The sublime in art and self-actualization

Blogmate Paul Adkin recently posted about “purposiveness and becoming.” The simplified gist of it – I partly conjecture, as Paul is ahead of me on some things philosophical – is that purposiveness is teleological or end-oriented. We get a sense of purpose by directing our attention at something “out there/not here yet” toward which we can strive. Thus, purposiveness is wedded to our process of becoming, of transforming ourselves. And if that process of transforming ourselves is in a predetermined direction, we have “purpose” in life.

After a bit of free association, I started correlating Paul’s ideas to some art shows I’d seen recently. In the arts, there is the age-old distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, sometimes cast as the classical and the romantic. Beautiful/classical is associated with symmetry, framing, a delightful rational pleasure; the sublime/romantic is associated with excess, passion, feelings of awe or of being overwhelmed by something that cannot be adequately grasped or framed.

So my tie between Paul and the arts becomes this: Beauty relates to being, the sublime relates to becoming; beauty is static, the sublime is dynamic. The beautiful artwork or musical composition comes to us framed neatly, symmetrically; it is calming and delightful, not disruptive or disturbing. Indeed, it is calming and delightful specifically because it ratifies our sense that we can frame things neatly, symmetrically, rationally, hold them in our hands and view them in wonder.

Knowing nothing of musical history, I think of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as beautiful, the perfect expression of that delight that comes with rational pleasure. Then I think of his younger contemporary, Beethoven, composing his 5th symphony 20 years later. The 5th is sublime right from the 4-note opening, the “fate motif” that everyone knows. The ominous motif itself seems a warning shot that what is coming is not beautiful but sublime, not an invitation to relax in delight, but something disruptive, full of passion that is not easily confined or domesticated; indeed, something a little bit frightening, breaking the comfort zone of being and expanding it in a way that causes existential angst, as the listener goes beyond their capacity to keep the response within pre-ordained limits. The capacity falters, and one is overwhelmed.

Though my examples might be faulty from the viewpoint of music history, I can still take the point about beauty and the sublime and apply it to self-actualization. Beauty resonates with our stages along the path, it resonates with the pleasure we get when we can pause, look around us, and appreciate the wonderland we happen to be in at this stage of life or of reality. The sublime resonates with our moments of transformation, disruption, the struggle between stages, where one fixed stage is lost and the new not arrived. It is a period of angst – frightening, dizzying, and exhilarating at the same time. The self that has existed up to this moment is overwhelmed and swept aside and the new self not yet formed. It is not unlike what ancient civilizations must have felt at the winter solstice, when the old sun seems dying but the new sun uncertain. It is the breaking of the snakeskin as the old self is shed, its boundaries shattered, but the new self not yet secure.

I know that Slavoj Zizek, whom I admire for his politics, has had something to say about the sublime. (Full disclosure: I have not read Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology, but I have read The Parallax View and a few other bits, and hey, as I said at the outset, this is free association time.) If I had to tie my thesis about the sublime to politics, the easiest point of entry would be in royal lineage. “The king is dead; long live the king.” In that paradox is the anxiety of the sublime in its political aspect. That moment between the death of one monarch and the coronation of the heir must have been one of tremendous anxiety for the body politic, the opening for bloody war and massive dislocation in the fragile civil society, the sublime moment of transformation is all its terrible possibility. Best to try close the gap to the single breath indicated by the semicolon: “The king is dead; long live the king.”

For Zizek, I know, it’s probably more of an ideological thing. Perhaps the self gets overwhelmed and lost in the totalizing ideology that swamps it. This seems especially relevant in totalitarian societies. But I like my king example for how it resonates with those transformative moments in self-actualization.

Just to finally touch on Zizek’s psychoanalytic (Freudian) angle on the sublime, as I am told that he goes there, too. Freud’s superego, of course, relates nicely to the sublime. Let’s briefly say that Freud’s tripartite schema consists of (1) the id, which refers to the dark, primitive drives; (2) the superego, which relates to the inscrutable, all-powerful (father-) figure to which the infant psyche is subjected (and which the infant psyche introjects), the enforcer of prohibitions but also the source of higher ideals for which to strive; and (3) the ego, where the rubber meets the road in terms of the id’s reckless drives and the superego’s controlling function. In Zizek (or so I’m told), ideology functions as a superego. This, to me, opens an interesting dichotomy in the sublime. In one variant, the subject is overwhelmed by the inscrutable power faced and is humbled into in state of awe by the objective power. The second variant comes with the exhilaration of resisting and thwarting the Law – “jouissance” Zizek calls it. To stick to the political framing, the first variant might the “conservative” variant (cp. Edmund Burke), insofar as the subject is humbled, resistance impossible, and the objective power source reaffirmed. The second variant might be the more “radical” variant (cp. Kant), in that the subject breaks down the objective formations of power and proclaims its own dominion.

Back to self-actualization. Beauty and the sublime. An endless series of steps, each step a pleasant resting place, with the movements between fraught with danger and transformation, fraught with the possibility that that self might be utterly lost, humbled, overwhelmed (Burke), or that the self might be exhilarated and transformed, ennobled into some entirely new being who can look back in wonder at all the steps below, enjoy the delight of the moment, and then feel the pull of purposiveness and turn the gaze back upward.

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Think Big

Be the change you want to happen. Never accept any ideology from the Left or the Right that says we need to respect walls of separation between races, genders, etc. Never accept any ideology from the Left or the Right that says we should vote for, value, or prejudge someone innocent or guilty based on skin color or sex organs.

We can celebrate our different cultures, but we do so best when we disregard the dividers on both Left and Right and invite all comers to celebrate with us. When crunch time comes, like it or not, we are all in this together with our shared humanness at stake.

xxx

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Hitchhiking Mexico

Leaving Guanajuato from Paseo de la Presa, first you have a 10-minute walk through the tunnel that shoots out from the Escuela Normal.

Then there’s a big shoulder and it looks like open road. This is deceptive. The road winds back into the city before leaving for San Miguel de Allende, where Beat icon/Merry Prankster Neal Cassady died beside the railroad tracks in 1968. Luckily, I got a quick ride with a fiftyish middle-class guy who took me to the big traffic circle. Hitchwiki recommended starting here anyway. I walked to one of the topes (speed bumps), which are everywhere, even on highways. Great for hitchhikers, since cars slow to a crawl, size you up, and usually have a place to pull over. At this tope, I got another quick ride with a thirtyish couple. Now it was really open road through Bajío country.

I’m starting to think hitchhiking Mexico might be as easy as Germany or Belgium or Poland. Yes, there were warnings about highway crime but not on this route. I suspect that crime is more concentrated but less ubiquitous here than in the US. This may be naivete. It certainly feels safer here (although the edgier hitchhiking environment in the US has its quirky rewards too).

Fabrizio, the driver, grew up in San Miguel de Allende. His girlfriend and passenger, Marta, is from the more industrial city of León. Both are now at the University of Guanajuato. We stop for gas and the car dies. It won’t crank. I eye the pancake cactus nearby.

The March weather is nice but the sun heats up quickly in the afternoon here in the high desert. I grab my bag. Then the car cranks and we are off. They drop me at the edge of San Miguel, and I find a local bus to the centro for about 35 cents.

But enough walking. I finally stopped for a quart of water and a hamburger from this fine Mexican lad and his Swedish girlfriend.

The End

xxx

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Men, Stoics, and the American Psychological Association

The recently released American Psychological Association’s (APA) Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men has caused quite a stir. Is it a welcome effort to better society and save men from their own worst traits? Or is it a politically trendy set of generalizations that emphasize the bad in traditional masculinity, obscure the good in men, and proffer an ill-advised attempt at social engineering?

It is an interesting question, and if we want to move forward from here, today’s customary response (“I have my preset answer, my side is 100% right, and the other side can have no good points because they are de facto 100% wrong”) is probably not going to get us very far.

Take the following oft-quoted passage: “Traditional masculinity – marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression – is, on the whole, harmful.”

There is no doubt that some men are over the top in these categories, resulting in harm to themselves and those around them, but are all four traits intrinsically negative or can they (or some of them) contribute to positive outcomes (in men and women) as well?

Let the debate continue on the other three, but my nerdish bookishness forces me to defend my brothers and sisters of the stoical persuasion. The APA may make some fine points, and they may not be all that different in tone from the 2007 Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Girls and Women (although a tone-test would be interesting), but for an organization of this stature, the disdain for stoicism reflects an astonishingly simplistic and anti-intellectual attitude toward that rich philosophical tradition.

Let me refer the curious reader to this very brief summary of stoicism, and he or she can weight the merits from there.

xxx

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Inspiration

An inspiration, from the hippie generation to the present …

Link to Time Magazine: Thich Nhat Hahn

Like Gandhi’s autobiography, his books, clean, direct, and sparkling with compassion, show that all the most important truths are quite simple. It’s the execution that’s the trick.

The best description of the man himself, if I recall correctly, came from a colleague who described him as “a cross between a cloud, a snail, and a piece of heavy machinery.”

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xxx

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Art Wars

Review of Art Wars, a novel by Paul David Adkin

Art Wars is a postmodern mashup that moves between the writer’s present struggle to write the book and past encounter with an insane, and insanely creative, punker girl artist. The register is informal, full of fragments, street language, and hilarious, drunken asides that intrude in stream-of-consciousness style. But the more sophisticated language of Adkin’s earlier novels makes itself felt. The writer, however informal, is in full command of his language.

The basic configuration superimposes two pairs of characters: the narrator and the punker girl, Placenta (past), and the narrator and Placenta’s mother (present), who hires the drunken, underemployed writer-narrator to recount the story of her long-lost daughter. Although the overall structure of the text has the postmodern feel of colliding surfaces, the threads of plot never lose their human interest. We know the characters are characters, but we continue to feel for them as they struggle with authenticity – both in their relationships and in their views about art/non-art. Well-done!

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Epicurus on simplicity

1. “Become habituated to a simple rather than a lavish way of life.”

2. “Envy no man.”

3. “Make a practice of the things that bring happiness, for assuredly when we have this we have everything.”

4. “Nothing is sufficient for the person who finds sufficiency too little.”

5. “The most important consequence of self-sufficiency is freedom.”

Even scientific inquiry, which Epicurus engages at length in his (4th century BC) atomic theory of the universe, has the same end as all other forms of inquiry: “mental composure and a sturdy self-reliance.”

“By keeping these most important general principles constantly in mind,” we shall attain “tranquility” and “liberate ourselves from everything that drives other men to the extremes of fear.” At least so says Epicurus.

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