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In every sense. By Roberto Cresti

Roberto Cresti, lecturer in contemporary history University of Macerata

Did you know me,
hands? I took
The forked way you pointed…
Paul Celan

Ancient humanism, with its fruitful uncertainty, dates from a passage in the Histories of Herodotus where Solon replies to Croesus’s pressing demands to know which man should be considered the happiest with the famous phrase, “man is something undetermined” (πᾶν ἐστι ἄ συμφορή). We can never tell who is the happiest, says Solon, nor, though someone were, how long he will re-main so: life is ongoing and there are no guarantees. As Croesus himself was about to learn to his cost when, after after a rapid rise, his fortunes suffer a catastrophic reversal. This principle, a cornerstone of all that is finest in of our civilization, was taken up again in more recent times by Friedrich W. Schelling. In his Philosophical Inquiries into the Essence of Human Freedom (1809), he writes: “Man is an undecided being” (Der Mensch ist […] ein unentschiedenes Wesen), immediately adding that for this very reason “he can decide himself” (er selbst kann sich entscheiden). Friedrich Nietzsche, another interpreter of an ancient humanism revived in modern times, puts a positive slant on the question of human essence, claiming in his Genealogy of Morality (1887) that the earth is “an ascetic star” (asketische Stern), i.e. the heavenly body inhabited by those who nur-ture their radical “non decision” with exercises which tend to transcend all limits, including the physical. An idea, this, which has resulted in a number of events over the past two centuries – not all of them positive – but which, shorn of its negative aspects, continues to enjoy sufficient credit to serve as a standing invitation not to give up, and to banish the prejudice that something exists “by nature”, but also that there is no such thing as “human nature” – human nature which expresses itself in striving to be itself, i.e. by taking care of that indecision which is essential to our make up, but also to our motivation. The important things is to push back, in a general sense, the boundaries within which we “operate”, and this endeavour refers to consciousness in intellectual terms, but also to sensitivity, so that any extension can involve the two specific spheres, taking its starting point from how we received them. In thinking and in feeling, the protest against every form of prejudice, in particular over sexual iden-tity (though there are signs that naturalism is on the rise again) has led to every limit becoming a starting point with its own characteristics, and this is all the more just when it is a question of a na-tural weakness or deficit which restricts and conditions the way we live and act. One can, however, discover a “further” way of operating – concealed, as it were, beneath a limit – so that the exercise is not merely aimed at restoring what, in many cases, cannot be restored, but in extending that limit in a scale of experiences which aspire to have their own autonomous value: like an “intermediate” which becomes in itself a “totality”. Furthermore: in this way, other intellectual and sensory dimensions can be revealed which may have been neglected, like those, for example, which Rudolf Steiner refers to in a series of conferences entitled Aspects of Ancient Mysteries in which – using his method founded on a reading of the Akashic Chronicle – he describes the ritual held in ancient Ireland (the Roman Hibernia) during which the neophyte was required to feel two statues: one, in which his fingers remained impressed; the other of a material which, once squeezed, immediately returned to its original shape. In the first case he was touching something that was revealed to him as “art”, in the second “sci-ence”. One was without truth, the other without existence. His task was therefore to endow art with truth and science with life, combining them in his own id which acquired self-awareness through the performance of this very “exercise”. So, in the relation of touch with void (immersion in the ma-terial) and with solid (feeling the surface) there lay a “living-latent” dimension which needed to be “exercised”. The same seems to emerge, through a different method of inquiry, in what Jacques Lacan claimed for the terracotta vase as the prototype of all creativity, in the sense that its fashioning on the pot-ter’s wheel, in the hands of the craftsman, represents the unresolved, the “undecided” synthesis of emptiness and fulness, with the discovery of a link between the one and the other beyond the mor-phologies found in nature. The vase is in fact typically human, reminding us perhaps of a uterus or a skull, but it is also the archetype of a dwelling. For example, a vase made exactly like a tiny portable house exists from 3000 B.C.; and it represents an “undecided” object on which intelligence has been “exercised”. These two examples appear immediately relevant to everything that has a bearing on the cognitive faculties of the blind because they lead us to identify their natural sensory deficit as the arena for developing exercises aimed not just at confronting the deficit itself but at offering – also to people not in the same condition – the opportunity to undergo, through touch, some surprising cognitive experiences. Just as the physiatric exercises devised to rehabilitate the wounded in World War I gradually came to be practised by everyone (Pilates is an example), tactile exploitation of artistic forms, mainly plastic, as practised at the Museo Omero in Ancona, can increase and refine sensitivity even among the normally sighted. It was an exercise also favoured by great twentieth century sculptors like Ar-turo Marini who notes: “By excluding the sense of sight, exhausted and littered with all the prefer-ences and incrustations of ancient works, I felt the promise of renewal”. And again: “Touch has its own sight, I thought, and it will guide me in a world of primordial possibilities. Passing from a de-crepit island to one that is brand new, my restlessness will find what I have always been looking for”. Martini adumbrates a modern infra-sensory odyssey which other great sculptors like Auguste Rodin and Wilhelm Lehmbruck had undertaken before him, with works in which form has the “undecid-edness” of a representation of the human being in a state of continual flux. Joseph Beuys identified in this the premises for “social sculpture”. And it is precisely this “exercise” – at once civil, creative and cognitive – of which we have need today: it reminds us that, indeed, “man is something unde-termined”, in every sense.