Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Birth of Tragedy - Friedrich Nietzsche

If "existence and the world appear justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon" (p. 128), then what is real is that which is created at the interstitial meeting point of the observer and the observed. The real is thus local and created; it is explicitly positional.

Nietzsche examines the dual-nature of the inherited western perspective, what he terms the Apollonian and Dionysian, and critiques the disappearance of the Dionysian perspective. The Apollonian, or the rational, the knowable, has subsumed the older, more primal Dionysian. Using the metaphor of Olympian Gods and Titans, Nietzsche believes the expulsion of the Titans, of a certain naturalness which prefigures the social, has left western thought and western society both impoverished and incoherent. How are we to know that, pace Socrates, 'knowledge is virtue'? The compulsion which drives the scientist or the philosopher, the spirit which animates the use of the rational approach and/or the dialectic, comes not from phenomena, but from that deeper, hidden aspect of the real. Nietzsche would echo - and somewhat alter - Schopenhauer,  in terming this hidden aspect the will.

It is a somewhat fine point to differentiate between that which underpins Nietzsche's world and that which Socrates/Plato would term the eternal and the changeless (often the Forms). Nietzsche's main complaint is that Socrates/Plato has taken one side of the Apollonian-Dionysian duality and subsumed all of reality to an Apollonian perspective. The triumph of reason is, and has been, for Nietzsche, groundless, somewhat ironic, and has contributed to a widespread cultural impoverishment that 19th century Germany suffered greatly from (the sympathetic reader might extend this assessment to our contemporary situation). Whether this was Plato's intent or not, is debatable (see Zuckert 1985, Nietzsche's Rereading of Plato). What is clear is that Nietzsche takes the philosopher, and his teacher, very seriously. The implications he draws from these Athenians' teachings suggest we should as well. They have crafted the position we inhabit and thus the real we embody.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Story of Art - E.H. Gombrich

"There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists."

Gombrich's history of western art, from the antecedents of the Greeks to the modern era, traces the developments of artistic style and expression. Gombrich's investigation is, by needs, somewhat bifurcated. Early art is examined for the developments of technique, while art following the achievements of the Greeks primarily emphasizes how different artists responded to the legacies of their forebears. Gombrich is quick to recognize, and eager to reiterate, that we cannot view post-Roman art as simply progress beyond the imperfect attempts of the earlier eras. Besides the exquisite form of Greek statuary (known primarily through Roman copies), fresco, relief, and architectural works sought to convey the natural world in a different manner than we might today.

The truth of perception, as it related to absolute perspective versus the perspective of the individual, is a matter of intellectual history, and has evolved greatly over time. The last two hundred or so years of western art history mirror much of the varying pendulum swings which encapsulate the broad array of perspectives on how the individual sees, ought to see, or might possibly see the world. And the extent to which this problem is worth pursuing. The shift to individual perspective (primarily expressed through painting), maps onto changes in the subject matter for art. As individual perspective replaced the divine or total viewpoint, the subjects of art evolved from the sacred, towards the actions of the royal and powerful, and finally towards the common or volk. Though Gombrich does not emphasize this aspect, the reader can project transformations in social and political arenas which would have accompanied, reacted too, and been anticipated by much of the art which has reflected and shaped the western world.

Gombrich's account stays close to the central question of humanity's relationship with a world not of our making. The man-nature relationship - as mediated by the social, the political, the religious, and the economic (among many other contemporary labels) - is, in Gombrich's estimation, the central concern of the artist. Within this arena we may recognize men's and women's relationships with themselves. We are each somewhat an unknown quantity; not of our own creation. If Gombrich has a criticism of modern art it is that this wrestling has become obscured - overshadowed by the purely personal and the need to express the novel. We might, similarly, read this into the modern condition: the question of what is good being replaced by what is new. Whether this reflects, anticipates, or is in response to the broader social prospect is the question of the artists' role in society. This too has changed, and will no doubt continue to evolve.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

My First Summer in the Sierra - John Muir

Wonder is an emotion often left unshared, unstated. Perhaps wonder is principally born of novelty. Yet when novelty becomes almost de rigueur in our daily experience, might we then lose the capacity to wonder, to marvel at the unexpected and the unforeseen? Perhaps novelty which ensconces us can no longer deserve the name. Or, perhaps, wonder is indicative of the truly meaningful. John Muir speaks of, and revels within, a sense of wonder.

The mysteries of the universe are legion. Within his small corner of it John Muir sought to, step by step, trace these mysteries in the hopes that he might find them more easily understood. Muir found the nourishment of his wonder in the big outside beyond man's confining structures. My First Summer in the Sierra is primarily an account of discovery at the nexus of the self and the natural world. For Muir, the evocations which are drawn from him rely upon the experience of wonder at the natural - what he and his contemporaries would have called the sublime. It is marvelous to note that Muir's capacity for awe and wonder is undiminished. He seems nurtured by the natural which he inhabits. In its vastness and intricacies the world makes and remakes Muir anew each day. The sustaining power speaks to a spiritual fullness.

Muir's account occasionally overflows with details of plants and animals that the uninitiated may find distracting. Yet, we see that his careful attention to particularity, his learned knowledge of the world, helps to foster his feelings of connection and wonder. In this we can see that the world is also of our making. While the landscape may impose its grandeur upon Muir, he has also turned himself into a willing vessel for the message. By making his eyes that see, ears that hear, and feet that feel the compulsion to explore, Muir has also helped to create a world which is capable of imparting lessons, both quiet and thunderous. The world is both of his making and forever slightly beyond his reach. Thus the mystery remains and as knowledge deepens Muir's wonder grows apace.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown

Once again, Robert Langdon is on the run. Chasing truth; being chased by shadowy forces. This time the setting is Washington DC and the Masons are Langdon's historical interlocutor. Puzzles, twists, art, history, attractive and brilliant women in their thirties - The Lost Symbol is a Brown page turner much like any other.

There isn't much particularly novel to say about Brown's work, nor much that separates this one from any other. So I wanted to take a second to ponder the hidden reality that Brown evokes in this and the other adventures of Robert Langdon. Though each tale is clearly a work of fiction, the reality they inhabit/create is meant to serve as a referent for our own. The possibility of these stories is informed by a history we can imagine to exist below the one we have generally agreed upon. Brown almost seems to argue that, if we have eyes to look properly, we might view the lessons and passages of history very differently. That taking a different approach to what we understand about our common past can drastically reorient our shared present.

The loss of the modern - frequently espoused by Langdon - is that we have forgotten that the knowledge of the present has not necessarily superseded the wisdom of the ancients. Rather than pit modern ways of knowing against past understandings, Brown constructs a world in which the forgotten messages of the past are crucial to a deeper perspective on the present. To this end he may be one of History's (as a discipline) most notable contemporary proponents. However, we are mistaken if we assume that Brown is little more than a history geek and conspiracy buff. If we take his writing to be indicative of his ethics, Brown believes that the ultimate service of historical understanding is the formation of the complete person. The historical message we read in his work, time and again, is that of a divided society replicated in divided people. Both the world and the people who strive within it can only be healed by reconciling the shared reality of reason and faith.The whole person, like the whole society, must necessarily contain and be amenable to the teachings of both.

Surely the fast-paced action and twisting intrigue of Brown's stories are the method for keeping the reader enraptured within his shade of a fiction that we imagine as possible. The hook is the hope that secrets, which we can imagine could be true, are revealed. Yet the moral is that the past is a rich field of meaning; one which the present remains connected to. If it seems that our modern condition is that of floating in a space of uncertainty, Brown reminds us to pay attention to the pathways which lead us to the past - they might point us towards the future.