Ces nymphes, je les veux perpétuer.What is the aesthetic experience? What is it like? What is the ineffable quale of it? (Not to mention its quid, its quare, and its quamobrem.) I ask these questions not because I wish to articulate a response, but because I’m not at all sure I’ve ever had such an experience.
Leur incarnat léger, qu'il voltige dans l'air
Assoupi de sommeils touffus.
Aimai-je un rêve?
Mon doute, amas de nuit ancienne, s'achève
En maint rameau subtil, qui, demeuré les vrais
Bois même, prouve, hélas! que bien seul je m'offrais
Pour triomphe la faute idéale de roses.
Stendhal was so overcome by transports of delight when he encountered the sublime beauty of the artworks in Florence that they named a syndrome after him. Other people speak of quasi-mystical states experienced when contemplating a painting, a poem, or a piece of music. They seem to have a transcendent sense of Beauty; they live Platonic frenzies and Dionysian ecstasies. What is this sacred experience? And how does it relate to the intellectual (culturally constructed) experience of art – the one with which I am personally more familiar?
There are many orders of rational and emotional response to art, but it seems possible (and necessary) to articulate them formally: this poem delights with its delicate play of antitheses, the composition of this painting permits us to perceive its object in new ways, this piece of music provokes an emotional response with its [insert technical explanation here – I’m a dunce when it comes to music], etc.
Books I’ve read on the subject of aesthetics have never entirely satisfied me. I appreciate formalist approaches and close readings of texts. I get something out of abstract theorizing and metaphysical speculation. I can even tolerate imaginative and emotional responses to texts. But the ‘aesthetic’ approach (the Kantian flavour of it at least), which I understand to be situated somewhere in the no-man’s-land between these extremes, says nothing to me. As far as I can understand it (according to my cursory reading of Charles Martindale’s Aesthetics and the Judgement of Taste), the aesthetic approach is all about attending to both content and form, and is an individual, particular, contextualized response that can also be said in some way to be universal. Well, O. K. I think even the most extreme proponent of formalism wouldn’t have much of a problem with that. But what else is it? What differentiates it from the sort of reading we normally do anyway?
My incomprehension no doubt derives from an experience of art appreciation that is basically deficient and incomplete. I don’t find myself carried away by transports of delight or wonder when I read a book or look at a painting. I like to think that I have worked at cultivating a sense of artistic beauty, but this sense does not touch me to the very core of my being. It remains on the surface: it is an intellectual response (which can be pleasurable too, if not orgasmic), not a visceral one. It is refined appreciation, distilled out of a muddy admixture of sense and memory. Surely it is appropriate that what results from this process of refinement and distillation is in a very real sense, superficial, on the surface?
Omne supervacuum plena de pectore manatWhatever is distilled from the fullness of the heart is superfluous, says the poet. Well I disagree.
A solipsistic arrogance naturally leads me to assume that if I do not experience any kind of visceral heartfelt response to the beautiful, then nobody does. I call bullshit! Let us do away with these Platonic absurdities! Never underestimate the self-justificatory force of philistinism! I have started reading Gombrowicz recently, and something I came across in his (brilliant) novel Ferdydurke, struck a chord with me.
In the part of that book (O accursed parts!) which introduces the chapter entitled ‘Philifor Honeycombed with Childishness’, Gombrowicz has a go at the artistic pretensions of his culture (inter-war Poland), and wonders about the extent to which responses to art (and responses of any kind) are determined by what he calls ‘form’.
When a concert pianist plays Chopin, for instance, you say: The audience was roused and carried away by a brilliant interpretation of the master’s music. But it is possible that not a single member of the audience was carried away; it is perfectly possible that, if they had not known that Chopin was a great master and the virtuoso a great pianist, they might have received the performance with less enthusiasm. It is also possible that the reason why everyone applauded so enthusiastically, their faces distraught with emotion, was that everyone else was doing the same.Well, I’m not sure how far the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ approach to art can be taken before it shades into full-blown philistinism, but there’s something in it. Gombrowicz, as it happens, takes it in a different direction: he wants us to be alert to the vital role of form in our everyday lives, not just in the rarefied realm of art.
--trans. Eric Mosbacher
Have done, then, with your aesthetic transports, stop being artists, for heaven’s sake drop your way of talking about art, its syntheses, analysis, subtleties, profundities, the whole inflated apparatus; and instead of imposing myths, model yourselves on facts […] The real situation is this: a human being does not externalize himself directly and immediately in conformity with his own nature; he invariably does so by way of some definite form; and that form, style, way of speaking and responding, do not derive solely from him, but are imposed on him from without.My friend Conrad, in a fairly recent post, said some admirable things about the humanist notion of maturity, as exemplified in the Erasmian adage ‘Festina lente’. In Ferdydurke, Gombrowicz’s laughter targets maturity and delights in immaturity. His laughing immaturity has some things in common with the mature laughter of the humanists, but it is ultimately something else, I think.
See how different would be the attitude of a man who, instead of saturating himself with the phraseology of a million conceptualist metaphysician-aestheticians, looked at the world with new eyes and allowed himself to feel the enormous influence which form has on human life. […]It’s an attractive notion, but I’m still not sure it’s one I can fully subscribe to myself. Too many bad habits of thought, too deeply ingrained – just look at the pretentious quote with which I began this post!
He would no longer write pretentiously, to educate, to elevate, to guide, to moralize, and to edify his fellow-men; his aim would be his own elevation and his own progress; and he would write, not because he was mature and had found his form, but because he was still immature and in his efforts to attain form was humiliating himself, making a fool of himself, and sweating like a climber still struggling towards the mountain-top, being a man still on the way to self-fulfilment.