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Somaesthetics and the Sublime: The rhetoric of the ‘clinical body’ in Longinus’ Περὶ ὕψους

Ursula M. Poole

Longinus’ preoccupation with the body as a metaphor for verbal style has received little scholarly attention, despite its prevalence in On the Sublime (Bandstra, 2011; von Staden, 1999). More remarkable still is that his appropriation of imagery and terminology from the medical world has received none at all. Considering Longinus’ prominent place in the literary-critical canon and renewed interest in literary treatments of the body in the ancient world (Holmes 2010, Worman 2011), the critical silence on this feature of his work is a striking omission.

In this paper, I posit a connection between Longinus’ aestheticization of the body and his theorization of sublimity. Longinus conceives the sublime as a locus between nature and techne: while verbal ability is an innate feature of humanity, it must be molded by technical skill to achieve τὸ ὕψος (2.2, 36.4). The imposition of a ‘system’ (ἡ μέθοδος) on nature is what constitutes the sublime (ibid). I argue that the figural representation of the clinical body acts as a formal expression of this intersection between the natural and the technical. The commonality that underlies the similarity between vehicle and tenor (Black, 1954) is the imposition of a ‘system’, literary ‘genius’ or medicine, on a natural entity, speech or the body. By casting the verbal arts in the form of corporeal figure, Longinus establishes a visual rhetoric that girds his theory of the sublime.

In the first section of this paper, I consider the ways in which the metaphor of the body is part of a wider aesthetic register. Longinus’ presents his criteria for literary excellence and baseness in terms that are derived from the bodily realm (e.g., τό μέγεθος, ‘grandeur’; τὸ οἰδεῖν, ‘tumidity’; τὸ ψυχρόν, ‘frigidity’), and this colors our experience of the text from the very first. Literary experience is also conceived as embodied – or rather, disembodied. Literary ingenium leads its listeners to ἔκστασις, that is, being ‘transported out of themselves’ (1.4). Longinus also situates himself within an established tradition of bodily metaphor in literary critical texts (Gorgias Helen, 8; Plato, Phaedrus, 264c; Aristotle, Poetics, 1450b-51a). Longinus is thus working with both a naturalizing imagistic pattern and an established technical vocabulary, one that he appropriates as a language of legitimation–and transforms to suit the objectives of his treatise.

Next, I turn to the most striking corporeal metaphors for verbal style. In an extended metaphor, Longinus compares the grand style to a perfectly functional human body, inviting us to view the body as a ‘system’ of organized members (40). This focalization of the body in clinical terms negotiates between the natural and the technical, mirroring precisely his definition of the sublime. The base style is either figured as an afflicted body or as a body mutilated at the hands of a poor practitioner. In both of these cases, the balance of the natural and the technical is skewed. In 3.4, Longinus compares the bombastic style to a growth: ‘tumors are bad things in books or in bodies, those empty inflations …’ (3.4). In his discussion of meter (39), he enlivens the dead metaphor of the metrical dactyl (finger) by claiming that distortions of metrical quantity ‘mutilate’ the grandeur (ἀκρωτηριάζει … τὸ μέγεθος) and ‘disjoint’ (διαχαλᾶται) the sublimity. These are direct borrowings from the Hippocratics, and the terminological alignment with the medical corpus underscores the metaphor.

This reading of On the Sublime has significant implications for our understanding of the text. Bodily metaphor acts as a formal expression of the essential argument of the text and as a point of continuity with the rhetorical tradition on which Longinus is building and his later reception. Longinus’ use of bodily metaphor, I submit, also aligns with his own criteria for literary excellence (vividness in prose and the proper use of figures, 15-16). The rhetoric of bodily metaphor thus reflects and bolsters the subject of the text, and has a propaideutic function for its reader.

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The Body in Question

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