Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Five stages?

"One begets the idea, another is godfather at its baptism, the third begets children by it, the fourth visits it on its deathbed, and the fifth buries it."

So writes G.C. Lichtentberg in notebook H, aphorism 24, printed in the collection titled The Waste Books. As Roger Kimball says in a good appreciation of the man, he is not a household name, but something rarer: a writer loved by those who are household names. The latter would include Goethe, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Karl Kraus, Wittgenstein, Oakeshott. Often it's difficult to hear Lichtenberg well, for a reason given by Kraus: "Lichtenberg digs deeper than anyone ... He speaks from the subterranean depths.  Only he who himself digs deep hears him."

The fivefold scheme given by Lichtenberg seems implicit in the "ideal eternal history" proposed by Vico in 1725, in the first version of the Scienza Nuova. This ideal history is traversed in time by every nation in its "rise, development, maturity, decline, and fall." At times, Vico is no less aphoristic than Lichtenberg.  He too is not a household name, and probably never will be. 

As I was thinking about this fivefold scheme, a section of Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols came to mind: "How the 'Real World' at last Became a Fable." Nietzsche gives us five stages that seem related to those of Lichtenberg and Vico.

1. The real world is attainable to the wise. "Plato" - the philosopher who is also a creator par excellence, begetting the idea. 

2. The real world is unattainable for the moment, but is promised to the wise. "It becomes Christian" -- Plato baptized, made more enticing, more appealing, but perhaps also more incomprehensible.

3. The real world is unattainable, but it's consoling to think about, and we have a duty toward it. "K√∂nigsbergian."  A Copernican revolution in thought, with plenty of heirs.  

4. The real world is unattainable and unknown, so that it gives us nothing, either by way of consolation or obligation. "Cockcrow of positivism." The real world is dying, but it's not quite dead. The voice that speaks the world sub specie quantitatis, without quite abolishing the real world.

5. The "real world" -- useless, superfluous, worthy of abolition. "Free spirits run riot." To bury something that has been dying for quite a while -- this can be an occasion for cheerfulness, as it so clearly is in some moods. The real world having been abolished, so too is the apparent world.

Where next?  Are we at the end of history? Or is there a sixth age? Nietzsche thought there is, or at least he did when he was still communicating with us. He presumes to mark it by the fateful words "Incipit Zarathustra."  Would such an age be something new? Or would it be a return to the first?  The safest answer is probably "yes."  Zarathustra is not entirely new, so far as he is an archetype of the wise old man, as Jung points out. What from one perspective is a radical break, is from another perspective a return to something old.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Art Garfunkel Wrestles with Plato?

Garfunkel Defends His Art

In the Apology, Plato has Socrates offer the following dim report of his encounter with the poets:

"I am almost ashamed to speak of this, but still I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. That showed me in an instant that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them."

This brief interview (see link above) with Art Garfunkel presents a nice challenge to the suggestion that artists are unlikely to comprehend--let alone articulate--the meaning of their art. Of course, Simon was arguably the poet behind Garfunkel's most famous work. But it hardly makes Garfunkel's insights less impressive to note that he was the voice, not the wordsmith.

Part of what is nice about the interview is that it belongs to a genre we are seeing more of these days: the reconciliation story of parties to a once-acrimonious musical divorce, who have gained the maturity that sometimes comes with age. But beyond this sentimental comfort, we find some genuinely reflective insights.

Consider, for instance, Garfunkel's description of the power of collaborative friendship:

"How about the very mentality of Paul Simon? This is a very interesting Paul Simon with a mind that can reach into the future, and I am a spiritual partner. When you sing with a partner and he has a very pleasing sound, and he's your friend and you laugh a lot, you soon start making music with the heads very close to each other, the noses almost touching. And you study the diction, and you create over your two heads a little bubble of reality and sound. When I work with Paul, I go into that dome, that invisible, small circumference dome. And when you visit that place, it's apart from life on Earth, it's its own very pleasing soundscape."

One might have to go back to Montaigne to find a better description of the way that friendship, through intense intimacy that might appear small, can actually offer a magnanimous gift to the world.

In another link with Plato--here, the Plato of the Symposium--we find the suggestion that there is some relationship between eros (broadly understood), friendship, and beautiful productions: recording by oneself is not the same. "You miss the electricity that lights up the recording session and makes it all fun and games and makes the night go on for many extra hours because partnership is juicy."

Or how about this description of singing itself?

"To me, the act of singing is an expression of love. You form it in the vocal cords. When you love your song and you lose yourself into the song . . .  it's very tough to analyze the act of singing."

Here we have intensely personal love giving rise to that unique overcoming of the person as self-consciousness: the song expresses the love, and the love allows oneself to let go of the self. And there is even a Socratic recognition that the topic is difficult to understand--worthy of contemplation, but resisting analysis.

But what struck me most about this conversation was Garfunkel's unabashed ambition for excellence--and for recognition of his excellence. He is not satisfied with being known as "the guy with the silver voice." He wants to be "a virtuoso singer," and to be seen as a virtuoso singer. And he wants people to remember that they were good--the "real thing"--that they "recorded as if a record was an important thing," a thing that, when done well, was a masterpiece. He wants, he says, "to be in that world of a real artist."

Perhaps this is also a challenge to a Platonic thought. One can glean from some of Plato's dialogues that, while one ought to strive for excellence, one should scorn the opinion of the masses who presume themselves to be good judges. This thought offers something important and useful. But how are we to inspire a generation to fight and claw for greatness, if we are ashamed to say that we want to be great ourselves? Garfunkel does not seem to desire recognition for the sake of the goodies it brings--fame, money, etc. He seems to desire it as a kind of assurance that he has achieved some of what he strives for. And that, I think, is an innocent and admirable desire.