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Friday, February 18, 2011


In this essay I demonstrated a parallel between Kant’s concept of the sublime and my concept of the uncanny. In Kant the sublime is that affect arising from the subject’s perception that a given phenomenon seems boundless, even though it may not really be boundless, as in the case of sublime natural phenomena (storm-clouds, mountains, etc.) The uncanny applies to literary elements that suggest a transcendence of ordinary “isophenomenal” causality even though those elements do not transcend in the cognitive sense, as do elements of the other category of metaphenomenality, “the marvelous.”

To expand on the caution I expressed before in the above essay, this parallel does not imply identity, for the sublime can appear in any work regardless of its phenomenal category. I mentioned Maugham’s book THE RAZOR’S EDGE, which contains the sublime affect even though it’s an entirely isophenomenal work, while Poe’s HOUSE OF USHER, a work of uncanny metaphenomenality, has its own sublimities. The same aesthetic applies to the marvelous form of the metaphenomenal, but I stress that a work is not automatically sublime just because it contains marvels that do transcend causality. As mentioned earlier I’ll be examining the 1960 comic-book story “Superman’s Return to Krypton” as an example of this form of sublimity, but first—more Philosophy 302.

As noted earlier, Kant doesn’t give adequate examples of the literary sublime. Longinus, the earliest extant writer to use the term, doesn’t supply more than a few examples, one of which is the “silence of Ajax” scene in Homer’s ODYSSEY. Thus, though one of Longinus’ definitions of the sublime is to say that it is “beyond nature,” he can characterize the sublime in terms that have nothing to do with “nature” as such. By contrast Kant most often characterizes the sublime in terms of natural phenomena, though he does not define it in those terms alone. If one agrees that Longinus’ example is indeed sublime, then a full consideration of the sublime cannot be confined to awesome natural forces, or even to what Douglas Wolk calls “the crush of the infinite.”

Fortunately, though Longinus and Kant don’t give one much to build on, another anatomist of sublimity was more prodigal in his use of examples: Edmund Burke. His 1756 work, "A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful", is an empiricist take on the affects of the sublime and the beautiful, and is also one of the works to which critical idealist Kant directly responds in the AESTHETIC JUDGMENT. As a post-Kantian I certainly disagree with Burke’s attempt to reduce all affects down to pure sensation. However, Burke provides many useful examples. Most of them are taken from works with marvelous content—the Bible, Virgil, Milton, the Faerie Queene—but at no point does Burke call any of these sublime merely because they are marvelous. His examples are usually presented under categorical headings that suggest aspects of the sublime—“terror,” “power,” “infinity”—but it’s significant that one of his most telling examples is taken from the isophenomenal Shakespeare play HENRY IV:

All furnished, all in arms,
All plumed like estridges that with the wind
Baited like eagles having lately bathed,
Glittering in golden coats like images,
As full of spirit as the month of May,
And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer,
Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls.
I saw young Harry with his beaver on,
His cuisses on his thighs, gallantly armed
Rise from the ground like feathered Mercury
And vaulted with such ease into his seat
As if an angel dropped down from the clouds,
To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus

Burke then justifies calling this scene "sublime" due to its “richness and profusion of images.” This would not be the only criterion applicable to marvelous works, but it applies well in terms of the 1960 Siegel-Boring Superman story.

What sets this superhero-romance tale apart from hundreds of other Superman stories of lesser complexity is indeed its “richness and profusion of images,” as well as (to extend Burke's terms into post-Kantian territory) their symbolic resonance. In AGREEABLE YOU I indicated that one scene alone, with its imagery of violent natural phenomena, might suggest the sublime, not so much in terms of Kant as in terms of Doug Wolk's (erroneous) reading of Kant. But as I said at the end of that essay:

There's another sense in which pop-culture stories can be sublime, beyond their actual depiction of "boundlessness."

Obviously I’m not implying that a 26-page comics-story, in which Superman accidentally time-travels back to his pre-apocalyptic homeworld Krypton, is on the same level of visionary complexity as PARADISE LOST. Nevertheless, the mythic symbolism of the former story should not be discounted, particularly when that symbolism exceeds that of many of the artcomics works touted by Wolk. I’ve mentioned in this essay that a Freudian-flavored interpretation of the story might view the Man of Steel’s return to his homeworld, and his encounter with a woman who name reproduces the syllables of his mother’s name twice, to be a recapitulation of the incest symbol-complex. But it might also be viewed more profitably in a Jungian context, given that the Superman character does not compete with his father as the Freudian paradigm insists he should. Indeed, while on Krypton Superman not only befriends Jor-El, he also becomes more like his father, showing a propensity for scientific invention rarely seen during his heroic phase on Earth. In addition, the sense that all of the wonders of Krypton, natural and man-made, hang upon the precipice of disaster gives the story an aura of tragedy, albeit a very sexy tragedy: more ROMEO AND JULIET than HENRY IV.

I could expound upon other images in “SriK,” such as the peculiar behemoth-creature at the story’s beginning, who leads Superman into his temporal misstep the way the “Questing Beast” of Arthurian tales would lead knights into misadventure, but the general point is made: that sublimity follows along any path that arouses the emotions of fear and awe, even if that path leads one down the hardscrabble roads of commercial comic books.

Neither Burke nor Kant demonstrate any great fascination with mythic symbolism as such. However, I would expand some of the terms they use to describe the sublime, such as "might" or "magnificence," to include the sense of a greater mythic pattern that brings the events of a given story into the wider "family" of mythic narrative.

Once again, I repeat the W.B. Yeats quote I used in my first post here as a touchstone for the "familial" nature of myths of all kinds:

“It is the charm of mythic narrative that it cannot tell one thing without telling a hundred others. The symbols are an endless inter-marrying family. They give life to what, stated in general terms, appears only a cold truism, by hinting how the apparent simplicity of the statement is due to an artificial isolation of a fragment, which, in its natural place, is connected with all the infinity of truths by living fibres.”

As noted above, one of Burke's categories for the sublime also references "infinity."

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