ACTANT ART: the 'je-ne-sais quoi' as a 'notarikon'

In the 5th installment of the series Tankens Magt (The Power of Thought) Carsten Thau together with the host Vincent F. Hendricks talk about the relation between art and philosophy. Without summarizing the general talk, mainly about the difference between beauty and the sublime (beauty covering a more manageable scope that the viewer can create and relate to without feeling that his pants drop – things are round and cute; the sublime leaving you naked, crushed, embarrassed, and destroyed – things are vast and ungraspable) I want to make a brief point about another area in philosophy that tackles what Carsten Thau refers to as the experience in art of the feeling of ‘we don’t know what it is, but we like it.’

Hendricks’s leading quote from Paul Gauguin: ‘art requires philosophy just as philosophy requires art. Otherwise, what would become of beauty?’ invites the expert to consider the thought of a lesser known philosopher, but a much more interesting one than the ones mentioned (Kant, Baumgarten, Burke), Vladimir Jankélévitch. Jankélévitch, who held the chair of moral philosophy at the Sorbonne between 1951 and 1978, was a most sophisticated thinker whose books such as Le Je-ne-sais quoi et le presque-rien (1957) and Quelques part de l’inachevé (1978) had a major influence on Levinas and Derrida. If Jankélévitch, or his ghost, had been on the show he would have known what to make of Gauguin’s imprecise statement. He would have pointed to the idea that what art and philosophy have in common is the proposition that it is the pleasure of reduction - that both philosophy and art (especially visual art and poetry) share - which ultimately defines beauty by relegating it to the space of the ‘somewhere in the unfinished.’ (Thau was speculating about the context in which Gauguin made his statement, thus missing what is already there in the text itself).

If one considers the principal levels of meaning developed by Jewish thinkers, and conveniently borrowed by German Teutonic masters and the like, one has to realize that the move from pshat (the simple or literal meaning) to remez (the allusive meaning) through drash (the solicited or exegetical meaning) and finally to sod (the hidden or secret meaning) is always situated, not in transcendence but in a graspable context. What does that mean? I’ll let Jankélévitch light up our fire, and seduce us till our bones collapse under the weight of pleasure. Jankélévitch knows how to break up words and art images, make us note the notarikon, the beginning of art and its relation to philosophy as it enunciates itself. (But first, allow me to frame Jankélévitch, here, before I give him the floor, by referring to Mark Alain Ouaknin’s beautiful work: The Burnt Book, in which he gives an example of a notarikon: ‘the word Anoki, which starts the Decalogue (Exod. 20:2), becomes Ana Nafshi Ketivat Yahavit. We go from the word “Me” to the sentence “I state my soul in writing”). In the following passage, we have a remarkable example of how Jankélévitch understands what it means to perceive beauty in the unfinished, in the breaking of words and bodies, thought and experience. Thus from Quelques part de l’inachevé:

Study consists of thinking everything that is thinkable in a question, thoroughly, at all costs. You must untangle the inextricable and only ever stop when it becomes impossible to go any further; with this rigorous research in mind, words that are used as a medium for thought must be used in all possible positions, in the most varied locutions, you must turn them over, turn them around again, showing up all their facets in the hope that a gleam will burst forth, feel them and sound their tone in order to perceive the secret of their meaning: do not the assonances and resonances of words have inspirational virtues? The rigor must sometimes be attained at the cost of an illegible discourse: you sometimes come very close to contradicting yourself; you just have to follow along the same line, slide down the same slope, and you leave your starting point further and further behind, and the starting point ends up by refuting the finishing point.

I try to compel myself to keep to this faultless reasoning, to this strenge Wissenschaft, a rigorous science, which is more like asceticism. I feel temporarily less anxious, when after having gone round in circles for a long time, sounded and kneaded words, explored their semantic resonances, analyze their allusive powers, their powers of evocation, I verify that I indeed can no longer go any further.

Of course, to claim that one can one day arrive at the truth is a dogmatic utopia; what matters is to go through to the end of what one is able to do, to attain a faultless coherency, to bring to the surface the most hidden, the most inexpressible questions, to make of them a smooth world. (18-19)

On the philosophy of aesthetics, I want to say, 'give me a break,' if it weren’t for Hendricks’s Antarctica Station shirt (by Napapijri) – the exponent of stark formalism is ready to learn something about reading events. And I can teach.


Bent said…
Said the aesthete to the philosopher, in a mock-Shakepearean sonnet:

Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger's jaws,

Hold in perfection but a little moment,

If I could write the beauty of your eyes,

Let those who are in favour with their stars

Of public honour and proud titles boast,

Such civil war is in my love and hate

O! Change thy thought, that I may change my mind:

Plod dully on, to bear that weight in me,

How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made

Yet do they steal sweet hours from love's delight.

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,

Like to the lark at break of day arising

All losses are restor'd and sorrows end -

Haply I think on thee, and then my state.
Camelia said…
Ok, you can flunk me in the Renaissance literature exam. It took me longer to realize that you were enacting the notarikon. What did the aesthete say to the philsosopher, eh? Philosophy blah! Pretty good, Bent. No, it's hillariously brilliant. As ever. In light of my own dullness, you're right to say that to me. May I, however, throw a Shakespearian insult back to you? All right, I'm not asking for your permission: you're a paunchy plume-plucked puttock.

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