Saturday, March 28, 2009

Mohawk Booty, Greek Booty, Your Booty

The only serious rival to the “glorious Greek” was the “noble savage,” preferably North American. And the genius of that Prince of Arrivistes, Benjamin West, was able to combine the two. When in 1760 he was shown the Apollo Belvedere he started back and exclaimed, “My God, how like it is to a young Mohawk warrior!” - Winckelmann and the Second Renascence, 1755-1955, by Gilbert Bagnani American Journal of Archaeology, 1955(115)

Darcy G. Grigsby’s Nudity a la grecque in 1799 focuses on David’s rehabilitation in that year (in a new society in which revolutionary associations in one’s past were considered damning) that took the form of his exhibition of his Sabines paintings. David wrote a brochure to hand out to visitors (of which there were perhaps fifty thousand in all) in defense of his work, and in particular in defense of the male nude. It was also a defense of the artist as entrepreneur: “Isn’t it an idea that is as fair as it is wise that those who procure for the arts the means of existing themselves sustain themselves by their proper resources, and enjoy the noble independence that is natural to genius (qui convient au genie) and without which the fire that he animates is soon extinguished? On the other side, what more dignified means to extract an honorable part of the fruit of his labor than to submit it to the judgment of the public, and to only expect recompense from the welcome that they wish to give it?” (Necklines, 325) Grigsby’s essay disputes those historians who view the painting, which he calls The Intervention of the Sabines (also known as the Sabine women, or the Combat of the Sabines and the Romans) as a success, at least in terms of the “welcome” the public wished to give it. Grigsby’s argument is this:

“David's text arguably attempted to control debate as well as to instantiate it. In fact, contemporaries seized his terms and continued to dispute both choices for years. I would argue that the controversies were interrelated and that the scandal of David's tableau resided in the ways it made nudity a la grecque the centerpiece of a public spectacle. Indeed, it was the commercial presentation of antiquity as a site of nakedness and the mingling of genders and classes that made David's epic painting such a provocation to the critics of Directory France.”

Nudity – the shock of the mingling of genders – the shock of the mingling of classes – haven’t we seen this before? As Benjamin West might have remarked, it all has a Mohawk sound. If we are to make universal history, blindly, one of our first steps is to unmingled the things that aren’t to be mingled. Lahontan’s fictional factional Huron, Adario, saw perfectly plainly that the Jesuits in New France were ardent stratifiers. The rediscovery of Greek art put into doubt this stratification – that was its force. Rediscovery in the strong sense – as Bagnani shows by enumerating the editions of Greek classics after the Renaissance, the period between the middle of the 17th century and Winckelmann had been one in which the study of Greek culture was almost arrested as a scholarly affair. The Greeks lost their prestige, while Latin, which any schoolboy could read, became, again, the grid through which the past was read.

To be continued…

Thursday, March 26, 2009


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.”

Monday, March 23, 2009

discovery and knowledge

And so Goethe leaves behind Weimar, where he has official responsibilities, and goes to Italy as his father had, as Winklemann had, as Herder had – the great trip. But he goes under an incognito – an unknown man in unknown territory. The function of being “unknown” is, of course, relative to a knower. To take on an incognito is the same as coming down with amnesia; but, in a curious way, it mimics amnesia. It projects a certain forgetting of oneself on others. It is, above all, a dramatic conceit. The Lord of Dark Corners, the King in Measure for Measure, for instance, pretends to go on a trip in order to return to his city, under an assumed name, and see that thing we all dream of seeing: what things are like when we aren’t there. But of course the dramatic conceit requires a secret third, an audience, for it to work dramatically. The comparative task is entrusted to the audience in this experiment in bi-location. Goethe takes the chance that he really will disappear – and there are murders on this trip, for sure. Winkelmann, after all, was murdered.

The incognito shapes this voyage of discovery. As I’ve pointed out, the divide between the North and the South takes on resonances of the within and the without, the European and the savage. You can’t have discovery without the savage, he must be somewhere. It is an odd that few people, that I know of, have remarked on one of the great flaws in Foucault’s Les Mots et Les Choses – the absence of any consideration of discovery. This was a crucial term in the episteme of the 17th and 18th century. Perhaps because it traverses the disciplines, it remains invisible to Foucault – there is no science of discovery – in contrast to the project of creating a science of knowing, the task to which a considerable part of philosophy, at that time and since, has devoted itself. Like “adventure”, “discovery” is diagonal to the grid of sciences, the order of words and things.

There is another reason, I suspect: Foucault’s stubborn refusal to open up the system of knowledge, centered in Europe, to the system of the world. As with the Annales school, with Braudel as our chief representative, here, one senses an active forgetting of the New World in Foucault.

But we amateurs of black magic find discovery everywhere. And its semiotic resonances. Goethe uses the term Entdeckungreise (Journey of discovery) to speak of a “friend” who went on one, presumably to Italy, and ended up eloping with the daughter of one of the natives “because he thought it was all part of the trip”. And, as we know from Pocahantas, he was right. The package deal includes taking the savage, or some piece of him or her, home. Goethe spends a lot of time thinking about collecting antiquities, making molds to send home to museums.

Collecting is in a field that is bounded by the savage, the ancient, and the rare. But it is also connected, by multiple connotations, to nemesis, to curses on the takers.

Leave that for another post. As an unknown – an incognito – Goethe effects a transformation on the things around him by removing the clutter of his own personality. Oddly, though he knows that he is Goethe, his incognito makes the things ‘forget’ he is Goethe. It clears a space between himself and them. Not only can he “see and read the things as they are” (212), but he has escaped the bonds of the character. He is not, here, the author of Werther. When Bertrand Russell considers the question of the author of Waverly from a logical point of view, he instinctively reaches for a royal example – the example of George IV identifying, or not, the author of Waverly with Walter Scott. Why a king? There’s no explanation given. I’d say, however, that the immediate reference to a king is a reference to the politics of the name, which is after all state business – the subject must be registered. Goethe is not just any incognito – he is the most famous author of his time. When he visited a place, he was celebrated. And if he had revealed who he was, he knew what the result would be. The reality was that if Goethe came to Rome as Goethe, he would have to visit certain dignitaries. It was part of his position in Weimar, and it would be a scandal if he didn’t follow through on this protocol. Goethe would insult them. By dispensing with his name, Goethe was suddenly put into a curious liminal position, and a slightly scandalous one.

He remarks: “My wonderful and perhaps whimsical half-incognito brings me advantages which I could not have imagined. Since everyone is used to ignoring who I am, and thus nobody has to talk to me about myself, nothing else remains than for people to talk about themselves or of objects that interest them, and through this I learn thoroughly what each is preoccupied with, or what curious things have happened and go on.”

Yet of course this is a half-incognito – some suspect the truth, and Goethe, behind the name, knows the truth. This desire to slip his social connections, to escape his subjectivity, can only half succeed – in the moment he writes, the escape disappears. He even calls this, at one point, my disappearance.

“Since I didn’t want my dear little incognito to be something like an ostrich [Strauss], who hides his head and thinks he is hidden, so I surrendered it at some points, observing my old thesis. I gladly greeted the Count von Liechtenstein, the brother of my dear friend, Baroness Harrach, and sometimes dined with him, and soon observed that my compliance here would lead me to other things, and so it proved.”


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...