The Poetics of the Pathos Formula. At the Intersection of Cultural and Literary Studies

The project investigates how Aby Warburg’s concept of the Pathosformel or pathos formula might contribute to the study of literature. The pursuit of this question foregrounds W.G. Sebald’s work, especially his use of image and text and his implementation of »pre-coined expressive values« (Warburg) to retrace history’s »marks of pain«.

Many of Aby Warburg’s intuitions have had an important impact on theoretical discussions in the few last decades, even beyond the science of images he founded. Both the concepts of atlas and survival (Nachleben) have in particular become central to models of thought in a variety of disciplines. And though the pathos formula has been extensively discussed among art historians and image theorists, it has not yet been thoroughly examined from a literary studies perspective in terms of the relationship between image and text. This desiderate might seem paradoxical at first, given Warburg’s use of language metaphors to explain the pathos formula concept. For example, in talking about ancient visual formulas, he describes them as »migratory rhetoricians from Antiquity« or »primal words from an impassioned language of gestures«, which Renaissance artists drew on consciously or unconsciously in order to both heighten and tame the intensity of expression in their works.

Warburg’s concept of the pathos formula does not establish a repertoire of conventionalized signs. It is not just a systematic »vocabulary« meant to inventory and calculate emotional responses. With this in mind, art historians and image theorists tend to define the pathos formula as something opposed to rhetorics and language as such. The drawback to such an approach is that it reduces language to a purely discursive and transparent system, which is certainly not the case for language in literary texts. This study reexamines the productive potential in thinking about the pathos formula from the perspective of literary studies while  taking into account the valuable findings from the science and anthropology of images without regressing to a simple equation of the pathos formula with rhetorics. What sort of dialectic is involved between pathos and formula, between expressive intensity and the use of predetermined formulas, and how are those dialectics at work in literary language? How might we explain the fascination with »pre-coined expressive values«, which paradoxically is not diminished by the modern ideal of originality and individual expression, but is instead reinforced and even fostered by it?

»The Poetics of the Pathos Formula« initially concentrates on W.G. Sebald as a particularly telling example of an author dealing with such relationships. His montages of texts and images follow the »marks of pain« which »trace countless fine lines through history« (Austerlitz). The affinity to Warburg’s notion of »humanity’s treasury of suffering«, which is actualized in the pathos formula, lies close at hand, as Sebald’s attempts to represent past suffering also deal with pathos and how to judiciously implement it. The pathos formula opens up a new way of thinking about Sebald’s search for an »authentic form of remembrance«, a search that finds expression in his work on images and their relationship to language.

Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Fellowship 2015–2018
Head researcher(s): Karine Winkelvoss