April 5th, 2004

Schiller's aesthetic letters

My Vienna vacation included some book-reading time. I finally finished Friedrich Schiller's classic "Letters On The Aesthetic Education Of Man." Actually, I guess I re-finished it, since I read it once before.

Schiller (1759-1805) is a hugely influential figure in world literature and also in aesthetics, but he is not widely studied nowadays in the English-speaking world. While in Vienna I climbed up on the pedestal of Schiller's statue and touched its toe.

Ayn Rand, in her Romantic Manifesto, praised him as a top Romantic playwright, which is one way I got interested in him. To those with an interest in opera, he is known as a man whose plays inspired a pile of well known operas. Actually, he inspired 4 operas of Verdi's, one of Rossini's, one of Donizetti's, and one of Tchaikovsky's. That's a lot of inspiration.

You can find the list of operas he inspired here:

He was more than a major playwright. He was also an accomplished poet. He is the author of the "Ode To Joy," which Beethoven set to music for his final symphony. I have a friend who loves puns who always refers to this symphony's glorious last movement as the "bottom of the ninth."

To round off his accomplishments, he was also a professor, the author of a history book, and an influential aesthetician.

The translation I was reading was Reginald Snell's. I found it slow-going this time, as I had the first. Some of this may be Snell's problem, in that the book reads a bit too much like German in places, as if Snell had translated it too literally. For instance, at once point Snell uses the word "worldling" as a noun. What do you suppose this means? Is it something like "earthling"?

No, according to brainydictionary.com, it means: A person whose soul is set upon gaining temporal possessions; one devoted to this world and its enjoyments.

That's a handy word, but no one uses it nowadays, and I couldn't help wondering if it wouldn't have read more smoothly if Snell had put "worldly person" in its place.

Anyway, I'm sure some of the problem is Schiller's and not Snell's. Schiller had come under the influence of Kant, a contemporary, whose prose style is notoriously difficult to plow through.

There is a curious link between Schiller's theoretical aesthetics and Rand's. Both of them see art as mediating between the conceptual realm and the perceptual realm. The differences are many, but the connection is striking. I have never heard anyone else make note of it, but I have wondered about it ever since I first read Schiller's "On Naive and Sentimental Poetry" while I was in college.

Rand's aesthetics deserve to be put in a historical context. This work is barely begun.

Rhyme of the day:

I wish I had a better
translation of these letters.