Back in the day when I was young and foolish, in high school studying poetry, I learned of something called “The Sublime.” It was an idea, an aesthetic, so abstract and yet so beautiful that I wanted it, I believed in it. The Sublime was perfect, breath-taking (literally), beyond (almost) human effort, inspiring, an object of wonder — and fear.
The Sublime is an ideal. A person might think of Plato but that would be missing the point. Plato’s ideal did not have the power of inspiring anything awe. It was an unreachable archetype that we just gesture toward as inferior human beings in our inferior copies of what we can imagine but cannot recreate. There is no emotional content (frustration, maybe?) in Plato’s ideal, but The Sublime?
It was a human idea — floating around for a while in the mid 18th century and infecting the Romantic poets and propounded by the philosophers Edmund Burke and Emanuel Kant. I have dim, dim memories of encountering this in an intro to philosophy class in college. My teacher was a classicist, so she kind of ran over The Sublime with the truck of Platonism, but The Sublime lingered, somehow inextricably tangled up with nature.
When the idea was new, mountains — especially abysses, crevasses, precipices, high snowy peaks and plunging, surging waterfalls — all became conduits through which people could experience The Sublime. People started climbing mountains in order to terrify themselves into a kind of “horrible joy” through which they could fully perceive The Sublime. What were they really climbing? Was it the mountain under their feet or something else? Fear is prescriptive, and it is thrilling (if we don’t die) which is why we like carnival rides.
A very interesting book that looks at this is Mountains of the Mind by Robert McFarlane.
The Sublime was the property of well-educated and well-to-do Europeans. No self-respecting farmer or ploughman or sailor was going to have any part in the reduction of nature into an idea.
I think The Sublime was a force in separating humans from nature (in their minds, only, there’s no real separation possible). That in my life time there has been a movement to “get back to nature” is kind of sickening and self-indulgent. Nature has ALL the power over us. We are it. It is us. It’s not Sublime; it’s the ultimate reality. Drink water or die pretty much says all we need to know about where the power lies.
Featured image: An Avalanche in the Alps Philip James de Loutherbourg. It’s pretty accurate, for all its drama. But…