|252| Frequently enough, one gives offense precisely by not taking offense at something allegedly disreputable, since such is then interpreted as indifference in the face of a challenge to what is venerable and sacred, or even as agreement with those issuing such a challenge. Those who are not so easily led astray will, by contrast, invariably find in that opposing opinion a poorly concealed predisposition to be taken in, as well as an element of timidity and a lack of confidence in the inherent goodness of the matter and in the steadfastness of one’s own will.
Hence they — that is, those who originally gave offense — are indeed justified in |253| taking offense in their own turn, yet in so doing will be giving offense yet anew, the result being that the offense is given to and fro such that, in the end, nothing is left but renewed offenses against healthy reason and the frank exchange of opinions. The simplest and least offensive course of action in such cases is thus probably to proceed without any consideration at all for the weak.
In the present case, where the object of discussion is a poem, Parny’s Guerre des Dieux, notorious for being immoral and irreligious, the best course of action is to assess it solely from the perspective of poetics. To the extent it is a genuine work of art, the aforementioned reproaches will not affect it, since the necessary spheres and elements of human culture, namely, morality, religion, philosophy, and poesy, can never permeate one another in any destructive fashion; they can only seem to contradict one another.
This firm belief, one in which, by the way, genuine tolerance probably consists, would prove itself in such an example if one were to find that, as a matter of fact, it is precisely from the poetically inadequate elements that reproachable elements arise with respect to religion and morality. But how is such to be ascertained in the first place if the attendant excitement and furor make it impossible to open oneself to the overall impression of the poem without prejudice?
Parny’s work drew considerable attention in France. The National Institute did, as it were, accord him the prize for poesy while yet excluding him from that same prize, just as earlier Piron could not gain admittance into the Academy because of his dissolute verses. |254| To my knowledge no one has yet spoken publicly about this work in German journals, and has instead merely decried its notoriety, moreover, banning the book not only where such books are normally banned, but also even at the more general emporium of booksellers. Has such a mighty, high-flying titan really emerged here, or is it merely the pettiness of its surroundings that make it appear so gargantuan?
Taken in a more serious sense, the struggle between the old and new deities is a truly poetic object. One would be hard pressed to find a grander, more tragic spectacle in history than the destruction of a particular form of worship that portrayed the most cultivated, highly developed mythology, and, precisely because it portrayed this mythology as the blossom of beautiful sensuousness, had to portray it in a transient fashion, and the destruction of all the attendant magnificence of classical antiquity — by a sublime spiritual revelation that in its own turn insisted on the merely secondary nature of all that is earthly, and that even demanded the sacrifice of the inner person.
And yet this event, too, was passed on to posterity accompanied by the accoutrements of poetry and by miracles of all sorts, though these accoutrements did glorify solely the victory of the Christian religion, whereas its exhausted opponent could generate no more. Yet a man such as Julian, someone capable of conjuring all the noble shadows of antiquity for a battle against Christianity, almost manages to appear himself in the radiance of the earlier heroes.
In any event, this struggle determined nothing less than the separation of and utter opposition between the old and new |255| worlds. Indeed, such a struggle is to a certain extent eternal and necessary, since the two principles: the deification of nature and life, on the one hand, and the destructive striving of freedom over both, constitute equally primal elements within human nature.
We ourselves constantly renew this struggle in ourselves by trying to unite the highest elements from the older and newer cultures. Such might also explain why poesy has hitherto so rarely tried its hand at this material.
Every mythology (and even a spiritual religion, if no violent hindrance arises, will accrue its own mythology as the symbolism of its inner perceptions) is a complete poetic view of things, and if it is to be portrayed as simultaneously real alongside another one that in fact excludes it, then it is either in the reflection of the poet or in the world of phenomena that a common ground must be found that presupposes an elevation above both.
When such a point is indeed found, however, great and beautiful things do indeed stream forth in abundance. One need only recall Schiller’s “Götter Griechenlands.” It is similarly through such a setting that Goethe’s [ballad] “Braut von Korinth” [“Die Braut von Corinth. Romanze,” in Schiller’s Musen-Almanach für das Jahr 1798, 88–98, a macabre and erotic story in stanzas] also primarily acquires its sublimity. One might conceive tragedies and poetic pieces of all sorts centered on this hinge.
That this subject matter is also preeminently suited to comical treatment can be seen from the fact that the premier license of the comic writer, namely, the right to suspend the laws of reality and to replace them with jesting willfulness, is already grounded in the |256| subject matter itself. By having these two, essentially incompatible mythologies struggle against each other, the writer will be presenting them simultaneously as both real and unreal, as creatures of opinion and as world-dominating beings. The result is inevitably, as it were, nature in reverse, a comical, entertaining chaos in which wit can direct its bolts of lightning freely to any side it chooses.
Hence the choice of such subject matter, particularly by a French writer, suggests the presence of considerable ingenuity and creativity. Of course, it is the execution alone that will reveal how he himself understood his conception as well the extent to which he understood the implications of his intentions.
On the whole, Parny’s plan has been prudently prepared; the different sides are presented in easily moving sequence, nor is anything pertinent missing or anything superfluous or alien added. In this respect, his piece is much to be preferred over the Pucelle d’Orleans, the only poem in French with which it can be compared and the poem Parny undeniably took as his model as far as external form was concerned.
In his own turn, Voltaire vacillated between his own understanding of the chivalric poem after the fashion of Ariosto, on the one hand, and the jesting epopee, on the other, and his more ponderous invention slips into merely episodic detours.
The struggle between the gods, by contrast, by being more of a single piece, constantly keeps sight of what is actually at issue, and to me the tone and portrayal seem more pleasing and pliable in its individual elements. Although there are certainly passages in which the primary story does not move forward, |257| the content of such passages is commensurately filled out, though a bit more acumen might have been employed in the added materials.
Such lacunae, however, cannot really be avoided, since these sorts of allegorical wars actually derive from but one, single element of opposition and can only seemingly be extended into a series of moments. Precisely this lack of true action can be found, e.g., in Cervantes’s [satire] Journey to Parnassus [Viaje al Parnaso (1614)], though accompanied by full poetic consciousness, since it belongs to the irony permeating the whole, and the charm and attractiveness and emphasis is in fact centered on something quite different.
The poet narrates here; rarely does he have his characters engage in ongoing dialogue. Obviously, however, the dramatic form would have accorded quite well with the grand style of the poet’s treatment. . . .
|258| What an enormous step forward French poesy might have taken had one of its writers been able to demonstrate to his compatriots the possibility of rendering such an imaginative and wholly comical subject matter — not for the stage as such (such would require the freedom of the Athenian political comedy, which for all the familiar reasons cannot be anticipated in France for a long, long time — or perhaps even ever), but for reading aloud in the form of a play.
A poet who ventures into the religious sanctuary with his mockery should not be overly concerned by being viewed as a heretic in poetics, nor cling to the prejudices of conventional theory. That said, the dialogic passages sufficiently demonstrate that Parny was in no way up to the loftier solution to this task. . . .
As a background to Wilhelm’s remarks, see the following remarks from the anonymous review “Parny’s War of the Gods,” Appendix to the Second Volume of the Third Series of the Crucial Review, vol. 2, no. 5 (August 1804), article 4, 503–10, here 503–4, 510:
In his new work he oversteps the utmost limits of decency. When a book is so obscene that it cannot be enjoyed without moral degradation, and so profane that it cannot be circulated without religious infringement, yet so popular as to have passed through half a dozen editions, it becomes a fit object of epitomisation, in order that curiosity may rest content with the strainings, without groping for the grease in the serse. This must be our apology for giving any account of this fanciful but licentious epic poem. . . .
Had this lively poet, instead of endeavouring to win from the author of the Pucelle the prize of obscenity and profaneness, contented himself with selecting the beautiful without the licentious features of paganism; and had he preferred a respectful to a blasphemous personification of the objects of Roman-catholic worship; there were enough of the fanciful in the structure of his fable, and enough of the picturesque in the coloring of his style, to have rendered his book commendable: it must now be banished to the sofa of libertinism and the closet of impiety. Back.
Translation © 2015 Doug Stott