Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) has been remembered as a poet who produced delicate verse inspired by a melancholy version of Romanticism, along with some sharp epigrams on the discontents that go with civilisation. This was always a crude view of the early- 19th-century Italian writer. Leopardi’s subtle sensibility eludes conventional intellectual categories and the true achievement of this subversive genius has been little recognised.
With astonishing prescience, he diagnosed the sickness of our time: a dangerous intoxication with the knowledge and power given by science, mixed with an inability to accept the humanly meaningless world that science has revealed. Faced with emptiness, modern humanity has taken refuge in schemes of world improvement, which all too often – as in the savage revolutions of the 20th century and the no less savage humanitarian warfare of the 21st – involve mass slaughter. The irrationalities of earlier times have been replaced by what Leopardi calls “the barbarism of reason”.
…An anthropologist of modernity, Leopardi stood outside the beliefs of the modern age. He could never take seriously the faith in progress: the notion that civilisation gradually improves over time. He knew that civilisations come and go and that some are better than others – but they are not stations on a long march to a better world. “Modern civilisation must not be considered simply as a continuation of ancient civilisation, as its progression . . . These two civilisations, which are essentially different, are and must be considered as two separate civilisations.”
His sympathies lay with the ancients, whose way of life he believed was more conducive to human happiness. A product of the increase of knowledge, the modern world is driven by the pursuit of truth; yet this passion for truth, Leopardi suggests, is a by-product of Christianity. Before Christianity disrupted and destroyed the ancient pagan cults with its universal claims, human beings were able to rest content with their local practices and illusions. “Mankind was happier before Christianity than after it,” he writes.
What fascinated Schopenhauer, along with many later writers, was Leopardi’s insistence that illusion is necessary to human happiness. Matthew Arnold, A E Housman, Herman Melville, Thomas Hardy, Fernando Pessoa (who wrote a poem about the Italian poet) and Samuel Beckett were all stirred by his suggestion that human fulfilment requires a tolerance of illusion that is at odds with both Christianity and modern science. A version of the same thought informs the work of Wallace Stevens, perhaps the greatest 20th-century English-language poet, who saw the task of poetry as being the creation of fictions by which human beings can live.
Leopardi was emphatic in affirming the constancy of human nature and the existence of goods and evils that are universally human. He was far from being a moral relativist. What he rejected was the modern conceit that aims to turn these often conflicting values into a system of universal principles – a project that fails to comprehend the irresolvable contradictions of human needs. “No one understands the human heart at all,” he wrote, “who does not understand how vast is its capacity for illusions, even when these are contrary to its interests, or how often it loves the very thing that is obviously harmful to it.” Modern rationalists imagine they do not succumb to this quintessentially human need for illusion, but in reality they display it to the full.
…The barbarism of reason is the attempt to order the world on a more rational model. However, evangelists for reason are more driven by faith than they know and the result of attempting to impose their simpleminded designs on the world has been to add greatly to the evils to which human life is naturally prone.
Some will find Leopardi unsatisfying because he proposes no remedy for modern ills, but for me a part of his charm comes from how he has no gospel to sell. The Romantic movement turned to visions of natural harmony as an escape from the flaws of civilisation. With his more penetrating intelligence, Leopardi understood that because human beings are spawned by natural processes, their civilisations share the ramshackle disorder of the natural world. Brought up by his father to be a good Catholic, he became a resolute atheist who admired ancient pagan religion; but because it was not possible to return to the more benign faiths of ancient times, he was friendly to Christianity in his own day, seeing it as the lesser of many evils: “Religion (far more favoured and approved by nature than by reason) is all we have to shore up the wretched and tottering edifice of present-day human life.”
Realising that the human mind can decay even as human knowledge advances, Leopardi would not have been surprised by the stupefying banality and shallowness of current debates on belief and unbelief. He accepted that there is no remedy for the ignorance of those who imagine themselves to be embodiments of reason. Today’s evangelical rationalists lag far behind the understanding of the human world that he achieved in the early decades of the 19th century.
“The solution to a bad dream isn’t to argue yourself into a better dream, but to wake up and look at the world—then laugh or cry or be bored.”
All this is far from “how to” advice. I think we improvise our way into what becomes a life, and that means listening to the last two notes we played, as well as knowing some basics: Am I any good on the sax? Should I stick to drums? Am I paying attention to what the rest of the ensemble is doing? And there are other questions. How do I discover a leaning, a capability, a pleasure, a calling? John Rawls talks misleadingly of “life plans”—I suppose this is on the model of “investment plans” or “career plans.” My mind doesn’t work that way. I can’t put down general “learning objectives” for my classes. I don’t have a life plan for my life, and don’t know what my long term objectives are (if I have any). If something goes bad, I have something to say. But I don’t start with a plan or desire for specific outcomes—except in the most platitudinous sense: stay healthy, don’t starve, be a mensch. In class, if asked for an overall aim, I’d say “get to love these issues, texts, figures, passages. Praise what you love. Get comfortable sharing your growing interests and loves as you ramble or stumble through the whirl, eye ready for sudden insight, sudden center.”
A recent magazine piece (maybe in the Guardian?) by Wittgenstein’s biographer, Ray Monk reflects on Wittgenstein’s collection of photographs. There’s a connection between looking at the photos collected and Wittgenstein’s emphasis on looking — rather than explaining. In a parody, we could say that philosophers explain-explain-explain. They can forget to just look at the world, or flow with it, or listen to it (like listening to music). Wittgenstein thinks that philosophy is not a set of theories, one of which may be correct. Nor is it a set of bad theories about to be replaced, thank God, by the good theory I’ve just concocted. Enlightened as I surely am, I hereby stop this proliferation of error by announcing the truth. (It’s nice to fantasize omniscience.)
Wittgenstein thinks philosophies are symptoms of unhappiness, of verbal and intellectual confusion, of anxieties that are nearly inescapable. (Don’t we really, really, need to understand?) But maybe these inescapable worries are rather unreal, like a bad dream—real enough in the moment, and troubling, but forgettable when you awake and can so easily change the subject. The solution to a bad dream isn’t to argue yourself into a better dream, but to wake up and look at the world—then laugh or cry or be bored. Whatever your reaction after fresh contact, you’d no longer worry about whether the world exists, or whether feelings are always dangerous and unreliable, or whether moral relativity is true or false. You’d soak up the morning, act as you act, and solve your daily problems the way most persons do—one by one, with a minimum of ‘theory’ directing them. So…stop explaining. Just look! That’s Wittgenstein’s advice. Acknowledge your confusion, but the aim is to move into life—join the dance!
Wittgenstein had a deep interest in religion, in Tolstoy, Goethe, and Kierkegaard: he wrote, echoing a bit of Kierkegaard, “faith is a passion; wisdom, like cool grey ash.” He carried Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief to the trenches during WWI, and read from it every day. His Investigations is like a maze or storm at sea or series of unsolvable puzzles, full of almost biblical enigmas. You might say it holds both that human life has no Ground, no big foundation in logic or a rock-solid God, Science or Reason, and that it nevertheless has all the (God-given?) ground it needs—in overlooked aspects of life: the smile of a child, the rise of the sun, the sound of a clarinet, or a call to prayer from a minaret. To feel that, to live from it, would be something like leading a life of faith, being grounded in it. “All theory is grey, my friend, but ah, the glad golden tree of life is green.” Yes, that’s good, but not quite Wittgenstein. For him, theory might be “cool grey ash” but life was too polychromatic, including shades of black, to qualify as golden or green. In any case, it’s not just too much theory that makes for what he called “the darkness of the times”—his and ours. In his 1929 Notebook he writes enigmatically, “What is good is also divine.” He refused ashes. He could imbibe good: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”
I know that’s not a ringing conclusion, but it needn’t be reason for disappointment or angst. Except in rare instances, it’s not a well-plotted research program that culminates in definitive findings, conclusions, and closure. It’s a register of deep wonder and yearning. If that’s right, then philosophy will be always asking, no matter what, and always opening an impoverished agenda, and always improvising its way.
“too little time spent on word and theory” – Art history as mere profession vs. contemplative practice – Let us stop building bibliographic tombs and instead cultivate an affinity for present experience
[Reading through my notes today on Practicing Mortality: Art, Philosophy and Contemplative Seeing. I discovered that one of the authors Joanna E. Ziegler died five years after its publication (at age 60). I read through various tributes and obituaries and this quote exemplifies the scope of her ambition, “The point is not just to teach them to design buildings, but to design their lives.” Her influence was clearly deep, if not broad and although I never knew her personally and her death was three years ago, the news still hurt – so passionate and beautiful was her life/pedagogical/spiritual/art/philosophical practice. If you can’t find time for the book I mentioned, the following essay concerning the Mission Statement of the College of the Holy Cross provides a glimpse of her holistic approach to the art of living.]
For me, that experience epitomized the nature of what this essay is about — ‘Living the Mission’ — especially as it continues to reshape my pedagogy and my professional identity. I wish the story I am about to unfold were seamless and easy, and that the wonderful insights gained at Collegium had been brought home to Holy Cross, yielding the bounty and sustaining the fervor they promised. The reality, however, is that for all my enthusiasm and commitment to ‘live the Mission,’ it remains, three years later, hard and sometimes confusing work. Confidence and optimism mingle with doubt, as the project of linking art to contemporary issues of living spiritually is alternately embraced and marginalized by the academic community.
‘Living the Mission’ affects professional practices and identity, as well, beyond the College’s gates and in the field of disciplinary inquiry. Art history is currently defined as a project to locate history — to locate subjectivity in the past — in quantifiable evidence and hard data, whose footings lie deep in sociology. Thus, any sort of personal, contemporary experience of historical form — the very thrust of my courses regarding art and contemplation — is looked upon skeptically, even censoriously as something better left to personal rather than professional journals. (2)
Part of this story, then, is about the taxing demands of persevering in a relationship of art conjoined to spirituality as a serious academic pursuit — that is, as a matter of genuine and significant intellectual content such as befits an academic discipline. For now, art history (as serious ‘scientific’ study) and spirituality (as religious non-academic experience — as a matter of faith) compete for ultimate authority in their absolutely separate domains. My attempt to ‘live the Mission’ is, in a very real sense, an effort to bridge that separation.
Conceived as something akin to a skill, the art of looking (or spectatorship) can occasion contemplation and mindfulness — inner states that are recognized nearly universally as the true paths toward spiritual awareness. Eastern meditation practices, Zen Buddhism, Benedictine spirituality, Western mysticism, Emersonian pragmatism, and stress reduction exercises, to name but a few, all seek to attain ‘wisdom’ through attention and awareness. Concentration is the cornerstone. As I envision it, then, the study of art — outside the studio — might appropriately take its place alongside other contemplative practices. It shapes contemplative consciousness by insisting on routine physical discipline, which enables readiness, and, in so doing, shows students the spiritual and intellectual depth of artistic creativity — for them as beholders, no less than for the creators.
Faith and creativity share a paradox, as I see it: fidelity and stability, gained through practice, prepare the way to true freedom. Only with readiness can one hope to transcend the constraints of practice (therein lies the paradox) and enter that place which is so mysterious, so immeasurable. The experience is so unlike the routine activity that gave rise to it, that all the names given that experience through time — transcendence, divinity, creativity, performance, ecstasy — cannot begin to capture its true nature.
Perhaps more disconcerting than its supposed similarity with Formalism, is the emphasis I place on the training or practice involved in looking. I emphasize the word training, for what happens in my classroom — and by extension the museum — seems understood as being more in line with studio or fine art, rather than art history per se. Colleagues who paint, sing, or dance embrace the sort of training I offer. Yet for art historians, it can smack of art appreciation and, worse, appear to offer insufficient servings of quantifiable, documentable, ‘hard’ evidence — the currently favored material for serious intellectual content. Too much emphasis on sensory and practical information, too much prominence of the present, and too little time spent on word and theory, is how my approach is seen as differing from current standards in teaching art history.
The joining of faith and spirituality with art — an important element in my approach — is a legitimate and long-standing aspect of art history, to be sure, but only when firmly lodged in period styles, such as Gothic or Renaissance. Professional groups have priorities and, at the moment, for works of art to have religious or spiritual significance, they must be of explicitly religious subject matter or have clearly devotional applications. In this view, the emphasis I place on developing a personal, present-day relationship with a work of art belongs, somehow, in the realm of New Age therapy rather than hewing to the ‘exacting’ professional standards of contemporary art history, which tend to see and contain works of art firmly within the time frame of their production.
For me, therefore, the message of the Mission poses a dilemma. It asks me to heed its call, when to do so I must step beyond the boundary — to put it bluntly, to write myself out of the norms of publishable scholarship — of the very discipline that brought me to the College in the first place. True, the Mission Statement has inspired and enriched my thinking on creativity immeasurably, but I have had to leave the collegial setting of my discipline to pursue that thinking and to nurture thought into action.
On sabbatical this year, for example, I reflected long upon the contemplative lessons of great art and on the future of putting down scholarly roots among those lessons. I read a broad range of contemplative literature, which led, in part, to this essay and others like it. Meanwhile, my colleagues in art history were off to the archives and conferences in Europe, or reading vast amounts of post-Structuralist and deconstructionist theory. It may seem to them, therefore, that in my current activities I am abandoning the rigors of on-site research and voluminous bibliography-hunting for an apparently more relaxed, home-based form of intellectual pursuit. Such is by no means the case; reflection and contemplation are time-honored pillars of academic inquiry and pursuit. Nor do I want for challenges.
Where are the signposts of the Mission, so visible in campus conversation, as I thrash my way in isolation through the underbrush of this dilemma? The Mission Statement is a demanding document, more so than might appear on the surface. It presents a test of commitment to a purpose that diverges from the one that led me to Fenwick Hall some years ago. When I took my place among the other faculty of my Department, I vowed to be a loyal member of the field by bringing the best and most recent of its scholarly developments to our students. The evolution of the Mission Statement threw this vow into question, asking in a very tangible sense that I reassess and perhaps reorient my understanding of what I do and how that relates to the Mission. This I have done — but now, where am I ‘current’ as an art historian? What is my bibliographic base? Who, really, are my peers? And to what field do I or will I belong? ‘Living the Mission’ has been, in a word, costly.
Life actually lived rather than frozen in the amber of speculative thought – Edward Mooney, Kierkegaard, faith, and love
His book is fit for the educated person still open to wonder and a tonic for the academician whose passion has been dulled by bureaucracy and careerism, who has sold her birthright as a teacher in exchange for being — to use a Kierkegaardian term of ridicule — an assistant professor. And his book is for those who still feel the call to which the existentialist once responded: the whispered summons to traipse the wilderness rather than trace yet again the well-worn path to and from the office. Many of Mooney’s metaphors are drawn from the activity of walking and taking in landscapes — if he isn’t a walker himself like his beloved Kierkegaard (or Thoreau, whom he also admires), then he is to be congratulated for his fictive inventiveness, because his imagery strikes the reader as one that is born from life. Indeed, the many meditations in this text positively wriggle with the vitality of the first-hand, like a bucket of eels drawn from a sun-spangled river. Readers expecting a technical account of anything at all will be disappointed. Excursions with Kierkegaard is what its title suggests: more travelogue than treatise. And his companion on the way is lovingly and vividly rendered, a wry Virgil to any Dante who picks up this book. Kierkegaard appears here as by turns sober and wry, difficult and winsome, a poet, a preacher, a prophet, an ironic carnival barker, an astute observer, a friend to the man on the street and a guest of the king, a bon vivant and a Christian, a confidant and critic.
This ambivalence is part of the character of our experience, and Mooney seems to appreciate that. Reason goes weak in the knees when it falls in love because in love the giving of reasons rings hollow: Imagine a marriage proposal prefaced by a list of “Things I Really Like about You.” If Mooney is right (and I think he is) that love thrives where reasons leave off, then that is not because our experience just is equivocal and various means and attunements might disclose this but because this is the way love is, and love being what it is renders all experience equivocal. If God is non-metaphorical love par excellence, and I think for Kierkegaard God is, then the aesthetic approach, for all its beauty and splendor, needs the religious to rescue it. Mooney’s poetics are not incompatible with the religious — far from it — but it might help to be a bit clearer that while for Kierkegaard faith without poetics is inconceivable, poetics without faith is unsustainable.
Again it is Mooney’s vision that causes us to see Kierkegaard anew, and, as he would admit, no one has an unobstructed vista on the panorama of truth. If he brings us to a new vision, he does so not by force of syllogism but by inviting us to take up a strange and strained perspective. To ask for this fuzziness to be brought to perfect clarity would betray both Mooney’s characteristic tenor and the point of what he wants to convey, which is in no small part that for Kierkegaard ambiguity, openness, and subjective shading are endemic to life actually lived rather than frozen in the amber of speculative thought.
The poetics of belief – absolute truth and absolute contingency – the poetry of faith and the faith in poetry
…Wiman is relentless in his probing of how life feels when one is up against death. In his desire to “speak more clearly what it is that I believe,” he recounts how, after long wandering, he sought to reclaim his religious faith. He understands that he is not recapturing the faith he had as a child, noting that “if you believe at 50 what you believed at 15, then you have not lived — or have denied the reality of your life.” With both honesty and humility, Wiman looks deep into his doubts, his suspicion of religious claims and his inadequacy at prayer. He seeks “a poetics of belief, a language capacious enough to include a mystery that, ultimately, defeats it, and sufficiently intimate and inclusive to serve not only as individual expression but as communal need.” This is a very tall order, and Wiman is a brave writer to take it on.
Drawing on his position as someone facing a diminished life span, Wiman mounts a welcome, insightful and bracing assault on both the complacent pieties of many Christians and the thoughtless bigotry of intellectuals who regard Christian faith as suitable only for idiots or fools…He comments: “To admit that there may be some psychological need informing your return to faith does not preclude or diminish the spiritual imperative, any more than acknowledging the chemical aspects of sexual attraction lessens the mystery of enduring human love.”
Wiman is adept at making connections between the religious impulse and the need to create art. Like many artists, after shedding his early religious faith, he transferred “that entire searching intensity” into his work. But eventually Wiman sensed that all those hours of reading, thinking and writing were leading him back into faith. He began to feel that “human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.”
Wiman finds that the integrity of a poem, which is “its own code to its own absolute and irreducible clarity,” is similar to that of a God who lives “not outside of reality but in it, of it, though in ways it takes patience and imagination to perceive.” Both require the use of metaphor, “which can flash us past our plodding resistance and habits into strange new truths.” Christ’s repeated use of metaphor and story, Wiman asserts, is an effective way of asking people to “stake their lives on a story, because existence is not a puzzle to be solved but a narrative to be inherited and undergone and transformed person by person.”
…And in accepting that the words and symbols of Christianity say something true about reality but are also necessarily limited in their scope, he sees an analogue with poetry. “You can’t spend your whole life questioning whether language can represent reality,” he writes. “At some point you have to believe that the inadequacies of the words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them.”
…The idea of the artist as heroic loner, he decides, is for him merely an anxiety that has become dangerously useful. Coping with his cancer has drawn him closer to other people, and also to the Jesus who suffered on the cross. “The point,” he writes, “is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.”
… “I am, such as I am, a Christian,” he writes, “because I can feel God only through physical existence, can feel his love only in the love of other people.” His love for his wife and children, he realizes, is both human and entirely sacred. And here the poet comes to the fore, insisting on the right to embrace contradiction without shame. “I believe in absolute truth and absolute contingency, at the same time. And I believe that Christ is the seam soldering together these wholes that our half vision — and our entire clock-bound, logic-locked way of life — shapes as polarities.”
“Having faith is a type of commitment, an insistence on a possibility, and a tendency to act upon it, fully aware of the risk involved in a particular context. Faith is necessary and important in all dimensions of life and not something confined to religion.”
“…determining the reasonableness of a faith in democracy is different from determining whether democracy is true or false, and different from validating a knowledge claim.”
“A failure to take the risk involved in having faith in democracy (and surrendering to skepticism and cynicism) is not altogether to avoid risk, but to take a different kind of risk, namely, the risk of losing things that might depend on believing in the possibility of democracy. One of the things lost may be democracy as a way of life. Democracy requires faith for its own realization.”
“The intelligent and aesthetic characters of democracies are mutually dependent. The community most capable of learning from experience is also the one that has all the features that define aesthetic activity, which for Dewey is the most inherently meaningful type of activity in experience. The democratic way of life is able to maintain the kind of balance and rhythm in its everyday doings and undergoings that, for Dewey, characterize aesthetic experience: a balance of tensions with rhythmic variety. Ideal activity is a merging of playfulness with seriousness that allows richness and flexibility without sacrificing stability. Democracy signifies for Dewey this possibility at the social level. The democratic community is also the aesthetic community because it is constituted by relationships that are neither fixed, routine, or mechanical, nor anarchical, capricious, or arbitrary.”
“The one-caring, then, is not bored with ordinary life…the one-caring finds new delight in breakfast, in welcoming home her wanderers, in feeding the cat who purrs against her ankle, in noticing the twilight. She does not ask, ‘Is this all there is?,’ but wishes in hearty affirmation that what-is might go on and on…Now one may ask just how the celebration of everyday life contributes to the maintenance of the ethical ideal. First, of course, as we have seen, such celebration turns the one-caring in wonder and appreciation to the source of her ethicality. It is for the most part in ordinary situations that we meet others for whom we shall care and who care for us. Second, celebration of ordinary life requires and is likely to enhance receptivity. The magic of daily life may be missed by one who constantly seeks adventure and ‘something new.’ Celebration of daily experience provides opportunities for engrossment, for complete involvement in living”
“It is not necessary that I, a concrete moral agent, actually attain my ideal – surely, I shall fail repeatedly – but the ideal itself must be attainable in the actual world. It must be possible for a finite human being to attain it, and we should be able to describe the attainment. The attainment must be actually possible; that is, if I am faithful and energetic and fortunate, I should be able to attain in my actual relations with actual persons. I should not be diverted into abstraction and the endless solution of hypothetical problems.”
“…moral problems not as intellectual problems to be solved by abstract reasoning but as concrete human problems to be lived and to be solved in living.”
“The father might sacrifice his own child in fulfilling a principle; the mother might sacrifice any principle to preserve her child.”
“If rational-objective thinking is to be put in the service of caring, we must at right moments turn it away from the abstract toward which it tends and back to the concrete. At times we must suspend it in favor of subjective thinking and reflection, allowing time and space for seeing and feeling. The rational-objective mode must continually be re-established and redirected from a fresh base of commitment. Otherwise, we find ourselves deeply, perhaps inextricably, enmeshed in procedures that somehow only serve themselves; our thoughts are separated, completely detached, from the original objects of caring.”
“In part, our approaches to creativity and care are induced by the dominating insistency on objective evaluation. How can we emphasize the receptivity that is at the core of both when we have no way of measuring it? Here we may ultimately decide that some things in life, and in education, must be undertaken and sustained by faith and not by objective evaluation.”
“There are times when we must stop thinking in order to make sensible connections with the object field. Neither the joy nor the receptivity of which we have been talking is passive; both are active but not manipulative, not assimilative. They do not strive to impose structure, but they open all channels to perceive it. They represent an opening-up and a taking-in.”
– Nel Noddings in Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics & Moral Education