From the Sublime to the Ridiculous There Is But One Step

Napoleon Bonaparte? Thomas Paine? Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle? Thomas Warton? Pierre-Jacques Changeux? James Joyce? Mark Twain?

paine09Dear Quote Investigator: Aesthetic evaluations are sometimes complex and contradictory. A well-known saying reflects this unstable nature. Here are two versions:

1) The sublime is only a step removed from the ridiculous.
2) From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but a step.

This expression has been linked to the military leader Napoléon Bonaparte, activist and revolutionist Thomas Paine, literary modernist James Joyce, and humorist Mark Twain. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match for this saying located by QI appeared in French in a 1777 collection of philosophical thoughts titled “Pensées Nouvelles et Philosophiques”. The words were attributed to the prominent author Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Du sublime au ridicule, disait Fontenelle, il n’y a qu’un pas: de la raillerie à l’insulte il y en a encore moins.

Here is one possible translation into English:

From the sublime to the ridiculous, said Fontenelle, it is only one step: from raillery to insult there is even less.

Fontenelle died in 1757, two decades before the book’s publication. Hence, this citation did not provide strong evidence of a linkage, but it did show that the expression was in circulation in French by 1777.

Each of the writers mentioned by the questioner has employed this saying and precise citations are presented further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1767 “Traité Des Extremes ou Éléments De La Science De la Réalité” by the proto-sceptic Pierre-Jacques Changeux was published, and the book included a sentence describing a close connection between the sublime and the ridiculous. This connection provided an interesting precursor to the saying under examination. When the book by Changeux was reviewed in the periodical “Mercure de France” the sentence was reprinted and further disseminated: 2 3

En effet, si l’on analyse bien le sublime, & qu’on ne s’en laisse point imposer par la grandeur de la Poësie Orientale, peut-être ne lui accorderat-on pas le prix de la supériorité: le sublime ne doit point être forcé; sans quoi, il touche au ridicule, & par conséquent se détruit.

Below are two possible renderings of the boldface statement into English:

. . . the sublime must not be forced, lest it brush against the ridiculous and, consequently, be destroyed.

. . . the sublime must not be forced, lest it brush against the ridiculous and, as a consequence, destroy itself.

In 1775 Thomas Warton who was a Fellow of Trinity College Oxford published “The History of English Poetry from the Close of the Eleventh to the Commencement of the Eighteenth Century” which included a statement referencing the adjacency of the sublime and ridiculous: 4

The last circumstance recalls a fiend-like appearance drawn by Shakespeare; in which, exclusive of the application, he has converted ideas of deformity into the true sublime, and rendered an image terrible, which in other hands would have probably been ridiculous.

In 1777 an instance was ascribed to Fontenelle as noted previously in this article: 5

Du sublime au ridicule, disait Fontenelle, il n’y a qu’un pas: de la raillerie à l’insulte il y en a encore moins.

In 1782 Joseph Warton touched again on the theme of this article in a statement printed in the second volume of “An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope”: 6

On the revival of literature, the first writers seemed not to have observed any selection in their thoughts and images. Dante, Petrarch, Boccacio, Ariosto, make very sudden transitions from the sublime to the ridiculous.

In 1787 “Eléments de Littérature” by Jean-François Marmontel discussed the relationship between the sublime and ridiculous: 7

Voilà ce qui s’appelle de l’ampoulé: l’exagération en est risible, à force d’être extravagante. En général, le ridicule touche au sublime, & pour marcher sur la limite qui les sépare, sans la passer jamais, il faut bien prendre garde à soi.

In 1795 the important political theorist and activist Thomas Paine published the second part of “The Age of Reason”; he remarked on the intertwining nature of the sublime and ridiculous: 8

The sublime and the ridiculous are often so nearly related, that it is difficult to class them separately. One step above the sublime, makes the ridiculous; and one step above the ridiculous, makes the sublime again.

Paine felt strongly enough that he included another statement on the topic in “The Age of Reason”: 9

When authors and critics talk of the sublime, they see not how nearly it borders on the ridiculous.

In 1815 Dominique-Georges-Frédéric Dufour de Pradt published a memoir that included remarks spoken by Napoleon Bonaparte in the author’s presence. De Pradt held several important positions over the years including secretary to Bonaparte, Archbishop of Mechlin, and Ambassador to Warsaw. One possible translation of Bonaparte’s comment in the following passage would be: “From the sublime to the ridiculous it is only one step”. The remark was spoken after Bonaparte’s pivotal defeat in Russia: 10

Enfin, après avoir répété de nouveau deux ou trois fois du sublime au ridicule il n’y a qu’un pas; avoir demandé s’il était reconnu, et dit que cela lui était égal.

Also, in 1815 an article in “The Monthly Review” presented an English translation of sections of De Pradt’s memoir. However, the key phrase remained untranslated: 11

To a proposal of returning by the way of Silesia, he replied, “Ah, ah, la Prusse.” In short, after having repeated again and again, “du sublime au ridicule, il n’y a qu’un pas;” after having asked whether he was recognized by the people, and said it was of little consequence; after having re-assured the ministers of his protection, and persuaded them to take courage; he terminated the audience.

In 1872 Mark Twain gave a dinner speech at the Savage Club in London, and he presented a humorous twist on the expression: 12 13

I find myself down town somewhere, and I want to get some sort of idea of where I am—being usually lost when alone—and I stop a citizen and say: “How far is it to Charing Cross?” “Shilling fare in a cab,” and off he goes. I suppose if I were to ask a Londoner how far it is from the sublime to the ridiculous, he would try to express it in coin.

In 1922 the landmark work “Ulysses” by James Joyce was released in Paris, and Joyce included an instance of the saying: 14

You intended to devote an entire year to the study of the religious problem and the summer months of 1882 to square the circle and win that million. Pomegranate! From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step. Pyjamas, let us say?

In conclusion, this saying was employed and popularized by several prominent individuals. The earliest use in 1777 was linked to Fontenelle, but the evidence was weak because Fontenelle died in 1757. Current uncertainty suggests that an anonymous attribution is appropriate; however, future research may bring greater clarity.

Image Notes: Painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme of “Bonaparte Before the Sphinx” via Wikimedia Commons. Portrait of Thomas Paine based on an engraving by William Sharp via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Philip Cherny whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Many thanks to Wilson Gray and Laurence Horn for help in translating the 1767 citation. Any errors are the responsibility of QI. Thanks to Ralph Keyes for his analysis of this saying in “The Quote Verifier” and to Fred Shapiro for his citations in “The Yale Book of Quotations”. Also, thanks to Nigel Rees who discussed this topic in the April 2015 issue of “The Quote Unquote Newsletter” and presented some of the key citations listed above.)

Notes:

  1. 1777, Pensées Nouvelles et Philosophiques, Statement Number 264 (CCLXIV), Quote Page 75, Published by Marc-Michel Rey, Amsterdam. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1767, Traité Des Extremes ou Éléments De La Science De la Réalité, Author: Monsieur Changeux (Pierre-Jacques Changeux), Volume 2, Book 10, Chapter 3, Quote Page 346, Published by Darkstée & Merkus, Amsterdam. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1767 June, Periodical: Mercure de France, Article: Review of Traité des Extrêmes ou Eléments de la Science de la Réalité by M. Changeux (Pierre-Jacques Changeux), Start Page 111, Quote Page 125, Published by Au Bureau du Mercure, Paris, France. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1775, The History of English Poetry from the Close of the Eleventh to the Commencement of the Eighteenth Century to which are Prefixed Two Dissertations, Author: Thomas Warton (Fellow of Trinity College Oxford), Volume 1, Second Edition, Quote Page 160, Printed for and sold by J. Dodsley, Pall-Mall, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1777, Pensées Nouvelles et Philosophiques, Statement Number 264 (CCLXIV), Quote Page 75, Published by Marc-Michel Rey, Amsterdam. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1782, An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope by Joseph Warton, Volume 2, Quote Page 60, Printed for J. Dodsley in Pall-Mall, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  7. 1787, Eléments de Littérature, Author: M. Marmontel (Jean-François Marmontel), Volume 1, Section: Ampoulé, Quote Page 188, Publisher: Née de la Rochelle, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1796 (Date of Preface: October 1795), The Age of Reason: Part the Second, Author: Thomas Paine, (Both quotes appeared in footnotes), Quote Page 15, Printed for and sold by Daniel Isaac Eaton, Newgate Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1796 (Date of Preface: October 1795), The Age of Reason: Part the Second, Author: Thomas Paine, (Both quotes appeared in footnotes), Quote Page 82, Printed for and sold by Daniel Isaac Eaton, Newgate Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1815, Histoire de l’Ambassade dans le Grand Duché de Varsovie en 1812, Author: M. De Pradt (Dominique-Georges-Frédéric Dufour de Pradt), Quote Page 215, 218, and 219, Publisher: Chez Pillet, Imprimeur-Libraire, A Paris. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1815, The Monthly Review, Volume 78, Section: The Appendix, (Book Review of “Histoire de l’Ambassade, &c.; i.e. A History of the French Embassy to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw in 1812 by M. de Pradt, Archbishop of Mechlin, at that time Ambassador at Warsaw), Start Page 517, Quote Page 526, Sold by Becket and Porter, Booksellers in Pall Mall, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  12. 1976, Mark Twain Speaking, Edited by Paul Fatout, (Dinner Speech at Savage Club, London, circa September 22, 1872), Start Page 69, Quote Page 71, Published by University of Iowa Press, Iowa City. (Verified on paper)
  13. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Start Page 102, Quote Page 103, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  14. 1922, Ulysses by James Joyce, Section: Circes, Quote Page 484, Published by Shakespeare and Company, Paris. (Wikimedia Archive; scanned from Dover reprint edition) link