In Wondering Admiration Before the World

By Kevin HartJanuary 24, 2017

In Wondering Admiration Before the World

Arts of Wonder by Jeffrey L. Kosky

IN 1917, the German political economist Max Weber gave an important lecture at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, which was entitled “Science as a Vocation.” Weber argued that the increased intellectualization and rationalization of Western culture have not improved our knowledge of how to live in the world; rather, they have given us the firm belief that we can learn whatever we need at any time. There are no “mysterious incalculable forces that come into play”; instead, we believe deep down that we can in principle “master all things by calculation.” Then came one of the remarks for which Weber became well known: “This means that the world is disenchanted.”

Disenchantment had been becoming more and more apparent in Western culture for a long time, Weber believed, yet at the turn of the 20th century it had become a defining trait of modernity. To be a modern person meant, and means, first of all, not to trust in magic, prayer, ritual, sacraments, or anything of the sort; more than that, though, it means not to allow oneself to be enthralled by anything at all, at least not for very long. Anything that appears mysterious can be shown, by careful methodical investigation, to have a rational explanation. A century after Weber’s lecture, the West is divided over the success of disenchantment. True enough, there are many scientists, many philosophers, and of course many Marxists, who prize one or another version of a world that has been thoroughly demystified. If there is wonder, it is no more than a prompt to explanation. Yet there are many other people for whom calculation does not give the whole story about our world, or perhaps even the most important parts of it.

When the British poet Philip Larkin called religion “That vast moth-eaten musical brocade,” he named exactly how many people in Europe, not just Britain, had come to think about Judaism and Christianity. But he did not also name a widespread disillusionment with wonder. The very people who were reading his bitter diagnosis of the failure of institutional religion were reading a poem, after all, and no one who thinks that calculation is all would waste time doing such a thing. “Aubade” (1977) is one of the most chilling poems of the last century; it offers no hope, and yet there are few readers who feel content merely to remain in an “uncaring / Intricate rented world,” facing an inevitable and meaningless death. Rather, we snatch at what Larkin says will make us remorseful as life ends, “the love not given, time / Torn off unused,” and vow to love more and to use our time better. Perhaps we also reflect that the sheer verbal mastery of the poem, its carefully managed stanzas and apt rhymes, affirm art’s power to enchant us, even if its spell is a frightening one.

In Arts of Wonder, Jeffrey L. Kosky does two important things. First, he analyzes how the West came to organize our common picture of the world as wholly governed by reason, understood in a narrow manner; and, second, he invites us to consider how some contemporary visual art contests that picture, offering us new ways of properly seeing the world about us so as to do justice to phenomena that appear, but which resist human mastery. One might naïvely expect a professor of religion to criticize the zeal for disenchantment and commend religion’s role in conducting mystery. Kosky does no such thing. Nor does he concede to ardent proponents of modern art that much of its interest — its triumph, if you like — consists in its stark refusal of religious categories. On the contrary, he maintains that some contemporary art answers to religious impulses and teaches us something that the churches no longer even try to do: how to contemplate reality.

Kosky tells us how, when teaching a class on disenchantment, he shows his students the frontispiece to an exemplary book of the German Enlightenment, Reasonable Thoughts on God, the World, and the Human Soul (1720) by Christian Wolff. It consists of a country manor set in a pleasant landscape, all done quite realistically; if you look higher, you see a smiling sun that illuminates all that is beneath it; and if you look higher still, you see dark clouds. The banner reads Lucem post nubia reddit (He [or it] brings back the light after the clouds). Kosky asks his students what the sun represents. Some answer “God.” Others answer “Reason.” The first group responds to a deep-seated conviction among believers that God shines his light on the world and that we understand things properly only in that light. The second one articulates another common view, one that comes to us from the Enlightenment, that reason illuminates the world, and that we can and should always be prepared to give a reason for why something is or why something happens. It is this second group of students who, for Kosky, fundamentally regard the world as disenchanted.

Now the two groups need not necessarily diverge all that sharply. It is perfectly possible to conceive God as the truth, as embodying the whole of reason, and it is equally possible to figure Reason as sacred. (We remember the Fête de la Raison in 1793, when French churches were transformed into Temples of Reason.) Yet there is a powerful current of thought, nominalism, emerging in the late Middle Ages, and influencing reformed Christianity, in which God has his own reasons for doing things, which are inaccessible to human beings. The Enlightenment rejects that troubling view; on the contrary, God always acts according to reason. And once that position is firmly in place, Kosky argues, the world is on its way to being disenchanted. This is largely a Protestant story, one might add. Catholicism and Orthodoxy have always remained enchanted faiths; for them, truth and mystery are co-ordinate notions.

The story of disenchantment develops in philosophy, and Kosky tells it with ease and elegance. It begins with the Rationalists in the 17th century, especially Spinoza and Leibniz. Kosky focuses instead on the Leibniz-Wolff stream of thought, and the central principle of their scientific method, which is formulated in different ways, but perhaps the most simple and memorable is this: nihil est sine ratione (nothing is without a reason). Thus put, the principle of sufficient reason can mean a good many things, depending on whether one thinks of it by way of reasons or causes (hence relating it to propositions or entities), whether one is talking of necessary or contingent propositions, or has in mind real or possible entities. For Kosky’s purposes, it says that nothing appears or happens just by itself; things come into being only because of grounds that are sufficient for that to occur.

Modern philosophers from Schopenhauer to Heidegger and beyond have brooded on the principle of sufficient reason, and recently versions of it have been formalized in an effort to be clear as to what it actually says. At the basis of Kosky’s understanding of the principle and its scope, however, are Heidegger’s 1955–’56 lectures Der Satz vom Grund, translated as The Principle of Reason. For Heidegger, the principle concerns being, not propositions; accordingly, it is the principle of all principles. Yet he notes that it is challenged by a strain of Rhineland mysticism, most overt in Meister Eckhart and Angelus Silesius. A line from a poem by Silesius puts it plainly: “The rose is without why: it blooms because it blooms.” In a subtle and patient manner, Heidegger leads us to see that being is precisely what grounds beings, from which it follows that being itself is ungrounded play. Heidegger’s great teacher, Edmund Husserl, maintained that phenomena manifest themselves to us by dint of both our consciousness, when properly purified, and the phenomena themselves. Yet Heidegger invites us to reflect that, as the ancient Greeks saw, phenomena do not need consciousness; the being that grounds them gives itself according to its own “missions.”

If Kosky does not relate the story of the principle of sufficient reason beyond Heidegger to contemporary phenomenology, it is not because he is unaware of it. He wishes, rather, to have us attend to artworks that challenge our habitual reliance on giving reasons for everything, that seek to restore a sense of wonder to the world. He writes not as an art critic, not even as a philosopher interested in art, although he is doubtless aware that some artists are better at doing phenomenology than most philosophers who, all too often, allow themselves to be deflected into the theory of phenomenology. Instead, he writes as a professor of religion who recognizes the importance of the visual arts in the study of religion. It is in the work of several contemporary artists, he thinks, that we can orient ourselves to aspects of the spiritual that, quite frankly, are largely bypassed or ignored in theology and the philosophy of religion.

The first artwork he examines is exemplary of his concerns and his manner of dealing with them. It is Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977). This work may be found in southwestern New Mexico, “Land of Enchantment” as the license plate on cars there announces. Kosky tells us of driving in those parts in the summer of 2004, and, although his autobiographical narrative is beguiling, it is far from being self-indulgent; it allows him to recount Aby Warburg’s earlier journey into the desert, his fascination with the Pueblo lightning dance, and his iconic photograph “Uncle Sam,” an image of a suited man in a stovepipe hat, walking under electric cables in San Francisco: the mystery at the base of the lightning dance has been eliminated, and now Americans are masters of electricity.

The Lightning Field consists of 400 stainless steel poles arranged in a grid, spaced at intervals of 220 feet, and forming a horizontal plane. It covers an area one mile wide (25 poles) and one kilometer long (16 poles). Minimal though it is, the artwork conducts the eye; it gives the landscape a focus it would not otherwise have. As you look at the poles you think: “This is the end of the world.” Or perhaps: “This is the beginning of the world.” Doubtless those thoughts are encouraged by the climate: dry, windy, bare, and ravaged by thunderstorms. From time to time, the poles attract powerful strikes of lightning. When that happens, the clouds do not part; there is no smiling sun, only a display of tremendous force that has been hidden all the time behind the pitiless blue sky of the desert. The Lightning Field does not represent anything; it presents something: a coming into presence and a passing from presence of sheer power. Why travel all the way to southwestern New Mexico to see lightning strike some rods? To elicit “wondering admiration,” and to contemplate something that gives itself to you and that evades mastery. No one can summon the lightning and the sublime display it gives.

Kosky goes on to discuss Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio’s Blur, a pavilion for the Swiss Expo.02, erected on the side of Lake Neuchâtel in Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland. The pavilion processes water from the lake, shooting it up through many thousands of nozzles as a very fine mist; it reaches 65 feet into the air, and spreads around some 60,000 square feet. Up to 400 visitors can enter Blur at any one time; they are given smart raincoats that, based on information gathered about their characters given in a questionnaire, change color as they encounter one another in the pavilion. One is covered in a mood ring, as it were. Standing in a glass box, they experience a sense of suspension in the dense fog, hearing only the nozzles and seeing nothing; doubtless they are struck by vertigo if the mist lifts.

As with The Lightning Field, there is no parting of clouds: the clarity and distinctness that the Western mind has prized above all since Descartes is nowhere to be found. Rather, we have moved into a space in which little or nothing can be calculated. Of course, the irony is that architects have carefully calculated the number of nozzles needed to generate the effect of fuzzy life, and a weather station regulates the mist to take account of wind speed, the direction from which wind comes, and the temperature of the day. It is as though Western secular technology has poked a hole in the world picture that it has so successfully drawn, and invites people to experience another state than is otherwise available.

Two chapters attend to James Turrell’s remarkable experiments with light. In works captured in photographs by Cynthia Hooper such as Red Cube of Light (2011) and Blue Wall or Doorway (2011) light is not what clarifies the world, exposing it to our inspection, and giving us a sense of mastery over it. Kosky expresses his own initial perplexity when faced with these artworks. Of the first he asks: “What in the world is this then, if indeed it is of the world? Does it belong to the clearing made by the advance of a light that withdraws? Does this light clarify — make a clearing or clear a space? It seems so otherworldly.” And of the second, he inquires:

Does it beckon you to enter or hold you fast where you are? Is it a doorway or a flat wall, an opening or a surface? Does the light grant you prospect into a clearing or does it stop you from seeing? If you enter the light, if you can enter the light, will you ever leave? Is there a way that will take you through with certainty of reaching the other side?

A Quaker, Turrell is not so much expressing any conventional sense of the “inner light,” that divine seed inside each soul that allows one to distinguish good from evil and that serves to unify all friends and, indeed, all human beings. Instead, he seems to be evoking that this light resists formulation in terms of any distinction between the inner and the outer, the immanent and the transcendent. Our distinctions fall away before the unsayable God.

Kosky’s discussions do not end here. He concludes his book with a study of Andy Goldsworthy, who is perhaps the best known of the artists he considers. The steady concern throughout Arts of Wonder is a renewal of contemplation, the loving, silent beholding of reality, including the ground of reality that we name “God.” It is worth pondering that institutional religion, including Catholicism, has relaxed attention to contemplative acts, yet the hunger to stand in wondering admiration before the world (and before its ground and abyss) has not gone away. For Kosky, that hunger is satisfied by some contemporary art that blurs the distinction between the secular and the spiritual.


Kevin Hart’s most recent book is Wild Track: New and Selected Poems (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015). A new scholarly book, Poetry and Revelation, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury Publishing.

LARB Contributor

Kevin Hart is the Edwin B. Kyle Professor of Christian Studies at the University of Virginia. His books include Barefoot (Notre Dame University Press, 2018) and Poetry and Revelation (Bloomsbury, 2018). A new book, forthcoming from Chicago University Press, is the volume of his Gifford Lectures, Lands of Likeness: For a Poetics of Contemplation.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!