Freak Show and Genre
The savagery of the practice is even more shocking in the Greek, for the word translated as “close confinement” is literally a “sack for holding the tongues,” and the “tongues” are the thin reeds that make the overpowering sound that came from the ancient relative of the oboe, the aulos. The pygmies, in other words, are confined in a tiny container, where their natural vocal capacity, as well as room to stretch and grow, is denied them. Although later the author refers to this place of captivity as a prison (desmoterion), the image he prefers is that of this small pouch (glossokomeion) and the voiceless “tongues” within. The enslaved and confined pygmies have, in effect, been reduced to mute instruments of amusement for an entertainment-hungry populace. The image of such confinement leads to a powerful critique of slavery: “on the same principle all slavery, however equitable it may be, might be described as a cage for the human soul, a common prison house” (44.5). This is a “common prison,” that is, one in which all are confined, the captives hauled to Rome from remotest Africa, their keepers, and all who are drawn into the spectacle.
The Sublime as Philosophy
But what does he mean by this extraordinary assertion? What does he mean by ekstasis?
Ecstasy and Enthusiasm
From ekstasis, we derive English “ecstasy,” a drug, a kind of euphoria, a hyperbole for pleasure and excitement. For the ancients, the word pointed in quite different directions. While the word has technical uses in medicine and other fields, its etymological sense, “standing away from something,” often comes to the fore in discussions of extreme varieties of physical or religious experience. In such cases, it was commonly thought that a person’s own breath or spirit (pneuma) had gone out from him or her. The next stage might be that some other spirit entered in. This state is now commonly referred to as “possession,” that is, a state in which a person feels that he or she has been taken over by a divinity who may use that person’s body to speak or act. The entrance of the divinity might also be called by a counterpart term, enthousiasmos, from which the English “enthusiasm” is a pale derivative. The Greek term is a combination of en, in, and theos, god.
This ability of the sublime to lift up the soul can even bring mortals close to the divine, as Longinus indicates in chapter 36.1, “The sublime raises one up close to the lofty mindedness (megalophrosune) of God” (my translation).
An Educational Theory
What does it mean to be a “rival” of one of the great writers of the past? Longinus means—as do many ancient authors who use these terms—surpassing the classics, outdoing models of acknowledged eloquence and wisdom. Longinus’ purpose, we see once again, is not to write “literary criticism” but to help others—his contemporaries, his students perhaps—to write and speak at the highest possible level. In today’s world, he might feel more comfortable in a creative writing or perhaps even communications program, rather than in English, comparative literature, or classics. He would not, if I read him correctly, be satisfied if a student wrote a fine critical essay; he would want to hear words that thunder louder than Demosthenes, or to read a passage even grander than Homer.
In this passage, in fine rhetorical fashion, Longinus corrects himself, saying we are not onlookers but contenders, competitors in the games, seeking to be honored. That impulse is built into us. It is part of our souls. Implicitly it makes us admirers and rivals of the achievements of other contenders, past and present.
The observation restates the question raised by our analysis of Longinus’ educational theory: what keeps us from zelosis? Both Longinus and his philosophical interlocutor, who now enters the discussion, agree on the point that the age in which they live is deficient in the truly sublime. Both use metaphors of enslavement. But they have very different views on how the sorry state of contemporary culture is to be explained. The interlocutor adduces his explanation with some diffidence. He knows, surely, that since the Roman Empire does not allow true democratic freedom, his theory will seem out of date and irrelevant, but he propounds nonetheless “the hackneyed view that democracy is the kindly nurse of genius” (44.2). He suggests that only political freedom has the ability to nurture the thoughts of great intellects. But now “we seem to be schooled in an equitable slavery” (44.3) and do not even taste the true source of great oratory—freedom. It is here that the interlocutor introduces the image to which the title of this essay alludes:
The anonymous philosopher’s conclusion is clear—all slavery imprisons our souls. No wonder then, since all are entrapped in the benign autocracy of the Roman Empire, that no truly sublime literature results.
The image of the sinking ship replaces that of the caged pygmies, and drives home Longinus’ own critique. His well-heeled, well-educated readers—not some captives from a far off land—are the true slaves and the ones who are pressed downward. And we are ourselves (for Longinus uses the first person, not the third) the cause of our misery since we have chosen a life of pleasure and greed. Not content to rely on the image of the shipwreck, Longinus launches a whole fleet of new metaphors. Greed is a sickness, and not just any sickness but one that makes its victims shrink and wither (nosema mikropoion); we waste away, malnourished, because of it. Greed inverts the proper relation of man and god. No longer does a divinity come inside us and inspire us; rather we go out and make gods (ektheiasantas) of the evil that descend from wealth. These evils, among them personified Extravagance, march into our cities and our homes, once Wealth has opened the gates for them. They nest there, like noxious birds, and breed their nestlings, Swagger (alazoneia), and Delusion (tuphos) and Luxury (truphe). These in turn, if they reach maturity, breed Hybris, Transgression (paranomia), and Shamelessness (anaischyntia), the inexorable masters of our enslaved souls (44.7).