Academic journal article German Quarterly

Shifting Forms of Mimesis in Johann Christoph Gottsched's Dichtkunst

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Shifting Forms of Mimesis in Johann Christoph Gottsched's Dichtkunst

Article excerpt

In 1729, Johann Christoph Gottsched gave a speech on tragic drama to an oratorical society in Leipzig. Gottsched had arrived in the city only a few years earlier, but had already drawn the attention of the literary world through his work as the publisher of the successful moral weekly, Die Vernünftigen Tadlerinnen, and as the transformative leader of the literary-patriotic organization, "Die Deutsche Gesellschaft."1 In his speech, a finely composed model of the rhetorical principles he would later expound in his Ausführliche Redekunst, he defends the theater against those who attack its morality. Gottsched's remarks reflect the influence both of late neoclassical poetic doctrines and of the pedagogical optimism of the early Enlightenment. First, he praises tragedy as a powerful vehicle for moral edification, and in fact makes this quality the defining feature of the genre: "Ein T rauerspiel, meine Herren, ist ein lehrreiches moralisches Gedicht" (9.2: 494).2 This moral content, in Gottsched's conception, is conveyed primarily via the tragic hero, who displays aperfect, sublime virtue worthy of emulation: "Ich bewundere solche Helden. Ich verehre ihre Vollkommenheit. Ich fasse einen edlen Vorsatz, sie nachzuahmen, und fühle einen heimlichen Ehrgeiz, nicht schlechter als sie, befunden zu werden" (9.2: 497). Second, alongside the didactic motifs of the speech, we find emphatic reminders of the status of drama as a "verisimilar" image of "nature": "Ihre Fabeln [...] sind ebenso wahrscheinlich als die wahrhaftigsten Begebenheiten" (9.2: 496). In fact, Gottsched pushes this idea to the point that he replaces the notion of verisimilitude with a claim to raw truth: "Alle ihre [der Fabeln] Helden leben. Ihre Personen denken, reden und handeln wahrhaftig. Es ist, so zu reden, kein Bild, keine Abschilderung, keine Nachahmung mehr: Es ist die Wahrheit, es ist die Natur selbst, was man sieht und höret" (9.2: 496).

This image of poetry as instructive imitation might strike readers today as nothing more than the standard, neo-classically tinged fare of eighteenth-century theater apologists. Nevertheless, Gottsched's statements are strikingly absolutist in their tone and contradictory in their implications. As already noted, he discards the flexible concept of verisimilitude in favor of the stark assertion that tragic heroes embody truth itself, yet, at the same time, he claims that these heroes possess not simply an above average measure of virtue, but unqualified "Vollkommenheit." He thus pushes two already conflicting tendencies into an extreme opposition, suggesting that literature should represent simultaneously both the real and the ideal, both what is and what might be. Gottsched's short speech, admittedly, does not develop his stark assertions at any length, so that we are tempted to supply our own arguments to span the gap between these two poetic postulates. Perhaps, for example, the "Wahrheit" to which Gottsched refers is not an empirical truth at all, but a moral truth. Or perhaps "Nachahmung der Natur" is merely a stylized formula that has nothing to do with actual human experience. If construed in these ways, calls for "Nachahmung" and "Wahrheit" present no conflict with the sublime didactic aim of the text.

We could content ourselves with such mitigating arguments, were it not for the fact that this same opposition recurs in a much longer text in which the tension between imitation and moral transformation is apparent. Gottsched's Versuch einer critischen Dichtkunst vor die Deutschen appeared in its first edition in 1729 and then in three more revised editions over the next two decades, during which time it reigned as the canonical poetic handbook for the German literary world.3 In this text, it becomes clear that the two principles articulated in Gottsched's speech from 1729 are much more than empty formulas. Instead, they constitute the two distinct and often competing focal points of Gottsched's poetic outlook. …

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