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The Sublime

Trevor Pateman

Though semantically paired with the beautiful, the sublime has nothing like its currency. The use of the term may even strike some people as affected: to call a work `sublime' is rather like calling it `divine'. But if a critic uses `sublime' to characterize a work which induces amazement, wonder or awe in virtue of its ambition, scope or a passion which seems to drive it, then this use is not far off that to be found in one of the major works of classical criticism, On the Sublime, historically attributed to Longinus but now generally reckoned to date from the first century AD, before Longinus' time.

On the Sublime deals with forms of expression which have the power to `entrance' us, to `transport us with wonder', as opposed to merely persuading or pleasing us. Sublime passages in literature exert an `irresistible' force. Couched as rhetorical advice, `a well timed stroke of sublimity scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt, and in a flash reveals the power of the speaker' (all citations from On the Sublime, Ch. 1).

This power arises not from mere mastery of technique: not all technically competent artist are capable of sublimity. Rather, it can only be achieved by those artists who are able to form `grand conceptions' and are possessed by `powerful and inspired emotion' (pathos) qualities which Longinus regards as `very largely innate' (Ch. 8). Combined with technical competence, powerful thought and emotion produce the `true sublime', in works which `uplift our souls', fill us with `proud exaltation and a sense of vaunting joy, just as though we had ourselves produced what we had heard.'

Now there is clearly some slippage here between the idea of the genius of the sublime artist, as a superhuman figure, and the genius of a particular kind of work. The same slippage occurs in our contemporary cultures insofar as they transfer a suspicion of a certain kind of artist, the genius, the superman, onto certain kinds of work: the vast, the unrestrained, and so on. Contemporary cultures prefer their art works, in general, to be modest and unassuming. And, in general, they are, so that there is little opportunity for critics to use the word `sublime' even if they were willing. (London's Tate Modern has, however, created a gallery space designed at least to house works which are very large and thus, at least potentially, sublime)

Sublime works are produced, nonetheless, even in unexpected places. The conception which informs Werner Herzog's film Fitzcarraldo is certainly grand: a man getting a steam boat hauled over a mountain in order to finance opera in the Amazon. The filming is as passionate as the hero. Insofar as the film produces amazement, wonder or awe it is properly characterized as sublime. Again, the all male Satyricon Theatre of Moscow performs a cabaret version of Jean Genet's The Maids with song, dance and mime which in virtue of the intensity of physically expressed passion conveyed undoubtedly renders the performance sublime though we would probably simply say `astonishing'. Perhaps one should start thinking of some contemporary fiction as sublime Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example. The large-scale sculptures of Anish Kapoor, discussed elsewhere on this website, also attract characterisation as "sublime"

On the Sublime was translated into French in 1674, and exerted a considerable influence in eighteenth century aesthetics, where beauty and sublimity are often paired. In this context the sublime often has a rather different meaning from what it has in Longinus, and this different meaning has also entered into our way of thinking. For example, in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) Edmund Burke generates a conception of the sublime in connection with our encounter with nature as well as art. The sublime now becomes that which causes astonishment, `that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror' (p. 95). In lesser degrees, the sublime produces admiration, reverence and respect (p. 96). In greater degrees, the sublime is that which produces terror: `terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently the ruling principle of the sublime' (p. 97). So Burke's question then becomes, What terrifies us? Subjectively, it is the fear of pain. Objectively, we are terrified by vastness (the ocean), by obscurity (which hides the full extent of a danger from us), by what is powerful, and by what is infinite. (Says Burke, `Infinity has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect, and truest test of the sublime' (p. 129): recall Pascal's `I am terrified by the emptiness of these infinite spaces', in the Pensees.) In relation to art ,Burke lists as sources of sublimity: magnitude (e.g. of a building); unfinishedness (as in preparatory sketches); difficulty (as when we imagine the immense force necessary to build Stonehenge); magnificence (especially when to some extent in a rich disarray); and colour (the sublime excludes white, green, yellow, blue, pale red, violet and the spotted and requires `sad and fuscous colours, as black, or brown, or deep purple, and the like' p. 149).

Burke's constant recourse to nature to characterize aesthetic experience is standard in eighteenth century and later writing; it is also found, for example, in Kant's Critique of Judgement (1790), where it is used as it is by Burke get at the beautiful as well as the sublime. Of course, natural beauty is a concept of major importance to romantic thought. Here it is only to be observed that the relation of nature to the aesthetic is one which divides contemporary aestheticians: for some, the beautiful and sublime in nature are 1 paradigmatic for understanding the aesthetic value of art; for others, this approach - which treats it as a contingent fact that we also get aesthetic pleasure from art as well as nature - is totally misguided.

My own inclination is to side with the eighteenth century, especially in relation to how we think of the sublime. In addition, though the sublime is in one aspect characterized through its power to effect loss of control over ourselves - we are thunderstruck by the sublime - in another aspect the characterization of the sublime is in terms of the mind at work: we are, says Burke, amazed, awe inspired, astonished by the sublime. This does not sound so very different from the (sense of) wonder in which all serious scientific response to the world is (also) rooted. Educationally, we might be well advised to think more in terms of ensuring that children encounter the sublime than that they are initiated into the beautiful.

The concept of the sublime, as articulated by Burke, contains a lurking paradox. It is that we are drawn to things which cause us pain, indeed, terror, says Burke. Yet our whole psychology is built on the notion that we seek pleasure and shun pain. This paradox can be dissolved by saying that we find pleasure in the encounter with imagined or fictional pain, or that the aesthetically painful is prophylactic of real pain, or that the `pain' of the sublime is metaphorical that there is a pleasure in the sublime which we characterize as painful. The paradox is rather more obstinate than these summary resolutions suggest.


Burke, E (1757) A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Reprint edition, Oxford: Basial Blackwell

Kant, I (1790) The Critique of Judgement trans. J C Meredith. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Longinus On the Sublime quoted from Aristotle, Horace, Longinus Classical Literary Criticism ed. T S Dorsch Harmondsworth Penguin Books 1965

"Sublime" first published 1991 in Trevor Pateman, Key Concepts: A Guide to Aesthetics, Criticism and the Arts in Education. London: Falmer Press pp 169 - 171. Lightly revised for this 2004 website version