be regarded as the substrate underlying what is mere appearance, namely our intuition of the world."   The substrate of our world of appearance is the idea of a noumenon, of a world of things in themselves.  So the substrate that underlies appearance is the intuition of the world, i.e. the background thought that everything that happens happens in the world.  This ability is something that goes beyond mere sensation or imagination or even imagination combined with the understanding to point at the noumenal realm, i.e. the realm of God, immortality and the soul, which is to say the realm referred to by religion. 

Bear in mind that belief in God is not necessary for this all to work. Belief in an indeterminate whole that subsumes experience and that also makes wholes greater than the sums of their parts may be sufficient.

Mathematical estimation of magnitude, using numerical concepts only, would not allow us to think infinity in its entirety.  So transcending mere mathematical estimation is actually the solution to the problem that Kant originally posed at the beginning of the Critique of Judgment, how to find a bridge between the realm of experience and the noumenal  realm.  His answer is that the mind can expand itself beyond the barrier of sensible experience as long as it has a practical, i.e. a moral, aim, as opposed to one that is focused on cognition.  So nature is sublime insofar as the idea of infinity is combined with these its intuition.  The introduction of the idea of morality into this discussion seems gratuitous and must have to do with other projects and worries of Kant.

What we are describing is a view of the aesthetics of nature quite contrary to that of those contemporary aestheticians who believe that the proper appreciation of nature is cognitive in a science-like way. Such cognition is bound by its inability to, as Kant would put it, comprehend the infinite.  John Muir, as I have argued in earlier posts, manages to go beyond this relatively narrow perspective.  If Kant and Muir are right than the cyclical view of nature appreciation I have recently advocated may require an addendum, that although cycles are important, there are also high points in the appreciation of nature, or of anything great, even in art, and these occur when the intuition has within it the idea of totality or something infinite, and the attendant pleasure.

So, the relatively mechanical imagination can't truly judge the magnitude of an object, since a true judgment would be one that would give us the experience of the sublime.  So, when the imagination tries to comprehend in a way that surpasses its own ability to encompass all of this in an holistic intuition then we have the experience of the sublime, since at this point reason takes over, as it were, and with it the idea of something that underlies all of our experience, i.e. the intuition of ourselves as experiencing things within an entire world, i.e. the whole of nature.  Kant writes that the "basic measure of nature is the absolute whole of nature, which in the case of nature as appearance, is infinity comprehended."  

But then it turns out that this basic measure is contradictory, even on Kant's account.  There cannot be absolute totality of a progression that is endless.  Does Kant realize that he is deconstructing or at least undercutting himself here?  He seems to be implying that the experience of the sublime is based on an illusion or an illusory experience.  I have no problem with this Nietzschean idea, although it is surprising to find it in Kant.  So, when the imagination tries fruitlessly to comprehend the magnitude of some natural thing, this contradiction leads us to think of a supersensible substrate underlying both nature and our ability to think, one that we must judge as sublime.  (Why need we think this?) What is sublime in this case, Kant argues anthropocentrically, is not nature itself but the attunement within our minds when we judge such an object, the imagination then being referred to reason in such a way as to harmonize with its ideas, i.e. the indeterminate ideas of the noumenal realm.  Kant naively thinks this will be attuned with moral judgments and the influence of moral demands on feeling.  I can't follow him here.

So he finds true sublimity in the mind of the person who has this mental attunement of imagination and reason, and not in nature at all!  This leads him to the rather counter-intuitive claim that "we would not want to call sublime such things as shapeless mountain masses piled on one another in wild disarray." Rather, in this case, what is happening is that the mind "feels elevated in judgment of itself" because it can contemplate these things without thinking about their form.  Instead it can revel in its own imagination and its harmonious connection with reason in its attempt to arrive at noumenal things, although the imagination is inadequate to such ideas.  Some harmony!  Why would he even think that the experience of shapeless mountains and the sublime pleasure we get from this could be connected with the harmony of the defeated imagination in the face of reason's demand for unity even of the infinite? 

Now one important aspect of reason, on Kant's account, is that it demands unity.  So, as Kant puts it, "the idea of comprehending every appearance that may be given us in the intuition of a whole is an idea enjoined on us by a law of reason," which depends on the absolute whole as its measure, a measure that is valid for everyone. So the imagination, in trying to obey this law, fails.  The feeling for the sublime is respect for our vocation in the sense that what humans can do best is to have the feeling of the sublime that comes from this failure.   In having sublime experience we are respecting the idea of humanity in ourselves and not really the magnitude of the volcano or waterfall that we find sublime.  This is just what Kant calls a "subreption."  We realize then that the "rational vocation of our cognitive powers" is superior to the greatest power of sensibility, i.e. of our imagination even in conjunction with the understanding.  So we feel displeasure because our imagination fails in its estimate of magnitude, i.e. of infinity or absolute totality, which reason poses to it, and yet feel pleasure insofar as we realize that such inadequate power is at least harmonious with reason in trying to do this impossible thing.  (I see no reason why pleasure should win out over pain in this instance.)  So we estimate large objects in nature, for example the galaxy seen through the Milky Way, as small in relation to absolute totality, and more important, in relation to the ideas of reason, for example the idea of God. What arouses in us a feeling of our human vocation is in harmony with this law.      

What is valuable in all of this?  I am not sure.  I feel attracted to certain ideas, the idea that there is a high point in the aesthetics of nature, that this cannot be tied in any simple way with mathematical or scientific forms of cognition, that this also ties to our appreciation of works of art like not only the pyramid but more interestingly The Night Watch, that that background idea of the world as totality is somehow combined with or tied to our experience of things as wholes, and finally that there is something tragic and painful as well as pleasurable about the failure of our mechanical imagination to capture the sublime, which work needs the supplement of the creative imagination or what Kant calls "reason" or the principle that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.