Feel beauty supply, post 2

How it was possible for me to fall in love with Kant

I cannot say that I am not apprehensive about today’s post. In my letter of introduction I promised you a discussion of aesthetics, one that would begin and end with notions of poetry as “freedom,” but as I am sure you know, all freedoms are not the same. I specifically promised you the story of how I fell in love with Kant’s conception of “freedom,” but then eventually left his notion for a new kind of “freedom.” Hurston’s freedom. I am leaving Immanuel for Zora. This commentary is to make the move official, public.

My reflex, since we are dealing with philosophical concepts, is to stay cerebral and abstract, to begin and end in the text. In other words, being the good student of aesthetics that I am, I feel the need to stay — surprise, surprise — “disinterested.” But that’s precisely the problem, as at least one Frenchman has noted. This demand for a “disinterested aesthetic” is a philosophical ruse. There is no apolitical subject position.

So I’ll begin today, despite my own discomfort with the move, by claiming that intellectual interests — if not always, perhaps often — emerge from psychological needs, which in turn are often, if not always, socio-political needs. My interest in aesthetics, which only emerged semi-earnestly in the final half of my college career [thank you Professor Bernstein for making me love the 3rd Critique] was the final phase of an odd adolescent search for cultural identity. And for this reason I must at least briefly get personal in my story.   

I was a little, almost-Polish child growing up in the suburbs of NJ in the 1970s. My parents were literally off the boat. I have the 8mm footage to prove it. I remember my mother and father trying to explain to me what it meant for them to be “Polish.” This involved them explaining the concept of “country” to me. Not an easy thing to do, if you think about it. They showed me a map. I remember feeling uncomfortable with such a great distance being represented by only a few inches.

 My mother didn’t like Americans. She found them materialistic, lacking the culture and table manners of Europeans.

Twice a year my grandfather would drink too much. Christmas and Easter. Then he would talk of what it was like to be forced labor under the Nazis. He worked for a German farmer. He bragged about how he made moonshine out of sugar beets and sold it on the black market, how he made himself a copy of the key to the chicken coop and sold stolen eggs on the black market, how his father sent him tobacco to sell on the black market. The other story I heard was from my grandmother. How the Germans took her father away and she never saw him again. Being Polish, for me, then, was somehow very German. So naturally in high school I took German. I had liked Kafka and there was no Polish class to take, though I would have probably felt too embarrassed to take it. My family, of course, wished I had studied French.

When I got to college studying the proverbial dead white men (especially the German ones) was a means of claiming a cultural identity that countered the Polish jokes I had been told on the school bus. I had decided I wasn’t going to be a materialistic American. I was going to be a cultured European. I didn’t understand yet that the difference was superficial—that the European wasn’t the underdog, despite my personal experiences.

But why then wasn’t I simply just a Europhile? Because of a childhood fear of eternal life — a fear that only Kant’s theory of the sublime could save me from. Let me explain. In Catholic School I was taught I would live forever. This frightened my grade-school self to no end. In the evenings I would lie on the floor and close my eyes and try to imagine “forever” and “eternity” and it seemed I could. It was a giant abyss that could swallow me. I didn’t want to live forever.

So when I read the 3rd Critique and Kant told me that my “vocation” as a human being was to imagine infinity as something finite, that my Reason could master this abyss, I naturally felt he was my people. He had good table manners, believed that materiality could be overcome with “disinterest,” and was German. What more could a Polish kid from NJ need?

Alright, I think this is enough for you to get the picture. Next time: a return to the textual — or what does it mean for a Frenchman to stand before an Egyptian pyramid with disinterest?