Bathos

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Bathos [bey-thos] (Greek: ‘depth’) is an abrupt transition in style from the exalted to the commonplace, producing a ludicrous effect. While often unintended, bathos may be used deliberately to produce a humorous effect. If bathos is overt, it may be described as Burlesque or mock-heroic.

As used in English bathos originally referred to a particular type of bad poetry, but it is now used more broadly to cover any seemingly ridiculous artwork or bad performance. It should not be confused with pathos, a mode of persuasion within the discipline of rhetoric, intended to arouse emotions of sympathy and pity.

Contemporary examples often take the form of analogies, written to seem unintentionally funny: ‘The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.’ (Jennifer Hart for The Washington Post). The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest features purple prose, at times exhibiting bathos: ‘They had but one last remaining night together, so they embraced each other as tightly as that two-flavor entwined string cheese that is orange and yellowish-white, the orange probably being a bland Cheddar and the white . . . Mozzarella, although it could possibly be Provolone or just plain American, as it really doesn’t taste distinctly dissimilar from the orange, yet they would have you believe it does by coloring it differently.’ (Mariann Simms). In humorous science fiction novels: ‘The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.’ (Douglas Adams in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’).

As the combination of the very high with the very low, the term was introduced by Alexander Pope in his essay ‘Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry’ (1727). On the one hand, Pope’s work is a parody in prose of Longinus’ ‘Peri Hupsous (On the Sublime),’ in that he imitates Longinus’s system for the purpose of ridiculing contemporary poets, but, on the other, it is a blow Pope struck in an ongoing struggle against the ‘dunces.’

The nearest model for Pope’s essay is the ‘Treatise of the Sublime’ by Boileau of 1712. Pope admired Boileau, but one of Pope’s literary adversaries, Leonard Welsted, had issued a ‘translation’ of Longinus in 1726 that was merely a translation of Boileau. Because Welsted and Pope’s other foes were championing this ‘sublime,’ Pope commented upon and countered their system with his Peri Bathos. Whereas Boileau had offered a detailed discussion of all the ways in which poetry could ascend or be ‘awe-inspiring,’ Pope offers a lengthy schematic of the ways in which authors might ‘sink’ in poetry, satirizing the very men who were allied with Ambrose Philips. Pope and Philips had been adversaries since the publication of Pope’s ‘Odes,’ and the rivalry broke down along political lines.

One example of Pope’s style and satire shows in his description of sinking in painting. In the commonplace Augustan hierarchic ranking of pictorial genres, still life ranked the lowest. However, Pope describes how it might fall and, with the single word ‘stiffen,’ evokes the unnatural deadness that is a mark of failure even in this ‘low’ genre: ‘Many Painters who could never hit a Nose or an Eye, have with Felicity copied a Small-Pox, or been admirable at a Toad or a Red-Herring. And seldom are we without Genius’s for Still Life, which they can work up and stiffen with incredible Accuracy.’ Pope goes on to explain the comic use of the tropes and figures of speech.

Although Pope’s manual of bad verse offers numerous methods for writing poorly, of all these ways to ‘sink,’ the method that is most remembered now is the act of combining very serious matters with very trivial ones. The radical juxtaposition of the serious with the frivolous does two things. First, it violates ‘decorum,’ or the fittingness of subject, and, second, it creates humor with an unexpected and improper juxtaposition.

Since Pope’s day, the term ‘bathos,’ perhaps because of confusion with ‘pathos,’ has been used for art forms, and sometimes events, where something is so pathetic as to be humorous. When artists consciously mix the very serious with the very trivial, the effect is of Surreal humour and the absurd. However, when an artist is unconscious of the juxtaposition (e.g., when a film maker means for a man in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet to be frightening), the result is bathos. Arguably, some forms of kitsch (notably the replication of serious or sublime subjects in a trivial context, like tea-towels with prints of Titian’s ‘Last Supper’ on them or hand guns that are actually cigarette lighters) express bathos in the concrete arts.

A tolerant but detached enjoyment of the aesthetic characteristics that are inherent in naive, unconscious and honest bathos is an element of the camp sensibility, as first analyzed by Susan Sontag, in a 1964 essay ‘Notes on camp.’

Bathos as Pope described it may be found in a grandly rising thought that punctures itself: Pope offers one ‘Master of a Show in Smithfield, who wrote in large Letters, over the Picture of his Elephant: ‘This is the greatest Elephant in the World, except Himself.’ Several decades before Pope coined the term, John Dryden had described one of the breath-taking and magically extravagant settings for his Restoration spectacular, ‘Albion and Albanius’: ‘The cave of Proteus rises out of the sea, it consists of several arches of rock work, adorned with mother of pearl, coral, and abundance of shells of various kinds. Through the arches is seen the sea, and parts of Dover pier.’

Pope himself employed this type of figure intentionally for humor in his mock-heroic ‘Rape of the Lock,’ where a lady would be upset at the death of a lover ‘or lapdog.’ Kierkegaard, in ‘The Sickness Unto Death,’ did the same thing, when he suggested that the ‘self’ is easy to lose and that the loss of ‘an arm, a leg, a dog, or a wife’ would be more grievous. When intended, this is a form of satire or the literary figure of undercutting. When the context demands a lofty, serious, or grand interpretation, however, the effect is bathos.

In 1764, William Hogarth published his last engraving, ‘The Bathos, or the Manner of Sinking in Sublime Paintings inscribed to Dealers in Dark Pictures,’ depicting Father Time lying exhausted in a scene of destruction, parodying the fashion at that time for ‘sublime’ works of art, and satirizing criticisms made of Hogarth’s own works. It may also be seen as a vanitas or memento mori, foreshadowing Hogarth’s death six months later.

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