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Sublime Failure

John Tennant

To call a work a “Classic” suggests a corollary, “success” – indeed, success so unmitigated, so spectacular, that any text which warrants inclusion in the Classical canon is guaranteed a certain timelessness, and is from that point forward accorded automatic merit.  But what happens if a text “fails?”  Could any text that fails – aesthetically or otherwise – ever be considered Classic?  Is the notion of “failure” utterly foreign to what it means to be “Classical?”

In this paper, I demonstrate that the idea of failure plays a vital and integral role in Longinus’ conception of the sublime, as articulated in Libellus de Sublimitate (Περι Ὕψους).   Longinus claims, in essence, that absent the prospect of failure, of flaw, literature is devoid of sublimity.  Building upon James Porter’s work (2006), I argue that perfection is not sublime.  Longinus’ view in this regard finds its echo in the much later work of Samuel Beckett, who described himself as breathing the “vivifying air” of failure and summed up all artistic endeavor as “Ever tried.  Ever failed.  Never mind. Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”

The crucial role of failure in any artistic reach toward the sublime becomes especially apparent in Longinus’ defense of Plato.  Following a line of argument developed by D.C. Innes (2002), the paper considers Longinus’ position that Plato achieves sublimity precisely because his literature so often fails.  While for Longinus, such failure consists primarily (if not exclusively) in Plato’s stylistic shortcomings, Longinus’ observations concerning Plato’s failure may be extended to Plato’s greater literary project and several of its attendant themes, such as, (i) Socrates’ failure in Plato’s Apology to convince the jury of his innocence and (ii) Socrates’ failure in the Republic to sway Thrasymachus regarding the definition of justice.  I argue in this paper that both “failures” are essential to the sublimity that Plato achieves in his work and which, in turn, solidifies Plato’s “Classical” status.  D.A. Russell’s claim (1981) that Περι Ὕψους aspires to moral protreptic, notwithstanding its “guise” as literary criticism, assumes paramount importance in my argument.

The paper concludes by comparing Longinus’ view of the reasons for the decline (read “failure”) of greatness in literature with similar views enunciated by Plato and Tacitus (in Dialogus de Oratoribus).  Drawing upon an earlier line of thought pursued by Charles Segal (1959), I show that rather than amounting to an explanation for the presumed decline in sublimity, the conditions complained of by the three writers, paradoxically, are what enable the three to achieve sublimity in their respective works.   Indeed, the conditions for failure in ancient literature turn out to be veritable markers of the sublime.

Session/Panel Title:

Recovering the Monstrous and the Sublime

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