The 12+12 Books of Christmas #17


On the Sublime by Longinus is one of the fundamental works of rhetoric and literary theory. It was a fairly simple book that showed rhetoricians how to use stylistically elevated language when addressing audiences. There are times when it is important to capture the audience’s attention more forcefully than usual and Longinus’ bag of tricks will help any reader to do it gracefully. The edition you see pictured here is in the original Greek with a preface in Latin. This is an old-fashioned but charming way to do it.

In a well-known essay called “A Reading of Longinus” in a 1983 edition of Critical Inquiry, Neil Hertz writes about certain passages of Longinus’s great work:

These are pages where, challenged by an aspect of his theme or by the strength of a quotation, Longinus seems to be working harder at locating his discourse close in to the energies of his authors. At those moments, he too is drawn into the sublime turning, and what he is moved to produce is not merely an analysis illustrative of the sublime but further figures for it.

He refers to parts of the text where there is, in his wonderful term, “a thickening of texture”. In these parts, Longinus puts the object of his analysis to work and instead of giving us the dirt on  rhetoricians who use sublime rhetoric, he becomes one of them. In this case it works despite the shift in register to the literary, odd for a theoretical text. It’s not like we could, following Longinus, begin to write criticism of Shakespeare’s sonnets in sonnet form, or write long rambling novels to examine long rambling novels.

Paul De Man said that Hertz’s essay “ironized, though not finally exorcised” the long tradition of the Longinian sublime. It is a short text, its authorship is uncertain and I remember feeling unimpressed reading it for the first time. Its reputation had naturally preceded it. But because the tradition is long and people have read and discussed the text for a long time, there is always something to be found in the interpretations if not the text itself.

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