Fear of the Sublime

By Velde, Paul | The Antioch Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview
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Fear of the Sublime


Velde, Paul, The Antioch Review


"Ah, the distinguished thing!" Supposedly the last words of Henry James, a sensibility wholly intact seems to have slipped out. We recognize the novelist in the flutter of earthly remains. Usually James's Words are quoted with a prefatory "So this is it at last," leaving out the "Ah." Such armored lucidity might give even Yeats's horseman Pause. But for James the headstone was still in the future, and the Main course of an exquisite dining experience could just as easily have Called forth, playfully, the same words. The "distinguished thing" is Rather like a march down the aisle. They exude a highly cultivated sensibility, Fastidious and unalterably personal, in an exclamatory state. If they fail the sublime, they nonetheless mark its vicinity, suggestive to the bitter end.

Like James, the sublime is a cultivated taste. Also like James, who As artist evokes a particularly musty version of the sublime ideal, it Languishes stiffly in awe-inspiring, marvelous splendor. Spared the Numbing ubiquity of its near synonyms "awesome," and some decades Ago "marvelous," sublime is the faded beauty of the thesaurus, Or old maid, for whom nothing is ever good enough. Too subjective, Or archaic, or simply vague, for the academy, yet with a pedigree too Eminent to be dismissed, it is relegated to a classical no man's land, Like muses, sacred springs, and that beauty not entirely in the eye of the beholder, so archaic as to be almost unrecognizable. The sublime Often identified with beauty is so only incidentally, and in itself is actually Inimical to beauty. Yet if muses, sacred springs, and epic heroism Are risible matter in the classroom, beauty and the sublime are better Known, if only in the breach, for flustered silence.

Briefly, the sublime might be compared to the top of a mountain As seen from its foothills or lower slopes. It impresses as perhaps nothing Else can, if only on occasion, with supreme order, quasi-mystical, Hardly rational, to which all else bends, height, air, vista included. Shaken by the combination of sheer magnitude and height, the viewers From below are also exalted. The experience is sensory, always sudden And unexpected (as at the mountain's peak appearing majestically out Of a mist); it is accompanied by feelings of awe or astonishment, or simple reverence. This is quite different from the awe or intimations Of it prompted by symbolic representations of power, which are the staple, for example, of White House tours. The power of the sublime Is sensory.

Our basic idea of the sublime, that it exists at all, and that it is Found, like a very special gem, at the apex of literary achievement, is Derived from Longinus, a first-century Greek rhetorician who in a long Essay in the form of a letter On the Sublime outlined its chief components. They are passion, compelling idea, and elevated language. Passion And compelling idea being essentially innate, not learnable and unpredictable, are impulsive in nature, fluctuating wildly, and more Often than not lost in the frenzy of the moment. Elevated language In this context, according to Longinus, stabilizes and gives weight to Passion and grandeur as a kind of controlled tumult at the heart of the sublime. It is defined precisely as "distinction and excellence in expression Which transports its audience." Persuasion, on which rhetoric turns, urges by reason, or at least its appearance, and the hearer asked For his assent may refuse. The sublime is altogether irresistible; unlike the effects of composition, which are cumulative, it "flashes forth At the right moment, scattering everything before it like a thunderbolt...."

On the Sublime is primarily an exposition of how this is achieved In rhetoric and literature, entailing at every juncture the difficult to Perceive but essential distinction between elevated language, with its Immediacy and passion, and the cumulative effects of literary composition Per se, however beautiful or accomplished. In this scheme the sublime differs from the beautiful, which involves the relationship of Many different elements while, again, the sublime is sudden and overwhelming, Vanquishing any incidental beauty.

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