On the Sublime

by Longinus

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Discuss the concept of frigidity in On the Sublime.

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In his essay On the Sublime, Longinus criticizes four faults that he believes undermine sublimity in writing. These are turgidity, which means being long-winded and overblown (using twenty words where five will do), childishness, fake enthusiasm, and frigidity. Frigidity is probably the hardest to grasp, but Longinus defines it as follows:

Men slip into this kind of error because, while they aim at the uncommon and elaborate and most of all at the attractive, they drift unawares into the tawdry and affected.

Frigidity occurs, in other words, when writers are grasping to be so clever and startling ("uncommon" and "elaborate") that they end up overreaching and coming across as both fake and trying too hard.

For Longinus, sublime writing—writing which moves us to a higher level because it comes from a deeper, more felt place inside a writer's soul—is writing that is, above all, authentic. It is not fake, imitative, or trying to make an impression or be stylish but writing that comes from the heart. Frigid or frozen writing is more fixated on having the words on the page sound impressive than on genuine communication. When it comes to frigid writing, Longinus might ask: Do you really mean that?

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Longinus realizes that there's often a fine line in literature between what is innovative and sublime and what is contrived and affected. All too often writers, in aiming at the sublime, fall well short of the mark and end up producing work that, in its affectation, is frigid, lifeless, and utterly absurd.

A prime example of this lapse in taste comes in the course of a eulogy delivered by Longinus's friend Timaeus on the great Macedonian warrior-king, Alexander the Great. In attempting an elevated style of rhetoric, Timaeus unhappily compares Alexander to the famed rhetorician Isocrates, which Longinus finds singularly inappropriate. To compare the conquests of Alexander the Great to the panegyrics—public speeches of praise—of Isocrates is utterly absurd for Longinus but is nonetheless useful as a salutary lesson in the dangers of an overly-affected style.

Another example of frigidity is provided by the great Greek philosopher, Plato, someone whose written style Longinus usually regards as divine. However, in one particularly notorious case, Plato's normally sound judgement eluded him, when, striving for effect, he likened writing on tablets to the preservation of cypress memorials in the temples.

Such a ludicrously overblown comparison is frigid because it lacks resonance and cannot reasonably be applied to the living world as we know it. It is completely dead, frozen solid in Plato's text and unable to leap off the page to become incorporated into our everyday experience.

To be sure, Longinus doesn't think there's anything wrong with attempting an elevated style; far from it. It's just that he wants to alert his readers to the numerous pitfalls involved, the biggest one of which is a tendency towards absurdity and excess.

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Frigidity is a characteristic that Longinus sees as an enemy of sublime literature. Writers achieve frigidity when, while they "aim at the uncommon and elaborate and most of all at the attractive, they drift unawares into the tawdry and affected." In Section IV of this treatise, Longinus goes into great detail about Timaeus, who was a writer who, in the opinion of Longinus, is a great example of a writer whose work is characterised by frigidity. Timaeus goes as far as to take the examples of frigidity of other classical writers, such as Xenophon, and "clutches it as though it were hid treasure." This expression is based on the following description of Timaeus:

Who could have done this had he not had wantons, in place of maidens, in his eyes?

Longinus argues this is a perfect example of frigidity because it states that the eyes are the only way of discerning whether or not an individual is good. In the view of Longinus, such description descends into the banal, and is viewed as an "unseemly exhibition of trviality." Fridigity then occurs when authors try too hard to achieve sublimity and stray unawares into descriptions that create nothing more than banality or ridiculous descriptions rather than the elevating impact that sublime texts should achieve.

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