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

Archive for May 2018

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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Written by Mesocosm

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.

CDF

Zwei Männer am Meer, Caspar David Friedrich

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May 25, 2018 at 3:11 am

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Totentanz, the Dance of Death

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Great is the matter of birth and death
Time is fleeting, gone, gone
Awake! Awake! Each one!
Don’t waste this life!

This short poem is written on a wooden plank at the San Francisco Zen Center called a han, which is struck by a mallet to call the monks to meditation. It echoes a common call made by masters of many traditions to recollect death as a way of disentangling the mind from its usual attitude of immersion in the minutiae of day-to-day struggle and gratification, so we can see our lives, if only briefly, from a loftier perspective.

Thomas Aquinas wrote that it is ironic, that while death destroys us, the knowledge of death saves us. Tsong Khapa wrote in a similar vein that the source of all suffering is the belief “I will not die today.”

In Europe of the High Middle Ages, the recollection of death was called forth with great power by the Totentanz, or Dance of Death. Often depicted in sweeping murals, the Dance illustrates the grisly specter of death in a pas de deux with people of all walks of life, from the highest emperor to the lowliest peasant. The message is as simple and direct as it is profound – the time of death comes to all, rich or poor, great or small.

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Many individual scenes are deeply affecting, such as this frame from a Totentanz I saw in the Bernisches Historisches Museum in Switzerland. It’s a moving touch, seeing how the child holds to the hem of his mother’s gown, not wanting to go.

Hans Holbein created one of the great exemplars of the Dance of Death in a series of woodblock prints, which you can browse here. Many of them have great expressive and dramatic impact – some of my favorites are the nobleman, the rich man, and the abbess.

Holbein’s collection has recently been published in a very fine Penguin Classics edition with a commentary by Ulinka Rublack, which I highly recommend.

One of my favorite contemporary composers, Thomas Adès, recently wrote an  oratorio called Totentanz based on this motif. For the libretto, he takes a modern German translation of a fifteenth-century poem that accompanied the great Totentanz engraved in the Lübeck cathedral. If you’re curious you can find the original early German poem here, and you’ll find the modern libretto in the program notes of the performance I saw a few weeks ago here.

It opens roughly thus:

The Preacher: Oh upright creature, whether poor or rich,
See now the play, young and old alike,
And think you all upon it;
that none can live forever.

Death: To this dance I summon all,
Pope, emperor, monk, and peasant!
If I come, great or small,
No grief will avail you.
Always remember to do good works
To absolve your sins.
You must leap to my piping tune!

Adès’s oratorio is an extraordinary achievement, and a compelling modern take on the age-old motif. It is a work of uncommon artistic power and profundity, and it’s well worth exploring, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have the opportunity to hear it performed live.

This motif always reminds me of the early English folksong Lyke-Wake Dirge:

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinny-muir thou com’st at last
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane.
And Christe receive thy saule….

Check out this deeply uncanny rendition:

Written by Mesocosm

May 8, 2018 at 1:40 am

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