Thursday, December 15, 2005

Split Selves and Other Pleasures

I've been catching up on some other blogs this morning, and over at Bob's Samizdat site I came across a long, very readable, eerily resonant post called "Good Taste, Disinterest, and the Divided Self, with a Peroration Concerning the Doom of Iraqi Democracy." Whatever you may think of Bob's politcs--I find his "peroration" utterly unconvincing, for reasons I'll get to in a minute, but also blessedly irrelevant--this post is worth a quarrel, and a look.

Bob starts with a lovely epigram: "modernity is disinterest," which he expands into a description of the modern ethic of "disinterest and gessellschaft — of setting aside personal interests and convictions in a society of abstract, contractual relations. It makes for a very split self (the part of me with real convictions, and the part of me that performs a social role according to ethics determined by that role alone)." As Bob notes, this is a relatively recent notion of ethics, and one that leaves many folks in this culture, and even more elsewhere, quite uncomfortable. He goes on to quote a Princeton anthropologist, for example, who believes that "in the Arab world the self is never seen as divided. Whereas in the West we imagine ourselves able to take on multiple, even contradictory roles — as when an official gives support to a law with which he personally disagrees — to Arabs this self-segmentation runs contrary to the idea of a person as a unified whole."

(Those of you who have read Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism will note that the intellectual ancestors of Bin Laden, et. al., took deadly aim at this split-self "schizophrenia" of the West, inspired in part by the fascist and other critiques that Western thinkers aimed at their own culture in the 1930s. Muriel Rukeyser hummed a few bars from that tune periodically too. Sure makes you pity all those crazy Iraqis risking their lives to vote today when we Westerners know that democracy can never work in their culture.)

But I digress. Let's get back to pleasure.

Bob traces the roots of this ethic back to "18th century theorizing about (of all things) good taste." Here's the money quote, and quote-within-a-quote, for your perusal:
The idea of the beautiful (and of taste in things beautiful) is deeply tied to the idea of disinterest in the main line of Western aesthetics from the 18th century on through the 20th century, and even in our time, for some die-hards. Here’s my favorite chunk of text for explaining the idea of a disinterested appreciation of beauty. This imaginary dialogue comes from Coleridge’s On the Principles of Genial Criticism, and serves (according to the students in my theory of lit seminar last semester) as a better example of Kant’s ideas than any examples Kant came up with:
"Let us suppose Milton in company with some stern and prejudiced Puritan, contemplating the front of York Cathedral, and at length expressing his admiration for its beauty. We will suppose it too at that time of his life, when his religious opinions most nearly coincided with those of the rigid antiprelatists. P[uritan]: Beauty, I am sure, it is not the beauty of holiness. M[ilton]: True, but yet it is beautiful. P:It delights not me. What is it good for? Is it of any use but to be stared at? M: Perhaps not! But still it is beautiful. P: But call to mind the pride and wanton vanity of those cruel shavelings, that wasted the labor and sbstance of so many thousand poor creatures in the erection of this haughty pile. M: I do. But still it is very beautiful. P: Think how many score places of worship, incomparably better suited both for prayer and preaching, and how many faithful ministers might have been maintained, to the blessing of tens of thousands, to them and their children’s children, with the treasures so lavished on this worthless mass of stone and cement. M: too true! But nevertheless it is very beautiful. P: And it is not merely useless, but it feeds the pride of the prelates, and keeps alive popish and carnal spirit among the people. M: Even so!"

[In short,] matters of taste in the beautiful, in the view of Coleridge’s Milton (who speaks, somewhat anachronistically for a whole 18th and 19th century tradition in aesthetics) are to be judged without reference to our sense of utility or morality.
Now, Bob goes on from this to argue that the self-splitting we do when we make an aesthetic judgment greases the slide toward self-splitting in matters of ethics, so that "we’re ready to treat our own actions that way, too, without reference our own ethics (“business is business,” we tautologically opine, while doing things we wouldn’t countenance if we weren’t enabled in the divorcing of individual ethics from professional ethics)."

I'm deeply, deeply skeptical of this. It seems to suggest that people who make other sorts of aesthetic judgments would act more ethically, or at least more consistently, in their other behavior. Is there any evidence to back that up? Haven't people in every time, every culture, found ways to behave truly horribly, whatever their aesthetic views, when greed or lust or love of power trump their moral codes? In which case, wouldn't the freeing-up of aesthetic judgment be one small step forward--a realization that the aesthetic and the ethical can be separated, so that we can enjoy more art, more music, more literature, without any real compromise in our behavior?

Or, to argue from another angle, isn't the "either / or" proposition here a false dichotomy? Don't we really tend to work through ratios, so that if the level of moral disgust is low enough we accede to beauty. What difference does it really make to the world anymore that Neruda was an unrepentant Stalinist, or that John Cage once hymned the morality of Mao's Cultural Revolution? But when the moral disgust flares higher, or strikes closer to home, we are less able to respond aesthetically. The case of Baraka's "Somebody Blew Up America" comes to mind: "Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion / And cracking they sides at the notion / ..../ Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed / Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / To stay home that day...." Etc.

Now, I can't enjoy any Baraka after that, and if part of me feels good about this anhedonia, another part knows that it's a loss, and neither kids itself that I'm a better man for those painless scruples. I'd be a little happier if I were able to read and enjoy Baraka perversely, precisely in the face of his politics and venom. ("Cracking steel knuckles in a jewlady's mouth"? You go, Amiri! Bring it on!) Hasn't happened yet, though.

There's an old poem from the 1980s, "The Museum Shop Catalogue," by John N. Morris, that addresses much of this. I can't find the whole thing anywhere in my files, but here are the stanzas that Helen Vendler quotes near the start of The Music of What Happens. I'll leave off with them:

The past is perfectly darling--
These pretty things that come along with us!
Mary and Siva house without oppugnancy...

Everything here has been imported
Over some frontier. At last
It is all a kind of art entirely.

And really they are just lovely,
Perfectly lovely, these things.
In vain do I deplore...

Mary and Siva
Accompany our lives.
Although a loneliness persists.
They are only beautiful now.

Which is to say, I suppose, that the split, disinterested self who finds art "merely beautiful" may be a sad and second-rate thing, but so is Western style capitalism and democracy. Both let you like things you really shouldn't, which is one of life's great pleasures. And both leave open more options for disinterested enjoyment and for more ethical, less disinterested behavior than any system or self I've heard about so far.

Two cheers for Split Selves! Hip! Hip!

1 comment:

Archambeau said...

Hey. Whoa. I didn't want to call disinterestedness or the kind of split we get from it a necessarily bad thing. I suppose I gave the big 'bad' example b/c I thought the 'good' side (setting aside prejudice, acting professionally, etc) was pretty clear. I mean, the kind of split we ger from disinterest is amoral in itself. It can lead to good or bad things. And neither I nor Rosen (the anthropologist at Princeton) claim that the different subjectivity in Iraq is better than the split self (I suppose the word "whole" is loaded, but still...). Anyway -- you've given me stuff to mull, and I'll blog away on this again.

Glad you're back in the blog game.