it blooms because it blooms

This is a difficult age to maintain poetic wonder. Our flights of fancy are continuously called to order by scientific facts. Yes, science has made a mess of our metaphors.

Take these lines from a very old poem, “without why” (1) :

“The rose is without why; It blooms because it blooms
It cares not for itself, asks not if it is seen”

Lines to “praise purposelessness” and to console us for all of our ignored endeavors, our unseen pictures, our unheard songs.

Now Darwinism has of course revealed the eminently selfish purpose behind the rose’s boisterous bloom or the peacock’s dashingly colored plumes: mere stratagems to attract bees or mates and ensure reproduction.
So there goes the consoling metaphor of the disinterestedly, solitarily blooming rose.

Shall we then turn to Walter Benjamin for poetic justice? Benjamin who wanted to salvage the intrinsic meaning and significance of all human “thought things”, save them from the need to be validated by either usefulness or public acclaim.
And so he arrives at the wonderful paradox : “no poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener”. An intoxicating phrase, implying that even a never read poem would still have its claim on intrinsic worth and significance. A tempting paradox indeed, but Benjamin did realize that this affirmation of his could not be vindicated in the human realm. (2)

So let’s descend to a worldlier philosophy – let’s hear what the eminent Mr. Hegel has to say on the matter.
He compares the "naively self-centered" origin of natural beauty (“the variegated richly colored plumage of birds shines even when unseen” ) with the work of art that has as its purpose to exist solely for our mind and spirit. “[the work of art] is essentially a question, an address to the responsive breast, a call to the mind and the spirit”. (3)

This call to another human sensibility is inherent in a work of art. Maybe that’s why I can contentedly roam about art galleries on my own but shrink back from solitary nature walks.
The art works are there for me, they need my attention as a sentient and thinking human being. But nature …. I could get choked by existential angst when alone in nature, of even the most dazzling kind. Natural beauty can be so devastatingly indifferent to the human being, so meaningless … Unless... unless we shoot pictures of it, paint it, sing it – to share the experience and thus to humanize it.

notes without why
(1) Angelus Silesius, 1657, “Ohne Warum” (as quoted in English by Hannah Arendt in “Men in dark times”)
(2) Walter Benjamin, The Task of the Translator”: “For example, one could speak of an unforgettable life or moment even if all men had forgotten them. If the nature of such a life or moment required that it not be forgotten, that predicate would not contain a falsehood but merely a claim that is not being fulfilled by men, and perhaps also a reference to a realm in which it is fulfilled: God’s remembrance”
(3) and here I shun all Darwinian references – this is about aesthetic sensibilities, about intimations of the sublime, no less. Don’t anyone dare to point out that art is just another evolutionary ruse to advertise one’s genes to potential mates.

How I came to understand the present world's plight after reading a 1957 essay (followed by some frivolously dubious notes)

Yep, trust me to find illumination about current affairs in a 1957 essay.

The fifties! Of all decades the one that seems to be the most self-delusionary…
Just think of the sheer innocent bliss of those fifties images …. those pictures of happy healthy families (man woman boy girl) driving gaily in a Chevrolet to a promising future. Or those magazine-illustrations presenting the spoils of technology (from plane to fridge) in cozy techno-colors. Yes, the fifties …. home to a wholesome society without worries. Well, I suppose the world needed a cheerier self-image, after the horrors of the preceding decades ….

So, at first sight, not the epoch where one would go looking for thoughts relevant to the present perplexities of a globalizing world. But then again, the fifties were also the decade that had to come to terms with the globally destructive potential of the atomic bomb, the decade that massively succumbed to the global reach of television.
So after all, perhaps I should not have been that surprised to find this uncannily prescient analysis of globalization in a 1957 essay by Hannah Arendt on the existential thinker Karl Jaspers (1).

“for the first time in history all peoples on earth have a common present” she writes. But “this common factual present is not based on a common past” – it is the result of the evolution in technology and communications and it is accompanied by a negative solidarity only, due to the common vulnerability to ‘weapons of mass destruction’. So how can all those peoples, condemned to a common present, but without a common past and without shared traditions, build a common future? What could possibly be a positive, shared project?

Here it is worth noting that Arendt , for all her 'worldliness' and political savvy , has a huge blind spot for all things economic. (2) Unless of course it is this blogger who, in the spirit of the times, is brainwashed by economic doctrine. But anyway – the point I want to make is that enlightened economic self-interest has proven to be a more powerful common project for people of the most different backgrounds and persuasions (3) than any ideology.

And while globalization is still often associated with big bad western multinationals imposing their ways & wares all over the world, there’s no denying that many non-western countries now have firmly taken the economic initiative themselves , not only producing strong domestic growth but also massively investing their surplus savings abroad, in the best global-capitalist tradition. Just think of those Chinese and Indian companies taking over Westerns companies. Or take the topical example of the filthily rich sovereign wealth funds (Asian and Middle Eastern) that are now bailing out icons of western capitalism such as Citigroup and Merril Lynch by injecting billions of dollars in them.

So yes, economic gain does seem to be a common denominator and an inspirational project for many countries who – irrespective of faith, cultural traditions or political system, seem to want to acquire their stake in global capitalism. (4)

But let’s get back to Arendt’s more humanist ruminations about globalization (5). She writes: “the present realities […] insofar as they have brought us a global present without a common past, threaten to render irrelevant all traditions and all particular past histories". Then she goes on to wonder how peoples without a common past could ever forge a common positive project, could ever hope to understand each other?

And so she gets to the main point of Jaspers’ analysis of the possible further course of world history:
“the prerequisite for this mutual understanding would be the renunciation, […]of the binding authority and universal validity which tradition and past have always claimed”
All those particular traditions and values of the different regions have to be put into play in the present, have to be confronted in “a limitless communication” in their full diversity (6) .
But such free communication is only possible when “the great philosophical systems [are stripped ] of their dogmatic metaphysical claims, dissolved into trains of thought which meet and cross each other, communicate with each other and eventually retain only what is universally communicative”

So this destructive process (destruction of the absolute validity of a particular tradition, destruction of a single minded concentration on the own traditions) can even be “considered a necessary prerequisite for ultimate understanding between men of all cultures, civilizations, races, and nations. Its result would be a [horrid] shallowness […]”

"a horrid shallowness" ... Yes, here is the full ambivalence of our global epoch exposed: we (the world’s peoples) are condemned to find a common ground if we do not want to go under in ethnic strife or in great cultural clashes. And this common ground can only be found through free communication where no party would impose its particular traditions as absolutely valid.

But the price for this all-inclusiveness, for this worldwide communication would be shallowness, the loss of the dimension of depth. And this does indeed seem to happen : the current nascent global culture takes a bit from all traditions but is on the whole frightfully frivolously fragmented. The internet does foster global communication and, hopefully, more mutual understanding amongst all peoples. But it is not because a European chats to a Chinese that the former will fathom the depths of Confucianism or that the latter will appreciate the refinements of the Italian Renaissance…

But perhaps the world needs periods of “shallowness”, periods of forgetting and unburdening to let free rein to spontaneous creativity and communication? Ah, a moot point …. isn’t it?

Footnotes dedicated to 1 or 2 facts and quite a few more dubious opinions

(1) Hannah Arendt (yes, she again) – in a 1957 essay on Karl Jaspers’s thinking about world history. “Karl Jaspers: citizen of the world?”
(2) I suppose she saw economic affairs as too determined by sheer necessity and by our base metabolic needs to deserve a place in her conception of the World. The World as a realm of freedom where men and women appear as autonomous citizens, freely acting and exchanging opinions.
(3) Take the US for instance – the project all immigrants share: the hope to realize their American dream. And it seems that the US is more successful in integrating its immigrants, united as citizens in a common quest to make money, than some European countries, who naively seem to hope that newcomers would partake in a citizenship based on shared cultural values and traditions. (my stance in this matter? Ambivalence ….. of course)
(4) My (ever wavering) opinion on this? The human being has (alas…) evolved as a competitive, aggressive animal that can’t sit still. So: better to direct those competitive urges into gung ho entrepreneurship than to dispense the animal energies in wars and bloodshed. Better to have aggressive CEO’s than blood-thirsty warlords. Provided of course there are laws and institutions to guarantee some minimal respect for the whole set of human rights (personal, labor and cultural). Also, I have nothing against “modern comforts” for all here on earth – if only people would still every once in a while sit quietly with a book, if only people would not wantonly squander all of the earth’s resources….
(5) Um, a phrase that may give me away – would I myself find then that economic preoccupations are not worthy of the humanist ideal?
(6) This concept of diversity of and communication between cultures (none of which can claim universal, dogmatic validity), is so eminently contemporary and post-modern, that I cannot understand why Karl Jaspers should be such a neglected thinker. Perhaps his writings were too hermetic? (and maybe it takes a luminous mind as Arendt’s to shed light on his thinking)

in praise of "Statistically Improbable Phrases"

Truly, my heart leapt when I stumbled upon the notion “Statistically Improbable Phrases “ (SIP).

It was one of those delightful instances when a prosaic term hits the reader with full poetic immediacy.
“Statistically Improbable Phrases” … it has the pleasing lure of a seeming paradox: the phrase you are specifically looking for is statistically improbable in the whole wide universe of books, so therefore it is of course the perfect marker for this particular book in which it does occur.

Q: What distinguishes a book from the mass of other books?
A: Its Statistically Improbable Phrases.

Q: What constitutes the uniqueness of an individual?
A: Its Statistically Improbable Traits.

We have become so used to the despotism of the statistically probable, that it comes almost as a shock to realize that what is statistically improbable may be exactly what we are looking for, may be precisely what we value in a book, in an individual … (2)

And I felt it was particularly gratifying that I learned about these “Statistically Improbable Phrases” just when I was, well, “investigating” via Google an expression that had been nagging me for weeks. The kind of expression that disturbs and haunts because it’s not the usual stock-phrase which you can swallow without thinking, in other words: an indeed statistically improbable expression . The kind of “frozen thought” which possesses beauty and an intuitive appeal, but which you cannot grasp at once and, therefore, which you keep coming back to.

The expression was: the “melancholy haphazardness” of events … An expression ascribed by Hannah Arendt to Kant, while she discusses the “annoying contingency” of the facts and events that constitute our human realm. (3)

“melancholy haphazardness” … an expression so well suited to the human condition. As human beings we are the result of a chance combination of genes and furthermore influenced by circumstances beyond our control. And each day we start anew, making our way by trial an d error, often taking decisions of which we couldn’t possibly foresee the consequences, verily “not knowing what we do”. (4)

And yet, contrasting with this organic life full of sound and fury, with this haphazard state of flux are the immutable physical laws of our world, its rational truths , its abstract systems and concepts that seem to offer stability and clarity.
So we, as human beings, with our both halves of the brain, feel indeed the pull of two urges: the urge to empathy (organic life, emotions, …) and the urge to abstraction (systems, geometry, laws, …).

The above musings are obviously inspired by yet another statistically improbable “thought fragment” I’ve been mulling over for some time: “Abstraction and Empathy”
“Abstraction and Empathy”
…. : it’s the title of an art theory book by a Wilhelm Worringer – who tried to get to grips with the seemingly opposing tendencies in art throughout the ages and throughout the world: the naturalist, life-imitating tendencies versus the strictly formalist and ornamental tendencies. “Just as the urge to empathy finds its gratification in the beauty of the organic, so the urge to abstraction finds its beauty in the life-denying inorganic […] in all abstract law and necessity”.

And yes, looking at paintings or pictures (be it at The Louvre or on the Flickr photo sharing site) it’s a great couple of terms to approach an image with.
Where perhaps pictures at the pure “empathy” pole may slide in the mere anecdotical and hence become as transient as life itself, those at the purely “abstract” or formalist pole may lose their human relevance in a dull formalism. Not surprisingly, the best pictures often seem to be those that strike a happy balance between “empathy” and “abstraction”.

The photographer Cartier-Bresson’s famous “decisive moment” was nothing else than this statistically highly improbable but aesthetically oh so gratifying moment in which a rare harmony strikes the eye: a moment of being, a slice of life suddenly dignified by a formal, geometrical perfection.

So perhaps, what we expect of form or abstraction in art in general (music, literature, visual arts) is to give the “melancholy haphazardness” of life a semblance of formal necessity and stability. And, perhaps, in the process, gratify both parts of our brain ……

“words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness
” (7)

Here goes for another statistically improbable set of footnotes:
(1) In Amazon’s own words:
"'s Statistically Improbable Phrases, or "SIPs", are the most distinctive phrases in the text of books in the Search Inside!™ program. To identify SIPs, our computers scan the text of all books in the Search Inside! program. If they find a phrase that occurs a large number of times in a particular book relative to all Search Inside! books, that phrase is a SIP in that book.
SIPs are not necessarily improbable within a particular book, but they are improbable relative to all books in Search Inside!."

(2) food for thought: if you want to attract lots of “hits” on your internet-site do you need to post a lot of statistically probable stuff ( which not necessarily characterizes you, and which is already amply supplied by millions of other sites and blogs ) – or on the contrary, should you go for the scarily statistically improbable stuff (which distinguishes you, but for which no one at all may be looking)?
(3) Yes, I know. I keep referring to Hannah Arendt. Well, it’s just that that right now I’m plunged into her writings – that’s where I dwell right now, so obviously she now pops up in any report of mine
(4) “For facts have no conclusive reason whatever for being what they are; they could always have been otherwise, and this annoying contingency is unlimited […] the “melancholy haphazardness” of the sequence of events which constitute the course of this world”. From the essay “Truth and Politics”
(5) “forgive them; for they know not what they do”
Wilhelm Worringer “Abstraction and Empathy”
(7) TS Eliot Four Quartets – Burnt Norton

perspective angst

"a whole day has passed in blogging and blugging etc"

Yes, I am always the first to join in laments about the demise of the great cultural traditions. Be it the eloquent laments of George Steiner or Harold Bloom, who either with resigned fascination or with doom-spelling wrath denounce the wanton rejection by current generations of a whole canon of literary masterpieces.

Or be it the moving Nobel-prize acceptance speech (1) of Doris Lessing, deploring, with a note of uncomprehending despair, how the respect for learning and for the great store of literature has all but vanished. Or as Bloom states wryly “what has been devaluated is learning as such, as though erudition were irrelevant” (1)

So yes, as to the mourning for discarded cultural canons, you can count me amongst the grave septua- and octogenarians. Not that I can pride myself on much classical learning, being a bit of a failed erudite. But despite not being able to live up to it myself, I’ve always cherished this ideal of a humanist, cultivated person who loves and respects the great cultural artifacts of this world.
No doubt it is typical for a melancholic nature to find comfort in the relative permanence of the great works and documents of humanity. Their durability taken as a barricade against human futility, as proof that “human records don’t age” and that there is an accumulation of wisdom and beauty to accompany us during our short stay in this world.

It’s almost pathetic how I can get personally anguished by this contemporary iconoclasm that consists not of any violent smashing of statues, but rather of a disparaging indifference (equally destructive) towards the traditions in the humanities and the arts. I remember wandering about in the ancient art rooms of a museum, basking in their aesthetical delights, when a forty-ish couple sailed by, sniggering at those 14th century panels. With a loud and contemptuous “all that old crap”, they left the room, shattering my illusions of shelter.

And yet, I certainly wouldn’t advocate a return to an era of elitist culture, snobbishly abused by people wanting to distinguish themselves socially (what Hannah Arendt called the "educated philistinism" of snobs). Nor would I promote a sterile academism that stifles creativity and shuns all contemporary relevance. By no means I’d want to disparage contemporary art (which I need, living here and now). This is merely a plea against the reckless dumping of “old-fashioned humanist education”, a plea for appreciating and understanding the beauty and wisdom brought into the world by previous generations.

So I can completely relate to Doris Lessing’s mournful denunciation: “We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women who have had years of education, to know nothing about the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some specialty or other”.
And she continues: “[…]the new internet, which has seduced a whole generation into its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging and blugging etc.” (3) (4)

Now here I do beg to differ! I don’t think Internet is the enemy …. quite the contrary, it may well be the redeeming feature of our unmoored global civilization. Internet does empower – giving people previously unavailable opportunities for creativity and communication. It has led to a resurgence of letter-writing (what else is emailing about? ) and of the gentle art of diaries (yes, Mrs Lessing, that’s what’s blogging about). It allows likeminded people to connect, whether they live in Taipei, New Delhi, Singapore, Brussels, New York, Paris, …

And maybe, if we do have to accept the irreparable “break in tradition and the loss of its authority”. If “the thread of tradition is broken, and we must discover the past for ourselves” (5) , maybe the Internet then is the best store, however unlikely, of traditions we dispose of. Because the Internet at least offers new (though indeed perhaps fragmented) ways to access those traditions. Any lover of art history , will appreciate how almost any painting can now be studied on-line. Any lover of old books will appreciate how even obscure out-of-print- titles can be hunted down on the net. Any lover of Nobel Prize speeches will be delighted to find them all within clicking distance….

So while Steiner mourned in 1971 that “The major part of Western literature, which has been for two thousand years and more so deliberately interactive, the work echoing, mirroring, alluding to previous works in the tradition, is now passing quickly out of reach” – it may now be that Internet has restored some sort of interactivity, has restored this access to the past, albeit in a different, fragmented way.

Even non-specialist art and literature lovers can now use Google or any other Net-Art-Search-resources to look up authors, texts, to search for forgotten contexts of half-forgotten quotes…
The internet does not destroy the traditions, but perhaps it transmutes them, helps them to come back in another form, by holding them available for any latter-day “pearl diver”. (6)

Nevertheless, I do also fear the sheer transience of Internet (those bits and bytes – their electronic storage so vulnerable, so far removed from the appeasing solidity of monuments, or even from the worldly presence of libraries and weighty books), and I do at times find its infinite virtuality anguishing…
But still, the Web is a great multi-faced author of stories. A great Web of texts linked to each other.

And as Lessing concluded: “It is our stories, the storyteller, that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix (7) , what we are at our best, when we are our most creative

cherishing the great tradition of footnotes:

(1) Harold Bloom: The Western Canon
(2) “Tout ce vieux brol”
(3) Can anyone tell me what “blugging” is?
Lessing’s Nobel Prize Lecture
(5) Hannah Arendt
(6) “Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange”
(The Tempest, I,2)
(7) By way of ultimate proof: it’s even possible on the net to aptly choose “phoenix” as alias!