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Research in Phenomenology 43 (2013) 331-339



Th e Way Back Down:

Paul Klee's Heights and Depths

David Farrell Krell Brown University

Abstract The present essay offers a brief commentary on Paul Klee's The Tightrope Walker. Klee's painting is brought into connection with Nietzsche's famous figure of the Seiltänzer in the prologue to Thus Spoke Zarathustra and to the recent film, Man on Wire. The general context of the essay, "descensional reflection," is inspired by Heidegger's remark that thinking in our time is "on the descent" from metaphysics.

Keywords descensional reflection, Klee's The Tightrope Walker

When I was young and clever—both qualities have altered significantly by now—I was much preoccupied by what I called "descensional reflection" in philosophy. This highfalutin term, which wanted to be lowly, was coined in resistance to the wonderful Gaston Bachelard, who in his book L'air et les songes argued for what he felt to be Nietzsche's "ascensional," "aerial" ten- dency. Because I was more impressed by Zarathustra's coming downfrom th e mountain, not his ascent and because Nietzsche himself showed an affinity with the mole, that subterranean subverter of all metaphysical foundations, and also because Nietzsche felt himself to be an initiate at the ancient myster- ies of Trophonios, in which one had to descend into an underground river in order to achieve a vision of hope, I replied that Nietzsche's was a descensional, notan ascensional, way of thinking. What made it possible for me to take Heidegger seriously during those early years and ever afrerwards was that same descensionalism, which my reading of Being and Time made clear to me. His "Letter on Humanism" made the matter even more explicit There Heidegger wrote:

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Thinking does not overcome metaphysics by climbing still higher, surmounting it, tran- scending it somehow or other; thinking overcomes metaphysics by climbing back down into the nearness of the nearest. The descent, particularly where human beings have strayed into subjectivity, is more arduous and more dangerous than the ascent. The descent leads to the poverty of the ek-sistence of homo humanus. [W, 182; BW, 254).'

Heidegger returned to the theme of descent at the very end of the "Letter":

Thinking is on the descent to the poverty of its provisional essence. Thinking gathers language into simple saying. In this way language is the language of being, as clouds are the clouds of the sky. With its saying, thinking lays inconspicuous furrows in language. They are still more inconspicuous than the furrows that the farmer, slow of step, draws through the field, (ly, 194; 51^,265)

Klee would have loved the simplicity of these images, even if they are sure to irritate the urbane skeptic, and I believe Klee would have been intrigued by this thought of a descent, out q/^metaphysics into something which, while far more provisional, is much closer to the Earth. Klee too would have stressed the poverty not only of the homo humanus but also of the myriad life forms that surround us human beings, the poverty of insects and micro-organisms, emphasizing the fragility of every single living (and that means dying) entity. Yet for Klee this shared poverty reveals the richness, the surfeit, of life forms, the uncountable differences among living things that Derrida continued to remind us of in his books and seminars up to the moment of his own death. Descensional reflection, for Derrida, would resist all forms of ascensionalism and human exceptionalism. Ascensionalism is as visible throughout Western art as it is palpable in tradi- tional philosophies of nature. It even invades culinary art. The otherwise admi- rable Hildegard von Bingen urges us to fear the potato (la pomme de terre, or, in my region of Germany, Herdäpfel, literally "earth apple") because it is rooted in the soil; we also ought to shun the strawberry, she says, since Erdbeeren, true to their name, hug the earth. Hildegard prefers pole beans, sunflower seeds, and the cherries that are out of reach. Patrick Siiskind, in Das Parfum, offers us a comic version of ascensionalism in a not-so-enlightened eighteenth-century France. In chapter 30 he introduces us to the eccentric Marquis de la Taillade- Espinasse, who has developed the theory of "lethalfluid,"a volatile liquid that the earth emits and that all growing things seek to escape. Siiskind writes:

" Martin Heidegger, Wegmarken (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1967), cited as W,

followed by page; and Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. D. F. Krell, 2nd ed. (San Francisco:

HarperCollins, 1993), cited as BW. followed by page.

D. F. Krell / Research in Phenomenology 43 (2013) 331-339


His thesis was that life was able to develop only at a certain distance from the earth, since the earth itself constantly emits a corruptive gas, a so-called^îu/rfum letale [a lethal liquor], which cripples the vital force and sooner or later lays that force low altogether [vollständig zum Erliegen bringe]. Therefore all living things strive through growth to distance themselves from the earth, growing awayfi-omit and not into it. That is why they bear their most valu- able parts heavenward: grains, their ears; flowers, their blooms; the human being, its head. And that is also why when age oppresses them, causing them to stoop forward toward the earth, they succumh without exception to the lethal gas, into which they themselves, given the process of decomposition that begins with their demise, are ultimately transformed.^

I believe 1 can see—in resistance to such traditional ascensionalism—something like a downward trajectory at work in Klee's art, even though so many of his subjects, themes, and titles are about rising. I sense a resistance above all to one kind of romanticism, namely, the ñighty romanticism that wants to leave the Earth behind and hover well above it. In his lecture "On Modern Art," Klee, speaking of coloration in painting, notes the following:

Such compelling gestures [namely, those that pass through the entire chromatic order] point with special clarity into the dimension of style. Here romanticism, in its especially crass and bathetic phase, begins to stir. This gesture wants to repel the Earth utterly, and the next gesture actually elevates itself beyond the Earth. It elevates itself by the dictate of forces that hover, triumphant over the forces of gravity. In the end I let these forces that are inimical to the Earth soar out into the beyond, until they reach the point of the grand circulation; that way I pass beyond the style of bathos and compulsion to the kind of romanticism that melts into the universe.'

The kind of romanticism that melts into the universe rather than soaring out into the beyond I take to be an early form of descensional reflection, a form prior to those we find in Nietzsche and Heidegger. One of the models for this return to the Earth is the striking remark by Friedrich Hölderlin that in Greek tragedy Zeus, the father of time and the Earth, reverses the "eternal" tendency of the gods, that is, the tendency to abandon the Earth and the saeculum; Zeus does so by returning ever more decisively and ever more ardently to the Earth. That is the secret of his lust for mortal men and women, a lust that causes us either to scold or to laugh derisively or at least to wonder why goddesses are

^' Patrick Süskind, Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders (Zurich: Diogenes, 1994), 179. Origi- nally published in 1985.

" "On Modern Art," trans. D. F. Krell, in the exhibition catalogue Paul Klee. Philosophical Vision:

From Nature to Art, ed.John Sallis (Chestnut Hill, MA: McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 2012), 13; hereafter cited as Cat, followed by page.

334 D- F. Krell / Research in Phenomenology 43 (2013) 331-339

not enough. Whatever we may make ofZeus's infatuations with Danaë, Europa, Semele, Ganymede and all the rest, it is certain that the Cloud-gatherer is a down-to-earth sort of god: Hölderlin tells us as much very early on, in a high- school paper he wrote on Greek art and literature. Hölderlin is not alone in this descensional emphasis. Even the philosophers among his contemporaries who want to go up and up—Schelling, for example, who wants the Cabirian deities of Samothrace to represent an ascensional line from Demeter to the Demiurge—have to admit that Demeter, who mourns the loss of her daughter Persephone, is at least as powerful figure as the demiurgic Zeus. Powerful pre- cisely in her helpless grief—this is Schelling's key insight. A god who wants to be the "bully on the block," to quote a former U.S. Secretary of Defense, is less striking than a goddess in tears of rage, longing, and mourning. And so Schell- ing too has to climb back down the Cabirian ladder. Truth to tell, neither he nor Hölderlin were the first to make the descent.

"The way back down," as Heidegger puts it, has to do not only with contem- porary and romantic philosophers but also with what we presume to be the most metaphysical of metaphysicians. Consider Plato and Plato's Republic, in which the way up the divided-line, from mere images to knowledge, requires a movement back down the line, just as the philosopher who exits from the cave on an upward journey to the sun will have to make his or her way back down into the cave. And recall what Alcibiades can do to a dialogue that seems to be on the up-and-up about erotic matters. The more one studies the great figures and the great texts of metaphysics, the more this resistance to sheer ascent emerges, and the more it seems that at least on occasion philosophical vision is all about taking the plunge. Yet what has all this descensional imagery have to do with Klee the artist? A caveat to self: as I studied the articles collected in the catalogue of the recent exhibition, Paul Klee. Philosophical Vision: From Nature to Art, I noted some that tended to emphasize the ascensional, as their focus on transcendental, cosmological, or ethical issues "up there" in the "beyond" seemed to require; yet an equal number of contributions stressed Klee's parodie, ironic, and indeed often scornful view of all things edifying or elevated, all things "spiritual" or "spiritist." The aura of the work, as Charles Haxthausen shows, is achieved by very earthly scarifications of very earthy materials. If there is a point of agree- ment for all the contributors, however, it is that Klee never abides with only one of any pair of opposites—in Jeffery Howe's list, the "childlike and sophis- ticated, abstract and realistic, interior and exterior, seen and unseen, past and present (and future), earthly and spiritual, comic and deeply serious, and prim- itive and refined" (Cat., 172), to which we may add ascending and descending. In what follows I stress the descensional at my own peril. And yet

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Let's look again at some of the images we have available to us here and now, thanks to the energy of Nancy Netzer, Kate Shugert, John Sallis, and their teams—and, as you might imagine, John Sallis has had everything to do with the figures of descensional reflection I have been speaking of here. Many of Klee's images and titles appear to be ascensional, to go up and up, in the way

I have described. Yet, to anticipate, I might say that the erstwhile superior

philosopher-bird {Cat, Plate 16) who wants to fly high finds himself beauti- fully sketched otherwise, in a single continuous line, as a bird—or perhaps a chicken—scarcely still walking but not yet flying {Cat, Plate 15). One would love to be a magnificent flying machine, gliding into the sky, as in From Gliding to Rising {Cat, Plate 18). Here the angularflyingmachines—which Galen John- son convinces me may be musical instruments—transform into a curvilinear, more organic or perhaps more angelicfigure,which does soar—or sing—ever higher. Yet the heights in Klee's work always show the contrivances that make

it possible to get so high, and they also demonstrate the dangers of what Sartre

and Merleau-Ponty alike called "thinking by overflight," la pensée de survol. True, the Wall Plant {Cat, Plate 2) and the Little Tree {Cat, Plate 9) climb toward the sun, as we all do, we who love Greece and Italy, "unfolding on beams of light," as Schelling once wrote. Even the Knowledge ofan Animal {Cat, Plate

4) points upward toward the exclamation point, the "A-ha!" of ebullient dis- covery. The truth, it seems, is that almost all of Klee's paintings shout "Miup!" {Cat, Plate 7). Which reminds me of a popular song we used to dance to when

I was young and

Examine now, however, Klee's Tightrope Walker {Cat, Plate 20), which is my first star witness, if you will. Our little man in the top hat and striped trousers, one leg bravely venturing out across the wire, performs in the white light of a cross, white on rose, a Rosicrucian image that carries our vision high into the painting. Not only the cross, however, but also the ladders and lines, with some of the lines almost in the form of a musical staff, lead our eye upward. There are some obstacles to circumvent, and that rope ladder does seem threadbare. Everywhere, all over the canvas, we find once again those smudges—the smudges I dreamed of cataloguing in a book called Kleeckse. What are they doing there, those smudges? They are probably caused by the tracing procedure by which an inked sheet is applied to the artwork's surface; as the stylus incises the figures onto the surface, the heel of the hand perhaps inadvertently makes those smudges. Yet Klee allows them to stay. In fact, the whole contraption, all the bric-a-brac that keeps our man aloft on his high wire, seems smudged—shaky, wonky, terriblyfi-agile.The lines of the draw- ing, in Marcia Sa Cavalcante Schuback's words, "appear as paths that cross, oscillating between abysses, where walking is a being-drawn by the drawing in

not so very clever.

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such a way that the almost falling to the ground is already heaven not being yet heaven and the other way around" {Cat, 156). Doubtless, The Tightrope Walker is all about balance. In the 1921 Bauhaus course on equilibrium, the tightrope walker is called "the ultimate realization of the symbol of the balance of forces." Balance between left and right (main- tained by the pole), balance between up and down (maintained by incessant practice and great good luck). According to Klee, the intermediary between down and up or between bondage to the earth and flight in the sky is the idea—in particular, the idea of tragedy. Our little man is not yet flying, but scarcely still walking. Why? In German, a tightrope walker has a slightly differ- ent designation. He or she is a SeUtänzer(in). Think of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and of the Seittänzer, literally, the wire-dancer, who dominates the Prologue, dominates it precisely by falling. And recall the extraordinary exchange between Zarathustra and the fallen artist. The townspeople gather at the market place; all gaze upward at the man on wire. Horribly, however, the tightrope dancer loses his balance at mid-wire when a clown outperforms him by leaping over him. The clown causes the one who crosses over to plummet to the unforgiving cobblestones below. The dancer lands next to the very spot where Zarathustra happens to be standing. Whereas the other spectators scatter, Zarathustra

remained right where he was. The body landed next to him, horribly fractured, horrifically mangled, but not yet dead. After a while the shattered man regained consciousness; he saw Zarathustra kneeling beside him. "What are you doing here?" he said finally. "I've long known the devil would trip me up. And now he's going to drag me off to hell. Would you try to stop him?" "By my honor, ftiend," answered Zarathustra, "there is no devil and n o hell. Your soul will be dead before your body: you have nothing more to fear!" The man looked up, full of mistrust. He then said, "If you are telling the truth, then I lose nothing when I lose my life. I'm not much more than an animal thaf s been taught to dance by those who beat him and toss him little treats." "Not so," said Zarathustra. "You have made danger your vocation, and there is nothing contemptible about that. Now your vocation has laid you low. For that reason I will bury you with my own hands." After Zarathustra had said these words, the dying man replied no more. Yet he moved his hand, as though searching for the hand of Zarathustra, in order to thank him."

•" Friedrich Nietzsche, Kritische Studienausgabe der Werke, ed. Giorgio CoUi and Mazzino Mon- tinari, 15 vols. (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1980), 4:22.

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Zarathustra carries the tightrope dancer's corpse on his back until he finds a hollow tree in which to bury him. You may recall—if you had a chance to see it—the extraordinary film called Man on Wire. The arresting officer at the top of one of the then still standing World Trade Center towers writes on his warrant exactly those words, "man on wire." Not the usual description of a crime. But when he is interviewed in the film, the New York cop says something like this (I don't have the script before me, but he says something very much like this):

- So, I come up here and I look out to the other Tower and there's this cable or wire and a guy is out there, viith a pole, on the vrire. Yeah, it's a tightrope, and he's dancing; he's a tightrope dancer, 'cuz you couldn't say he was walking. Nah, he was a tightrope dancer.

Like most of New York Git/s finest, this cop had mastered the fine points of the German language. A tightrope dancer is what he sees, as though he were stand- ing alongside Zarathustra in the market place below. What both Zarathustra and the cop are afraid of is that the dancer will fall—because any clown can precipitate a dancer's fall. The way across, from one tower to the next, from past to future, is the way down, Übergang ist Untergang, so that every transi- tion in life means that something or someone is both birthing and dying. And if the spectators below do not scatter in time, what a massacre there might be! Among the spectators in Man on Wire is the woman who loves the dancer. She tries to describe in retrospect what it meant to be on the streets of Manhattan and to look up and see her lover midway between the two Towers. Incredibly, he sits down on the wire, then lies back. It is a salute to his audience, she says. Wide-eyed, she then says:

- C'était assez beau

Tellement beau. It was so beautiful!

And then she weeps, either because it was so beautiful or because she was so worried he might fall, or, precisely, because of both. Her descending tears are the high-point of the film, a point matched only when another accomplice of the dancer, a man who helped stretch the cable and who witnessed the dance from his vantage point atop one of the Towers, himself begins to weep, and the interview has to be stopped. The man simply lowers his head. Fade-out, cut to next scene. Even when human beings clamber up the sides of mountains and glide on glaciers, those mountains belong to the Earth. When they clamber up the sides of buildings, those buildings belong to the city. And when a star-sailor, an

338 D. F. KreU / Research in Phenomenology 43 (2013) 331-339

astronaut, soars beyond the Earth, he or she is bound at some point to utter the words, "Houston, we have a problem." The Suicide on the Bridge {Cat., Plate 21) is still up there, bu t already his knees have buckled, it is too late for a therapeutic word, much less a rescue—the clock shows the time. Yet it is no longer clock-time, no longer half-past three, it is altogether past three, which is the first number in primordial time, the time that eventuates when, as Heidegger says, your time is "up." Maybe that's the "up" that marks the way back down of all descensional reflection. Maybe that is the "Hurry up, please, it's time" ofT. S. Eliot. Maybe that is the darkling sense of Heraclitus, whose way up is his way down. It is a time preserved by music and dance, painting and poetry, with all their "up so floating many bells down." As for me, I worry about that Entertainer [or Juggler, Gaukler] in April {Cat, Plate 22) not just because of the streaming rain and the resulting slippery purchase, and not just because of the flimsy apparatus that holds him there, but because one foot of the entertainer dangles over the abyss. And that slen- der yet buxom woman atop the madcap structure of the Entertainer Festival {Cat, Plate 23) seems to be walking on birds in flight, a wonderful entertain- ment if one can perform it and survive. "Good luck, girl!" shout the spectators below. And the Somnambulant Dancer looks as though she's about to step off the edge of the Earth {Cat, 179). Her bed, perhaps a spiritist cabinet, begins to look like a casket. All this height, all this ascensionalism. Is it all about sex? A short story I read once says that dreams offlyingare not about sex; sex is about dreams of flying. Yet flying is one thing and falling another. Ask Icarus. Ask Bellerophon. Think of all those images of the fallen in Klee's work, the victims of mercenaries and merciless killers, all those horrific sketches of 1933. They would be the anach- ronistic inspiration for Klee's Ángelus Novus, which doesn'tflyas high as angels used tofly,so that Benjamin's reading of the painting is not as far off target as the critics claim. The fallen, yes, never to be forgotten. For those who love philosophy, we recall from the year 1915 Death for the Idea {Cat, Plate 61), my second star witness: the intricate scaffolding, delicate, even fragile, reaches into the sky of all transcendental philosophies, while the corpse lies beneath it, fallen, crushed, scribbled out by the ver>- weight or height ofthe idea itself That idea surely must be revealed in the text that shines through ghostily from the obverse side of the drawing, which is therefore a palimpsest of sorts; it is a text in Gothic type that I can make out only barely as being all about Geist At the recent Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Cen- tre Pompidou, I copied out the following remark about ideas by Richter, from

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the year 1989,1 believe, though I have not been able to trace it Of the idea, Richter says:

The tremendous strength, the terrifying power that an idea has which goes as far as death. This is the most impressive thing, to me, and the most inexplicable thing, that we produce ideas, which are almost always not only utterly wrong and nonsensical but also dangerous. Wars of religion and the rest: it is fundamentally all about nothing, about pure blather—and we take it utterly seriously, fanatically, even unto death.

Philosophers will want to resist the word blather, although as we progress in the history of nihilism most will affirm that it is indeed all about nothing. Unto death. Not that all painting has to be down-in-the-mouth, on account of this descensional reflection of ours. One can recline and play with the moon as though it were a toy (Cat, Plate 30), and early mornings and late evenings, there is always a Concert on the Branch, (Cat, Plate 40) at least where I live. And yet even in its most whimsical mode, Klee's art is, as a cultivated friend of mine says, geerdet, "earthed" or "grounded" in the electrician's sense. I still hold on to the thought that struck me early on, the thought that think- ing in our time is on the descent to the poverty of some provisional essence. That poverty seems richer than ever before, however, when I, just another apprentice at Sais (Cat, Plate 36), gaze googily-eyed at the prints, drawings, puppets, and paintings of Paul Klee.