Preface to The New Laokoon

I publish Irving Babbitt’s preface to his book The New Laokoon: An Essay on the Confusion of the Arts (1910).

The title I have taken for this book expresses my sense of what needs doing rather than what I myself would claim to have done. I have suffered, both in selecting a title and in treating my subject itself, from a certain poverty in our English critical vocabulary. The word genre seems to be gaining some currency in English. The same can scarcely be said of the mélange des genres; and yet it is around the mélange des genres that my main argument revolves. Napoleon is reported to have said to Goethe in the course of a conversation on a problem very similar to the one I have attempted, “Je m’étonne qu’un aussi grand esprit que vous n’aime pas les genres tranchés”. I have often been forced to borrow Napoleon’s term and speak of the genre tranché, for lack of a suitable English equivalent.

Lessing published his “Laokoon” in 1766, toward the very end of the neo-classical movement. The period of nearly a century and a half that has since elapsed has seen the rise of the great romantic and naturalistic movement that fills the whole of the nineteenth century and is now showing signs of decrepitude in its turn. Does the “Laokoon” really meet the questions that have arisen in this period as to the proper boundaries of the arts, especially the boundaries of painting and writing? Most Germans would probably say that it does. They have surrounded Lessing, as one of their great classics, with a sort of conventional admiration. From this conventional admiration Hugo Blümmer, to whom we owe the standard edition of the “Laokoon”, is by no means free. Thus he says: “The tendency toward descriptive poetry…received through it [the “Laokoon”] its death-blow…We may indeed affirm that the law forbidding the poet to paint has nowadays become a universally accepted doctrine.” [Laokoon, ed. H. Blümmer, 1880, p. 138.] We doubt whether this is true even for Germany; it certainly is not true for other countries. If the “Laokoon” really covers the ground as completely as Blümmer would have us suppose, we can only say that no teaching has ever been so wilfully disregarded. The nineteenth century witnessed the greatest debauch of descriptive writing the world has ever known. It witnessed moreover a general confusion of the arts, as well as of the different genres within the confines of each art. To take examples almost at random, we have Gautier’s transpositions d’art, Rossetti’s attempts to paint his sonnets and write his pictures, Mallarmé’s ambition to compose symphonies with words. Confusions of this kind were already rampant within a few years of Lessing’s death, in the writings of Novalis, Tieck, and Friedrich Schlegel.

Now what I have tried to do is to study the “Laokoon”, not primarily as a German classic, but as a problem in comparative literature; to show that the confusion with which Lessing is dealing is a pseudo-classical confusion, and that to understand it clearly we must go back to the beginnings of the whole movement in the critics of the Renaissance; and then, in contrast to this pseudo-classical confusion, I have traced in writers like Rousseau and Diderot the beginnings of an entirely different confusion of the arts – a romantic confusion as we may term it – which Lessing has not met in the “Laokoon” and has not tried to meet. I have followed out to some extent this romantic confusion in the nineteenth century – especially the attempts to get with words the effects of music and painting. Finally, I have searched for principles that may be opposed to this modern confusion. Throughout I have done my utmost to avoid the selva oscura of aesthetic theory, and have kept as close as I could to the concrete example. I hope I have at least made clear that an inquirey into the nature of the genres and the boundaries of the arts ramifies out in every direction, and involves one’s attitude not merely toward literature but life.

It involves especially a careful defining of certain large literary movements. In making his protest against the confusion of poetry and painting, Lessing was led to discriminate sharply between what he conceived to be the truly classic and the pseudo-classic. Any one who makes a similar protest to-day will need rather to discriminate between the truly classic and the romantic. Taken in both its older and more recent aspects, perhaps no question calls for more careful defining of such words as classic, pseudo-classic, and romantic. I confess that this is one of the reasons why it attracted me. A more searching definition of these words seems urgently needed. One of the ways in which comparative literature may justify itself is by making possible definitions of this kind that shall be at once broader and more accurate. Many people are inclined to see in the popularity of this new subject a mere university fad. They will not be far wrong unless it can become something more than an endless study of sources and influences and minute relationships. Neo-classicism and romanticism are both world-movements. It should be the ambition of the student of comparative literature to make all attempts to define these movements in terms of one literature seem one-sided and ill-informed.

The trouble with most attempts to define the word romantic, in particular, is that they have been partisan as well as provincial. The makers of the definitions have been themselves too much a part of what they were trying to define. They have opposed to their idea of the romantic a notion of the classic that would scarcely be avowed by a respectable pseudo-classicist. Indeed, the classical point of view has had about as much a chance of a fair hearing during the past century as we may suppose the romantic point of view to have had in a Queen Anne coffee-house, or at the court of Louis XIV. The perspectives opened up by comparative literature will make it easier to achieve a feat that was achieved by few in the nineteenth century – that of seeing the romantic and naturalistic movement from the outside.

This feat is already becoming somewhat easier of achievement, even without the help of comparative literature. It was in France, in the writings of Rousseau, that certain romantic and naturalistic points of view first found powerful expression. It is in France, the most intellectually sensitive of modern nations, that we now see the beginnings of reaction against the fundamental postulates of Rousseauism. M. Lasserre, whose brilliant and virulent attack on French romanticism [Le romantisme français, par P. Lasserre (1907).] has already gone through several editions, says that his aim is not so much to attack this movement in its flowers and fruit as to pour a little poison about its roots. Unfortunately M. Lasserre’s book tends to be extreme, and in the French sense reactionary. A year or so ago I chanced to be strolling along one of the narrow streets that skirt the Quartier Saint-Germain, and came on a bookshop entirely devoted to reactionary literature; and there in the window, along with books recommending the restoration of the monarchy, was the volume of M. Lasserre and other anti-romantic publications. Now I for one regret that a legitimate protest against certain tendencies of nineteenth-century life and literature should be thus mixed up with what we may very well deem an impossible political and religious reaction. A movement would sem needed that shall be somewhat less negative and more genuinely constructive than the one M. Lasserre and his friends are trying to start in France; a movement that shall preserve even in its severest questionings of the nineteenth century a certain balance and moderation, a certain breadth of knowledge and sympathy, and so seem an advance and not a retrogression. But with this reservation we must recognize that M. Lasserre’s attack on the romantic and naturalistic point of view is very timely. With the spread of impressionism literature has lost standards and discipline, and at the same time virility and seriousness; it has fallen into the hands of aesthetes and dilettantes, the last effete representatives of romanticism, who have proved utterly unequal to the task of maintaining its great traditions against the scientific positivists. The hope of the humanities is in defenders who will have something of Lessing’s virile emphasis on action, and scorn mere revery – who will not be content with wailing more or less melodiously from their towers of ivory.

Much that I have said in this book is a development of what I have already said in my book on “Literature and the American College”, especially of the definition I have there attempted of the word humanism. Many of the views, again, that are expressed in the following pages, on the romantic movement, will need to be more fully developed, and this I hope to do at some future time in a book to be entitled “Rousseau and Romanticism”. I should add that for the last eight or ten years I have been giving the main conclusions of the present volume to the students of one of my Harvard courses.

Cambridge, Massachusetts,

March 15, 1910

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All original writing © Jan Olof Bengtsson
"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi