The Momentum of Gesture in Art and Religion (3)
“Swarm spirits” (Schwarmgeister) and “heretics” (Ketzer) were what believers were called in earlier times when they could not find the right measure (Maß) of faith. If art practitioners lack the right measure for what they do, they are still quickly considered crazy today. Believers and art practitioners are thus “reprimanded” (gemaßregelt) for exaggerated expressions of faith and art. The measure used is that of normality.
“Normality” is characterised by the fact that nothing is measured with double standards. The same standards should apply to everyone. This can concern the verse measure in poetry as well as the morality of expressions of faith. It is always the privileged who see to it that a standard is fulfilled. They are authorised to “set the standard” by a higher authority. They see themselves as gifted (begnadet) by this authority and speak in the name of “religion” or “science”, “the church” or the “university”, but always in the name of “truth”. Within the framework of faith, they ultimately speak in the name of God:
“For I say by the grace (Gnade) given to me to every one of you, that no man think more highly of himself than is fitting, but that he think moderately of himself, as God has apportioned to each one the measure of faith.” (Romans 12:3)
But does such an exhortation to moderation by the Apostle Paul fit with what he also writes in the Letter to the Romans (12:13) – that it is quite proper to be enthused by seething pneuma (τῷ πνεύματι ζέοντες)? The Greek “pneuma”, the Hebrew “ruach”, the Latin “spiritus”, the German “Geist” – all these words are used again and again to explain what “enthusiasm” means. Gestures that bring enthusiasm to bear are often perceived as gesticulations, a wild and uncontrolled waving of the hands. If one believes the stories, enthusiastic gestures are not without danger. There is the story of the millionaire who pokes a hole in a Picasso painting with his elbow. All too vigorous hand movements knock over glasses on neatly laid tables. And for some observers, those who are enthusiastic, excited, seem intoxicated – similar to the disciples of Jesus at Pentecost, full of the Pneuma Hagion (πνεῦμα ἅγιον), the Holy Spirit.
Such behaviour was and is often considered characteristic of people who are not accessible to reasonable words. Excessive enthusiasm was and is therefore always associated with fanaticism. The “sensible measure” asks itself and others what has got into people who presume to express their enthusiasm in such an exuberant way. Exaggerated behaviour has long been considered reprehensible. And the victory of so-called “oralism” over sign language is only one example of how effective the measures of word fanatics were to drive out of language the medium that moves it. For this, the use of all means was justified.
Particularly successful was the denunciation as spirit fanatics of those who saw something at work in the workings of pneuma and ruach that could call into question the eternal validity of the word. Art with its poiesis, its doing and making, puts something new and different into action. In this way, it can lead to a practice that sets in motion what is established in the Word of God and is established by it. This alone is enough to consider the practice of art as blasphemous and ultimately as the work of the devil – if art does not fulfil the Word and works of art do not illustrate the Word of God. Centuries of such a “relationship” between religion and art leave traces in the bodies of those who act. And this is probably also why some react to a touch of the spirit that throws the word structures of their faith into disarray and disturbs customary meanings and interpretations with the use of all measures and means that their power allows them.
Ever since Gottsched used “Begeisterung” as a loan translation for “enthusiasm” in his “Critical Poetry” (1730), a divorce in word usage began. While “enthusiasm” continues to be frowned upon because of its easy inflammability and supposed proximity to fanaticism, “Begeisterung” is associated with the hope of a replacement of the divine grace of creation by the human gift of the creative, i.e. – as Hölderlin, for example, sees it – by poetic skill (poetisches Geschick).
If one refrains from instrumentalising “enthusiasm” and “Begeisterung” as religious fighting terms against those who endanger the orthodox faith, then they mean nothing other than inspiration. This can be realised when the possibilities given by enthusiasm (Begeisterung) are brought to fruition. Gestures can do that. In dance, and in art in general, we find the scope in which inspiration is released. The more controlled gestures are used, the less meaning they have, the more precisely they are grasped, understood and instrumentalised, the more serviceable and useful they are for the fulfilment of communicative tasks. For example, for church propaganda to denounce believers as swarm spirits (Schwarmgeister) who deviate from the right faith.
It is worthwhile to make sure of such connections, for the church’s hostility to an art that does not fulfil the Word of God but rather arises from its own creative enthusiasm (Begeisterung) is by no means a thing of the past. But why is the spirit (Geist) of art, why is realisation of artistic inspiration so dangerous?
Gestures that have play can cause offence. But it is amazing to see how a thing that has been pushed is caught in the act of falling, by the same hand that gave it the push. And it’s great to experience how body movements, when two get off the common axis while dancing, compensate for this with a nimble movement, a deft pull of the hand, a slight twist of the foot. This does not happen consciously, nor “automatically” or reflexively. It happens through “movements that are present in the mind (geistesgegenwärtige Beewegungen)”. Consequently, a movement done consciously does not necessarily testify to enthusiasm (Begeisterung), whereas a movement done unconsciously can be quite spiritual (geistvoll).
When Luther calls his opponents, especially the more radical operators of the Reformation, such as social revolutionary currents (Thomas Münzer and the Anabaptists) “enthusiasts”, this is truly not meant in an appreciative way: an enthusiast is someone “who does not think anything of the Word, Sacrament, preaching ministry”, “a Geister and enthusiast who does not want to be under God’s Word or the Holy Scriptures, but to be judge and master over them from the Spirit (Geist)” (1545).
One should distance oneself from those “who boast of having the Spirit (Geist) without and before the Word, and thereby judge, interpret and stretch the Scriptures to their liking” (1537).
So when enthusiasts, fanatics, Schwärmer refer to personal inspirations, they disregard or even despise the ecclesiastical authorities.
History repeats itself. Its repetition shows how and why it is necessary to fight what is dangerous for religious institutions. What Luther sees in the enthusiasts, the church fathers see in the gnostics – endangers of the word of God proclaimed by authorities. For these mobilise against the administration of the right faith that spirit which the administrators must cast out of the faithful so that they become vessels of a faith in which God, Spirit and Logos are one. Those, therefore, who, like artificers, dissolve such unity, are guilty of heresy, which is understood to be „Ketzerei“. Irenaeus, in his writing on the Gnostic heresies, gives the apt picture of such action. Whoever dissolves the mosaic that shows a picture of creation in the sense of God, in order to make another picture out of the individual parts, produces imaginary figures instead of putting into work what is considered the standard and “guideline” (Richtschnur) of faith:
“In the same way, he who steadfastly holds within himself the guideline (Richtschnur) of truth which he received in baptism will acknowledge the names and phrases and parables from the Scriptures, but not their blasphemous figments. Though he will recognise the tesserae, he will not take the fox for the image of the King. He will put each of the sayings in its proper place and incorporate them into the body of truth, but expose (bloßlegen) their figments and show them to be groundless (haltlos).” (Irenaeus of Lyons, Contra Haereses, 1st Book, 9th Chapter, 4th Section)
The Gnostics, then, were as dangerous to the teachers of the Church who struggled for the interpretive sovereignty of the Word of God in the early days of Catholicism as the enthusiasts were to Luther in the early days of Protetantism. It is the spiritual (Geistige) that the advocates of religious logocentrism must fight. To these, the thought seems unbearable that would grant human beings artistic skill. Inspired people in whom the spiritual is at work seem to directly attack the power of ecclesiastical institutions. Creativity may only be attributed to the Word of God – because only over this does a power of disposal exist for those mediators and transmitters who see themselves as governors, custodians and guardians of this Word on earth. They believe that they have to ensure that the spirit remains reduced to the barely perceptible breath that makes the transmission of the word possible, as the medium of the word, sent out by the mouth like the angels from God, merely the bearer of the message.
Thus, in the “Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith” of John of Damascus (8th century), in the explanation of the spiritual as pneuma, there is hardly a trace of those Gnostic pneumata which Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd century) still carefully documented:
“The word pneuma is ambiguous. It means the Holy Spirit. But the powers (effects) of the Holy Spirit are also called pneumata. Pneuma [is also called] the good angel, pneuma also the demon, pneuma also the soul. Sometimes the mind is also called pneuma. Pneuma [is] also called the wind, Pneuma also the air.” (John of Damascus, Expositio fidei, Book 1, Chapter 13).
The feminine and maternal in the pneumatic, which Irenaeus still traces, is no longer spoken of here – only of the Mother Jesus as the vessel of the Holy Spirit, purified by the Word (Irenaeus of Lyons, Contra Haereses, e.g. 1st book, 30th chapter).
This is important for the question of the momentum of gesture in art and religion, because this is precisely the context that continues to have an effect into the present, when gestures are reduced to signs, spirit to the word and angels to their role as bearers of the word of God. Marlen Wagner’s performative works also point out how much the meaning of a gesture depends on the angle from which it is viewed, and that in the process it sometimes loses sight of how it shows and from which movement this how emerges.