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The Row Boat
"Had we but world enough, and time..." *
Aesthetic or Anesthetic4/25/2006 01:11:56
At the anarchist book fair the other day in Boston, I came across a book (I forget which in particular, I think it was French) that began with a relation that a friend (I forget who) had mentioned to me in familiar memory, the aesthetic to the anesthetic. The gist of both, if I recall correctly, is that what has been called aesthetic lately is the opposite of its "original" or "true" meaning, closer to its Greek root "to perceive, to feel" - something definitely interior and intimate. Instead, what has now been called aesthetic is actually anesthetic, which is its opposite, "without feeling." What is aesthetic is a thing that can be kept at a distance, a definite other, an interpretive piece, perhaps, a second-order perception if it is a perception at all.
These encounters brought immediately to mind the idea I have come back to a few times in these diaries, which has been called "aesthetic theology." (See especially Aesthetic Terms. It also bears relation to my discussion of experiments, which is an allied practice, in my last post, Experiments and Truth.) I mean by this an engagement in theology where commitment is impossible, where the encounter happens, yes, precisely at an inevitable distance, especially when the theology itself (as a Pauline one might) insists that commitment is necessary. It is an answer to the encounter with the religious of the post-religious or the a-religious, those who have made religion into what they are not yet unavoidably encounter it. So yes, I have been forced to realize more outright, what I am proposing does amount to the present-day coldness of high art (if high art is indeed cold?), an anesthetic rather than an aesthetic. We must remember the gravity and meanings and consequences of our propositions! Do I really mean to make anesthetic out of the fire of belief, to transform it into its opposite?
At this point I am tempted to hear the cry of Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation, that what we need is an "erotics of art." How triumphant a trumpet-call, to my ear. It sounds like the return to original aesthetic, to feeling, to depth.
For theology it has real consequences. Erotics means letting the beloved consume me. Losing control and distance, admitting to feeling and feeling sensation. In theology this means admitting the need for theologies and their capacity to rescue us and offer us unmediated tools for living, ones which we, believe it or not, are willing to take as trustworthy - for one reason or another.
I think of Flescher's remarkable Heroes, Saints, and Ordinary Morality: if we are to accept Dorothy Day's injunction to selfless love we will have to attempt it fully, for selflessness means non-distance. Loving another theologically is to do what I would not probably think to do otherwise.
For this to be possible anesthetic cannot be enough, though at times it appeared to be. These times make us feel modern, in these times we can be scientists, reading the data of faith and measuring its permutations. Here I return, following my last post, to the idea of experiment as the only encounter with truth. For a human being an experiment is also called a performance. Performance theory, therefore, is the new theory of orthopraxis.
I do not take very much stock in etymology intrinsically except that it, like so much else, like theologies of all kinds, can serve as noble experiments, conferring good gifts and insights, usually in unexpected times and places. Best of all through friends.
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re: Aesthetic or Anesthetic - 4/25/2006 18:19:22
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