Sunday, January 17, 2010

Goethe and the Sublime

What do we mean when we say that something is "sublime"? For instance, a slice of cheesecake or chocolate mousse? Or a hairdo or a dress? I suspect in both cases there is an intense feeling of something very delicious to our sense of taste and also very much out of the ordinary run of things. This contemporary use of the word is an attenuated descendent of a rather important aesthetic category in the 18th century, when the measure of the sublime was not food or dress but something much larger, say, mountain massifs or the the extent of the oceans. At the same time, there was a correspondence between the outsized, out-of-the-ordinary object of admiration and the feeling it evoked in us. Thus, the object was sublime, but a person had to feel it to be so. As Kant wrote, in The Critique of Pure Reason (1788), "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within" (tr. Paul Guyer).

Not too be overly immodest, but just about everything Goethe wrote about the sublime can be found in my article in the Goethe Yearbook. By the time he occupied himself with the subject, in the early 1770s, he was the beneficiary of almost a century of European discussions on the role of the sublime in aesthetic theory. Kant in turn made the aesthetic sense the basis of his moral philosophy.

It all began with the translation of the treatise On the Sublime into French by the critic and poet Nicolas Boileau, which appeared in 1674 and introduced the ancient rhetorician Longinus to the European literary world. Europe was ready for a change in its way of thinking about art. Before the 18th century theorists on art agreed with Aristotle that art was a particularly good way of transmitting universal and objective truths in graspable form. And since there were objective truths, it was also agreed that there were objective criteria for producing works of art.

By the 18th century in western Europe, however, there was a move toward more subjective criteria for judging art. This is where Longinus and his treatise on the sublime come in. Longinus, who had lived in the time of Marcus Aurelius (indeed, according to Boileau it was Marcus who ordered Longinus' execution), went beyond the conventional resources of the rhetorical tradition for achieving elevated effects and conveying powerful emotions. He suggested that nobility of soul and powerful and inspired emotions -- innate qualities in a person -- were more essential than in the traditional discipline of art.

One's inner state is occasionally the site of calm and docile emotions, but just as likely one of powerful, chaotic forces. There was nothing cute or nice about the sublime, and thus it was drafted to suggest the more powerful emotions of the soul. The sublime had its correspondence in the outer world -- be it God or infinity or some otherwise uncalculable natural phenomenon, like the massive, irregular, and chaotic geological formations of Switzerland -- while the sublime experience was the response of a person to the grandeur of the sublime object.

I have lately been working on the sublime, in particular the early transmission of this aesthetic idea into German literature in the 18th century. My focus has been Johann Jacob Bodmer (1698-1783), the learned Swiss man of letters who also introduced John Milton, in particular Paradise Lost, to German readers. Milton was for Bodmer the poet with the most noble mind and soul who likewise produced an epic on the most noble and sublime subject. Not much attention has been paid to the effect of the Swiss mountains on Bodmer's thinking. I like very much the paintings of Swiss mountains by Caspar Wolf, for instance, the above one, which shows visitors admiring the splendid ragged formations, which in effect indicates the taming of the sublime. Wolf was a predecessor of the Romantic-period painter Caspar David Friedrich in the portrayal of awesome natural subjects. By Friedrich's time, however, the awe felt in the face of powerful nature seems almost sentimentalized, as can be seen in the painting Wanderer in the Sea of Fog, at the top of this post, from 1814. Wolf seems to have been a much more modest figure, to show by this self-portrait.

Already by 1712, when Addison wrote his Spectator essays, these mountains (which Addison had seen on his trip to Italy) were a conventional trope in connection with the sublime. (They also figure prominently in Edmund Burke's 1757 essay on the beautiful and the sublime.) For Bodmer, it was Addison's emphasis on the quality of "great imagination" that drew him to John Milton. This subjective quality went on to play a huge role in the development of German literature in the 18th century, for instance, in the notion of "Genius."

It also played a role in Goethe's early oeuvre, in the so-called Storm and Drang period of the early 1770s. An expression of the sublime style and the expression of sublime emotion is on view in Goethe's essay on German architecture (1772), in which he rhapsodizes about the Gothic cathedral in Strassburg and its inspired architect, whom he compares to a second creator. Like God, such artists look down on their works and exclaim, "It is good!"

Later, Goethe abandoned this enthusiastic response in connection with sublime subjects. He became a "classicist," subsuming himself to the "edle Einfalt und stille Größe" (noble simplicity and quiet grandeur), which Winckelmann believed characterized ancient Greek art. I think Goethe's immersion in his scientific pursuits, beginning in the late 1770s, also distanced him -- made him more objective? -- vis à vis nature's more powerful and chaotic phenomena. He also was reacting against the kind of sentimental self-aggrandisement that is suggested by the Friedrich painting and that the discourse on the sublime had done so much to introduce to the European consciousness. Terry Eagleton, the Marxist literary critic, has something interesting to say about this secularization of emotion in The Ideology of the Aesthetic. He writes of the "production of an entirely new kind of human subject [in the 18th century] -- one which, like the work of art itself, discovers the law in the depths of its own free identity, rather than in some oppressive eternal law. The liberated subject is the one who has appropriated the law as the very principle of its own autonomy, broken the forbidden tablets of the law in which that law was originally inscribed in order to rewrite it on the heart of flesh."

Picture credit: Alpenverein

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