Search This Blog

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Truth as Circe

Still pursuing a Pre-Platonic line, in this essay I look at Truth and Art from a particular Nietzschean, Post-Platonic Perspective. It also contains a special plea for Poesy in the Grand Style:

Truth as Circe


The Sooth-Sayer's Paradox

Things that are true, and things that are just, have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites.

Pace Aristotle, Falsehood - like the Devil - has the best tunes, while Truth displays a nature so questionable that we 'stay' in vain 'for an answer'. Even Lord Bacon, while taking Truth somewhat for granted, was at pains to wonder how on earth 'the son of God' would be able to stomach the lies, deceptions and distortions that now prevail 'down here below'. (1)
Indeed, Man's fall must have been thoroughly wretched, for not only does he now have a propensity for the Lie rather than Truth, he also exhibits a real delight in the 'wooing of it'.
Truly, 'Life is in love with the lie.'
Bacon's celebrated essay may well have prompted another sparkling discourse on the same subject by Nietzsche in his Preface to 'Beyond Good and Evil'. 'Suppose', he opines, that 'Truth be a woman!' - Well, if so, then philosophers have been somewhat inept at courting this particular 'wench', who - as Nietzsche tells us in his Zarathustra, would much prefer the hand of a warrior.

Whereas Plato separated Truth from Art, Nietzsche, who saw himself as the antipodes of that philosopher, drew them intimately together. Yeats, much influenced by Zarathustra, understood this well when he wrote that "we poets should be good liars, remembering always that the Muses are women, and prefer the embrace of gay, warty lads."

Nietzsche rejected the 'Truth assumption' which had offered itself as the Holy Grail to Western philosophers for so long, claiming instead that there is 'no Truth, only interpretations'. But Truth has never been short of manly champions prepared to defend her honour.
Roger Scruton, for example, has even warned that such scepticism can drive a man mad, implying that Nietzsche's own mental breakdown was due to the very same! To Scruton, the matter is plain; without Truth, we would not have the Lie, and more to the point, we would not be able to have any meaningful discourse between ourselves without Truth. A spiteful opponent may reply that by uttering such platitudes, Scruton is not so much refuting Truth relativism here, as rather proving the Nietzschean view of cuckolded philosophers.
Scruton seems to be a Platonist, and it is in his revolutionary over-turning of Platonism that Nietzsche gives a radical re-evaluation of Truth; it was a view more likely to be found among artists and poets. The poet Ted Hughes for example, says that "we can define truth baldly as 'what is and what happens'. But when a man tells a lie, it actually does happen that he tells it, and that is a truth. His awareness of telling the lie is another truth. The truth he conceals, but knows about, is another truth. The consequences of his lie, which follow mechanically in his conscience, which he perhaps doesn't know about, are another truth. And so on. In one lie, there speaks a whole family of truths. His words shape the lie, but the truths speak through distortions of his vocal chords, his expression, his gestures, and by some electrical flash that we call telepathy."

The last point recalls an aphorism of Nietzsche's to the effect that when we tell a lie, the truth is revealed by 'the mouth' we make. On that reticent character of veracity, Hughes points out that "a strange quality of truth is that it is reluctant to use words. Like Cordelia, in King Lear. Perhaps the more sure of itself a truth is, the more doubtful it is of the adequacy of words."

(1) Bacon's essay 'Of Truth';


The Death of truth

There is no exit from the circle of one's beliefs.
[K. Lehrer] 

But Hughes does not go so far as to take the path of the Sophist Gorgias and deny the very existence of Truth. Perhaps because to do so would be to fall into the trap of the liar paradox, where relativism bites its own tail. But this argument, as irresistible as it is, has the odour of sophistry. As St. Augustine puts it;

"Everyone who observes himself doubting observes a truth, and about that which he observes he is certain about a truth. Everyone therefore who doubts whether truth exists has in himself a truth on which not to doubt ... Hence one who can doubt at all ought not to doubt about the existence of truth."

While the sceptic seems destined to doubt scepticism itself in order to be consistent, are the advocates of Absolute Truth able to avoid similar pitfalls? Perhaps not, if we listen to the Christian Existentialist Kierkegaard;

"Subjectivity is the truth. By virtue of the relationship subsisting between the Eternal Truth and the existing individual, the paradox came into being. Let us now go further; let us suppose that the eternal essential truth is itself a paradox. How does the paradox come into being? By putting the eternal essential truth into juxtaposition with existence. Hence when we posit such a conjunction within the truth itself, the truth becomes a paradox. The Eternal Truth has come into being in time; this is the paradox."

On the dogmatic truths of religion, Kierkegaard has this to say;

"It is subjectivity that Christianity is concerned with, and it is only in subjectivity that its Truth exists, if it exists at all; objectively, Christianity has absolutely no existence."

Religion today as in the past makes the most extravagant claims for Truth; 'God is truth', 'The Bible is God's Word', and religion itself is known by Believers as 'The Truth'. And how do they know that it is all true? - In a word, by Faith.
This kind of Truth is at the root of human culture, as Savitri Devi writes;
"Whether Hindus or Greeks, Egyptians or Japanese, Chinese, Sumerians or ancient Americans - or even Romans, the most 'modern' among the people of antiquity - they all placed the Golden Age, the Age of Truth [Satya Yuga in Sanskrit scriptures], the rule of 'Kronos' or of 'Ra' or of any other gods on earth - the glorious beginning of the slow, downward unfurling of history, whatever name it be given - far behind them in the past."

Perhaps this most common and ancient belief that the Fall of Mankind was nothing other than the 'loss of truth' would explain the scarcity of Truth and the monopoly of the Lie!
Devi again;
"And they believed that the return of a similar Age of truth, foretold in their respective sacred texts and oral traditions, depends not upon man's conscious effort but upon iron laws, inherent in the very nature of visible and tangible manifestations, and all pervading; upon Cosmic Laws."

We may think that in modern 'rational' societies such beliefs are untenable; but have we really experienced the 'Death of Truth'? The myth of a Golden age dies hard. But what of the 'baldly stated' truth that Hughes referred to earlier? The very rational matter-of-fact truth;- that exists, surely! Leibnitz thought there to be only "two kinds of truths; truths of reasoning and truths of fact. Truths of reasoning are necessary and their opposite impossible; those of fact are contingent and their opposite is possible."

Factual truth is rather unspectacular in comparison with the Truth of the Absolute. To quote Vico;

"Just as divine Truth is what God orders and produces as He comes to know it, so human truth is what man arranges and makes as he knows it."
But there is nothing mundane in the truths of history. What could be more important to humanity which is - hopefully - ever anxious to avoid past mistakes. Yet few historians can fully agree on their version of events, always coloured as they are by the inescapable necessity of perspective and prejudice.


My Honour is Loyalty

Hemlock was always the response of a ruling class beaten in argument. We shall dare to question everything, and we are not afraid to answer any question. When civilisation rocks, its foundations are open to question; and it is only the discovery of facts which can enable a firmer foundation to be built. Let all things be discussed, and let truth prevail.
[Oswald Mosley 1953]

 We need then to build on our foundation of Truth, as nothing else could be firmer. Sextus Empiricus [fl. late 2nd century AD] made three main distinctions between "those who undertake philosophical investigations." Firstly, those who think that they have discovered the Truth, "and are properly called dogmatists." Secondly there are those who think it impossible to discover the truth because there is no such thing; and thirdly those "sceptics" who "persist in their investigations," who we may call Agnostics of Truth.
But what of this word 'truth' itself, what does it signify? The German motto Meine Ehre heißt Treue has 'true' in its older sense of 'loyalty'. Digging deeper for the 'root' we find that the word for 'truth' in Old English is identical with that for 'tree' [OE treow]. This may seem puzzling until we think of both our arboreal pre-history and the cultic importance of 'the tree' among our heathen ancestors. The Norse Poetic Edda preserves that religion's insistence that the world itself is a huge tree, Yggdrasil, and that the Norse 'Adam and Eve' were an ash [Ask] tree and an elm [Embla] tree respectively, which were given human qualities by the gods Ōthin, Hoenir and Lothur;

To the coast then came kind and mighty
from the gathered gods three great Aesir;
On the land they found, of little strength,
Ask and Embla, unfated yet.

Sense they possessed not, soul they had not,
Being nor bearing, nor blooming hue;
Soul gave Ōthin, sense gave Hoenir
Being, Lothur, and blooming hue.

An ash I know, hight Yggdrasil,
The mighty tree moist with white dews,
Thence came the floods that fall adown,
Evergreen o'ertops Urth's well this tree.
[Völuspá, 17]

Frazer's Golden Bough gives some startling accounts of the 'Worship of Trees' among Germanic pagan tribes, as follows;

"In the religious history of the Aryan race in Europe, the worship of trees has played an important part. Nothing could be more natural. For at the dawn of history Europe was covered with immense primaeval forests, in which the scattered clearings must have appeared like islets in the ocean of green ... From an examination of the Teutonic words for 'temple', Grimm has made it probable that amongst the Germans the oldest sanctuaries were natural woods ... How serious that tree worship was in former times may be gathered from the ferocious penalty appointed by the old German laws for such as dared to peel the bark of a standing tree. The culprit's navel was to be cut out and nailed to the part of the tree which he had peeled, and he was to be driven round and round the tree till all his guts were wound about its trunk. The intention of the punishment clearly was to replace the dead bark by a living substitute taken from the culprit; it was a life for a life, the life of a man for the life of the tree."

From the strict taboos relating to trees in pre-Christian society we arrive at an early recorded meaning of the word as covenant [Gothic triggwa] still exists in its cognate 'truce'. This develops readily into the idea of being true [i.e. loyal] to an agreement, bound by an oath etc. Generally, one becomes trust-worthy [or by extension, things become so], or honest [truthful]. By the Middle English period 'truth' assumes the familiar meaning of 'agreeing with reality' and therefore of 'telling the truth'. This sense was not completely absent in Old English but was covered by a different word, 'sooth', which survives in the archaic 'sooth-sayer'. Even more, 'sooth' is derived from an earlier form, '*sonth', which shows it to be cognate with 'sin'; as Barney notes;
"The idea of the true and the idea of the guilty are related through the idea of emphatically being the one", and so "is etymologically related to forms of the verb 'to be', like OE sint, Modern German sind, Latin sunt.

It is Truth as an abstraction that has concerned philosophers and theologians most of all. Nietzsche, for example, describes the overcoming of Ideal truth. from being 'a reward and consolation' to the wise man, the 'true world' becomes unknowable and an object of sceptical inquiry. Here it loses all its 'sooth-ing' qualities, and becomes redundant and then 'abolished'. It is at this point that Nietzsche makes his revaluation; as Plato had divided the abstract world of Ideal Truth from the everyday world of appearance [which latter was seen as paradoxically unreal], the abolition of the Ideal Truth meant also the abolition of the 'world of appearance'. However, many of the old Ideals continue to linger, casting their shadows on the cave walls.



Truth as Circe: Error has transformed animals into men; could truth be capable of transforming man again into an animal?

The various philosophical theories of truth, whether 'correspondence', 'coherence', 'nominalism', and so on, fail to grasp their object in any conclusive manner. This would indicate to some that the fault lies in trying to quantify the unquantifiable. This analytical approach to truth is based on the idea that there is a relation "between the thing that is true, and the thing that makes it so" [Scruton]. But attempts to nail down this 'relation' often fall foul of the inescapable circle of thought. As Scruton says when criticisng the correspondence theory, "we anchor our thoughts, but only to other thoughts", adding, "others still reject the whole idea of truth as a relation, regarding it instead as an intrinsic property of whatever possess it. There are even those who argue that truth is neither a property nor a relation, and that the concept is merely redundant."
He then goes on to admit, notwithstanding his opposition to Nietzsche, that "to speak of truth and its role in discourse is one thing; but we should not assume that in doing so we are referring to an independent reality."
There are those who argue that certain truths are 'out there' in the Universe, waiting to be discovered. Mathematics is an example of this sort according to Frege who said that "the thought which we express in the Pythagorean Theorem is timelessly true, true independently of whether anyone takes it to be true. It needs no bearer. It is not true for the first time when it is discovered, but is like a planet which, already before anyone has seen it, has been in interaction with other planets."
Despite having the advantage of escaping the circle of thought of coherence theory, such non-human truth is uninspiring to many philosophers as it fails to ground itself in a meaningful theory of human existence. Millikan puts forward "an alternative," which calls for "norms" to be grounded in "evolutionary biology ... Let Darwinian natural purposes set the standards against which failures, untruths, incorrectness’s etc. are measured."
We are reminded here of Nietzsche's 'biologism' which states that, "the perspectival is the basic condition of all life ... 'semblance' is the  reality which resists transformation into an imaginative 'world of truth'. A particular name for that reality would be 'Will to Power', designated of course intrinsically and not on the basis of its ungraspable, fluid, Protean nature."


Illumination or Illusion?

Is the artist a genuine creator or merely a copyist who narcissistically reflects reality?
With the current primacy of the hyper-reproduced image, it may appear that we have wandered into a hall of mirrors, unable to distinguish between the reflection and the thing reflected. But perhaps it has always been so; there is a strong argument to suggest that all art tends toward the condition of verisimilitude;

"When we take up a work of poetry or prose fiction we begin with that which literary critics commonly call the poetic suspension of doubt. We resolve that during our reading  we will believe that whatever the author tells us actually happened, and that we will vicariously be present when it happens and will experience the emotions that we would experience if we were physically present: when we read tales of the marvelous and praeternatural, we make a temporary act of faith and accept the world that the author has created." [Oliver]

Any public cynicism towards the arts may have been compounded by the artistic love of masks. Pound's first collection of poems was appropriately entitled Personae;- by adopting the personae of various songsters and rhymesters from the past, he sought to define his own fugitive self;

If thou hast seen my shade sans character,
If thou hast seen that mirror of all moments,
That glass to all things that o'shadow it,
Call not that mirror me, for I have slipped
Your grasp, I have eluded.
[Pound, The Flame]

So if artists are dishonest and their audience made up of willing dupes, how can art be evaluated objectively; are not those who see it as their place to critique the arts somehow charlatans by association?
Nietzsche, a philosophical lover of masks, derided Wagner for being 'an actor', with a 'talent to lie', who had brought about an "overall change of art into histrionics which is no less an expression of physiological degeneration (more precisely, a form of hystericism). 'The Lohengrin Prelude' furnished the first example, only too insidious, only too successful, of hypnotism by means of music: the actor Wagner is a tyrant; his pathos topples every taste, every resistance;- 'What is meant to have the effect of truth must not be true' - this proposition contains the whole psychology of the actor. In declining cultures, wherever the decision comes to rest with the masses, authenticity becomes superfluous, disadvantageous, a liability; only the actor still arouses great enthusiasm." [CW]

To Pound, art had been corrupted by bourgeois values. Now the artist had become a salary man, a stooge, a flunky. For this reason he made his Anglo-Saxon Seafarer jibe at the burgher's contentment, while his 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberly' presents a mordant attack on the mediocre values of the middle-class;

The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace,
Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace;
No, not certainly, the obscure reveries
Of the inward gaze;
Better mendacities
Than the Classics in paraphrase!
The 'age demanded' chiefly a mould in plaster,
Made with no loss of time,
A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster
Or the 'sculpture' of rhyme.

There is an overwhelming sense here, of the concept 'artist' having fallen from a once 'Golden age'; and that the modern 'business artist' [The phrase was one of Warhol's self-appellations] is a typical product of the 'mammon worship' that prevails in modern society. However, this conflict between the artist and society has been a part of Western culture at least since Plato, who in the Republic set this view out plainly enough;

"The things that a painter creates are not real; what he produces is not the essential Form or the Ultimate Reality, but something that resembles reality." [Book X]

And this is the charge to be laid against the arts: do they just imitate reality - and are therefore ephemeral, or even pernicious - or, to speak in their defense, do they reveal far more, making artists in Shelley's words, "the unacknowledged legislator's of the world". 


Aesthetics and Counterfeiting

The Platonic dichotomy between a (mystical) Real-World of Absolute Truth, and the world of quotidian 'appearance', has had a huge impact on the history of Western thought.
To Plato, "those who see beauty in only one area, for example the arts, are not true philosophers, because they do not see the Absolute Beauty. - Such a one is 'dreaming', for they see the image of truth, and not truth itself."

On this basis would Plato outlaw poets from his Ideal Republic. The 'Absolute Beauty' he talked of "is not itself identical with reality, but is beyond reality and superior to it." It is in fact the 'Ultimate Reality', "the Absolute Unchanging realm of knowledge;- Reality itself."

This 'realm' was given a Godly moral supremacy;

"The mind as a whole must be turned away from the world of change, until it can bear to look straight at 'Reality', which is what we call 'The Good'."

Tolstoy, concurs;
"I think that every reasonable and moral man would again decide the question as Plato decided it; let there be no art at all than continue the depraving art or simulation art, which now exists."

To Tolstoy art had "become a prostitute, always adorned, always saleable, enticing and ruinous." But unlike Plato, who had condemned art per se, he considered that 'true art' had indeed existed once, only it had since been "replaced by imitations of art. It has in course of time ceased even to be art at all, and has been replaced by counterfeits."

The terms 'simulation' and 'counterfeit' are applied repeatedly by Tolstoy [even to the art of Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Goethe, Bach and Beethoven, to name but a few!]. This is reminiscent of Baudrillard's work a century later, who felt that Western culture had gone beyond the 'imitations' castigated by Tolstoy, and had now substituted the "signs of the Real for the Real itself: the Real is no longer the Real."

He lays the fault for this at the door of Capitalism, "which was the first to feed throughout its history on the destruction of every referential, of every human goal, which shattered every ideal distinction between true and false, good and evil, in order to establish a law of equivalence and exchange."

Similarly, Tolstoy has said that the cause of 'counterfeit art' was "the remuneration of artists and professionalism", and also indicted 'Schools of Art', finding it unthinkable that art could be 'taught'. Likewise he attacked 'art criticism', the purveyors of which were "erudite, perverted self-confident individuals", seemingly unaware that "to a good work of art, all interpretations are superfluous."
These critics "pay most attention to, and eulogise, brain-spun invented works, and set up these as models worthy of imitation."

Tolstoy places much emphasis on that product of 18th century Neoclassicism, the discipline of 'Aesthetics', which sought to define 'the Beautiful', saying that such a mode of study is not only harmful to art, but is also a waste of time because it defines 'nothing at all' save the truism that beauty causes a 'kind of pleasure.'

'Aesthetics' was seen as a symptom of the modern 'alienation' of the artist;
"The 18th century marks the development of the strictly modern institution of the museum. It is no accident at all that museums should begin at a time when philosophers were elaborating a separate discipline of aesthetics: the two events flow from the same historical condition of man, in which from beginning to end all human thinking is rooted." [Barret]

To Heidegger, "when Aesthetics achieves its greatest possible height, breadth and rigour of form, (2) great art comes to an end."

This is a position no less extreme than that found in Tolstoy and Baudrillard, but are we really to accept that great art is dead?
The 'movements' of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Dada, may certainly indicate to some that there is a serious malaise. As Honegger exclaimed; "have we lost the arts?"

(2) Heidegger pinpoints Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics 1828-9.


Romanticism and Pessimism: The Artist as God

To name an object is to take away three-fourths of the enjoyment of the poem, which consists in the happiness of guessing little-by-little; to suggest it: that is the dream.

Both the despair and decadence of Romanticism, and the violence and nihilism of Modernism, are quite proper to counterfeit art according to Baudrilliard because it "always connotes something diabolical: the uneasiness before the mirror image. There is already sorcery at work in the Mirror. But how much more so when this image can be detached from the mirror and be transported, stocked, reproduced at will: all reproduction implies a kind of Black Magic."

A growing technological mastery of nature meant a concomitant ruthless exploitation of her resources, both animate and inanimate;

"It is with Romanticism that a strange new chord of anxiety is sounded: man has entered upon some new and uncertain turning-point in his history in the course of which he will become severed from Nature so that the voice of the poet will not be heard and poetry itself become a dead art of the past." [Barret]

The severance of art from life becomes painfully apparent as the great Romantics struggle to heal the schism and return to a Golden Age. Lord Byron wrote that;

"'Art' comes over me in a kind of rage every now and then ... and then, if I don't write to empty my mind, I go mad. As to that regular, uninterrupted love of writing ... I do not understand it. I feel it as a torture, which I must get rid of, but never as a pleasure. On the contrary, I think composition a great pain." [Letter to Moore, 1821]

Here we see two extreme views of the artist. On the one hand the inspired, primal, shamanic; and on the other, the level-headed contractual maker of product. The Symbolist poet Rimbaud gave the best known formula of the former in his Lettre du Voyant (1871), where the poet as 'voyant' or visionary claims abrupt access to new horizons of consciousness, which contrasts with the rational Newtonian ascent 'on the shoulders of giants'. The first is a Wotan-like self-sacrifice for the Unknown, while the second is the gradual discovery of 'Nature's Laws'.
The Romantic view that poetry is 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings' [Wordsworth], also marks its aversion to the art of Realism where;
 "Poesy therefore is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in his word 'mimesis'; that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting or figuring forth - to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture."

But to Schlegel, 'mere representation' was 'not enough'. It was necessary for there to be a 'spark of divine enthusiasm'. From this, the artist came to see himself as a God, while art developed towards abstraction.

Against the background of such movements as Surrealism and Abstract-Expressionism, Camus wrote that;

"Periods such as ours, which are bent on unity to the point of madness, turn to the primitive arts, in which stylisation is always found at the beginning and end of artistic movements; it demonstrates the intensity of negation and transposition which has given modern painting its disorderly impetus towards interpreting unity and existence. Van Gogh's admirable complaint is the arrogant and desperate cry of all artists: 'I can very well, in life, and in painting do without God. But I cannot, suffering as I do, do without something that is greater than I am, which is my life - the power to create."


Art as Will to Power

We have art in order not to die of the truth.

Following the Pre-Platonic practice of positing an arche to characterise, in Heidegger's phrase, 'the basic occurrence of all beings', Nietzsche saw art as the metaphysics of existence, which was itself, fundamentally, 'the will to power'.
It is only through art that we can acquire the clearest glimpse of the basic configuration of the will to power.

Nietzsche eschewed the Platonic segregation of the world into Appearance/Reality, because to him the apparent world was the only reality, and therefore of course, the realm of art.
It was the task of art to give form, and to provide a 'stimulant to life'.
The life-denying decadence of a Schopenhauer or Buddhism was poison, because the artist must needs be a yea-sayer: Art is Absolute Affirmation.

Here Nietzsche moves beyond the pure irrationalism and death-wish fantasies which are found in the Romantics. Art was rather to be a 'counter-movement to nihilism'; and the basic physiological and psychological state of the artist was one of rapture [Ger. 'Rausch'].
But this was not the pure subjectivism of the Romantics, but instead a radical synthesis of the Apollonian and the Dionysian.
Rapture was not only inward, but an opening-outwards and an 'attunement' with 'Beings in the world'. As Heidegger interpreted it, "we ascend beyond ourselves. Such ascent beyond ourselves, to the full of our essential capability, occurs according to Nietzsche in rapture.
"Thus the beautiful is disclosed in rapture.
"The beautiful itself is what transports us into the feeling of rapture.
"From this elucidation of the essence of the beautiful, the characterisation of rapture, of the basic aesthetic state, acquires enhanced clarity. If the beautiful is what sets the standard for what we trust we are essentially capable of, then the feeling of rapture, as our relation to the beautiful, can be no mere turbulence and ebullition. The mood of rapture is rather an attunement in the sense of the supreme and most measured determinateness."

This brings us to the importance of form. Nietzsche again;

"What it takes to be an artist is that one experience what all non-artists call 'form' as content, as 'the matter itself'. With that, of course, one is relegated to an inverted world. For from now on one takes content to be something merely formal- including one's own life." [WP]

As Heidegger tells us, Nietzsche's 'method' was one of reversal, or rather re-valuation. By this process, 'Art is now worth more than the Truth.'


Grand Style

Grand Style: when a noble nature, poetically gifted, treats with simplicity or with severity a serious subject.

'Grand Style' [der grosse Stil] was how Nietzsche referred to the Classic form which he saw as the basic structure of existence. It was 'where the extremes of chaos and form advanced under the same yoke. Grand Style disdains to please or to persuade: rather it commands; it wills. Art 'erupts' in he body as rapt-ure; yet it paradoxically has to impose values. 'Being Stamped onto Becoming' is the formula for The Eternal Recurrence of the Same, and this is the essence of the will to power. There is no question of a 'letting go'; in order to cultivate the 'rare protracted, measured victory over plenitude - that is Grand Style - man must be made 'hard, natural strong; more wicked.'

The theory of the 'grand style' went back at least as far as Longinus and his 'sublime'. The distinction between Great and Mean style had its root in the nobility - or its lack - of the artist himself. Grand Style was typified by 'noble diction' and 'elevated composition'.
Renaissance theory differentiated between base style, middle style and high or grand style. Grand Style was only to be used for epics and tragedies.
In 18th century art, Racine's work is seen to exemplify Grand Style, and in Neoclassicism Grand Style usurps all others. 19th century Romanticism sees a reaction against Grand Style. In English literature Matthew Arnold forcefully argued for Grand Style [see his Preface to Poems of 1853 and his 'On Translating Homer' of 1862], putting forward Homer and Pindar as his touchstones for Grand Style amongst the ancients.
Arnold distinguishes between the 'grand style simple' - as in Homer, and the 'grand style severe' - as in Milton. [cf. Perminger ed. for the above]

Arnold's own poem 'Balder Dead' aimed at the Grand Style;

So on the floor lay Balder dead; and round
Lay thickly strewn swords, axes, darts, and spears,
Which all the Gods in sport had idly thrown
At Balder, whom no weapon pierced or clove;
But in his breast stood fixt the fatal bough
Of mistletoe, which Lok the Accuser gave
To Hoder, and unwitting Hoder threw--
'Gainst that alone had Balder's life no charm.
And all the Gods and all the Heroes came,
And stood round Balder on the bloody floor,
Weeping and wailing; and Valhalla rang
Up to its golden roof with sobs and cries;
And on the tables stood the untasted meats,
And in the horns and gold-rimm'd skulls the wine.
And now would night have fall'n, and found them yet
Wailing; but otherwise was Odin's will.
[opening of Balder Dead]

 For Arnold, the Greeks "are the highest models of expression, the unapproached masters of the grand style." [Preface to Poems]
This is because "they want to educe and cultivate what is best and noblest in themselves." [ib.]

In a discussion on Arnold's use of 'grand style' [in 'Essays and Studies' by members of the 'English Association', Volumes 1- 2, 1948-9] Bailey says that the grand style "belongs rather to the calm than to the storm, though perhaps no calm will give it but that which the storm has preceded." Compare Nietzsche's Zarathustra's, 'the stillest words bring the storm'.
Bailey goes on to say that the grand style is "the style which takes the spirit from the poet's overpowering consciousness of the presence of greatness ... a thing of fine line than of rich colour; sculpture rather than painting; with nothing voluptuous or even overflowing, in it, quiet, austere, with a kind of stern simplicity."
Here we hear the sound of Apollo's lyre and realise that the dualism of Apollo/Dionysos is once more at work in this characterisation of the Grand Style.
Bailey makes a Nietzschean claim for the amorality of the Grand Style;
"The essential quality of grand style is greatness, and the point is that greatness is not the same thing even as beauty and goodness."

Much of the controversy in the above discussion was due to Arnold excluding Shakespeare from the Grand Style. Arnold and Nietzsche were in agreement that Shakespeare's work is too mixed [i.e. of base and middle styles along with grand] to be Grand Style per se. Another point of agreement, given Nietzsche's extolling of the gaya scienza, was Arnold's view that "the poetry of the langue d'oc, of southern France, of the troubadours, is ... the first literature of modern Europe to strike the true and grand note." ['On Translating Homer']

Important for the present essay is Arnold's assertion that poetry is "thought and art in one."
And that;

"The substance and matter of the best poetry acquire their special character from possessing, in an eminent degree, truth and seriousness." [ib.]

The British poet John Wain decried the lack of grand style found in modernism;
"The throwing away of form in contemporary poetry and the arts generally is the result of that jelly-bellied democratisation - in a mass society only the lowest level of finesse is acceptable - and partly of sheer mental confusion."

For Heidegger, poetry is the art form par excellence for the Grand Style, because it "is not mere ornament of culture, but the primary and essential form of language. Hence, the thinker who exposes himself to poetry may gain through it some unique access to the meaning of Being." [quoted in Barret]


Art and Truth

Had Nietzsche really 'healed' the bifurcation first made explicit in Plato?
Heidegger saw another split manifest itself in Nietzsche's aesthetics. He described it as "the Raging Discourse between Truth and Art", stating that, "the relation between art and truth is a discordance that arouses dread."
Heidegger seems to retain the Platonic ideal of Truth, which is ruled out by Nietzsche, in order to create the persisting duality of Art/Truth. Indeed, dualities themselves are ubiquitous, whether subject/object, soul/body, [yin/yang] and so forth.
Baudrillard proposed that, "any unitary system, if it wishes to survive, must acquire a binary regulation."
Although he goes on to claim that we have now left "the metaphysic of Being and Appearance", and have arrived at "Indeterminacy and the Code. Cybernetic control, generation from model, differential modulation, feedback, question/answer etc.; such is the new operational configuration. Digitality is its metaphysical principle, and DNA its prophet. It is in effect in the genetic code that the 'Genesis of Simulacra' today finds its most accomplished form. Once more, that delirious illusion of uniting the world under the aegis of a single principle; that of the genetic code with the technocrats of biological science; a neo-capitalist cybernetic order that aims now at Total Control."

Baudrillard's dystopian view offers a surprising position on Art;

"Today, when the real and the imaginary are confused in the same operational totality, the aesthetic fascination is everywhere: all that replicates itself, even if it be the everyday and banal reality, falls by that token under the sign of art, and becomes aesthetic. And so art is everywhere, since artifice is at the very heart of reality."

This may be 'art', but it is 'counterfeit art', it is not art in the 'Grand Style'.

Because poetry is, as Novalis said, "the elevation of mankind above itself," so does it achieve a place of central importance as the most Rapturous of art forms, which "does not belong to historical time and the tabloid scrimmage of ideologies, but to Natural Time, where the flower of five million years ago is still absolutely up-to-date, and even some way in the future, always just ahead of the avant-garde of any fashion." [Ted Hughes, 1986]

Suddenly we have acquired the wide range perspective proper to Grand Style, where we realise for example that, "the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, were not 'ancient' at all. The epithet 'ancient' was applied by the 18th century historians who thought that the world itself was new and that the people who they called ancient had lived near its beginning. But the Assyrians, Egyptians and the rest had inherited several thousands years of civilisation, exactly as we have done." [Tudge]

'Civilisation' is synonymous with the Logos;- and poetry is the most concise and profound artistic expression of 'the word'. To Heidegger;
"Basic words are historical. That does not mean simply that they have various meanings for various ages which, because they are past, we can survey historically; it means that they ground history now and in the times to come in accordance with the interpretation of them that comes to prevail. The historicity of the basic words, understood in this fashion, is one of the things that must be heeded in thinking through those basic words."

It is worth bearing in mind, particularly in today's apocalyptic climate, that 'The End of Art' prophesied by Heidegger is far from implying an absolute eradication. It suggests rather a new evolution of creativity beyond anything previously imagined. I earlier referred to the Platonic conception of the 'Real world', and how Nietzsche [in TWI] rejected this notion as, "an idea become useless, superfluous, therefore a refuted idea."
He then asked himself, "what world was left? The apparent one perhaps? ... But no! With the real world we have also done away with the apparent one! ..."


Selected Bibliography:
Abrams, M. The Mirror and the Lamp, 1953
Arnold, M. Poems: Second Series, 1854
Arnold, M. Selected Prose, Penguin 1970
Ayer, and O'Grady eds. A Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations, Blackwell 1992
Bacon, F. Essays, Cambridge 1908
Barney, S. Word-Hoard, Yale 1977
Barret, W. What Is Existentialism? Grove 1964
Baudrillard, J. Simulacra and Simulations, 1981
Byron, Selected Prose, Penguin 1972
Camus, A. The Rebel, 1951
Devi, S. The Impeachment of Man, Noontide 1991
Devi, S. The Lightning and The Sun, National Vanguard 2000
Frazer, J. The Golden Bough, 1906–15
Heidegger, M. Nietzsche, trans. Krell, Harper 1979
Heidegger, M. Poetry, Language, Thought, Harper 1971
Hughes, T. Collected Poems, 2003
Longinus On The Sublime,
Mosley, O. Policy and Debate, Euphorion 1954
Nauman, E. The New Dictionary of Existentialism, Citadel 1972
Nietzsche, F. Beyond Good and Evil, [BGE]1886
Nietzsche, F. The Twilight of the Idols, [TWI]1888
Nietzsche, F. The Case of Wagner, [CW]1888
Nietzsche, F. The Will To Power, [WP] 1885-9
Oliver, R. Against the Grain, Liberty Bell 2004
Perminger, ed. Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, MacMillan 1974
Poetic Edda, trans. Hollander, Texas 1962
Plato, The Republic, trans. Griffith, Cambridge 2000
Pound, E. Selected Poems, Faber 1968
Rimbaud, A. A Season in Hell, The Illuminations, trans. Peschel, OUP 1974 
Scruton, R. Modern Philosophy, 1994
Scruton, R. Philosophy: Principles and Problems, 2005
Sidney, P. The Defence of Poesy,1579
Tolstoy, L. What Is Art? trans. Maud, Minet 1971
Tudge, C. The Time Before History, 1997

No comments: