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Monday, March 30, 2009

Putting a syllogism to your throat

In 1755, when Winckelmann wrote his essay on the imitation of Greek sculpture and painting, he had experienced, in his own life, little Greek sculpture and no Greek painting. He had not yet gone to Italy. He relied for his knowledge on the antiquities collected in Dresden – coins, drawing, copies of sculptures. However, his enthusiasm for the Greeks was all the greater for not his having trespassed on their reality. The book was so successful it made Winckelmann almost instantly famous. Diderot could be confident that his readers would know who Winckelmann was when, in the Salon of 1765, he compares him, at the beginning of the section on sculpture, to Rousseau, under the heading of the fanatic. Diderot’s sketch of the fanatic is worth citing, since one sees, here, definite intersignes with the Nephew of Rameau.

“I love the fanatics: not those who present you with some absurd formula of faith, and who, putting a knife to your throat, yell: Sign, or die; but those instead who, taken strongly by some particular and innocent taste, no longer see anything to which it is comparable, defending it with all their might; carrying into the houses and streets attended not by a lance, but by a syllogism, summoning both those who pass by and those who’ve been stopped to agree with their absurdity, or the superiority of the charms of their Dulcinea over all the other creatures of the world. They are amusing, the latter. They amuse me, and sometimes they astonish me. When by chance they have encountered the truth, they expose it with an energy that breaks and reverses everything. In the paradox, piling up images upon images, calling to their aid all the powers of eloquencee, all the figures, the bold comparisons, the tropes, the movements, addressing themselves to the sentiments, to the imagination, attacking the soul in its sensibility on all kinds of sides, the spectacle of their efforts is still beautiful. Such is Jean-Jacques Rousseau when he comes forward, bursting the chains, against the letters that he has cultivated his entire life long, the philosophy that he professed, the society of our corrupted cities, in the midst of which he burns to take up residence, and where he would be driven to despair if he were ignored, unknown, forgotten. However much he shuts the window of his hermitage that looks out on the capital, it is the only view he sees. In the depth of his forest, he is elsewhere. Such is Winckelmann, when he compares the productions of the ancient artist to the moderns.” (X, 355)

In fact, as Diderot pursues the argument, Winckelmann makes a mistake that is the opposite of Rousseau’s. Instead of basing art upon nature, he bases it upon the ancients. Diderot, however, is, in the end, on the side of the moderns, even if he owes a particular vision of the ancients to Winckelmann:

“But pose to him a second question, and ask whether it is better to study the ancient than nature, without the knowledge, the study and the taste of which the ancient artists, with all the particular advantages by which they were privileged, would have left us, nevertheless, merely mediocre works. Without hesitating, he will say, the ancients. And suddenly we see the man who has the most intelligence, heat and taste, negate it all, placing himself in the pretty midst of Toboso.”

Don Quixote, an underground Don Quixote, pursues all these comparisons, becomes all these fanatics – and will until there is breaking and reversal indeed. Diderot's tone, and the love of fanatics, makes him into the kind of medical observer, the observer of curiosities and manias, with which Don Quixote's path is strewn.

Yet Diderot, who, in the depths of the forest, sees, or so he claims, the forest, does not see how he has already accepted Winckelmann as his guide to the ancients. In fact, classical scholars do date the revolution in modern classical studies to Winckelmann. And not just to the more scholarly later work, when Winckelmann traveled to Italy and saw with his own eyes what he had praised in his essay. It is the essay itself to which Ludwig Curtius, the classical scholar, points in his famous 1926 essay about Winckelmann and his followers, both for its influence on classical research and for its broader influence on a diverse group – Curtius names Nietzsche, George and Lagarde – who took the Bildungsideal – the ideal development of the Greeks a la Winckelmann – as having a bearing not only on art, but on “life”. Winckelmann was an “enthusiast of a particular kind” who was “ruled by a passion… that sought not simply knowledge… but life, not simply scholarship, but the freedom of a new kind of humanity.” (Griechensehnsucht und Kulturkritik, Esther Sunderhaug, 268)


What is characteristic of the modern?
This question is, in a sense, a way of rephrasing the question, what is the human limit? My work goes forward like a game of hide and seek. I have to continually touch base. I’m continually pursued by It. When I touch base, I’m free, until another reiteration of the game.
A child’s definition of freedom.
In Winckelmann’s essay, there is one thing above all that characterizes the modern versus the ancient: the modern person disgraces himself when his nudity is represented. The Greek, on the contrary, is most himself when most unclothed.

The argument Winckelmann develops to prove this thesis moves from an Enlightenment geo-determinism that goes back to the 17th century (Montaigne explains his relativism by referring to truths that are different on one side of the Pyrenees than on the other). It is admittedly an odd argument to apply to a history as long and varied as that of Greece, but there were well known ways to explain how a constant factor like geography and climate could be countermanded by other social factors. Winckelmann is not, here, in a much different case than Montesquieu in De L’esprit des lois. Thus, we start out with the sky – the Himmel. Much as Goethe felt himself stripped, in a sense, of his Cimmerian darkness when he traveled to Greece, so, too, under the sky of Greece conditions are so benign that the human body doesn’t have to be wrapped up in too many clothes to be protected against the weather.

This is, of course, even more true of tropic climes, but Winckelmann ignores the obvious question of other warm climes. Instead, he sets other conditions coordinate with that sky: there is the healthy living of the Greeks; there is the lack of venereal or other diseases; and there is the culture of athleticism.

All of these conditions apply to the naked bodies of the Greeks. For nudity to be shameless, it must be ideally beautiful:

“The most beautiful bodies among use were no more similar to the most beautiful among the Greeks, perhaps, than Iphikles was to his brother, Hercules. The influence of a soft and pure sky effected the first development (Bildung) of the Greeks, although it was bodily exercises, begun at an early age, that gave this development the noble form. Take a young Spartan, who was the product of a hero and a heroine, never swaddled in childhood, who had been sleeping on the ground since his seventh year and in wrestling and swimming had been practicing since he’d developed his childish limbs. Put him next to a young sybarite our own time: and then judge which of the two an artist would chose for a model of a young Theseus, an Achilles, yes, even a Bacchus.” And, of course, the comparison with the New World Indian, which by this time we should expect:

Look at the swift Indian, who can run down a deer. How his bodily fluids flow, how swift and pliable are his nerves and muscles, and how lightly is the building of the whole body made. It is thus that Homer pictures his heroes for us, and his Achilles he characterizes specifically through the swiftness of his feet.”

It was practice that made the nude – it was practice in the nude that made the nude shameless.

"Bodies maintained through these practices the great and manly contour, which the Greek master gave to their sculpture, without mistiness or superfluous additions. The young Spartans had to appear before their elders naked every ten days, and those which were beginning to get fat had to go on a strict diet.”

It is, I admit, to quick and easy to take this route to the quotation from The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But I will:

“Let me return to this dream. Its horror did not begin with Tomas's first pistol shot; it was horrifying from the outset. Marching naked in formation with a group of naked women was for Tereza the quintessential image of horror. When she lived at home, her mother forbade her to lock the bathroom door. What she meant by her injunction was: Your body is just like all other bodies; you have no right to shame; you have no reason to hide something that exists in millions of identical copies. In her mother's world all bodies were the same and marched behind one another in formation. Since childhood, Tereza had seen nudity as a sign of concentration camp uniformity, a sign of humiliation.”

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