lauantai 16. elokuuta 2014

Attempt at a critical art of poetry (1730)

We have already witnessed an uprising of a Wolffian school, particularly in the guise of two followers of Wolff, Thümmig and Bilfinger, but now a second generation of Wolffians starts to appear on the scene of German philosophy. Johann Christoph Gottsched had already studied Thümmig's summarised rendering of Wolff's ideas and would himself write another text book of philosophy later in 1730s. Yet, his primary achievements on the field of philosophy was the introduction of aesthetical questions to German philosophy in the shape of a widely distributed book, Versuch einer critischen Dichtkunst.

Gottsched (1700-1766)

As the name of the work reveals, its topic is the art of poetry and particularly the possibility of evaluating poetic works through philosophical principles. As we shall see again when considering Gottsched's text book on general philosophy, he was quite fond of beginning with historical discussions and especially with speculations on times before reliable written histories. Thus, he suggests that poetry is the second eldest art, preceded only by music, which also was a natural ingredient in the first works of poetry, which were sang and not read.

At first poems were made quite freely, Gottsched continues, but experience made it clear that even poetry must have some rules – he explicitly mentions Aristotle and Horace as masters in this field. Every art, Gottsched suggests, strives to imitate nature – painting does it with images and music with sounds, but poetry can use full field of all sensations, or at least our mental recollections of such sensations. Just like every other art, poetry must then strive for naturalness, Gottsched concludes.

Mere description of natural entities is still not poetry, according to Gottsched, or at least it occupies only the lowest rung. A slightly more adequate type imitates the speech patterns of certain persons – this is especially true of dramatic works. Yet, the real meat of poetry lies in fables or story telling – a good poem tells of activities of people, either of the common folk, as in comedies, or of the noble and mighty, as in tragedies or in epics, which Gottsched evaluates as the highest form of poetry, recounting an event important to the fate of a whole nation. It is clear without saying that Gottsched insists each story to have a moral – the aim of poetry is to make people better.

Gottsched accepts the Wolffian idea that stories present, as it were, events in other possible worlds and thus might not follow rules of the actual world – a story might have, for instance, talking animals as characters. Still, naturalness is an important standard for good poetry: improbable events usually hinder the enjoyment of a poem, Gottsched says. Of course, what seems probable depends on the level of education. We cannot therefore disparage Greeks for using divinities and other mythical entities as characters, but in the modern world any use of magical effects would seem incredible, Gottsched concludes.

Even if Gottsched strives for naturalism, when it comes to stories, he does not insist on using a natural style in poems. Indeed, he goes even so far as to suggest that too naturalist style might turn into banalities, which are against morality. In fact, poetic style is characterised by certain wittiness, which combines seemingly distant ideas in a manner that is rare in a straightforward historical telling of events: thus, while a historical work describing a battle would just recount all the events, a poem about the same battle might e.g. use some suggestive similes making more philosophical points about the nature of warfare.

A good poet is then one who can discover new and surprising connections between apparently quite disparate topics. Yet, this is still not enough, Gottsched says. An uneducated natural poet does not know about the rules of good poetry and therefore might well fail to have a proper taste and be lured by bad novels. Even if she manages to gain skills required for good poetry, she might still lack the basic ethical education, which is an essential requirement for educational poetry.

Judging just by these general directives, one might concur with Egon Friedell that Gottsched was a bit uptight in his aesthetic views. This impression is amply confirmed by his actual reviews of certain well known poets. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar has some delightful moments, Gottsched admits, but it has one great fault – the events of the play last longer than one day, which makes the whole thing seem quite improbable, as what audience sees happens only within few hours (I believe Gottsched is just one of those persons with no ability for suspension of disbelief). And Molière is also witty author, but he sometimes uses characters reminiscent of commedia dell'arte and especially that awfully unbelievable magical trickster, the Harlequin. Besides, many of his plays fail to have a proper moral.

But truly vehement criticism Gottsched lays upon opera, which he calls the most absurd invention of human understanding. This form of art Gottsched considers to follow the sad tendency of modern forms of poetry that they let the music control the substance of the poem too much. Indeed, even the very notion of opera shows its absurdity, because the idea of people singing all the time is just too incredible to believe. True, the music can be divine, but the stories used are from the worst kinds of books, featuring all sorts of unlikely events, magic and wondrous things, making it all seem like a tale out of another planet. But what is definitely worst is the complete absence of morals that operas appear to endorse. As a life-long fan of Wagner I cannot but wonder what Gottsched would have had to say about the overtly mythological story of Nibelungen.

GOTTSCHED: Dragons? No way!

It is not that Gottsched sees no justification for the existence of opera – it can serve as an amusement of princes and nobles, serving to ease their life of constant toil over state welfare. Even here Gottsched recommends replacing opera with ballet, which at least reveals the gentle grace of human anatomy. After all these remarks, one cannot fail to see the irony that a person attempting to find universal rules of good poetry can epitomise so well the essential relativism of aesthetic judgements.

So much for Gottsched's aesthetics, next I shall return to Wolff with yet another part of his Latin works.

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