Friday, October 7, 2011

Interpretation in art and life

For my class at Pacifica

Years ago, Susan Sontag wrote a famous essay titled “Against Interpretation” that many of you would agree with. Sontag argues, as some of you have done, that we should attend to the unmediated power of the work of art and set aside the irritable tendency to overthink it critically. I agree with her, and would ask, in fact, how anyone could disagree?

On the other hand, we also mostly agree that in “our times” (meaning in all times experienced in their “profane” every-dayness) the sacred is mostly absent and to locate it takes strenuous and faithful work, the sort of thing the Buddha did before his enlightenment and that Joseph Campbell (following Jung) terms the “Hero’s Journey.”

It follows that we need to be open to the immediacy of art but at the same time must complete a quest to achieve it. A paradox, is it not? Yes, but we have made progress, as it is now clear that immediacy is not immediate! It requires somehow attuning the human organism (body-mind) to the transcendent. Now we are on more familiar territory, that of the symbol and transcendent function, and developmentally of the individuation process.

Let’s look at the symbol in particular. From the beginning of his psychological development Jung understood symbols as engines to transform psychic energy (libido) to a higher, more spiritual (numinous) level. I want to suggest that this transformation itself can be understood as a kind of interpretation of both the archetypal forms that underlie the symbols and of the human psychophysiology that receives them. Symbols are like a key carved from the living body of the unconscious that fits into the lock of our body-minds and opens them to the light and power of the archetypes. Art, on this view, is never unmediated, and in fact works precisely as a mediator between sacred and profane, the unconscious and the conscious mind. On the other hand, when it is successful (the definition of greatness in art is success) art does plunge us into the unmediated. It is just like a fairy tale where the hero rides his little pony into the dark forest where he comes upon an enchanted princess. The vision of the princess is unmediated, but without the pony (the symbol) he could never get to her.

In the terms of my simple theory of culture, art lives in World Three but, when it succeeds, it drops us—hair on end, and chills down our spine—into the midst of World Two. Unsuccessful interpretation of art descends from World Three to World One, and becomes part of the mundane realm that the art work sought initially to escape. This triumph of the banal, which occurs all too frequently in secondary work about art (as Sontag said), is tragic but not essential. In my opinion, our response to art, as the ecstasy of World Two dissolves into the “orgasmic” afterglow that follows the esthetic experience, should and can become itself a new part of World Three, a particle of culture performed in and by our lives. In other words, art should “change our lives,” as Kafka said, a change that constitutes what Eliade calls turning chaos into cosmos and Jung terms (in the personal sphere) individuation.