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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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In your opinion, why are contemporary philosophers so little interested in this pathos, in the broad sense.? 

I think this is because of an excessive weight of politics over ethics.  We are nevertheless returned ceaselessly to the side of the ethical by the fact that at the end of this horrible XXth century, with its parade of victims and of the suffering, there is a superabundance of the actual pathic of history.  On the other hand, we cannot let ourselves be enclosed in lamentation, and it is perhaps precisely for the arts to take it over.

We recognize the terrible question:  can one do poetry, and more generally art, with respect to lamentation, especially after Auschwitz and Hiroshima? Up to what point can art be deploring?

On condition that it conducts us back to silence, to respectful silence, one might say ethical silence, without aesthetic default or excess.  It is true that here we are at the threshold of the unsayable;  but it is quite necessary to say it, in order that we not forget it. The injunction not to forget must indeed transpire by way of some attempts to transmit, therefore to say.

In a Survivor of Warsaw written in 1947 after the mass Nazi massacres in Poland, Arnold Schoenberg is at the limit of what is sayable.  At the end, while the Nazi adjutant barks his orders of extermination:  “Count! Faster! Begin!  In one minute I must know how many I am delivering to the gas chamber!  Keep counting!”, the choir chants : “Listen Israel, our God is the sole Eternal”.  This opposition between imminent death and the affirmation of faith in the Eternal provokes an unspeakable emotion, at the limit of stupor and muteness.

When you say at the limit, this is again the exploration of frontiers.  Shostakovitch celebrates on his side the Soviet victories where one finds the Beethovian vein of heroism, but at the same time, we can listen to his symphonies without thinking specifically of the “Patriotic War.”  Thus it is by way of desingularisation that the singular is universalized. 

Ultimately, according to you, every great work of art can be decontextualized or has no need of its context, neither in creation nor in reception?

It transcends its context of production.  I am thinking of Marx in the first chapters of Capital, who evokes Sophocles and Shakespeare with the feeling that here there are works which are not involved in the disaster or extinction of the economies and political systems in which they have seen the light of day.  We recognize also the celebrated passage of the General Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy where Marx points out the gap between the socio-economic base of society and the artistic sphere, and within this between the different artistic forms.  “The difficulty”, he notes, is not understanding that Greek art and the epic are tied to certain forms of social development. The difficulty is this: they procure for us an artistic enjoyment, and in certain respects, they serve as the norm, they are an inaccessible model.”  In some way works of art have the capacity of surmounting their own conditions of production, of surviving them and therefore of being recognizable in different contexts:  the capacity to be decontextualized and to be recontextualized, which is perhaps the best approximation of the sempiternal, is the capacity not only to undergo the test of different contexts, but also to create different contexts, to recreate themselves.  This perhaps is the limit of a sociology, but is it the case that sociology cannot think its own limits, that is to say precisely the inexhaustible character of the work of art, irreducible to economic relations of production and the political relations of power?

You have written in Critique and Conviction that ”one of the assumed functions in the past by the novel B to take the place of sociology B no longer has a raison d’etre.” One could admit, beginning with Balzac, Zola and many others, that the novel is a spontaneous sociology. Today one might try to do the reverse:  the sociology of the novel.  How do you see this?

I have been quite imprudent! I am a little embarrassed by that extreme citation. Sociology surely does not exhaust its object and the novel continues perhaps to exercise its traditional function.  It is true that it is in competition with methodically conducted sociologies. I have just read his summer Vie et Destin de Vassili Grossman.  No history or sociology of the patriotic War can equal this work, precisely as to its lives and their fate, that is to say, to take into account the contingent experience of the characters and of the fact that it makes itself  something ineluctable by their very choices.  Grossman makes use of all the resources of the Tolstoyan novel, that is,  branches, kinships, etc., in order to be able to speak of the Kolyma, of the deportation, of the trenches and furious assaults of Stalingrad.  Thus he works out a kind of cross-section of the Russia of the early forties which without doubt no history, no sociology can equal.

Can one speak of a sociology of art?

At this moment I  was thinking of  the sociology of society.  Sociology of art?  I don’t know.

Finally, most sociologies admit that it is biography or the conditions of life of the artist or the social situation and the socio-historical determinations that explain the work.  Would it not rather be the inverse:  the work would explain the biography and the social conditions?

From this point of view, the category that has always appeared suspect to me is that of “influence” because it is a retrospective point of view. A work creates its own influences; in making choices within its heritage it uncovers retrospectively within the intersection of causalities in order to exclude those which will be put out of play.   And the sociologist is going to place himself at the moment when this retrospective has done its work.  He can then write:  such and such a cause being given, such a work results from it.  But he rewrites in prospective what has first functioned in retrospect, namely that the production cuts away from itself the conditions of its production, those that form part of its novelty.

Paul Ricoeur

- Professor emeritus of philosophy – Universities of Paris X and Chicago.

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