Iain Cameron's Diary
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2005-08-15 - 9:47 a.m.
THE SUBLIME OF THE SMALL
For three years, out of key with his time,
Thus Ezra Pound in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly.
In Kant’s account of aesthetic experience, we, who encounter the work of art, take a special pleasure in that encounter. We feel that (most) everyone should feel the same pleasure - most right thinking people should feel what we feel. They should also feel (like us) that right thinking people should share the pleasure. When you ‘get’ the work of art it means that you feel impelled to share.
Works of art achieve this by hot-wiring our mental machinery - what we use to make judgments. This is not simply a matter of wanting to share our particular tastes with our friends.. Judgement is perception plus and the plus involves some fancy mental stuff - some processing. Artworks get a resonance or harmony going in the plus part.. Great artists find new ways of making resonances with their great works of art. They code triggers into their works which get us going in new ways. The triggers gets us going in terms of the sense of the obligation to share the pleasure.
Easy enough to see (say) Picasso in these terms.
The aesthetic embraces both beauty and the sublime in Kant’s theory.
In the sublime we are over-powered and intimidated by a sense of awe - discomfort, terror and potential chaos. This triggers us to counter the immediate perception - the sublime has two phases - and in the second it is reflective. We reflect on the overwhelming character of the sublime and respond by savoring our order-making capabilities - we respond with the faith that through right judgement we can impose order on chaos.
It’s a bit like Aristotle’s theory of tragedy - the one about the tragic flaw. The hero is brought down by his fatal flaw and as he falls he recognizes his flaw and we share that recognition with him and we gain renewal by this path . The shared recognition is aesthetic for us.
In his excellent Introduction to Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Douglas Burnham explains
“The sublime, properly speaking, only for members of a moral culture……That which leads a civilized person to a feeling of sublime leads, in an uncultured person, to mere terror. However human beings are essentially susceptible to the idea of reason. It is…….. Moral culture which allows this susceptibility to actualise itself. The susceptibility is the feeling for ourselves as essentially capable of transcending natural law.”
Natural law means chemistry, physics, biochemistry, biology, ecology, geology etc. Thus for Kant the two-phase sublime reminds us that as free moral creatures we can overcome natural necessity. Pound seems to think this is ‘dead art’ and ‘wrong from the start.’
Is there a new sublime? One which is on the right track for new time? Could there (perhaps) be a sublime of the small?
Lets play with a few examples - the Rite of Spring is sublime in the old overwhelming way - but maybe the Three Pieces For String Quartet in which Stravinsky condenses the discoveries he made in the earlier work offers a smaller sublime? Certainly both pieces were written when leading composers such as Webern and Schoenberg were concerned to write little pieces and (say in Pierrot Lunaire) deal with the experience of the sublime which while it terrifies the hero we can all see are based on trivial chimera. Maybe Ravel and Satie beat the second Viennese School to this new perspective?
High Minimalism - Stella , Morris , Le Wit, early Nauman, early Reich - they all play with big and small - setting themselves against the conventional sublime of the Abstract Expressionists such as Rothko , de Kooning and Pollock. Philip Guston jumps from the big sublime to the small dirty version at the end of the 60s. At Black Mountain Rauschenberg erases de Kooning and paints white canvases and provokes Cage’s silent piece. The small sublimists tease us - provoking the question ‘is that all?’
Looking back on the start of his career from a distance of 30 years Minimalist pioneer Robert Morris explained:
“At thirty I had my alienation, my Slilsaw and my plywood. I was out to rip out the metaphors, especially those that had to do with ‘up’. When I sliced into the plywood with my Skilsaw, I could hear beneath the ear damaging whine a stark and refreshing ‘no’ reverberate off the four walls - no to transcendence and spiritual values, heroic scale, anguished decisions, historicising narrative, valuable artifact, intelligent structure, interesting visual experience.”
(Stravinsky’s Three Pieces are seen as proto-minimalism by some .) OK enough for the possibility that the new sublime might be a small one for now. Lets look at what a small sublime might mean in terms of the agent and natural law.
The Kantian moral agent who is fired up by the sublime strode down the nineteenth century and crossed the Channel in various guises. The big social reformers of English culture and society in the 19th century were such agents - so were many artists - George Eliot for example - and cultural theorists such as Thomas and Matthew Arnold. This is the kind of person that Pound has in his sights.
Kant believed that it was important that we maintain the ability to see the world as purposeful. It wasn’t necessary the case that the world was truly purposeful but moral agents in moments of reflection would get intimations that it might be and this would support their free purposeful activity. Hence the moral improving recreation of walking the Lake District fells - when the odd flash of purposeful beauty might break through. Works of art artfully combine purpose and purposelessness according tomKant - natural beauty , the natural aesthetic shared this attribute..
This side of Kant’s thought has become invisible these days - partly because we see him as having backed the wrong horse vis a vis Darwin. Darwin showed that the purposefulness in the natural world emerged through blind and had random features of natural law. This explains why so many Victorian intellectuals found Darwin difficult - he seemed to threaten part of the natural culture which supported moral agency. Like Kant they admired natural science but it is much easier to admire distant physics than immanent biology with a clear conscience.
Not everyone felt this - Darwin (who was retiring) had a powerful public advocate in T H Huxley - a great doer and improver who for much of his life argued forcefully and persistently both that Natural Selection was right and that moral agency was safe with science. The two could coexist - and our moral duty was to improve the world through the morally informed application of science.
In the last decade of the 19th century Huxley changed his mind - setting out his conclusions in his famous Romanes Lecture, Evolution and Ethics. The young H G Wells was a pupil of Huxley at this point and he absorbed the ‘second thought’ that the progress of evolution might lead to outcomes which we judge to be morally less attractive than the conditions from which the outcome evolved. This insight enable H G Wells to invent modern science fiction and Huxleian (2nd phase) elements can be seen in (for example) The Time Machine, War of the Worlds and especially the Island of Dr Moreau where an experimental scientist does vivesection experiments on his South Sea island creating animals with human characteristics who live in terror and pain. The creatures gradually gain some insight into what a botched job their creator has made of making rational sensate beings.
A decade later, in the Edwardian Era, partly under the influence of G E Moore at Cambridge, the intellectual climate sought to make a sharp break between how things are ( natural sciences including biology) and our judgments of what ought to be. Getting the two confused was what Moore called the Naturalistic Fallacy. This sharp bifurcation between is and ought s evident in Bloomsbury attitudes to living a beautiful life . In fact the point was clearly made by Hume in the 18th century who provoked Kant to think more deeply in the first place.
Not everyone thought that Moore’s argument licensed a carefree Bloomsbury lifestyle and indeed Bertrand Russell (like Moore a Fellow of Trinity) found time amidst deriving arithmetic logic and then finding the flaw in his famous paradox, to reflect on man’s place in nature. He came to Stoic conclusions - that the universe of natural science was cold and comfortless - not morally inspiring . He set this vision out very forcefully in his article A Free Man’s Worship in 1903 - possibly his most reprinted essay of all - see extract at note A.
A lot of this stuff comes together at Garsington in the First World War - where Ottoline Morrell (the Eleanor Bron character in Ken Russell’s Women in Love film) brought together progressive anti-war artists and intellectuals to enjoy a civilized enclave in difficult times. Several A list celebs were often on her weekend guest list - J M Keynes, B Russell, D H Lawrence, the young Aldous Huxley.
Huxely is of course our quarry here. He is the grandson of T H Huxley and related to Matthew Arnold on his mother’s side - his brother Julian was a first class research scientist and kept him in touch with the rapid emergence of what we now can see as the biochemical paradigm which most of us quietly share these days. It was probably at Garsington that Aldous Huxley first got the idea of creating a society by raising babies in bottles - where he first got the idea that this might really be possible within the emerging biochemical paradigm. His source was probably the Marxist biologists J B S Haldane.
Besides having the right genes to savour the onslaught of biochemistry on Kantian culture and moral agency, Huxley was probably one of the first novelists to have the intellectual apparatus to explore what this might mean on a broad canvas. He enjoyed the company of scientists and indeed wanted to be a scientist - but was prevented from following this path by a childhood disease which damaged his eyesight. At the same time his literary sensibilities were such that he was able to follow an increasingly successful literary careeer in the 1920s . Although they were such different people, he formed a close bond with D H Lawrence, looking after him in his last illness and producing the first collection of his letters in 1932 - the same year that Brave New World was published. (Huxley's wife, Maria, whom he had met at Garsington typed the manuscript of Lady Chatterley's Lover for DHL.)
Huxely’s most successful novel, prior to Brave New World, was Point Counterpoint (1928) in which Hux artfully drops into scientific language at certain key points - as part of the stylistic experiment that gives the novel its title. For example
‘Six months from now her baby would be born. Something that had been a single cell, a cluster of cells, a little sac of tissue, a kind of worm, a potential fish with gills, stirred in her womb and would one day become a man - a grown man, suffering and enjoying, loving and hating, thinking, remembering, imagining. And what had been a blob of jelly within her body, would invent a god and worship; what had been a fish would become the battle-ground between good and evil; what had lived in her as a parasitic worm would look at the stars, would listen to music, would read poetry.’
Huxely is dealing with the sublime here -the stars and the poetry - good and evil - the old sublime. But he also has his Skilsaw and plywood out - he is working on the new sublime - the sublime of the small - the cell, the sac of tissue, the worm - bizarre tansformations caused by biochemical mechanisms. This is not a sublime which overwhelms with chaos - it is one which undermines with microscopic mechanism.
Huxley is the next great English science fiction writer following Wells and Brave New World is his masterpiece. Look at the reviews on Amazon and see how forcefully it strikes contemporary readers. It is also a meditation on the undermining power of the sublime of the small juxtaposed against certain ideas from his friend D H Lawrence (who died when it was being written) . The old sublime culture no longer supports social cohesion and planned biochemistry has to step in to keep the show on the road.
At one point in the mid 20s Huxley had believed that science might rehabilitate the old sublime. This was thanks to J W N Sullivan - the science correspondent of the Observer , friend of Alester Crowley and biographer of Beethoven. JWNS also became a close friend of Huxley’s.
In his Beethoven biography , Sullivan accounts for Beethoven in classic Kantian terms. He feels able to do this because he believed that the new relativistic and quantum physics dissolved materialist mechanism - made Russell’s Stoic Scientism redundant. Huxley was initially drawn to this viewpoint . A character in Those Barren Leaves (1925) decides to pursue the life of the mystic on these grounds at the end of the novel
Huxley liked to travel as far and wide as possible. There is some evidence that Huxley met Crowley through Sullivan while Sullivan was attempting to access Einstein. Crowley had dedicated hs 1906 essay, Science and Bhuddism to Hux's grandad, TH. Apparently Crowley produced pencil portrait of Hux in Berlin. By this stage (1930) Huxley was beginning to have his doubts about scientific mysticism- the possibility the Sullivan-Crowley negotiations about contacting Einstein took place in gay bars in Berlin may have accelerated the doubting. Your guess is as good as mine why Crowley should have been the gatekeeper to one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century but see Note 1 below.
The character of the Savage in Brave New World is the one which brings many of these themes together. The Savage has a strange upbringing which means he has a stronger moral sense than the civilized inhabitants of BNW who use chemicals and sex to keep it all on an even keel. In true Kantian spirit the Savage’s moral sense is supported by an aesthetic sense - a liking for the plays of Sheakespeare and for the great tradition of English poetry.
When the Savage falls in love with a BNW girl things go haywire - he wants romance and she wants sex. He withdraws to a deserted part of the Hogs Back in Surrey and seeks to improve himself by self harm masquerading as spiritual self development and reading great literature . Peversely, he attracts the crowds and the press and by a series of accidents, when his lover appears ,he provokes a sado-masochistic orgy. In the cold light of day he hangs himself. (Echoes of Berlin?)
The Savage - with his roots in and experience of primitive society is the character in the book who comes closest to the Lawrentian perspective - not least because of his genuine literary sense - indeed we might almost dub him a Leaviste in his belief in the improving power of the individual response to great literature. But his moral engagement is faulted by a sado masochistc streak compounded by a lack of self acceptance . As his self-understanding expands to appreciate the link between masochism and morality, the internal contradictions in his make-up releases suicidal urges which overtake him.
The Savage is the reductio ad absurd of the old sublime - and in effect Huxley is arguing at this point that organized chemical conformism is the only real alternative for mankind, society and the individual. Within the terms of PCP quote about the fish and stars, Hux seems to be saying that cells evolution and chemistry are the prime reality - manage that with chemicals and conditioning and ignore the fancy stuff which is delusory.
Now lets switch to a critical judgment rendered about 35 years after the publication of BNW:
‘Such endorsement of pathological morality merely encourages both art and criticism to take flight even further from human dignity and morality.’
I could easily maintain the pretence that the critic is taking issue with the conclusions of Hux’s masterpiece. But its more fun to provide the rest of the sentence:
“ - and from the kind of courage Sylvia Plath showed in her anguished exploration of her humanness, at best, when she was being true to herself.’
The author is David Holbrook, Director of Studies in English at Downing College Cambridge - the article was probably written in 1968. Leavis had been at Downing (although by this time he had retired) and this is classic piece of high-Leavisite criticism - ‘Sylvia Plath, Pathological Morality and the Avant Garde”. It features in the 3rd edition of Volume 7 of the Pelican Guide to English Literature. Holbrook engages with Plath’s most famous poem - Daddy - and contests Al Alvarez’s interpretation (AA was one of the first influential critics to realize the value of Plath’s poetry).. Holbrook homes in on one particular line in Daddy:
‘I was ten when they buried you/ at twenty I tried to die’ -
He finds the sentence terrifying because of both its hideous detachment and the way that it seems to be saying that the poet’s freedom lies in following an ‘awful little allegory’ - a mythic pattern which the poet has picked up to make sense of her own experience. For Alvarez on the other hand:
“What comes through most powerfully is the terrible unforgivingness of the verse, the continual sense, not so much of violence - of violent resentment that this should have been done to her. What she does in the poem is with a weird detachment to turn the violence against herself so as to show she can equal her oppressors with self-inflicted oppression.”
(Worth noting that detachment is a highly esteemed Kantian virtue.)
For Alvarez ,then ,the sublime seems to exist within the internal chaos of the poet’s psyche as it threatens to overwhelm her and in the way the lyric identity manages itself against those internal forces.
We can see the Savage confronting similar internal chaos but as far as we can tell he lacked the heroic internal management that Alvarez sees in Plath. Certainly if Savage had he written a poem as powerful and influential as Daddy in his anguish prior to his suicide then within the fictional balance of BNW he would have been more of a hero rather than just an exemplary case study.
(By the way Alvarez described Ted Hughes as Lawrence without the nerves and the preaching - and without the flowers and the tenderness. Alvarez was critical of Hughess‘ belief system - astrology, Celtic myth and Jung - but saw that it got him where he needed to be to write his poetry. He doubted the validity of the beliefs but saw them as part of the aesthetic toolkit - psychic self management.)
Holbrook belongs to the early generation of Plath interpreters which saw her as a first rate poet undermined by certain psychological excesses - not least her way with Holocaust imagery. Plath criticism has moved on a long way from this initial assessment although it is worth noting that even Prof Rose - one of the most original recent Plath interpreters - like Holbrook - uses to the Jungian ‘Imago” in to help account for the dynamics of Plath’s internal landscape
Could the new sublime be one where it is the internal landscape ithat s hostile and potentially overwhelming - rather than the external landscape in the classic Kantian account? Echoing the old Aristotelian model might the new sublime arise in the context of a shared recognition of what we are all up against internally ? (Rather than the old confident affirmation that people like us have got moral agency all buttoned down with periodic shots of aesthetic stimulation.).
Plath is not the only artist to attract substantial critical attention within such a framework - the American sculptor Eva Hesse is another - born three years after Plath in 1936 in Hamburg to Jewish parents. (Plath was also the offspring of German speaking parents). Hesse’s parents left Hamburg in 1938 and settled in New York State in 1939. They divorced in 1945 and her father remarried in 1948 - her mother having killed herself in 1946. Like Plath , Hesse’s work attracted attention in her teens and as teenagers both were featured in the “Its All Yours” section of Seventeen magazine.
Reviewing the parallels between Plath and Hesse Anne Middleton Wagner refers to:
“circumstances that helped foster in both a complicated attitude towards achievement - a cocktail of ambition, conscientiousness, compulsion and fears of inadequacy and failure. In these circumstances both were quite certain they faced a choice between social life and personal success.”
Thus Hesse confided to her journal in 1952 (still only a teenager):
“If only I knew how high I could set my goals, my requirements for my life! I am in the position of a blind girl playing with the slide rule of values. I am now at the nadir of my calculating powers.”
(What kind of internal heroism is this?) She wrote to her father in the same year:
“I am an artist. I guess I will always feel and want to be a little different from most people. That’s why we are called artists. More sensitive and appreciative to nature. Daddy I want to do more than just exist - to live happily and contented with a home, chidren, the same chores to do everyday.”
Hesse was supremely successful in her artistic achievement becoming one of the key figures in the 60s who helped move modern US sculpture on from the old sublime. Crudely speaking before Hesse , sculpture seemed to lag behind painting. The first sculptor to be linked to the explosion of abstract experssionism was the Englishman , Anthony Caro - in the early 1960s.
Hesse’s work represents a significant step on from Caro’s - moving sculpture from lagging to leading the NYC artistic avant garde - and even overtaking the Minimalist deconstruction crew. Hesse came to widespread attention in the exhibition Eccentric Abstraction in 1966. Unfortunately she died of a brain tumour 4 years later at the age of 34. She is possibly the first woman in the history of modern art to get early recognition for truly innovative work - rather than having to wait for later ‘discovery‘.
Hesse sits alongside Mininmalism but disrupts it. In the words of Lucy Lippard, an early admirer , Hesse’s work stages an “a forthright confrontation of incongruous physical and formal attributes - hardness/softness, precision/chance, toughness/vulnerability, natural-surface/industrial construction.” By following this strategy enabled Hesse is able bring messy carnal associations into the clean world of Minimalism. Wagner explains:
‘The sculpture is literal about the body at the same time it explodes the whole notion of literalness. It insists on its language-like character - its structures of repetition and transformation - at the same time it maps those properties onto the evocation of a carnal world. The body is there somewhere, at the intersection of structure and reference.”
Consider this explanation in relation the Huxley quote from Point Counterpoint - talking about the body literally in the language of science (cold abstract) within a structurally innovative work and evoking a wide range of system links and references - fish, cell sack, stars , good and evil - the abstract and the gooey. Two key themes in the counterpoint. As Wagner goes on to explain , Hesse’s work embodies “a conception of the aesthetic that defines its concern the field of intersection between the bodily and the ideal.”
How would we get on if we tried to read poems from Ariel against that matrix? In Hesse we find confident assertiveness of execution (as we do in Plath) , the willingness to take metaphor to the limit to or beyond secure formal coherence to juxtapose messiness and the insecurity of physical life with system coldness and detachment.
The air is a mill of hooks -
Without a part left over,
The pill of the Communion tablet,
Whose hopes are so low that they are comfortable -
Remember the walker on it?
The heart has not stopped.
We seem to see in Hesse and Plath new codings - new ways of getting to us - which juxtapose cold abstract detachment and messy bodily reality. The cold abstraction - which within the old model of the sublime was the second phase tool we reached for to endorse the idea of moral agency - is in Plath’s poem no longer any use in terms of grounding practical action. If by some quirk we benefit from a transcendental vision (breaking through to the super-sensible realm in Kantian terms) it won’t in fact hold water because meaning leaks from molecules. The vision becomes tame and mere tenderness is all that’s on offer after its worn off. All we are left with is the minimal rhythm of the heart machine and our biologically grounded reactions to our offspring. Four on the floor.
A key poetic strategy at this juncture is described by another major female poet, working in Cambridge about ten years after Plath - Veronica Forrest-Thompson. Her major creative period overlaps Hesse’s - and she too met a tragically early death in 1975.
VFT’s initial approach recalls in poetic terms the one adopted by Huxley in Point Counterpoint . (Her PhD research in Cambridge was on science and poetry). VFT is concerned with how non-linguistic reality might be described in poetry and experienced - and the parallel issue of the relationship between pure intellectual activity in philosophy and theoretical science and their appearance in concrete practical situations - a new attempt to make sense of practical and reflective experience suitable for new times. To achieve this she takes bits of different language ‘games’ and forces them together in the poem. As she explains:
“This results in setting up a tension between their meaning in the original context and their appearance in the poem; they are in a sense different expressions, not because they refer to another area of experience - it is their own original area of reference that I have wished to make part of the subject matter of poetry - but because they are used in a different way.”
These poems represent our constant attempt to integrate different levels of knowledge in our lives. They encompass a process of smashing and rebuilding the forms of thought and the resulting poems “form the affirmation in time and in language of human identity.” Hacksaw time again.
Of the three linked artists working in the 60s discussed here, VFT is the one who is most grandly theoretical about what she is trying to achieve - and clearly it is nothing less than overturning the Kantian basis of earlier art. New times mean a new human identity - not the Kantian vision of the supersensible self equipped to understand a Newtonian universe and act as a moral agent, bolstered by aesthetic experiences which code and resonate with our judgmental apparatus. That template is wrong from the start for new art.
It would be easy enough to take VFT’s programme and feed it back into Plath’s Mystic (quoted above. ) Such an exercise would show how far Plath had traveled from the poetic formula which Alvarez detected in her husband Ted Hughes -Plath wasn’t just trying on anachronistic clothes to hotwire her own poetic sensibility . Such an exercise would also show how far VFT had moved on from Holbrook’s moral pomposities - still unfortunately prevalent in the English Faculty at the same time that VFT was undertaking her research.
Pound’s point - that old sublime is a waste of time - more or less - has plenty of support doesn’t it?
More to come.By the way - see http://www.redflame93.com/Huxley.html for the interesting suggestion that Crowley introduced Hux to mescaline.
Note 1. Just possibly the Sullivan - Einstein Crowley link has something to do with non-Euclidean geometries and Bertrand Russell . BR was close to Einstein but he may also have been the route to a collection of outsider intellectuals interested in the wider implications of this type of mathematical modelling. Seehttp://www.trans4mind.com/counterpoint/hughes.shtml
Note A. A Free Man's Worship opens as follows: "For countless ages the hot nebula whirled aimlessly through space. At length it began to take shape, the central mass threw off planets, the planets cooled, boiling seas and burning mountains heaved and tossed, from black masses of cloud hot sheets of rain deluged the barely solid crust. And now the first germ of life grew in the depths of the ocean, and developed rapidly in the fructifying warmth into vast forest trees, huge ferns springing from the damp mould, sea monsters breeding, fighting, devouring, and passing away. And from the monsters, as the play unfolded itself, Man was born, with the power of thought, the knowledge of good and evil, and the cruel thirst for worship. And Man saw that all is passing in this mad, monstrous world, that all is struggling to snatch, at any cost, a few brief moments of life before Death's inexorable decree. And Man said: `There is a hidden purpose, could we but fathom it, and the purpose is good; for we must reverence something, and in the visible world there is nothing worthy of reverence.' And Man stood aside from the struggle, resolving that God intended harmony to come out of chaos by human efforts. And when he followed the instincts which God had transmitted to him from his ancestry of beasts of prey, he called it Sin, and asked God to forgive him. But he doubted whether he could be justly forgiven, until he invented a divine Plan by which God's wrath was to have been appeased. And seeing the present was bad, he made it yet worse, that thereby the future might be better. And he gave God thanks for the strength that enabled him to forgo even the joys that were possible. And God smiled; and when he saw that Man had become perfect in renunciation and worship, he sent another sun through the sky, which crashed into Man's sun; and all returned again to nebula. "`Yes,' he murmured, `it was a good play; I will have it performed again.'"