Some Conceptions of the Sublime

Kant’s description of the Sublime is given short shrift in his Critique of the Power of Judgment (at least so far as it is anthologized in my Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism). Mostly, his understanding of the Sublime has a great deal to do with size, and I do sort of like the idea of the disconnect between those large things that we can “imagine” and the vast numbers that we can “conceptualize,” so to speak. This is the Mathematical Sublime, and Kant says, “Nature is thus sublime in those of its appearances the intuition of which brings with them the idea of its infinity” (435). So, I’d imagine that the contemplation of space or vast oceans might be occasion for an experience of the Sublime.

However, Kant misses an opportunity (once again?) in his insistence that we take no interest in the actual purpose of the object we contemplate. He loves to use the flower as an example of beauty, of a true purposiveness that we can contemplate without reference to any actual purpose. However, it seems by allowing ourselves to follow that idea of purpose into the flower we might easily be exposed to some experiences of Mathematical Sublimity that, for Kant, are strictly off limits.

A closer examination of the function of a flower would expose to us the reproductive function that pollination holds for the plant. By way of the idea of pollination we might come to the complex interplay between flower and bee, and then between bee and beehive. (Say nothing of what connections we might encounter were we to pursue the idea of reproduction.) We’d encounter all of those bees working together in some way (there is some musical quality to it – vibrations and dances) to create something as fantastically complex and beautiful as a honeycomb. A consideration of the uses for the honey-comb might lead us to the bear (and thence no doubt to the storybook, to our childhood) or to the marketplace (and there find either the warmth of the kitchen table or the neon glow of the cereal aisle). Following either of these two lines of thought, in any of the many ways that they could be followed (not to mention the many ways in which they themselves interrelate), leads inevitably to a direct experience of the infinite, to our own interconnectedness in and with the natural world, and thus the Sublime, as represented in something as simple and “merely beautiful” as a flower.

As complex a web as this run at ultimate purpose may seem, it is one that our brains accomplish often and almost instantaneously. It is that sense of the interconnectedness of all things that is familiar to most of us in our moments of deepest clarity, and it seems that it comes, not from a refusal to invest interest in or account for the purpose of an object, but rather as a result of our total and instantaneous investment in the discovery of such a purpose. At its core it seems a Scientific endeavor, this deep inquiry into the nature of reality, but it nevertheless delivers us up to a true sense of the Sublime.

Burke is more willing to allow for the invasion of emotion into his conception of both the beautiful and the sublime, which he identifies as producing “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (459). He recognizes as the source of these experiences some level of individual investment, and he seems to set beauty and sublimity on an oppositional axis. Beauty is associated with the experience of pleasure which Burke associates with our relation to “society;” Sublimity he suggests springs from our private fears and pains which he locates in our drive toward “self-preservation” (458).

Burke’s conviction that “the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those that enter on the part of pleasure” would be interesting to follow into works like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings which seem to suggest as much in their entire characterization of “darkness” versus “light.” And yet, with very few exceptions, it is the powers of light – associated as Burke’s beauty with pleasure and the larger society – which prevail.

It is telling that Burke ends with a list of oppositional qualities that he attributes to the beautiful (small, smooth, light, delicate) and the sublime (vast, neglected, gloomy, solid) and then comments on just such an experience as I outlined above:

In the infinite variety of natural combinations we must expect to find the qualities of things the most remote imaginable from each other united in the same object. We must expect also to find combinations of the same kind in the works of art. But when we consider the power of an object upon our passions, we must know that when any thing is intended to affect the mind by the force of some predominant property, the affection produced is like to be the more uniform and perfect, if all the other properties or qualities of the object be of the same nature… (460).

Because Burke has positioned the two qualities of Beauty and the Sublime as fundamentally opposed to one another, he seems to want to downplay those incidences where we experience a combination. He skirts the issue with his appeal to “the infinite variety of natural combinations” as a source of what he seems to think of as an occasional mistake in the fabric of his dualism. Indeed, even for those occasions he insists, “does it prove, that they are any way allied, does it prove even that they are not opposite and contradictory?” By his lack of interest in pursuing the question, we are given his assumption that it has already been answered.

(An important [and relevant] note about my claims to the way that Burke “ends”: I am, of course, still working out of my Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, and what I have given as Burke’s ending is in fact the ending he is given by Leitch and the other editors of the volume. I find this both troubling and entertaining. Troubling in the knowledge that, in order to speak expertly on the subject I ought to follow all trails before developing my conclusion. Entertained by the knowledge that any attempt to follow those trails would last until eternity and thus preclude my ever finally forming my opinion. Furthermore, I detect even in this minor dilemma an interaction between the social aspects of pleasure and the private concept of pain, a fact which helps me be confident in my reservations regarding Burke’s dichotomy).


About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
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