By Charles Matthews

Sunday, May 8, 2011

24. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 514-536

Cultural History: History and Imagination (André Malraux); Religion and History (Nicolas Berdyaev); Primitive Survivals (Charles Darwin, James G. Frazer, Henry Miller)

André Malraux: The Triumph of Art Over History

In this excerpt from The Voices of Silence (1951), Malraux extrapolates on his concept of the "Museum Without Walls," the collective artistic achievement of humankind, approached without division into cultures or epochs.

The development of the physical museum, a creation of the most recent two centuries, "imposed on the spectator a wholly new attitude towards the work of art.... Until the nineteenth century a work of art was essentially a representation of something real or imaginary, which conditioned its existence qua work of art." A portrait was judged as a portrait of someone, and not as a painting in itself. "In the past a Gothic statue was a component part of the Cathedral; similarly a classical picture was tied up with the setting of its period, and not expected to consort with works of different mood and outlook."

But the establishment of the museum, with its "practice of pitting works of art against each other," turns the viewing of art into "an intellectual activity" rather than a contemplative one.
For over a century our approach to art has been growing more and more intellectualized. The art museum invites criticism of each of the expressions of the world it brings together; and a query as to what they have in common. To the "delight of the eye" there has been added -- owing to the sequence of conflicting styles and seemingly antagonistic schools -- an awareness of art's impassioned quest, its age-old struggle to remould the scheme of things.
But even the establishment of museums allowed only for limited exposure to the world's art. Well into the nineteenth century "a man who had seen the totality of European masterpieces was a very rare exception.... Baudelaire never set eyes on the masterpieces of El Greco, Michelangelo, Masaccio Piero della Francesca or Grünewald; or of Titian, or of Hals or Goya." The only way knowledge of these works could be widely disseminated until the mid-nineteenth century was through black-and-white engravings. "The nineteenth-century photograph was merely a more faithful print." But technological advances, not only in reproduction of images but also in transportation, made a wider array of the world's art available to almost anyone who wanted to witness it. Hence, the Museum Without Walls.

This familiarity with art of all periods and all cultures has changed our approach to art: "It is not research work that has led to the understanding of El Greco; it is modern art. Each genius that breaks with the past deflects, as it were, the whole range of earlier forms." Each masterpiece, Malraux asserts, "keeps up ... a dialogue indefeasible by Time."

Malraux distinguishes between artists and artisans: "I name that man an artist who creates forms ... and I call that man an artisan who reproduces forms, however great may be the charm or sophistication of his craftsmanship."
Romanesque tympanum, Christ in majesty, Abbey of Saint-Pierre in Moissac
The fact that our conception of the artist was something quite unknown in the Middle Ages (and for many thousand years before) and that a genius like Van Eyck was commissioned to design set pieces and to paint coffers, does not affect the fact that painters and sculptors, when possessed of genius, transfigured the art they had inherited, and the creative joy of the man who invented the Moissac Christ, the Chartres Kings and the Uta was different in kind from the satisfaction felt by the cabinet maker who had just completed a perfect chest.
Three kings from the portal of Chartres cathedral

Ekkehard and Uta, Naumburg Cathedral
The development of art consists of a series of "victories over forms, achieved by means of forms," and not as the expression of successive ideologies: "The Last Judgment was the outcome of a meditation on figures, and not a declaration of faith."

We have come to recognize that "the world of art is ... another world, the same as that of music and architecture," and that "the long-drawn conflict between pagan and Christian art in Europe" has ended. Art is "one of man's rare creations, inventive though man is."
Just as the crucial historical event of the nineteenth century was the birth of a new consciousness of history, so the crucial expression of the metamorphosis of our century is our consciousness of it. Thus today art means to us that underlying continuity due to a latent kinship between the works of art of all ages which is a historical continuity, since never does an art destroy all that it has inherited; El Greco broke with Titian, but not by painting pictures like Cézanne's. 
Through art, humankind achieves a victory over destiny: "what survives for us in the great arts of the past is the indefeasible inner voice of civilizations that have passed away." And the art of the twentieth century suggests "that there is tentatively taking form, for the first time in history, the concept of a world-wide humanism." We are coming to realize that "the cultures of civilizations that have died out" are not so much radically different from us or from one another as they are "cultures of different parts of the same plant." We have created a culture that synthesizes elements that once warred with each other: "If Aristotle and the Prophets of Israel met on the banks of the Styx, what would they exchange but insults? Montaigne had to be born before the dialogue between Christ and Plato could arise." In the humanist view, "each hero, saint or sage stands for a victory over the human situation."
We ... are the heirs not so much of this or that value in particular ... as of something that runs deeper: that undercurrent of the stream of human consciousness which brought them into being. We have at last become aware of their true nature, in the same manner as Hegelianism became aware not of forgotten values but of history; it is art as an organic whole, liberated by our modern art, that our culture for the first time is arraying against destiny.
We no longer toy with the idea of restoring "the mutilated statue" to its original form. Earlier, Malraux commented, "In 1910 it was assumed that the Winged Victory, when restored, would regain her ancient gold, her arms, her trumpet." Today, we would be as disturbed by that kind of restoration as we would be by an attempt to attach arms to the Venus de Milo. We recognize that these mutilations are a sign of the life in the work: "Mutilation is the scar left by the struggle with Time, and a reminder of it -- Time which is as much a part of ancient works of art as the material they are made of, and thrusts up through the fissures, from a dark underworld where all is at once chaos and determinism."
All art is a revolt against man's fate. 

Nicolas Berdyaev: The Historical Meaning of Christianity

Nicolas Berdyaev, date unknown
Like Hegel and Benedetto Croce, Berdyaev, in this excerpt from The Meaning of History (1923), sees history as a movement toward freedom. But Berdyaev isolates the moment in history at which this concept became manifest as the emergence of Christianity as a dominant force.
The exceptionally dynamic and historical character of Christianity is the result of the fact that it conclusively revealed for the first time the existence of the principle of freedom, which was ignored by both the ancient and the Hebrew worlds.... The Greeks affirmed the reason and necessity of good.... Christianity, on the other hand, affirmed the freedom of good. It affirmed that good is the product of the free spirit and that only such good can possess a true value and reality. It denied the compulsory and reasonable necessity of good.... Unlike the ancient world, Christianity is not content to submit to fate.
Berdyaev's interpretation of Christianity presupposes that the fall of man was indeed a fortunate fall: "The freedom to choose and affirm the good, rooted in the will and not in reason, presupposes in its turn that freedom of the creative and active subject without which a true dynamism of history is impossible." It is "the interaction of the human spirit and nature" that distinguishes the post-Christian world. The alienation of man from God dramatized in the story of the Fall "plunged man and the human spirit into the uttermost depths of natural necessity. The fall into these depths was accompanied by man's servitude to the natural elements which had held the human spirit and will spellbound." Nature "was populated with demons and man was powerless to dominate either them or the natural cycle."

But Christianity "liberated man from the power of the baser elemental nature and demons. It did so through the agency of Christ and the mystery of Redemption.... It distinguished him from baser nature and set him up as an independent spiritual being, freeing him from submission to the natural world and exalting him to the heavens." In the Christian view, "History is in truth the path to another world," a realm of perfection not achievable in this one.
Man's historical experience has been one of steady failure and there are no grounds for supposing that it will ever be anything else. Not one single project elaborated within the historical process has ever proved successful. None of the problems of any given historical epoch whatsoever has been solved, no aims attained, no hopes realized. This radical failure of the historical process, when we regard it as a whole, can only be interpreted as the failure to realize the Kingdom of God. 
But on the other hand, "Christianity also was a complete and utter failure." (Possibly because it was left in the hands of human beings?) "Two thousand years have not sufficed to realize the ideals of Christian faith and consciousness. They will never be realized within the framework of human time and history." But Berdyaev argues that "the failure of Christianity does not mean that Christianity is not the highest truth. Historical success and achievement do not constitute a valid criterion of the true," because "nothing perfect can be realized in time." The conclusion Berdyaev reaches is "that the destiny of man reserves a higher realization for his potentialities than any to be achieved in his purely historical experience."

Charles Darwin: The Pre-Human in the Human

In The Descent of Man (1871) Darwin tactfully approaches the most controversial conclusions of his theory: humankind's kinship with other primates, or as he puts it, "that man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits, and an inhabitant of the Old World." He rather sweetly advances some stories of kindness and altruism among monkeys and baboons to assert that this isn't so bad, and that he'd rather admit his kinship with them than with "a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions." But he insists that although humans have reached "the very summit of the organic scale" -- a concept that embarrasses many post-Darwinians,
We must ... acknowledge ... that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitutions of the solar system -- with all these exalted powers -- Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.

James G. Frazer: The Savage in the Human

J.G. Frazer in 1933
In these selections from Frazer's essays from the first two decades of the twentieth century, the anthropologist isn't willing to go as far as Darwin in separating the "noble qualities" of humans from the "bodily frame" he inherited from his "lowly" ancestors. In his formulation, "a savage is to a civilized man as a child is to an adult," which still leaves a lot of room for residual traits of savagery or childishness to persist into the civilized or grownup being. And research has shown anthropologists "that a mass, if not the majority, of people in every civilized country is still living in a state of intellectual savagery, that, in fact, the smooth surface of cultured society is sapped and mined by superstition." (A look at most state legislatures should be enough to confirm that assertion.)

Frazer is alarmed at the implications:
We appear to be standing on a volcano which may at any moment break out in smoke and fire to spread ruin and devastation among the gardens and palaces of ancient culture wrought so laboriously by the hands of many generations.
Moreover, "it is precisely the oldest and crudest superstitions which are most tenacious of life." For "the high gods of Egypt and Babylon, of Greece and Rome," have been forgotten except by the educated, while the masses still believe "in witches and fairies, in ghosts and hobgoblins." In them, "intellectual progress is so slow as to be hardly perceptible."

The Lion Gate at Mycenae

Henry Miller: An Archaic Mystery

Henry Miller, date unknown
Miller's 1941 travel book about Greece, The Colossus of Maroussi, contains these reflections on Mycenae, which both appeals to and repels a writer with some sympathy for the pagan point of view. "It is one of the navels of the human spirit, the place of attachment to the past and of complete severance too." What strikes Miller in particular is the aura of cruelty that lingers about the place, despite its setting of natural beauty:
Argos gleams resplendent, a point of light shooting arrows of gold into the blue. Argos belongs to myth and fable: her heroes never took on flesh. But Mycenae, like Tiryns, is peopled with the ghosts of antedilivial men, Cyclopean monsters washed up from the sunken ridges of Atlantis. Mycenae was first heavy-footed, slow, sluggish, ponderous, thought embodied in dinosaurian frames, war reared in anthropophagous luxury, reptilian, ataraxic, stunning and stunned. Mycenae swung full circle, from limbo to limbo. The monsters devoured one another, like crocodiles. The rhinoceros man gored the hippopotamic man. The walls fell on them, crushed them, flattened them into the primeval ooze. 
This is civilized man, feeling his roots.

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