In the following post, I try to build off of Sebastian Rödl’s reading of Kant to make sense of the claim that a work of art may come to see a self.
When we first encounter a work of art, whether it is literature, drama, music, painting, or sculpture, we often respond to a character or voice, the recognition of another person. But even in the earliest encounters with work, we might respond to an energy or movement that we feel has an independence of its own. Similarly, when a loved one paints or sings or composes a poem with any measure of success, we often respond to it with the sense that we are encountering an extension of who they are, of their self. At a somewhat larger scale, some feel the same about novels or films that seem to reflect who a group or community is. None of these responses is wrong or even provincial. They are the start of what is fundamental in a response to art: the sense that another self is being encountered. In the greatest works of all, the works that we feel are works of “art” to be returned to and studied, we feel that the work itself is a self, and a self with the autonomy we appreciate in individuals we know or places we yearn to live or times that hold themselves out as definitive to our lives. The fact that all of these can be autonomous selves is a strange one, but fundamental.
What does autonomy mean in such a claim? It is the sense, however figurative it may seem, that this other self is conscious of its own ends, and lives and acts towards some self-determined end, even as it is susceptible to all of the determinism of the material world. In a self, freedom and determination intersect, with freedom meaning, as the Idealist tradition argues, the capacity to know oneself to live beneath a law, where that law is a justification (or normative explanation) of one’s actions; a self-consciousness that is synonymous with autonomy without denying the materially deterministic universe. The reading of Kant that I am following owes to Sebastian Rödl: “Being under laws of reason, I am subject to nothing other than myself in the sense that these laws spring from, and constitute, the nature of that to which I refer first personally” (Self-Consciousness 120). I’m suggesting that works of art (and even places) can seem to be selves too, possessing a self-consciousness. That is, they can seem to adhere to their own norms of self-constitution (this place “ought” to be this way); works of art abide by their own reasons.
This may seem absurd, mere figurative fantasy. Perhaps it is. After all, how could I suggest a work of art has self-consciousness when it cannot refer to itself first personally? An answer that Rödl suggests at the end of Self-Consciousness: that we can refer to works of art in the second person, imputing reasons and laws that would seem to spring from a nature that could be referred to first-personally; a work of art can answer for itself when we ask of it “why” and “how” it does what it does, as Gadamer might say; it can justify itself (it gets within itself the conditions of its judgments). It becomes a self because we can recognize it as a self.
In practice, that sometimes means recognizing it as part of a larger self, a larger imagination responsible for many works, and sometimes as a distinct intelligence. In either case, we are encountering the self that is only known by a work of art, and that does not depend, say, upon personal acquaintance with the author.
The encounter with the self that is art or place is a natural yearning—natural in so far as it is a reflection or deepening of self-consciousness through another, recognizing the common, general “self” in one who is not “myself.” The ethical charge behind such an encounter is obvious; learning to make sense of another; the historical charge also. But what art offers is, I think, not only ethical; it is a different experience of self, one that offers not just a reflection of the self I already am and know, but a deepening understanding of what self is, of what it means to take shape, to harmonize one’s ends and means, to live in history, to exist at the intersection of freedom and experience.
The natural self; the historical self; the bodily self; the judging self; the true-telling self; the imagined self; these are all in the self that is a work of art. But they do not define or limit it, any more than any statement can define or limit any self we encounter; each work of art, being autonomous, sets the terms by which it can be understood, and the discovery of self in it can be immediate or a gradual dawning.
In the late poetry of Geoffrey Hill, and in the late criticism, there is a repeated return to the notion of “intrinsic value.” No such value can exist, perhaps, except in the account of Kant’s ethics, or else in theology: intrinsic value is the value of the kingdom of ends, of respecting others as more than merely means. It depends on an existence within a space of reasons, but that such a space of reasons can extend to a work of art, or a place, is probably not what Kant had in mind—but it offers some account of what intrinsic value might mean, even if it can offer no guide to fathoming where it exists beyond lives, or even of thinking through how, in a life of courage or heroism, that value is realized and manifested. That is for art to accomplish.