July 16, 2011

Metaphysical apartness and aesthetic ascent

This continues directly my previous post on metaphysical apartness and the stage. I quoted Bernard Williams' observation that there are two different levels of what we see when we're in a theatre audience. We see both Othello strangling Desdemona and we see the actors in those two roles, acting out the events of the drama. Likewise, we're looking both at the palace in Venice and at a scenery which represents that palace. For many purposes, we can just take that scenery to be the palace. But in some respects, we can't. As Williams says, "when in a play someone sets fire to the palace, they do not, hopefully, set fire to the scenery."[1] They're not identical; they're, strictly speaking, different things.

Note that, however immersed we may be in the action when we're watching the dramatic events unfold, we are always aware of that difference. You wouldn't calmly remain in your seat if you thought that the facade of that building in front of you, just a few steps away, were catching fire for real. Likewise, if someone started strangling another person just before your eyes, you wouldn't just sit there and watch, would you?

(There is an extensive discussion in recent philosophy about how exactly unreal events like these can still trigger something resembling authentic emotions, how you could be, as in the title of one influential paper, "fearing fictions".[2] The central question here is why an emotion such as empathy for Desdemona or anger at Othello is felt in the audience but doesn't, as it would in real life, trigger any action at all. Why do emotions in the real world motivate us to do something whereas they simply leave us transfixed and immersed when we're at the theatre or in the cinema?)

In that earlier post I looked at spatial relations and the notion of a point of view. There is, however, also a connection to what I've called aesthetic ascent.

That we can see things thus in two different ways (the world of the play: Othello, the palace, the strangling vs. the real world: actors, a scenery, and acting) is a condition for making the step from immersion in the world of the play to the levels of comparison and appreciation. We can only begin to compare Shakespeare's play to other plays with similar plots, or the particular stage design to that of other productions, or these particular actors to others doing the same part, if there is some discernible difference between, say, watching Othello strangle Desdemona and watching Sir Laurence Olivier and Dame Maggie Smith acting — performing that strangling scene in act V. (It seems that Williams was able to do so; nowadays, our only chance would be on video.)

Even though the world of a fiction can have our full and undivided attention at the level of immersion in the aesthetic ascent; even if we might, for a period, use our capacities of perception and imagination exclusively following the plot of a novel, play, or movie (and, in a more general sense, even a dream, a scenario, a memory or a future plan); even if nothing about the real world occurs to us for quite some time (such as our sitting in a theatre seat or reading chair, the fact that there are other performances of that same play, different tellings of that same story, varying interpretations of what's going on or how it might sediment itself in reality) — even so we are never part of that fictional world; we're in the real world, and thus can never be in the world of an instance of unreality.

At the same time, this apartness is the basis for aesthetic ascent: leaving the level of immersion and comparing that which is going on with other, similar instances. Making this step means to switch between the two ways of looking at things Williams distinguishes: switching between seeing the palace (when immersed) and the scenery (when comparing).

[1] Bernard Williams, "Imagination and the self", in: Problems of the self. Philosophical Papers 1956–1972, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1973, 26–45, 35.
[2] Kendall Walton, "Fearing fictions", in: Journal of Philosophy 75 (1978), 6–27.

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