After many years interpreting literary texts for publication and in the classroom, I am struck by two things: how much one can say about them, and how recalcitrant they are to any kind of rigorous analysis. As I recall, when Tzvetan Todorov attempted to write a “grammar” of the Decameron some decades ago, the only general formulation he could come up with was that at the core of each story was a sui generis element for which no general pattern could be formulated. The various attempts at a “science of literature” in the 1960s and 70s were even less successful than the Chomskian efforts to reduce language to a computer program. Although certain esthetic effects are predictable and categorizable, the millions of hours thousands of intelligent people have spent analyzing cultural phenomena have given rise to no generally agreed upon set of models. It is perhaps not surprising that art has not improved over the centuries, but one might have expected thinking on the subject to have made a little progress.

Art stands in contrast to religion, whose operations are not merely relatively understandable but fall into a cumulative historical progression, a kind of Hegelian dialectic. Religions operate through moral revelations that reinforce and build on each other; art changes form throughout history, but only in order to produce the same fundamental effect. Hence although there are religions that we perceive as primitive and superseded, we never perceive art that way; we continue to admire the paintings of Altamira and Lascaux although we have long abandoned the kind of sacrificial ceremonies for which we must presume they were created.

As soon as narrative liberates itself from ritual, it becomes susceptible of the highest esthetic values. If the Gilgamesh Epic is still transitional (and linguistic and textual difficulties add to the effect of estrangement), the Homeric epics are sufficiently accessible for us to recognize them as unsurpassable. Yet this in itself requires some explanation. Why are we so quick to find “unsurpassable” masterpieces? Why do we so easily reach a point at which we give up seeking something better, no longer desire to find something better, as if we had fallen in love? The answer is that our relation to the artwork is not the formal relation of a subject to an object but a “triangular” intersubjective mediation–on which we depend all the more the less we profess belief in the Subject.

Art, like love, defies analysis. Our commitment to the mediation of the artwork is not, however, a promise of reciprocity like that shared by a lover and his beloved. We worship the artwork from afar; its governing subjectivity is modeled on divinity. The esthetic reveals and exploits the sacred that lies at the center of our internal scene of representation, whether we “believe in God” or not. The human imperative of equality begins from a position of absolute difference. The moral model of reciprocal exchange, of which language supplies the originary example, is conceivable only on the periphery of a sacred center. The institutions through which we attempt to realize this reciprocity, notably the “free” market, all imply this preexistent center that history neither abolishes nor even demystifies, but disseminates, to use a Derridean figure. What is being disseminated, however, is not the placeless Subject of metaphysics but the center of sacred ostension and interdiction that is at the origin of the human.

As soon as we realize that our relationship to the artwork is a modality of unreciprocated mediation (external mediation in Girard’s old terminology), we have half unraveled the mystery of its inaccessibility to the analysis that “murder[s] to dissect”: our inability to objectify the artwork stems from our inability to model our subject-object relationship to it independently of our mediation by its implicit creator.

The other half of the mystery is that of temporality. Esthetic mediation takes place in time, as do the richest and most culturally significant esthetic experiences; yet it is not accidental that “art” and “esthetic” are terms most naturally applied to works of plastic art, or objets d’art. The objet d’art is analogous to the originary central object: it focuses desire on itself as both representational form and imaginary, inaccessible content–in the general case supplemented by a contextual authority of place, church or museum, or minimally, the (wealthy, well-ordered) home. Its apprehension has no temporality of its own because it is analogous to the object of the quest from which temporality itself is constructed. Its originary model is the subsistence of the center beyond ritual in a divine being of which the artwork is the reminder. The plastic artist’s subjectivity exercises its mastery over us through this memorial function, as the surrogate of the divinity whose transcendent being guarantees the sacrality of the central object of desire.

Mastery exercised only in the moment must be virtually prolonged; the deferral of violence is necessarily a durational phenomenon. Hence the most overt model of the temporality of esthetic experience is that of narration, whose one-sided exchange of language between narrator and listener follows the periphery-center structure of the originary event. This model contrasts only superficially with that of the communal rituals in which all participate; by the nature of ritual, such participation is conceived by the participants themselves as obedience to a law or norm–ultimately, to a central will. This notion of the will is crucial in all intersubjective relations.

Let me digress for a moment to anticipate the objections of postmodern thought bent on undermining the authority of the central subject. The anthropological intuition behind this enterprise, which Derrida alone can be said to have articulated with any degree of subtlety, is that the center is not indeed constituted from eternity, but revealed within a (proto-)human context. (Having given birth to the very notion of “eternity,” this context supplies no victorious argument for either theism or atheism.) The authority of the author is only human and therefore, vulnerable to attack–who set him up as the master of discourse? But resentment of the central figure only reinforces its domination. The subtlest maneuvers of deconstruction bring satisfaction in what we must learn to recognize as an all-too-crudely human context: the agon in which the critical thinker seeks to humiliate his philistine bourgeois opponent. Deconstruction has the sacrilegious structure of the black mass: brûlez ce que vous avez adoré, which is nothing other than the structure of resentment in general. The dark secret of postmodernism is that not only its axiology of liberation but its epistemology of unveiling are based on resentment.

Storytelling is the archetype of the esthetic relation because it explicitly realizes the mastery over time that is the key to all interpersonal relations. In narrative, the narrator’s transcendent mastery is realized from moment to moment in the telling of the tale. We listen in order to hear what follows, and we care to hear what follows because we know it as the continuous expression of the same will, giving proof that the will that imposes the meaning of the sign is capable not merely of maintaining its control through time but of transforming time itself into a revelatory process. We learn from narrative the magic lesson–the lesson that Plato’s Socrates always taught but could never articulate convincingly–that the agon of conflicting and incompatible desires is in reality the product of a single will. The narrative of crisis and resolution attaches us to the transtemporal subject whose origin it reproduces.

We cannot provide a formula for this narrative pattern for the simple reason that we cannot experience narrative without surrender to the mediation of the narrating subject, whose freedom we cannot presume to confine. If we could generate stories by computer, they would come alive only when we, imaginarily or otherwise, endowed the computer with a desiring will. Cultural analysis addresses itself to the work, but its real object is the subjective mediation that the work facilitates. For the real locus of esthetic experience is not the esthetic object, but the mediations it embodies. These mediations lie on the interface between universal anthropology and historical particularity. There is no surer way to define this interface at a given time and place than through the artworks themselves; the worldly materials of desire and transcendence, before becoming the object of a theoretical model, will be tested by the tales they inspire. Could cultural analysis outwit the artist’s subjective mediation, it would replace culture itself.