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


Zentrist said...

I'm brought back to an old acquaintance from grad school, G. S. Brown, who did a Ph.d. thesis at U. of Dallas, if I'm not mistaken, on Longinus. I do know this. The Cistercian monk who taught him Greek told me that Brown was without question the best student of Greek he ever had, in terms of effort if not overall aptitude. This southern gentleman has published at least one book since the Ph.d.....I love the chart. Also the DANGER sign! I plead guilty to having been seduced, at times, by postmodern nihilism. Speaking of lines of influence, which really grip me and motivate me, how about this one: Plotinus to Schelling to Aldous the young William Faulkner! (Soldiers Pay and Mosquitoes.)

Goethe Girl said...

I will definitely look into G.S. Brown. Thanks for the recommendation.