Friday, August 3, 2012

Sublimity and Childbirth

I recently composed a sample presentation on the Romantic conception of "The Sublime" for my Honors humanities sequence and thought I'd share.

Some questions came up as I was working on this, mostly regarding the second kind of sublimity that I discuss in the presentation, the Gothic sublime. According to Vijay Mishra, in the gothic sublime, the subject takes pleasure in the fact that s/he has no power over the terrifying or grand and her/his complete subjugation within it. It's hard for me to wrap my brain around this idea. People might cite the example of the horror film--we enjoy the overwhelming feeling of terror when watching Saw, for example. But don't we know, in the end, that it is just a movie, that we can turn it off, that we DO have control over it in this way? On the other hand, once the ideas are in our heads, do we have control over them any longer? So, perhaps the horror film is an adequate example because we do give in to the terror of allowing ourselves to have horrifying ideas. Another example might be Goth culture. Do people wear particular kinds of clothing and get particular kinds of body modifications in order to submit to the grandness of terror? Not sure that I buy that one either.

My final thought is that perhaps childbirth could sometimes be seen as an example of a sort of submission to the Gothic sublime. If a woman were to enjoy the experience of childbirth (and, inexplicably to me, I've heard women say that they do), she would certainly be taking pleasure in the terror of something larger and grander than herself, something bloody and gory and connected both to death and to a life force. What do you think?

Okay, here's the script. Follow along with the presentation located at: The Sublime.

Page 1
Today going to talk to you about the sublime
Might see this title page and get excited--"Santeria"
Not what we’re doing here today
The sublime is an artistic and philosophical concept derived during the European Romantic movement of the late 18th century

Page 2
Start by talking about definitions
In typical usage, use sublime as adjective
Going to talk about “the sublime” as a noun
Definition that we’ll be using is taken from A Dictionary of Philosophy
Don’t forget—terrifying yet awesome grandeur

Page 3
Most scholars see Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1757, as the seminal text for the concept
Burke distinguished between beauty and the sublime
Quote from Arthur Krystal’s "Hello, beautiful: what we talk about when we talk about beauty," published in Harper's Magazine in 2005
Remember the tenets of Neoclassicism that we discussed when we created our Monticellos—symmetry, balance, serenity, reflection of rationalism, goal of beauty
Here’s Burke saying “Bye-Bye, Neoclassicism”

Page 4
Immanuel Kant expanded on the concept of the sublime in The Critique of Judgment, published in 1790, according to article by W. Walsh in Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Believed that pleasure that we take from the sublime comes from our recognition of our own brain’s ability to comprehend the immensity of the object and thus exercise some kind of power over it
Because I can see that you are terrifying and great, I must therefore be powerful
Quote from Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy explains
So, yeah, the brain is super awesome according to Kant

Page 5
Romantics believed enlightenment possible through encounters with the sublime
So, remember the definition? Terrifying yet awesome grandeur, would bring higher level of understanding of life
Thought the sublime would help them to see the light, so to speak

Page 6
Romantics believed that they could not only find the sublime in nature but also in art
Kant pointed to St. Peter’s Basilica—or even the larger St. Peter’s Square—in Rome, Italy as an architectural example of the sublime
Goal is not necessarily beauty—not the balance that we see in Monticello—but power and immensity, movement
We see a lot of life here (with the flow of people) in contrast to serene setting of Monticello

Page 7
An example from the world of music is George Frideric Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, composed in 1741
In Music and Monumentality, Alexander Rehding says that critics differ as to the characters that they consider indicative of the sublime in music
Some say that a fugue, which is a special type of repeating theme, must be present in a piece for it to qualify as containing the sublime—this happens in the Hallelujah Chorus (34)
Others say that the piece must have intensification and contrast, which we definitely hear in the Hallelujah Chorus (34)
Rehding himself says that the sublime is present when our “sensuous capacity[ies] [are] overwhelmed” (104)
I would argue that this also happens in this piece—let’s see what you think
"Hallelujah Chorus"
After listening to this, I think we can all agree that Handel is pretty much a rock star, hence the electric guitars

Page 8
In literature, scholars divide Romantic writers into those of first generation and those of second generation
Early writers tended to focus on finding the sublime in nature
Lines from Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”
Here we have an explanation of how this poet believed that the sublime worked
Find terrifying yet awesome grandeur in nature, in this case the landscape surrounding the ruins of the Abbey
Experiences a lightening of the load of this world because finds some understanding in that moment of being overwhelmed
Transports new understanding back to daily life

Page 9
Second generation of Romantic writers tended to focus on the terrifying part of the definition of the sublime—terrifying yet awesome grandeur
Felt that the best way to experience the immensity and power of the world was to experience the ecstasy of terror
According to Vijay Mishra, this kind of sublime is very different from the Romantic sublime that we’ve talked about so far—that we saw in St. Peter’s Basilica, Handel’s Messiah, and Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”
Remember that Kant said that we get some pleasure out of the terror of the sublime because we enjoy our mind power, our ability to recognize the awesomeness of the grandeur
With the gothic sublime, though, we embrace the fact that we have no power over the terror, we take pleasure in our complete subjugation within the sublime—how the terror of the sublime completely defeats us (Mishra 17)

Page 10
Out of this arose the gothic novel, like we’ll be reading
Some traits of gothic novels, according to an entry in the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia

Page 11
Visual artists also worked toward capturing the gothic sublime in their work
Here are a couple of notoriously terrifying paintings by the German artist Henry Fuseli
First is The Nightmare, painted in 1782
Mysterious horse head, dark colors, medieval look
Also incubus (male demon who lies upon sleeping women in order to have sexual intercourse with them)
We can see here what Mishra is talking about when he says that the gothic sublime was about embracing the subjugation that comes with terror, as this woman is completely under the control of the incubus
Other is Horseman Attacked by a Snake (1800), similarly terrifying, as horseman is again completely overcome by the power of the devouring snake

Page 12
To end, return definition of terrifying yet awesome grandeur, engagement with which might lead one to Enlightenment
How has this carried through to today’s culture
As mentioned in discussion of gothic, definitely allow ourselves to become terrified by watching mystery or horror films—do we expect these experiences to lead to enlightenment?
Interesting question
It is clear that we continue to seek the sublime in nature and to consider those experiences times of Enlightenment
We go hiking, we visit the ocean, we climb Mount Everest--
Mount Everest
From 8850 meters, the creators of this video clearly experienced the sublime, terrifying yet awesome grandeur, and as the soundtrack demonstrates, I think, this experience helped them to see themselves differently as human beings
To reach a level of Enlightenment

Page 13
Works cited


  1. Interesting. This gives me deep stuff to ponder while I work on my middle school syllabus. Talk about the Gothic sublime, super scary and overwhelming. Thinking about making middle schoolers love literature so they can one day be scholars really has "terrifying yet awesome grandeur, engagement with which might lead one to Enlightenment." Well, maybe not Enlightenment. Maybe just being able to make it through another school year.

  2. The sublime as manifest in teaching. Hmmm. Now, that IS something to think about. I like it! Thanks for the comment! :)