A New and Complete Translation

Essay 82

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 12 February 1768[82.1]

  1. 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0
  2. Aristotle says: one must not allow a completely good man without any faults meet with misfortune in tragedy, for such a thing would be abominable.[82.2] – “Quite right,” says Corneille, “such an outcome awakens more indignation and hatred against him who causes the suffering than compassion for the one whom it befalls. This first feeling, which should not be the essential effect of tragedy, would, if not handled very subtly, stifle that which actually ought to be produced. The spectator would leave dissatisfied, because far too much anger would be mixed in with his compassion – a compassion he would have appreciated had it been the only thing he took away.”[82.3] But – Corneille follows up, for he must always follow with a but – but if this reason disappears, if the poet contrives things so that the virtuous person who suffers awakens more compassion for himself than indignation against the one who made him suffer: what then? – “Oh, well then,” Corneille says, “I maintain that no objection whatsoever should be made against portraying even the most virtuous of men in misfortune.”[*][82.4] – I do not understand how anyone can babble such nonsense against the philosopher and give the appearance of understanding him while having him say things he never thought. Aristotle says that the completely unmerited misfortune of a virtuous man is no subject for a tragedy, because it is abominable. Corneille changes this “because,” this reason, into an “insofar,” a mere condition under which it ceases to be tragic. Aristotle says: it is altogether abominable, and for that very reason untragical. But Corneille says: it is untragical insofar as it is abominable. Aristotle finds the abomination in the type of misfortune itself; Corneille, on the other hand, ascribes it to the displeasure it provokes against its author. He does not see, or does not want to see, that this abomination is something quite different from displeasure, that even when the latter disappears completely, the former can still be present in full measure. It suffices for him that, above all, many of his plays seem justified by this quid pro quo, and he is so loathe to have violated Aristotle’s rules with these plays that he would rather presume to imagine that, had Aristotle known those plays, he would have conformed his doctrines to them more closely and abstracted from them various methods by which the misfortune of a virtuous man could become a subject for tragedy. “En voici,” he says, “deux ou trois manières, que peut-être Aristote n’a su prévoir, parcequ’on n’en voyait pas d’exemples sur les théâtres de son temps.[82.5] And from whom come these examples? Whom else, other than he himself? And what are these two or three methods? We will see very quickly. – “The first,” he says, “is when a very virtuous person is persecuted by a very vicious person and escapes the danger in such a way that the vicious person himself is ensnared in it, as happens in Rodogune and in Heraclius, where it would have been completely unbearable had Antiochus and Rodogune perished in the first play, and Heraclius, Pulcheria, and Martian in the second, but Cleopatra and Phocas had triumphed.[82.6] The misfortune of the first of these awakens a compassion which is not stifled by the revulsion we feel towards their persecutors, because we continually hope that some fortunate circumstance will transpire to save them from defeat.”[82.7] Corneille would like to pull the wool over our eyes and make us believe that Aristotle did not know this method! He knew it so well that, where he did not reject it out of hand, he at least expressly declared it more suited to comedy than to tragedy. How is it possible that Corneille had forgotten this? But this is what happens to everyone who begins by making their cause the cause of truth. Moreover, for all intents and purposes this method does not apply at all to the case in point. In this case the virtuous person does not become unhappy but is rather on the path to misfortune, which can readily arouse compassionate concern for him without being abominable. – Now for the second method! “It can also happen,” Corneille says, “that a very virtuous man is persecuted and perishes at the orders of another who is not vicious enough to warrant much displeasure from us, in that he shows more weakness than wickedness in his persecution of the virtuous man. When Felix lets his son-in-law Polyeucte perish, it is not due to an angry zeal against Christians, which would make him detestable to us, but merely to a servile timidity that keeps Felix from saving him in the presence of Severus, whose hatred and revenge he fears.[82.8] We feel a certain aversion for him and disapprove of his conduct, but this aversion does not outweigh the compassion we feel for Polyeucte, and it also does not prevent his miraculous conversion from fully reconciling him again with the audience at the end of the play.”[82.9] I think there have probably been tragic bunglers at all times, even in Athens. Why then should Aristotle not have had a similarly constructed play, so that he might be just as enlightened as Corneille? What a farce! Timid, wavering, indecisive characters like Felix are just one more mistake in such plays, and make them even more cold and repulsive on the one hand, without making them any less abominable on the other. For, as I have said above, abomination rests not in the displeasure or aversion that they awaken, but rather in the misfortune itself that befalls those who are innocent; that it strikes the innocent at random, regardless of whether their persecutors are evil or weak, or attack them with or without premeditation. The thought that there could be people who meet with misfortune through no fault of their own is in and of itself abominable. The pagans tried to keep this abominable thought as far from them as possible; and we want to maintain it? We want to enjoy plays that confirm it? We, whom religion and reason should have convinced that it is as incorrect as it is blasphemous? – The same would certainly apply to the third method, if Corneille himself had not forgotten to specify what it was.
  3. Corneille also contributes his refinement of what Aristotle says about the unsuitability of making a completely vicious person, whose misfortune can awaken neither compassion nor fear, into a tragic hero.[82.10] He admits that, to be sure, such a man cannot awaken compassion, but he can certainly awaken fear. For even if none of the spectators believe themselves capable of his vices, and consequently have no need to fear his same misfortune in its entirety, nonetheless each could harbor some imperfection similar to those vices and learn to be on guard against them through fear of its proportionate, but no less unfortunate, consequences. But this is based on the false conception Corneille had of fear and of the purification of the emotions to be awakened in tragedy, and it contradicts itself. I have already shown that the arousal of compassion is inseparable from the arousal of fear, and if it were possible for the villain to arouse our fear, he would also necessarily have to arouse our compassion. Since he cannot do the latter, as Corneille himself admits, he also cannot do the former, and so this villain cannot help to achieve the purpose of tragedy. Aristotle even considers him less suited to this purpose than the completely virtuous man, saying explicitly that if one cannot have a hero of the middle type, one ought rather to choose a better man than a worse one. The reason is clear: a person can be very, very good and yet still have more than one weakness, still commit more than one error by which he is plunged into an unforeseen misfortune that fills us with compassion and melancholy, without being in the least abominable, because it is the natural consequence of his error. – What Dubos[†] says of the use of vicious persons in tragedy is not what Corneille means.[82.11] Dubos only wishes to allow them in secondary roles, merely as tools to make the main characters less culpable; merely as foils. Corneille, however, wants to let them form the main interest, as in Rodogune, and this is precisely what is at odds with the purpose of tragedy. Dubos also very correctly observes that the misfortune of these secondary villains makes no impression on us. In Britannicus we hardly notice the death of Narcissus, he says.[82.12] But for that very reason the poet should avoid these characters as much as possible. If their misfortune does not directly serve the purpose of tragedy, if they are merely the means through which the poet can better achieve its purpose through other characters, then it goes without saying that the play would be even better if it produced the same effect without them. The simpler a machine is, the fewer springs and wheels and weights it has, the more perfect it is.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 [*]“J’estime qu’il ne faut point faire de difficulté d’exposer sur la scène des hommes très vertueux.”

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 [†] Réflexions Critiques Tome I, Sect. XV.

  • 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0
  • [82.1] Actually published spring of 1768.
  • [82.2] Lessing continues, from [81] his refutation of French neoclassical theory by way of a point-by-point critique of Pierre Corneille’s interpretation of Aristotle’s Poetics. Tr. note: Lessing uses the word gräßlich here (horrible, dreadful, awful) to translate Aristotle’s “miarón” (repulsive, shocking). See [79.5].
  • [82.3] Lessing paraphrases from P. Corneille’s second discourse, “Sur la Tragédie” [“On Tragedy”] in Trois discours 55; for an English translation, see P. Corneille, “Discourse on Tragedy” 4–5.
  • [82.4] P. Corneille, “Sur la Tragédie” in Trois discours 63; P. Corneille, “Discourse on Tragedy” 10.
  • [82.5] “Here are two or three methods that perhaps Aristotle could not have foreseen, because there were no examples of these in the theater of his time.” P. Corneille, “Sur la Tragédie” in Trois discours 63; P. Corneille, “Discourse on Tragedy” 10.
  • [82.6] Antiochus, Rodogune; Héraclius, Pulchérie, and Martian: noble young lovers in P. Corneille’s tragedies Rodogune (1644) and Héraclius (1647), respectively. Cléopâtre, Antiochus’s mother, attempts to murder him (after having killed her other son); Phocas, a usurper, attempted to slaughter an entire royal family.
  • [82.7] P. Corneille, “Sur la Tragédie” in Trois discours 63–4; P. Corneille, “Discourse on Tragedy” 10.
  • [82.8] In P. Corneille’s “Christian tragedy” Polyeucte (1643), the titular character, an Armenian prince, converts to Christianity and is martyred. Sévère, a Roman soldier, attempts to save him, but he is executed by his father-in-law Félix, the Roman governor of Armenia. His death inspires Félix and his daughter Pauline, Polyeucte’s wife, to convert to Christianity.
  • [82.9] P. Corneille, “Sur la Tragédie” in Trois discours 64; P. Corneille, “Discourse on Tragedy” 10–11.
  • [82.10] For the argument in this paragraph, see P. Corneille, “Sur la Tragédie” in Trois discours 59–60; P. Corneille, “Discourse on Tragedy” 7–8.
  • [82.11] Abbé Jean-Baptiste Du Bos (Dubos) (1670–1742): French diplomat, historian, and critic. His widely influential aesthetic treatise Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture [Critical Reflections on Poetry and Painting] (1719) was partially translated by Lessing; see [4.3]. Du Bos was an important contributor to discussions of theatrical emotion, arguing that the primary function of the arts was to stimulate the emotions, and that all emotions thus raised are inherently pleasurable. For the remarks referenced by Lessing here, see Dubos, Réflexions critiques 1: 108–113; Dubos, Critical reflections 1: 96–100.
  • [82.12] Narcisse: the tutor of the titular character in Racine’s tragedy Britannicus (1669).
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