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Volume 14• Number 1

Spring 2007

 

In Defense of Moonlight


by Sarah Clemmens Waltz


The mystery of the moon occupies the same primacy in the imagery of Romanticism that the searching light of the sun does in that of the Enlightenment. Moonlight's Romanticism was espoused by Jean Paul, who wrote: "moonlight [is] at once romantic image and example." Perhaps moonlight is Romantic because it is essentially sublime, as aesthetic thinkers from Kant to Schopenhauer agreed. Kant's assertion that "night is sublime, day is beautiful" rests on the presence of a moon that speaks to him "of friendship, of disdain for the world, of eternity." Schopenhauer's moon was "an object of contemplation, never of the will. Further, it is sublime; that is, it inclines us to sublimity, because it goes along without any regard to us, forever alien to earthly activities, and sees all, but takes part in none." This sublimity is most strongly evident in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, whose Moonrise Over the Sea (1822) and Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon (1824) display the moon not only as a ruling element in Romantic landscape but also as the guiding eye of the infinite, and as a primary object of human contemplation. That those two very paintings were chosen to grace the covers of the two-volume Dover edition of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas is perhaps out of regard for the Piano Sonata, op.27, no.2, subtly indicating that its "Moonlight" title may be "an apt symbol for the Romantic tendency to evoke the sublime in relation to Beethoven's instrumental music," as Timothy Jones has remarked.

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