Thursday, March 05, 2009

claim, harm, interest, the modern

According to the OED, the etymology of the word ‘interest’ is mysterious. Until the sixteenth century, interest was spelled interess in English. It seems to have come from inter-esse, between being. It meant a claim on, a share in – what you give is what you take, potlatch rules. But the old French was interet, and it meant loss, or damage. Somehow, the “t” made its perilous way across the channel and stuck itself to interess. Which of course still meant share, claim, and contained economic meanings that would pacify Shylock – but it also broadened out to mean being curious about. Is curiosity a harm? Does the evil eye drill a hole in your soul? Or is the object or person or event claiming you? Or you, it?

Kant in the Critique of Judgement cut bait and decided that the aesthetic, at least, could not be reduced to the useful. The beautiful is without interest – although, with Kant, that moment of disinterestedness gives a satisfaction.Friedrich Schlegel, in his study of Greek Poetry, has his own sense of Kant’s beauty – beauty is not, to read Schlegel one way, for the moderns, precisely because it does not damage, it does not claim. It is an ancient ideal. The modern ideal is the interesting. Schlegel was 22 at the time he wrote his essay. He was in Dresden. It was the year of retraction – 1794-1795 in France.

I will take this up in another post.