Archive for June 21st, 2018

“A Metaphysics of Negativity”: Brothers Robert and Thomas Harrison discuss Expressionism and the Year 1910

Thursday, June 21st, 2018
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“THE BEAST WE HAVE WITHIN US WILL STICK ITS HEAD UP THE MINUTE HE CAN GET AWAY WITH IT.”

Thomas Harrison

When Halley’s Comet passed over the world in 1910, newspapers prophesied doom. The era was already overshadowed by social, spiritual, and political unease. That year, Sigmund Freud published Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis and formulated his first sketch of the Oedipal complex. Rainer Maria Rilke published his only novel, Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Writer and philosopher Carlo Michelstaedter completed his thesis and shot himself, one of the era’s many suicides. Meanwhile, Arnold Schoenberg was emancipating dissonance with his Theory of Harmony, which was written in the summer of 1910. The following year, Oswald Spengler would begin his landmark Decline of the West.

“The nihilism of the First World War was presaged, summarized, and mourned in the music, poetry, and thought which a great many artists and thinkers produced in the year 1910,” said Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison. “It seemed to play out all the worst nightmares that had obsessed the Expressionists.”

Just warming up with Oedipus

This episode of Entitled Opinions at the Los Angeles Review of Books is a family affair. Said Robert Harrison, “Brothers punctuate cultural history. We have the Brothers Grimm, the Marx Brothers, the Schlegel brothers, the Goncourt brothers. It so happens I have a brother, too, who like me, is a professor of literature who has written a few books.”

In the introduction to his 1910: The Emancipation of Dissonance (University of California Press, 1996), UCLA professor Thomas Harrison wrote, “Nineteen ten is the spiritual prefiguration of an unspeakably tragic fatality, heard in the tones of the audacious and the anguished, the deviant and the desperate, in the art of a youth grown precociously old, awaiting a war it had long suffered in spirit.”

First and only novel

In this fraternal conversation, Thomas and Robert Harrison discuss leading figures in the umbrella movement called “Expressionism,” including poet Georg Trakl, painter Wassily Kandinsky, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Filippo Marinetti, as well as Rilke, Spendler, Schoenberg, and others.

What do the Expressionists say to us today? “Of course, the darkness of their vision didn’t turn a lot of people on,” explains Thomas Harrison. “During the reconstruction of Europe after World War I, we had to forcibly leave that stuff behind. But don’t forget that every time you leave something behind it comes back. So it came back in World War II. Human nature does not change, although we think we’re getting better and more rational. The depths of the soul that they probed are the same depths that people try to keep hidden and secret, over and over and over. While it may not be not much fun to listen to Schoenberg’s atonal music, it’s a reminder that the beast we have within us will stick its head up the minute he can get away with it.”

Listen to the podcast of this fascinating Harrison-on-Harrison discussion here.

“HUMAN NATURE DOES NOT CHANGE, ALTHOUGH WE THINK WE’RE GETTING BETTER AND MORE RATIONAL.”

More potent quotes from Thomas Harrison:

“These artists were perhaps the most ethically and philosophically committed generation of artists since the Romantics.”

“They developed a metaphysics of negativity. Being itself was considered a rotten set-up.”

“We no longer share this negative metaphysics today. We do everything we do to ignore it and forget about it and put it under the rug – to repress it again.”