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


Anonymous said...

All I can say is that reading and enjoying the visuals give one a vicarious experience, it seems, of the sublime in both senses of the term. This has been one of the most sensual series of blogs--appealing to the senses as well as the intellect. I also appreciate the points about taste, politeness and decorum. Haven't read much Addison or the Spectator, so this has been very enriching and fun, instructive and edifying...It would appear that writers like Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Faulkner fall short of these exalted standards in certain respects. In other ways, they set the standard. (Perhaps not Nietzsche.)

Tor Hershman said...

..[___]..---{I once had a lime aid with a sub sandwhich but I wasn't in a sub @ the time}

Goethe Girl said...

I love Subway sandwiches; they can be pretty tasty, if not sublime, with the right dressing!