torstai 23. kesäkuuta 2016

Bodmer: Critical inquiry on wondrous in poetry (1740)

It is always refreshing to see a philosopher reconsider his old ideas and to move away from positions he held earlier. This appears to be case with Bodmer, whose earlier work showed clear influences of Wolffian philosophy and regarded imitation as the basic principle of good poetry. By the time of writing his Critische Abhandlung von dem Wunderbaren in der Poesie und dessen Verbindung mit dem Wahrscheinlichen, Bodmer appears to have changed his opinion quite radically – art need not be limited by correspondence with actual objects, because in addition to actual world, poems can deal also with other possible worlds.

The topic of Bodmer's work is John Milton's Paradise Lost, a poem about the rebellion of Satan against God and of the fall of the first human beings from the grace. A number of French critics had attacked the book, notably because it had tried to overreach the limit of what is humanly imaginable and to describe things no human being could have ever witnessed. A good example is provided by the angels. Critics had complained that these are actually immaterial entities, but Milton describes them as having flesh and blood. When it comes to fallen angels, he even suggests they can feel bodily pain. Bodmer notes that Milton is just following an age-old tradition – even Homeric gods had a body, were bodily exhausted etc. Furthermore, he notes that a poet can refrain from literal imitation, if a powerful allegory demands it.

Even further in his dismissal of the principle of imitation Bodmer goes when he speaks of Milton's use of such entities like Death and Sin. The French critics had complained that these characters felt quite shadowy and that their presence in the poem mad the whole thing look quite improbable. Bodmer notes that a poet need not restrict oneself to mere probabilities, when the whole range of possibilities is available for him – and who can tell what wonders lie in the immaterial world?

Bodmer's aesthetical bent drives him then toward extending the range of what can be recounted in a work of fiction – not just probabilities, but also possibilities. This attack against very restricted theories of imitation is not the only philosophically interesting theme Bodmer considers. For instance, he notes that when Milton describes Satan as having momentary relief from pain, the poet is just telling the truth, since an infinite amount of pain is impossible for a limited entity, which even an angel must be. Or, when critics express puzzlement that Adam could know concepts of negative emotions, when all he had thus far had were positive emotions, Bodmer notes that Adam could well have abstracted the concept of a negative emotion from his experience of positive emotions – it wouldn't have been a distinct concept, but it would still have been a concept. Yet, the main aesthetic innovation of the work is just this attack on imitation as the sole principle of poetry.

Although Bodmer speaks of French critics, another probable target of his attack is Gottschedian school of aesthetics, in which naturalness was seen as the central element of poetry – so central that even operas were thought to be bad poetry, because people singing all the time is just artificial construct. Indeed, Bodmer's work can be seen as an integral part of his conflict with Gottsched, which was an important source of controversy in the 1740s. We shall have occasion to speak about this controversy with the next book, which was written by Johann Jakob Breitinger, an ally of Bodmer.