Authors and Authority: On Art, Objects, and Presence
For Michael Fried, in admiration
When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
—Matthew 7: 28-291
You can find in a text whatever you bring, if you stand between it and the mirror of your imagination. You may not see your ears but they will be there.”
— Mark Twain
A confession has to be a part of your new life.
— L. Wittgenstein
denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.
[ for there is no stance
that does not see you. You must change your life.]
— R.M.Rilke, Archaïscher Torso Apollos
I am concerned here to explore how (and perhaps why) certain texts can come to be authoritative for me or us, to become our authority. I use the idea of a “text” here as referring to anything of which one can give a reading—which is what I understand Fried’s art criticism and history to be doing. By ‘authority’ I mean the experience of finding that a text not only contains information and argument but that it shapes the way that I (perhaps we) understand and act in the world. Such a text would be, in the metaphor of Ivan Illych, a “vineyard,” from which we harvest nourishment, not a container into which we put our knowledge.2 Our relation as readers to such texts is the subject of this essay.
A reading, as I will argue, is not an “interpretation.” I am not concerned here with “interpretation,” if by “interpretation” we mean standing outside and making something of a work, as in my epigraph from Mark Twain. Interpretation is a form of control, of making one’s order. As Emerson remarks in the Divinity School Address, the “doors of this temple” and the “oracles of this truth” are “guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received second-hand. Truly speaking it is not instruction but provocation that I can receive from another… “3 “Instruction” comes from interpretation—I am concerned with provocation, being called out.4 Writing of Montaigne, he notes “I do not know of any book that seems less written. It is the language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words they would bleed.”5 Note that Emerson suggests that Montaigne’s writing approaches speech—it may overcome Plato’s strictures in the Phaedrus. If a text becomes authoritative, what has been and is our relation to it?
When Emerson uses the word “intuition” here, he means it, I think, in the sense that Kant means it, as an Anschauung, a word that is, indeed, usually rendered as “intuition.”6 But that translation does not catch what is important here: the “an” refers to a directed attention, to an attention that determines by its gaze what becomes one’s own. Thus Nietzsche can start The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music like this: “Wir werden viel für die ästhetische Wissenschaft gewonnen haben, wenn wir nicht nur zur logischen Einsicht, sondern zur unmittelbaren Sicherheit der Anschauung gekommen sind …” and he notoriously or famously proceeds to indicate that the development of art is bound up in the marriage of the duality of Apollo and Dionysos. In English: “We will have accomplished much for an aesthetic science [N.B. not, as in a usual translation, “the science of aesthetics”] if we have arrived not only at the logical insight but at the unmediated assurance of Anschauung….” To experience something as an Anschauung is to incorporate it as part of how one is in the world. As Stanley Cavell has written in relation to the work of Wittgenstein: “Either the suggestion penetrates past assessment and becomes part of the sensibility from which assessment proceeds, or it is philosophically useless.”7 Such writing, if there is such, has obvious risks. People are inconstant, unclear, self-protective, self-deceived, dishonest. Kierkegaard writes an entire book (Authority and Revelation: The Book of Adler) about a particular case of such self-deception and what it can teach us.
In his famous—to some notorious—essay “Art and Objecthood,”8 Michael Fried advances several propositions about the variety of possible experiences of that which has been called “art.” These propositions, both in what they urge and in what they reject, continue to inform Fried’s work, including his studies of Diderot, Manet, Eakins, Menzel, David Smith, Morris Louis, and a wide range of others.9
First, Fried distinguishes what he calls “literalist” from what he calls “modernist” art. Literalist art is the art of people like Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Robert Rauschenberg. Fried calls such art “theatrical” in that it enforces an awareness of the conditions in which the beholder encounters it (A&O 153). It demands that the viewer take it into account and enforces on the viewing subject his or her distance from the object (136-7). Its very objecthood is its theatricality.
I thus encounter literalist art as if “the work in question exists for [me] alone, even if [I am] not actually alone with the work at the time.” I have merely to enter a room in which such a work has been placed “to become that beholder, that audience of one—almost as if the work in question has been waiting for [me]. And once [I am] in the room the work refuses, obstinately, to let [me] alone—which is to say it refuses to stop confronting [me], distancing [me], isolating [me].” Such art is thus “incomplete without the beholder” (163).
Against such art, Fried instantiates works such as that of Morris Louis, David Smith and Anthony Caro. Such art—he is referring here to Caro’s sculptures—he avers “defeats objecthood … by the efficacy of the gesture; like certain music and poetry, [it is] possessed by the knowledge of the human body and how … it makes meaning…. [It] essentialize[s] meaningfulness as such—as though the possibility of meaning what we say and do alone makes [this art] possible” (162).
Secondly, theatricality is “at war with art as such” (163). Art works that are art “as such” (by which Fried means e.g. David Smith, Anthony Caro and Elliott Carter and not Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage) are “explicitly concerned with the conventions that constitute their respective essences.” (I note here a profound difference between Fried and the thought of Arthur Danto).10 They call forth, that is, the history or genealogy that engenders them.
How do we know what counts as true to art, of “art as such”? Take a parallel case: In the sixteenth century, arguments over what counts as Scripture raised the question of precisely what makes something Scripture. What can count as proof—for one cannot ask the author, and certainly not the Author? The key here is the experience of finding oneself in (absorbed by) what has a claim to be art—or in this case in what claims to be Scripture. “Art as such” gives this: art is thus never primarily representation. I return to the parallel with Scripture below.
Last, literalist works are “inexhaustible… not because of any fullness … but because there is nothing to exhaust. [They are] endless the way a road might be if it were circular.” Persistence in time is “central to literalist art” which is “essentially a presentment of endless or indefinite duration.” Modernist art, however, is experienced “as if one’s experience … has no duration—not because one in fact experiences [it] … in no time at all, but because at every moment the work itself is wholly manifest” (166-167). For Fried: “We are all literalists most or all of our lives.” There are, however, possible moments of ecstasy: “Presentness is grace” (168). The position is analogous to my epigraph from Wittgenstein.
The essay raises a number of complex questions about our relation to the world of which and in which we live, for Fried’s concerns go quietly well beyond academic art criticism. Fried is concerned with 1/ our ability (or lack thereof) to “mean what we say” and do (he echoes an essay by his friend Stanley Cavell with that title); 2/ with the human relation to convention and this the weight of our past; and 3/ with temporality and its demands. Thus his epigraph to “Art and Objecthood” from Jonathan Edwards: “It is certain within me that the world exists anew every moment: that the existence of things every moment ceases and is every moment renewed.” Fried, by the voice of Edwards, raises the question of our relation to presentness (46), to that in which we are absorbed.
Rilke wrote that the stone of the archaic torso of Apollo in the Louvre “explodes like starlight” and, as my third epigraph indicates, thought that such art made claims upon any being in its presence. To recall:
for here there is no stance
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Note that Rilke does not say that we see the statue: no matter where I am (“stance”) I feel seen, but the statue does not look at me—and not because it is “only” a torso. The German for “must” (change your life) is musst and not sollst: the change of life is not something one should do but something that must happen. My own experience verifies for me Fried’s phenomenological point (and Rilke’s poetic claim). In Florence, I was privileged to be seen by the six-foot, three-inch bronze apoxyomenos (“Scraper”) that recently had been extraordinarily restored after spending two thousand years in the sea off Croatia. It saw me but it looked at me not. It left me alone. Fried, to put it simply, is right.
But how? why? I want to pose two questions here: first, “on the basis of what is he right?” and, second, what is Fried’s (the man writing about his experience) relation to his experience? Experiences such as those Fried instantiates about what he calls “modernist” art, or my experience with the Florence statue, have a certain authoritative claim. How do they accomplish this?
A step back. You may ask: “are there such authoritative texts? How does, how can, a text come to become part of how I assess the world, become, as it were, my analyst?” Are there texts such as those Samuel Beckett referred to in a letter to his director Alan Schneider as having “the power … to claw”?11 One answer is—or was—obvious. Scripture. What would it mean not to approach Scripture with a mind to ‘interpreting’ it? Here one must be careful. Much of the contemporary debate over the authoritative status of Scripture tends to revolve around a debate between those who regard Scripture as authoritatively inspired and those who regard it as infallible.12 The debate rages but—for my purposes here—misleads us by omitting as central the relation of the reader to the text and rather seeing it from, as it were, God’s eye. Here I need rather to consider two factors: hermeneutics and literalism. A standard hermeneutic understanding contends at least three things: first that a text (in the broadest sense of the term) is a work that mediates meaning. (Note that I have not said written by humans, nor have I insisted on linguistics). Second, that as a text, its meaning has independence from its author. (See Gadamer, Ricoeur, Cavell.) Thirdly, that such texts are polysemous—that is the same text will fit differently with different readers—however: not anything will count as a reading.13
Not all works are open to such a reading, to, that is, the most honest and deepest critical understanding that can be brought. Some works will: indeed, it is the definition of a great work (do I dare call it such texts what we mean by “the canon”?) that it has stood up to and surpassed any critique over time. Luther could not find himself in the Apocrypha (nor for that matter could Calvin) and he was at pains to separate it out from the rest of the New Testament (and he tried also to remove Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation).14 The 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith was to follow Luther’s guidance and there we find: “The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings” (Article III).15 This is followed by the assertion that: “The authority (NB again) of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.”
What is important here is that the so-called antilegomena books are not deemed to have the authority that others had, presumably because their author was felt to be insufficiently authoritative, in this case not God. It is the case that Luther was not alone in his doubts. Erasmus calls the books into question in his Annotationes as, ironically, did also the Roman Catholic Cardinal Cajetan, who drew up the bill of excommunication against Luther. But not much was made of this issue before Luther and that is because, under Catholicism, authority lay not only in Scripture but also in tradition, the Pope and the councils. It is only when authority is deemed to have as its source sola scriptura—only as a text—that such controversies become important.
And here we have a problem. If God is the author and thus Scripture authored by God is authoritative, how do we know that the Apocrypha are not authoritative? Likewise—how will we know that Fried is right in his readings? After all, we can’t ask God and even if the artist is still alive, it is not clear that he or she is the final authority on the work.16 Hobbes is explicit on this as was Tyndale and the others. Indeed, when Anne Hutchinson claimed before court in the Massachusetts Bay Colony that she had received direct revelations from God,17 this was adequate reason to excommunicate her and banish her from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Erasmus, however, helps us on this problem. In the Paraclesis (1516), Erasmus proposes what is in effect an art of reading for life.18 While he urges that the Scriptures must be translated into all vernaculars (for reasons not unlike those of Hobbes in Behemoth)—“I would that even the lowliest women read the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles,”19— his edition in Latin (1514-1516) carries the Greek on the facing page. He asserts that the word-acts (as I might call them) of Scripture—the πράγματα/pragmata—themselves inscribe truth in readers. Πρᾶγμα means “deed or act to be done,” it is the concrete actuality of πρᾶξις/praxis. Thus: “And this kind of philosophy doth rather consist in the affects of the mind, than in syllogisms. It is a life rather than a disputation. It is an inspiration rather than erudition. And rather a new transformation, than a reasoning” (104). He refers to “the philosophy of Christ,” which, however, had to be spiritually incorporated (“made flesh”) rather than simply adhered to in the rituals and a mouthing of the words. It is a life, not an argument. This, explicitly, gives a “rebirth” (renascentia). He notes that different people will read it differently and as best they can as long, which is not a problem so long as they will seek to “Comprehend what [they] can, express what [they] can.” And he further notes: “This [philosophy] adjusts itself to the capacities of everyone alike. … Yet it is not so fitted to the lowest that it does not present marvels to the very highest.” —Erasmus is doing hermeneutics. Most important: “these writings bring you the living image of His holy mind … and … render Him so fully present that you would see less if you gazed on Him with your very eyes” (108; my italics). The reading gives us reality, thus more than what would be merely actual. Erasmus gives us a version—but importantly now with the printed press—of what Saint Augustine reports as when hearing a voice prompting him to tolle, lege, he opened the Scriptures at random to be overwhelmed by the passage in Romans 12-15, the “transformation of believers” section, urging a μετάνοια/metanoia, a “change of mind and correction.”20 As Fried concludes “Art and Objecthood,” “presentness is grace.”
Two thoughts follow from this discussion of pragmata. The first has to do with literalism. What is a literal reading of Scripture, of any text that allows one? It is standard today—and not without some reason—to cast ridicule on such a claim, along the lines perhaps of what we think to have been the exchange between Bryan and Darrow at the Scopes trial. But turning to the early Reformation period we find another, and to my mind, more important element. As Tyndale wrote: “thou shalt understand therefore that the Scripture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense.” Note however how he continues:
“And that literal sense is the root and ground of all, and the anchor that never faileth, whereunto if thou cleave, thou canst never err or go out of the way. And if thou leave the literal sense, thou canst not but go out of the way. Nevertheless, the scripture uses proverbs, similitudes, riddles, or allegories, as all other speeches do; but that which the proverb, similitude, riddle or allegory signifieth, is ever the literal sense, which thou must seek out diligently: as in the English we borrow words and sentences of one thing, and apply them unto another, and give them new significations.”21
We have to, as Tyndale says, “find out the literal sense.” So literalism becomes hermeneutics. Note that Tyndale conceives of this as an individual achievement—each has to accomplish such a reading. When Luther defended himself against the excommunication edict, he did so on three grounds. First, he argued that “Scripture alone is the true lord and master of all writings and doctrine on earth.”22 The referent for authority, in other words, was not the will of God but only the available expression of God, God as He is available to us in writing. Stephen Greenblatt refers to this as “the fetishism of Scripture preached by all of the early Protestants.”23
Second, Luther wanted to demonstrate that “we have now the right to weaken the power of councils and to contradict their acts, also to pass judgment on their decrees and to confess boldly whatever we think is true, regardless of whether it is approved or condemned by any council” (D, art. 29, p. 80). Note here that Luther sees no contradiction between confessing what one sees as true and Scripture as “lord and master.”
Finally, Luther was concerned that there be no earthly human authority that could possibly claim to be the last word. This meant most centrally the claims of the leaders of the Church. On the matter of the sale of indulgences, for instance, Luther suggests that the pope was in effect claiming the power to get people out of purgatory. “If you ask on what grounds he can do this, he says, ‘I am pope.’ But enough of this!” Luther continues, “The words of Christ expressly state that his authority is on earth, not above or beneath it” (D, art. 26, p. 75).
Luther’s stance raised the problem of the relation between that which one’s conscience found true and that which was true for the Church. He needed to reconcile the actuality of individual conscience with the existence of a church; he thus required that conscience generate a church rather than rely on the existence of one.24 His answer was to look not to what the Church said and had said but to locate the ultimate authority in the written word of God as it was available to humans, in reading. By being written and with no available author, it was not subject to human authority—and in any case, as Luther and later John Calvin persuasively argued, human authorities were many and often contradicted each other. Scripture—the text –stood there and required understanding of each human being. God could not in any case be directly known.
The problem posed by the Reformation has to do with the authority that an existing text can have for a conscience. Protestantism phrases the question of authority as the general question of what it means to read and find a text available. (We remember that Fried’s epigraph is from the great Protestant Jonathan Edwards.) I say “available” here because it is clear in Luther that this is not a matter of “interpretation.” Luther does not think that what he is offering is an interpretation of the Scripture, nor is he asserting that he must be right. “Who knows?” he expostulates, “God may have called me and raised me up [to be everybody’s teacher]. They ought to be afraid lest they despise God in me” (D, p. 8). Luther also suggests that he will recant if and when his opponents show him—that is, make available to him—what in the Scripture confutes him: he is suggesting that he will have to come to find something in his conscience that he has not seen before, a better reading. This is what we call critique—in fact self-critique. He will himself have to encounter what Emerson called “provocation,” that is, be called forth before he can find the way or reason to change his mind. This is what William Tyndale, in 1525, called “the literal sense” of the Scripture, the sense of confidence that the meaning of the Scripture stands in front of us and that “interpretation” is a way of avoiding that directness (see R, p. 100). A literal reading is not so much the taking of every word at face value as the ability to allow the text to work on you, not to interpose an interpretation between yourself and the text. It is to allow the text to read you. The emphasis is on the corporeality of the human understanding of the Scripture: it is as incarnate, limited, thrown-on-this-earth human beings that we encounter God’s word, and we can and should only encounter it as embodied creatures. There is no other way; there is no special part of the human being that is somehow privileged in its access to God’s word. A Scripture-based theology is necessarily this-world oriented.25
The attention to pragmata calls us to a second consideration, that of the complexity of the difference between writing and the speech-act. In the Phaedrus and the Theatetus Plato famously argued that writing severs discourse from the timely and time-bound deed or act of speaking.26 Knowing what is meant is made possible by hearing and seeing the speaker. What to do when we cannot go to the speaker for the speech act? The problem is for the author to write as if speaking and for the reader to experience a text as if it were spoken to one: “Cut these words and they will bleed.” Not all texts will do this perhaps, but to insist that none can is, I think, quite wrong. No speech-act exists completely in isolation from its speaker and his /her contexts (note the plural), although the speaker may isolate him- or herself from his or her words—as one has increasingly the sense with the present President of the United States. If something is meant, we can come to understand what is meant (even, by the way, the notorious snippet from Nietzsche’s note that he had lost his umbrella adduced by Derrida in Epérons/Spurs).27
But with Scripture we have a written text, for which, however, the author is not available. No matter how great our learning, we cannot reconstruct the context of God authoring.28 How are we to know what it means? I do not hallucinate here when I say that the problem is exactly the same as the one that confronted Freud when he sought to set out the meaning of Michelangelo’s Moses statue. (Neither Moses nor Michelangelo were available and more importantly everything one could know about the statue was already there.) For a brilliant example of this how to encounter such a situation, see T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death—on reading a painting by Poussin.
What does it mean to say that a text might require an understanding of a reader? Here I am helped by sources that might appear strange—though my references to Michelangelo and Poussin might have forewarned you. This is obviously ( to me at least) the matter that is at hand in “Art and Objecthood” and for which Fried has been subject to criticism. Bear with me.
I want now to take these thoughts and bring them to two authors who have occupied my thoughts. The first might seem unlikely, Thomas Hobbes. What is the source of the authority of his writing, in particular of Leviathan?
It seems to me clear that Hobbes hoped that his work, in particular Leviathan, would become a textbook at university. In Chapter Nine, he sets out a table of the various sciences that is modelled on the curriculum books in general use at Oxford and Cambridge.29 Notably his contribution to science is all by itself down at the bottom left-hand corner—in effect he is expanding science, developing the hitherto unset-forth science of civil philosophy. But this is not the source of the authority of the book.
He opens and closes Leviathan with the wish that it be taught at university. In fact, all other doctrines that might conflict with Hobbes’ (including those that threaten its basic presuppositions, such as Boylean plenism, i.e. anything that suggested the existence of vacuum [i.e. nothing], or of incorporeal substances) would have to count as “discourse which . . . represented not unto us our own conceptions” (Elements of Law, I.5), and because they do not, they are seditious teachings to be outlawed.
And there is an immediate problem. If the substance of education must consist of “our own conceptions” and if, as he says in the Second Appendix to the Latin Leviathan, the laws of nature are written in everyone’s heart (all nineteen of them!), and it is nevertheless the case that most beings are illiterate of them, how then is education to be effective? One is urged in the Introduction to “read thyself” (his unusual translation of gnosce teipsum) but most don’t. Hobbes seems to think that while the mind is “white paper” and thus a blank, the heart is the locus of the inscription of natural law (albeit law that is hard to read). The mind must be instructed—how is that instruction to become incarnate—that is read—as that which is in our yet unread heart. Much like Erasmus or Tyndale on Scripture, here it is the heart that must be read to become our life—not so the mind, which is apparently immediately available and dangerously motile and hence a particular source of political danger. The obvious question to ask is then “what is it that keeps us from knowing or acknowledging—from reading —these conceptions?” Reading, I noted above, was central to the enterprise of contemporary Protestantism. The Scriptures were now in the vernacular such that they could be read, without intermediary, directly engaged by each, man and woman alike.30 Yet, even with the text of our hearts in front of, or rather inside, us, most of us did not or could not or would not read. On the importance of the relation of a reader to a text, Hobbes comes close to joining Tyndale but with less confidence in our access to our hearts—his worry was that the text as it was written in one’s heart was not available to be read or that we would resist reading it.
With this we can reconceptualize the role that fear plays in Hobbes thought. Fear is Hobbes’s remedy for the failures of knowledge. As most will not or cannot read their hearts, what we need, in order to respond to that which is in our heart, is first of all for fear of what will happen if we do not act according to what is in fact in our hearts. (Hobbes has written down for us the text to which we should respond.) Fear, however, cannot be the final stopping point nor the grounding of the polity. Hobbes closes the Introduction as follows:
He that is to govern a whole Nation, must read in himselfe, not this, or that particular man; but Man-kind; which though it be hard to do, harder than to learn any Language, or Science; yet, when I shall have set down my own reading orderly, and perspicuously, the pains left another, will be onely to consider, if he also find not the same in himselfe. For this kind of Doctrine, admitteth no other Demonstration.
What is striking here is the claim that the proof of what Hobbes has written—which he declares in effect to only be what he, Hobbes (as particularly skilled), has read in our heart (the text is the same in all)—is to be obtained by looking into oneself honestly and critically and finding there what Hobbes has only, if eloquently, transcribed. The Sovereign, properly read, is us. He uses the demonstration again in the following passage that follows immediately in Chapter 13 on the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
It may seem strange to some man, that has not well weighed these things; that Nature should thus dissociate, and render men apt to invade, and destroy one another: and he may therefore, not trusting to this Inference, made from the Passions, desire perhaps to have the same confirmed by Experience. Let him therefore consider with himselfe, when taking a journey, he armes himselfe, and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his dores; when even in his house he locks his chests; and this when he knows there bee Lawes, and publike Officers, armed, to revenge all injuries shall bee done him; what opinion he has of his fellow subjects, when he rides armed; of his fellow Citizens, when he locks his dores; and of his children, and servants, when he locks his chests. Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions, as I do by my words?
What Hobbes wants, in other words, is for his words to so strike you that you realize that they are your words. But this “your” is misleading: they are not precisely my words as they are the words of anyone (the laws of nature being in everyone’s heart the same). We encounter here a problem that is relevant to Fried’s work: is the experience that a reading makes available my experience, or is it the experience of some particular our, or is it an experience that is valid for all should one be able to acknowledge it? Back to Fried’s claim that in the presence of literalist or theatrical art one is an “audience of one.” Theatrical art produces an isolated audience of one. When, however, Fried closes the “Introduction” to Absorption and Theatricality, he states that the essence of the “anti-theatrical”—thus of the absorptive— is that it treats “the beholder as if he were not there.”31 In Hobbes, the “one” remains barely present, possibly available to be read, but only as a universal, God created. It occupies, we might say, a space between the theatricalized isolate and the “not there” of absorptive art.
The frontispiece to Leviathan is the iconographic correlative of the book as a whole. Hobbes seeks to make the Leviathan—the sovereign—an object of sight such that what all see there will, in fact, be what could have been read in their heart. The sovereign is thus each of our selves joined together and constructed as an object of sight. You come out in the morning to pick up your milk and what you see is the Sovereign—it cannot be missed. And when we see the Leviathan on the horizon, we are in fact seeing ourselves as making the body of the Sovereign, much in the way that we might see ourselves present on stage in a theater—as a kind of chorus of the heart, say.
That the sovereign is seen is significant for our understanding of our experience of the glory of its authority. (Note that Fried’s work is centrally about “beholding.”) The glory of God is something that is always seen. When Christ is transfigured on Mount Tabor (Matt 17:2) his glory shines forth as a blinding light: “He was transfigured before them; and his face did shine as the sun, and his garments became white as the light.” What is important here is that one can do nothing before the glory of God but acknowledge it. There is no choice in the matter—it simply overwhelms.32 The intention of Hobbes’s book is to provide a reading such that one is awed and instructed by the Sovereign: a whole book to do what Fried tries in each essay.
Glory in this sense (of God, Christ, the Sovereign) is then something beheld and is an intransitive relation33: I mean that while one sees the glory of God, one is not seen by God. (I am the analysand). Similar thoughts hold true for more earthly examples: a Roman triumph, for instance, is the presentation of a great war victor as almost a god for the acknowledgment of the crowd.34 The theatricality of the Sovereign as he towers over the landscape is central to his sovereignty. In a like manner, when one reads accounts of the theatricality of the self-presentation of the King in English Courts (see the description of the court of and of Henry VIII in Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning) the glory of the king could not but produce awe.35 See the portraits of Henry VIII at the Walker Gallery, Liverpool and Elizabeth I, in Royal Museums Greenwich.
Hobbes wants this book to strike you the way Holbein intended to show the monarch in his portrait, to accept it the way one accepts the actuality of what is on stage. You will acknowledge that it is a faithful transcription of what is in your heart.
But while these considerations might make sense for early Protestants, or for sovereign-centered civil philosophy à la Hobbes, can we—people like those reading this book, and not just us for we are not as different as we might wish—find a text in ourselves?
I turn here to my third case: Nietzsche. Here the problem is the same but framed quite differently. If we have changed such that we do not accept that the Scriptures are God’s words, if we do not accept that what is in each heart is the same as each other heart and that it is possible to give one reading that is true, if these changes are our actuality, then what text can possibly stand authoritatively for us? We might admit to individual experiences that have this quality but not ones that generate a Church or a polity, nor even what Nietzsche called a publicum.
Yet this was clearly a problem that exercised Nietzsche. The intention of The Birth of Tragedy was to generate the elements of a cultural revolution.36 This had been the import of tragedy for Athens, and tragedy was, in Nietzsche’s reading, able to accomplish this transformation by means of its birth from the Geist of music. Note the direction of these considerations—we go from a text authored by God, to a text written in each of us and read from that heart, to music. But is music a text—i.e. does it mediate meaning? We seem to be in over our head.
Still, we might sense some ground in coming across this passage in Wittgenstein (something I find happens more than once). “Music appears to some as a primitive art, with its few notes and rhythms. But it is only simple on the surface: its substance (Körper) on the other hand which makes it possible the meaning of this manifest content, has all the infinite complexity that we find suggested in the external forms of other arts and that music conceals. There is a certain sense in which it is the most sophisticated [raffieniert] art of all.”37
Well, it is true—at least in my experience of reading Nietzsche and in observing the response of others—that one does have the sense that, as David Allison says, “Nietzsche write exclusively for you. Not at you but for you. For you, the reader. Only you.” 38 (Think back to my citation of Fried). This is an individualization of a basic principle of classical rhetoric extending here to an argumentum in omnesque partes—the argument on all sides. Emerson writes that “eloquence is speaking the truth such that the person to whom one speaks will understand it.” With Nietzsche, he seems to speak to each and everyone. If Allison is correct, this says that Nietzsche’s text addresses each person individually. Nietzsche formulates his rules for writing in an explicit set of commandments to Lou von Salome.39 Among them: “Style must in retrospect be appropriate for you in relation precisely to the particular person with whom you wish to share yourself (der du dich mitteilen willst).” He calls this “the law of the double relation.” One must shape what one says according to the particular qualities of the person or persons one is addressing and the circumstances. In the same text, he insists that “wealth in life betrays itself in a wealth of gestures. Everything, the length and brevity of sentences, punctuation, the choice of words, pauses, the sequence of arguments—must be learned to be understood as gestures.” (Remember the pragmata). Presumably, to the degree that Nietzsche was able to follow this rule in his published work (note by the way that it calls into some kind of question how one should approach the Nachlass) it means that everything that is there is there for a purpose and crafted as such.
I have noted elsewhere the presumption of this claim. It is a bit like saying that there is nothing in Leonardo da Vinci’s La Gioconda that is not essential to that painting and there is nothing that is not there that could have been part of it. It is like saying that every word in Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” is exactly necessary to that poem. Or it is like Robert Schumann’s response when asked, upon finishing a piano piece, as to its meaning. He played it again. Or like Fried saying of Caro’s Deep Body Blue that it manifests, makes available, the quality of being open (A&O, 180). To the degree that one can accept this possibility, it means that prima facie nothing in what Nietzsche published can be dismissed as “overblown rhetoric” and that it is all fashioned with an audience in mind. Nor can any element of the Caro sculpture be overlooked.
In a lecture course of 1874, Nietzsche calls rhetoric “an essential republican art” and suggest that rhetoric was the culmination of the education of men of antiquity: “the highest spirit activity of a gebildeten political man.” He calls this “an odd notion for us” and then quotes Kant from the Critique of the Power of Judgement (# 51): “The speaker gives notice of a matter to be considered and in order to relate to his listeners presents it as if it were a play with ideas.” I have published fairly detailed analyses of examples of the working of Nietzsche’s rhetoric and will not rehearse them here. What they show me is precisely the fact that one’s first reading of Nietzsche tends to lead either to a sense that one understands it (whether one accepts or rejects it) or to further reading. But even in the latter case the sense of having gotten it (either accepting or rejecting) generally takes hold. I remember vividly starting to teach the Genealogy for the nth time, sure that I could do it in my sleep, as it were, only to come upon a passage that had never been in my text before. It is the section 14 of the first essay—the little dialogue about the fabrication of ideals. I was subsequently delighted to find that Quentin Skinner cites this as an example of paradiastolic redescription—the reframing of something (often a virtue) as its opposite or as something different (often a vice).40 Two remarks: First, the matter may be even more complex than Skinner adduces, for the passage does not stop with this apparent reversal about ideals being fabricated but continues: “—NO! One moment more!” and it turns out that the speaker who has come to this paradiastolic conclusion is explicitly said to be in danger of concluding too quickly—after all s/he is the speaker named “Mr. Rash and Curious—Herr Vorwitz und Wagehals, which could be rendered as Mr. Presumptuous Daredevil.” Secondly and more importantly for this essay: suddenly encountering section 14, for, as it were, the first time, brought me up short as I realized I did not understand it at all (in relation to the rest of what I wanted to say) and that meant I had to start all over again. So also, the conclusions to which Fried arrives, while for some giving at times the feeling of being off the cuff, are in fact the product of lengthy and self-critical reflection. The formulation at which he arrives grows from returning again and again—not for nothing is psychoanalysis four times a week. (A full account of this process can be found in T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death.)
In this process of reading one’s first reading, I revise my understanding, but the revising is not the end: More importantly: I have had to reflect on why I had thought I understood him. Nietzsche engenders then a Selbstkritik—which is what he calls his essay that becomes a new preface to his first book. (Almost) all of Nietzsche can and should be read like this. Even the Birth of Tragedy presents itself in sections 23 and 24 as a test for the reader—can you respond to this?41 One has to hear the text with one’s eyes. In reading Nietzsche, and perhaps especially in reading Nietzsche about science, morality, and politics, this means the following. When one thinks that one understands Nietzsche (whether affirmatively or negatively) the first thing one should do is ask oneself “why is it that I want to think that this is what Nietzsche means?” Typically, one will find that one has left something out, and a conclusion about which one was confident finds itself undercut. This requires a self-examination as to why it is that I was drawn to find my initial conclusion correct. Nietzsche’s writing would thus generate a self-critical relationship of the reader to the conclusions that he or she wishes to draw. In this way it has a therapeutic aim—it requires the reader to be (self-)critical. It also means that what Nietzsche writes does not spring from a position in which Nietzsche has assumed the position of a final arbiter, something he avoids, paradoxically, most often by writing in such a way that you think that this is what he is precisely what he is doing.42 At his best, which is often, Nietzsche forces the reader to come to grips with his or her own unexamined needs and desires: to be self-critical and thus to become his or her own authority. The multiple understandings of Nietzsche are all (shall I say “almost all”?), to some degree, understandings of those who have not adequately turned their understanding back on themselves. At his best, which is often, Fried forces the reader to ask him- or herself if this in not in fact how the work is available to us and we to it. Fried often sounds as if he is claiming to be the last word: I hear him rather empowering the reader.
I am not arguing that each of us has his or her “own” Nietzsche. Nietzsche tells us he is a proponent of the lento in reading and he lures you on at times shamelessly: as he says in the Foreword to Ecce Homo: “Nitimur in vetitum: under this banner my philosophy will triumph one day; for that which has hitherto been most strictly forbidden is without exception the truth.”43 He purposively writes in such a manner as to make many of those whose read him think that they have understood Nietzsche, only to find, on further careful or more careful reading or rereading –– that they have made something out of Nietzsche after their own image, an image or an idol that they must now call into question. In the section of Ecce Homo in which he explains what he writes such good books, he says:
Ultimately, nobody can get more out of things, including books, than he already knows. For what one lacks access to from experience one will have no ear. Now let us imagine an extreme case: that a book speaks of nothing but events that lie altogether beyond the possibility of any frequent or even rare experience—that it is a first language for a new series of experiences. … This is in the end my average experience and, if you will, the originality of my experience. Whoever thought he had understood something of me, had made up something out of me, after his own image…44
If what I say about his texts producing a self-criticism is correct, then by reading them—by engaging them—I have in effect become the author of myself, which is one version of the Kantian notion of autonomy. This is not, as Alexander Nehamas put it in his wonderful book on Nietzsche, “life as literature,” although one can see why Nehamas was moved in that direction—it is rather the basis for freedom and autonomy in an age that knows no transcendence but does not fully know that it knows none. Such would be no small achievement for our age, for it retains as it does the categories of moral judgment but in the context of a relativized transcendence, and runs the risk of justifying anything. But that is another topic.
A Columbo-esque parting thought: the previous paragraph leaves me with a question for Michael Fried. The parallels I have tried to draw between his work and that of Hobbes and Nietzsche each culminate in a political vision in those two thinkers. Should one, can one, find a politics in Fried’s work?