Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Decline of the West Chapter Seven

Decline of the West
Oswald Spengler
Chapter Seven:
Music and Plastic
Act and Portrait

For latecomers, this is a series of posts excerpting in English Oswald Spengler's classic German work "Decline of the West," which traces the cycles of past civilizations of history and thereby shows that all civilizations, including the Western Culture of our time, follows a predictable pattern from their birth to their "death" - that is, to the birth of the next following Culture, which may or may not retain essences from its parent culture. Our Jewish Culture has been tied with deep bonds to the Western Culture for some centuries and is following the same pattern of Decline - which begs the question, what will follow? The chereidiban era we have entered recently, which is based on myths (min har sinai) and distortions of our broad and inclusive history (claiming the current ultra-orthodoxy is the only authentic Judaism, and having as two of its goals a quest for a mythical racial purity and a social/cultural uniformity which is entirely fictional), is itself an era of imperialization (a civil war to destroy the legitimacy of all other branches of Judaism) and stagnation (refusal to deal with scientific, medical, and historical reality) which must end with either the death of Judaism entirely or the birth of a Jewish Culture which discards the destructive and hateful aspects of the Chereidiban philosophy. Right now, it's hard to see which fate awaits us. That the chereidiban Culture will suffer the same fate as all other Cultures in all other times is not in question to anyone who is intellectually honest. What is in question is what kind of future for Judaism can be salvaged from their power-mongering and fantastically false and unhistoric claim to be the "only" authentic Judaism.

In the meantime, chapter seven of Spengler's work continues his discussion of the arts, and how the expression of the arts shows the development of Cultures. Many readers may not find these chapters particularly interesting, but there are some insights into Judaism as a sub-Culture of Western Culture which can be gleaned. I believe this is the last chapter on the arts, so be patient, class. This too shall pass.

Excerpts and Commentary on Chapter Seven, [my comments in brackets]:

If the environment of a man (whatever else it may be) is with respect to him a macrocosm with respect to a microcosm, an immense aggregate of symbols, then the man himself, insofar as he belongs to the fabric of actuality insofar as he is phenomenal, must be comprised in the general symbolism. But, in the impress of him made upon men like himself, what is it that possesses the force of Symbol, viz., the capacity of summing within itself and intelligibly presenting the essence of that man and the signification of his being? Art gives the answer.

The Apollinian soul, Euclidean and confined to a point, felt the empirical visible body as the complete expression of its own way of being; the Faustian, wandering far away, found these expression not in person, σώμα [body], but in personality, character, call it what you will.

The change would be inexplicable if we were to regard merely the spirit of these languages and their "influence" of one upon another; the explanation is in the spirit of the mankind that raised a mere way of using words to the level of a symbol.

To make one's confession is not to avow an act but to lay before the Judge the inner history of that act.

No Greek would have been capable of a genuine self-criticism [in the modern sense].
Everything in a head that might allow something intimate or spiritual to become phenomenal the Greeks...most carefully avoid. Once this characteristic has struck us, the best heads of the great age sooner or later begin to pall. Seen in the perspective of our world-feeling, they are stupid and dull, wanting in the biographical element, devoid of any destiny.

The opposition of Apollinian and Faustian ideals of Humanity may now be stated concisely. Act and Portrait are to one another as body and space, instant and history, foreground and background, Euclidean and analytical number, proportion and relations. The Apollinian form-language reveals only the become, the Faustian shows above all a becoming.

Endless becoming is comprehended in the idea of Motherhood, Woman as Mother is Time and is Destiny. All symbols of Time and Distance are also symbols of maternity. Care is the root-feeling of future, and all care is motherly.

[These words resonate to me not due to the current ultra-orthodox focus on having large numbers of children, but because of the LACK of care and compassion for children in the treatment of the issues of neglect and abuse, especially sexual abuse, of children in cheredi communities. The complete and utter disregard of care and compassion for these children shows that ultra-orthodoxy is dead and has no future. A leadership which would not turn over heaven and earth to root out evil directed towards their children is not just un-motherly but un-human. The chereidi need to be above ordinary humans has made the leadership completely incapable of dealing with human problems on a human level - indeed, their concern for their super-human status in the eyes of the world means far more to them than the poor victims of abuse and neglect.]

Nothing is more instructive than to observe how under the hands of a Faustian artist even the Act transforms itself into a portrait-study.

[This is particularly telling in regards to how the Chereidi "portray" themselves, especially in their publications and artistic endeavors. Women are now edited out of photographs or their faces blurred beyond all recognition, because Chereidi Judaism believes itself to be entirely male. Recognition of the grand diversity of past and present Jewish culture is completely absent - only portrayals which show the Chereidi in their mythical ultra-white, ultra-monotone european costumes deemed "correct" by the ultra-orthodox are permitted, though in reality only about 10% of Jews commit fully to this artificially constructed unhistoric "ideal" taught as non-negotiable by the Chereidiban. The image that the Chereidi presents to the world is false on so many levels it is truly laughable - but they are so heavily invested in it that they can no longer admit to any other path.]

The Renaissance was born of defiance. In Gothic, and again in Baroque, an entirely great artist was fulfilling his art in deepening and completing its language, but in Renaissance he was necessarily only destroying it [the previous form-language, that is]...measure yielded to melody, the static to the dynamic. And thus [even] Faustian music enlisted in its service the chief of all the other arts. The first sign of the repudiation of corporeal bounds, in the name of space, as as such it is the starting point: impressionism.

To fly, to free oneself from earth, to lose oneself in the expanse of the universe - is not this ambition Faustian in the highest degree? Is it not in fact the fulfillment of our dreams?

All the pictured ascents into heaven and falls into hell, the divine figures floating above the clouds, the blissful detachment of angels and saints, the insistent emphasis upon freedom from earth's heaviness, are emblems of soul-flight, peculiar to the art of the Faustian, utterly remote from that of the Byzantine.

The transformation of Renaissance fresco-painting into Venetian oil-painting is a matter of spiritual history. We have to appreciate the very delicate and subtle traits to discern the process of change.

It was, as always, the struggle between hand and soul, between eye and instrument, between the form willed by the artist and the form willed by time - the struggle between Plastic and Music.

[The subject of Music brings us to what is most certainly the most bizarre aspect of the historical revisionism being taught by the Chereidiban as authentic Judaism. This false portrait of Jews and Judaism has entirely adopted catholic-european-Caucasian music as its own and completely rejected the near eastern and north african music of their true Hebrew past. In an effort to disassociate themselves from their true heritage as much as possible, Jewish leaders have actually BANNED music whose origins is not of the catholic-controlled european Jewish ghetto past as "un-Jewish" and something that "decent people" should not listen to at all. Their obfuscation of their Hebrew past is now so deeply ingrained that these Jews actually believe themselves to be white europeans and are deeply discriminatory against even fellow Jews of near eastern and north african descent - because to them, "real" Judaism is white anglo-saxon and not in any way related to the actual near eastern and north african history of their Hebrew forebears.]

In this the inexorable progress of Necessity is apparent. We have learned to understand arts as prime phenomena. We no longer look to the operations of cause and effect to give unity to the story of development. Instead, we have set up the idea of the Destiny of an art, and admitted arts to be organisms of the Culture, organisms which are born, ripen, age, and forever die.

At the culmination of every Culture we have the spectacle of a splendid group of great arts, well ordered and linked as a unit by the unity of the prime symbol underlying them all. The Apollinian group, to which belong vase-painting, fresco relief, the architecture of ranked columns, the Attic drama and the dance, centres upon the naked statue. The Faustian group forms itself round the ideal of pure spatial infinity and its centre of gravity is instrumental music. The nearer the grand style comes to its point of fulfillment, the more decisive the tendency to an ornamental language of inexorable clarity of symbolism.

And with plastic and music at this stage of development, the two Cultures reach their respective ends. A pure symbolism of mathematical rigour had become possible. Today it is hardly even a memory.

Impressionism...very happily summarizes the special quality of the Faustian way of art. Impression is the inverse of the Euclidean world-feeling. It tries to get as far as possible from the language of plastic and as near as possible to that of music.

Impressionism is the comprehensive expression of a world-feeling, and it must obviously therefore permeate the whole physiognomy of our "Late" Culture. There is an impressionistic mathematic, which frankly and with intent transcends all optical limitations. It is Analysis, as developed after Newton and Leibniz, and to it belong the visionary images of number-"bodies," aggregates, and the multi-dimensional geometry.

Be the artist painter or musician, his art consists in created with a few strokes or spots or tones an image of inexhaustible content, a microcosm meet for the eyes or ears of Faustian man, that is, in laying the actuality of infinite space under enchantment by fleeting and incorporeal indications of something objective which, so to say, forces that actuality to become phenomenal.

[OK, let's look at some examples of Jewish art. Let us first consider as an example the work of Ari Gradus, an Israeli-born artist who is not Chereidi.

This one is called "the lovers."

This one is called "Jerusalem 3000."

And finally, "the Klezmers." These works are not exaclty "impressionism," but are of the post-impressionistic genre, that isn't afraid to use hard focus but still has as it's theme very other-worldly spiritual and imaginative interpretations of the subjects. In short, these artists are Faustian in nature, reaching out to Hashem and giving expression to the openness and transcendence of their Jewish lives.

Now let's consider some of the art found in Chereidi homes.

First off, portraits of "sages" are very common - completely removing Hashem and any vestige of Spirit from the equation. It is entirely the Ravs who glorify themselves, collectively, by glorifying each other.

It may have crossed your mind that in Muslim homes, pictures of Imams and other spiritual leaders are also common - and in most Islamic countries, pictures of the political leaders are also common. Recall, for example, the numerous portraits of Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden plastered all over every Muslim city.

If you go to and look for "Judaica" expecting to find art, you will be disappointed, because the only "art" you will find are decorative implements for religious observances - very, very down to earth, for use in the confines of your home

Described only as "honey dish with bowl," even the spiritual significance of Rosh HaShanah is passed over in the advertisement for this product. It makes no pretense of being anything other than a honey dish with bowl - which, presumably, will hopefully match your other dishes so you will buy it, or be a specialty item that your neighbors have but you don't, so you want to buy one. It's a business proposition, not a religious object, to the mind's eye.

When you attempt to find an "ultra orthodox artist" by way of Google, you do get one interesting thing - by a Kabbalist, particularly of Safed.

This is, of course, extremely mathematical - almost like computer fractals. Kabbalists have been lately playing up their "relationship" to quantum mechanics, and this arts reflect that desire to blend in and be congruent with modern scientific rationalism. In their minds, they were there "first," but only those branches of quantum theory which resonate with their believes are "acceptable" science. All other medical and scientific knowledge which is at odds with Talmudic sources is still unacceptable. This is simply an attempt to make an end-run around secularism by saying Kabbalah "knew" quantum mechanics all along, and since quantum mechanics are "true," so must be real Kabbalah and all that goes with it, such as the myth of "min har sinai" and all other ultra-orthodox halacha. Whether or not Kabbalah actually reflects accurately the precepts of quantum mechanics is entirely debatable, however. But notice how mechanical, how technical, how uninspiring the work is. Computer geeks might like it, but most ordinary people probably would not choose this type of art. It's still man's control of the universe being displayed, not Hashem's. Indeed, to most people, Kaballah is all about man controlling the universe, though regrettably it comes across mostly as the superstitious acts of the scientifically ignorant, which in many ways it has become.]

The modern artist is a workman, not a creator. It is a risky art, meticulous, cold, diseased - an art for overdeveloped nerves, but scientific to the last degree, energetic in everything that relates to the conquest of technical obstacles, acutely assertive of prgramme.

The symptom of decline in creative power is the fact that to produce something round and complete the artist now requires to be emancipated from form and proportion. It's most obvious, though not its most significant, manifestation is the taste for the gigantic. Here size is not, as in the Gothic and the Pyramid styles, the expression of inward greatness, but the dissimulation if its absence. This swaggering in specious dimensions is common to all nascent Civilizations.

But what is far more indicative is the arbitrariness and immoderateness that tramples on and shatters the conventions of centuries. The Destiny of the form lay in the race of the school, not in the private tendencies of the individual. Under the spell of a great tradition full of achievement is possible even to a minor artist, because the living art brings him in though with is task and the task with him. Today, these artists can no longer perform what they intend, for intellectual operations are a poor substitute for the trained instinct that has died out.

An artificial art has no further organic future, it is the mark of the end. And the bitter conclusion is that it is all irretrievably over with the art form of the West. Like the Apollinian, the Eqyptian and every other, the Faustian art dies of senility, having actualized its inward possibilities and fulfilled its mission within the course of its Culture.

What is practiced as art impotence and falsehood. One thing is quite certain, that today every single art-school could be shut down without art being affected in the slightest. We can learn all we wish to know about the art-clamour whcih a megalopolis sets up in order to forget that its art is dead from the Alexandria of the year 200.

The final result is that endless industrious repetition of a stock of fixed forms which we see today. Pictures and fabrics, verses and vessels, furniture, dramas and musical compositions - All is pattern-work.

So it has been in the Last Act of all Cultures.


Kaz Maslanka said...

It seems obvious that Spengler enjoys the latest movement of art (in his time) However, I wonder for the life of me what he means by “There is an impressionistic mathematic, which frankly and with intent transcends all optical limitations.” He seems not to be kind to Euclid yet promotes the discoverers of calculus. Hmmm curious.
Thanks for your post.

Ahavah Gayle said...

He probably means "mathematic" in a more old-fashioned sense of "process," perhaps like "calculus" in the way we would similarly use it to refer not to actual arithmetic operations but as a description for how to achieve the desired result?

(Or, the passage may just not be translating well, LOL.)

"Transcends all optical limitations" I think reflects his idea that Faustian art is about stretching the limit of space and time and going beyond it - when you look at an impressionistic painting it's lack of focus allows you to remove the objects, even though you can "tell" what they are, from the "now" in which they were painted - sort of like the way they make the edges whispy in dream sequences in movies, so you "know" what you're seeing is not "here and now." Impressionistic types of art are permanently not "here and now." They are meant, I think, to convey a timelessness that is outside of our reality as we know it, like looking at a dream sequence. You can imagine them in any place and time, or none at all.

Admittedly, philosophy of art was not my favorite subject. Perhaps an art major out there could enlighten us?


Pierre Sogol said...

The social, economic and Jewish decline you account is much in line with a piece written in a piece from Nishma's journal,
"Living in the Shadow", Introspection, 5760 #3. He raised the question, not so 'raisable' some 9 years ago when it came out, of the possible lapse of the "give me convenience or give me death" way of life of the West and it's affect on Torah communities, in hashkafa as well as standard of living. The authors name escapes me, it should really be online and much distributed prior to Peak Everything.

Ahavah Gayle said...

Pierre: Sorry it took so long to respond to your comment.

Thank you for the reference. I will see if I can find it sometime this week, or maybe after Yom Kippur, and post a link.

I fear it is no longer possible for our communities to be ready for Peak Everything - people are far too judgmental about those who do not practice their own favored stringencies and would have no qualms about attaching unbearable strings to whatever cooperative ventures they tried to arrange. That type of "cooperation" cannot last and cannot work. Only broad-based Jewish community solutions will have a large enough economic/volunteer support base to function properly, but instead of becoming more accepting and more tolerant, we're getting more exclusive and breaking up into smaller and smaller groups due to the Rav's insistence on these (often ridiculous) stringencies.

I just don't see any progress being made - and time is growing short. The Sabbath year is ended, and whatever forbearance had been granted us will now swiftly disappear, I'm afraid. By the time people wake up and realize they have "convenienced" themselves to death (so to speak, I sincerely hope), it will be too late.