The sublime is a term in aesthetics and philosophy, referring to immensity or complexity beyond all possibility of measurement or calculation. It is contained in visions that are vast, unbounded, complex or obscure, to the point of being beyond the limits of our comprehension or imagination.
It also refers to the sense of transcendence and awe that is elicited by these.
The easiest way to explain it — a quick reference point, if you like — is to talk about our experience of mountains. In discussions of the sublime, references are often made to the painting, “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich (1818).
Transcendence, Awe, Terror
The notion of the sublime also refers to the emotion — a mixture of terror and pleasure — that encounters with such landscapes engender.
The sublime is transcendence …
… mixed with fear.
Feelings of the sublime can be evoked by immense objects of nature — such as oceans and mountains — that are vast, irregular and massive. Mountain scenery can be grandiose, unfathomable, awe-inspiring, transcendent, uplifting and disturbing.
Here is a photograph of Cathedral Mountain in the Cradle-Mountain Lake St Claire National Park.
In her book Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory *, Marjorie Hope Nicholson points out that natural landscapes have long been recognised as evocators of metaphysical questioning and confrontations with the infinite. Mountain scenery can be sublime.
Eighteenth century writers, John Dennis and Anthony Ashley-Cooper and Joseph Addison, all developed notions of the sublime after walking in the European Alps and experiencing, not beauty, but rude magnificence and the awe of infinite space.
The sublime response is also aroused by immense and terrifyingly powerful natural forces.
In 1790 Immanuel Kant * wrote of the ‘dynamical sublime’ which comes from contact with the overwhelming forces of nature. He suggested that when we encounter the vast and powerful aspects of nature we recognise their potential to annihilate us. But soon after this we find the ability to form abstract concepts which encompass and interpret the experience. In this way we gain a sense that we have transcended, through our intellect, the immensities in nature.
Here is a view of the Tasmanian coastline.
Obscurity and Mystery
Eighteenth century philosopher, Edmund Burke, and the Romantic poets, spoke of obscurity and mystery as qualities associated with the sublime. They believed that sublime responses come not only from massiveness and power, but also from objects that are difficult to perceive or to conceive clearly.
Kant also developed the idea of the mathematical sublime, which is experienced when we encounter something which is too unbounded, complex, formless or obscure for us to fully apprehend it. It is contained in experiences that confront us with the limits of our own comprehension or imagination.
This can arise in man-made spaces and in art, when our definitions are challenged, our frameworks are erased, when we are confronted with everything we don’t know … with everything we can never know.
As Philip Shaw * puts it,
“In broad terms, whenever experience slips out of conventional understanding, whenever the power of an object or event is such that words fail and points of comparison disappear, then we resort to the feeling of the sublime. As such the sublime marks the limits of reason and expression, together with a sense of what might lie beyond these limits; this may well explain its association with the transcendent.’ Philip Shaw, The Sublime, p2*
Some experiences make us aware that we are unable to have of a full intuition of reality through sensory experience, imagination and practical reasoning. This leads us into abstract conceptual thought, especially to the ideas of totality and infinity.
Through sublime experiences we gain a sense of transcendence.
Early Christian conceptions saw the sublime as closely related to concepts of God. Eighteenth century Christian thinkers, Thomas Burnet and John Dennis, described nature’s ‘extravagancies’ and our responses to them, and contrasted this with the conception of beauty in nature, which was based on order and regularity. They proposed that vastness, wildness and irregularity of sea and mountains bring thoughts which allow us to reach the idea of God.
I’m out of my depth here. Any comments or input would be much appreciated.
For anyone interested, religious awe is discussed on the website of Andy Tix.
*Philip Shaw, The Sublime, 2006, Routldedge.
*Marjorie Hope Nicholson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite, 1997, Seattle: University of Washington Press.
*Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, Section 26, https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kant/immanuel/k16j/
Thanks to these people for the images.
“Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich – The photographic reproduction was done by Cybershot800i. (Diff), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1020146
Cathedral Mountain Overland Track by Tatters on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/tgerus/11496146633
“Ocean” By NOAA – http://www.photolib.noaa.gov/bigs/wea00816.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3530986
“Tasmanian Southern Ocean” by Adam Selwood on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/adselwood/3107065680
“Swallow in the mist of dawn” By Orble – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49016198
“Staircase MONA” by Rob Taylor – https://www.flickr.com/photos/britsinvade/5707735973, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33537033
Assumption of the Virgin by Titian – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=159518