Thursday, September 15, 2005

Week 04, Horace and Longinus

Horace Notes

We are very used to the idea that art is oppositional, a “disturbing and disintegrating force,” as Wilde said individualism and art should be. As post-romantics, we also tend to judge art with an eye towards its “originality,” its source in an individual’s imagination and passions. Horace’s views may not appeal to us if we don’t historicize our sensibilities to the needs of his time and to the Romans’ attitude towards concepts like “genius” and “expression.” For Horace, art’s social function is not opposition but rather urbane adornment; a good poetic craftsman reassures the public’s sense of what is appropriate in speech and conduct, enhancing their sense that they live in a stable world. He delights and teaches them with good verses, ones that make them take pleasure in what is essentially already their own view of politics and their particular social order. Decorum -- delineation and observance of what is fitting -- are central to the Horatian poet’s task.

Horace lived through tough, unsettling times (65-8 B.C.E.). Rome had lived through decades of dictatorships and civil unrest. Horace was around twenty years of age when Julius Caesar was assassinated (44 B.C.E.), and Octavian didn’t take over to become Augustus Caesar until 27 B.C.E. (the reign lasted until 14 A.D., when Tiberius took over). Although Horace at first opposed Octavian, he came around later to accept the Emperor’s vision of post-Republican stability, continuity, and virtue. The political forms had changed, but Augustus wasn’t interested in radically transforming Roman civilization; he seems genuinely to have admired the ancient virtues that made Rome strong, and he tried to promote them every way he could. Horace, then, allies his notions about patient craftsmanship and practical recognition with Augustan political imperatives.

125. Horace would agree with modern people that languages and societies are born, develop, and die or get transformed. He uses the organic metaphor of “leaves” to make this point. So the poet must, in the deep sense, be a follower of fashions, know how the leaves are falling: know your time’s needs, and the words most appropriate to your audience’s aesthetic and moral sensibilities. You can’t teach and delight people who lived 500 years ago, so you have to please those in the here and now.

126. Expression? Well, we need to read Horace carefully here. When he says that you must first weep if you want to make others weep, he isn’t offering a romantic expressivist theory of poetic creation. He is arguing instead that certain kinds of utterances or written sentences most closely “fit” certain character types and certain situations. Notice that he says Nature produces expression by fashioning and shaping our emotions. In ancient times, the passions are figured as coming from without, as an external set of forces that impact us powerfully. Consider Sappho’s brief lyric poem, “Eros seizes and shakes my very soul / Like the wind on the mountain / Shaking ancient oaks.” Words are like tragic masks, validating and “expressing” the emotion that the poet has deemed appropriate to the character and the situation. We should not forget that masks don’t quash emotion or individuality -- they both enhance and validate it, rendering it more permanent. So the fact that emotion isn’t something that comes from within and then is “expressed” shouldn’t make us interpret Horatian expression as stale conventionality. Conventionality itself, handled well, is a powerful artistic element. Wilde said, “give a man a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth.” No doubt he was thinking of Greek drama.

127. Imitation: we don’t imitate nature, but rather human nature and social conventions. The poet finds out from literary tradition and close social observation what the appropriate conduct and language is, and then makes his poetry reflect those standards. The public wants its stable world view reflected and ennobled in poetry and other art forms. So that’s why decorum is important -- well-crafted poetry’s harmony with received notions produces pleasure. Craft itself is important, too, because it is orderly and observant of literary rules. The poet should be a good literary citizen.

129. Horace sees some licentiousness behind tragedy. The Satyr play is a response to the audience’s less noble composition and needs. That’s how Horace deals with the Dionysian element in tragedy. But he shows some pragmatic concern about art’s relationship with an audience. He would agree that we should “preserve and ennoble” character types, not debase our art to the level of lowbrows in the peanut gallery. Art should maintain what is best in a society, and improve what is less than worthwhile.

130-31: The artist should follow Greek models. But Horace also wants to assert Roman independence from the Greeks. His classicism is of the better sort, and his advocacy of Roman literature’s development looks forward to French and Italian advocacy of a modern national literature, not just copying from the Romans. (Cf. Du Bellay and Dante, among others.) The “Children of Numa” have their own literature, and they should keep developing it. So Horace’s view of language and literature is dynamic -- it must fit its public’s sensibilities and needs at any given time. Polish seems to be the Roman form of excellence -- they’re good craftsmen, in the way we think of the French as great chefs and winemakers.

Horace sees literature as a force for shaping culture and morals as well as for accommodating political and social needs, not a vehicle for violent change. He has come to support Augustus’ political values and his enlistment of literature in that cause. See his comments on the degeneration of Old Comedy into mere licentiousness, and the Satyr play as a great lady dancing a bit with the peasants on a feast day because everyone expects her to.

131: Poet and Critic. The critic provides advice on craft and decorum, on how to achieve formal excellence. Horace sees the man of letters as a literary stylist in a rather modern way. The artist measures his success partly by selling his work as a commodity, even if not for a living. The broader point to be drawn from Horace’s practical comments about selling books is that the poet serves a specialized function in Roman society. He pleases and teaches the public, decking out their cultural values attractively. Language clothes morality, serves as ornament. Horace keeps making fun of the “mad poet.” He would probably agree with Wilde that “the origin of all bad poetry is sincere emotion.” A true craftsman knows his duty with regard to the reading public; his “specialized” labor function (cf a modern version of that idea in Adam Smith’s ‘‘The Wealth of Nations’’) should not consist in a fashionable, class-driven pose of alienation, isolated genius, or divine inspiration by the Muse. Byron’s sardonic opening of ‘‘Don Juan’’ -- “Hail muse! etc.” -- isn’t far from Horace’s lips.

So what underlies good writing and craftsmanship? Wisdom -- the wisdom that comes from long imitation of “life and manners,” not the insights or delusions flowing from observing the obscure movements of the psyche.

131: The Romans are businesslike even in art. They appreciate fine craft, orderly and well planned work. The Greeks are wonderful, says Horace, but at times a bit wild. Let them have their divine madness.

132-33. Since the poet adorns values, fitness of speech is of the essence. The buying public won’t tolerate a mediocre poet who lacks eloquence and who violates their sense of decorum, of proportion in all character types and situations. A mediocre lawyer or doctor may be useful, but a mediocre poet’s main function is to adorn our world view, so we demand excellence as integral to that function. We want to be delighted ‘‘and’’ taught -- Horace might well agree with Sidney’s later formulation that the poet “teaches ‘‘by’’ delighting,” even though Sidney’s statement stems from the Christian notion that original sin has adversely affected the will. Moreover, Horace apparently would like to see a greater sense of professionalism amongst poets -- too many equestrian-ranked amateurs are scribbling poetry. Poetasters have been around forever, it seems. Wealth does not give one the crown as poet. See Petronius Arbiter’s ‘‘Satyricon’’ for a sendup of rich art patrons.

133: Art has done humanity great service, writes Horace. It has allied itself with wisdom, helping thereby to establish and maintain the golden mean. It has been vital to civilization, separating, ordering, ranking things and people in the proper way. (See Shelley’s broad definition of the poet -- perhaps his argument owes something to Horace, though the sentiment is much different.)

133-34: Talent and genius are both necessary. Genius, says Horace, may be a gift of nature, but talent must help us develop our genius and our linguistic facility. Artistic labor shapes and directs the force of genius as a builder and enhancer of civilization. Originality, in the modern romantic sense, does not seem to matter to Horace. Still, for all Horace’s love of conventionality, we need not consider him stale and bloodless. An artist can work within established literary and cultural traditions and yet be innovative and fulfill deep cultural and individual needs.” Again, a mask is conventional artifice or a device, but if properly deployed, it enhances expression.

134-35: The “mad poet” enframes and overflows Horace’s text on poetry, as if the text offers itself as “the safe and sane middle ground” on the issue of what poetry is and how one becomes a poet. Horace writes a decorous treatise on decorum. He doesn’t see a need to offer us either Plato’s condemnation of art or Aristotle’s grand and confident defense of poetry. Aristotle, of course, comes late in the line of philosopher-scientists from the Pre-Socratics onward, and he vigorously opposes Plato’s view of the relationship between art and life. One might say Plato was concerned that the ancient mythology lowered over “modern” Greece, promoting an uncomfortably close association between irrational art and everyday life. Under the rule of myth, art was an all-encompassing way of life. Aristotle has more confidence in the advent of the rational, scientific outlook, so he is able to defend art by treating it in a scientific manner. Horace’s argument is less philosophical than either Plato’s or Aristotle’s, but he is responding to the needs of a practical culture embarked upon an imperial project that would span centuries. So he promotes art as a valuable but specialized social practice; the Romans have no problem separating and distinguishing art from life’s other facets. The poet has a well-delineated, limited role with regard to the community. Perhaps this is true in all highly specialized, urban societies: consider the advent of industrial capitalism and its driving class, the ‘‘bourgeoisie.’’ With the coming of the new scientific-industrial paradigm, romantic artists responded with anxious defiance to what they felt as a radical threat of marginalization and even extinction of the human imagination and the art created from it. Horace feels no such anxiety.

Concluding thoughts on Horace: The Greeks understood the forces impinging upon the individual and the human realm as wild and incompatible, while the Augustan Romans treated external forces as more regular and predictable. These different visions of how the world beyond us shapes our identities and social forms are still with us -- you can find in modern philosophy and theory both attitudes. Everyone says forces beyond “us” impact us and at least partly account for who we become and what we do, but people differ concerning our chances of comprehending and controlling those forces.

Today the notion that, for better or for worse, all is regulated by “convention” has come back into vogue. Not so much in an affirmative “neoclassical” or Horatian way, but rather in the sense that contemporary theorists see conventional systems regulating everything from language to power relations in the social and political sphere. There’s a great deal of distrust of any formulation telling us we can strip away conventionality and artifice and get at the essence of something like “meaning,” “language,” “spirit,” etc. The individual is construed as the effect of many forces converging and conflicting, and meaning is often described as an effect generated by the play of elements within a sign system, whether the theorist sees that system as satisfyingly closed and complete or otherwise. Structuralism certainly emphasized the notion that we understand things on the basis of structural relationships, by way of relations rather than fixed inner meanings or roles. All of this acknowledges that we are creatures of both habit and convention, and takes up an attitude towards the fundamental claim that stability of perception and thought is itself a kind of necessary wish-fulfillment on the part of humans.

Longinus Notes

Is Longinus suggesting that we learn something from art, or that it provides us with an ecstatic experience that exalts and uplifts us? Or is there a relationship between sublimity and subsequent learning? Can an ecstatic experience improve us? It seems clear that Longinus thinks it can. From the Renaissance onwards, this positive emphasis on the value of passions generated by oratory and the fine arts has influenced critics. Whatever Longinus’ intentions, his treatise can be made to accord with attempts to recuperate emotion in the service of reason and order.

138-39. Longinus suggests that we all know what the sublime ‘‘is’’ because we can feel it for ourselves, so it need not be defined extensively. Further, the Preface says that the sublime is better than rhetorical persuasion because the former “takes us outside ourselves,” to borrow a modern expression – the audience can’t control the effects of sublime feelings, whereas the same audience is in control of the effects generated by ordinary rhetoric. It seems we respond to that kind of rhetoric with our critical faculties always alert – as when we listen to a political speech like the State of the Union Address. Longinus surprises his reader with his insistence that sublimity can be discussed with some precision even in a textbook treatise of the sort he is writing – it need not be described as an ineffable spiritual effect and left at that mysterious level. Nature is powerful, but nature needs the artist’s understanding of method and craft – so while Longinus praises an effect we might call “Dionysian” and ecstatic, he isn’t really licensing artistic anarchy or anarchic audience response.

139-40. I like the following quotation: “It is our nature to be elevated and exalted by true sublimity. Filled with joy and pride, we come to believe we have created what we have only heard” (139). This idea seems to apply to the audience even more than to the author or orator whom Longinus usually addresses in his treatise. The suggestion here is that the ecstatic experience of sublimity is something deeply rooted in human nature – it’s a similar sentiment to Aristotle’s claim that “learning gives the liveliest pleasure.” Sublime feelings may not in themselves amount to learning, but they seem to move us towards self-improvement, which is just as good. By implication, sublimity (and any art that instills it) is socially beneficial. Further, the reader or hearer, in Longinus’ opinion, gets to share in the author’s privileged perspective – it’s as if (to use a modern example) when we listen to Mozart or Beethoven, we fancy that we ourselves have actually written the music, so powerful is our accord with it. Probably everyone has felt something of this sort – even a critic can feel like a creative genius once in a while.

At the bottom of 139, Longinus attests to the lasting psychological effects of sublimity upon those who experience it – it “contains much food for reflection,” he writes, and anything that pleases people from all walks of life all the time must be sublime. I don’t know if this claim that some art has value that transcends all difference – presumably even temporal difference – holds up completely, but it’s been said many times that the test of art is time and universal appeal. (See Dr. Johnson, for instance – “Nothing can please long but just representations of general nature.”) But a modern criticism of this transhistorical and transcultural claim would be that art is made at a particular place and time, for a particular audience with one set of values and interests. So there’s a chance that even the greatest art will eventually fall out of favor. Will Shakespeare or Beethoven please people a thousand years from now? I suspect they will, but I can’t be certain because I won’t be there. Still, we like Homer even today, and his epics were composed 2700 years ago – that’s a pretty good indication of near-universal appeal, though not absolute proof. There’s also the caveat that claims about art’s “universality” exalt the embedded ideology of timebound works of art at the expense of the present. If you want to play Tom Paine with such arguments, you could snort that we owe nothing to the value systems of the past because we live in the present and must concern ourselves with our own near future. Or you could go the way of Edmund Burke and say that we owe almost everything to the past, so we should not deny its alleged claims upon us. (Paine was a radical supporter of the French and American Revolutions, while Burke opposed the French Revolution as an insane attempt to reconfigure human nature and throw off the ancient ideals that had made civilization possible.)

140-41. Longinus writes discerningly that sublimity is not simply to be equated with intense passion – you can be in an impassioned state that has nothing to do with sublimity or exaltation. Again, we see that he emphasizes the sublime as something that transports, uplifts, and exalts human beings – it is not simple madness or intensity. Many ancient philosophers insist that great effects can be caught and passed on by a superior individual or class – one thinks of Confucius’ “gentleman,” who, in following The Way, shows others the road to virtuous conduct. What we have in Longinus, perhaps, is an aristocratic ideal of this sort, with the great speaker or artist as the aristocrat and gentleman – “sublimity is the echo of a noble mind.” On 141, Longinus shows an almost impressionistic quality in pointing out the sublimity in Sappho’s lyric poetry – the passage at bottom reminds me of Walter Pater explaining in his essays from ‘‘Appreciations’’ what ‘‘exactly’’ is so wonderful about Wordsworth or Coleridge or Thomas Browne. It should be possible to distill the virtues of a particular author and set them down in writing, so we will know what makes their work excellent or sublime. At base, I think Longinus is suggesting that Sappho knew the most striking “elements which are inherent” in her “raw material” (erotic experience), and she knew how to combine them in complex ways that everyone could nonetheless recognize. I like that view of Sappho because her lyric is by no means simple self-expression – her fragments go well beyond individual expression. I don’t suppose Longinus means that sublimity is inherent ‘‘in the subject matter,’’ but rather that certain elements can, if dealt with skillfully, be put together so as to generate sublimity in the creator of art and in the soul of the perceiver or reader or listener.

143-44. Longinus says that great artists of the past can themselves inspire creators and audiences to sublimity. This reminds me of Alexander Pope’s insistence that Nature and Homer amount to the same thing – to go back to the ancients is to return to the root of human nature and to the source of sharp observation of physical nature as well.

144-46. Visualization and figurative language. Longinus recognizes (apparently without cynicism) the great power of images – if an orator can make me see something vividly, chances are that I will be carried along by what I “see” rather than attending closely to the argument. And in general, orators would much rather that their listeners be carried along by passion rather than act as critical judges of what’s being said. A mental picture really is worth a thousand words, it seems. But this whole business of describing the relationship between words and images sounds pretty dubious to me – I don’t easily “see” things on the basis of words. Do we really think in pictures? Even if you were to describe a scene for me in the most excruciating detail, I probably wouldn’t conjure up a detailed picture in my mind – I would probably ‘‘hear’’ what you say and respond on that basis. (Maybe I was at the water cooler when the word-to-image brainchips were handed out.) I can’t get a handle on my own mental processes, so I don’t feel confident describing anybody else’s. But Longinus’ general point is that vivid examples lead to sublimity. We will come across this notion again, for example in Philip Sidney’s promotion of the “speaking pictures” (a Horatian phrase) generated by virtue-inculcating poets – we ‘‘see’’ a good person doing good things, and are inspired to do them ourselves.

152. A key statement about human nature: “The universe therefore is not wide enough for the range of human speculation and intellect. Our thoughts often travel beyond the boundaries of our surroundings.” The idea is that something deep within us responds to the sublime – we were, so to speak, ‘‘made’’ to experience sublimity. So much, therefore, for Platonic distrust of the passions as something that wells up from the lower depths of our divided nature, and threatens to overwhelm the orderly and reasonable qualities that make civilized life possible. This kind of argument runs through modern criticism, not just ancient -- neoclassical and romantic-era criticism and art wrestle with the place of reason and the place of the passions, and generally they try to find room for both, though emphasizing one or the other. It was the C18 philosopher David Hume, after all, who said that “reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions.” In C18 philosophy and criticism, much is made of humanity’s almost infinite educability, a capacity that certainly includes the feelings as well as the intellect. Defenses of art in that age often stem from just such faith in the improving power of appropriately directed passion. Where would the “age of sensibility” be without it?

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN 0393974294.


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