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Treason of the Readers: Karl Heinz Bohrer and
the Autonomy of the Aesthetic



By Joshua Landy

Over the past several decades the posture of literary criticism has swung wildly from excessive self-confidence to abject humility. For a long time it took the importance of its subject matter (and thus its own centrality) more or less for granted, with implicit or explicit gestures towards a mythical "repository of cultural values" of which it considered itself the custodian. Later, and with still more arrogance, it napoleonically crowned itself emperor of humanistic studies, arguing that if, as it assumed unquestioningly, everything is language, then a genre which explores the function and limits of language (literature) is bound to be more equal than other textual animals, and the genre which explains this genre (literary criticism) is bound to be the most equal.

Today, however, as Karl Heinz Bohrer reminds us, literary criticism along with aesthetic theory more generally finds itself at the antipodes of such complacency, abdicating its autonomy in favor of a willing subjugation to history, philosophy, sociology and politics. Professional readers of literature, apparently embarrassed at the irrelevance of their chosen corpus, attempt to redeem it by making it serve as evidence for an argument of weightier import: the condition of workers under Haussmann; the inescapably ethical implications of narrative; the essential or constructed nature of gender categories; affirmative action in the classroom. One wonders whether such readers enjoy what they do, especially in the case of a tenured English professor in New York who recently boasted, from the seat of his exercise bicycle, of no longer reading any fiction whatsoever.

This is not to say that studies of gender, canonicity, ethics and Haussmannization are inherently uninteresting. On the contrary, much of their attraction for literary scholars -- myself included -- resides precisely in the intellectual pleasure they afford and, at times, in the degree to which their "resonance" (to use Stephen Greenblatt's terminology) enhances our "wonder" when one returns to contemplate the artwork. Nevertheless, we also have a duty, suggests Bohrer, to do our job as well as attempting to do that of the historians, the political scientists, the sociologists and the philosophers. That is, we also owe it to ourselves and to our students to isolate and account for the ways in which the texts we study are not simply documents or treatises, those aspects which defy subsumption under neat theoretical frameworks -- the reasons, in other words, why someone would choose to write or read a novel rather than writing or reading a manifesto. If, for example, we wish to learn about nineteenth-century cultural history, Theodore Zeldin and Mary Louise Roberts offer us more copious and more accurate information than Balzac does; if we still read Balzac, it is clearly to different ends. To that extent at least, Balzac does not stand in need of our redemption.

Karl Heinz Bohrer's 1998 Stanford Presidential Lecture serves as a timely admonition that in spite of all our talk about interdisciplinarity the aesthetic experience (reading, listening, viewing) still occupies a distinct space in our culture and fulfills a specific function, whether or not we deign to discuss it in our critical writings and in our classes. Somewhat bravely perhaps Bohrer offers a working definition of what he takes to be the locus of that specificity today. The aesthetic, he suggests, is an experience of the present without concern for (or even in disdain of) past or future and more specifically an experience in which that present is never fully available to us. It is the dead time of Baudelaire, an accumulation of empty instants rather than the overwhelming plenitude of the Joycean epiphany. A space without time, it automatically militates against history, against ethics and even perhaps against philosophy. Although Bohrer's approach is clearly philosophical he tends to ally himself with philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche who place art on a level with, if not above, philosophy. In The Will to Power §797, for example, Nietzsche writes: "The phenomenon 'artist' is still the most transparent: to see through it to the basic instincts of power, nature, etc.! Also those of religion and morality!"

Once we stand on Nietzschean ground, however, it becomes almost irresistible to offer a second way (albeit complementary, rather than competing) of understanding the aesthetic. Bohrer, like Heidegger, to whom he repeatedly alludes, deliberately foregrounds one side of Nietzsche's theory at the expense of another, perhaps no less important, aspect. True, the Dionysian state (borrowed directly from Schopenhauer) is one of immediacy, disruption and dissolution; yet Nietzsche famously pairs it, in The Birth of Tragedy, with an opposing principle, the Apollonian mode of illusory reconciliation, order and harmony. Order, I would suggest, reintroduces time into the realm of the aesthetic. As is well known, repeated words, forms or notes set up patterns of memory and anticipation in the reader, viewer or listener. Nietzsche, in fact, offers a conception of the pleasure we take in tragedy -- the apparently perverse satisfaction in the spectacle of suffering -- to rival those of Aristotle and Hegel. This, he suggests, is the world corrected, the truth of dispersion hedged around with the consoling illusion of order. Although Nietzsche does not discuss it in detail, Oedipus Rex forms, here as elsewhere, the paradigmatic case. For while the hero's situation is in general one of powerlessness, the viewer also experiences a type of imaginative control, the shaping hand of Sophocles being everywhere apparent (especially in the brilliantly ironic timing of the second messenger) and the viewer's identification, contra Aristotle, necessarily oscillating between protagonist and playwright.

That is to say, we may wish to take up what Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht has called "the Bohrer challenge" by offering alternative explanations of the aesthetic function, perhaps even allowing for a variety of procedures appropriate to individual works. Nietzsche, for example, sees art as both a revelation of and a corrective to the essential incompleteness of our existence, allowing us -- again, the dimension of time returns in force -- to see ourselves "from a distance and as something past and whole" (Gay Science 78). But Nietzsche has not read Mallarmé, or Desnos, or the Oulipians; he neglects the possibility that art can produce not a corrected world but a rival world, one with its own type of inner coherence, its own laws-no longer simply causal or semantic, by which the various elements are bound together. The landscapes Mallarmé produces are like fragments of a universe in which different and more rigorous (overdetermined, one might say) connections hold between objects. Each, like the answer to a cryptic crossword clue, has at least two reasons for being where it is. Walking in those landscapes, one breathes a different air.

Less dramatically, we might attempt to take seriously the clichéd notion that artworks provide us with the world as seen through an individual perspective. As Proust's elaborate analysis shows, the theory, if true, has important consequences for the structure of the self and for the possibility of genuine interpersonal communication. We might also consider that most widespread of traditional functions of literature, namely the provision of a type of protected environment, an experimental laboratory in which the reader may, so to speak, test out modes of behavior in unfamiliar situations and thus train herself -- this is a key and complex concept -- for life in the external world. Literature does not, as some recent critics have inadvertently implied, have to be a site where simple moral questions may be raised, the answers given in advance; instead it may precisely alert us to the difficulty and intricacy of moral judgment in specific circumstances (thus Martha Nussbaum). Or, if we are to believe Brecht, immersion in the aesthetic realm teaches us not so much to see new things (oppression of individual social groups, for example) as to see old things differently -- in this case, to see the given as in fact constructed and malleable. Again, the overall effect of certain formal properties is far more important than the transmission of designated contents. Finally and perhaps most interestingly, subversively self-referential texts train us to deploy a supple, protean set of responses to an epistemologically unstable world.

Arguably the most intriguing type of text (usually a novella, novel or film in this instance) is that which asks us not to imagine how we would respond under the unusual conditions it delineates but who we would be if we were a part of its world. A good part of the fascination of Gothic and Fantastic literature is that it requires us to take on the position, almost the body, of a believer in occult forces, to the extent that we unquestioningly deride the stock character who quite sensibly refuses to believe (and who is accordingly devoured, to our great satisfaction, by the supernatural creature in Act IV). We know perfectly well that in real life we would befriend the skeptic and studiously avoid the mystic; but our entire scale of values is rotated one hundred and eighty degrees for the duration of the narrative. Rather than merely suspending our disbelief we are called upon actively to embrace a positive credo, diametrically opposed to our natural inclinations. We are asked to imagine, to paraphrase Thomas Nagel, what it is like to be batty.

In short, while the category of the aesthetic still occupies a neatly circumscribed position -- neither at the pinnacle nor yet at the base -- within the rococo façade of the Western cultural edifice, its specific function is far from unitary. Instead of seeking a new monism to account for all of its various effects we should attempt to equip ourselves with a panoply of devices designed to open up, for ourselves and for others, the artistic realm. Not, of course, that these overarching principles would in themselves be sufficient, any more than would a strictly internalist (hermeneutical) reading or an externalist (political-historical) commentary, to stimulate genuinely aesthetic responses to specific works of art. To have the former in mind, however -- to retain them as the preferably unspoken telos of the educative goal, while leading students step by step through an elaborate and often prosaic ritual of initiation -- is, as Bohrer would doubtless agree, the only way in which we can hope to prompt an understanding of why one bothers to read Balzac, or (more saliently) Baudelaire, in the first place. To restrict ourselves, on the other hand, to the role of amateur historians and philosophers is to run the risk of consigning ourselves, in the long run, to redundancy.


Joshua Landy is Assistant Professor, Department of French and Italian, Stanford University.

© 1998, Joshua Landy.


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