Until recently I had never taken note of Wittgenstein’s parenthetical remark in the Tractatus that aesthetics and ethics are one. According to Google it would seem that academic discussions of the question focus on either contrasting the differences between the two or puzzling over what Wittgenstein could possibly have meant.
I became interested in the question quite unexpectedly while I was reading Paul Auster’s 4321. In fact it entered my mind in the form of a question:
Is there a point at which it can be said that an aesthetic becomes an ethic?
It seemed to me that Auster’s decision to radically change his aesthetic at such a late point in his career, after decades of perfecting it, just might be more meaningful than simply wanting to try something new. Positively, did it signal a change in his view of the world? or, negatively, did it signal a loss of vision or, less negatively, a loss of faith in that vision?
Am I mistaken in seeing Auster’s aesthetic of many decades as a strong vision? Why then the apparent lack of discussion of this change from concision to, not simply wordiness, but the deliberate use of an excess of unnecessary words? (Arguably, more in this instance is not better.) Complicating the issue is the fact that 4321 does indeed entail themes seen throughout Auster’s oeuvre. He did not abandon his themes, and that might indicate that he had not abandoned his worldview. If Auster is as capable as ever of writing first-rate prose and he has not abandoned his pet themes then has something else changed? Or is it no more significant than that you can’t expect a great baseball player to hit it out of the park every time? He just wanted to try something new, and it’s just not as good as what he’s done before. Big deal. Success would be meaningless if it wasn’t so difficult and there weren’t failures, blah blah.
Even if I can’t settle the question it is peculiar that I should stumble upon it again while reading another book by Paul Auster. It emerged for him when a consideration of spectator sports, of all things, led to a view of sublime artistic accomplishment.
It appears in Here and Now, the book of letters between Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee published in 2013. The most peculiar thing about this exchange of letters is that sports—particularly the act of watching sports—is the subject they most often return to. Namely, they are preoccupied with the question of why, since they agree watching sports is a waste of time, they so often turn to this activity (one wants to say, ‘Uh, because—-relaxation’, but I digress). Auster brings up the aesthetic aspect of sports. At first Coetzee takes issue and then in reflecting on his responses to the spectacle of great athletics, he writes,
What I would want to note in this set of responses is the way in which envy first raises its head and is then extinguished. One starts by envying Federer, one moves from there to admiring him, and one ends up neither envying nor admiring him but exalted at the revelation of what a human being—a being like oneself—can do.
Which, I find, is very much like my response to masterworks of art on which I have spent a lot of time…. to the point where I have a good idea of what went into their making…. but I could never have done it myself…. yet it was done by a man…. like me; what an honor to belong to the species…. And at that point I can no longer distinguish the ethical from the aesthetic. [pp 46-49]
And Auster’s response? Complete accord. Unfortunately the two don’t elaborate on the connection—the merging of aesthetics and ethics—perhaps because they found themselves wholly in accord with one another or because they felt it didn’t need elaboration. Perhaps it is not uncommon to make the connection, in some silent way. And it is only uncommon to articulate it as such. Doesn’t the expression, the art of…. suggest an unexamined acknowledgement of an aesthetic component to virtually any human activity? And doesn’t everybody know that success cannot be understood without its opposite—failure? meaning, of course, that the ethical conversation on aesthetics can proceed from either direction: an example of success, an example of failure. Even the expression, the art of…. suggests a kind of tightrope walk. Don’t look down. Don’t talk about what might go wrong. You might get dizzy.
And everyone knows (or should know) the seeping of identity politics into the arts is a recent phenomenon. Coetzee and Auster are, let us say old school. I don’t see their work or their concerns as they have voiced them to be significantly affected by it. But if public discussion of the arts has been thoroughly infiltrated by identity politics (as it seems to me it has), this is only an extreme case of the apparent merging of ethics and aesthetics. More accurately, I think it is the merging of a crude ideology of ethics with aesthetics. It is the phenomenon of an art or a conception of art driven and indeed formed by ideology rather than creative thought. What I have thought about and what I think Auster and Coetzee are referring to is not talking about the good, but being good. It is the ethical resonance that one experiences in transcendent works of art.
Elsewhere in the letters they use the word “grace” to describe great athletics and I might echo that word in seeing a kind of fall from grace when an artist disappoints. They have fallen to earth—a man like me, indeed. One wants to be inspired. Bob Dylan once said that is the purpose of art and it’s hard to disagree.
Disgrace is the name of one of Coetzee’s finest novels. A man at his ugliest is exposed and deposed. But when one falls to the bottom one finds there is still further to go. Dylan said it in a song: “Just when you think you’ve lost everything you find out you can always lose a little more.” Coetzee’s willingness to linger there is an act of extraordinary artistry that fills me with awe. I have wondered if his agreement to publish these letters was based on a calculated risk: let them see me. A risk because if we see him as human, all too human, then the aura of the Great Artist might become tarnished. Example: his being disturbed by that stupid person who doesn’t even know the first thing about the function of fiction. Wow. and, really? Auster tells him the best thing to do in such situations is to ignore the stupid person. But here I am reading about it in the letters. And let’s face it, there’s not a whole lot of protein there. What’s the message? Who is this book for? The intended readership of a book like No Hero by Mark Owen seems clear. He and his fellow SEALs, often called heroes, don’t feel like heroes. Here he tells personal stories about his fears and failures and how he learned to overcome them. But whatever it is Coetzee and Auster want us to know is less clear. Do they want us to see them in their simple humanity? OK. Why? This is slippery territory.
I did not want to read the letters when I heard about their publication. Merely publishing them struck me as self-serving of the authors. My wife, knowing how much I admire the authors, brought the book home as a gift last week and I couldn’t resist. Hadn’t I sketched an ethical proposition of sorts before even reading it? Now I would have to fill it in or draw a different picture. Reading involves certain responsibilities.
Our imaginative relationships with the people who produce great works of art proceed step by step, work by work, thought by thought yet in the end our images of those persons should remain vague and unformed. On the other hand, if ethics and aesthetics are one, then processing an artist’s work must also proceed step by step yet resulting, ideally, in an ever clearer understanding. And what happens when Americans turn on their pop stars and Hollywood icons? What is really going on? Was there a flawed understanding on the part of the fan concerning their connection to the star in the first place? I have sometimes hesitated before writing about an artist, chastened at every word by the thought that I might inadvertently offend the person I was writing about. While we stand in awe at the accomplishments of great art and may feel that the person who produced them has touched our soul, the fact remains we do not know that person. And so what is it but an ethical matter as to how we should conduct ourselves when we choose to write about their work? I think the first principle of that conduct should be to remember we are writing about the work and not the person. Therefore our images of the people (who make the art) in what I have termed the imaginative relationship cannot and should not go further than a passing thought or two. They’re just chimeras. Any ethical understanding we derive from works of art are generated from our side of the equation in the sense that the artworks are tools we may use to better ourselves. A man like me. It is ourselves we are working on, not the artist. Aesthetics and ethics may be one. The two are intertwined when art is made and then when it is experienced: it flows both ways. The important stuff is there, even if it’s up for debate. The rest is Al Gore’s cowboy boots.
There is an unbridgeable gap between art and audience. The union that occurs between a writer and a reader, for example, is at most a kind of meta-relationship; it is not a real-world relationship between persons. Identity politics in the arts today is an attempt to bridge the gap. But a book like Here and Now may also be an oblique attempt to voice the silent space of that gap. It’s not as though we all can’t leave well enough alone. We must think about the aesthetics/ethics dyad. But maybe Wittgenstein left the comment in parentheses and unexplained for a reason. Maybe Bob Dylan is cryptic and weird for good reason. And perhaps we haven’t paid enough attention to that other part of the Tractatus: Of that which we cannot speak we must remain silent.