June 28, 2010

Non-dual Thinking and Aesthetic Theory

Beyond Beautiful and Ugly: Non-dual Thinking and Aesthetic Theory
By Jeffery A. Bell

Not every end is the goal. The end of a melody is not its goal; and yet: as long as the melody has not reached its end, it also hasn’t reached its goal. A parable.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
The self-conscious reference of this essay’s title to Nietzsche’s book, Beyond Good and Evil, might seem misplaced to some since this title is then connected with the notion of non-dual thinking. Is not Nietzsche’s work replete with dualities – master and slave morality, life-denying and life-affirming, active and passive, etc.? This same point, however, could be made regarding an entirely different tradition: Zen Buddhism. Despite the frequent appeals in Zen literature to become free from thinking in terms of dualities,1 this very appeal brings in tow its own dualities – enlightenment and attachment, freedom and bondage, active and passive, etc.

To address this apparent inconsistency we propose, in the following essay, to argue that for Nietzsche non-dual thinking entails affirming ‘that’ which cannot be reduced to being one side of an either/or (e.g., mind or body, appearance or reality, good or evil, sacred or secular, etc.), but is ‘that’ which makes such either/or thinking possible. The ‘that’ which is thought and affirmed by non-dual thinking is not opposed to or other than the realities affirmed by either/or thinking. To state this would be simply to repeat either/or thinking. Nonetheless, there is, as Nietzsche repeatedly makes clear, a difference between master and slave morality, or between what we call non-dual and either/or thinking. Nietzsche’s efforts to understand this difference without resorting again to either/or thinking are best exemplified by the way in which he employs aesthetics and art in order to circumvent the inevitable either/ors that are the stock and trade of traditional metaphysics.

In Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy the importance of art as an alternative metaphysics is explicitly recognized: “I am convinced that art represents the highest task and the truly metaphysical activity of this life…” In setting forth this interpretation of the role of aesthetic theory in Nietzsche, we shall then be able to sketch two important implications. First, we shall find a significant parallel between Nietzsche and Zen Buddhism, a parallel that has received little attention; and secondly we will begin to see how Nietzsche’s implicit aesthetic theory is both supportive and critical of other more traditional aesthetic theories.

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