How to Hear Art and the Distant Roar of History

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Aaron Fung

Kierkegaard once said something to the effect that the one does not so much read a great book so much as he is read by that book.

And I'm sure Kierkegaard would have agreed with Mr. Nabokov's article "Moonshine of Generalization", in which Nabokov argues that the reader ought approach work of literature on its own, without preconceived notions sullied by the opinions of others: 

Nabokov suggests we be passive readers rather than active readers; one ought not read so much as be read. 

However, no human, no artist, not even the genius exists in a vacuum. Even the most solitary, hermetic genius must be influenced by his society.And, assuming the artist is a true genius and/or part of a culture's literary canon, he has probably exerts an influence on society. 

Maybe genius artists create their own worlds, their own realities; these imagined worlds affect and even manifest our own real world.

A work of art must be embraced with the reader's entire being. I disagree a little with Nabokov here; the brain, the heart and the spine will play a role, but most importantly the work must be read by the soul of the reader. when the brain and spine are busy acting detached and intellectual, the true meaning of the writing may enter the soul unimpeded by the cold intellect and the parochial individual experience. 




Unlike Nabokov, I believe that it is only through the
intuition of the artist that the reader may truly understand the art; it is this intuition that gives the reader a link to higher wisdom necessary to truly understand an art that is beyond empirical science.

About this essay, I think Nabokov has some interesting things to say. I agree that one ought to approach a new work of literature on its own, without preconceived notions sullied by the opinions of others. However, this is oversimplified as the great writer exists within a place and time: understanding the author's place and time is instrumental, and often essential, to understanding the novel. 

Often a great writer is responding to the great events of the time, like the earthquake at Lisbon to Voltaire which convinced him of the folly of a personal, good God. 

Often a great writer is responding, or even influenced, by the intellectual traditions of the time. An example of this is the famous translation of the word logos in Goethe's Faust: Faust rejects Martin Luther's translation of logos as word (from the phrase in The Book of John "In the beginning was the logos (word)). Each new translation of the word logos gives notice and even commentary to ideas influential at the time. For example, the word is the weapon of reason. It is the power of the printed word, of the orator, both of which arrive at knowledge of truth through reasoned words. But this is the world that Faust has lived in and finds unsatisfactory. The next translation of logos is the word Sinn in German, which could be translated as Mind or Sense. Mind is what is behind the word, the thought process. Again, Faust has spent his life in the intellectual world and finds it wanting, being only able to understand superficial phenomena rather than neumena, or Being. 

Note that I use Kantian language in the previous sentence. Kant was highly influential to German thought during Goethe's time and after. Kant is the high point of the German Enlightenment, or Aufklerung. And, relating to the tranlation of logos as mind, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason ended the innocent, previous Enlightenment belief in the ability of reason to cure all ill and find true knowledge. Related to this interpretation is translation of Goethe's German word Sinn as sense. The English Sensualists, most important of them being John Locke, believed that the mind is a tabula rasa  upon which the outside world left its mark upon the mind. 

The important thing about this view is that knowledge is only knowable through the senses: there is no innate knowledge before birth, no Kantian Categorical Imperative. Most heretically, this means that there is not Original Sin; the newborn baby is a tabula rasa and, as a blank slate, has nothing built in, not even sin to mar the soul. 

Francis Bacon and the empiricists would take this Sensualism further and say that while all knowledge comes from the senses, the senses are too unreliable and imprecise and must be aided by scientific instruments like thermometers to measure temperature, barometers to measure pressure, etc. Again, Faust is disillusioned in both Sensualism and Empiricism, and refers to his instruments and books with disdain. Science, learning, books have all proven fruitless to the pursuit of what Kant calls Being, or neumena. They have proven useless in getting beyond the superficial appearances to the essence. With all these methods of acquisition of knowledge rejected, what is left?

The final translation of the phrase is "In the beginning was the deed." And this is the thesis of the first part, and much of the second part, of Faust. It is because of this that Faust is often (prematurely) seen as the Bible of Romanticism.Indeed this is the most popular (though not informed) interpretation of Faust. 

The beginning of the creative act is action. 

It is through acting in the world, through truly living in the world that one may truly know the world. 

The scientist, the intellectual only know life by proxy; they have read about life and have studied the world with their instruments, but they do not truly know the world. A fresh, spring day is more than 21.3 degrees centigrade. That measurement is only a superficial understanding that is not even its most important. Just like the meaning of a person is not that she is 1.62 meters tall. 

What is the true importance of the person is her soul, her joys, her fears, all of which the purely empiricist scientist is blind to. But wander the fields in spring, smell the snap-dragons, and listen to the creek and one knows much more about the spring day than the scientist who only knows the superficial 21.3 degrees centigrade. 

The new thesis is the primacy of action, that to truly know the world one must act in the world and truly live.

It is to be noted that this new thesis is the antithesis of the original thesis of knowledge through Reason and intellect, the thesis embodied in the Faust going through a mid-life crisis. As a thesis, it will be tested and countered. 

For example, one major theme in the work is the world as a theater, going back to the Medieval morality plays, the teatro mundi. So, even in acting in the world, one is only an actor in a play that is a facade for an even deeper truth, and the ceaseless action ends up being in vain, quite useless, like the will o' the wisp at Walpurgisnacht, burning brightly and zipping to and fro but accomplishing nothing.

If all one knew about Faust was that well known thesis of the primacy of action, one would not truly know the play.  Similarly, if all one knew about Faust were the end thesis, that all striving and creation is in vain, then one would have missed the point of the work. 

This is what Nabokov calls the "moonshine of generalization." In Kantian language, this is the phenomena, the superficial truth that will impress attractive strangers at cocktail parties, but misses the point of the work entirely.

However, and this is where I begin to disagree with Nabokov and going back to what I said earlier, the authors exist in a time and place. To know the time and place aids in the understanding of the work. No human, no artist, not even the genius exists in a vacuum. Even the most solitary, hermetic genius must be influenced by his society. And, assuming the artist is a true genius, she has probably exerted her spell upon the greater world. 

Maybe it is true, as Nabokov says, the genius creates her own world. "...the magic of art was in the shadow of the wolf that he deliberately invented, his dream of the wolf..." It is the shadow, the dream of the wolf, that has proven more powerful and more enduring upon humanity than any single wolf could. 

Similarly, fictional characters have exerted more influence upon society than most real persons. Even Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Hegel called "history on horseback" was almost more powerful and enduring as the image as the romantic hero from his autobiography, which would influence future artists of Romanticism, or as the evil despot whom some call an anti-Christ.

Similarly, Romanticism and the defeatist pessimism that would dominate European literature in the early to mid nineteenth century and beyond cannot be understood without the context of the failure of the Revolution(s), rise and fall of Napoleon (son of the Revolution), and eventual victory of the traditional tyrants of Europe at the Concert of Vienna. 

The hopes and dreams of a generation were rotting with a little corporal on Saint Helena.

Even Goethe said that he was glad that he did not have the misfortune of being young in such a hopeless and ruined world. 

Within this context, Schopenhauer's pessimism makes sense; the Romantic's fascination with ruin and decay makes sense. 

For a brief moment the Beethovens and even the Kants of the world believed that a new age of humanity was about to come. 


All that came was destroyed farmland, formerly great cities burned to the ground, lost cultural treasures, and destroyed dreams. Even the idealistic Goethe became pessimistic as all the best of the 18th century, all that he loved, was destroyed and rotted with the little Corsican corporal on Saint Helena. It is within this context that the end of the second part of Faust makes sense, for in such a ruined world how could one think anything but that all creation is in vain?

Perhaps all creation is in vain, but an artist must have some vanity; she cannot be completely selfless. To be completely selfless is to lose oneself to the greater spirit of humanity. To be selfless is to see through the illusion of reality and see that we do not exist as separate beings, and that our individual identities are an illusion.


However, in order to create great art, one must own one's own self, to have a self - to exist. One must have an identity; as far as I know, all great art has been created by individual genii, not collective consciousness in a drum circle. 


In order to have vanity, one must first have a self to be vain about. And it is through this vanity, this "tragic flaw," that allows one to believe such foolish thoughts that a single person can change the world. It is this tragic vanity that allows the innocent artist to believe such foolishness that it is possible to create a work of art that will touch the souls of humanity, and that through art one may come to feel in touch with the mysteries of existence. 

It is such vain imaginings that allows the artist to believe her art is magic. "...it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer." 

I remember reading Nikolai Gogol's "The Portrait," about a painting whose eyes were so alive that they exerted a spell over whoever  owned it. I remember reading this years ago and wishing to possess such power, to create such works that exert a spell over the viewer. 

I wished to create a painting that would be like a scream from within the artist's soul made real, a painting where the artist's soul stares out trough alizarin glazes. 

I believe there is magic in art. And, like a totem of old, art exerts a spell and beholds the beholder.

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