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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 11

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 5 June 1767

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The appearance of a ghost was such an audacious innovation for a French tragedy, and the writer who took this risk justified it with such singular reasoning, that it is worth taking the trouble to dwell on it a bit.[11.1]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 “They wailed and wrote from all sides,” says M. de Voltaire, “that no one believes in ghosts anymore, and that in the eyes of an enlightened nation the appearance of the dead can be nothing other than childish. But how?” he counters, “All of the ancient world is said to have believed in this marvel, and should it not be acceptable to conform to the ancients? What? Our religion is supposed to have sanctified similar extraordinary acts of providence, and yet it would be ridiculous to repeat them?”[11.2]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 It seems to me that such proclamations are more rhetorical than substantial. Above all I would wish to leave religion out of this discussion. In matters of taste and criticism, arguments taken from religion are well and good for silencing an opponent, but they are not really so fit for convincing him. Religion qua religion should not decide anything here; it is merely one kind of transmission of antiquity, and as such, its evidence is no more or less valid than any other evidence from the ancient world. And therefore here, too, we would prefer to deal only with antiquity.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Very well, all of antiquity believed in ghosts. The dramatic poets in the ancient world were justified in exploiting this belief, and if we find one of them bringing the dead back to life on stage, it would be uncharitable of us to condemn him according to our superior understanding. But then does the modern poet, who partakes in our superior understanding, have the same authority? Certainly not. – But what if he sets his story back in those gullible times? Even then, no. For the dramatic poet is no history writer; he does not narrate what people believed and what happened long ago, rather he allows it to happen once again before our eyes, and does so not for the sake of pure historical accuracy, but rather for a very different and higher purpose.[11.3] Historical truth is not his goal, but merely the means to his end; he wants to deceive us, and, through deception, move us.[11.4] If it is then true that we do not believe in ghosts anymore, if this lack of belief would necessarily hinder deception, if without deception we cannot possibly sympathize, then the dramatic poet of today would be working against himself if, notwithstanding all this, he furnished forth such unbelievable fairy tales; all of the art that he might employ would be in vain.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 And in consequence? In consequence, should it be wholly impermissible to put ghosts and apparitions on stage? In consequence, must this wellspring of terror and pathos run dry for us? No, that would be too great a loss for poetry. And does poetry not provide many examples in which a genius defies all our philosophies, and things that we sneer at in cold reason manage to appear frightening to our imagination? The consequence must thereby fall out differently, and the premise must be false. We no longer believe in ghosts? Who says this? Even more, what does this mean? Does it mean that we have come so far in our understanding that we can prove their impossibility? Does it mean that certain irrefutable truths that contradict the belief in ghosts are so generally known and universally accepted, even to the most common man, that everything that contests those truths must seem ridiculous and absurd to him? It cannot mean that. The statement that we do not believe in ghosts in the present day can mean only this much: that in this matter, on which as much can be said in favor as against, and which has not and cannot be resolved, the currently dominant mode of thinking has given greater weight to the reasons against. A few people think this way, and many more want to seem as if they do; these people make a lot of noise and set the tone. The greater masses remain silent and behave indifferently, thinking now this, now that, hearing with pleasure as ghosts are derided in the light of day and telling horror stories of them in the dark of night.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 But the lack of belief in ghosts according to this understanding cannot and should not keep the dramatic poet from using them. The seed of belief lies in all of us, and most of all in those for whom he primarily writes. It would depend only on his art to germinate this seed, only on the possession of certain skills that quickly set in motion arguments in favor of their reality. If he has this in his power, then we can believe what we want in our daily lives – in the theater we must believe what he wants us to.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Shakespeare is this kind of writer, and perhaps only Shakespeare. Faced with his ghost in Hamlet, one’s hair stands on end, regardless of whether it covers a credulous or incredulous skull. M. de Voltaire was foolish to appeal to this ghost; it makes him and his ghost of Ninus laughable.[11.5]

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Shakespeare’s ghost appears truly to come from that other world; so it seems to us. For it appears at the sacred hour, in the harrowing stillness of the night, fully accompanied by all the sepulchral, mysterious indicators that, from the nursemaid onward, lead us to expect ghosts and with which we are accustomed to thinking of them. But Voltaire’s ghost is not even as good as a bogeyman designed to scare children; he is simply a disguised comedian, who has nothing, says nothing, does nothing that he actually could do, if he were what he claimed to be. Moreover, all of the circumstances in which he appears destroy the illusion and reveal him as the creation of a cold playwright who hopes to trick and scare us, without knowing how he should go about it. Consider just this one point: in broad daylight, in the middle of the gathering of nobles of the kingdom, announced by a thunderclap, the Voltairian ghost strides out of his crypt.[11.6] Where did Voltaire hear that ghosts are so brazen? Is there an old woman alive who could not have told him that ghosts avoid sunlight and certainly do not tend to visit large gatherings? Of course Voltaire surely knew this, but he was too fearful, too fastidious, to make use of common situations. He wanted to show us a ghost, but it had to be a ghost of a nobler sort, and through this nobler sort he ruined everything. The ghost that presumes to do things contrary to all tradition, contrary to all good manners among ghosts, strikes me as no proper ghost, and everything here that does not support the illusion destroys the illusion.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 If Voltaire had stopped to consider the physical staging, he would have sensed, from yet another perspective, the impropriety of having a ghost appear before a large gathering. Everyone has to express dread and terror at the same time upon seeing it, and everyone has to express this in different ways if the scene is to avoid the chilly symmetry of a ballet. Go ahead and train a herd of stupid supernumeraries to do this, and if one has trained them exceedingly well, then imagine the degree to which the diverse expressions of a particular emotion will split our attention and pull it away from the main characters.[11.7] If these main characters are to make the proper impression on us, not only must we be able to see them, but it is also good if we see nothing but them. With Shakespeare, it is solely Hamlet to whom the ghost appears. In the scene in which the mother is present, she neither sees nor hears it. All of our attention therefore focuses upon Hamlet, and the more we see symptoms of a temperament shattered by horror and terror, the more willing we are to accept the apparition – that which caused this shattering in him – for what he takes it to be. The ghost affects us more through him than it does in itself. The impression that it makes upon him is transferred to us, and the effect is too apparent and too strong for us to doubt the extraordinary cause.[11.8] How little Voltaire understood this artistic device! His ghost frightens many, but they are not frightened much. Sémiramis cries out once, “O Heaven! I am dying!” And the others make hardly more fuss over this ghost than they would over a friend, believed to be far away, who suddenly enters a room.


  • 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0
  • [11.1] Lessing continues his discussion, from [10], of Ninus’s ghost in Sémiramis and Voltaire’s defense of this choice in the “Dissertation sur la tragédie ancienne et modern” [“Dissertation on Ancient and Modern Tragedy”] (1748). With Sémiramis, Voltaire challenged both the traditional rules of classical tragedy and new attitudes of the Enlightenment. See Niklaus, “Introduction,” 39–137.
  • [11.2] Voltaire, “Dissertation sur la tragédie,” 159–60. In Francklin’s translation of the “Dissertation,” see 30–31.
  • [11.3] Since the classical era, dramatic theorists have debated to what extent a playwright is bound to historical accuracy. In 1759, in his periodical Briefe, die neueste Litteratur betreffend, Lessing described the playwright as a “lord over history” (Letter 63, dated 18 Oct., Werke 4: 647–49); he maintains this view in the Hamburg Dramaturgy, repeatedly dismissing the need for historical accuracy. In [89], he claims Aristotle’s Poetics as his authority, citing chapter nine, in which Aristotle draws a distinction between historian and poet.
  • [11.4] Early in his career, in the Briefwechsel über das Trauerspiel [Correspondence on Tragedy] (1755–57), Lessing had argued that illusion was not necessary for dramatic effect (“Letter to Mendelssohn,” dated 18 Dec. 1756, Werke 3: 693–703). By the time of this writing, however, Lessing has developed a theory of illusionistic theater that stresses an “internal probability” (innere Wahrscheinlichkeit), in which the spectator’s affective response is more important than a strict representation of reality.
  • [11.5] See “Dissertation sur la tragédie,” 160–61.
  • [11.6] In fact, Voltaire intended for the ghost to appear in profound darkness, with dramatic lighting and sound effects; this staging was not always realized (see Niklaus, 44). French productions of the play would have been much more lavish than those of the Hamburg National Theater.
  • [11.7] Again, Lessing’s view of what constitutes an illusionistic performance differs from a contemporary understanding of realism. Ensemble performance developed with the rise of the modern stage director, considerably after Lessing’s time. Goethe experimented with ensemble work and stage tableaux at the Weimar court theater (1791–1817), but it was not until the nineteenth century that the Meiningen Company (1866–90) would revolutionize theatrical staging through their ensemble approach and famous crowd scenes (featuring individualized blocking, gestures, and lines).
  • [11.8] Elsewhere Lessing will argue against an infectious model of stage emotion, proposing instead a relationship of “sympathetic resonance” between actor and spectator. See for example his “Letter to Mendelssohn,” dated 2 Feb. 1757, in the Briefwechsel über das Trauerspiele (Werke 3: 711–15).
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-11/