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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


"For poetry differs from reality by the fact that in it life flows past us, interesting and yet painless ; while in reality, on the contrary, so long as it is painless it is uninteresting, and as soon as it becomes interesting, it does not remain without pain."-- Schopenhauer, Part 204. Supplements to the Third Book of THE WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION.
I started re-reading Schopenhauer to follow up the issue of "feminine will" currently pursued in the WHAT WOMEN WILL essay-series, but the gloomy philosopher has application to other aspects of my lit-crit theory as well. 

In the quote above, Schopenhauer speaks of the fact that for the reader of "poetry" (by which he means prose and plays as well as traditional poetry) the "life" depicted in the narrative is both "interesting and yet painless" for the reader.  Of course Schopenhauer knows very well that those narrative events he deems "interesting" are for the fictional characters sources of conflict, and therefore sources of real or potential pain, but here he's concentrating on the irony that our real lives cannot become "interesting" and at the same time "remain without pain" (or again, at least the potential for pain).  Schopenhauer suggests that in some sense this is much of the appeal of poetry inheres in this ability to watch others suffering terrible fates from afar.  This description recalls Kant's identification that the affect of "the sublime" depended largely on the subject's knowledge that he himself was not threatened by the awesome source of sublimity:

“…consider bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piling up in the sky [and other examples of furious nature]... Compared to the might of any of these, our ability to resist becomes an insignificant trifle. Yet the sight of them becomes all the more attractive the more fearful it is, provided we are in a safe place. And we like to call these objects sublime because they raise the soul’s fortitude above its usual middle range..."-- Section 261.

Schopenhauer does pursue Kant's concept of sublimity elsewhere in WORLD, but not in this section.  However, the above observation has even greater application to my notion, expressed here,

that the traditional notion of narrative conflict should be seen as coterminous with George Bataille's concept of "the transgressive," as detailed in his work LITERATURE AND EVIL.  I've observed that even in isophenomenal works-- works wherein there is no challenge to reason as such; no manifestations of the uncanny or the marvelous-- there remains a tension between "typical reality" and "atypical reality," as schematized by Frank Cioffi in this resource:

The “classic detective story” (as defined by John G. Cawelti) takes a similar structure [to that of the status quo formula story]. Into a fairly conventional and familiar world a crime intrudes, and by the story’s conclusion, the crime is solved, and the integrity of society is reinforced (40).

As I've mentioned elsewhere I find Cioffi's term "anomaly" useful to describe the element or elements that provide the motive force of the narrative, so it would seem that the anomaly expresses the narrative's need for conflict/transgression.

However, one need not assume, as Schopenhauer gloomily does, that all that is "interesting" is entirely defined by "pain."  It would be more useful to see pain linked to pleasure in a continuum of kinetic emotional affects which the narrative conjures forth to make possible both conflict and character identification.  Paglia, indeed, speaks of "pleasure-pain" as being "the gross continuum of nature." In reality we always have this potential for pain or pleasure; in fiction our delectation of fictional conflicts is always somewhat removed from immediate experience, as I've covered in my extrapolations of Susanne Langer's concept of the gesture.  This would apply even to a work would seem to offer pure pleasure rather than pain-- say, a simple pornographic tale in which the "anomaly" is that a pizza-boy goes to make a delivery to an apartment (uninteresting) but comes away after a sexual encounter with the apartment's hot-babe resident (interesting).

Interestingly, in a separate essay Schopenhauer seems to see fiction's diversions as distracting from one's knowledge of real pain (which elsewhere he regards as necessary for one's transcendence of the will):
we call drama or descriptive poetry interesting when it represents events and actions of a kind which necessarily arouse concern or sympathy, like that which we feel in real events involving our own person. The fate of the person represented in them is felt in just the same fashion as our own: we await the development of events with anxiety; we eagerly follow their course; our hearts quicken when the hero is threatened; our pulse falters as the danger reaches its acme, and throbs again when he is suddenly rescued. Until we reach the end of the story we cannot put the book aside; we lie away far into the night sympathising with our hero’s troubles as though they were our own. Nay, instead of finding pleasure and recreation in such representations, we should feel all the pain which real life often inflicts upon us, or at least the kind which pursues us in our uneasy dreams, if in the act of reading or looking at the stage we had not the firm ground of reality always beneath our feet. As it is, in the stress of a too violent feeling, we can find relief from the illusion of the moment, and then give way to it again at will. Moreover, we can gain this relief without any such violent transition as occurs in a dream, when we rid ourselves of its terrors only by the act of awaking.
However, in the very next section of this essay Schopenhauer anticipates Northrop Frye's distinction between the "narrative values" and "significant values" of a work, by distinguishing between its "interest" and its "beauty:"

It is obvious that what is affected by poetry of this character is our will , and not merely our intellectual powers pure and simple. The word interest means, therefore, that which arouses the concern of the individual will, quod nostrâ interest ; and here it is that beauty is clearly distinguished from interest. The one is an affair of the intellect, and that, too, of the purest and simplest kind. The other works upon the will. Beauty, then, consists in an apprehension of ideas; and knowledge of this character is beyond the range of the principle that nothing happens without a cause. Interest, on the other hand, has its origin nowhere but in the course of events; that is to say, in the complexities which are possible only through the action of this principle in its different forms.

The association here between beauty and Ideas in a quasi-Platonic sense may relate Kant's association between "the beautiful" and "boundedness:"
"The beautiful in nature concerns the form of the object, which consists in its being bounded.-- CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT, Section 245.
I've not yet finished re-reading Schopenhauer's reflections on the sublime, so this remains only a tenative conclusion.  Still, Schopenhauer's distinction between "the concern of the individual will" and "an affair of the intellect" should yield interesting applications to an archetypal theory of art and literature.

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