Tuesday, January 20, 2009

On beauty...and its cruelty?

From Part 2 (Fire - The Descent) of The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch. The formatting you see here is the formatting in the book, as it was translated from the original German. The only formatting change I made was inserting a few partitions in the verses for ease of reading. Give it a try; it's an interesting read, even if I did a little splicing in parts, as indicated by the [...].

[...]: knowledge of beauty was lack of knowledge, perception of beauty was lack of perception, the one without vantage of thinking, the other without the full measure of reality, and in the rigidity of beauty's equilibrium--rigid the floating balance between thinking and reality, rigid the reciprocity of question and answer, of askable and answerable from which the world was born--the flood-scales of inner and outer worlds were brought to a standstill, becoming in this rigid balance the symbol of a symbol. [...]: illuminating the night, illuminating the world, beauty spread to the borders of unbounded space and, immersed with space in time, carried on with time through the ages, it became the ever-enduring now, giving boundaries to boundless time, the perfect symbol of earthly life limited by time and space, revealing the woe of limitation and the beauty of life on earth;
thus in mournful sorrow,
thus beauty was revealed to man,
revealed in its self-containment which was
that of the symbol and of equilibrium,
the self gazing at beauty and the beauty-filled world
enchantedly facing each other,
each a-float in the place allotted to it,
both limited, both self-contained, both in equilibrium
and therefore balanced in their apposition in the space common to both:

thus was revealed to man
the self-containment of earthly beauty,
the floating expanse and the magical beauty
of self-contained space, borne on and benumbed by time,
incapable of renewal by the question,
incapable of expansion by knowledge,
the constant completeness of space held in balance
by the influence of beauty within it, yet without renewal or expansion;

thus space in its completeness and self-containment
revealed itself in every one of its parts, at every point,
as if each of these were its innermost core,
revealing itself in every single figure, in every thing, in every human work
as the symbol of its own spatial finitude
at the innermost limit of which every created thing annuls itself,
the symbol annulling and subliming space, beauty annulling and subliming space
by the unity maintained between its inner and outer boundaries,
by the infinitude of the self-containing boundaries,
infinity--but bounded, the sorrow of man;

thus beauty was revealed to man as an occurrence on the boundary,
and this boundary, the inner like the outer,
the boundary of the remotest horizon or that of a single point,
was spanned between the finite and the infinite,
utterly remote while still on earth and within earthly time,
yea, bounding time itself and causing it to linger,
space lingering at its own border with time, but not annulling time,
this being but a symbol, an earthly symbol of time's annulment,
a mere symbol of death's abolishment, not the abolishment itself,
the boundary of human life that never reached beyond itself,
wherefore it was also the boundary of inhumanity--

thus it was revealed to man as an event of beauty,
revealing beauty for what it was, as the infinite in the realm of the finite,
as an earthly sham-infinity,
and hence a game,
the game of earthly men amidst their earthliness, playing at eternity,
the symbolic game on the periphery of earthly life,
beauty the essence of the play,
the game that man played with his own symbol in order that
symbolically--since otherwise it was impossible--he might escape his fear of loneliness,
repeating the beautiful self-deception again and again,
the flight into beauty, the game of flight;

thus there was revealed to man the rigidity of the beautified world,
its incapacity for all growth, the limitation of its perfection,
this world which survived only by repetition and
which, even for this sham-perfection, had always to be striven for anew,
it was revealed as the play of art in its service of beauty,
as art's despair, its despairing attempt
to build up the imperishable from things that perish,
from words, from sounds, from stones, from colors,
so that space, being formed,
might outlast time
as a memorial bearing beauty to the coming generations, art
building space into every production,
building the immortal in space but not in men--
wherefore it lacked growth,
wherefore it was bound to the perfection of mere repetition without growth,
bound to an unattainable perfection and becoming more desperate as it came nearer to perfection,
constrained to return constantly into its own beginning which was its end,
and hence pitiless,
pitiless toward human sorrow which meant no more to art
than passing existence, no more than a word, a stone, a sound, or a color
to be used for exploring and revealing beauty
in unending repetition;

and thus beauty revealed itself to man as a cruelty,
as the growing cruelty of the unbridled game
which promised the pleasure of infinity through the symbol,
the voluptuous, knowledge-disdaining pleasure
of an earthly sham-infinity,
hence thoughtlessly able to inflict sorrow and death,
as happened in the realm of beauty at the remote periphery,
accessible only to the glance, only to time,
but no longer available for humanity and the human task;

thus beauty revealed itself to man as the law that lacked perception,
beauty in its abandonment proclaiming itself as a law unto itself,
self-contained, inextensible, incapable of development or renewal,
pleasure the rule of the game,
self-gratifying, voluptuous, unchaste, unchangeable,
the beauty-saturated, beauty-saturating game in which
beauty was at play with itself,
passing the time but not annulling it,
playing out fate but not controlling it,
the game that could be repeated endlessly, continued endlessly,
yet one that had been destined from the beginning to be broken off,
because only humanity is divine;

and thus the intoxication of beauty revealed itself to man
as the game forlorn from the outset, forlorn
in spite of the eternal balance in which it is established,
in spite of the necessity which compelled it to be resumed again and again,
forlorn, because the unavoidable repetition brought with it
the unavoidable loss,
forlorn, because the intoxication of repetition and that of the game
were inevitably reciprocal in their affects,
both caught in the twilight,
both subject to lapse,
both without growth though assuredly waxing in cruelty--
whereas the truth growth
the increasing knowledge of perceptive mankind,
undeterred by lapse and freed from repetition, unfolded itself in time,
unfolded time to timelessness, so that
time, as it consumed all lapse by force of growing reality,
might break through and pass beyond boundary after boundary,
the innermost like the outermost, leaving behind symbol after symbol,
and even though it left the final symbolic nature of beauty undisturbed,
untouched the necessity of its consummate harmony,
yet the earthly quality of this game had nonetheless to be uncovered,
the inadequacy of the earthly symbol be revealed,
the sadness and despair of beauty laid bare,
beauty stripped of intoxication and sobered,
its perception forfeited and itself lost in impercipience,
and with it, the sobered self,
its poverty--,

[...] and in a flash he perceived that the bursting of the beautiful was caused by nothing but naked laughter and that laughter was the predestined explosion of worldly beauty, of which it had been an attribute from the first, inherent in beauty forever, shimmering out as a smile at the unreal borders of utter-distance, but bawling out noisily on that curving horizon which marked the turning point of beauty's duration, breaking out as the booming, thundering demolishment of time by laughter, as the laughing, demonic force of complete destruction, laughter being the necessary counterpart of world-beauty, the desperate substitute for the lost confidence in wisdom, the end of the intercepted flight into beauty, the end of beauty's interrupted game; oh sorrow for sorrow, making game with the game, pleasure in the very expulsion of pleasure, a doubling of sorrow, a doubling of the game, a doubling of pleasure, this was laughter, a constant flight from the haven of refuge, beyond the game, beyond the world, beyond perception, the bursting of world-sorrow, the external tickle in masculine gorge, the cleaving of beauty-fixed space to a gape in the unspeakable muteness of which even the nothing became lost, enraged by the muteness, enraged by the laughter, divine even this:
the prerogative of gods and men was laughter,

Then it goes on to discuss "laughter: the language of the pre-creation" and its provocation of "the final and ever-valid reversion, the reversion into a boundless realm without knowledge, without name, without speech, without connection, without dimension, the partitions tumbling down, the intuitions of the gods thrown in with that of men, breaking down their common creation but also laying bare the nature of the ageless pre-creation."

To add another (far more brief) perspective on beauty, even though it's not truly that consistent in theme, here is a snippet from The Man Without Qualities, written by Broch's peer, Robert Musil. The quote is spoken by Ulrich in Part 2, Pseudoreality Prevails:

"Extract the meaning out of all literature, and what you will get is a denial, however incomplete, but nonetheless an endless series of individual examples all based on experience, which refute all the accepted rules, principles, and prescriptions underpinning the very society that loves these works of art! In the end, a poem, with its mystery, cuts through to the point where the meaning of the world is tied to thousands of words in constant use, severs all these strings, and turns it into a balloon floating off into space. If this is what we call beauty, as we usually do, then beauty is an indescribably more ruthless and cruel upheaval than any political revolution ever was."

Currently listening to: "Winter Wonderland" by Animal Collective
Previous activity: The Daily Show
Next thing on the agenda: maybe a little Robbins Pathology

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