Sunday, April 22, 2007

As a Buddhist sympathizer, I respect a lot of things about Weil’s ethics of attention

Something has been troubling me in all this talk of ecstatic self-forgetting. In order to make Bataille and Weil play nice with each other, I had to sand off some of their rough edges. In particular, I had to paint both Bataille’s abandon and Weil’s obedience as essentially mental states; in the foregoing post, these writers resemble nothing so much as a Buddhist monk and nun who, in their quite distinct ways, are striving to quiet the chatter of conscious thought and to replace it with the profound silence of the sacred. As a Buddhist sympathizer, I respect a lot of things about Weil’s ethics of attention, but the weakest link in her chain is the way that attention translates into action — all she can say is that “the actions that follow [attention] will be automatic.”
There is a troubling refusal of responsibility here that seems to have to do with Weil’s discomfort in her own embodiedness; we have already seen, in my post on Weilian self-sacrifice, the fierceness with which she deprives herself of necessities in the name of ethics, but her wish to be “decreated” is more profound than a wish for death — it is a wish, as her term suggests, to undo her own creation. She writes, “When I am in any place, I disturb the silence of heaven and earth by my breathing and the beating of my heart.” She wishes, in short, to not have a body, and this creates a problem in terms of engaging with the physical world — her efforts at ethical action, as outlined in that earlier post, are often bizarre, unsuccessful, and misunderstood. Ultimately they are fatal. (Though they retain, as I argued, a symbolic value.)
In Bataille, the disconnect between mind/soul and body is just as profound, but since he values the body and not the soul, we encounter Weil’s difficulty reversed, as in a mirror: the blind spot in his thinking is how to get from action to attention, from ecstatic bodily practice to reflective morality. Bataille is not even really interested in reflective morality; the closest he comes is to argue for the continual overthrow of moral systems in favor of a continual quest for the authentically contradictory promptings of the deepest self. My problem with this is not so much that this ‘deepest self’ disappears into the bodily (though it could be said that this is another escape from responsibility), but rather with the particular way in which Bataille mobilizes the category of the animal in order to describe the embodied aspects of personhood.
Last time, I described Bataille’s sense of humans as “discontinuous” beings, fundamentally alone in their heads. This is imagined, in Erotism and especially in Theory of Religion, in contrast to the “continuity,” the immanence and immediacy, of the animal world, for which he argues we have a deep nostalgia. We imagine that animals “exist in the world like water in water,” and we experience ourselves as lacking this feeling: “Man is the being that has lost, and even rejected, that which he obscurely is, a vague intimacy.” Bataille’s pursuit of the experience of sovereignty is the quest to “lose his head” and give himself over to the animal within.
This account of the animal world resonates with us because it does sound true, it does recall a feeling we can empathize with. Animals are frequently evoked, in literature and film, as figures of Edenic innocence or of blind necessity — and either way, we see in their unselfconsciousness a state we envy. Rilke, in the poem excerpted in the epigraph, describes this nostalgia: “All other creatures look into the Open / with their whole eyes. But our eyes, / turned inward, are set all around it like snares.” The problem, as in Bataille, is self-consciousness; if only we could rid ourselves of it, we could exist “in that pure space . . . in which flowers endlessly open,” we could reside in “Nowhere without No.” uncomplicatedly

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Because art cannot survive the banal disfigurements of want, it has to throw off the burden of pity

Sentimental novels, which depict human beings lifted out of misery through virtue and the generosity of others, or ruined through vice, assuaged the consciences of readers who wanted to solve political problems through tricks of perspective and scale. Modernist novels, on the other hand, which are sometimes accused of abandoning politics in favor of subjectivism, actually brought to full flower the unsentimental novel, which is based on the extrapolation of crime. From the standpoint of crime, the beggar has the potential to become a thief, and to revenge himself freely on his oppressors, by doing so excessively, far beyond the sympathetic limit of need. The ruling class is revealed to be dependent on the underclass, not only in the acquisition of wealth, but even through its defining pleasure in philanthropy and vicarious criminality.
The unsentimental novel has no need for pity because it is revolutionary. An absolute commitment to art announces, in its moments of lucidity, its nature as crime. (It also reveals, where it becomes intentionally confused, the victim to be the missing term.) Because art cannot survive the banal disfigurements of want, it has to throw off the burden of pity by becoming monstrous. It follows its own laws by transgressing against love and retreating into an unfeeling solitude. Thus it pierced the veil that separates the subjective experience of alienation from its sources in hideous poverty, hideous ugliness, and hideous starvation. Thank you very much. Filed under: Philosophy, pop culture, The Valve, Literature, Politics, Art, Movies, Music

Monday, April 16, 2007

I'm saying it's time for us to reassess our conceptions of the West

Warrior for the word Pages 1 2 3 4 5 At the end of the introduction, you write: "I am uncertain about whether the West's chaotic personalism can prevail against the totalizing creeds that menace it. Hence it is critical that we reinforce the spiritual values of Western art, however we define them." It has a markedly a different note than "Sexual Personae," which is largely celebratory and optimistic about Western culture.
But no, actually. "Sexual Personae" is about decadence! -- the beautiful decadence of Western civilization. There I say I am a decadent, and I celebrate it, but I don't know how long the West is going to last. If our popular culture is equivalent to Hellenistic culture during the Roman republic and empire, I have no idea if we are going to last 50 years or 500 years. But there is no doubt that there is an end to every civilization, whether it's from some climatological disaster or invasion or something else. I mean, last December's tsunami showed everyone that my vision in "Sexual Personae" of nature was right -- that we just huddle here on the thin, brittle skin of the globe. Civilizations rise and fall. I'm saying it's time for us to reassess our conceptions of the West. In all its failings, the West has produced a great art tradition.
So I'm saying to the left: Stop bad-mouthing your own civilization; get over it, you little twerps. I'm saying to the religious far right: If we are defending Western civilization, as you claimed in the incursion into Iraq, then you'd better realize it's much more than Judeo-Christianity and the Bible. You'd better get real and accept that we have a Greco-Roman tradition of literature and art that started in 700 BC. And yes, some of it deals, quite frankly, with sex and the body; you must deal with it and allow students to deal with it, because that is part of the brilliant strength of our arts. I'm demanding that conservatives support the arts and that liberals stop being so snobby about art and quit celebrating art that is simply cheap sacrilege of other people's beliefs.
Artists have got to get back to studying art history and doing emotionally engaged art. Get over that tired postmodern cynical irony and hip posing, which is such an affliction in the downtown urban elite. We need an artistic and cultural revival. Back to basics! Camille Paglia, from a 2005 interview 1:26 PM

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

He lays the whole of existence in front of us more vividly than our own imaginations could conjure

Damian Whitworth From The Times April 11, 2007
Examining the abuse of Cressida, as well as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew and Emilia in Othello , can help us to shape our own lives by avoiding similar mistakes, Dr Maguire believes.
This is Shakespeare that the Oprah generation can grab hold of. In King Lear , the bad bastard Edmund wants to be loved. So does Lear, of course. Cordelia, may have been principled and honest when she refused to compete with her sisters to say who loved their father most. But she lacked the imagination to see the situation from his point of view. Would she have behaved this way if she had seen that beneath the bizarre test lay an old man’s fear of being unloved? Shakespeare seems to suggest that finding forgiveness for those close to you and telling them that you love them can go a long way to salving the world’s ills.
He does not specifically prescribe strategies for navigating life. But he lays the whole of existence in front of us more vividly than our own imaginations could conjure and allows us to see our little lives in the giant characters he has created. The individual can extract whatever self-help lessons he chooses. And if he sees the play, rather than reads it, he’ll feel even better. A night at the theatre watching Romeo and Juliet or Antony and Cleopatra must be worth a lifetime of poring over Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus , however many copies it has sold.
At the very least Shakespeare provides comfort by telling us more beautifully than any other member of our species has managed that we all share the same experiences. And he has words for any occasion. Just last week my father reminded me that nobody does it better than Shakespeare when he read this passage from Cymbeline at my grandmother’s funeral.
“Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,/Nor the furious winter’s rages;/Thou thy worldly task hast done,/Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;/Golden lads and girls all must,/As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.”

Earning the right to receive Great Art

Yes, that's the thing with Great Artistry posted by MD Amidst this Roger Kimball commentary about Sol LeWitt and minimalist art, a sentence in paragraph six:
Great art repays renewed scrutiny with new insights, new perceptions.Another way of saying this is that Great Art beckons longterm friendship with the audience. Such art, like one's friends, rewards the time, energy, and sacrifice required for intimacy. Good friends, in the sense that they uplift each other to their most expansive, fullest nature, are sometimes easy, and sometimes not, are they not? Truly relating to someone for their deepest benefit is certainly not a 24/7 bowl of cherries; and you can be sure that the same goes for such people for your deepest benefit. (For more about this sort of friendship, see Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.)
All of which is to say that Great Art isn't necessarily easy to read or experience, doesn't present itself without its perceiver earning his or her right to receive. Of course, sometimes great art, those you have lived with for many years, comforts, heals, and rejuvenates. Great Art is worth the investment, worth the patience, worth the confusion. This sort of rationale was common to the "Great Books" movement in 20th century America; it remains in use in my Basic Program at UChicago. It is also entirely applicable to not just literary thought, but all disciplines of art, and the rest of the Humanities. Labels: 2:20 PM