May 18, 2002

Phlit is back! Sorry for the long hiatus!

1. Do I contradict myself?

Our book group recently read and discussed Three Essays on Style, by Erwin Panofsky, the famed art historian, the art historian’s art historian. This was not the first Panofsky book that our group has read; in January ’99, we read Panofsky’s Meaning in the Visual Arts, a book of essays put together by Panofsky himself. Three Essays on Style was put together by an editor, after Panofsky had died; it’s shorter and less scholarly than Meaning in the Visual Arts.

Our book group had considerable difficulty with Meaning in the Visual Arts. I found it fascinating (perhaps because I love reading about visual art), but I had to admit that it wasn’t a good choice for a book group. I hoped that the group would have an easier time with Three Essays on Style, but it was not to be. Complaints poured in. I feared there would be widespread desertions, plummeting membership, open revolt. Again, however, I myself found the book enthralling, and I was able to arouse some interest in the book during our discussion.

Three Essays on Style is chocked with illustrations, and these illustrations enriched our discussion as well as our reading. The first of the three essays is “What is Baroque?” We looked at a Renaissance portrait, which Panofsky regards as typical of the confident, balanced Renaissance spirit. Then we compared this portrait to a post-Renaissance, Mannerist portrait. Troubled, uneasy. Panofsky convinced us that a portrait of an individual is more than a portrait of an individual — it is sometimes a portrait of the spirit of an age. (As Hegel would say, a painter is part of the Zeitgeist, the Spirit of the Age, though he may not be conscious of the religious debates, political developments and unconscious forces that form the Spirit of the Age. Panofsky’s essay is an interesting confirmation of Hegel’s Zeitgeist theory, of the organic theory of society.)

Then we looked at a portrait from what Panofsky calls “the second phase of Mannerism,” which is contemporary with the Counter-Reformation. This portrait is “quiet and full of composure,” like the Renaissance portrait, “but it differs [from the Renaissance portrait] in that carriage and expression are emphatically uneasy and unhappy.... It is as though the life of these people had gone frozen.”1 Panofsky speaks of the “twisted and constrained mentality of the Counter Reformation,”2 which is apparent in the era’s uneasiness with the nude, an uneasiness that led to the painting of loincloths over Michelangelo’s nude figures. Finally we looked at a Baroque portrait: “Free and open to the world again.... The Baroque [had] overcome the crisis of the Counter Reformation.”3 Thus, Panofsky regards the Baroque as a sort of Second Renaissance, “the paradise of the High Renaissance regained.”4

Panofsky’s famous predecessor, Wölfflin, viewed the Baroque as a movement that ran counter to the Renaissance. Panofsky, on the other hand, regards the Baroque as a movement with inner contradictions, a movement that runs counter to itself (as it were). Here again, Panofsky sees the Baroque as the climax of the Renaissance, for the Renaissance, too, had inner contradictions. Both the Renaissance and the Baroque were divided, in Panofsky’s view, between “neopagan humanism and Christian spiritualism,” between “ideal beauty and reality,” etc.5

If both the Renaissance and the Baroque had inner contradictions, can we infer that other epochs, too, may have had inner contradictions? Do all epochs have inner contradictions? Is complete consistency, and a complete absence of contradictions, unknown among epochs, and perhaps also unknown among individuals? Are contradictions and inconsistencies a basic fact of human nature?

In 1997, when I decided to self-publish my first book, I asked Jim De Luzio, a graphic designer in Providence, Rhode Island, to design a cover for the book. After discussing the book with me, Jim realized that, like all writers, I was eager to have people read the book. So Jim assured me that he would read it. A few weeks later, Jim gave his opinion of the book to a mutual friend, Dick Dunn: “this book has contradictions.”

I had to admit that there was some truth to Jim’s view, the book wasn’t entirely consistent. But I felt that the book was true — true to myself, true to our time — and I felt that readers shouldn’t demand consistency from a philosopher. As Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”6 Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then...I contradict myself.” Lovejoy, the great historian of ideas, said “It is only the narrowest or the dullest minds that are — if any are — completely in harmony with themselves; and the most important and most characteristic thing about many a great author is the diversity, the often latently discordant diversity, of the ideas to which his mind is responsive.”7 F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Berenson, the great art historian, said, “If in places I may seem to contradict what I say elsewhere that is no wonder, for nothing we can say, except perhaps in the quantitative sciences, can be more than a half-truth.”8 Niels Bohr said there are two kinds of truths: “there are the superficial truths, the opposite of which are obviously wrong. But there are also the profound truths, whose opposites are equally right.”9

The chief contradiction in my book is the contradiction between East and West, between Zen and Nietzsche, between the Eastern tendency to merge the individual with the universe and the Western tendency to emphasize the uniqueness of the individual, between the Eastern tendency to accept oneself, accept the universe, and feel at one with the universe, and the Western tendency to strive to improve oneself and improve society. The contradictory nature of my book is perhaps a virtue, insofar as it calls attention to a central contradiction of our time. I don’t believe, however, that we can rest content with contradiction, though we may pardon it. Philosophy should strive to build a bridge between East and West, and it should strive to present a coherent, consistent view of the world.

Panofsky says that the contradictions of the Renaissance and the Baroque had a bracing, enlivening effect. Couldn’t the same be said of the contradictions of our time? Panofsky also speaks of contradictions being resolved in a subjective unity. Couldn’t the same be said of our contradictions, since we seem to be able to resolve them within ourselves, we don’t feel them to be glaring contradictions, though they may be glaring contradictions when set down on paper. Panofsky says that, if contradictions are resolved, the resolution doesn’t last, but rather is replaced by further tensions and contradictions. (When someone in our discussion group asked how long the Renaissance lasted, I said it only lasted for a day.) If we ever succeed in resolving our own contradictions, and welding East and West into a seamless unity, will that be merely the starting-point for new tensions and contradictions?

The first of Panofsky’s Three Essays on Style, “What is Baroque?,” devotes much space to cultural contradictions, but the last essay devotes even more space to this subject — in fact, the last essay is devoted entirely to cultural contradiction. The last essay is called “The Ideological Antecedents of the Rolls-Royce Radiator.” The Rolls-Royce radiator, as you may have seen, has a grill surmounted by a winged lady. Panofsky thinks the winged lady is typical of the romantic trend in English culture, while the grill is typical of the classical trend in English culture. He traces these competing trends all the way through English history, from the days of Julius Caesar to the days of automobiles.

One might compare Panofsky to Proust: both men had the psychological gift to see that human nature is not black-and-white, not consistent. While Panofsky found contradictions in cultures, Proust found them in individuals: “Each one of us,” wrote Proust, “is not a single person, but contains many persons who have not all the same moral value... if a vicious Albertine had existed, it did not mean that there had not been others.”10

Why didn’t Panofsky publish these Three Essays himself? Why weren’t they published until after his death? The editor thinks that he may have refrained from publishing because some of the ideas in the essays weren’t original, they were “in the air,” or borrowed from another art historian. Rudolf Wittkower is one art historian who influenced Panofsky’s analysis of the Baroque. Wittkower is a highly-regarded writer within the field of art history, best known for his Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750 and his Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism.

One of the many profound passages in Panofsky’s Three Essays is the passage in which he discusses humor and caricature. Every deep thinker, at one time or another, tries to analyze humor, laughter, etc., so it isn’t surprising that Panofsky takes up this old philosophical subject. Panofsky argues that the Baroque era invented caricature, and developed a distinctively modern type of humor. “It is the satirist,” writes Panofsky, “not the humorist, who considers himself to be cleverer and better than other people.... The real humorist, in contrast with the satirist, not only excuses what he ridicules but deeply sympathizes with it. [The humorist] keenly observes and even exaggerates the shortcomings of his victims, but still, or rather for this very reason, profoundly likes them as human beings created by God.”11 Panofsky’s thoughts on humor and caricature in the Baroque era were influenced by Wittkower.

In the last issue of Phlit, I requested help with the translation of a German passage: “Natural phenomena left [Panofsky] unmoved.... His proud motto was, ‘Es gibt mehr Dinge in unserer Schulweisheit als Erde und Himmel sich träumen lassen.’” I’m told that motto means, “There are more things in our school knowledge than earth and heaven would ever dream of” — an expression of Panofsky’s bookish approach, and a reversal of Shakespeare’s famous, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

© L. James Hammond 2004
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1. Three Essays on Style, The MIT Press, 1995, paperback, p. 59 back
2. ibid, p. 61 back
3. ibid, p. 67 back
4. ibid, Introduction, p. 7 back
5. ibid, p. 38 back
6. Essays: First Series, “Self-Reliance” back
7. Essays in the History of Ideas, preface back
8. Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts (Pantheon Books, 1948, New York), Introduction back
9. Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder (Berkley Books, New York, 1997), p. 369 back
10. Remembrance of Things Past: The Sweet Cheat Gone, ch. 1 back
11. Three Essays on Style, pp. 80, 84 back