Academic journal article Style

A Short Guide to the Theory of the Sublime

Academic journal article Style

A Short Guide to the Theory of the Sublime

Article excerpt

Among the most stimulating contemporary pronouncements on the subject of the sublime is an interpretation of the phenomenon of violence in mass culture that refers to the notion of "the aesthetics of the sublime" (Crowther, Critical Aesthetics 129-30). This can help us to realize how much the meaning of that technical term (the sublime), used nowadays by philosophers, aestheticians, and literary theorists, differs from the meaning usually associated with the sublime and sublime phenomena in the ordinary use of language. Listening to people we can observe that the sublime now frequently means noble and morally positive.

In theoretical reflection a totally different notion is fashionable. In 1984, Jean-Luc Nancy opened his article devoted to the subject as follows: "The sublime is in fashion" (25, see also Crowther, The Kantian Sublime 3). But he added immediately that the fashion is very old. Indeed, if we look at the bibliography of the sublime in English, we can even observe a kind of renaissance: there has been an abundance of theoretical and critical, aesthetic, and general philosophical texts dealing with the sublime since the end of the 70s. (The most important texts are written mainly by Lyotard, but there are other sources relevant here: Rachwal and Slawek, the reader Of the Sublime ed. by Courtine, monographic issues of New Literary History and Studies in Romanticism; Weiskel's Romantic Sublime.) This real "eruption" of academic interest in the English speaking world is accompanied by a revival in other countries. Special issues of literary journals are devoted to the sublime in France, Sweden, and Poland. Antholog ies dealing with the subject are published in France, Netherlands, and Denmark. There is a growing interest in the sublime in Germany and Italy.

In contemporary reflection on the subject, the sublime has many dimensions, not only aesthetic but also ethical (Crowther Critical Aesthetics, The Kantian Sublime; Ferguson "The Nuclear Sublime"); general philosophical and psychological (Sussman, Morris, Weiskel); political (Crowther Critical Aesthetics, Ramazani, Shapiro, Ferguson "The Nuclear Sublime"); linguistic and rhetorical (Holmqvist and Pluciennik); and sociological (Balfe). The sublime may also induce us to think specifically about the political motives of action (Kwiek).

A similar explosion of interest in the sublime can be found in eighteenth-century pre-romantic Britain (see the reader edited by Ashfield and de Bolla, Hipple, Monk). It is impossible here to decide whether "the sublime" and "sublimity" used in the eighteenth century have similar meanings as used today. (For complex histories of the terms, see Wood, Cohn and Miles.) That is why we initially treat the sublime as a kind of literary motif. It is certain that the renaissance of the motif in the 1980s does not make it easy to limit "the sublime" as a term of rhetoric or, generally, of reflection on language. In eighteenth-century aesthetic reflections on the sublime, there are astoundingly different accounts of the subject. It may be said that all three theoretical "arche-texts of the sublime" by Pseudo-Longinos, Burke, and Kant constitute incomparable paradigms of talking about it (see Crowther, Critical Aesthetics 115).

For instance, in Pseudo-Longinos' theory, the sublime has distinct moral implications because it is strongly associated with a kind of normative psychology. On the other hand, Burke's theory is, broadly speaking, directed toward the aesthetics of such situations in which some elements are felt either as painful or as threatening. Still, Kant elaborates his theory in such a way that in his aesthetics the most substantial is a response of reason to the overwhelming excess either of greatness or power. Kant focuses on limitations of imagination when confronted with ideas of reason (cf. Crowther, Critical Aesthetics 115). However, there is something Burke and Kant have in common: they both built their aesthetic theories on the dualism of the beautiful and the sublime. …

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