Jennifer Szalai studied Politics and Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto, and went on to do an MSc in International Relations at the London School of Economics. She has served as deputy editor on Millennium: Journal of International Studies and written for the New Statesman. Jennifer now lives in New York City. She is a senior editor at Harper's Magazine, where she edits the reviews section. Here she discusses Susanne K. Langer's Philosophy in a New Key.
Jennifer Szalai on Philosophy in a New Key by Susanne K. Langer
Language, in its original capacity, is a stiff and conventional medium, unadapted to the expression of genuinely new ideas, which usually have to break in upon the mind through some great and bewildering metaphor. (Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key)
Asked to describe a book that did, in fact, insinuate itself into my life like 'some great and bewildering metaphor', I have been scrambling to figure out how I might possibly convey Philosophy in a New Key in all of its brilliance. Even the word 'brilliance', whose original lustre - which is to say, its original meaning - has already faded with overuse (book reviewers in particular should be arraigned for this), doesn't seem up to the task of rendering how Susanne Langer's elegant book went off in my mind like a detonation, exploding old prejudices and assumptions, illuminating new ideas in the flicker of its blaze.
I try to console myself by supposing that Langer would have understood. She knew how 'stiff and conventional' a medium language could be, and her attempts to explain its limits as well as entertain its possibilities revealed a formidable intelligence, one that could navigate among what we might nowadays consider specialized fields - philosophy and anthropology, literature and music - with a nimble ease. Those attempts also revealed a writer who could transform concepts into prose that was remarkable for both its melody and lucidity, capable of rescuing ideas from imprisonment in the ivory tower. She took that 'stiff and conventional' medium and managed to render it supple and extraordinary.
Langer's book was first published in 1942. Fascism was on the march. So was scientism. The anti-religious were getting religious in their orthodoxies, belligerent in their beliefs. Meanwhile, Langer was pointing to the connections between the 'rational' and the 'irrational', science and religion, language and myth. (Indeed, she would translate Ernst Cassirer's Sprache und Mythos into English four years later.) She considered all of these phenomena as functions of the human mind, which translates and transforms experience into symbols. Animals react to signals: the scent of food that signals that a meal is imminent; the noises that constitute a master's name and signals that he's near. Humans, too, react to signals, but we also have symbolic versions of our experiences, which allow us to contemplate and reflect and surmise even when the object of such ruminations is out of detectable range. Say the name 'Reynolds' to the dog that belongs to Reynolds and he will prick up his ears, anticipating the actual arrival of Reynolds; say the name 'Reynolds' to his rival at the office and she might be willing to say a nasty thing or two about Reynolds (as long as Reynolds's absence from the immediate vicinity is assured).
As such, each way of looking at the world might make exclusive claims on 'reality' or 'truth' (the scientist appeals to data; the Catholic appeals to God), but that 'reality' is initially shaped by our means of apprehending it for contemplation and harnessing it for expression or communication to others. Language is but one mode of this symbolic transformation: a conception is organized into words and can be fixed and held in the mind. Art and ritual are other modes of transforming experience into symbol, feeling into form. Langer points out that this process is specific to humans among the animals:
Dogs scorn our paintings because they see coloured canvases, not pictures. A representation of a cat does not make them conceive of one.We, however, can look at a painting that represents a cat, and it will make us conceive of one - though Langer is also eager to dissuade us from succumbing to the most literal-minded judgements, in which the criteria for artistic significance are based on standards, like accuracy or else the 'pleasantness' or 'unpleasantness' of the work, 'which (she says) have nothing to do with art'. The artist is not simply recording the cat that he sees before him; his imagination is also creating, and the representation of the cat is transformed. It is the artist's 'articulation of visual forms' that makes a work of art significant or not; he is engaged in the act of transforming, not transcribing.
Music takes up much of Langer's discussion of art. She turns to it because music can more easily be considered in terms of its form, without the distractions of literal meaning (What is this a painting of? What is this novel about?) getting in the way. Of course, emotional self-expression has often been trotted out as the meaning of a given piece of music, but again, Langer points out how catharsis is an explanation favoured by those who are unable (or else unwilling) to hold music in musical terms. Emotional expressiveness may be part of music's art, but like the cat in our painting, feeling must undergo a symbolic transformation if the music is to be distinguished from the anguished cries of a grieving mother or the ecstatic howls of a fan at a hockey game.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, art that is made out of language lends itself to a particularly pernicious confusion of content with form. I was once told of a book club that assigned J. M. Coetzee's Youth to its readers, who then proceeded to eviscerate the book for having such an 'unlikable' protagonist. I've heard similar complaints about Coetzee's marvelous novel, Disgrace. (If one insisted on being reductive about it, I suppose that the lives of unpleasant men might be cited as what so much of his fiction is 'about'.) Literal interpretations like these are common, and are often useful for rendering an element of a work of fiction immediately apprehensible. What is troubling, however, is when critics, many of whom grace themselves with the adjective 'literary', make a virtue of those interpretations without giving so much as a nod to the literary forms that the subject takes. These critics are content to pass judgement on a novel according to the palatability of its politics, or else its reflection of 'reality'; thus the reviews of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America expended many righteous words about fascism and the novel's resonance with the current political situation, but seemed to have little to say about the heavy-handed clumsiness with which the story is told.
Writers of non-fiction, too, are taking 'reality' and transforming it, though the imagination of a reporter or an essayist cannot be allowed to roam as freely as that of the novelist. (John Updike's distinction between writing criticism and writing fiction or poetry comes immediately to mind: the novelist or poet is 'sailing in the open sea', while the critic is 'hugging the shore'.) The writer of non-fiction has a responsibility to that reality - but if he's any good, he is able to present it in a way that is persuasive, even alive, for his reader. The critic cannot simply write, 'This is an excellent novel. Read it!' - just as the essayist cannot simply write, 'The situation in Iraq is terrible. Let's put a stop to it!' Exhortations like these become persuasive when the writer makes us privy to his own path of discovery, so that the idea being conveyed becomes palpable to us. Susanne Langer seemed to recognize that she, too, was letting us in on a story with Philosophy in a New Key; it is both her intelligence as a thinker and her artfulness as a writer that has given her book such an immediate, living presence.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]