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On Great Writing by Longinus
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Dec 07, 09

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It surprises me that Longinus is not as well as known as I think he should be, given the influence of his ideas. I'll say this, though: anyone who cares about putting words together in order to express something of him or herself to the world should read On the Sublime. "Longinus" (the identity of the man who wrote this collection of writings has never been clearly established by scholars) was one of the earliest thinkers (around the first century AD) who saw in words their ability, given the proper composition, to transcend the human: "For by some innate power the true sublime uplifts our souls; we are filled with a proud exaltation and a sense of vaunting joy, just as though we had ourselves produced what we had heard."

Though poets, dramatists, and orators should aim for this kind of excellence and grandeur, the sublime is hardly perfect in its manifestations, even among the best composers of words. He calls certain sections of Homer's Odyssey "nonsense" and criticizes Plato for getting too bogged down with metaphors. Yet he will always acknowledge with much admiration the flashes of innate brilliance of both (especially Homer's verses from the Iliad).

Longinus defines "five sources of sublimity", which, in my opinion, are really five criteria for excellent writing (of any kind): great ideas, inspired passion, effective use of rhetoric, appropriate diction and figurative language, and the effective arrangement of words. I especially like what he says about the passions, emphasizing that strong emotions are not enough to create works of art that can elevate the human soul. Much of what Longinus says of the sublime has been redefined and redeveloped by many thinkers since then and seems almost common knowledge, even intuitive, to any conscientious artist. This rather short work is relatively easy to read (compared to the Poetics, let's say) and easy to appreciate. What he does very well is support his points with concrete examples from literature, and in that respect, Longinus is really my kind of literary critic: a close "reader" of texts and an analyzer of words for their rhetorical effects.

This is one of my favorite works of literary criticism, ever. I wouldn't call this heavily theoretical at all; in fact, it is very accessible and I highly recommend it. Whenever I try to write something, poetry, I'll think about On The Sublime, even re-read it as I did this evening, and remind myself again that there is so much more to transcendence than powerful feelings. Since my academic background is rhetoric and philosophy, my understanding of writing and art follows much of what Longinus says: literature is as much about ideas and technique as it is about Romantic passion. Good literature that transcends requires a careful balance of both.
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Evan Leach Excellent review, MG.


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