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April 20, 2011 / dlw43

Sublime Reading

Does anybody outside the rarefied world of literary and art critics have anything other than a foggy notion of what the word sublime means?  It’s used quite frequently in reviews and theoretical discourse.  And when I say it’s used frequently, I mean all the time and in every conceivable art from and then some.  I’m betting that a pretty good-sized segment of these writers’ audiences are puzzled, as I am, by how slippery and esoteric it is.  On the other hand, I also have a Pavlovian feeling of being impressed when it crops up, even though it always leaves me slightly hungover from its nebulousness, a feeling that’s only increased by any attempt to nail down its meaning through sentence rereads.  What I’ve found helpful in the past when I’ve met sublime has been to endow it with the coolest meaning I can that fits the given context, whatever I understand the given context to be, that is.   It’s one of those words that flat out promotes that sort of behavior. And it’s a liberating feeling as it’s happening, but it’s not helping my reading comprehension skills so much in the end.  Certainly it’s a nuanced concept, but it’s also time for me to stop thinking of it as my very own wildcard word.   Plus, I’m tired of feeling snubbed by arty and literary writers whom I strongly suspect are using the word as a shibboleth for distinguishing those who have an MFA from those who don’t, or something like that.  That alone is more than enough reason for me to go and get my investigation on.

Coincidentally, as I’m nowhere near forward-thinking enough to try to coordinate my personal educational goals with the content of my formal education, I’ve been required to read excerpts from Edmund Burke’s essay A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) for my Neoclassicism literature class.  I’d recently returned a book to the library that I’d checked out called The Sublime, so the class reading has been a good  review for me.  The Sublime is one of a few I’ve looked at (but not necessarily read) from the Documents of Contemporary Art Series.  I told myself I had to get through The Sublime’s introduction, and I did.  In that introduction, as I remember, there were several references to Burke’s essay, and I got the impression that it was and is one of the classic writings on the subject.  For me, the information all landed pretty squarely in the zone of proximal development, which was helpful and satisfying.   Not so much for the rest of it, which contained writings from philosophers, artists, linguists, and other thinkers–fascinating, intimidating, and utterly incomprehensible to me.  They were the type of writings in which one needs foundations (not a dictionary, but actual theoretical knowledge) in place in order to understand more than four sentences per essay.  (I have been working on solidifying my foundations in philosophy, art and literary theory, psychology, linguistics, but it’s slow going!)

Speaking of foundations, it seems that terror is sublimity’s.  The excerpts I read for class begin with Burke categorizing what he terms “passions” as belonging either to self-preserving or societal.  Burke states: “The passions which belong to self-preservation turn on pain and danger.” Passions that are societal in nature are further subdivided into sex and “the great society with man and all other animals”.  The passion belonging to the sex group is called love and “contains a mixture of lust”; its object is the beauty of women.”  The passion belonging to the “great society”, etc. group is “likewise love” but with no lust.  Its object is also beauty, “a name I shall apply to all things as induce in us a sense of affection and tenderness.” Sympathy is another passion included in this group.

I am getting tired of the word passion.

By the way, as far as I understand it from the excerpts I’ve read, the societal passions stuff has zippo to do with sublimity.  One interesting statement he makes about love is that it’s “mixed with a mode of uneasiness…when an idea of its object is excited in the mind with an idea at the same time of having irretrievably lost it.”  Okay, now that hits close to home.  So, back to self-preservation. Self-preservation, as mentioned before, originates from pain and danger.  Here’s the point:  “When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at a certain distance…they are delightful.”

Then the article/excerpts get a little off-track by going into the “passions caused by the sublime”. Sigh. They are as follows: astonishment, which is the highest degree, with admiration, reverence as the inferior effects.

The prerequisites for sublimity:

1. Terror, the “ruling principle of the sublime”.  Terror can be caused by small or large things. (This becomes an important point later on.)

Causes of terror:

1. Obscurity.  “Night adds to dread…despotic governments keep their chief…from the public eye…heathen temples were dark…Druids performed all their ceremonies in the bosom of the darkest woods.”

2. Power. “Whilst we remain in the presence of whatever is supposed to have the power of inflicting either [pain or death], it is impossible to be perfectly free from terror.

3. Greatness of dimension.  It has a “striking effect”.

4. Infinity, “which has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror.”

5. Succession and Uniformity =  Artificial infinity. See #4.

The end of the reading are his ideas of what constitutes beauty and ugliness.  (Again sublimity isn’t mentioned in his definition of beauty.) Ugliness, however, is not a sublime idea, “unless united with such qualities as excite a strong terror.”

A couple of plain ol’ definitions of/statements about the word sublime, copied from my Moleskine notebook (that were, of course, copied from other places):

–The essential claim of the sublime is that man can, in feeling and in speech, transcend the human.

–Sublime: mute encounter with something that exceeds our comprehension.


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