Featured Post


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...

Friday, March 9, 2012


In this essay I commented that I found Schopenhauer's doctrine of the sublime unsatisfying, but I didn't specify on my reasons.  This time out I'll enlarge on those reasons as well as my use of his concept of "degrees" of sublimity.

In his WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION, Schopenhauer gives this short definition of the sublime:

"The feeling of the sublime arose from the fact that something positively unfavourable to the will becomes [an] object of pure contemplation."
I can agree with every aspect of this statement but one.  For the word "positively" I would substitute "potentially."  Longinus, Burke and Kant all agree that the affect of sublimity comes into being only through a subject's contact with some overwhelming power/might/infinitude.  However, none of them go so far as to say that this power must be invariably unfavorable to the human will.  Of all the intellects that I've examining over the past few months regarding the interlinked concepts of "the sublime," "transcendence," "numinosity," and "the sense of wonder," only C.S. Lewis resembles Schopenhauer in his tendency to characterize the awestruck affect purely as a negative affect.  (The consequences of Lewis' tendency are examined here.)
To extend some of those remarks here, Lewis and Schopenhauer both to characterize the "mysterium" (Rudolf Otto's term) purely in terms of what Otto calls the fearful response of the "tremendum."  Neither adequately accounts, at least in the works examined here, for the opposing response Otto chronicles, the sense of attraction denoted as "the fascinans."

Still, Schopenhauer did conceive the notion of sussing out the sublime in terms of its degrees of expression, though none of his specific examples in WORLD are useful to me here.
In Part 1 I put forth three fictional characters from heroic cinema-- the protagonists of DIRTY HARRY, ENTER THE DRAGON and STAR WARS-- and argued that they incarnate sublimity in the quasi-Kantian  form of "dominance."

However, for each work the affect has a different characteristic due to the degree to which the phenomenality of the work bears on that affect. 

In DIRTY HARRY, as noted before, the hero dwells within an entirely naturalistic cosmos.  The viewer is undoubtedly led to feel as if Harry is a divine avenger, and delights in seeing him dominate and destroy the evildoer, particularly because Scorpio has proved a worthy foeman.   At the same time, the viewer knows that the fantasy is essentially an illusion in both Harry's world and his.  I submit that this factor lessens the power of the sublimity-affect upon the viewer's mind.

In ENTER THE DRAGON, the hero dwells within a cosmos that largely appears naturalistic but deviates in a few vital aspects, which have a marked effect on Lee's struggle for dominance.  These aspects open up new possibilities, what Kant calls "free play," within a world that can no longer be purely naturalistic, but must rather be termed "uncanny."  To be sure, most of Bruce Lee's films do remain resolutely within naturalistic confines.  However, the Hong Kong kung-fu film that his legend furthered (even though it did not create that film-genre) would continually spawn many quasi-realistic works in the same basic tradition as ENTER.  In such films, the sublimity-affect is considerably freer.

In STAR WARS, the heroes dwell witin a cosmos that may be "natural" to them but which is clearly "marvelous" to us.  Though there are some theoretical limitations-- Luke Skywalker presumably cannot encounter a fantasy-version of a genie, though he might encounter a science-fictional version of same-- the free play of phenomenal content is wide open.  Of the three, STAR WARS, whether one speaks of the film, the film-series or even the whole corpus of media-adaptations, clearly has the strongest resemblance to Burke's characterization of the sublime in terms of "the richness and profusion of images."
Of course, to say that the last version of the sublime possesses the freest nature is not to say that it is "the best."  Some readers will prefer only sublimity in its naturalistic forms, some in its uncanny forms, and some in its marvelous forms.  My form of pluralism does not stoop to meaningless preferences, but seeks to identify the spectrum over which human desire distributes itself into fictional narratives.

More on Schopenhauer to come, though not with respect to sublimity.

No comments: