The Elaborates, the Beautiful Extremes, the Mensch for All Aesthetics: Susan Scutti, “The Commute,” a New Poetry Book from Paper Kite Press (2011) by Robert Mueller
The Elaborates, the Beautiful Extremes, the Mensch for All Aesthetics: Susan Scutti’s “The Commute,” a New Poetry Book from Paper Kite Press (2011) by Robert Mueller
The poems in Susan Scutti’s “The Commute” are those of a New York poet without the pretense of New York. Some may want, for charmers and also for intensities, the glittering chandeliers and all their relatives down to the bargain list. But that is not what we will get here, but will get so much more, out of ultimate form personal direct.
The title poem will take such a straight and secure path it may haunt us, as with iron-hard detail of commuter track assembly:
“Science” [this line is a section heading]
Along the way
four sets of train tracks run parallel
to one another and, if they were
to lift their heads from the pages
of “The New York Times”, commuters
would see how smooth — as slick
as ice — the tops of the metal
tracks appear and how the rust begins just beneath
them. In places
cement ties have replaced
the wooden ones; they look like
white piano keys in a keyboard of black.
Smudged newsprint tells how
scientists describe dreams as a cacophony
of images discarded by the mind
during the day.
[words in quotation marks are italicized in the book]
If we can hear a bit of Sylvia Plath in the emotional crescendo-honing diminuendo, we are not far off. We may have to get closer, but us New York readers can take it.
In the following whole poem, an affirmatively cast yet crunching “Daddy” poem, directed not at a person so much as at a push and a rush, Pain Mimic and Pain Stoic take apt compelling turns for a soul that has to choose. Protestations to the contrary, it is not a wandering soul; it wants THIS:
Manhattan, [this line is the title]
The first time I came up to you
My father held my hand and I
Tasted your exhausted breath,
Felt the rush of your steam
Against my thighs
And looking up I saw
Your dark skies
Squared by buildings
Rising up, up,
Higher than heaven could go.
I pulled my hand from my
Father’s and hearing the
Grumble of your subway voice
My fearful heart curled inside of me.
I grew backwards: seven then six, five, four, three, two,
One, fetal again.
Finally only my
Soul remained, a
Pale spirit adrift in your
Dark streets, my heart was silent
As if I had never been born.
Burst your pain inside a womb of pleasure:
I want to be your daughter.
I want to survive you when you’re sold.
I want to echo your siren speech.
(Art in heaven)
I still haunt your skyscraped nights.
If we are getting a reaction of wonder and awe, we are getting very close. The importance of Susan Scutti’s writing cannot be underestimated, and by all accounts (many of her poems) is a matter of difficult aesthetics. That it should be so may come as a surprise; and thus to demonstrate this special and truly present intensity, we may enlist the aid of Friedrich Schiller’s exposition of counteracting and balancing principles, lengthily titled “Ueber die aesthetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reihe von Briefen” (“For the aesthetic Education of the Mensch in a Sequence of Letters”) (1794-95). Schiller’s illustrations of the interplay of influences in aesthetic production can illumine, as we would expect, different kinds of expression that all have their special forms to offer. What serves this purpose, as our purpose, proceeds out of the manner in which Schiller presents the experience, thereby placing it in a distinguishing light, for his own purposes, from the logical and deductive form of Immanuel Kant’s exposition of aesthetic principles to which the Schiller discussion is indebted.
The compelling character of Schiller’s writing about aesthetics surfaces, paradoxically, when we own up to the fact that much of it has already been explained, with greater clarity and comprehension, by Kant in the treatise titled “The Critique of Judgment” (“Kritik der Urteilskraft”) (1790 and subsequently revised). The advantage tending Schiller’s way lies in the poles, or better the extremes, that participate in the schema elected to prove the efficacy of Beauty itself, alongside the other virtues of Reason, Understanding and something called Sensible Intuition that can make human life special, that we think of as, generally construed, ennobling. For Schiller, these extremes maintain their presence and their cachet by sticking to where they are — at the extremes. For Kant, the component elements of definitions and proofs of aesthetic Beauty (Beauty and its affirmations valued as free, independent and universally to be agreed), converge into an elegant and complex unit, the complexity of which resembles the condensing and combining character of metaphor.
Particularly in progressions, in the alternation of synthesizing and sweetly distinguishing, Kant is always on target with analysis, imaginative problem-developing and artful deducing, and brings full persuasiveness and merit to what becomes in Schiller this cogent holding onto the extremes. At one pole is Endlessness (Unendlichkeit). This extreme might be more precisely thought as endless Possibilities (Moeglichkeiten), and thus as a potential for approaching and endorsing, by virtue of their supportive extension and range, the sensual and emotional (“sinnliche”) richness of a confined and bounded circumstance. The bounded compass of feelings is the corresponding aspect in the schema at this stage, the other extreme of feelings that may realize their intensity over against this condition of endless Possibilities.
Thus to be at one with the endlessly possible is to be in the thick of the transcendental drift, while at the other extreme is this very experience, in the midst, unprotected as it were by the flights of “Reason.” It can occupy a rough and gritty moment in frame of reference to the subject’s “sinnliche” character, such that it is natural for the subject (at this stage especially) to exist unthinkingly in passive reception of effects and influences, in hopelessly dependent Suffering (Leidenschaft), as it were. “Leiden” is the operative quality and simply connotes a condition which may partake of rich pleasures as well as unmanageable difficulties as if of a moment that will not last, is true only for its pressing upon us in any way or in any other, and for this experience to amplify and for us to gain access to an “intenser” feeling we would rely in some way, in some defining presence of Reason (Vernunft), on the forward progress of aesthetic growth. How that intenser achievement (difficult to define, certainly in a single phrase) is possible is the question to be addressed.
There are other candidates for ways to describe what Schiller elaborates again and again under varying terms over the course of the sequence of letters. Yet we must find specific and sufficient means to elaborate the schema of opposing parts because we fear that, just as moral systems can ring hollow, so can aesthetic accounts seem empty and stiff where the operative terms are not fleshed out properly.
Part of the joy of the series of letters is that the continual recasting helps Schiller countermand the tendency to diagram. Over the course of letters he gives variants for the qualities that store in their being the very oppositions through which the schema for aesthetic growth and achievement evolves and is maintained. Kant in his own right organizes and distributes the contributing elements persuasively and with marked aplomb. The emergence of the schema itself as a logical moment, and its corresponding laws and fresh difficulties, is Kant’s signature contribution. The parts devote their weighted influences to the distinguishable mix, of which “Genius” (Genie, ingenium) itself opens out as a recognized empowerment (Section 46ff.), whereas in Schiller’s treatment it is the appeal to the sequence as a “Reihe der Briefe” that would count as the stroke of genius. Bravo for Schiller, although, all of these felicities notwithstanding, the systems qua systems still test hollow and creaky to the extent the mere empty buttressing by way of the names of Beauty, Understanding, Reason and the like are adduced and parroted.
For instance, to counter the notion of the “Sinnliche” Kant gives way to the term “Uebersinnliche.” We may rightly ask, “What is in this Ueber that gets added in this fashion?” Beyond the sensual in strength of endurance? Above and on top of the sensual, as if for a subject learning to raise his or her brow or nose in sniffing to a loftier compass? Does it mean anything at all to say the word, “Uebersinnliche”? (Kant’s employment of the term in the eighth paragraph of Section 49 to illustrate the greatness of Genius, for example, does not help much.)
Clearly, what is called for is the quality and form of the definition of Beauty, the way in which the Deduction or Proof, or Demonstration if you like, of a form of necessity attaching to aesthetic judgments (and accomplishments) is arrived at. What is called for (for our purposes) is the manner of description, not the consideration of what labels name what deeply earned process, but the shape of how the various parts and influences come forward.
In the paragraph that provides halfway closure in Section 49 of Kant’s “Kritik der Urteilskraft,” and that contains an admirably long sentence, the strength of this energetic “Satz” — the period, the sentence, the fully developed proposition — carries the meaning of Beauty long and far, how it is achieved and how it may be judged on its own special terms. The great value of aesthetic truth comes to light as the converging participation of component aspects, a combining by way of a various syntax of variously interconnected clauses and subclauses, and dependent and relative coordinations, all ordered in and for the effort, and brilliance, of Kant’s method of critique and elucidation:
“Die Gemuetskraefte also, deren Vereinigung (in gewissem Verhaeltnisse) das G e n i e ausmachen, sind Einbildungskraft und Verstand. Nur, da, im Gebrauch der Einbildungskraft zum Erkenntnisse, die Einbildungskraft under dem Zwange des Verstandes und der Beschraenkung unterworfen ist, dem Begriffe desselben angemessen zu sein; in aesthetischer Absicht aber die Einbildungskraft frei ist, um ueber jene Einstimmung zum Begriffe, doch ungesucht, reichhaltigen unentwickelten Stoff fuer den Verstand, worauf dieser in seinem Begriffe nicht Ruecksicht nahm, zu liefern, welchen dieser aber, nicht sowohl objektiv zum Erkenntnisse, als subjektiv zur Belebung der Erkenntniskraefte, indirekt also doch auch zu Erkenntnissen anwendet: so besteht das Genie eigentlich in dem gluecklichen Verhaeltnesse, welches keine Wissenschaft lehren und kein Fleiss erlernen kann, zu einem gegebenen Begriffe Ideen aufzufinden, und andrerseits zu diesen den A u s d r u c k zu treffen, durch den die dadurch bewirkte subjektive Gemuetsstimmung, als Begleitung eines Begriffs, anderen mitgeteilt werden kann. Das letztere Talent ist eigentlich dasjenige, was man Geist nennt; denn das Unnennbare in dem Gemuetszustande bei einer gewissen Vorstellung auszudruecken und allgemein mitteilbar zu machen, der Ausdruck mag nun in Sprache, oder Malerei, oder Plastik bestehen: das erfordert ein Vermoegen, das schnell voruebergehende Spiel der Einbildungskraft aufzufassen, und in einen Begriff (der eben darum original ist und zugleich eine neue Regel eroeffnet, die aus keinen vorhergehenden Prinzipien oder Beispielen hat gefolgert werden koennen) zu vereinigen, der sich ohne Zwang der Regeln mitteilen laesst.
[From “Kritik der Urteilskraft,” Section 49 — separated letters perform the function in German that italics do in English (especially as here where italics are used instead to indicate variants from different editions of the same text).]
Kant begins this paragraph of summary development by informing us that the specific creative capacities (Gemuetskraefte) whose unity (Vereinigung) Genius brings forth are Imagination and Understanding. He then contrasts the force of the Imagination in the service of acquiring Knowledge (Erkenntnisse), which is subordinated and limited to the concepts of the Understanding, with the ways in which for aesthetic purposes (in aesthetischer Absicht) the Understanding performs freely and with the result that there is a connection to the Understanding, another step in the direction of unifying and combining specific features, namely here to concepts (um ueber jene Einstimmung zum Begriffe) that bypasses object-Knowing (nicht sowohl objektiv zum Erkenntnisse (“Knowing” might respect a distinction in German between “Erkenntnis” and “Kenntnis”)) and dwells instead, what is for Kant the most important distinction and a law applying to aesthetic judgments and to truly aesthetic affairs, in the region of subjective determinations, and purposes (“purposes” from the term “Zweckmaessigkeit” that as a subjective component defines the aesthetic realm and that Kant defines elsewhere), a subjectivity that Kant here explains as (even though he insists over and again that the aesthetic sensibilities do not bear on knowing the objects of their attentions) being brought to bear on the capacities of Knowing (through the capacities of Genius, it being understood) through a certain liveliness in that regard, and thus having an indirect bearing on the acquisition of Knowledge as well (“als subjektiv zur Belebung der Erkenntniskraefte, indirect also doch auch zu Erkenntnissen anwendet”).
This complicated notion is not finished. Though pausing at a colon, the sentence goes on to a very large claim, that for a Genius’ ability to make happy and favorable connections (one way of taking “so besteht das Genie eigentlich [in fact, in real practice] in dem gluecklichen Verhaeltnisse”) between the Ideas based on concepts, such as are conditioned and produced by another important capacity, that of Reason or Vernunft, though that term has disappeared from this section of the discussion ― that is, to resume, happy and favorable connections between those activities and that activity or expression (Ausdruck) that is the defining province of aesthetic concerns themselves, incorporating a kind of truth that is designated here by a word, Gemuetsstimmung, that would be hard to translate but which relates to the formations or determinations that are specially and providentially in the mind (Gemuet) of the Genius (because he or she possesses “Geist,” or Spirit as it is sometimes called in English), and are expressly subjective (“durch den [the expression or Ausdruck] die dadurch [notice the repeated ‘durch’ and the logical connecting drummed into the notion every time there is one ‘through’ another] bewirkte subjective Gemuetsstimmung, als Begleitung eines Begriffs, anderen mitgeteilt werden kann,” which means something like “through which [Expression] the concentrated [effortful, bewirkte] subjective determinations of the creative mind, as accompanying [with ‘als’ and the noun form, whereas in English we simply would say ‘accompanying’ and the logical connection would not be as forcefully implied] a concept, is able to be shared with others”).
The sentence ends there, finally. The rest of the paragraph is devoted to the crucial point of how aesthetic judgments, and practices, are subjectively true or valid and are necessarily and really what they are, and how they graduate to necessity, to their status as a law, by virtue of the fact of their subjective purposes that lay claim to a “should” for everybody, as if meant to be shared with and agreed to by all others who contemplate beautiful things. And so Kant insists that the contribution of Genius come with a concept (und in einen Begriff) that provides its own rules of construction and its own originality ([inside Kant’s parenthetical] “der eben darum original ist und zugleich [note the logical connection implied in the two being together] eine neue Regel eroeffnet”), and as not based on derived principles or examples creates a situation of sharing and thus universal applicability under no force of external laws (“der sich ohne zwang der Regeln mitteilen laesst”).
The quoted passage thus illustrates how the parts used by Kant in defining the character of aesthetic judgments tend to converge, regardless of the terms or emphases employed in drawing up the schema, and how the pole representing the totality of imagined possibilities tends to drop away. It is against the endlessness of possibilities that individual (or felt and impacted) experience can gain aesthetic status and the aesthetic form leap to its value, but that this extreme collapses somewhat may be expected in Kant’s demonstration insofar as the source of creative inspiration is going to be predicated (categorical!) on the shoulders of the rare and worthy Genius. The tasks and the coordination of insights and inexpressible talent, meanwhile, assume a complexity of combining and relating verging on that of the constitutive complexity of metaphor. All of this seems to be true, when looked at from certain aspects, and can be expected. It can be even more clearly expected that a figure of Genius would be such as would produce the most astonishing figures and the most brilliant metaphors.
Meanwhile, certain phrases from a passage which I skipped in the paragraph above lead to the introduction of the element of Play (Spiel). Kant refers to some inexpressible talent in the mind of Genius that makes it possible for certain, or let us say special, representations (Vorstellung (actually the singular)) that are of such a compelling nature that they attain to generality and can be shared (“bei einer gewissen Vorstelling auzudruecken [to express] und allgemein [common, general, good for everybody] mitteilbar [shareable, the key term always] zu machen”). The capacity of the Genius “affords” (erfordert, more like “brings about” or even “compels”) an ability (Vermoegen) for quickly-all-over-grasping Play (schnell voruebergehenden Spiel) of the Imagination to latch onto (aufzufassen), and to unite in a concept that operates under its own laws and is capable of being shared (and agreed to, we add, or making that claim at least) on that account (all this last the phrase we paraphrased above). For all his logical ingenuity, Kant never explains how the element of Play fits in, however, or where it comes from, and so it comes into this assertion a little gratuitously. Similarly, when Kant appeals to the office of Play at the outset of the teleological discussion taken up as the second part of the treatise (in Section 61), the concept is once again slipped in and so is indeed present, but its importance is neither developed nor examined.
To be sure, Kant expands upon aspects of Play when considering different kinds of aesthetic production, including a gorgeous description of musical tones and their shape and poetry’s affect and tonal shapes in Section 53 (see also the theorizing involving Spiel in the “Remark” segment appended to the same Section).
To be sure, it is also the case that Schiller’s account does not depart from Kant’s in order to provide no unifying gestures at all. It is very much the case, however, that Kant’s account fastens onto the close interconnection as he logically investigates (“Kritik” ― analyze and question) this one area of human endeavor. For Schiller, on the other hand, it is that he holds on, and holds on strikingly, to separateness. Certain felicities result, certain insights come to the fore as if naturally, that are not available, at all, for anyone going down the path of these imbricating demonstrations, so potent and yet so densely mashed together in Kant’s method of putting it.
Some of the sets of terms Schiller uses, as he proceeds through the sequence of letters, are less helpful than others. The Fifteenth Letter (Fuenfzehnter Brief) aligns the drives (Triebe), beginning with the Stuff-Drive (Stofftrieb), adorned as Leben or Life, messy and unpredictable, and presupposing therefrom the Form-Drive (Formtrieb). The latter is a reassuring concept graduated to a “Gestalt,” a sort of efficacious and educated Form. In the province of the Formtrieb Reason or Vernunft can exercise its powers by emblazoning experience with predictability a/k/a necessity and sameness, and so there is a combining (just as in Kant but not nearly as intricate), a nicely synthesized “lebendige Gestalt,” and now the Play-Drive, or Spieltrieb, kicks in, and brings along Beauty (Schoenheit). Even with the combination represented in this “lebendige Gestalt” (the phrase untranslatable and not proudly so), Schiller continues to establish and maintain the contrasting poles of the aesthetic experience. Furthermore, the role of Play becomes crystal clear in just that very motion whereby “Schoenheit” delightfully guarantees and equates to Menschheit (Menschhood): “… der Mensch soll in der Schoenheit nur ‘spielen,’ und er soll ‘mit der Schoenheit’ spielen [single quotation marks surround phrases that are italicized in Schiller’s text].” Thus only a Mensch knows how to play, and the aim of a treatise on aesthetic education becomes finding the Mensch, thus finding the way to Beauty (given other ingredients, of course).
This is all well and good in establishing some of the spirit of aesthetic Play and process, but it remains muddy. Better is representing one extreme by the term Unendlichkeit, or Endlessness, or the intimation of or insight into how an endless range of possibilities lines up for us in any given moment, as being over (and above) and out there, and an unsurpassing (surpassing understanding) and real and fully guaranteeing opportunity. All of this is one and all-applying and the poet will sense the presence of the Endlessness of his subject, sense it as a moment to gather into full scope and rich moment.
The moment is lived and felt, measurably, in the senses, in the limited and thus not unendless reaches of the sensual here and now, while the sensual and directly emotional Drive, the “sinnliche Trieb,” pours its thusly touched energies into the condition of possible representations, as if preceding Possibility’s reasonable entrance, as if unaware and poised to become aware (sometime) of the Endlessness also driving it. When the Endlessness in tandem with Reason’s logic comes into purview, so do aesthetic Possibilities lurk in the offing, while Schiller keeps them, the Possibilities at large and the feelings down here, together and in balance. The following is a major statement of this schema in readiness, a paragraph from near the opening of the extraordinary Nineteenth Letter (Neunzehnter Brief):
“Der Zustand des menschlichen Geistes vor aller Bestimmng, die ihm durch Eindruecke der Sinne gegeben wird, ist eine Bestimmbarkeit ohne Grenzen. Das Endlose des Raumes und der Zeit ist seiner Einbildungskraft zu freiem Gebrauch hingegeben, und weil, der Voraussetzung nach, in diesem weiten Reiche des Moeglichen nichts gesetzt, folglich auch noch nichts ausgeschlossen ist, so kann man diesen Zustand der Bestimmungslosigkeit eine ‘leere Unendlichkeit’ nennen, welches mit einer unendlichen Leere keineswegs zu verwechseln ist.”
“The condition in which the Spirit of the Mensch finds herself or himself, in every Determination to which it can be given through the impressions of our senses and feelings, is what we may call a Potential for Determining without limits [Bestimmbarkeit [the being without limits included and implied in this word itself, a point that Schiller happens to emphasize when he adds the important phrase ‘ohne Grenzen’]]. The Endlessness of space and time is given free reign through the Imagination which Spirit possesses, and because, as assumed [translation of this phrase ok?], nothing can be set down or set in stone, and surely nothing can be conclusively decided, in this extended world of Possibilities [here “Moeglichen”], you could call this condition of the Potential of surrendered Determining [Bestimmungslosigkeit, the contrary of, and companion to, and virtual equivalent of, Bestimmbarkeit, or Potential for Determining, the term used previously in the sentence] an ‘empty Endlessness’, which is in no way the same as, or exchangeable into, the notion of an endless emptiness.”
In logical formulations similar to Hegel’s, Schiller never allows the opposing sides of any notion to melt into one another, and for sure avoids working them up into a mountain of a web of a definition. He shows great dexterity in protecting the balance, so that, according to the account given in the Nineteenth Letter, if we find one extreme ascending it is simply so that the other disappear into a holding vacuum. In that exquisite empty Endlessness the whole world of mere Possibilities, “mere” connoting the very idea of Possibility rather than one or another of them, supports the Determination, as a specific or special form of expression makes its entrance, from a position that is unbounded. Setting bounds by virtue of determining, the Determination realizes the fact of the support by which it occurs, and these endless Determinations lose their boundlessness and disappear, and so “die Unendlichkeit ist verloren” (“the Endlessness is lost”). But it is only lost as a truth about Bestimmbarkeit. The Bestimmung, the placing of it here and now, needs the fact of the support of the Possibility of Determining (Bestimmbarkeit), which is another way of saying the Potential loss of this ability. That is the nature of the empty Endlessness, to be unbounded opportunity and thereby loss of opportunities. The endless Possibilities stand over against, apart from, this one Possibility, this Bestimmung or Determination, that comes forward while the rest disappear, as it is their nature always to be doing.
Somehow Beauty (Schoenen), as a consequence of gathering Freiheit, or equally as a growingly autonomous Menschheit, undertakes the extended middle, but only insofar as the extremes remain apart, even as they disappear within the mode of one or another aspect being realized. Schoenen, or Freiheit or Menschheit, occupies the middle but only because it is the star and victor, as it were, in the performance of the balancing act, a performance that has meaning, though it would require great effort to explain how, only by sustaining the principles in balance in the very triumph in which they enter into its command. What is most striking, thus, about this discussion is how Schiller unwearyingly (especially in this letter, while each letter constitutes its own diminutive essay), keeps the opposed influences in their extended extreme places:
“Wenn nun also von dem Schoenen behauptet wird, dass es dem Menschen einen Uebergang vom Empfinden zum Denken bahne, so ist dies keineswegs so zu verstehen, als ob durch das Schoene die Kluft koennte ausgefuellt werden, die das Empfinden vom Denken, die das Leiden von der Taetigkeit trennt; diese Kluft ist unendlich, und ohne Dazwischenkunft eines neuen und selbstaendigen Vermoegens kann aus dem Einzelnen in Ewigkeit nichts Allgemines, kann aus dem Zufaelligen nichts Notwendiges werden. Der Gedanke ist die unmittelbare Handlung dieses absoluten Vermoegens, welches zwar durch die Sinne veranlasst werden muss, sich zu aeussern, in seiner Aeusserung selbst aber so wenig von der Sinnlichkeit abhaengt, dass es sich vielmehr nur durch Entgegengesetzung gegen dieselbe verkuendiget. Die Selbstaendigkeit, mit der es handelt, schliesst jede fremde Einwirkung aus, und nicht insofern sie beim Denken hilft (welches einen offenbaren Widerspruch enthaelt), bloss insofern sie den Denkkraeften Freiheit verschafft, ihren eigenen Gesetzen gemaess sich zu aeussern, kann die Schoenheit ein Mittel werden, den Menschen von der Materie zur Form, von Empfindungen zu Gesetzen, von einem beschraenkten zu einem absoluten Dasein zu fuehren.”
“So then when about Beauty it is insisted, that it provide a path for the Mensch from sensibility to thought, no way is it that the abyss could be filled by Beauty, that enormous gulf that divides sensibility from thoughts, suffering and passivity [Leiden, see my above remarks] from real active day-to-day efforts [Taetigkeit]; this gulf or abyss is endless, and without the art of mediation [Dazwischenkunft] of a new and independent status of Possibility, nothing common or shareable (nichts Allgemeines), nothing necessary, can in the first instance come out the individual occurrence into the “forever,” in the second instance out of the accidental [into necessity]. Thought is itself the immediate engagement of absolute Possibility, which requires sense and feeling [die Sinne [plural]] for it to express itself [aeussern or ‘get it out’], but very little of this sense and feeling depends on thought, so that the expression is announced as something entirely opposed to and set against the sense-and-feeling experience. Now the Independence and Self-Realization [Selbstaendigkeit] that this process is about abhors all outside manipulation, not so much helping with the thinking part of it (which would amount to a contradiction) as creating a kind of Freedom in the mental capacities, so that the getting it out and expressing now happens according to its own laws, so that Beauty can become the middle factor, can occupy the middle, wherewith the Mensch can progress [i.e., Beauty as the ‘middle’ leads [fuehren] the Mensch] from matter to form, from sense-and-feeling experience [Empfindung, which is ‘sensibility’ with a strong does of feeling and translated as ‘sensibility’ above, but since the English word implies more of the completed capacity that is the goal of Schiller’s investigation, it is not used here to translate ‘Empfindung’] to [the recognition of] laws and principles.”
True aesthetic capacities, as positively purposed to unify and to form a bridge from one side of existence to other sides, create and generate Beauty. We recall that Beauty’s purposefulness, borrowing from Kant, is subjective, and the independence, the Menschhood, results from this subjective purposefulness. The subjective term in Schiller’s account would be the Freedom, or Freiheit obviously, that bridges over the gulf without removing the fact of extension and the fact of separateness. Freedom, the creator and source of the ability on the part of the Mensch to realize this unity from these disparate modes of Possibility (even while one such expression, in the here and now, stays apart from the other, the awareness of absolute or endless Possibilities), is what is here credited with making the thought or understanding of the aesthetically purposeful principles available. Because it is Freiheit, the respect for laws and principles, as suggested in the passage quoted, rests on conclusively subjective grounds. In other words, it is the subject forming that counts, the booming and becoming Mensch himself or herself, and not the formation of some sort of beautiful object, or even some kind of complicated metaphor by which we could imagine the beautiful object to stand before us.
In the Nineteenth Letter Schiller takes the argument forward repeatedly to show how the various features and capacities that are present in this aesthetic development are present freely and separately. (See, for example, the respect for free and independent activity (“der Geist frei unterlassen hat”) in the seventh paragraph that begins with the reminder that the respective Freedom of the thought processes cannot be hemmed in.) Schiller takes care to define the bound and unbounded circumstances of aesthetic expressivities, their always being set apart from each other, while filling out the picture at some length and bringing in various operative terms, all toward a concluding assertion that restates the oppositional schema as if for good measure. There remain, he asserts, through it all two basic drives (Grundtriebe) (call them what you will and they are variously attributed even in the course of this short paragraph with which the Nineteenth Letter concludes). One of these drives is the “sinnliche Trieb,” which has to do with the developed experience (“Erfahrung,” which can be thought of as an enriched form of experience) of Life, and the other is here called the “vernuenftige Trieb,” apparently because it is directed by “Reason,” which has to do with laws and personality. (Is it Reason's laws, external and eternal, or more the Self-Consciousness (Sebstbewusstein) Schiller identifies in the penultimate paragraph of the letter?) What this is all about is the constitution of the Mensch (along with Freedom and Beauty), and, though not mentioned, has to do with the Mensch defined as a person that knows how to play (spielen) and therefore has the knack of a playfulness without which there can be no hope for Beauty. It is in the strongest terms of opposition and separation that the concluding assertion sets forth the schema:
“Sobald naemlich zwei entgegengesetzte Grundtriebe in ihm [the Mensch] taetig sind, so verlieren beide ihre Noetigung, und die Entgegensetzung zweier Notwendigkeiten gibt der ‘Freiheit’ den Ursprung.”
“Namely as soon as the two basic drives, as they are set over against each other, become an active part of the life of the Mensch, both drives give up their special demands toward him or her, the fact the he or she needs them, and the intemperately pointed opposition [die Entgegensetzung] of the two types of necessary factors is the very situation that gives the initial impetus to ‘Freedom’.”
The next, Twentieth Letter (Zwanzigster Brief) explains how this development, with Freiheit and Schoenheit occupying a strange middle ground where there is a gulf (Kluft) that can never be filled, comes about. Determination seems to be key, and as “Bestimmbarkeit” it would link up with the awareness of endless Possibilities and it would enable the kinds of creations being imagined through the influence of the empty Endlessness (leere Unendlichkeit). One last patch of the discussion in Schiller’s German can be cited to explain the process, only one way to explain it, as we note given the series of letters each exhibiting its own drift, but one which duly emphasizes the holding onto extremes. The point is clinched by the phrase in italics at the end of the penultimate sentence in the passage below (italics represented, again, by single quotation marks). What is even more revealing about the task of creativity and the pursuit of Beauty is how the argument concludes with the classic image of keeping things in balance, the pair of scales held in equal suspense:
“… Mithin muss [der Mensch] auf gewisse Weise zu jenem negativen Zustand der blossen Bestimmungslosigkeit zurueckkehren, in welchem er sich befand, ehe noch irgend etwas auf seinen Sinn einen Eindruck machte. Jener Zustand aber war an Inhalt voellig leer, und jetzt kommt es darauf an, eine gleiche Bestimmungslosigkeit und eine gleich unbregrenzte Bestimmbarket mit dem groesstmoeglichen Gehalt zu vereinbaren, weil unmittelbar aus diesem Zustand etwas Positives erfolgen soll. Die Bestimmung, die er durch Sensation empfangen, muss also festgehalten werden, weil er die Realitaet nicht verlieren darf; zugleich aber muss sie, insofern sie Begrenzung ist, aufgehoben werden, weil eine unbegrenzte Bestimmbarkeit stattfinden soll. Die Aufgabe ist also, die Determination des Zustandes zugleich zu vernichten und beizubehalten, welches nur auf die enzige Art moeglich ist, dass man ihr ‘eine andere entgegensetzt’. Die Schalen einer Waage stehen gleich, wenn sie leer sind; sie stehen aber auch gleich, wenn sie gleiche Gewichte enthalten.”
“… Therewith the Mensch must in a particular manner go back to the negative constitution of mere Potential for surrendered Determining, which characterized her or him before any Expression came to bear on sense and feeling [translation a little doubtful]. That constitutive condition was however completely empty of content, and now it comes time to unite an equivalent Potential for surrendered Determining and an equivalent unbounded Potential for Determining with the greatest possible actual bearing [Gehalt, like Inhalt used earlier in the passage denoting ‘content’], because we have some sort of positive success from this very constitutive condition [avoiding ‘circumstance’ each time for the word ‘Zustand’]. The Determination, which the Mensch embraces through her or his sensual capacities [Kant borrowing ‘Sensation’ from English], must be firmly held in place, because the Mensch certainly does not want to lose it; on the other hand, because it is bounded, there must be a lifting up, an upheaval [the great German concept of ‘Aufheben’], because we have got to have an unbounded Potential for Determining at all cost. The task before us, then, is to deny and in the same breath keep with us the Determination of this constitutive condition, which is the only possible way, in this case, for this situation, that we can ‘set one another against the other’ [the critical phrase in italics]. The scales of the balance stand level, if they are empty; they also stand level when they contain equal amounts of weight [beautiful!].”
Kant tries the different sides of existence in their purity and finds ways to mix them. According to Schiller’s explanations, the educated stage witnesses a freedom that is posited as a middle for the different sides of existence. Freedom at its best in the province of its own, in Beauty, somehow as the middle produces a unity for these different parts when in fact they can never be mixed, are separated from each other by what is imagined as a gulf that can never be filled. But the sides are not merely the conceptual versus the real and lived experience, for there is always some theory in the pain, and always some passivity and receptivity in the strong-armed theory. Schiller therefore does not at all approach the elements that are the subjects of his theme as if in their purity. Not being pure, neither do they mingle or combine.
Play (Spiel) is the measure and enabler of this strange inexpressible performance of uniting what cannot be combined. In Schiller’s account, the notion of Play acquires its power because of this mysterious logical sophistication, a sophistication which is absent in Kant’s treatment of Play (at least insofar as Kant does not pursue the question in terms of its force in logical deductions), although it is very much present in (what else?) Kant’s own aesthetic response, his felt insight, where he compares the Play of musical tones to that of poetic tones and affect.
Freedom, and the Play that is companion to Freedom, in part ensure, to repeat, Beauty's achieving by holding the extremes of the oppositional schema in balance. The key, as we have noted, is Bestimmbarkeit, which is something like the Potential itself for endless Possibilities. Let us tell the story again by supposing that Bestimmbarkeit means that our active, sensual, emotional lives, in their upfront occurrences, have a world out there that is limitless with the possibilities of putting these occurrences in the limit of their actually taking place. The possibilities of determining an event, as limiless, as unbounded (unbegrenzt), participates as the negative side of our bounded, and fully lighted and flashed and thoroughly richly living moment; the unbounded features the felt and the earned in their possibility of supplying a boundary (Grenze). Let us further suppose that the particular and only boundary for the moment of charged experience, the only possible one, only possible time and space, to deliver that moment for aesthetics (aesthetic realization), is secured over against, in flash-negative, the Bestimmbarkeit. Bestimmbarkeit relates to Endlessness as the bestower, by virtue of the empowerment that goes with absolute awareness of this Endlessness. (Compare, if you like, this attempt at an elucidation with Schiller’s discussion particularly in the third and following paragraphs of the Nineteenth Letter.) Reason might somehow be that which directs the empowerment of making this determination, the one determination that is just right, is possible, because of the possibilities clear and clean and cut, of determination itself, the Bestimmbarkeit in which the artist, or call him or her the Mensch, finds his or her Freedom.
As we have noted again and again, the two sources, the Bestimmbarkeit and the Bestimmung, do not mix; they square off on a condition, each for the other, and at a distance for which there is entire respect, a distancing that holds, that cannot be corrupted so as to melt into one another and will not permit any manner of collapsing (that would be different from the here and now and away again of Hegelian logic).
With this aesthetic shaping in hand, we may return with feeling to the glorious extremes of Susan Scutti’s poem “Manhattan” (scroll up to the beginning of the essay). The poem is glorious in taking an animated approach but in doing so not in an extremely animated manner, so that the extremes are precisely what they are and there is no drawing of lines, for example, from the sweeping subway depths to what that might correspond to in the human paraphernalia. All writing partakes of metaphor, but this poem triumphs on the strength of not strutting metaphorically. There is no false aromatizing, no overlay of a moral odor, nothing at all in the way of sappy mental dripping. Just the straight-out extremes, and not even in a down and dirty sense, however much that may seem to the lethargic reader to be a part of it.
So the complexity of metaphor is not in the design; the extremes being what they are is. Total feeling pulls and gravitates, produces surprise and recognition while at the same time not pouring down upon us the applied, or even implied, metaphor. Scutti’s marked assertions compel by directing themselves simply and cogently, by urging with nothing further going into the elaboration of it. Nothing further need or can go into it. It is a claim for and by the speaker, no bones crossed, and stands on its own fierce merit and eloquence.
Despite the forcefulness with which these straightforward effects greet, they are by no means easy to manage. Very few writers can do what Scutti does, it would seem, to sharpen the points of a poem's debate, or to cut a clear path to that scene specially crafted for one of her surprising short prose pieces. Schiller's treatise has been called in to illustrate these results, to talk through the kinds of formations that are in question. Their merit does not exhaust the possibilities for poetry. There is more than one way to skin a dog, but poems of this kind will have a definite contour and the virtue of affording unmistakable delight for those who get the game.
In a four-line segment in one of Schiller's own poems, “Der Spaziergang” or “Going for a Walk,” the process can be shown to look a lot easier. The reason for this is that Schiller uses a classical form, alternating dactylic hexameter with a line that has two half-lines of two-and-a-half dactyls each, namely the form called “elegy” at it is distinguished during the classical period strictly on these metrical grounds. The alternating line is in fact a chopped hexameter, whose construction is of two equal halves, exactly the same, bearing a strong forced caesura squarely in the center of the line (although the caesura can be skillfully relocated for variety's sake). The form is thus slower than the ancient heroic verse that we find in the great epics by Homer and Vergil, and allows and is used for a kind of easygoing narrative. What this all means for the four lines from Schiller's poem is that the words and notions employed fall into specific place-markings and stay put [the second and fourth lines, the alternating shorter lines, are indented in the text]:
Endlos unter mir seh ich den Aether, ueber mir endlos,
Blicke mit Schwindeln hinauf, blicke mit Schaudern hinab.
Aber zwischen der ewigen Hoeh und der ewigen Tiefe
Traegt ein gelaenderter Steig sicher den Wandrer dahin.
The first line says that the speaker is at or near the upper reaches of the sky looking down on the aether and seeing it as endless, and also above him it is endless, the word for “endless” we can see bookending the line. The second, balanced line says he looks up with dizziness, looks down shuddering, and we continue to see the extensions of spatial parameters located in the precise place-markings. The third line puts the speaker in an endless realm of space between the eternal Heights and the eternal Depths. In the fourth line the Wanderer forges securely on, let us say, while on land, which suggests he is on earth, is earthbound but climbing, right in the middle (the middle point, that of the caesura, coming for what it is worth between the word for “climbing” and the word for “secure,” while the idea of “onward” is placed at the end of the line) between these endless Heights and these endless Depths that are the coordinates from the previous line.
Being able to have words and notions fall into place and not only stay put but also become real in their separateness amounts to a fine achievement for poets writing today. It is highly valued, to be sure, and can be a matter of degree. It comes into formation in an uncanny and unobvious fashion in Scutti’s poem “Persona,” also from her book from Paper Kite Press, “The Commute”:
did I abandon
the former self I think of
I believe I left her on
Prince Street, staring at
the sky, wishing on
a satellite mistaken for
She was the me
who believed in purpose
and purity. She
was too good to
We kill our best selves in favor of conformity.
And so our
practical minds continue
the commerce of
living . . . you know,
an impression, applauding
those with more
success and tasting the
unripe fruits, too hungry to
pause, too empty to
The deftness with which the phrases are held separate and with which the space, of thoughts and places and feelings, gathers the arrangement of words into its aptly distributed order looks like a simple achievement. Indeed the poem unfolds simply, evenly. With the appearances in just the right place, however, and with the sizeable and sure extensions, the tones and categories participate in something of the miraculous. We feel the last thing the speaker would do is try to resolve the self-hatred that comes with conformity. Not harmless, this extreme is not exactly joyous either, but fracturedly harmonious. The poem is one of harmonies that grow out of free play, but it uses single, easily threaded and succinct notes, of difficult and clear-and-clean harmonies that are not expressed in a simultaneous and vertical unity, utility and density, and also not at all as if imitating serial rhythms. This is harmony of a setting over and against, a tapping out alongside of and apart from that marrying, converging, melting dream subsisting in loss for good and for bad; thus, finally, a harmony of emptiness and realization fit for a suspended incantation, felt for the uneasy potential loss and the recumbent providential gain.
We could consider one of the poem’s moments, the place with the name Prince Street, simply a street in New York amidst the endless Possibilities of streets and their names. No adornment terms this street and this beautifully recognized single existence, this being on Prince Street. There is no civic picturesque to spoil the emanating; there is solely a place and a name among endless possible places and names in New York, not to mention beneath a vaster sky perhaps with its own extension of places and names, true or fraudulent — a place and a name more real than any other New Yorker could refrain from panting.
It therefore seems that the brilliance of Scutti’s poem “Persona” can only be truly absorbed when we are afraid to absorb it. Yet its Beauty lies in the longing, between the extremes, among all kinds of extremes, and we can freely note our advantage of multiplicity today, where it denies, and denies and needs to deny, this its longing.