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Richter, Laocoon's Body (abstract)

  • Simon Richter. "Laocoon's Two Bodies," and "Winckelmann: Laocoon and the Eunuch." Laocoon's Body and the Aesthetics of Pain: Winckelmann, Lessing, Herder, Moritz, Goethe. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1992. 13ñ37, 38ñ61.
IN "LAOCOON'S TWO BODIES" Simon Richter re-establishes the history of the Laocoon statue and demonstrates how its own discovery and rediscovery, placement and displacement, damage and rebuilding have intensified its interest as a focus of German aesthetic criticism. He traces classical, medieval, and Renaissance accounts of the statue and also chronicles its restoration, which changed the gesture of Laocoon's right arm from extended to bent. Various meditations on authenticity may be derived from this historical inquiry. More important to Richter, however, is a renewed emphasis on the pain that the five critics he examines see or fail (or refuse) to see implicit in what each posits as an example of Classical beauty. 
    The following chapter, "Winckelmann: Laocoon and the Eunuch",  makes a startling case about the material motivations of the critic who set this statue adrift in the sea of German letters. In the context that Richter establishes throughout the chapter, the "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur" that Winckelmann famously attributed to the Laocoon is not a bland appreciation of the Classical form, but a valorization of the ability to conceal pain in blankness and silenceówhich Winckelmann read into the stature. "Representation depends on resistance. Though pain and the soul's efforts to conceal pain are violently opposed, it is only in their mutual tension that representation takes place." In other words, the harmony and balance often employed as the definition of Classical art are reflected in emotional content (pain and stoicism) as well as form (symmetry). 
    This is a kind of high-art version of "Pinch me. I must be dreaming." This particular argument is very well laid out and an intriguing read. Richter's take on Lessing and euphemism is less persuasive. Richter's continual return to a meditation on the statue of Laocoon itself seems to orient criticism in men's reaction to objects deliberately.  He does not slip into an accidental or negligent privileging of the text over the image. Instead, through all the chapters his book, he keeps the tension bewteen text and image apparent to the reader. (Joan Menefee.)

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Michael Hancher

Department of English, University of Minnesota

URL: <http://umn.edu/home/mh/txtimjm4.html>

Comments to: mh@umn.edu

Created 24 November 1997

Revised 23 December 1997