Monday, December 19, 2011

In Defense of Culture, Genius, and the Rebirth of the Author

Goethe, the Genius
I want to intervene here a moment before I seem to get carried away in one direction, away from language, away from conscious artistry, away from the author, away from some sense of "essence".  If only to be true to the complexity of Musil's person.  I have been going on here for a few weeks about un-doing, and de-construction, and the importance of leaving a space of silence or at least inarticulate mumbling and fumbling, of seeing new, and making new. But there is something else to consider. Not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. A good deal of my book examines the tension between an acknowledgment of some sort of common essence or a priori repeating patterns and the imperative to see and make new.  We return, again and again, to certain archetypes, forms, maybe even natural laws. And then we separate ourselves from them a little like a child experimenting with being independent from its mother. Thoreau radically abandons the wisdom of elders in the first part of Walden, but in his chapter on Reading he has returned to the necessity of the classics. While at first he says he has never learned a jot of important wisdom from one of his elders, in Reading he exclaims about how a man will scramble to gather some fallen silver coins but he doesn't bother to reap the golden ones waiting on the shelf, the classic authors of Greece and Rome. The Modernist authors returned to the core of primitivism, looking for a shared "significant form,"  a universal language in abstraction. While this can be seen as a rejection of the logos of civilization and its heritage, it is not necessarily a rejection of all that has come before. On the contrary. Therein lies the secret connection between transcendentalism and existentialism. The answer to why, as Emerson says in his Self Reliance, when one is true to one's self one enacts truths that are true for all men (and women).
   Further, while we talk of un-doing, and destabilizing, and of many voices, I think it is important to remember the value of the individual voice. Musil, certainly, was fiercely opposed to the blotting out of individual voice by the coming reign of collectivism. The much vaunted death of the author is not just a death of hierarchy or authority, but arguably death to choice, responsibility, voice. (It is also another way of saying: birth to the critic, for when the genius author is slain the critic puts himself or herself above the artist or at least drags the artist down to the level of the mob).  Musil's work is adamantly authored. And while his form of ordering is wildly non-linear, it is not without form. The form of his creation is utterly in harmony with the so-called content of his "message". My perspective on this is in no way opposed to a very traditional "new criticism" approach to looking at art. It is connected for me with Blake's confluence of form and content in the individual genius's expression. And there, I've used the word, without any irony intended: Genius. Musil was not intent on knocking the genius off his (or her) pedestal. He just thought he was unjustly under-appreciated and that those easier to understand, more pleasing authors, those "Grossschriftsteller" (or big shot writers) needed to be taken down.
I always go back to Carlo Ginzburg's introduction to The Cheese and the Worms, where he exposes the tendency of some post-modernist critics to be more interested in the oppression of voice than in trying to give voice back to the oppressed.  Ginsburg writes, referring to Foucault's exposure in his History of Madness of the  "exclusions, prohibitions, and limits through which our culture came in to being historically," that "what interest Foucault are the act and criteria of exclusion, the excluded a little less so". Ginzburg goes on to write that Foucault's method in his next books was probably influenced by Derrida's "facile and nihilistic objections to the Histoire. Derrida contended that it is not possible to speak of madness  in a language historically grounded in western reason and hence in the process that has led to the repression of madness itself. Basically he maintained that the Archimidean point from which Foucault embarked on his research neither can nor does exist. At this point Foucault's ambitous project of an archeologie du silence becomes transformed into silence pure and simple---perhaps accompanied by mute contemplation of an aesthetic kind".   Ginzburg, as embodied by his own attempt to map the "cosmos of a sixteenth century miller" (the sub-title of his book), prefers to let the subject speak as much as possible, even in the suspect language of the "oppressor".
Musil was well aware that there was no more Archimidean point, but that did not mean for him that there was to be no more meaning or no more possibility of communicating or no more genius. In place of the stability of objective reality (which had already been smashed hundreds of years earlier by Kant), the creative ethical subject must constantly call new worlds into being, always hearkening back to our shared cultural and poetic language of images and ideas, always communing with the things people have cared about from the beginning of time, in awe at the cave paintings sketched on torch-lit walls 30,000 years ago, in human-communion with the fears and wishes of medieval superstitions, in admiration of the noble questions raised by Antigone and in recognition at the base jealousies and brutalities of warring and violating gods. We were not born yesterday, although we are always being born again. And though our language may be a bit stiff, and certainly encrusted with centuries of crustaceous assumptions and cliche's, it is also a treasure horde of wonder (even if it has been plundered, stolen, appropriated; it has also been studied, translated, loved, quoted, respected). Especially in this era wherein language is shrinking, and wherein so-called educated people know shockingly less about the history, artifacts, literature and beliefs of the past than in previous centuries, wherein the average American reads one book a year (the Bible, the da Vinci Code?), we would do well to remember that culture is not our enemy; arguably collectivist conformity is a greater danger than individual expression; any thoughtful articulation of the experience of being human is a gift. Golden coins, as Thoreau remarks. To discard gold because it is old, or "another's brass," is nothing but wasteful, criminal even. As Musil wrote, "All bullies and braggarts begin with the assumption that we had too much culture, that, in other words, we were already in a state of excess culture and its decline, while in reality we had too little culture". The critic is dead! Long live the genius!

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