The Debasement of Writing
Polonius. What do you read, my lord? Hamlet. Words, words, words.
—Shakespeare, Hamlet, act 2
Duke Huan is reading in the hall, while Pian the wheelwright is hewing a wheel at the steps in front of it. Having put down his auger and chisel, he goes up and says to the Duke: "May I dare to ask, my lord, what kind of words are you reading?" "The words of the sages," says the Duke. Again he asks: "Are the sages still alive?" "No, they are dead," the Duke replies. The wheelwright says: "Then, what you are reading, my lord, is nothing but the dregs of the ancients!"
—Zhuangzi, The Tao of Heaven
The Unconscious Creation of Genius
Socrates, according to Plato, once showed his contemporary poets some of their most perfect writings and found, upon inquiring about the meaning of their works, that "any of the bystanders could have explained those poems better than their actual authors." In the original context of Socrates' defense, the point of this passage is to prove that no one is wise, especially with regard to knowing oneself, while its argumentative cogency depends on the strength of the ancient Greek idea of poetic inspiration—the idea that when the poets are singing, they are possessed and not quite in their right mind, and are therefore unable to understand the meaning of their own works. Such an idea is presented with a certain degree of humor and irony in Plato's Ion, where Socrates states politely but unambiguously that poetry is not an art guided by rules and that it originates not from knowledge but from inspiration. The making of poetry is a miracle, for just like the frenzied bacchanals who, when possessed, draw milk and honey from the rivers, the poets sing when they are divinely inspired, when "the deity has bereft them of their senses, and uses them as ministers, along with sooth-sayers and godly seers." Ultimately, it is to these memorable passages in Plato that we may trace the romantic idea of poetry as unpremeditated, spontaneous, and irrational—a kind of natural cry not executed according to the poet's intention and reflective consciousness.
Since Plato, the idea of unconscious creation of poetry has provided an answer to the question of why literature is in constant need of comment and interpretation and, even more important, of why literary interpretation cannot be judged by the criterion of authorial intention. To be sure, the fact that Socrates asked the poets to explain their own works seems to suggest that the need of interpretation was prior to the discovery of the poets' inability to explain, but in a way Socrates already anticipated that inability, for he had first interviewed the politicians before questioning the poets and had come to the conclusion that most people were likely to be ignorant of their own ignorance. Therefore, when he asked the poets for self-interpretation, he was somehow prepared to discover them no less blind to their own ignorance than the politicians, a finding that would then confirm his observation. Indeed, of all men, poets were perhaps the least able to achieve self-consciousness, since their work depended on divine inspiration rather than on their conscious knowledge. For Socrates, the inspirational origination of poetry could best account for the poets' hermeneutic inability, because "it was not wisdom that enabled them to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean." From this notion of divine inspiration, the conclusion is almost inevitable that poets serve as the mere mouthpiece of gods and that when they sing of the great deeds of gods and heroes in the frenzy of divine madness, they talk deliriously and do not know what they are talking about. It is therefore up to the interpreter to give an explanation of "what the poets mean" in what they literally say in their poetic works.
In the nineteenth century, these seminal ideas were fully developed in European romanticism, above all in the transcendental idealism of German philosophy. The ancient idea of the unconscious creation of art, now integrated with the notion of genius, became an essential concept in romantic aesthetics. Of the numerous reflections on genius and creativity, we may take those of Friedrich von Schelling as representative, since his contribution to romantic literary theory probably made the most noticeable impact. Although not the first to introduce the concept of the unconscious into aesthetics, Schelling, as M. H. Abrams observes, was "more than anyone, responsible for making that Protean term an ineluctable part of the psychology of art." For Schelling, the origin of poetry is mysterious, inexplicable. He ascribes poetic inspiration to "an obscure unknown power," an "incomprehensible principle which adds the objective to the conscious without the cooperation of freedom and in a certain way in opposition to freedom." As a force uncontrolled and uncontrollable, like the force of destiny, inspiration pushes the poet to the perfection of art without his conscious effort. According to Schelling, the writing of poetry seems an involuntary act, and the poet, no matter how specifically purposeful he may be, seems to be compelled "to express or represent things he does not himself fully see through and whose meaning is infinite." The similarity to Plato's argument is obvious, but the Socratic irony and playfulness in the dialogue of Ion disappear in the romantic idea of the unconscious genius, where the poet's unawareness of his own effort is understood as an attribute of the inspired genius. The contradiction between conscious effort and unconscious creation is a central issue in romantic aesthetics. Schelling maintains that every aesthetic production begins with such an intrinsic contradiction because a work of art is certainly completed with deliberation and consciousness, and yet it is not and cannot be made at will or according to a specific intention. Whatever is completed with deliberation can be learned and taught, but that which makes a poem truly poetic and constitutes the very essence of poetry can neither be learned from others nor taught to them, nor can it be accomplished by a conscious effort. "The work of art," says Schelling, "reflects for us the identity of conscious and unconscious activity. But the opposition of the two is infinite, and it is overcome [aufgehoben] without any contribution of freedom. The basic character of the work of art is thus an unconscious infinity (synthesis of nature and freedom)." To reconcile successfully the opposition between nature and freedom, or rather nature and culture, is the prerequisite for achieving artistic perfection, and for Schelling genius is that transcendental spirit which alone can resolve the contradiction in a perfect synthesis of the two opposites.
This and virtually all other references to genius in German aesthetics can be traced back to their fountainhead in Immanuel Kant, as Schelling's argument follows a line Kant first formulated in his Critique of Judgment. The contradiction Schelling sees in aesthetic production is also the one Kant tries to solve in the third critique: a contradiction which takes shape in the matrix of a set of antinomies and which, for Kant, involves not only the production of art but also its reception—namely, the antinomy of aesthetic judgment. For Kant, however, art, unlike Schelling's concept, at least begins as a rational and conscious act—"a production through freedom, i. e., through a power of choice that bases its acts on reason"—and the recognition of a work of art must be based on the perception of its intended purpose, "since art always presupposes a purpose in the cause (and its causality)." In other words, the production of a work of art is purposive and intentional, not an unconscious infinity as Schelling argues. However, Kant also acknowledges that art as distinguished from science is not something that "we can do the moment we know what is to be done, i.e., the moment we are sufficiently acquainted with what the desired effect is." Thus the distinctive feature of an artistic work is its uniqueness or unrepeatability, its being "purposive on its own." Here again we find a contradiction of aesthetic production in that on the one hand art is conceived as being produced by a conscious effort, by following norms and rules, while on the other hand it is considered as impossible to be reproduced by mechanically following rules.
In Kant's third critique, which is concerned with the problem of aesthetic judgment, this contradiction is closely related with the antinomy of artistic reception. An aesthetic judgment is faced with the contradiction between its private, individual nature and its implied universality; for an aesthetic judgment, though not without reasonable ground, is a judgment based on personal taste and therefore unlikely to be universally applicable. When I say that something is beautiful, this statement is not meant to be valid just for myself but carries an implied sense of general agreement. Nevertheless, it is a statement based on my individual taste and perception. For that individual statement to lay any claim to universal validity, it must be based on a concept shared and accepted by others, representing something beyond the limited range of individual subjectivity; and yet it cannot be based on a logical concept in order to be sufficiently distinguished from a logical judgment, which does not make any statement about aesthetic value or evaluation. To find a way out of that dilemma, one must base a judgment of taste on something that is not a concept but that can validate aesthetic judgment, and one must find someone who has the special capacity of going beyond the two sides of the opposition. Both of these are proposed by Kant as solution to the antinomy, and both are found in his idea of genius; for genius, says Kant, has the special talent to represent "aesthetic ideas" which transcend all concepts while still providing necessary grounds for the validation of aesthetic judgment. Without going into all the details of how "aesthetic ideas" are differentiated from logical concepts and how they are represented in the creative works of genius, we may notice that Kant's idea of genius as a solution to the dilemma of aesthetic judgment bears on both the creative and the receptive aspects of aesthetic experience. The capacity to represent ideas that are not logical concepts, or the "irrationality of genius," as Gadamer observes, "brings out one element in the creative production of rules evident both in creator and recipient, namely that there is no other way of grasping the content of a work of art than through the unique form of the work and in the mystery of its impression, which can never be fully expressed by any language." That is to say, genius is not only the capacity of creation but also that of judgment. "Genius in understanding corresponds to genius in creation," says Gadamer. Though Kant himself did not develop this idea, his concept of genius already provides the basis on which "more must be built later." For Kant, genius is first and foremost the spirit of creativity; and poetry, which demands the highest degree of spontaneous creativity and holds the highest rank among all the arts, "owes its origin almost entirely to genius and is least open to guidance by precept or examples." In creating a work of art, genius is not only above the rule but is itself the rule. It "gives the rule to art," thereby solving the contradiction between conformity and inventiveness. It produces things for which there can be no determinate rule, hence its originality; and it gives art the rule that it may be followed but not reproduced by others, hence its exemplariness.
Kant, however, never emphasizes the role of the unconscious in the creation of art. The idea is only implied when he maintains that genius as natural gift is not acquired but spontaneous and unintentional, that though it is capable of great achievement, genius does not know where its own capability comes from, that it "cannot describe or indicate scientifically how it brings about its products." "No Homer or Wieland can show how his ideas, rich in fancy and yet also in thought, arise and meet in his mind," says Kant; "the reason is that he himself does not know, and hence also cannot teach it to anyone else." What Kant merely implied was taken up by Schelling and developed into a psychology of artistic production, where the concept of genius became inseparable from that of the unconscious. For Kant, as Gadamer notes, genius was "only a complement" to what was essential in aesthetic judgment, but with his successors it soon became the predominant concept in aesthetics. Concerned with the validity of aesthetic judgment, Kant puts more emphasis on taste than genius, insisting that genius needs to be guided and curbed by good taste, which "clips its wings, and makes it civilized, or polished," and that in case of a conflict which calls for sacrificing one of the two, then the sacrifice "should rather be on the side of genius." As a kind of sensus communis, aesthetic taste is the power that makes the work of genius accessible to others, that allows it to be shared by the community. In the romantic apotheosis, however, genius becomes an isolated Byronic hero, a rebel fighting not just against the classicist rules in art but against the entire value system of society. Schopenhauer speaks eloquently of the "lonely existence [ein einsames Dasein]" of genius in an alien and hostile world, arguing that the great works of a genius can be accomplished "only insofar as he ignores the ways and means, the thoughts and opinions of his contemporaries, quietly creates what they dislike, and scorns what they praise." It is true that Schopenhauer's philosophy did not have a notable impact until the 1850s and that he disliked Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel; but despite the delayed effect, as René Wellek observes, "Schopenhauer definitely belongs to the early decades of the nineteenth century," and "his aesthetics is actually quite similar to Schelling's." Gadamer also remarks that it was "through Schopenhauer and the philosophy of the unconscious" that genius as a "universal concept of value ... achieved a true apotheosis" and "acquired enormous popular influence." The ideas of inspiration and divine madness are quite evident in Schopenhauer's concept of genius, as he detects a close relation, a kind of kinship, between genius and madness, both of which are sublimely unconscious. Genius, Schopenhauer argues, does not work with abstract concepts but with the Idea, and "just because the Idea is and remains perceptual, the artist is not conscious in abstracto of the intention and aim of his work. Not a concept but an Idea is present in his mind; hence he cannot give an account of his actions. He works, as people say, from mere feeling and unconsciously, indeed instinctively." Thus, first developed by Fichte and Schelling, the idea of the unconscious genius was then immensely popularized by Schopenhauer and quickly became a critical commonplace not only in Germany but everywhere in Europe.
Art as the unconscious creation of genius had important implications for the rise of hermeneutics in the nineteenth century and its emphasis on the receptive side of aesthetic experience. When the creative activity was understood as an unconscious process, interpretation became absolutely indispensable, since art by its very nature addresses an audience who needs to know the Meaning of a work of art through the mediation of interpretation. An unconsciously created work could not be complete unless it was completed by conscious understanding, but, with its focus put on the creative genius, the romantic theory of unconscious creation could not adequately deal with the problem of reception and interpretation. For how could poets offer guidance in the understanding of poetry if they themselves did not know what they meant? How could they ever be entrusted with the task of interpretation if they themselves could not yet answer the question Socrates once put to them? Understanding is always a conscious activity, and unconscious creation must be understood consciously. In due time, therefore, the question of how to bring the unconscious creation of genius to the level of conscious understanding would necessarily arise, and the focus of attention would shift from the creative process to the interpretive activity. It is inevitable that in romantic literary theory, hermeneutics should complement aesthetics. Considering that, since Kant, German philosophy of art had largely concerned itself with the question of unconscious genius, it should not at all be surprising that the first systematic theory of general hermeneutics came out of the German tradition.
The Task of Hermeneutics
To understand the unconscious creation of genius is certainly an important goal for Friedrich Schleiermacher's project of general hermeneutics. Some scholars have argued that Schleiermacher, despite his affinity to Friedrich Schlegel and other romantic poets, was not a romantic himself. Martin Redeker, for example, maintains that Schleiermacher joined his romantic friends in their cultural activities and made use of their language, "but in the end he did not yield to the temptation of romantic fantasy and sentimentality, of their fabrication and mawkishness [Erfindsamkeit und Empfindsamkeit], since his crucial religious and theological concepts were not rooted in romanticism." Redeker concedes, however, that not only did Schleiermacher learn from the romantics how to understand poetry and art in general, but "his hermeneutics, his interpretation of Plato, and his philosophical development also received an impetus from the romantic outlook on life." There is no question that the romantic theory of unconscious creation and the ensuing need for interpretation formed a perfect background for the rise of Schleiermacher's hermeneutics.