Monday, August 30, 2010

Out-of-body experiences

This photo shows a group of kayaking friends, on our return after a recent after-dark outing. I am in blue, to the right of Regina, who wears the headlight. It is strange to be out on the river after dark. I am rather night blind, don't like driving a car after dark. I keep comparing the return on the river to being in a sensory-deprivation tank. In the far distance were the perfectly visible lights of Manhattan and New Jersey, but I could see nothing in the near distance, except for the lights on the kayaks in front of me. I felt very confident in my paddling skills, but I could have been in outer space. It made me very aware of how much I depend on the sense of sight. I was reminded that Addison privileged sight in discussing the "primary pleasures of the imagination." In Spectator 411 he wrote: "Our Sight is the most perfect and most delightful of all our Senses. It fills the Mind with the largest Variety of Ideas, converses with its Objects at the greatest Distance, and continues the longest in Action without being tired or satiated with its proper Enjoyments. "

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Sublime Style versus the Sublime of Nature

Longinus, back in the first century A.D., wrote that the sublime "is a certain eminence or perfection of language." It was in this sense that Boileau made a case for the importance of Longinus in his 1674 translation of the treatise On the Sublime. According to Edmund Burke, writing in 1757, however, the sublime is the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling. I have been doing research on this transition, from the sublime style to a psychological category, especially as it affects German philosophy. Bodmer and Breitinger certainly understood the sublime in terms of poetic effects, but ideas they introduced in their writings contributed to this turn toward aesthetic effect. These ideas principally came from England and Italy.

For instance, already in their Discourses of the Painters of the early 1720s, they emphasized the importance of imagination. They seem to have taken their ideas on imagination from Joseph Addison's Pleasures of the Imagination, which they read (along with John Locke) in French translation. Bodmer, in Discourse 19, wrote that the good poet is distinguished from the ordinary one by a well-cultivated imagination. He uses the word "Imagination" here, not the German term that he would later apply, Einbildungs-Kraft. If he is gifted with a rich imagination, as was Homer (or Bodmer and Breitinger's favorite, Martin Opitz), a poet can extract a subject from his imagination at will. He will be able to describe a battle, a storm at sea, or a quiet scene of love, as if he were actually there.

Everything Bodmer writes about Opitz's superiority in this respect can be found (almost literally) in Addison. Addison, for instance, says of imagination in Spectator 417:

It would be in vain to enquire, whether the Power of imagining Things strongly proceeds from any greater Perfection in the Soul, or from any nicer Texture in the Brain of one Man than of another. But this is certain, that a noble Writer should be born with this Faculty in its full Strength and Vigour, so as to be able to receive lively Ideas from Outward Objects, to retain them long, and to range them together, upon occasion, in such Figures and Representations as are most likely to hit the Fancy of the Reader. A Poet should take as much Pains in forming his Imagination, as a Philosopher in cultivating the Understanding. He must gain a due Relish of the Works of Nature, and be thoroughly conversant in the various Scenary of a Country Life.

I think the part of the above quote that struck Bodmer was "Figures and Representations as are most likely to hit the Fancy of the Reader." And, for Bodmer, a poet's expression of emotion or feeling is more natural when we feel the emotion than when we pretend to. On its face, Discourse 19 seems to suggest that a poet must have experienced the feelings that are represented in a poem. This is not, however, the poetry of experience of Herder or Goethe. If one reads closely, one sees that Bodmer, like Addison, recommends the reading of great works of literature as a method of enriching the poetic imagination. For instance, Addison, writing on "the Faculty of Taste" (Spectator 409), said that it "must in some degree be born with us," but that there were "several Methods for Cultivating and Improving it," the "most natural Method for this Purpose is to be conversant among the Writings of the most Polite Authors."

Despite this introduction into German letters of an "empirical" element, there is an almost total absence in the writings of Bodmer and Breitinger of real nature or even real, lived life. This absence comes out strongly if one compares Addison. It may be an English trait, the result of a long tradition of thinking about nature, but Addison is not being conventional when he writes about the beauties of the natural world that the poet appropriates. Addison also seems to have seriously considered the way the senses appropriate the world around us. For instance, in discussing the difference between the effect of round pillars and square ones in architecture, he writes (Spectator 415) that "the Fancy is infinitely more struck with the view of the open Air, and Skies, that passes through an Arch, than what comes through a square, or any other Figure." This tradition of "empirical observation" is really lacking in Bodmer and Breitinger and goes a long way to explaining the absence of any consideration in their writings of the Alps or other Swiss natural wonders, which the English had been writing about for at least half a century.

Photos: Arches National Park Utah; Allen Zumach Photo Art; U.K. Daily Mail

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Postmodernism and the Sublime

From what pure wells
Of milky light, what soft o'erflowing urn,
Are all these lamps so fill'd? these friendly lamps,
For ever streaming o'er the azure deep
To point our path, and light us to our home.
How soft they slide along their lucid spheres!
And silent as the foot of time, fulfil
Their destin'd courses: Nature's self is hush'd
And, but a scatter'd leaf, which rustles thro'
The thick-wove foliage, not a sound is heard
To break the midnight air.

As I delve more and more into my research on the sublime in the 18th century, I occasionally find that the concept crops up in other contexts. This week I encountered it in a review of The Pregnant Widow, the new novel by Martin Amis, in The Weekly Standard. At one point the reviewer, David Gelernter, comes to talk about "sublimity," especially in connection with the beauty and power of nature. He contrasts sublimity, an emotion that leads to thoughts of God, "or at any rate of man's more-than-natural nature (frogs and chickens don't go into transports when contemplating waterfalls)" with the "hard and dry" environmentalism of the present day, which "tells us only how small man is, not how large he could be, and generates scalding steam clouds of apocalyptic press releases and naggings and scoldings in lieu of great literature." The above lines from "A Summer Evening's Meditation," by the poet Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825) -- the "lamps" in line 3 refer to the stars, "the living eyes of heaven" -- exemplify the great literature Gelernter might have had in mind.

It is true that sublimity (in contrast to the sublime style in writing) was first associated with natural wonders. Newton's discovery of the laws of the heavens seems to have directed people's eyes outward into the vaster reaches of nature and forced them to contemplate what in earlier ages they more or less ignored. And it is not surprising that they considered that these wonders were the work of the Almighty. Indeed, Barbauld's poem suggests as much. It continues:

But are they silent all? or is there not
A tongue in every star that talks with man,
And wooes him to be wise; nor wooes in vain;
This dead of midnight is the noon of thought,
And wisdom mounts her zenith with the stars.
At this still hour the self-collected soul
Turns inward, and beholds a stranger there
Of high descent, and more than mortal rank;
An embryo GOD; a spark of fire divine,
Which must burn on for ages, when the sun
(Fair transitory creature of a day!)
Has clos'd his golden eye, and wrapt in shades
Forgets his wonted journey thro' the east.

This is indeed splendid poetry, and it is difficult to imagine that anyone today would consider writing a poem expressing such sentiments. Gelernter attributes our loss of awe and wonder to the irony that characterizes the postmodernist attitude to life: been there, done that. When irony tyrannizes your thinking, he writes, you are detached from everything, passionate about nothing. Irony is the default reaction of the characters in Amis's novel, which takes place in 1970. The events it describes, however, remain "strikingly familiar today: feminism, victimism, contempt for the West and especially America, hostility to religion, indifference to art." This song seems tired, Gelernter writes, but those who "sing" it -- "intellectuals, academics, reporters, and the other culture leaders who have seats in the choir of Western civilization" -- have been at it for near on 5o years. Though they seem testy, they know no other song. They remain "stuck" in attitudes of their youth.

Of course, by the end of the 18th century, the sublime had been secularized, so to speak; God no longer spoke to men through his works but took up residence in "the gaps." Thinkers were well into the process of demystifying, desacralizing, debunking not only the divine realm but also the world of men and women by then. (Think Ludwig Feuerbach, whose Das Wesen des Christentums [1841] was translated by George Eliot as The Essence of Christianity.) I remember when I first read the German Romantic writers that I seemed to recognize in a flash a line of intellectual descent from Friedrich Schlegel (especially the Athenaeum Fragments) to Jacques Derrida. Irony of ironies, Schlegel became a Roman Catholic, taking refuge from the soulless world.

Bodmer and Breitinger, on whom my current research is focusing, lived and worked well before that time. Indeed, both seemed to have been very pious men. Bodmer, however, had been influenced by John Locke, especially by the importance Locke attributed to the senses in our encounters with the world. In his treatises Bodmer extolled poetry that evoked great emotions in us, especially through the proper use of figurative language. Thus, the sublime style in poetry. John Milton's Paradise Lost, which Bodmer translated into German, was his model of the sublime poet par excellence. Bodmer's emphasis on the subjective, emotional reaction to poetry, however, became part of the progress of sublimity as awe in the face of the wonders of creation to sublimity as a gauge of the darkness visible within ourselves.

Picture credits: The Wedgwood Museum Trust, Barlaston, Staffordshire (Barbauld); Richard Whitelock

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Sublime, Again

Ernst Cassirer, in his book The Philosophy of Enlightenment, devotes a chapter to "Fundamental Problems of Aesthetics." Cassirer points out the uninterrupted exchange of ideas in aesthetics in the 18th century, with the thread of ideas becoming so "intertwined that they can scarcely be distinguished in the finished fabric and traced back to their various origins." French, Germans, Italians, the English -- all seemed to echo and parallel each other. In German letters, however, the problem of aesthetics took on a decidedly philosophic cast, indeed, was "placed under the guidance and care of systematic philosophy." The initial systematic spirit was Leibnizian, which received its doctrinal codification under Christian Wolff, and culminated in the Kantian sublime.

I am tracing the reception of the sublime in German letters. The point of entry seems to have been the writings of Johann Jakob Bodmer and Johann Jakob Breitinger, whom I have already discussed in earlier posts. On the one hand, Bodmer and Breitinger are, like their antagonist Gottsched, advocates of "neoclassicism" in poetry. They accept the rationalist poetics of Boileau as set down down in his L'art poétique. Two important aspects of that poetics. The first concerns form: genres are a given, not something invented by the writer. Thus, you don't add merry songs to a funeral ode. The second concerns subject matter, based on the conviction that some things are simply contrary to nature and that a poet violates the truth of nature by choosing subjects that venture beyond certain boundaries. I would add here that the subject matter of most contemporary fiction, theater, film, etc. violates this 18th-century conception of nature, which is understood as an orderly, and ordered, system. We are talking about the Enlightenment, remember. "Dysfunction," especially if rewarded, would not be acceptable.

Gottsched was perfectly in accord with these restrictions, but Bodmer and Breitinger found a way to expand neoclassical practice. Expression, including the use of figures and metaphors and such other rhetorical conventions, became the place for an artist to do something new and at the same time reveal his mastery. Bodmer and Breitinger found the justification for their advocacy of the "new" and the "marvelous" in poetry in the treatise of Longinus on the sublime.

Ironically, it was Boileau, the strict neoclassicist, who also introduced Longinus into European aesthetics, with his translation of the Greek's treatise in 1674. Basically this treatise -- On the Sublime -- discusses how ancient poets, great ones and not so great ones, moved their readers by the power of poetic expression. Thus, most of it is a discussion of "figures." It is not that Bodmer and Breitinger's "critical" works on poetics, from the early 1740s, foreground Longinus so much as that their treatments are totally informed by Longinus' treatment of figures. Interestingly, the German word for "sublime" -- erhaben -- is not mentioned often in these works. It is only in 1746, in his Critische Briefe, that Bodmer devotes a chapter to a definition of the sublime: "Lehrsätze von dem Wesen der erhabenen Schreibart" or "Theorems concerning the Essence of the Sublime Style." In other words, as Boileau had written, the sublime is "a certain power of discourse the aim of which is to elevate the soul."

Bodmer and Breitinger were men of the early 18th century, when art had not yet been divorced from ethics, and were not interested in the violent emotions that came to be associated with the sublime by mid-18th century. Thus, neither pays much attention to natural grandeur, which forms the starting point of discussions of the "psychological" sublime. This would be articulated by Edmund Burke and culminated in the writings of Mendelssohn, Kant, and Schiller. Bodmer and Breitinger did play a role in this transformation, however, but I will save that for the next post.

Picture credit: Karol Mack

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Manhattan Circumnavigation

Okay, this is not about Goethe, but about a Goethe scholar. However, no one back in Louisville, where I come from would have ever imagined I would become a scholar of Goethe. Even less would they have imagined that I would become a kayaker and go paddling in the Hudson River. Yesterday, I joined a group of 55 for a circumnavigation of the island. The top picture is from a rest stop in Astoria, Queens; the other shows the rough waters of the East River.

Tomorrow I hope to get back to the sublime. I have come across something interesting. Though Bodmer was the person who introduced this term into German literary discourse, he was writing about sublime poetry, or the sublime style in writing. He was not writing about what people came to associate with the sublime in the 18th century, namely, grand mountains, the vast ocean depths, and other splendid natural phenomena. This absence would not be worth noting, except for the fact that Bodmer lived his entire life in Zurich, surrounded by the Alps.

My friend Felicitas Hoppe, in a recent small book, Der beste Platz der Welt, describing her stay in a small village in Switzerland, compares the sight of the Alps to the ocean.