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  • Figures In Excess And The Matter Of Inversion In The Discourse Of The Sublime
  • Ian Balfour

Technique is the definable figure of enigma in works of art.

—Theodor Adorno

As one among others in a collective effort to think about figures and about figure more generally, I want in what follows to scrutinize how figures work in the elusive aesthetic mode of the sublime, especially one sometimes held up as paradigmatic, namely inversion or hyperbaton. My topic is circumscribed but there is a tendency for discourse of the sublime to spiral upward and outward, to spill over, to be, at the extreme, absolute, and this might be the case even or especially with figures cut in and by the sublime.1 Much the same might be said for discourse about the sublime: from the Ancients to the British soidisant empiricists, the over-the-top rhetoric of writers on the sublime often make the worst excesses of the French post-structuralism seem tame by comparison.

The first great reflection on the sublime, Longinus's On the Sublime (Peri hypsous), is in large measure a rhetorical treatise, aimed at what the author calls "political men" [andres politikoi].2 It defines and gives examples of any number of figures and tropes that characterize and can be enlisted for the sublime, the lofty sort of discourse said to transport and overwhelm like, in Longinus's glosses, a thunderbolt à la Demosthenes or a conflagration à la Cicero (see S, 12.4). One is rendered beside oneself: "ek-stasis" (S, 1.4). Figures are a prime mechanism for the generation of these effects. Longinus contends that figures [σχήματα] are "natural allies" of the sublime, and one glimpses already in the term "allies" something of Longinus's figural nexus of power and violence: the sublime as agon (S, 17.1). The sublime is variously conjured as a domain of great force, danger, and near-death experiences, whose attendant discourse is elaborated in charged figures of speech that both participate in and reflect such danger. One has to be careful how exactly one wields such weapons of rhetoric, as Longinus makes clear in a baldly political passage: [End Page 315]

There is an inevitable suspicion attaching to the sophisticated use of figures. It gives a suggestion of treachery, craft, fallacy, especially when your speech is addressed to a judge with absolute authority, or still more to a despot, a king, or a ruler in high place. He is promptly indignant that he is being treated like a silly child and outwitted by the figures of a skilled speaker. Construing the fallacy as a personal affront, he sometimes turns downright savage; and even if he controls his feelings, he becomes conditioned against being persuaded by the speech. So we find that a figure is always most effective when it conceals the very fact of its being a figure. [διόπερ καὶτότε ἄριστον δοκεῖτὸ σχῆμα, ὅταν αὐτὸ τοῦτο διαλανθάνῃ, ὅτι σχῆμά ἐστιν.]

(S, 17.1–2)

Figures, then, are to be concealed. Or more precisely, the figurality of figures is to be concealed. The best way to achieve this, Longinus suggests paradoxically, is through figurality's very brilliance, through making of it a sort of purloined letter, as in Edgar Allen Poe's famous story, so manifestly visible it escapes notice. This is exemplified in a speech of Demosthenes when his auditors are so taken with the force of his swearing by their compatriots that they overlook the fact that he has invoked a massive military defeat. The sublime figure here, in charged political or juridical scenarios, is extended for figures and art in general; as Longinus says: "[A]rt is only perfect when it looks like nature and Nature succeeds only when she conceals latent art" [τότε γὰρ ἡ τέχνη τέλειος ἡνίκ' ἂν φύσις εἶναι δοκῇ, ἡ δ' αὖ φύσις ἐπιτυχὴς ὅταν λανθάνουσαν περιέχῃ τὴν τέχνην] (S, 22.1).3 Longinus thus draws a remarkably general conclusion about art and nature from the perhaps not-so-typical scenario of arguing one's case in front of a judge or a tyrant. A paradigmatic claim along just these lines will also be made for what I take to be the figure of and for figures in Longinus. Of the many figures defined and exemplified, Longinus reserves the most space not for metaphor, Aristotle's exemplary figure, but the seemingly less central one of hyperbaton or...


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