perjantai 7. helmikuuta 2014

Reasonable thoughts and judgements on eloquence: Of influence and use of imagination for improvement of taste or detailed study of all sorts of writings (1727)

We have finally reached a time, when Wolffians are not just content to explicate what their master said and defend his views from attacks, but also attempt to develop his ideas to their own direction. It was aesthetics, a matter that Wolff himself had left almost completely unnoticed, which was the first new field to be tackled by German philosophers.

Johann Jakob Bodmer's appreciation of Wolff is evident even from the name of his planned book series on poetry, Vernünfftige Gedancken und Urtheile von den Beredsamkeit. The series was meant to study the topic from various angles, and while the first book, Von dem Einfluss und Gebrauche der Einbildungs-Krafft; Zur Ausbesserung des Geschmackes: Oder Genaue Untersuchung Aller Arten Bescreihbungen, concentrated on imagination, the later books were meant to consider e.g. wit, taste and sublime. As far as I know, the first book of the projected series was also the only one ever written.

Bodmer in his old age

The Wolffian leanings of Bodmer are especially revealed by his attempt to situate aesthetics within the context of Wolffian cosmotheology. World was meant by God as something to be studied by rational entities, that is, human beings were meant to investigate the works of nature and thus see the glory of its Creator. The first means by which humans get in contact with world are senses, but with these we can merely come to know what is directly before us.

What is at least required for a more complex knowledge is the capacity of imagination, which at that time meant not just a capacity for creativity, but referred to all mental activities in which the object is not necessarily present to our senses – the object may then well be something that has existed and that we are only recollecting. Indeed, it is not complete fictions imagination should try to convey, but real things that do not happen to be present to our senses at the moment.

Art, for Bodmer, is then a matter of imitation – rather conservative view from modern perspective. Among the different types of artists, poet then ranks higher in Bodmer's view than painter or sculptor. While fine arts in general are based on visual sensations, to which in sculpture tactile sensations are added, poetic descriptions can use the whole range of sensations and emotions to convey the likeness of an object. Poet should even be master of all arts and skills, knowing everything from anything, Bodmer concludes.

Bodmer's criterion for good art and especially good poetry is then its capacity to evoke realistic ideas of things it describes. The majority of the book presents then examples of poetry, evaluated with this criterion. It seems clear that Bodmer is clearly wanting in decent German poetic works: when one has to elevate Brockes, rather repetitive writer of poems evoking teleological reasoning over and over again, as an example of what Germans can do at their best. Bodmer himself has to confess that while German language has evocative vocabulary for describing nature, in affairs of culture one must turn to Latin, Italian and French poets - especially Pierre Corneille appears to have been a favourite of Bodmer's.

While then especially many of the German works quoted by Bodmer feel rather artificial, Bodmer's own evaluations seem also rather misplaced. We might think it rather trite, if a writer compares lips of a woman to Red Sea, but it feels somewhat strange to condemn the lines containing this comparison, because Red Sea isn't actually red at all. Yet, it falls perfectly in line with Bodmer's naturalistic ideal of poetry. Thus, he is often disparaging unnecessary use of wit and prefers writings that reveal actual experience of things described. In case of human emotions, he praises writers who have clearly, for instance, suffered the sorrow of a lost wife.

Red Sea, not that red actually

When giving guide lines for poems describing human behaviour, Bodmer also touches on some quaint philosophical notions. Physiognomy or the idea of the character of a person showing through one's appearance is familiaralready from Wolff's writings and Bodmer himself mentions Wolff as a great source for future poets for finding good descriptions of the external effects of human emotions. Another rather old-fashioned idea is the notion of national characteristics determined partly by natural environment, partly by mores and customs of the nation – this is probably something that we will see in more detail with later German philosophers.

So much for Bodmerian aesthetics for now, next it is finally time to begin Wolff's Latin works.

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