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In the Beginning: The Western Imbrication of Divine Presence, Aesthetic Judgment, and Promised Land

In the Beginning: The Western Imbrication of Divine Presence, Aesthetic Judgment, and Promised Land
91 Charles Street West, Victoria College, Old Vic, Room VC212
Time: Sep 28th, 4:00 pm End: Sep 28th, 6:00 pm
Interest Categories: Religion, Study of (FAS), English and Drama (UTM), English (UTSC), English (FAS), Comparative Literature (FAS), 2000-
Talk by Vincent Pecora

The Centre for Comparative Literature presents a public lecture by 

Professor Vincent Pecora, Department of English, University of Utah

In the Beginning: The Western Imbrication  of Divine Presence, Aesthetic Judgment, and Promised Land

Stendhal’s oft-cited quip in 1822 that “la beauté n’est que la promesse du bonheur” (Stendhal’s emphasis), which is to say that beauty is merely the promise of happiness, comes from his advice-book for lovers. And yet, because of the immediately preceding Romantic revolution in the understanding of the beautiful—that is, in Alexander Baumgarten, Georg Meier and Immanuel Kant on the continent, and Shaftesbury and Hutcheson in Britain, Stendhal’s promise has often been read in frankly political, even utopian, terms. In what follows, I want to revise this Stendhalian promise of happiness somewhat to embrace three distinct yet intimately related meanings that, if I am correct, can be traced back to the Book of Exodus: first, the promise of a continuity between mortal and divine existence; second, the promise of a place on earth, a land to which a people authentically belongs; and third, the promise of happiness that arrives via the beautiful, or rather, the work of art. The imbrication of these three forms of promise reveals a shared history in Western thought that runs a bit deeper than we might presume.

In Exodus, God’s “I am that I am” is also a prophecy that will eventually deliver the Jews from Egypt. Via Baumgarten and Georg Friedrich Meier and Herder, Eckhart’s dialectical notion of the divine soul intersects with what may be the most often cited theory of aesthetics in the modern West, that of Kant’s Third Critique. In Fichte, this same divine-aesthetic-geographical prophecy becomes the foundation for the promised land of a resurrected Germany. And in Heidegger, we apprehend the meaning of authentic Wohnen, of what I would call poetic dwelling on the earth, by means of a philosophical career that takes us from the homeless anxiety of Lutheran Christianity to the boiling violence of Blut und Boden ideology to the reconfiguration of divinity, poetry, and historical dwelling in a farmhouse in the Black Forest. In this sense, the pursuit of God and the pursuit of beauty in the West are of a piece with the pursuit of a promised land to call our own, and they appear to have been so since an exiled Moses conversed with his creator many centuries ago.

Vincent P. Pecora is the Gordon B. Hinckley Presidential Endowed Chair in British Studies at the University of Utah. He has taught at the University of Arkansas (1984-85), the University of California, Los Angeles (1985-2005), and has directed summer seminars for the School of Criticism and Theory (2002) and the Social Science Research Council (in 2010 and 2014). He is the author of Self and Form in Modern Narrative (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), Households of the Soul (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), Secularization and Cultural Criticism: Religion, Nation, and Modernity (University of Chicago Press, 2006), Secularization without End: Beckett, Mann, and Coetzee (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), and he is the editor of Nations and Identities: Classic Readings (Blackwell Publishers, 2001). His current book manuscript is titled Vital Geographies: Land, Aesthetics, and Political Theology. His work has been translated into Italian, French, Spanish, Korean, and Chinese.


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