Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment

By Mark Schorer; Gordon McKenzie et al. | Go to book overview

JOSEPH FRANK: Spatial Form in Modern Literature*

LESSING'S Laokoon, André Gide once remarked, is one of those books it is good to reiterate or contradict every thirty years. Despite this excellent advice, neither of these attitudes toward Laokoon has been adopted by modern writers.1 Lessing's attempt to define the limits of literature and the plastic arts has become a dead issue--one to which respectful reference is occasionally made, but which no longer has any fecundating influence on esthetic thinking. One can understand how this came about in the nineteenth century, with its passion for historicism, but it is not so easy to understand at present when so many writers on esthetic problems are occupied with questions of form. To a historian of literature or the plastic arts, Lessing's effort to define the unalterable laws of these mediums may well have seemed quixotic; but modern critics, no longer overawed by the bugbear of historical method, have begun to take up again the problems he tried to solve.

Lessing's own solution to these problems seems, at first glance, to have little relation to modern esthetic thinking. The arguments of Laokoon were directed against the pictorial poetry of his time, which has long since ceased to interest the modern sensibility; and many of its conclusions about the plastic arts grew out of a now-antiquated archeology, which, to make matters worse, Lessing knew mainly at second- hand. But it was precisely his quixotic attempt to rise above history, to define the unalterable laws of esthetic perception rather than to attack or defend any particular school, which gives his work the perennial freshness to which André Gide alluded. Since the validity of his central thesis does not depend on its relationship to the literary movements of his time, or on the extent of his first-hand acquaintanceship with the art works of antiquity, it may be taken up apart from these circumstances and used in the analysis of later developments.

In Laokoon Lessing fuses two currents of thought that were of great importance in the cultural history of his time. The archeological researches of Winckelmann, his contemporary, had stimulated a passionate interest in Greek culture among the Germans. Lessing went back to Homer, Aristotle and the Greek tragedians, using his first-hand knowledge to attack the distorted critical theories, supposedly based on classical authority, which had filtered into France through Italian commentators and then taken hold in Germany. At the same time, as Wilhelm Dilthey points out in his famous essay on Lessing, Locke and the empirical school of English philosophy had given a new impulse to esthetic speculation. Locke tried to solve the problem of knowledge by breaking down complex ideas into simple elements of sensation, and then examining the operations of the mind to see how these sensations were combined to form ideas. This method was soon taken over by the estheticians, who, instead of laying down rules for beauty, began to analyze esthetic perception. Writers like Shaftesbury, Hogarth, Hutcheson and Burke, to mention only a few, concerned themselves with the precise character and combination of impressions that gave esthetic pleas

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*
"Spatial Form in Modern Literature" appeared in The Sewanee Review, Spring, Summer, and Autumn 1945. Mr. Frank (b. 1918) has kindly revised and condensed his essay for its present publication, and it is printed in its new form here by his permission and by permission of the editor of The Sewanee Review.
1
Irving Babbitt, in 1910, wrote The New Laokoon with the intention of doing for modern art what Lessing had done for the art of his own day. Briefly, Babbitt's thesis was that, just as the confusion of genres in Lessing's time could be traced to a false theory of imitation, so the artistic aberrations of our own time could be traced to a false theory of spontaneity. Babbitt's argument, however, has nothing to do with Lessing's theories. The discussion of Lessing in the first half of the book merely reinforces the analogy between Lessing's purpose and Babbitt's own.

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