Goethe On The Artist’s Supposed ‘Originality’

In Conversations with Goethe With Johann Peter Eckermann, Goethe says,

People are always talking about originality; but what do they mean? As soon as we are born, the world begins to work upon us and goes on to the end. What can we call our own except energy, strength, and will? If I could give an account of all that I owe to great predecessors and contemporaries, there would be but a small balance in my favor. [p. 115]

Elsewhere, Eckermann makes note of Goethe’s response to Byron‘s critique of Faust that Goethe had ‘found one thing here, the other there’:

The greater part of those fine things cited by Lord Byron,” said Goethe, “I have never even read, much less did I think of them, when I was writing ‘Faust.’ But Lord Byron is only great as a poet; as soon as he reflects, he is a child. He knows not how to help himself against the stupid attacks of the same kind made upon him by his own countrymen. He ought to have expressed himself more strongly against them. ‘What is there is mine,’ he should have said, ‘and whether I got it from a book or from life, is of no consequence; the only point is, whether I have made a right use of it.’ Walter Scott used a scene from my Egmont and he had a right to do so; and because he did it well, he deserves praise. He has also copied the character of Mignon in one of his romances; but whether with equal judgment, is another question. Lord Byron’s transformed Devil is a continuation of Mephistophiles, and quite right too. If, from the whim of originality, he had departed from the model, he would certainly have fared worse. Thus, my Mephistophiles sings a song from Shakspeare, and why should he not? Why should I give myself the trouble of inventing one of my own, when this said just what was wanted. If, too, the prologue to my ‘Faust’ is something like the beginning of Job, that is again quite right, and I am rather to be praised than censured. [pp. 82-83]

Like all truly great artists, Goethe recognizes that ‘genius’ and ‘creativity’ have little to do with ‘originality’–whatever that means. Rather, the artist, as noted by all too many who create, is a magpie, a borrower and stealer and copier and mime and ventriloquist. She takes what she needs for her work and synthesizes them into a new work. It is this genius of synthesis we recognize; it is this vision, the one that picked out what it needed and combined them into a whole only visible to it, that we so admire. Great works of art, like all human productions, do not spring forth, fully formed, like Athena out of the skull of Zeus. They have long gestations, and the raw material that goes into this making is drawn from the world around them, from the creative work of other humans, artists or not. The history of an artwork always includes that of the pieces that went into its making.

As always, Goethe remains relevant; so-called ‘intellectual property‘ acolytes would do well to pay attention to a man who knew a bit about artistic creation.

‘Prison Literature: Constraints And Creativity’ Up At Three Quarks Daily

My essay, ‘Prison Literature: Constraint and Creativity,’ is up at Three Quarks Daily.  Here is an introduction/abstract:

In his Introduction to Hegel’s Metaphysics (University of Chicago Press, 1969, pp 30-31), Ivan Soll attributes “great sociological and psychological insight” to Hegel in ascribing to him the insight that “the frustration of the freedom of act results in the search of a type of freedom immune to such frustration” and that “where the capacity for abstract thoughts exists, freedom, outwardly thwarted, is sought in thought.”

In my essay I claim that the perspicuity of this “insight” of Hegel is best illustrated by a species of intellectual production intimately associated with physical confinement: prison literature. The list of this genre’s standout items–The Consolations of Philosophy, The Pilgrim’s Progress for instance–is populated with luminaries–Boethius, Bunyan, De Sade, Gramsci, Solzhenitsyn, Jean Genet etc. Here, constraint is conducive to creativity; the slamming shut of one gate is the prompt to the unlocking of another. For the prison writer, confinement may produce a search for “substitute gratification”–whether conscious or unconscious–and the channeling of the drive toward freedom into the drive for concrete expression of abstract thought. Where freedom to act is not appropriately directed toward alternative artistic expression it can become pathologically repressed instead (as the Nietzsche of The Genealogy of Morals indicated.)

For the prison writer, freedom has changed from being a purely practical affair to one grounded in the act of writing. I explore this stance of the prison writer, its resonances with the perennial struggles of all writers, everywhere, and the truth of the claim–to which Hannah Arendt’s remarks about totalitarianism and the Orwell of 1984 resonate–that those that place prisoners in solitary confinement are onto a vitally necessary piece of knowledge for oppressors: if confinement is to work as a mode of repression, it must aspire to totality. I explore this via a consideration of the relationship between repression and creativity–a general one, and the  more specific variant to be found in Nietzsche and Freud.

Blade Runner 2049: Our Slaves Will Set Us Free

Blade Runner 2049 is a provocative visual and aural treat. It sparked many thoughts, two of which I make note of here; the relationship between the two should be apparent.

  1. What is the research project called ‘artificial intelligence’ trying to do? Is it trying to make machines that can do the things which, if done by humans, would be said to require intelligence? Regardless of the particular implementation? Is it trying to accomplish those tasks in the way that human beings do them? Or is it trying to find a non-biological method of reproducing human beings? These are three very different tasks. The first one is a purely engineering task; the machine must accomplish the task regardless of the method–any route to the solution will do, so long as it is tractable and efficient. The second is cognitive science, inspired by Giambattista Vico; “the true and the made are convertible” (Verum et factum convertuntur) or “the true is precisely what is made” (Verum esse ipsum factum); we will only understand the mind, and possess a ‘true’ model of it when we make it. The third is more curious (and related to the second)–it immediately implicates us in the task of making artificial persons. Perhaps by figuring out how the brain works, we can mimic human cognition but this capacity might be  placed in a non-human form made of silicon or plastic or some metal; the artificial persons project insists on a human form–the android or humanoid robot–and on replicating uniquely human capacities including the moral and aesthetic ones. This would require the original cognitive science project to be extended to an all-encompassing project of understanding human physiology so that its bodily functions can be replicated. Which immediately raises the question: why make artificial persons? We have a perfectly good way of making human replicants; and many people actually enjoy engaging in this process. So why make artificial persons this way? If the answer is to increase our knowledge of human beings’ workings, then we might well ask: To what end? To cure incurable diseases? To make us happier? To release us from biological prisons so that we may, in some singularity inspired fantasy, migrate our souls to these more durable containers? Or do we need them to be in human form, so that they can realistically–in all the right ways–fulfill all the functions we will require them to perform. For instance, as in Westworld, they could be our sex slaves, or as in Blade Runner, they could perform dangerous and onerous tasks that human beings are unwilling or unable to do. And, of course, prop up ecologically unstable civilizations like ours.
  2. It is a philosophical commonplace–well, at least to Goethe and Nietzsche, among others–that constraint is necessary for freedom; we cannot be free unless we are restrained, somehow, by law and rule and regulation and artifice. But is it necessary that we ourselves be restrained in order to be free? The Greeks figured out that the slave could be enslaved, lose his freedom, and through this loss, his owner, his master, could be free; as Hannah Arendt puts it in The Human Condition the work of the slaves–barbarians and women–does ‘labor’ for the owner, keeping the owner alive, taking care of his biological necessity, and freeing him up to go to the polis and do politics in a state of freedom, in the company of other property-owning householders like him. So: the slave is necessary for freedom; either we enslave ourselves, suppress our appetites and desires and drives and sublimate and channel them into the ‘right’ outlets, or we enslave someone else. (Freud noted glumly in Civilization and its Discontents that civilization enslaves our desires.) If we cannot enslave humans, with all their capricious desires to be free, then we can enslave other creatures, perhaps animals, domesticating them to turn them into companions and food. And if we ever become technologically adept at reproducing those processes that produce humans or persons, we can make copies–replicants–of ourselves, artificial persons, that mimic us in all the right ways, and keep us free. These slaves, by being slaves, make us free.

Much more on Blade Runner 2049 anon.

Goethe On The ‘Inexhaustible’ Poet

In Marx’s Concept of Man, Erich Fromm credits Goethe as having “developed the idea of man’s productivity into a central point of his philosophical thinking….all decaying cultures are characterized by the tendency for pure subjectivity, while all progressive periods try to grasp the world as it is, by one’s own subjectivity, but not as separate from it.” Fromm then cites Goethe directly on the ‘poet’:

As long as he expresses only these few subjective sentences, he can not yet be called a poet, but as soon as he knows how to appropriate the world for himself, and to express it, he is a poet. Then he is inexhaustible, and can be ever new, while his purely subjective nature has exhausted itself and ceases to have anything to say….Man knows himself only inasmuch as he knows the world; he knows the world only within himself and he is aware of himself only within the world. Each new object truly recognized, opens up a new organ within ourselves.

The ‘purely subjective nature’ of man comes about because of a radical dissociation of man’s place in the world into a subject-object model and relationship; there is the world as object, and here is man, as subject. Man remains divorced, cast asunder; he can only view, and interact with, the world passively. It is finite, bounded, separate. When man sees the world as one of his own making, acting back on him to make him anew, he sees the world as the poet does, as one awaiting completion, because he himself is not complete; this world will, in its ongoing becoming, change him too. That ongoing, and yes, dialectical, relationship means that knowledge ceases to have limits; new depths become visible because there is no bottom here, other than that imposed by a static vision of an inert world awaiting discovery. Small wonder that Blake could see “a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower” and “Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour.” The world becomes an invented one; poets–and all those who encapsulate a ‘poetic vision’ in their being in this world–are inventors.

Goethe will not be studied in philosophy reading lists as a philosopher; we will insist on pigeonholing him as ‘only a poet’ or ‘artist’ or ‘dramatist.’ But he shows us here, quite clearly, that he is a philosopher; moreover, he tells us that philosophers are poets too–when they make us see this world anew. Perhaps by offering us an ‘insight,’ perhaps by using a ‘new language’ or ‘vocabulary.’ Science too, can do the same: its equations and wondrous panoply of unobservable objects show us one way in which it may conceive of the world in an entirely new scheme.

When we step back and observe the scene before us, we realize the triviality of the distinctions and boundaries we seek to impose on our knowledge–which is but another name for all those ways in which we interact with the world and continue to conceive it for ourselves–and see instead, its unity.

Irène Nèmirovsky On The Failure To Recognize Failure

In The Fires of Autumn (Vintage International, New York, 2015, p. 186) Irène Nèmirovsky writes:

Mankind can only easily get used to happiness and success. When it comes to failure, human nature puts up insurmountable barriers of hope. The sense of despair has to remove those barriers one by one, and only then does penetrate to the heart of man who gradually recognizes the enemy, calls it by name, and is horrified.

Indeed; so easy is it to get used to happiness and success that that pair of supposedly elusive and desirable entities can rapidly lose their allure once they are in our possession. We may even tire of them, find them oppressive, and seek relief in some kind of novelty, some kind of deviation. (Freud quotes Goethe in Civilization and its Discontents as noting that ““nothing is so hard to bear as a train of happy days.”) As for despair, we are, after all, the creatures who can “bear almost any how” so long as we have “a why to live.” As Nèmirovsky notes, such a “why,” a hope, is sought by us almost instinctively; we seek to make sense of, ascribe meaning to, our misfortunes; we seek to make them explainable and comprehensible; we are reluctant to admit that the end of the road has been reached, that the rope has run out. Such maneuvers can indeed make our potential despair bearable; for instance, we may assign some reason, some cause, some purpose, to seeming disasters, and thus decorate our misfortune to make its appearance more palatable. Its true dimensions may remain hidden to us; we are, as existentialist philosophy realizes, meaning-creating and meaning-assigning creatures; true despair only becomes possible when we realize the absurdity of our situation in this world. Such endless evasion is not to be scorned; it enables tremendously creative and productive moves on our part. Poetry and religion and philosophy issue forth. The oft-told tales of returns from the brink of the abyss–of whatever kind, mental or physical–reassure us that sustenance provided by hope is not illusory, that it ‘works.’

Sometimes hope falters, unable to withstand the assaults of despair; the walls crumble, and our last ramparts are overrun. We are horrified by what awaits us, by the true dimensions of the pickle we find ourselves in. What then? Nèmirovsky leaves out our responses to this state of horror; but here too, we do not and cannot dwell too long. This recognition of the actual dimensions of our failure, our misfortune, is all too soon, I suspect, the spur for further discovery of hope. Even in this pitch-black chamber, we start to recognize forms and shapes by which we can begin to navigate and make our way about. Our missteps and our fumbles suggest to us that we are deluded, but we ignore these signals. This is not our resting place; we move on. Optimism begins where we have allowed pessimism its rightful place, allowed it its time in the sun.

Nèmirovsky is not describing a terminus, I think, but rather, the valley, in a series of troughs and peaks.

 

Gramsci And Nietzsche As Philosophers Of Culture

In ‘Socialism and Culture’ (reprinted in The Gramsci Reader, Selected Writings 1916-1935, David Forgacs ed., New York University Press, 2000) Antonio Gramsci writes:

We need to free ourselves from the habit of seeing culture as encyclopaedic knowledge, and men as mere receptacles to be stuffed full of empirical data and a mass of unconnected raw facts, which have to be filed in the brain as in the columns of a dictionary, enabling their owner to respond to the various stimuli from the outside world. This form of culture really is harmful….It serves only to create maladjusted people, people who believe they are superior to the rest of humanity because they have memorized a certain number of facts and dates and who rattle them off at every opportunity….It serves to create the kind of weak and colourless intellectualism…which has given birth to a mass of pretentious babblers….The young student who knows a little Latin and history, the young lawyer who has been successful in wringing a scrap of paper called a degree out of the laziness and lackadaisical attitude of his professors, they end up seeing themselves as different from and superior to even the best skilled workman…But this is not culture, but pedantry, not intelligence, but intellect, and it is absolutely right to react against it.

Gramsci’s critique here resonates with the kind that Nietzsche offered of the ‘educated philistine,’ the superficially educated man who runs about collecting ideas and consuming the cultural products that are considered the ‘trophies’ of his ‘culture,’ but who never learns their value, nor masters their relationships and interconnections so as to raise himself to a higher state of being (where a ‘unity of style’ may be manifest.) This pedant remains hopelessly confined to accepted and dominant modes of thinking and acting, unable to summon up a genuine critical, reflective viewpoint on his place in this world. As such, he is all too susceptible to becoming a reactionary, a defender of the established status quo, a hopeless decadent. These attitudes would be benign if they were not also affected with a fatal arrogance that breeds a dangerous politics.

Gramsci goes on to claim that:

Culture is something quite different. It is organization, discipline of one’s inner self, a coming to terms with one’s own personality; it is the attainment of a higher awareness, with the aid of which one succeeds in understanding one’s own historical value, one’s own function in life, one’s own rights and obligations.

The invocation of ‘organization’ and ‘a coming to terms of one’s own personality’ also strikes a Nietzschean note here. The truly cultured person, one possessing a ‘unity of style,’ has brought together his disparate drives and energies and inclinations into a unified whole, an act requiring a ‘discipline of one’s inner self.’ He has also, as Nietzsche suggested, recognized his own self for what it is, and ‘joyfully’ accepted it.

The concentration camp commandants who read Goethe and listened to Beethoven at night in their offices were philistines in this view; they were mere consumers of ‘culture’; they lacked ‘discipline’ and remained susceptible to their atavistic urges. Their ‘pedantry,’ their philistinism, and the lack of intelligence it implies were an integral component of their moral failures.

Kundera On Virtuous and ‘Timid’ Centers

In Immortality, (HarperCollins, New York, 1992, pp. 75) Milan Kundera writes:

Goethe: the great center. Not the center in the sense of a timid point that carefully avoids extremes, no, a firm center that holds both extremes in a remarkable balance…

There is something Nietzschean about the kind of center that Kundera has in mind.

The classical, geometric center of the circle ‘avoids extremes’ by maintaining a safe, antiseptic, boringly equal distance from every point on the circumference. (And there are an infinite number of these ‘extremes’, so this feat takes some doing, a wonderful and exhaustive precision of sorts.) This kind of center, when manifest in our psychological and intellectual dispositions, can lead to a rather banal sort of moderation, an insipid, ‘timid’, overly cautious, scared-to-try-the-deep-end character. This kind of personality will have no ‘style‘; it will all too easily blend into the background. It will experience little terror and so, perhaps, little beauty. (‘For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure’?) This character has little virtue to speak of; it has found its path by avoidance, not experience.

The second kind of center though, one best imagined as one that holds, in addition to the ‘remarkable balance’ alluded to above, a tension in its connections to its extremes. This is the tension of the bowstring drawn tight, just right: any more, and it snaps; any more, and the arrow does not reach the target. The tension restrains the extremes; it holds them in check; the center represents, as it were, the sum total of the interacting forces acting on the center through its relationship with the points on the periphery. It is the tension in these relationships that holds the center in place, and grants it its gravitas.  This center is not the slave of the extremes, as the previously ‘timid’ center was, which shrank from contact. Rather, it holds its ground, confident it can avoid the collapse, the fall, the descent into the abyss. It walks to the edge of the cliff but no further; it does not retreat, unwilling to experience the vertigo that is an inevitable accompaniment to the beauty of the view that can only be glimpsed from the rim.

Note #1: The full excerpt from Immortality reads:

Now, perhaps, when the end of the century provides us with the proper perspective, we can allow ourselves to say: Goethe is a figure placed precisely in the center of European history. Goethe: the great center. Not the center in the sense of a timid point that carefully avoids extremes, no, a firm center that holds both extremes in a remarkable balance which Europe will never know again.

Note #2: It is perhaps not a coincidence that Kundera invokes these contrasting notions of the center in the context of speaking about Goethe, who after all, did write ‘Nature and Art‘, which ends with:

Whoever wants what’s best seeks combination:
A master first reveals himself in limits,
And law alone can truly set us free.

Here again, we glimpse the notion of a virtuous balancing of freedom by constraint.