This new weblog receives a volume of eMail disproportionate to the size of its present readership, a fair percentage of that eMail of the indignant or outraged poison-crayon sort. Every once in a rare while, however, an eMail arrives that's a pleasure to read if for nothing other than its thoughtful reflections and deep-felt passion, whether we agree or disagree, in whole or in part, with its substance. Such a one (in response to this post) is the following eMail from reader Tim Buck, which I here quote in full, and post without comment.
Like you, I reject the notion that a continuum extends from the great to the merely popular. It is, rather, the case of one being incommensurable with the other. A chasm separates the two. You have identified the side which contains greatness as having to do with transcendence, and I think more needs to be said; further inquiry into the nature of transcendence would be helpful. You spoke of an aspiration beyond "the quotidian world of experience," as opposed to "the here-and-now entertaining."
But what lies behind this aspiring [to] transcendence?
[Weblogger] George Hunka brought up Schopenhauer's aesthetic of World-as-Will, with the work of art an instance of numinous contact. Schopenhauer spoke of this instance as a kind of timeless state, where the artist and audience penetrate into an egoless thatness of the Will (perhaps the Tao?). Hunka states that this penetration can be an act of redemption. Maybe it is a way of escaping what Heidegger called "everydayness."
But I detect in your and Hunka's approach something that I would call metaphysical neutrality. To aspire merely to supersede the quotidian or to blend the phenomenal with the numinal, both seem to leave out what Unamuno wrote about in his book, The Tragic Sense of Life. I think the fuel driving the urge to transcend is angst, a prompting of the tragic. As consciously exemplified by van Gogh (or subconsciously manifested in the raving products of Adolf Wolfli), a deep-seated spiritual, existential dislocation is at the root of the transcending impulse, and the impetus for making and responding to great art.
Granted many great works seem to belie such an ethic of pathos, but I propose that even Bach’s Goldberg Variations or Schubert’s Trout Quintet, Corot’s landscapes or Monet’s gardens, Natasha’s dance in War and Peace or Mynheer Peeperkorn’s gestural and verbal idiosyncrasies in The Magic Mountain; even in these moments that are flush with naive joy, humor, and immanence, there is an undercurrent of the bittersweet; a subtle recognition of the distance between the human and the divine. In short, an unspoken acquiescence in the tragic.
Levinas approaches reality by discussing the Other. And I think that is what great art points to and is really about making a clearing for the Other, for Otherness to be present. It marks out the antipodes of being, and in doing so brings to mind the fact of intrinsic alienation. Popular culture, on the other hand, is all about assimilation; about negating the Other. This populist leveling and negating of the Other is, I think, a collective, self-supporting cowardice, eschewing the tragic for a mobbish and blithe spiritual amnesia.
I think the tragic-transcendent state of mind is a rare one. It blooms naturally in whom it blooms. It can’t be taught. It’s a condition of the soul. The relation of the existential to the foundational can’t be presented in didactic formulation nor impressed upon another via hierarchical manifestos. It simply grows organically through slow, spiritual accretion, or it doesn’t come at all. It is composed of a web of experience and exposure: awakening to injustice, to the holiness of melancholy, to intuitions and intimations of divinity lurking behind the prosaic feints of Nature.
You mentioned in a different post how we might influence things for the better by exposing children to and blanketing them with classical music at an early age. I really don’t think that would do much good, not unless a web of connections were also woven into the project art, literature, philosophy, etc. an encompassing web of greatness with its deep impressions and implications of the tragic. But, really, how does one teach angst?
In our vulgar culture, things have gone too far. There is no hope for a systematic engendering of the transcendent impulse. A rare few [who possess it] will always [manifest themselves] because a rare few have always been infected by "the sickness unto death."
On a closing note, I’ve always wondered about the relation between great art and authoritarianism. An equalitarian society seems unlikely to produce anything of excellence, whereas in more constricted environments many great artists emerged. My instinct is to discount any positive relation; that we should promote kingly or priestly rulers over the many in order that great art might appear. But maybe there is a negative relation: being under the thumb of those who are profligate in their immanent banality might inspire a transcendent reaction in the artist to become the true arbiter of reality. A kind of artistic resentment. Perhaps our present degraded culture with its increasingly semblance-only democratic institutions will light future fires of tragic, resenting reaction in one or a few angst-ridden artists, composers, or writers, with [the result that] works of great art [will] once again [begin] filtering into a questionable world.