A New and Complete Translation

Essay 70

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 1 January 1768[70.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 If the sardonic tone did not stand out so much in this examination, we might consider it the best defense of the comical tragic – or tragical comic – drama (I once saw it called a “mixed play” on a title page) and the most careful elaboration of Lope’s ideas.[70.2] But at the same time it would also contradict those ideas. For it would show that using nature to justify the combination of solemn seriousness with farcical merriment would equally justify any dramatic monstrosity that lacks plot, coherence, and common sense. Consequently, the imitation of nature should not be a principle of art; if it remains one, then by means of the principle itself, art would cease to be art. Or at least it could never be more than, for example, the art of imitating the colorful veins of marble in plaster: the lines can take whatever course they may, they can never be so idiosyncratic that they could not still seem natural; the only lines that do not seem natural are those that give evidence of too much symmetry, too much ratio and proportion, and too much of that which constitutes the art in every other art. By this definition, what is most artful is the worst, and what is wildest is the best.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In the role of critic, our author might speak completely differently.[70.3] That which the novelist in him seems to support so profoundly would without a doubt be condemned by the critic as a miscarriage of barbaric taste, or at minimum as the first attempts by a coarse people at a revival of art, an art mostly shaped by the confluence of random external causes or coincidence, in which judgment or analysis have played little or no part. He would hardly say that the first creators of the mixed play (since the term is there, why should I not use it?) “wanted to imitate nature as faithfully as the Greeks set themselves to refining it.”[70.4]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The words “faithfully” and “refining,” as applied to imitation and to nature as the object of imitation, are subject to many misinterpretations. There are people who believe that nature cannot be imitated too faithfully: even those things that displease us in nature will please us in their faithful imitation, by virtue of the imitation itself. There are others who hold the refinement of nature to be farcical: a nature that wants to be more beautiful than nature is for that very reason not nature. Both declare themselves admirers of nature just as it is; the former find nothing to avoid in it, and the latter see nothing to add. It necessarily follows that the former would enjoy the gothic mixed play, just as the latter would not enjoy the masterpieces of the ancients.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 But if this were not the case? If the former, as admiring as they are of the most ordinary and quotidian nature, nevertheless declared themselves against the mixing of the farcical and the thought-provoking? And if the latter, egregious as they hold everything that seeks to be better and more beautiful than nature, nevertheless meander through the whole of Greek theater without taking the least offense on that account? How would we explain this contradiction?

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 We would have to go back and retract what we first claimed about both types. But how would we retract without creating further confusion? The similarity of such Haupt- und Staatsaktionen (and the quality of these plays is what we are arguing about) to human life, to the common course of the world is so striking![70.5]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 I want to bandy about a few thoughts, which, if they themselves are not rigorous enough, could still prompt more rigorous ones. – The main idea is this one: it is true, and at the same time not true, that the comic tragedy of gothic invention faithfully imitates nature. It imitates nature faithfully only in one half, and completely neglects the other half: it imitates what is visible in nature, without paying the least attention to the nature of our feelings and thoughts.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 In nature everything is bound together; everything interconnects, everything is interchangeable with everything else, everything changes from one thing to another. But in this infinite variety, nature is simply a performance for an infinite spirit. For finite spirits to take their share of pleasure in it, they must learn to give it boundaries that it does not have; they must develop the capacity to isolate elements and direct their attention at will.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 We exercise this capacity in every moment of our lives; without it there would be no life for us at all. In the face of too many and varied feelings we would feel nothing, we would be continually in thrall to present impressions, we would dream without knowing what we dreamed.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The purpose of art is to use the realm of beauty to elevate us out of the flood of detached impressions and to facilitate the fixing of our attention. Everything we might isolate (or wish to be able to isolate) in our thoughts about an object of nature, or a combination of different objects, whether in time or space, is in fact actually isolated by art; it manifests this object or combination of objects with a vividness limited only by the feelings it seeks to arouse.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 When we witness an important and moving event, and then another, wholly insignificant matter intrudes, we try as much as possible to avoid the distraction that the latter poses for us. We distance ourselves from it, and we must be offended to confront in art what we try to ignore in nature.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 But if, as this very same occasion progresses, it takes on all shades of interest, and the one does not merely follow on the other but rather emerges from it by necessity, if seriousness generates laughter, or sadness generates joy (or vice versa) so directly that separating out the one from the other becomes impossible: only then we do not expect art to separate them, and art is even able to take advantage of this impossibility.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 But enough of this, you see where I am heading. –

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 On the forty-fifth evening (Friday, the 17th of July) Romanus’s The Brothers and Saint-Foix’s The Oracle were performed.[70.6]

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The first play can count as a German original, even though it is taken for the most part from Terence’s The Brothers.[70.7] It has been said that Molière also dipped from this source, notably for his School for Husbands.[70.8] M. de Voltaire makes comments about this allegation, and I so love to quote M. de Voltaire’s comments![70.9] There is always something to learn, even from his most trivial ones, if not always from what he says, at least from what he should have said. “Primus sapientiae gradus est, falsa intelligere” (I cannot bring to mind at the moment where this little saying is from), and I know of no writer in the world better than M. de Voltaire to test whether this first step of wisdom has been reached; and for that, I can also think of no other who could be of less help to us in scaling the second step: “secundus, vera cognoscere.[70.10] It seems to me that a critical writer ought best to organize his method according to this saying. First he should look for someone with whom he can argue; in this manner he will gradually get into the subject matter, and the rest will sort itself out.[70.11] In the present work, I candidly confess, I have primarily chosen French writers for that purpose, and among these M. de Voltaire in particular. So now, after a little bow, let’s get to it! Anyone to whom this method seems perhaps more malicious than rigorous should know that the rigorous Aristotle himself nearly always made use of it. “Solet Aristoteles,” says one of his interpreters, whose work happens to be to hand, “quaerere pugnam in suis libris. Atque hoc facit non temere, & casu, sed certa ratione atque consilio: nam labefactatis aliorum opinionibus,” etc.[70.12] Oh, what a pedant! M. de Voltaire would cry out. – I am guilty merely for lack of confidence in myself.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 [†] “Terence’s The Brothers,” M. de Voltaire says, “could at most have given the idea for The School for Husbands.[70.13] In The Brothers there are two older men of different dispositions who raise their sons differently; in The School for Husbands there are two guardians as well, one very strict and one very indulgent: this is the only similarity. In The Brothers there is almost no intrigue at all; by contrast, the intrigue in The School for Husbands is subtle, entertaining, and comical. One of Terence’s women, who actually should play the most interesting role, only appears on the stage to give birth. Moliére’s Isabelle is nearly always on stage, is always full of wit and charm, and even plays tricks on her guardian with a certain propriety. In The Brothers the denouement is very improbable: it goes against nature that an old man who has been angry and strict and tight-fisted for sixty years should suddenly become lighthearted and polite and generous. The denouement of School for Husbands, however, is the best in all Moliére’s work: probable, natural, pulled from the intrigue itself, and – surely not least important – extremely funny.”

  • 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages ommitted by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
  • [70.1] Actually published spring of 1768.
  • [70.2] In [69], Lessing provides an excerpt from Christoph Martin Wieland’s novel Geschichte des Agathon [The History of Agathon] (1766–7), which (somewhat ironically) supports the mixing of tragic and comic genres, as a means of expanding on Lope de Vega’s defense of tragicomedy in his Arte Nuevo de Hacer Comedias [The New Art of Writing Plays] (1609). Lessing’s discussion of the mixing of genres in Spanish Golden Age drama begins in [68].
  • [70.3] Wieland was not only a novelist, poet, and translator, but also a professor of philosophy and literary critic; in 1773 he founded the literary periodical Der teutsche Merkur [The German Mercury].
  • [70.4] See Wieland, Geschichte des Agathon (1766–7) 2: 193; The history of Agathon, 4: 3.
  • [70.5] Haupt- und Staatsaktionen: see [62.10].
  • [70.6] Die Brüder, oder: Die Früchte der Erziehung [The Brothers, or, The Fruits of Education] (1763): five-act comedy by Karl Franz Romanus (1731–87), freely adapted from L’Ecole des pères [The School for Fathers] (1705) by French actor and playwright Michel Boyron (Baron) (1653–1729). L’Oracle [The Oracle] (1740): one-act comedy by Germain François Poullain de Saint-Foix (1698–1776); the German translation used, Das Orakel, was most likely Schönemann’s, staged in 1747 and published in 1752 (J. G. Robertson 89–90).
  • [70.7] Adelphi (or Adelphoe) [The Brothers] (160 BCE): Latin adaptation of Menander’s Greek comedy of the same name. Micio and Demea are brothers of different temperaments. Demea, a country-dweller, is married and has two sons; his elder son, Aeschinus, has been adopted by Micio, who lives in the city. Aeschinus, raised indulgently by Micio, has impregnated (and promised to marry) Pamphila, the daughter of the widow Sostrata. Ctesipho, Aeschinus’s younger brother, despite having been raised strictly by Demea, visits the city and falls in love with a “music girl” (psaltria) belonging to Sannio, a pimp. Aeschinus, on his brother’s behalf, steals the girl from Sannio. Comedy ensues as both Aeschinus and Syrus, Micio’s slave, seek to hide Ctesipho’s involvement in the affair. Ultimately, however, Demea discovers Ctesipho carousing; initially enraged, Demea is soothed by Micio and vows to change. Aeschinus marries Pamphila, Ctesipho is allowed to keep the (now legally purchased) music girl, Syrus and his wife are freed, and Micio is convinced to marry Sostrata.
  • [70.8] L’École des Maris (1661); see [53]. Middle-aged brothers Sganarelle and Ariste have promised to care for Isabelle and Léonor, orphaned sisters; each of the brothers hopes to marry his ward. Ariste, near sixty, gives Léonor considerable liberty; Sganarelle, despite being twenty years his brother’s junior, keeps his own ward Isabelle under strict control. Isabelle, through various machinations, nevertheless manages to secure a marriage with a handsome young neighbor, Valère, and Léonor, disgusted by the young fools she has encountered, pledges to marry Ariste.
  • [70.9] In La Vie de Molière (1739); Lessing provides Voltaire’s comments in the final paragraph of this essay.
  • [70.10] Primus autem sapientiae gradus est falsa intelligere, secundus [vera] cognoscere: “The first step towards wisdom is to understand what is false; the second, to ascertain what is true.” An aphorism from the first book of the Divinae institutiones [The Divine Institutes] of (Lucius Caecilius Firmianus) Lactantius (4th c. CE), an early Church Father and Christian apologist known as the “Christian Cicero.” Lactantius, Divinae institutiones 94; The Divine Institutes 39.
  • [70.11] Lessing applies this polemical approach in his earlier writings, as well as in the Hamburg Dramaturgy.
  • [70.12] “Aristotle tends to look for a fight in his books. And he does this not rashly and by chance, but by a fixed method and with a plan, for [he does this] after others’ perceptions have become unsteady, etc.” According to J. G. Robertson (p. 345), this quotation is from Aemilius (Emilio) Portus’s commentary on Aristotle’s Rhetoric (Aristotelis Artis rhetoricæ, 1598).
  • [70.13] For this passage, see Voltaire, “L’École des Maris” in La Vie de Molière 419–20.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-70/