Friedrich Schlegel as a young dude was adept at netting the words that were in the air – and a lot of them were in the 1790s. Thus, in his essay on Greek poetry, he netted the word “interessant” – interesting. In Kant’s critique of judgment, the aesthetic realm was distinguished from the practical realm by its dis-interest. It was not interested in money, science or ethics, in itself. Schlegel took this to be a description of art in its “objective” state. Being a German romantic, he connected German philosophy to Greek culture – an often repeated move – and contrasted the objective art of the Greeks, an art that was natural and close to pure aesthetics, with the interested art of the moderns. That we label Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Sophocles Oedipus the King both tragedies is, for Schlegel, an error in the universal inventory – Sophocles being objective, and Shakespeare introducing the “interested” element.
The interesting – and self-interest – are, for Schlegel, hallmarks of 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. Isn ‘t that the
doxic object in its (non) essence? 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. Schlegel was on that point in the arc of his career where he was tending rightward. He ended up, of course, as an old Metternich propagandist.
Yet in spotting the interesting as the fundamental modernist aesthetic mode, he was definitely on to something. It is one of those aesthetic modes fated to be continually jinxed by philosophy, which can’t get over its Greek fixation oneauty. Recently, Sianne Ngai has been stirring things up by reflecting on marginalized aesthetic categories, like cuteness, zaniness or the interesting. In her chapter from her book about these aesthetic categories, the interesting gets dubbed the “merely interesting”. Ngai, too, goes to Schlegel for the codification of the interesting in the long game of contrasting the subjective modern to the objective classical. Schlegel, however, shows that the logic of the interesting – as opposed to the interest-ed, is stymied by the in-betweeness – the inevitable projection – of the subject. The interesting, to use McLuhan’s contrast, is cool, while the interested is hot.
In the English and American culture of the nineteenth century, the interesting had little standing. Interesting never fell from the lips of a critic like Hazlitt, or Ruskin, or Arnold, who were uncomfortable with the implication – at its most radical – that there was no room, here, for judgment. That is, the interesting seemed merely interesting, with that mereness making for a degree zero of judgment. The Victorians were nothing if not judgers.
In the revolt against the Victorians, the interesting returns to represent, mysteriously, an aesthetic attitude, something I associate with Stein and Duchamp.
“As lan Mieszkowski underscores in Labors of
Imagination, the interesting for Schlegel is thus ultimately a matter of comparison based not on kind but on degree. "Since all magnitudes can be multiplied into infinity," Schlegel writes, "Even that which is most interesting could be more interesting .... All quanta are infinitely progressive" (35,72). There is thus a sense, as Schlegel's fellow Athenaeum contributor
Navalis notes, in which what is Most interesting is the 'presentation of an object in series-(series of variations, modifications, etc.).” Ngai, 122.
Schlegel’s idea here derives in part from the opposition to what he took to be the source of Greek objectivity – the search for the perfect. If we see the perfect as the contrary of the interesting, we get close to why it is such a modern – modernist – aesthetic mode, and why it is dogged by its own generated opposite – the boring.
Ngai’s chapter follows Schlegel in defining the aesthetic mode from the side of the spectator, the aesthetic consumer, rather than the producer. However, once we grant the interesting a right to its place in the aesthetic domain, we are granting it a place in the whole set of motivations that come together in creation – motivations that may well overwhelm the divide between producer and consumer.
Which is where I will leave this note.