The Sublime

Salvador-Dali-00

The sublime experience is one which is elevated and inspires awe. Some would say, an experience that touches us or moves us deeply. Many would say that the experience of the sublime is a feeling that behind the phenomena lies some substantial but inaccessible thing – like God, for instance. Because of this the sublime is often put forward as an example to demonstrate the presence of God in our lives. But, we think this is a total misreading of the sublime.

In fact, the experience of the sublime is not that which points toward the inaccessible at all. The experience of the sublime is really a discovery of the real substantiality of things. What the sublime experience tells us is that there is a substantiality in all things, but habit and closeness have robbed us of the magic of it. A magic which is really based in the simple fact that we are perceiving it.

The first great miracle of the Universe is that it exists. The second great miracle – almost more miraculous still – is that we can perceive it. And the greatest miracle of all is that we know we perceive it. The sublime is the experience of knowing that we perceive existence, and that that is a miracle. It has nothing to do with God.

When we see the light behind the grotesque or the beauty in the monster’s interior, we are making a leap from our subjective prejudice to the universal perception. All sublime feeling is an immersion in the universal, whether that be the universality of our species or the universality of the Universe itself. The sublime is a perceiving that suddenly blasts out of a state of not-perceiving. A great work of art can move us in a sublime way on repeated occasions because it is always opening up different doors for us to perceive things from. However, the sublime sensation of the work will not be generated if we have it hanging on our living room wall or if it is a recording that we listen to every day. The sublime has to be a surprise, a way of snapping us out of our subjectivity. Sometimes it can be an absolute shock, as if we were suddenly pushed under water at a moment of complete lethargy when we had practically forgotten we were even floating.

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5 thoughts on “The Sublime

  1. Great topic. I see you’re a Kantian 🙂 Here’s my take. The sublime always starts with something apparently incomprehensible. (The “beautiful” objet d’art can fit in nice symmetrical box, but the sublime must overwhelm to be sublime.) For the neo-classicists, the sublime, by its dizzying power, “elevates and inspires awe”; then for Edmund Burke and later gothic traditions, the sublime conjures up a power that is near-present and threatening but also obscure and incomprehensible. For Kant, the sublime stimulus overwhelms the senses but then we recognize a rational faculty within that can comprehend those powers and magnitudes that are too much for the senses. The sublime for Kant always ends in affirmation of the power of human reason. And for Kant, of course, immersion in reason is immersion in the universal. That’s why I say you’re a Kantian 🙂 I’m sympathetic, but I’m also sympathetic to those formulations of the sublime that overwhelm even the rational faculty – Goya’s Saturn or Stoker’s Dracula might give us that aesthetic variant.

  2. Thanks Gary. It’s interesting, and ironic, that you see a Kantian stream in this article. I read Kant’s Critique of Judgement and his Metaphysics of Morals this year, but the Sublime article should actually be dated to April 2013. Doubtful then that Kant was uppermost in my mind then as I’d only ever bumbled through the first part of the Critique of Reason before that.
    However, I do definitely have an Idealist basis to all my thought, and I now know that I share Kant’s teleological idea of purposiveness. Kant himself denied that he was an Idealist and he talked of transcendent Idealism. My Idealist roots come from Schopenhauer and Berkeley, modified now by the theories of Cosmological Fine Tuning, that I didn’t come across until 2012. I think the Fine Tuning theory revitalises Idealism and turns it into a very purposeful pointer for humanity.
    As for Saturn and Dracula – I think the universality of the sublime is, for the most part, deeply buried in the subconscious, so that to be perceived it needs to be uncovered, which is what art does … and that, is a very Jungian idea. 🙂

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