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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, April 29, 2013


Let us next consider whether we can point to anything further that contributes to sublimity of style. Now, there inhere in all things by nature certain constituents which are part and parcel of their substance. It must needs be, therefore, that we shall find one source of the sublime in the systematic selection of the most important elements, and the power of forming, by their mutual combination, what may be called one body. The former process attracts the hearer by the choice of the ideas, the latter by the aggregation of those chosen.-- Longinus, Chapter X, On the Sublime.

 Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, 'twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we're made.

-- Tolkien, from a letter he wrote and cited in

Neither of these quotes influenced my choice of the name for the "combinatory sublime;" that name came from some half-remembered passages from Ernst Cassirer's writing on Leibniz.  I have chosen to pass on looking for that passage, though, for as I remember it had no particular application to art/literature.  Far more interesting are these references to the idea of "combination" in the works of (1) the writer known for putting forth "the sublime" as a formal literary term, and (2) one of the foremost defenders of the "sense of wonder" in Western culture.

Of course, Longinus, despite his conviction that the sublime is "beyond nature," is not concerned with marking out any borders between different phenomenalities.  Tolkien is, though throughout his essay he makes clear that he is defending only one genre within the sphere of literature.  The Oxford don does not make very many comparisons between the "fairy tales" he loves and other metaphenomenal forms, and only invokes the isophenomenal for purposes of making the virtues of fantasy clearer.

Fantasy, of course, starts out with an advantage: arresting strangeness. But that advantage has been turned against it, and has contributed to its disrepute. Many people dislike being “arrested.” They dislike any meddling with the Primary World, or such small glimpses of it as are familiar to them. They, therefore, stupidly and even maliciously confound Fantasy with Dreaming, in which there is no Art; and with mental disorders, in which there is not even control: with delusion and hallucination.
In essays like this one I've stated that even isophenomenal works have their own form of sublimity, which I choose to call the "atypical-sublime."  I have tended to subsume the two categories of the metaphenomenal, the "uncanny" and the "marvelous," under the rubric of the "strange-sublime," but in this recent essay I began to rethink this, asserting that each phenomenality should possess its own form of sublimity, based on the parameters of the world conjured forth.

But how to make such a distinction, given that I've stated that all three phenomenalities have an identical capacity for the sublime?

The answer comes swift if not clear in all respects: they have the same capacity in terms of "might," in terms of the "dynamically sublime"-- but they do not all have the same capacity in terms of "the magnitude of associations," that is, "the combinatory-sublime."

In other words, the further a given work ventures into the domains of the metaphenomenal, the greater its capacity for "endless combinations in living shapes that move from mind to mind."

And the proof of this will be the subject of Part 4.

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