Academic journal article German Quarterly

"Schilderungssucht" and "historische Krankheit": Lessing, nietzsche, and the body historical

Academic journal article German Quarterly

"Schilderungssucht" and "historische Krankheit": Lessing, nietzsche, and the body historical

Article excerpt

Winckelmann's aesthetic of "edie Einfalt and stille Grosse"1 may be said to have provoked two especially vigorous polemic responses in German literature:2 Lessing's Laokoon and Nietzsche's Geburt der Tragodie.3 In 1766, with his debut in the field of antiquarian studies, Lessing asserts in his essay that the seeming tranquility of the Laocoon sculpture reflects the specific requirements of its medium rather than a general ideal equally applicable to the visual and verbal arts, which is to say between the arts whose signs [Zeichen] are arranged adjacently in space and those whose signs are arranged sequentially in time. A century later, the classical philologist Nietzsche publishes his own first major study in aesthetics, arguing that the much admired equilibrium of Greek art works is the result of a battle between two opposing forces: the "Apollonian," a principle of visual and plastic harmony that upholds the integrity of the individual self (Schopenhauer's principium individuationis) against a contrary, "Dionysian" principle of melodic flux ("die erschfitternde Gewalt des Tones"; KGA 3:1:29) that threatens the self with dissolution. The Apollonian and the Dionysian are not exclusively allied to particular art forms (for instance, Nietzsche speaks of a type of primarily rhythmic and "architectonic" music that is thus also Apollonian [KGA 3:1:29]). Like Lessing, however, Nietzsche rejects a Winckelmannian, unitary categorization of the Greek arts-and Greek culture in general-in favor of an agonistic polarity between an aesthetics of space and an aesthetics of time.

Yet even as they explicitly or implicitly reject his conclusions, both Lessing and Nietzsche stand within a tradition of thinking for which Winckelmann is largely responsible. This tradition assumes that any serious discussion of aesthetics must begin with Greek art as its point of departure, and that an examination of "Greece" must lend the basis for a critical analysis of modern German culture. Winckelmann, of course, provides an important model for the writing of both art history and cultural history. Moreover, Winckelmann establishes for German thought the overriding importance of the human body as a reference point for such analysis: both as an object of artistic representation and as a metaphor for an entire culture's aesthetic and moral integrity.

This article focuses on the human body as a problem of historiography that connects Lessing's Laokoon and a text that closely follows Die Geburt der Tragodie, both chronologically and thematically: Nietzsche's essay "Vom Nutzen and Nachteil der Historie fur das Leben." I will argue that the two works-Laokoon and Nietzsche's essay on history-pursue a similar logic in adopting images of the convulsed human body to represent a moment of cultural crisis in which historiography and aesthetics are equally involved. By examining the role of the body in these two essays, I also propose to show the degree to which Nietzsche's early philosophy of culture is indebted to an 18t-century, neoclassical debate over the distinctions separating the arts.

According to Lessing, it will be remembered, the proper objects of the verbal arts (which is to say verbal narrative arts) are actions, while the visual arts more appropriately restrict themselves to representations of bodies in space, or Korper. In the Winckelmannian tradition, Lessing begins by focusing on harmonious represents. tions of the unclothed human body ("[der] organisiert[e] Korper"; L 58). The borders or Grenzen indicated in Lessing's subtitle are not only those dividing one art form from another, but also those bodily contours whose integrity comes into question at the very moment in which a visual representation transgresses its proper boundaries. Though Lessing first introduces the word Korper as a general term signifying things in space, his text remains consistently preoccupied with the fate of the human body, which in turn serves as a metaphor for a more or less successfully integrated sense of individual or cultural identity. …

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