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Michel Henry: Art and the Phenomenology of Life (ii)

September 26, 2008

Q: Does Heidegger’s distinction between “thing,” “product” and “artwork” seem pertinent to you?

MH: To the degree in which this thesis is specifically phenomenological—in other words makes being depend on appearing—there is a kind of immediate givenness [donation] of the thing that obscures its true givenness. I will give you an example by returning to Kant—and I believe that Heidegger’s thought is derived from this example. We perceive bodies—this chair, that table or even our own body. Whatever we thematically focus on are bodies. But as Kant already noted in the transcendental aesthetic, the fabulous analysis of which opens the Critique of Pure Reason, I could never thematically perceive a body if I did not understand, in relation to the bodies and to all being, the role that space plays in relation to the material body in ordinary perception. This is a very powerful idea, and according to this problematic, with which I initially agree, one can say that art in effect brings us back to an original appearing. Basically art wants to make us see, beyond things, the appearing that is hidden and in which the thing is revealed, but that it hides at the same time: this kind of making-seen [faire-voir] that is hidden. However, perhaps there is another idea of Heidegger’s that I no longer agree with.

For Heidegger the work of art installs the radical world, what he calls the ek-static dimension of three-dimensional time, the horizon inside of which we have access to all things. In fact, we always wait for them in a future and retain them in a past. The coming to the present is a passage in which we see the thing, but this passage emerges from ek-static horizons across which it glides, and it is this horizon that allows us to see things. This is a fundamental thesis that I disagree with. But there is another thesis that is perhaps implied in Heidegger’s language, revived by modern aesthetics, according to which there is a specific aesthetic dimension, different from real perception. We are today familiar with the idea that the artist creates a specific artwork, an artwork that is not comparable to a useful object since, for example, Van Gogh’s “shoes” are not worn, while the shoemaker makes shoes that we wear. The artist creates a world apart—shoes that are not to be worn. This is an almost banal thesis of modern thought and it must be corrected. Basically, this specific artistic dimension would not have existed when humanity’s greatest artworks were created. Most aesthetic objects that we admire, Greek temples or the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages for example, were not created in this way. The people who conceived of them were not focused upon the dimension of art, which did not yet exist, but rather built edifices to the glory of God, edifices the functionality of which was to make a cult to the divinity possible. This is not at all similar [to creating an aesthetic object]. They had in mind the divine, the sacred, and it was only beautiful by chance. It is we who, today in the 20th century, by projecting our concept of art retrospectively, find these works beautiful. Moreover, we find nothing more than that in them, since we have lost their original meaning, and no longer consider a temple as an entrance to the sacred essence of things, but as a work of art.

Q: However there is, perhaps, a historical passage in which the artist is socially established…

MH: Yes, but the “passage”—as you so aptly put it—of a religious universe where the objects of beauty, that seem to us today to be such, does not define the finality that the creator pursued, at least consciously: they raised in effect an edifice in an act of celebration and adoration, hence in a specifically religious act. Roman churches, for example, that today seem so beautiful to us, were in reality built to create a harmony between the spirit of man and that of God. They were an access way to the divinity.

For Heidegger the problem is completely obscured because in his work one must distinguish between Being and Time, which defines a phenomenology of the world, a thought of the world and, on the other hand, the texts influenced by Hölderlin and Nietzsche. It can then be seen that at bottom, the world is something rather flat, a bit banal, while the world of the gods is much more prestigious. At the same time he introduces into his philosophy of the gods, of the sacred, a universe that was perhaps not included in Being and Time, without which this dimension of the sacred would be undoubtedly founded on the level of the existential analysis of Being and Time, of Dasein—in any case it is a problem that philosophers pose today. His thought then becomes very difficult because a critical gaze is nevertheless necessary to know whether the appearing that he conceived is justified by his phenomenological theses on the world’s temporality. My own position in regard to his most profound thesis, namely that the work of art brings us back to an original appearing, is this: the original appearing is not that which Heidegger thought, it is not the World or even the Nature of the Greeks, which prepared them for the sacred since the Greeks lived manifestly in contact with it. The originary appearing is of another order. It is not an ek-static appearing that casts us outside, it is thus not an horizon, but rather what I call Life, in other words a revelation that is not the revelation of some other thing, which does not open us to an exteriority, but which opens us to itself.

Here is a simple example: what reveals suffering to us? It is mute, yet reveals suffering to us. So I say that there is a pathos, a pathetic dimension that is life, which consists simply of the fact of experiencing oneself. But to experience oneself is something absolutely radical, abyssal, because it only happens in suffering and in joy. To give clear references, god is not—to speak Greek, since these days we speak Greek more than Christian—only Apollo, who is basically the god of light, the god of images, of luminous forms. God is first Dionysus. Yet, Dionysus is not of the world. This is a god of desire or of life crushed against itself, in its joy and suffering. And this is a god who is burdened with self in a pathos so heavy that in effect he wants to relieve himself of his self. At bottom, Dionysus is the one who creates Apollo in order to distance himself from his self. This theme can be found in Freud: what is the libido? What is the ego? It’s a reality that is heavily burdened with self, life is a burden so crushing that it seeks to distance itself.

Now, another explanation of art as a distancing of what first supports oneself, but as an unbearable burden, is proposed. And the other point of departure would then be Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, etc. There one would also find this idea that art creates, in this distancing, a kind of luminosity, of figures in which and due to which Dionysus escapes his suffering.

If one examines the phenomenology of life, the fundamental question is that of the transcendental Self, of what allows us to say “I,” “Me.” Yet, in the philosophies of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, there is no foundation to this Self. None of these philosophies can explain why I say “I” or “Me.” In a philosophy of life that is an auto-affection—a fundamental term for me—, in other words which is an affection not by the world but by oneself, all perception, all imagination, all conceptual thought is a hetero-affection. It is an affection by an alterity, by this milieu of alterity where anything other can show itself to me, give itself to me as originarily other, there is no Ego to which it gives itself. In order for there to be an Ego, one must speak like Kierkegaard, and say that the Ego is something that is affected by self without distance, thus unable to disengage itself, unable to separate itself from its self, unable to escape the burden of being. And I would say that this new dimension of art is uniquely explained by life. It is only in reference to this pathetic dimension, of which Dionysus is an image but in which Christianity also unfolds, it is in relation to this life, this life defined phenomenologically in this way, that the work of art is possible. It is now necessary to introduce a total rupture and provide another theory of the work of art. This was explicitly formulated for the first time by Kandinsky—whom I admire infinitely—in his theoretical writings, which were an attempt to produce a theory of abstract painting. But if one reflects on the actual explanation that Kandinsky gives of abstract painting, one sees that it is a theory valid for all painting in general.

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