Journeys

I am still not sure if artists have holidays. Today I have woken up in a hotel room with a nice view. I’ve only stayed in hotels on a handful of occasions. They feel both strange and alien but also like an ideal, a way of living that caters for our needs without tying us to any particular belonging. Nevertheless, that freedom from belonging is itself an ideal, or, when we achieve it, a mixed blessing.

Nietzsche once said something like: “If you chain down your heart, you can give your spirit infinite liberties”. I have always liked this statement. It seems surprising from a Romantic philosopher, to promote ‘chaining down the heart’. And yet, the statement makes a tantalizing, and apparently important distinction between the ‘heart’ and the ‘spirit’ for a romantic, and clearly privileges the needs of the ‘spirit’ over the ‘heart’.

This isn’t a philosophical essay, so I’ll just leave that thought with you to play with and use in your own way.

I noticed this week that a lot of my references are German. I’ve always read and avidly used Walter Benjamin. Recently I have been reconsidering the political ideas of Joseph Beuys (who advocated referendums as ‘direct democracy), and then last week, I was thinking about Hannah Arendt (see previous post). My ‘holiday’ reading is Goethe’s ‘Journey to Italy, and above I have already quoted Nietzsche.

Nietzsche, like Goethe, sought out new and different qualities of the human spirit in the warmer climes of southern Europe. Like Nietzsche, he also saw that philosophical questions can often be answered by material means. In fact, Goethe doesn’t only refer to sunshine and a climate that transforms what we mean by summer, autumn, spring and winter, he also analyses the rocks and qualities of soil etc. as he passes through the Alps, into first Northern then southern Italy and Sicily.

Interestingly, he doesn’t only apply these ideas to consideration of the temperaments of the peoples he encounters but also sees them as the bases if the art and architecture, carved from local stone, marble etc. that underpins the classical aesthetic that guides his own taste.

This might make us think today of just how our own material resources (which are perhaps now global as much as local) are informing our art, our thought and our society.

It’s a great pleasure to read Goethe’s book. I read his famously Romantic ‘Werther’ last year, followed by his excellent late masterpiece ‘Elective Affinities’ (on which Benjamin wrote the complex essay that forged his credentials as an idiosyncratic and excellent intellectual analyst of art). Interestingly, Goethe’s famous and influential  ‘Journey’ is written in the form of letters home, always addressing the friends and colleagues he had shocked by his sudden and unannounced departure.

In this way, I think, Goethe anchors his wandering journey in a sense of belonging, and – to return to Nietzsche’s statement above – ‘chains down his heart’ to people he loves and to whom he always knows he will return even as he allows his ‘spirit’ the” infinite liberties” afforded by his wayward ‘journey’ through another country. Artists can and do go on holiday, and yet, somehow, we never allow ourselves to stop working.

I’ll illustrate this week’s post with an image of Goethe’s book, which I highly recommend.

 

9780140442335

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