PROUST, KANT, and SUPERFLUOUS BEAUTY

One of life’s simple pleasures is browsing a well-stocked used bookstore, such as Moe’s Books in Berkeley, CA.  Settled on Telegraph Avenue, it affords the book lover many-storied browsing pleasures.  Once in the stacks, I engage a game plan that has been so frequently practiced on previous occasions that the browsing activity has become mindlessly automatic.  Some people seek repose in a warm bath or cup of tea, others in a yoga studio, but I find nirvana among books.  The mind in distracted reverie.

Under such circumstances, what are we mentally doing while scanning bookshelves or the pages of a book?  Certainly, it isn’t reading carefully and most likely it doesn’t involve paying close attention.  Are we thinking, feeling, or visualizing the world around us?  As we scan a book do we imagine its plot  twists or characters?  How do we digress?

For me, admiring a book is truly a beautiful moment.  You hold it in our hands, feel its texture, weight and density, the thickness of the paper, the stiffness of freshly printed binding, the scent of ink on the page.   It’s akin to looking upon a Bernini or a Michelangelo, or as I read James Joyce’s Portrait, visualizing Stephen Dedalus’s sea-bird girl on Howth strand.  But are we really thinking?  If so, what about?  And if, as it turns out, we aren’t thinking deliberately or purposely, then are we rightly judging the object beautiful?  If the beautiful moment is itself a digression from the rigors of daily habits or the ennui of sequestered lives, that is, if it is more or less an escape one succumbs to as if it were a “draught of poppies,” as Keats says, then how do we account for our cognitive engagement?

If we were so inclined, last week’s passage from Proust’s Swann’s Way could very well make us contemplate such questions.  Therein, Swann’s thoughts “turned with a stab of pity and tenderness to Vinteuil” in empathy with his suffering, for certainly both men had known the sorrows of romantic loss.  As Proust relates it, the violin sonata serves as a material cause of Swann’s reverie.  The sonata is analogous to the soft, murmuring strains of a perfume, omitting the fact that perfume doesn’t murmur.  Rather, we realize that the pith of Swann’s sorrow resonates memoried words and phrases of his fatale d’amour with the present melancholy violin.  That is, musical chords harmonize with the subtle fragrance of Odette’s voice–its “limpid and disenchanted intonation”–and Swann seems to have little choice but to deeply inhale.

Swann’s generosity of spirit, his enlarged senses numbed in the embalmed fragrance of sound, of memory, draw us into the ebullient beauty of language.  The question is whether he’s merely gratified by sensory perception, and perhaps the catharsis of dejection, or actively judging beauty in the world.  Surely, there’s no difference, or, if there is, the discrepancy between sensual gratification and rational judgment is negligible.  Not says the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Kant, as we know, was one of the most systematic philosophers in the history of ideas.  That is, he provided thoughtful arguments on nearly all aspects of metaphysics and epistemology.   He was interested in the scope of the human mind and its experiences.  In his mode of daily life he wasn’t particularly predisposed to extravagance, nor was his behavior unpredictable.  Thus, it is a bit of a surprise to the reader of his Third Critique that he rants against certain forms of music.  Kant compared our aesthetic judgments on poetry, painting, and music; he believed that music is less beautiful than painting or poetry, and he had very interesting reasons in support of his view.

His discussion on this subject is found in Section 53 of the Critique of the Power of Judgment.  In comparing pictorial arts and music, Kant says the following:

The two sorts of arts take completely different paths: the former [music] from sensations to indeterminate ideas, the latter [pictorial arts], however, from determinate ideas to sensations.  The latter are of lasting impression, the former only of a transitory one.   The imagination can recall the former and agreeably entertain itself with them; but the latter are either entirely extinguished or, if they are involuntarily recalled by the imagination, are burdensome rather than agreeable to us.  Further, there is a certain lack of urbanity in music, in that, primarily because of the character of its instruments, it extends its influence further (into the neighborhood) than is required, and so as it were imposes itself, thus interfering with the freedom of others, outside of the musical circle, which the arts that speak to the eyes do not do, since one need only turn one’s eyes away if one would not admit their impression.

As it turns out, Proust rightly compares music and perfume.  It’s a curious mixed metaphor, to say the least, but perhaps he had in mind this Kant passage .  For as we continue reading in Kant, we discover that the philosopher compares music to smell.  He says the following:

It is almost the same here as in the case of the delight from a widely pervasive smell.  Someone who pulls his perfumed handkerchief out of his pocket treats everyone in the vicinity to it against their will, and forces them, if they wish to breathe, to enjoy it at the same time.

This is not unlike the lowlife who drives his car with the stereo blasting loudly, sub-woofers rattling the windows.  One simply has no choice but to hear the music.  That is, you cannot simply avert your ears or plug them full of wax to blunt the sound.  For Kant, music isn’t merely sound, it’s very often noise.  And he didn’t think much of noise in the world.  In fact, in a particularly curious footnote he rants against choral music:

Those who have recommended the singing of spiritual songs as part of the domestic rites of worship have not considered that by means of such a noisy (and precisely for that reason usually pharisaical) form of worship they have imposed a great inconvenience on the public, for they have forced the neighborhood either to join in their singing or to give up their own train of thought.

The question then arises whether Swann voluntarily listened to the music or whether he merely heard it and couldn’t withdraw from its aural reach.  The philosophical consequences, and it’s hard to think that Proust didn’t consider them, are fairly significant.  In the former case, Kant thinks that one doesn’t actively and freely think about what is intuited or heard.  No thinking is going on because thinking requires free will; forced perception doesn’t count as a genuine aesthetic moment.  Our mental capacities are not fully engaged.  To think and judge, we must do so voluntarily without aggravation,  intrigue, or bias.  Briefly, Kant called this disposition toward an aesthetic object ‘disinterestedness,’ which doesn’t imply one’s formal lack of interest.  Rather, one’s approach to an aesthetic object must be without any designs or specific purposes of one’s own.

A person’s judgment of beauty requires voluntary cognitive faculties to discern the purposiveness and proportionality of the object’s presentation or status in the world.  If this is lacking, that is, and one doesn’t have a choice but to look at or hear it, then one cannot possibly judge the object as beautiful because the perception of it occurs involuntarily.  Thus, in that case, one doesn’t fully engage her cognitive faculties.  It comes down to free will.  With a poem or painting the perceiver must apprehend words and symbols, and then comprehend their relationships and meaning.  The experience is voluntary; it is not obtrusive or forced.  According to Kant, your mind or spirit will not be fully engaged in rote activities.  A song overheard, as with the violin sonata in the salon, is analogous to a perfumed handkerchief, and Proust makes his Kantian point rather clearly, albeit subtly, without noise.

What are the consequences for Swann?  Is he in the grip of sensual gratification or can he genuinely judge the violin sonata to be a thing of beauty?  Perhaps his remorse is a type of self-gratification, as when W.B. Yeats asks, “Does the imagination dwell the most/Upon a woman won or woman lost?”  In this case, perhaps Swann is not the best judge, for music conveys him to the depths of his own thoughts and feelings; he doesn’t not consider the ‘kingdom of human ends,’ as Kant says.  “The love of music,” writes Proust, “had…been born in him, revealing to him many of the riches of his own soul.”  Thereby, Swann “regarded musical motifs as actual ideas, of another world, of another order, ideas veiled in shadows, unknown, impenetrable to the intelligence, but not for all that less perfectly distinct from one another, unequal among themselves in value and significance.”  Clearly, Swann was entangled, enchanted, and, as Proust describes his consciousness, “encircled” and “enveloped” by a musical phrase that “caressed” him like sweet perfume.

In the end, Proust eventually arrives at a Kantian conclusion regarding Swann’s ability to make an aesthetic judgment: “In reality he [Swann] knew that he was reasoning this way not about the phrase itself but about simple values substituted, for the convenience of his intelligence, for the mysterious entity he had perceived….”  Alas, Swann’s swoon was an involuntary conveyance to inner realms of passionate solemnity, not a judgment of beauty per se, but nonetheless an epiphany that delivered him to a richness “hidden unbeknownst to us within that great unpenetrated and disheartening darkness of our soul which we take for emptiness and nothingness.”  Not merely sensual beauty did Swann discover in his transient dark night of the soul, but a moral truth more profound, perhaps more beautiful than a musical phrase, the lamp of memory.  Proust has the final word:

Maybe it is nothingness that is real and our entire dream is nonexistent, but in that case we feel that these phrases of music, and these notions that exist in relation to our dream, must also be nothing.  We will perish, but we have for hostages these divine captives who will follow us and share our fate.  And death in their company is less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps less probable.

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