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  • Thunder from a Clear Sky:On Lessing's Redemption of Horace
  • John T. Hamilton (bio)

In 1754, early in his career as a scholar, dramatist, and freelance essayist, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing decides to redeem Horace. There are two primary texts, both sharp and relentless in their critical energy: first, a Vade mecum [Pocket manual] for one Samuel Gotthold Lange, an arrogant pastor from Laublingen, whose long-awaited and recently published Horace translation, dedicated to Frederick the Great, was sufficiently atrocious to spark Lessing's merciless assault; second, a piece that bears the simple yet provocative title Rettungen des Horaz [Redemptions of Horace].1 Here Lessing, extending his critique well beyond the philological minutiae that constitute the essay on Lange, focuses on the lamentably uninformed public image of Horace as a pervert, a coward, and a shameless atheist. Lessing will redeem Horace explicitly because it is unjust how the poet has suffered at the hands of popular romance authors and moralists: "Ja, spricht man, er sang die zärtlichsten und artigsten Lieder, niemand aber war wol-lüstiger als er; er lobte die Tapferkeit bis zum Entzücken, und war selbst der feigherzligste Flüchtling; er hatte die erhabensten Begriffe von der Gottheit, aber er selbst war ihr schläfrigster Verehrer" [Yes, it is said that Horace sang the tenderest and most charming songs, but no one was more a slave to lust than he; he praised bravery to the point of rapture but was himself the most cowardly of fugitives; he had the [End Page 203] most sublime concepts of the divine but was himself its laziest worshipper].2

To redeem this poet—and here it is well to foreground the etymological sense of riddance retained in the German Rettung—to save Horace, then, one must get rid of the charges that threaten to mar his exemplariness. "Ungerecht wird die Nachwelt nie seyn" [Posterity will never be unjust] (LM, 5:272): posterity is just insofar as it frees us of a malicious tradition, a tradition of what "is said," of what "man spricht"—traditur. For this reason, when Lessing addresses the charge of Horace's sexual perversion, he first underscores the role of transmission and its capacity to be mistaken. In the ancient biography attributed to Suetonius we read: "Ad res venereas intemperantior traditur. Nam speculato cubiculo scorta dicitur habuisse disposita, ut quocunque respexisset, ibi ei imago coitus referretur" [It is said that he was rather immoderate in sexual matters. For it is said that he enjoyed his whore in a mirrored bedroom, so that wherever he might look, he would get a picture of intercourse].3

Before exhibiting an entire list of specific reasons that we should doubt the veracity of this statement, Lessing simply points to the fallibility of human speech and of handing down. Traditur, dicitur—"zwey schöne Wörter, welchen schon mancher ehrliche Mann der Verlust seines guten Namens zu danken hat!" [two nice words, for which many an honest man can thank the loss of his good name] (LM, 5:276). But we are left with a fundamental problem, for how can we accept any tradition—including what has been transmitted of Horace's oeuvre—if the very mechanics of tradition are to be held suspect? How can we [End Page 204] trust a classicism that is conveyed by an all-too-human vehicle? Surely the emphasis on the justness of posterity works toward circumventing this basic predicament, striving for a universal judgment free of opinion. Nonetheless, we should ask, how precisely can tradition be redeemed from itself?

Now redemption is always a function of the future. Salvation is usually understood as eschatological, as something coming after history. But in speaking more specifically of a literary redemption, the historical intervention that will save a text from the past also aims to secure its place in a time yet to come. A text's posterity—in German, its Nachwelt [afterworld]—is grounded not simply in a reading that can draw it into the present but also in a reading that can send it safely toward further retrieval. Ideally, this Janus-faced operation allows an author to speak again as well as to speak for subsequent...


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pp. 203-218
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Archived 2004
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