Monday, October 18, 2004

Week 09, Lessing, Schiller

Friedrich von Schiller Notes

Describe the main problem: Schiller very astutely describes civilization as more of a goal then as something we can actually achieve as an end state in the present. But this admission makes it difficult for him to offer us a time frame for the improvements art will bring us. So throughout our selections, Schiller articulates the fundamental split between the individual human and the needs of civilization.

573. Schiller announces here that art seems to have little power in his century. He describes the age as utilitarian, and is probably referring here to the French Revolution, which has little patience with aristocratic finery. It seems that the time is out of joint, and that idea will become a refrain during the romantic age.

574. Schiller says that the public’s taste has gone astray, and it no longer knows what it really needs. So Schiller will hold to the position that beauty, or art, must be placed above politics. The aesthetic is the true way to freedom. Schiller as a critic and as an artist removes himself from the political debates of his time, or rather he removes himself from direct political action, choosing instead to make his comments about aesthetics relevant to political analysis. Matthew Arnold will later make much the same gesture, though as we shall see, he also discusses the importance of statecraft.

574-75. It quickly becomes obvious that Schiller’s definition of civilization as a process is going to be sophisticated. He says that civilization involves a falling away from nature by the abuse of reason, only to return to nature by use of reason. This is somewhat like a secularized version of the fall, and we will see what path reason will have to pursue to achieve the salvation of humanity.

575. In Letter 6, Schiller offers us the example of the Greeks as naïve and therefore perfect. T. S. Eliot will later speak about a dissociation of sensibility setting in during the 17th century, and Schiller’s comments here are remarkably similar. In sum, he is saying that the Greeks were both passionate and intellectual and that these things were not strictly separate in the Greek psyche. And of course, Kant is behind these comments -- observe what Schiller says about the mind not leaving nature behind it. And then the definition of modern man follows: we are fragmented, stunted, our capacities or faculties do not work in harmony. There was a close fit between the individual Greek and his society, but the modern person suffers for the sake of his society and is not really a representative of it. It seems that we are only fragments or atoms, not “man the microcosm.”

576. Civilization is itself, explains Schiller, the cause of a split in the individual psyche and between one human and another. That is because civilization entails ever sharper distinctions in thought and social formation. He is talking about something like what Adam Smith calls division of labor. Intellect and passion withdraw into separate camps, both within the same individual and in society as an aggregate. This kind of analysis is common to Romanticism -- mention William Blake, for example. Government only makes the problem worse. Here Schiller is referring to the advance of bureaucracy during the C18. Bureaucracy was needed by many of the age’s enlightened rulers in order to secure a firm tax base and a well-regulated kingdom.

As society develops, labor becomes mere labor and does not express spirit; the State opposes the church, and law violates custom. It is interesting to note that later on, during the C19, Herbert Spencer would describe this process in evolutionary terms, without evident disapproval -- he speaks of an evolution of social forms from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous. But in this text, Schiller deplores the necessary alienation of the individual from society. We become mere cogs in a vast wheel, and cannot relate our isolated activities to the whole even though we contribute to that whole. I suppose we are not very far from Franz Kafka, who describes the workings of bureaucracy similarly.

577. I like the way Schiller describes the relationship between people and government in terms of individual psychology. The government classifies people or pigeonholes them, and the people, in their turn, resort to a primitive morality where the point becomes simply to oppose public authority as if it were a big annoying person. those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained. Practical people come to despise anyone with imagination, and the imaginative people cannot connect with the practical.

578. Again, I am reminded of T.S. Eliot and the dissociation of sensibility -- thought becomes cold, and the practical person becomes narrow-minded.

But again, Schiller explains that what he is describing has been necessary. He is talking about historical necessity every bit as much as Karl Marx will describe capitalism as historically necessary.

Schiller describes civilization as a perpetual process, not a state we can actually achieve any time soon. The strife and isolation he describes is necessary for the sharpening of thought and the development of social forms. This causes much misery for the individual, for the concentration of his powers leads to many advances towards civilization, but it does not make him happy or a complete human being in the here and now. It is interesting that Schiller even sets forth Immanuel Kant as an example of the separation of powers within the human mind. It seems that you can either be a poet or you can be Immanuel Kant.

579-80. Schiller asks whether this is not a vicious circle. Pursuing civilization seems like a trap at this point. But here he proclaims that the instrument of improvement is fine art.

More Schiller Notes

573-75. “Utility is the great idol of our age.” The time is out of joint for art. Both the enlightened monarchies of the 18th century and the intellectual current of the French revolution are driven by utility. But Schiller will not offer a simple return to primitive habits.

574. “If man is ever to solve that problem of politics in practice he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through beauty that man makes his way to freedom.” Politics and social engagement alone will not lead us to a higher synthesis between culture and everyday practice. One must concentrate on beauty first because we only arrive at freedom through beauty.

574 bottom-575. People “must fall away from nature by the abuse of reason before they can return to her by the use of reason.” Schiller goes on to say that the Athenian people were complete; there was no dissociation of sensibility in early Greece. This state expressed the wholeness of each individual citizen. Civilization involves alienation.

576. “It was civilization itself which inflicted this wound upon modern man.” Reason sharpens with the advance of civilization, but discernment, the truth-drive, inherently involves division, fragmentation, and specialization at both the individual and collective level. Civilization is a mechanistic system, an organization, that gets the better of us and makes us serve its own ends. (Compare Sigmund Freud’s comments on the task of civilization in Civilization and Its Discontents.) Civilization divides labor from meaningful activity, reason from feeling, and one person from another. Marx will say similar things about capitalism. Heidegger of humanism along similar lines -- thinking becomes a specialized activity and steps outside its proper boundaries; in trying to articulate itself as something central to human life, thought becomes techne.

577. “Little by little the concrete life of the individual is destroyed in order that the abstract idea of the whole a drag out sorry existence....” The bureaucracies of the Enlightenment aim to categorize people -- something that generates mediocrity and encourages it. There arises an antagonism between a people and its government.

578. “Little as individuals might benefit from this fragmentation of their being, there was no other way in which the species as a whole could have progressed.” Schiller addresses the necessity of alienation, fragmentation, for the sake of progress.

“This antagonism of faculties and functions is the great instrument of civilization -- but it is only the instrument; for as long as it persists, we are only on the way to becoming civilized.” That is a very interesting statement -- Schiller admits that we are not yet civilized. Civilization advances by sacrificing the individual’s happiness to its goals. Again, see Kafka and Freud on this problem.

579. “But will such a mind, dissolved as it were into pure intellect and pure contemplation, ever be capable of exchanging the rigorous bonds of logic for the free movement of the poetic faculty...?” Schiller is obviously talking about Immanuel Kant at this point -- Kant’s narrow precision and brilliance in philosophy means that he cannot be a poet. Reason becomes stronger at the expense of emotion

579-580. “But how under the influence of a barbarous constitution is character ever to become ennobled?” Schiller asks whether civilization might be a trap. To solve the paradox that the result of human activity (civilization itself) strips us of our chance at wholeness and pleasure as individuals, Schiller asserts art as an atemporal ideal, a saving grace and realm.

“The artist is indeed the child of his age; but woe to him if he is at the same time its ward or, worse still, its minion!” Immediately after this quotation, Schiller refers to Orestes, treating him as the archetype of the artist in relation to his society. That is a complicated way of looking at such the relationship, given the violent action of Orestes and his consequent need for purification. {Aside -- Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon reads like postmodernism -- it visits us with vengeance for our own incomprehension, but no order emerges or is even promised at the end of the first play in the trilogy. Literary theory seems much less nihilistic than Samuel Beckett, for example, but perhaps I’m wrong here and Beckett is not merely nihilistic. Confronting people with the absurdity of the world they live in is productive -- but productive of what?

581. “But how is the artist to protect himself against the corruption of the age which besets him on all sides? By disdaining its opinion.” At this point, Schiller risks reinforcing the problem -- art becomes a total way of life, something that isolates its practitioner, not one necessary experience amongst others.

581-82. “Impart to the world you would influence a Direction towards the good, and the quiet rhythm of time will bring it to fulfillment.” Schiller ends this selection by asserting the shaping power of culture. The artist should give us what we who live in the present need -- not what gratifies our demand for utility and low desire. The artist must not be entirely enslaved to his own age. Schiller asserts that there is something beyond locality and time; he gestures towards an ideal of full humanity. But this gesture involves risks, as the reference to Orestes shows. Finally, Schiller’s insistence that we must place art above nature goes beyond Kant.

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 1st edition. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN: 0393974294.

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