NUPSA Philosophy Sessions (c) William Pascoe, 2018 (independently written and produced, this content is not owned or provided by UON or any Government or Commercial entity, except externally sourced material)
Aesthetics is a term recently coined - Kant etc. Root words meaning sensory experience. Particularly in relation to beauty etc. This seems a narrow field of study in relation to other broad categories of philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, of which other common topics can be considered branches or sub-topics (eg: natural philosophy or science comes under metaphysics, rhetoric and politics come under ethics). It is hard to categorise aesthetics under any of these. It could be metaphyics because it deals with properties of objects. It could be epistemology because it is an application of judgement as to whether things are beautiful or not, or more generally what kind of sensation they arouse. It could be ethics since it is a subjective experience but also, crucially, one shared with others. Some suggest that aesthetics unifies all these three traditional categories - since we exercise our judgement about the qualities of objects as experienced by ourselves and others.
The term is used in many ways: - the branch of philosophy dealing with qualities of our experience - theories about beauty specifically, among qualities of our experience - something which is an end in itself, done for its own sake, rather than merely being useful - referring to a set or typically qualities characteristic of a type of artistic expression, usually determined by certain colour schemes, pattern, and iconography, such as 'the futurist aeshetic' (movement, geometric shapes, bold colours, themes of change and speed). This can be the general feel associated with anything, not necessarily intended as beautiful but which adds up to a 'style' or an ideal - such as the Bikie aesthetic (tattoos, bats, snakes, Harley Davidson, leather, black, chrome, denim, beards, etc), or the - an early 21st Century art movement, existing primarily on the internet, camp, post-modern, 90s retro themes, glitch art, with some common themes; usually pastel pinks and blues, grecian busts mixed with retro 90s technology imagery, glitch art, Bladerunner, palm trees, etc.
Why do we enjoy tragedy? If we are watching a performance and we are afraid or miserable, even crying, how can we be said to 'enjoy' this, and why do we choose to do it?
Probably the most well known answer, advanced by Aristotle in his Poetics is 'catharsis'. Aristotle mentions this only once, and provides very little explanation and theorisation. Most of the poetics is devoted to analysing the form of theatre and explaining why it might be so, and what is the best way to achieve emotional reactions - rather than explaining why we enjoy it. Yet the term has generated vast amounts of discussion and has become a key concept in theatre and story telling. It can be hard to find the reference in translations of Poetics, because it 'catharsis' is a Greek word that has been translated in various ways. It may be the difficulty people have in translating it, that has lead to it becoming a particular point of obssession with theorists and a word in the English language.
'Catharsis' is, in Greek, a medical term, meaning something like 'purge', such as purge of anything undesirable - bad blood, faeces, infections, pus, etc. Notably in ancient and medieval medicine, health was related to emotions or character temperament, both explained by an excessive build up of one of the 4 'humors' (black bile, yellow bile, blood, phlegm). Aristotle uses the term in Poetics to describe a 'purging' of negative emotions - we don't want to be unhappy, but to be watch a tragedy helps bring out and purge us of these emotions - just as it is an unpleasant but cleansing and satisfying experience to have our ears cleared of wax. We feel better after a good cry.
Seeing a tragedy on stage may help bring out our own suppressed emotions, or release pent up tears related to tragedies in our personal lives, or help deal with fears that have made us anxious by playing them out before our eyes.
Catharsis is not the only reason Aristotle gives. In relation to why we enjoy theatre more broadly he mentions that it is because we naturally enjoy learning, and by watching imitations we learn.
Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. We have evidence of this in the facts of experience. Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies. The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general; whose capacity, however, of learning is more limited. Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, 'Ah, that is he.' For if you happen not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the execution, the colouring, or some such other cause.
Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the instinct for 'harmony' and rhythm, metres being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry.
Poetry now diverged in two directions, according to the individual character of the writers. The graver spirits imitated noble actions, and the actions of good men. The more trivial sort imitated the actions of meaner persons, at first composing satires, as the former did hymns to the gods and the praises of famous men.
Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions. By 'language embellished,' I mean language into which rhythm, 'harmony,' and song enter. By 'the several kinds in separate parts,' I mean, that some parts are rendered through the medium of verse alone, others again with the aid of song.
These principles being established, let us now discuss the proper structure of the Plot, since this is the first and most important thing in Tragedy.
Now, according to our definition, Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Again, a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any whole composed of parts, must not only have an orderly arrangement of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude; for beauty depends on magnitude and order. Hence a very small animal organism cannot be beautiful; for the view of it is confused, the object being seen in an almost imperceptible moment of time. Nor, again, can one of vast size be beautiful; for as the eye cannot take it all in at once, the unity and sense of the whole is lost for the spectator; as for instance if there were one a thousand miles long. As, therefore, in the case of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude which may be easily embraced in one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length which can be easily embraced by the memory. The limit of length in relation to dramatic competition and sensuous presentment, is no part of artistic theory. For had it been the rule for a hundred tragedies to compete together, the performance would have been regulated by the water-clock,—as indeed we are told was formerly done. But the limit as fixed by the nature of the drama itself is this: the greater the length, the more beautiful will the piece be by reason of its size, provided that the whole be perspicuous. And to define the matter roughly, we may say that the proper magnitude is comprised within such limits, that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad.
As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.
Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal, I mean how a person of a certain type will on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages. The particular is—for example—what Alcibiades did or suffered. In Comedy this is already apparent: for here the poet first constructs the plot on the lines of probability, and then inserts characteristic names;—unlike the lampooners who write about particular individuals. But tragedians still keep to real names, the reason being that what is possible is credible: what has not happened we do not at once feel sure to be possible: but what has happened is manifestly possible: otherwise it would not have happened.
Three of Michael Cacoyannis' films are a trilogy of the ancient Greek tragedian Euripides' plays. The first time I saw one of these movies, Iphigenia, I was stunned that I could have lived so long unaware of the most well wrought drama ever written. Euripides was the last of the three great ancient Greek tragedians whose work remains to us (Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides). He was deeply critical of social conventions and his investigation of human dilemmas are as profound as any philosophy. He is well known for the technique of building dramatic tension by letting the audience know what the character on stage does not, as well as showing the detailed day to day lives and psyches of heroic figures. This is executed to devastating effect in Iphigenia - it is harrowing to watch innocent, stoic Iphigenia greet her father. Tragedy is not just a bad ending, it's a choice that must be made even either option leads to something bad.
Whether due to budget or artful intention, Cacoyannis skillfully uses minimal staging and landscape settings to strip back these plays, letting the raw power of the word in an actors mouth speak for itself across two thousand and three hundred years. With mouths like that of Irene Papas', starring in all three films (as Iphigenia's mother, Clytemnestra, as Helen and as Elektra), viewers learn the meaning of gravitas and pathos.
The chronological events in the plays is the opposite to the order in which Cacoyannis filmed them. You could watch them in either order, but I recommend the following, as I happened to find them, in the opposite order to their filming, and in the order of events in the play:
The Greek army, amassed and ready to sail for Troy, wait for the wind to change. During a hunt a deer sacred to Diana is accidentally killed. A terrible sacrifice must be made.
Unfortunately, Australians are often effectively banned from watching classic films, as popular distribution channels are blocked without alternative purchase or rental channels available. Sometimes only poor quality versions are available. Please find the best means to watch these films as possible.
The Trojan Women
Troy has fallen. The women protest their fate.
King Agamemnon returns victorious from Troy and falls. His son and daughter must live in hiding from their mother.
As mentioned in the previous workshop on Political Philosophy, the French Revolution shocked Europe as revolutionary optimism turned to violent, terrifying anarchy. Burke was a major conservative critic of revolutionary attitudes. His theory of the 'sublime' was influenced by the French revolution and the term has become a key concept in aesthetic theory, and was crucial to the 'Romantic' movement in European arts and letters (though many romantics were on the opposite side of politics). It remains a prevalent element in Western arts, imagery and culture - anything which has a 'Gothic' flavour for example, and environmentalism have roots in the idea of the 'sublime'.
Burke contrasts the 'sublime' and the 'beautiful' giving causes of each.
Without all doubt, the torments which we may be made to suffer are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasures which the most learned voluptuary could suggest, or than the liveliest imagination, and the most sound and exquisitely sensible body, could enjoy. Nay, I am in great doubt whether any man could be found, who would earn a life of the most perfect satisfaction at the price of ending it in the torments, which justice inflicted in a few hours on the late unfortunate regicide in France. But as pain is stronger in its operation than pleasure, so death is in general a much more affecting idea than pain; because there are very few pains, however exquisite, which are not preferred to death: nay, what generally makes pain itself, if I may say so, more painful, is, that it is considered as an emissary of this king of terrors. When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience. The cause of this I shall endeavor to investigate hereafter.
The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment: and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.2 In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.
By beauty, I mean that quality, or those qualities in bodies, by which they cause love, or some passion similar to it. I confine this definition to the merely sensible qualities of things, for the sake of preserving the utmost simplicity in a subject, which must always distract us whenever we take in those various causes of sympathy which attach us to any persons or things from secondary considerations, and not from the direct force which they have merely on being viewed. I likewise distinguish love, (by which I mean that satisfaction which arises to the mind upon contemplating anything beautiful, of whatsoever nature it may be,) from desire or lust; which is an energy of the mind, that hurries us on to the possession of certain objects, that do not affect us as they are beautiful, but by means altogether different.
Having endeavored to show what beauty is not, it remains that we should examine, at least with equal attention, in what it really consists. Beauty is a thing much too affecting not to depend upon some positive qualities. And since it is no creature of our reason, since it strikes us without any reference to use, and even where no use at all can be discerned, since the order and method of nature is generally very different from our measures and proportions, we must conclude that beauty is, for the greater part, some quality in bodies acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses. We ought, therefore, to consider attentively in what manner those sensible qualities are disposed, in such things as by experience we find beautiful, or which excite in us the passion of love, or some correspondent affection.
On closing this general view of beauty, it naturally occurs that we should compare it with the sublime; and in this comparison there appears a remarkable contrast. For sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small; beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent: beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line; and when it deviates, it often makes a strong deviation: beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive. They are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure; and, however they may vary afterwards from the direct nature of their causes, yet these causes keep up an eternal distinction between them, a distinction never to be forgotten by any whose business it is to affect the passions.
If words have all their possible extent of power, three effects arise in the mind of the hearer. The first is, the sound; the second, the picture, or representation of the thing signified by the sound; the third is, the affection of the soul produced by one or by both of the foregoing.
But I am of opinion, that the most general effect, even of these words, does not arise from their forming pictures of the several things they would represent in the imagination; because, on a very diligent examination of my own mind, and getting others to consider theirs, I do not find that once in twenty times any such picture is formed, and when it is, there is most commonly a particular effort of the imagination for that purpose. But the aggregate words operate, as I said of the compound-abstracts, not by presenting any image to the mind, but by having from use the same effect on being mentioned, that their original has when it is seen. - Edmund Burke On The Sublime and Beautiful
Aesthetics as a branch of philosophy (meaning 'to percieve')
Critique of Judgement
- our faculty of 'judgement' enables us to see the empirical world as conforming to our practical reason (ie: we can imagine changing the world), our practical reason as adapted to our knowledge of the empirical world.
- aesthetic judgement is subjective, and relates to 'finality'
- only a rational being can experience beauty and it's only through aesthetic experience of nature that we can understand the relation of our faculties to the world (our seperation out from it, inability to access it in-itself, and the limitations of the faculties we have to understand it - ie transcendence - this relates it to his previous critiques)
- the problem of beauty (and other aesthetic judgement) is that we experience it as a subjective phenomenon, but also want to claim universal agreement. I say it is beautiful and would expect everyone to agree.
- although 'everyone' here seems problematic, Kant's reasoning opens up valuable insights, and we can at least grant that we do in fact debate and argue about whether something is beautiful or not. The fact that we argue demonstrates that we don't agree but also that we think there should be agreement. In many cases, we find many people do agree with us - while disagreement seems to show 'beauty' is subjective, agreement seems to show it is something in common and so 'should' agree on.
- note the importance of this 'should', which again relates back to Kant's approach to ethics and morality. Aesthetics is not a priori since it's possible this thing is not beautiful to you as it is to me - but this is where we find really valuable information. It's one thing to know that a rose is a flower - it has to be - but it is another to know that in every case roses are something that they might not necessarily be, or that this particular rose is.
- 'taste' is not based on concepts. If someone tells us something is square, we can imagine this property of it and when we see it, agree that it is square. The thing we are looking at, the object, and the concept we have of the property 'squareness' confirms the truth of whether it is square. In absence of the object we can know that it has four sides. But if someone tells us something is 'beautiful' we have to look at it before we judge it to be or not. We have to see for ourselves. It's not as if from 'beautiful' we can infer any other attributes that define or make up 'beauty' such as smallness, redness, intricacy (though Burke claims we can). It is experience, not rationality, that enables us to judge 'beauty'.
- Yet I speak as if beauty is a property of the object. I say that it is beautiful rather than that I feel beauty.
- The question for Kant is how can we be justified in saying it is beautiful when it is a subjective experience?
- The answer is 'common sense', but not in the usual way we use that term. It's probably better to say 'common perception' or 'common feelings arising from perception'. The point is that we are all equiped with a faculty for experiencing beauty. We therefor have feelings in common, ie we feel the same way, when we see something beautiful. It therefor makes sense for us to claim that others have the same response to beautiful things that we do ourselves, even though we sometimes don't, hence the tendency to debate beauty. Because we properties that are of objects, such as squareness and redness, are also experienced through 'common' faculties for experience, we tend to speak 'as if' beauty were too.
- This leads to a very important distinction in aesthetics based on usefulness. If we use things it is for our own purposes, our own 'ends'. If I use a hammer it is to build myself something I want to use, to obtain my own satisfaction - I want a house to live in, a cabinet to put my clothes in. Remember usefulness was a crucial part of Kant's ethics (see the ethics section) where he concluded that the only universally applicable moral law is that we must treat people as ends in themselves. Something similar happens with 'beauty'. Any 'self-interested' judgement I make of somethings value is about it's usefulness to me, what satisfaction I can gain from it, it I use it for some other purpose my own purpose. This kind of judgement is peculiar to me and to me alone. Yet when we talk about beauty we wish to assert that others also experience it as beautiful - since self interested judgements apply to me, when we say something is beautiful it cannot be because it is useful to me. Rather something is beautiful as an end in itself. The beauty of something is not in it's usefulness, but we appreciate it as an 'end-in-itself'. Although Kant's argument seems sketchy, this conclusion seems to make sense - when we look at something beautiful the enjoy is in the looking itself. Although useful things can also be beautiful, the beautiful aspect of it is something we value for it's own sake, not because it is useful.
- whether we agree with Kant or not, this theory has been profoundly influential on Western art ever since, such as in the ideas of 'art for art's sake', the aesthetic movement, abstraction, functionalism and so on.
- credit Scruton's Kant, A Very Short Introduction.
...and that's not all he was on!
For Nietzsche, trying to understand art is not to understand it at all. A critic who listens to music in order to rationally analyse it, to understand it instead of lose himself in it fails to understand what it means to be human, fails to even be human, despite being one.
In one of his earliest works Nietzsche examines Greek tragedy, and describes Western culture, stemming from the Greeks, as the constant interplay of two forces or tendences, the Apollonian and Dionysian. Apollo, represents rationality, clear understanding and 'beauty', science and enlightenment, while Dionysius represent, drunken revelry, passions, breaking of boundaries, loss of identity, immersion, darkness and the 'sublime'. He strongly critices the perception in his time of 'happy Greeks', and his sees contemporary Europe as excessively Apollonian to the detriment of art and of humanity but celebrates some art, such as the Dionysian power of Wagner's music as the answer.
Towards the end of his life Nietzsche wrote that although embarrassed of this early work, he sees his critique of the Apollonian ideal is the beginning of his understanding of this treatment of science. "What I then got hold of, something frightful and dangerous, a problem with horns but not necessarily a bull, in any case a new problem - today I should say that it was the problem of science itself, science considered for the first time as problematic, as questionable." p18 Attempt at Self Criticism, in The Birth Of Tragedy and The Case Of Wagner.
In this early work we already see Nietzsche's extraordinary ability to step outside of rational thought, in order to criticise it. We might have thought that the purpose of philosophy and science was to obtain truth, and that the best path to truth was reason. Nietzsche instead asks, why do we do Science? Why do we reason? What is it about the human condition that science is a symptom of, what problem or ailment do we have that compels us to science, and what else is there in life that suffers if we give ourselves over entirely to reason. This paves the way for much subsequent philosophy such as existentialism and postmodernism which put what is means for humans to exist, and investigates how our experiences, emotions, psychology, history and power affect what we think to be true. In this regard - the aesthetics of the sublime is among those things antithetical to science, yet crucial to the human condition. If we fail to appreciate that, we fail to comprehend that science, and morality, can't comprehend everything, and paradoxically remain ignorant and what it means to be human is impoverished.
"Already in the preface addressed to Wagner, art, and not morality, is presented as the truly metaphysical activity of man. In the book itself the suggestive sentence is repeated several times, that the existence of the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon." - p22 Attempt at Self Criticism, in The Birth Of Tragedy and The Case Of Wagner.
We shall have gained much for the science of æsthetics, when once we have perceived not only by logical inference, but by the immediate certainty of intuition, that the continuous development of art is bound up with the duplexity of the Apollonian and the Dionysian: in like manner as procreation is dependent on the duality of the sexes, involving perpetual conflicts with only periodically intervening reconciliations. These names we borrow from the Greeks, who disclose to the intelligent observer the profound mysteries of their view of art, not indeed in concepts, but in the impressively clear figures of their world of deities. It is in connection with Apollo and Dionysus, the two art-deities of the Greeks, that we learn that there existed in the Grecian world a wide antithesis, in origin and aims, between the art of the shaper, the Apollonian, and the non-plastic art of music, that of Dionysus: both these so heterogeneous tendencies run parallel to each other, for the most part openly at variance, and continually inciting each other to new and more powerful births, to perpetuate in[Pg 22] them the strife of this antithesis, which is but seemingly bridged over by their mutual term "Art"; till at last, by a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic will, they appear paired with each other, and through this pairing eventually generate the equally Dionysian and Apollonian art-work of Attic tragedy.
In order to bring these two tendencies within closer range, let us conceive them first of all as the separate art-worlds of dreamland and drunkenness; between which physiological phenomena a contrast may be observed analogous to that existing between the Apollonian and the Dionysian...
To be able to live, the Greeks had, from direst necessity, to create these gods: which process we may perhaps picture to ourselves in this manner: that out of the original Titan thearchy of terror the Olympian thearchy of joy was evolved, by slow transitions, through the Apollonian impulse to beauty, even as roses break forth from thorny bushes. How else could this so sensitive people, so vehement in its desires, so singularly qualified for sufferings have endured existence, if it had not been exhibited to them in their gods, surrounded with a higher glory? The same impulse which calls art into being, as the complement and consummation of existence, seducing to a continuation of life, caused also the Olympian world to arise, in which the Hellenic "will" held up before itself a transfiguring mirror. Thus do the gods justify the life of man, in that they themselves live it—the only satisfactory Theodicy! Existence under the bright sunshine[Pg 36] of such gods is regarded as that which is desirable in itself, and the real grief of the Homeric men has reference to parting from it, especially to early parting: so that we might now say of them, with a reversion of the Silenian wisdom, that "to die early is worst of all for them, the second worst is—some day to die at all."
Nietzsche, The Birth Of Tragedy
Nietzsche here references Sophocles in Oedipus at Colonus where the chorus says that if we knew what the gods know we would prefer never to have been born at all. Incidentally, Nietzsche didn't like Euripedes much because he introduced the practice of explaining the context of the play at the beginning, and of portraying situations where the plot was already well known to everyone - Nietzsche saw this as an Apollonian intention to make everything understood, coming after Platonic philosophy, such that Nietzsche says Euripedes didn't understand the point of tragedy, which is to confront us with the sublime terror at the dark unknown. I think Nietzsche didn't understand Euripides was granting the audience the awareness of Gods, and how this transforms our relationship to our own lives, seeing our own lives as theatre, as the Gods might, and the healing power that might have - life is theatre for the Gods, are our misfortunes tragedy or comedy?
Not to be born, by all acclaim, Were best; but once that gate be passed, To hasten thither whence he came Is man's next prize—and fast, Oh fast! For, once he has unloosed his hand From Youth and Youth's light vanities, What blow can from his path be banned? What griefs will not be surely his? Strife, envy, falseness, blood and hate, Till, last, the curse of curses, lone, Despised, weak, friendless, desolate, Old age hath claimed his own.
Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus
Here philosophic thought overgrows art and compels it to cling close to the trunk of dialectics. The Apollonian tendency has chrysalised in the logical schematism; just as something analogous[Pg 110] in the case of Euripides (and moreover a translation of the Dionysian into the naturalistic emotion) was forced upon our attention. Socrates, the dialectical hero in Platonic drama, reminds us of the kindred nature of the Euripidean hero, who has to defend his actions by arguments and counter-arguments, and thereby so often runs the risk of forfeiting our tragic pity; for who could mistake the optimistic element in the essence of dialectics, which celebrates a jubilee in every conclusion, and can breathe only in cool clearness and consciousness: the optimistic element, which, having once forced its way into tragedy, must gradually overgrow its Dionysian regions, and necessarily impel it to self-destruction—even to the death-leap into the bourgeois drama. Let us but realise the consequences of the Socratic maxims: "Virtue is knowledge; man only sins from ignorance; he who is virtuous is happy": these three fundamental forms of optimism involve the death of tragedy.
By this elaborate historical example we have endeavoured to make it clear that tragedy perishes as surely by evanescence of the spirit of music as it can be born only out of this spirit. In order to qualify the singularity of this assertion, and, on the other hand, to disclose the source of this insight of ours, we must now confront with clear vision the analogous phenomena of the present time; we must enter into the midst of these struggles, which, as I said just now, are being carried on in the highest spheres of our present world between the insatiate optimistic perception and the tragic need of art. In so doing I shall leave out of consideration all other antagonistic tendencies which at all times oppose art, especially tragedy, and which at present again extend their sway triumphantly, to such an extent that of the theatrical arts only the farce and the ballet, for example, put forth their blossoms, which perhaps not every one cares to smell, in tolerably rich luxuriance. I will speak only of the Most Illustrious Opposition to the tragic conception of things—and by this I mean essentially optimistic science, with its ancestor Socrates at the head of it. Presently also the forces will be designated[Pg 121] which seem to me to guarantee a re-birth of tragedy—and who knows what other blessed hopes for the German genius!
In contrast to all those who are intent on deriving the arts from one exclusive principle, as the necessary vital source of every work of art, I keep my eyes fixed on the two artistic deities of the Greeks, Apollo and Dionysus, and recognise in them the living and conspicuous representatives of two worlds of art which differ in their intrinsic essence and in their highest aims. Apollo stands before me as the transfiguring genius of the principium individuationis through which alone the redemption in appearance is to be truly attained, while by the mystical cheer of Dionysus the spell of individuation is broken, and the way lies open to the Mothers of Being, to the innermost heart of things. This extraordinary antithesis, which opens up yawningly between plastic art as the Apollonian and music as the Dionysian art, has become manifest to only one of the great thinkers, to such an extent that, even without this key to the symbolism of the Hellenic divinities, he allowed to music a different character and origin in advance of all the other arts, because, unlike them, it is not a copy of the phenomenon, but a direct copy of the will itself, and therefore represents the metaphysical of everything physical in the[Pg 122] world, the thing-in-itself of every phenomenon. (Schopenhauer, Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, I. 310.) To this most important perception of æsthetics (with which, taken in a serious sense, æsthetics properly commences), Richard Wagner, by way of confirmation of its eternal truth, affixed his seal, when he asserted in his Beethoven that music must be judged according to æsthetic principles quite different from those which apply to the plastic arts, and not, in general, according to the category of beauty: although an erroneous æsthetics, inspired by a misled and degenerate art, has by virtue of the concept of beauty prevailing in the plastic domain accustomed itself to demand of music an effect analogous to that of the works of plastic art, namely the suscitating delight in beautiful forms...Perhaps we may lead up to this primitive problem with the question: what æsthetic effect results when the intrinsically separate art-powers,[Pg 123] the Apollonian and the Dionysian, enter into concurrent actions?
From the nature of art, as it is ordinarily conceived according to the single category of appearance and beauty, the tragic cannot be honestly deduced at all; it is only through the spirit of music that we understand the joy in the annihilation of the individual. For in the particular examples of such annihilation only is the eternal phenomenon of Dionysian art made clear to us, which gives expression to the will in its omnipotence, as it were, behind the principium individuationis, the eternal life beyond all phenomena, and in spite of all annihilation. The metaphysical delight in the tragic is a translation of the instinctively unconscious Dionysian wisdom into the language of the scene: the hero, the highest manifestation of the will, is disavowed for our pleasure, because he is only phenomenon, and because the eternal life of the will is not affected by his annihilation. "We believe in eternal life,"[Pg 128] tragedy exclaims; while music is the proximate idea of this life. Plastic art has an altogether different object: here Apollo vanquishes the suffering of the individual by the radiant glorification of the eternity of the phenomenon; here beauty triumphs over the suffering inherent in life; pain is in a manner surreptitiously obliterated from the features of nature. In Dionysian art and its tragic symbolism the same nature speaks to us with its true undissembled voice: "Be as I am! Amidst the ceaseless change of phenomena the eternally creative primordial mother, eternally impelling to existence, self-satisfying eternally with this change of phenomena!"
Now, we must not hide from ourselves what is concealed in the heart of this Socratic culture: Optimism, deeming itself absolute! Well, we must not be alarmed if the fruits of this optimism ripen,—if society, leavened to the very lowest strata by this kind of culture, gradually begins to tremble through wanton agitations and desires, if the belief in the earthly happiness of all, if the belief in the possibility of such a general intellectual culture is gradually transformed into the threatening demand for such an Alexandrine earthly happiness, into the conjuring of a Euripidean deus ex machina. Let us mark this well: the Alexandrine culture requires a slave class, to be able to exist permanently: but, in its optimistic view of life, it denies the necessity of such a class, and consequently, when the effect of its beautifully seductive and tranquillising utterances about the "dignity of man" and the "dignity of labour" is spent, it gradually drifts towards a dreadful destination. There is nothing more terrible than a barbaric slave class, who have learned to regard their existence as an injustice, and now prepare to take vengeance, not only for themselves, but for all generations. In the face of such threatening storms, who dares to appeal with confident spirit to our pale and exhausted religions, which even in their foundations have degenerated into[Pg 139] scholastic religions?—so that myth, the necessary prerequisite of every religion, is already paralysed everywhere, and even in this domain the optimistic spirit—which we have just designated as the annihilating germ of society—has attained the mastery.
It is certainly the symptom of the "breach" which all are wont to speak of as the primordial suffering of modern culture that the theoretical man, alarmed and dissatisfied at his own conclusions, no longer dares to entrust himself to the terrible ice-stream of existence: he runs timidly up and down the bank. He no longer wants to have anything entire, with all the natural cruelty of things, so thoroughly has he been spoiled by his optimistic contemplation. Besides, he feels that a culture built up on the principles of science must perish when it begins to grow illogical, that is, to avoid its own conclusions. Our art reveals this universal trouble: in vain does one seek help by imitating all the great productive periods and natures, in vain does one accumulate the entire "world-literature" around modern man for his comfort, in vain does one place one's self in the midst of the art-styles and artists of all ages, so that one may give names to them as Adam did to the beasts: one still continues the eternal hungerer, the "critic" without joy and energy, the[Pg 142] Alexandrine man, who is in the main a librarian and corrector of proofs, and who, pitiable wretch goes blind from the dust of books and printers' errors.
Nietzsche, The Birth Of Tragedy
Nietzsche's rhetoric is sometimes overblown and bombastic to the point of absurdity. Some of the hyperbole he has for Wagner makes sense if you know he took cocaine, so he might have been at the opera, and then writing about it while he was high.
I ask the question of these genuine musicians: whether they can imagine a man capable of hearing the third act of Tristan und Isolde without any aid of word or scenery, purely as a vast symphonic period, without expiring by a spasmodic distention of all the wings of the soul? A man who has thus, so to speak, put his ear to the heart-chamber of the cosmic will, who feels the furious desire for existence issuing therefrom as a thundering stream or most gently dispersed brook, into all the veins of the world, would he not collapse all at once? Could he endure, in the wretched fragile tenement of the human individual, to hear the re-echo of countless cries of joy and sorrow from the "vast void of cosmic night," without flying irresistibly towards his primitive home at the sound of this pastoral dance-song of metaphysics?
Nietzsche, The Birth Of Tragedy
Hence Thor, Ragnorok:
Hiedegger discusses the thinginess of things in "The Origin of the Work of Art", in Off The Beaten Track
Apollo with his lyre:
Temple of Concordia, Agrigento
Mix of pagan (North European) and Christian (South European) styles.
Helmet from the Anglo Saxon (pagan) Sutton Hoo treasure:
Book of Kells (Celtic/Christian):
A style of architecture, exemplified by grand cathedrals with flying butresses, and vast interior spaces with pointed arches illuminated by elaborate stained glass windows.
The term 'gothic' has a long and changing history. It originally refers to two large tribes of pagan north Europeans (Visigoths and Ostrogoths) who conquered large parts of the Roman Empire when it fell. The term gothic applied to late medieval architecture is to contrast it with the 'Romanesque' style typical of southern European churches, based on arches and 'rose' windows, and on a smaller scale. During the Romantic movement, which was especially popular in north Europe, a lot of imagery associated with the 'sublime', developed that we would now call 'gothic'. Northern europe is seen to have a gloomier temperament than sunny southern Europe. So the term 'gothic' has come to have it's modern connotations - cold, north european, sublime, fear, terror, depression, darkness, demons, spirits, witches, etc. etc. German poet Goethe explores the contrast between the gothic north and the classical south in his famous work "Faust".
Revival of classical themes. Humanism. Intellectual pursuits.
Visual artists seek photorealistic perfection and use mathematical perspective. Composition is based on geometrical shapes such as circles, squares and triangles.
Raphael, The School Of Athens
Once renaissance artists such as Michelangelo had achieved perfection, there was a turn towards expressing the artists individual 'manner', or style. El Greco's style, for example, doesn't intend to look exactly like reality but shows his manner, typified by pale, guant figures, and dense black outlines.
Enlightenment. Science. Reason.
Dutch artists took photorealistic painting to it's peak. A papal decree saying that it is ok to represent spiritual themes in the flesh lead to Baroque paintings being very 'fleshy'. Composition in art turned towards 'the serpentine line', curves and spirals, rather than the straight lined geometrics shapes of the Renaissance. There was also a tendency to create the effect of infinity and an interest in universality. Baroque art is often misunderstood as simply being 'over decorated'. It's not so much decoration as a reflection of the infinite complexity of the universe, related to philosophical, scientific and mathematical thinking at the time. Rather than being mere decoration, it also, more like a saturation of meaning, as all the decorative elements tend to have allegorical implications, referring to moral tales and referencing myths.
Baldacchino and Choir of St. Peter's Basilica
Giovanni Battista Gaulli, Triumph Of The Name Of Jesus
The Toilet Of Venus, François Boucher
Bach invented the modern piano and mastered counterpoint. There is a lot to say about Bach, which exemplifies the Baroque period. Bachs music is both astonishingly complex and brilliant in an abstract mathematical sense, at the same time as being profoundly human - moving and emotional. Bach's counterpoint echoes the invention of calculus by the scientist Newton and the philosopher Liebniz, where curves are mapped on the two axes of Euclidean space. In counterpoint, where more than one melody is played at the same time, creating both harmony on the vertical axis of a sheet of music, where two notes combine at the same time, and chords and melodies developing on the horizontal axis across time. This also reflects the dimensions of space and time, so central to science, mathematics, as well as Kant's trancendental phenomenology. Bachs handwritten music is visually very curved and flowing. These axes also echo the Christian cross - counterpoint also reflects the way in which all things God's creation function independently yet are also part of a harmonious whole. Listening to the threads that different instruments weave in and out of each other is like listening to the birds sing, while people talk, the breeze stirs the trees and the planets revolve around the sun. There is also an extraordinary appeal to human sentiment at many levels - when seeing a concerto performed, there may be, for example, 3 violinists. These are usually termed 1st, 2nd and 3rd violinist and the first is the most skilled and performs the most difficult pieces. In Bach, through counterpoint, we see that although the 1st violinist usually has the fore, the 2nd and 3rd, each have their turn to come to the fore, while the 1st recedes such that, through Bach's compositional generosity, everyone gets their chance to be in the foreground at a level they are capable of. Bach is not only concerned about the effect of the music, but in benevolently training the performers by giving them each opportunities. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto 5 includes an epic harpsichord solo:
Rococco continues some aspects of the Baroque, such as spiral compositions and fleshiness, but is primarily a light, superficial, kitchy, frivolous style, where nothing is serious at all. Lots of pastels and girls on swings. We're rich and we're having a party, such fun.
The Happy Accidents of the Swing, Jean-Honoré Fragonard
Sans Souci palace (meaning 'without care')
The Music Lesson, Chelsea Porcelain
sublime, goth, emotion, passion, genius, nature, nationalism, northern European, fairies, orientalism, opium dreamsThe Ninth Wave, Hovhannes Aivazovsky: Destruction of Sodom And Gomorrah, John Martin:
Wagner, Tristan and Isolde (building the famous 'Tristan Chord')
Kubla Khan BY SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea. So twice five miles of fertile ground With walls and towers were girdled round; And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills, Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree; And here were forests ancient as the hills, Enfolding sunny spots of greenery. But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover! A savage place! as holy and enchanted As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted By woman wailing for her demon-lover! And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething, As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing, A mighty fountain momently was forced: Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail, Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail: And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever It flung up momently the sacred river. Five miles meandering with a mazy motion Through wood and dale the sacred river ran, Then reached the caverns measureless to man, And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean; And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far Ancestral voices prophesying war! The shadow of the dome of pleasure Floated midway on the waves; Where was heard the mingled measure From the fountain and the caves. It was a miracle of rare device, A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice! A damsel with a dulcimer In a vision once I saw: It was an Abyssinian maid And on her dulcimer she played, Singing of Mount Abora. Could I revive within me Her symphony and song, To such a deep delight ’twould win me, That with music loud and long, I would build that dome in air, That sunny dome! those caves of ice! And all who heard should see them there, And all should cry, Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair! Weave a circle round him thrice, And close your eyes with holy dread For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Academic / Neoclassicism
A reactionary style, contrary to Romanticism, that wanted to return to classical and renaissance art. Geometric composition and photorealism.
Jacque Louis David, The Oaths Of The Horatii
Bath in England includes many buildings built in the neoclassical style, while others were building in a romantic, gothic style.
Decadence / Fin de Siecle / aesthetic movement
Art for art's sake, and pure aesthetic ideals at the same time as an interest in the beauty in corruption, 'depravity', homosexuality, and dissipation. Poets starving in garrets. Opium and absynthe addicts with their feet in the gutter and their head in the clouds. Artists of surpassing genius dying of syphilis. Oscar Wilde. Also, Pre Raphaelites and William Morris' arts and crafts, moving into Art Nouveau and impressionism and poster art such as Toulouse Lautrec.
Beardsley: The Peacock Skirt
Some Baudelaire poems, from Spleen et idéal / Spleen and Ideal and from Le Fleur Du Mal / Flowers Of Evil at FleursDuMal.org
Spleen January, irritated with the whole city, Pours from his urn great waves of gloomy cold On the pale occupants of the nearby graveyard And death upon the foggy slums. My cat seeking a bed on the tiled floor Shakes his thin, mangy body ceaselessly; The soul of an old poet wanders in the rain-pipe With the sad voice of a shivering ghost. The great bell whines, the smoking log Accompanies in falsetto the snuffling clock, While in a deck of cards reeking of filthy scents, My mortal heritage from some dropsical old woman, The handsome knave of hearts and the queen of spades Converse sinisterly of their dead love affair. — William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954) Lesbos Mother of Latin games and Greek delights, Lesbos, where kisses, languishing or joyous, Burning as the sun's light, cool as melons, Adorn the nights and the glorious days; Mother of Latin games and Greek delights, Lesbos, where the kisses are like cascades That throw themselves boldly into bottomless chasms And flow, sobbing and gurgling intermittently, Stormy and secret, teeming and profound; Lesbos, where the kisses are like cascades! Lesbos, where courtesans feel drawn toward each other, Where for every sigh there is an answering sigh, The stars admire you as much as Paphos, And Venus may rightly be jealous of Sappho! Lesbos, where courtesans feel drawn toward each other, Lesbos, land of hot and languorous nights, That make the hollow-eyed girls, amorous Of their own bodies, caress before their mirrors The ripe fruits of their nubility, O sterile pleasure! Lesbos, land of hot and languorous nights, Let old Plato look on you with an austere eye; You earn pardon by the excess of your kisses And the inexhaustible refinements of your love, Queen of the sweet empire, pleasant and noble land. Let old Plato look on you with an austere eye. You earn pardon by the eternal martyrdom Inflicted ceaselessly upon aspiring hearts Who are lured far from us by radiant smiles Vaguely glimpsed at the edge of other skies! You earn pardon by that eternal martyrdom! Which of the gods will dare to be your judge, Lesbos, And condemn your brow, grown pallid from your labors, If his golden scales have not weighed the flood Of tears your streams have poured into the sea? Which of the gods will dare to be your judge, Lesbos? What are to us the laws of the just and unjust Virgins with sublime hearts, honor of these islands; Your religion, like any other, is august, And love will laugh at Heaven and at Hell! What are to us the laws of the just and unjust? For Lesbos chose me among all other poets To sing the secret of her virgins in their bloom, And from childhood I witnessed the dark mystery Of unbridled laughter mingled with tears of gloom; For Lesbos chose me among all other poets. And since then I watch from Leucadia's summit, Like a sentry with sure and piercing eyes Who looks night and day for tartane, brig or frigate, Whose forms in the distance flutter against the blue; And since then I watch from Leucadia's summit, To find out if the sea is indulgent and kind, If to the sobs with which the rocks resound It will bring back some night to Lesbos, who forgives, The worshipped body of Sappho, who departed To find out if the sea is indulgent and kind! Of the virile Sappho, paramour and poet, With her wan pallor, more beautiful than Venus! — The blue eyes were conquered by the black eyes, ringed With dark circles, traced by the sufferings Of the virile Sappho, paramour and poet! — Lovelier than Venus dominating the world, Pouring out the treasures of her serenity And the radiance of her golden-haired youth Upon old Ocean, delighted with his daughter; Lovelier than Venus dominating the world! — Of Sappho who died the day of her blasphemy, When, insulting the rite and the established cult, She made of her body the supreme pabulum Of a cruel brute whose pride punished the sacrilege Of her who died on the day of her blasphemy. And it is since that time that Lesbos mourns, And in spite of the homage the world renders her, Gets drunk every night with the tempest's howls Which are hurled at the skies by her deserted shores. And it is since that time that Lesbos mourns. — William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)
Impressionism and Post Impressionism
An important move away from photorealism in art, towards abstraction as the artists intend to create the 'impression', rather than paint a picture of something. Unfortunately it's impossible for us to now appreciate impressionism due to overuse on calendars and scented soap, candle and pot pourri packaging. If you have the privilege, visit Monet's Water Lillies in Paris and you will understand the difference between art and soap packaging. Post Impressionism continues the move away from representation but diverges from the dabbing dotted style in different directions towards abstraction but remains 'figurative', it remains pictures of things and people.
Monet, Water Lillies
Van Gogh, SunflowersGauguin,
Modernism, Abstraction and Conceptual Art: Fauvism, Expressionism, Russian Formalism, Cubism, Surrealism, Dada, American Expressionism, etc.
Modernism involves an explosion of art theories and practices. To describe even in a brief summary seems to require covering as many movements as all the rest of art history. Generally art was accompanied by a manifesto or thesis, an intellectual theory. Sometimes people learn to appreciate modern art, and abstract art, only by understanding something of the theory through which it makes sense.
Cubism is an early form of modernism. It can be hard to understand why people suddenly moved from figurative painting, to this strange jumble of shapes, curves and angles. It makes more sense when you know that it was an attempt, among other things, to represent Husserl's philosophy of trancendental phenomenology where he describes the way our minds assemble spatiotemporal objects out of an ongoing 'stream of consciousness' - an extended series of perceptual experiences. For example, we never see all sides of a dice, but we form in our minds an idea of a cube out of all the perceptions we have of it from many angles over time. Cubism shows all these perceptions of an object all at once, or the constant stream of perceptions we have across time of a scene, sometimes referencing the ability of photography to capture successive moments in time. This carries into Futurism which can be understood as an attempt to paint time as well as space, associated with Fascist rhetoric of change, of strength and war overcoming corruption and weakness with strength and ever faster industrial mechanisation.
Late Modern artist, American Expressionist, Mark Rothko's art can be hard to appreciate for many because it's often just a big rectangle or two with a border of a different colour. Yet in the presence of one of these paintings, which are large and uses layering techniques to produce an extraordinary richness and depth of colour, we have an almost spiritual experience, as we might get walking into a large cathedral. This experience is not in any way conveyed when the pictures are seen in a book or on a screen, so the sense is completely lost. Yes, it is easy to paint a rectangle, but very hard to paint a beautiful and profoundly moving rectangle.
Georges Braque, The Guitar
Robert Delaunay, Simultaneous Windows On The City
Duchamp, Nude Descending A Staircase
Mark Rothko, Light Red Over Black
Modernism tended to intellectualise art, making it difficult for many to understand. It also placed great emphasis on individual genius, intention and newness - the avant garde. Some contrasting features of post modernism are an interest in popular culture, re-use and referencing, a lack of faith in a positive future, collage, the play of signification in consumer culture, and blurring the boundaries (such as between high and low art, new and old, etc). Pop art and pop culture of the 60s is an early form of Post Modernism leading into a wide range of different directions, from graphic novels to hip hop and techno, social media. Perhaps one of the most recent developments is Bioart where biotechnology is used in the production of, often deeply disturbing, artworks to comment on the rapid transformation of biotechnology and how it might affect who we are and what it means to be human, or cyborg.
See the section on Theory 2000
Andy Warhol, Campbell's Soup Can
The Who, Sell Out album cover
The Kinks, Plastic Man
Semi-Living Worry Dolls, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr (grown from tissue culture)
In Motori Norinaga's theory of poetics to experience 'mono no aware' is to have a deeply moving experience of something, something that compels us to cry out - or write poetry, out of a natural desire to share our feelings. Some of his theories are roughly similar to Wordsworth's, and to Shklovsky's Russian Formalist theory of 'ostranenie' or 'defamiliarisation', as well as Aristotelian catharsis. We write poetry when we are profoundly moved, we used language that is not ordinary so that it is not passed over lightly, we express ourselves with metaphors with things in the world as a way to evoke emotions, we use unusual language to interest others, we are compelled to communicate our feelings with others through poetry, because we feel better when our deep feelings, of any kind, are shared and understood by another person.
Poetry is an action performed when one is overwhelmed by mono no aware... Now when mono no aware is so strong that it cannot be contained, it becomes hard to endure it and to control it once it lodges deep in one's heart, despite all efforts to halt it... When words create lines like that the voice sustains for a long time, the plaintive thoughts tying up ones heart clear up
I explained above the process by which a song comes into being. Such a coming into being does not take place through ordinary language. At the same time, the elongation of the voice into a song and the creation of a poetic pattern are not the result of any artificial planning. The expression of what cannot be contained within one's heart comes spontaneously with a patter in the poetic words that elongates these words into songs. One expresses something in ordinary language only when his feelings are shallow. Whenver his feelings are deep, a pattern comes up naturally that causes the words to be sung. A deep aware cannot be satisfied with ordinary language... The person who listens to ordinary language is only mildly moved, no matter how moving the event he is witnessing might be. On the other hand, thre is no limit to the depth of what he feels when words come with an ornate pattern, and they are accompanied by a singing voice. This is the natural artfulness of songs. Here lies the power of poetry to move the frightful spirits.
These words take on a meaning that is different from what the mean in ordinary language, thus showing the bottomless depth of aware in the patterns of natural expression and in the long lasting rhythm of the voice. The essence of poetry is made of words that have a pattern of their own that emerges from the inability to further endure the power of mono no aware. This is true poetry.
Moreover, I must also say that, when it becomes difficult to fully articulate aware once one is overwhelmed by it, as I mentioned above, and to express one's feelings, one talks about them by entrusting them to the sound of the wind and the cry of insects caressing the ear; or, one singls his feelings in a song by comparing them to the fragrance of the cherry blossoms and the color of the snow pleasing the eye. This is what the line in the preface to the Kokinshu, "People express what they think in their hearts by entrusting their feelings to what they see and what they hear," means. Mono no aware, which is difficult to show and cannot be fully articulated in words by saying things just as they are, is easily revealed, even when it concerns the deepest feelings, once it is expressed with the help of metaphors taken from the realm of things seen and heard.
Whenever one is moved by seeing or hearing something strange, or frightful, or funny, he necessarily wants to share his feelings with others; it is difficult for him to keep them to himself... To make other people listen is not something done on special occassions; it is the essence of poetry.
- Motori Norinaga, On Mono No Aware (1730-1801)
“The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these Poems was to chuse incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way;” - Wordsworth, Preface To Lyrical Ballads (1800)
After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it  -hence we cannot say anything, significant about it. Art removes objects from the automatism of perception in several ways. Here I want to illustrate a way used repeatedly by Leo Tolstoy, that writer who, for Merezhkovsky at least, seems to present things as if he himself saw them, saw them in their entirety, and did not alter them…
Tolstoy makes the familiar seem strange by not naming the familiar object. He describes an object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time. In describing something he avoids the accepted names of its parts and instead names corresponding parts of other objects. For example, in "Shame" Tolstoy "defamiliarizes" the idea of flogging in this way: "to strip people who have broken the law, to hurl them to the floor, and "to rap on their bottoms with switches," and, after a few lines, "to lash about on the naked buttocks."
The familiar act of flogging is made unfamiliar both by the description and by the proposal to change its form without changing its nature. Tolstoy uses this technique of "defamiliarization" ['ostranenie'], constantly.
- Shklovsky, ‘Art as Technique’ (1917)
Yoshitoshi's Ariwara No Narihira
Artist technique, the story Yoshitoshi, Yoshitoshi's place in the history of ukiyo-e, Ariwara No Narihira as author of Ise Monogotari, Ariwara No Narihira in Unrin-In, attitude of mono no aware, Musashi plain, pampas grass seasonal significance, Ono No Komachi, the story of Ono No Komachi, the story of Ariwara No Narihira's encounter with Ono No Komachi, the wind, the poetic exchange, the skull, Ariwara No Narihira in the Noh play Unrin-In, the image as significant of significance and of the traditional of deferal and intertextuality as a painting of Ono No Komachi who is not present.
Japanese aesthetic terms are hard to define, especially for foreignors like me who we aren't familiar with all the cultural background and connotations of terms used in the definition. Japanese people having grown up with these terms have an innate sense of what they are, and this sense precedes reasoning about them and attempts to define them. For this reason it can be more helpful to see examples, to get a sense for it, as it is to try to explain. I hope the following will help readers distinguish, rather than simply calling everything that looks Japanese 'wabi sabi'.Wabi Sabi
When people think 'Japanese Aesthetics' they are most likely thinking of things that are 'wabi sabi'. The 'wabi' and 'sabi' do not directly translate, but roughly 'wabi' means 'rustic simplicity' and 'sabi' means 'austere age'. Things which are new and perfectly made are an opposite of wabi sabi. Things which are loud and brash are also opposite.
This raku ware bowl epitomises wabi sabi. It is humble, yet dignified. It is ancient. In being 'old' it has not become worn out rubbish, but has become more dignified, just as wine improves with age. It appears to have been made without care to perfection, yet is none the less beautiful in it's imperfection and simplicity. It's just a bowl. It also seems to be more than 'just' a bowl because it seems to epitomise the 'being' of a bowl without being more or less. It's a very bowly bowl. It's maker seems to have had no other pretensions other than making a bowl. There remains some ethical connection to it's maker, since you can see that it is 'made' - it has a human quality about it. In being no more than a bowl it remains humble, yet dignified. It seems there could be no better bowl to simply enjoy something warm from one afternoon.
The aesthetic values of wabi sabi are greatly influenced by Buddhism - the focus on imperfection and age, the simplicity and lack of pretension, relates to the transcience of all things in Buddhism and our acceptance of it.
My brother restores old boats. When talking about the hand craft involved he says, "Just do it till it's within a damn and stop. If try to make it too perfect, one little blemish makes the whole things look wrong." This seems to me to be a wabi sabi attitude.
Things that get better with age. A patina is wabi sabi. When an architect designs a metal surface that is meant to look good as it rusts, we could say they are trying to achieve a wabi sabi aesthetic.
Chomei's book 'A Ten Foot Square Hut' could be described as wabi sabi, though it is usually applied to objects. It is short, humble, it describes a simple life in a small hut in the countryside and has the timeless unaffected wisdom of an old man who has withdrawn from the world.
Yugen is similar to but not the same as wabi sabi - something might be described with both terms, or just one. Yugen involves detached profound aetherial qualities. For Zeami it is the beauty of things which is beyond mere appearance or 'prettiness'. When in English we make a point of saying it is 'beautiful, not pretty' we are approaching one of the connotations of 'yugen'. It is a beauty that seems beyond the surface and which touches us deep in our soul, beyond brief sensory pleasure. If an art work compelled us to stop and contemplate it's meaning, and the meaning of our own existance, it would have this property. Visually it tends to involved floating detachment and mystery - as this seems seperate from the world, and in the realms of profundity. Hasegawa Tōhaku's Pine Trees epitomise Yugen:
Yugen is a term used extensively by Zeami, perhaps the most important figure in Noh theatre, who wrote treatises discussing it and explaining how it should be done. His discussion centres around the 'flower' and techniques of how to achieve it. He discusses a distinction between the 'flower' or the the outward appearance of beauty and the ability of some actors, through talent and training, to achieve depth, profundity, or 'yugen' - this is the 'true' flower, or the essence of Noh. To begin understanding this we might think of yugen as the difference between 'prettiness' and 'true beauty', or that a good actor can give a character 'depth', regardless of the lines. But there is much more to yugen than this and it takes years to achieve (Zeami says Noh actors start training at 7), and only the greatest actors can keep it into their late career - just as flowers take time to bloom and die. It involves mastering technique through years of practice so that imperfections, or 'bad acting' become masterful and novel rather than clumsy. So that the all the years of training and artifice result in performances that come naturally and only when perfection is achieved can imperfections be re-introduced, in choosing the precise moment when the actors mood matches the audiences to begin a chant, to master the art of 'bending', to understand that 'novelty' arises from practice, so that one's art isn't as pretty as cherry blossoms, but as profound as the eternal truth of the transcience that cherry blossoms, always fresh every year, signify, and so on. In discussin yugen, Zeami gives an account of how words and other representations, can give rise to experiences so profound they defy words.
In the translation I have when Zeami speaks of yugen the translation uses words like 'grace' and 'The Flower Of Peerless Grace' and 'Fascination'.
Noh theatre, it is said, is performed today, completely unchanged from the way it was performed hundreds of years ago. None the less, Zeami does speak of adapting to the tastes of the time, and also of adding novelty to performance. He also expresses a concern that the art might one day die out.
The Flower represents the principle that lies at the deepest recesses of our art. To know the meaning of the Flower is the most important element in understanding no, and is its greatest secret... Yet such Flowers, since they grow from particular techniques, just like the beauty of a live flower eventually come to scatter their petals as well. Thus it is that, as time goes by, the actor cannot maintain his reputation. Yet the fine actor who possesses the true Flower has at his disposal the principle of blooming and of fading. His blooming will not be short lived.
When one speaks of 'novelty,' the term does not necessarily refer to some means of artistic expression that never existed before... if an actor masters the various elements of no that he has learned to remember, he can show his art, basing it on the taste of the moment and the kind of plays the audiences appreciate. His performance can thus be compared to looking at a flower that blooms at the proper time. The concept of a flower, suggests a seed grown from a flower years before. The no, too, includes artistic elements seen before; but if all aspects of oru art are practice to the utmost, a considerable span of time will be required before they are exhausted. Seen after a lapse of time, elements of our art look fresh again.
- Zeami, Style and the Flower
As there are no novel elements in a perfect performance, then on those occasions when the audience has become accustomed to an actor's art, the actor who is truly a master may include something unorthodox, in order to introduce again the element of novelty. Thus, in this manner, bad art can indirectly serve the cause of good art.
- True Path To The Flower
The meaning of the phrase Peerless Charm surpasses any explanation in words and lies beyond the workings of consciousness. It can surely be said that the phrase 'in the dead of night, the sun' exists in a realm beyond logical explanation. Indeed, concerning the Grace of the greatest performers in our art, there are no words with which to praise it, the moment of Feeling that Transcends Cognition, and to an art that lies beyond any level that the artist may have consciously attained. Such surely represents the level of the Flower Of Peerless Charm.
- Zeami, Notes On The Nine Levels
A certain person once asked, "What is the spirit of Transciency?" The answer was, "scattering blossoms, falling leaves." Then came another question. "What is the meaning of Eternity?" The same answer, "scattering blossoms, falling leaves" was returned. Indeed there can be different interpretations of one single moment that are of profound interest... Those who can appreciate this principle are truly persons of breeding and education. Indeed, whether with education or without, every kind of person has the ability to appreciate some of the beauty of the various flowers that comprise the no. Those with cultivation, however, as they have wide powers of observation, do not despise the Changing Flowers. An actor, too, must adopt the same attitude... There is a famous Zen koan that states the following, "The various truths of the phenomenal world are manifestations of one Essence; the one Essence only exists in various manifestations found in the phenomenal world."
In order to grasp the essential nature of the term Fascination, one must of course grasp the nature of the Flower and the deepest truths of our art. Before, I spoke of Fascination, I spoke of the Flower, and I spoke of Novelty. All three represent different names of the same conception. In fact, Peerless Charm, Flower, and Fascination, although they are in fact separate, spring from the same emotion. They too can be ranked as high, middle and low. Peerless Charm surpasses verbal expression and lies in the pure realm that lies beyond the workings of consciousness. When this realm is given visible expression, the result is the Flower. A conscious appreciation of this beauty constitutes Fascination.
When relating this matter to the highest levels in our own art, it can be said that this moment of Fascination represents an instant sensation that occurs before the rise of any consciousness regarding that sensation, a Feeling that Transcends Cognition... After the goddess Amaterasu had shut the great stone door, the world and all its territories became dark. Then the light suddenly appeared. The reaction of all creatures must have been that of unreflecting joy. It resembles the instant when a vague smile without self awareness [appeared on the face of Kasyapa]. At the moment when the heavenly doors were shut and the world was plunged into darkness, the situation may be compared to that of Peerless Charm that transcends words; the sudden brightness can be compared to the Flower; and the moment of consciouness concerning that brightness might be compared to Fascination. In that instant of unconscious response before cognition, was the emotion felt not one of pure joy? And might not that smile, without self-awareness, surpassing words, express the fact that "from the first, not a thing is"? Such a mental state can also be called Peerless Charm. Such a feeling comes from having experienced the flower of Peerless Charm.
- Zeami, Finding Gems, Gaining Flower
Iki is the category I struggle most to understand, so I may have this slightly wrong. It is often translated as 'chic' but I don't think this is quite the same. It is cool, it is urban, it is sophisticated but never in a brash way - except where that brashness is done 'knowingly', ironically, as an intelligent quip to the cognescenti. Kuki Shuzo describes it as involving a turning away, but turning away in such a way as to both invite desire and exclude you from it at the same time - such as a sophisticated Geisha who turns her back but wears a kimono low cut at the back, inviting you to appreciate her beauty - reminding you of what you can't have. I imagine a clique of cool people sipping cocktails in understated custom designer clothes at a party talking to each other - if you are not in the clique you resent them at the same time as wanting to be them.
That is only one negative aspect of it though. It can generally mean stylish, sophisticated, urban, cosmopolitan. Typically the account of Iki is that it arises among Edo period merchants and is contrasted with the 'yabo' style of Samurai - the other social group in town with some money and status. The term 'yabo' is contemptuous and is brash and uncouth. I imagine it would translate something like either 'white trash' or 'nouveau riche'. Beying 'yabo' means having more money than taste. The Australian term 'yobo' might be close too ;-)
Iki is sophisticated but quite different to wabi sabi and yugen because it is urban and worldly. Ukiyo-e prints might generally be described as iki, while ink painting is more yugen. But not all ukiyo-e could be said to be iki. An iki style is described sometimes in terms of tea-coloured kimonos - reserved, sophisticated, perfectly cut, as opposed to say, a peach blossom print. In Kyoto there is a famous street that has traditionally been visited by Japanese tourists and now also foreignors. In this street tourists can pay to rent a kimono and be made up like Geisha. When walking among this bustling, narrow street, bursting with colour from tourists and overloaded trinket shops I saw a well to do couple, calmly strolling, chatting with each other, their kimonos in tones of burn umber and sauturne, accented with a fine pinestripe, somehow aloof from the chaos of the world by virtue of nothing more than their attitude and sartorial choices and I knew I was seeing iki. Iki is not defined by a colour or a pattern - it is an attitude. For example, Gucci might design a jacket that is iki, but if someone wears it just to show off how rich they are, they are probably being yabo, the opposite of iki. Also, a bright yellow jacket might be yabo, but the right bright yellow jacket worn the right way by a hip Osaka kid, could be iki.
The anime Samurai Champloo is a more current example of iki. Although it depicts samurai who, at the time would have been 'yabo' the anime itself has a sophisticated aesthetic with many references to graphic design traditions and ironically anachronistic hip hop tropes for the cognescenti.
In an effort to translate 'iki', beyond Japan, some things I'd describe as iki:
Duke Ellington got it:
Coco Chanel got it
David Bowie got it
Oscar Wilde got it
Sarah Blasko got it
Mods got it
Surprisingly Mae West's Lips by Salvador Dali has been described as iki. This demonstrates how iki is not a simple formula. Enormous bright red lips seem the exact opposite of any typical definition of iki - it is in the way the lips are ironic, 'in the know', and expertly executed by an artist with a sensibility for line and form. They aren't just big red lips:Kawai
Kawai means cute.
PonPonPon by Kyari Pamyu Pamyu
Ichegaku Hoi Hoi San
Yugen, Wabi Sabi, Iki Aesthetics are lived. The museum of crafts. Motoori Norinaga's Poetics Wabi Sabi Zen Ukiyo-e Iki Noh Quote from Unrin In and Zeami's treatiseButoh: Hijikata Tatsumi / Hosotan part 2 Kazuo Ohno on technique and motivation Yukio Mishima Pacman
A Brief History of Chinese Literary Periods
Chinese literature is dominated by poetry, but there are also 4 cannonical classics of prose.
- Book of Songs / Classic of Poetry / Shi Jin Confucius book of songs (~7th C. BC). Anthology of anonymous courtly and folk songs
- Songs of the South / Chu Ci (329–299 BC). Includes long poems influenced by Taoist shamanic journeys. Establishing the trope of retreat from troubled and unjust times.
- Music Bureau (206 BC–220 AD) - Han dynasty collection of poetry as the voice of the people, according to Confucian ideals, establishing a strong tradition of anthologising.
- Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (~3rd c. AD) - Taoist influenced. Established the quintessential image of poets retreating from the world to idyllic country settings, idly enjoying wine and spontaneously dashing off inspired poems.
- Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) Celebrated as the pinnacle of Chinese literature, including Wang Wei (699–759 AD) (starting the landscape school, merging poetry and ink brush landscape painting) as well as Li Po and Du Fu who are usually regarded as the greatest of all poets. In Western terms Du Fu is often described as 'romantic' (as in Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley) writing of exotic 'western' lands. Li Po tends to a more refined and formal or 'academic' style of the official. There was extensive innovation in this period. Li Po and Du Fu wrote in 'new style' poetry which involved extensive innovation in metrics, which presents increased formal challenges that they master effortlessly. In the late Tang, there was a reaction to the 'new style' with some poets (eg: Han Yu and Meng Ciao) developing 'old style' which took earlier forms but developed them in innovative directions and was associated with Confucian reaction against Buddhist tendencies. Paradoxically 'old style' inclues some of the most avant garde poetry in the tradition.
- Song dynasty ci (960–1279 AD) In the shadow of Tang dynasty genius, there was a shift in the Song dynasty to poetry set to music. Certain well known song forms or 'ci' determined the form of poems. Unfortunately the music has been lost though the lyrics have not. Li Qingzhao is a recognised master of the ci form.
None of Wang Wei's ink work survives but his style was widely emulated, eg: Dong Qichang. 1621-24:
Wang Shimin, Qing dynasty:
Anon, attributed to Wang Wei, but painted 16th C:
It's worth bearing in mind that this is a cursory summary of thousands of years, and each epoche includes many many poets each with their own unique style agreeing with or reacting against the dominate forms of the time, notwithstanding a general tendency to adhere conventional than Western traditions that valorise innovation and individual genius.
Here's just a few well known idiosyncratic figures in Chinese literature:
Tao Chien (356-427AD)
Bucolic poet, Tao Chien grew up in a small village and when he passed his exams went to the nearest town to work in a minor official position. He didn't last a year in his job before returning home, preferring the poor country life. He didn't go anywhere.
Reading the Classic of Hills and Seas
In the summer: grass and trees have grown.
Over my roof the branches meet.
Birds settle in the leaves.
I enjoy this humble place.
Ploughing’s done, the ground is sown,
Time to sit and read a book.
The narrow deeply-rutted lane
Means my friends forget to call.
Content, I pour the new Spring wine,
Go out and gather food I’ve grown.
A light rain from the East,
Blows in on a pleasant breeze.
I read the story of King Mu,
See pictures of the Hills and Seas.
One glance finds all of heaven and earth.
What pleasures can compare with these?
Meng Chiao (751–814AD) was part of the late Tang 'old style' movement which added innovations to poetic forms preceding the 'new style' exemplified by Li Po and Du Fu. The 'new style' had more rigorous formal structures, so the old style allowed for this greater experimentation in length, style and subject matter. Meng Ciao developed a style that would be called 'Gothic' in Western terms but it's a very particular style of Gothic, that is cold and brittle. As is often the case with European Gothic, this style was regarded as 'over the top' in it's excessive and exagerrated emotion.
Sadness of the Gorges - Meng Chiao
Above the gorges, one thread of sky:
Cascades in the gorges twine a thousand cords.
High up, the slant of splintered sunlight, moonlight:
Beneath, curbs to the wild heave of the waves.
The shock of a gleam, and then another,
In depths of shadow frozen for centuries:
The rays between the gorges do not halt at noon;
Where the straits are perilous, more hungry spittle.
Trees lock their roots in rotted coffins
And the twisted skeletons hang titled upright:
Branches weep as the frost perches
Mournful cadences, remote and clear.
A spurned exile's shrivelled guts
Scald and seethe in the water and fire he walks through.
A lifetime's like a fine-spun thread,
The road goes up by the rope at the edge.
When he pours his libation of tears to the ghosts in the stream
The ghosts gather, a shimmer on the waves.
- Meng Chiao, in Poems Of The Late Tang (trans: A.C. Graham)
Han Shan (c.800AD)
Han Shan (Cold Mountain_) is an ironic misanthropic Buddhist monk. He lived on a mountain writing graffiti on trees and temples. A travelling official recognised his genius and collected as much of his work as he could. He's well known in the west, through beat poet Gary Snyder's translation.
Here we waste away, poor scholars,
Beaten by cold and hunger,
Out of work, our only pleasure poetry,
Scratch, scratch, we wear out our minds.
Who'd read stuff from people like us?
Don't waste your breath asking.
If we wrote our words on dog biscuits
even strays wouldn't bother biting.
- Hanshan (Cold Mountain), ca.600-800AD
- Three Kingdoms - 14C
- Outlaws of the Marsh / Water Margin / Story of 105 men and 3 women - 14C
- Journey To The West / Monkey - 16C
- Red Mansions / Dream of The Red Chamber / Story Of The Stone - 18C
Calligraphy and Rubbings
What is writing? With Western phonetic alphabets, especially after printing, are understood to represent sounds and writing is meant only as a symbolic representation of the words conveyed. Calligraphy and typology may sometimes signify the author, or elevate the text in someway. In Chinese writing, before print, the expressiveness of calligraphy plays a much more central role. Characters are notionally understood to be in some way a picture of what the word refers to. The act of writing, is meant to embody, not only the author's 'signature' style, but the spirit of what they are talking about, or the 'qi' of that moment, when the writer is mindful of what they are writing about, without internal and external distinction. The mood can be read in the gesture that the brushstroke remains a lasting manifestation of - just as we might read and angry or delicate mood in the brushstrokes of a painting (Note how American abstract expressionists like Pollock and Kline abstract the expressive gesture of calligraphy away from writing). Western arts tend to draw sharp distinctions between categories, but in the Chinese tradition, writing and drawing are often on the same page. Note also that painting sometimes appears on long scrolls that the eye takes wanders through, as if we are reading them. Wang Wei is known for bringing these two arts of the brush together, as Su Shi says: "In every poem a painting. In every painting a poem."
Huaisu (懷素, 737–799)
Zhao Ji - Emperor Huizong (宋徽宗, 1082–1135)
Wang Xianzhi (王獻之)
Wang Xizhi (王羲之, 303–361)
Franz Kline, New York:
Pollock, Blue Poles:
- expressive of personal mood, attitude or qi at the moment of writing
- higher artistic value than phonetic writing
- combined ink painting and poetry writing as brushwork
Wood block printing became common in the Song dynasty, and movable type was invented - though not as useful with so many character's as it was for small alphabets in Europe. For Song scholars, taking 'rubbing's of inscriptions, almost a kind of 'printing', was a popular hobby. Sometimes inscriptions were carved versions of the finest examples of calligraphy. It is a collection of her husband's rubbings that Li Qingzhao's text is a preface to.
A SONG DYNASTY (11TH-13TH CENTURY) INK RUBBING Wang Xizhi's(321-379) Lan Ting Xu Colophons inscribed by:Song Ke(1327-1387),Zeng Xi(1861-1930) dated yimao year(1915), with two seals
Chinese literature is often strongly influenced by philosophy and religion. Philosophical writing is one of the main genre's in Chinese letters. Again there are countless philosophers and philosophies but the main sustained ones are Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Coming from India, after a long history and some repression in the Tang dynasty, Buddhism was well established in the Song dynasty, in which Li Qingzhao wrote. Her writing makes many allusions to Buddhism and can be considered an allegory of Buddhist thought. Taoism, indigenous to China, has some similarity to Buddhism such as the Buddhist preoccupation with impermanence and the Taoist theme of change. Other key Buddhist texts are the Lotus Sutra and the Diamond Sutra. Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching is the most famous Taoist work.
Some excerpts from The Dhammapada, a core text of Buddhism said to the be the direct teaching of Buddha himself, and featuring the most widely known Buddhist principle of 'life is suffering, suffering is desire, desire is illusion':
81. As a solid rock is not shaken by the wind, wise people falter not amidst blame and praise.
82. Wise people, after they have listened to the laws, become serene, like a deep, smooth, and still lake.
83. Good people walk on whatever befall, the good do not prattle, longing for pleasure; whether touched by happiness or sorrow wise people never appear elated or depressed.
84. If, whether for his own sake, or for the sake of others, a man wishes neither for a son, nor for wealth, nor for lordship, and if he does not wish for his own success by unfair means, then he is good, wise, and virtuous.
89. Those whose mind is well grounded in the (seven) elements of knowledge, who without clinging to anything, rejoice in freedom from attachment, whose appetites have been conquered, and who are full of light, are free (even) in this world.
186. There is no satisfying lusts, even by a shower of gold pieces; he who knows that lusts have a short taste and cause pain, he is wise;
187. Even in heavenly pleasures he finds no satisfaction, the disciple who is fully awakened delights only in the destruction of all desires.
188. Men, driven by fear, go to many a refuge, to mountains and forests, to groves and sacred trees.
189. But that is not a safe refuge, that is not the best refuge; a man is not delivered from all pains after having gone to that refuge.
190. He who takes refuge with Buddha, the Law, and the Church; he who, with clear understanding, sees the four holy truths:—
191. Viz. pain, the origin of pain, the destruction of pain, and the eightfold holy way that leads to the quieting of pain;—
192. That is the safe refuge, that is the best refuge; having gone to that refuge, a man is delivered from all pain.
277. `All created things perish,' he who knows and sees this becomes passive in pain; this is the way to purity.
278. `All created things are grief and pain,' he who knows and sees this becomes passive in pain; this is the way that leads to purity.
279. `All forms are unreal,' he who knows and sees this becomes passive in pain; this is the way that leads to purity.
348. Give up what is before, give up what is behind, give up what is in the middle, when thou goest to the other shore of existence; if thy mind is altogether free, thou wilt not again enter into birth and decay.
From Tao Te Ching
The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.
The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.
Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets;
But always allow yourself to have desires to in order to observe its manifestations.
These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery -
The gateway of the manifold secrets.
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 1, 6th-century BC
So it is that existence and non-existence give birth the one to (the idea of) the other; that difficulty and ease produce the one (the idea of) the other; that length and shortness fashion out the one the figure of the other; that (the ideas of) height and lowness arise from the contrast of the one with the other; that the musical notes and tones become harmonious through the relation of one with another; and that being before and behind give the idea of one following another.
Song Dynasty China, 1132: Li Qingzhao
Li Qingzhao is a poet, but her prose work, Preface to Records of Metal and Stone is an excellent example of the Chinese literary tradition, illustrating the echoes of that tradition and it's poetic and philosophical qualities. It is also, to me, one of the finest works of literature ever written by anyone, anywhere in the world. The story of this work, is also interesting, and the disappearance of the music that Li Qingzhao's poetry was based on, and the collection that this prose work is based on is itself a lesson in transcience.
During the Song dynasty, Li Qingzhao, was born into a wealthy and highly literate family with their own library. In present Shandong province in the north east. Her mother was a poet. At 17 she married Zhao Mingcheng a student and also a lover of literature. As can be seen from the text, this was a happy and loving marriage. Her poems often mention being drunk, in love while having a delicate, nuanced and sensitive touch, sometimes on melancholy themes – in a Western context it might be seen as a gentile bohemian lifestyle. Li Qingzhao is a celebrated poet in the Chinese tradition, a master of cí style which became popular in the Song dynasty. This style of poetry moves away from traditional syllabic form and is written specifically for particular conventional songs – its form matches the requirements of the song. What this music sounded like is no longer known and we only have the written lyrics.
Her husband was an avid collector of poetry and texts, often taking rubbings. Making rubbings of texts inscribed in metal and stone, such as at temples, was a popular hobby among Song dynasty literati. They were made by using fine paper and pressing it gently into the hollow spaces, then carefully inking the whole sheet, resulting in white lettering on a dark background.
In 1126 and 1127 Jin Tartars (a confederation of tribes based in the region now known as Manchuria) captured the capital Kaifeng and killed the emperor. In the Jin-Song wars the fighting came to the province of Shandong and her and her husband became refugees in Nanjing for a year. Her husband was called to official duty and died while away. She settled in the new southern capital of the Song, Hangzhou. At some point she remarried unhappily. Her husband’s collection of rubbings was published after his death but is now lost. Only Li Qingzhao’s preface remains.
Translations of Li Qingzhao's poetry are easy to find on the internet. Here is a complete works.
See the section on Appreciating Traditional Philosophy in the Indigenous Philosophy section.
African masks, dance and writing - more than 200 languages in Congo, Soyo, upside down, Yoruba sculpture, Luba memory boards, Woyo proverb lids, ugly mask hides beautiful spirit, nkisi fetishes, power has a smooth forehead