On Transcendence – God of the Machine
Dec 182003

With a title like that this should be in German and long. Instead it will be in English and short. George Hunka and AC Douglas have gone off the rails with this whole transcendence business. George, normally dyspeptic, soars into the empyrean:

As Kant will happily tell you, there’s no escaping the boundaries of human sensual experience, but as Schopenhauer will whisper in your ear, you can always seek to transcend it through renunciation of the world and through the highest expressions of sensuality itself. Art and religion provide the means for that renunciation. Artists, then, should encourage a path out of the materialist Hegelian world with the techniques at their disposal, whether those techniques are musical, linguistic or visual, just as the priests of all religions have their sacraments and their rituals as a means to transcendence.

This sort of art is utterly useless to the world, for it denies the world itself as a transient petrie dish of suffering and aimless, constantly unsatisfied desires for pleasure. The world itself can’t accept this denunciation of its own importance; therefore it invents Hegel.

Dude! Easy on the transient petrie dish of suffering there! If the alternative is, as it seems to be, being bored or tortured for eternity, then I’ll take my petrie dish of suffering, thanks. With fries. I concede that if the world had invented Hegel it would have some explaining to do, but I think we can let the world off on that score.

The aesthetic emotion is profoundly rooted in human experience. You watch the protagonist and think, that’s me (naturalism), or that’s what I wish I were (romanticism), or that’s what might become of me if things went really, really wrong (tragedy). You read the poem and think, I’ve felt that way, or I would, in those circumstances. You look at the painting and think, I’ve seen that, or I’d like to. (I’ve skipped music, which beats me.) There’s nothing terribly hifalutin about any of this.

Art seems different, somehow, and elaborately wrong-headed theories of aesthetics, like Benedetto Croce’s, have been constructed on this premise. But the word for sitting transfixed in the opera house, or the movie theater, or between the headphones, is not transcendence. It is absorption, or to put it still more mundanely, paying attention. I trust all my readers have become absorbed in a task. Becoming absorbed in a work of art is no different.

There are serious questions to answer in aesthetics. I suggest we try to answer them, and leave Never-Never Land to Tinkerbell, and Schopenhauer.

(Update: George Hunka replies. David Fiore weighs in (and here), as does JW Hastings. Stirling Newberry comments.)

  11 Responses to “On Transcendence”

  1. Charmed, as usual.

    Certainly transcendence isn’t what I go to my aesthetic objects for. Except in the (allegedly) narrow senses of wish-fulfillment (wow, that would be exciting) or escape (boy am I bored, do I have problems, are these people wicked, etc. and I can forget all that in these dramatized personages and their problems).

    But I wonder: the door to my room isn’t aligned right on its hinges, so it can’t close. I never close it, that’s not the issue, but I get distinct unpleasure from its being poorly made. What about that? (Add to that its terribly cheesy frosted-glass panes, and the icky yellow color they spread over perfectly decent wood and it’s a real thorn in my side.)

    Or what about I wear a silver-colored watch band because I think black leather looks bad against my skin? The right amount of pepper in my soup?

    These are aesthetic questions, right?

  2. Preach it, dude.

  3. Aaron, my boy, you’re a true child of the age. It’s no wonder, no wonder at all, you insist on the rational in art (no, I’ll never let that rest). You need to chuck Hegel and his ilk, repair to a retreat with Arthur S. as your sole companion, and immerse yourself in his profound truths until you finally get it.

    It’s your only hope.

    Trust me.



  4. Don’t let this go to your head, Aaron, but, IF ONLY Aaron was "the true child of our age." Geesh! I don’t often feel overwhelmed these days by "the rational in art," but I do by the constantly fuzzy, arrogantly undefined, righteously irrational on an almost daily basis!! Hegel isn’t the alternative to absolute madness and mysticism, just try to think and define and be clear … that’s all I ask!

  5. Naturalism,romanticism and tragedy have all been outdistanced by exhibitionism. Why? Because we are absorbed by exhibitionism, we can’t not watch.

    Like the policeman on the Simpson’s says, "Alright folks. Nothing to see here. Wait…flaming wreckage! Gather around, folks."

  6. PF: Right. Humans are tuning forks, and there are certain things to which we vibrate and others to which we do not. Christopher Alexander’s new opus The Nature of Order has many interesting things to say on this subject, and I will write about it real soon now.

    AC: I am bemused to be classified with Hegel, whose name never passes my lips unaccompanied by an insult, and to whom my objections are numerous, serious, and public.

    As to poetry, my position is this: Poems are written in words, which first denote and then connote. Without denotation there can be no connotation. Thus poems have an irreducible rational content, which is as much a part of the poem as anything else. Stupid remarks do not become less stupid when written in verse.

    The "pure poetry" program, a systematic attempt to purge words of their meanings, is impossible, as Mallarm demonstrated by pursuing it as far as it can be pursued, and it would be insane if it were possible.

    It does not follow that I think the poem can be replaced with its paraphrase, and I have argued to the contrary on many occasions. Obviously anyone who really believed that would have no use for poetry at all.

    If all this makes me "a defender of the rational in poetry," OK. I can think of less pleasing epitaphs.

    The Rest of You Lot: You’re too kind.

  7. As to poetry, my position is this: Poems are written in words, which first denote and then connote. Without denotation there can be no connotation. Thus poems have an irreducible rational content, which is as much a part of the poem as anything else. Stupid remarks do not become less stupid when written in verse.

    I take your point, and agree with it in principle, Aaron. But you in fact apply that principle in ways inimical to poetry. When, for instance, you object to Shelley’s use of the absolutely perfect "shattered" in that Ozi thing on the grounds that, "[T]o discern a frown, a wrinkled lip, and a sneer of cold command in a shattered visage one would have to be a remarkably perceptive traveller," you’re, in my estimation, over the line, and way beyond the pale in your application of your principle of the "irreducibly rational."


  8. Oh, and on the Hegel thing, my apologies. Strike that name, and insert the name of the rationalist philosopher of your choice (which, in any case, was covered by my "and his ilk").


  9. This is one of those questions where living with the answer is harder than living with not knowing the answer.

  10. Poems:

    Before a word can mean, it has to get there first. Words, spelt or spoken, do not instantly transform into their meanings. Instead there is a complex process where different ways of processing the word in the brain occur at once. By the time we’ve figured out what the word "set" means in a particular context, it has dozens of definitions, we have already figured out its place in the prosody, rhyme scheme – if any – and sonority.

    Long before we know what words mean – we know the feel of the pattern of sound and movement in them. Poetry is simply allowing that sense of rhythm to overtake the content of the words themselves.

    As to ideas being bad in prose, and good in verse – certainly. Or at least more palatable in verse than in words.

    After all, I know many people who rail against Levi-Strauss and structuralism, and then happily recite "by any other name…" Which rests on the same idea, that words are arbitrary labels for experiences.

  11. […] Spirit of Eden was an equally spectacular critical success and commercial flop. It does not resemble any other music I know, except the band’s next and last record. I cannot describe it to make it seem palatable, let alone appetizing. (This may be a general problem; music critics seem to write around the music rather than about it.) It sounds, to the unaccustomed ear, like long stretches of whale sounds punctuated by brief outbursts of noisy free jazz. Regardless, listening to it is as close, with music, as I have ever come to the “transcendence” about which George Hunka and AC Douglas have been known to natter on and in which I usually profess not to believe. […]

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