sublime

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Seashore with Shipwreck by Moonlight (Caspar David Friedrich, 1825)

A really good scare is a really good thing, but these days a person needs to cultivate opportunities to find one. In spite of its alleged spookiness, Halloween offers little in this regard, although maybe an older, more robust version of our current, flimsy holiday did. With its roots in the Celtic rites of Samhain, which marked the night that separated the warmth of summer from the darkness of winter, Halloween stems from the calendric threshold on which all-too-real, dread spirits were especially dangerous to humankind. We’ve come a long way from those days, but I don’t know that it’s particularly tasteful or sophisticated to trade dressing as evil spirits in an attempt to frighten away foul supernatural forces for dressing as pirates and witches in an attempt to get candy from strangers. I suppose it would be alright if we would divorce Halloween’s semi-spooky—but really just dorky—events from its origins for once and for all: admit that it’s an excuse to revel in bad taste and move it on the calendar to a time of year when you actually want your kids to be outside at night. Then, freed from kitsch, October can be relished for its deliciously creepy change of the seasons.  Get over the colorful leaves and enjoy their sense of decay and the scraggly, ominous branches that their demise reveals. Then we may revive the thrill of fright–both emotionally and aesthetically–, separated from the real fear that was experienced by those Celts millennia ago, and free from the goofy pseudo-scares that only distract from the real weirdness of nature.

I am calling for a cultivation of the sublime, an aesthetic theory that was part of the modernizing, post-Enlightenment eighteenth century. There is no better expositor for the theory than Edmund Burke, who published A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful in 1757. This book articulated a significant break with earlier theories of art, which esteemed beauty as the end-all be-all for artists’ achievement and for educated patrons’ comprehension. Burke defined the sublime as a category separate from, but as equally valid as, beauty. In his definition, small, smooth, delicate, graceful things with clear bright colors that encourage feelings of love and admiration are beautiful. The sublime excites the anticipation of pain and danger; it produces the strongest emotion that the mind is capable of feeling as it simulates actual pain and danger.

Burke does not emphasize specific forms, elements or styles in sublime art, architecture, or nature, but rather he highlights characteristics that can be seen in all of them. They remain relevant to twenty-first century experience. Specifically, the characteristics which are associated with the sublime are terror, which robs the mind of its power of reasoning; obscurity, which raises levels of apprehension by hiding the full extent of any (perceived) danger; privation, which includes the darkness, solitude and silence that also deprive us of information that would allow us to understand our environment and thus our situation in it; vastness, especially as the scale of an object makes it difficult for us to relate to it physically; infinity, which is the ultimate “vastness,” and as such is rare, but present in something Burke calls the “artificial infinite,” manifest in objects with boundaries that our eyes cannot perceive. An overarching principle of Burke’s is that these characteristics are sublime (and not just downright horrifying) when we are protected from the actual harm that they suggest, but do not actually pose.

The sublime is part of the appeal of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. The Shipwreck (above) portrays the aftermath of a violent wreck, washed upon a rocky shore beyond which stretches a vast, unknowable sea—eerily calm and quiet after the storm—all dimly illuminated by a partially-concealed moon. Nature is one of the great sources of the sublime, especially as it is presented here, vacillating between ferocity and peacefulness over which we have no control, and to which we are absolutely subject.

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Cenotaph for Newton (Étienne-Louis Boullée, 1784)

Architecture is rarely a setting for the sublime, since no building should function in a way that terrifies its occupants. The palace of an autocrat or a cathedral dedicated to a supreme being come close, but even these are intended to inspire allegiance and devotion while at the same time distinguishing ultimate authority. Truly sublime architecture exists only on paper; some of the best was drawn by Étienne-Louis Boullée within decades of the publication of Burke’s book. Boullée’s drawings of practically-unbuildable buildings, circulated in his Essay on the Art of Architecture (1788), symbolize the power of the most extreme supernatural forces and human institutions.  Hist project for a Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton (above) was designed to be as overwhelming and vast as Newton’s mental capacity; it is immense (note the people inside who appear as mere specks) and takes the form of a great sphere which exemplifies the artificial infinite: it has no beginning and no end. The scant illumination, provided by small holes in the dome in the pattern of constellations, deprives visitors of clearly understanding their environment and thus also drawing a clear distinction between the reasoning powers of Newton and mere non-genius mortals who stand in awe of him.

Art forms that developed long after Burke can also take part in the sublime. Film often manifests the theory, especially through the creeping sense of dread that the best scary movies capture. Slow-moving monsters in early horror films, every means by which Stephen King makes you identify with the isolation of his main characters, the hidden shark you don’t see until well into Jaws, and the setting of evil in the Lord of the Rings trilogy—Mt. Doom, Mordor, Isengard (not to mention their residents)—all give us the creeps because they are sublime. They deliver the safe kind of dread that Burke wrote about: “When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight . . . but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful.” In other words: being actually pursued in your own house by the undead: terrifying; bad. Observing the shadow of the undead creeping up the stairs from the comfort of your sofa when you rent Nosferatu: sublime; good. In fact, very good and yes, delightful.

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Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror
(F. W. Murnau, dir., Max Schreck as the vampire, 1922)

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2 thoughts on “sublime

  1. I’m not certain that sublime architecture exists only on paper. I might nominate Rudolph’s Art and Architecture building at Yale. If it is delightful, it is in the degree to which it inspires dread.

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