Monday, 17 December 2012

Deleuze: Old and New

Deleuze,  the great philosopher of the New, of the inaugural Event, is also the unlikely advocate of the labour and patience that must antedate the new.

In abcedaire, Deleuze suggests that to produce something new – in philosophy, in painting, in music, in the novel – one must serve an apprenticeship within the old. The great colourists in painting, for example, Gauguin and Van Gogh, the great innovators, do not simply launch themselves into colour with a mixture of innocence and inspiration. They approach tentatively, respectfully: “They undertake the use of colour only with great fearful hesitation..” It is as if, Deleuze says, “They did not yet judge themselves worthy of colour, not yet able to engage with colour and fully do painting.. It took them years before daring to engage with colour.” There is an “immense slowness”. In undertaking the work of colour they take “years to come close to it”.

The idea that as a painter you first of all launch yourself into innovations with colour is adolescent presumptuousnes. It’s as if (Deleuze says) a novelist were to say ‘I write novels but I never read them in order not to compromise my inspiration'. Whatever one does, Deleuze says, “You have to work for a long time before engaging with something.” Similarly, for Deleuze, it would be ‘shocking’ if a philosopher simply said, at the start, “I’m going to have my own philosophy” without serving a similarly slow and forbidding apprenticeship. Philosophy is in this sense, Deleuze adds, ‘like colour’ – an immense amount of precautionary work is necessary before entering it. None of these innovators simply launch themselves from the present in to the new. 

The idea that you leap, feet first, from the present into the New is a rather modern notion. Or rather Modernist. Similarly, an idea like Ginsburg's oft-quoted "First thought best thought" - the source of innovation is purely within. This would have been a strange idea, presumably to the ancients, who would have found within only a stock of unexamined precepts and received ideas.

Of course, Deleuze’s own philosophical innovations arise through the detour and patient labour of a series of philosophical portraits – Hume, Leibniz, Kant, Nietzsche.  These portraits are preparatory to the innovations we will later witness. Lines of innovation traced within the old and pointing beyond. 

Famously, talking about his own relation to philosophical tradition he uses the image of buggery. To bugger the philosophers of the past and engender a monster, a bastard, which is nevertheless theirs - they cannot dismiss it (as Prospero finally acknowledges Caliban as 'mine').. This monstrous reading dwelt in the contradictions of the text, the pockets of silence. In this sense the New was hiding within the old - in the recesses of a text or body of texts to casually venerated. Everyone thought they knew what Kant or Bergson was saying. But that was only a respectable, institutionally enshrined knowledge, a consensus. The more radical Hume or Bergson was driven into hiding/ underground, awaiting discovery, a discovery inseparable from creation (the monstrous reading).

What Deleuze’s readings of philosophers show is that the old itself is never simply exhausted or complete. The greatness of the old, of tradition, lies partly in this, in its capacity for re-invention, the license it gives to innovators.  The great forms, templates, motifs of art are never simply connatural with their period.

And the great writers, philosophers, artists are never simply or safely 'outmoded'. They are precisely defined as those people capable of forever producing the New.

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