MORALITY IN THE AESTHETIC ORDER?
from the head of Orpheus, bobbing down the river...
“Beauty will save the world—but which beauty?”
A QUESTION: If, according to Kant, there is beauty in the moral order, is there morality in the aesthetic order?
In the Michel Gondry film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, based on a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, Clementine tells her boyfriend, Joel, that when she was eight she had an ugly girl doll she called Clementine, and she yelled at it, “You can’t be ugly; be pretty!” Clementine continues, “It’s weird, like if I can transform her, I would magically change, too.” Later, when the two lovers are running around in the Barnes & Nobel bookstore, Clementine says “Hide me someplace deeper, someplace buried, hide me under Humiliation.”
Something beautiful, something desired, something messy. The problem with Beauty and Desire is that they are messy. Shame of masturbation, shame of murder, shame of adultery.
Kant says, “The correctness if such an ideal of beauty is evidenced by its not permitting any sensuous charm to mingle with the delight in its object, in which it still allows us to take a great interest. This fact in turn shows that an estimate formed according to such a standard can never be purely aesthetic and that one formed according to an ideal of beauty cannot be a simple judgment of taste.” (From A Syntopicon— Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Aesthetic Judgment— Beauty in the moral order—479c—“The Ideal of beauty”)
Clementine says, “This is it, Joel. It’s going to be gone soon. What do we do?” Joel says, “Enjoy it.” This is a solid Cyrenaic hedonist answer to their dilemma. It may lead to a happy ending for a love story, but there is more to life than a happy ending to a love story. Or not.
An assay into descriptive ethics:
(I owe a debt of gratitude to Wikipedia. Forgive me the lack of footnotes.)
Is it possible to have knowledge of what is right and wrong?
Socrates admonishes us to look inward
towards our humanness, not towards the world—
Character is the key to virtue
If we can reach our full potential
Become real, we will do good, says Aristotle
Self-realization is the key to virtue
For Stoics, peace of mind is the goal
The inviolate will is the means to this goal
Freedom from attachments is the key
Fulfilling the momentary desire or pursuit
Of spiritual bliss is the principal of Hedonism
“Eat, drink & be merry! Fear not death!”
Mohists promote the benefit of all under heaven
And eliminating harm to all under heaven
Confucians emphasize relationships
As the most important consideration in ethics—
To be ethical we do what our relationships need
Nonviolence towards all sentient being
To find happiness and the causes for happiness
Discipline is the key of our Buddhist virtue
“You may wind up in another’s shoes
In the next incarnation—be selfless
And kind,” say we Hindus
Moral responsibility is the key to Heaven for Muslims
“Keep God in your heart and the world in your hand”
God grants us the faculty to discern good from evil
Love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness due to sin.
With divine assistance, we Christians are called
To become virtuous in both thought and deed
Go to the Bible, to the wisdom narratives
To answer Judaic moral questions—note the
Dynamic interplay between law and ethics
From a Consequentialist standpoint,
A morally right action produces a good outcome—
"The ends justify the means”
Utilitarianism argues the proper course of action
Maximizes a positive effect, such as “the greatest happiness
Of the greatest number,” according to Bentham
Kant argues that we must act from duty—it is not
The consequences but the motives that are important
And the only real good is a good will
Pierce, James, and Dewey, pragmatists, believe
We should emphasize social reform over attempts
To account for consequences, individual virtue, or duty
Postmodernists study the conditions of actions—a simple
Alignment of concepts and actions is impossible—
Accept the messy nature of humanity as unchangeable
So, where does this leave us? Is it possible to have knowledge of what is right and wrong? As Webster Hood says, “It seems that the best we can do is to admonish everyone to be nice.”
. . .
I have been meaning to write you all week to tell you how much I enjoyed our conversation at the Tea House a week and a half ago, the one that began with Nietzsche and moved on to many other things. I have to tell you it came as a particular gift insofar as I had been for the hour or two previous despairing over the dim intelligence of our world, having been subjected just before you arrived to an hour of the most banal conversation imaginable by three very loud women at another table. To encounter someone as well read and thoughtful and insightful as you felt at that moment a minor miracle.
Also, I am really enjoying your book! I have to admit that after I left the Tea House, some hesitation set in and I wondered if I should have agreed to take it. It is something I usually avoid doing, due to the fact that I am an exceptionally critical reader and find myself hating most of what I read, particularly if it comes from someone who hasn't been dead for many years. To read something bad from a person I like
is deeply unpleasant experience. But not only do I not hate your book, I am thoroughly enjoying it! This may come as no surprise to you, but as we were strangers, I couldn't have known. It has a wonderful liveliness; it's funny and odd and also insightful, and the poetry tucked within it is quite lovely.
I am also struck by a number of curious parallels with myself and my life, which is perhaps not surprising in light of our conversation. I read the "Boats" chapter today - Moby Dick is a very important book for me, and your writing reminded me of a little photo book project that I assembled but never got printed up. Have you read much Conrad? I've been enchanted with his sea novels lately (especially Nostromo [not purely a sea novel, but a brilliant novel that involves the sea] and Lord Jim), largely for reasons you point to in Melville. Also, I am writing a novel about a cattle baron ("Animals"), and have written a great deal about art ("Art").
I will save more extensive commentary until I have finished, but in the meantime please know that I am enjoying it.
I'm writing from a hotel room in Las Vegas, Nevada. I'm here to teach a couple of four-week classes to art students at UNLV; I was nervous to come, for various reasons, but the first week went fine and at the moment I am happy for the quiet and the isolation. I deeply dislike Las Vegas, but there is a special kind of peace to a cheap hotel room - I am, in many ways, a monastic at heart - and the writing has been going well. As I said, I am writing a novel about a cattle baron in western South Dakota around the turn of the last century, and about his granddaughter, who is half Lakota. It was largely for this book that I was reading Nietzsche, because it is also a book about the story of western philosophy, and about American history. It's a book about a lot of things. It is my second novel. I should be working on getting the first one published but I am dragging my feet, so it languishes.
Most of my published writing has been art criticism. I lived in LA for fifteen years before moving back to Santa Fe (my hometown) last summer, and I wrote for the LA Times and various magazines - that is why I'm here in Las Vegas. But I've had a kind of crisis of faith with all that and I don't really know where it's going anymore. I'm supposed to be working on a book about art, specifically the concept of value in art - that is what my classes are based on. But every time I sit down to try to do it, I spin out very quickly into despair - from why does art matter? to why does anything matter? It's been a problem. I have always wished I could be a scholar of some obscure and narrow field - but it was not meant to be: everything spins out to the existential. It's maddening.
Well, I hope you don't mind a long-ish note. Thank you again for your book. I've been noting, in pencil, typos here and there, as you suggested - though very few. Best of luck in your continued reading/revision/reflection with the other two.
thank you for your note, it touched me, meaning that i felt a sympathetic soul responding to my work, and it touched on some important philosophical, maybe spiritual, issues i too have been struggling with
yes, our lives do seem to have points of contact, like your writing about south dakota, because just before i went into retreat, i was at the pine ridge reservation, in my robes, dancing with the lakota under the arbor, while my son completed his sundance for that year
and one of my daughters is working on her dissertation to complete a doctorate in art history at the university of washington, her thesis on the italian art movement of arte povera, and she will soon travel to milan to interview germano celant, the organizer of that art movement and now artistic director of the prada foundation, believe me, she has similar concerns, and she is a "scholar of some obscure and narrow field" as you put it and she too has existential angst, yes, it is maddening, but she presses on with her work
i suppose i have a slight advantage in this angst business being a buddhist, since we don't get upset that there is no conceptual "meaning to things" and we just relax into the "emptiness" rather than freaking out, and i can do art for the sake of art, selfish of me to be sure, and my writing i do for the "invisible circle" and for "the process" rather than for any material reason, lucky me
as for meaning, well, guess what? right now, i'm trying to figure out a new system of ethics based on aesthetics, something stimulated by the quote from c.s. lewis, "beauty will save the world...but what kind of beauty?" hmmm, maybe you have an idea
you see, we are in a dark void without beauty, and it's no wonder we fall into despair and wonder about the meaning of life, and it doesn't help being told we think too much, since it is really the case that no one seems to be thinking at all, so there's a lot of work to do to change the moral landscape rather than just leaving things in the messy mess they are at present, and a good place to begin is to "worship at the font of beauty" as pound put it, since so few do
oh, well, how i do go on, an email is no place for this, and i hope we can talk later, when you return
in the meantime, keep the faith and teach well
your friend, jampa
. . .
Is it possible to have knowledge of what is right and wrong? What foundation for morality is there beyond the Good. How separate the Good from the True from the Beautiful and expect right action?
Freedom, according to Heidegger, determines true Being and transcends all human being. Man is grounded in Freedom, but as Heidegger points out: “The God in becoming emerges in his becoming to something which has become and is the one who he is in this becoming as it. The inner-divine becoming is originally the self-seeing of the God himself in his ground so that this look remains in the ground. Just as when one person looks at the other in distant correspondence and, looking into him, longing becomes clearer in the self-seeing of the God in his ground, but that means precisely all the more aroused and craving. The ground thus wants to be more and more ground, and at the same time it can only will this by willing what is clear and thus striving against itself as what is dark.” (Schelling’s Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom, Martin Heidegger, translated by Joan Stambaugh, Ohio University Press, Athens, 1985, p. 136.)
Nietzsche also propounds this idea Beyond Good and Evil but gets bogged down with the polemics of conceptual schemes and relative perceptions. The freedom to think. To think beyond the box. To throw one’s body into the painting. To think with the feelings. Is this the morality of the future?
In Dante’s ethics, reason and will should control passion. Lust allows passion to subvert reason and will.
According to a note (p. 557) in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of Dante Alighiri’s The Divine Comedy, “…true or ‘refined’ Love was a quality of noble lovers…true Love had been presented as necessarily accompanied by nobility of heart, that is by virtue... Francesca goes on to define Love as an irresistible mutual passion (line 103) [of Canto V of the Inferno”], thus blaming Love as a universal force personified in the terms of contemporary courtly poetry, masking her own responsibility for her damnation…”
And this takes us back to the issue at hand. The appreciation of Beauty as the foundation of right behavior. Right behavior being the happiest course of action for the individual and for the group. Without a lot of bloodshed and shame. Something beautiful. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Not a bad metaphor for meditative absorption. Rigpa.
. . .
Rigpa. According to Wikipedia: In Dzogchen teaching, rigpa (Tibetan: རིག་པ་, Wylie: rig pa; Skt. vidyā; "knowledge") is the knowledge of the fundamental ground or Buddha-nature. The opposite of rigpa is marigpa (avidyā, ignorance).
Knowledge of the ground. Schelling raises the question of man’s place in nature, one that does not serve any systematic purpose. Evil introduces a necessary imbalance into the system of the world, that this is the origin of life, yet is chaotic and a threat that attempts to turn system into a servant.
Ground in contrast to existence; darkness in contrast to light; retreat in contrast to unfolding; and, finally, intelligence, the emergent rationality, the word. “Vitality” becomes the good, the highest value in this system.
Schelling attempts to reconcile God’s necessary nature with his freedom. In their introduction to Schelling’s Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Love and Schmidt state, “God plays a delicate balancing act in his own self-revelation, which may (as conditioned by the ground) and must not (as somehow overcome this condition) end in a disastrous contraction back into the ground.”
Compare this to Longchepa’s Dzog Chen analysis of the ground. Here I quote from page 66 of David Germano’s introduction to his Poetic Thought, the Intelligent Universe, and the Mystery of Self: the Tantric Synthesis of rDzogs Chen in Fourteenth Century Tibet, which is a translation and commentary on Longchenpa’s The Treasury of Words and Meanings:
While spontaneous presence itself forms a shimmering mandalic panorama utterly devoid of materialization, duality, or ignorance, the key lies in the emergent capacity for self-reflection and awareness deriving from the Ground’s compassionate resonance, which in that instant of the Ground-presencing’s manifestation is suddenly confronted by this swirling play of rainbow colored lights. In this single instant, this capacity for awareness can either self-recognize the lights as its own self-presencing and hence in the second instance become liberated as a Buddha, or fail to self-recognize the lights and hence inexorably move towards the dualist creation of the Other as it strays into dualistic existence as a “sentient being.” This split at the Universe’s first instant is expressed as the “freedom” of transcendence in contrast to the “straying” of cyclic existence, and hence it is said that the indeterminate, neutral Ground-presencing can either serve as the “foundation of freedom” (in the case of recognition) or the “foundation of straying” (in the case of non-recognition).
So, Buddha nature in Dzog Chen parlance and God in Schelling’s conception teeter on the edge of presence. The difference in interpretation is between a divine being risking a return to anarchy and an experience of self-recognition by a transcendental state of cognitive emptiness. This teetering is the enigma of phenomenal existence. Perfect. Or not.
. . .
After all the hierarchies, after all the palaver, after all the cups of tea, how are we to know how we are to behave?
Back to Germano’s introduction to Longchenpa’s Treasury of Words and Meanings:
Longchenpa then turns his attention to the authentic identity of this “Ground” (which is closely related to Heidegger’s conception of “Being” and Jantsch’s notion of the “Universe”) with an emphasis on showing how its pure vibrant nothingness can give rise to the wild variety of worlds we currently experience, which he presents in terms of the key dyad of its “original purity and spontaneous presence”, and its expanded (and equally important) triune identity as “its essence, nature, and compassionate resonance”. “Original purity” signifies the Ground’s utter emptiness wherein no-thing at all can be said to exist (“totally purified by any materialization from the very beginning”), while “spontaneous presence” signifies the Ground’s inherent dynamism which serves as the pure source-potential of everything that comes to exist. The Ground’s utter emptiness and openness is in perfect union with its spontaneously dynamic light energy, such that its emptiness is inherently dynamic and luminous, and its luminosity is thoroughly empty and unmaterialized—the two aspects are merely conceptual isolates abstracted from a unitary seamless reality.
Logical enough. Not possible to test this empirically. Logic suffices this far. But one can’t do Dzog Chen with concepts. Intellectual intuition is the key. Here, I turn to F.S.C. Northrup (via Wiki). An elf posits:
One early claim by Northrop in Ch. 2 of "The Meeting of East and West" was that Eastern Thought in general (really most applicable to Chinese thought) is that Eastern Thought deals with the world as an “undifferentiated aesthetic continuum.” That is, reality is all connected and unified, not separated into distinct objects (undifferentiated continuum) and is in reality qualitative as perceived (aesthetic = perception, but later related to theory of art). Some Chinese have dismissed this as racist and simple-minded. Others have embraced it as a correct characterization. What Northrop contrasts with it in the west is an abstract, mathematical or formal conception of reality along with an atomistic conception of reality as fundamentally separate objects. Concepts are in the west “by postulation,” while in the East “by intuition.”
A meditative experience of bliss-emptiness. Not a thought—resonate compassion as an intellectual-physical intuitional experience of the Ground as an undifferentiated aesthetic continuum. Resonate compassion as the aesthetic foundation for right behavior. That Beauty.