Aesthetic ideology

(from the foreword to Peripatetic Alterity: A Philosophical Treatise on the Spectrum of Being – Romantics and Pragmatists)

In the tractate titled The Coming Insurrection in English, anonymous French authors summarized what centuries of intellectual thought have achieved: the tautology «I am what I am».[i]

This depressing conclusion has some truth to it. Tautologies like this as well as others such as «it is what it is», «so ist es», «так и есть» are commonplace in the modern-day world. It is a radical simplification of life. Forget trying to grapple with complex questions, inchoate ideas and our position in relation to them. Just conclude that «I am what I am» or «it is what it is».

There are many reasons for this development: the limited intellectual faculties of people, stress, the increasing complexity of the modern world, technology, as well as perception shaped by seemingly innocuous, accepted, mainstream media narratives and the societal consensus established around them and ostensibly supported by (pseudo)science.

While this book will examine this last point in detail (see chapter 5), our main concern is to understand the enormous disconnect between wide segments of the population and the prevailing discourse, particularly in Western countries defined by what we call pragmatism. To narrow this gap, we need to rethink our conception of life, diversity, tolerance, goals, success and nearly all our values, not to change or overhaul our own personal «system», but to allow for and accept different ones.

By pursuing this goal, we may be able to create a framework in which individuals overwhelmed by complexity no longer fall back on meaningless tautologies, but seek out information and perspectives aligned with their own Weltanschauung, when they are looking to deepen their understanding, or, in contrast, would like to gain insight into others.

To achieve this openness, however, we must acknowledge that the myth preserved since liberal publications worked to reveal the lies related to the Vietnam War is dead. If it was ever the case, mainstream newspapers and media are not engaged in comprehensive truth or an objective understanding of reality today. Their individual reports are based on events or observations, but, taken as a whole in their broader context, the media around the world have become an extension of one or another political party, usually broken down along the lines of the so-called left and right. As such, they have turned into a mechanism of propaganda. To gain exposure to the truth in an unbiased context, we have to look elsewhere today. That place is none other than … literary fiction.

Not only does literary fiction, especially the classics, not function as the arm of a political party, but it also has the potential to act as a counterweight to the one aspect shared by Western media on both the left and right and preventing above all a diverse understanding of life: materialism. The universal promulgation of materialism, irrespective of political orientation, has isolated everyone who has failed by materialist standards – the bulk of populaces in every country in the world. Furthermore, we are fed the impression that no other alternatives exist.

¿Are we being tricked? ¿If so, what are the reasons for this and what is an alternative?

For centuries, humanity has (rightfully) sought to improve the standard of living for all. The improvement has focused on distributing material wealth to an ever-larger group of people.

Unfortunately, this pursuit has also entailed the stigmatization of those with less material wealth. For reasons we will discuss below, the media and, as a result, society in pragmatically defined countries accept political differences, but fundamentally reject tolerance for non-materialist worldviews. This approach may be good for increasing prosperity, but it results in the aforementioned tautologies, the frustration of wide segments of the unrepresented population, and confusion regarding the truth.

This book will attempt to provide a framework for understanding, essentially telling in an expository manner, what we find shown in literary fiction, especially the classics. It is based heavily on empirical findings in three countries: America, Germany and Russia.

It is not under any circumstances a work of science.

We have adopted an artistic approach to the hypothesis that there is a fundamental difference between romantics and pragmatists that can be overlaid with a scale of material wealth on one end (for pragmatists primarily) and metaphysical/spiritual wealth on the other (for romantics on the whole). The reasoning behind this hypothesis is based on the now popular interdisciplinary approach, but does not restrict itself to two disciplines. The causes for a phenomenon are found in many fields, as literature has long known and demonstrated. Trained in English, German and Russian literary classics and having survived so far with this understanding of life, we have adopted what will be called the artistic method to explain being at the start of the new millennium.

Artistic theory requires ideal types. They allow abstraction and facilitate generalization so it is possible to understand life. Any development of new hypotheses must draw on or at least be contiguous with contemporary or past work, as Julie Gebke aptly puts in her book on discrimination in early modern Spain: «Changes or even a revolution within the disciplines are therefore only possible if the new ideas are adapted to the prevailing discourse and expressed within its narrative frame of reference. New ideas, by contrast, which use an alternative to the prevailing discourse are not accepted by the professional public.» (Gebke, 25)

Perhaps it began for Whittlesey with George Eliot in The Mill on the Floss. Maybe it started in the home of affluent parents and the society of school with other pupils bused in from the worst neighborhoods in the city. Certainly, it crystalized in hyper-pragmatic parents and romantic in-laws no less extreme. For Friedrich, it was dramatized by ETA Hoffmann’s Der goldene Topf (The Golden Pot): Her experience in an extremely romantic family embedded in a pragmatic context caused her to unconsciously feel the tension between her family life on the one hand and school, university and society on the other. For Smirnov, there was Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina revealing the urban-rural bifurcation that he still saw 150 years later. And then, when he came to America, he encountered a different duality in person: the confrontation between the culture of his upbringing and the West.

The idealism of youth, the experience of witnessing every state of being in the prototypical poles of romantic and pragmatic cultures, resulted in the transposition of life. This means that being is equated despite widely differing worldviews – with everyone enjoying certain advantages and disadvantages.

In her philosophical essay on why the failure of thinking causes us to continue thinking, Julia Wentzlaff argues that pure notional work is accompanied by failure, but this leads not to resignation, but rather to a more in-depth examination. (Wentzlaff 2018) She describes human beings as subjects doomed to fail in their thinking.  Thinking is a person’s claim to describing something objectively.  This doom does not mean that they should stop thinking, however. Rather, we will continue to think and should continue to think precisely because of this failure: The failure is the affirmation of life.

What Wentzlaff says in complex philosophical terms, the romantic knows by nature: They are likely doomed to material failure, but will not let this doom drive them to despair. On the contrary, such a materially-doomed romantic will embrace life all the more – only a different side of it: the metaphysical or spiritual.

[i] See beginning of chapter 1 on page 4.