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

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Leipzig Bach Fest, 2018

leave a comment »

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:


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.


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.



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.



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.


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

Posted in Uncategorized

A Dialectical Analysis of Myth

with 3 comments

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.


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.


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.


“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.


The Truth, Ferdinand Hodler, 1902

Written by Mesocosm

June 1, 2018 at 12:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Wanderlust and the German Romantic

leave a comment »

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.


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.


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.


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.


Sertigtal, Ernst Kirchner, 1926

Written by Mesocosm

May 29, 2018 at 1:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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

with 2 comments


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.


Zwei Männer am Meer, Caspar David Friedrich

Written by Mesocosm

May 25, 2018 at 3:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Totentanz, the Dance of Death

leave a comment »

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.


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

Posted in Uncategorized

A brief response to Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

with 4 comments

I have a confession to make – I have never until quite recently read Walter Benjamin’s Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. It’s an embarrassing admission for me – akin to a film buff admitting that they’ve never seen The Godfather, or worse. If you haven’t read it yourself and would like to, you can find it here in English and here in German.

Now that I’ve read it and spent some time analyzing it I can understand why it attracts so much discussion. It seems to me that much of the productive appeal of The Work of Art lies largely in its beguiling invitation to the reader to try to understand and resolve the hermeneutic fissures that cleave it. In my reading, Benjamin was averse to comprehensive systematization, and preferred to apply and juxtapose new analytical frameworks on problems of perennial interest, and in this work we encounter fault lines where he has applied dissimilar systems to his persisting interest in a certain kind of experience – to wit, a disclosure of what he characterized in his early writings on Romantic aesthetics as the immanent absolute. One of the primary tensions that drives The Work of Art is the contradiction between this mystical-existential modality and his burgeoning interest in Marxist ideology criticism.

In my reading, this work has two primary interpretive challenges. The first is understanding what he means by this statement in the introduction:

[T]heses about the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power or about the art of a classless society would have less bearing on these demands than theses about the developmental tendencies of art under present conditions of production. Their dialectic is no less noticeable in the superstructure than in the economy. It would therefore be wrong to underestimate the value of such theses as a weapon. They brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery—concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense. The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism.

On the surface, Benjamin appears to associate the concepts of genius and creativity with fascism and warns against their “uncontrolled application,” suggesting that a social criticism of aesthetics prevents his analysis from being misappropriated by fascists. The meaning of this statement, to which he returns to in the epilog, remains largely unexplained, and is to me somewhat inexplicable.

The second interpretive dilemma pertains to what exactly he means by “aura,” which the work of art has hitherto possessed, but which now “decays” in the age of mechanical reproduction. For reasons of his own, he refrains from analyzing or explaining this core concept, and much ink has been spilled in trying to elucidate its meaning.

So what does he tell us about it, exactly? I read in secondary literature that Benjamin’s earliest extant discussion of the concept of aura is preserved in a notebook describing the influence of hashish. This makes a certain amount of sense.

In an earlier work on photography, he defines the aura as “A strange weave of space and time; the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be.” In The Work of Art he distinguishes between the natural aura, repeating this definition, and the artificial aura, which primarily refers to the “uniqueness” of the work of art – the fact of its having only one historical actuality. In this sense, the loss of “aura” means nothing more than the fact that our traditional aesthetic categories, which have depended on the uniqueness of works of art, have been displaced by new considerations, and will have to be reevaluated.

I have argued at ponderous length with other readers of this text on this point, but it’s clear to me from how he uses the term “aura” that he means much more by it than historical singularity, and conceives the loss of aura as a phenomenon tied to a decline of certain kinds of existential experiences of profound value that he is deeply concerned with. The narrative he describes of the various ways that works of art have claimed autonomy and authority for themselves is one of movement from the cultic ritual value of art to the veneration of “art pour l’art” aesthetics to the logic of mass manipulation that he sees exemplified by film, which “shocks” and motivates the masses, and replaces the act of art criticism which he has elsewhere described as a kind of mystical or sacred office of truth-disclosure into a kind of mass-market “anyone with a blog can say anything these days” situation.

It’s my view that it is precisely by refraining from critically analyzing the aura, he posits it as an irreducible category of direct experience and a locus of value, thus insisting upon its givenness and non-rational character.

In another writing, Benjamin claims that regarding the loss of aura as “merely a symptom of decay” would be “fatuous,” which would seem to suggest he doesn’t see it as a kind of nostalgia for a more innocent time. But he left me with little doubt in his application of the term in this essay that this is how he uses it, whether or not it’s what it necessarily means.

I found his discussion of reproduction a little thin – for example, in his analysis of the cult he neglected what I would consider an important precursor to mechanical reproduction, and in so doing, misread the character of cult art substantially. Specifically, I would argue that the production of iconic art is a form of reproduction.

In this sense, iconic art refers to works of art that are valued not in terms of their unique content, but insofar as they duplicate established types. Anyone who has walked through a gallery of Italian Renaissance art and seen canvas after canvas depicting with formulaic fidelity the Annunciation or the Virgin Enthroned with Child will recognize that was is principally salient about many of these paintings is their expression of a sacred formula. This is a characteristic of most cult art, from the thangkas of Tibet, with their rigorously-determined proportions and attributes, to the cases of Cycladic Bronze Age goddess sculptures you can view in the Louvre, displaying dozens of nearly-identical design created over the span of centuries. I think it opens up the concept of reproduction to recognize that it occurs on many different planes.


May 2018 note: I substantially re-wrote this post after additional close readings of the essay and several useful discussions about it with a study group. 

Written by Mesocosm

April 14, 2018 at 3:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason

leave a comment »

The question that practical reason asks us is, what ought I to do? In Critique of Practical Reason, Kant offers his analysis of how pure reason, which relies on no empirical input whatsoever, can help us answer that question.

As a follow up to Critique of Pure Reason, this book is a grave disappointment. Altogether abandoning the exacting critical standards he established in his earlier, better work, Kant argues on behalf of an ethical theory that I find intellectually flawed and personally repugnant. It is a morality of pious bureaucrats who distrust anything emotional (for Kant, feelings are “pathological”), contingent (i.e., “real” or “actual”), or human.

In brief, Kant argues that the proper standard for evaluating the moral merit of an action is twofold. First, the act must conform to a maxim of pure reason that is universally binding on all rational agents in all times and in all places (a “categorical imperative”). Such an imperative follows from pure reason, which can only deal with the form of argument, and not with particulars, which are by definition derived from empirical experience. Second, the act must be undertaken only and exactly because it is judged by a rational agent to follow from pure reason, not from any kind of desire or expectation about the outcome.

Kant’s argument suffers from several extremely serious problems.

First, Kant never establishes why maxims derived from pure reason are eo ipso laudable. It is not at all obvious to me that any action that is good for all people to do always is necessarily better than any action that is good for some people to do sometimes.

In his eagerness to eschew all sentiment and human response to ethical evaluation, he in fact does quite the opposite, and reveals again and again his own profound personal connection to the idea of reason. That it should not also be equally valued by all never occurs to him.

Second, his theory demands that moral agents freely choose to comply with the directives of pure practical reason, but his theory establishing freewill is extremely weak. Readers of the Critique of Pure Reason may in fact remember that the question of determinism is one of his antimonies of pure reason, and is used in that book as an example of a pseudo-problem that philosophy can never either prove or disprove.

Third, his attempt to dodge that problem by arguing that freedom of the subject is a postulate of pure reason is completely unconvincing, and is a transparent attempt to circumvent the limits he himself persuasively established. He offers a whole series of additional postulates, offered as hypotheses that reason cannot do without, and all of them just happen to conform with the sacred cows of Lutheran dogma.

Fourth, he brazenly ignores his own dialectical analysis of virtue and happiness by positing them in this very work as an antimony, and then siding with the theory of virtue nonetheless.

Fifth, his conception of a categorical imperative is underdeveloped. In Critique of Pure Reason he famously derides philosophers who condescend to give examples, but I sure could have used a few here. I genuinely have no idea what he thinks a good example of a categorical imperative would be. “One ought to do the right thing”? “Always tell the truth”? “Never take what is not freely given”? “Be kind to your parents”? No idea.

Sixth, his theory substantially relies on the claim that the theory he describes conforms to what is usually meant by “morality.” That is far from true. Although impartiality and generality are common parts of what people generally mean by the term, they are at best necessary but not sufficient.

In addition to being philosophically problematic, I recoil from the ugly spirit of Kant’s vision, which reminds me of the very worst excesses of Calvin and Luther – the hushed awe before the altar of solemnity, grandeur, majesty, duty, obligation, and obedience, and the covert terror that someone might be secretly and on some level enjoying themselves. I find his vision shockingly life-denying.

Kant is not the first great thinker to apply himself to the problem of practical reason. Thomas Aquinas, for example, also distinguished between speculative and practical reason, and elaborated his own theory of how people should act. For Aquinas, this answer is rooted in his concept of synderesis, an inner faculty of what we might today call “moral intuition,” which directly perceives the rightness or wrongness of a thing.

For all of Kant’s fetishization of reason, I actually find Aquinas’ approach far more rational, and far more honest, for he freely admits that his determinations are based in part on intuition, sentiment, and his belief in the truth of revelation. Kant clearly relies on these factors just as much, but wrote this entire book to persuade us otherwise.

Written by Mesocosm

March 25, 2018 at 11:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized