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Where Are the Mountains?: Johann Jacob Bodmer and the “Pre-Kantian Sublime”

From: Goethe Yearbook
Volume 20, 2013
pp. 199-222 | 10.1353/gyr.2013.0001

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

“O Natur! Die Größe, womit du die Seele erfüllst ist heilig und erhaben über allen Ausdruck.”1

By the late eighteenth century, the sublime had moved beyond its original association with rhetoric and, increasingly, came to signify awe and disquiet in the face of grand natural phenomena. Evidence for this association was Goethe’s essay “Von Deutscher Baukunst” (1772). In it, the cathedral in Strassburg is analogized to a monstrous—at first glance, anyway—irregular work of nature.2 Besides portraying the compelling effect on the imagination of such grandeur, Goethe’s essay also exemplifies the way in which two separate discourses—that of the sublime and that of “mountain appreciation”—intersected and changed the direction of literature and art, from neoclassical, objective standards in emulation of the ancients, to individual, subjective taste—to “aesthetics.”

While acknowledged as precursors of Sturm und Drang and for their roles in the “paradigm change” in German letters at midcentury, the Swiss writer Johann Jacob Bodmer and his literary partner, Johann Jacob Breitinger, are now being more closely examined in connection with this transformation of the sublime.3 Two articles by Marilyn Torbruegge, published in 1971 and 1972, inaugurated this scholarship.4 Concerning “the many ponderings on the sublime” in the course of the eighteenth century, she pointed out that “the most marked developments involve an intensification of interest in psychological and philosophical considerations, a gradual distinction between the sublime and the beautiful, and a growing concern with ideas of turbulence or terror, aside from the prevalent reflections on greatness or grandeur, leading ultimately to the twofold division of the sublime into categories of dynamic force and spatial magnitude. Ever a sensitive recorder and promoter of important theoretical ideas, Bodmer began with [Joseph] Addison and captured these thoughts at a central point in their transition.”5 Of interest was Torbruegge’s attempt to distinguish the relative contributions of Bodmer and Breitinger in the development of concepts with which the Swiss have been associated: the great, the wondrous, the marvelous, the new, and so on, all of which exercise an attraction on the imagination and contribute to the poetic intoxication recommended by Longinus. She especially noted the “importance of Longinian thought” in Bodmer’s 1741 treatise Critische Betrachtungen über die poetischen Gemählde der Dichter, which, as she then correctly asserted, “has suffered relative neglect in the commentaries on the wondrous or the sublime in the Swiss School.”6

An analysis of their specific Longinian indebtedness remains to be carried out, but in some ways the Swiss, in the major treatises of 1740– 41,7 seem to be writing a “Longinus for Germans.” Following Longinus’s advocacy of “grandeur with some attendant faults” to “success which is moderate but altogether sound and free of error,”8 they sought to present the best examples of the kind of writing that would endow poetry with heart-affecting power. Their entire method reflects that of the ancient treatise. They employ a broad range of literary references, moving freely from ancient to modern writers, and drawing on different genres. In this, they were following Longinus, who recommended that a poet school himself by imitating the most celebrated authors who preceded him.9 They find in the ancient treatise justification for their ideas on the marvelous, the new, and the creative power of the imagination. Their focus on the creation of mental images and on the imagination is perhaps their most important debt to Longinus, in particular the suggestion that the poet makes us see what he sees,10 especially through the use of bold imagery. Breitinger’s 1740 treatise on metaphors (Critische Abhandlung von der Natur den Absichten und dem Gebrauche der Gleichnisse: Mit Beyspielen aus den Schriften der berühmtesten alten und neuen Scribenten erläutert) certainly drew inspiration from Longinus’ treatment (chapters 18–29) of figurative language.

Since the appearance of Torbruegge’s articles, the sublime itself has become “Mode,”11 and Bodmer and Breitinger have now been located within the “pre-Kantian sublime.” Like Torbruegge, Christian Begemann (in 1994) saw in Bodmer’s concepts of “the great” and “the turbulent” a prefiguration of Kant’s later division into the mathematical and dynamical sublime.12...



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