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

Many of Aby Warburg’s intuitions have had an important impact on theoretical discussions of the last decades, even beyond the theory of imagery he established. In particular, the concepts of ‘atlas’ and ‘afterlife’ (Nachleben) have both become central models of thought influencing a variety of disciplines. Though the ‘pathos formula’ has been extensively discussed among art historians and image theorists, it has not yet been thoroughly examined from the perspective of literary studies in terms of the relationship between image and text. Given Warburg’s use of linguistic metaphors to explain the pathos formula concept, this might seem all the more paradoxical. For example, in talking about the ancient visual formulas that lived on in artwork, he describes them as “migratory rhetoricians from antiquity” or “primal words from an impassioned language of gestures,” which Renaissance artists drew on more or less consciously in order to both heighten and tame the intensity of expression in their works.

Warburg’s concept of the pathos formula, however, does not establish a repertoire of conventionalized signs, or a systematic ‘vocabulary’ for the calculated creation of an inventory of emotions. This conceptual openness has led art historians to define the pathos formula as something rather opposed to language and rhetoric—a move that reduces language to a purely discursive, transparent system. But this does not do justice to the use of language, especially in literature. This research project, therefore, contributed to establishing the pathos formula as an analytical tool for the study of literature without ignoring the valuable insights coming from contemporary image science and visual anthropology. What sort of dialectic is involved between pathos and formula, between the intensity of expression and the use of predetermined formulas, and how do such dialectics work in literary language? How might we explain the fascination with “pre-coined expressive values” and the paradox that they are not destroyed by the modern ideal of originality and individual expression but instead are amplified by it?

Such a ‘poetics of the pathos formula’ was formulated using the work of W. G. Sebald, whose image and text montages trace the restitution of the “marks of pain” that “criss-cross through history in innumerable fine lines” (Sebald: Austerlitz). Sebald’s work exemplifies a profound affinity to Warburg’s notion of “humanity’s inventory of suffering,” as manifested in the pathos formula. After all, his attempts to represent human suffering inevitably encountered pathos. The pathos formula thus opened up a new way of thinking about Sebald’s quest for an “authentic form of remembrance,” a quest that is expressed in his work on images and their relationship to language.

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