212. (Sebastian Rödl )

Sebastian Rödl is not in this post, but he is behind it. It takes off from his Categories of the Temporal, and contains also some moves borrowed from his newest Self-Consciousness and Objectivity (the idea of a completion that is only complete in containing its own incompletion, for instance). It comes out of some re-reading of Gadamer too, and thinking about how Rödl and Gadamer might be set into conversation. Like Gadamer, and unlike Rödl, it is about the encounter with art. Like Rödl, and less than Gadamer, it attends to the grammar of language as a means to considering the forms of the temporal that humans think and by which human thought happens.

Some want for art to be timeless.  But nothing human is timeless; the timeless is the eternal, where gods live. Art can at most be an appeal beyond time, which is of course a fiction from our perspective. The truth of historicism, the truth to which a genuinely historical reading of literature, must be committed is that the work of art exists always as an ephemeral occasion, most perfectly at its initial instantiation on the page, performance on the stage, revelation on a canvas; to recover the art at that moment in time, fleeting as it is, becomes the task of the historical critic. But that is not enough. The idea of singularly momentary existence for art is no less fictional than a timeless endurance.

To confine art to the moment of creation is to reduce art to the equivalent of dull animals, responding by instinct without the capacity for reflection in time. It pitches too far in the opposite direction away from the eternal timeless appeal of gods. A work of art is a work of human understanding, and so exists not only in time, but by means of time: like a thought that is always related, in its being a thought at all, to some past and future, a work of art is always related, in its being a work at all, to a past and future.

The encounter with the work of art involves a recognition that we are the future that it has supposed, so that in the fleeting perfection of its first instantiation it contained within it the possibility that we could recover (whatever the standards of validity, whatever the rightness or wrongness—with only the capacity to judge our recovery to be valid or right) that instantiation, just as I might recover an utterance of yesterday in my thoughts or words today.

The reality of the work for us is only as good as our imagining the reality of that first moment when it was complete; the reality of the first moment is only made complete by the possibility of our making the work real. Dwelling in the work means dwelling in the moment of its first completion, which is in a sense its only completion, and only as lasting as its own momentary happening, and in another sense, never permitted to be accounted complete until it has been imagined thus in the openness of the future, and so continuously happening.

Of a work of art we can say, “it was complete,” and also, “it is completing itself”; by recovering what was complete, we acknowledge that it is no longer complete for us, and in the act of acknowledgment and recovery, we become part of its continuous completing.

Reading is completing what once was complete. What sets the critic apart from the historian is this sense, a faith or a condition, that something “was complete” in the first place; for the historian, the persistent, perpetual change into something else is foremost in a mind; for the philosopher, the conditions of completeness and change at all; we call the humanities, then, is a participation in time itself, which is natural to all humans but which can become a more refined second nature by practice and habit.


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