Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Longinus: Some Marks of True Sublimity

LonginusImage by Niall McAuley via FlickrNOTE: to understand this selection, let me quote what Longinus meant by sublimity: "Sublimity is a kind of eminence or excellence of discourse."
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At this stage, the question we must put to ourselves for discussion is how to avoid the faults which are so much tied up with sublimity.  The answer, my friend, is: by first of all achieving a genuine understanding and appreciation of true sublimity. This is difficult; literary judgment comes only as the final product of long experience. However, for the purposes of instruction, I think we can say that an understanding of all this can be acquired. I approach the problem in this way:

In ordinary life, nothing is truly great which it is great to despise; wealth, honor, reputation, absolute power-anything in short which has a lot of external trappings-can never seem supremely good to the wise man because it is no small good to despise them. People who could have these advantages if they chose but disdain them out of magnanimity are admired much more than those who actually possess them. It is much the same with elevation in poetry and literature generally. We have to ask ourselves whether any particular example does not give a show of grandeur which; for all its accidental trappings, will, when dissected, prove vain and hollow, the kind of thing which it does a man more honour to despise than to admire.

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. When a man of sense and literary experience hears something many times over, and it fails to dispose his mind to greatness or to leave him with more to reflect upon than was contained in the mere words, but comes instead to seem valueless on repeated inspection, this is not true sublimity; it, endures only for the moment of hearing. Real sublimity contains much food for reflection; is difficult or rather impossible to resist, and makes a strong and ineffaceable impression on the memory.

In a word, reckon those things which please everybody all the time as genuinely and finely sublime. When people of different trainings, ways of life, tastes, ages, and manners all agree about something, the judgment and assent of so many distinct voices lends strength and irrefutability to the conviction that their admiration is rightly directed.

The Five Sources of Sublimity; The Plan of the Book


There are, one may say, five most productive sources of sublimity. (Competence in speaking is assumed as a common foundation for all five; nothing is possible without it).
(i) The first and most important is the power to conceive great thoughts; I defined this in my work on Xenophon.
(ii) The second is strong and inspired emotion. (These two sources are for the most part natural; the remaining three involve art).
(iii) Certain kinds of figures. (These may be divided into figures of thought and figures of speech).
(iv) Noble diction. This has as subdivisions choice of words and the use of metaphorical and artificiallanguage.
(v) Finally, to round off the whole list, dignified and elevated word ¬arrangement.
Let us now examine the points which come under each of these heads.
I must first observe, however, that Caecilius has omitted some of the five¬ emotions, for example. [Now if he thought that sublimity and emotion were one and the same thing and always existed and developed together, he was wrong. Some emotions, such as pity, grief, and fear, are found divorced from sublimity and with a low effect. Conversely, sublimity often occurs apart from emotion. Of the innumerable examples of this I select Homer's bold account of the Aloadae [the two sons of Poseidon]:

Ossa upon Olympus they sought to heap; and on Ossa Pelion with its shaking forest, to make a path to heaven-
and the even more impressive sequel—
and they would have finished their work ...

In orators, encomia and ceremonial or exhibition pieces always involve grandeur and sublimity, though they are generally devoid of emotion. Hence those orators who are best at conveying emotion are least good at encomia, and conversely the experts at encomia are not conveyers of emotion. On the other hand, if Caecilius thought that emotion had no contribution to make to sublimity and therefore thought it not worth mentioning, he was again completely wrong. I should myself have no hesitation in saying that there is nothing so productive of grandeur as noble emotion in the right place. It inspires and possesses our words with a kind of madness and divine spirit.

The only writing guide I consult is Toolbox for Writers.
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