Subliminally Sublime

I figure I’m able to recognize the sublime as well as the next person. I mean, how hard could it be? It’s just that it’s at the end of the Bell curve that I don’t get to visit very often, so I suppose it’s theoretically possible that I could become confused and mistake it for something else. But I don’t think so; everybody tells me it’s unmistakeable. Unique. Your neck hair stands on end, or something. I’ve never found that happens to me, but then again I’ve never had much neck hair.

More likely, though, there’s a little bit of the sublime in everything, so the effect kind of wears off after a while -I’ve been told I accommodate rather easily, at any rate. In fact, I was actually criticized for my tenuous grasp of the concept -I treated it too… lightly, or whatever. And if I were so bold as to describe the rich, shiny green of an early-morning aeolian leaf that glistened with dew in the dawning light as sublime, I would be eye-rolled and accused of misspeaking, or worse, of vocabulopoenia.

But, I suppose we have to retire old words that have weakened with age –awe springs to mind- and repurpose others: exapt them, like egregious, from the Latin, ex gregis -meaning ‘out of the flock, or crowd’, originally, and now meaning something like ‘outstandingly bad’. It’s hard to keep up, sometimes.

Still, sublime, to me, means… well, something that would welcome ‘extremely’ and maybe ‘beautiful, lofty, inspiring… and, sure, full of awe’ as its adjectives. And yet I have to confess that the full extent of its splendour, its pageantry, not to mention its transcendence, went largely unacknowledged until I read the essay by Sandra Shapshay, associate professor of philosophy at Indiana University, writing in

‘While the 18th century saw ‘the beautiful’ as a wholly pleasurable experience of typically delicate, harmonious, balanced, smooth and polished objects, the sublime was understood largely as its opposite: a mix of pain and pleasure, experienced in the presence of typically vast, formless, threatening, overwhelming natural environments or phenomena. Thus the philosopher Edmund Burke in 1756 describes sublime pleasure in oxymoronic terms as a ‘delightful horror’ and a ‘sort of tranquility tinged with terror’. Immanuel Kant in 1790 describes it as a ‘negative’ rather than a ‘positive pleasure’, in which ‘the mind is not merely attracted by the object, but is also always reciprocally repelled by it’.

Of course, it is the prerogative -no, the duty- of a philosopher to expand on any concept whose bare-bones we might already think we understand, and transmute it into a more complex formulation that the rest of us might only grasp weakly at the hem. Shapshay has decided there are two types of sublimity: ‘thick’ and ‘thin’, believe it or not. Personally I would have used more pedantic descriptions, but whatever. ‘Burke’s physiological account understands the sublime as an immediate affective arousal, which is not a highly intellectual aesthetic response. This is the ‘thin sublime’. Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer meanwhile offer transcendental accounts – that is, accounts that involve putatively universal cognitive faculties – and understand the sublime as an emotional response in which intellectual reflection on ideas, especially ideas about humankind’s place in nature, play a significant role. This is the ‘thick sublime’.’ It’s always more impressive when you name-drop, don’t you think?

Anyway, ‘Thin sublime, then, is akin to an immediate reaction of awe, and this bare cognitive appraisal that kind of stuns and overwhelms the appreciator might very well be the first moment in all sublime aesthetic responses. But when one lingers in that experience of awe, and the mind starts to reflect on the features of the awe-inspiring landscape or phenomenon, and the way it makes one feel, then this cognitive-affective engagement constitutes thick sublime experience.’ You’ve got to love her words –‘cognitive appraisal’, ‘cognitive-affective’ are guaranteed to make you reach for Google, or immediately surrender to their obvious academic weight -I have always been impressed and subliminally convinced by hyphenated words for some reason. But, that said, I take her point… I think.

I mean, it’s hard not to be gobsmacked by the sheer weight and profundity of, ‘Here we have an account of sublime experience that oscillates between feeling reduced to nothing in comparison with the great spatial and temporal expanse of nature, and then feeling elevated by two thoughts ‘that only philosophy makes clear’. First is the thought that as cognising, thinking subjects we in a sense create (support, construct) our own world – a second nature, as it were – a world of our own subjective experience. And the second exalting thought is that we are in some sense ‘one with the world’, and in being unified with nature in all its temporal and spatial vastness, we are therefore ‘not oppressed but exalted by its immensity.’’

And I am equally burdened by, ‘The source of the pleasure in sublime experiences derives, according to Kant, from an appreciation of our capacity for moral and theoretical transcendence of mere nature, and, in Schopenhauer, from a reflection on the two-fold nature of our selves. On the one hand, we have power as cognising subjects – we are creators of a world, a world of subjective experience; and on the other hand, the experience reveals in an intuitive fashion that we are at bottom really unified with all of nature. Nature’s immensity is our immensity; its seeming infinity is our infinity too.’ I don’t think I could have said it better myself, although I suspect I would have used different words. Reader’s Digest words, maybe.

And yet, there is a definite sublimity to the words themselves -their textures, their densities. Not only are they impressive in their choice and position, but, when I swam in them, meaning and even a sort of opaque clarity supported me near the surface. When I reached the opposite bank, and dried myself off, I felt I had learned something -something quite profound, actually: sublimity is user-dependent. No, I am not terrorized by that shimmering leaf in the dawn light, but all the same, I am deeply moved. To borrow from the poet Kahlil Gibran, the sublime ‘is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror.’


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