Josef Chytry, The Aesthetic State: A Quest in Modern German Thought
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989)
Twenty years ago, the problematic at the core of Josef Chytry’s The Aesthetic State occupied center stage. In an atmosphere in which the confrontation of Norman O. Brown’s and Herbert Marcuse’s interpretations of Freud seemed to point to meaningful, and opposed, orientations for the New Left (at least in the U.S.), the question of aesthetics and politics was the question on which the most interesting currents aligned themselves. It was a period of serious debate on the relevance of the “Weimar analogy” to developments in the U.S., and of the American discovery of Lukacs and of the Frankfurt School (the latter most immediately through Marcuse). The Parisian Nietzsche and Heidegger (with what an unsuspected future) were just making their appearance. The “apolitical” (that is, conservative) posture of post-1945 modernist, formalist, and existentialist aesthetics, which reigned almost uncontested into the early 1960s, was exploded in the vast rediscovery of the radical social dimension of virtually every important modern artist and current from Baudelaire and Courbet to expressionism and surrealism, as a newly radicalized world became capable, and obliged, to see them anew. The mirage of the 1920s hovered over the 1960s (as two unhinged “affluent” decades careening blissfully toward major economic dislocation and crisis), and whatever the strengths and limits of the “Weimar analogy,” the American intellectual world was thoroughly “Germanized.” Much of Josef Chytry’s The Aesthetic State could have been introduced into this ferment without the slightest sense of anachronism. This, in itself, is not necessarily a criticism. But the euphoria of 1968 did not survive 1969, and 1969 looks positively millenarian when compared to most of the twenty-odd years that have succeeded it. The eroticized mirage of a synthesis of politics and art, as embodied in the German tradition Chytry presents, receded before repression, stagflation, deindustrialization, and social ebb, until it mutated into the scaled-down, studied (and usually wellheeled) disenchantment of postmodernism. That Chytry shows himself to be virtually impervious to this change of mood is largely to his credit. Yet it remains somehow staggering that, in 1989, he could publish a book that makes almost no mention of the challenge posed to the “aesthetic state” by intervening developments, and it also points to serious flaws in his whole approach. Chytry says on several occasions that The Aesthetic State is an intellectual history, but it is more accurately situated in the increasingly beleaguered tradition of the history of ideas. Unlike intellectual history or the sociology of knowledge, Chytry’s book is completely innocent of any attempt to explain socially, historically, politically, or economically the vicissitudes of the tradition he describes. Chytry’s approach consists mainly of expounding (and, on the whole, expounding fairly well) the theories of German aestheticized politics from Winckelmann to Marcuse with no regard to the historical situation of the social stratum which generated it. While this elevates his book above the level of the overly focused monographs produced by intellectual historians which never draw any general conclusions about anything, it also blinds the author to questions that ultimately vitiate his project. But to see this, it is necessary to lay out Chytry’s analysis. The origins of the tradition of the “aesthetic state,” for Chytry, are to be found in ancient Athens, or indeed, in Homer. The Iliad and Greek tragedy introduced a notion of political life as theater and provided a model for the art of public rhetoric in the polis. The polis tradition of course died out in the Hellenistic period.But with the great revival of the culture of antiquity that characterized the Renaissance and the intense civic culture of the Italian city states in particular, the aesthetic state was rediscovered and raised to new heights. While the Florentine ascendancy of the Medici was a “return to metaphysics” and an “escape from the world,” it set the stage for “the first true aestheticism found in European history” and pushed “Florence toward the ideological rim where Socratic Athens had left off,” characterized by “the emergence of the artist as an ideal in European consciousness.” The Italian moment of the aesthetic state went into eclipse in the sixteenth century with the end of the Florentine republic, but was continued elsewhere, in later, more fragmented strands of political thought, courtly aestheticism, and the “magical-religious” dimension represented by such groups as the Rosicrucians. These scattered fragments, however, were reunited and deepened in the great revival of Hellenism set in motion in Germany by Winckelmann, and which continued for more than a century as what one author has called “the domination of Greece over Germany.” It is here that Chytry moves into his element, laying out a story that extends from Sturm und Drang in the 1760s (personified by Herder and Goethe), through Schiller, the Jena period of Schelling, Hslderlin and Hegel, Fichte, Marx, Wagner, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Marcuse. After elaborating these actually rather well-known continuities (and discontinuities) in great detail, Chytry extends them with a chapter on the far more obscure figure of Walter Spies, who migrated from 1920s Weimar Bohemia to Indonesia, where he became one of the first Westerners to fathom the “aesthetic state” in Bali. Chytry concludes with a discussion of contemporary figures such as Geertz and Rawis in a rather unnecessary and thin attempt to make his book absolutely up-to-date. These final pages, moreover, strengthen the reader’s sense of reading a book that might well have lain in manuscript through the 1970s and 1980s; it also strengthens the sense that, however well it continues the tradition of the history of ideas in which it locates itself, something is seriously missing in its attempt to address itself to the debates of the present. What, then, is missing in Chytry’s book? First, as we indicated earlier, real history. It never seems to occur to Chytry (and how could it, when figures of a tradition are laid chronologically end to end with almost no reference to the larger German and European history to which they responded and in which they intervened?) that the tradition of the aesthetic state evolved not in polite salon debate but in the vicissitudes of “the first underdeveloped nation” and its battle to come to terms with modernity in a world dominated, until 1870, by Anglo-French liberalism and Anglo-French Enlightenment culture. The simplest sociology of knowledge would show Chytry’s protagonists, up to and including Hegel, to be theoreticians of the Prussian civil service tradition, and in Hegel’s case, consciously so. Chytry offers no discussion of Hegel’s analysis of the “first civil servant,” the Prussian monarch, who “labors” “universally,” and who is therefore the culmination of human freedom and, presumably, of the aesthetic state. Even more glaring is the absence of Fichte’s “closed mercantile state,” which was the concrete economic and social program of the latter’s version of aesthetics, and which spawned a tradition of German statism and mercantilism that continued, through List, up to fascism. Chytry on occasion gingerly takes up the question of the conservative, not to mention fascist, undertones of “aestheticized politics,” but never more than in passing. The need to do so imposes itself in the obvious cases of post-Napoleonic German romanticism, Wagner, Nietzsche, and Heidegger and, where appropriate, Chytry is duly critical. But he never really takes seriously the analysis of a figure such as Lukacs, for example, who argued long ago that the “autonomization of the aesthetic” in German idealism, with its overtones of aristocratic WillkÄr, was an antecedent to fascism. Nor does he really answer Thomas Mann’s characterization of much of the German tradition as locked in a “machtgeschutzte Innerlichkeit,” an aestheticized inwardness that usually implied indifference to, and thus compliance with, the authoritarian Obrigkeit. Indeed, Chytry suggests that the “aestheticization of politics” (the term is Walter Benjamin’s) was really a phenomenon of the post-World War I period, when already Fichte’s moi absolu had found its program in autarchic mercantilism. The tradition of aestheticized politics so closely linked to Germany’s (and hence Prussia’s) civil service rested on another reality to which Chytry seems oblivious: the separation of Geist and Natur which occurred in the seventeenth century with the triumph of the mechanistic world view in the natural sciences, and its codification in the social practice of the Enlightened despotic state, of which Prussia was an example. Hegel, for his part, was not silent on this “death of nature”; nature, for him, was “boring,” the realm of repetition. Chytry’s tradition, up to and including Marcuse’s Heideggerian Marxism, suffered mightily from this separation, and indeed, much of its Kulturkritik was above all an attempt to come to terms with the relentless advance of science, industry, capitalism, liberalism, democracy, and socialism, the movement of the “little men” loathed by Nietzsche. Chytry does not seem to realize that Marx (who does indeed draw on the Athenian romance of German philosophy) also broke with this Geist/Natur separation, and talked of a history of nature of which human history was, in contrast to Hegel, an extension. Marx wrote, in the 1844 Manuscripts, of the poverty of the previous philosophical tradition for which such an amazing odyssey could be dispensed with in a few phrases as “mere mass,” in order to move on to the really interesting questions of aesthetics. Little developed in Marx himself, this view of an “evolutionary” nature continued by human history returns to the fore today, in the world ecology crisis, part and parcel of the general social and economic crisis. The break with Chytry’s tradition represented by this side of Marx, as one example, seems to escape the author entirely. These very shortcomings of the “aesthetic state” explain a great deal of how, with Nietzsche, Wagner, Heidegger and JÄnger, this tradition veered ever more sharply toward the right, and to precisely the “closed mercantile state” of its Fichtean origins, occulted by Chytry. In the contemporary cultural atmosphere, all of Western culture prior to Nietzsche is increasingly amalgamated in a “logo-phallocentric canon” that can be dismissed out of hand (and this by people who are astoundingly ignorant of its internal specificities). The way is thus opened for the most self-important and frivolous elucubrations, of the most seemingly radical posture. In such a climate, it is refreshing to read an author who is capable of appropriating the tradition knowledgeably. Unfortunately, by seeming to be unaware of the very internal turbulence and social framework that ultimately aborted the project of the “aesthetic state,” Chytry does little to counter the contemporary dispersion of what one author has called “the post-modern carnival.” Chytry discusses a number of authors who would have something to say about this situation, but like the fragmented remnants of the Florentine Renaissance just before Winckelmann, they remain to be reshaped by a new synthesis, one that Chytry patently does not provide.