reading Hegel on Sunday

Sundays (and all holidays for that matter!) are a challenge for the combative melancholiac. Because too much peace & quiet lulls the combative reflexes into sleep. And oh oh the dull drowsy depths a non-combative melancholiac might sink into! Not to mention the endlessly ruminating reflections he or she might engage in!

It is thus in keeping with age-old remedies for “acedia” that on a grey Sunday morning combative melancholiacs can be found, not contentedly snoring away in bed, but straining their brain to fathom , say, Hegel’s philosophy of art.
A paradoxical occupation , this stern philosophizing about art. Because isn’t art precisely the domain where we want to escape from all this “somber self-concentration of thought” ? Don’t we (1) seek in art the sensuous immediacy of imagination, rather than the twists and turns of an “intelligence devoid of plastic shape” ?

We need art to “drag our hearts through the whole significance of life” , without resorting to scientific analysis & deduction. We have a “cherishing interest for the art object” because it represents universal, intangible thoughts & feelings via the most individual, sensuous existence .
A reconciliation of senses, heart and mind in one living synthetic intuition, yes that’s what art achieves. And that’ s why it offers such a reprieve for all those who have either despaired of meaningless sensual pleasures or have tired from the dry “abstract endlessness of reflective thought”.

But of course our dictatorial ruminating reason cannot ever be content with the mere concrete evidence of our actual pleasure in art, and demands a serious theoretical justification. Hence the whole discipline of Philosophy of Art! Now of course, one can always trust Hegel to produce page after page of serious theoretical thought, also in his very ponderous introductory lectures “On Art” (2) .

And yet, doesn’t he get closest to “the meaning of art” when he lapses from dry theoretical discourse into metaphor? (3) And isn’t the power of metaphor in fact related to how art functions: conveying a truth through a sensuous image which induces the happy collusion of imagination and understanding. Now I wonder, dear reader, whether you spotted Hegel’s lovely evocative sentence (already furtively inserted above) [art] “drags our hearts through the whole significance of life” . And indeed; whether we’re watching a film, listening to music, contemplating a painting … : although we’re not actually engaged in living action, our heart is being dragged through the whole range of feelings that make up the significance of a human life.

Fortified by these theoretical insights, my combative inner self thus decided to engage in some Sunday-afternoon art therapy (4) . Regular readers of this blog may now sigh and think they’re in for yet another ode to ancient Madonna’s and Crucifixions – but no! Even an un-postmodern, contemplative flâneur does participate in contemporary art events (5). And so, on this windy greyish afternoon I cycled to a former warehouse, now converted into a space for 'creative interventions'.

I do like wandering around in these old buildings, with their bare walls and floors, their sturdy brick and iron, their many rooms & stairs & corridors, all full of disorderly traces of past occupations. And thus deambulating I am ready to suspend all disbelief and to let random artists try out on me whatever installation or performance they see fit.

Like that room where I first stood hesitating on the threshold, because a woman was lying in bed, and only at a second glance I spotted the notice which invited individual visitors to take off their shoes and join the woman in bed to swap “scar stories” . (7) As I read afterwards in the artist’s (Michel Yang) statement: “Scars whether physical or emotional mark the presence of the external (past or present) [..] unlike birthmarks which are innate. What were those external events? The story of the scar is inscribed in the scar. I propose to take an intimate look at our personal physical scars. We will describe and reproduce/rewrite our scars. And in doing so, leaving traces of the events behind.”

On the wall of the room-with-the-woman-lying-in-bed, white paper sheets were pinned with the typed out scar-stories of anonymous previous guests. There were cute childhood stories, there were banal stories, there were scary and there were moving stories ,…. Tales of the many little catastrophes lives are littered with, and which usually attract no public attention at all. But pinned here on the wall, these ordinary scar stories acquired some broader interest, appealing most powerfully to our senses, our imagination, our heart….

And, in fact, our dear solid Hegel would have very well grasped the artistic intention of this performance. In his analysis of romantic art he speaks of “aspects of external existence committed to contingency and left at the mercy of freaks of imagination” and “whatever can find room in the human heart […] can make its appearance in the realm of art, if only it [is endowed] with affinity to thought and feeling”.

anti-theses buried in the notes
(1) “we”: assuming there is a community of likeminded, ponderous people , who are saved from the perils of auto-ruminating by the grace of sensuous aesthetics
(2) Quoting the title of the first chapter should suffice as proof of the serious laboriousness of this Hegel-lecture: “DIVISIONS OF AESTHETICS AND REFUTATION OF SOME OBJECTIONS AGAINST THE PHILOSOPHY OF ART”. The second chapter’s title is promising too! “SCIENTIFIC WAYS OF TREATING THE BEAUTIFUL AND ART”. But my favorite (sub-) title is to be found in the third chapter: “The Historical Deduction of the True Concept of Art”.
(3) I can easily disprove the need for lyricism or metaphor to “explain” art: Kant explains art brilliantly in his critique of aesthetic judgment . And what he writes there about the beautiful and about taste is as dull and dry as analytical thought can get, and yet never have I gained more understanding about how peculiar the disinterested aesthetic judgment is for a human being otherwise ruled by “appetitive interests” .
(4) not that my heart really needed any more dragging around, it already being the scene of very live emotional turmoil over the past weeks. But that’s of course the whole soothing and redeeming point of art: its form, its beauty, its purely imaginary presence may allow us to come to terms, if only in the imagination, with emotions and events under whose stress we crumble in real life.
(5) I said I would refrain from an ode to ancient art in the body-of-the-post, but notes are obviously not held by that promise. And how to forget that only yesterday, I stood rapt with attention in front of a 15th century Annunciation (by Rogier VanDerWeyden or his workshop). Cherishing the magical presence of a detail, painted with painstaking attention: a little glass flask with the light refracting in the liquid it contains, the dull gleam of the glass itself modulated by the soft shades of its ribbed texture and the shadow thrown by the little flask on the wall almost liquid in its fleetingness. In the presence of this little glass flask, so lovingly painted (6), how could I not but lament the West’s relentless drive for creative destruction, having made us wantonly dismiss representative painting. But Hegel, expert in all things of the Mind and the Spirit, of course foresaw the West’s evolution to abstract and conceptual art, an evolution which was to emancipate Thought and the Ideas from the fetters of unreliable, material aesthetics. “The reflective culture of our life of today […] is not favorable to art [and misleads the artist] into putting more abstract thought into his works themselves” […] the spiritual has withdrawn into itself out of the external and its immediate oneness therewith. For this reason, the sensuous externality of concrete form is [regarded] […] as something transient and fugitive. […] For this external element no longer has its notion and significance, as in classical art, in its own sphere .”
(6) ah precious echo of one of my favorite Proust-passages in which Bergotte, ignoring health problems, goes sout to see again a Vermeer painting he loves. Standing in front of it, while enthralled by a brilliantly painted detail (“le petit pan de mur si bien peint en jaune”) , he questions his own fundamental choice of having always preferred art to life... ("Dans une céleste balance lui apparaissait, chargeant l'un des plateaux, sa propre vie, tandis que l'autre contenait le petit pan de mur si bien peint en jaune. Il sentait qu'il avait imprudemment donné la première pour le second")

(7) no, I did not myself climb into bed to tell my own scar stories : a question of holes in my socks (so I could not take off my shoes!), natural reserve (gosh, public display of my scars!?) and a self-imposed interdiction to look back (because there are scars and scars and not all scars merely evoke innocent accidents)
(8) a passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, on how we don’t pay much attention to the calamities that are not momentous and unique, but rather all too frequent and usual in life, even though they may be the very stuff of suffering : “That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency , has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk well wadded with stupidity”


Roxana said...

yeees, the return of the combative melancholiac :-)

(just expressing my joy for now, i'll come back for more)

(anti-theses buried in the notes", however can you find such delightful turns of phrase?)

ps. "delightful" seems to be le mot de la saison :-)

Robin Bates said...

Hegel is not for the faint of heart, so kudos to you for taking him on. I wonder if I'm oversimplifying him when I see him as calling for a balance of head and heart.

ffflaneur said...

dear R, you do express your joy most delightfully!

ffflaneur said...

hi Robin, actually I think indeed that's the point Hegel was making in that laborious lecture of his. He puts it somewhere like this: "the spontaneously present combination of the spiritual and natural"

(and rest assured: it is only on very grey and very rainy sundays that i take on hegel, carefully selecting the slimmest specimen amongst his books)