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Wednesday, October 19, 2011


"How can we keep alive the deeply buried fantasies so that their energy can be used to fuel the real-world project of liberation from surplus repression? Surprisingly, Marcuse argues that the great works of art, literature, philosophy and music of our cultural tradition play an essential and unexpectedly subversive role. Regardless of their manifest content and apparent purpose, these works keep alive, in powerful and covert ways, the fantasies of gratification, the promise of happiness, the anger at necessary repression, on which radical political action feeds.

"To explain somewhat how even the most seemingly abstract works of art perform this function, let me quote a single paragraph from Marcuse's discussion, and then explicate it by reference to a Bach fugue. Here is the passage:

"The tension between the actual and the possible is transfigured into an insoluble conflict, in which reconciliation is by grace of the oeuvre as form: beauty as the "promesse de bonheur." In the form of the oeuvre, the actual circumstances are placed in another dimension where the given reality shows itself as that which it is. Thus it tells the truth about itself; its language ceases to be that of deception, ignorance, and submission. Fiction calls the facts by their name and their reign collapses; fiction subverts everyday experience and shows it to be mutilated and false. But art has this magic power only as the power of negation. It can speak its own language only as long as the images are alive which refuse and refute the established order. [ONE-DIMENSIONAL MAN, pp. 61-62]"

"Consider a Bach fugue, which can stand, in Marcuse's analysis, for any work of art or literature that submits itself, as all true art must, to some canon of formal constraint. We could as well consider a sonnet, a portrait, a statue, or indeed a Platonic dialogue. The rules governing the composition of a fugue are extremely strict. They constitute, psychologically speaking, a repression of the composer's instinctual, creative energies. In the hands of a novice, the fugue-form is a strait-jacket, painfully forcing one to adjust one's musical line in unnatural ways. It is, speaking at the very deepest psychological level, the equivalent of being required to use the toilet, or to say "cookie" before being fed. But in the hands of Bach, all is transformed. Bach's fugues seem effortless. They magically transcend the constraints of the form, all the while rigidly conforming to them.

"The result is sheer, sensuous beauty which is, at one and the same time, liberated from the constraints of form and completely consonant with those constraints. The fugue thus holds out, magically, the promise of total satisfaction, the "promesse de bonheur," that is to be found in the unconscious of each of us. In the same fashion, a Dickinson poem, a Rodin sculpture, a Platonic dialogue, a van Gogh still life reawaken in us the fantasy of perfect, effortless gratification. These works of art and literature, Marcuse is suggesting, remind us of the possibility that there is a life better than the network of compromises in which we are enmeshed, a second dimension to existence in which freedom replaces necessity, happiness replaces suffering.

"The great works of humanistic writing, be they philosophy, history, theology, or criticism, accomplish the same end. The pure, rational arguments of Spinoza's ETHICS recall for us the image of a world in which reason is an instrument of liberation, not of domination. The sheer formal beauty of a mathematical proof, the effortless derivation of the most powerful conclusions from apparently innocent premises, holds out to us the hope of instantaneous ecstasy. "

There is, of course, much, much more in One-Dimensional Man than I have been able to indicate in this mini-tutorial, but six thousand words are enough, I hope, to whet your appetite. Those of you who are analytic philosophers by training and profession can read the book, gnashing your teeth at what you will undoubtedly consider his willful misunderstanding of your chosen intellectual style. My copy has marginal notes dating from the sixties filled with outraged defenses of my own teachers, Quine among them. But I am convinced that if you will read the text with a certain generosity of spirit, you will find both enlightenment and inspiration. It is not for nothing that an earlier generation of rebellious youths found in Marcuse the mentor their own education had denied them.


Amato said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amato said...

I think, to some extent, “magically [transcending] the constraints of the form, all the while rigidly conforming to them” is something that happens to great athletes as well. I am by no means a professional tennis player, but I played tennis in college and on those rare occasions where I played exceptionally well I felt a sense of ease and creativity in the moment. Of course sports are a bit different, the sense of transcendence that you described professor depends not only yourself but your opponent(s). But I do think when we watch an amazing athlete who is in the “zone,” as they say, we are witnessing an act of beautiful creation that both rigidly conforms and transcends the formal constraints of the game.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think you are right. My favorite example is from the movie The Hustler, with paul newman, george c Scott, and Jackie Gleason. There is a scene in which Newman is moving around the pool table, making shot after shot. He says to Gleason [who is plahing the real pool shark Minnesota Fats], "I can't miss, fat man."

There have been moments in my teaching when I felt that way.

Jerry Fresia said...

Two questions: Regarding Marcuse, you seem to be suggesting (or perhaps it is Marcuse) that the very presence of constraint is necessary for the "sheer, sensuous beauty" that follows from their transcendence. If this is so? If so, why?

Second, when you write about the practice of making art (I'm a painter), both here and in your tutorials on Marx, you seem to suggest that the art in question stems from an idea and that the quality of the result itself (a painting, a fugue, a book, etc) is the payoff or measure of the expression. There seems to be no emphasis on the process and what it does for the artist or no sense of praxis. When I paint, I am having a visual conversation with what I see; it is sensual. The measure of the painting is the feelings I have as I do it. The payoff is in the moment of creation (I feel "larger, more powerful, more beautiful" to use E. Goldman's words. The product (painting, score, book, etc) is a by-product. The "life better than the network of compromises in which I am enmeshed" is precisely that sense of being larger as I do the activity. The measuring of the results, awards, etc, happen along the way, but not only are not thought of during the process, they must not be thought of if I am going to experience the liberation Marcuse seems to be referring to. What am I missing?