A New and Complete Translation

Essay 34

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 25 August 1767[34.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Even so, it seems to me that it is a far more forgivable mistake to deny personages the character that history gives them, than to compromise these freely chosen characters either in terms of their intrinsic probability or from the perspective of instructiveness.[34.2] For the former mistake is fully commensurate with genius; the latter, however, is not. Genius is permitted ignorance of a thousand things that every schoolboy knows; his wealth does not consist in the stockpiled reserves of his memory but rather in that which he engenders from himself, out of his own feelings.[*][34.3] What genius has heard or read, he has either forgotten or only wants to know insofar as it suits his purpose; as a result, he errs, sometimes out of confidence, sometimes from pride, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not, so often and so grossly that other good people like ourselves shake our heads in wonder; we stand astonished and clasp our hands together and cry out: “But how could such a great man not know! – How is it possible that it didn’t occur to him? – Did he not think?” Oh, let us be silent. We think we are humiliating him, but from his perspective we make ourselves ridiculous. Everything we know better than he does only proves that we were more diligent students than he was, which, unfortunately, we needed to be if we did not want to remain complete idiots.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 As far as I am concerned, then, Marmontel’s Soliman and Roxelane might have been completely different than the Soliman and Roxelane I learned from history if I had only felt that, even though they are not from this real world, they nevertheless could have belonged to another world where circumstances were coupled to another order, and just as rigorously as they are in this one; a world in which causes and effects follow another sequence, but still proceed toward the same general effect of the good; in sum, the world of a genius who – if I may be permitted to draw an analogy between the unnamed Creator and his greatest creature – who, I say, in order to emulate the highest Genius in microcosm, transfers, transposes, reduces, and enlarges parts of the present world so as to create his own world, within which he then brings together his own ideas. Because I do not find the latter in Marmontel’s work, I think it is right that we not let him off the hook for the former. Those who cannot or will not protect us from offense must not offend us on purpose. And here Marmontel really did offend, regardless of whether he was unwilling or unable.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 For according to the idea of the genius that we are outlining for ourselves, we are justified in demanding consistency and purpose in all of the characters that the writer develops or creates, if he demands that we regard him as a genius.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Consistency: there must be nothing contradictory in the characters, they must always be uniform, always resemble themselves; they can express themselves more strongly or weakly, according to how circumstances affect them, but none of these circumstances should be powerful enough to change them from black to white. A Turk and a despot must be a Turk and a despot even when he is in love. None of the refinements that a pampered European imagination connects with love must ever occur to the Turk who only knows sensual love. “I am sick of this caressing machine; there is nothing attractive or flattering in her soft docility. I want difficulties to overcome, and when I have overcome them, I want to be kept in suspense through new difficulties.” – A king of France can think this way, but not a Sultan. It is true, if we attribute this way of thinking to a Sultan, then the despot would no longer come into consideration; he relinquishes his despotism in order to enjoy a freer love. But will he therefore suddenly become a tame monkey whom an impudent juggler can make dance as she likes? Marmontel says: “Soliman was too great a man to place the minor affairs of his seraglio on the same footing as important business of state.”[34.4] Very well, but then in the end he also should not have placed important business of state on the same footing as the minor affairs of his seraglio. For the great man does both, that is, he treats trivialities as trivialities, and important things as important things. He sought, as Marmontel himself has him declare, free hearts that acquiesce to their enslavement purely out of love for him.[34.5] He could have found such a heart in Elmire; but does he really know what he wants? The tender Elmire is displaced by a lascivious Delia, until a reckless woman throws a rope around his horns and makes him her slave before he gets to enjoy the ambiguous favor that up to now has always been the death of his desires. Will it not be the same here? I have to laugh at the good Sultan, and he deserves my heartfelt compassion. If Elmire and Delia suddenly lose all the qualities that had previously charmed him once he has enjoyed them, what, then, will Roxelane retain for him after that critical moment? Eight days after her coronation, will he still consider it worth having made this sacrifice for her? I fear greatly that on that first morning, as soon as he has wiped the sleep from his eyes, he will already see nothing more in his bride, the Sultana, than her confident cheekiness and her upturned nose. I imagine I hear him calling out: “By Mohammed, what was I thinking?”

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 I do not deny that the question remains – given all the contradictions that make this Soliman so pitiful and contemptible to us – whether he could be real. There are plenty of people who unite in themselves even more despicable contradictions. However, for precisely that reason, they can never be the object of poetic imitation. They are beneath such imitation, for they lack the quality of instructiveness, unless one were to make their contradictions themselves, that is, their ridiculousness or their unfortunate consequences, instructive – something Marmontel was clearly far from doing with his Soliman. And a character who lacks instructiveness, lacks –

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Purpose. – Behaving with purpose is what elevates human beings over lower creatures; inventing and imitating with purpose is what differentiates the genius from minor artists who only invent to invent, and imitate to imitate. Such minor artists are content with the diminished pleasure that is associated with the application of their craft, they make this craft their entire purpose, and then demand that we, too, should be content with the equally diminished pleasure that comes from looking at their ingenious yet pointless application of their craft. It is true, the genius starts to learn with the same tiresome imitations; they are his preparatory exercises, and in larger works he also uses such imitations as filler, as moments of rest for our warmer sympathies. It is only when the genius creates and forms his main characters that he connects them with larger, wider purposes: the purpose of teaching us what we must do or not do; the purpose of acquainting us with the intrinsic features of the good and respectable, and of the evil and ridiculous; and the purpose of showing us that the former are, in all their combinations and effects, beautiful and happy even in misfortune, and that the latter, in contrast, ugly and unhappy even when fortunate. In the case of situations where there is no actual emulation, no actual terror for us, there is at least the purpose of engaging our powers of desire and disgust via the kinds of objects that warrant them, and the genius always tries to place these objects in their true light, so that no falsehood misleads us to detest what we should desire, and desire what we ought to detest.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 So what, of all this, do we find in the characters of Soliman or Roxelane? As I have already said: nothing. But much of the exact opposite is in these characters. They are a couple of people whom we ought to despise: in fact, the one must arouse our disgust, and the other, our indignation. A weakened hedonist and a cunning temptress are depicted with such seductive strokes and delightful colors that it would not surprise me if some husband believed himself justified in growing tired of his virtuous, beautiful, and accommodating wife because she was an Elmire instead of a Roxelane.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 [†]If the errors that we adopt are our own errors, then the above-mentioned French critics are correct in blaming Favart for all that is faulty in Marmontel’s material. They seem to think that the former has sinned even more than the latter. “Probability,” they say, “which may perhaps not matter so much in a story, is absolutely essential in a dramatic piece; and in the current one this has been violated to the extreme.[34.6] The great Soliman plays a very minor role, and it is unpleasant to view this hero only from such a point of view. The quality of being a Sultan is even more distorted; there is not even the shadow of the absolute power to which all must submit. This power could have been toned down, but it should not have been eliminated entirely. The character of Roxelane pleased because of the way it was played; but when we reflect on it, how does it really look? Is her role in the least bit probable? She talks to the Sultan as if she is talking to a Parisian burgher: she criticizes all of his habits, she contradicts all of his tastes, and she says very harsh and often quite offensive things to him. She might perhaps have been able to say all these things had she done so with more measured expressions. But who can stand to hear the great Soliman bossed around this way by a young tramp? He is even supposed to learn the art of ruling from her. The bit of business with the rejected handkerchief is too strong, and the one involving the thrown tobacco pipe is absolutely unbearable.”[34.7]

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 [*] Pindar, Olympia II. str.5, v.10.

  • 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages ommitted by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
  • [34.1] Essay actually published 8 December 1767.
  • [34.2] Lessing continues a discussion, begun in [33], on the proper treatment of historical characters; his critique centers on Marmontel’s story “Soliman II,” and its theatrical adaptation by Favart, Soliman second [Soliman the Second].
  • [34.3] As Lessing indicates in his footnote, this statement on genius references the second Olympic ode by Pindar (c.518–c.438), lyric poet of ancient Greece: “The wise man knows many things in his blood; the vulgar are taught. They will say anything. They clatter vainly like crows against the sacred bird of Zeus.”
  • [34.4] See Marmontel, “Soliman II” 43; Marmontel’s Moral Tales 7–8.
  • [34.5] See Marmontel, “Soliman II” 34; Marmontel’s Moral Tales 2.
  • [34.6] This paragraph, roughly translated by Lessing, comes from the anonymous critique, “Soliman Second,” in the Journal Encyclopédique 13: 71.
  • [34.7] In Marmontel’s story, Roxelane has Délia sing for Soliman; she then asks Soliman for his handkerchief and gives it to Délia (Marmontel’s Moral Tales 13–14). In Act 2 of Favart’s play, Elmire dances while Roxelane and Délia sing; Soliman gives his handkerchief to Roxelane, who bestows it on Délia. Soliman then takes back the handkerchief and gives it to Elmire (Soliman second 41). In the same act, Roxelane seizes the pipe Soliman is smoking and hurls it toward the back of the theatre (Soliman second 22).
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