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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 81

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 9 February 1768[81.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Do I want to say by this that no Frenchman is capable of writing a truly moving tragic work?[81.2] That the volatile spirit of that nation is not equal to the task? – I would be ashamed of myself if such a thought even occurred to me. Germany has not yet made itself ridiculous by any Bouhours, and I, for my part, would not have the least inclination to play that part.[81.3] I am quite convinced that no nation in the world possesses exclusive rights to any intellectual gift over other nations. Of course, we say: the thoughtful Englishman, the witty Frenchman. But who made this distinction? Certainly not nature, which distributes everything equally amongst all. There are just as many witty Englishmen as there are witty Frenchmen, and just as many thoughtful Frenchmen as thoughtful Englishmen, while the bulk of the populace is neither.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 So what is my point? I merely want to say that the French do not yet have what they certainly could have: true tragedy. And why do they not yet have it? – If M. de Voltaire had wanted to hit upon the reason, he would have had to know himself better.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 I believe they do not have it yet, because they think they have already had it for a long time. And they are certainly strengthened in this belief by something they have preeminently above all other nations, but which is no gift of nature: namely, their vanity.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 As it goes with nations, so it goes with individual people. – Gottsched (it will be readily understood why I alight upon him at this point) was held to be a poet in his youth, because in those days people did not yet know the difference between a versifier and a poet. Philosophy and criticism gradually brought this difference to light, and if Gottsched had been willing to keep pace with the century, if he had developed and refined his insights and taste along with the insights and the taste of his era, then perhaps he might have really grown from versifier to poet. But because he had heard himself called the greatest poet so often, because his vanity had convinced him he was one, this did not happen. He could not possibly acquire what he believed he already possessed, and the older he got, the more stubborn and shameless he was in asserting his claim to this imaginary prize.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 It seems to me that the same thing happened to the French. No sooner had Corneille rescued their theater a little from its state of barbarity, than they believed it close to perfection. It seemed to them that Racine gave the finishing touch, and after that it was no longer a question (which, indeed, it had never been) of whether a tragic poet could be more lofty, more moving than Corneille and Racine. It was accepted that this was impossible, and all the poets who followed would dedicate themselves only to emulating one or the other as much as possible. For a hundred years they have deluded themselves and to some degree their neighbors; now let someone come and tell them this, and see what they say!

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Of the two, it is Corneille who has caused the most harm and had the most ruinous influence on their tragic poets. For Racine only misled through his examples; Corneille, on the other hand, through both his examples and his teachings.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 These latter, in particular, accepted as oracles by the whole nation (excepting one or two pedants, a Hédelin, a Dacier, who often did not know themselves what they wanted) and followed by all subsequent poets, have – I will venture to prove this bit by bit – been able to produce nothing other than the most callow, watered down, untragical stuff.[81.4]

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Aristotle’s rules are all calculated to produce the highest effects of tragedy. But what does Corneille do with them? First he presents them falsely and askant; and then, because he still finds them far too stringent, he seeks in one after the other, “quelque moderation, quelque favorable interpretation”; he weakens and mutilates, misinterprets and thwarts each one – and why?[81.5]Pour n’être pas obligés de condamner beaucoup de poemes que nous avons vû réussir sur nos théâtres”: so as not to have to condemn many plays that found success on our stages. A fine reason!

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 I will quickly touch on the main points. I have already noted some of them, but for the sake of coherence I must repeat them again here.

  1. 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0
  2. Aristotle says: tragedy should arouse compassion and fear. – Corneille says: oh yes, but as the case may be; it is not always really necessary to have both simultaneously, we are also satisfied with one at a time, now compassion without fear, and now fear without compassion. For otherwise where would I be? – I, the great Corneille, and my Rodrigue and my Chimène?[81.6] These good children arouse compassion, very great compassion indeed, but hardly any fear. And on the other hand: where would I be with my Cleopatra, my Prusias, my Phocas?[81.7] Who can have compassion for these wretches? But they do arouse fear. – This is what Corneille thought, and the French thought it after him.
  3. Aristotle says: tragedy should arouse compassion and fear; both, that is, through one and the same person. – Corneille says: if that works, very good. But it is not absolutely necessary, and one can just as well employ different persons to produce these two feelings, as I have done in my Rodogune.[81.8] – This is what Corneille did, and the French imitate him.
  4. Aristotle says: by means of the compassion and fear awakened in tragedy, our compassion and fear and all that belongs to them should be purified. – Corneille knows absolutely nothing of this and imagines that Aristotle wanted to say that tragedy awakens our compassion to excite our fear, in order to purify, through fear, those emotions in us that drew the person with whom we commiserate into misfortune.[81.9] I will not discuss the value of this intention; suffice it to say that this is not Aristotle’s intention, and that because Corneille gave his tragedies a completely different purpose, they also necessarily had to become completely different works than those from which Aristotle had abstracted his purpose: they had to become tragedies that were not true tragedies. And this is what became not just of his tragedies, but of all French tragedies, because all of their authors had Corneille’s purpose instead of Aristotle’s firmly in mind. I have already said that Dacier wanted to combine these two purposes, but also that through this combining, the first [Aristotle’s purpose] is weakened and keeps tragedy from having its greatest effect.[81.10] In addition, as I have shown, Dacier had only a very incomplete understanding of the first of these purposes, and thus it was no wonder he imagined that French tragedies of his time had fulfilled the former purpose rather than the latter. “Our tragedy,” he says, “is rather successful in the former of these, in exciting and purifying compassion and fear. But it only very rarely succeeds in the latter, which is nevertheless the more important, and purifies the other passions but little – or, because it usually contains nothing but love intrigues, if it does purify a passion, it is only that of love, from which it becomes clear that it has a very minor benefit.”[*][81.11] But just the opposite! There are rather more French tragedies that achieve the second purpose than the first. I know of several French plays that quite correctly shine light on the unfortunate consequences of some passion, from which we can draw many good lessons with regards to that passion. But I know of no play that arouses my compassion to the degree to which tragedy ought to arouse it, and to which I know for certain tragedy can arouse it from my experience of many Greek and English plays. Various French tragedies are very refined, very instructive works that I consider worthy of all sorts of praise: it’s just that they are not tragedies. Their authors cannot have been anything but intelligent men; some of them are not undeserving of higher rank among poets: it’s just that they are not tragic poets. Their Corneille and Racine, their Crébillon and Voltaire have little or nothing of that which makes Sophocles a Sophocles, Euripides a Euripides, and Shakespeare a Shakespeare.[81.12] These latter are seldom at variance with Aristotle’s essential demands; the former, however, the much more often. And now to continue –[81.13]

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 [*](La Poëtique d’Aristote Ch. VI, Rem. 8) “Nôtre Tragedie peut réussir assez dans la premiere partie, c’est-à-dire, qu’elle peut exciter & purger la terreur & la compassion. Mais elle parvient rarement à la derniere, qui est pourtant la plus utile, elle purge peu les autres passions, ou comme elle roule ordinairement sur des intrigues d’amour, si elle en purgeoit quelqu’une, ce seroit celle-là seule, & par là il est aisé de voir qu’elle ne fait que peu de fruit.”

  • 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0
  • [81.1] Actually published spring of 1768.
  • [81.2] Lessing continues, from [80], his criticism of French theater.
  • [81.3] Dominique Bouhours (1628–1702): French Jesuit priest, author, and literary critic, who stated in his Entretiens d’Ariste et d’Eugène [Conversations between Ariste and Eugène] (1671) that Germans rarely possess a “bel esprit,” contributing to a polemical discussion in Germany regarding French cultural superiority. See Bouhours, “Le Bel Esprit” in Les Entretiens d’Ariste et d’Eugène 302–3; for the English, see Bouhours, “The Bel Esprit from The Conversations of Aristo and Eugene” 221. The French mercenary soldier Riccaut, a minor character in Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm (1767), is generally regarded as a satirical response to Bouhours.
  • [81.4] Hédelin: Abbé Hédelin d’Aubignac; Dacier: André Dacier.
  • [81.5] “quelque moderation, quelque favorable interpretation” (some moderation, some favorable interpretation): this, and the quotation that follows, can be found in P. Corneille’s second discourse, “Sur la Tragédie” [“On Tragedy”] in Trois discours 63; for an English translation, see P. Corneille, “Discourse on Tragedy” 9.
  • [81.6] Rodrigue, Chimène: characters from P. Corneille’s Le Cid (1637). In this paragraph, Lessing paraphrases from Corneille’s second discourse; see P. Corneille, “Sur la Tragédie” 60–1; P. Corneille, “Discourse on Tragedy” 8. Ed. note: the English translation of the passage paraphrased by Lessing mistakenly references “Rodogune and Chimene” instead of “Rodrigue and Chimène.”
  • [81.7] Cléopâtre, Prusias, Phocas: tragic characters from, respectively, Rodogune (1644), Héraclius (1647), and Nicomède (1651).
  • [81.8] For Lessing’s discussion of Rodogune, see [29] – [32]. See P. Corneille, “Sur la Tragédie” 62–3; P. Corneille, “Discourse on Tragedy” 9.
  • [81.9] See P. Corneille, “Sur la Tragédie” 51; P. Corneille, “Discourse on Tragedy” 2–3. See also Lessing’s discussion of katharsis in [78].
  • [81.10] For Lessing’s criticism of Dacier’s Poëtique d’Aristote, see [78].
  • [81.11] For the quotation in Lessing’s footnote, see André Dacier, “Remarques sur le Chapitre VI” [“Notes on Chapter 6”] in La poëtique d’Aristote 80.
  • [81.12] Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (Crébillon père); see [74.5].
  • [81.13] In [82].

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