1. Immaterial Light


Before turning to the anthroposophical architecture of Rudolf Steiner, Romanticism’s invention of what may be called ‘spiritual transparency’ must be mentioned. After all, together with Goethe’s colour theory, this notion became Steiner’s primary Muse. The writers referred to as Romanticists lived during the end of the same post-Revolutionary epoch as did Bentham, however their reaction to the French Revolution was different.


Like Bentham, most of the Romanticists were early supporters of the Revolution, subsequently to be shocked by its Terror. They did however not respond to this violence by acting on the external material world, in order to repair or even to prevent its damage. To a certain extent they retreated into an internal world of the Self, taking for granted that the sheer fact of man’s physical being prevents its actual, that is mystical union with the good, spiritual world. Matter, so they claimed, must be seen as the necessary obstacle that may actually prompt an artist’s transcendence of the physical world by way of sublime art.


Quite the reverse of Jeremy Bentham, who used spatial openness in order to make behaviour transparent, the Romanticists used their experience of Nature with the intention of fathoming their own innermost secrets, while at the same time searching for an immaterial light. In other words, their notion of transparency was not panoptical. Instead of surveying others, they inspected themselves and wanted to be infused by Nature.


In his grand poem The Prelude (1805) William Wordsworth described human eye sight as the most dangerous of the senses. It forces man to focus on the material world, rather than help him to connect his inner world to Nature. One need be on the look out for special moments in Nature, instants that suddenly make us feel at one with Her, moments when all at once all senses are flooded. At such moments we are ‘with the gift of all this glory filled and satisfied’, we do not feel the need to think or judge.


To discipline people’s behaviour, Bentham explicitly eliminated all obscure places from material space that surrounds man. ‘Blind spots’ is what he called them. [11] The Romanticists, on the other hand, searched for a complete inner, moral transparency, considered as ‘spots of time’.


There are in our existence spots of time,

That with distinct pre-eminence retain

A renovating virtue. [12]


The 19th century American Romanticist Ralph Waldo Emerson was writing in the same vein. ‘The sun illuminates only the eye of man, but shines into the eye and heart of the child.’ In a passage that reminds the reader of Wordsworth’s ‘spots’, Emerson refers to an experience while walking in the woods. ‘All my egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all.’ [13] In other words, the metaphysical experience within Nature was supposedly helping the Romanticist poet to become transparent to himself.


The Romanticists considered Bentham’s ‘recesses of the mind’ a secret only to those who had lost the innocence of their childhood and were then caught up in the alienation of an industrializing world. By contrast, the innocent genius of the poet did still have such access. Diving into his own personal, inner depths, he might recover certain past moments or memories and create works of art that illuminate the minds and enlighten the souls of simpler men. Wordsworth saw childhood as the centre of man’s intellectual power. [14] By dissolving what separates our present from the past, we recover these forgotten moments of childhood, thus attaining perfect mental transparency or perfect self-consciousness.


At the end of that 19th century, Nietzsche and Freud transformed the Romanticist’s inner self into a more carnal machine of motives. According to Nietzsche, what makes man think what he thinks and what makes him do what he does, must remain ineffable, a mysterious riddle. Not doubt drives us insane, he wrote, but certainty. Illusion then is life’s therapy, thus every healthy man needs his own blinding perspective in order to survive. Art, Illusion’s finer form, will save man from a cold and killing truth. [15]


Freud’s thinking shows parallels with Nietzsche, but it is more in line with the Romanticists. Yet, Freud claimed that if someone’s perspective becomes harmful, the cure is not Nature, but the human intermediary of the psychoanalyst, the Modern priest who confronts him with his true motives. By making the subconscious transparent one brings the unconscious leftovers from childhood back into the adult’s consciousness. Unlike the Romanticist poets’ transparent musings on the bright, innocent side of human experience, Freudian transparency often tends to reveal a darker, more naughty quality. [16]





11 Robin Evans, Bentham’s Panopticon, Architectural Association Quarterly (Spring 1971), p.33.


12 William Wordsworth, The Prelude, book XII (the 1850 version of the 1805 poem) in The Works of William Wordsworth (Ware: The Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994), pp. 737-38, lines 126 -210.


13 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836), (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), p.11, p.13.


14 William Wordsworth, The Prelude, lines 214-215; Wordsworth, Poems referring to the Period of Childhood in: The Works, first poem, line 7, p.79.


15 Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft (1887) in Werke in drei Bänden (Muenchen: Carl Hanser Verlag, no date), Band II, section 354; Nietzsche, Der Wille zur Macht (Stuttgart: Kroener Verlag, 1964), section 472-473 and section 822.


16 Sigmund Freud, Das Unbewusste (1915) in Psychologie des Unbewussten (Freud-Studienausgabe III), (Frankfurt: Fischer Buecherei, 1975), p.129; Freud, Traumdeutung (Frankfurt: Fischer Buecherei, 1961), section VII F, p.499.




Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats. The reader, interested in my writings on aesthetics, literature, and sociology, may want to open, where various pieces are published.

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