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 Arts, Language and Hermeneutic Aesthetics” 

Interview with Paul Ricoeur 
Paul Ricoeur, Professor Emeritus, Paris X, and Nuveen Chair Professor Emeritus, University of Chicago.

(Conducted by Jean-Marie Brohm and Magali Uhl. September 20, 1996 in Paris)

Translation - R.D. Sweeney, Don Shula Professor Emeritus, John Carroll
University, Cleveland,  Ohio, USA.

 p 1 - p 2 - p 3 - p 4 - p 5 - p 6 - p 7 - p 8 - p 9 => Text  in    

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Do you admit the mimetic function of art?

On condition of sharply distinguishing mimesis from copy.  Here there is, indeed, a coniderable historical weight.  Kant himself says it a propos of genius when he distinguishes between Nachahmung (imitation) and Folge (following), servile imitation and exemplary legacy... It is not necessary, he says, to repeat the Ancients, but to follow them.  We don’t have another word for following in French, unless following (suivance) is opposed to  repetition.  The notion of copy has obstructed the reception of the Greek concept of mimesis. When Aristotle says that the plot is a mimesis of action, it is a creative mimesis.  Historical characters become protagonists of the plot, they are elevated above their empirical role and become figures constitutive of a plot; they are metaphorized, configured at the same time as the story is told: there is configuration of characters to the extent of the configuration of the story to which they contribute.  Could one extend this trait to the totality of the arts?  There is certainly an art which is not mimetic, this is music.  Although, at the limit, could not one say that to each piece of art there corresponds a mood.?  The work of art in effect is referred to an emotion which has disappeared as emotion, but which has been preserved as a work.  One could then say that each piece of music creates a mood, which is its own humour.  Affective tonalities, Stimmungen, were as if dormant; they are now not only actualized, but created, each piece of music engenders its chain of tonalities, its movement of moods, of humours.  In this sense, there would be a mimetic relation where the accent would be put on the production of a humour which did not exist in the experience of nature.  I am thinking at this moment of Oliver Messiaen, of his St Francis of Assisi and of its recreation of the bird songs.  There we have the perfect example of creative and recreative mimesis, which has the effect that we  are rather inclined to hear the bird songs as transfigured by their being put into music, by the passage through a register of sounds which transfigures noise.  The song of birds is perhaps already in itself a kind of intermediate range between noise and sounds, but it is precisely snatched from the world of noise and elevated to the level of pure sound. In Stimmung, there is Stimme, voice . . . 

 In English there is an expression, attunement. In French we could say, placing in the same tone, coordinating tonalities,  harmonizing, tuning.  There is in Messaien a kind of  harmonizing of the song of birds with musical creation.  One can also notice in the naming of certain pieces of music an allusive and non-descriptive connection with beings, by means of the very creation of meaning; one might speak of transfiguration rather than refiguration of sense: La Mer of Debussy, Concerto a la memoire d’un ange of Alban Berg, Pelleas et Melisande of Schoenberg; there is in each case an allusion to cosmic nature, to an emotional situation, to a being.  This would be here the extreme form of the generalized metaphor.  We encounter the same problem with painters like Constable, Turner, or Ruisdael, with the evocation of landscapes, storms, seas. 

Still there is  figuration there, whereas in music it is difficult to speak of figuration. 

Unless it is a figuration of moods, of humours -- but which are so labile, for lack of being said and lacking the adequation of language.  It is music which takes charge of the sonorous effecutation of the mood that each piece possesses: a certain humour, and it is as such that each installs in us the humour or the corresponding tonality.  Music opens up in us a region where  unspoken sentiments can be represented and our being-affected can be expressed.  As I emphasized in Critique and Conviction, music creates in us feelings which have no name; it expands our emotional space, it opens up in us a region where there can occur feelings that are absolutely unspoken.  When we listen to such music, we enter into a region of the soul which cannot be explored otherwise than by the hearing of this piece. Each work is authentically a modality of the soul, a modulation of the soul  

 To return to Messaien, who is a major composer, it is striking to realize that the majority of his scores bear a title that is transcendental, religious, mystical, even cosmic.  Now, when one has these pieces listened to by profane types who are not necessarily believers, who might even be agnostics, there is not necessarily the evocation wished for by Messaien.  In other words, what is really the expressive, descriptive, allusive power of music which seems to transpire by means of the mediation of poetic language?  Is it not this evocative power of language that gives a meaning afterwards to the music or even an expression? We know that Stravinsky, for example, has maintained that music is essentially powerless to express whatever it might be: a feeling, an attitude, a psychological state, a phenomenon of nature, etc. but is done for the sole purpose of instituting an order in things, including and above all between the human and time. Music therefore would be neither a painting of human emotions nor a phenomenological description of the world, but the organization of temporal relations between the pitch of notes, tonalities, rhythms, and melodic phrases.  It is precisely, added Stravinsky, this construction, this attained order which produces an emotion in us of a character quite special, which has nothing in common with our current sensations and reactions due to impressions of daily life.   We might better clarify  the sensation produced by music by identifying it with that which is provoked in us by the game of architectural forms. Goethe understood this well when he said that architecture is petrified music. If one accepts this thesis that music is a pure sonorous universe, a construction ordained between the human and time, must we not admit that this has nothing to do with meaning?

In any case the sense mentioned.  Let us take the case of Messiaen with respect to mystical meaning.  This mysticism is, according to his writing, the path proper to Messiaen, but the one who understands it follows him to a certain point, although Messiaen never dreamed of converting anyone.  His music introduces us into a sonorous region capable of a mysticism, and that’s enough: this is the place to recall that aesthetics is not in the order of predication.  Music is maintained at the threshold of the mystical; and if one bridges this threshhold, everyone senses the enormous distance that is hollowed out with respect to worldliness, and even more so with respect to utilitarian commercial values.  Thus there are thresholds, first of all the minimal threshold of the break with the utilitarian.  A chair placed on a stage, from the moment one is not sitting on it, is a work of art -- similarly a bottle placed on a shelf.  The very fact of the untouchable, of the unutilisable, effects a rupture in the utilitarian itself.  Here resides the minimal threshold; at the other extreme, one would have the threshold of openness into other regions like the sacred.  One can very well admit the idea of a broad spectrum running from the utilitarian, at one end, up to other regions like the religious, the sacred, or the mystical, at the other end.

 Next :  Do you think that art can actually be a mode of access to divine transcendence?

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