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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...

Monday, August 13, 2012



In a future essay I'll relate these three levels of dynamicity to the more general concept of *sublimity,* which I relate to science fiction's "sense of wonder"-- of which Verne's book is a leading exemplar.
Possibly I shouldn't have implied that "sense of wonder" was characteristic of science fiction alone, since I devoted this entire essay to the proposition that isophemenal literaure could capture the sublime as well as any metaphenomenal work, using the specific example of Joseph Conrad,  noted pooh-pooher of fantastic tales. I said, among other things:

Plainly, in contrast to the TYPHOON passages I cited earlier in my Conrad analyses, this is Conrad picturing a naturalistic scene with just as much "sense of wonder" as anything in fantasy or science fiction.
And of course the literature of the metaphenomenal-- be it uncanny or marvelous-- may also draw on naturalistic descriptions to the same end of conveying wonder.  Here's another section from Chapter 24 of Verne's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA:

Actual petrified thickets and long alcoves from some fantastic school of architecture kept opening up before our steps. Captain Nemo entered beneath a dark gallery whose gentle slope took us to a depth of 100 meters. The light from our glass coils produced magical effects at times, lingering on the wrinkled roughness of some natural arch, or some overhang suspended like a chandelier, which our lamps flecked with fiery sparks. Amid these shrubs of precious coral, I observed other polyps no less unusual: melita coral, rainbow coral with jointed outgrowths, then a few tufts of genus Corallina, some green and others red, actually a type of seaweed encrusted with limestone salts, which, after long disputes, naturalists have finally placed in the vegetable kingdom. But as one intellectual has remarked, "Here, perhaps, is the actual point where life rises humbly out of slumbering stone, but without breaking away from its crude starting point."
Finally, after two hours of walking, we reached a depth of about 300 meters, in other words, the lowermost limit at which coral can begin to form. But here it was no longer some isolated bush or a modest grove of low timber. It was an immense forest, huge mineral vegetation, enormous petrified trees linked by garlands of elegant hydras from the genus Plumularia, those tropical creepers of the sea, all decked out in shades and gleams. We passed freely under their lofty boughs, lost up in the shadows of the waves, while at our feet organ–pipe coral, stony coral, star coral, fungus coral, and sea anemone from the genus Caryophylia formed a carpet of flowers all strewn with dazzling gems.
What an indescribable sight! Oh, if only we could share our feelings! Why were we imprisoned behind these masks of metal and glass! Why were we forbidden to talk with each other! At least let us lead the lives of the fish that populate this liquid element, or better yet, the lives of amphibians, which can spend long hours either at sea or on shore, traveling through their double domain as their whims dictate!
This dazzling vision-- very much in accord with one of the qualities Edmund Burke found in the sublime, "the richness and profusion of images"-- describes nothing that is either uncanny or marvelous, except for the brief reference to the futuristic diving-suits of Nemo and narrator Aronnax.  Nearly everything in this passage shows Verne attempting to capture the wonder of real submarine life-- most of which, I'm told, he managed to render with extraordinary faithfulness.  Yet without doubt the entire tonality of the scene is charged not with the "atypical-sublime" that one might find in a Conrad wonder-producing story, but with the "strange-sublime," which possesses a different character simply by virtue of the presence of the overall qualify of "strangeness."  Without the marvels produced from the genius of "superman" Nemo--  the diving-suits, the Nautilus-- this richness of imagery would be inaccessible to the eyes of humankind, at least in this fictional universe.  Thus even naturalistic details within a marvelous cosmos might be said to take on "the strange-sublime."

To touch on the concerns mentioned in THREE PART HARMONY, the above section from LEAGUES parallels the first section quoted in the earlier essay: all energies in the excerpt are "at rest," whether or not they are capable of greater activity.  This renders all agents in the except as "microdynamic."

How, then, is the section "sublime" if there is no sense of "might" or of danger?  Kant very definitely alloys the sublime with a sense of possible peril-- thus calling once more for what should now be a very familiar Kant-quote:

“…consider bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piling up in the sky [and other examples of furious nature]... Compared to the might of any of these, our ability to resist becomes an insignificant trifle. Yet the sight of them becomes all the more attractive the more fearful it is, provided we are in a safe place. And we like to call these objects sublime because they raise the soul’s fortitude above its usual middle range..."-- Section 261.
Schopenhauer more or less agrees:

"The feeling of the sublime arose from the fact that something positively unfavourable to the will becomes [an] object of pure contemplation."
In this essay I disagreed with both Kant and Schopenhauer and allied myself somewhat more with Burke, for all that Burke was of the Empiricist faction:

I can agree with every aspect of [Schopenhauer's] 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.
Indeed, I would say that many of the most familiar "wonder-inducing" scenes in fantasy and science fiction-- of C.S. Lewis' kid-heroes stepping through a wardrobe to encounter the snowy world of Narnia, of 2001's space-station revolving in orbit to the strains of Johann Strauss-- represent nothing either "threatening" or "unfavorable."  These, I believe, are just one aspect of the sublime, which depends first and foremost on the sense that the subject experiencing the affect feels overwhelmed in some way, even as narrator Aronnax feels at the "indescribable sight" of the world of the coral realm.  Having already addressed the dual nature of the numinous in the above-linked essay, I won't repeat myself on this score.  But the multifarous nature of sublimity is worth keeping in mind as I continue to develop some of these distinctions re: dynamicity.

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