The 140th anniversary of the birth of the Jewish-German philosopher Ernst Cassirer was marked a month ago, on July 28. Cassirer is important for me, because he constitutes a critical link in the chain of Western thought. He was familiar with the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and saw World War II, but in his Enlightenment critique he did not adopt anti-progress positions or anti-humanist attitudes.
In what follows, I shall try to delineate his major ideas as concisely and lucidly as possible, and to apply his method to Bartolomeo Manfredi’s painting “Cupid Chastised” (1613).
Cassirer (1874-1945) believed that art is one of the “symbolic forms,” which are like Kantian categories, modes of perception, and elements involved in the recognition and construction of a world that is apprehended by the snses, through which human beings experience their surroundings. The world is accessible to man solely through symbolic mediation, Cassirer argued. In putting forward this idea, he preceded French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, but in a different way.
The symbolic forms in question, Cassirer maintained, also encompass language and religion. Art, like science, originates in the branching off from myth. For example, the ancient myth of the god Thor, commanding forth thunder and lightning with his hammer, branches off into the scientific question: “What is the source of thunder and lightning?” Additionally, poems, stories and paintings explain to people the experience whose subject is the god Thor.
According to this approach, art derives from human nature. Its contribution is not secondary to science, but rather the opposite. In certain places, Cassirer returns to the idea that scientific thinking is essentially reductive, whereas art is anti-reductive. A loyal Kantian, he draws here on that philosopher’s famous comment, “Thus we can readily learn all that Newton has set forth in his immortal work on the principles of natural philosophy, however great a head was required to discover it; but we cannot learn to write spirited poetry, however express may be the precepts of the art and however excellent its models.”
Let us turn, then, to Manfredi’s wonderful painting. It does in fact branch off from the myth. True, science will later explain the incest taboo to us (Mars seems to be angry because of Cupid’s relationship with his mother; or, according to a different interpretation, because he has made her stray from her good path with his arrows). Psychoanalysis will explain to us why it is impossible to punish Cupid with blows (here, he’s clearly enjoying the scene: His hands are not resisting, his back is arched with pleasure and his face expresses a silent moan of sexual gratification).
Yes, it’s actually possible to hear the breaking out of science from myth and to see here the birth of art as an expression of eros. As Cassirer argued many times, art appears as an experiential abundance that blurs the regular distinctions of our life – above all, the distinction between subject and object.
As he writes in his “Essay on Man”: “When absorbed in the intuition of a great work of art we do not feel a separation between the subjective and the objective worlds. We do not live in the plain commonplace reality of physical things, nor do we live wholly within an individual sphere. Beyond these two spheres we detect a new realm, the realm of plastic, musical, poetical forms; and these forms have a real universality.”
In other words, what arises from Manfredi’s painting is that it’s not furious Mars who caught Venus and Cupid red-handed and is punishing them, but that Venus, in this composition, has caught Mars and Cupid red-handed amusing themselves homoerotically by means of flogging.
Art extracts from myth something that was unimagined, something deep and wild, whereas all that science can tell us about it is dry, reductive and technical.