July 16, 2002

1. Ruskin, Nietzsche and The Idea of Life-Enhancement

In the last issue of Phlit, I quoted Ruskin’s famous dictum, “There is no wealth but life.”1 Ruskin challenged the proud science of economics, and insisted that all its theories of wages, value, labor, etc. were worthless if they didn’t make people’s lives better. A nation that was wealthy in financial terms but not in quality-of-life was a nation that was on the wrong track.

Meanwhile, across the Channel in Germany, Nietzsche was making a similar argument. While Ruskin was challenging the proud science of economics, and bringing it back to the actual life of actual people, Nietzsche was challenging the proud science of history, and arguing that all the painstaking research of German historians was useless if it didn’t make people’s lives better, if it didn’t provide people with models to live by. The past is important, yes, but the present is just as important, if not more so, and our interest in the past shouldn’t make us ignore the present and the future. “We need [history] for life and action,” wrote Nietzsche, “not as a convenient way to avoid life and action.... We would serve history only so far as it serves life; but to value its study beyond a certain point mutilates and degrades life.... The historical sense makes its servants passive and retrospective.”2

So here we have two deep thinkers, Ruskin and Nietzsche, both arguing that scholars are sometimes carried away by their love of intellectual pursuits, both arguing that scholars sometimes forget what is most important: human life, the pursuit of The Good Life. If this is true of scholars in the fields of economics and history, might it not be true in other fields, too? Is this a universal truth?

Let’s look around.... at philosophy, for example. Philosophy is an excellent example of a branch of knowledge that is often pursued without regard to human life. Academics often treat philosophy as a purely intellectual exercise, a mind game. Nietzsche insisted that philosophy should have a direct impact on human life: “I get profit from a philosopher,” wrote Nietzsche, “just so far as he can be an example to me.... This example must exist in his outward life, not merely in his books; it must follow the way of the Greek philosophers, whose doctrine was in their dress and bearing and general manner of life rather than in their speech or writing.”3

Now let’s ask the question that we have often asked before (in our discussion group as well as in Phlit): What does Zen say about this? Zen isn’t bookish, Zen avoids hyper-rationalism and hyper-intellectualism, Zen stays close to life. A 12th-century Zen master, Tai-E, “burned and destroyed the great text book of Zen, the Hekiganroku,”4 because he didn’t want Zen to become bookish, dusty and intellectual. Zen is in agreement with what Nietzsche called “the way of the Greek philosophers, whose doctrine was in their dress and bearing and general manner of life rather than in their speech or writing.”

Ruskin argued that economics should serve life, should be life-enhancing; Nietzsche said the same of history and philosophy. Perhaps all culture — and religion, too — should serve life, should be life-enhancing. Is this the origin of culture and religion? Were culture and religion created in order to enhance life — make man healthier psychologically, make life more pleasant? These are questions that I’ve thought about for years, and that many philosophers before me have pondered. One often encounters this theme in the writings of Nietzsche and Freud. Once you understand this train of thought, you’ll find that it has infinite ramifications, infinite applications.

2. Parenting As Life-Enhancing

One application of this idea is to the field of parenting. Isn’t good parenting life-enhancing? A child’s life is enhanced primarily by a parent’s love, which makes him believe in his own value, the value of his life. A parent should also guide his child to become independent, to stand on his own feet. A parent should help his child to connect with nature, to feel at home in the universe. A parent should educate his child, expose his child to the life-enhancing power of culture. Finally, a parent should train his child in practical matters that have a bearing on day-to-day life.

One of the biggest challenges that a parent faces is that, while he tries to enhance his child’s life, he may find that his child doesn’t want his life enhanced; there is a negative streak in human nature, a self-destructive urge, what 19th-century writers called “the demonic.” Another challenge that a parent faces is that, while enhancing his child’s life, he may find his own life harmed; a parent must strike a balance between his child’s life and his own life, neither ignoring the child’s life nor ignoring his own life.

3. Berenson: Art As Life-Enhancing

Another application of the idea of life-enhancement is to the field of visual art. One of the most important writers on visual art in modern times is Bernard Berenson. In the 1890s, when Berenson was in his thirties, he began writing Italian Painters of the Renaissance, which consists of four essays on painting in four different regions of Italy. In this work, Berenson argues that great painting is life-enhancing — it makes one feel more alive. A great painter achieves this, Berenson argues, through form, color, space, movement and “tactile values” (the creation of forms that have a three-dimensional, “touchable” quality).

A painter’s “first business”, wrote Berenson, “is to rouse the tactile sense, for I must have the illusion of being able to touch a figure, I must have the illusion of varying muscular sensations inside my palm and fingers corresponding to the various projections of this figure, before I shall take it for granted as real, and let it affect me lastingly.”5 The first painter who aroused the tactile sense in a high degree was Giotto: “He aims at types which both in face and figure are simple, large-boned, and massive — types, that is to say, which in actual life would furnish the most powerful stimulus to the tactile imagination.”6 (Click here for an illustration of Berenson’s ideas.)

Throughout his long career, Berenson continued to believe that great painting is life-enhancing. In the late 1940s, when he was in his eighties, Berenson wrote Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts, in which he argued that art should provide models for people, just as Nietzsche had argued that history should provide models for people. Berenson praises paintings that “offer the noblest models for mankind to attain, models of realizable and never impossible states of being and ways of living.... Raphael’s ‘Disputa,’ ‘School of Athens,’ and ‘Parnassus’ seem now, as they did fifty years ago, the clearest and most convincing visions of the perfect existence for which we yearn, and which we hope to attain.”7

4. Berenson and Clark

As I write these words, I’m on Nantucket Island, where I’ve gone with my wife and daughter for a one-week vacation. I brought along the book that our discussion group is currently reading: Ibsen’s Wild Duck. Ibsen draws the reader in immediately, and never lets his interest flag, so he’s a difficult writer to put down. I’m going to finish Ibsen long before the end of the vacation. Usually I have books to read, but no time to read them. Here on Nantucket, however, I have time to read, but no books.

Yesterday I spent some time at the Nantucket library, hoping to find something to read when I’m done with The Wild Duck. I picked up Another Part of the Wood, a memoir by the English art historian Kenneth Clark. Clark describes his first trip to Italy, made in 1925, when he was 22. Clark tells us that, at this time, he was a great admirer of the Swiss historian, Jacob Burckhardt, who was a friend of Nietzsche and a specialist in Italian art. Clark tells us that he had memorized much of Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, and he had a copy of Burckhardt’s Cicerone (which describes Italian art museum-by-museum and church-by-church) bound with blank pages between each page of the original, so that he could make notes.

While in Italy, Clark met Berenson at Berenson’s villa, i Tatti, which is outside Florence. Berenson lived in luxury, having become wealthy by selling his expertise to art collectors, and by selling signed certificates of authenticity. (Clark describes Berenson’s method of authenticating paintings thus: “He would come very close to [a painting] and tap its surface and then listen attentively, as if expecting some almost inaudible voice to reply. Then, after a long pause, he would murmur a name.”8 Unlike Ruskin, Berenson wasn’t shy in his relations with the opposite sex; “much of the conversation at i Tatti,” writes Clark, “was concerned with people’s sexual relationships: not surprisingly, given Mr. Berenson’s own Jove-like exploits.”9

Berenson immediately recognized Clark’s talent, and asked him to assist in preparing a new edition of one of his earlier books, Florentine Drawings. Thus began Clark’s two-year apprenticeship with Berenson. When Clark had first been introduced to Berenson’s writings, at the age of 16, he had been deeply impressed, and when a friend asked him what he wanted to do after leaving school, he replied, “‘Help Mr. Berenson to produce a new edition of his book on the drawings of the Florentine painters.’”10 This from a teenager who had never met Berenson, and didn’t even live in the same country as Berenson! The realization of this ambition, six years later, was (says Clark) “rather uncanny — like something out of a fairy-tale.”11

Clark tells us that Berenson was “brought up in Boston as a poor Jewish refugee from Lithuania.”12 He went to Harvard, and specialized in Oriental languages — Sanskrit, Hebrew, Aramaic. He was deeply influenced by the American philosopher William James, then a professor at Harvard. After graduating from Harvard, Berenson received funding to continue his study of Oriental languages in Europe.

His travels in Europe, says Clark, “transformed him from a student of comparative languages [i.e., philology] into a student of the visual arts.”13 Berenson found that there was much uncertainty about who had actually painted what. One Italian scholar, Morelli, had tried to determine who had painted what by closely examining details like fingernails and ears. Berenson decided that he would develop Morelli’s method further, he would apply the scientific methods that he had learned as a student of philology to the world of visual art, he would determine, once and for all, who had painted what. From this decision, made outside a café in Bergamo, grew Berenson’s long career as the world’s leading authority on Italian painting.

Berenson had a special interest in Lorenzo Lotto, and he traveled far and wide, often on foot, to see paintings by Lotto. “The young Berenson,” Clark writes, “crossed the St. Gotthard on foot and walked to Bassae pursued by savage dogs, in love with art, with Italy and with nature. He did not want to write a book, only to wander, absorb and dream.”14

Before long, however, Berenson began writing his four essays on Italian painting, and his book on Lorenzo Lotto. In his four essays, Berenson tried to say who painted what, and also set forth his theories of art. Clark says that “ultimately these theories go back to a dictum of Berenson’s hero, Goethe, that art must be life-enhancing. In the visual arts Berenson thought that his ‘life-enhancement’ could be achieved through what he called ‘ideated sensations’, and he described a number of these, including ideated sensations of movement, of energy and of space in which we seem to breathe more freely. But the ideated sensation that won him most celebrity, and which he considered his chief contribution to criticism, was what he called tactile values.... The ideated sensation of touch heightens our sense of reality in a way that ordinary visual sensations do not.”15

I read these words of Clark’s while sitting in the children’s section of the Nantucket library, as my daughter played a computer game. I was delighted that Clark had reminded me of Berenson’s theory, which fit in well with my thoughts on Ruskin, Nietzsche, and life-enhancement. I was also delighted that Clark had taught me the source of Berenson’s theory: Goethe. It’s always fun to find the source of a great idea. I remembered that Berenson had praised Goethe in one of his books: “that ideal piece of criticism, [Goethe’s] essay on the Laocoön.”16 Perhaps Goethe’s essay on the Laocoön speaks of the life-enhancing function of art, and is thus the seed of Berenson’s theory.

I also remembered another passage in Berenson’s writings that referred to Goethe: “All the arts,” wrote Berenson, “poetry, music, ritual, the visual arts, the theater, must work singly and together to create the most comprehensive art of all, a humanized society, and its masterpiece, the free man: free within and free without, ready in Goethe’s untarnishable words to live manfully in the whole, the good, and the beautiful [Im guten, ganzen, shönen resolut zu leben].”17 Goethe’s phrase was the guiding light of Berenson’s life, and it “reappears in his writings at regular intervals from his earliest letters onwards.”18

The approach to art taken by Berenson might be described as the opposite of the approach taken by Panofsky, whom I discussed in earlier issues of Phlit (March 4, ’02 and May 18, ’02). While Berenson stressed the life-enhancing aspect of an art work (color, space, energy, movement, tactile values, etc.), Panofsky looked for meaning, the meaning of symbols; Panofsky’s approach was termed “iconology”. Panofsky’s approach is more popular in academia, perhaps because it gives scholars more work to do, perhaps because scholars have no interest in the life-enhancing aspect of culture.

Berenson spoke scornfully of Panofsky, and Panofsky returned the favor, calling Berenson the “art bishop of Florence”, and accusing the elder Berenson (whom I regard as a deep philosophical thinker) of getting lost in airy generalities. Clark doesn’t mention Panofsky in his two volumes of memoirs, and he avoids the term “iconology”. Clark tries to give credit to Aby Warburg for being the father of iconology: “Warburg was without doubt the most original thinker on art-history of our time, and entirely changed the course of art-historical studies. His point of view could be described as a reaction against the formalist or stylistic approach of Morelli and Berenson.... Instead of thinking of works of art as life-enhancing representations, he thought of them as symbols, and he believed that the art-historian should concern himself with the origin, meaning and transmission of symbolic images.”19 Clark says that his life was changed by Warburg, and his best work is indebted to Warburg.

Clark describes how Berenson lingered in Italy on the eve of World War II: “he could not bring himself to leave his beloved library [which contained 50,000 books] and his walks in the hills.”20 Berenson loved to walk in the hills behind i Tatti, and he had a deep feeling for nature. “When we came to the climax of the walk Mr. Berenson would stand silent for many minutes, enraptured by the relationship of falling ground and swelling hills, by the placing of every beautiful farmhouse and the dark accent of every cypress.”21

Once World War II broke out, Berenson not only couldn’t leave Italy, he narrowly escaped being arrested, had to abandon i Tatti to the Germans, and was confined to a small cottage. Clark says that Berenson would have been unhappy “had it not been for his lifelong passion for reading. Anyone who doubts the range and alertness of his mind should look at a book called One Year’s Reading for Fun, written in his eightieth year.”22

Like many people before him, Berenson enjoyed life more when he felt it drawing to a close: “When he was very old, almost 90, he said ‘I would willingly stand at street corners, hat in hand, asking passers-by to drop their unused minutes into it.’”23

Berenson, as described by Clark, had several traits that one finds in many great intellectuals:

  1. Berenson read voraciously between the ages of 12 and 16.
  2. As a college student, Berenson’s ambitions went far beyond the boundaries of a scholarly discipline: “He hoped to become a poet, philosopher and universal man: in short, a second Goethe.”24
  3. Berenson had a certain fear of writing, a fear that was based not on a distaste for literature, but rather on a deep respect for literature.
  4. Berenson was a fascinating talker. “His best talk was seldom addressed to me,” Clark writes, “but I often overheard it when a sympathetic lady was seated beside him, and I was buttering his toast. It was indeed a remarkable performance, of which the reader of his later journals can form a faint impression. The flow of ideas, the range of historical reference, the intellectual curiosity and unexpected human sympathy were certainly beyond those of anyone I have met.”25
  5. Even in his later years, he read widely, and responded intensely to books: “Occasionally he spoke of books,” writes Clark, “and anyone who knows his book One Year’s Reading For Fun can imagine the depth, enthusiasm and unpredictability of his comments.”26
  6. “The personality of Mr. Berenson was so strange and complex.”27
Berenson and Clark both had a deep feeling for Eastern culture. Berenson was a fan of Chinese landscape painting, and even considered moving to China. Clark loved Chinese poetry, which he read in Arthur Waley’s translations; Clark was especially fond of Waley’s 170 Chinese Poems. “Of all the writers of my youth,” writes Clark, “Arthur Waley was the most valuable. He combined a scholar’s feeling for truth (and what a scholar!) with a poet’s feeling for language.”28

In his youth, Clark developed a strong attachment to Japanese prints. This attachment “confirmed my belief that nothing could destroy me as long as I could enjoy works of art, and for ‘enjoy’ read ‘enjoy’: not codify or classify... just enjoy. From this hedonist [position] I have never departed.”29 I’ve long been attracted to aesthetic hedonism; to seek pleasure from literature (and other branches of culture) is more sensible, in my view, than to make it a task, as often happens in academia. The life-enhancing power of culture is derived, in large part, from its ability to give pleasure.

I enjoyed the last chapter of Clark’s memoirs, Television Performer, in which he discusses his 13-part documentary, Civilization. Clark says how much he enjoyed making Civilization: “It seems ridiculous to say that the happiest years of my life took place when I was sixty-eight, but so it was.”30 Some of you may have seen Civilization when it came out, around 1970, or you may have seen the video cassettes, which are in many libraries. It was a highly successful attempt to popularize Western civilization, seen in many countries around the world, and it turned Clark into a celebrity. It was made into a book, also called Civilization, which sold millions of copies.

“I remember going into a chemist’s shop [i.e., a drugstore] in Boston,” Clark writes, “and a lady who was there said to the chemist ‘Do you realize you have the greatest man in the world in your shop?’ The chemist answered impassively ‘Sure I do.’”31 The documentary was shown several times at the National Gallery in Washington, and the Senate bought a copy and showed it in the Capitol. When Clark himself went to the National Gallery, it was “crammed full of people who stood up and roared at me, waving their hands and stretching them out towards me.... It was the most terrible experience of my life.... It was utterly humiliating. It simply made me feel a hoax.... I was brought up to believe that any work of art, music or literature that is enormously popular must have something seriously wrong with it. I see no reason why Civilization should be an exception to this rule. But I have never discovered precisely what is wrong with it, if not taken too seriously.”32

Clark explains the success of Civilization thus: “I believe that the average man... was pleased when someone spoke to him in a friendly, natural manner about things that he had always assumed were out of his reach.”33 Clark says that he received forty or fifty letters a day, and he received nine letters “from people who said that they had been on the point of committing suicide, and that my programs had saved them.”34 The life-enhancing power of culture!

But not everyone was pleased with Clark’s documentary. Left-wing intellectuals were annoyed since they believed that they “had a prescriptive right to speak to the working classes. Academics were furious at the simplification of their labors.”35 I identify with Clark since I myself write for “the man on the street” as well as the educated reader, I myself am a popularizer and simplifier.

But while I aim to be a simplifier, I also aim to be an original philosopher, a philosopher in the tradition of Nietzsche. These aims are not incompatible. As argued above, Nietzsche himself emphasized the life-enhancing aspect of culture, rather than the subtleties of specialized knowledge. In our time, the vast size and scope of culture has become a threat to culture itself, hence the need for simplifying has become imperative. Nietzsche praised Wagner because “he rivets and locks together all that is isolated.... [he] is a Simplifier of the Universe.”36

Having written an e-newsletter with 36 footnotes, an e-newsletter longer than any previous issue, I feel I should draw to a close, yet I can’t resist inserting one more quotation from Clark’s memoirs — a story about Yeats. Clark seems to have spent much of his life in conversations with writers and artists, and many of them could talk for hours at a stretch. None, however, was more fond of talking than Yeats. Yeats once told Clark about a reading he had given: “He had been reading his poems to a school audience, and at the end a lady [said] ‘Will Mr. Yeats kindly tell us why he reads his poems in that extraordinary way?’ Yeats replied ‘Madam, I read my poems as all great poets have read their poems from the time of Homer.’ Undefeated, the lady said ‘And by what authority does Mr. Yeats assert that Homer read his poems in this way?’ To which Mr. Yeats replied ‘I must give the same answer as the Scotchman who claimed that Shakespeare was a Scot — “The ability of the man warrants the assumption.”’”37

If you want to read a book by Clark, I recommend not his memoirs but rather his book The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, which traces depictions of the nude figure from ancient times to modern times. “It is without question my best book,” says Clark, “full of ideas and information.”38 The public seems to agree; The Nude is still in print, while Clark’s other books are out of print. Clark’s memoirs are, on the whole, too chatty, too gossipy, too petty, too cultured to be great literature; they sometimes fall to the level of name-dropping. But certain sections, such as the section on Berenson and the section on Civilization, are both interesting and entertaining; I was as enthralled as my daughter was by her computer game.

© L. James Hammond 2002
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1. Unto This Last, “Ad Valorem” back
2. Untimely Essays, “The Use and Abuse of History” back
3. Untimely Essays, “Schopenhauer As Educator,” 3 back
4. R. H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature, ch. 4 back
5. Italian Painters of the Renaissance, II, 2 back
6. ibid back
7. Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts (Pantheon Books, 1948, New York), ch. 3 back
8. Another Part of the Wood: A Self-Portrait, Harper & Row, 1974, p. 138 back
9. ibid, p. 164 back
10. ibid, p. 76 back
11. ibid, p. 129 back
12. ibid, p. 133 back
13. ibid, p. 134 back
14. ibid, p. 135 back
15. ibid, p. 137 back
16. Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts (Pantheon Books, 1948, New York), ch. 3 back
17. Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts (Pantheon Books, 1948, New York), Conclusion back
18. Another Part of the Wood, p. 139 back
19. ibid, p. 189 back
20. The Other Half (the second volume of Clark’s memoirs), Harper & Row, 1977, ch. 4, p. 103 back
21. ibid, p. 106 back
22. ibid, p. 104 back
23. ibid, p. 107 back
24. Another Part of the Wood, p. 134 back
25. ibid, p. 156 back
26. ibid, p. 154 back
27. ibid, p. 133 back
28. ibid, p. 81 back
29. ibid, p. 56 back
30. The Other Half, p. 222 back
31. ibid, p. 224 back
32. ibid, p. 226 back
33. ibid, p. 223 back
34. ibid back
35. ibid back
36. Untimely Essays, “Richard Wagner in Bayreuth”, ch. 4 back
37. Somewhere in Clark’s memoirs, probably in volume 1 back
38. The Other Half, p. 87 back