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Susan Sontag on Censorship and the Three Steps to Refuting Any Argument

“A just/ discriminating censorship is impossible.”

As a deep admirer of Susan Sontag, I’ve been ravenously devouring the newly released As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library) — an extraordinary look at the inner world of a genius, oscillating between conviction and insecurity in the most beautifully imperfect and human way possible. From detailed notes on her formidable media diet of literature and film to her intense love affairs and infatuations to her meditations on society’s values and vices, the hefty volume is a true cultural treasure.

Among its many highlights is an entry from September 16, 1965, written during a trip to Paris:

The main techniques for refuting an argument:

Find the inconsistency
Find the counter-example
Find a wider context

Instance of (3):  

I am against censorship. In all forms. Not just for the right of masterpieces— high art— to be scandalous.  

But what about pornography (commercial)?
Find the wider context:
notion of voluptuousness à la Bataille?
But what about children? Not even for them? Horror comics, etc.
Why forbid them comics when they can read worse things in the newspapers any day. Napalm bombing in Vietnam, etc.  

A just/ discriminating censorship is impossible.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is a follow-up to the 2008 tome Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, also a pricelessly intimate lens on one of modern history’s greatest minds. Complement it with Sontag on our “aesthetic consumerism,” literature and freedom, the writer’s role in society, the problem of interpretation, boredom, sex, aphorisms, why lists appeal to us, and the joy of rereading beloved books.

BP

How We Bridge the Real and the Ideal: Frederick Douglass on Art as a Tool of Constructive Self-Criticism and a Force of Cultural Progress

“The process by which man is able to posit his own subjective nature outside of himself … is at [the] bottom of all effort and the germinating principles of all reform and all progress.”

How We Bridge the Real and the Ideal: Frederick Douglass on Art as a Tool of Constructive Self-Criticism and a Force of Cultural Progress

“True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in her arresting meditation on how art transforms us. That transformation is one of the most powerful personal experiences a human being can have, but it is also one of the most powerful motive forces of progress for humanity as a whole. In art, we depict our ideals and, in depicting them, we challenge ourselves to face the gap between aspiration and actuality, which in turn challenges us to stretch ourselves and close that gap. “All great art contains at its center contemplation, a dynamic contemplation,” young Susan Sontag wrote in her diary, and the object of that contemplation, directly or obliquely, is precisely that discomfiting disconnect between the ideal and the real that drives us to strive for reform. Art, argued the Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Penn Warren, “is the process by which, in imagining itself and the relation of individuals to one another and to it, a society comes to understand itself, and by understanding, discover its possibilities of growth.”

A century earlier, the pioneering social reformer and writer Frederick Douglass (c. February 1818–February 20, 1895) made the most exquisite and enduring case for this function of art in an essay titled “Pictures and Progress,” penned in the mid-1860s and found in the indispensable The Portable Frederick Douglass (public library).

Frederick Douglass

Douglass writes:

To the eye and spirit, pictures are just what poetry and music are to the ear and heart.

[…]

Man is the only picture-making animal in the world. He alone of all the inhabitants of earth has the capacity and passion for pictures.

Reason is exalted and called Godlike, and sometimes accorded the highest place among human faculties; but grand and wonderful as is this attribute of our species, still more grand and wonderful are the resources and achievements of that power out of which come our pictures and other creations of art.

This faculty of the imagination, Douglass argues, isn’t merely the source of aesthetic stimulation but the inner hand outstretched toward our highest ideals — the one which gives us, to borrow Susan Sontag’s penetrating phrase, “the model of self-transcendence.” He writes:

Art is a special revelation of the higher powers of the human soul. There is in the contemplation of it an unconscious comparison constantly going on in the mind, of the pure forms of beauty and excellence, which are without to those which are within, and native to the human heart. It is a process of soul-awakening self-revelation, a species of new birth, for a new life springs up in the soul with every newly discovered agency, by which the soul is brought into a more intimate knowledge of its own Divine powers and perfections, and is lifted to a higher level of wisdom, goodness, and joy.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

This power of the critical imagination, Douglass argues, becomes our mightiest means of bridging the real and the ideal, which is at the heart of all progress:

The process by which man is able to posit his own subjective nature outside of himself, giving it form, color, space, and all the attributes of distinct personality, so that it becomes the subject of distinct observation and contemplation, is at [the] bottom of all effort and the germinating principles of all reform and all progress… It is the picture of life contrasted with the fact of life, the ideal contrasted with the real, which makes criticism possible. Where there is no criticism there is no progress, for the want of progress is not felt where such want is not made visible by criticism. It is by looking upon this picture and upon that which enables us to point out the defects of the one and the perfections of the other.

Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers — and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.

But, writing with an eye to photography as a new technology of picture-making, Douglass adds an admonition that applies to every new technology that ever was and ever will be:

This picture-making faculty is flung out into the world like all others, capable of being harnessed to the car of truth or error: It is a vast power to whatever cause it is coupled. For the habit we adopt, the master we obey, in making our subjective nature objective, giving it form, color, space, action and utterance, is the one important thing to ourselves and our surroundings. It will either lift us to the highest heaven or sink us to the lowest depths, for good and evil know no limits.

Art, he cautions, should harness beauty but must always be governed by truth above all else:

Truth is the soul of art, as of all things else.

[…]

With the clear perception of things as they are, must stand the faithful rendering of things as they seem. The dead fact is nothing without the living expression.

Complement this portion of The Portable Frederick Douglass, a timelessly rewarding read in its totality, with James Baldwin on the artist’s role in society’s progress, Alfred Kazin on the power of the critical imagination, and Walt Whitman on how art bolsters democracy.

BP

A Laboratory for Feeling and Time: Pioneering Philosopher Susanne Langer on What Gives Music Its Power and How It Illuminates the Other Arts

“Music is ‘significant form,’ and its significance is that of a symbol, a highly articulated sensuous object… Feeling, life, motion and emotion constitute its import.”

A Laboratory for Feeling and Time: Pioneering Philosopher Susanne Langer on What Gives Music Its Power and How It Illuminates the Other Arts

“Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts… and the most sensual,” Susan Sontag wrote in one of the most beautiful meditations on the power of music. Aldous Huxley, in his immensely poetic reflection on why music moves us so, recounted “some exquisite soft harmony apprehended by another sense” as he listened to Beethoven in the dark. This sensorial splendor of music is what Helen Keller, deaf and blind, articulated in her exultation upon “hearing” Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with her hand.

I thought about all of this recently — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I felt about it — as I listened, with my whole being, to a friend perform music that seemed to emanate from her whole being. I wondered what it is about music that we feel in our marrow, that invites us into some other dimension of time, magnetizing us to the present yet containing within itself all that ever was and ever will be — a place where the symbolic and the real, the abstract and the acutely alive, converge into something larger.

That peculiar property of music may have been what prompted Susanne Langer (December 20, 1895–July 17, 1985), one of the first professional women philosophers, to call music an “unconsummated symbol” in her trailblazing 1942 book Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. Langer revisited the subject a quarter century later in her final work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (public library), exploring what makes music different from all other forms of creative expression and how, paradoxically, understanding the source of its power illuminates the other arts.

susannelanger
Susanne Langer

Langer writes:

Music, like language, is an articulate form. Its parts not only fuse together to yield a greater entity, but in so doing they maintain some degree of separate existence, and the sensuous character of each element is affected by its function in the complex whole. This means that the greater entity we call a composition is not merely produced by mixture, like a new color made by mixing paints, but is articulated, i.e. its internal structure is given to our perception.

And yet music, Langer argues, is not quite a language, as it has frequently been called (although the two worked in tandem to help us evolve.) Unlike language, where words function as its primary forms of fixed meaning and association, music allows us to fill its forms with our own meaning. She considers this singular role of meaning in music:

Music has import, and this import is the pattern of sentience — the pattern of life itself, as it is felt and directly known.

Let us therefore call the significance of music its “vital import” instead of “meaning,” using “vital” not as a vague laudatory term, but as a qualifying adjective restricting the relevance of “import” to the dynamism of subjective experience.

With this lens, Langer offers a sublimely compact and insightful definition of what music is, how it differs from language, and what it does in and for us:

Music is “significant form,” and its significance is that of a symbol, a highly articulated sensuous object, which by virtue of its dynamic structure can express the forms of vital experience which language is peculiarly unfit to convey. Feeling, life, motion and emotion constitute its import.

The Gnomes: "He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes."
One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

Langer goes on to propose a special theory of music based on the idea of “significant form,” which she suggests can be generalized to illuminate the function and symbolic essence of all the arts. She writes:

What is “created” in a work of art? More than people generally realize when they speak of “being creative,” or refer to the characters in a novel as the author’s “creations.” More than a delightful combination of sensory elements; far more than any reflection or “interpretation” of objects, people, events — the figments that artists use in their demiurgic work, and that have made some aestheticians refer to such works as “re-creation” rather than genuine creation. But an object that already exists — a vase of flowers, a living person — cannot be re-created. It would have to be destroyed to be re-created. Besides, a picture is neither a person nor a vase of flowers. It is an image, created for the first time out of things that are not imaginal, but quite realistic — canvas or paper, and paints or carbon or ink.

What, then, is being created when music is made? An image of time, argues Langer two decades before the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky defined cinema as “sculpting in time.” Langer writes:

The elements of music are moving forms of sound; but in their motion nothing is removed. The realm in which tonal entities move is a realm of pure duration. Like its elements, however, this duration is not an actual phenomenon. It is not a period — ten minutes or a half hour, some fraction of a day — but is something radically different form the time in which our public and practical life proceeds. It is completely incommensurable with the progress of common affairs. Musical duration is an image of what might be termed “lived” or “experienced” time — the passage of life that we feel as expectations become “now,” and “now” turns into inalterable fact. Such passage is measurable only in terms of sensibilities, tensions, and emotions; and it has not merely a different measure, but an altogether different structure from practical or scientific time.

The semblance of this vital, experiential time is the primary illusion of music. All music creates an order of virtual time, in which its sonorous forms move in relation to each other — always and only to each other, for nothing else exists there.

Writing shortly before musician extraordinaire Nina Simone’s meditation on our experience of time, Langer adds:

Virtual time is as separate from the sequence of actual happenings as virtual space from actual space. In the first place, it is entirely perceptible, through the agency of a single sense — hearing. There is no supplementing of one sort of experience by another. This alone makes it something quite different from our “common-sense” version of time, which is even more composite, heterogeneous, and fragmentary than our similar sense of space. Inward tensions and outward changes, heartbeats and clocks, daylight and routines and weariness furnish various incoherent temporal data, which we coordinate for practical purposes by letting the clock predominate. But music spreads out time for our direct and complete apprehension, by letting our hearing monopolize it — organize, fill, and shape it, all alone. It creates an image of time measured by the motion of forms that seem to give it substance, yet a substance that consists entirely of sound, so it is transitoriness itself. Music makes time audible, and its forms and continuity sensible.

Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling is a revelatory read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with some of humanity’s greatest writers — including Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Aldous Huxley, Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, and Friedrich Nietzsche — on the power of music, then revisit Langer on the purpose of art and how abstract thinking gives rise to human emotion.

BP

Bertrand Russell on Love, Sex, What “the Good Life” Really Means, and How We Limit Our Happiness

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge. Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.”

Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) endures as one of humanity’s most lucid yet luminous thinkers, his ideas tracking between the timeless and the prophetic. A century before our age of distraction and restless productivity, Russell admonished against its perilous effects and championed the role of boredom and stillness in our conquest of happiness. His ten commandments of teaching remain some of the most succinct tenets of education ever committed to words. His insight into human nature illuminates everything from our impulse for destruction to our longing for grace. But nowhere does Russell’s blazing brilliance warm the mind and spirit more thoroughly than in What I Believe (public library) — his 1925 catalog of credos, a kind of moral ecology that also gave us Russell on immortality and why religion exists.

After establishing his definition of the good life — “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” Russell writes. “Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.” — he turns to the more essential of these two ingredients, the one humanity has spent centuries trying to define and dedicated entire philosophies to mastering. Russell writes:

Although both love and knowledge are necessary, love is in a sense more fundamental, since it will lead intelligent people to seek knowledge, in order to find out how to benefit those whom they love. But if people are not intelligent, they will be content to believe what they have been told, and may do harm in spite of the most genuine benevolence.

Once again, Russell’s prescience reveals itself — many decades later, the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanhs would come to write that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.” But Russell is careful to note that knowing how to love first requires that we come to know love’s many dimensions:

Love is a word which covers a variety of feelings; I have used it purposely, as I wish to include them all. Love as an emotion — which is what I am speaking about, for love “on principle” does not seem to me genuine — moves between two poles: on one side, pure delight in contemplation; on the other, pure benevolence. Where inanimate objects are concerned, delight alone enters in; we cannot feel benevolence towards a landscape or a sonata. This type of enjoyment is presumably the source of art. It is stronger, as a rule, in very young children than in adults, who are apt to view objects in a utilitarian spirit. It plays a large part in our feelings towards human beings, some of whom have charm and some the reverse, when considered simply as objects of aesthetic contemplation.

Illustration by Oliver Jeffers from ‘The Heart and the Bottle.’ Click image for more.

The alchemy of a complete love, Russell argues, fuses these two elements of delight and benevolence in beholding the beloved:

Love at its fullest is an indissoluble combination of the two elements, delight and well-wishing. The pleasure of a parent in a beautiful and successful child combines both elements; so does sex-love at its best. But in sex-love benevolence will only exist where there is secure possession, since otherwise jealousy will destroy it, while perhaps actually increasing the delight in contemplation. Delight without well-wishing may be cruel; well-wishing without delight easily tends to become cold and a little superior. A person who wishes to be loved wishes to be the object of a love containing both elements.

The imbalance between the two is, perhaps, what unnerved Susan Sontag as she contemplated “love, sex, and the world between half a century later. For Russell, this two-legged love is inseparable from the second element of the good life: knowledge. But he is careful to note that this knowledge is scientific — a knowledge of the world in its full fact and glimmering reality — rather than ethical. Morality, he argues, is a wholly different matter — and yet, strangely, it too circles back to a psychological force we’ve come to associate with love: desire. In a sentiment that calls to mind the crossroads of Should and Must, he writes:

All moral rules must be tested by examining whether they tend to realize ends that we desire. I say ends that we desire, not ends that we ought to desire. What we “ought” to desire is merely what someone else wishes us to desire. Usually it is what the authorities wish us to desire — parents, school-masters, policemen, and judges. If you say to me “you ought to do so-and-so,” the motive power of your remark lies in my desire for your approval — together, possibly, with rewards or punishments attached to your approval or disapproval. Since all behavior springs from desire, it is clear that ethical notions can have no importance except as they influence desire. They do this through the desire for approval and the fear of disapproval. These are powerful social forces, and we shall naturally endeavor to win them to our side if we wish to realize any social purpose.

Desire, Russell insists, is a driver so potent that it can’t be legislated against or controlled via any other sticks-and-carrots system — it can only be harnessed and cultivated:

There is no conceivable way of making people do things they do not wish to do. What is possible is to alter their desires by a system of rewards and penalties, among which social approval and disapproval are not the least potent. The question for the legislative moralist is, therefore: How shall this system of rewards and punishments be arranged so as to secure the maximum of what is desired by the legislative authority? … Outside human desires there is no moral standard.

Thus, what distinguishes ethics from science is not any special kind of knowledge but merely desire.

And yet our conception of morality, Russell argues, seems completely divorced from the realities of the human experience:

Current morality is a curious blend of utilitarianism and superstition, but the superstitious part has the stronger hold, as is natural, since superstition is the origin of moral rules. Originally, certain acts were thought displeasing to the gods, and were forbidden by law because the divine wrath was apt to descend upon the community, not merely upon the guilty individuals. Hence arose the conception of sin, as that which is displeasing to God. No reason can be assigned as to why certain acts should be thus displeasing.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from ‘I, Leonardo.’ Click image for more.

This, of course, calls to mind not only Mark Twain’s general lament about how we’ve used religion to justify injustice but also the particular superstition with which homosexuality has been historically regarded. But even as early as 1925, Russell — a conscientious critic of religion — recognizes the absurdity of such thinking and points to the critical thinking required for making up one’s own mind in evaluating the alleged dangers of what such superstition condemns as “immoral”:

It is evident that a man with a scientific outlook on life cannot let himself be intimidated by texts of Scripture or by the teaching of the Church. He will not be content to say “such-and-such an act is sinful, and that ends the matter.” He will inquire whether it does any harm or whether, on the contrary, the belief that it is sinful does harm. And he will find that, especially in what concerns sex, our current morality contains a very great deal of which the origin is purely superstitious. He will find also that this superstition, like that of the Aztecs, involves needless cruelty, and would be swept away if people were actuated by kindly feelings towards their neighbors. But the defenders of traditional morality are seldom people with warm hearts… One is tempted to think that they value morals as affording a legitimate outlet for their desire to inflict pain; the sinner is fair game, and therefore away with tolerance!

How remarkable to consider that Russell’s admonition comes two decades before those same heartless defenders of so-called morality drove computing pioneer Alan Turing, one of humanity’s most magnificent and significant minds, into the grave and nearly a century before the equality of love triumphed over DOMA. Many decades later, Oliver Sacks would remark in his moving autobiography that “sex is one of those areas — like religion and politics — where otherwise decent and rational people may have intense, irrational feelings.” Indeed, Russell addresses this matter directly:

It should be recognized that, in the absence of children, sexual relations are a purely private matter, which does not concern either the State or the neighbors. Certain forms of sex which do not lead to children are at present punished by the criminal law: this is purely superstitious, since the matter is one which affects no one except the parties directly concerned.

Much of this, he argues, is the task of education, something at least as urgent today, when creationism — the most standardized mode of superstition — is still being taught in classrooms:

In all stages of education the influence of superstition is disastrous. A certain percentage of children have the habit of thinking; one of the aims of education is to cure them of this habit. Inconvenient questions are met with ‘hush, hush’, or with punishment.

Half a century before The Little Red Schoolbook and before Italo Calvino made his passionate case for reproductive rights, Russell points ever so elegantly at the misogynistic “morality” espoused by the church:

At puberty, the elements of an unsuperstitious sexual morality ought to be taught. Boys and girls should be taught that nothing can justify sexual intercourse unless there is mutual inclination. This is contrary to the teaching of the Church, which holds that, provided the parties are married and the man desires another child, sexual intercourse is justified however great may be the reluctance of the wife. Boys and girls should be taught respect for each other’s liberty; they should be made to feel that nothing gives one human being rights over another, and that jealousy and possessiveness kill love. They should be taught that to bring another human being into the world is a very serious matter, only to be undertaken when the child will have a reasonable prospect of health, good surroundings, and parental care. But they should also be taught methods of birth control, so as to insure that children shall only come when they are wanted.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for ‘Open House for Butterflies’ by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Returning to the relationship between morality and the two pillars of the good life, Russell — predating Martin Luther King’s famous proclamation that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” by several decades — writes:

Moral rules ought not to be such as to make instinctive happiness impossible.

[…]

The good life, we said, is a life inspired by love and guided by knowledge… [But] in all that differentiates between a good life and a bad one, the world is a unity, and the man who pretends to live independently is a conscious or unconscious parasite.

[…]

To live a good life in the fullest sense a man must have a good education, friends, love, children (if he desires them), a sufficient income to keep him from want and grave anxiety, good health, and work which is not uninteresting. All these things, in varying degrees, depend upon the community, and are helped or hindered by political events. The good life must be lived in a good society, and is not fully possible otherwise.

What I Believe is a timeless trove of wisdom from cover to cover. Complement it with Russell on the power of “fruitful monotony” and why science is essential to democracy.

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