Aesthetic Experience and Verbal Art
It is a common assumption that there is an art which can be defined as literary or verbal. Yet, this definition relies mainly on linguistic criteria. Can literary art also be accounted for philosophically? In this paper I intend to offer such an account. Starting from the Hegelian conception of language and of the aesthetic experience, I shall argue that literary, and more specifically poetic, discourse can be defined as the verbal completion of an aesthetic experience, and that this distinctive feature marks off literary discourse from other types of discourse such as scientific and philosophical discourse.
In Hegel's view language is concomitant with self-conscious-ness. (1) The birth of language is to be situated in the transition in the growth of the subject's identity from the conscious moment to the self-conscious moment. To a conscious subject, reality offers itself as an object (Gegenstand) and the world reflects the categorizing activity of the intellect (understanding, Verstand). In the self-conscious subject the world is internalized with the effect that it becomes a presentation (Vorstellung, pictorial concept) of the subject's conceptualization of the world. This presentation is realized in verbal signs. Indeed, the dyadic structure of the sign (signifier/signified) exhibits a minimal degree of materiality together with a maximal degree of signification (meaning). The material aspect of the sign is completely subordinated to the meaning it conveys. To Hegel therefore the verbal sign is a kind of 'objective correlative' to the internalized conceptualization of the world accomplished by the self-conscious subject. In and through language the self-conscious subject expresses its internalized and thus highly subjective perception of the world in an objective verbal presentation.
In the transition (Aufhebung, sublation) from consciousness to self-consciousness, i.e. from understanding (Verstand) to insight (Vernunft, reason), there is a momentary equilibrium in which the world yields its opaque materiality and the mind (Vernunft, reason) has not yet fully internalized the object. The empirical world discloses itself in the light of the mind and the latter conforms itself to the former. This sensuous appearance or semblance of meaning (das sinnliche Scheinen der Idee) is the very core of the aesthetic consciousness or experience. In the aesthetic experience the subject does as yet not intend to understand (i.e. the function of the intellect (Verstand)) nor does it want to conceptualize the empirical reality (i.e. the function of reason). In other words: in the aesthetic contemplation there is a momentary harmony between the subjective and the objective aspect of comprehension, between sensuous and rational perception, between rationalization and insight. Although this harmony is very fragile and momentary in that it is constantly besieged by the objectifying activity of the intellect on the one hand and by the conceptualizing power of reason (Vernunft) on the other, it nevertheless exhibits some distinctive 'moments'. A 'moment' in the Hegelian sense is to be conceived as the whole under one aspect. The moments of the aesthetic experience are consequently not to be understood as a succession but as contemporaneous aspects of one and the same aesthetic experience. These moments unfold themselves when we closely consider the logical beginning of the aesthetic experience in the conscious subject and its development towards the next moment of the subject's identity, viz. self-consciousness.
The aesthetic experience originates when the intellect (Verstand) suspends its disposition to understand reality by objectifying it. In Kantian terms one could say that the intellect no longer relies on its categories (judgments) and on the a-priory structure of the senses - time and space - to encompass reality. Thus the subject loses its grip on the object and the latter becomes uprooted. No longer subjected to time and space and to the categorizing activity of the intellect, the object is indeed set free to enter into the indefinite time and the indeterminate space of the world of dreaming. The aesthetic dream is indeed the 'first' moment of the aesthetic experience. The aesthetic experience can originate only when the constraints of the senses and the coercion of understanding via judgments are temporarily suspended. Surrealism in the fine arts (Magritte, Dali), i.e. the superposition on and intrusion of another world into our common world, can be considered as the artistic expression of the aesthetic dream. In literature this dream finds an outlet in the literary genre called 'magic realism'. Alain Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes and Dylan Thomas's Under Milkwood may figure as significant examples of a verbal presentation of an aesthetic dream.
In the aesthetic dream it is not only the object that is uprooted. The subject is too, for it can no longer define itself vis-à-vis a definite time and a marked space. Nor can it safeguard its position as a subject a specific reality is predicated of and thus related to. This suspension and absence of any stable reference leads to a vague and indistinct state of mind and submerges the subject in a passive mood. The aesthetic mood (Stimmung) is the second moment in the unfolding of the aesthetic experience. Whereas, in the dream, the aesthetic experience relates primarily to the world of objects, in the aesthetic mood the experience directly affects the subject. The aesthetic mood appears to be a fruitful source for artistic expression. Romanticism in painting and literature may serve as a case in point. In Eliot's words Romanticism is indeed 'a short cut to strangeness without the reality, and it leads its disciples only back upon themselves.' (2)
In the reversion to the subject the aesthetic experience slides back into a mere subjective awareness or sensation cut off from any objective reference. The subject is locked up in an emotional state which is 'merely an indulgence of his own emotions'. (3) To free itself from this mere subjective state, in which the aesthetic experience tends to lose its objective correlative, the subject has to restore this objectivity. Yet, since in the aesthetic mood the object has been internalized by the subject, this new objectivity can but be a 'creatio ex seipso', a self-made creation, a creative projection of the subject itself. This is the creative disposition, the third moment of the aesthetic experience. The artistic creation, the work of art, is a presentation (Vorstellung) in the sensuous reality which rescues the aesthetic perception from being extinguished in a mere subjective awareness (Anschauung). The artistic creation safeguards the budding aesthetic experience from degenerating into a mere passive emotional state and lifts it up (Aufhebung, sublation) to an 'emotion which has its life in the poem'. (4) The artistic creation transforms the original aesthetic, but merely subjective, emotion into an artistic emotion, an emotion which has its life not in the subject but in the work of art. Thus the artistic expression offers an 'objective equivalent' (5) to the subjective emotion and restores the balance between subject and object, emotion and reason, which is the hallmark of the aesthetic experience. Modern literature offers us many examples of poets whose poetry is a reflection on the creative activity and on the transformation of personal and subjective emotions into emotions of art. In his well known poem Door into the dark, Seamus Heaney illustrates this transformation with the extended metaphor of the work of a smith in his smithy who 'expends (i.e. sacrifices) himself in shape and music (i.e. in poetry).... to beat real iron out (i.e. to create an objective equivalent), to work the bellows (i.e. to deserve and serve the moment of inspiration)'.
The transition from the aesthetic moment, called 'mood', to the moment of aesthetic creation casts light on what is commonly called 'inspiration'. This vague term can now be clearly defined as the development of a passive and subjective perception into an active and objective presentation. Indeed, the description poet themselves offer of the moment of inspiration exhibits two aspects: a passive and an active one. E.g. T.S. Eliot calls the inspiration an 'inert embryo' and Gottfried Benn calls it 'ein dumpfer schöpferischer Keim (a creative germ)'. (6) G.M. Hopkins illustrates this interaction of a passive and an active agent as the very core of the artistic inspiration in his poem To R(obert) B(ridges) with the telling metaphor of sexual intercourse: 'the strong /Spur, life and lancing like a blowpipe flame,/ Breathes once and, quenchèd faster than it came, /Leaves yet the mind a mother of immortal song'. The enigmatic halo which tends to surround the gift of inspiration may thus be dissolved philosophically. Indeed, a phenomenological description of the transformation of a subjective awareness into a creative presentation, offers a rational insight in what in literary criticism often remains underdefined or largely neglected.
So far three moments have been distinguished in the aesthetic experience: the aesthetic dream, the aesthetic mood and the aesthetic creative expression. The phenomenological description of the aesthetic experience registered the development of the subject's identity from consciousness (understanding, Verstand) to self-consciousness (reason, Vernunft), i.e. from the moment of understanding via objectification to the moment of insight via conceptualization or rational, philosophical thinking. On the very threshold of conceptual insight a fourth moment of the aesthetic experience manifests itself. The aesthetic experience approaches the limit of its sensuous manifestation and enters into the realm of reason. With T.S. Eliot we may describe this moment of the aesthetic experience as 'sensuous thinking', 'thinking through the senses', or 'the senses thinking'. (7) Recalling Hegel's description of the aesthetic experience, viz. the sensuous appearance (semblance) of meaning (das sinnliche Scheinen der Idee), we may consider this fourth moment as the progressive manifestation of meaning in and through the sensuous presentation. The sensuous embodiment tends to give way to the more abstract manifestation of meaning. This moment can be defined as an aesthetic vision, a direct apprehension of meaning through and even beyond the sensuous appearance. The aesthetic vision should not be confused with what is commonly called ecstasy or rapture nor with intuition. For, whereas ecstasy is an expression of a subjective state, intuition may be conceived as its objective counterpart. In the aesthetic vision, though, neither subject nor object play a dominant role, for both are transcended (aufgehoben) in a state of pure contemplation. The architectural vision of the world in Dante's Divine Comedy, the spiritual quest of Goethe's Faust, 'the search for a truth that satisfies the soul' in Whitman's Leaves of Grass (see Preface: these are outstanding examples of a verbal expression of the aesthetic vision. One could call these literary creations 'philosophical poetry' as well as 'poetic philosophy'. Still one should heed Eliot's distinction between these two literary types of discourse, and thus between the philosopher and the poet, between 'the man who is trying to deal with ideas in themselves, and the effort of the poet, who may be trying to realize ideas'. (8) I.o.w. whatever philosophical insights may be gained from reading poetry, the reader should be aware that the poet conveys these insights 'not as a theory... or as his own comment or reflection, but in terms of something perceived'. (9) Precisely this aesthetic perception of meaning marks the fourth moment of the aesthetic experience - the aesthetic vision - and distinguishes it from a rational or philosophical insight.
I started my exposition from the assumption that what we call literature and poetic discourse can best be defined with recourse to the aesthetic experience. The four moments of this experience could be illustrated by concomitant artistic and mainly literary expressions. This may already suggest that the link between aesthetic experience and verbal art is all but accidental. The sensuous appearance of meaning, as Hegel defined the aesthetic experience, seems to manifest itself primarily in verbal art. The medium of language appears to be more appropriate to embody and accomplish this experience than any other artistic medium. For, whereas e.g. in music, the medium - sound - is fleeting and evanescent, the medium is preponderant and abiding in the visual arts. In literary and poetic art language figures as a medium that strikes a fair balance between duration and transience, sense and sensibility, signification and sensuous presentation. In this respect the verbal medium, the linguistic sign to the extent it correlates the signifier and the signified, i.e. sensuous presentation and meaning, corresponds most closely to the parity between sensuous embodiment and meaning which is the very characteristic of the aesthetic experience. On the basis of this inherent correspondence one can distinguish the poetic use of language from e.g. the scientific discourse on the one hand and the philosophical one on the other. In the former the signifier is promoted at the expense of the signified. Scientific language reduces the sign to a univocal denotation by restricting the field of connotations of the signified. This restriction reflects the categorizing and objectifying activity of the intellect (Verstand), which tries to unify the disparate phenomena under some common denominators. In philosophical language, on the other hand, the signified overrules the signifier in that the signified (the referent) is turned into an abstract concept cut off from its sensuous presentation. The meaning of the concept can no longer 'be grasped by appeal to any of the senses, its apprehension may require a deliberate suppression of analogies of visual and muscular experience'. (10) Philosophical language reflects the conceptualizing function of reason (Vernunft). Poetic language can be distinguished from both scientific and philosophical language in that it restores the balance between signifier and signified, objectification and conceptualization, sensuous presentation and meaning. The locus philosophicus of poetic language is the transient moment of harmony between objectification and conceptualization, understanding and reasoning in the growth of the subject's comprehension of reality. This harmony reveals itself in the aesthetic moment. Thus the question arises how the poetic function of language performs the articulation of the aesthetic moment in a verbal presentation.
Poetry is verbal art, i.e. an artistic experience which realizes itself in the medium of language. This experience does not precede verbal expression. What holds for language in general, viz. that it does not merely dress our thoughts but that it shapes and articulates them, holds as well for the poetic expression. The poet does not clothe his experience in words. He is a maker (poètès) who works up his experience to a verbal creation: 'He has something germinating in him for which he must find words, but he cannot know what words he wants until he has found the words; he cannot identify this embryo until it has been transformed into an arrangement of the right words in the right order'. (11) What Eliot calls 'an arrangement of the right words in the right order' may be conceived as the poetic function of language. The question then arises how the poetic use of language enables the completion and actualization of an embryonic aesthetic experience in a verbal work of art. Roman Jakobson ascribes this capacity to the poetic function of language because it 'promotes the palpability of signs', (12) i.e. because it foregrounds the material nature of words. In poetry the referential function of language is suspended in favour of the self-reflective function and consequently the sensuous presence of the linguistic sign is made explicit. In poetry language makes itself heard and reflects upon itself: 'What poems do represent "in the medium of language" is language, or more accurately, speech, human utterance, discourse'. (13) More technically speaking, the poetic function turns the signs of language into symbols. Whereas, in the verbal sign, the material aspect (signifier) is subordinated to its meaning (signified, referent) and mainly serves as a vehicle to carry meaning, in the verbal symbol the signifier is foregrounded and is the anchorage of meaning. In the verbal sign, the signifier is transparent in that it directly points to the signified; in the verbal symbol the signifier, apart from referring to the signified, functions also in its own right. Whereas a sign cannot dispense with its referent, without which it would be devoid of meaning, a symbol on itself is meaningful. Were this not the case, a symbol would indeed lose its symbolising function. Whereas signs herald their referent, symbols represent them as their authorized agents. A sign invites us to look forward to its referent, but a symbol bids us to dwell upon its mere presence. Its mere presence as a 'verbal icon' generates meaning and calls forth the full manifestation of this meaning in what is symbolised.
The poetic function of language achieves this symbolisation in that in poetic language the verbal sign acquires a spatiality and a duration which it is denied in common verbal discourse. Rhythm and metre are the life-breath of poetic language. Alliteration, assonance and rhyme make words echo long after they have been uttered or heard. They make words arise from their ashes and grant them longevity. As words printed on a page, verbal signs obtain spatiality. This spatiality is foregrounded in poetry. For, the lay-out, the verse form, the orchestration of words and clauses into units, the typography, the punctuation a.s.o. grant the poetic sign a spatial presence which verbal signs will never acquire outside this poetic orchestration. These and many more technical devices focus the attention of the reader on the materiality of language as it does its work of bringing meaning into being.
Poetic language brings to light the open-ended production of meaning whereas verbal discourse offers us the conven- tionally sealed product of signification. In poetry the pro- duction of meaning is open-ended because the poem creates its own context of signification, a context which is a-referential. This does not mean that a poem does not refer to reality. In that it is an act of verbal communication it cannot dispense with this reference. Yet, the referent in a poem is not a historically or geographically definable world, but a quasi-world, a potentially real world, a world that may well exist but the existence of which is as yet not testified. To illustrate the fictional reality of the world of a poem we may compare it with a landscape painting. Although this painting may not represent an existing landscape it may well be recognised by the spectator as a picture of a real, i.e. possibly existing, landscape. Any landscape painting will indeed contain features of a real landscape, and precisely these features attribute to it a pseudo-reality. While being an imitation (mimesis) and not a copy of a landscape, it moreover exhibits an existence of its own apart from the reference to an existent landscape. Similarly by imitating natural language use, poetic language is anchored in reality while simultaneously it creates its own verbal reality. In his poem Words Auden expresses this autonomous and self-subsistent world of a poem as follows:' A sentence uttered makes a world appear/ Where all things happen as it says they do;/ We doubt the speaker, not the tongue we hear:/ Words have no word for words that are not true'. The truthfulness of poetry Auden refers to is precisely the autonomous reality of the verbal world of a poem.
The transformation of verbal signs into symbols, and thus the creation of a symbolic world which is no longer caught in the constraints of its referents but elicits an indeterminate generation of meaning, is the specific function of the poetic use of language. To achieve this symbolisation, poetic language is the most appropriate medium, as its proper function is to transform signs into symbols. In the verbal symbol, i.e. in the corporality of the verbal sign, meaning reveals itself in a sensuous embodiment. In that respect the poetic language appears to be the artistic medium par excellence to complete and actualize an embryonic aesthetic experience, i.e. to create a sensuous embodiment in and through which meaning can reveal itself.
To define the specific nature of literary discourse I focused on the poetic function of language. Although literary and poetic discourse do not coincide, it is finally the poetic function, the verbal embodiment of meaning, that characterizes literature. To the extent that verbal presentation and meaning grow apart a text becomes less poetic and more literary. This 'dissociation of sense en sensibility' (T.S.Eliot) makes itself already felt in poetry as poésie pure. The identity of verbal presentation and meaning always remains an ideal poetry strives towards but fails to achieve. Thus poetry tends to become narrative, as in the ballad or in epic poetry, or even anecdotal, as in the fable, in which a story or event is used to sustain the sensuous presentation of meaning. The dissociation of verbal presentation and meaning manifests itself still more in allegorical poetry, in which ideas (signification) are incorporated in types or personae which mediate between the abstract concepts and ideas and their sensuous, verbal presentation. When language itself can no longer guarantee the sensuous presentation, the artist takes recourse to non-verbal signs - body language - to embody meaning. This is the case in the dramatic expression in which language is subordinated to non-verbal communication. Dramatic texts are not meant primarily to be read or to be listened to. Whenever such mediations overrule the direct verbal presentation, a text becomes less poetic and more literary. These mediations also affect language that becomes discursive or prosaic. Etymologically the term 'prose' is derived from the latin 'oratio prosa', 'prosa' being a contraction of 'pro-versa': moving forward, progressing, discursive. In prose the concatenation of words becomes loose. Each word tends to get absorbed and displaced by the next one in the sentence. Words become as Sylvia Plath puts it in her poem Words: 'Echoes travelling off the centre like horses. Words dry and riderless,/ The indefatigable hoof-taps'. In poetry on the other hand words are bound together in clearcut lines or verses. 'Verse' from the latin 'versus' meaning 'turn' points to the tendency of poetic language to turn back upon itself. The organisation into verses and strophes effects a condensation of language. In poetry words gain a corporeal presence effected by back reference and reflection upon themselves. No wonder that poetry shows a preference for the verse form, although of course this form alone does of course not guarantee the poetic quality of a text. Qualifications of a text as 'poetic (lyrical) prose' or 'prosaic poetry' are therefore rightly used to designate the poetic use of language in literary discourse. As in a poem written in free verse (vers libre) poetic language relates itself to the condensation of verse in an ongoing process of withdrawal and approximation. In short, the literary quality of a text, whether it is written in verse or in prose, depends ultimately on its poetic quality, i.e. on the degree verbal presentation and meaning become one and inseparable. Thus I rejoin the starting point of my paper where I proposed to define literary discourse and to mark it off from other verbal discourse with reference to the aesthetic experience, i.e. to the sensuous disclosure of meaning. My philospical account of this experience may have shown that the poetic function of language is the most appropriate artistic medium for meaning to disclose itself in a sensuous presentation.
(1) G.W.F. Hegel, Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissen- schaften im Grundrisse, Werke 10, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1970, par. 387-482.
(2) T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood. Essays on Poetry and Criticism, University Paperback, Butler & Tanner, London, 1969, p. 31.
(3) Ibidem, p. 14.
(4) Ibidem, p. 59.
(5) Ibidem, p. 101.
(6) T.S. Eliot, The Three Voices of Poetry, in On Poetry and Poets, Faber and Faber, London, 1971, p. 97.
(7) T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, p. 23.
(8) Ibidem, p. 162.
(9) Ibidem, p. 171.
(10) Ibidem, p. 8.
(11) T.S. Eliot, The Three Voices op Poetry, p. 97.
(12) Roman Jakobson, Linguistics and Poetics, in Language in Literature, ed. K. Pomorska and S. Rudy, Harvard UP, Cambridge MA, 1987, pp. 69-70.
(13) B.H. Smith, Poetry as Fiction, in New directions in literary history, ed. by Ralph Cohen, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1974, p. 174.