Hyperboles: The Rhetoric of Excess in Baroque Literature and ThoughtModern Language Quarterly


G. Braden
Literature and Literary Theory


Rape in marriage

Lee H. Bowker, o̊Dean of the Graduate School and Research

Max born medal and prize

The Institute of Physics


106 • MLQ • March 2014 form, the possibility of locating and relocating authority for the purpose of establishing peace, a tool so used both by those resisting and by those supporting monarchical power from the early French Renaissance to the later sixteenth century.

Jacob Vance

Jacob Vance is a visiting schoiar in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University. He has completed a book manuscript tentatively titled

Secrets: Humanism, Mysticism, and Evangelism in Early Modern Literature and Spiritual Thought.


Ford, Philip. 2007. De Troie à Ithaque: Réception des épopées homériques à la Renaissance. Geneva: Droz.

Foucault, Michel. 1991. "Governmentality." In The Eoucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, edited by Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, 87-104. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

DOI 10.1215/00267929-2377757

Hyperboles: The Rhetoric of Excess In Baroque Literature and Thought.

By Christopher D. Johnson. Cambridge, iVIA: Harvard University,

Department of Comparative Literature, 2010. 695 pp.

Toward the end of two chapters on René Descartes in his arrestingly ambitious and wide-ranging book, Christopher D. Johnson retrieves from the previous century a sonnet by Jean de Sponde:

Tu disais, Archimède, ainsi qu'on nous rapporte.

Qu'on te donnât un point pour bien te soutenir.

Tu branlerais le monde. [You said, Archimedes, so the story goes, that if one gave you a point to stand on, you would shake the world.] (407)

Johnson has already quoted Descartes's likening of his own intellectual program to Archimedes's call for "just one firm and immovable point in order to shift the entire earth" (392). Johnson is not arguing direct influence—

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Descartes "probably was not familiar with Sponde's poetry" (408)—but that would not particularly matter one way or the other; what counts is the common interest in a venerable trope that serves the interests both of one of the most self-consciously innovative philosophical projects of the day and of one of its most highly conventionalized literary traditions. Sponde is writing a Petrarchan love poem about the familiar unhappiness of loving an icily unattainable woman, Descartes setting out his plan for grounding all human knowledge in a newly scientific certainty, yet their joint appeal to classical antiquity's most successful engineer of military hardware is not a momentary curiosity. Johnson finds in Sponde's sonnet an "uncannily exact echo of

Cartesian hyperbolic rhetoric and diction" (407). That is a deliberately odd way to put it—an echo going backward in time—but one readily sees what

Johnson means in Sponde's development of his conceit, which builds to an affirmation of the exemplary constancy of the frustrated lover's heart: "Pour branler tout le Monde et s'assurer d'un point, / II te fallait aimer aussi ferme que j'aime" (To shake the whole earth and to secure a point, you need to love as fixedly as I love) (407). Sighted through Sponde's poem, the extreme detachment and assurance of the Cartesian cogito seem but an extrapolation of "the increasingly Baroque desires of the Petrarchist lover who no longer expects any response from the frigid beloved, and who has retreated into a linguistic labyrinth of self-reflection and refraction" (407).

Johnson does not ask this example to take more weight than it will bear; it is a passing illustration of how different, even contrastive, pieces of writing can pounce on the same extreme proposition as a way of explaining and defending what they are up to. An extended episode in European high culture of the sixteenth and especially the seventeenth century has long seemed to mark itself off from what precedes and what follows by an appetite for such extremity; the terrain has been well explored in art history, but the story for literature has never been as fully told. Johnson's big book is a freshly conceived bid to tell it through very close, firsthand scrutiny of works from an appropriate range of authors, genres, and languages—Luis de

Góngora, Francisco de Quevedo, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Shakespeare,

Descartes, and Blaise Pascal receive extended attention, with other figures from Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, Italian, and German literature, as well as from classical Latin and Greek, also showing up—and a sophisticated and commanding if sometimes elusive sense of what is at stake.

The effort may be said (Johnson repeatedly acknowledges the lineage) to expand on E. R. Curtius's polemical insistence, in his Europdische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter (1948), on "mannerism" as an underrespected but key phase in European literature. Johnson is nonchalant about the stylistic labels and the controversies connected with them and is generally content with a capacious use of "baroque"; his novelty is to focus on a specific rhetorical term from classical rhetorical theory, a term he sees at the center 108 MLQ • March 2014 of it all: "This book reads hyperbole as the audacious bvit often subtle, the sublime but sometimes ironic, engine of Baroque literature and thought.

My aim . . . is to offer a voluminous, wide-ranging defense of . . . this most infamous of tropes, whose name most literary criticism dares not praise, and whose existence the history of philosophy largely ignores" (l).

The choice to ground the discussion in classical rhetorical theory has an asperity to it, a sense that this is the level on which these unruly texts can be analyzed with systematic precision: "Quintilian delineates five species of hyperbole. Three are tiopologicar' (42). Johnson at times seems no less schematic: "In Linnaean terms, excess is the order, bombast and hyperbole the genera, and within the genus hyperbole, one finds various species: metaphoric hyperbole, discursive hyperbole, hyperbole ruled by allegory, hyperbole as litote [sic], and hyperbole that verges on irony, catachresis, or paradox" (2). The clinical-sounding language promises a kind of scientific clarity, edging out more sentimental ways of putting it: "Enacting the conflicted motions of the curious soul in its ascent and fall, the syntax in these lines is marked by extreme hyperbaton, anaphora, and periphrasis. The diction, meanwhile, repeatedly verges on catachresis" (245). But the technical terminology refuses to stay still: "Generally speaking, hyperbaton pretends to function only syntactically, whereas hyperbole seems to operate largely in a semantic fashion. Upon close inspection, though, these functions often merge" (158). Johnson's real guide is not Quintilian but the seventeenthcentury theorist Baltasar Gracián, whose Agudeza y arte de ingenio was held up by Gurtius as the most important manifesto of the literary movement in question. Notoriously, Gracián's end muddles his beginning as a detailed four-part scheme seems to get lost track of; Benedetto Groce thought this a serious failing, but Johnson sees it otherwise: "Gracián approaches the ingenious writer's restless mind in a scholastic, a priori fashion, but it quickly proves a subject too copious and subtle to be bound by any single category or method" (112). Johnson is sensing a kindred spirit. The animating force of the book is not so much a commitment to its theoretical agenda as a genuine affinity for the kind of turbulent writing that the theory tries to explain, and when Johnson comes to grip with an extended passage of such writing—most substantially in the five chapters on Juana's Primero sueño and