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A philosopher, a painter and a poet walked into a pub... Conversations in thinking poetically

Lecturer: Rachel Joy

Originally Taught: Winter School 2019

While philosophy has its own forms and means of expression, continental philosophy has, nevertheless, deeply shared concerns with those who make art. Among other things, these interests revolve around issues of space, time, the un-representable, the nature of the sensible and the possibility of transformation in the face of doubt, and even failure. Many poets, artists and philosophers are directly influenced by or responding to each other’s work as if in a conversation. This course examines some of these relationships and some of the philosophical and artistic works they produced. Over the five sessions we will encounter the following:

Week 1. The beginning of the modernist period in the arts is linked by many theorists, to the work of poet Charles Baudelaire. For Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire's greatness consisted precisely in his representativeness: in the manner in which his poetry laid open the catastrophe of the capitalist structures and mechanisms of his age. This week’s theme explores ends; the end of god through Baudelaire’s refusal of redemption in his classic work Les Fleurs du Mal, and the end of the poem in Agamben’s notion of messianic time, and how these ideas interact with one another.

Suggested Texts:

  • Agamben, ‘The end of the Poem’, pp109-115, in The end of the poem: studies in poetics, Stanford University Press 1999.
  • Agamben, ‘Baudelaire; or, The Absolute Commodity’ in Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture. pp41-46.
  • Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal, Trans. Richard Howard. David Godine Boston 1982. pp77-82. Especially the last seven poems in the Spleen et Ideal section: Obsession, Craving for Oblivion, Alchemy of Suffering, Sympathetic Horror, Heauton Timoroumenous (self-tormentor), The Irremediable, The Clock.
  • Benjamin, ‘On some motifs in Baudelaire’, in Walter Benjamin: the writer of modern life, essays on Charles Baudelaire. Ed. Michael W Jennings. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press Cambridge, Masschusetts, and London, England 2006. pp 170-210. 

Week 2. As a young man, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke worked in the Paris atelier of sculptor August Rodin which influenced his early understanding of the poetic in the plastic arts. This appreciation was later to be powerfully expressed in his poem Archaic Torso of Apollo. Klee, Picasso and Chagall were friends of Rilke’s, but it was Cezanne whom Rilke would claim to have been his greatest influence and his letters about a posthumous exhibition of Cezanne’s work confirm this. This week we will consider the relationships between the work of Rodin, Rilke, and Cezanne and explore Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s lecture on Cezanne’s doubt. It will be a journey through sensory perception, doubt and transformation rendered through art.

Suggested Texts include:

  • R.M. Rilke, Letters on Cezanne, North Point Press, New York, 2002.pp3-85.
  • R.M. Rilke, August Rodin, Sunwise Turn, New York 1919. pp13-80.
  • R.M. Rilke, ‘Archaic torso of Apollo’, in Selected Poems: with parallel German text, Oxford University Press, 2011. pp81-83.
  • Merleau-Ponty ‘Cezannes doubt’ in The Merleau-Ponty Reader Eds. Ted Toadvine and Leonard Lawlor. Northwestern University Press. 2007. pp59-75.

Week 3. Martin Heidegger is said to have expressed a pressing need to revisit his lecture The Origin of the Work of Art and add an addendum after viewing an exhibition of Paul Klee’s paintings in 1957 and reading his lecture On Modern Art. Heidegger’s early writings on art ignore contemporary artists and instead focus on the classical world, it is not until his interactions with the work of Klee, whom he would describe as a greater artist than Picasso, that contemporary art engaged him. This week we explore the works of Heidegger and Klee and their shared ideas of “bringing forth”, ways of “seeing”, “not images but states” and “the visible and the invisible”.

Suggested Texts:

  • Heidegger, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, in Poetry, Language, Thought, Perennial Classics 2001. pp15- 86.
  • Heidegger, Notes on Klee. Philosophy Today, Volume 61, Issue 1 (Winter 2017). pp7-17.
  • Klee, On Modern Art, Faber and Faber, London 1954. pp9-55.
  • Klee, ‘Creative Credo’, in Manifesto: A Century of Isms. Ed. Mary Ann Caws. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 2001. pp255-259.

Week 4. Paul Celan was an important poet peer of theorists Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Maurice Blanchot. Jacques Derrida wrote a number of lectures on Celan that are collected as Sovereignties in Question: The poetics of Paul Celan. However, Celan’s poetry had also been a powerful influence on visual artists. This week we will explore his influence on the works of painter Anselm Keifer and the sculptor Doris Salcedo. Our focus will be on questions of memory; how we remember, what it means to witness and, how artists attempt to represent trauma memory – the unthinkable – the un-representable.

Suggested Texts:

  • Celan, ‘The Meridian’ in Selected Prose, Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop. The Sheep Meadow Press, Riverdale-on-Hudson New York. 1986. pp37-55.
  • Celan, ‘Fugue of Death’, in Selected Poems, Trans. Michael Hamburger and Christopher Middleton, Penguin UK, 1972. pp 33-34.
  • Bal, ‘Introduction’ in Of What One Cannot Speak: the political art of Doris Salcedo. The University of Chicago Press 2010. pp1-28.
  • Derrida. ‘Poetics and Politics of Witnessing’, in Sovereignties in Question: The poetics of Paul Celan. Eds. Thomas Dutoit and Outi Pasanen. Fordham University Press, New York. 2005. pp 65-96.

Week 5. In our final week we will encounter Gilles Deleuze and his exploration of the work of painter Francis Bacon especially Bacon’s ideas about painting sensations, forces, time and space. This will be coupled with a selection of the artworks and writings of the abstract painters Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, and Kasimir Malevich expressing space-time and colour concepts.

Suggested Texts:

  • Deleuze, ‘Painting and Sensation’ pp34-43 and ‘Painting Forces’ Pp56-64, in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. New York Continuum 2003.
  • Kandinsky, ‘Seeing’, ‘Sounds’, ‘Line and Fish’, and ‘Preface to Blaue Reiter Almanac’, in Manifesto: A Century of Isms. Ed. Mary Ann Caws. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 2001. pp 270-275.
  • Malevich, ‘Suprematism’, in Manifesto, pp 404-412
  • Mondrian, ‘Neoplasticism in Painting’, in Manifesto pp 425-430.