Monthly Archives: December 2013

Kant’s disinterestedness

L’indifférent (1717) by Antoine Watteau

I’ve always been baffled by Kant’s notion of disinterestedness. And then I remembered that Nietzsche was just as baffled. Here is that passage from On the Genealogy of Morality:

Kant‘s famous definition of the beautiful. “That is beautiful,” says Kant, “which pleases without interesting.” Without interesting! Compare this definition with this other one [..] by Stendhal, who once called the beautiful une promesse de bonheur. Here, at any rate, the one point which Kant makes prominent in the aesthetic position is repudiated and eliminated—le désinteressement. Who is right, Kant or Stendhal?”

… in a garret with a leaking roof

The Poor Poet (1839), a painting by Carl Spitzweg.

Look where this sufferer from artistism, this bourgeoisophobe, this starving artist, this beautiful loser, this bohemian, this tortured artist, this seeker of artistic inspiration, this man afraid of writer’s block, look at where this poor soul ends up: in a garret with a leaking roof.

How very romantic, how utterly romantic is this notion of the Artist, the creative genius touched by divine inspiration.

Only the ugly is beautiful, only the ugly is likeable

The “Pégase romantique” caricature by Jean-Gabriel Scheffer (above) depicts from left to right  Petrus BorelVictor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas sitting on a giant crayfish. Or is that the  pet lobster Gérard Nerval supposedly took for walks in Paris on the end of a blue ribbon?

The motto of the caricature (top) reads ‘rien n’est beau que le laid; le laid seul est aimable,’ which translates as “Only the ugly is beautiful, only the ugly is likeable,” illustrating the cult of ugliness professed by for example Victor Hugo (“Le beau n’a qu’un type ; le laid en a mille“).

I found this image while researching the bouzingo, a group of minor French artists active in 1830s Paris. The source of the image is the excellent piece of grey lterature Pétrus Borel: Background, Reception and Interpretation[1] (1999) by Erik S. Bovee.

Bohemianism and ‘artistism’

Paris street – set design for Act II of Puccini’s La bohème by Adolfo Hohenstein.

One of the funniest episodes in the historiography of bohemianism is the first appearance of the term bohemian in relation to artistic endeavor. The year is 1834 and Félix Pyat, a French journalist of communard persuasion, publishes a well-written article called “Les Artistes” in which he derogatorily describes wannabe artists as “alien and bizarre … outside the law, beyond the reaches of society … they are the Bohemians of today” (tr. Levi Asher).

Félix Pyat connects ‘one who lives like a Bohemian’, meaning like a vagabond, with artists and he calls the latter “les Bohémiens d’aujourd’hui” (the Bohemians of today).

The funniest bit is when he condemns artistry itself, comparing it to a disease which he calls “artistism”:

“That which should be the exception of privileged natures has become a general rule; what am I saying, a fashion, a rage, a furor, a contagious, epidemic, endemic malady, a scourge worse than cholera, a veritable plague from the Orient, artistism.” (tr. Geerinck, Daniel Cottom, 2013)

The term Bohemianism, meant as a slur by Pyat, was later reappropriated by the artistic community.

The illustration above by Adolfo Hohenstein is extremely picturesque and immediately recognizable as a French or Parisian street.


Nietzsche in Basel (c. 1875), a photo of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche in Basel, c. 1875

I just finished reading my first full work of philosophy: On the Genealogy of Morality by Friedrich Nietzsche from a to z.

I noticed Nietzsche’s liberal use of italic type, almost as if the text was meant for oration.

For example:

“To talk of intrinsic right and intrinsic wrong is absolutely nonsensical; intrinsically, an injury, an oppression, an exploitation, an annihilation can be nothing wrong, inasmuch as life is essentially (that is, in its cardinal functions) something which functions by injuring, oppressing, exploiting, and annihilating, and is absolutely inconceivable without such a character.” –tr. Horace B. Samuel

The above dictum echoes Marquis de Sade’s “cruelty, very far from being a vice, is the first sentiment Nature injects in us all,” both Sade and Nietzsche speaking of innate cruelty.

However, Nietzsche never read Sade.

Nietzsche’s writing is so appealing and so strong that form and content are indissoluble. I can’t imagine what his philosophy would have been like if he had been a bad writer.

Only minor point, towards the end, I got the impression that Nietzsche himself was the resentment-man.

RIP Jean Rustin

(gallery, click for images)

Jean Rustin (1928– 2013) was a French painter, and an important figurative artist.

Beginning in the early 1970s, he created a bizarre world of human figures, where an existential dead-end is transformed into frightdarkness abhorrence, without much pity nor relief.

In his own words:

“I realize that behind my artistic creation, behind the fascination for the naked body, there are twenty centuries of painting, primarily religious, twenty centuries of dead Christstortured martyrsgory revolutions, massacres and shattered dreams […] I realize that history and maybe art history are engraved on the body and flesh of men.” (‘Jean Rustin : A corps perdu’[1], collected in Vanités contemporaines)

See also: 20th-century French art,  art horrorbleak.

Battle of the books

The Bookworm (c. 1850) by Carl Spitzweg

The Bookworm (c. 1850) by Carl Spitzweg

I’m reading Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino which I recently purchased at Het Ivoren Aapje in Brussels.

What Is a Classic?” you may wonder.

That question alone is the title of three well-known essays.

All three explore the nature of a classic book.

Why don’t we let the books fight it out for themselves?

Goya: gruesome and grotesque

Look how solemn they are![1] from Los Caprichos by Francisco de Goya

Once again I am reminded of “To Every Man His Chimera,” one of the darkest prose poems of Charles Baudelaire.

The previous time Baudelaire’s unlucky men came to my recollection, trudging through the dust carrying upon their backs an enormous chimera as heavy as a sack of flour or coal, was while reading Joko’s Anniversary[2] (perhaps my finest reading experience of 2013, along with the many Cortázar‘s short stories I’ve had the pleasure to read).

This time the occasion is my recent acquisition of Goya : Caprichos, Desastres, Tauromaquia, Disparates (1982, Fundación Juan March), a complete set of all the engravings by Goya.

“Look how serious they are!” is number 63 from 80 prints of the Caprichos and it depicts “two demons taking a little exercise, and riding on grotesque beasts. One demon has the head of a bird, the other of a donkey.” (source) The pack animals, the grotesque beasts, look like bipedal donkeys with faces half human, half donkey.

Creatures with the head of a bird are frightening. The wattle!, the comb!

The reverse motif, creatures with the feet of birds, has been employed in Un priape marchant sur des pattes de coq, with a far less frightening — yes, even ludicrous — effect.

Knowledge for knowledge’s sake

The Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David

Please contrast:

‘While the hemlock was being prepared, Socrates was learning a melody on the flute.

“What use will that be to you?”, he was asked.

At least I will learn this melody before I die,” he answered.’

Drawn and Quartered by Emil Cioran

‘There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge; that is Curiosity.

There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is Vanity.

There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love.’

Bernard of Clairvaux in De gradibus humilitatis et superbiae

We can always count on the good old Church Fathers to put things in perspective, can’t we?

Absurd bad news: RIP Colin Wilson (1931 – 2013)

Protest: The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men, Panther Books edition.

I first read Colin Wilson in 2004 when I found The Outsider in a tiny second-hand bookstore about five hundred meters from where I live. This unrecognized — yet extremely prolific — author is very likable for several reasons: his autodidacticism; his love of the outsider and the misfit; his nobrowness and his dislike of pessimism and the pessimist existentialism of Sartre et al. He put the latter this way in a 2004 interview:

When I was in Paris in the early 1950s, Samuel Beckett had just been discovered. Waiting for Godot  was on in Paris and I thought ‘What fucking shit! Who is this half-witted Irishman who’s going around saying life’s not worth living? Why doesn’t he just blow his brains out and shut up?’ I felt the same about Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, and later on others such as William Golding. I had always had a passionate feeling that certain people I deeply approved of – like G K Chesterton, who spoke of ‘absurd good news’, for example – and people like Thomas Traherne… the mystics in general, that they were saying that we’re basically blind.

The Misfits is the book of Wilson which made the biggest impression on me. Among other things, it observes how John Cleland in Fanny Hill succeeded in slowing down time (and for me defined the concept of slow motion in literature): “the time it takes to read [some scenes] is obviously a great deal longer than the time it took to do.”

I’ve given attention to Colin Wilson on numerous occasions. At[1], on this blog[2].