Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Essays

Toward an Incarnational Aesthetic

On locating the sublimity of art within the world and within history.

Ashley C. Barnes

Woman Holding a Book, 1924, by Fernand Léger (1881–1955), private collection; photograph © Christie’s Images/ Bridgeman Images; © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

A narrative of loss shadows every narrative of progress. Such is the story of our lives: We grow up only to lose our youth; we trade the capacity to believe in talking animals for the knowledge that nothing gold can stay. As children, we are free to live in the present; as adults, we discover that we are trapped in a timeline we cannot control.

Our common term for the sense of loss that accompanies progress is disenchantment. Max Weber gave us that name in a lecture to a student group in Munich in 1917. He made the point then that the modern world had been emptied of magic (a more literal translation of “disenchantment” is “un-magicking”).11xPaul Reitter and Chad Wellmon, Introduction, in Max Weber, Charisma and Disenchantment: The Vocation Lectures, ed. Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon, trans. Damion Searls (New York, NY: New York Review of Books, 2020), xiii. Unlike the savages who had to propitiate unseen spirits, Weber wrote, we now believed that “all things, in theory, can be mastered through calculation.”22xMax Weber, “The Scholar’s Work,” in Charisma and Disenchantment, 18.

But this progress—which Weber suggested might be only the replacement of old deities with a new polytheism of “impersonal forces”33xIbid., 32.—leaves us lonely and empty. Because there are always more calculations to make and new things to master, we get exhausted by life without filling up on it. And because “the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life,” we lose our capacity to connect with each other. The best coping mechanism Weber could offer his audience was to “find and obey the daemon that holds in its hands the threads of our own life.”44xIbid., 40, 42. Such obedience, though, makes for an unshared faith.

No wonder Weber’s account has made us long for re-enchantment. Whether anything can still make us feel free or bring us together has been a lively question of late. Surveying recent books that call for the re-enchantment of everything from political science to nature to art, Jason Crawford notes that the authors of such works all disavow the credulity that would seem to belong to enchantment, promoting instead sociable values like communalism.55xJason Crawford, “The Trouble with Re-enchantment,” Los Angeles Review of Books, September 7, 2020, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-trouble-with-re-enchantment/. Advocates of re-enchantment like the literary scholar Rita Felski speak of networking and association, of vulnerability and wonder.66xFor instance, in her most recent book, The Limits of Critique (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), Rita Felski urges critics to “greater receptivity” (12) and to think of themselves and texts “linked in extended constellations of cause and effect” (164). If you define disenchantment as being stuck in your own head and dying pointlessly, then enchantment means loving others and achieving what the philosopher Charles Taylor, our great chronicler of disenchantment, has called “fullness.”77xCharles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 5. The re-enchanters’ gambit, as another literary scholar, Bruce Robbins, sees it, is to convince us that modern progress is illusory so that we’ll be grateful to be redeemed from it: “To decide that everyday life is rationalized, bureaucratized, or routinized is to kill it in order to get a pat on the back for rescuing it from the dead.”88xBruce Robbins, “Enchantment? No, Thank You!,” in The Joy of Secularism, ed. George Levine (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 93.

Such an account can still imagine—as Robbins does, as do I—that recognizing the potential for freedom and love in everyday life is a worthwhile endeavor. A prime candidate for such work has long been literary art. Literature teaches us sympathy and makes us see a blackbird in thirteen different ways. But many recent accounts (including Felski’s) hold that in order to re-enchant us, literature must be rescued from the disenchanter in chief: history, specifically history conceived as an impersonal force that determines who and what we are. That rescue impulse is a mistake. But it has its own long history worth unraveling.

A recent scuffle over what it means to love literature helps explain the logic of the case. Jon Baskin, editor of The Point, named the novelist and poet Ben Lerner a representative of “the hatred of literature, as it has filtered from academia into contemporary literary culture.” For Baskin, Lerner’s work “exposes the misunderstanding in the hatred of literature’s disenchanted heart.”99xJon Baskin, “On the Hatred of Literature,” The Point 21 (Winter 2020): 7, 11. A few months later, Lerner responded in the form of an autofictional story published in The New Yorker. The story’s narrator addresses an unknown interlocutor: “I’m just clicking on things in bed, a review by a man named Baskin, who says I have no feelings and hate art.”1010xBen Lerner, “The Media,” The New Yorker, April 20, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/04/20/the-media.

For Baskin, art does still enchant, and that is why it demands love. Baskin sees, in the films of Terrence Malick, for instance, a beauty that testifies to another world of higher values.1111xJon Baskin, “Conversion Experience: Terrence Malick’s ‘To the Wonder,’” Los Angeles Review of Books, May 12, 2013, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/conversion-experience-terrence-malicks-to-the-wonder/. Lerner acknowledges that art is meant to dissolve the particular individual into a higher unity, but he believes it fails to do so. Lerner sees, in Keats and Dickinson, for example, great poets who “rage against the merely actual.”1212xBen Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 37. Real love of art manifests as contempt, because only real love sees how much more art could have done.

On one side, then, we have a faithful lover, for whom art is as powerful as ever but beset by smug haters. On the other, we have a wised-up lover who has accepted his beloved’s limits and matured beyond what now looks like a honeymoon phase. One side is loving, the other is knowing. Loving defends art’s capacity to rise above the world we know; knowing acknowledges how much art has already been compromised by that world.

Yet the distance between these two lovers is not so great. Both want the same kind of enchantment from art. They only disagree about whether art can give it to them. Both share an aesthetic of transcendence, preferring what is otherworldly to the this-worldly. Lerner admires Keats’s line about the superiority of music that goes unheard; Baskin admires Malick’s refusal of manmade standards as the final measure of life. For both, what is enchanting about art is its power to liberate us from the narrow confines of our historical situatedness and to offer access to something beyond ourselves and our times.

The aesthetic of transcendence makes history the chief obstacle to the love of art. Baskin blames New Historicism, which dominated English departments in the 1980s and 1990s, for having spawned a crop of writers and editors who now conflate art with the advocacy of social justice. He sees historicists turning literature into a courtroom exhibit for the critic to judge: Were its author’s politics good or bad? Lerner’s impoverished imagination is the result, Baskin says, of a hyperpoliticized historicist literary criticism. For his part, Lerner identifies poetry’s mission as escaping “the finite and the historical.”1313xIbid., 8. In this view, to write a particular poem in a particular time and place is to objectify, and therefore to falsify, poetry’s full power. For Lerner, it is a shame that literature can be written only in history; for Baskin, it is a shame that literature can be read only as history, at least in today’s intellectual climate.

But history does not have to be seen as an enemy to art, such that art must either be protected from it by a lover or reluctantly abandoned to it by a knower. The conflict between knowing and loving is itself a byproduct of the antihistoricism inherent in the aesthetic of transcendence. The aesthetic of transcendence measures art in the singular moment when a reader or viewer locks eyes with a poem or film. Any hint that the poem or film is trailing not clouds of glory, but the dusty streamers of its historical provenance, feels like a degradation of that encounter. Baskin and Lerner want art to do its work immediately: to swoosh us into a self-realization or a self-dissolution that could at least momentarily suspend our disbelief, shake us out of our neoliberal instrumentalization, and join us in shared enchantment. According to the aesthetic of transcendence, this enchantment either happens as an out-of-time epiphany, or it doesn’t happen at all. It is a vertical breakthrough from a realm above to ours below.

If that is the end of the story, that is not love. It is, at least, only one kind of love. Love also happens diachronically, across and through time, stretching horizontally into a possibly infinite distance. We need the poem and the film, it is true, to make us feel more alive right in the moment of first contact. But the poem and the film also need us to carry their lives forward in time. Artworks are no more autonomous than we are. Our mutual dependence binds us to a future whose end we can’t see. That apparent endlessness is equally worth calling transcendence, and equally enchanting. This view doesn’t deny art its transcendent power. It reframes the time scale in which we judge art’s power. This view says that art’s full capacity to enchant us unfolds across time, in the world. Seen this way, art is not degraded by history; art creates history.

What I am describing is an aesthetic of incarnation. Unlike the aesthetic of transcendence, it locates the sublimity of art within the world and within history. This aesthetic of incarnation borrows two related ideas from the great political philosopher Hannah Arendt: natality and action. Natality is the power to make something new, granted to all of us as newcomers in the world; action is the effort to make such a beginning, “to set something into motion.” Such a creative act is unpredictable, even miraculous, because it marks a freely undertaken effort by which “we insert ourselves into the human world,” thus achieving a “second birth.”1414xHannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 9, 177, 176. Arendt identifies speech as the paradigmatic example of action; I would identify art as a form of speech and of action as she defines those terms. Art is a miraculous incarnation—uncalled for, contingent, and prone to consequences that may be good or bad—that we collectively sustain by talking about it. We, as readers and viewers, can repeat that miracle through speech and action provoked by our encounter with art. In our own speech and action, we enable a second birth for that art.

In contrast to an aesthetics of transcendence, then, an incarnational aesthetic posits that art’s power to move us depends on its emergence in history, and on the arguments, like Baskin and Lerner’s spat, that keep it alive over time. It also depends, crucially, on conserving and reforming the institutions that make such talk possible. If we see art as creating history, then the apparent gulf between knowing and loving disappears. What makes an incarnation miraculous is that it happens in a particular time and place, even though it didn’t have to. To ignore that time and place is to miss the power of the act. A true love for art, then, requires knowing where and how art appears in history, how far it traveled to reach us, and how obligated we are to keep it alive by acting and speaking ourselves. The incarnational aesthetic doesn’t mourn this world as lost to enchantment; it sees the enchantment of the world as our ongoing collective task.

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