Wednesday, September 1, 2010
"Without the eternal, art is not art."
A lecture given by Rudolf Steiner on June 8, 1923
I should like to supplement last week's lectures on art. Often I had to emphasize that the spiritual evolution of mankind has proceeded from the unity of science, art and religion. In present-day spiritual life we have science, art and religion separated, yet can look back into the time when these three streams flowed from a common source. That source is seen most clearly if we go back four or five thousand years to poetry during the primeval ages; or, rather, to what would today be called poetry. To fathom the poetry of the bearers of ancient culture (it is nonsense, our looking for this culture in present-day primitive peoples) we must study the spiritual development of mankind in those ancient times through the Mysteries.
Let us examine the times when human beings did not look to the earth, but out into the cosmos to find a content for their spiritual life, or to satisfy the deepest needs of their souls. At that period those with clairvoyant faculties, seeing the fixed stars and movements of the planets, considered everything on earth a reflection of events taking place in its cosmic environment. We need only remind ourselves how the ancient Egyptians measured by the rising of Sirius the significance for their lives of the river Nile; how they considered the Nile's influence a result of what could be fathomed only by studying the relationship between stars out there in the cosmos. To the Egyptians their interplay in cosmic space was mirrored, on earth, by the activity of the Nile. This is but one example among many. For the conception held sway that occurrences in definite locations on earth imaged forth the observable mysteries of the starry heavens. We must also be clear about the fact that in ancient times human beings beheld in the heavens things quite different from those now being investigated and calculated with so-called astro-mechanics and astro-chemistry.
Today we shall direct our attention to the way people expressed themselves through poetry during the period when they received spiritual content for their souls in the manner described.
I refer to an age when all the arts, except poetry, were but little developed. The other arts existed, to be sure, but in only a rudimentary state because the human beings of that time were deeply conscious of the fact that with the word, created out of their organisms' innermost secret, they could express something supersensible, that language was fitted to express what appears in star-constellations and star-movements; far better fitted than the art-mediums using substances taken directly from the earth. For language originates in spiritual man — this they felt — and is therefore eminently adapted to what, from cosmic reaches, manifests here on earth. Poetry, then, was not an offspring merely of phantasy but of spiritual perception; and it was by this means that man learned what he in turn poured into the other arts. Poetry, which finds expression through words, was the medium by which man entered into soul-communion with the stars, the extra-earthly.
This soul-communion constituted the poetic mood. Through it man saw how thoughts not yet separated from objects gain pictorial expression in his vault-like head, a head resembling the firmament; how thought represents a spiritual firmament, a celestial vault; how thought is inherent throughout the cosmos. Individual thoughts were expressed through the relative positions of the stars, by the way the planets moved past each other. In those ancient times man — unlike the free man of a later age — did not think merely by virtue of his own inner force. In every thought-movement he felt the after-image of some star-movement, in every thought-form the after-image of a constellation. Thus his thinking transported him into stellar space. The sunlight which illumined the day, and which would seem to be blinding out in the cosmos, was not considered the guide to wisdom, not the guiding force of thought, but, rather, sunlight as reflected by the moon. The following is ancient Mystery wisdom: During the day we see light with the physical body, at night we do more; we see it gathered up by the silver chalice of the moon. And this sunlight, collected by the moon, was regarded as the soul's Soma drink. Enspirited thereby, the soul could conceive those thoughts which were the result, the image, of the starry heavens.
Thus man as thinker felt as though the force of his thinking were located not in his earthly organism, but out where the stars were circling and forming constellations; he felt his soul poured out into the entire universe. If he had investigated combinations and separations of thoughts, he would have looked, not for laws of logic, but for the paths and constellations of the stars in the nightly firmament. The laws and images of his thinking existed in the heavens.
When he became aware of his feeling, it was not the abstract feeling of which we speak today in our abstract time, but rather the concrete feeling closely united with such inner experiences as that of breathing and blood circulation, the vital interweaving of the interior of the human body. Thus he felt himself existing not only upon the physical earth, but in planetary space. He did not say: In the human organism millions of blood corpuscles circle, but rather: Mercury and Mars are crossing Sun and Moon. To repeat: he felt his soul poured out into the universe; felt that, while with his thoughts he abode among the fixed stars and their constellations, with his feelings he lived within the sphere of the moving planets. Only with his will did he feel himself on earth. Considering the terrestrial an image of the cosmic he said to himself: When the forces of Jupiter, Moon, Venus and Sun strike the earth and penetrate its soil in the solid, liquid and aeroform elements, then from these elements will impulses penetrate into the human being, just as thought impulses penetrate into him from the fixed stars, and feeling impulses from planetary movements.
By such awareness, man could transplant himself into the time of the beginnings of primeval art. What is primeval art? It is nothing other than speech itself (a fact little understood today). For our speech is fettered to the material-earthly; it no longer manifests what it was when human beings, feeling transported into the Zodiac, incorporated into themselves from zodiacal constellations the twelve consonants, and from the movements of the planets past the fixed-star constellations, the vowels. At that time human beings did not intend to express through speech what they experienced upon earth, but rather what the soul experienced when it felt transported into the cosmos; which is why, in ancient times, speech flowered into poetry. The last remnants of such poetry are contained in the Vedas and, more abstractly, in the Edda. These are after-images of what, in greater glory, in much greater sublimity and majesty, had arisen directly out of the formation of languages during those ages when human beings could still feel their own soul life intimately united with cosmic movement and experience.
What is felt of all this in present-day poetry?
Poetry would not be poetry — and in our time much poetry is no longer poetry — if certain aspects of man's communion with the cosmos had not been kept. What remains is whatever in speech-formation passes beyond the prose meanings of words into rhythm, rhyme and imagination. For true poetry never consists of what is stated literally. Into the prose content of a poem, whether written down or, better, recited or declaimed, there must sound rhythm, beat, imagination. This points to elements not contained in prose; to a background which, in every true poetic work, cannot be understood but must be guessed at, divined. It is only the prose content which can be understood by the mind. The fact that poetry conveys something lying outside its words, for which the words are but a means, the fact that poetry's aura of mood echoes cosmic harmony, melody, imagination, this fact, even today, makes poetry poetry. We still can divine what it meant for Homer when he said: “Sing, oh Muse, the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus.” It was not the poet singing; it was the soul which has communion with cosmic movements singing through him. In the planets live the Muses. The epic Muse lives in one particular planet. It was into this planet that Homer felt transported: Sing, oh Muse, resound for me, celestial melody of the planets; relate the deeds of earthly heroes, Agamemnon, Achilles, Odysseus, Idomeneus, Menelaus; sing of how events appear, not from the limited standpoint of earth, but when the gaze is directed from stellar space. Could one ever believe that the magnificent, comprehensive images of the Iliad stemmed from a “frog-perspective”? No, they have not even air-perspective; they have star-perspective. For that reason, the Iliad story could not be told as though man had solely to do with man, for the gods influence actions; side by side with human agents, they perform their deeds. This is not frog-perspective, this is the stellar-perspective to which the soul of the poet longed to rise when he said: “Sing, O Muse, the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus.”
From all this it can be clearly seen that the earthly medium which art — in the present case, poetry — makes use of is only a means to an end. The artistic element comes from treating the medium in such a way that the spiritual background, the spiritual worlds, may be divined; word, color, tone, form, being but pathways. If we wish to reawaken in mankind the true artistic mood, we must, to a certain degree, transport ourselves back into those ancient times when the celestial, the poetic mood, lived in the human soul. Then we will receive an impression of how best to use other media to carry art to the world of the spirit; which is what must happen if art wants to be art. Today our feeling has coarsened; we no longer sense what, in the not so distant past, has made art what it is.
For example, say that we see a mother carrying a little child: an elevating sight. We are familiar with the fact that the immediate form impression received therefrom is fixed only for a moment. The very next moment the mother's head position changes, the child in the mother's arms moves. What we have before us in the physical world is never still very long. Now let us look at Raphael's Sistine Madonna: the Mother and Child. Now, an hour from now, a year from now, it remains what it was; nothing has changed, neither child nor mother move. The moment has been fixed. That which in the physical world is still only a moment is here, so to speak, paralyzed. But it only seems so. Today we no longer feel what Raphael most certainly felt, asking, Am I allowed to do that? to fix with my brush a single moment? It is not a lie to convey an impression that the mother holds her child in the same manner today as yesterday? Is it right to impose upon anybody a prolongation of one particular moment? At present such a question appears paradoxical, even nonsensical. But Raphael asked it. And what answer arose in him? This artistic obligation: You must atone in a spiritual way for your sin against reality, must lift the moment out of time and space, for within time and space it is a palpable untruth; must, through what you paint on the plane of your canvas, bestow eternity, arouse feelings which transcend the earthly plane.
This is what is called today, abstractly, Raphael's idealistic painting. His idealism is his justification for so unnaturally fixing the moment. What he invokes through the depths of his colors, through color harmony, he attains by precluding — spiritualizing — the third dimension. His use of colors elevates to the spiritual what is otherwise seen, materialistically, in the third dimension. Thus that which is not on but behind the plane through blue, not on but in front of the plane through red, that which steps out of the plane in a spiritual way (whereas the third dimension steps out of the plane only in a material way), bestows eternity on the moment. Which is precisely what must be bestowed upon the moment. Without the eternal, art is not art.
I have known people — artists, mainly — who hated Raphael. Why? Because they could not understand what is stated above; because they wanted to stop short with an imitation of what the moment presents but which, the next moment, is gone. Once I became acquainted with a Raphael hater who saw the greatest progress in his own painting in the fact that he was the first who had dared to stop sinning against nature; that is, had dared to paint all the hairy spots of the naked body really covered with hair. How inevitable that a man who considered this great progress should have become a Raphael hater. But the episode also shows how badly our time has forsaken the spirit-borne element in art, the element which knows why painting is based on the plane. Spatial perspective must be comprehended; it was necessary in our freedom-endowed fifth post-Atlantean period to learn to understand spatial perspective, that which conjures up on the plane not the pictorial, but the sculptural. The real thing, however, is color-perspective which over-comes the third dimension not by foreshortening and focusing, but by a soul-spiritual relationship between colors, say, between blue and red, or blue and yellow. Painting must acquire a color-perspective which overcomes space in a spiritual fashion. Thus can the artistic be brought back to what it was when it linked man directly to spiritual worlds.
At that time man felt the harmony between science, religion and art. This perception must again be aroused. An echo of it lived in Goethe; that was what made him so great. True, man in his freedom had to experience those three as separated: science, art, religion. But the division has made him lose the profundity of all three; above all, he has lost communion with the cosmos.
One need only exaggerate today's relation between art and science, between poetry and science. You may say I need not carry the problem to extremes to show the contemporary mis-relationship between poetry, art and science. But in a radical case the whole mis-relationship becomes clear. So I cite a radical case:
Once, in a certain city, there took place a meeting of scientists to discuss some great materialistic problems. You know the tremendous seriousness with which such meetings deal with scientific problems; a seriousness so great, no individual dares to approach it with his personality. He therefore places a lectern in front of him, lays his manuscript on it, and reads a paper; or rather, one scientist after another reads a paper. Personality is shoved aside. So strongly does this seriousness act, it is withdrawn from the individual and placed on the lectern; extremely serious! At such meetings every face looks grave. To be sure, they look like reflections of the lectern; but very serious indeed! At this particular meeting the chairman turned to a group of poets with the request that they create, out of their art, poems which could be launched, between courses, at the banquet to follow. Thus the gentlemen — perhaps there were also ladies — went from this serious meeting to a dinner party where poems were presented making fun, satirically, of the various sciences. You see the misrelation between science and art. First the scientists dealt very seriously with the position of a June bug's mandible, or the chromosomes of a June bug's sperm; then, between meat and dessert, poems were read which satirized this very research. First the gentlemen went to extremes of seriousness, then laughed. There was no inner relationship. You might criticize my citing so extreme an example of our civilization. I cite it because it is characteristic, because it shows in a radical manner the present-day relationship between cognition and art, namely, no relationship at all. The gentlemen who made poems for the banquet understood nothing of the scientific papers. It is not quite possible to state the reverse, namely, that the worthy scientists did not understand the poems, although the poets assumed this, for they considered their work profound. But there is not much to be understood in such poetry and it may, therefore, be inferred that even the illustrious gathering understood it in some degree.
It is highly important for our time to observe how a homogeneous human spiritual life has been split into three parts which have fallen away from each other. For there is now a most urgent necessity to recompose the whole. If a philosopher speculates today about unity and doubleness, monism and dualism, he does so with a neutral mind, marshaling abstract concepts in defence of the one or the other. Both viewpoints can be proved equally well. In the ages whose relationship to art has just been sketched, a discussion of unity or duality, of the one with or without the other, aroused all the forces of men's soul. Whether the world sprang from an undivided source, or whether, on the contrary, good and evil are two divided original powers, the battle between monism and dualism was in bygone ages an artistic-religious concern which aroused all the forces of the human soul, and upon which man felt that his welfare, his bliss, depended. Though in former times he considered these questions closely bound up with his salvation, today he speaks of them with indifference. If we do not acquire a breath of the artistic-religious-cognitional soul mood which once held sway, there will be no impulse toward the truly great in art.
Still another feeling lived in those ages. People spoke of the Soma drink, of sunlight poured into the silver moon-chalice, the reality with which they filled their souls in order to understand the secrets of the cosmos. Speaking of the Soma drink, they felt themselves in direct soul communion with the cosmos. Soul experiences took place simultaneously on earth and in the cosmos. People felt that the gods revealed themselves through fixed stars and orbiting planets. By forming images of themselves on earth, the fixed star constellations and planetary movements made it possible for the soul to experience a cosmic element. If it drank the Soma drink and carried out sacrifices in a ritualistic-artistic-cognitional manner, the soul gave back to the gods, in the rising smoke to which it entrusted the religious-artistic-poetic word, what the gods needed for continued world creation. For the gods did not create man in vain; he exists on earth in order that something which can be achieved only by man may be used by the gods for further world creation. Man is on earth because the gods need him. He is on earth so that he may think, feel and will what lives in the cosmos. If he does it in the right way, the gods can take this changed thing and implant it into the configuration of the world.
Thus man — if in sacrifice and art he gives back what the gods gave him — cooperates in building the cosmos. He has a soul-connection with cosmic evolution.
If we permeate ourselves with a conception of this relationship within spiritual-physical cosmic evolution, we can apply it to the present world. There we see a cognition which wishes only to fashion matter, and which applies earthly laws and calculations even to astro-chemistry and astronomy; a cognition — the so-called scientific one — which holds good only for earth evolution. But this cognition will cease to be of significance to the degree that the earth is transformed into Jupiter, Venus, Vulcan. To repeat: today “science” has only an earthly meaning; its purpose is to help human beings to become free here on earth; but the gods cannot use this science for the continued cosmic creation.
Abstract thoughts are the ultimate abstraction, the corpse of the spirit world. What is carried out scientifically has meaning only for the earth. Having acted on earth as thought, it is shattered, buried; it does not live on.
In truth, what Ursula Karin, grandmother of the poet Adalbert Stifter, told him about the sunset glow belongs more intensively to the cosmos than what is to be read today in scientific books. Take everything in those books about the way sunlight acts on clouds to produce the evening glow, collect everything described there as natural laws: it has an earthly significance only. The gods cannot gather it up from earth to use it in the cosmos. Adalbert Stifter's grandmother said to the boy: “Child, what is the evening glow? Child, when it appears, the Mother of God is hanging out her clothes; she has so many to hang out on the heavenly dome.”
This is an utterance on which the gods can draw for the further development of the world. Modern science tries to describe in precise concepts what exists now. But this will never become future; it is of the present. But Adalbert Stifter's grandmother, having preserved much of what lived in ancient souls, said something about which a modern scientist could only smile. He might consider it beautiful, but would have no inkling of the fact that her words are of greater significance for the cosmos than all his vaunted science. From whatever is useful in this sense, from whatever creates not space-and-time thoughts but eternally-active thoughts, all true art has arisen. Just as the imagination of Adalbert Stifter's grandmother, which made him a poet, is related to a dry materialistic conception, so Raphael's Sistine Madonna, which transcends the moment, which seizes the moment for the eternal, is related to any mother with her child seen here on the physical earth.
This is what I wished to add to our previous considerations, hoping to deepen them.