Given that in the previous Chronicle I suggested that GA return to its roots in literary study, whose anthropological riches are potentially inexhaustible, this seemed an appropriate moment to reflect on the mysterious phenomenon that Kant, the ultimate metaphysician, called the “judgment of taste” (Geschmacksurteil).
It is worth reminding ourselves that although people disagree about artworks as much as about anything else, esthetic judgments carry with them a sense of universal conviction, not identical to that produced apodictically by the “pure reason” of mathematics, but very different from the superficially similar judgments of politics—and religion. Although it is not always made explicit, both politics and religious faith are implicitly focused on decisions concerning the future. The very notion of “faith” implies reliance in an as yet undefined circumstance; one makes political decisions trusting that they will be effective, just as the believer expresses his faith in God anticipating that God will succor him in a time of need, or if not, that God will have had a good reason for allowing him to suffer. Whereas the only faith an artwork inspires is provisional: that, once we have turned our attention to it, it will prove worthy of our interest. The faith in the esthetic sphere comparable to that in religion is rather that art as a whole, particularly narrative art, will continue through history to produce such works; and it is this faith that I am expressing here.
My fondness for the liberal-democratic political system is that it accepts the usefulness of political differences, given that the future to which political judgments are directed is always uncertain: we cannot know that the solution we propose is the right one until it has been tried, and then we can still argue about how well it has been tried. Unshakable faith in political systems, such as the “socialism” whose consistent failures are excused by the tautological claim that it “has never really been tried,” misplaces the sacred in the lifeworld.
Religious faith generally requires affirmative belief in dogmas, which may include historical components, such as the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. But the purpose of such faith is to help the human community to survive, and to help the individual to function within it. Reading religious texts as complete in themselves independently of their bearing on real time is reading the Bible “as literature.”
Whence the inevitability of disagreements as to how a given religious text or tradition is to be, not simply interpreted, but applied to real-world situations. Judaism, the source-religion of the West, has traditionally encouraged such disagreements, with each Talmudic scholar being always ready to distinguish himself from his neighbor concerning whatever element of religious doctrine is under discussion—given that the Talmud itself is a record of disputations among rabbis over specific passages of the Torah.
On a larger scale, the professed aim of ecumenical thought is to demonstrate the ultimate agreement of all religions on what we may call fundamental anthropology. But such efforts are only useful on the basis of a clearly articulated anthropological hypothesis that permits the construction of a tentative paradigm within which the diverse religions can be included. I sketched the application of such a method in my comparative analyses of the Western and Eastern uses of paradox as reflecting emphases on different moments of the originary scene (see Chronicles 515–516).
In contrast to both these domains, our judgments of works of art, because they are independent of real-world temporality, tolerate relativism only provisionally. If our interlocutor disagrees with us, rather than accepting his disagreement as a matter of “personal taste,” we are driven to bring our assessments into dialectical synthesis. The reason that people are so ready to share their ideas about artworks in the first place is that we are naturally driven to reach agreement on a common anthropological vision.
What is of greatest significance in the discussions thus provoked is that the conceptual grounds to which the parties appeal cannot be defined in advance, but can only emerge in the course of the discussion. This contrast with the metaphysical world of “reason” is the substance of Kant’s crucial point that the esthetic judgment is “without a concept” (ohne Begriff).
Whence my claim in the previous Chronicle that our experience of art is the closest thing we encounter to an “objective correlative” of our anthropology. It was this intuition that led to the renewal of literary criticism in the 20th century: our sense of artistic value is our most effective discovery procedure for human self-understanding. And this because human beings in a multicultural world implicitly share the faith, more universal than that of any religion, that in the esthetic domain, cultural and political differences are ultimately conquerable by “loving” communication, that is, dialogue. Esthetic judgment bears a weight of anthropological truth more certain even than moral judgment, given that, however firm our moral convictions, the object of any such judgment can never be fully severed from the circumstances that surround it. Murder is evil, but this murder is embedded in a matrix of contingencies from which it can only be arbitrarily separated—whence the need for a judicial system. Whereas a work of art, trivial or profound, occupies a scenic world of its own, and demands to be judged independently of any external circumstances.
Unlike religious faith, faith in one’s esthetic judgment requires no subjection of our own judgment to a higher authority. No doubt this judgment can be influenced; a good part of our education consists in learning to appreciate the more sophisticated forms of art. But except at the margins, where the secular evolution of esthetic taste takes place, new generations assimilate the judgments of the past, and those who have already acquired an esthetic education rarely differ on the quality of canonical works of art, however differently they may interpret them.
The credo of modern esthetic self-consciousness, in the words of Gustave Flaubert:
L’auteur, dans son œuvre, doit être, comme Dieu dans l’univers, présent partout et visible nulle part. [The artist in his work must be, like God in the universe, everywhere present and nowhere visible.] Letter to Louise Colet, Dec. 9, 1852
One of the points emphasized by 20th-century criticism is that the author himself never appears in the work; the narrator who says “I” is no more the author than any of his characters, or than the objects he describes. What makes him its “god” is that the work depends solely on his intention; but we must never perceive this intention as a force independent of the fictional world it constructs, even when the author addresses us directly.
Thus if I would read Madame Bovary, I must “have faith in,” or better lend faith to, Gustave Flaubert. On our initial encounter with this or any artwork, we accord the creator the presumption that he will prove worthy of our faith. Whence the utility of “criticism” in the simplest sense: advising us in advance whether the work is likely to do so. If I begin to examine a painting, or read a narrative, that strikes me as unworthy of this faith, I am free to withdraw this presumption; or if I continue malgré tout, I can follow the author’s intention without fully accepting it, considering it incoherent, simplistic, unfair, politically biased… That is, in Kant’s terms, we intuit the criteria by which we judge the work only a posteriori, as we experience it.
Although modern secular culture makes a clear distinction between religious and fictional texts, in more traditional cultures, such as those of the ancient world, the esthetic domain is not strictly detached from its originary sacred origin. When we read Homer, let alone the Mahabharata or the Gilgamesh Epic, however deeply we are immersed in classical culture, we cannot be sure exactly to what extent his original audience “believed” in his stories, which were often used as touchstones of worldly conduct. In the Abrahamic tradition, the Bible and Koran must be read unambiguously as dictated by God himself. But what exactly is the status of the Muse who appears in the first lines of both Homeric epics? Is our faith in the author of these texts meant to extend, as does that of the Bible, over the real world? All we can say for certain is that the intentional “authority” of the (divine or human) author is in the first place over his text, whether or not it extends in addition to the rest of the universe, and the origin of this authority is in the sacred. Were it not for the prior existence of the sacred, art would not exist in “secular” society.
Neither religious nor esthetic practice is understandable without reference to a shared implicit model, sufficiently stable for the members of different cultures to dialogue with each other, even over millennia. What distinguishes generative from empirical anthropology is that it begins from a minimal hypothesis of this model rather than merely taking its existence for granted.
Once we accept that culture/representation/deferral originated as a means of avoiding mimetic conflict, the sacred nature of the signified of the sign as the transcendent source of deferral would become ipso facto an object of faith.
As to what precisely this signified consists of, given that the physical object whose desirability engendered the first scene would by its very nature not be preserved, that is the object of theology in the broadest sense. But the minimal requirement for what we may call (a) god is subjectivity, intentionality, in a word, the humanlike ability to use language. This is the reason why all gods, however they are depicted, are ultimately “anthropomorphic,” even when the separation between divine intention and human language is figured by having the god not speak his own words but “inspire” a human oracle, as at Delphi.
We use the term “sacred” as a category, but this implies a perspective that even in our own culture remains ambiguous. A religious belief is never in “the sacred,” but in a specific central or center-generating being, as revealed to a specific community in one or more historical variants of the liminal originary event. Recalling such founding event(s) is each religion’s originary function, just as constructing a hypothetical model of the first such event is the task of generative anthropology. But once we have the means to recall an event, its “truth” is no longer an (ostensive) evidence, but a (declarative) reconstruction, a sacred narrative.
Unlike such a narrative, an artwork requests our exclusive attention for no external purpose. In experiencing it, we defer our worldly pursuits, as if attending to the originary sacred object. Its scenicity demands our desire, whether or not it be capable of maintaining it. This deferral of worldly activity depends, as the originary event did not, on the disponibilité guaranteed us by our sacred-centered social order. Art’s fiction is fictive sacrality; we experience its scenes as though they were the scene, distracting us from our appetitive life. Just as in the beginning, the potential deferral of this life makes us human, but in art we celebrate this deferral without anticipation of an appetitive reward.
Like all culture, art serves the reinforcement of human solidarity, the triumph of love over resentment. But in art, as opposed to religious ceremony, we experience this reinforcement as an individual pleasure rather than the fulfillment of a communal obligation. This pleasure is a specifically cultural emotion, satisfying desire rather than appetite. And its existence encourages the various arts of design to maximize the esthetic scenicity of every aspect of our worldly experience.
We should take Kant’s implicit point that beauty, being without a concept, is inaccessible to metaphysics, as above all a positive one. What the great metaphysician is telling us is that beauty can only be understood anthropologically, not a priori but a posteriori: our experience of art is never the fulfillment, but the constant renewal, of our conceptual understanding of the human.
The twentieth-century revolution in literary criticism that culminated in French Theory made the esthetic a primary source of anthropological thinking rather than a mere field for its application. Which is sadly what it has once again become in today’s aprioristic victimary theorizing, whose parallel with what Barthes denounced as the tautological écriture of Stalinism is all too obvious.
But this critical void provides all the more opportunity for GA to demonstrate to those frustrated by it why and how our minimalist anthropology, by confronting the cultural phenomena of religion and art with the fewest aprioristic limitations, allows us them to continue to enrich our theoretical self-understanding.