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THE ÆSTHETIC OF THE SYMPATHETIC AND
The doctrine of the sympathetic (very often animated Pseudo
esthetic and seconded in this by the capricious metaphysical and
concepts, and mystical Æsthetic, and by that blind traditionalism the æsthetic which assumes an intimate connection between things
of the fortuitously treated together by the same authors in the same books), has introduced and rendered familiar in systems of Æsthetic a series of concepts a rapid mention of which suffices to justify our resolute expulsion of them from our own treatise.
Their catalogue is long, not to say interminable : tragic, comic, sublime, pathetic, moving, sad, ridiculous, melancholy, tragi-comic, humorous, majestic, dignified, serious, grave, imposing, noble, decorous, graceful, attractive, piquant, coquettish, idyllic, elegiac, cheerful, violent, ingenuous, cruel, base, horrible, disgusting, dreadful, nauseating; the list can be increased at will.
Since that doctrine took the sympathetic as its special object, it was naturally unable to neglect any of the varieties of the sympathetic, any of the mixtures or gradations by means of which, starting from the sympathetic in its loftiest and most intense manifestation, its contrary, the antipathetic and repugnant, is finally reached. And since the sympathetic content was held to be the beautiful and the antipathetic the ugly, the varieties (tragic, comic, sublime, pathetic, etc.) constituted for that conception of Æsthetic the shades and gradations intervening between the beautiful and the ugly.
Criticism Having enumerated and defined as well as it could, of the theory
the chief of these varieties, the Æsthetic of the symof the ugly in art and of the pathetic set itself the problem of the place to be assigned overcoming of it.
to the ugly in art. This problem is without meaning for us, who do not recognize any ugliness save the antiæsthetic or inexpressive, which can never form part of the æsthetic fact, being, on the contrary, its antithesis. But in the doctrine which we are here criticizing the positing and discussion of that problem meant neither more nor less than the necessity of reconciling in some way the false and defective idea of art from which it started-art reduced to the representation of the pleasurable—with real art, which occupies a far wider field. Hence the artificial attempt to settle what examples of the ugly (antipathetic) could be admitted in artistic representation, and for what reasons, and in what ways.
The answer was : that the ugly is admissible, only when it can be overcome ; an unconquerable ugliness, such as the disgusting or the nauseating, being altogether excluded. Further, that the duty of the ugly, when admitted in art, is to contribute towards heightening the effect of the beautiful (sympathetic), by producing a series of contrasts, from which the pleasurable may issue more efficacious and joy-giving. It is, indeed, a common observation that pleasure is more vividly felt when preceded by abstinence and suffering. Thus the ugly in art was looked upon as adapted for the service of the beautiful, a stimulant and condiment of æsthetic pleasure.
That special refinement of hedonistic theory which used to be pompously called the doctrine of the overcoming of the ugly falls with the Æsthetic of the sympathetic, and with it the enumeration and definition of the concepts mentioned above, which show themselves to be completely foreign to Æsthetic. For Æsthetic does not recognize the sympathetic or the antipathetic or their varieties, but only the spiritual activity of representation.
Nevertheless, the important place which, as we have concepts belong said, those concepts have hitherto occupied in æsthetic to Psychology. treatises makes it advisable to supply a rather more
complete explanation as to their nature. What shall be their lot ? Excluded from Æsthetic, in what other part of Philosophy will they be received ?
In truth, nowhere ; for all those concepts are without philosophical value. They are nothing but a series of classes, which can be fashioned in the most various ways and multiplied at pleasure, to which it is sought to reduce the infinite complications and shadings of the values and disvalues of life. Of these classes, some have an especially positive significance, like the beautiful, the sublime, the majestic, the solemn, the serious, the weighty, the noble, the elevated; others a significance chiefly negative, like the ugly, the painful, the horrible, the dreadful, the tremendous, the monstrous, the insipid, the extravagant; finally in others a mixed significance prevails, such as the comic, the tender, the melancholy, the humorous, the tragi-comic. The complications are infinite, because the individuations are infinite; hence it is not possible to construct the concepts, save in the arbitrary and approximate manner proper to the natural sciences, satisfied with making the best classification they can of that reality which they can neither exhaust by enumeration, nor understand and conquer speculatively. And since Psychology is the naturalistic science which undertakes to construct types and schemes of the spiritual life of man (a science whose merely empirical and descriptive character becomes more evident day by day), these concepts do not belong to Æsthetic, nor to Philosophy in general, but must simply be handed over to Psychology.
The case of those concepts is that of all other psycho- Impossibility logical constructions: no rigorous definitions of them of rigorous are possible ; and consequently they cannot be deduced of them. from one another nor be connected in a system, though this has often been attempted, with great waste of time and without obtaining thereby any useful results. Nor can it be claimed as possible to obtain empirical definitions, universally acceptable as precise and true in the place of those philosophical definitions recognized as impossible. For no single definition of a single fact
can be given, but there are innumerable definitions of it, according to the cases and the purposes for which they are made; and it is clear that if there were only one which had the value of truth it would no longer be an empirical, but a rigorous and philosophical definition. And as a matter of fact whenever one of the terms to which we have referred has been employed (or indeed any other belonging to the same class), a new definition of it has been given at the same time, expressed or understood. Each one of those definitions differed somehow from the others, in some particular, however minute, and in its implied reference to some individual fact or other, which thus became a special object of attention and was raised to the position of a general type. Thus it is that not one of such definitions satisfies either the hearer or the constructor of it. For a moment later he finds himself before a new instance to which he recognizes that his definition is more or less insufficient, ill-adapted, and in need of retouching. So we must leave writers and speakers free to define the sublime or the comic, the tragic or the humorous, on every occasion as they please and as may suit the end they have in view. And if an empirical definition of universal validity be demanded, we can but submit this one :-The sublime (or comic, tragic, humorous, etc.) is everything that is or shall be so called by those
who have employed or shall employ these words. Examples : What is the sublime ? The unexpected affirmation definitions of of an overwhelming moral force : that is one definition. the sublime, the comic, But the other definition is equally good, which recognizes the humorous. the sublime also where the force which affirms itself is
certainly overwhelming, but immoral and destructive. Both remain vague and lack precision, until applied to a concrete case, to an example which makes clear what is meant by “overwhelming,” and what by unexpected. They are quantitative concepts, but falsely quantitative, since there is no way of measuring them; they are at bottom metaphors, emphatic phrases, or logical tautologies. The humorous will be laughter amid tears, bitter laughter, the sudden spring from the comic to the tragic
and from the tragic to the comic, the romantic comic, the opposite of the sublime, war declared against every attempt at insincerity, compassion ashamed to weep, a laugh, not at the fact, but at the ideal itself; and what you will beside, according as it is wished to get a view of the physiognomy of this or that poet, of this or that poem, which, in its uniqueness, is its own definition, and though momentary and circumscribed, is alone adequate. The comic has been defined as the displeasure arising from the perception of a deformity immediately followed by a greater pleasure arising from the relaxation of our psychical forces, strained in expectation of a perception looked upon as important. While listening to a narrative, which might, for example, be a description of the magnificently heroic purpose of some individual, we anticipate in imagination the occurrence of a magnificent and heroic action, and we prepare for its reception by concentrating our psychic forces. All of a sudden, however, instead of the magnificent and heroic action, which the preliminaries and the tone of the narrative had led us to expect, there is an unexpected change to a small, mean, foolish action, which does not satisfy to our expectation. We have been deceived, and the recognition of the deceit brings with it an instant of displeasure. But this instant is as it were conquered by that which immediately follows: we are able to relax our strained attention, to free ourselves from the provision of accumulated psychic energy henceforth superfluous, to feel ourselves light and well. This is the pleasure of the comic, with its physiological equivalent of laughter. If the unpleasant fact that has appeared should painfully affect our interests, there would not be pleasure, laughter would be at once suffocated, the psychic energy would be strained and overstrained by other more weighty perceptions. If on the other hand such more weighty perceptions do not appear, if the whole loss be limited to a slight deception of our foresight, then the feeling of our psychic wealth that ensues affords ample compensation for this very slight disappointment. Such, expressed in a few words,