Mesocosm

"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

Carl Schmitt’s “The Concept of the Political”

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Over the last few years I’ve been reading a group of loosely-associated German conservative philosophers and theorists from the twentieth century – specifically Martin Heidegger, Ernst Jünger, Karl Heinz Bohrer, and, most recently, the jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt. These authors share an interest in formulating a critique of the Enlightenment based on a sense of the limited capacity of analytical reason to account for the complete register of human experience, and an objection to the tendency for Enlightenment advocates to demonize the nonrational element of consciousness.

This is a critique that I share to a certain degree. In my view, rationalist thinkers share a tendency to pre-reflexively identify the rational with progress, science, social justice, and political freedom, while identifying the irrational with the historical past, religion and superstition, economic exploitation, and servitude or authoritarianism. To the degree that such a posture is pre-reflexive, many self-styled defenders of Enlightenment rationalism regard themselves as eo ipso rational, even when advancing plainly irrational, angry polemics at the targets of their ire. 

Where I have generally parted ways with some of these conservatives is in what I find to be three very serious liabilities: 1) a drive toward a metaphysical essentialism that places the source of its own authority beyond the reach of critical analysis as such; 2) a tendency to assert a monolithic political identity as the essence of the body politic, which usually segues into or takes pains to defend xenophobic nationalism based on an ahistorical concept of the people or Volk; and 3) a general poverty in providing a basis for the legitimate formation of policy other than by the fiat of a sovereign.

This is the context in which I read Carl Schmitt’s seminal essay The Concept of the Political. Initially written in 1927 as part of a sustained critique on liberalism and Weimar constitutionalism, this book remains a cornerstone of conservative and anti-constitutionalist political theory. Although barred from teaching by the Allies for his unrepentant defense of Nazi procedures, Schmitt continued to exert a substantial influence on conservative political thought until his death in 1985, and also motivated an energetic response by German liberal theorists whose arguments took shape in part as an answer to his stance. 

In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt purports to take up the task of defining the political and fixing its proper bounds – a task he accuses leftist theorists of ignoring, in favor of producing bungled analyses that confuse the political with the economic and the ethical.

In Schmitt’s view, to understand the political, we have to grasp its essence (Wesen). He discovers the essence of the political in a fundamental criterion he derives from the antithetical terms that describe its limits. Just as we delineate the aesthetic as the field concerned with the beautiful and the ugly, and delineate ethics as the domain concerned with the good and the evil, politics is delineated by the distinction between friend and enemy (Freund und Feind).

A system or action is political insofar as it pertains to the determination by a sovereign that another group threatens its way of life. Schmitt leaves this key term entirely unexamined, but generally speaking, it refers to the degree to which another body constitutes an existential threat. Once that determination of enmity has been made, the sovereign possesses the sole authority to require members of the polity to kill and risk death in war. No individual or social group is capable of making such an imperative on its own authority, and individuals have no authority to exempt themselves from their binding duty to comply, once such a determination has been made. Determinations of “friend and enemy” may be analyzed by ethical and pragmatic criteria, but such analyses are by definition outside the scope of the purely political. 

Schmitt’s metaphysical realism – his belief that the political has an actual essence that may be discovered and described – is one of the most visible signs of his heavy debt to Plato’s Republic; another being Schmitt’s agreement that the central duty of the polity consists in defense and attack. Readers of Republic will recall that Plato returned again and again to the watchman or guardian as the exemplar, paradigm, and embodiment of the state.

The manifold links Plato draws between essence, purity, goodness, simplicity, and self-givenness cohere in a normative determination of the character of the sovereign. This set of thematic associations was carried over wholesale by Schmitt. When I browse through Plato’s discussion of the guardian in Republic, I find a clear articulation of the core values that Schmitt affirms or embraces in his own approach. The ideal guardian is possessed of unity in thought and action, unclouded by distraction or plurality of character, and masculine and forceful in temperament. I note that Plato’s guardian is also sober and not given to “fits of laughter” – and is there a single moment of lightheartedness in Schmitt’s glowering corpus

One of my many fundamental differences with Schmitt is my rejection of the belief that a complex social phenomenon like “the political” derives from an essence, and that it must be delineated by simple criteria, or else it becomes intellectually muddied. This insistence on simplicity, directness, unity, actuality, and purity is clearly one of Schmitt’s primary intellectual commitment.

I will not the first to note there is a link between conservative theory and a drive toward epistemic closure, which I would gloss as an intolerance for uncertainty, complexity, heterogeneity, and dynamism. In my frame of reference, the imperative toward epistemic closure can find no theoretical basis, and merely reflects a psychological posture rather than a motivated conclusion. Complex social phenomena require complex, multifactorial, interdisciplinary descriptions, which often have a provisional rather than final character. To certain personalities, such accounts are intolerable. 

In my view, the drive to epistemic closure is developmentally immature and leads to theoretical confusion. In this I am in agreement with Jürgen Habermas, who characterized a such a posture as a mythological engagement with the world in The Theory of Communicative Action in the following way, based on Jean Piaget’s developmental theory:

If we assess cultural systems of interpretation from this [developmental] standpoint, we can see why mythical worldviews represent an instructive limit case. To the degree that the lifeworld of a social group is interpreted through a mythical worldview, the burden of interpretation is removed from the individual member, as well as the chance for him to bring about an agreement open to criticism. To the extent that the worldview remains sociocentric in Piaget’s sense, it does not permit differentiation between the world of existing states of affairs, valid norms and expressible subjective experiences. The linguistic worldview is reified as the world order and cannot be seen as an interpretive system open to criticism.

This exactly characterizes Schmitt’s approach, which systematically elides distinctions between his own normative determinations about the character of the state and his project of recovering the essence from the political, which is largely divorced from any empirical determination of the actual state of affairs. His normative judgments are interpreted as discoveries about the actual state of affairs, and people like myself, who believe that complex historical phenomena require complex explanations, are dismissed as obfuscationists. 

To illustrate the extent of Schmitt’s commitment to his essentialist procedure, I would note that, in his view, not only is a hypothetical enemy the basis for positing political bodies, but enemies must in fact actually exist, or there is no political sphere. He says, for example, “The political entity presupposes the real existence of an enemy and therefore coexistence with another political entity.”

The specific form of his argument deriving an essential definition of the political based on his dichotomous criterion reads to me like sophistry of a weak and archaic type, as unpersuasive to the uninitiated as a medieval proof of God’s existence. Such an argument does not convince, and does not seek to convince, but uses the form reason as a kind of ritualized affirmation for political determinations based solely on power. It is the philosophical equivalent of a show trial in a totalitarian state where the verdict has already been decided before the trial begins. The question of political legitimacy does not arise for Schmitt, other than as a sign of intellectual confusion. 

Schmitt focuses resolutely on the antagonistic character of politics, completely ignoring its cooperative character. Although he claims the political is based on the friend-enemy distinction, he focuses entirely on the enemy. I do not believe he even defines “friend” in this work.

This focus offers no account for the cooperative functions of the state, which are universally considered “political” functions. These include, for example, collective deliberation, the selection of executives and officers, legislation, common planning, and infrastructure management. 

“The friend and enemy concepts are to be understood in their concrete and existential sense,” Schmitt argues, “not as metaphors or symbols, not mixed and weakened by economic, moral and other conceptions, least of all in a private-individualistic sense as a psychological expression of private emotions and tendencies.”

“Mixed and weakened.” You don’t have to scratch very far under the surface to find a pervasive attitude of hostility to heterogeneity of every kind, and the distance between his theoretical complaints about heterogeneity and his openly antisemitic writings of the same period is not great. For Schmitt, the enemy is “the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in extreme cases conflicts with him are possible.” Such characterizations are, of course, dehumanizing in precisely the way practitioners of genocide have always dehumanized their victims, though not always with such clarity and candor. Schmitt provides a general model validating such procedures.

It should also be noted that Schmitt’s motive for deriving a concept of the political from such a “first philosophy” of Platonic essences stems from his interest in justifying a theory of sovereign power that doesn’t rely on an underlying constitutional or legislative framework. In Schmitt’s view in this essay, political authority derives directly from the self-interest of communities in defending themselves against existential threats, and legal justifications for sovereign legitimacy are post facto. This became the theoretical basis for his attack on Weimar democracy.

From Schmitt’s essay:

[Thomas Hobbes] emphasized time and again that the sovereignty of law means only the sovereignty of men who draw up and administer this law. The rule of a higher order, according to Hobbes, is an empty phrase if it does not signify politically that certain men of this higher order rule over men of a lower order. The independence and completeness of political thought is here irrefutable. There always are concrete human groupings which fight other concrete human groupings in the name of justice, humanity, order, or peace. When being reproached for immortality and cynicism, the spectator of political phenomena can always recognize in such reproaches a political weapon used in actual combat.

Schmitt’s argument here is that the political does not exist in the abstract, but always arises on the basis of the interests of actual groups of people. In this view, a liberal viewpoint which sublimates political concerns into an abstract field of universal values divorces it from its own essence, and in so doing either neutralizes the political as such, or covertly transforms its own value-determinations into the political realm and wields it as a political weapon.

Of the conservative thinkers I have read in the last few years, Schmitt is by far the worst. I disagree with him on every level – philosophical, ethical, practical, formal, psychological, and empirical. He epitomizes what Nietzsche describes as the worst characteristics of German intellectual life – ponderous, metaphysical, impatient, hostile, totalizing in his rigid framework, and completely humorless. I haven’t disagreed with a work so completely since I read Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones, which is not altogether dissimilar from Schmitt’s essay in spirit.  

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Written by Mesocosm

October 15, 2018 at 12:45 am

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Trolling Higher Education

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There’s an article in the Atlantic Monthly called “What an Audacious Hoax Reveals About Academia” which is making a stir, and I want to take a moment to respond to it. Three scholars wrote a series of fake jargony papers and submitted them to various gender theory publications to prove how intellectually bankrupt they are, and to illustrate that the underlying disciplines are likewise baseless and stupid.

Yascha Mounk, the author of the Atlantic Monthly piece, is strongly in support of their project and compares it to an earlier stunt by Alan Sokal, who got a piece accepted in the journal Social Text which included statements such as:

Feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of ‘objectivity.’ It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ‘reality,’ no less than social ‘reality,’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.

Mounk does not cite a similar project by three MIT students, who used an AI to generate gobbledegook papers for submission to a for-profit conference on “Informatics.” Presumably what he approves of here is not the criticism of academic resources with lax standards, but the attack on gender theory, which is a frequent whipping boy for self-styled rationalists who deride the putative relativism of the humanities, while generally lacking even a rudimentary acquaintance of what they’re dismissing.

There is a word for what our scholars did: trolling. Like all trolls, their project was successful largely because they exploited a key feature of public discourse: the presumption of good faith.

Have you ever seen Ali G or Borat, and asked yourself how people could be so stupid as to go along with the crazy premises he puts forth? The answer is they’re not (always or merely) stupid, they are operating under the substantial pressure exerted by the presumption of good faith, and the attempt to act accordingly deforms their interactions. This is a function of how communication works.

People are not taken in by trolls simply because they’re stupid or because the systems they represent are uncritical. Civil discourse presupposes that all parties are representing themselves honestly. That is why trolling has a systematic advantage in humiliating the opponent. It is a dishonest and misleading form of critique, and it highlights nothing so much as the arrogance and contempt of its practitioners.

We cannot create a society in which we all must ask ourselves at all times if the other party in a transaction or debate is simply trying to make us look stupid. That would be a hateful degradation of the entire enterprise of higher learning, and an incredible waste of time.

But there are more important reasons to reject this project.

I have a friend who is a professor of medieval French literature, who wrote a meticulously-documented dissertation on gender and sexual identity construction in the Romance of the Rose, and he at times used the specialized terminology of his discipline, which, like many forms of technical discourse, can appear to the non-specialist as nonsense.

Why did he do that work, and why did he employ those conceptual tools? Because in the last few decades we are seeing, literally for the first time in human history, an opportunity to methodically and analytically reflect on the social construction of gender identity, and the way these identities are often constructed through a collective process of ideology formation. These processes are not value-neutral, but reflect the implicit or explicit presumption of the superiority and dominance of male heterosexuals. What we call gender deconstruction is nothing more than a specialized analysis of the process by which this identity formation occurs, with a goal to freeing individuals from having their identities determined for them, in advance, as lesser, from without.

I would note that this is largely what Sokal’s putatively “gibberish” quote above says, and say that I would actually more or less agree with it. Whether or not you believe that the construction of reality by the individual merely reaches the level of social values or touches our fundamental sense of what reality is in itself, well, you can disagree, but it is not a stupid claim, and it has had important support not just in philosophy but in the sciences

The development of gender theory as a discipline is exactly contemporaneous with an unprecedented movement toward political acceptance of non-normative gender and sexual identities, and this is not a coincidence. I will not assert a causal relationship, but I will say with certainty that they are part of a common historical moment.

So what I want to emphasize is this – we’re talking about communities that have literally had no voice ever in the European tradition, and they don’t need this shit. They need space to think through some of these problems and develop their own language and conceptual vocabulary without self-styled guardians of the Western Enlightenment, which has been so goddamned enlightened for most of its history with respect to, say, gays and lesbians, holding them up for ridicule. 

Update Oct 16: This month, Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” in Hungary became the first EU country to bar universities from issuing degrees in a specific subject: gender studies.

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October 8, 2018 at 1:48 am

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Light is Calling

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Watch and listen to Light is Calling by Bill Morrison and Michael Gordon:

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August 2, 2018 at 5:32 am

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Leipzig Bach Fest, 2018

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thomas2This past weekend kicked off the Leipzig Bachfest 2018, which features performances of dozens of major works by Bach and other one-time Leipzig residents Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn. Many of the concerts were performed at historic venues, including the churches where Bach premiered the bulk of his sacred music, and the Mendelsssohn House, where that composer lived until his death in 1847.

Leipzig is a beautiful and storied city south and west of Berlin in the federal state of Saxony. Situated at the crossroads of important trade routes, Leipzig boasts centuries of prosperous Bürgerlich culture and a fine university – Germany’s second oldest, founded in 1409.  This is where the young Goethe studied law – at least, when he wasn’t carousing at Auerbach’s Keller, a local tavern that he praised for its excellent wines and used as a setting for an episode of Faust:

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Mephisto:
Above all else, it seems to me,
You need some jolly company
To see life can be fun – to say the least:
The people here make every day a feast.
With little wit and boisterous noise,
They dance and circle in their narrow trails
Like kittens playing with their tails.
When hangovers don’t vex these boys,
And while their credits holding out,
They have no cares and drink and shout.
(trans. Walter Kaufmann)

The establishment is still running today, though it’s now more of a high-end tourist trap than Bohemian student waren. 

Johann Sebastian Bach lived and worked for 27 years in Leipzig, where he wrote music for several churches, including the two large Protestant churches that still flank the east and west ends of the Old City: the Nikolaikirche in the east, and the Thomaskirche in the west.

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I had an incredible opportunity to hear my two favorite Bach ensembles perform cantata concerts in the “Cantata Ring” ten-concert series: Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan at the Thomaskirche, and John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir at the Nikolaikirche.

The Thomaskirche is a beautiful late-Gothic-style building with a superficial exterior resemblance to Chartres. The interior is fairly sparse in traditional Protestant mode, with minimal decoration that could seduce the heart to an impure love of beauty. The Master himself is interred in the choir.

Mrs. O’Cosm and I sat toward the rear of the nave, while the Bach Collegium Japan performed in a balcony directly above and about 10 meters behind us. It was an interesting effect, hearing the music without being able to see the musicians – I was reminded a bit of Freudian therapy where the therapist is to be seated behind the patient and out of their field of view.

I wonder if this is how music would have been performed during services in Bach’s time. The invisibility of the performers highlighted the liturgical and sacramental qualities of the music.

I also experienced the invisibility of the performers as an extension of the ego-decentering effect I have often felt listening to Renaissance and Baroque polyphonic music. In contrast to the classical and Romantic ideals of virtuosity, with their emphasis on concerto soloists and coloratura arias, Bach’s music presupposes constant virtuosity by all musicians and singers, who are rarely singled out or brought into individual focus. Instead of the individualistic classical and Romantic celebration of the musician as a Promethean hero-creator, the complex, shimmering weave of polyphonic sacred music evokes a distributed, patterned, cosmological order, and immerses the listener within it.

thomas1

Thomaskirche

One intriguing component of the Bachfest Canata Cycle was that the appropriate Bible readings were read aloud before each piece was performed, which illuminated the ways the texts commented on the liturgy as a kind of musical sermon.

The acoustics in the Thomaskirche were echoey with fair amount of reverb – not like what you would get at Notre Dame in Paris, but there was a noticeable blending that was different from the clear, crisp disambiguation of voices you would hear in a studio mix.

The Bach Collegium Japan performed with their customary virtuosity, clarity, and beauty. For years their recordings of Bach’s cantatas have served as my standard edition – for my tastes, they are simply perfect. Melodic lines rendered smoothly, untroubled by the anachronistic ornamentation of vibrato and rubato that sometimes bog down Bach interpreters like Otto von Klemperer. In my mind such an approach is wholly unsuited to Baroque polyphony. Give me clarity of line, and save the throbbing vibrato for Mahler.

The Monteverdi Choir concert I attended in the NIkolaikirche was the final concert of the ten-concert Cantata Ring, and, as principle organizer of the cycle, Gardiner saved for himself the best for last. In his selection, he took the audience on a splendidly-conceived journey, opening with two dark, chromatic cantatas that plumb the depths of spiritual anguish and uncertainty.

The first piece, “Es erhaub sich ein Streit” (BWV 19) (follow link for Ton Koopman’s interpretation), followed a weekly reading from Revelation describing Saint Michael’s defeat of the celestial dragon in the war of heaven (Rev 12, 7-12):

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death. Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.

nikolai2

Nikolaikirche

The cantata beings with a thrilling chorus depicting the battle in heaven with a densely-saturated tableau of melismatic agitation. It resolves into simpler lines, but uses chords built from disquieting, sour intervals that would sound perfectly at home in a work of Carlo Gesualdo. The battle of heaven is thereby internalized into inward spiritual distress. 

My favorite moment of this piece was the moving tenor aria “Bleibt, ihr Engel, bleibt bei mir,” in which a disconsolate singer calls to the angel to remain by his side.

The mood of the concert gradually ascended, like Dante in the Comedia, from the depths of despair to the heights of spiritual exultation, concluding with the jubilant “Wachtet Auf, Ruft uns die Stimme” (BWV 140) (follow link for a recording of Gardiner’s interpretation). One of the the unquestionable highlights of the concert was the gorgeous soprano/bass aria “Wenn kommst du, mein Heil?”, a dialog between spirit and Christ in which the spirit, evoking the parable of the wise and the foolish virgins, longs for salvation:

Seele: Wenn kommst du, mein Heil?
Jesus: Ich komme, dein Teil.
Seele: Ich warte mit brennendem Öle.

Soul: When are you coming, my salvation?
Jesus: I am coming, your portion.
Soul: I wait with burning oil.

nikolai

The drama of this duet is unsurpassed in Bach’s oeuvre.

The concluding “Gloria sei dir gesungen” is a splendid apotheosis of harmonization – a sonic image of the realization of Jerusalem and the reunion between the sinful soul and the loving father. 

The Nikolaikriche was a bit muddier in its acoustics than the Thomaskirche, but the interior is rather lovelier, done out in a gorgeous, gentle pastel botanical motif with the columns flowering in the upper reaches. It may be the most beautiful Protestant church I’ve ever been in.

It also has powerful contemporary resonance in the global story of nonviolence, having served as the epicenter for peaceful candlelight vigils calling for an end to Communist rule in the late 1980s. These demonstrations are now remembered as some of the pivotal events that led to to the fall of the Berlin Wall and Reunification.

The Monteverdi Choir performed to perfection. The setting and selection of compelling and dramatic top-tier works from Bach’s legacy combined to provide one of the finest evening’s of music I’ve been able to attend.

Written by Mesocosm

June 12, 2018 at 1:41 am

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A Dialectical Analysis of Myth

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The abject failure to understand mythological thinking is one of the most serious problems of our age, politically, culturally, philosophically, and spiritually. Irrational forces drive individual behavior and collective action, and the failure to understand and live in productive dialog with the energies of the psyche leaves reason vulnerable on several fronts, and cedes a deep matrix of human motivation to noxious and self-serving ideologies.

The essay that follows, I must emphasize at the onset, is not a critique of science or an endorsement of myth; rather, it is a dialectical analysis of the interplay between both.

ernst

The Cages are Always Imaginary, Max Ernst, 1925

We live in an age of reason – at least, if we confine ourselves to the dominant intellectual cultures of Europe and the United States. Science, as reason’s totalizing exemplar, is widely accepted as a method for interpreting nature and history and the sole source of intersubjective legitimacy – so much so that we increasingly look to scientists to address social and cultural problems that were once the domain of philosophers, historians, and poets.

In common usage, “myth” refers to superstition, false belief, or dangerous ideology. Mythological thought as such is rarely an object of critical reflection, and is generally posited and valued in a purely negative mode as the antithesis of reason. It is cloven from reason in a dichotomy that on one side includes myth, superstition, tradition, barbarism, and authoritarianism, and on the other includes science, fact, modernity, civilization, and democracy.

Science and myth are not mutually exclusive; they are both essential features of modernity. There is no human society without myth, and no human being who does not engage in mythological thinking, which, properly understood, accompanies and structures all thought. Nor does myth itself lack a rational structure. Myth renders concrete images of the operations of the mind, the world, and the understanding, and contains within itself the essence of critical reason in the Kantian sense.

A structure of critical rationality is not an accidental or occasional feature of mythological thinking, but its deepest meaning – at least, according to the perennial view espoused by its elite interpreters the world over. The central mystery of all major mythological systems consists in a dialectical analysis of the relationship between the knower and the known, between time and eternity. This can be clearly seen in every religious tradition I have encountered, from Black Elk to Thomas Aquinas, from Al-Ghazali to Lao Tsu.

If we look to mythology itself for its essential character, we find that mythological thought consists of two complementary movements. First, experience is posited as a totality, by virtue of which its individual elements have meaning, such that they may be understood and valued. Elements of the world-system posited by the understanding are grasped, both semantically and existentially, in terms of their relationship to the other parts of the system, and to the system as a whole. This corresponds to what Joseph Campbell called the cosmological function of myth.

This function, which is prerequisite to the experience of the world as a domain of meaning, is integral to the vitalizing and redemptive character of mythological thought. I would refer the interested reader to Daniel J. Siegal’s book The Developing Mind, which chronicles years of research inspired by a developmental psychology study which found a strong relationship between mental health and an individual’s ability to articulate a coherent, meaningful narrative of their lives. Jerome Bruner’s Acts of Meaning, a cornerstone of the field of narrative psychology, also sheds much light on this important topic.

In its second movement, mythological thinking self-reflectively recognizes that this very experience of meaningful totality has a merely provisional character. It is a necessary condition for all sensible experience, but lacks any ultimate or transcendental basis.

Dogen expresses the character of this dialectic with beauty and elegance in his masterpiece Genjokoan:

When dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you think it is already sufficient. When dharma fills your body and mind, you understand that something is missing.

For example, when you sail out in a boat to the middle of an ocean where no land is in sight, and view the four directions, the ocean looks circular, and does not look any other way. But the ocean is neither round or square; its features are infinite in variety. It is like a palace. It is like a jewel. It only look circular as far as you can see at that time. All things are like this.

Though there are many features in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach. In order to learn the nature of the myriad things, you must know that although they may look round or square, the other features of oceans and mountains are infinite in variety; whole worlds are there. It is so not only around you, but also directly beneath your feet, or in a drop of water.

A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies there is no end to the air. However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements. When their activity is large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thus, each of them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its realm. If the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once.

Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be the bird and life must be the fish.

It is possible to illustrate this with more analogies. Practice, enlightenment, and people are like this.

Dogen characterizes liberating insight as an understanding of the mutual constitution between interaction and interpretation. Our field of activity determines the domain of our concern. Our ontology, or the way we posit the basic elements that make up the system of interest, follow from that.

For one illustration of this issue, consider the coastline problem. Lewis Fry Richardson found that the perimeter of Great Britain is described by textbooks with a high degree of variability. Upon investigation, he found that the differences in measured length was a result of the fact that different surveys used different “yardsticks.” If you measure the shoreline with a mile-long “yardstick,” than inlets, outcroppings, and other features that are smaller than a mile are disregarded. The smaller the yardstick, the longer the coast becomes.

adameve

Adam and Eve, Augusto Giacometti, 1907

So what is the “real” length of the shoreline? There is no such thing – the very concept is incoherent. The measured perimeter depends on the scale of your analysis. In other words, some elementary physical properties of the world follow directly from how we frame or measure. Additional analysis is always possible, and there is no ultimate framework from which the entities we posit cannot be deconstructed by a reconsideration of the basic terms.

That is not to say the shoreline has no perimeter, or that it is all up to us in any simple sense – rather, the very concept of a perimeter is contingent on how we frame the problem. When we change our scope, the terms of our analysis have to account for different interactions, and different classes of interactions, and those modified dynamics are themselves the framework by which we posit the very elements of the system that we analyze.

When the Madhyamaka philosophers of India state that no entity can ultimately withstand analysis, this is what they mean. They have conventionally valid attributes, but there is no ultimate framework from which they can be experienced or described. All things are like this.

This is directly contrary to the way the understanding pre-reflectively takes itself to be, which is always accompanied by the intuition of its own basic completeness and sufficiency. Physical qualities occur as entirely given by the external world, and one’s frame always occurs as adequate to analysis. There is no age which has lacked confidence in the sufficiency of its analytical framework to account for the basic facts of the world, whether it has accepted four naturally-occurring elements or 91.

There are likewise very few individuals who doubt the comprehensiveness of their own analytical tools, except in rare moments of critical reflection. The understanding posits itself as always already sufficient, except when it encounters experiences which are unresolvable by its ontology. Then, as Jean Piaget described, we try to account for new experiences either through assimilation, whereby unfamiliar phenomena are explained with our existing concepts, or through accommodation, whereby the conceptual schema itself be revised to account for some new fact that it can’t explain.

Accommodation is experienced as a minor correction or modification to the existing scheme, not as indicative of a general lack of comprehensibility. Similarly, I learn from Jerome Bruner that deliberations about the world are experienced as subjective or internal, while the outcomes of those deliberations are experienced as objectively-established fact, things that we perceive, not that we posit.

The psychological tendency to mischaracterize the sufficiency of the understanding is what Buddhists call afflictive ignorance – or in the language of contemporary theory, one might call it reification.

We spoke above of the two essential movements of mythological thought – positing experience as a meaningful whole, and reflectively realizing the provisional nature of any such frame of experience. A severe misunderstanding of mythological thought comes from the pervasive failure to recognize these two movements, but to interpret mythological thinking as though it is merely an impoverished form of proto-science. The conscious mind, in over-identification with its own rational faculties, sees its own shadow in mythological thinking which occurs as destructive, superstitious barbarism.

That this misapprehension is widely shared by religious people does not make it any more accurate. In the case of evangelical Christianity, for example, the literal interpretation of the Bible is not consistent with the core teachings of the tradition itself. Augustine argued in Confessions in the fourth century, for example, that the creation of the world obviously did not occur in seven days. Rather, it is a way of understanding that the process by which the universe took shape occurred successively in time. Or consider Thomas Aquinas, whose deep devotion to the apophatic theology of Pseudo-Dionysius may have led him to utterly abandon work on Summa Theologica at the end of his life, and to keep noble silence until his death.

No one who confesses the Nicene Creed could plausibly maintain that its doctrines of Christ or the Trinity can be resolved with the ordinary operations of logic. These are not statements of fact in the same way “Sacramento is the capital of California,” is a statement of fact – they are images rendering an understanding of the intersection of time and eternity.

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“I am crucified with Christ”, Paul wrote to the Galatians; “Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” To interpret this as an empirical statement would be imbecilic. To fail to recognize that there is a different kind of truth at work here is pedantry. This is a symbolic statement – Christ is an image of the structure and the dynamics of the psyche, and its relationship to the world and to the absolute ground of all being.

This is not a historical essay, so I won’t swell its length by exploring the countless ready-to-hand illustrations of analogous images drawn from the very heart of a dozen major living traditions, including Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, and First Nations beliefs spanning the globe. We see it in the mystery of the Quran, the Law, the doctrine of the two truths, the union of Atman and Brahman, the Tao, the Way of Heaven, and the character of sacred story, respectively.

In positing mythological thinking as its own negative image, the understanding disregards the compelling problems that are addressed by mythological thought. In so doing, it simply repeats the basic error of assuming its own self-sufficiency, leaving the deep human questions addressed by mythology unanswered.

The loss of a viable image of the world as a meaningful totality has led to an existential crisis in the United States and Europe. Near the end of his career, Carl Jung wrote that a large number of his patients had no psychological pathology to speak of, but were simply afflicted by a sense of meaninglessness, which he called “the spiritual problem of our age.”

It is often reported that two centuries of “disenchantment of the world” have produced psychological and social turmoil, but what has been less analyzed is the failure of reason to confront that turmoil. As analytical reason always operates within a field defined by a provisional ontology, it is not in itself competent to posit a whole of which it is itself part, in terms of the understanding, and it never will be.

This is not to suggest that a “re-enchantment of the world” by the resubscription to pre-modern religious belief is either possible or desirable. We cannot ignore the findings of science, or disaster will quickly follow. Any progress with respect to the crisis of meaning must be commensurate with what we now know to be true, or else we cede the field of semantic totality to dangerous reactionaries who negate scientific discovery out of hand for petty reasons of naked self-enrichment.

There is no necessary relationship between engaging deeply with mythological thought and rejecting the findings of science. As Joseph Campbell astutely pointed out, every religious system is scientifically accurate from the standpoint of the time in which it was initially formulated. This cleavage between myth and reason is a spurious, modern construction, and it is extremely harmful. It is no more legitimate for reactionary ideology to claim spirituality as its exclusive possession than it is for it to claim love of country.

Instead of quixotically walking backwards into an imagined golden age of the past, these problems must be taken seriously as such, and a new and more sophisticated understanding of mythological thinking is necessary. Whatever form the new mythological taking assumes, it must allow for the validity of other forms in its essential character, or the project of globalization will fail. 

With regards to the second movement of mythological thinking, the self-reflective discovery of the provisional character of the understanding’s own sense of comprehensive totality, this is frequently lacking in unsophisticated advocates of unilateral rationalism or naive realism. All too often, scientific discourse is regarded as legitimate as such, merely by virtue by using its tropes, and by uncritically carrying over a reception of a popular interpretation of its findings.

But science is a set of tools, and adopting its mode of discourse does not guarantee legitimacy and rationality. We now have decades of research since Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolution, and we have learned something of the ideological, cognitive, social, analytical, racial, and financial factors that help determine how scientific research is conducted and disseminated. These are the practical limitations of its actuality, and no “pure science” is conducted in a cloud-cuckoo land where these constraints are not at play. 

It is worth noting that some of the branches of science that are most directly constrained by empirical results show the deepest agreement with mythological thought as I have characterized it. Particle physics, among the hardest of the hard sciences, has been mired in ontological chaos for over a century, lacking the barest capacity to express what their basic objects of study actually are. Among actual physicists, in my experience this often results in an ontological position of pragmatic agnosticism, or in extreme cases, a denial that science can and should describe the world at all. 

Quantum mechanics does not have the luxury of fudging its ontology with imprecise language to account for the problems described above. Its objects of study cannot withstand analysis, and that is why it has the least to say about what things actually are. The problem of emptiness, the lack of intrinsic existence of all phenomena, is not a metaphysical argument about the transcendent beyond, it is a practical recognition of the actual limitations of the understanding with respect to how it posits its own basic terms. For one fascinating discussion of relevant issues, see the recent Scientific American article Quantum Mechanics May be Even Spookier Than you Think, which explores an extension of John Archibald Wheeler’s “Delayed Choice” experiments.

These issues are well known to some of the greatest physicist of the last two hundred years. For example, Albert Einstein:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe”; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison.

Erwin Schrödinger:

The reason why our sentient percipient, and thinking ego is met nowhere within our scientific world picture can easily be indicated in seven words: because it is itself that world picture. It is identical with the whole and therefore cannot be contained in it as a part of it. But of course, here we knocked against the arithmetical paradox; there appears to be a great multitude of these conscious egos, the world, however, is only one. This comes from the fashion in which the world-concept produces itself. The several domains of ‘private’ consciousnesses partly overlap. The region common to all where they all overlap is the construct of the ‘real world around us.’ With all that an uncomfortable feeling remains, prompting such questions as: is my world really the same as yours? […]

Such questions are ingenious, but in my opinion, very apt to confuse the issue. They have no adequate answers. They all are, or lead to, antinomies springing from one source, which I call the arithmetical paradox; the many conscious egos from whose mental experiences the one world is concocted. The solution of this paradox of numbers would do away with all the questions of the aforesaid kind and reveal them, I dare say, as sham-questions.

The understanding, and any possible human discourse, cannot function without acceding to provisional assumptions about the structure and origin of the world. That is no less true for the scientist than for the Tlingit shaman. Mythological thinking surfaces an image of that structured cosmos, which is a condition for the understanding. Upon analysis and reflection, it imbues that image with the special transparency that comes from the recognition that its terms have validity merely from the conventional perspective of ordinary transactional usage, and lack ultimate or transcendental status.

The failure by those who posit mythological thinking as the negative image of rationality is a failure of dialectical reason, and like all such failures, the end result is that it becomes the very thing that it critiques. By rejecting mythological thinking, the hyper-rationalist unwittingly posits their own archaic, unreflected mythology. They take themselves as a rational hero, engaged in mythological combat with their own shadow, projected on the religious figure, who appears as an image of barbarism, darkness, and violence. This is not the culmination of reason, but its antithesis – a naive accession to terms that are drawn not from analysis, but from a set of prejudices and reified conclusions. Reason becomes its opposite.

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The Truth, Ferdinand Hodler, 1902

Written by Mesocosm

June 1, 2018 at 12:02 am

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Wanderlust and the German Romantic

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I recently caught the Wanderlust exhibit at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, which showcases German painting celebrating solitary wandering in nature. These motifs found common expression in the paintings of the Romantics, who used images of solitary figures exploring the natural world to depict the relationship between the individual and the Absolute that I looked at in my last post.

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Landschaft mit Flusstal, Richard Wilson, ca. 1755

The exhibition begins with this work by Richard Wilson, a pre-Romantic pioneer of British landscape painting. One can already intuit in Landscape with River Valley how nature is perceived as the primary field of life and awareness in a way that anticipates Romantic philosophy.

This painting’s focus on nature entails a corresponding reduction in the human figures in the foreground, who perhaps suggest the individual level of conscious awareness with which we typically identify. Notice how all sense of life and movement in this work are given by the contours of the land, water, and sky. The small, rigidly posed people in the foreground appear more like minor features of the landscape than the principle point of identification with the scene. This reduction is reinforced by the ruins on the left, which suggest the primacy of nature over artificial forms. When left to natural processes, the landscape actively reclaims and swallows up the artifacts of human civilization.

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Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, Caspar David Friedrich, 1817

These themes move explicitly to the fore in the work of the Romantics, as you can see in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer in a Sea of Fog. Unfortunately my picture here has some artifacts from the reflective glass on the frame, but you can still get a sense of it.

Here we see the epitome of the Romantic conception of the knowing subject: an individual who has fought and won their way to the solitary mountaintop, driven by an inner compulsion to experience – to know and to feel. This crowning moment of vision simultaneously renders the apotheosis of the individual personality, whose hard work has led them alone to the apex of experience, and the corresponding submersion of the individual in the Absolute, suggested by the anonymizing pose of this figure. The ego leads to the Absolute, and then falls away.

I think of these lines from Wordsworth’s The Prelude (ca. 1800):

Oh! when I have hung
Above the raven’s nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill sustained, and almost (so it seemed)
Suspended by the blast that blew amain,
Shouldering the naked crag, oh, at that time
While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ear! the sky seemed not a sky
Of earth–and with what motion moved the clouds!

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society.

Seen from the back, we’re invited to identify with the anonymous subject, suggesting the aesthetic experience of art offers a window into the infinite that parallels the experience of this lofty view. These ideas will be familiar to anyone who has explored Kant’s analysis of the sublime.

Der Mönch am Meer, Caspar David Friedrich, 1808

This relationship between art and ideas is made clear by Friedrich himself in his writings. In a discussion of his painting Monk by the Sea, Friedrich wrote:

On the beach, walking deep in thought, is a man in a black robe. Gulls circle him anxiously, as if to warn him not to venture out on the rough sea. And if you pondered from morning to evening, from evening to the sinking dead of night, you would still not comprehend, not fathom the inscrutable Beyond.

One is reminded of Novalis and his dark night of the Absolute.

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Alexander von Humboldt und der Botaniker Aimé Bonpland im Urwald Südamerikas, Ferdinand Keller, 1875

Nineteenth century German art is often absorbed in the possibilities of human greatness of distinct but related types: the greatness of the creative individual, of discovery, of achievement, and of the development of one’s own unique perspective.

One interesting stock figure of the scholar-hero who exemplifies all of these forms is the natural scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, whose vivid writing chronicling his discovery and research inspired generations of artists and thinkers. In this Ferdinand Keller painting, we see Humboldt as a kind of Romantic hero.

Humboldt’s project of discovery and study has something of a Romantic quality about it, as we can see in this excerpt from his 1847 book Kosmos:

The principal impulse by which I was directed was the earnest endeavor to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection, and to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces. My intercourse with highly-gifted men early led me to discover that, without an earnest striving to attain to a knowledge of special branches of study, all attempts to give a grand and general view of the universe would be nothing more than a vain illusion.

Here are a few standouts from the exhibition that explore the wanderer and Romanticism in striking ways:

By the end of the nineteenth century, the themes of the wanderer and the landscape began to be developed with a different inflection. In his 1882 poem “Prince Vogelfrei,” for example, Friedrich Nietzsche depicted the wanderer with many of the familiar ingredients, but with a far more confident and autonomous sense of self – one that is perhaps augmented instead of diminished or negated by their achievement. There is little sense here of the individual dissolving into the Absolute. I took a pass at translating it as follows:

Prince Vogelfrei

So I hang from crooked branches
High above sea and hill;
A bird invited me to visit –
I flew and followed, raced and raced
And pounded with little wings.

The wide sea has gone to sleep
And rests my every hurt and sigh
I have forgotten goal and harbor,
Fear and praise and punishment –
Now I fly after every bird.

Step by step – that’s no life!
One foot before the other is weary toil.
I let the wind carry me
I love to float with wings
behind every bird.

Reason? – a wicked business:
Many stumble over reason and tongue!
Flight gives me new powers
And teaches me a lovelier occupation,
Song and joke and songplay.

To think alone – that is wise.
To sing alone – that is stupid!
Listen then to my wisdom,
Sit around me in a circle,
Come, you beautiful birds!

By the early twentieth century, the primary field of philosophical and aesthetic concern had moved on. This painting of the wanderer by Ernst Kirchner shows no trace of the post-Kantian meditation on subjectivity.

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Sertigtal, Ernst Kirchner, 1926

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May 29, 2018 at 1:23 am

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Thoughts on the Romantics part 1: transcendental idealism, Buddhism, and Novalis

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Schloß am Strom, Karl Friedrich Schinkel

Over the last few months I’ve been making a study of the early German Romantics, and I’ve been impressed by the continued relevance of their arguments on aesthetics, their analysis of the relationship of the individual to the absolute, and their critique of the totalizing rationalism of the Enlightenment. Some of the key figures I’ve focused on include the art critic Friedrich Schlegel, the poets Novalis and Hölderlin, the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, and the philosopher Friedrich Schelling.

As the scholar Manfred Frank has exhaustively chronicled, the early Romantics were extremely self-conscious of their status as the first creative generation to succeed the intellectual revolution inaugurated by Kant’s Critiques, and their subsequent elaboration by Fichte. The metaphysical, epistemological, and aesthetic concerns of the Romantics were largely shaped by the problematic of transcendental idealism, especially the relationship of the knowing subject to the unknowable ultimate ground of experience.

As a Buddhist, it has been enormously useful for me to explore a development of transcendental idealism conducted by artists and intellectuals firmly ensconced within the European tradition of psychological maturation and individuation, which differs in key respects from traditional patterns in India, Tibet, China, and Japan, where the individual ego is generally not valued in itself. The European tradition represented by the Romantics places high value on the individual development of a unique and independent perspective as integral to the process of becoming a mature adult. They likewise place a deep value on creative art which my Tibetan teachers would not have understood. I was once told by a Geshe from Drepung Loseling that the only art that has value is iconic contemplative art – all other forms of art are merely ornamental, essentially toys for children.

I know that that is false, of course – great aesthetic experiences can provide insight and illumination of a high order. Some of the most profound experiences of my life have involved great works of art – I think of my first experience seeing Wagner’s Ring cycle, or seeing the Sistine Chapel, or reading Dante’s Commedia, or Finnegans Wake, or Hamlet. Aesthetic experiences can be a vehicle for the veridical intuition of deep truths about life and the nature of consciousness. 

It is illuminating to explore the work of thinkers who are deeply concerned with the transformative and enlightening qualities of great art, while sharing a philosophical perspective that in core respects closely resembles the Buddhist philosophy with which I otherwise feel so at home. I have argued before that there are pervasive and important similarities between Buddhism and Kantian transcendental idealism, and if anything this sense has only been increasingly borne out by my deeper study of Kant in the last several years. I would emphatically recommend reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to any serious student of Buddhism.

The early Romantics also sensed a deep kinship between their philosophical enterprise and some of the traditions of India. For example, in his “Speech on Mythology” in 1802, Schlegel wrote (my translation):

If only the treasures of the Orient were as accessible to us as those of the ancient [Greeks and Romans]! What new sources of poetry could flow to us from India if some German artists had the opportunity, with their universal scope and depth of sense, and with the genius of translation they possess. [Our] nation, which is becoming ever more dumb and brutal, scarcely comprehends the need. We must search in the Orient for the ultimate Romantic, and if we can draw from the source, perhaps the appearance of the southern glow, which so charms us in Spanish poetry, will again appear, only sparsely and in Western guise.

In this perspective, Schlegel followed Goethe, who praised the great Sanskrit playwright Kalidasa in 1792, and who would emulate the Sufi poet Hafiz in his West-East Divan in 1819. It is my belief that the “Prelude in the Theater” in Faust was modeled after the introduction of Kalidasa’s magnificent play Recognition of Shakuntala, which includes a similar introduction of the work that will follow to the audience by the director.

Transcendental idealism is ultimately focused on the limits of reason and experience, and accounting for how consciousness is made coherent by regularities which structure any possible experience, such as space, time, and causality. These are seen as necessary features of consciousness, but their ultimate relationship to reality itself, independent of how we experience it, is unknowable.

This problematic was exhaustively analyzed philosophically by Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, and also inspired a creative response from poets like Novalis and Hölderlin, who developed it from a very different center of gravity in the human psyche. Having assimilated the implications of transcendental idealism through exhaustive study (see Manfred Frank’s Unendliche Annährung), the early Romantic poets worked through the relationship of individuals to the absolute – of the knowing subject to the ineffable transcendent ground of experience – with the metaphorical tools of poetry and myth.

For example, in his celebrated “Hymns to the Night” (here in German, here’s a dated English translation), Novalis employs this problematic as a framework for rendering his deeply personal experience of mourning the death of his young betrothed. He joins the image of the lonely consciousness in the inchoate night of the Absolute with the memory of keeping vigil at the lonely grave of his beloved all night. In both cases, subjective experience is like an isolated lighthouse in an infinite, dark, and silent sea (see the Caspar David Friedrich painting below). 

This poetic work harnesses the structure of transcendental idealism as a framework for giving modern expression to the age-old motif of the Liebestod, or love-death, which has been a major feature of German literary culture at least since the time of Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan in the early thirteenth century. The image of the falling night encompasses sleep, death, the unconscious, the undifferentiated sphere of the absolute, and transcendent union with the Beloved.

Here is my rendering of Novalis’ second Hymn:

Must morning always come again?
Will earth’s dominion never end?
Profane commerce consumes
The heavenly advent of night.
Will love’s secret sacrifice never
Burn eternal?
Light and waking’s time
was measured,
But night’s dominion is timeless,
The span of sleep eternal.
Holy sleep!
Do not too seldom bless
those in Earth’s acre
who consecrate the night.
Only fools mistake you,
Knowing no sleep
But the shadow
You compassionately cast upon us
In that dawn
Of true night.
They do not feel you
In the golden flood of grapes,
In the almond tree’s
Miraculous oil
And the poppy’s brown juice.
They do not know
It’s you
Who float about the maiden’s
Tender breast,
Making heaven of her bosom;
Do not sense
That out of old stories
You open heaven coming forth to meet us
And carry the key
To the chambers of the blessed,
Silent messenger of
Infinite secrets.

In my next post on this subject I’ll look more specifically at the aesthetic theory underlying the work of the Romantics, especially as it was expressed in Friedrich Schlegel’s “Speech on Mythology.” I’ll also have a look at how this theory has been interpreted by the modern theorist Karl Heinz Bohrer.

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Zwei Männer am Meer, Caspar David Friedrich

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May 25, 2018 at 3:11 am

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