Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"On Those Who Are Sublime" Nietzsche and his critique of Kant's aesthetics

Zarathustra saw a solemn person who was sublime, "an ascetic of the spirit" at whom he laughed because of his ugliness.  This chapter of TSZ deals with Nietzsche's critique of Kant (and possibly Hegel as well) on the sublime and the beautiful.  His main point is that the beautiful is more important than the sublime, although that idea only gets substance when played out in terms of the ideas of the overman and will to power.  Kant's notion of the sublime is rather odd in that, for him, when we appreciate the sublime (what he calls the dynamic sublime) we are really appreciating our own power as humans, we are appreciating the ways in which we transcend even the most terrifying aspects of nature: [from his Critique of Judgment]  "we willingly call these objects [bold, overhanging, and...threatening rocks...[etc.] sublime, because they raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height and discover in us a faculty of resistance of quite a different kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature" and, further, "nature is not judged to be sublime so far as it excites fear, but because it calls up that power in us...of regarding as small the things about which we are solicitous [health, money, etc.]...and of regarding its might nevertheless without any dominion over us..." ["even if the volcano destroys my home, I can rise above that":  a kind of Stoic philosophy]

This is what N. means when he speaks of the sublime person as having a "swelled chest" and being decked out with "ugly truths." The so-called "truth" of Kant's sublime man is really just a rather ugly anthropocentrism based on belief in a totally free and transcendent self or soul.  Moreover, beauty is somehow lost in all of this.  

Kant says that there are two main positive aesthetic qualities, the beautiful and the sublime, but for N., they are in dialectical competition...and the winner is not the sublime but beauty.  You would think that N., with all of his talk of the overman, would be more positive about the sublime.  Who more sublime than Nietzsche?  So the victory of beauty comes as a surprise.  But maybe that is because we usually misread Nietzsche, i.e. by way of Hitler.

Of Kant, then, Nietzsche would say:  "as yet he has not learned laughter and beauty."  That is, he takes himself too seriously.  And "out of his seriousness there also peers a savage beast - one not overcome." The sublime person is also in the act of withdrawing from the earth, which, Z. observes ironically, is not to his "taste."  

It is funny to see a reference to taste here.  Of course Kant discusses taste in a different place than he does the sublime, and he only advocates the idea that "there is no disputing about taste" with regards to that which is merely agreeable, not with regards to beauty.  It seems that N. has just misread Kant. Yet, although N. and K. agree that we may dispute about taste, K. may not be serious about that (and N. may see this.)  K. does not bother to set up or describe any disputes over taste, and one wonders what such a dispute would look like for K.  If someone says X is not beautiful and you disagree, you are free to show him (I suppose Kant thinks) that he has failed to be disinterested or to have focused on the look of purpose in the object, or has not allowed his imagination and understanding to go into free play. After all, when you say something is beautiful you are setting it up on a pedestal and expect, nay demand, that others agree. None of this seems to be much like a dispute in which people offer reasons. Instead, it all seems pretty ad hominem and detached from actually talking about the art object or other object of beauty itself.  

N.s comeback is simply: "But all of life is a dispute over taste and tasting."  (I love it that he added "and tasting" since this is very body-oriented and brings taste back from something purely mental where it seems to reside for most philosophers even today.)  The idea that all of life is a dispute over taste may be the same as the idea that whatever we are doing we are setting up values in opposition to the values of others.  We dispute, we argue, and that is what life is about, and this is true even with regards to morality. 

The claim extends aesthetics to all of life:  quite a radical claim. (So much for philosophy's relegation of aesthetics to backwaters.) To make it, N. must expand his notion of taste.  He does this when he says it is "at the same time weight and scales and weigher." These are the things we dispute over.  Moreover life is worthless (or at least not quite human) if we try to live without disputing over these things, over how valuable something is, over what scales to use in measuring value, and over the value of the person who does the weighing of value.  

So, for Z., the sublime person only becomes beautiful or obtains beauty when he gets tired of the anthropocentrism of his take on the sublime.  That sort of person would then be "tasteful" to Z.  That is, such a person has to turn "away from himself" and, of course, following Zs line, he must "jump over his shadow - ...into his sun." That is, he must overcome that miniscule thing which he considers his ego and find his true essence, which what would illuminate: essence can be seen as the overman, but not that it is individualize: his sun.  Z. does not want followers, or rather he only wants followers who follow their suns.

Nietzsche reiterates: "his [the so called sublime person's] happiness should smell of the earth, and not of contempt for the earth."  Kant would have us praise our transcendent souls in the experience of the sublime, but this is not to say "yes" to the earth, which, as we know, is the main message of Z.  Of Kant, and similar philosophers, like Hegel:   "He subdued monsters and riddles:  but he must still redeem his own monsters and riddles, changing them into heavenly children."  All virtues come from what was previously considered vice.  Further:  "As yet his knowledge has not learned to smile and to be without jealousy; as yet, his torrential passion has not become still in beauty."  Beauty will come when the passion of the hero philosopher is transformed into a serenity in which a smile is possible.  He must transform that which within himself would normally be called "evil."  And of course he must overcome, or transform, revenge [the greatest evil]...such an important move for Nietzsche. 

So desire is submerged not in satiety but in beauty, and the graciousness of the great-souled person is suffused with grace. Kant encourages us to be heroes, but the most difficult thing for the hero is to achieve the beautiful:  "No violent will can attain the beautiful by exertion."  Beauty is a matter of subtlety.  

One often associates Nietzsche with the Dionysian alone, but here is a call to the Apollonian as well.  One even imagines the traditional notion of Greek beauty that N. had overcome in his first book coming back in a way.  In Birth of Tragedy we learn that the Apollonian alone is not enough for great art.  But here we find that the sublime have to: "stand with relaxed muscles and unharnessed will" like a statue of Apollo, and that this is their most difficult task.  If you think you are sublime, you are caught up in ego, but to respond to this would be to unharness your will and relax your heroic muscles.  

Now we are prepared for a definition of beauty:  "When power becomes gracious and descends into the visible - such descent I call beauty."  Plato had seen beauty as a matter of ascent:  ascent to the Form of beauty.  N. gives primacy to will to power.  Will to power is not always cruel: sometimes, at its best, it is gracious, gift-giving, and this involves a descent from heights into the realm of the visible.  Beauty then is concentrated visible power found in the gift. The source of the gift determines the power of the beauty.  Thus "there is nobody from whom I want beauty as much as from you who are powerful," to which he adds that the kindness of the powerful should be their final "self-conquest."  (There is no separation of ethics and aesthetics here!)  Grace, graciousness, the creatively powerful individual, the hero of will-lessness, that which conquers itself:  these things form the new conceptual nexus of beauty.  We haven't seen a vision of beauty like this before, or since.  

The powerful (i.e. the powerful in creative action) are capable of "all evil" but then it follows that they should give forth good, a good that is quite different from that which comes out of people who are weak in creative power, and who think they are good just because they have no claws.  The gracious hero is then compared to a column which grows "more beautiful and gentle" and also internally harder and "more enduring" as it ascends.  

So, in conclusion, the sublime person (he who has accepted and lives by Kant's notion of the sublime) only can hope to "become beautiful one day" and thus have "godlike desires."  Although he  would then be vain,  he would would be suitable for adoration. The soul's secret is that only when she has been abandoned by the hero can she be approached by the "overhero."  The chapter ends here.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Great summary of this chapter. Definitely helped me understand this part of the text with greater ease; this chapter is one of the more difficult ones to follow due to the amount of intricate wordplay Nietzsche so strongly adores.

Bash said...

Thanks! The comparison with Kant helps a lot. It also took my attention that you said that Nietzsche encourages the sublime to renounce is "anthropocentrism", and that grace is achieved by the hero of "will-lessness"; and it seems to me that this kind of talk is present in Taoism and Buddhism, the chapter even talks about the white ox which is in itself a symbol of path to illumination.

Anonymous said...

fantastic article... helps easily understand this part of the text. would love to take a class of yours

Anonymous said...

This is a marvelous analysis of the chapter! I have read multiple summaries and two different English translations (because each of them had a slightly different wording and, therefore, meaning) for I sensed that there was a message hidden in that chapter, whereon, for the life of me, I couldn't put my finger. Until I found your article, that is. It so clearly conveyed the idea of which I had a vague intuition that it opened the gates to the palace of wisdom right before my very eyes! Thank you, thank you, thank you! You are a gentlemen, sir, and a scholar. I will most definitely check out the rest of your wonderful blog. Best regards from the other side of the Atlantic!