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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, March 3, 2012


If we are to give an example of it that is fully appropriate for the critique of aesthetic judgment, then we must point to the sublime not in products of art... where both the form and magnitude are clearly determined by a human purpose…but rather in crude nature…. that is, merely insofar as crude nature contains magnitude...-- Kant, CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT, pt. 253.
Unlike his predecessors Burke and his follower Schopenhauer, Kant does not attribute the quality of the sublime to art-objects, or indeed to any aspect of human experience, but only to "crude nature," as in his examples of thunderstorms, stormy seas, et al.

Yet obviously the classical writer Longinus, to whom the earliest extant use of the term is credited, did not mean it this way.

I suggest that in JUDGMENT Kant becomes too wrapped up in the antinomy between the idea that the imagination can conjure with what is (in Longinus' words) "beyond nature," and the idea that reason shows that "nothing in nature can be given, however large we may judge it, that could not, when considered in a different relation, be degraded all the way to the infinitely small."  For Kant "products of art" (his only specific examples are "buildings" and "columns"), being "determined by a human purpose," cannot by any means conjure forth the pleasurable displeasure of the sublime as can nature in the raw.  One must assume, at least from the argument presented in JUDGMENT, that like the plastic arts he cited other arts are also tainted by "human purpose" and so cannot be sublime.

Strangely, however, at the beginning of paragraph 28 Kant does define the sublime in more general terms:

Might is an ability that is superior to great obstacles. It is called dominance [Gewalt] if it is superior even to the resistance of something that itself possesses might.
As noted in this earlier essay, Edmund Burke found the sublime in several literary narratives, and specified, in the case of Shakespeare's HENRY IV, that he found sublimity in "the richness and profusion of images."  This reaction suggests that Burke, unlike Kant, did not consider HENRY IV, PARADISE LOST and the rest of his examples to be entirely determined by "human purpose."  Indeed, Burke would probably be more in tune with modern critic Philip Wheelwright, who distinguishes artistic narrative from rhetorical narrative in terms of "assertorial lightness," which restates Sir Philip Sidney's dictum that "The poet never lieth, for he asserteth nothing."  That does not mean that nothing the poet/artist says holds any importance; it merely means that it is not a literal statement, and hence, contrary to Kant's notion, not "purposive" in a pure sense. 

Thus it seems probable to me that when writers as diverse as Longinus, Burke and Schopenhauer do find the sublime in literary works (if not explicitly the architectural works Kant mentions), they do so because they are attracted to images of "might," or even of "dominance," which arises from the struggle of opposing forces. In a related manner, Burke's "profusion of images" depends on a struggle of sorts; a mental struggle within the mind of an audience-member as he is hypothetically overwhelmed by said profusion.

This definition of artistic sublimity, though, still essentially falls in line with Kant's dichotomy re: the beautiful and the sublime. 

In SUBLIMELY SUPER I argued that the Jerry Siegel-Wayne Boring story "Superman's Return to Krypton" displays both propensities, albeit within a popular culture matrix.  One's mileage may vary as to whether or not Boring's art succeeds in capturing any aspect of beauty, but at the very least it must be admitted that the artist is exerting himself to create a mood of beauty and romance in order to support the story, in contradistinction to the way he would have approached (and did approach) many dime-a-dozen adventures of the Man of Steel fighting aliens or crooks or somesuch.  Those scenes in which Boring focuses on the growing attraction of two hot-looking individuals are scenes in which the bodies involved are still essentially "bounded," and so can be contemplated in terms of beauty.

In contrast, the scene in which Superman and Lyla culminate their romance (in terms of Silver Age kid-comics, at least) displays a propensity for the sublime, using churning magma and a vaulting rainbow as objective correlatives for the unleashed passion.  This indirect depiction of physical passion not only displays Burke's "profusion of images," but also explicitly (thanks to Siegel's caption) associates their passion with might:

"But the flames of the planet are like cold glaciers compared to the mighty love blazing between Superman of Earth and Lyla Lerrol of Krypton"

There's even a reverse-Kantian irony here, in that Kant insists that the person experiencing the sublime should feel as if nature were superior to humanity, even though reason tells us that this is not the case.  Here, the author is asserting that the passion of two mortal individuals-- one of whom has been a sort of god elsewhere, but not in this story-- can eclipse the power of an erupting planet, although the chracacters, the creators of the story, and the readers of the story know that said passion does not have that power.

Through this demonstration I've shown that there should be no conflict to one's location of sublimity-- a.k.a. science-fiction's "sense of wonder"-- within human art, or within any fictional creation within art, even in a purely human-seeming individual.

The next and last part of this sublimity examination will examine this literary phenomenon in terms of three such fictional characters, in order to show how sublimity functions within the categories of the naturalistic, the uncanny and the marvelous.

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