February 25, 2015

Is the Sublime Sublime?

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth, by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Today, we tend to think of the sublime as a positive concept, but the Romantics didn't.

According to Edmund Burke, the sublime is "whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger ... Whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror."

Wordsworth said:

Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burden of the mystery
In which the heavy and weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened

Coleridge said, "No object of the Sense is sublime in itself; but only as far as I make it a symbol of some Idea. the circle is a beautiful figure in itself; it becomes sublime, when I contemplate eternity under that figure."

And so the sublime is not something inherent in nature but rather is manmade and within ourselves. As such, it's a product of language. 

I was thinking this morning how it's the human condition, how hate and love and elation and depression are all tied together in this gordion knot. On my good days, I think that's wonderful ~ the highest are higher because the deep lows are there. But on my bad days, I think, what's the use?

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