David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Longinus on the Middle Path

Turgidity seems to be one of the most difficult faults to avoid, for those who aim at greatness try to escape the charge of feeble aridity and are somehow led into turgidity, believing it “a noble error to fail in great things.” As in the body, so in writing, hollow and artificial swellings are bad and somehow turn into their opposite as, they say, nothing is drier than dropsy.

While turgidity attempts to reach beyond greatness, puerility is its direct opposite, altogether a lowly, petty, and ignoble fault. What is puerility? Clearly, it is an artificial notion overelaborated into frigidity. Writers slip into this kind of thing through a desire to be unusual, elaborate, and, above all, pleasing. They run aground on tawdriness and affectation.

In emotional passages we find a third kind of error which borders on puerility. Theodorus used to call it parenthrysos or false enthusiasm. It is a display of passion, hollow and untimely, where none is needed, or immoderate where moderation is required. For writers are frequently carried away by artificial emotions of their own making which have no relation to their subject matter. Like drunkards, they are beside themselves, but their audience is not, and their passion naturally appears unseemly to those who are not moved at all.

(On Great Writing, tr. G.M.A. Grube)


  1. YOU must know, my dear friend, that it is with the sublime as in the common life of man. In life nothing can be considered great which it is held great to despise. For instance, riches, honours, distinctions, sovereignties, and all other things which possess in abundance the external trappings of the stage, will not seem, to a man of sense, to be supreme blessings, since the very contempt of them is reckoned good in no small degree, and in any case those who could have them, but are high-souled enough to disdain them, are more admired than those who have them. So also in the case of sublimity in poems and prose writings, we must consider whether some supposed examples have not simply the appearance of elevation with many idle accretions, so that when analysed they are found to be mere vanity—objects which a noble nature will rather despise than admire. 2. For, as if instinctively, our soul is uplifted by the true sublime; it takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.

    3.When, therefore, a thing is heard repeatedly by a man of intelligence, who is well versed in literature, and its effect is not to dispose the soul to high thoughts, and it does not leave in the mind more food for reflexion than the words seem to convey, but falls, if examined carefully through and through, into disesteem, it cannot rank as true sublimity because it does not survive a first hearing. For that is really great which bears a repeated examination, and which it is difficult or rather impossible to withstand, and the memory of which is strong and hard to efface. 4. In general, consider those examples of sublimity, to be fine and genuine which please all and always. For when men of different pursuits, lives, ambitions, ages, languages, hold identical views on one and the same subject, then that verdict which results, so to speak, from a concert of discordant elements makes our faith in the object of admiration strong and unassailable.

    ch VII W. Rhys Roberts translation

  2. Mark—turgidity? Honestly? Henry James. “Chewing more than he bit off” and all that. Also Habermas; even in translation, even for a philosopher, he’s a terrible stylist.

    It’s just me here, and I don’t recognize the anthology personality allusion. Fill me in?

    Antonia—wonderful passage. Too perverse to be condescending? I hear fore-echoes of Schiller and Wittgenstein: “if you can disagree on it, it cannot be truth.”

    I’m also reminded of Pauline Kael’s claim that she never watched a movie more than once before reviewing it. Intuitive apperception is always there, and only some can give proper voice to it.

  3. I don’tknow Pauline Kael, what’s she doing?
    I entirely with the Habermas judgement yet foster a strong detestation for Schiller. what do you refer to, his aesthetic letters? Schiller was a moral perfectionist and I don’t like that, then rather Wittgenstein. I like here in that Longinus passage the hint to intellectual honesty. Do you read Greek?

  4. avoiding these three errors of whom you speak is similar to the middle path of Nagarjuna?

  5. An interesting take on literary style.It’s true you have to write keeping in mind the reader. If you can’t move the reader and are moved yourself, the whole exercise is futile.

    The BlueRectangle Crew

  6. Henry James, yes. And of course in some more modern writers—David Eggers is it? (“A heart-breaking work of staggering genius” was neither, nor).
    Greg Benford is a physicist who wrote a wonderful sci-fi series (“Great Sky River” being what I think the proper beginning to it) where the cyborgs—don’t laugh—consider themselves “anthology personalities” since aspects of their personality act independently of each other.

  7. Ah yes, Benford. I know of him, but haven’t read him…after a “What’s all the fuss about?” reading of Vernor Vinge, I lost strack of that thread of recent US s-f. I do enjoy Robert Charles Wilson though.

  8. antonia: Kael was one of the more visceral film critics of the age, with quite a knack for articulating her emotional responses to film. She consequently provokes a real love/hate reaction, but I do respect her.

    Avoiding the three errors requires humility! (Especially since I don’t read Greek…)

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