Tuesday, October 26, 2021


Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is known for his Enlightenment-era dramas, including Nathan the Wise, Minna von Barnhelm, and Miss Sara Sampson. However, he is also important for his many theoretical works on the theatre.

Lessing's Hamburg Dramaturgy is rightly hailed for the influence of its component essays on the German stage. One essay not included in the Hamburg Dramaturgy, however, is a book-length meditation on painting and poetry called Laocoon, in which Lessing sets forth a rational aesthetics for all art, drama included.

In the preface to Laocoon, Lessing speculates that the first person who compared painting with poetry was an amateur, the second was a philosopher, and the third was a critic. Since Lessing himself was a philosopher, I want to focus on the philosophic point of view in Laocoon. In discussing a hypothetical man analyzing the nature of pleasure (Aristotle is probably intended) Lessing writes: "Beauty, our first idea of which is derived from corporeal objects, has universal laws which admit of wide application."

This is a very Enlightenment concept of aesthetics. We arrive at ideas of beauty through experience. By observing corporeal objects, we come to understand that universal laws are at work. These laws can then be applied broadly to a variety of different works of art, regardless of when and where they were created. Do we agree, though? Is beauty universal? Can we uncover the laws by which it is governed? Do these laws transcend all time and place?

Lessing runs into trouble for us when his essay wanders into the territory of flat-out racism. In chapter 25, he reflects upon the fact that the "Hottentots" in Africa have very different concepts of human beauty than his own Euro-centric ideas. According to Lessing, those people regard "as beautiful and holy what excites our disgust and aversion."

Citing a source called The Connoisseur, Lessing invites the reader to imagine a "pressed gristle of a nose, flaccid breasts descending to the navel, the whole body anointed with a varnish of goat's fat and soot, melted in by the sun, hair dripping with grease, arms and legs entwined with fresh entrails." Is this part of Lessing's argument for universal beauty?

We take it for granted that whether a nose is "pressed" or slender is a matter of taste, and a narrow nose is only culturally constructed as beautiful. While breasts reaching the belly button might not be everyone's kink, who are we to judge? And come on, no one really adorns their body with entrails. That's just one of Lessing's racist fantasies, right?

Except, in a note, Lessing documents this as factual. According to The Connoisseur, an African beauty actually did appear adorned with "the shining entrails of an heifer." Whether this was true or not, Lessing gives us his evidence for believing it. Even if we accept that the contours of noses and the shapes of breasts are subject to personal taste rather than universal laws, can we really accept that it's only a matter of opinion whether entrails are sexy?

Here, however, I think we find a challenge to our own concepts a beauty. If I dig chicks in leather jackets, no one sees that as odd, but isn't leather the tanned skin of an animal? How is wearing the skin of a heifer any different from wearing its entrails? Though Lessing begins by trying to demonstrate universal laws of beauty, he ends up supplying arguments against the existence of those laws.

This brings us back to the famous sculpture known as the Laocoon group that gives its name to the essay. Lessing is struck by the sculpture's beauty, but it also presents suffering and horror. How can we reconcile the sculpture's artistic power with its grotesque and horrifying appearance?

Lessing is at his best when he compares the sculpture with the Sophocles play Philoctetes. The hero in that drama cries out in pain, which is horrid, but through art, the horrid can be rendered beautiful. As Lessing points out, Sophocles did not "hesitate to make the theatre ring with the imitation of those tones of rage, pain, and despair."

The fact that we hear that cry in drama, that we can experience the anguished calling out of Philoctetes while Laocoon must be forever silent in marble, could be an argument for drama being the most powerful of all the art forms.