Monday, September 10, 2007

In art alone you are completely free because there you impose laws upon yourself

If every man followed his own free ideal, might there not be certain collisions? – Schiller escaped this criticism by saying that of course he was not talking about the empirical world: in the empirical world men were parts of this hideous causal treadmill which they could not avoid; after all, they had bodies and these bodies obeyed certain physiological and physical laws which could not be altered by any amount of pursuit of liberty. But they must rise above this, and in their minds they must live pure, dedicated and free lives. He illustrated this by saying that the salvation of men from oppression and enslavement by material factors was to be attained through what he called ‘play’.
Play he identified with art. Briefly, the view is that in art alone you are completely free because there you impose laws upon yourself. We go back to Rousseau again. Schiller does not give this example, but if you are, say, a boy playing at being a red Indian, then you are a red Indian, for these purposes, and the laws you obey are the rules which you invented for the purposes of the game. Everything you do obeys your own creative fantasy and imagination, and not some rigorous yoke derived from the external world which bends you to its inexorable necessity.
Art for Schiller is a sort of free self-expression. But certainly it does not have very much to do with actual political or social life. What he thought was that in the rather gloomy world of the minor German principalities, in what was to him, in some ways, the even gloomier world of the Jacobin Terror in France, the only way for a free man to escape was to dedicate himself to purely spiritual activity and try to ignore as far as possible the grim necessities of actual life. This form of escapism did not commend itself to people who were actually faced with acute and concrete problems of life, but it had a profound effect upon artistic and aesthetic thought both in Germany and in other countries.
Let me make one more observation before I come to Fichte himself. If you ask at what stage, exactly, you get this notion of the tragic hero, that is to say, the notion of a man oppressed by the necessities of empirical existence, who escapes them by rising above them, ignoring them, or at any rate fighting against them, whichever way out he takes –whether he takes what is called the barbarian way out, which is to try to struggle against necessity unsuccessfully, and go under in some fearful, heroic duel, which is presumably what Karl Moor does in Schiller’s play The Robbers, or whether it is a question of his rising above necessity to some artistic empyrean and trying to detach himself from the world and live in the pure world of art and imagination and thought, like the Olympian gods, as Schiller says – if you ask at what particular point this notion emerged, it should be placed, it seems to me, between 1768 and 1783. [From "a lightly edited transcript of a text of a lecture in Isaiah Berlin’s papers."]

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