- Explanations on the Edge of Reason: Lichtenberg’s Difficulties Describing Hogarth’s View of Bedlam
This article discusses the unusual difficulties Georg Christoph Lichtenberg had describing William Hogarth’s view of Bedlam. Lichtenberg’s popular commentaries on Hogarth’s copperplate engravings, which in German are called ‘Erklärung’ (explanation),1 were and still are well known for their sharp wit. Lichtenberg recorded his comments about the engravings of the English painter between 1794 and 1799, creating a new genre for the description of the fine arts. But Lichtenberg’s celebrated communicational skills failed him during his work on the eighth copperplate engraving of Hogarth’s series A Rake’s Progress.2 I will argue that the reason for Lichtenberg’s sudden inability to express himself with his usual eloquence originates in his method of description. This method, which he outlines at the beginning of his commentary, mirrors some of the main axioms of the Enlightenment, described by Cassirer as the preference for an inductive and empirical approach to reality.3 The fact that this method of description breaks down when madness is the subject demonstrates an intrinsic aporia of the Enlightenment that has been pointed out by both Foucault and, more recently, Kondylis – an aporia that is revealed in Lichtenberg’s commentary.4
Both Hogarth and Lichtenberg rank among the great satirists of the eighteenth century, well known for the sting of their wit. In addition to addressing other deficiencies of his time, Hogarth, for example, fixed his satirical eye on the double morality of Christian faith: one of his engravings depicts a church collection box covered in cobwebs, which are particularly thick right above its opening.5 In his commentary on this engraving, Lichtenberg puts this impression into words, remarking that this detail shows ‘die arme Armen-Büchse’ (the poor poor’s box).6 It is obvious that Hogarth and Lichtenberg share the aim of criticizing [End Page 235] the miserliness of the faithful, but they do so without resorting to explicit moral censure. Instead of preaching generosity, they direct their reader’s or viewer’s eye to the one small fact of the untouched poor box, communicating through language by characterizing it as ‘poor’ or through imagery by covering it in cobwebs. The reader or viewer is left to put two and two together, to deduce from the condition of the poor box the miserly wealth of the church and its parishioners. This process, using satire to point the way toward morally correct behaviour, is inductive: instead of stating a general moral law it lets the reader or onlooker discover that law through the application of his or her own reason.
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This demonstrates an aspect of the satire that is typical of the period. Satire is intended not simply to ridicule a view or a particular habit: it uses that ridicule to convey a moral message, which in this case would be: ‘Do put something in the ecclesiastical collecting box’. To deliver this [End Page 236] message explicitly would force a position on the viewer or reader. By contrast, satirically emphasizing the morally flawed behaviour appeals to the observer’s common sense. You, the viewer, don’t want to be laughed at and as a result you feel challenged to develop a counter-concept of the ‘right’ behaviour in your own mind. If you exclude incorrect behaviour, in this case, that of miserliness, by publicly laughing at it, you undergo the risk of being excluded yourself should you fail to follow the rule established by your own laughter. As Norbert Elias points out, fear is one of the main instruments through which the structure of society is transferred onto individual psychological operations.7 In this regard, the satire of the period of Enlightenment has a normative and stabilizing function. It fills a moral gap that has been created by the general questioning of the religious beliefs that used to sanction what was seen as morally right behaviour. The fear of God is replaced by the fear of laughter, the...