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Saturday, April 1, 2017


I saw a movie, I had a reaction to it, I reported my reaction, and in return I received a great many thoughtful, intelligent, knowledgeable responses, every one of which carried the discussion far beyond where I had begun it.  Thank you all.  I have read the comments and learned from them all.  Let me try to say a little bit more about what I understand to have been the reason for my reaction to the movie, and then segue into a reprise of something I wrote a long time ago after brooding about Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man.  [One of the comments makes direct reference to what Marcuse had to say, in a way that is directly apposite to my puzzlement.]

By the way, among the many deeply thoughtful and knowledgeable comments, let me give a shout-out to Nick Pappas’ wonderful parenthetical question:  “[Do we not mind "Ring around the rosy" these days because bubonic plague is no longer a great threat to life?]”  I had forgotten, if I ever knew, the original meaning of that children’s game.

I experience the world as radically devoid of meaning, as prosaic, as utterly without transcendent significance.  In short, for me God is not merely dead, He never existed.  I have deep, powerful moral commitments and political beliefs, none of which I experience as in some way immanent in the world.  This sense of unmystification, if I can put it that way, extends even to the environment.  I have no sense of Mother Earth or of a oneness with nature, no belief that I owe a debt to the seas or the forests or biota, the realm of living things.  My debts are only to other persons.

At the same time, I have a powerful emotional and intellectual response to and involvement with the aesthetic dimension of experience.  Never mind that I love the music of Bach and the poetry of Dickinson and the drama of Shakespeare.  That goes without saying.  But it matters deeply to me that my writing be graceful, that it exhibit an elegant and transparent simplicity.  I am more pleased when something I have published is considered well-written than when it is judged to be true.

Which brings me back to The Zookeeper’s Wife.  The actors and director present me with an aesthetic object [for that is what a movie is, after all, even one without pretensions, like this one.]  Like any movie [or painting or poem or novel or statue] it is shaped by its creators, for better or worse, so as to appeal to our aesthetic appreciation.  But it does so by choosing as its background a real series of events – the Nazi occupation of Warsaw and slaughter of its Jewish population – about which I, and anyone else today, has a quite independent moral judgment.  The invocation of these events lends weight to the story, but the aesthetic object being presented, the movie, by its very nature asks to be judged, so to speak, aesthetically, not morally.  Now, as it happens, the moral point of view of the movie makers is the same as mine.  They hate and condemn the Nazis as I do.  So this is not a Leni Riefenstahl situation.  But the shape and thrust of my moral evaluation of the Holocaust is entirely separate from my aesthetic appreciation of a rendering of the events of the Holocaust, even when these two align perfectly so that there is no jarring conflict between them.

Has art then nothing to do with morality.  Not at all.  The two are very importantly related.  To put in a few brief sentences the insight I garnered from Marcuse and spelled out at great length in my essay, “What Good is a Liberal Education?”, all of us have powerful infantile fantasies of instantaneous and guilt free gratification residing deep in the unconscious.  Great art miraculously overcomes the inevitable disappointments and frustrations consequent upon interactions with the constraints of the real world.  In doing so, a great work of art keeps alive the fantasy of a world that embodies what Freud calls the Pleasure Principle rather than the Reality Principle.  One example will illustrate what I mean.  The rules for the composition of a fugue are rigid and constraining.  They are [yes, I really mean this] the real world versions of the requirements of toilet training.  A novice composition student finds these rules irritating and constraining, forcing the student to squeeze a lovely them into a rigid framework.  But when Bach writes a fugue, he transcends the rules, soars above them, effortlessly creates exquisite music, all the while absolutely conforming perfectly to those same rules.  Thus, in that fugue, we keep alive our infantile fantasy of effortless immediate gratification with all of its psychic power undiminished.

And it is those same fantasies that provide the psychic energy for revolutionary action!  “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.  They have a world to win.  WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!”


s. wallerstein said...

If I may make a comment about the comments...

There were 18 comments to your previous post about your reaction to the movie, all of them insightful as you point out.

They build on each other each in some vague way, which is how friendly conversations normally procede.

Now during our interchange of comments with the Ayn Rand set, one of them bragged that not one of us had "landed a good punch".

I explained to him (it was a him) that I, and as far as I can see, the other regular commenters in this blog are not into boxing, but into conversing about ideas and learning from one another.

I think that it's a very basic difference between an amorphous "us" and the Ayn Rand set.

Edmund Wilson said...

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you, Professor Wolff, for keeping up a consistently intriguing blog (as well as some consistently engaging lectures!) I hope you don't mind me asking a couple of queries concerning this blog post in particular...

Firstly, you say that your 'debts are only to other persons', rather than to 'Mother Nature' or any other aspect of the physical world. But, unless one adopts a dualist conception of the body and soul, is it not the case that 'debts to other persons' are the equivalent to 'debts to physical things' (which humans, at the end of the day, are)? Pushing aesthetic concerns to one side, I just wonder how it is possible to owe moral debts to humans but not to non-humans, without adopting some kind of Cartesian dualism that nature and humans are completely distinct entities.

Secondly, am I right in thinking that you are equating Freud's Reality Principle with morality, and his Pleasure Principle with aesthetics? If so, does this support a deontological view of morality?

Again, thank you very much for this blog, which, for 17-year-old me, is a refreshing break from my rather conservative philosophical upbringing!

Enam el Brux said...

The move from

"...all of us have powerful infantile fantasies of instantaneous and guilt free gratification residing deep in the unconscious. Great art miraculously overcomes the inevitable disappointments and frustrations consequent upon interactions with the constraints of the real world. In doing so, a great work of art keeps alive the fantasy of a world that embodies what Freud calls the Pleasure Principle rather than the Reality Principle."


"And it is those same fantasies that provide the psychic energy for revolutionary action!"

is probably an empirically correct statement. Although I agree in principle with you and Gert, I wonder about the motivating power of art.

If great art provides the illusion of a world of instantaneous guilt-free gratification denied to us in life, then why not remain in that fantasy state? Hyperbolic discounting of the future is common in the animal kingdom--humans are no exception. Why not choose instant gratification through the experience of great art, over the delayed gratification--if it ever comes--derived over a lifetime of work, at no small risk, to effect political change?

What about the possibility that art indicates a more perfect world, let alone a world of instantaneous gratification? "Art exists because the world is not perfect"--Tarkovsky.

Edmund Wilson said...

I.M. Flaud - I cannot resist but link your brilliant Tarkovsky quote to Kant. Just as art exists so that we could imagine a happy world beyond this not-so-happy one, Kant said that God existed to act as a 'postulate of practical reason', who would gratify us in the afterlife. Art, therefore, is performing the same function as Kant's God. (Professor Wolff, please correct me if I am wrong on this one!) Perhaps, Mr Flaud, you have discovered a fourth postulate of practical reason, after Kant discovered the first three. So perhaps there are four ways of ensuring that a deontological or 'reasonable' morality is completed:

(1) God (following Kant);

(2) Immortality (following Kant);

(3) Freedom (following Kant);

(4) Art (following Tarkovsky and Flaud's comment).

Art - the fourth postulate of practical reason?

Enam el Brux said...

Edmund Wilson, I have discovered nothing. I don't think Art is another Kantian as if. What would that look like? "We must act as if art exists!" would be a parody. Would you believe, "We must act as if art and not philosophy can deepen the scope of human compassion!" In truth I feel somewhat silly casting doubt on the great thinkers--one needs some level of explanation to get from the infantile wish for instant gratification to the motivating power of art, some kind of theory, or at least some reasonable assurance that one is right about this aspect of the importance of art. All I've done is taken time away from drawing to post a few not terribly eloquent comments.

s. wallerstein: FYI the adherents of the philosopher you mention have Google Alerts set to notify them of any mention of her or her philosophy. They could descend here again!

Edmund Wilson said...

I.M. Flaud, thanks for the clarification. Before I consign the aesthetic postulate to oblivion, might it be reasonable to say 'We must act as if the perfect, delayed gratification from art exists.' After all, your Tardovsky quote centres on the idea that 'the world is not perfect' but art might be. In the lack of 'apodeictic certainty' (as Kant might have put it), we have to postulate the existence of some kind of 'eudaemonia' gained from art. Unless art is mere instant gratification (to which you object), we can never be certain that aesthetics is worthwhile. Hence the need to postulate it.

(Although it is very possible that I'm barking up the wrong tree!)

howie berman said...

So, your view approximates Freud's rebuttal of Rollaind's oceanic feeling in future of an illusion.
Got that. Then there's the sensation of the unspeakable miracle of the single created object as expressed for me at least in the denial of death by Becker.
You are disenchanted, in a Weberian way- but you're not frightened overly of death nor are you bereft of some awe of the world.
So is the disenchantment of philosophers, like the ancient Greeks, different than the disenchantment of people like Rollaind and say Woody Allen?

(Haven't uncreased my chain of thought, but am curious nonetheless)

Jerry Fresia said...

Okay, let me try again, then. You are saying, along with Marcuse, that the aesthetic is (can be?) linked with morality. When you then explain the aesthetic-morality relationship, as articulated by Marcuse, you move to Freud’s Pleasure Principle, where great art “overcomes the inevitable disappointments and frustrations consequent upon interactions with the constraints of the real world” and thus we are able to keep “our infantile fantasy of effortless immediate gratification with all of its psychic power undiminished.” Then, we have, I am assuming, the great “siren call of liberation.”

It is time to move on, blog-wise, but for what it is worth, here is where I am still confused:

Why is the realm where the aesthetic overcoming of frustrations upon interactions with the constraints of the real world also the realm of morality?

Do Bach fugues, because of their transcending of rules, link to the moral realm?

Can any film rendering of the Holocaust (given that by its “very nature” asks to be judged “aesthetically, not morally”) overcome the inevitable frustrations/constraints of the real world in such a way that it links the aesthetic and the moral realm (consistent with a Marcusian ideal)?

PVivian said...

Last year I watched a movie "Son of Saul" made by László Nemes a Hungarian film director and screen writer. It was actually his debut, about a prisoner at Auschwitz forced to work in the gas chambers, dramatises the concentration camps with great intelligence, seriousness and audacity.

The one camera approach to follow the protagonist in the nazi camp, the scorched and strip mined of normal human emotion and response of Saul's face, the no naive humanism approach - I would say that this one is so much pragmatic and realistic you can not look at directly as one cannot look at he sun -, the deep diving into this dark path following a life in absurdity and horror, made me think that no matter how painful it was for me as an experience, it did leave a print. Critics have only resembled it to the most successful – or only successful – approach is widely held to be that of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, an epic oral history of the Holocaust, because of the candour of eyewitness accounts, avoiding the pitfalls of fiction.

My comment on your earlier post was not on the fact itself that any artist, director etc has the right to present his or her work based on an historic event but on the "how". Its good faith and moral and intellectual seriousness are beyond doubt.

Unfortunately I don't hold a PHD in Philosophy, I wish I did. I would like to thank Dr Nick Pappas on his really extraordinary commentation and say that I feel happy to share.

s. wallerstein said...

Jerry Fresia,

It seems to me that Bach fugues are beyond good and evil.

In any case, we all know about S.S. guards who listened to Bach or Beethoven after a day's "work" at Auschwitz and I'm sure we can find a few U.S. generals with similar musical tastes, who relaxed listening to Leonard Bernstein conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra after My Lai.

Guy Tennenbaum said...

To add one comment to the conversation between I.M. Flaud and Edmund Wilson, Kantian aesthetics was, of course, the major jumping-off point for Schelling and the Romantics. Here is Frederick Copleston in his history of philosophy:

"[W]hy is it in that in contemplating a work of art the mind, whether of the artist himself or of someone else, enjoys feelings of finality, the feeling that nothing should d be added or subtracted, the feeling that a problem is solved, even if the problem cannot be stated? In Schelling's opinion the answer is that the completed work of art is the intelligence's supreme objectification of itself to itself, that is, as the identity of the unconscious and the conscious, the real and the ideal, the objective and the subjective. But as the intelligence or ego does not know this reflectively, it simply feels a boundless satisfaction, as though some unstated mystery has been revealed, and ascribes the production of the work of art to some power which acts through it."

LFC said...

Re 'Son of Saul': I recall hearing about this film when it was released. Did not get a chance to see it.

Speaking of Holocaust-related movies, I did see 'The Pianist', quite a long time ago. I had mixed feelings about it, as I recall (I don't remember the movie esp. well), and I'm fairly sure Prof Wolff would have disliked it.

I know close to nothing about Kant's aesthetic theory and not too much more about aesthetics as a branch of philosophy in general. With that as preface, it doesn't seem to me that all movies about the Holocaust necessarily confuse aesthetic and moral categories in the way that Prof Wolff seems to have thought 'The Zookeeper' does. It is however a subject that a non-documentary filmmaker has to approach w care if he/she wants to avoid turning out a piece of manipulative, facile ... junk, for lack of a better word. 'Europa Europa' I thought was a good Holocaust-themed movie (based on an actual story but not a documentary). Been a v. long time since I saw it.

Enam el Brux said...

Ed Barreras, thank you for this. Art as a window to the unconscious must go back to antiquity--Jung experimented with it in his Red Book. Perhaps Prof Wolff will touch on art and the unconscious in his lecture series on Freud.

I apologize to Prof Wolff for the presumptuous formulation "The move from X to Y." Freudian psychology can support such a progression--that was the point.

Within sequential art, there are a several important examples that deserve mention. Barefoot Gen by Hiroshima survivor Keiji Nakazawa is one example. So is Maus by Art Spiegelman.

Does it matter that these "aesthetic objects" don't carry moral or political weight as objects of aesthetic appreciation? The art critic John Berger would have disagreed, but perhaps moral and aesthetic judgment belong to irreducibly disjoint domains. It's not uncommon to come to philosophy to find support for some moral stance, only to find oneself disillusioned by the inability of philosophical argument to move most people to act--including the philosophers who formulated the arguments to begin with. Akrasia concerned the ancients...

Rocket Man said...

Matthew 17
[15] Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatick, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water.
[16] And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him.
[17] Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him hither to me.
[18] And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour.

Revelation 17
[15] And he saith unto me, The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.
[16] And the ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast, these shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire.



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