Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Joachim Fest's Hitler  

The boy who fled the disciplines of school and then fell prey to the delusive promises of the big city found his idol in the Master of Bayreuth. Many young men of his generation followed the same course, and with similarly exalted expectations. It was a way with great appeal to gifted “outsiders” who otherwise would have no choice but to sink into mediocrity. It may surprise us to find that this unprepossessing son of a Linz customs official represents so typical a phenomenon. With the turn of the century legions of these sons of the nineteenth—century middle class made . their appearance. In 1906 Hermann Hesse, in Under the Wheel, vividly described the sufferings of one such youth under contemporary conditions and gave a dismal forecast of his future. Robert Musil, in Young Törless, and Frank Wedekind, in The Awakening of Spring, were among the many writers who dealt with the same theme. Whether these heroes sought escape from the toils of the world or went down to destruction, all of them opposed to the bourgeois world a wild enthusiasm for the arts. They despised their fathers’ mean accomplishments and felt only contempt for their values. By contrast, an artist’s existence was noble, precisely because it was socially unfruitful. Everything that stood for order, duty, endurance, they dismissed as “bourgeois.” The bourgeois mentality, they maintained, promoted efficiency but did not tolerate the extraordinary. The tremendous intensifications of true culture, on the other hand, the glories of the “spirit,”could be achieved only in isolation, in extreme human and social aloofmess. The artist, the genius, the complex personality in general, was bound to be utterly out of place in the bourgeois world. His true locale was far outon the fringes of society, where the morgue for suicides and the pantheon for immortals were both situated—as Henri Murger, the first analyst of this type bathetically observed. Though the lodginghouses to which Hitler betook himself were squalid, though his notion of being an artist was ridiculously highflown; though no one so far had acknowledged his talent; though his actual life in the home for men was marked by deceit, parasitism, and asociality—wall this could be secretly justified in terms of the prevailing concept of genius. And Richard “Wagner was the supreme example of the validity of that concept.  
Hitler himself, in fact, later declared that with the exception of Richard Wagner he had “no forerunners,” and by Wagner he meant not only the composer, but Wagner the personality, “the greatest prophetic figure the German people ”has had.” One of his favorite ideas, to which he returned frequently, concerned Wagner’s towering importance “for the development of German man.” He admired the courage and energy with which Wagner exerted political influence “without really wishing to be political,” and on one occasion admitted that a “literally hysterical excitement” overcame him when he recognized his own psychological kinship with this great man. 
The parallels are, in fact, not at all hard to detect. The points of contact between the two temperaments—all the more marked because the young postcard painter consciously modeled himself after his hero—produce a curious sense of family resemblance, which Thomas Mann first pointed out in his disturbing essay Brother Hitler. In 1938, when Hitler was at the height of his peacetime triumphs, Mann wrote: 

Must we not, even against our will, recognize in this phenomenon an aspect of the artist’s character? We are ashamed to admit it, but the whole pattern is there: the recalcitrance, sluggishness and miserable indefiniteness of his youth; the dimness of purpose, the what-do-you-really-want-to-be, the vegetating like a semi-idiot in the lowest social and psychological bohemianism, the arrogant rejection of any sensible and honorable occupation because of the basic feeling that he is too good for that sort of thing. On what is this feeling based? On a vague sense of being reserved for something entirely indefinable. To name it, if it could be named, would make people burst out laughing. Along with that, the uneasy conscience, the sense of guilt, the rage at the world, the revolutionary instinct, the subconscious storing up of explosive cravings for compensation, the churning determination to justify oneself, to prove oneself. . . . It is a thoroughly embarrassing kinship. Still and all, I would not want to close my eyes to it.

I don't know what else to do but repeat myself.

The vulgarity in Wagner and incipient in Beethoven—hence the need in Rosen’s terms for ‘tact’—is not the vulgarity of subject but of the composer’s assumptions about and attitude towards language.  Beethoven is in a line of gradation with Wagner, Gerome and Helmut Newton, in the sense that Wagner indulges a bombast that Beethoven at his best merely passionately describes.  Wagner’s music is written for Wagnerians in the same sense that Newton’s photographs are made for voyeurs, yet identification—as pseudo-community—is encouraged but not yet a requirement.  All communities are communities of selves and others.  Collective identity, as imaginary collective unity, is either a false—unrealizable—ideal, from fascism to The Singularity, or mere collective reflex: the community of tech geeks, fetishists and junkies. 


The experience of the sex act is social, formal, communicative, and if the world is seen as the social realm, world-creating.  The moment of orgasm as reflex is aformal, asocial (isolate), ecstatic and if the world is seen as social, world destructive.  Sex as performance is a form of communication; orgasm is artless.  The pretense of an ‘art’ of orgasm is vulgar.  The popular understanding of Pollock’s work is as an ‘act’ of ‘expression,’ as orgasm not structure.  Mondrian saw structure. The what and how of communication for Pollock’s work are complex; as complex in their way as the question of orgasm in Beethoven.  


What Rosen is debating with Brendel is the increasing presence of instrumentalism in form: the growing tendency to craft to reflex that reaches its apogee in the illustration and the false community of the fetish: of pure instrument.  Wagner is preaching to the choir (and Pollock is in there somewhere); Gerome is a soft-care pornographer playing to an audience, Newton and his audience are almost interchangeable, his form of communication identification with the masturbator, which is to say barely communication at all, one step away from the final shift, the final descent from interpersonal communication to masturbation in public.  

If communication is a circuit, reflex is a short.  The fantasy of the premature ejaculator is a state of eternal orgasm. It’s also the logic of the perfect economic man.  The mania for progress becomes no more than simply the desire to go faster.  If knowledge is measured in conclusions not in processes then the shortest distance between two points, the short circuit, is the obvious choice. Pornography and technical illustration are the model of art in a technocracy: immediate gratification. This is the crux of the struggle over the human imagination that begins in the 18th century, with the rise of idealist anti-humanism.   


Manet, Self-Portrait with Palette, 1878
The shock of Manet was the shock of shame and recognition.  For Cezanne it was less publicly sexual and political but the same rule of recognition applies.  His work continues the move away from representation and mimesis by limiting even further the reproduction of psychology, of the full personhood of his sitters.  He reproduces shapes not character, at least not in comparison with those who came before him.  There’s a lot to be said about Cezanne and representation.  And what made his work bad when it was is almost as important in its way as what made it great when it was.  Because he failed at something, and that failure was consistent, making works that were both obscene and absurd.  In a very real sense Cezanne began with kitsch, with grand intent—often violent—and overreach.  But he turned to articulating what he could learn to articulate well: the space between ourselves and the objects around us.  But again its down to specifics, since what he articulated was the space around himself and the objects around him and what we sense is his sense of the world through his use of the rhetoric of pigment on canvas.  And again, against the logic of philosophic art and of intent it’s not a question of whether Cezanne was right or not.  If he was right then about what?  The basis of our interest in both Manet and Cezanne is that they describe their sensibilities, rather than merely indulging them.  The most complex pleasure to be found in their paintings is not the pleasure of liking them—is not Roberta Smith’s pleasure of enthusiasm, of a simplified sense of identification—but the pleasure of asking: “Why?” The pleasure is in engaging something foreign brought close by something universal: technique in common form

Cezanne, Abduction, 1867
On the lousy Manet, in 2010

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