Forgetting Ourselves (2)

This is the second in a series of posts.

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What we call “art” can sometimes offer a false feeling of forgetting oneself in the positive sense, the sense of setting oneself free of “the bondage of self.” That is so, at least, for some of what we commonly call “art.” The poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan also talks about that in “The Meridian,” his acceptance speech for the 1960 Georg Büchner Prize.

In accepting that prize, Celan followed the by then already standard practice of addressing Büchner’s own work in the process of accepting the prize awarder in his name. Celan begins with Büchner’s drama, Danton’s Death, to which he makes reference in the very opening remarks of his acceptance speech. “Meine Damen und Herren!” he first says in acknowledgment of his audience. Then he continues:

Art: that is, you’ll remember, a marionette-like, iambic-pentametered, and—this property is also mythologically attested by reference to Pygmalion and his creation—childless thing.

In this form it constitutes the topic of a conversation that takes place in a room, thus not in the Conciergerie [where Danton was imprisoned before being taken to the guillotine, where some later scenes in Büchner’s play are set], a conversation that, we sense, could be carried on forever, if nothing intervened.

Something intervenes.

The conversation referred to is one between the two historically based characters Camille Desmoulins and George Danton in Danton’s Death, Büchner’s first drama, about the French Revolution. That conversation begins Scene 3 of Act Two of the play, and runs as follows (the translation is John Reddick’s, from the 1993 Penguin Books edition of Büchner’s complete writings):

CAMILLE: I tell you, unless they get everything in stilted imitations, a little bit here and a little bit there in concerts, theatres, art exhibitions, they have neither eyes to see nor ears to hear. Cobble up a puppet with conspicuous strings and make it jerk round the stage on iambic feet: “What stunning psychology! How neat and logical!” Take a jaded maxim, a half-baked emotion, a commonplace idea, stuff it into coat and trousers, paint on a face, stick on hands and feet, make it wheeze and puff its way through three acts till it gets itself married or shoots itself dead: “An idyllic treat!” Scratch out an opera that expresses the ebb and flow of emotion as a cracked tin-whistle conveys the song of the nightingale: “Ah! The power of art!”

            Put these people out of the theatre and into the street: “Ugh! Miserable reality!” They forget their Maker for his incompetent copyists. They hear and see nothing. They hear and see nothing of the glow, the hum, the radiance of creation regenerating itself in and around them each second of the day. They visit the theatre, read poems and novels, ape their ridiculous contortions, and dismiss God’s creature as “Oh, so ordinary!”

            The Greeks knew what they were talking about when they said that Pygmalion’s statue indeed came to life but never bore children.


DANTON: And artists in general treat nature like [French Neo-classical painter Jacques-Louis] David, who cold-bloodedly drew the dead of the September massacre as their bodies were flung from the goal into the street, and claimed he was “catching the final spasms of life in these evil rogues.” [At issue is the massacre in September 1792, when more than half the total prison population of Paris—which means at least 1,400 people—were drug out of prison and publicly butchered by the mob, whipped up into hysterical fear of the threat they’d been persuaded was posed to revolutionary Paris by Prussian and Austrian arms.]


At just that point in Danton’s Death something does indeed intervene to bring this potentially interminable conversation about the art of artifice, of “marionettes, robots, and artificial bombast” (as French philosopher Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe put it in Poetry as Experience, his now already thirty-year old book on Celan) to an end. “Danton,” writes Büchner in his stage direction at that point in the play, “is called offstage.” At least he is called off Büchner’s stage, if not off the larger—though by Büchner’s (and Celan’s and others’, including my own) lights no less theatrical—stage of the French Revolution itself. Indeed, he is called off the smaller stage of Büchner’s play in order to be informed (as he tells Camille and Lucille, Camille’s wife, when he returns just a little later in the same scene) that the Committee of Public Safety has just ordered his arrest.

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Taken in the form that Camille and Danton talk about it in their conversation at the start of the scene at issue, art is a matter of “artifice,” something “artificial” that in its very artificiality calls attention to itself. Art in that form is gaudy, showy, strange, and unusual—in an exciting, even if a bit threatening, way. It is like a carnival barker huckstering passers-by to come in and forget themselves for a while in the noise and excitement of the carnival. As Lacoue-Labarthe puts it, when art in that sense occurs in language (ironically, I want to add as a relevant aside, often occurring in works of “literature” that are sometimes even awarded prestigious literary prizes), art comes in the form of “eloquence,” full of “bombast and turgidity: grandiloquence, with its inevitable effects of déjà-entendu and a repetitive, wearisome aspect”—the very sort of thing, we should note, that fed so many victims to death during the Terror of the French Revolution, just as Büchner himself depicts it in Danton’s Death

Both in “The Meridian” and elsewhere, Celan follows Büchner himself, as well as the dominant Western tradition that goes back at least to Aristotle, in contrasting such art of artifice and artificiality with “nature” and what is “natural.” In such artificial, marionette-like art nothing grows and develops “of itself,” as Aristotle said was true of that which came about by “nature,” physis. Such art is all a matter not of physis but rather of techne. It belongs to technique, the technical, and to technology of one sort or another, down to and including all the digital technologies employed by artists of all sorts everywhere today.

Such art is actually not at all unlike alcohol, drugs, or sex in its capacity to provide—to those who themselves give in for a moment to its allure, answering its barker’s call by buying an entry-ticket into art’s funhouse—a brief diversion from themselves, a break and a respite from their daily absorption with themselves and the demands of their daily lives. It is the art of Hollywood, for example, especially today, when it churns out one super-hero blockbuster, or blockbusting failure, after another, followed by a stream of sequels that we sense may just go on forever, if nothing intervenes to stop them.

We can pray that something does intervene—something to interrupt the endless, pointless flow of such bombastic, turgid, grandiloquent chatter that takes itself, oh! so seriously even as it chatters on most amusingly about the silliest, most trivial things. Maybe it is possible that even in the midst of such hurdy-gurdy art itself, something might happen to “interrupt” the whole puppet-show—something not to expand the domain of such utterly artificial art, but rather to bring such art in all its artifice up short, in order to break its hold on us, and free us from its bondage.

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To be continued.