The savage and the civilized, that world historical couple, show up, conceptualizing ghosts, ghosts of concepts, transfigured outlines of the victim and the victim’s victim, in the oddest places. Consider the parallel between, on the one hand, the exhibited savage – Pocohantas at King James court, or the Venus Hottentot – and classical statuary. Not, perhaps, a couple you would expect. They do play a similar synecdochal role, parts – especially private parts – standing in for wholes; and – given that geographies for the eighteenth century European were cast as different levels of temporality upon that new measuring stick, progress – the Greeks and Romans were increasingly seen in savage terms themselves. Or rather, by the end of the 18th century, Laffitau’s famous remark that the customs of the Iroquois reminded him of the ancient Greeks was becoming a filter by which the ancient Greeks reminded the classicist of the Iroquois.
The Great Transformation was, among other things, a great forgetting - Heidegger is right. Except what was forgotten was not being but becoming - the machinery that produced the savage and the civilized, and how the outcome, at the end of the day's work, was always uncertain. Was today's product the savage or the civilized? the peasant or the frontiersman? A gnostic history does not ask: what was the secret of the West? It asks what was the West's secret sharer. It looks for doubles and incognitos. All of our histories are tangled with the history of the rise of the happy culture, the culture in which happiness becomes a norm, an ideal, the hinge that connects the govererned to the governors.
The background of Goethe’s trip, what traverses it, is that it is a trip away, on the one hand, from an emotional geography – the dark Cimmerian skies, as Goethe puts it, are exchanged for the bright skies under which the orange trees bloom – and on the other hand away from the modern. When we move away from the modern, we move into the epistemological net of “discovery”, our cognitive key.
Discovery, savages, colonies, exhibitions. These threads are wound around each other.
The decade after Columbus discovered America, in January 14, 1506, in a vineyard in Rome, an underground room was discovered in which had been sealed a statue. The statue was identified by a Florentine architect, working for Pope Julius, Giuliano da Sangallo. Amazingly, Sangallo saw right away that it was the Laocoon described by Pliny as one of the greatest statues of the Hellenic period. Sangallo’s friend, Michelangelo, might have been there that day, too. Recently, an art historian, Lynn Catterson, has claimed that Michelangelo actually forged the statue. The Laocoon is prone to claims about its provenance, since it seems to some to be a Roman copy of a Hellenic statue, and for others it might actually be a Hellenic statue. Pope Julius immediately purchased it and put it in the Cortile de Belvedere.
The metaphor of statuary, as well as accounts and thoughts about statues themselves, are scattered throughout Goethe’s Italian Journey. The reason for this is that Goethe became sensitized to Italy not only through his father’s own trip there, but also through the late Winckelmann, of whom Goethe will write a long biographical essay. Winckelmann is the tutelary guide to this Incognito. Winckelmann, that great man for marble, whose murder shocked the enlightened spirits of Europe.
The great debate between Winckelmann and Lessing about the Laocoon was, really, about the system of the arts – what are the powers of the third life and how are they exhibited, to phrase it in my own vocabulary. The debate – we are not straying, we are straying – was about pain and its representation.
Reading Winckelmann’s Considerations of imitations of Greek works in painting and sculpture and considering the equation, variously calculated, between Greeks and savages, we soon discover that statues figure here in terms of colonies – and indeed, that there is a geopolitics of colonization that subtends the system of the arts:
“Good taste, which has distributed itself more and more widely through the world, began to develop first under the Greek skies. All the discoveries of the foreign peoples came like the first seeds to Greece, and took on another nature and shape in that land, where it is said that Minerva preferred to live, before all lands that she had hitherto encountered, on account of its mild seasons, as a land which brought forth clever heads.”
Under the skies (Himmel) – like Montesquieu, like Adam Smith, Winckelmann sees a strong connection between geography and culture. We are, though, approaching a moment in which that connection inverts. In the nineteenth century, the geography of warmth and bright skies becomes that under which stagnation and laziness flourishes. Not yet, however. And that nineteenth century theme was always traversed by a doubt – the doubt implanted by the classicist tradition. Here, the flow of influences seem to go from warm skies to cold wildernesses. For Winckelmann, certainly, the North was a barbarian place colonized by the Greeks: “And one must confess that the reign of August the Great is the actually happy point in time in which the arts, as a foreign colony, were introduced into Saxony.”
But it is not simply a colonial irradiation. For the Greeks did not come as conquerors, even if their arts colonized the northern climes. However, what is certain here is that the arts are a colonizing force. There’s clearly a certain politics of the savage, a certain mission, in which good taste takes form. Just as Derrida points out in The White Mythology, there seems to be a pattern attractor which, again and again, brings together these skies, these forests, these savages, this good taste, this movement – from East to West, from South to North. But the movements are delicate, the patterns can be reverse, ilynx is always possible. The Greek is destined to become a savage as he becomes less rococo. There’s a distressing miss match between the colonizer and the civilized. On the one hand, a moment opens up in which the wilderness will make its claim. On the other hand, the fact that the colonized are the more civilized – the Greek slave is the teacher to the Roman master – opens up what Bloch would call a utopian element in art. It is an eternal monument of the greatness of this monarch, that in order to promote the development of good taste he brought out of Italy the greatest treasures, whatever was perfect in the painting of other lands, and exhibited it before the eyes of all the world.”
But I have gone too far here. I need to turn back. Because, under my own incognito, I want to contemplate this splendid passage, which has the sound of a destiny:
“Der einzige Weg für uns, groß, ja, wenn es möglich ist, unnachahmlich zu werden, ist die Nachahmung der Alten, und was jemand vom Homer gesagt, daß derjenige ihn bewundern lernt, der ihn wohl verstehen gelernt, gilt auch von den Kunstwerken der Alten, sonderlich der Griechen. Man muß mit ihnen, wie mit seinem Freunde, bekannt geworden sein, um den Laokoon ebenso unnachahmlich als den Homer zu finden.”