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Module 1: Aesthetics of Antiquity

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The Test of Literature

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Good morning and welcome to today’s session where we continue to look at Longinus’ on the sublime. And as mentioned in the previous session, this is one of those texts which had laid the foundations of Western classical thought and on the sublime is a treatise of which one third is missing and from the available manuscript, the central argument, the central thesis of this work seems to argue that the test of literature, the true test of any great art lies in its power to transport the reader out of oneself, transport the reader to ecstasy. So based on this central theme, based on this central argument, we find Longinus who is arguably the author of this work, we find him bringing together several elements which were perhaps lead a text to this state of elevation, to this state where it achieves, it attains the level of sublimity, so one of the earliest definitions that he gives in this context is of a great speech, irresistible magic of speech which has the power to transport the reader out of oneself. And what Longinus seems to be focusing on is the moving power of literature, the great power that literature has to move one, to move emotionally and he is departing significantly from, he is moving away significantly from the 3 major tenets which were considered to be the major objectives until then of literature to instruct, to delight or to persuade. And this is why Longinus is being seen as a significant influence in reshaping and redefining the purposes, the objectives and the very intentions behind artforms and literary works in particular. And he also held the view that the true test of literature, great literature, can be manifested when the work has the power to please all and please always. So there is certain essentialisation, universal elements that he brings in to argue that when great minds together from different parts of the world, from different situations, when they seem to agree on the importance and the centrality and significance of a work, it by default becomes a great work of literature. And when different people hold the same view, it is also seen as a kind of irresistible authority that it seals the fact that the text is beyond doubt a great one. That it has the power to transport the reader out of oneself. And for these different kinds of news that he held which was not really in vogue in the time when the text was written, the manuscript was written, in the modern times, Longinus is often considered as a classicist in taste, a romanticist in temper and an idealist at heart. So it was mostly the romantic who really began to admire Longinus’ principles and also began to use them extensively from the 18th century onwards and this is that what we see in a way in which Burke, Edmund Burke in the 18th century began to redefine and refashion how the idea of the sublime could be engaged with. (Refer Slide Time 3:33) We had taken a look at the 5 major factors that Longinus had described the 5 major sources of sublimity and literature. And if you look at these 5 sources, the first one being grandeur of thoughts, 2nd one capacity of strong emotions, 3rd one, appropriate use of figures, mobility of diction being the 4th one and the final and the 5th one is the dignity of composition. And if you look at these 5 elements and we can also see that it is divided into 2 different segments and it is, we also need to pay attention to the previous passage where Longinus argues that the sources of sublime, the sources of great literature can be derived from 2 major factors. The first one being nature and the second one being art. If you recall the discussions in the previous section, he also strongly believed that even if there is an inherent genius, even if there is inherent talent, unless it is steered towards perfection, unless it is nurtured with proper counselling, it may go wayward and reckless. And this is something that he continues to press upon, this is something that he continues to underscore in these 5 sources as well by dividing them into 2 different segments; sources which are part of nature and sources which are part of art, sources which are there inherent as inbuilt qualities and things which needs to be nurtured. So here we can see that the first 2 elements, the grandeur of thoughts and the capacity for strong emotion or vigorous and spirited treatment of passions, these 2 are part of nature. These 2 are inherent emotions which are part of the personality part of the way a person is, has been shaped, a person thinks and something which he gives out from his internal being. And the next 3 are part of the art. Those are the things which can be trained, those are the things which need counsel, those are the things which can be further perfected with training, with advice and next 3 being appropriate to use of figures, the nobility of diction and dignity of composition. And here, notably, Longinus breaks with prevalent traditions in 3 major ways and this is this needs t of the other important works of those times, particularly Aristotle’s Poetics and Horace's Ars Poetica. And given that these 3 texts-the poetics, Ars Poetica and on the sublime, that these three texts had laid the foundations of Western classical thought, it is important to see how Longinus departs significantly from the prevalent traditions. First of all, he focused on the idea of transport. The power of literature, the significance of literature was not to be evaluated based on whether it persuades enough, whether it instructs enough. Now I also want you to recall and I also want you to think about how poetics and Aristotle and other classical traditions in the literature about the significance of catharsis, about the significance of purifying a person, one’s emotions and making one into a better person. So we do not find Longinus doing any of those things. He only talks about the power of the sublime, to transport the reader out of oneself. It is about ecstasy, it is about the supreme kind of enjoyment that a literary work gives. And this is completely devoid of any kind of moral compulsions, this is completely devoid of the kind of greatness, the kind of grandeur the other traditions believed that a perfect reader or a perfect writer should have. And secondly, he did not limit the number of metaphors to be used and this is something very significant because Longinus was also writing when rhetoric was seen as the most supreme form of articulation and aesthetics and the other things came very very below that. And art for any kind of enjoyment, for the sake of enjoyment, that was not seen as something very productive and for a long time, the validity of art, the validity of a literary work, it also depended on how much work had the capacity to transform a person into a better moral being, into a higher moral being. So here we find Longinus departing from these prevalent traditions and focusing on things that need to be done if there are certain things which are required to transport the reader out of oneself then Longinus did not think it fit to put restrictions on the style or the kind of language to be used. So unlike the prevalent tradition which focused on the rhetoric, we find him not putting in any limit on the number of metaphors. And also, he sees no merit in faultlessness. It is not a flawless kind of work that Longinus is appreciating. In fact, he is very very attentive to the flaws which are part of major classical literature and he finds that as part of human rendition, he finds that as part of a genuineness that is part of writing, a part of articulation, to quote his own words, the correctness escapes censure but sublimity commands positive reverence. It is for the same reason that Cord James one of the modern critics, he identified Longinus as the first romantic critic. We also need to be attentive to how Longinus shares certain things with poetics and Aristotle and there are 2 things we find that he shares with Aristotle’s idea. There are 2 things maybe we can find its resemblance. One is in the art of rhetoric and the 2nd one is in the scientific approach. But at the end of it, though he appreciates the significance of rhetoric and though he is all for a scientific approach which also means a systematic approach, an approach which can be broken down and understood in different steps. That is what we have in mind when we talk about the scientific approach. So despite that, despite the focus on the art of rhetoric and scientific approach, we find that he is purely pleading for an aesthetic appreciation more than anything. So that is the aesthetic appreciation of art and this need not be cathartic, this need not be moral, this need not have any kind of use-value or a sense of purpose which will transform a person into a better being or a higher moral being. It is purely for its aesthetic appreciation. And this makes Longinus more romantic, this makes Longinus more a part of the Romantic tradition than the part of the classical tradition where he is chronologically situated. And he is also arguing for, he is also allowing for the transcendence of all kinds of rules. He does not find that it is important to stick to certain rules to produce great literature. As long as literature is transporting the reader out of oneself, as long as it is reaching the level of the sublime, even if certain rules are flouted, it really does not matter. And he in that sense becomes one of those earliest persons to measure literature by spirit, rather than by form. And we find most of the great artists and the Masters also following this. For instance, Shakespeare, when he started writing we find him not really adhering to the prevalent traditions. He is flouting the rules of classical unity and we also find him using the stage techniques which were not really invoked during that time and making that itself as a sort of a trendsetter. And in all this, we d that there is a sort of a theoretical background that Longinus is giving even before his time. And this is not to say that this framework that Longinus provided, it was instrumental in bringing in more freedom in artistic expressions but the point that I am trying to drive home is that Longinus even before the time came to talk about romanticism even before the time came to talk about flouting the rules and talk about the power of literature to take the reader out of oneself, we find him documenting these ideas and detailing them with great clarity and also with a very well framed scientific approach. So when he is talking about literature, when he is talking about any kind of artform, what Longinus privileges are the aesthetic rather than the formal. He privileges the romantic rather than the classical. I repeat, in Longinus approach, he privileges the aesthetic rather than the formal and he also privileges the romantic rather than the classical. So we find a very aesthetic and romantic approach towards writing, towards literature, towards the appreciation of art in general. But at the same time what makes him classical enough is the fact that he also believed very very strongly that the kind of aesthetics and the kind of romanticism which has the power to transport the reader out of oneself, it can come only from a noble mind. Here we find him sharing that humanist tradition along with Aristotle and we also find a lot of resemblances here with the tenets which were put forward in the poetics. And he also, as we have already noted in the previous session, he believed strongly that a great soul can produce great speech. So there is a connection here which is being made between the author figure and the kind of works and the kind of elevated works that he or she produces. But what makes Longinus different is that though the producer of this art has a great mind, the work of literature does not necessarily intend to transform the person morally, does not necessarily intend to bring about a catharsis of emotions in the reader. It only focuses on the pure aesthetic experience which elevates, which transports the reader into another aesthetic world altogether. And we also find certain similarities with Plato over here. In a very Platonian way, Longinus also believed that excellence in the art can be achieved only through excellence in character. So when Longinus or Plato or Aristotle, when they are talking about the author figures, the ones who are producing great works of art and literature, they also believed in the moral capacity that this author figure had, this is of course in line with the humanistic tradition, this is in line with the moral compulsions of those times and we also need to keep in mind that the society in which they lived, society in which they wrote, it also had played a significant role in shaping how they looked at art, looked at the literature and looked at aesthetic components. So there is a very strong underlying moral element and a moral compulsion which is also defining how art, literature and critical traditions have been formed and framed. (Refer Slide Time 14:25) There is something very significant about some of the excerpts that Longinus uses in this work. I want you to draw your attention to how he refers to the book of Genesis in the last paragraph on this page. “And there is also the lawgiver of the Jews, no ordinary man. Having formed an adequate conception of the supreme being, given adequate expression, the opening words of his laws. God said, what? Let there be light, and there was light. And let there be land and there was. It is very very important and significant to note that along with other Greek plays, along with other Greek masters, he is also quoting from the Bible from the book of the Genesis. And this also gives us a sense of the background, the context and the familiarity that Longinus had with the prevalent traditions and also about the familiarity that perhaps during those times Longinus and others had with Christianity and the books which were part of that. And this excerpt, and this reference from the book of Genesis, Let there be light and there was light, this draws our attention to 3 major things as some of the contemporary critics also indicate and point out that emphasises the on the literature of power rather than on literature of knowledge. So it is really not about the scholarship, it is really not about building the knowledge level, it is about power, the power of transforming. And secondly, he is also arguing that the effect of great literature, the effect of great artwork, it is not achieved by argument but on the contrary, it is achieved by revelation. And thirdly, literature is not about propaganda, it is not about the sermon, it is not about entertainment, it is about a vision so more than the spirit of knowledge or argument or the power of propaganda, sermonising or entertainment to focus on and underscore is the power of literature to transform. So more than all this, what Longinus seems to emphasise is on the literature of power, literature which reveals, lithe literature of revelation and finally literature of vision. And this is what makes great literature, this is what enables the reader to be transported out of himself with this sheer power of the sublime. So the truly sublime in Longinus’ words, it is about an uplifting effect. More than anything, more than the transformation that the reader may or may not undergo in a moral sense, in an ethical sense, it is about this ecstatic power which transports the reader out of oneself and brings an uplifting effect in his life. And as we begin to wrap up this session, it is also important to remember and recall that Longinus had a very significant role to play, a very significant influence on post-Renaissance critics and this was also the time incidentally when the work was rediscovered as we had noted in the previous session as well. Immanuel Kant, for instance, was deeply influenced by Longinus and his ideas of the sublime and Alexander Pope had paid a very telling tribute to Longinus and very importantly, Edmund Burke in the 18th century, he had refashioned and redefined how the ideas of the sublime could be accessed and could be engaged with. So today when we talk about the ideas of the sublime, it is not just about the power of language to transport, it also talks about various other things which also has theories related to aestheticism complementing and supplementing it. (Refer Slide Time 17:55) I hope this discussion has been useful for you to enter this text with more clarity and also grasp the fundamental elements that it is talking about. And as I begin to wrap up, there is one final point I want to leave you with. This work, on the sublime incidentally is not the only work that Longinus had written about, we do find some clues about that in this text. He refers to and talks about the definition of the sublime in section 9. I hinted elsewhere in my writings that sublimity is so to state the image of the greatness of soul. So if there is any way in which sublimity can be attained in a particular work, we are not really talking about the effect that it has on the reader. Longinus is here, is talking about how this level of sublimity can be attained in a nutshell, in a single phrase, he is telling us it is in the image of the greatness of soul. And he also says that he had written about this elsewhere as well in his other writings about sublimity. So we have every reason to believe that maybe there was an ongoing discussion and there was an ongoing engagement with this idea of the sublime when Longinus was writing this. And this also gives us further insight into the understanding of the formulations of the romantic and how the aesthetic began to undergo significant changes especially in the later centuries and accessing the idea of the aesthetic, power of literature to transport and power of literature to take one to ecstasy one that begins to make more sense when we do such a chronological and a systematic survey of literary-critical traditions from the first and third century onward. So with this, we wrap up today’s session. I hope this discussion was useful to you. I also encourage you to take a look at the original text to get a hang of what Longinus had been discussing. I thank you for listening to this and I look forward to seeing you in the next session.