Tragedy and Philosophy
Interview by Richard Marshall.
‘Philosophy has always been for me a way of life, one that sits only with difficulty in the institution of the university, and so I struggle with distinguishing the profession of philosophy from the practice of a philosophical life: that struggle, which is also the effort to reconcile the terribly esoteric work that we often do with the need to see it as real and valuable to the world, is one that has deepened over time for me.‘
‘Tragedy is the expression of a view of life as defined finally by an insurmountable contradiction (of a law of life at odds with itself), while philosophy will always aim at a sort of overcoming of contradiction (of the law of non-contradiction as the need of truth).‘
‘I would suggest that this is one of the points at which analytic and continental philosophy part ways. I am sure other forces define this divide, but this one seems especially potent: taking art as a form of truth, as the continental tradition is ready to do, opens up sets of questions that are simply different than many of those that have come to define analytic philosophy. To be sure, there are points of overlap, there are more interesting and less interesting arguments in both traditions, but, by and large, I do find that the priorities defining them and the aims driving them are increasingly divergent.‘
‘In a consciousness of being mortal one is driven to one’s most human moment: one meets oneself, what is most inalienably “mine” (to invoke Heidegger’s vocabulary of “Jemeinigkeit” here) and what thus most defines me as a human being. In my more recent work I have come to speak of this self-understanding one has as understanding oneself as an “idiom” as what is not translatable, but nonetheless almost comprehensible. I would also argue that from this experience of what is most deeply human I come to understand not only the singular meaning and riddle that is my own life, but I come to appreciate and understand something of life as such.‘
Dennis Schmidt describes his work as not respecting disciplinary differences. By that he means that he finds the questions that animate him to have been developed and explored in various literatures, theoretical approaches, and art forms. To that end, he finds himself writing about painting (Twombly and Klee most recently), music, poetry (above all, Celan, Rilke, Trakl, and Hölderlin), and tragedy (Sophocles and Aeschylus). Likewise, his theoretical concerns span a range of figures and traditions (Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Benjamin, Heidegger, Gadamer, Derrida, and others). Finally, he works mostly in four languages (Ancient Greek, German, French, and English).Here, in English, he discusses the tension between tragedy and philosophy, Hölderlin, Heidegger, art, the lyrical, the ethical image, Klee and Gadamer.
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Dennis Schmidt: I suspect that there are more layers to any answer than I am able to know, but I can peel the onion back a bit. I also suspect that I have not finished this process and am still en route to becoming a philosopher – or better: that I am coming, ever so slowly, to figure out what this might mean.
I was raised in a rather religious household. My parents were Lutheran, not dogmatic, but still spiritual. I believe that for them religious faith was more a matter of an ethical commitment than any theological sense. They were not educated, but precisely because they never had a chance to have a real education I believe they put a special value on giving their children opportunities. I suspect that is one reason we moved from a small town in Appalachia to the Washington, D. C. area. We lived in D.C. during the Kennedy years when I was becoming more conscious of a larger world that could be exciting: we went to museums, National Geographic Society talks, and to visit embassies to learn about the world. But it was also the time of the Cuban Crisis, the Civil Rights movement, bomb shelters, the first space shots, and Kennedy’s funeral, which I attended and which left a lasting impression. Looking back I can now see that those years where decisive for me: the spiritual sensibility that my parents cultivated was wedded with new interests that broadened my world. When it came time for me to choose a university, I did so on the assumption that I would become a lawyer or a scientist since my inclinations tended in those directions. Soon after I entered the university that plan was shattered. The proximate reasons for my turn to philosophy are easy to point to (there are three in particular), but I now believe that my childhood experiences readied me more for this moment than I knew at the time.
The first event was protesting the Vietnam War. At one such event, in Washington, D. C., I found myself talking with a political science professor who asked me what I intended to do if my draft number was called – deferments existed for my generation, but were always in jeopardy – and then he spoke to me about Plato’s Crito and Socrates’ discussion with the laws of Athens about what it would mean to disobey the law and resist. I had heard of Plato, but the image of Socrates confronting the laws of Athens was riveting and spoke to my own moment. So, the next semester I enrolled in two philosophy courses – one on Plato, the other on Heidegger and Sartre – both with the same professor: Joe Fell.
Joe Fell would be the second event leading me to philosophy. He was a legendary teacher – students crowded into his classroom and they tended to be the most interesting students on campus. Professor Fell seemed to embody the philosophical life and all that made it seem honorable in a difficult world. Scholarly, demanding, articulate, and dedicated to ideas he had devoted students. I was not the sort of student who I today would like or try to cultivate, but I was full of energy and eager. And my undergraduate years were heady times. I would have the chance to blend poetry and philosophy since a number of writers – I remember well hearing Philip Roth and Allen Ginsberg – were often on campus and I was excited by them as well. After graduating, I went to Austria to live and study for a bit, but a climbing accident cut short my plan to stay for a year. But that time was nonetheless important for me: I was often lonely, read a lot of Nietzsche, and heard a lot of Mozart. Most importantly, I realized that I genuinely missed philosophy and the university.
Going to graduate school would lead to the third significant event shaping my way to philosophy. I was likely quite unprepared for graduate school and so was lucky to have helpful conversation with friends. But here too it would be a teacher – two really – who changed me and helped me gradually understand something about philosophy and what it demanded: Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jacques Taminiaux. Gadamer was 75 years old, but seemed very young. Taminiaux was in his mid-40s and seemed very French. Both were philosophically demanding, rigorous, scholarly, linguistically gifted, and both had genuine philosophical imaginations that were inspiring. Texts came alive and ideas seemed to have weight when they discussed them. Both also had genuinely good humor, were humble, and open-minded.
So, I owe a great deal of my own becoming a philosopher to my teachers. Somehow I have muddled my way forward, but I know that their help was decisive. Because I have always identified philosophy with teaching, I suspect that my first full-fledged teaching position needs to be acknowledged as the next step in this process. Over the years, my conception of philosophy has changed a bit. Even though I have such a strong sense of the importance of teaching and conversation in philosophy, it has become an increasingly intimate matter and I know find myself carrying on conversations with others even when I am alone. Philosophy has always been for me a way of life, one that sits only with difficulty in the institution of the university, and so I struggle with distinguishing the profession of philosophy from the practice of a philosophical life: that struggle, which is also the effort to reconcile the terribly esoteric work that we often do with the need to see it as real and valuable to the world, is one that has deepened over time for me.
3:AM: You have written about the tension between tragedy and philosophy – German philosophy in particular. What is this tension?
DS: I would suggest that this tension is at the very root of the idea of philosophy that we have inherited in the West and that, until recently, has largely gone unchallenged. Over time, this tension was simply set aside as philosophy increasingly came to neglect the claims of art. But when philosophy as we now know it began Plato took the work of art, especially tragedies (and here Homer is included since Plato does not distinguish tragedy and epic as Aristotle will), as a sort of foil in his efforts to delineate this new way of speaking about the world called “philosophy.” A different stage or theatre was exposed – a theatre of ideas in the mind, not of actors on the stage – language and dialogue were still crucial to this new theatre, but even the residue of theatre that belonged to philosophical dialogue would very soon disappear. The birth of the essay, of the treatise, is coterminous with the essential exclusion of the work of art from philosophy. [As an aside, I would suggest that interviews, such as the one’s you conduct, are a gentle way of restoring something of the dialogue character of thinking to philosophy.] Part of the argument that I made in speaking of the German recovery of Greek tragedy as a philosophical problem is that this marks a genuinely new moment in the long history of philosophy and that this recovery of tragedy as a question opens up avenues for philosophy in general that have been closed off since the beginnings of philosophy.
Perhaps the most direct way to characterize this tension is to say that tragedy is the expression of a view of life as defined finally by an insurmountable contradiction (of a law of life at odds with itself), while philosophy will always aim at a sort of overcoming of contradiction (of the law of non-contradiction as the need of truth). There is, of course, more to be said. The form of presentation proper to tragedy is, as Aristotle notes, reliant upon language, meter, plot, spectacle, and stage. Tragedy needs to appeal to emotional life, to a feeling that perhaps cannot be conceptualized. Philosophy, on the other hand, is deeply distrustful of any turn to emotional life and it is equally suspicious of any language that does not abide by the rule of the concept, that is, by the demand for universalizability and consistency. The concept has long remained the mother tongue of philosophy and, at the same time, a tragedy that can be reduced to its concept does not merit the claim of being a work of art. This tension is prominent and a genuine concern in Plato and Aristotle, but for most of the history of philosophy after Aristotle there has been a sort of benign neglect characterizing the philosophical attitude to tragedy and to art in general. Insofar as art was at all a philosophical topic, it was found in that philosophical ghetto of aesthetics, which was a largely isolated subfield of philosophy.
It is Kant’s Critique of Judgment, a book that does not take up the question of tragedy, that will make the question of tragedy (and its philosophical modification as “the tragic”) necessary for his immediate successors: Hegel, Hölderlin, and Schelling. This opening has two Kantian claims driving it: first, that reason has a “peculiar” fate that leaves it unable to reconcile itself with itself (it has demands upon itself that are simultaneously impossible and inescapable); second, that aesthetic experience can lay claim to truth. While I would not suggest that Kant himself would see matters this way, it is clear that his successors – each in their own way – did see in these claims a reason to take seriously the idea of the “tragic” (and its insistence upon contradiction) and to take to heart the way in which the work of art offers a form for the presentation of this idea that is not constricted by the form of the essay or treatise (it is no accident that Schelling would attempt to write dialogues and experiment with other forms such as letters, and that German Romanticism experiment with forms of expression such as one finds in the fragment). Kant makes the recovery of the tragic necessary, but it is up to Hegel and Schelling to explicitly fold that idea back into the fabric of philosophy. The moment this tension returns as a theme after Kant, there is a rediscovery of the way in which it played a role in the formation of philosophy ancient Greece. In this way, Germans discovered the Greeks.
3:AM: You begin by discussing the strange fascination of a sentence by Hegel, which in a way inspired your book. Can you say something about this and the way Greece and German tragedy became linked? Is this a way which you think continental philosophy might be defined or do you think that actually the analytic/continental divide doesn’t track a distinct philosophical interest?
DS: I am glad that you noticed that sentence by Hegel where he claims that “the wounds of Spirit heal and leave no scars behind.” It was a sentence that puzzled me and held a sort of promise, but one I could not imagine being a real possibility. I always saw it as a counterpart to the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V, where the King announces, in advance of the battle, that the wounds of those who survived would be badges of honor and memories not to be erased: “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day. Old men forget, yet all shall be forgot, but he’ll remember, with advantages, what feats he did that day.” The Greek word for wound, trauma, makes it clear what is at stake in this question. There is a wonderful – if that is the right word – literature on this question of the wound that begins with the scar on Odysseus’ leg that his nurse notices when he returns home, moves through Sophocles’ Philoctetes, up through Shakespeare, Freud, and into the literature of the present (especially literature about war such as Tim O’Brian’s The Things They Carried). What made Hegel’s remark so stunning was that he could write such a comment after giving real due and a serious account of the suffering that was found in tragedy.
I have already indicated that this post-Kantian moment opened a path that would restore the question of art to philosophy as an original question, not as a derivative matter, and that it would bond German philosophy after Kant with Greek thought once this recovery of tragedy begins. I would suggest that this is one of the points at which analytic and continental philosophy part ways. I am sure other forces define this divide, but this one seems especially potent: taking art as a form of truth, as the continental tradition is ready to do, opens up sets of questions that are simply different than many of those that have come to define analytic philosophy. To be sure, there are points of overlap, there are more interesting and less interesting arguments in both traditions, but, by and large, I do find that the priorities defining them and the aims driving them are increasingly divergent.
3:AM: Hölderlin is a poet of interest to philosophers of tragedy. What is it about Hölderlin that is so important? He was someone for whom Heidegger had a great fascination, wasn’t he?
DS: I suspect that Hölderlin plays such a prominent role in any effort to think through the philosophical implication of tragedy for several reasons. First, he is a poet, translator, and dramatist of the first rank and yet he was philosophically sophisticated. He was a close friend with Hegel and Schelling in school (they had many of the same teachers) and he never ceased his readings of philosophy and of Greek texts. But what further distinguishes Hölderlin is that even in his theoretical works, his own language performs the question of tragedy as well as speaks about it. His style is quite unique and demanding, but once one comes to appreciate it one seems just how delicately he has worked the question of tragedy into the very syntax of his own language.
Heidegger was indeed in thrall to Hölderlin and there are complicated dimensions to this fascination since Heidegger’s readings of Hölderlin invariably have a political cast to them. They are usually brilliant, if still problematic readings. He genuinely loved Hölderlin and even had some lines from Hölderlin read at his own funeral. Heidegger’s deep affection for Hölderlin finds echoes in other philosophers: Benjamin, Adorno, Gadamer, and Kommerell all shared in this affection.
3:AM: Is tragedy the perfection of the possibilities of art and is it still viable today?
DS: I wish I could answer this question with any confidence; it remains for me one of the most difficult – and perhaps basic – questions for the issues that attract me. Hegel has it that tragedy is the summit of the work of art and comedy is its death. Nietzsche – depending on the period of his life – has almost the same answer. I am coming more to the opinion that our world today has genuinely blunted the possibilities of art and that the field of possibilities are shifting (perhaps in productive and creative ways), but also closing down (in dangerous ways). Heidegger put it well when he said that the tragedy of the present age is that we lack the possibility of producing a work of tragedy as art.
In the end, I suspect the answer one gives to this question will depend on what one takes a human being to be. If we are beings who are multiple and full of irreconcilable conflict, and if we are beings who make artworks in order to understand ourselves, then tragedy is at least “a” if not “the” perfection of art’s possibilities. If it is still viable might be a question that opens someone different problems; more precisely, one might need to ask what spaces for appearance and for works of art still remain for us in the technological world.
3:AM: Is Heidegger best understood as the philosopher wanting to understand history as the unfolding of a tragic destiny?
DS: This depends on the period one is considering in Heidegger. There seems little question that Heidegger does in fact think of history as the unfolding of a tragic destiny in the 1930s and 1940s. He tweaks that story and will not always tell it as a simple story, but, by and large, I do believe that he sees the history of metaphysics as the unfolding of a crisis the seeds of which were sown long ago and have taken on great force (in our language, institutions, laws). The arc of this story is essentially the arc of a tragic destiny. It also seems to be the case that he thinks of the present age as the fulfillment of this crisis and as a time of catastrophe en route. He does go back and forth about the prospects for a future, but mostly regards the present historical juncture as a time of ending and that ending as a destined one.
Some time in the 1950s he begins to change how he sees this story. The sense of an ending, the sense of crisis, and the sense of catastrophe remain, but the logic of this moment’s arrival is no longer necessarily to be understood in the same way. Modernity becomes as much a problem as metaphysics, technology and technicity are the danger of the present and seem to be operating according to a new sort of logic that does not abide by the laws of destiny. There still remains a sense of crisis and of a genuinely historical moment emerging in our present, but its structure and logic seem to be new. During those years and up to his death in 1976, Heidegger would speak more directly about the closure of the spaces of life. In short, ours is a time of constriction and compression. One of the ways in which he characterizes this situation is to speak of the “Kunstlösigkeit” of our times – the lack of art. This, especially if one takes seriously the claim that art has a real relation to truth, is the real danger of the present. It is a strange and provocative remark, but one I believe is worth taking seriously.
3:AM: Is it out of this context that we best approach your arguments regarding lyrical and ethical subjects and that what you call the ‘great riddles of ethical life’ are understood through reflection upon the finitude of human beings, and is this itself a crucial part of the tragic? Do your reflections on freedom and ethics take a phenomenological turn – and so are you finding a link between phenomenology and tragedy?
DS: Kant’s Critique of Judgment has become increasingly important to me for this project. While Kant himself does not explicitly develop the argument that I want to make that links the lyrical and ethical subjects, I do believe that Kant has opened the way for this argument insofar as he has demonstrated that the pleasure we take in beauty – a pleasure that he distinguishes by calling it the “feeling of life” – awakens in us a sensibility and that, when tended, this sensibility can open up an ethical sense. Before saying more, I need to fend off one possible misunderstanding; namely, that one needs to be very careful not to confuse this argument with the claim that aestheticism or connoisseurship breeds anything like morality – nothing could be further from this claim. Kant argued – and I believe that he is right in this – that in staying close to this pleasure there is a “quickening” of a sense of what is common for us. This is not about any aesthetic insight or talent, and it has nothing to do with any form of theoretical sophistication. It is rooted in a feeling that is open to anyone. In a somewhat different way, I have tried to think through this feeling of life by discussing the relation of the lyrical and the ethical subject. I use the word “subject” as a sort of provocation since the subject of such pleasure is not a subject in any normal sense of the word. But this is just the beginning of how this move to the ethical is to be understood.
You are right to point to reflection upon human finitude, to our consciousness of mortality, as decisive in coming to a more elemental sense of ethical life and so this too needs to be understood as part and parcel of the opening up of ethical subjectivity. In a consciousness of being mortal one is driven to one’s most human moment: one meets oneself, what is most inalienably “mine” (to invoke Heidegger’s vocabulary of “Jemeinigkeit” here) and what thus most defines me as a human being. In my more recent work I have come to speak of this self-understanding one has as understanding oneself as an “idiom” as what is not translatable, but nonetheless almost comprehensible. I would also argue that from this experience of what is most deeply human I come to understand not only the singular meaning and riddle that is my own life, but I come to appreciate and understand something of life as such. In a strange way, being driven to the most human of experiences leads one to find the real task of an ethical life that is not defined by or limited to the realm of the human at all. This radical solitude that one experiences in facing one’s mortality opens up upon a genuine and expansive sense of solidarity larger than oneself. So I would argue that it is this experience of the deepest and most certain of limits of a human life that opens one to a sense of the real and necessary relation of human being to the non-human – to the earth, to animal life, to futures we can not know or control, and even to evil and the monstrous. So these two regions of experience – of the pleasure we find in aesthetic experience and of the self-understanding one develops out of a consciousness of death – open up a sense of ethical life, of a life shared with others that I have tried to pursue.
Does the idea of the tragic have some privilege in how this sense of ethical life emerges? That is a difficult question to answer. I am not sure, but increasingly I suspect that there is no privilege to the tragic even if it still remains one way in which this sensibility comes to appear for us. Different experiences – especially birth and nature – now seem to me to be equally productive topics for thinking through this ethical sense. But I’m just at the beginning of this project and so hesitant to make a decision about what will come of it.
3:AM: You say language is so crucial to the notion of human being that it surpasses having a relation to humans. It runs deeper than ‘relation’. What do you mean? Does this link with your idea of Nietzschean performance or ‘enactment’ of thinking in the world?
DS: I suspect I need to be clearer when I speak of “language.” I do not mean – at least in the first order – words such as these that I write now or words that we speak. Of course, a fully formed language with all the rules of syntax and grammar, with histories and relations to other languages, is part of what I mean., but I believe we should not take for granted that we know so self-evidently “what” language is. It might help to remember that we need to include in the notion of language the language that the deaf speak with hands, the language that the blind read with Braille, and the language that we use when we need to speak with those with whom we do share a “language.” I have gradually come to speak more about gesture as such an elemental language, but even that needs a qualification. Perhaps it is best to shift the point from speaking about language as something that we “do” or “produce” to describing how we “are” in the world. Here
This does link with the notions of performance and enactment of thinking insofar as what is being emphasized is the idea of an on-going, living, and dynamic process of understanding that is always engaged (or enacted/performed) in the world. In short, by suggesting that language is more original than even human relations I hope to have pointed to one of the ways in which the human being is not to be understood as a given entity with already defined properties, but as a being who emerges from out of the world and who is always engaged in the struggle to understand and make her or his way through that world. The languages that we speak clearly articulate our worlds and give shape to our understanding, but I have come to question whether language is privileged or the sole way in which such a structuring of our world happens. My later emphasis on the notion of gesture and on reading the world is an attempt to open up a larger sense of how we are most originally in the world.
3:AM: You talk about the lyrical subject being required before the ethical subject can appear. Can you explain this?
DS: The notion of a lyrical subject is drawn from some remarks that Nietzsche makes about the Greek lyric poet, Archilochus, in his Birth of Tragedy. I was looking for a way of describing a different emergence of subjectivity, of the self that would become responsible in the world, and initially used the idea of an aesthetic or poetic subject. All of this was a way of trying to develop Kant’s analysis of aesthetic judgment from the Third Critique. That has always seemed to me to be a book full of possibilities that Kant himself opens, but never really pursues. For instance, he speaks of “aesthetic ideas” as counterparts to “rational ideas” and about a “symbolic hypotyposis” that is distinct from the “schematic hypotyposis.” Those notions are the first steps in framing a sense of experience and of the subject of such experience that opens the world and the idea of the subject in exciting ways. My own references to a “lyrical subject” are efforts to give a name to this sort of subjectivity that emerges from out of the world and is not first understood as a given entity.
In the Critique of Judgment, Kant draws a clear line linking aesthetic judgment to moral judgment. This becomes explicit in his discussions of the place of sensus communis in aesthetic judgment and even more so in Section 59 where he argues that beauty is the symbol of the moral. While I am not simply following Kant in suggesting that the lyrical subject opens up upon what we can best call the ethical subject, the argument that I want to make parallels his closely. The point that I press that is not so clearly developed by Kant is the idea that the experience that generates the lyrical subject is transformative. One is changed by the experiences that open up one to the world in this aesthetic, poetic, or lyrical way. This is something of the argument that one finds in Nietzsche, but it is also expressed in a quite pointed way by Rilke in the last line of his poem about the experience of looking at the archaic torso of Apollo when Rilke says that this experience led him to understand that way he saw meant “you should change your life.” Plutarch has a word that Foucault enlists in Hermeneutics of the Subject to describe this experience as well: ethopoeisis. So, I might say that I take the lyrical subject as an ethopoeitic event that opens one to who one is, to what the Greeks referred to as one’s ethos. This moves to the point at which – citing Derrida – one can say, “ethics begins.”
So the intention of this move is to approach questions of ethical life differently than they are typically approached today. The effort is to open the space of ethical reflection in a somewhat broader way and not to begin with assumptions about how that space is to be articulated. Hegel’s notion of “Sittlichkeit” – which is what I speak about as a matter of the space of ethical life – is helpful here, just as the original sense of ethos in Greek. One sees this original Greek sense of ethos in Homer, but also in Plato’s Phaedrus (267d) where Socrates likens the soul to a garden that needs to be cultivated and word to seeds that are planted in this garden. In other words, ethos refers to something like a soil upon which something grows, and that which grows in this place is one’s character. It is the place where the soul is forged and formed, but it also needs constant tending. Ethics, as I understand it, cultivates this place, forms a character, and nourishes that out of which anything like conduct, decision, action, right or wrong is to be thought and understood, but this place itself cannot be understood in terms defined by traditional ethical categories, above all by good and evil. My intention then in speaking of the movement from the lyrical to the ethical subject is to open the space of ethical concerns in a way that reframes how we understand the fundaments of ethical life and of its difficulties.
3:AM: In your latest book the painter Klee is a crucial figure in teasing out thoughts of Heidegger and Gadamer about how we think about contemporary art isn’t he? Why Klee? After all, didn’t Heidegger disappoint everyone when only a few notes were found in his unpublished papers about Klee and he published little about Klee?
You are right that Heidegger’s comments on Klee (at least those available thus far: his papers are still being released, so surprises can still happen) are thin – at best. Other then the quite sketchy and oblique notes that we have (and that will soon be published together for the first time in both German and English by Philosophy Today), there are only a few other remarks on Klee to be found (the most important of these can be found in a seminar that Heidegger ran in 1958, called “Art and Thinking” in collaboration with the Zen painter, Shin’ichi Hisamatsu). Given the fanfare with which Heidegger announced his “discovery” of Klee in 1956, when he when to see a private collection of 88 paintings in Switzerland, one would expect that he would have said more about. So, yes, there is indeed a disappointment here: clearly Heidegger thought he saw something in Klee’s work that was truly exciting for philosophy, but clearly too he never really developed this insight. In fact, only a decade after he is so enthused by Klee, Heidegger will speak of the absence of art in the world today and claim that modern, abstract art is by and large nothing more than the annihilation of the object and not the appearance of a new way of seeing the world – and Klee is no longer even mentioned.
I decided to think about the few remarks Heidegger made about Klee, perhaps to write an article – I had no intention of writing a book when I set out on this project, but I soon found myself in a deep rabbit. I expected to investigate a sort of interlude, an episode, in Heidegger’s larger concerns, but it soon became clear that those larger concerns were very much at stake in his remarks on Klee. In fact, it seemed as if these notes were opening up a new avenue into Heidegger, one that I had not quite understood before. This is the point at which larger questions, questions that reached beyond Heidegger’s own concerns, emerged and the stakes became far more significant than simply making sense of Heidegger’s interest in Klee. This is the point at which the project of Between Word and Image began.
This project really began when I realized that I needed to think more about the history of the idea of the image in philosophy: how the image was thought, what role it played in how we understood ourselves and thinking, and, since philosophy has always understood itself in relation to the logos, how the relation between words and images was conceived. Since a specific conception of the image as the idea was decisive in the formation of philosophy it soon become clear to me that the question of the image was more central to the very idea of philosophy than I had quite understood. To investigate the image in the painting – something that was a serious concern for Plato – became a way of investigating the very idea of philosophy itself. Klee’s painting (and his theoretical work, which is quite philosophically sophisticated) was an effort to rethink the nature of the image. So, for instance, for Klee the image is best understood as a matter of movement, not at all as something static, and it is not a copy of the visible world, but – as Merleau-Ponty made so beautifully clear in writing about Klee – it lets the invisible world become visible.
I would not suggest that Klee is the only painter in whom we can find this way of challenging how we understand images. Personally, I have been especially drawn to Cy Twombly, Gisele Celan-Lestrange, and to Anselm Kiefer, but those are only a few examples of where one might turn. What makes Klee so appealing is both that he is very much at the forefront of this turn in art and that he is so very articulate as a writer able to give an account – in words – of what he is trying to do in painting.
3:AM: What does this tell us about how to think about the relationship between word and image? You use the idea of an ‘excentric history’ to develop your thinking here, and for you the question raises the issue of the very possibility of continental philosophy doesn’t it? Can you say something about this?
DS: I am very interested in what one might describe as the blurry line between word and image. That is one reason Klee, Twombly, and Kiefer are so interesting to me: their painted works often include words – sometimes clearly written, sometimes just fading into images – and it is not always clear whether we are seeing a word or an image. They are able to call attention to the peculiarity of language that it can be written. These words that I am writing are in the form of an image, but they are images that give instructions for how to make sounds and those sounds belong to a language that is full of meaning. Other images resist any such effort to be translated into sound or meaning and so present the image in a different way. These different forms of the image and its relation to the word are interesting points at which to begin thinking about this relationship.
There is a long history of discussions in philosophy about the image – from Plato and Aristotle to Descartes, Lessing and Kant up to Nietzsche – and, with few exceptions, what we find are discussions of the failure of the image to match the capacity of the word to express the world and thinking. Plato set the tone for this history: to think in images is, in the end, to refuse to think. The ‘excentric history’ that I try to expose is one in which the more radical possibilities of the image are evident. It is a history that tries to think the image not merely as a copy of something else, but as an original appearance of something. To be sure, images can be copies of something. A passport photo or ID card image serves this purpose of being a copy. But a different sort of image, one that calls attention to itself as an image such as we find in the painting can lead us to think about images as something more original than any copy could be. One of the most interesting and provocative discussions of the nature of the image that I came across was Heidegger remark –originally offered as a way of explaining the role of the image in Kant’s schematism – about a photograph of a death mask. What a strange image: a photographic image of a mask that is the image of someone at the very moment they cease to be who they were. Heidegger alludes to this peculiar image, but in Between Word and Image I try to develop this quite odd set image upon image in a bit more detail.
In the end, my intention was to disturb commonplace assumptions about both words and images, and to push to the point at which the strangeness of both ways of thinking about the world becomes evident. The stakes of this project concern the idea of philosophy as such – not simply of continental philosophy – since what is at issue is the authority of the word in matters of thinking and truth. Philosophy has always – perhaps rightly, but that is the question – taken language, the logos, as the horizon for thinking and truth. To call this authority of the word into question and to suggest that there might be forms of thinking not open to language is to challenge the authority of philosophy as it has long been understood.
3:AM: Does this help us understand further the issue of truth and art’s relationship, which was a theme of the aesthetic turn in German?
DS: Yes that is precisely what is at issue: how do we come to know truth, how do we think it, and how do we present it in the world? Again, this is the claim that follows in the wake of Kant’s Critique of Judgment. So, for instance, in Hegel the first real form in which Spirit appears as true is in the work of art. To be sure, for Hegel, this form of truth as it appears in art will need to be surpassed by other, higher forms, and ultimately it will be philosophy that sits at this summit. But the truth of Spirit as it appears in the artwork cannot be ignored or passed over. There is something that Spirit needs to learn about itself that it can only learn through the work it does in art. But, while Hegel recognizes the essential relation of art and truth he will ultimately find the higher form of truth in philosophy. It is Nietzsche who will challenge this view and so we find him saying that “we have art, lest we perish of the truth” – he leaves truth for philosophy, but grants art something higher, something more basic. As this tradition develops beginning with Hegel, moving through Schelling, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger what increasingly happens is that this relation between art and truth changes what we think of as the measure of truth. Heidegger’s “Origin of the Work of Art” is one of the first texts to make this explicit and that transformation in the notion of truth is one of the most radical features of that text. Others will come close to this point and, in different ways open the question of the nature of truth from out of the work of art: Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer, and Nancy are just some of those who have followed through on this possibility. If I were pressed to define one of the most interesting strains of the continental tradition it is this line that opens up the character of truth itself not out of any form of cognition, but out of the possibilities of the work of art.
3:AM: What did Gadamer contribute to all this?
DS: To my mind, Gadamer has, more than anyone else, pursued this question of truth as it emerges from out of an effort to think the accomplishment of the work of art. Truth and Method has three sections – the first on the work of art, the second on the logic of history, and the third on language – and everything flows from out of the analysis of the character of truth formed in thinking about the work of art. Truth and Method is the culmination of the tradition that begins with Kant and moves from Hegel up to Heidegger and it is the first text in that tradition to draw together all the themes – of art, history, and language – that have been opened up in new ways after Kant. Gadamer also manages to draw the Greeks back into the discussion, not on the topic of tragedy as one finds in Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, but on the questions of dialogue (in Plato) and of ethical judgment (in Aristotle). For me, Truth and Method is a remarkable synthesis and advance of the tradition that follows in Kant’s wake.
Gadamer’s post Truth and Method writings are equally exciting and push the issue of the relation of art and truth even further. His work ranged widely – over music, poetry, painting, and performance – and he engaged his contemporaries, especially Derrida, in lively ways. There was a special modesty that defined Gadamer as a person and this shows in his work as well: there is always a resistance to the idea that there are experts, grand stories to be told, and great systems to be built. He was in many ways very different than his teacher, Heidegger, who would always be prone to large pronouncements about the end of history, of metaphysics, new beginnings, and catastrophe. Unlike Heidegger, Gadamer also expressed a genuine curiosity about his contemporaries and was interested in the debates of the present. I suspect that this modesty and his more sober sense of the present have brought Gadamer less attention that I believe he deserves. He was very much a Socratic presence: curious, questioning, interested in young people and what might happen in the future, and scholarly. Above all, he was a good listener and in this he taught us how hermeneutics really worked. As you can see, I remain still a great admirer of Gadamer and I believe that there is much to be learned from his work that we have yet to understand.
3:AM: Can you say something about Klee’s writings and how they relate to his painting? What philosophical issues do they raise and how do you answer them?
DS: Klee was quite a good writer and was theoretically very sophisticated. As a young student he was an avid reader of Greek tragedy (in Greek) and one of the thrills for me while working on my book was the chance to see some of his Greek texts with notes and drawings in them that where housed in the Klee-Museum in Berne. Klee was also an accomplished musician and very literate. So his texts often have layers of references in them to other works. He was not a scholar in one sense of the word (we don’t find footnotes and references that define scholarship today), but he was a rigorous and very precise writer. The 1924 lecture he gave at the opening of an exhibition of his work in Jena is a real masterpiece. It is called simply “On Modern Art” and remains as one of the great statements on the nature of art we have today.
But Klee was a teacher as well and his notebooks from the years he taught at the Bauhaus are extraordinary texts. They are complex and range presented in the form of words, charts, diagrams, sketches, and musical scores. They are visually striking notebooks and even before one tries to read them, one seems to see something of what will be said. So far as I know, there are no recordings of Klee giving a lecture or teaching, but I would have dearly loved to hear him lecture.
There are two issues that surface most frequently and as most significant in Klee’s own self-interpretations: genesis and life. Sometimes they come in the form of other words – Klee was not always strict about conceptual consistency since he would let a point be made in different ways – and so we also need to speak of creativity, becoming, movement, birth, and time. What I have found stimulating about Klee’s written work, and have learned to see in his painterly work, is just how much the image is a matter of movement, of genesis, of becoming. Klee even argued that his paintings needed to be understood as more temporally defined works than a musical work. This sense that this image is a matter of movement is something that I have tried to respond to by speaking of gesture.
What is most exciting for me about Klee is that the painting, as he understands it (and as he attempts to paint it), is the movement of life repeated in colors, lines, and forms. In speaking this way, Klee’s understanding of the painting echoes the ancient Greek sense that belongs to the word for painting: zoōgraphia, which means “the writing of zoe,” the writing of life.
3:AM: And finally for the philosophically curious here at 3:AM, are there five books other than your own that you can recommend to take us further into your philosophical work?
DS: That is difficult and if I tried to point to five texts I am sure I would only name the obvious ones. There is so much serendipity in what one finds, even when one has a clearly definable project. And not all of the books that affect me relate directly to philosophy (so, for instance, I just finished reading Confessions by Jaume Cabré and I suspect that it will influence me in ways that will take a long time to measure). My friends and my wife have also written books that have helped me in significant ways. So, rather than struggle to come up with a list that pretends to be more than it is, I will take this as an occasion to suggest five books that one might overlook and that are on my desk at the moment:
1. Simone Weil, Achilles – or the poem of force
2. Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering
3. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
4. Jacques Derrida, “Béliers”
5. Martin Heidegger, “Die Armut”
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, February 25th, 2017.