Detached reflections on different questions of aesthetics

Detached reflections on different questions of aesthetics

All the properties by which an object can become aesthetic, can be referred to four classes, which, as well according to their objective differences as according to their different relation with the subject, produce on our passive and active faculties pleasures unequal not only in intensity but also in worth; classes which also are of an unequal use for the end of the fine arts: they are the agreeable, the good, the sublime, and the beautiful.

Of these four categories, the sublime and the beautiful only belong properly to art. The agreeable is not worthy of art, and the good is at least not its end; for the aim of art is to please, and the good, whether we consider it in theory or in practice, neither can nor ought to serve as a means of satisfying the wants of sensuousness. The agreeable only satisfies the senses, and is distinguished thereby from the good, which only pleases the reason. The agreeable only pleases by its matter, for it is only matter that can affect the senses, and all that is form can only please the reason. It is true that the beautiful only pleases through the medium of the senses, by which it is distinguished from the good; but it pleases reason, on account of its form, by which it is essentially distinguished from the agreeable. It might be said that the good pleases only by its form being in harmony with reason; the beautiful by its form having some relation of resemblance with reason, and that the agreeable absolutely does not please by its form. The good is perceived by thought, the beautiful by intuition, and the agreeable only by the senses. The first pleases by the conception, the second by the idea, and the third by material sensation.

The distance between the good and the agreeable is that which strikes the eyes the most. The good widens our understanding, because it procures and supposes an idea of its object; the pleasure which it makes us perceive rests on an objective foundation, even when this pleasure itself is but a certain state in which we are situated. The agreeable, on the contrary, produces no notion of its object, and, indeed, reposes on no objective foundation. It is agreeable only inasmuch as it is felt by the subject, and the idea of it completely vanishes the moment an obstruction is placed on the affectibility of the senses, or only when it is modified. For a man who feels the cold the agreeable would be a warm air; but this same man, in the heat of summer, would seek the shade and coolness; but we must agree that in both cases he has judged well.

On the other hand, that which is objective is altogether independent of us, and that which to-day appears to us true, useful, reasonable, ought yet (if this judgment of to-day be admitted as just) to seem to us the same twenty years hence. But our judgment of the agreeable changes as soon as our state, with regard to its object, has changed. The agreeable is therefore not a property of the object; it springs entirely from the relations of such an object with our senses, for the constitution of our senses is a necessary condition thereof.

The good, on the contrary, is good in itself, before being represented to us, and before being felt. The property by which it pleases exists fully in itself without being in want of our subject, although the pleasure which we take in it rests on an aptitude for feeling that which is in us. Thus we can say that the agreeable exists only because it is experienced, and that the good, on the contrary, is experienced because it exists.

The distinction between the beautiful and the agreeable, great as it is, moreover, strikes the eye less. The beautiful approaches the agreeable in this—that it must always be proposed to the senses, inasmuch as it pleases only as a phenomenon. It comes near to it again in as far as it neither procures nor supposes any notion of its object. But, on the other hand, it is widely separated from the agreeable, because it pleases by the form under which it is produced, and not by the fact of the material sensation. No doubt it only pleases the reasonable subject in so far as it is also a sensuous subject; but also it pleases the sensuous subject only inasmuch as it is at the same time a reasonable subject. The beautiful is not only pleasing to the individual but to the whole species; and although it draws its existence but from its relation with creatures at the same time reasonable and sensuous, it is not less independent of all empirical limitations of sensuousness, and it remains identical even when the particular constitution of the individual is modified. The beautiful has exactly in common with the good that by which it differs from the agreeable, and it differs from the good exactly in that in which it approximates to the agreeable.

By the good we must understand that in which reason recognizes a conformity with her theoretical and practical laws. But the same object can be perfectly conformable to the theoretical reason, and not be the less in contradiction in the highest degree with the practical reason. We can disapprove of the end of an enterprise, and yet admire the skill of the means and their relation with the end in view. We can despise the pleasures which the voluptuous man makes the end of his life, and nevertheless praise the skill which he exhibits in the choice of his means, and the logical result with which he carries out his principles. That which pleases us only by its form is good, absolutely good, and without any conditions, when its form is at the same time its matter. The good is also an object of sensuousness, but not of an immediate sensuousness, as the agreeable, nor moreover of a mixed sensuousness, as the beautiful. It does not excite desire as the first, nor inclination as the second. The simple idea of the good inspires only esteem.

The difference separating the agreeable, the good, and the beautiful being thus established, it is evident that the same object can be ugly, defective, even to be morally rejected, and nevertheless be agreeable and pleasing to the senses; that an object can revolt the senses, and yet be good, i.e., please the reason; that an object can from its inmost nature revolt the moral senses, and yet please the imagination which contemplates it, and still be beautiful. It is because each one of these ideas interests different faculties, and interests differently.

But have we exhausted the classification of the aesthetic attributes? No, there are objects at the same time ugly, revolting, and horrifying to the senses, which do not please the understanding, and of no account to the moral judgment, and these objects do not fail to please; certainly to please to such a degree, that we would willingly sacrifice the pleasure of these senses and that of the understanding to procure for us the enjoyment of these objects. There is nothing more attractive in nature than a beautiful landscape, illuminated by the purple light of evening. The rich variety of the objects, the mellow outlines, the play of lights infinitely varying the aspect, the light vapors which envelop distant objects,—all combine in charming the senses; and add to it, to increase our pleasure, the soft murmur of a cascade, the song of the nightingales, an agreeable music. We give ourselves up to a soft sensation of repose, and whilst our senses, touched by the harmony of the colors, the forms, and the sounds, experience the agreeable in the highest, the mind is rejoiced by the easy and rich flow of the ideas, the heart by the sentiments which overflow in it like a torrent. All at once a storm springs up, darkening the sky and all the landscape, surpassing and silencing all other noises, and suddenly taking from us all our pleasures. Black clouds encircle the horizon; the thunder falls with a deafening noise. Flash succeeds flash. Our sight and hearing is affected in the most revolting manner. The lightning only appears to render to us more visible the horrors of the night: we see the electric fluid strike, nay, we begin to fear lest it may strike us. Well, that does not prevent us from believing that we have gained more than lost by the change; I except, of course, those whom fear has bereft of all liberty of judgment. We are, on the one hand, forcibly drawn towards this terrible spectacle, which on the other wounds and repulses our senses, and we pause before it with a feeling which we cannot properly call a pleasure, but one which we often like much more than pleasure. But still, the spectacle that nature then offers to us is in itself rather destructive than good (at all events we in no way need to think of the utility of a storm to take pleasure in this phenomenon), is in itself rather ugly than beautiful, for the darkness, hiding from us all the images which light affords, cannot be in itself a pleasant thing; and those sudden crashes with which the thunder shakes the atmosphere, those sudden flashes when the lightning rends the cloud—all is contrary to one of the essential conditions of the beautiful, which carries with it nothing abrupt, nothing violent. And moreover this phenomenon, if we consider only our senses, is rather painful than agreeable, for the nerves of our sight and those of our hearing are each in their turn painfully strained, then not less violently relaxed, by the alternations of light and darkness, of the explosion of the thunder, and silence. And in spite of all these causes of displeasure, a storm is an attractive phenomenon for whomsoever is not afraid of it.

Another example. In the midst of a green and smiling plain there rises a naked and barren hillock, which hides from the sight a part of the view. Each one would wish that this hillock were removed which disfigures the beauty of all the landscape. Well, let us imagine this hillock rising, rising still, without indeed changing at all its shape, and preserving, although on a greater scale, the same proportions between its width and height. To begin with, our impression of displeasure will but increase with the hillock itself, which will the more strike the sight, and which will be the more repulsive. But continue; raise it up twice as high as a tower, and insensibly the displeasure will efface itself to make way for quite another feeling. The hill has at last become a mountain, so high a mountain that it is quite impossible for our eyes to take it in at one look. There is an object more precocious than all this smiling plain which surrounds it, and the impression that it makes on us is of such a nature that we should regret to exchange it for any other impression, however beautiful it might be. Now, suppose this mountain to be leaning, and of such an inclination that we could expect it every minute to crash down, the previous impression will be complicated with another impression: terror will be joined to it: the object itself will be but still more attractive. But suppose it were possible to prop up this leaning mountain with another mountain, the terror would disappear, and with it a good part of the pleasure we experienced. Suppose that there were beside this mountain four or five other mountains, of which each one was a fourth or a fifth part lower than the one which came immediately after; the first impression with which the height of one mountain inspired us will be notably weakened. Something somewhat analogous would take place if the mountain itself were cut into ten or twelve terraces, uniformly diminishing; or again if it were artificially decorated with plantations. We have at first subjected one mountain to no other operation than that of increasing its size, leaving it otherwise just as it was, and without altering its form; and this simple circumstance has sufficed to make an indifferent or even disagreeable object satisfying to the eyes. By the second operation, this enlarged object has become at the same time an object of terror; and the pleasure which we have found in contemplating it has but been the greater. Finally, by the last operation which we have made, we have diminished the terror which its sight occasioned, and the pleasure has diminished as much. We have diminished subjectively the idea of its height, whether by dividing the attention of the spectator between several objects, or in giving to the eyes, by means of these smaller mountains, placed near to the large one, a measure by which to master the height of the mountain all the more easily. The great and the terrible can therefore be of themselves in certain cases a source of aesthetic pleasure.

There is not in the Greek mythology a more terrible, and at the same time more hideous, picture than the Furies, or Erinyes, quitting the infernal regions to throw themselves in the pursuit of a criminal. Their faces frightfully contracted and grimacing, their fleshless bodies, their heads covered with serpents in the place of hair—revolt our senses as much as they offend our taste. However, when these monsters are represented to us in the pursuit of Orestes, the murderer of his mother, when they are shown to us brandishing the torches in their hands, and chasing their prey, without peace or truce, from country to country, until at last, the anger of justice being appeased, they engulf themselves in the abyss of the infernal regions; then we pause before the picture with a horror mixed with pleasure. But not only the remorse of a criminal which is personified by the Furies, even his unrighteous acts nay, the real perpetration of a crime, are able to please us in a work of art. Medea, in the Greek tragedy; Clytemnestra, who takes the life of her husband; Orestes, who kills his mother, fill our soul with horror and with pleasure. Even in real life, indifferent and even repulsive or frightful objects begin to interest us the moment that they approach the monstrous or the terrible. An altogether vulgar and insignificant man will begin to please us the moment that a violent passion, which indeed in no way upraises his personal value, makes him an object of fear and terror, in the same way that a vulgar, meaningless object becomes to us the source of aesthetic pleasure the instant we have enlarged it to the point where it threatens to overstep our comprehension. An ugly man is made still more ugly by passion, and nevertheless it is in bursts of this passion, provided that it turns to the terrible and not to the ridiculous, that this man will be to us of the most interest. This remark extends even to animals. An ox at the plow, a horse before a carriage, a dog, are common objects; but excite this bull to the combat, enrage this horse who is so peaceable, or represent to yourself this dog a prey to madness; instantly these animals are raised to the rank of aesthetic objects, and we begin to regard them with a feeling which borders on pleasure and esteem. The inclination to the pathetic—an inclination common to all men—the strength of the sympathetic sentiment—this force which in mature makes us wish to see suffering, terror, dismay, which has so many attractions for us in art, which makes us hurry to the theatre, which makes us take so much pleasure in the picturing of great misfortune,—all this bears testimony to a fourth source of aesthetic pleasure, which neither the agreeable, nor the good, nor the beautiful are in a state to produce.

All the examples that I have alleged up to the present have this in common—that the feeling they excite in us rests on something objective. In all these phenomena we receive the idea of something "which oversteps, or which threatens to overstep, the power of comprehension of our senses, or their power of resistance"; but not, however, going so far as to paralyze these two powers, or so far as to render us incapable of striving, either to know the object, or to resist the impression it makes on us. There is in the phenomena a complexity which we cannot retrace to unity without driving the intuitive faculty to its furthest limits.

We have the idea of a force in comparison with which our own vanishes, and which we are nevertheless compelled to compare with our own. Either it is an object which at the same time presents and hides itself from our faculty of intuition, and which urges us to strive to represent it to ourselves, without leaving room to hope that this aspiration will be satisfied; or else it is an object which appears to upraise itself as an enemy, even against our existence—which provokes us, so to say, to combat, and makes us anxious as to the issue. In all the alleged examples there is visible in the same way the same action on the faculty of feeling. All throw our souls into an anxious agitation and strain its springs. A certain gravity which can even raise itself to a solemn rejoicing takes possession of our soul, and whilst our organs betray evident signs of internal anxiety, our mind falls back on itself by reflection, and appears to find a support in a higher consciousness of its independent strength and dignity. This consciousness of ourselves must always dominate in order that the great and the horrible may have for us an aesthetic value. It is because the soul before such sights as these feels itself inspired and lifted above itself that they are designated under the name of sublime, although the things themselves are objectively in no way sublime; and consequently it would be more just to say that they are elevating than to call them in themselves elevated or sublime.

For an object to be called sublime it must be in opposition with our sensuousness. In general it is possible to conceive but two different relations between the objects and our sensuousness, and consequently there ought to be two kinds of resistance. They ought either to be considered as objects from which we wish to draw a knowledge, or else they should be regarded as a force with which we compare our own. According to this division there are two kinds of the sublime, the sublime of knowledge and the sublime of force. Moreover, the sensuous faculties contribute to knowledge only in grasping a given matter, and putting one by the other its complexity in time and in space.

As to dissecting this complex property and assorting it, it is the business of the understanding and not of the imagination. It is for the understanding alone that the diversity exists: for the imagination (considered simply as a sensuous faculty) there is but an uniformity, and consequently it is but the number of the uniform things (the quantity and not the quality) which can give origin to any difference between the sensuous perception of phenomena. Thus, in order that the faculty of picturing things sensuously maybe reduced to impotence before an object, necessarily it is imperative that this object exceeds in its quantity the capacity of our imagination.