She Spits Melancholy at Him, by artist Janet Snell
When I stand back a few steps from a particular philosopher’s work or from philosophy in general, a curious thing happens inside my head. Instead of conception and argument, philosophy begins to look sort of like an art form to me, maybe in these terms:
- Form, color, texture
- Melody, harmony, rhythm
- Evocation, mood, astonishment
Most actual philosophers will look at me, scratch their heads, and then say, “You’re stupid.” Nietzsche, though, might give me a wink and a smile of sanction from inside his asylum.
A thing is being built up, a shape materializing, a vision offered during the philosopher’s movement into his or her intuition about the nature of reality. That vision is expressed through words colored with an implicit emotional energy — a meta-luminous feeling about the world. And the text becomes textured with a brooding in precincts of contrast to phenomena, appearance, and normality.
In a way, a philosopher’s vision is also a sonata. Principle lines of saying sound from the region of thinking, intuition, pathology, and inspiration. Those lines go through development and recapitulation. Layered into those lines are others, raised or lowered to complementary pitches — echoes of precedent forming a coherent harmony of other timbres to plead subtly into the “score.” And one is swept along, as if on eccentric rhythms, by this dark silent music dancing toward the horizon of World.
Even the driest of Analytic philosophers evoke in their readers a melancholy reaction — the ghost of meaning that hides in our language is stubbornly elusive. Even those philosophers, unbeknownst to themselves, are haunted with a something-weird-is-going-on. The others — the Continentals — are the true poets of philosophy. Their long-winded paeans to metaphysics are often enriched with metaphor and with a sensitivity to the forlorn moods of time. A thing-in-itself is a large problem and an inspiration to think strange. Moods of world and being seem to flow into thinking about world and being, as if the Weary Question pauses there for sustenance at the Tavern of Impressive Guesses. The pulse of a philosopher’s assertions sparks darkly with death and wonder, arcing an unspoken aesthetics into the rational atmosphere.
Philosophers create their visions of the world through language, of course. While poetry is a compression of seeing and saying, prose allows philosophy to be a more expansively neurotic dream. However one uses words, language is “always already” a thing saturated with the ghost of time and the substance of riddles. That’s where art can happen.
Maurice Blanchot (1907 – 2003) said this:
And what language is (not what it means, not the form in which it says what it means), what language is in its being, is that softest of voices, that nearly imperceptible retreat, that weakness deep inside and surrounding every thing and every face – what bathes the belated effort of the origin and the dawnlike erosion of death in the same neutral light, at once day and night.
Posted by Tim Buck