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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...

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Though Kant remains the go-to person for this basic definition of the beautiful and the sublime, as per this oft-quoted-by-me passage...

"The beautiful in nature concerns the form of the object, which consists in its being bounded. But the sublime can also be found in a formless object, insofar as we present unboundedness..."-- Section 245.

...one must admit that Kant requires some retooling for a post-psychological age.  Kant's ideas of boundedness and unboundedness probably owe much to Classical philosophers like Plato and Anaximander, but as Kant presents them, they don't have any apparent links to human psychology.

The modern philosopher Georges Bataille, however, took no small influence from early Freudianism.  In my recent reading of a Bataille biography I can find no indication that he was definitely aware of that Freudian offshoot "object relations," spun off from doctrinaire Freudianism by Ferenczi and Rank in the 1920s. However, whether by accident or influence, his theories of transgression suggest a basic understanding of what it means to violate the borders of the human body, particulary in EROTISM (p. 106):

The [sexual] urge is first of all a natural one but it cannot be given free rein without barriers being torn down ... Demolished barriers are not the same as death but just as the violence of death overturns - irrevocably - the structure of life so temporarily and partially does sexual violence...

This in turn bears interesting implications for my revisions of sublimity as covalent with Huxley's concept of "vertical transcendence," as a radical ascent from or descent into the imagined nature of the body.

I've addressed elsewhere my disputation with Bataille with respect to his tendency to regard sexuality as an aspect of violence.  From that argument it should be clear that many forms of narrative violence are not notably sexual in nature, but despite that disagreement with Bataille I believe that his concept of "demolished barriers" shows how sublimity can arise from violent encounters in fictional narratives.  As noted earlier this does not mean that ALL violent encounters, any more than all sexual encounters, will possess the intensity needed to convey the sublime.  The potential is always there, however.

I've chosen three examples of cinematic heroism which are so well celebrated that I believe their violence goes beyond mere functionality; that it becomes an aspect of transpersonal myth for audiences.  Each of these examples focuses on a hero whose violent action becomes sublime, though each with its own phenomenal character.  In addition each focuses upon a climactic part of the narrative, when a given hero has a deciding impact on the narrative's conclusion, and each narrative appears in the decade of the 1970s, which would prove a critical period for the rennovation of heroic narratives in that medium.

First, as an example of the naturalistic phenomenality, I offer DIRTY HARRY (1971):

As most movie-mavens will know, this shot capsulizes the violent final encounter that will soon take place between the protagonist Harry Callahan and his maniacal enemy Scorpio.  Despite the criminal's "supervillain" name and the dastardly act he undertakes at the film's climax-- i.e., kidnapping a busful of children for ransom-- both villain and hero are entirely mundane in nature.  Diegetically Harry is an ordinary man with no special abilities beyond those conveyed by police department training.  However, at this climactic moment Harry becomes, in symbolic terms at least, an avatar of "the wrath of God" that will soon be visited, to the audience's implicit delight, upon the heinous antagonist. 

At this point, if no other, Dirty Harry takes on a transcendent quality.  I would call this particular quality (revised since I last wrote of it here) as the "atypical-sublime."  In a naturalistic world, even the most extreme actions by hero and villain can never be more than atypical occurences in a world dominated by typical events.

As an example of the uncanny phenomenality, I offer ENTER THE DRAGON (1973):

DRAGON, which I've not yet examined in depth on my film-blog, is one of many action-films that could be entirely naturalistic in nature with the removal of certain content within the film.  For instance, had Bruce Lee's character (also named Lee) simply battled the villainous Han in a more mundane setting, that would have removed one metaphenomenal element from the film.  However, the idea of a villain trapping a hero in a "hall of mirrors" goes quite a bit beyond the habits of even the most inventive of the naturalistic villains, such as the aforementioned Scorpio.  A hall of mirrors certainly does not violate our ideas of causality, so it is not metaphenomenal in any cognitive sense, but because it does suggest the metaphenomenal in an affective sense-- pushing Han more toward the domain of the supervillain proper-- this scene in particular captures violent sublimity in one of its two metaphenomenal modes, both of which I still designate as "the strange-sublime."

Finally, as an example of the marvelous phenomenality, STAR WARS (1977) proves efficacious:

The climax of STAR WARS takes a different tack from the previous two films in that it deals with a much more monumental threat, the Death Star, and destroys it not in a *mano-a-mano* confrontation as in the other two films, but after the fashion of "David and Goliath," with the heroes defeating a superior enemy through an attack on a weak point.  The two heroes most involved, Solo and Skywalker, employ during the climax offensive weapons that are perhaps "natural" to the characters, but to the viewing audience remain as fundamentally marvelous as the spells of a wizard.  There is of course still a sense that the two heroes put their lives as much on the line as the other referenced characters, but once again the audience is given an ecstatic pleasure at the sight of seeing this particular body demolished, just as in the more down-to-earth films a particular villain must be destroyed.

More on this in part 2.

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