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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, November 12, 2014


As I've admitted in some of my later writings on the topic of sublimity, my earliest blog-essays depended heavily on Kant and his concept of the dynamic sublime, while more or less dismissing the author's formulation of the "mathematical-sublime" as irrelevant to my project.  I had by that time read not only Kant's primary works on the subject but also that of his predecessor, the English empiricist Edmund Burke, but I must admit that then I had a preference for Kant's superior power of categorization. Burke's signature work-- A PHILOSOPHICAL ENQUIRY INTO THE ORIGIN OF OUR IDEAS OF THE SUBLIME AND BEAUTIFUL-- is marked by a tendency toward arbitrary categories, supported by what editor James Boulton calls "highly selective evidence."

Nevertheless, as I noted in this essay, Burke was much more prodigal than Kant when it came to identifying the sublime within literary works.  Recently I began to meditate once more on the possible connections between Joseph Campbell's concept of "supernormal sign stimuli," first referenced here, and the two forms of the sublime as I've now formulated them, "the dynamic-sublime" and the "combinatory-sublime." On some level I suppose I was coming back to a topic I said that I'd write about at the end of this essay, but never did.  Perhaps at the time I felt I'd said all I needed to say about Huxleyan transcendence.  In VERTICAL VIRTUES  I defined the interrelationship of this concept of transcendence with the concept of the sublime:

Csicsery-Ronay asserted that "sublimity" was produced by an "expansion of apprehension"-- an argument very much in line with philosophers of sublimity like Burke and Kant-- and added that his parallel category, "the grotesque" was produced by "a projection of fascinated repulsion/attraction." I reject Csiscery-Ronay's separation of these two affects, and instead regard them as "expansive" and "contractive" forms of the same affect: the affect of of the sublime.
I should add that in portraying "the sublime" as unitary, I was following the lead of Csicery-Ronay, who speaks of the sublime as "a response to an imaginative shock."  Within the sphere of my own system, I agree that this shock is responsible for the sublimity-affect, whether it manifests through the subject's reaction to "power" or to "endless combinations."  I must admit that in some cases, I have found the concept of the "combinatory-sublime" more widely applicable, as in the aforementioned conclusion of the essay TRANSCENDENCE WHAT AIN'T SUBLIME PT. 2:

Campbell, though not a literary critic, supplies a corrective to the overemphasis on reasonableness and ideological correctness. In a future essay I will also draw comparisons between Campbell's heuristic system and the forms of transcendence that are not reasonable; that can mount to the heavens or descend into the darkness of Hades-- and in either form, are covalent with what I have termed the combinatory-sublime.
I see now that this was a misstatement. I believe that Campbell's own evocations of the sublime-- even if he does not use that word-- depend largely on the imaginative shock that arises from "endless combinations," an assertion I demonstrated in the essay COMBINATORY CONSIDERATIONS.  However, in works by other authors, the dynamic-sublime can play just as great a role in evoking downward and upward transcendence. I established this in the later essay VERTICAL VIRTUES PT. 2, where I asserted that Melville's BENITO CERENO derived its sense of downward transcendence from the power of its demonic African character Babo, while Stowe's UNCLE TOM'S CABIN derived its sense of upward transcendence from the power of Uncle Tom's self-sacrificing imitatio dei-- even though Tom is only figuratively aligned with the Son of God, and has no power save the power of a noble example.

What would these modes of transcendence look like when applied to examples of the combinatory-sublime?
The easiest comparison that comes to mind occurs because I referenced Doctor Strange in the second TWAS essay. The good doctor exists in a world where he, a mortal human, straddles countless dimensions dominated by all manner of colorful entities and phenomena. Yet the dominant emotion is one of enchantment, since the hero's power to triumph is a given, and thus all of the varied phenomena in this series-- at least in its classic Lee-Ditko iteration-- would be an example of upward transcendence.  H.P. Lovecraft's story "The Call of Cthulhu," however, evokes just as many entities and phenomena, but this tale registers as an example of downward transcendence, because it suggests that the universe is infinitely horrible by virtue of its infinite variegations. (Of course, the "dynamic-sublime" appears in both of these, so neither choice represents the "combinatory-sublime" in isolation.)

So I've now concluded that if I do analyze Campbell's supernormal sign-systems further, they will be best described with reference to the two modes of sublimity rather than the two forms of transcendence, because the first deals with what kind of stimulus produces the affect while the second deals with its sympathetic or antipathetic tonality.  And with all of that in mind, in my next essay I'll finally be able at last to inquire into Edmund Burke, and show that contrary to my earlier opinion, his work on the sublime may prove more fruitful than that of Immanuel Kant.

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