File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0103, message 4

Date: Thu, 01 Mar 2001 22:31:15 -0600
Subject: Terror & the Sublime

Hugh, Julie et al.,

There is definitely more of a connection with the sublime and terror
than with the sublime and beauty, at least in the way this has
traditionally been represented.

A extremely abbreviated history of the concept of the sublime would run
as follows.  Longinus, a Greek teacher of rhetoric who lived 213-273
C.E. is usually credited with introducing the term.  For him the sublime
consists chiefly in elevation.  It is those stylistic devices which
display grandeur of thought and intensity of feeling.

The term was revived by Boileau in the 17th century and entered into
increased usage thereafter. Edmund Burke codified the term for English
audiences in his book "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our
Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful."  Immanuel Kant made use of this
book, as well as other sources, when he wrote his "Critique of

Kant's chief distinction was to bring the concepts of beauty and the
sublime into the framework of his critical philosophy and the
heterogeneous faculties of judgement, reason, imagination and
understanding. Kant also points out certain relationships with
aesthetics to both ethics and teleology.  This leads to some of the
difficulties that Hugh referred to in connection with "sublime
sentiments" and the conflict of the faculties in producing the sublime
such as the failure of the concept to contain the idea of either the
infinite or the dynamic.

For this reason I sometimes find it easier to use Burke's explanations
of the sublime because they tend to be more direct and psychological. 
Here is what Burke himself said about terror and the sublime.

"Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger,
that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about
terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a
source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the stongest emotion
which the mind is capable of feeling."

What is important to realize here is that Burke's conception of the
sublime was to prove extremely important in raising this emotion over
beauty in the development of the Romantic sensibility.  The Romantic man
of feeling, most strongly typified by Byron, was marked chiefly by
sublime feelings. The elements associated with these were the whole
Gothic realm of mystery, the ancient past, horror, graveyards,
ruins,abandoned cathedrals, wild desolate scenery, glaciers, mountains,
abysses, lonely vistas and the wild, tumultuous ocean.  The purpose of a
sentimental eduction was to teach one to cultivate the dark, brooding,
melancholy feelings of a Heathcliff on Wurthering Heights or a Manfred
in a self-imposed exile. (Childe Harold to the dark tower came!) 

This sublime was also a religious feeling.  God in his hidden majesty
and power evoked sublime feeling.  Fear of the Lord and Awe were the
appropriate religious emotions.  One should approach the most high with
fear and trembling because God in his overwhelming greatness had a
terrible aspect.  As Kant pointed out, the prohibition of the use of
graven images to represent God was the true mark of his sublime nature.

The contemporary sublime breaks with these associations of Romanticism
and Religion, but it still shares with them the terror, pain, power and
sense of the infinite that has long been the hallmark of the sublime.  

Rather than the simple pleasure that beauty evokes, the sublime aims at
feelings that are darker, deeper and much more ambigious.  At the place
where pain and pleasure meet and ecstasy arises, the sublime appears,
conspicuous by his absence.

Certainly, Artaud with his Theatre of Cruelity and sense of theatre as
pagan ritual and archaic religion was evoking the sublime.  

I am not that familiar with the work of Jerzy Grotowski (Isn't he
discussed in "My Dinner with Andre"?), but suspect he may also be
digging in a similar emotional terrain.

The question is what does this contemporary postmodern sublime mean for
us and how precisely does it differ from the sublime of the romantics.
That seems to be the question Lyotard was asking when he connected the
sublime with both the postmodern and the unpresentable.


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