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Despair of Wings

Why on earth doesn’t the poor man say the Soul and have done with it?

                                                                                   WILLIAM JAMES

“By reality and perfection I understand the same thing.” I remember the moment fifty years ago when I read that outrageous and enviable sentence for the first time. The words infuriated me, because they seemed to defy so much of what we know about nature and history, and because they seemed to mock us for regarding the imperfections of the world, which include calamities of enormous magnitude, with the utmost seriousness. The shocking verbal simplicity of its fortune-cookie theodicy, the untroubled and undiversified syntax of its peace of mind, made it easy to imagine it being uttered in a comedy by a fool. But it was not the pronouncement of a fool, and so I confess that I felt also a certain jealousy of the philosopher whose ferocious critical energy did not rule out such a cosmically sanguine conclusion, such an unmitigated declaration of acceptance, such a thorough release from intellectual strain. Either he was wrong or I was flawed. (Or both, of course.) How could the mind think itself to such a state of contentment without compromising itself? Sentences such as this can tar reason’s already tarred reputation.

The sentence appears, almost as a methodological throwaway, in the preparatory material, the introductory “definitions,” of the second part of Spinoza’s Ethics. The first part of the work, the strictly metaphysical part, laid the ground for it, so that no elaboration would be necessary. My study of Spinoza had been preceded, fortunately, by some immersion in medieval religious philosophy, and specifically medieval Jewish philosophy, out of which his own thought emerged, so that there were echoes and precedents that qualified my visceral sense of the sentence’s absurdity. There was a whiff of Anselm in Spinoza’s words, of his association, in the renowned proof for the existence of God, of the perfect with the real. Having demonstrated to his satisfaction, in the first part of his book, that God and nature are identical, Spinoza’s sentence follows rather uncontroversially: reality, which is God, and perfection, which is God, are the same thing. This triumphant conflation is re-stated almost immediately: no sooner has he completed his “definitions” and his “axioms” than Spinoza turns to the “propositions” of his second part. The first proposition is that “thought is an attribute of God, or God is a thinking thing.” No breakthrough there; it was the conventional wisdom of medieval monotheism. The second proposition is that “extension is an attribute of God, or God is an extended thing.” That was Bento’s bombshell.

There also loomed over the sentence, as over the rest of the work, the long, daring, and severe shadow of Maimonides, whose metaphysical faith in natural law and in the omniscience of its creator carried the mind to the very limit that Spinoza momentously transgressed. When, for example, in a startling passage in his own philosophical masterpiece, Maimonides mentions “the divine actions,” he immediately adds “I mean to say the natural actions” — an aside that makes Spinozists swoon, because it seems to suggest that their hero was fearlessly completing the logic of his precursor, who lacked the courage or the imagination to go the whole way. This is nonsense. Spinoza was not the fulfillment of his tradition; he was its destruction. Maimonides did not shrink back, in psychological or political timidity, from the pantheistic temptations of his own naturalism; he believed that they were false and unwarranted, rationally and in his religion. He went where his mind led him; and he regarded the faith in the divinity of creation as the most basic form of idolatry, because his mind — not his synagogue, his mind — established with rigorous conceptual analysis that the identification of the created with the creator cannot be true. These were some of my early thoughts upon encountering Spinoza’s sentence, some of my defenses against it, as I sat in my woolen yarmulke and jeans, a tender Maimonidean in the secular city, and experienced one of the seismic events in the history of Western thought.

I had another misgiving about the sentence. Despite its quasi-mystical heat, it seemed so cold. It amoralized the cosmos; or more accurately, it chose to overlook those precincts of the cosmos in which human freedom tears holes in the finished and unruffled fabric of this allegedly immaculate reality. It was clear from the pages in which the sentence appeared that Spinoza was not regarding perfection from a moral standpoint; and indeed it is silly to regard the entirety of the universe from the standpoint of good and evil. In our world we are big, but our world is small. Still, Spinoza’s ontological equation begged an important question. What is the relationship between perfection and goodness? If perfection and reality are the same thing, are goodness and reality the same thing? Quite obviously they are not. In subsequent years, as I studied moral philosophy and the ethical writings of my tradition, the distinction between perfection and goodness became decisive for me. An extended but informal survey of the literature on Spinoza revealed that his sentence was not generally read as an observation on the goodness of what there is. But I note an interesting exception: in one of his greatest essays, Russell claims that Spinoza “uses the word ‘perfection’ when he means to speak of the good that is not merely human.” But what is the good that is not merely human? Russell’s reading remoralizes Spinoza’s cosmos, though he himself never believed that the universe has anything to do with the satisfaction of human desires or ideals. He argues that Spinoza’s sentence should be interpreted as an expression of “mysticism [that] maintains that all evil is illusory, and sometimes maintains the same view as regards good, but more often holds that all reality is good.” I think not. If we know too much to agree that reality is good, so too did Spinoza, and not only from his books. Perhaps reality is perfect and bad!

Yet these recollections of my first encounter with Spinoza’s “definition,” of my thrill and my recoil, do not convey the significance of the event for me. I was granted not an idea but an experience. Something happened. Late on an autumn morning, when the sun seemed to gild everything, I took my book to Riverside Park. I had an assignment to complete for an “independent study” on Spinoza. I found a spot on the sloping grass, which turned white in patches as the wind exposed the blades to the glare of the sky. I started to read, though one does not exactly read the Ethics, or rather one reads it as one does wisdom literature, which interferes somewhat with the critical spirit that it requires, and that its author personifies for all time. Wisdom literature can have a lulling, even stupefying effect, and its polished concision — wisdom’s style — can be deceptive, as if a trove of serious reflection lies behind every epigram; and the question of whether there is wisdom in Spinoza is hardly a settled matter. So I proceeded slowly down the page, sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase, almost in the way I was taught to read Biblical verses, looking for plain meanings and not so plain meanings, establishing the structure, wondering about logical and linguistic connections, collating terms and concepts, scribbling vexations and associations in the margins, picking my way slowly through the “geometrical” presentation

It happened that my text and I were bathed in sunlight. Before me stood an elm tree, its branches increasingly contorted as they rose higher into the local empyrean. The tree stood alone, and I have always been moved by solitary trees. Its leaves were approaching the end of their seasonal lives, and they were dying in splendor. They were disappearing into the throes of a joyful yellow, a parting gorgeousness, almost as if they were teaching the spectator how to die. Nature decays, but it is never decadent. Then I read “by reality and perfection I understand the same thing,” and I looked up at the tree. I had never before seen anything so clearly. I had a sensation of obstacles being removed, of impediments falling away. All drowsiness, all the conventions of vision, were gone. I was the site of a revolution in cognition. The form of the tree was fresh and precise, as if it had never been accurately viewed before; its shape was completely lucid, as if there were no air; its lines were fixed so strongly, so definitively, that they gave an illusion of necessity. The florid colors stayed steadfastly within the lines, except when they were blurred by a breeze, and even the obscurity of the blur was uncannily clear to me. The impression of the distinctness of the tree was overwhelming. There was nothing between it and me. What I saw was not that it was beautiful, but that it was actual. I was absolutely certain that I was a witness to actuality. It felt like a kind of election, a privileged way of living with matter. And the heightened presentness, the restored vividness — did it once exist and was lost? — extended to me, too: in all my life this was the most present and the most vivid that I had ever been. For once my powers had been up to the task of perception. I was as undispersed as the tree, as undeniable, as concentrated within existence.
Was this mysticism? I do not think so, though clarity always has a transfiguring effect. (The tree was clarified the way an object is, I was clarified the way oil is.) The experience in the park was in fact the antithesis of mysticism, because nothing supernatural was disclosed. But the disclosure of the natural is itself an epiphanous event, with elevating consequences for the soul. The hiddenness of God pales beside the hiddenness of reality. For this reason the attainment of clarity is more than an optical achievement. It is an operation of all of one’s inwardness. The senses are only the front lines of experience, and they are easily diverted and defeated. They must have support from the rear, spiritual resources to back them up, to fortify and correct and intensify them.
Somehow I had cleared myself for clarity. I like to think that Spinoza’s sentence was my preparation, that it shocked me into readiness, and so I was rewarded with an inkling of his “reality.” Certainly I did not come away with an inkling of his “perfection.” Except insofar as perfection means a thing’s suitability for itself, the revelation of the tree justified nothing. The same was true of Roquentin in his famous encounter with a tree, but he was trapped in his need for justification, and so he left the park nauseous and absurd. But the revelation of the tree left me neither happy nor unhappy. Better, it left me not caring about happiness, which in that setting would have been a solipsistic impertinence. The gift of the morning was that I had gotten out of my own way and transcended my limitations sufficiently to really see. The quotidian drudgery of subject and object had turned into a magnificent adventure. The subject was pierced by the object — not quite the arrows of love that pierce the Christian mystic’s heart, but penetration enough. Seeing is epical, and objectivity is a form of transcendence.

This happened at the same time as the genocide in Bangladesh.

There is no calm like the calm of Bruges at midnight. The stillness is so complete that it can be mistaken for peace. The canals are silvery ribbons of serenity; they do not flow, they abide. Spires throw shadows far across the abandoned streets, whose rough cobblestones look soft in the light of the streetlamps. The market square becomes the site of an agreeable emptiness, and the city hall in the Burg, from the fourteenth century, stands like a giant sentry guarding the public quiet. History, in this historic town, is all there is, as the present defers to the past, almost in a kind of lunar sorcery. I know of no other place where one can so completely acquire the medieval feeling. One strolls through the high Middle Ages and its stony beauty; the old buildings with their ornamental geometries speak of prosperity and piety; the ghosts form a guild, a community; one feels almost Christian. You would not know in this antique tranquility that here finance was born and massacres were perpetrated and insurrections were launched. Bruges is one of those places that broach the problem of the unmediated coexistence of refinement and brutality. The ground can hide anything. But in the absence, or the aftermath, of the disturbances, Bruges is a capital of things exquisitely wrought. In the morning you can buy fragments of sixteenth-century lace and learn the meaning of craft.

Beware, my son, of precocity: some things may be known too soon, prematurely, before they can be properly received and cherished, and it is wise to leave some things for later, so that one never lives without the prospect of discoveries, and experience is not ruined by the archive of references and allusions that we have been taught to acquire in the name of sophistication. Ignorance is the innocent condition of discovery. I was ignorant of Jan van Eyck for many decades. Or rather, I was knowing about him. (Between ignorance and discovery there is the swindle of knowingness.) An esteemed art historian named Howard Macpherson Davis had instructed me in northern Renaissance painting at school, and I bent the knee at the mention of van Eyck’s name ever since. A genius! But his paintings were not yet wondrous for me; I had not yet pushed my eyes; I was winging it. There are certain artists about whom you have no right to speak before they have silenced you. Then I went to Bruges, and to the Groeninge Museum, where one afternoon I found myself before The Virgin and Child in the Presence of Saints Donatian and George and Canon Joris van der Paele. After the Ghent Altarpiece, it is the largest picture that van Eyck painted. He produced it between 1434 and 1436, on a commission by the wily and prosperous old man whom it depicts, as a gift to St. Donatian’s church in Bruges. (The tenth-century Romanesque church was also van Eyck’s burial place. It was destroyed in the violent aftermath of the French Revolution.) This is not a picture charged with feeling. Its charge is of a higher order, and as I pondered it something happened.

The composition is frontal, almost as in a private devotional image, and it is symmetrically divided into thirds. In the center of a rather cramped church interior a delicate and somewhat diffident Virgin sits placidly on a marble throne, and on her lap sits a more energetic Child. They both look down to their left, where Joris van der Paele kneels before them. Behind him is his patron Saint George in his armor, who presents him to the holy family, oddly doffing his helmet. On the other side of the throne stands Saint Donatian, the patron saint of the church, carrying his attribute — a small wheel with lit candles, to commemorate his rescue as a boy by a holy man who saw him thrown into a river and outfitted a waterwheel with candles to find him. The face of van der Paele is one of the early treasures of pictorial humanism — though he is portrayed unsentimentally, he is the beating heart of the scene. Amid the crowded iconography his actuality is especially eloquent. I later learned that a great deal is known about him: born in Bruges in 1370, he was a secular canon who served for years, mainly as a scribe, in the papal curia, agilely negotiating the papal politics of his ecclesiastically turbulent era, growing rich from prebends and benefices, before retiring to Bruges, where he died in 1443. On his knees before the marble throne, in the holy presence, he holds his open prayerbook and his spectacles, which he has just removed. The plot of the picture is that his text has been made redundant. Why gaze at the description of a thing when you can gaze at the thing? The worldly old man could behold himself beholding the otherworldly. What money can buy!

The composition is static but the painting is lavish. Its sensuousness is hard to describe; it is a delirium of surfaces. This sacred scene, this depiction of a man’s encounter with the divine, is a glittering anthology of the physical world: cloths, carpets, metals, jewels, stone, wood, glass, feathers, flowers, hair, fur, flesh, each in with its own texture and its own luminosity. On all these substances there occur dramas of light, as it is absorbed, or reflected, or repelled, or refracted. All this glorified stuff is not suggested, it is shown: Van Eyck stands athwart the tradition of Western painting that chose to give the brush increasing freedom over the details of an image and demonstrate painterly virtuosity by imprecision and insinuation — whose veristic images are formed in the eye at a distance out of a combination of unveristic elements. We enjoy the candor of the artifice. We admire that tradition because it seems to presage abstraction, which is how we like our art history. But there are no such teleological prefigurings, no such expressions of painterly self-consciousness, in van Eyck. Quite the contrary: he embarrasses us for our loss of interest in verisimilitude, our decision to regard it as an obsolete source of beauty. He insists on the precise rendering of infinitesimal detail, executed with such a degree of exactitude that one is left wondering helplessly and in awe about the techniques that made such radical representation possible. The verisimilitude is vertiginous. In this accomplishment he stands only with Durer and Ingres; and maybe only with Durer; and maybe alone. (When I came home from Bruges and sought to add some knowledge to my awe, I found this in Panofsky on “the Eyckian miracle”: “Jan van Eyck evolved a technique so ineffably minute that the number of details comprised by the total form approaches infinity…Jan van Eyck’s eye operates as a microscope and a telescope at the same time.” I was pleased to note that I had underlined the passage many years earlier.) When one stands before this picture and steps as close to it as the nearby guard will allow, so that one is struck not by large themes but by small phenomena, by the multiplicity of confident puny strokes on a single gemstone at the edge of a brocade, by the narrative of light and shadow on the tiny globe of a pearl, by the mottled sheen on a sleeve of armor and the dermatological drama on a sinking face, one finds oneself surrendering to a feeling that metaphysics forbids: the adoration of the real, the faith in the sufficiency of the empirical. This laudatio to the perceptible, created by a myriad of imperceptible human touches, has an unwitting secular effect. Here are the mother, the son, and the two saints, but it is the man, the mortal, who triumphs in a visual celebration of immanence.   

The depiction of Canon van der Paele’s physiognomy is so lifelike — it is certainly one of the greatest portraits of old age — that spectators were able to infer from his features the particular variety of arthritis with which he was afflicted. This is van Eyck’s renowned “realism.” It is his immortality. In 1902 a famous exhibition of the Flemish “primitives” was held in Bruges, which had a huge impact upon the modern reception of northern Renaissance art — Huizinga visited it many times, though it never disabused him of his Italianate prejudices about northern realism. This is how one critic expressed his response to the van der Paele painting, which was given pride of place in the show: “the most realist picture that can be conceived, not, of course, through its choice of subject, but through its conception of art, which is the essential point. Courbet ‘who had never seen angels’ is no more rigorous a realist than Jan van Eyck who painted them.” In fact Courbet was a less rigorous realist, though not a less effective one. Realism comes in many versions and does not require a supernal Eyckian fastidiousness. In one of my visits to the picture — I kept going back — it did occur to me that this fanatical mimesis, which some have called “hyper-realism,” can also be a kind of trick, an illusionistic wizardry, a huge but hollow skill. Als ich can, was van Eyck’s motto: As best I can. I thought of certain later Dutch painters, of their brilliance with silk and velvet and satin, their amazing simulacra of tactility. But the comparison finally was not to their advantage: a mere tour de force would not invite the intensity of absorption that this picture provoked in me. The picture was not just marvelous. It held a secret. I continued to look.

The more I looked, the more I saw, and what I saw was that this is not how we see. The optical fidelity in van Eyck’s picture was not the fidelity of the eye. Nobody perceives the world with such accuracy. Its details are often indiscernible; and the impediments are in both the eye and the environment. That is why we invent ways to correct for this natural imprecision. We enhance our vision and teach it discipline. Van Eyck’s realism could not have been a record of his optical experience. “Hyper-realism” is not an enhancement, it is a fiction. So what, then, accounted for the extraordinary charisma of the picture? I was studying the intricacies of the carpet and the patterns of the tiles when I recognized, with a shiver, what was before me: the picture of a dream. It was the dream of perfect sight. The painting reveals not what the world looks like, but what the world would look like if we could see the whole of the world. If we could see it all, it would all look like this, so let us imagine that we can see it all. Let us nullify the forces of distortion and pretend that doubt has died. In van Eyck, the imagination is not the student of the eye, the eye is the student of the imagination — not in the sense that he imagined angels and so could paint them “realistically,” but that he imagined the eye itself. Scholars have demonstrated van Eyck’s indebtedness to little known theories of late medieval optics, but fundamentally his realism is the transcription of a vision of vision. It is a fantasy of clarity, of senses without defects, of a life without obscurity and approximation. The artist was inviting the spectator into a visual utopia. When I thought of it this way, there was something a little oppressive, even a little demented, about his meticulousness, as there is about all perfection.

So this apotheosis of the senses is not, in its essence, an encounter with the material world. Indeed, with the exception of the jowly old man, it is an encounter with the immaterial world. What is a realistic portrait of the Virgin and the Child if not a step beyond the real? As is often the case with the interpretation of religious art, we over-secularize, lingering over its forms because its symbols have lost their meaning for us. Van Eyck’s profane effects are so dazzling that I had to remind myself that I was standing before a religious picture. The master of the visible was the servant of the invisible; and his painting was a monument to the relationship between the visible and the invisible, to the old idea, detested by the iconoclasts, that matter is a road to spirit. I was reminded also of Augustine’s theory of the levels of vision, of the sight of the eye and the sight of the soul, which also contains images. The sanctity of the figures in the picture did not move me, since I am not a Christian, but the larger religious hypothesis of van Eyck’s panel — that the soul sees, that the soul is an eye — left me giddy. Is it just a metaphor? Maybe not. We have non-visual intuitions that are as strong and as enlightening as retinal reports. In every language I know seeing is a synonym for understanding. The perverse consequence of van Eyck’s punctilious naturalism was to shake me out of the confinements of the natural. Wherever I was, I was no longer completely stranded in the secular.

I walked back to my hotel over a small stone bridge, and found myself reciting, in a whisper, almost liturgically, some of my favorite lines of poetry:

The skin and shell of things
      Though fair
        are not
    Thy wish nor prayer
        but got
    By mere despair
        of wings.

I committed those verses to memory many years ago because I feared that they would be my epitaph. But in Bruges I had wings.

This happened at the same time as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In how many domains can a person live? Are we, I mean each of us, called to be one or many? Is our complicatedness a burden or a blessing? Is an existence in multiplicity a sign of dilettantism or prevarication, or is it singularity that bespeaks timidity? Does the plurality of our loyalties compromise the romance of loyalty? Must we pare our commitments and our pleasures down, or make rigid hierarchies of them, or deny them on pain of defection or expulsion? Does the wealth of human differences exist only among individuals, or also within individuals? Is any realm of life sovereign over the other realms of life? What subsumes what? How much guilt should complexity entail? And how much patience, and how much kindness?

Abstract questions all, but not really. Our politics and our culture are riven by these questions. The crisis in which we are living, the injustices that pervade our society, have led not only to extreme positions but also to extreme mentalities. (They are not always the same.) These mentalities are shared across otherwise impermeable political boundaries: sometimes it seems as if all we have in common are our worst traits. The widespread psychology of single-mindedness can produce jarring similarities — for example, the apparently unshakeable consensus between American fascists and American progressives that the most salient attribute of identity is race. As is always the case with intellectual and emotional radicalization, we have agreed to be flattened and simplified in our conception of ourselves and others. We are only this and they are only that. Politics and culture are understood as consisting in iterations of a single thread, which runs through everything and explains it all. Eventually the leitmotif becomes the sole motif. Where there were once misunderstandings, there are now aggressions. In our pluralistic country we are all monists now; our culture wars are wars between our respective monisms. We are, in every one of our communities, militant simpletons, thrilling to the misguided notion that there is no higher calling for our members than representativeness. Somehow the prestige of diversity never translated into the prestige of complexity. Any challenge to the regimentation and the uniformity is regarded not as an act of analysis but as an act of defiance, and suspected of treason to the cause. The marketplace of ideas (an unattractive phrase, I know) is now the marketplace of deviations, for which punishments of various degrees of severity have been exacted. People have behaved unjustly in the name of social justice — not exactly a new development in the history of politics; but the tyranny of even a good cause must be fought. On the left now the important task, when confronted with facts or arguments that cannot smoothly be worked into the catechism, or with experiences that distract from the veneration of the one true thing, is not to go wobbly.

I will give an example. Not long ago, there appeared a sign of struggle in The New Yorker. No, not that struggle, which is all there is in The New Yorker. (It recently ran a short film in tribute to the Weathermen.) What happened was that a writer for the magazine caught himself perpetrating an act of personal complexity, and he froze. He was excited by an encounter with art that he admired, and he was so enthusiastic about it, in an exemplary moment of critical self-awareness, he noticed, not a moment too soon, that he might be violating the rules and reversing the priorities. He was in danger of praising art without reference to politics. He, the magazine’s art critic, had come to the very brink of aestheticism, which could of course play into the hands of Mitch McConnell or worse. And so he had to offer an explanation, a confession of his struggle as a many-sided man, in the hope that his account of his brush with the pluralism of experience would not rattle the bon ton of his readers.

In a review of a show at MoMA PS1 called “Greater New York,” which included hundreds of works by artists and collectives in the metropolitan area, Peter Schjeldahl discovered “unforced pleasure” in some of the objects that were displayed. He especially admired the work of Yuji Agematsu, who makes tiny sculptures out of the detritus of the city’s sidewalks — “the works convey a homing instinct for beauty in the humblest of materials,” the critic wrote. “There’s inarguably a political vibe about Agematsu’s activity, but it’s one that is subsumed by personal devotion.” I am persuaded by Schjeldahl: I did not see the show, but the photograph that accompanied the review, and a survey of Agematsu online, reveal a delicious sense of play and a joyful excavation of color out of drabness — his pieces look to me like miniature John Chamberlains. Schjeldahl also singled out for praise a film by a Swedish artist named Marie Karlberg, based on Doris Lessing’s disturbing novel The Good Terrorist, a study of damaged people engaged in revolutionary violence in England in the 1980s. “The work is a fable without a moral,” the critic said, “evincing Lessing’s uncanny comprehension of twisted humanity.” And then, all of a sudden, as if he could not permit himself any more aesthetic satisfaction without some sort of apology, he launched into a plaintive statement of self-defense, a record of his predicament:

The political is more important than the artistic. Using art to advance causes isn’t bad; it simply surrenders independent initiative, always a fragile affair, to overbearing powers of worldly argument. There’s an ethical heft in the sacrifice, shaming mere aestheticism. I can’t defend my wish for autonomous experience in the face of concerns that acknowledge the real suffering of real people. But I find myself clinging to instances of creativity that eschew rhetoric.

What a document! “The political is more important than the artistic”: is that really all there is to say? Politics, insofar as it secures the safety and well-being of people, is certainly a condition of artistic experience, because if there were no people there would be no art. (Writing in 1929 about the impact of the First World War upon his thinking, Russell recalled: “I think the War made me feel there would be not much point in the realm of essence if there were nobody left to think about it.”) But this is a trivial point, and there are many other reasons to want people to stay alive and dwell in peace. The primacy of politics is not at all self-evident, and a great deal of liberal and conservative philosophy has argued persuasively against it. Yet I do not wish to suggest that the opposite of Schjeldahl’s facile declaration is therefore true, and the artistic is more important than the political. Schjeldhal’s error is not that he chose the wrong winner, but that there is no contest. There is no winner and there is no choice. We do not have an obligation to choose between politics and art — indeed, we have an obligation not to choose. The insistence that there is a choice is only a sly way of politicizing art and, more generally, pleasure. The political puritans, with their righteous zero-sums, have gotten into Schjeldahl’s head. He is not alone.

“Using art to advance causes isn’t bad.” Schjeldahl is correct, and the enlistment of art may not even involve a “surrender [of] independent initiative”: artists are citizens too, and the history of political art, though it is crowded with kitsch, is also replete with works, from Goya to Guernica, from Shelley to Mandelstam, that made no “sacrifice” of stylistic integrity. But what is “mere” about aestheticism, and why is it worthy of shame? Who does it threaten, and with what? The refinement of sensibility and the consecration to form that we call aestheticism is not incompatible with a moral life, not at all. If aesthetes sometimes defend themselves against moralists, it is because they wish to preserve their strenuous notion of art, not because they are sympathetic to evil. We cannot live significantly without goodness and beauty, but beauty does not have to be good and goodness does not have to be beautiful. In endorsing the “ethical heft” of politically engaged art, Schjeldahl seems to be admitting to a soft spot for his preferred propaganda. It is worth noting, therefore, that political art, even when it is fine art, is not much of a contribution to politics, which is about power and is never pretty. I remember the morning in Jerusalem, many decades ago, in the first days of Peace Now, when my friends in the movement summoned me to a caper that they promised would deliver a stinging blow against the settlers on the West Bank: the Israeli artist Yigal Tumarkin had sculpted a dovecote — get it? — and we were going to place it secretly at the site of a newly established settlement. If this is our response, I thought, the settlers might win.

“I can’t defend my wish for autonomous experience in the face of concerns that acknowledge the real suffering of real people.” Here we get to the heart of the matter — to the politicization of inwardness, to the self-repression that mistakes itself for ethical strictness, to the preemption of life’s fullness by self-congratulatory guilt, to the imperialism of virtue. Of course he can defend autonomous experience! For a start, autonomous experience — that is to say, the refusal to permit one realm of experience to be reduced to another realm of it, so that life is not holistic but variegated, a plenitude of intensities that carry us far but not to the same destination — is real. We have a responsibility to acknowledge “the real suffering of real people,” but we have no responsibility to acknowledge nothing else. One of the fundamental facts about human life is the simultaneity of its dimensions. Whenever a mystic finds an unexpected God, or a lover finds unexpected bliss, or a musician finds unexpected structure, or an athlete finds unexpected strength — whenever somebody is transcending, somebody else is suffering. Are we then to renounce everything but ethics, or allow all our other abilities and longings to be translated (as many modern philosophers have proposed) into ethics? Surely it is not unethical to live for more than ethics.

There is something comic about the implication that anything said and written that is not about the Syrians and the Uyghurs is a betrayal of the Syrians and the Uyghurs. The objective of conscience is not to level us. So the tribune of the people who is also an art critic can lighten up. No reasonable reader of his sentences in support of Yuji Agematsu will condemn him for not having written those sentences in support of George

These strictures about the histrionics of virtue apply equally when the suffering in question is, or has been, endured by oneself or one’s own group. Last year the National Gallery of Art mounted a memorable show called Degas at the Opera. Nowhere, on any wall, was there a mention of Degas’s virulent anti-Semitism or his foul anti-Dreyfusard opinions. Some months ago the Washington National Opera returned to the stage with, among other things, wonderfully performed excerpts from Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and Tannhauser. Nowhere in the accompanying materials was there a “contextualization” that Wagner was anti-Semitic and that Meistersinger is the opera most imbued with his racist hatred of the Jews. In the period in which these events, the exhibition and the concert, took place, there occurred a terrible revival of anti-Semitism in America and elsewhere. But neither at the museum nor at the opera house was I triggered, enraged, or broken-hearted. Degas’ views of Captain Dreyfus have no bearing on the tutus in his oils and pastels, and the musical merits of Wagner’s overture rises above the Judeophobic medievalist ethos of his opera, even for me, in the way that art often supersedes its origins. I did not feel let down by these institutions for not acknowledging the history of my pain, nor did I interpret the many ovations as expressions of sympathy for the persecutors of my people. I decided to practice the forgotten art of letting something pass. Magnanimously I absolved the gallerygoers and the concertgoers of all complicity in the darker sides of what they were enjoying, because it would have been absurd and unfair to do otherwise. Their experience of art was entitled to its self-sufficiency. How they applauded told me nothing about how they voted. Nor do I want to see the alarm about anti-Semitism become purely gestural, a pandering cliche, a talking point. Anyway my sense of who I am is firm enough not to require the morbid affirmations of strangers. I am not boasting, except about what is possible for all of us.

“But I find myself clinging to instances of creativity that eschew rhetoric.” Bravo, Schjeldahl! He emerged intact from his introspective ordeal. In the end, after his little exercise in progressive casuistry, he escaped the clutches of totalizing politics. I was rooting for him, because his delight in artistic form is deep and not even the specter of Trumpism should stifle it. Autonomous experience is not only real, it is also rare, and happy is the man who has the capacity for it. The imperatives of art are too essential for the realization of the human definition to be given up for the imperatives of politics, and the reverse is also the case. Illuminations and mobilizations; mobilizations and illuminations. March and contemplate; march soulfully and contemplate soulfully. Tax the rich and reform (and support) the police and welcome the immigrants and protect Taiwan and save the Rohingya and break up Facebook and capture the carbon, and then seek, in art or music or philosophy or religion, or in a forest or a field, a light in which you can exceed yourself; and repeat. While the pursuit of justice is not an act of self-fulfillment, neither should it be an act of self-impoverishment.

“Sometimes God, sometimes nothing,” wrote Kafka.
“For once, then, something,” wrote Frost.
Sometimes God, sometimes nothing, but for once, then, something.