Laocoon by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

In 1766, while acting as secretary to the governor of Breslau,

Lessing wrote his celebrated "Laocoon,"

I.—On the Limits of Painting and Poetry

Winkelman has pronounced a noble simplicity and quiet grandeur, displayed in the posture no less than in the expression, to be the characteristic feature common to all the Greek masterpieces of painting and sculpture. "As," says he, "the depths of the sea always remain calm, however violently the surface may rage, so the expression in the figures of the Greeks, under every form of passion, shows a great and self-collected soul.

"This spirit is portrayed in the countenance of Laocoon, but not in the countenance alone. Even under the most violent suffering the pain discovers itself in every muscle and sinew of his body, and the beholder, while looking at the agonised conditions of the stomach, without viewing the face and other parts, believes that he almost feels the pain himself. The pain expresses itself without any violence, both in the features and in the whole posture. Laocoon suffers, but he suffers as the Philoctetes of Sophocles. His misery pierces us to the very soul, but inspires us with a wish that we could endure misery like that great man.

"The expressing of so great a soul is far higher than the painting of beautiful nature. The artist must feel within himself that strength of spirit which he would imprint on his marble. Greece had philosophers and artists in one person. Philosophy gave her hand to art, and inspired its figures with no ordinary souls."

The above remarks are founded on the argument that "the pain in the face of Laocoon does not show itself with that force which its intensity would have led us to expect." This is correct. But I confess I differ from Winkelman as to what, in his opinion, is the basis of this wisdom, and as to the universality of the rule which he deduces from it. I acknowledge I was startled, first by the glances of disapproval which he casts on Virgil, and, secondly, by the comparison with Philoctetes. From this point I shall begin, writing down my thoughts as they were developed in me.

"Laocoon suffers as does the Philoctetes of Sophocles." But how does this last suffer? It is curious that his sufferings should leave such a different impression behind them. The cries and mild imprecations with which he filled the camp and interrupted the sacrifices echoed through the desolate island. The same sounds of despair fill the theatre in the poet's imitation.

A cry is the natural expression of bodily pain. Homer's wounded heroes frequently fall to the ground with cries. They are in their actions beings of higher order; in their feelings, true men.

We more civilised and refined Europeans of a wiser and later age are forbidden to cry and weep, and even our ancestors were taught to suppress lamentation at loss, and to die laughing under the bites of adders. Not so the Greeks. They felt and feared, and gave utterance to pain and sorrow, only nothing must hold them back from duty.

Now for my inference. If it be true that, a cry at the sensation of bodily pain, according to the old Greek way of thinking, is quite compatible with greatness of soul, it cannot have been for the sake of expressing such greatness that the artist avoided imitating his shriek in marble. Another reason must be found for his deviation from his rival, the poet, who has expressed it with the happiest results.

Be it fable or history, it is love that made the first essay in the plastic arts, and never wearied of guiding the hands of the masters of old. Painting now may be defined generally as "the imitation of bodies of matter on a level surface"; but the wise Greek allotted for it narrower limits, and confined it to imitations of the beautiful only; his artists painted nothing else. It was the perfection of their work that absorbed them. Among the ancients beauty was the highest law of the plastic arts. To beauty everything was subordinated. There are passions by which all beautiful physical lines are lost through the distortion of the body, but from all such emotions the ancient masters abstained entirely. Rage and despair disgrace none of their productions, and I dare maintain that they never painted a fury.

Indignation was softened down to seriousness. Grief was lessened into mournfulness. All know how Timanthes in his painting of the sacrifice of Iphigenia shows the sorrow of the bystanders, but has concealed the face of the father, who should show it more than all. He left to conjecture what he might not paint. This concealment is a sacrifice to beauty by the artist, and it shows how art's first law is the law of beauty.

Now apply this to Laocoon. The master aimed at the highest beauty compatible with the adopted circumstances of bodily pain. He must soften shrieks into sighs. For only imagine the mouth of Laocoon to be forced open, and then judge.

But art in modern times has been allowed a far wider sphere. It has been affirmed that its limitations extend over the whole of visible nature, of which the beautiful is but a small part. And as nature is ever ready to sacrifice beauty to higher aims, so should the artist render it subordinate to his general design. But are there not other considerations which compel the artist to put certain limits to expression, and prevent him from ever drawing it at its highest intensity?

I believe that the fact that it is to a single moment that the material limits of art confine all its limitations, will lead us to similar views.

If the artist out of ever-varying nature can only make use of a single moment, while his works are meant to stand the test not only of a passing glance, but of a long and repeated contemplation, it is clear that this moment cannot be chosen too happily. Now that only is a happy choice which allows the imagination free scope. In the whole course of a feeling there is no moment which possesses this advantage so little as its highest stage. There is nothing beyond this, and the presentation of extremes to the eye clips the wings of fancy, prevents her from soaring beyond the impression of the senses, and compels her to occupy herself with weaker images. Thus if Laocoon sighs, the imagination can hear him shriek; but if he shrieks, it can neither rise above nor descend below this representation without seeing him in a condition which, as it will be more endurable, becomes less interesting. It either hears him merely moaning, or sees him already dead.

Of the frenzied Ajax of Timomachus we can form some judgment from the account of Philoctetes. Ajax does not appear raging among herds and slaughtering cattle instead of men; but the master exhibits him sitting wearied with these deeds of insanity, and that is really the raging Ajax. We can form the most lively idea of the extremity of his frenzy from the shame and despair which he himself feels at the thought of it. We see the storm in the wrecks and corpses which it had strewn on the beach.

II.—The Poet

Perhaps hardly any of the above remarks concerning the necessary limits of the artist would be found equally applicable to poetry. It is undeniable that the whole realm of the perfectly excellent lies open to the imitation of the poet, that excellence of outward form which we call beauty being only one of the least of the means by which he can interest us in his characters.

Moreover, the poet is not compelled to concentrate his picture into a single moment. He can take up every action of his hero at its source, and pursue it to its issue through all possible variations. Each of these, which would cost the artist a separate work, costs the poet but a single trait. What wonderful skill has Sophocles shown in strengthening and enlarging, in his tragedy of Philoctetes, the idea of bodily pain! He chose a wound, and not an internal malady, because the former admits of a more lively representation than the latter. This wound was, moreover, a punishment divinely decreed. But to the Greeks a wound from a poisoned arrow was but an ordinary incident. Why, then, in the case of Philoctetes only was it followed by such dreadful consequences?

Sophocles felt full well that, however great he made the bodily pain to his hero, it would not have sufficed of itself to excite any remarkable degree of sympathy. He therefore combined it with other evils—the complete lack of society, hunger, and all the hardships to which such a man under terrible privations is exposed when cast on a wild, deserted isle of the Cyclades.

Imagine, now, a man in these conditions, but give him health and strength and industry, and he becomes a Crusoe, whose lot, though not indifferent to us, has no great claim on our sympathy. On the other hand, imagine a man afflicted by a painful and incurable disease, but at the same time surrounded by kind friends. For him we should feel sympathy, yet this would not endure throughout. Only when both cases are combined do we see nothing but despair, which excites our amazement and horror. Typical beauty arises from the harmonious effect of numerous parts, all of which the sight is capable of comprehending at the same time. It requires, therefore, that these parts should lie near each other; and since things whose parts lie near each other are the peculiar objects of plastic beauty, these it is, and these only, which can imitate typical beauty. The poet, since he can only exhibit in succession its component parts, entirely abstains from the description of typical beauty. He feels that these parts, ranged one after the other, cannot possibly have the effect they produce when closely arranged together.

In this respect Homer is a pattern of patterns. He says Nireus was beautiful, Achilles still more so, Helen was endowed with divine beauty. But nowhere does he enter on a detailed sketch of these beauties, and yet the whole Iliad is based on the loveliness of Helen.

In this point, in which he can imitate Homer by merely doing nothing, Virgil is also tolerably happy. His heroine Dido, too, is never anything more than pulcherrima Dido (loveliest Dido). When he wishes to be more circumstantial, he is so in the description of her rich dress and apparel.

Lucian, also, was too acute to convey any idea of the body of Panthea otherwise than by reference to the most lovely female statues of the old artists.

Yet what is this but the acknowledgment that language by itself is here without power; that poetry falters and eloquence grows speechless unless art in some measure serve them as an interpreter?

But, it will be said, does not poetry lose too much if we deprive her of all objects of typical beauty? Who would deprive her of them? Because we would debar her from wandering among the footsteps of her sister art, without ever reaching the same goal as she, do we exclude her from every other, where art in her turn must gaze after her steps with fruitless longings?

Even Homer, who so pointedly abstains from all detailed descriptions of typical beauties, from whom we but just learn that Helen had white arms and lovely hair, even he, with all this, knew how to convey to us an idea of her beauty which far exceeds anything that art is able to accomplish.

III.—Beauty and Charm

Again, another means which poetry possesses of rivalling art in the description of typical beauty is the change of beauty into charm. Charm is beauty in motion, and is for this very reason less suitable to the painter than to the poet. The painter can only leave motion to conjecture, while in fact his figures are motionless. Consequently, with him charm becomes grimace.

But in poetry it remains what it is, a transitory beauty which we would gladly see repeated. It comes and goes, and since we can generally recall to our minds a movement more easily and vividly than forms or colours, charm necessarily in the same circumstances produces a stronger effect than beauty.

Zeuxis painted a Helen, and had the courage to write below the picture those renowned lines of Homer in which the enraptured elders confess their sensations. Never had painting and poetry been engaged in such contest. The contest remained undecided, and both deserved the crown.

For just as a wise poet showed us the beauty which he felt he could not paint according to its constituent parts, but merely in its effect, so the no less wise painter showed us that beauty by nothing but those parts, deeming it unbecoming for his art to resort to any other means for aid. His picture consisted of a single figure, undraped, of Helen, probably the one painted for the people of Crotona.

In beauty a single unbecoming part may disturb the harmonious effect of many, without the object necessarily becoming ugly. For ugliness, too, requires several unbecoming parts, all of which we must be able to comprehend at the same view before we experience sensations the opposite of those which beauty produces.

According to this, therefore, ugliness in its essence could be no subject of poetry; yet Homer has painted extreme ugliness in Thersites, and this ugliness is described according to its parts near each other. Why in the case of ugliness did he allow himself the license from which he had abstained in that of beauty? A successive enumeration of the elements of beauty will annihilate its effects. Will not a similar cause produce a similar effect in the case of ugliness?

Undoubtedly it will; but it is in this very fact that the justification of Homer lies. The poet can only take advantage of ugliness so far as it is reduced in his description into the less repugnant appearance of bodily imperfection, and ceases, as it were, in point of effect, to be ugliness. Thus, what he cannot make use of by itself he can use as the ingredient for the purpose of producing and strengthening certain mixed sensations.

These mixed feelings are the ridiculous and the horrible. Homer makes Thersites ugly in order to make him ridiculous. He is not made so, however, merely by his ugliness, for ugliness is an imperfection, and the contrast of perfection with imperfections is required to produce the ridiculous. To this I may add that the contrast must not be too sharp and glaring, and that the contrasts must blend into each other.

The wise and virtuous Ęsop does not become ridiculous because of ugliness attributed to him. For his misshapen body and beautiful mind are as oil and vinegar; however much you shake them together, they always remain distinct to the taste. They will not amalgamate to produce a third quality. The body produces annoyance; the soul, pleasure; each has its own effect.

It is only when the deformed body is also fragile and, sickly, when it impedes the soul, that the annoyance and pleasure melt into each other.

For, let us suppose that the instigations of the malicious and snarling Thersites had resulted in mutiny, that the people had forsaken their leaders and departed in the ships, and that these leaders had been massacred by a revengeful foe. How would the ugliness of Thersites appear then? If ugliness, when harmless, may be ridiculous, when hurtful it is always horrible. In Shakespeare's "King Lear," Edmund, the bastard Count of Gloucester, is no less a villain than Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in "King Richard III." How is it, then, that the first excites our loathing so much less than the second? It is because when I hear the former, I listen to a devil, but see him as an angel of light; but in listening to Richard I hear a devil and see a devil.