Hegel’s Christian Aesthetics

Friedrich 01 Morning in the Riesengebirge

Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840): Sunrise in the Riesengebirge (1808)

To my friend Paul Gottfried, by far the most learned man in my ken, and the uncrowned monarch of the American Right.

Like everything by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831), the Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics require from the reader no little patience.  Originating as actual lectures – which Hegel delivered to his students at Heidelberg between 1820 and 1826 – the posthumous booklet, edited by H. G. Hotho and first issued in 1835, can nevertheless claim the virtue of brevity, and perhaps beyond that a prose-style as close to accessible as its author ever came.  On the one hand then, the reader’s patience will likely reap him a reward; on the other hand, however, the reader might come away from his exertion slightly disappointed.  The science of aesthetics has to do with art, to be sure, and the Introductory Lectures certainly address the topic of art; but art has to do with beauty, and the Lectures, after a sequence of promising paragraphs in the First Lecture, seem as a whole to give rather short shrift to the topic of beauty.  In the second sentence of the First Lecture, for example, Hegel asserts his remit to be “the wide realm of the beautiful,” whose “province,” he adds, “is Art,” or rather “Fine Art.”  Yet this artistic beauty is not to be confused with “beauty in general,” nor with “the beauty of Nature.”  The latter, Hegel insists, counts only as a “lower” type of beauty, a thesis well calculated to offend the Twenty-First Century’s prevailing “Gaian” view of life – the universe – and everything.  Fine art, by contrast, constitutes the higher type of beauty for the important reason, as Hegel puts it, that fine art “is the beauty that is born – born again, that is – of the mind.”  In consideration of the fact that “the mind and its products are higher than nature and its appearances,” it follows that “the beauty of art is higher than the beauty of nature.”

Hegel continues his argument by elaborating a crucial difference: “Even a silly fancy such as may pass through a man’s head,” he writes, “is higher than any product of nature.”  The most fleeting and unserious of mental, or more properly of spiritual, actions participates in freedom and qualifies itself thereby, even though in a trivial degree only, as self-determining.  The appearances of nature share in no such freedom, but, being as they are “absolutely necessary” and yet at the same time “indifferent,” take their meaning only to the degree that they refer to something else.  Hegel offers as his example the sun, whose pleasant usefulness men acknowledge and praise and in whose lavish light the other manifestations of nature appear to them and become useful, but with which they have, and can have, no spiritual traffic.  The sun remains incapable of acknowledging the men who acknowledge it, however much they might enjoy basking in its effulgence.  Nature is the realm of matter — and matter, eternally mute, never communicates with consciousness but only stimulates the suite of sensuous effects with which consciousness is familiar.  Thus for Hegel, the quality of consciousness makes whatever is truly beautiful, beautiful; and it does so both by imbuing matter with the order that originates in consciousness, including the element of freedom, and by placing the material or sensuous part of the art-object into parenthesis, so that the object becomes a pure image in the spectatorial mind just as it was, before its incarnation in the plastic medium, a pure image in its creator’s mind.

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Some Very Preliminary Remarks on Hegel’s Aesthetics (Updated)

Hegel

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

According to our – very plastic – seminar-schedule, the tentative completion-date for our cooperative reading of Hegel’s Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics is the middle of June, which is approaching.  I myself am now engaged in a second reading of the Lectures, with the aim of making careful notes to be the basis of a short essay.  I will post that essay at The Orthosphere.  The present short missive consists of what I hope are helpful hints to anyone tackling Hegel’s treatise.

Believe it or not, the Lectures show Hegel’s prose at what might be its most accessible and least abstract; its chapters are few, only five, and three of the five are relatively short.  Readers should remind themselves on every turn of the page that the first four chapters constitute the preparation for the fifth chapter, where Hegel (at last, readers might well say when they reach it finally) addresses the topic entirely in his own voice.  Being an historical thinker par excellence and, in his own terms, a dialectical thinker, Hegel, in the first four chapters, mainly rehearses the history of aesthetics and critiques other theories of fine art and the beautiful prior to or in contention with his own.  Here again readers need to take care to keep separate Hegel’s summaries of what other, previous thinkers have had to say about fine art and beauty, and what Hegel himself holds to be the case.

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Jubilee

A son of the South (I am a fils of les gens de couleurs libres, who fought first for the independence of Louisiana and then for the abolition of slavery), I naturally experience some emotional ambiguity concerning General Sherman’s “March to the Sea.”   Nevertheless, in light of Kristor’s “Jubilee” theory  of polity, I recommend New-Yorker Henry Clay Work’s “hit song” of 1864, “Marching through Georgia.”  Here are the lyrics. —

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Proposing a Casual Seminar

Richard Cocks and I have proposed to ourselves a summer reading project on the linked topics of aesthetics and kallistics.  We invite interested parties to join us, if they like.  The reading-list consists of four items chosen because of their germaneness to the two topics, but also because they are relatively short and mainly accessible to non-specialists, such as the two of us.  I give these four titles in the order in which we propose to read them. –

W. F. Hegel: Lectures on Aesthetics (1818)

 Plotinus: On Intellectual Beauty (circa 250 AD)

 Friedrich Schiller: Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794)

 Plotinus: On the Three Initial Hypostases (circa 250 AD)

The curriculum is plastic.  Richard and I plan to have read Hegel’s Lectures by the middle of June.  We will write up a short summary of our discussion to be posted at The Orthosphere, with an invitation to comment.  We plan to have read Plotinus’ On Intellectual Beauty by the end of June, and so on, encompassing Schiller’s Letters and Plotinus’ On the Three Initial Hypostases, which is, notwithstanding its odd-sounding name, also concerned with beauty.

It strikes both Richard and me that beauty is central to the Traditional view of “life, the universe, and everything.”  It strikes us both that beauty is increasingly under attack in the postmodern dispensation, which either denies its existence or declares it to belong to the institutions of oppression.  We believe therefore that a concerted introductory study of aesthetics and kallistics will be useful to those who participate, especially insofar as it results in a better understanding of beauty as an objective and integral element or character in the order of being and the structure of reality.

The titles given above in bold green typescript are links to online versions of the four items.  I will be reading Hegel and Schiller in the convenient Penguin editions (in English translation); Richard will probably be reading Plotinus, as will I, again in the Penguin edition of the Enneads, in the translation by Stephen McKenna and B.S. Page.  The Penguin edition, while no longer in print, is easily available in second-hand copies.

 

Will California Follow Atlantis?

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The Implacability of the Karmic Law

Lewis Spence (1874 – 1955) published his prophetic account Will Europe Follow Atlantis in 1943 at the nadir of Allied fortunes during the Second World War.  Spence, beginning as a journalist and folklorist, had made an enduring reputation by the early 1920s as a major authority on myth and legend, certifying his knowledge of those subjects in numerous books on the ancient stories of the Celts, the Rhineland Germans, the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, and the Mesoamericans.  These extremely useful compendia remain in print.  In 1924, however, Spence issued a book that gained him notoriety for a different although related reason.

This book in question was The Problem of Atlantis, a study of Plato’s Atlantis Myth in its twin sources, the dialogues Timaeus and Critias, of related stories in myth and folklore, and, with a survey of geology and ethnology, of the plausibility in Plato’s account.  In The Problem of Atlantis, Spence, in jazz terminology, played it cool.  While arguing for a factual basis of the narrative in the Platonic texts, Spence avoided the occult vision of Atlantis as a prehistoric Utopia founded on lost sciences and technologies.  He insisted on sober evaluation of the evidence, arriving at the conclusion that Atlantis had existed, as Plato wrote, in the oceanic gap between Western Europe and North America; that it was, prior to its submergence, a High Stone Age, what modern commentators would call an Upper Neolithic, society; and that, during a prolonged breakup of its landmass requiring many centuries, its inhabitants migrated via North Africa and Iberia to Europe’s Atlantic littoral areas and the British Isles.  Ensconced in those new bases, they did their best to preserve their traditions and codify the knowledge of their origin.  The fleeing Atlanteans, whom Spence calls Aurignacians, and whom he identifies with the Cro-Magnons, also crossed the ocean in the other direction, contributing to the cultural matrix of the emerging societies in North and South America.  Spence’s argument about Atlantis was a radical version of a then-current anthropological theory known as dissemination or cultural radiation, which posited a monogenesis for human culture.

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The “Ula Lu La Lu” & Consciousness: Meditations on an Imagist Poem by William Carlos Williams

Botticelli Venus

Sandro Botticelli: Venus (1486)

Introduction. The American poet William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) began his authorship with imagist poems and quirky mixtures of prose and verse like Spring and All (1923), a book that intersperses paragraphs of speculation concerning poetry, consciousness, and the world with seemingly improvised but in reality carefully composed verse-effusions that attempt an audacious transformation of the banal into the sublime.  Scholars of Twentieth-Century American poetry invariably categorize Williams as modern or avant-garde, but I would argue that Williams continues strongly in the Transcendentalist or American-Romantic tradition of the century previous to his own.  Spring and All, supposedly an epitome of idiosyncratic American modernism, offers a case in point, even in those statements where Williams appears to reject tradition altogether and extols the virtue of “the imagination, freed from the handcuffs of ‘art.’”  In an early prose-sequence of Spring and All, Williams denounces those whom he calls “The Traditionalists of Plagiarism.”  Williams uses the term plagiarism in an unusual way, as a failure of consciousness  and perception to rediscover the newness and beauty – indeed even the sublimity – of the given world in all its particulars.  In effect, in Spring and All, Williams engages a new version of the Romantic critique of complacency, recording, as he puts it, “our despair at the unfathomable mist into which all mankind is plunging.”

Complacency is the failure of imagination to invest fully in the structure of reality and the order of being; complacency is the epistemological and cognitive counterpart of original sin.  Williams, like all good Romantics, aims at redeeming humanity from its wretched lapse, its Winter of Discontent, so as to establish men and women in the paradisiacal springtime of refreshed apprehension.

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In the Fen Country: Landscape and Music in the Work of Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams

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Robert Gallon (1845 – 1925): The Water’s Edge (1870s)

A strong sympathy for the landscape often entwines itself with a type of religious sensibility, particularly the pantheistic one.  In the decorative murals with which the wealthy classes of Rome during the Imperial centuries adorned their domestic lives, the idyllic scene, with its groves and grazing sheep, invariably contains a rustic temple.  In Hellenistic poetry, too, the writer – it might be Theocritus or at a later date Ovid – in describing the sylvan setting of Sicily or Arcadia emphasizes the presence everywhere of the nature-spirits.  Ovid’s Metamorphoses seem in part to be an explanation of why everywhere in the ancient world one encountered innumerable altars and shrines.  To the pagan mentality, everything, every tree and stream and mountain, shared in the quality of the sacred, and offered a home to the spirits and demigods.  So too in Romantic painting and verse, the artist’s response to the natural scene records his sense of the ubiquity of spirit.  Thus in William Wordsworth’s famous sonnet “The world is too much with us” (1802), the calamity of the emergent industrial and commercial order manifests itself most poignantly in the terrible loneliness of being cut off from participation in the aura of the elements –

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

The lyric subject of the poem, concluding that the modern dispensation has left men “for everything… out of tune,” wishes that he were (although he is not) “a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn,” that is, someone who might “have glimpses that would make me less forlorn” of “Proteus rising from the sea.”  That men should have become acutely aware of nature in the early nineteenth century is hardly surprising.  The social and economic developments of the period, the hypertrophy of cities and the dissolution of ancient arrangements in the countryside, wrought changes in the very appearance of the rural landscape.  A generation later than Wordsworth, in the “Wessex” stories and novels of Thomas Hardy, the situation has grown even more acute.  In the short story “The Fiddler of the Reels,” the great fact of existence is the Crystal Palace, in the year of whose construction much of the action takes place.  The countryside is emptying into the great cities; railroads have appeared in the provinces to draw away the young people, and the expansion of a new order of industry and finance has begun to alter the familiar aspects of field and forest, river valley and hill.

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Consciousness, Culture, and Art: Informal Comments on an Imagist Poem by William Carlos Williams

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Ou Li Da

The poem to which this essay’s subtitle refers is one of the much-excerpted and much anthologized verse-interpolations in the Menippean combination of verse and prose, Spring and All (1921), that the New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) produced at the acme of his self-consciously Imagist phase in the years after the First World War.  The poem carries no title, but, according to the tenets of Imagism, presents itself to the reader as an instance of res ipso loquitur or “the thing speaks for itself.”  In a later phase of his insistent creativity, Williams would adopt as his poetic motto the formula, “no ideas but in things,” the implication of which is that experience is not solipsistic, nor consciousness hermetic, but that any self-aware navigation of the world presupposes an intentional relation between the navigator and the world that he navigates, which he records as images, ideas, or concepts.  Williams’ poetry in all its phases possesses the charm that its author maintains equal interest in the reality and workings of the external world and in the mystery and joy of the mind that represents and cognizes that reality and those workings.

Williams’ oeuvre offers itself seriously in two other ways: Its author knew that consciousness, language, and culture intertwine with one another aboriginally, so that any investigation of one necessarily entails an investigation of the two others; and he knew that consciousness is historical, that it has traceable origins that suggest the mechanism of its making.

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