Little Red Riding Hood and Longinus: The Problems of Morality and “Great” Literature
Usually, literary crticism informs how we read literature. But what happens when we turn the relationship around, and instead ask what we can learn about a work of literary criticism by using literature as a tool? As an interesting example: What can Little Red Riding Hood, a fairy tale, tell us about Longinus’ On Sublimity, one of the oldest documented works of literary criticism?
Longinus, in his treatise On Sublimity (written in either the first or third century AD), begins by defining his target term generally: “Sublimity is a kind eminence or excellence in discourse” (143). This working definition is expanded by sifting through examples of what he deems sublime literature, until it becomes clear that Longinus takes sublimity to be a rare success in arranging rhetoric to produce states of “ecstasy” in readers: namely, wonder, astonishment, and sometimes even terror (149, 143, 151). But he is not done, for he also explains that sublimity cannot come from orators with “low or ignoble thoughts,” and that “lowness of diction also destroys grandeur” (150, 184).
The implication seems to be that, in his system of value and judgment, works of humble style and diction can never be considered “great” literature. However, what would Longinus make of a work that uses humble style and diction but whose orator writes with high and noble (i.e., “great”) thoughts in mind? What can a work that would seem to be excluded from Longinus’ notion of literary excellence, such as Angela Carter’s idiomatically-humble and moralizing Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale (1979, but a translation of Charles Perrault’s 1697 Histoires ou contes du temps passe avec des moralites), teach us about Longinus’ theory of sublimity and its relationship to morality and the written word?
Ultimately, Carter’s fairy tale shows us that the analytical distance that develops when reading a cautionary moral preceded by horrifying fictional events actually ensures that wonder, astonishment, and terror can never occur for the reader. There is no room for morality in Longinus’ theory of sublimity because for a work to focus on as mortal a concern as morality detracts from great literature’s aim; after all, he asserts that “something higher than human is sought in literature” (179).
But before reaching that ultimate conclusion, we should concretely determine why Carter’s fairy tale would seem to be excluded from Longinus’ notion of literary excellence: given its moralistic/didactic nature, Carter’s fable flies in the face of Longinus’ notion of sublimity. Not only does the moral of her fairy tale fail to elicit awe, wonder, or terror, but, in order to teach a lesson, the moral also draws attention to rhetorical tricks deployed in the tale which precedes it.
In Carter’s tale, the wolf tricks the Grandmother and then throws himself “on the good woman” to “gobble her up”; this use of “gobbling up” is rather vague, and is repeated when Little Red Riding Hood is tricked by the wolf, but only after she has “[taken] off her clothes” to lie down in the bed (2-3). Then, in the moral, Carter explains that “there are real wolves, with hairy pelts and enormous teeth; but also wolves who seem perfectly charming, sweet-natured and obliging, who pursue young girls in the street and pay them the most flattering attentions” — that Carter distinguishes between “real wolves” and a different type of wolves, who are found in the “street” and have human-associative characteristics of being “charming” and “flattering,” draws attention to the fact that the author has been using a metaphor throughout the entire fable (3).
We see that the metaphor is weakened in Longinus’ eyes precisely because rhetorical tricks are generally best when they are concealed (164). Whatever brief wonder the reader may have felt after reading an unbelievable line like “The wolf opened the latch and opened the door” morphs into comprehension as soon as he/she reads the moral. What is more, if the story is known to be a fable before even being read, then the brief moment of wonder will likely never occur.
That Carter’s fairy tale uses humble style and diction is apparent from even the briefest of glances (“cake baked on the griddle,” “deep in the heart of the country,” “woodcutters working nearby,” “rat tat tat”); the combination of such “lowness of diction” with what are certainly high and noble thoughts behind the moral (“Children […] ought never to talk to strangers,” for that is a “dangerous” thing to do) sheds light on why Longinus’ theory of sublimity is unwilling to cede that great literature should shape readers’ morality for the better. In essence, Longinus appears to claim that including a moral in a work is a surefire way to prove its user to be human, effectively limiting any chance for the work to attain sublimity (178). Seemingly, the attainment of sublimity requires an escape, and if, as some argue, Carter “sympathizes with many of the persecuted or oppressed protagonists,” that sympathy is too attached to mortal concerns to allow for the release via grandeur (xxiv).
This sheds light on Longinus’ claim that “the poet is accustomed to enter into the greatness of his heroes”; a sublime work bears traces of the author’s elimination of distance between work and self (152). The analytical distance retained through the ever-present sense of moralism in Carter’s fairy tale does not mesh with Longinus’ notion of sublimity: as he explains, “Greatness of mind wanes, fades, and loses its attraction when men spend their admiration on their mortal parts and neglect to develop the immortal” (187).
Whereas Perrault was fond of the “high-flown” rhetoric that Longinus claims raises us to the “spiritual greatness of god,” Carter was more fond of “practical” folk tales (Zipes xix-xx, Longinus 178). Her aim to provide applicable moral distinctions for her readers helps us to understand why Longinus frowns upon language of the everyday: “the useful and necessary are readily available to man, it is the unusual that always excites our wonder” (178). The feeling of ecstasy arising from great literature seems to come from a place beyond familiarity, beyond universal accessibility.
What is quite interesting about Longinus’ treatise is how its desired function as a teaching tool actually creates analytical distance between the excerpts he claims are sublime and his didactic remarks — this is the same analytical distance created between the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale and Carter’s moral. From the outset, Longinus positions his treatise as what we might call a textbook: “Let us then consider whether there is anything in my observations which may be thought useful to public men” (143). In this way he presents his work as something entirely distinct from the literature he deems sublime.
His concern with his contemporaries’ morality in the appendix (“avarice,” “insolence,” “lawlessness,” “idleness”) also attests to a great interest in their worldly, very much not “higher than human,” issues, even if the sentiment arises out of a yearning for them to stop admiring their “moral parts” and begin to “develop the immortal.” While Longinus champions the production of works “worthy of eternity,” he does so by writing a piece of literary analysis that concludes by ruing the vices of humans from a particular historical moment (150). If he hopes to shape his readers’ morality for the better, it would seem to follow that he must disavow his treatise as sublime in and of itself. The question then beckons: by Longinus’ standards, can any literary analysis possibly be sublime? Will analysis forever be considered less than the “great literature” it engages with?
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