“What are poets for?” The implicit and at times explicit answer given by many philosophers to this question posed by a poet, Friedrich Hölderlin, has been: “for nothing.” Poets are good for nothing, Plato argued, since they are at the furthest remove from the highest activity to which philosophy is dedicated, namely thinking. To think is always to think some thing in a universal manner, yet poets deal only with nothings, imaginary things, falsifying images, and as such are not thinking. Yet different answers to our guiding question have been offered, both from the side of philosophers and from that of artists. While poetry and art might deal with imaginary things, it is not clear that these things are not real, nor is it clear that the activity engaged with them is not worthy of the name thinking. But what sort of thinking is it that happens in art or in our encounter with it? This volume of the Yearbook of Comparative Literature is dedicated to exploring several possible answers to these questions.
By way of starting to raise some issues regarding these questions, rather than treating the problem in a general manner, I would like to take a quick look at one modern artistic tradition, a theatrical one, and at the way in which the question of thinking came to occupy it. I would like to call this tradition that of theatrical thinkers. Its emergence can be traced, I argue, to the era slightly prior to the French revolution, and shortly thereafter. Its inaugurating figure was probably Diderot, and some of the main figures comprising [End Page 1] it were Lessing, Schiller, Wagner, Brecht, and Artaud, as well as D.W Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, and Pier-Paolo Pasolini.
This tradition of poetic thinkers took the question of modern theater in a far-reaching direction, treating it not only as an aesthetic problem, and not only as having to do with one specific art among many, but rather as an extremely general problem in which what is at stake is nothing less than the question of the place that modern art is to occupy in human life, the very nature and destiny of humanity, as well as the organization of society in the modern world.
Taking their cue largely from a conceptualization of the place that Greek tragedy occupied in the life of the polis, where the very nature of being a citizen is intimately implicated in the question of theater, this series of thinkers desire to repeat, but also to radically transform, this Greek experience. The second fundamental reference point of these thinkers, whether in an implicit or explicit fashion, is Shakespeare, whose reformulation and reformation of the nature of theater is seen as the inaugural moment for a new type of reflection.
There are several characteristics that more or less all of these figures share. To begin with, they are all actively engaged in writing dramatic works; second, they are theoreticians and reformers of the theatrical medium in all of its aspects, including the stage, the actor, the scenery, etc. (extending into opera and film, as well as into art with performance oriented artists/thinkers such as Joseph Beuys or Allan Kaprow); third, the reformation of the medium is intimately linked for all of these figures with a political reformation, that is, with an articulation of the creation of a common world, as if this creation could only happen through, and in, the theater broadly understood. Humanity as a universal common realm happens in and through the theater. In a way, for this tradition, the political reformation promised by the French revolution can only be accomplished and completed through a theatrical reformation. This brings us to the fourth dimension of this tradition, most paradigmatically formulated by Schiller: its strong pedagogical drive. Humanity needs to be educated into itself, through an unprecedented type of pedagogy, an aesthetic or artistic one. Humanity will learn to come to itself in and through the theater. Finally, this tradition of thinkers, in a way that is perhaps most powerfully worked out by Diderot, aims to establish a new relation to the...