§ 6 Aby Warburg and the Nameless Science
This essay seeks to situate a discipline that, in contrast to many others, exists but has no name. Since Aby Warburg was its creator, 1 only an attentive analysis of his thought can furnish the point of view from which a critical assessment of it will be possible. And only on the basis of such an assessment will we be able to ask if this "unnamed discipline" can be given a name, and if the names that have until now been given to it are legitimate.
The essence of Warburg's teaching and method--an essence embodied in the Library for the Science of Culture, which later became the Warburg Institute 2 --is usually presented as a rejection of the stylistico-formal method dominant in art history at the end of the nineteenth century. On the basis of a study of literary sources and an examination of cultural tradition, Warburg is understood to have displaced the focal point of research from the study of styles and aesthetic judgment to the programmatic and iconographic aspects of the artwork. The breath of fresh air that Warburg's approach to the work of art brought to the stagnant waters of aesthetic formalism is shown by the growing success of the studies inspired by his method. These studies have acquired such a vast public, outside as well as within academic circles, that it has been possible to speak of a "popular" image of the Warburg Institute. Yet this growth in the fame of the institute has been accompanied by an increasing obliteration of the figure of the institute's founder and his original project. The edition of Warburg's writings and unpublished fragments that was proposed long ago, for example, still remains to be published. 3
The conception of Warburg's method summarized above reflects an attitude toward the artwork that undoubtedly belonged to Aby Warburg. In 1889, while he was at the University of Strasbourg preparing his thesis on Botticelli Birth of Venus and Spring, he realized that any attempt to comprehend the mind of a Renaissance painter was futile as long as the problem was confronted from a purely formal point of view. 4 For his whole life he kept his "honest repugnance" for "aestheticizing art history" 5 and merely formal considerations of the image. But, for Warburg, this attitude originated neither from a purely erudite and antiquarian approach to the problem of the artwork nor from indifference to the artwork's formal qualities. Warburg's obsessive, almost pious attention to the force of images proves, if proof is necessary, that he was all too sensitive to "formal values." A concept such as Pathosformel, which designates an indissoluble intertwining of an emotional charge and an iconographic formula in which it is impossible to distinguish between form and content, suffices to demonstrate that Warburg's thought cannot in any sense be interpreted in terms of such inauthentic oppositions as those between form and content and between the history of styles and the history of culture. What is unique and significant about Warburg's method as a scholar is not so much that he adopts a new way of writing art history as that he always directs his research toward the overcoming of the borders of art history. It is as if Warburg were interested in this discipline solely to place within it the seed that would cause it to explode. The "good God" who, according to the famous phrase, "hides in the details" was for Warburg not the guardian spirit of art history but the dark demon of an unnamed science whose contours we are only today beginning to glimpse.
In 1923, while he was in Ludwig Binswanger's mental hospital in Kreuzlingen during the period of mental illness that kept him far from his library for six years, Warburg asked his physicians if they would discharge him if he cured himself by delivering a lecture to the clinic's patients. Unexpectedly, he drew the subject for his lecture, the serpent rituals of the North American native peoples, 6 from an experience that he had had thirty years before and that must therefore have left a deep impression in his memory. In 1895, during a trip to North America taken when he was almost thirty years old, Warburg had spent several months among the Pueblo and Navaho peoples of New Mexico. His encounter with Native American culture (to which he was introduced by Cyrus Adler, Frank Hamilton Cushing, James Mooney, and Franz Boas) definitively distanced him from the idea of art history as a specialized discipline, thereby confirming his views on a subject he had considered for a long time while studying in Bonn with Hermann Usener and Karl Lamprecht.
Usener (whom Pasquali once defined as "the philologist who was the richest in ideas among the great Germans of the second half of the nineteenth century") 7 had drawn Warburg's attention to an Italian scholar, Tito Vignoli. In his Myth and Science, Vignoli had argued for an approach to the study of the problems of man that combined anthropology, ethnology, mythology, psychology, and biology. 8 Warburg heavily underlined the passages in Vignoli's book that contain statements on this subject. During his stay in America, Warburg's youthful interest in Vignoli's position became a resolute decision. Indeed, one can say that the entire work of Warburg the "art historian," including the famous library that he began to put together in 1886, 9 is meaningful only if understood as a unified effort, across and beyond art history, directed toward a broader science for which he could not find a definite name but on whose configuration he tenaciously labored until his death. In the notes for the Kreuzlingen lecture on serpent rituals, Warburg thus defines the goal of his library as a "collection of documents referring to the psychology of human expression." 10
In the same notes, he reaffirms his aversion to a formal approach to the image, which, Warburg writes, cannot grasp the image's biological necessity as a product "between religion and artistic production." 11 This position of the image between religion and art is important for the delimitation of the horizon of Warburg's research. The object of that research is more the image than the artwork, and this is what sets Warburg's work resolutely outside the borders of aesthetics. In the conclusion to his lecture of 1912, "Italian Art and International Astrology in Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara," Warburg had already called for a "methodological amplification of the thematic and geographical borders" of art history:
Overly limiting developmental categories have until now hindered art history from making its material available to the "historical psychology of human expression" that has yet to be written. Because of its excessively materialistic or excessively mystical tenor, our young discipline denies itself the panoramic view of world history. Groping, it seeks to find its own theory of evolution between the schematisms of political history and the doctrines of genius. By the method of my interpretation of the frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, I hope to have shown that an iconological analysis, which, in refusing to submit to petty territorial restrictions, shies away neither from recognizing that antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the modern age are in fact one interrelated epoch, nor from examining the works of the freest as well as the most applied art as equally valid documents of expression--that this method, by applying itself to the illumination of a single darkness, sheds light on the great universal evolutionary processes in their context. I was less interested in neat solutions than in formulating a new problem. I would like to put it to you in the following terms: "To what extent are we to view the onset of a stylistic shift in the representation of the human figure in Italian art as an internationally conditioned process of disengagement from the surviving pictorial conceptions of the pagan culture of the eastern Mediterranean peoples?" Our enthusiastic wonderment at the inconceivable achievement of artistic genius can only be strengthened by the recognition that genius is both a blessing and conscious transformatory energy. The great new style that the artistic genius of Italy bequeathed to us was rooted in the social will to recover Greek humanism from the shell of medieval, Oriental-Latin "practice." With this will toward the restitution of antiquity, the "good European" began his struggle for enlightenment in the age of the international migration of images that we refer to--a little too mystically--as the age of the Renaissance. 12
It is important to note that these observations are contained in the lecture in which Warburg presents one of his most famous iconographic discoveries, that is, his identification of the subject of the middle strip of frescos in the Palazzo Schifanoia on the basis of the figures described in Abu Ma'shar Introductorium maius. In Warburg's hands, iconography is never an end in itself (one can also say of him what Karl Kraus said of the artist, namely, that he was able to transform a solution into an enigma). Warburg's use of iconography always transcends the mere identification of a subject and its sources; from the perspective of what he once defined as "a diagnosis of Western man," he aims to configure a problem that is both historical and ethical. The transfiguration of iconographic method in Warburg's hands thus closely recalls Leo Spitzer's transformation of lexicographic method into "historical semantics," in which the history of a word becomes both the history of a culture and the configuration of its specific vital problem. To understand how Warburg understood the study of the tradition of images, one may also think of the revolution in paleography brought about by Ludwig Traube, whom Warburg called "the Great Master of our Order" and who always knew how to draw decisive discoveries for the history of culture from errors of copyists and influences in calligraphy. 13
The theme of the "posthumous life" 14 of pagan culture that defines a main line of Warburg's thought makes sense only within this broader horizon, in which the stylistic and formal solutions at times adopted by artists appear as ethical decisions of individuals and epochs regarding the inheritance of the past. Only from this perspective does the interpretation of a historical problem also show itself as a "diagnosis of Western man" in his battle to overcome his own contradictions and to find his vital dwelling place between the old and the new.
If Warburg could present the problem of the Nachleben des Heidentums, the "posthumous life of paganism," as the supreme subject of his scholarly research, 15 this is because he had already understood, with a surprising anthropological intuition, that "transmission and survival" is the central problem of a "warm" society such as the West, insofar as it is so obsessed with history as to want to make it into the driving force of its own development. 16 Once again, Warburg's method and concepts are clarified if one compares them to the ideas that led Spitzer, in his research into semantic history, to accentuate the simultaneously "conservative" and "progressive" character of our cultural tradition, in which apparently great changes are always in some way connected to the legacy of the past (as is shown by the striking continuity of the semantic patrimony of modern European languages, which is essentially Graeco-Roman-JudaeoChristian).
From this perspective, from which culture is always seen as a process of Nachleben, that is, transmission, reception, and polarization, it also becomes comprehensible why Warburg ultimately concentrated all his attention on the problem of symbols and their life in social memory.
Ernst Gombrich has shown the influence exerted on Warburg by the theories of Hering's student Richard Semon, whose book Mneme Warburg bought in 1908. According to Gombrich, Semon holds that
memory is not a property of consciousness but the one quality that distinguishes living from dead matter. It is the capacity to react to an event over a period of time; that is, a form of preserving and transmitting energy not known to the physical world. Any event affecting living matter leaves a trace which Semon calls an "engram." The potential energy conserved in this "engram" may, under suitable conditions, be reactivated and discharged--we then say the organism acts in a specific way because it remembers the previous event. 17
The symbol and the image play the same role for Warburg as the "engram" plays in Semon's conception of the individual's nervous system; they are the crystallization of an energetic charge and an emotional experience that survive as an inheritance transmitted by social memory and that, like electricity condensed in a Leydan jar, become effective only through contact with the "selective will" of a particular period. This is why Warburg often speaks of symbols as "dynamograms" that are transmitted to artists in a state of great tension, but that are not polarized in their active or passive, positive or negative energetic charge; their polarization, which occurs through an encounter with a new epoch and its vital needs, can then bring about a complete transformation of meaning. 18 For Warburg, the attitude of artists toward images inherited from tradition was therefore conceivable in terms neither of aesthetic choice nor of neutral reception; rather, for him it is a matter of a confrontation--which is lethal or vitalizing, depending on the situation--with the tremendous energies stored in images, which in themselves had the potential either to make man regress into sterile subjection or to direct him on his path toward salvation and knowledge. For Warburg, this was true not only for artists who, like Dürer, polarized and humanized the superstitious fear of Saturn in the emblem of intellectual contemplation, 19 but also for historians and scholars, whom Warburg conceives of as extremely sensitive seismographs responding to distant earthquakes, or as "necromancers" who consciously evoke the specters threatening them. 20
For Warburg, the symbol thus belongs to an intermediary domain between consciousness and primitive reactions, and it bears in itself the possibilities of both regression and higher knowledge. It is a Zwischenraum, an "interval," a kind of no-man's-land at the center of the human. And just as the creation and enjoyment of art require the fusion of two psychic attitudes that exclude each other ("a passionate surrender of the self leading to a complete identification with the present--and a cool and detached serenity which belongs to the categorizing contemplation of things"), so the "nameless science" sought by Warburg is, as one reads in a note of 1929, an "iconology of the interval," or a "psychology of the oscillation between the positing of causes as images and as signs." 21 Warburg clearly presents this "intermediary" status of the symbol (and its ca pacity, if mastered, to "heal" and direct the human mind) in a note that dates from the period of the Kreuzlingen lecture, during which he was undergoing and telling others about his recovery:
All mankind is eternally and at all times schizophrenic. Ontogenetically, however, we may perhaps describe one type of response to memory images as prior and primitive, though it continues on the sidelines. At the later stage the memory no longer arouses an immediate, purposeful reflex movement-be it one of a combative or a religious character--but the memory images are now consciously stored in pictures and signs. Between these two stages we find a treatment of the impression that may be described as the symbolic mode of thought. 22
Only from this perspective is it possible to appreciate the sense and importance of the project to which Warburg devoted the last years of his life, and for which he chose the name that he also wanted as the motto for his library (which can still be read today upon entering the library of the Warburg Institute): Mnemosyne. Gertrud Bing once described this project as a figurative atlas depicting the history of visual expression in the Mediterranean area. Warburg was probably guided in his choice of this striking model by his own difficulty with writing; but he was probably led above all by his determination to find a form that, beyond the traditional types and modes of art criticism and history, would finally be adequate to the "nameless science" he had in mind.
When he died, in October 1929, Warburg had not completed his "Mnemosyne" project. There remain some forty black canvases to which Warburg attached approximately one thousand photographs in which it is possible to recognize his favorite iconographic themes, but whose material expands almost infinitely, to the point of including an advertisement for a steamship company and photographs of a golf player as well as of the meeting of Mussolini and the Pope. But "Mnemosyne" is something more than an organic orchestration of the motifs that guided Warburg's research over the years. Warburg once enigmatically defined "Mnemosyne" as "a ghost story for truly adult people." If one considers the function that he assigned to the image as the organ of social memory and the "engram" of a culture's spiritual tensions, one can understand what he meant: his "atlas" was a kind of gigantic condenser that gathered together all the energetic currents that had animated and continued to animate Europe's memory, taking form in its "ghosts." The name "Mnemosyne" finds its true justification here. The atlas that bears this title recalls the mnemotechnical theater built in the sixteenth century by Giulio Camillo, which so stunned his contemporaries as an absolutely novel wonder. 23 Its creator sought to enclose in it "the nature of all things that can be expressed in speech," such that whoever entered into the wondrous building would immediately grasp the knowledge contained in it. Warburg's "Mnemosyne" is such a mnemotechnical and initiatory atlas of Western culture. Gazing upon it, the "good European" (as he liked to call himself, using Nietzsche's expression) would become conscious of the problematic nature of his own cultural tradition, perhaps succeeding thereby in "educating himself" and in healing his own schizophrenia.
"Mnemosyne," like many other of Warburg's works, including his library, may certainly appear to some as a mnemotechnic system for private use, by which Aby Warburg, scholar and psychopath, sought to resolve his personal psychological conflicts. And this is without a doubt the case. But it is a sign of Warburg's greatness as an individual that not only his idiosyncrasies but even the remedies he found to master them correspond to the secret needs of the spirit of the age.
Today, philological and historical disciplines consider it a methodological given that the epistemological process that is proper to them is necessarily caught in a circle. The discovery of this circle as the foundation of all hermeneutics goes back to Schleiermacher and his intuition that in philology "the part can be understood only by means of the whole and every explanation of the part presupposes the understanding of the whole." 24 But this circle is in no sense a vicious one. On the contrary, it is itself the foundation of the rigor and rationality of the social sciences and humanities. For a science that wants to remain faithful to its own law, what is essential is not to leave this "circle of understanding," which would be impossible, but to "stay within it in the right way." 25 By virtue of the knowledge acquired at every step, the passage from the part to the whole and back again never returns to the same point; at every step, it necessarily broadens its radius, discovering a higher perspective that opens a new circle. The curve representing the hermeneutic circle is not a circumference, as has often been repeated, but a spiral that continually broadens its turns.
The science that recommended looking for "the good God" in the details perfectly illustrates the fecundity of a correct position in one's own hermeneutic circle. The spiraling movement toward an ever greater broadening of horizons can be followed in an exemplary fashion in the two central themes of Warburg's research: that of the "nymph" and that of the Renaissance revival of astrology.
In his dissertation on Botticelli Spring and Birth of Venus, Warburg used literary sources to identify Botticelli's moving female figure as a "nymph." Warburg argued that this figure constituted a new iconographic type, one that makes it possible both to clarify the subject of Botticelli's paintings and to demonstrate "how Botticclli was settling accounts with the ideas that his epoch had of the ancients." 26 But in showing that the artists of the fifteenth century relied on a classical Pathosformel every time they sought to portray an intensified external movement, Warburg simultaneously revealed the Dionysian polarity of classical art. In the wake of Nietzsche, Warburg was the first to affirm this polarity in the domain of art history, which in his time was still dominated by Johann Joachim Winckelmann's model. In a still broader circle, the appearance of the nymph thus becomes the sign of a profound spiritual conflict in Renaissance culture, in which the rediscovery of the orgiastic charge of classical Pathosformeln had to be skillfully reconciled with Christianity in a delicate balance that is perfectly exemplified in the personality of the Florentine Francesco Sassetti, whom Warburg analyzes in a famous essay. And in the greatest circle of the hermeneutic spiral, the "nymph" becomes the cipher of a perennial polarity in Western culture, insofar as Warburg likens her to the dark, resting figure that Renaissance artists took from Greek representations of a river god. In one of his densest diary entries, Warburg considers this polarity, which afflicts the West with a kind of tragic schizophrenia: "Sometimes it looks to me as if, in my role as a psycho-historian, I tried to diagnose the schizophrenia of Western civilization from its images in an autobiographical reflex. The ecstatic 'Nympha' (manic) on the one side and the mourning river-god (depressive) on the other." 27
An analogous progressive broadening of the hermeneutic spiral can also be observed in Warburg's treatment of the theme of astrological images. The narrower, properly iconographic circle coincides with the analysis of the subject of the frescos in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, which Warburg, as we have noted, recognized as figures from Abu Ma'shar Intro-ductorium maius ductorium maius. In the history of culture, however, this becomes the discovery of the rebirth of astrology in humanistic culture from the fourteenth century onwards and therefore of the ambiguity of Renaissance culture, which Warburg was the first to perceive in an epoch in which the Renaissance still appeared as an age of enlightenment in contrast to the darkness of the Middle Ages. In the final lines traced by the spiral, the appearance of the images and rivers of demonic antiquity at the very start of modernity becomes the symptom of a conflict at the origin of our civilization, which cannot master its own bipolar tension. As Warburg explained, introducing an exhibit of astrological images to the German Oriental Studies Conference in 1926, those images show "beyond all doubt that European culture is the result of conflicting tendencies, of a process in which--as far as these astrological attempts at orientation are concerned--we must seek neither friends nor enemies, but rather symptoms of a movement of pendular oscillation between the two distinct poles of magico-religious practice and mathematical contemplation." 28
Warburg's hermeneutic circle can thus be figured as a spiral that moves across three main levels: the first is that of iconography and the history of art; the second is that of the history of culture; and the third and broadest level is that of the "nameless science" to which Warburg dedicated his life and that aims to diagnose Western man through a consideration of his phantasms. The circle that revealed the good God hidden in the details was not a vicious circle, even in the Nietzschean sense of a circolus vitiosus deus.
If we now wish to ask ourselves, following our initial project, if the "unnamed science" whose lineaments we have examined in Warburg's thought can indeed receive a name, we must first of all observe that none of the terms that he used over the course of his life ("history of culture," "psychology of human expression," "history of the psyche," "iconology of the interval") seems to have fully satisfied him. The most authoritative post-Warburgian attempt to name this science is certainly that of Erwin Panofsky, who in his own research gives the name "iconology" (as opposed to "iconography") to the deepest possible approach to images. The fortune of this term (which, as we have seen, was already used by Warburg) has been so vast that today it is used to refer not only to Panofsky's works but to all research that presents itself in the tradition of Warburg's work. But even a summary analysis suffices to show how distant the goals Panofsky assigns to iconology are from what Warburg had in mind for his science of the "interval."
It is well known that Panofsky distinguishes three moments in the interpretation of a work, moments that, so to speak, correspond to three strata of meaning. The first stratum, which is that of the "natural or primary subject," corresponds to pre-iconographic description; the second, which is that of the "secondary or conventional subject, constitutive of the world of images, of stories, and of allegories," corresponds to iconographic analysis. The third stratum, the deepest, is that of the "intrinsic meaning or content, constitutive of symbolic values." "The discovery and interpretation of these 'symbolical' values . . . is the object of what we may call 'iconology' as opposed to 'iconography.'" 29 But if we try to specify the nature of these "symbolic values," we see that Panofsky oscillates between considering them as "documents of the unitary sense of the conception of the world" and considering their interpretation as "symptoms" of an artistic personality. In his essay "The Neo-Platonic Movement and Michelangelo," he thus seems to understand artistic symbols as "symptomatic of the very essence of Michelangelo's personality." 30 The notion of symbol, which Warburg took from Renaissance emblematics and religious psychology, thus risks being led back to the domain of traditional aesthetics, which essentially considered the work of art as the expression of the creative personality of the artist. The absence of a broader theoretical perspective in which to situate "symbolic values" thus makes it extremely difficult to widen the hermeneutic circle beyond art history and aesthetics (which is not to say that Panofsky did not often succeed brilliantly within their borders). 31
As to Warburg, he would never have considered the essence of an artist's personality as the deepest content of an image. As the intermediary zone between consciousness and primitive identification, symbols did not appear to him as significant insofar (or only insofar) as they made possible the reconstruction of a personality or a vision of the world. For Warburg, the significance of images instead lay in the fact that, being strictly speaking neither conscious nor unconscious, they constituted the ideal terrain for a unitary approach to culture, one capable of overcoming the opposition between history, as the study of "conscious expressions," and anthropology, as the study of "unconscious conditions," which Lévi- Strauss identified twenty years later as the central problem in the relations between these two disciplines. 32
I could have mentioned anthropology more often in the course of this essay. And it is certainly true that the point of view from which Warburg examined phenomena coincides strikingly with that of anthropological sciences. The least unfaithful way to characterize Warburg's "nameless science" may well be to insert it into the project of a future "anthropology of Western culture" in which philology, ethnology, and history would converge with an "iconology of the interval," a study of the Zwiscbenraum in which the incessant symbolic work of social memory is carried out. There is no need to underline the urgency of such a science for an epoch that, sooner or later, will have to become fully conscious of what Valéry noted thirty years ago when he wrote, "the age of the finite world has begun." 33 Only this science would allow Western man, once he has moved beyond the limits of his own ethnocentrism, to arrive at the liberating knowledge of a "diagnosis of humanity" that would heal it of its tragic schizophrenia.
It was in the service of this science, which after almost a century of anthropological studies is unfortunately still at its beginnings, that Warburg, "in his erudite, somewhat complicated way," 34 carried out his research, which must not in any sense be neglected. His works allow his name to be inscribed alongside those of Mauss, Sapir, Spitzer, Kerényi, Usener, Dumézil, Benveniste, and many--but not very many--others. And it is likely that such a science will have to remain nameless as long as its activity has not penetrated so deeply into our culture as to overcome the fatal divisions and false hierarchies separating not only the human sciences from one another but also artworks from the studia humaniora and literary creation from science.
Perhaps the fracture that in our culture divides poetry and philosophy, art and science, the word that "sings" and the word that "remembers," is nothing other than one aspect of the very schizophrenia of Western culture that Warburg recognized in the polarity of the ecstatic nymph and the melancholic river god. We will be truly faithful to Warburg's teaching if we learn to see the contemplative gaze of the god in the nymph's dancing gesture and if we succeed in understanding that the word that sings also remembers and the one that remembers also sings. The science that will then take hold of the liberating knowledge of the human will truly deserve to be called by the Greek name of Mnemosyne.
This essay was written in 1975, after a year of lively work in the Warburg Institute Library. It was conceived as the first of a series of portraits dedicated to exemplary personalities, each of which was to represent a human science. Other than the essay on Warburg, only the one on Émile Benveniste and linguistics was begun, although it was never finished.
With seven years of distance, the project of a general science of the human that is formulated in this essay strikes the author as one that is still valid, but that certainly cannot be pursued in the same terms. By the end of the 1970s, moreover, anthropology and the human sciences had already entered into a period of disenchantment that in itself probably rendered this project obsolete. (The fact that this project was, at times, proposed again in various ways as a generic scientific ideal only testifies to the superficiality with which historical and political problems are often resolved in academic circles.)
The itinerary of linguistics that in Benveniste's generation had already exhausted the grand nineteenth-century project of comparative grammar can serve as an example here. While Benveniste Indo-European Language and Society brought comparative grammar to a limit point at which the very epistemological categories of the historical disciplines seemed to waver, Benveniste's theory of enunciation carried the science of language into the traditional territory of philosophy. In both cases, this coincided with a movement by which science (which includes linguistics, the socalled "pilot science" of the human sciences) was forced to confront a limit, which, in being recognized, seemed to allow for the delimitation of a field on which it would be possible to construct a general science of the human freed from the vagueness of interdisciplinarity. This is not the place to investigate the reasons why this did not happen. It remains the case that what took place instead was, in the rear guard, an academic enlargement of the field of semiology (to pre-Benvenistian and even preSaussurian perspectives) and, in the avant-garde, a massive turn toward Chomskian formalized linguistics, which is still proving fruitful today, although its epistemological horizon hardly seems to admit of something like a general science of the human.
To return to Warburg, whom I had, perhaps antiphrastically, invoked to represent art history, what continues to appear as relevant in his work is the decisive gesture with which he withdraws the artwork (and also the image) from the study of the artist's consciousness and unconscious structures. Here, once again, it is possible to draw analogies with Benveniste. While phonology (and, in its wake, Lévi-Straussian anthropology) turned to the study of unconscious structures, Benveniste's theory of enunciation, treating the problem of the subject and the passage from language (lingua) to speech (paroLa), opened linguistics to a field that could not be properly defined through the conscious/unconscious opposition. At the same time, Benveniste's research in comparative linguistics, which culminates in his Indo-European Language and Society, presented a number of findings that could not be easily understood through oppositions such as diachrony/synchrony and history/structure. In Warburg, precisely what might have appeared as an unconscious structure par excellence--the image--instead showed itself to be a decisively historical element, the very place of human cognitive activity in its vital confrontation with the past. What thus came to light, however, was neither a kind of diachrony nor a kind of synchrony but, rather, the point at which a human subject was produced in the rupture of this opposition.
In this context, the problem that must be immediately posed to Warburg's thought is a genuinely philosophical one: the status of the image and, in particular, the relation between image and speech, imagination and rule, which in Kant had already produced the aporetic situation of the transcendental imagination. The greatest lesson of Warburg's teaching may well be that the image is the place in which the subject strips itself of the mythical, psychosomatic character given to it, in the presence of an equally mythical object, by a theory of knowledge that is in truth simply disguised metaphysics. Only then does the subject rediscover its original and--in the etymological sense of the word--speculative purity. In this sense, Warburg's "nymph" is neither an external object nor an intrapsychical entity but instead the most limpid figure of the historical subject itself. In the same way, for Warburg the "Mnemosyne" atlas (which struck Warburg's successors as banal and full of capricious idiocies) was not an iconographical repertory but something like a mirror of Narcissus. For those who do not perceive it as such, it seems useless or, what is worse, an embarrassing private concern of the master, like his alltoo-commonly discussed mental illness. How can one not see, instead, that what attracted Warburg in this conscious and dangerous play of mental alienation was precisely the possibility of grasping something like pure historical matter, something perfectly analogous to what Indo-European phonology offered Saussure's secret illness?
It is superfluous to recall that neither iconology nor the psychology of art has always been faithful to these demands. If we are to look for the most fruitful outcome of Warburg's legacy, perhaps, as W. Kemp has suggested, we should look to heterodox research, such as Benjamin's studies of the dialectical image. It continues to be imperative, in the meantime, that Warburg's unpublished papers in the London Institute appear in print.
Robert Klein is the author of the boutade on Warburg as the creator of a discipline "that, in contrast to many others, exists but has no name." Robert Klein , La forme et L'ntelligible ( Paris: Gallimard, 1970), p. 224.
With the rise to power of Nazism in 1933, the Warburg Institute moved to London, where it was incorporated into the University of London in 1944. See Fritz Saxl, "The History of Warburg's Library," in Ernst H. Gombrich, Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography ( London: The Warburg Institute and University of London, 1970), pp. 325ff.
The lovely "intellectual biography" of Warburg published by the present director of the Warburg Institute, Ernst H. Gombrich ( Aby Warburg), only partially fills this gap. For now it constitutes the only source of information about Warburg's unpublished works.
As reported by Saxl, "History of Warburg's Library," p. 326.
Âsthetisierende Kunstgeschichte. The term can be found in, among other writings, an unpublished text of 1923. See Gombrich, Aby Warburg, p. 88.
The lecture was published in English in 1939: Aby Warburg, "A Lecture on the Serpent Ritual," Journal of the Warburg Institute 2 ( 1939): 277-92.
Giorgio Pasquali, "Aby Warburg," Pegaso, April 1930; reprinted in Giorgio Pasquali, Pagine stravaganti ( Florence: Sansoni, 1968), 1: 44.
Tito Vignoli, Myth and Science ( New York: Appleton, 1882).
Warburg was occupied with the construction of his library for his whole life, and it may well have been the work to which he dedicated the most time and effort. A prophetic childhood experience lies at its origin. At the age of thirteen, Aby, who was the first-born son of a family of bankers, offered to give his right of primogeniture to his younger brother Max in exchange for the promise that his brother would buy him all the books he wanted. Max accepted, surely without realizing that his brother's childhood joke would one day become reality.
Warburg ordered his books not by the alphabetical or arithmetical criteria used in large libraries, but rather according to his interests and his system of thought, to the point of rearranging the order of his books whenever his methods of research changed. The law guiding the library was that of the "good neighbor," which states that the solution of one's own problem is contained not in the book one is looking for but in the one beside it. Warburg thus transformed the library into a kind of labyrinthine image of himself, one whose power of attraction was enormous. Saxl recounts that when Ernst Cassirer first entered the library, he declared that he had either to flee immediately or to remain inside it for years. Like a true maze, the library led the reader to his goal by leading him astray, from one "good neighbor" to another, in a series of detours at the end of which he fatally encountered the Minotaur that had been waiting for him from the beginning, who was, in a certain sense, Warburg himself. Whoever has worked in the library knows how true this is even today, despite the concessions that have been made over the years to the demands of contemporary organizational principles.
See Gombrich, Aby Warburg, p. 222.
Ibid., p. 89.
Aby Warburg, "Italian Art and International Astrology in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara," in German Essays on Art History, ed. Gert Schiff ( New York: Continuum, 1988), pp. 252-53. The original is in Aby M. Warburg, Ausgewählte Schriften und Würdigungen, ed. Dieter Wuttke with Carl Georg Heise (Baden-Baden: Valenti Koerner, 1979), p. 185.
For Spitzer, see in particular Leo Spitzer, Essays in Historical Semantics ( New York: S. F. Vanni, 1948). For an assessment of Ludwig Traube's work, see Giorgio Pasquali remarks in "Paleografia quale scienza dello spirito," Nuova Antologia 1 ( June, 1931); reprinted in Pasquali, Pagine stravaganti, p. 115.
The German term used by Warburg, Nachleben, does not literally mean "renaissance," as it has sometimes been rendered, nor does it mean "survival." It implies the idea of the continuity of the pagan inheritance that was essential for Warburg.
In a letter to his friend Mesnil, Warburg formulated his concern in a traditional fashion: "What did antiquity represent for the men of the Renaissance?" Elsewhere, Warburg specified that "later, in the course of the years, [the problem] was extended to the attempts to understand the meaning of the survival of paganism for the whole of European civilization ..." Quoted in Gombrich, Aby Warburg, p. 307.
On the opposition between "cold" societies, which are societies without history, and "warm" societies, which contain numerous historical factors, see Claude Lévi-Strauss, La pensée sauvage ( Paris: Plon, 1962), pp. 309-10.
Gombrich, Aby Warburg, p. 242.
"The dynamograms of ancient art are handed down in a state of maximal tension but unpolarized with regard to the passive or active energy charge to the responding, imitating, or remembering artists. It is only the contact with the new age that results in polarization. This polarization can lead to a radical reversal (inversion) of the meaning they held for classical antiquity. . . . The essence of thiasotic engrams as balanced charges in a Leydan bottle before their contact with the selective will of the age." Warburg, quoted in Gombrich, Aby Warburg, pp. 248-49.
Warburg's interpretation of Dürer Melancholy as a work of "humanistic comfort against the fear of Saturn," which transforms the image of the planetary demon into the plastic incarnation of a thinking man, largely determines Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl conclusions in their Dürers Melencolia I, Eine quellen- und typengeschichtliche Untersuchung ( Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1923).
The pages in which Warburg develops this interpretation, which focuses specifically on the figures of Nietzsche and Burckhardt, are among the most beautiful he ever wrote: "We must learn to see Burckhardt and Nietzsche as the receivers of mnemic waves and realise that the consciousness of the world affects the two in a very different way. . . . Both of them are very sensitive seismographs whose foundations tremble when they must receive and transmit the waves. But there is one important difference: Burckhardt received the waves from the regions of the past, he sensed the dangerous tremors and he saw to it that the foundations of his seismograph were strengthened. . . . He felt how dangerous his profession was, and that he really should simply break down, but he did not succumb to romanticism. . . . Burckhardt was a necromancer, with his eyes open. Thus he conjured up spectres which quite seriously threatened him. He evaded them by erecting his observation tower. He is a seer such as Lynkeus (in Goethe Faust); he sits in his tower and speaks . . . he was and remained a champion of enlightenment but one who never desired to be anything but a simple teacher. . . . What type of seer is Nietzsche? He is the type of a Nabi, the ancient prophet who runs out into the street, tears his clothes, cries woe and perhaps carries the people with him. His gesture is derived from that of the leader with the thyrsus who compels everyone to follow him. Hence his observations about the dance. In the figures of Jacob Burckhardt and Nietzsche two ancient types of prophets are contrasted in that region where the Latin and the German tradition meet. The question is which type of seer can bear the traumas of his vocation. The one attempts to transpose them into a call. The lack of response constantly saps his foundations; after all he is really a teacher. Two sons of clergymen who react so differently to the feeling of God's presence in the world." Quoted in Gombrich, Aby Warburg, pp. 254-57.
Ibid., p. 253.
Ibid., p. 223. Warburg's conception of symbols and their life in social memory may recall Jung's idea of the archetype. Jung's name, however, never appears in Warburg's notes. In any case, it should not be forgotten that for Warburg, images are not ahistorical entities but historical realties inserted in a process of cultural transmission.
On Giulio Camillo and his theater, see Frances Yates, The Art of Memory ( Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966), chap. 6, "Renaissance Memory: The Memory Theatre of Giulio Camillo," pp. 129-59.
On the hermeneutic circle, see Spitzer's magisterial observations in the first chapter of Leo Spitzer, Linguistics and Literary History ( New York: Russell and Russell, 1962), pp. 1-29.
I take this observation from Martin Heidegger, who philosophically grounded the hermeneutic circle in Sein und Zeit ( Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1928), pp. 151-53; translated as Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson ( New York: Harper and Row, 1962), pp. 192-95.
Aby Warburg, Sandro Botticellis "Geburt der Venus" und "Frühling" ( Hamburg: Von Leopold Voss, 1893), p. 47; reprinted in Warburg, Ausgewählte Schriften und Würdigungen, p. 61.
Quoted in Gombrich, Aby Warburg, p. 303.
Aby Warburg, "Orientalisierende Astrologie," Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 6 (1927). Since it is always necessary to save reason from rationalists, it is worth noting that the categories that Warburg uses in his diagnosis are infinitely more subtle than the contemporary opposition between rationalism and irrationalism. Warburg interprets this conflict in terms of polarity and not dichotomy. One of Warburg's greatest contributions to the science of culture is his rediscovery of Goethe's notion of polarity for a global comprehension of culture. This is particularly important if one considers that the opposition of rationalism and irrationalism has often distorted interpretations of the cultural tradition of the West.
Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 31.
Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology. Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance ( Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939), p. 178.
Neither Panofsky nor the scholars who were closer to Warburg and who, after Warburg's death, assured the continuity of the institute--from Fritz Saxl to Gertrud Bing and Edgar Wind (the present director, Ernst Gombrich, became part of the Institute after Warburg's death)--ever claimed to be Warburg's successors in his research in a nameless science beyond the borders of art history. Each of them deepened Warburg's legacy within art history (often with impressive results), but without thematically embarking upon a global approach to the cultural phenomena. And it is likely that this fact has its counterpart in the objectively vital organizational needs of the institute, whose activity has nevertheless marked an incomparable renewal in the study of art history. It remains true that, as far as the "nameless science" is concerned, Warburg Nachleben still awaits its polarizing encounter with the selective will of the epoch. On the personality of the scholars associated with the Warburg Institute, see Carlo Ginzburg , "Da A. Warburg a E. H. Gombrich," Studi Medievali 7, no. 2 ( 1966).
See Claude Lévi-Strauss, "Histoire et ethnologie," Revue de Métaphysique et morale 3-4 ( 1949), reprinted in Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie structurale ( Paris: Plon, 1973-74), 1: 24-25.
Valéry's statement (in Regards sur le monde actuel [ Paris: Stock, 1944]) is not to be understood here in a merely geographical sense.
"Der Eintritt des antikisierenden Idealstils in die Malerei der Frührenaissance," Kunstchronik, May 8, 1914.