Over the decade, though, I’ve come to have second thoughts—heaps, actually, about lots of things—and some about the Stockhausen scandal. Yes, his remarks were stupendously ill-judged. Yet even at the time—with chaos impinging everywhere—I remember vaguely feeling there was something there, some small mote in what he’d said, that might bear thinking about later. Was it that flabbergasting phrase, “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos”? One hadn’t time to ruminate, but one put his comments away nonetheless in some mental drawer marked Needing Further Consideration.
Fast-forward to new, semi-normal life. At Stanford, I often teach a course on Gothic fiction. We read all the early English novels of terror and the supernatural—The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, Frankenstein—and I lecture on their relation to what scholars call the “cult of the Sublime.” In eighteenth-century aesthetics, the Sublime was anything that by its size, strength, or the danger it posed to human life produced instinctive terror and awe. Certain natural objects, philosophers like Kant maintained, were necessarily sublime: erupting volcanoes, tempests, huge waterfalls, ferocious beasts, racing floods, swiftly enveloping darkness, and so on. But man-made phenomena could also be sublime: ancient ruins, grim fortresses, the interiors of great cathedrals, colossal towers, pitch-black dungeons, and the like.
The theory held that when sublime objects were contemplated from a position of safety—when, say, one saw a volcanic eruption from a great distance, or even just read a description of one—the results could be thrilling and pleasurable. Unmediated sublimity terrorized, yes, but representations of sublimity produced excitement, a monster-rush of euphoria. The point was not lost on eighteenth-century Gothic novelists; like disaster filmmakers today, they realized that, skillfully packaged, things otherwise dread-inspiring could be a source of perverse yet intoxicating delight.
I’d often used paintings to illustrate the cult of the Sublime: Wright of Derby’s Vesuvius in Eruption; George Stubbs’s Horse Attacked by a Lion; melodramatic Victorian depictions of the destruction of Pompeii and similar calamities. Needless to say, one felt safely distant from the scenes represented; works like the nineteenth-century painter John Martin’s The Great Day of His Wrath and Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire: Destruction verge, to modern eyes, on the ludicrous—pure Cecil B. DeMille camp.
In 2003, I acquired Here Is New York—a now-celebrated assemblage of photographs taken by New Yorkers during and after 9/11. The photos were riveting—couldn’t be otherwise—but I was frankly dumbstruck by what I could only call, uneasily, their sublimity. Most disturbing were those photos taken at night—searing long shots of the skyline in flames. But uncanny resemblances were everywhere: collapsing buildings, clouds of black smoke, victims fleeing in panic—all the lurid microdrama of cataclysm and death. I was appalled. Worse yet, I can’t teach my Gothic class now without showing them the WTC photos and their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century look-alikes.
What to do with such morbid resemblances? Was Stockhausen right? That there’s something artlike or “aesthetic” about 9/11? When I’ve broached the questions in class, the students seem befuddled, say nothing. But I too feel fairly aphasic—intellectually confounded. True, since 9/11, various writers have addressed Stockhausen’s claim with historical insight and tact. At Stockhausen’s death, his former composition student Robin Maconie wrote a passionate defense of his mentor in which he observed that Stockhausen’s remarks deserved to be understood “from the perspective of a European history and philosophy of suffering as a statement of resistance to the logic of war in the spirit of surrealist art.” Likewise, in Crimes of Art and Terror, a study of violence in modern art, Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe have analyzed how difficult it is to separate Stockhausen’s provocations from similar challenges laid down by avant-garde artists since the nineteenth century.
But despite such commentaries I still find myself confused. The fundamental question—what is a work of art?—remains just as muddled as it always was, if not more so. Thus the endless mental debates I hold—with Stockhausen and myself:
Q: So wasn’t the composer’s error a category mistake—the confusing of a real event with something artificial or illusory? A mix-up of Life and Art?
A: Maybe. But given that most people know the event only through representations—we weren’t there, after all—isn’t one’s sense of the “real” event itself illusory? How do you think those paranoid conspiracy theories about 9/11 being faked got started?
Q: Okay, but couldn’t we view some of the representations as works of art? Indeed, aren’t some 9/11 photos “sublime”—if not beautiful?
A: But the subject matter is abhorrent! What sort of moral idiot discusses beauty and sublimity when images document an event in which thousands perished in horrific fashion?
Q: But painters and writers (and photographers and filmmakers) have often represented events resulting in a huge loss of life! Witness the sack of Rome, the destruction of Pompeii, the Titanic … What about Picasso’s Guernica?
A: But these representations involve things now distant from us. The 9/11 attacks still seem like they just happened …
And so on—I fear ad infinitum.
Granted, even after a decade, the conundrums can seem abstract, far less urgent than the ongoing human ramifications of 9/11. Yet one finds oneself casting around nonetheless for intellectual comfort: some intricate, abiding, fail-safe rebuttal of Stockhausen’s thesis. What is the relation between art and life? Stockhausen gave us a terrible gift: an idea that won’t go away, a truly shocking string of words. If you care about art and its meanings, his proclamation retains its exorbitant power to wound. Or so I’ve found; grandstanding alone can’t kill it.
Terry Castle, an English professor at Stanford University, is the author of The Professor: A Sentimental Education.