What is the ‘Sublime’?

What is the ‘Sublime’?

©Peter Sjöstedt-H


Much is spoken of with regard to that which makes someone or something Beautiful, but very little is said these days about what makes something Sublime. In fact, the Sublime is a concept lost in the twenty-first century, though there was much debate on it only two centuries ago.

The Sublime is a feeling terrifying yet desired. In this respect it differs from a feeling of the Beautiful which lacks the aspect of terror. Examples of that which cause an experience of the Sublime could include a vision of the starry universe on a cloudless night, a grand view of the ocean, a powerful speech that conveys more than can be immediately settled by the mind, a piece of sober music that over-awes, a tract about the dark metaphysical, about the eternal, about that which overpowers.

The Sublime in essence then is a feeling of delightful awe caused by some terror, at least according to its most famous proponent, the Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke. His book on the subject, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1757, set a precedent for further discussion – most notably by the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant. Burke’s Enquiry, however, was itself a reaction to William Smith’s 1739 translation of a book on the Sublime by the Greek literary critic, Longinus, written at the start of the first millennium.

Burke analyses the Sublime into a number of categories. I list them below with a brief explanation:

–       Terror

  • Burke argues that a perception of terror becomes a feeling of delight when the person subconsciously realizes that the potential pain or danger is removed. As pain and danger are the most powerful of all emotions because they are conversant about the preservation of the individual, the relief from these causes supreme delight.
  • We even delight in the misfortune of others when it does not directly affect us, writes Burke. This may explain the popularity of hangings in the past, or today’s popularity of catastrophes in the news, or the prevalence of murder and violence in popular films.
  • As Burke writes, ‘terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close’.

–       Obscurity

  • When we know the full extent of a danger, that perceived danger then diminishes. Thus keeping it obscure maintains its dread. Darkness can add to terror as we are unaware of what surrounds us. Despotic governments and religions keep their chief shrouded in mystery as familiarity kills fear.
  • Burke writes, ‘It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions … A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.’ Because of this, writing can be more sublime than painting because writing can rouse great and confused images which thus remain unfixed and obscure. As an example, he gives a passage from Milton concerning a portrait of Satan:

He above the rest

In shape and gesture proudly eminent

Stood like a tower; his form had yet not lost

All her original brightness, nor appeared

Less than the archangel ruin’d, and th’ excess

Of glory obscured: as when the sun new ris’n

Looks through the horizontal misty air

Shorn of his beams; or from behind the moon

In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds

On half the nations; and with fear of change

Perplexes monarchs.

–       Power

  • Anything that is relatively more powerful than we are can inspire sublimity, but only if this power is potentially threatening. Though a donkey is generally stronger than a man, a donkey is not a threat so its power is not considered sublime. A lion, however, is both powerful and threatening and in this case can inspire the Sublime.
  • In Burke’s time, sovereigns were frequently addressed with the title ‘Dread Majesty’ to indicate both their power and threat. For a believer in God, He is the most Sublime partly for this reason. The theologian Rudolph Otto wrote a book on this very subject arguing that the term ‘Holy’ originally connoted the sublime fear of God and only recently came to incorporate a moral dimension.
  • The gods of the pagan religions were often powerful super-humans whose general occupation was destruction, suggestive of the Sublime. The goddesses were often epitomes of the Beautiful in contrast. The king of Gods in the Nordic pantheon, Odin or Wotan, was the god of war and poetry, for example. His wife Frigg was the goddess of beauty and love. This couple thus signify this distinction between the Sublime and the Beautiful – something to consider on Wednesdays and Fridays as these days are respectively named after the deities.

–       Privation

  • ‘All general privations are great because they are terrible: Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude and Silence’. Man seems to be a social animal so privations cause terror. A particularly terrifying report of a man who was revived after clinical death was his description of experiencing a total void and believing that he would stay there eternally.

–       Vastness

  • A massive expanse or building may cause an entrance of the Sublime. Burke argues that depth can be more sublime than height, and both are more sublime than length. Vastness strikes us as a power and danger, not necessarily on a conscious level. Burke also adds that extreme minuteness can also cause the Sublime, ‘for division must be infinite as well as addition’. The world of microorganisms, discovered in the 17th Century, must have inspired the Sublime: not only were these creatures vast in their smallness, as it were, but also obscure in their ways. A whole new universe of life opened up with this discovery, akin to the feeling of Sublimity that would accompany us were we to discover extraterrestrial life.
  • The obscure, immensely powerful world of subatomic physics could be Sublime. That ‘particles’ change according to whether they are being observed or not, for instance, is so odd and incredible, that an understanding could provide cause for sublimity.

–       The Infinite

  • Much like vastness, yet bigger! Many things appear to be infinite as the eye cannot make out the boundaries. Again, obscurity and a sense of vastness ensue resulting in the Sublime. The infinite vis-à-vis time and space seem to be themselves infinite mysteries hence capable of producing the Sublime. Kant showed that considering both space and time as either finite or infinite causes logical errors, yet it seems to us that it must be one or the other. His response was to say that time and space were not real but had a mere existence within the mind. Einstein, who had read Kant later in life, added to the sublimity of the subject by combining time and space and stating that time could accelerate or decelerate according to spatial speed. In fact, at light speed time slows down to a stop – physics adding to our bank of sublime causes.

–       Difficulty

  • When any work seems to have required immense labour and ingenuity, the idea has grandeur thus sublimity. Burke gives as an example Stonehenge which would have still been near impossible to construct in his age. The age of the structure must also contribute to its awe in terms of the vastness of time that has elapsed since its inception.

–       Suddenness

  • A sudden extreme light, such as lightning, can prove Sublime. The shock of this powerful light must cause delight, so long as we are removed from its immediate danger. Being struck by lightning would not be sublime but painful, possibly fatal, and also somehow ridiculous.

–       Novelty

  • There can be a thin line between the Sublime and the Ridiculous. The image of a fantastical creature could inspire sublimity, but it could also, if slightly off, cause this sense of ludicrousness. Likewise a beautiful landscape or seascape can appear Sublime, but also very corny. Sometimes this has simply to do with the fact that the image is overused. A speech that is a known copy of another Sublime speech will not cause awe but ridicule.

The Sublime can strike us in nature and in cities, and beyond. Perhaps it affects some more than others. It is distinct from the Beautiful, yet often conflated with it. According to Burke the Sublime’s ultimate cause is our survival and the passions of fear that help us maintain survival. There could be further unknown factors, a possibility which Burke freely accepted. In this sense, the idea of the Sublime is itself Sublime in its obscurity.

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