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The Sublime & The Good

February 16, 2014

“Let me now briefly and dogmatically state what I take to be, in opposition to Kant’s view, the true view of the matter. Art and morals are, with certain provisos which I shall mention in a moment, one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality. What stuns us into a realisation of our suprasensible destiny is not, as Kant imagined, the formlessness of nature, but rather its unutterable particularity; and most particular and individual of all natural things is the mind of man. That is incidentally why tragedy is the highest art, because it is most intensely concerned with the most individual thing. Here is the true sense of that exhilaration of freedom which attends art and which has its more rarely achieved counterparts in morals. It is the apprehension of something else, something particular, as existing outside us. The enemies of art and morals, the enemies that is of love, are the same: social convention and neurosis. One may fail to see the individual because of Hegel’s totality, because we are ourselves sunk in a social whole which we allow uncritically to determine our reactions, or because we see each other exclusively as so determined. Or we fail to see the individual because we are completely enclosed in a fantasy world of our own into which we try to draw things from outside, not grasping their reality and independence, making them into dream objects of our own. Fantasy, the enemy of art, is the enemy of true imagination: Love, an exercise of the imagination. This is what Shelley meant when he said that egotism was the great enemy of poetry. This is so whether we are writing it or reading it. The exercise of overcoming one’s self, the expulsion of fantasy and convention, which attends for instance the reading  of King Lear is indeed exhilarating….Freedom is exercised in the confrontation by each other, in the context of an infinitely extensible work of imaginative understanding, of two irreducibly dissimilar individuals. Love is is the imaginative recognition of, that is respect for, this difference.”

from “The Sublime and the Good” by Iris Murdoch

In case you did not do your homework I have included here the really crucial part of Murdoch’s essay. We do not have to concern ourselves with all of the business about Kant. Here is the simple essence. I think there is some great truth in this passage.

I want to connect this with the poem of Stevens: “After the final no there comes a yes / and on that yes the future world depends.” The future world depends on the yes, which is to say that before any no there must be a yes. To begin to engage with reality, to begin to live, is a yes. And we must end with yes as well. What we need most of all out of life is that we may affirm it. We are sustained only by the return to yes. To hold any being, or Being itself, in mind and to say yes to it with all of your heart — that is love. (Kit Smart’s lines for his cat Jeoffry may be the greatest love poem in the English language, because it is a constant refrain of yeses to every detail of this creature.) To say no is cut yourself off from the reality of the object, to turn away from it. We may be terribly concerned with what we fear and hate but only as it impinges on us, we give no attention to its reality in and of itself. So we may say that this is why, for Murdoch, only love can get you to reality. Only the full yes acknowledges it.

One thing that I might change in this passage occurs in the sentence before the elision. Where she writes “overcoming one’s self” I might like to say enlarging or fulfilling one’s self. We sometimes use the word “self” in a negative way and sometimes in positive way, and both are useful options. But int the end I would rather have the latter. It does not seem right to say that in loving and in truly engaging with reality our self is diminished. Nor does it makes sense to celebrate the self of a beloved as what is truly realized in love and at the same time denigrate the self of the lover.

Now on to Far Out and All Aflame: Pushing Against the Real. What can we say about it in light of Murdoch? Reality being the central issue, we can start with the idea of pushing against the real. This could mean pushing against the real to confirm it. Being real it will not budge, but by pushing against it we find it out in the most direct way. In this sense, the real is understood as defined by its resistance, which is a very common understanding, though not what Murdoch is getting at. But a more likely interpretation is to read it as “pushing against the ‘real’.” This is the idea that what we take to be real is often only a fiction of our minds. We must push that out of the way to get to the truly real. And this false reality is confining to us, so we must push against it to create a larger space for our freedom. In a related way, we might want to reject the notion of “the real” altogether, as idle, push against it not because it is a false reality but because we need not bother with reality at all, our business is to live, let us do that and leave ‘reality’ to the philosophers and their murmurings.

As to the work itself, it is certainly not the kind of art Murdoch had in mind as she was writing. Shakespearean tragedy was what she had in mind. But I do believe that it works toward her end, the discovery of reality. It is most obviously an attempt to get beyond the social conventions that are an enemy of art. The constraints that Restivo has put on himself have made it impossible for him and for anyone who interacts with him to follow those conventions in a normal way. So we are presented with a novel situation and this may give us the chance to reconnect with the particular, to see some things in their reality. Restivo is certainly in a better position to do this than his audience, but I think a central aspect of the work is that it invites an imaginative identification with him. We start to think about what it must be like to be confined to that building, not to speak, not to be in control of what food you get to eat, waiting for visitors in the gallery all day long, with very little activity to occupy yourself with.

And then there is the ritual of the question. Is not a self-conscious confrontation between two irreducible individuals? The artifice of the situation makes you aware of your mutual otherness. His enigmatic silence makes it impossible for you to convincingly incorporate him into your own little fantasy world. He offers no handle for that, no way for you to convince yourself that he fits into your schema. The long stare and then the question make you feel palpably his own his own distinct and inaccessible awareness of you. And in answering the question you feel your own particularity, you are being asked for something it is yours alone to give.

Plus, there is a lot of love in that room. A damn lot of love.

–from “Restivo Watch Day 12: The Sublime and the Good” (2/16/11)

I am happy with this one, I’ll stand by it. And given its length, maybe it doesn’t need adding to. Tomorrow’s email, as I recall, is just a placeholder, so maybe then would be the time for New Material.

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