The agreeable eye

an eudæmonistarchives

the lot of the faint heart

“Ich glaube, daß er kein Automat ist” hat, so ohne weiteres, noch gar keinen Sinn.

“I believe that he is not an automaton”, just like that, so far makes no sense.

—Wittgenstein (Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment, iv; trans. G.E.M. Anscombe et al.)

The artist depicting the artist at work
An extract from Jean-Léon Gérôme’s ‘The Artist and His Model’ (1894)

ἐλεγέ τε θαυμάζειν τῶν τὰς λιθίνας εἰκόνας κατασκευαζομένων τοῦ μὲν λίθου προνοεῖν ὅπως ὁμοιότατος ἔσται, αὑτῶν δ᾽ ἀμελεῖν, ὡς μὴ ὁμοίους τῷ λίθῳ φαίνεσθαι.

He used to express his astonishment that the sculptors of marble statues should take pains to make the block of marble into a perfect likeness of a man, and should take no pains about themselves lest they should turn out mere blocks, not men.

—Diogenes Laertius (II.33, on Socrates, trans. R.D. Hicks; cf. Hippocrates Regimen I, 21–23)

In an effort to be less of a blockhead, I’m still chipping away at trying to make sense out of Hamann. It’s an odd experience, because there’s usually a lot going on and it’s not always clear what’s intentional, incidental, or accidental – or if it matters. Take the following passage from the introduction (please):

Sollte unsere Historie Mythologie werden; so wird diese Umarmung eines leblosen Lehrers, der ohne Eigennutz Wunder der Erfüllung gethan, in ein Mährchen verwandelt seyn, das den Reliquien von Pygmalions Leben ähnlich sehen wird. Ein Schöpfer seines Volkes in der Sprache unsers Witzes wird nach einer undenklichen Zeit eben so poetisch verstanden werden müssen, als ein Bildhauer seines Weibes.

Should our history become mythology, this embrace of a lifeless teacher, who without self-interest worked fulfilling miracles, will be changed into a fairy-tale that would appear similar to the relics of Pygmalion’s life. A creator of his people, in the language of our wit(ticism)s, will after time immemorial have to be understood as poetically as a sculptor of his wife.

—J. G. Hamann (Socratic Memorabilia, p. 18, emphasis in the original; cf. trans. Griffith-Dickson p. 380 or O’Flaherty p. 145)1

These two sentences occur at the end of a paragraph discussing the history of philosophy and statues of statesmen. Hamann draws a parallel between the two – namely, both belong to the past, are created by craftsmen at the behest of someone (a monarch) who pays for them, and both tend to elicit unintended and probably misguided responses. Immediately before this passage, Hamann mentions the ‘Scythian’, by which he means to indicate, according his footnote, Peter the Great,2 whom Hamann compares to (a) Christ as carpenter (learn by doing!) and (b) Herod ogling Salome (offer inappropriate rewards to even less appropriate people!).3

I do not, however, have any particular interest in that (or in the disinterested wonder-worker, for that matter). I am interested in the comparison to Pygmalion. It’s an odd image, particularly as the embrace4 of a lifeless statue does not necessary betoken affection,5 as a glance at Polybius and the case of Nabis, tyrant of Sparta (another statesman pursuing fiscal responsibility), and the somewhat ‘prickly’ image of his wife would confirm.6 I think the focus is not on Pygmalion per se, because Hamann does not seem interested in the realism of the statue; nor does he seem to care much for artistic skill – otherwise the story of the wandering statues created by Daedalus, from Plato’s Meno (97e–98a; with their built-in reference to errant knowledge), would be more appropriate.7

Go back, then, to the story of Pygmalion. An artist spurns marriage (spurns Venus), makes the image of a beautiful woman out of ivory, caresses it, dresses it, and on the feast day of the goddess spurned, prays modestly for a wife like his statue (though not, you will note, for his statue as a wife). Venus, with that indifference to human sensibility that tends to mark godly behavior, grants the wish he does not dare to ask anywhere but in his secret heart (if heart it be that asked).8 It is a very divine sort of economy, far beyond a physiocrat’s grasp. Interestingly, according to Apollodorus (3.14.3), this union (not, as Ovid suggests, the unfortunate familial encounter of Myrrha) ultimately led to Adonis, one of many the many minor mythological figures whose rites were coopted in early Christianity.

This appears, then, to be an echo of the biblical creation of man (from dust/stone) and woman (from bone), in addition to the direct reference to a myth that distinguishes divine power from human creativity – as human ingenuity tends to remain unfortunately creaturely. It also provides an inverted image of Lot’s wife, whom fear and lack of faith petrified. For Hamann, then, there is a living art (of faith) and then the lifeless salt of wit, and the two should be distinguished. The logic of this maneuver is not, to my mind, wholly palpable, but I am left shaking my head and saying with Meno: νὴ τὸν Δία, ὦ Σώκρατες, ἔοικεν τοιούτῳ τινί / Begad, Socrates, it seems to be very much as you say (mostly because I am left wondering what he will say next).

  1. The current English translations of Hamann are … not quite adequate; O’Flaherty is not so much a Nabokovian pony as a very small donkey dragging its footnotes, while Griffith-Dickson gets closer to the sense but provides less of a feeling for the allusions and wordplay – neither is sufficiently humorous. The translation here is based on Griffith-Dickson, with substantial rephrasings and modifications, including the addition of italics to match the emphasis from the first edition of the German. Merely as an example, Griffith-Dickson translates verwandelt (unobjectionably) as ‘evolve’ (O’Flaherty uses ‘transform’); my initial impulse was ‘metamorphose’ (because Ovid and Kafka), but that seemed too Latinate. I thought about ‘change’ and that set up a resonance with the phrase ‘we will all be changed’, so I checked how 1 Cor 15:51 was translated in Luther’s bible: ‘Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis: Wir werden nicht alle entschlafen, wir werden aber alle verwandelt werden’ (emphasis added). Bingo. []
  2. It could also be doubled allusion to Anacharsis and his position relative to Socrates. In any case, it is strongly tinged with concern about seeking validation from foreign experts and the process not going as one had hoped. []
  3. The Tsar’s fondness for foreign experts and penchant for taxation were perhaps of interest to one intended reader of the Memorabilia, the potentially patronizing merchant Johann Christoph Berens, who was based out of Riga, then part of the Russian Empire (thanks to the siege by the mentioned Peter), and it may also be an oblique reference to the failure of Hamann’s mysterious (catastrophic?) London mission, which ultimately led to his conversion. It’s probably also an allusion to the man of God in Habakkuk, but there are only so many wandering references one can chase down to make a few idle comments on two sentences. []
  4. I also remember reading in Galen? In Hippocrates? about the athletic practice of hugging a pillar of cold stone on a winter’s day to increase one’s hardiness; the author, whoever it was, was slightly contemptuous of the practice, which does seem rather absurd. So absurd, indeed, that I’m not going to bother looking it up. []
  5. The modern reader would perhaps also think of the statue of Commendatore from Don Giovanni. []
  6. Was there a slantwise allusion to Polybius? Impossible to say. Probably not. There is not, to my knowledge, any evidence that Hamann had read the historian recently (if at all), although it is the sort of juicy story that’s usually memorable. It’s a fine intuitive strike if not intentional. []
  7. Many thanks to PF for the reminder. []
  8. And the poor statue wakes up a human female in bed with a strange man leering over her. There are many ways to interpret god’s gifts. []


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