At the suggestion of a former student I have bought and read Panaesthetics by Daniel Albright.
Albright, who died this past January, was a professor of literature and music at Harvard. In his obituary he is described by a former student as “the most generous and warmhearted and kind mentor one could ever ask for”; a colleague says that where he was present “the room was full of fun and amusement and delight because of his range of literary allusions and music allusions” (http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2015/1/10/daniel-albright-obituary/).
I do not for a moment doubt these encomia, nor do I wish to speak ill of the dead. Nonetheless from his last book I feel an obligation to warn my readers away. Though the book exhibits intelligence and knowledge, both are put into the service of the utterly destructive nonsense that is the most common understanding of art and life in today’s academy.
Here is my letter to my former student:
I write to you to beg and plead that you get yourself out of this kind of thinking before it is too late. The author of Panaesthetics is an atheistical, self-congratulatory, sentimental, pontificating, post-modernist, existentialist, nihilistical Harvard smarty-pants. Every half-truth is pressed into the service of destruction, every interesting fact soaked in arrogant, willful misrepresentation.
Yes art depends on the human body. The human being is a body-soul complex, and art must speak to our souls through our bodies. But that art can be about nothing but itself, that our bodies are the only sources of all experience, that all experience is ultimately meaningless except as sensation, that the fact of medium is nothing but a porous illusion, etc. etc. make up the ravings of a desperate and despair-justifying ego at play in a hyper-intellectual sandbox with no adults in sight.
I quote almost at random:
“interpretation, like the rest of human life, is vanity. Even the most heavily overt allegory, or the plainest narrative, can sustain itself for only a little while before it sinks back into unmeaning.” (so why are you so busy pretending to interpret?)
“the situation was exasperating to painters with an ounce of originality” (implying worhsip of originality for its own sake, one of the commonest false gods of art)
“seizing control is the default language of all representation since all representation is an attempt to gain power over, or at least not to be the slave of, the thing represented” (all art a function of a Marxist power struggle or Nietzschean master morality?)
“This is perhaps not quite the story that . . . meant me to think, but it seems as good as any” (because no story is better than any other, because all stories mean nothing in any case, because artist, intention, meaning, and form are all illusions that exist to be debunked by Harvard professors making a living from using the great art of the past as grist for the mill of nihilism)
“each member of the audience at a performance of Tosca experiences a different opera because the opera exists only as an airy shimmer generated from components each one of which bulges and recedes in a space uniquely defined by, and for, a particular spectator” (then why are we all similarly moved by Tosca or Don Giovanni and all similarly bored and revolted—if we’re honest—by Philip Glass and Penderecki?)
“wonder is a little scary, and we need to relieve ourselves of wonder by verbalizing it” (wonder being nothing but a human emotion, nothing real being there to be wondered at)
“A dentist’s drill touching a raw nerve is sublime: it so fills your mind that there’s no space left to contmplate your overdue credit-card payment, or yesterday’s poor haircut, or Fermat’s last theorem” (thus are we robbed not only of the sublime but of the very word sublime)
“Art always exasperates . . . it will dissipate under my gaze, deconstruct into a cloud of endless cultural self-interrogations . . . [or] it will recede before my eyes, clench itself into a tight closed object . . . [or] it diffuses into a swarm of mosquitoes . . . [or] it becomes an armadillo curling itself into a scaly ball” (well, yes, under YOUR gaze, you Medusa of an art critic!)
“There is a danger that intermedial exercises will expose the vanity or uselessness of art” (and so by all means let us play with “intermedial exercises” because exposing the vanity and uselessness of all art is the only valid art form)
“the aesthetic phenomenon is most strongly felt when art is liberated from itself, a condition that can happen only through the act of forcing it, more or less against its will, into an alien medium” (I neglected above to call him the tyrant that he admittedly is being here)
“I’m not sure that an artwork can even possess purposiveness” (because if it did, the Harvard literature professoriat as it is now constituted would be out of a career)
“the infinite multiplication of interpretations tends to erode any viable sense of an objective telos” (and infinite multiplication is the only arithmetic that interpretation has at its disposal; hence all hope for a vision of unitary truth must be nugatory)
“Perhaps every artwork is like that: we imagine that it is full of friendly doors through which we gain intimate access, but in fact we are shut out” (certainly anyone who denies a priori the possibility of meaning is shut out of any meaningful work of art—and well he should be)
“in the Eroica finale these clonks undergo a remarkable development that could be called the apotheosis of the stomp” (Beethoven reduced to infinite multiplication of interpretations of the stomp)
“To learn to see with the epigastrium and to hear with the elbows is part of the mission of the artwork” (those who won’t believe in God will believe in anything)
Why must I expend energy refuting this nonsense? It is the fruitless spinning of a very intelligent and knowledgeable mind cut loose from all moorings in real experience, all faith in a meaningful reality inhabited by man, all significance. Meaning is reduced to sensation, sensation to the body, and the body to absurdity. And of course in the process we ride over the cleverly sophisticated debunking of Beethoven and Raphael atop the bandwagon of progress through Schoenberg and Kandinsky toward the frisson of John Cage and Malevich, who calls on us to sail after him “into the abyss,” hyperintellectually freewheeling on the highway to hell paved by Nietzsche and French literary theory.
For an antidote I will quote Philip Thompson’s delicious satirical poem called “His Semiotic Hyper-Euphoric Semaphoric Sparkler: Roland Barthes Barks in Bliss”:
Panaesthetics provides a perfect distillation of the deadly intellectual poison of our age. I pray you, avoid it.