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  • Deism, the Sublime and the Formulation of Early Romanticism in Juan Meléndez Valdés and José de Cadalso
  • Matthieu P. Raillard (bio)

The aesthetic and literary concept of the sublime, as theorized by Edmund Burke and later Immanuel Kant, was a fervent point of debate in eighteenth-century Europe. Modern scholarship in French and English literature reflects both the interest in and importance of the literary sublime as it affected authors from the mid-eighteenth century well into Romanticism. All the more surprising, then, is the relative scarcity of research on the sublime in eighteenth-century Spain. With the exception of a few studies, such as those by Mandrell (1991), Rueda (2006), and of course Carnero (1984), hispanists have generally shied away from any serious consideration of lo sublime.1 Mandrell is correct in his assertion that the sublime is in fact a crucial concept, precisely because it is one which "embraces aspects of rhetoric and philosophy, not to mention intellectual and literary traditions."2 Perhaps Spain's long-maligned—and certainly neglected or even ignored—eighteenth century, along with the controversial first throes of Spanish literary Romanticism, explains the small corpus of critical work on this subject.

Similarly, the religious and philosophical system of deism, so influential and polemical in Europe as well as the United States in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, has been largely left out of the equation in studies of Spain during the same period. While it would be erroneous to argue that [End Page 131] either deism or the sublime were as entrenched, or had as many adherents in Spain as in France or Britain, I maintain that these concepts were nonetheless crucial to the elaboration of new literary trends. In this essay I will argue that the onset of literary Romanticism in the Spanish eighteenth century was heavily influenced and partially defined by the conjugation of two systems: the aesthetic framework of the sublime and the philosophical-religious construct of deism. I will be framing the issue around works by Spanish authors Juan Meléndez Valdés and José de Cadalso, two figures that have been inextricably linked not only to Iberian Romanticism, but also to each other.

Immanuel Kant famously wrote that while the day is beautiful, the night is sublime.3 Ironically, the concept of the sublime functions within our lexicon today largely as a synonym for beautiful, the very term from which Kant and others had attempted to distinguish it. The sublime, one of history's most enduring aesthetic debates, has been largely stripped of its many meanings and nuances, and generally reduced to a term denoting that which is noble, majestic, or even superlatively beautiful. The philosophical preoccupation with these aesthetic concepts during the eighteenth century, as well as the attempts at the codification and classification of taste, makes evident the taxonomic spirit of the period. This polemic is of course not unique to the Enlightenment, and has its roots in antiquity. Nor did the issue die with the eighteenth century, as readers of Schopenhauer, Hugo, and Lyotard will attest. Yet as with all enduring questions, the debate as to the difference between the beautiful and the sublime transcends the actual issue and serves to reveal the philosophical and literary climate of each time period.

Scholars generally credit a Greek writer who may or may not have been named Longinus, with the first dissertation on the subject. This work, titled On the Sublime, would become the de facto reference for seventeenth-and eighteenth-century thinkers, and it was Boileau's 1674 translation which consecrated it as a key theoretical text. Longinus' treatise was borne out of a desire to prevent the decay of rhetoric, and therefore resonated with Spanish authors such as Mayáns, Luzán, Isla, Forner, and others who saw the state of Spanish letters in disarray. It should be noted that many of the early Spanish translations of On the Sublime were in fact poor translations of Boileau's text, with Domingo Largo's 1770 translation being the most egregious example.4 In Longinus' view, the sublime refers essentially to an elevation of style and to a mode of writing which impacts the reader...


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