Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Sublime

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that I was working on the "pre-Kantian sublime" and hoped to write more as my research proceeds. I have to say that the subject is so immense (that fits, I suppose, with the notion of the sublime itself) and the amount of reading I have been doing so varied and also immense that I am having trouble reducing my thoughts to blog-sized posts. My most recent post, on Goethe and translation, was an offshoot of my reading on the sublime, which has its point of entry into European literary discourse in the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns. It was the translation of Boileau, of the party of the Ancients, of Longinus's treatise on the sublime, that initiated the 18th-century discussion of the sublime.

My focus is, of course, German letters, specifically Johann Jakob Bodmer, the Swiss man of letters and translator of Milton's Paradise Lost into German. Bodmer was a strongly religious man, and his enthusiasm for Milton had much to do with his delight at the appearance of an ancient literary form, the epic, in a modern re-creation and, moreover, on a Christian subject. Bodmer's advocacy of Milton was challenged by the other important German man of letters of the early 18th century, namely, the Leipzig critic Johann Christoph Gottsched, a follower of Wolffian rationalist philosophy, who rejected what he considered the strange products of Milton's poetic imagination.

I am trying to trace the source of Bodmer's defense of imagination, and I suspect it was Addison, though perhaps not in Addison's own essays on the "Pleasures of the Imagination," but perhaps as Addison was transmitted in the writings of the French critic DuBos, in particular Réflexions critiques sur la poësie et sur la peinture (1719). I said this was immense, right?

What might have appealed to Bodmer was Addison's first category of natural objects that please the imagination, namely, "the great." Addison does not use the term sublime, but the objects he mentions -- "a vast uncultivated Desart ... high Rocks and Precipices, or a wide Expanse of Waters," which cause us to be struck by a "rude kind of Magnificence" -- clearly refer to that phenomenon. Though Addison did not explain the cause of this mental effect, he found that its cause lay in God's having framed us in order to act on us through our imagination. Thus, Addison writes that our souls experience a "just Relish" in contemplating the immensity of God's works. As the century progressed -- long before Kant's treatise on the sublime -- the concept of the sublime became secularized. But more on that later.

Picture credits: Big Picture; Cabinet Magazine

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