Thursday, 22 March 2012
Was it in Virgil that I had first stumbled upon the name? I forget, one has better memories of the age of eighteen. I remember feeling Laocoon need not have gone and told the Trojans about the Greeks: my edition had a page long commentary on his famous warning. Equo ne credite, Teucri / Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes!
At an early age, one learns to distrust the Greeks (just like a good Roman.)
Laocoon of course was killed, it is argued, by Poseidon/Apollo/Athena for his presumption. He and his sons were devoured by snakes. I cannot think of a more unpleasant death. However, to turn to a more aesthetic appreciation of these grisly events needs a neoclassical mind, which is when we remember Lessing and his comparative analysis of the verbal and visual arts in Laocoon: an Essay on the Limits of Verbal and Visual Poetry.
It is interesting to see how Lessing deviated from ut pictura poesis to argue that which seems intuitively obvious now: literature is a function of time, painting is related to space. However, this is not what I remembered when I saw the sculpture at Ashmolean. What struck me was how much pain the face expressed. It was a face experiencing pure agony, I had never seen such an expression of pain before. It struck me afresh that being eaten alive by snakes must be one of the ugliest ways to die.
Inherent beauty? In a man being devoured by snakes? Aha! Now Lessing's dense prose (and terrible outdated translation) finally made sense. The artist/sculptor has to retain the beauty, the aesthetic enjoyment that all mimetic art commands. I took another five photographs out of sheer horror and ecstasy at Laocoon's pain.I was falling in love with one who, as I have emphasized enough number of times by now, was eaten alive by a snake and hence a dubious candidate for such amorous feeling.
The Ashmolean sculpture is merely a cast, the original resides in the Vatican. The sculptors have never been determined for certain, and Sophocles wrote a tragedy about him, which of course like most Sophoclean tragedies, is now tragically lost. I find Laocoon fascinating, and I would like to examine in greater detail, the Neoclassicals' obsession with Laocoon. However, I don't want to.
I don't think that the beauty and the suffering are incompatible or one gets precedence over the other. They are practically indistinguishable. Perhaps that is the greatness of the Hellenic world, the level of sublime to which the Romantics strove so hard to achieve. Shelley even said that he was Greek. I wouldn't trust Shelley, though I'd nod vehemently to anything Sophocles or Aristophanes would say. It is indeed hard to trust the Greeks, but it is also impossible not to.
How does one react to ecstasy outside religion? Painful pleasure which is the prerogative of not faith, but art itself-since there is no higher truth.
One becomes Platonic, and makes a copy of a copy.