Defining the Sublime

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  • Longinus and the Problem of Defining the Sublime

Introduction

Longinus is very different from classical writers like Aristotle and Plato. Longinus doesn’t ask whether literature is good for society, nor does he worry too much about how genres are different from each other, or how a proper plot should be constructed. He is much more interested in the question of why we read in the first place. What do we get out it?

Longinus’ essay on elevated or great writing (“Peri Hypsous”) argues that sublimity has a powerful psychological effect on the reader. We are captivated and transported to a different realm. We experience a kind of transcendence or ecstasy (the Greek word ekstasis literally means to stand outside of oneself).

But how can we describe something so subjective and emotional in a way that is rigorous and systematic? This is one of the main challenges Longinus faces, so let’s find out if he manages to give a proper definition.

Defining the Sublime

The Danger of Tautology

A tautology is a circular definition. If you say that the sublime is something grand or elevated, you’ve used a tautology. It doesn’t help to just provide synonyms. We need more specific criteria.

Here is how Longinus first defines the sublime:

“[T]he Sublime, wherever it occurs, consists in a certain loftiness and excellence of language.” (1.3)

Longinus of course adds that this kind of language has a powerful effect (it hits us like a lightning bolt), but this doesn’t help us to know what gives a particular passage its lofty character in the first place. What makes it sublime?

In the second section, Longinus frames the question in relation to the classic Art vs. Nature debate. Are there rules for the sublime (Art), or is it a natural phenomenon (Nature)? Is a writer like Shakespeare a natural genius, or could he have learned great writing from a book?

Longinus argues that Nature is not entirely lawless and that we only learn what is truly natural from Art. This sounds rather clever, but it is the oldest trick in the book. Later Alexander Pope will push this line of reasoning to its extreme, arguing that the rules of art are natural (a view the Romantics will turn on its head).

In any case, we’re not any closer to a detailed definition.

Cause and Effect

We’ve already noted that Longinus describes the sublime as much in relation to its effects as its causes. Longinus mentions that the sublime makes us feel exalted. It gives us “joy and pride, as though we had ourselves originated the ideas which we read” (7.2). The sublime is also different from rhetoric in that it does not persuade us of a particular view, but rather lifts us up so that we feel ennobled (1.4). In addition, a sublime passage is extremely memorable (7.3).

These are all effects rather than causes. However, in section 8, Longinus provides some more specific criteria:

  1. Sublime passages stimulate grand thoughts.
  2. Exalted language uses passionate and emotional language.
  3. Great writers are adept at using figures (poetic devices and the like).
  4. Sublime writing involves appropriate and noble diction.
  5. Such passages are also majestic in their structure (grammar and composition).

This is more promising, though even here it’s easy to feel like this list is a receding horizon. What makes a thought grand? How can we distinguish emotional language from mere sentimentality? When is a poetic figure used appropriately? And, finally, who is to decide that one writer’s words and syntax are nobler than another?

These five categories provide an excellent framework for the rest of Longinus’ essay, but the proof is often in the specific examples.

Bombast

Another way to describe the sublime is through what it is not. In sections 3-5, Longinus suggests that when people try to be sublime, but fail, they produce a kind of foolish bombast. It’s like a high-school band trying to sound like a symphony orchestra. The result is bathos (from the Greek word for depth), where a passage aims for grandeur yet ends in anti-climax.

Longinus calls bombast a kind of “swelling,” and compares it to people who suffer from dropsy (an excess of liquid in the body).

He also mentions two other vices: puerility (or childishness), which ends in frigidity; and false sentiment. Puerility occurs when the writing is stiff and laboured, written by a boring, scholarly type who wants to add every last poetic device he can think of. Such writing is showy without being truly emotional. It leaves us cold (frigidity). The opposite extreme is a false sentimentality that is overly emotional and melodramatic.

This is useful terminology, though it might be pointed out that the sublime is a kind of swelling too. Similarly, Longinus criticizes an author for his use of confused imagery (3.1), yet this is also a hallmark of sublimity! So how do we distinguish between what is healthy and what looks like dropsy? What makes a poetic device absurd or a passage too emotional? Is this a matter of opinion, or can we all agree that something like a soap opera or a Thomas Kinkade painting is not truly sublime?

The Deliberate Mistake

If you read enough literary criticism you’ll come across many passages where a critic has turned an apparent defect into a virtue. Longinus has a habit of doing this too. As we’ve seen, a confusion of images is a sign of a poet’s enthusiasm and frenzied inspiration. In the same way, when Homer describes the terror of a storm, and combines two prepositions to form a new one (hupek = up out of), Longinus is all praise:

“Moreover, by his bold and forcible combination of prepositions of opposite meaning he tortures his language to imitate the agony of the scene, the constraint which is put on the words accurately reflecting the anxiety of the sailors’ minds, and the diction being stamped, as it were, with the peculiar terror of the situation.” (10.6)

Again, why is this sublime when a mediocre writer would be condemned for the same mistake?

Another example of what is sometimes called a “deliberate mistake” occurs in section 22. Here Longinus discusses the technique of “inversion,” where characters are so agitated that their grammar and imagery become confused:

“By hyperbaton we mean a transposition of words or thoughts from their usual order, bearing unmistakably the characteristic stamp of violent mental agitation. In real life we often see a man under the influence of rage, or fear, or indignation, or beside himself with jealousy, or with some other out of the interminable list of human passions, begin a sentence, and then swerve aside into some inconsequent parenthesis, and then again double back to his original statement, being borne with quick turns by his distress, as though by a shifting wind, now this way, now that, and playing a thousand capricious variations on his words, his thoughts, and the natural order of his discourse.”

Thus we are reminded once more that the same criteria that make for bad writing (e.g., confusion of imagery) are also praised as aspects of good writing. Early on, Longinus actually writes,

“those ornaments of style, those sublime and delightful images, which contribute to success, are the foundation and the origin, not only of excellence, but also of failure.” (5)

Conclusion

It is obviously very difficult to define the sublime. However, this overview of the challenges Longinus faced is not meant to disparage his achievement. Longinus gives us clear categories for analyzing the sublime. For instance, we can all agree that greatness of thought and passionate language are important hallmarks, even as we might quibble about what exactly constitutes a great soul. As long as we’re aware of the difficulty of coming up with a precise definition we won’t believe that we have settled once and for all what exactly is sublime.

Work Cited:

Longinus. On the Sublime. Translated by H. L. Havell, Macmillan, 1890. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17957/17957-h/17957-h.htm