Classics, the Left and the Sublime

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Once more with feeling: Tacitus' ironic sublime

At the beginning of the Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx, writing as historian in this essay on Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup of 1851, makes the following observation: ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.’ Tacitus offers just this repetition in a passage at Hist. 1.40, as Galba is borne to his death by the surging mob and armed soldiers burst into the Forum. This is a moment that looks like revolution, presenting the kind of sublime ‘spectacle’ that Burke describes and then condemns in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Confronted by the looming symbols of Roman ideology, Tacitus’ soldiers are unafraid (nec illos Capitolii aspectus et imminentium templorum religio et priores et futuri principes terruere, 1.40.2). This apparent act of defiance, though, does not liberate the enthralled masses but tramples them underfoot (1.40.2). Sublimity plays a part in this narrative, but the sublime mode at work here (tragic, comic, ironic?) is hard to pin down, its effect multiple. The scene has a republican flavour that calls up the exemplars of the Roman past, in something akin to Schiller’s understanding of the sublimity of tragedy. And yet the scene savours, too, of the comic: this is a spectacle of the sublime chaos of history. According to Marx, to understand history as comedy is to understand that we can make our own history, but that this history must be made up ‘under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past’ (Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire; cf. Shapiro 1985: 227). As Schiller shows, there is freedom in the comic sublime: we can make of the past (and so the future) what we will. But in Hist. 1, this vision of the comic sublime is immediately thwarted: the soldiers do not fear Rome’s past but have no thought, either, for its future, in which the cycle of vengeance will continue (…priores et futuri principes terruere quo minus facerent scelus cuius ultor est quisquis successit, 1.40.2). Is this, then, the emergence of the ironic sublime? This paper seeks to investigate this question, finding not a sublime aesthetics but a sublime rhetoric of the left in this tragi-comic spectacle of false revolution that is glimpsed and then obscured in Tacitus’ ironic history.
Period18 Jul 201819 Jul 2018
Event typeConference