Sunday, October 23, 2011

Revisting Longinus and His Conception of the Sublime

In groups during Although the real author of the text of On the Sublime is unknown, his theories regarding literature became highly influential shortly before and during the Enlightenment. According to Longinus, the authorial voice in the text, the goal of an author is to produce a work that conjures up the "sublime" in the reader. While Longinus never explicitly defines exactly what the "sublime" is per se, he does explain that "Sublimity is a kind of eminence or excellence of discourse...grandeur produces ecstasy rather than persuasion in the hearer; and the combination of wonder and excitement proves superior to the merely persuasive and the pleasant" (Longinus 347). While many others in antiquity favored the rhetorical power of persuasion in written works, Longinus emphasizes the sublime as a force that has more pull than any other rhetorical device in literature. He goes on to say that "persuasion is on the whole something we can control, whereas amazement and wonder exert invincible power and force and get the better of every hearer" (pg. 347). I have one problem/question regarding this statement, however: Throughout much of the text, Longinus assigns agency to the writer, who is the one responsible for producing sublimity within literature. In the above quotation however, he also states that persuasion is something "we can control." Is sublimity something that cannot be controlled then? From the text, it seems that Longinus is pretty explicit in asserting that the sublimity is produced (and thus under the control) of the author.

We need not look further to affirm this claim that look into Longinus discussion of the sources of sublimity. He states that these five sources dictate whether or not a text can achieve sublimity. All five have to do with the author and his technique in writing. In writing a text, the author must have the power to conceive great thoughts, inspired emotion, utilize certain kinds of figures, "noble diction" and careful word arrangement. He even goes as far to state that "Nothing is possible without it" (pg. 350). Contrary to his statements regarding persuasion (as something that "we can control"), it seems that sublimity is also something that is, and can be, controlled by the writer. That is not to say that there is not a role for the reader and the hearer according to Longinus, but he seems to solely focus on the writer as the deciding factor in producing and controlling sublimity in literature.


  1. I think that sublimity is in a way controlled by the audience of the author, because it is the audience that dictates in the first place what thoughts and ideas can correctly be enhanced with sublimity. Longinus says that initial greatness of thought is the first and foremost important source of sublimity, and it is the people that decide what thoughts should be considered initially great. The author than must go from their with what he or she chooses to write about with sublimity. After that initial point, sublimity is basically in the writers control as he can then choose how and where to use it in his writing. I think the idea of sublimity is a little more circumstantial than Longinus might think. Longinus probably did see sublimity as something that is uncontrollable, because he seems to think that great thoughts are universal throughout humanity. He saw thoughts that were worthy of sublimity as initially and always existing, and then the author in ways picks from those thoughts. It is a little difficult to explain, but I think Longinus saw "greatness of thought (350)" as something that people and society could not affect or change. It just existed.

  2. Daniel, I understand your issue with Longinus's description of the sublime. I had to do a lot of interpreting to decide on the following conclusion: Just because the sublime can be created doesn't mean that it can be controlled. It's one of those "preparation meets opportunity" things (and, disclaimer, I have no idea which witty celeb I stole that quote from). A writer has to have the five qualities you mentioned, but just because a writer has these qualities doesn't necessarily mean that he meant to create sublimity.

    I always thought of sublimity as a sort of accident on the writer's part. In nature, sublimity just exists because it does. A mountain range might seem sublime to humans, but it wasn't created just so that it could be sublime. Sublimity is more of an experience than an actual product. It's like a big fat exclamation point. Not everyone is going to see something as sublime, just like some things don't excite everyone, and a writer might not be able to create sublimity on purpose. If a writer has those five qualities, he can create something that might (or might not) be interpreted as sublime. The writer has no control over the sublimity of his work.

    I'm not entirely sure if Longinus saw it that way, but that's what I got from it. And it's the only way I could get that minor contradiction to make sense.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.