Magazine article Tikkun

Aesthetic Sensibilities

Magazine article Tikkun

Aesthetic Sensibilities

Article excerpt

As a twentieth-century leftover, I have my anxieties, They center primarily on the progress of insensibility, or future non-shock. Much has been made, by way of Walter Benjamin, of the obverse: how the shock of the great city, the industrial metropolis, began to affect our sense of the world. Also how the wastage of life in the trench warfare of the Great War, and the literal shell shock that played an important role in Freud's thinking, affected the public. Since then, the horror of civilian suffering, which penetrated public awareness with Germany's invasion of Belgium in 1914, has increased immeasurably because of the Holocaust and later genocides-as well as atrocities now brought into the home visually daily, unavoidably, by the mass media.

Given these realities, I begin to understand why Goethe and Wordsworth appeal to me. Toward the beginning of an era which is recognizably ours, both maintained an enviable faith in art as an antidote to the growth of insensibility. The Enlightenment had not shaken their trust that thought and feeling could reinforce each other. The dissociation of thought from sensibility, while always a danger, was not a historical fatality that threatened their work. In Wordsworth as in Goethe, art and science are not opposites. Wordsworth links "Poetry and Geometric Truth," praising "their high privilege of lasting life, / From all internal injury exempt."

Geometry as a system is exempt, in theory, from contradictions; but poetry? Wordsworth's juxtaposition does not make sense-unless we see that "poetry" stands for the ideal result of the growth of the mind described in the autobiographical poem from which this quotation comes. Instead of "internal injury," then, we could say "trauma," for the integration of trauma, never perfect but holding the promise of a future development in that direction, is indeed the subject of The Prelude. How did Wordsworth's sensibility, "great birthright of our being," survive a complex series of political shocks during the French Revolution? How was it formed or reformed by those events?

Wordsworth's premonition at the end of the eighteenth century is that rural nature and the ethos it implies can no longer be taken for granted. Industrialized society's intensified warfare, massively crowded cities, escalating demand for new sensations, proliferation of journalism, and "frantic novels"-all this would alienate the imagination from its earthly habitat more perniciously than other-worldly religions had ever done. Wordsworth proclaims, therefore, a new, anti-apocalyptic ecology, a "wedding" of earth and mind. He devotes himself, on the threshold of what I venture to call the 1800 millennium, to that ecological vision in a prothalamic poetry, a "spousal verse."

Despite our own century's recrudescence of cultural prophecy, we seem to be in a mist that is thickening rather than lifting. The Romantics saw the darkness to come, yet a principle of hope prevailed, perhaps from the fact that, unlike Goethe's fisherman enticed by a mermaid ("Half she drew him under, / Half he let himself sink down"), they did not sympathize or conspire with the destructive element, except at moments which also played out their resistance to it.

Today, the darkness the Romantics foresaw, often carried along by the excitement-and betrayals-of the French Revolution and by the gathering storm clouds of a soon rampant Industrial Revolution, is difficult to respond to without the complicity of extreme scenarios. …

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