Sublimation and Repression: Inside Out, Star Trek, The Incredible Hulk, and The Babadook

Inside Out

Note: the following essay includes spoilers for each of the works under discussion.

In his essay “Freud and Nietzsche on Sublimation” (The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, Issue 38, Autumn 2009, pp. 38-59), the philosopher Ken Gemes discusses the difference between the psychological concepts sublimation and repression. “Sublimations,” he writes, “involve integration and unification, while pathological symptoms [i.e., from repression] involve splitting off or disintegration.” Pete Docter’s Inside Out is an excellent illustration of these concepts as defined by Gemes. In the film, we see not only the dangers that repression (or the splitting off) of a specific emotion can present within an individual but also what happens when the goal of sublimation is reached: when all of a person’s emotions are integrated into a unified self and are working together toward the same goals. Though perhaps one of the best films yet to tackle these ideas within a narrative framework, Inside Out is not the first piece of art to do so. The Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within,” for example, examines quite literally what happens when the self is psychically split into two parts. And two works that take these ideas a step further by exploring what happens when repressed traumas cause the self to splinter and disintegrate are issue 377 of Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk and the Australian horror film The Babadook. Let us examine each of these works in turn.

Joy and Sadness

As hinted above, Inside Out is a narrative film which also happens to present a philosophy of mind that is both cogent and coherent. It envisions people as each governed by a group of five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. These emotions take turns driving a person and coloring the person’s memories, which are then stored away to be recalled when needed (or eventually relegated to the subconscious). Some of these memories become the core memories, which power a person’s islands of personality. With this basic structure of the mind on display, the film offers a philosophically mature look at the self as a multifaceted and mutable concept. For the core memories and islands of personality are not permanent fixtures; they can be altered by other emotions or replaced as a person’s life experiences and interests change. And that is exactly what happens throughout the course of the film.

Our focus is on an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. In Riley’s mind, Joy is the dominant emotion. She gets nervous when the other emotions are in control of Riley for too long, and she thinks that the majority of Riley’s memories should be colored by her. Joy is particularly uncomfortable around Sadness. In one scene, Joy even tries to remove the influence of Sadness by drawing a chalk circle around her and telling her she must remain within it. She wants to deny that sadness is a part of Riley, a part of life. This is a typical model of repression. Gemes writes in his essay:

Repression is what happens when a drive is denied its immediate aim and is then split off from other drives in the sense that its aims are not integrated with the aims of other drives and it must battle, often unsuccessfully, for any opportunity to achieve expression.

This is the position that Sadness finds herself in at the start of the film; Joy rarely allows her an opportunity for expression.

Later in the film, after Riley’s life is turned upside down by a move from Minnesota to San Francisco, Joy and Sadness are both accidentally transported from the headquarters of Riley’s mind and must work together to find their way back. It is on this journey that Joy begins to see how Sadness can be valuable. For example, while comforting Riley’s long forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong, Sadness demonstrates how she can connect with the pain of others through empathy. Also, she is the only one who can help Riley express the feelings of hopelessness and despair that are bound to crop up on occasion. At the end of the film, when Riley is literally running away from the things that are challenging her, Sadness is the emotion that helps her turn around to confront her parents with all that she is feeling.

This demonstration of the psychological importance of expressing sadness is consistent with the way in which we see the other emotions not as negative aspects of Riley’s personality, but as equally vital to her sense of self. Fear, for instance, keeps Riley safe. Anger helps her be an aggressive hockey player. And Disgust helps her with aesthetic choices and with navigating nuanced appearance-based social circles. Riley lives with parents who want her to be happy all the time. We, too, live in a culture that paints emotions such as sadness, fear, and anger in a negative light. Inside Out proves that all emotions, even joy, can have their downsides, but that does not make them negative, bad, or shameful things to be excised or repressed. They can be harnessed, sublimated, and used toward positive ends. Ideally, these emotions/drives will work together, creating (as they do at the end of the film) memories colored by input from each of them.

The Enemy Within

In the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within” (Richard Matheson’s sole writing credit on the show), Captain Kirk finds himself in a situation that addresses the same issue of sublimation as Inside Out. At the beginning of the episode, after a planetary expedition, Captain Kirk beams aboard the Enterprise. However, there is a transporter malfunction. The Captain is seemingly OK, just a little lightheaded. But then, when the transporter room is unattended, another Captain Kirk beams aboard the ship. This version of the Captain appears maniacal and unhinged. While the first version of the Captain feels weak and returns to his quarters to rest, the second version immediately seeks brandy from sick bay and attempts to sexually assault Yeoman Rand. There is an obvious temptation to view the first version of Kirk as good and the second version as evil, but as the episode progresses, we see that it is not that simple. The following exchange between Spock and Dr. McCoy explains why:

SPOCK: We have here an unusual opportunity to appraise the human mind, or to examine, in Earth terms, the roles of good and evil in a man. His negative side, which you call hostility, lust, violence, and his positive side, which Earth people express as compassion, love, tenderness.

MCCOY: It’s the Captain’s guts you’re analyzing. Are you aware of that, Spock?

SPOCK: Yes, and what is it that makes one man an exceptional leader? We see indications that it’s his negative side which makes him strong, that his evil side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength. Your negative side removed from you, the power of command begins to elude you.

Indeed, the first version of Kirk is weak, tired, unmotivated, and ineffectual as a leader. At his own admission, decisions are becoming more and more difficult to make. The second version of Kirk, while certainly impulsive, lustful, and aggressive, is also quite fearful and pathetic. In other words, neither version of Kirk is ideal on its own. As the first version of Kirk says when he first confronts his double: “Don’t you understand? I’m part of you. You need me. I need you.” Just as Joy realizes that Riley needs Sadness in Inside Out, we begin to see that Captain Kirk needs both sides of himself, even the part that seems on the surface solely negative and evil.  The lesson of both the Pixar film and the Star Trek episode is the opposite of the famous Christian idea of removing those parts of us that cause us to sin (“So if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away”). We cannot simply cut away those parts of us that we find unsavory, negative, or evil. Rather, as Spock says, and as Joy learns in regard to sharing Riley with Sadness and the other emotions, our dark sides and personal demons, “properly controlled and disciplined,” are essential to creating a whole and healthy psyche.

This exchange between Kirk and McCoy captures this message perfectly:

KIRK: I have to take him back inside myself. I can’t survive without him. I don’t want him back. He’s like an animal, a thoughtless, brutal animal, and yet it’s me. Me.

MCCOY: Jim, you’re no different than anyone else. We all have our darker side. We need it! It’s half of what we are. It’s not really ugly, it’s human.

At the end of the episode, with the transporter fixed, Kirk is able to integrate both sides of himself into a single entity again.

The Incredible Hulk 377

In issue 377 of Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk (written by Peter David and penciled by Dale Keown), Bruce Banner is psychically divided in a similar manner to that of Captain Kirk in “The Enemy Within.” As the issue begins, we see Banner’s therapist, the gamma-powered Doc Samson, sitting with Banner and two separate Hulks: the so-called grey Hulk and the green, savage Hulk (who amusingly refers to the grey hulk as “Fake Hulk”). Using post-hypnotic suggestion, Samson has gathered these three parts of Banner together in Banner’s mind for one purpose. Samson tells the two Hulks: “You’re going to have to come to terms with each other because you’re all tearing this man apart.” It seems, just as Kirk could not exist as only one side of himself, and just as Riley could not exist without all of her emotions working together, Banner is also going to be unable to exist as a whole, healthy person if he remains splintered in three parts, each trying to gain control by destroying the other two. But what is keeping these three parts separated?

As the issue progresses, we learn that there is a monster lurking in Banner’s subconscious, one that even the two Hulks cannot defeat on their own. This monster, we find out, is Banner’s abusive father, Brian. We see the monster attack and kill Banner’s mother, with Banner watching as a child, unable to save her. And then, in a scene that will feel particularly resonant in relation to Inside Out, we see Banner realize that his younger self never really came to terms with what happened on an emotional level—because he was taught that emotions were bad:

BANNER: Cry, show some emotion.

YOUNG BANNER: Emotion’s bad. It hurts people.

BANNER: Not all emotion. Cry, blast it. Cry big racking sobs.

After Banner finishes pleading with his younger self, the green Hulk is released. We see now what the Hulks represent to Banner: the unleashed emotional and passionate parts of himself that he has always denied proper expression. It took a gamma bomb to unleash them, and even then, Banner tried for years to “cure” himself of them, to cut them out of himself. The reason his psyche is so splintered is because he had repressed his sadness at the time of his mother’s death. Samson’s goal in this particular therapy session is to get the pieces working together, not against each other any longer. He tells Betty Ross: “If we integrate the personalities, as I hope to, what we will get is a whole Bruce Banner, for the first time in years.”

Later, in another scene in Banner’s subconscious, we see that he carried his denial of emotional expression through even his college years. Here, we see Banner with a young woman who wants nothing more than to make love to him, but Banner responds: “I just have work to do, that’s all. This is college, not a playpen.” In this instance, it was the grey Hulk whom Banner was repressing. To return to the Gemes essay once again, he writes:

Aggressive drives, which are not viewed as acceptable, typically because acting on them would exact a painful retribution, are repressed to the point that one does not even acknowledge that one has such drives.

Due to his traumatic past and the strong repression of all of his emotions and passions, this is the situation in which Banner has found himself and which ultimately proved fertile ground from which to birth his Hulk personae.

Finally, toward the end of the issue, Banner confronts the monster in his subconscious: “You got so mad and I saw what emotions did and I…I was so…af…afraid…of buh-being like you.” With this admission, the monster begins to shrink and take the shape of a man—Brian Banner—before finally disintegrating. Now, Banner’s mother appears in his place and tells the two Hulks: “He needs you now. No more fighting.” They are hesitant, just as the dark half of Kirk was hesitant to be put back together again. But in the end, they concede. When Banner comes out of his post-hypnotic state, he is unlike he ever was before: finally, with all parts integrated into one, with Banner no longer repressing his emotions and passions, Banner has become a new merged Hulk—a super being with the strengths of all three parts, including Banner’s intellect, working together.

The Babadook

In the film The Babadook (written and directed by Jennifer Kent), we are faced with a protagonist, much like Bruce Banner, who has repressed a past trauma to the point that it is tearing her apart. Amelia (Essie Davis) is the widowed mother of a six-year-old boy, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). We eventually learn that Amelia’s husband, Oskar, was killed in a car accident while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. And we soon discover that Amelia has never truly come to terms with this trauma and has repressed it (indeed, she even keeps all of Oskar’s possessions locked in her basement). Samuel sees that there is something going on with his mother, something changing within her, which is why he spends time developing weapons to use against the “monster” that he keeps thinking is going to get them.

This tense home life is complicated by the fact that Samuel’s birthday is coming up, a day that Amelia looks at more as the day her husband died than the day her son was born. Samuel has never even been allowed to celebrate his birthday on the actual day. Amelia does not do well around this time of the year, as a neighbor points out. And as her sister reminds her: “As soon as anyone mentions Oskar, you can’t cope.” But Amelia tries to hide it. When a co-worker asks her how she is doing, she says she is fine. He replies: “You don’t have to be fine, you know.”

We have already looked at the importance of allowing yourself to grieve in both Inside Out and The Incredible Hulk, but Amelia’s repression seems to be too deep. And just as Banner’s repressed feelings eventually forced themselves out as the two Hulks, Amelia’s repressed grief finds its own outlet for expression: a children’s book called The Babadook that Samuel asks her to read to him.

In the book, the titular Babadook is a dark figure with long fingers, a long coat, and a creepy hat who knocks on the door to a house demanding to be let in. Samuel is rightfully frightened by the chilling imagery, which seems to hit too close to home for him. Amelia is also disturbed and tries to get rid of the book, first by hiding it, then by ripping it apart, then by burning it—but it keeps coming back.

Finally, while looking at it again, she reads the line: “You start to change when I get in, the Babadook growing right under your skin.” And the Babadook does get in and change her. She starts lashing out at Samuel and threatening him. When Samuel tries calling their neighbor for help, Amelia cuts the phone line. She even snaps their dog’s neck. At this point, the Babadook is in complete control. But Samuel is prepared: he fights the Babadook with the weapons and traps he has prepared and helps his mother expunge the monster. But when it finally seems to be gone, Samuel recalls another line from the book: “You can’t get rid of the Babadook.”

Amelia has a final showdown with the monster in which she faces it in the same way in which Banner faced his monster in his subconscious: recognizing it for what it is. Ultimately, she makes peace with it, allowing it to remain alive in her basement where she can visit it and feed it. Of this ending, Jennifer Kent has stated in an interview:

We had many people fight the ending. I had to really defend that ending. To be perfectly honest, if I had to have killed that thing I wouldn’t have made the film. You can’t kill the monster, you can only integrate it. Even with Amelia, she can’t ever forget that her husband was killed in a car crash, that will never go away. So yeah, it’s the most crucial thing, to keep that thing alive on some level.

Like the other works we have discussed, the goal for Amelia in the film has been to face her repressed trauma and grief and sublimate it, to make it an integral part of herself. She can actually learn a thing or two about this from Samuel. At one point in the film, he learns about his neighbor’s Parkinson’s disease when he inquires why her hands shake. His mother is upset that he would have pried about this, but the neighbor says, “He wanted to know, so we talked about it.” And at the end of the film, when Amelia is meeting with government employees about Samuel’s schooling, and Samuel tells them about his birthday being the same day his dad died, she says: “Sam’s just like his dad, always speaks his mind.” The lesson for Amelia, then, is to talk about things and speak what’s on her mind, not to repress her feelings and pretend that everything is fine when it is not.

In her essay “Hannibal: Bedelia’s Dream and the True Face of Lecter,” Priscilla Page uses a quote from Joseph Campbell that is equally relevant to our discussion of sublimation and repression:

In the Greek, the demon is that unconscious impulse that is the dynamic of your life and which comes to you in vision and in dream, but in the Christian interpretation, it is a devil—all that a devil is is a repressed demon: one who has not been recognized, one that has not been given its dues, who has not been allowed to play into your life and so becomes a violent threat.

We have seen in The Incredible Hulk and in The Babadook how repressed demons can indeed become violent threats if not recognized and integrated via sublimation, and we have seen in Inside Out and “The Enemy Within” how seemingly dark, negative aspects of a person’s mind, if successfully sublimated, become positive and essential. But more importantly, I think these works can teach us to recognize these sorts of things going on in our minds and the minds of others. With any luck, they will help us sublimate our own monsters and demons into energies that we can harness and put toward positive and healthy ends. Because, as we have seen, we can’t kill the monsters; in fact, we may actually need them.

Further reading:

Subliminal: Leonard Mlodinow’s Nietzschean Look at the Unconscious

Leonard Mlodinow

I recently finished reading the book Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow.  It is an excellent summation of the best scientific research on the subject of the unconscious.  Mlodinow analyzes and organizes the material beautifully, and he also shares personal anecdotes for clarification and levity. For those unfamiliar with his past work, Mlodinow is a theoretical physicist who has published numerous books on a variety of subjects, worked alongside Stephen Hawking, and written for popular television series, including Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Subliminal is a wonderful book in its own right, but I like it for another reason.  Whether or not Mlodinow is even aware of the fact, the book provides scientific and empirical support for psychological ideas advanced by Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century.  For example, the book presents evidence to support Nietzsche’s claims on everything from the illusion of free will to the will to power (though it does not name this idea explicitly).  I am especially fond of Mlodinow’s chapter on “Feelings,” which explores the role that our unconscious feelings play in our choices and actions.   This role is indeed a greater one than that played by our conscious, rational faculties.  Our reasoning and thoughts are always just the post-hoc justifications for our behaviors, never the true motivations.  As Nietzsche said, “Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings—always darker, emptier, simpler.”

Take the following passage from the “Feelings” chapter:

We ask ourselves or our friends questions like “Why do you drive that car?” or “Why do you like that guy” or “Why did you laugh at that joke?”  Research suggests that we think we know the answers to such questions, but really we often don’t.  When asked to explain ourselves, we engage in a search for truth that may feel like a kind of introspection.  But though we think we know what we are feeling, we often know neither the content nor the unconscious origins of that content.  And so we come up with plausible explanations that are untrue or only partly accurate, and we believe them.  Scientists who study such errors have noticed that they are not haphazard.  They are regular and systematic.  And they have their basis in a repository of social, emotional, and cultural information we all share.

This brings up issues similar to those I have discussed previously in “Hume, Kael, and the Role of Subjectivity in Criticism.”  Just as with the questions Mlodinow asks above, the question of why a person likes a particular film or artwork is also always answered with a convenient narrative rather than an honest account or an objective reason.  This is why criticism is subjective and why objectivity is an illusion.  This is also the meaning behind Stanley Kubrick’s statement: “The test of a work of art is, in the end, our affection for it, not our ability to explain why it is good.”  To quote Nietzsche again: “It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them!”

This is not to discount criticism, of course. I offer a solution to this supposed discrepancy in my aforementioned “Subjectivity” essay. But if you are at all curious how your unconscious affects your aesthetic judgments, or if you would like a greater understanding of just how deeply your unconscious governs your behavior and shapes your identity, I wholeheartedly recommend Mlodinow’s Subliminal.

Further reading:

The Turin Horse

Please note that the following post may contain spoilers.

Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse is a bleak and beautiful film, one that portrays quite masterfully the frailty of human endeavor, of human civilization.  It does this through breathtaking black and white cinematography captured in long, thoughtful takes.  There is little dialogue, and the music (when present) simply nudges the films along, like the eponymous horse, with its melancholic, plodding rhythm: a funeral dirge for humanity.

The opening narration recounts the following fable:

In Turin on January 3, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the door of number six Via Carlo Alberto, perhaps to take a stroll, perhaps to go by the post office to collect his mail. Not far from him, or indeed very removed from him, a cabman is having trouble with his stubborn horse. Despite all his urging, the horse refuses to move, whereupon the cabman…Giuseppe? Carlo? Ettore?…loses his patience and takes his whip to it. Nietzsche comes up to the throng and puts an end to the brutal scene of the cabman, who by his time is foaming with rage. The solidly built and full-mustached Nietzsche suddenly jumps up to the cab and throws his arms around the horse’s neck sobbing. His neighbor takes him home, where he lies still and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words: “Mutter, ich bin dumm,” and lives for another ten years, gentle and demented, in the care of his mother and sisters. Of the horse, we know nothing.

This has little bearing on what follows, unless you are familiar with the philosophy of Nietzsche; in which case, the film will unfold as both a confirmation of Nietzsche’s anti-metaphysical view of the world as well as a fascinating refutation of his optimism in regard to our relationship to it.

We begin, appropriately enough, on the horse, a pathetically tired animal, as it carts an old man through a wind-swept wasteland.  After this long take, in which the camera follows the weary journey with an upward gaze, the man and his horse arrive at their humble home.  The man’s daughter rushes out to assist her father in stabling the horse and cart.  Meanwhile, the wind, loud and unceasing, continues pillaging the already gloomy landscape.

We stay with the man and his daughter for six days.  We follow them through their daily routine and observe this routine degrade more and more each day until the characters no longer seem to get any pleasure or meaning from it.  The main obstacle is the unexplainable and incessant wind storm, which the man and his daughter simply gaze upon through a window.  The other problem is the horse, which will no longer obey commands or even eat.  It is as if it has simply resigned from life.

The daily routine of the characters consists of waking, dressing, fetching water from the well, cleaning the horse’s stall, boiling potatoes, eating the potatoes, washing the dishes, and sleeping.  I imagine the man would ride the horse into town, but that part of the routine, of course, is disrupted, as others soon will be.

Two notable disruptions arrive in the form of visitors.  The first is a man seeking pálinka (Hungarian brandy).  He cannot find any in town because of the wind storm, our hint that civilization itself is collapsing from the relentless onslaught of nature. The man recounts a fable (a philosophy?) about why the world is the way it is: man’s judgment of himself, god’s hand in all that is terrible, the debasement of the world through touch and acquisition; it is an indictment of sorts.  The character reminds me of the jovial squire from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.  He seems to take what pleasure he can from existence without guilt and despite horrid circumstances; he is in on the joke that nothing matters.  And if what he says is true, the storm is the means by which the world, though indifferent, will reclaim itself from those who would debase it.  “Come off it,” the old man responds.  “That’s rubbish.”

The second visitation is an unwelcome band of gypsies.  They attempt to take water from the well.  The old man sends his daughter out to disperse them, but he eventually comes out to aid her with an axe.  The gypsies disband, laughing merrily, and they taunt the man and his daughter: “You are weak.  Drop dead.”

The gypsies are a fitting counterpoint to our sad protagonists.  They have healthy horses of which they are in command, they vocally claim the land and the water as their own, and they are not suffering.  Indeed, they appear to be striving–living rather than dying.

The Turin Horse, unlike last year’s visually rich auteurist statement, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, does not depict the world or humanity with any imagined telos (an end goal or purpose).  There is only a tumultuous sense of becoming–chaotic and without reason.  The forms which we inflict upon the formlessness are what give our lives pleasure and meaning.  And those forms (including our routines), as Tarr shows us, are weak, flawed, and ultimately inadequate.  This is where the film refutes Nietzsche’s optimism.  If, as Nietzsche believes, “we possess art lest we perish of the truth,” what happens when art (our form-giving capability) fails us?  What happens when the ugly truth (the valueless nature of existence) is all that remains?  This is why, perhaps, the film opens with the tale of Nietzsche’s resignation to insanity.  Even for him, the tale suggests, the blackness of life became too much to bear.

Consider the plight of our characters:

First, their horse, their taming of wild nature, no longer responds to their bidding.  Then, their well, their taming of the earth, dries up.  Then, their lamps, their taming of the darkness, do not light.  At this point, we become conscious that even cinema–the film we are watching, which has indeed been beautifying the ugliness of existence for us–even that ultimately fails.  As the light goes out, we, along with the characters, are consumed by blackness.  As the characters resign to nothingness, so too must we. “Tomorrow we’ll try again,” the man says.

The film’s narrator finishes the tale that the camera can no longer tell.  The man and his daughter go to sleep, and the storm, comically enough, subsides.  We see the man and his daughter one final time: eating potatoes, joylessly, as they do.  This time, though, a heavy darkness weighs down on them from above like the pulsating black space of a Mark Rothko painting.  Is this ending hopeful?  Maybe–the storm has ended, and our protagonists can now get back to their daily routines.  But is there a difference between simply sustaining life and actually living it?  The gypsies seem to think so.  But not all of us are as capable of adapting to nature’s frightful whims.  We prefer that nature adapt to us, be tamed by our art, and abide by our laws and routines.  When nature refuses? That is the despairing tale of The Turin Horse.

Further reading:

Doomsday Cinema, Part 2: The Turin Horse

How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste (Part 3 of 8)

The Hierarchy of the Senses 

In her book Making Sense of Taste, Carolyn Korsmeyer offers a detailed explanation as to how the hierarchy of the senses came to exist in Western philosophy and why it persists. In discussing the reasons why sight and hearing are afforded such higher value than taste, smell, and touch, she writes: “In virtually all analyses of the senses in Western philosophy the distance between object and perceiver has been seen as a cognitive, moral, and aesthetic advantage. The bodily senses are ‘lower’ in part because of the necessary closeness of the object of perception to the physical body of the percipient” (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 12). In other words, sight and hearing, because of the perceived distance between these senses and their objects, give the impression of objectivity. Taste, smell, and touch, on the other hand, being intimately connected with their objects, are presumed merely subjective. Indeed, sight in particular is usually singled out as the noblest of the senses.

So why has sight been raised to such lofty heights and been accepted, along with hearing, as one of the only sources for objective knowledge? One possible explanation rests in our initial misinterpretation of visual data. In an essay titled “Nobility of Sight,” Hans Jonas writes:

Indeed only the simultaneity of sight, with its extended ‘present’ of enduring objects, allows the distinction between change and the nonchanging and therefore between becoming and being. […] Only sight provides the sensual basis on which the mind may conceive the idea of the eternal, that which never changes and is always present. (Jonas 513)

To be sure, through the senses of taste, smell, touch, and even hearing we perceive objects temporally, suggesting the transience of the world–becoming. Sight, limited as it is (inferior, even, to the sight of certain animals), incorrectly perceives stasis in the world–supposedly unchanging elements. Our eyes simply cannot detect every movement, every change (and many changes, such as those that result in vast rock formations, take enormous lengths of time to register sensory evidence that they have even been occurring), so we extrapolate the idea of the eternal, of being, from our ill scrutinized visual data. With this dualistic worldview in place, one side (being) is given precedence over the other (becoming). In Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche explains why this privileging of being over becoming came to be in Western philosophy. Discussing it as an idiosyncrasy of philosophers, he writes:

[…] it consists in confusing the last and the first. They place that which comes at the end–unfortunately! for it ought not to come at all!–namely, the “highest concepts,” which means the most general, the emptiest concepts, the last smoke of evaporating reality, in the beginning, as the beginning. This again is nothing but their way of showing reverence: the higher may not grow out of the lower, may not have grown at all. Moral: whatever is of the first rank must be causa sui. Origin out of something else is considered an objection, a questioning of value. All the highest values are of the first rank; all the highest concepts, that which has being, the unconditional, the good, the true, the perfect–all these cannot have become and must therefore be causa sui. (Nietzsche 481-2)

In other words, though the idea of the eternal (being) was extrapolated from misunderstood visual data, and because the idea seemed purer and more perfect than the reality from which it came, it was deemed superior. Because it was deemed superior, the world of being could not have come from the lesser world of becoming. Thus, it must have been self-caused, and the lesser world of becoming must have arisen out of it. The world of being, then, must be the real world; the world of becoming is only an illusion. Nietzsche refers to this reversal, the foundation of Platonic philosophy, as simply an error.

Returning to the subject at hand, Korsmeyer explains how this erroneous hierarchical structuring of being over becoming led to the parallel structuring of the “distance” senses over the bodily ones, and how this then led to other parallel hierarchical relationships: “As we see from the reasons Plato and Aristotle advance in their studies of sense experience, this hierarchy accords with the elevation of mind over body; of reason over sense; of man over beast and culture over nature” (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 30). Thus, reason is associated with the mind; senses are associated with the body. Sight and hearing seem to perceive objects at a distance; they are subsequently associated with the mind and the intellect, as this distance affords them the capacity for reflection and reasoning. Knowledge follows from this intellectual activity. The senses of taste, smell, and touch, being intimately connected with the physical body, are by nature lesser in this construct. Because there is no distance between them and their objects, the application of reflection and reasoning is not thought possible. The sensations afforded by these senses are more immediate and subjective (e.g., pleasure or pain, delicious or disgusting). They cannot be sources for knowledge–or beauty.

Kant: How the Sense Hierarchy is Applied to Aesthetics

In an essay titled “Can a Soup Be Beautiful? The Rise of Gastronomy and the Aesthetics of Food,” Kevin W. Sweeney explains the prejudice that philosophers show toward taste and food in particular by discussing Immanuel Kant’s view of the sense. He writes: “Kant suggests that gustatory experience cannot offer a reflective aesthetic encounter. What we eat or drink provokes only an agreeable or disagreeable sensory response. Consequently, no object of gustatory experience can be beautiful” (Sweeney 121). For Kant, an aesthetic response must be a “disinterested” one. Food, as something that will satisfy a bodily appetite and provide nourishment, cannot create a disinterested aesthetic response in a subject. Also, Kant believes that beauty is a value present within objects and which rational minds can access universally and objectively. Korsmeyer explains it this way:

Partly because aesthetic pleasure is disinterested, it is available to all on the same terms from the same objects. We expect judgments of Taste to be shared by others. Not only are aesthetic pleasures universal, Kant notes that judgments of Taste have a kind of exemplary necessity: because they are based on features of the mind that are universal, all perceivers ideally concur in the apprehension of the beautiful. (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 55)

Clearly, there are two issues that Kant raises that need to be addressed in creating the possibility that food can be beautiful (and thus art):

  1. Is a person’s response to food really more immediate than his or her response to art? Also, is a person’s response to art always more rational and reflective (more “disinterested”) than his or her response to food?
  2. Does beauty exist outside of the subject? Is it really a quality of an object of appreciation and accessible to anyone who experiences the object and reflects on it rationally?

To address these issues, I will examine the evidence of the gastronome Jean Anthelm Brillat-Savarin and the empiricist David Hume.



Brillat-Savarin: Complicating the Hierarchy

Beautifying the Ugly Truth: Art, Religion, and Nietzschean Aesthetics

In my previous post, I discuss the idea that we do not need authoritative versions of stories in art–that, for any specific franchise (e.g., Star Wars), the grand narrative of “canon” need not be taken as the final word on the subject.

So as not to be misunderstood on this point, I am speaking here only of art.  For example, I am not suggesting that religion can be taken as a non-canonical alternative to the grand narrative of science, and I am not saying that science has crushed religion with a tyrannical fist and that we should mourn the death of God.  No–religion involves self-deception about the nature of reality as proven to us by science and our senses; artistic imagining does not.  (I understand that there can be some exceptions to this, e.g., religious art, but bear with me.)  In his appendix to The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus recounts a fable that best captures my meaning here:

You know the story of the crazy man who was fishing in a bathtub.  A doctor with ideas as to psychiatric treatments asked him “if they were biting,” to which he received the harsh reply: “Of course not, you fool, since this is a bathtub.”

Indeed, (most?) artists are not self-deceivers (at least not in regard to how they believe their creations correspond to reality).  They do not expect bites when they go fishing in the bathtub.  This is why we can happily debate all claims to authority in art.  We recognize that our valuations come from within and are prone to error and bias; we understand (and actually enjoy) the fictitiousness of the whole affair.  This is not the case with religion.

With religion (and certain philosophies, such as Platonism and German idealism), one mistakes the powerful abstractions of his or her mind for reality.  The resultant schema, or weltanschauung, corresponds in no way to the reality of which our senses and the natural sciences offer verifiable testimony.  Unlike an art audience (which, hopefully, can discern truth from fiction), a faithful believer will take this mental fabrication and accept it as real.  There is no playfulness in the fictitious; there is no recognition of the imperfect human agency involved in the creation of the religion and the values that arise out of it.  The “creator” is imagined as existing outside human agency.  And it is imagined as authoritative and unchanging–as being.

In Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche explains the process this way (the translation of which I have copied from Verhexung, where the editor, Carlos Narziss, also provides a clear and helpful commentary):

The other idiosyncrasy of the philosophers is just as dangerous: they confuse what comes first with what comes last.  They take what comes at the end (unfortunately! since it should not come at all!), the ‘highest ideas’, which means the emptiest, most universal ideas, the last wisps of smoke from the evaporating end of reality–and they put it at the beginning, as the beginning.  But again, this is just their way of showing respect: the highest should not grow out of the lowest, it should not grow at all…Moral: everything from the first rank must be a causa sui [self-caused].  It is an objection for something to come from something else, it casts doubt on its value.  All the supreme values are of the first rank, all the highest concepts, Being, the Unconditioned, the Good, the True, the Perfect–none of these could have become, and so they must be causa sui.  But also, none of these things can be different from the others or opposed to them…This is how they get their stupendous concept of ‘God’…It is the last, emptiest, most meagre idea of all, and it is put first, as cause in itself, an ens realissimum [the most real thing]…Why did humanity have to take the brain disease of sick cobweb-weavers so seriously?–It has certainly paid the price!…

That being said, I am willing to recognize a similarity that religion shares with art.  Both make life bearable by offering form and meaning to what is otherwise an ever-changing material existence devoid of inherent value.  But they do this in different ways.  Nietzsche, interestingly, at times even used the word art to describe both.  But he clearly favored one over the other.  And his reason, as I have hinted, is that one is more honest.

In an essay titled “Honest Illusion: Valuing for Nietzsche’s Free Spirits,” Nadeem J. Z. Hussain writes:

What is special, for Nietzsche, about art is that it is honest about its use of illusion.  Art is in the business of generating honest illusions.

And why do we need these honest illusions?  According to Nietzsche:

Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.

In “Perishing of the Truth: Nietzsche’s Aesthetic Prophylactics,” an article published last year in the British Journal of Aesthetics, Aaron Ridley explores the meaning of this famous statement.  The article begins:

It is tempting to read this as if it meant that art saves us from perishing of the truth by–somehow–saving us from truth’s ugliness. And it is tempting to understand this as saying that art saves us by–in one way or another–falsifying the truth. Certainly this is the way that most of Nietzsche’s commentators have read him. And they have been encouraged in doing so by Nietzsche himself. His published works contain a number of remarks that can appear to lend support to this reading, such as: ‘[A]rt, in which precisely the lie is sanctified and the will to deception has a good conscience’; or: ‘Honesty would lead to nausea and suicide. But now there is a counterforce against our honesty that helps us to avoid such consequences: art as the good will to appearance.’ The role assigned to art in these places would appear to cast it as some sort of remedy against truth, a role that it performs by peddling lies, deceptions, and (mere?) appearances–that is, or so it seems, by falsifying what is true, or what ‘honesty’ would reveal.

As Ridley will demonstrate, this is hardly the whole story.  But, before we go any further, we must attempt to answer this one question: what does Nietzsche mean by truth?

For a brilliant exploration of this topic, I suggest reading “Nietzsche and the Value of Truth” at Verhexung.  From that essay, I take this excerpt from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science:

We, however, want to become who we are–human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves! To that end we must become the best students and discoverers of everything lawful and necessary in the world: we must become physicists in order to be creators in this sense–while hitherto all valuations and ideals have been built on ignorance of physics or in contradiction to it. So, long live physics! And even more long live what compels us to it–our honesty!

From this statement, we learn that Nietzsche values honesty, and we learn that honesty involves seeking truth.  And truth, apparently, is the testimony of physics–of science.  And the testimony of science, at least in terms of our place within the cosmos, is that we live (as I have already stated) “an ever-changing material existence devoid of inherent value.”

Also from The Gay Science:

Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature–nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present–and it was we who gave and bestowed it.

This is the ugly truth.  Hussain confirms Nietzsche’s point of view:

In his notes from the period right after The Birth of Tragedy, we see him returning again and again to the thought that art might be an antidote or a response to the threat of practical nihilism generated by the natural sciences and their depiction of the world as lacking value in itself.

Returning to Ridley’s article, we will now see just how art–a specific, honest kind of art–might make truth endurable.  According to Ridley, Nietzsche’s statement about “possessing art” can be interpreted three ways:

[…] our possession of art is of service to us because either: (a) art somehow makes false, or at any rate not true, a proposition or prop­ositions whose truth would, in the relevant sense, be ugly; or (b) art somehow prevents or reduces awareness of ugly truths; or (c) art somehow permits or even facilitates awareness of (putatively ugly) truths while minimizing or even abolishing their ugliness.

Of the first interpretation, Ridley writes:

Nietzsche’s most basic conception of art–or artistry–is that it is a matter of giving form; it is a matter of imposing form upon something that had been formless (or in some other way unsatisfactory: formlessness, for Nietzsche, is one way of being unsatisfactory: it implies meaninglessness).

Thus, in a very broad sense, art can simply be form-giving.  Ridley continues:

So form-giving–artistry–strikes him as indispensable. In transmuting chaos into order, the artist creates living structures which, because they confer meaning upon their constituents, offer the prospect of redemption for a life and a world that threaten otherwise to be devoid of sense: and ‘any meaning’, as Nietzsche puts it, ‘is better than none at all’: the ‘door [is] closed to…suicidal nihilism’.

The second interpretation, that “art somehow prevents or reduces awareness of ugly truths,” is where we come to Nietzsche’s view of religion:

For example, it is, he claims, part of the priest’s ‘distinctive art’–his ‘essential art’–to present to his flock a vision of the world so compelling that certain ugly truths (for instance, that death is the end, that fortune is capricious, that morality is ours) become al­together invisible.

Art, in these first two interpretations, is clearly not the type of art that Nietzsche praises for its honesty (though he recognizes its service in preventing despair).  To be sure, Ridley comments:

Nietzsche himself makes little or nothing of the first two of these protective measures–perhaps not altogether surprisingly, since the former relegates art to the status of (mere) entertainment, a devaluation of which he would have disapproved, while the latter seems at odds with his insistence that strong, admirable characters seek rather than evade the truth.

Thus, the third interpretation, which suggests that “art somehow facilitates awareness of (putatively ugly) truths while actually abolishing their ugliness,” is the one that is closest to Nietzsche’s aesthetics.

Once again, from The Twilight of the Idols:

One question remains: art also makes apparent much that is ugly, hard, and questionable in life; does it not thereby spoil life for us? And indeed there have been philosophers who attributed this sense to it: “liberation from the will” was what Schopenhauer taught as the over-all end of art; and with admiration he found the great utility of tragedy in its “evoking resignation.” But this, as I have already suggested, is the pessimist’s perspective and “evil eye.” We must appeal to the artists themselves. What does the tragic artist communicate of himself? Is it not precisely the state without fear in the face of the fearful and questionable that he is showing? This state itself is a great desideratum; whoever knows it, honors it with the greatest honors. He communicates it–must communicate it, provided he is an artist, a genius of communication. Courage and freedom of feeling before a powerful enemy, before a sublime calamity, before a problem that arouses dread–this triumphant state is what the tragic artist chooses, what he glorifies. Before tragedy, what is warlike in our soul celebrates its Saturnalia; whoever is used to suffering, whoever seeks out suffering, the heroic man praises his own being through tragedy–to him alone the tragedian presents this drink of sweetest cruelty.

In conclusion, for those to whom reality, truth, and becoming are too unbearable, religion remains a viable option.  Life, after all, should supersede pessimistic nihilism.  But for those of us who accept the testimony of our senses, of science, who recognize that the world does not possess value in itself, that we must create our own meaning lest we perish without one–for us, it is art that is our saving grace.

Indeed.  And the best art, for Nietzsche, is not the kind that would falsify, ignore, or hide the ugly truth (though this art is still preferable to none at all). No–it is the art that beautifies it.

Further reading:

Brains in jars: artists’ fascination with anatomy