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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, November 17, 2014


My re-reading of Burke's ENQUIRY INTO THE SUBLIME AND BEATIFUL sparks a reminiscence of something I wrote about C.S. Lewis with regard to his evocation of a trinity of antipathetic affects, borrowed from Rudolf Otto, through which both philosophers viewed humankind's development:

I accept the deduction of C.S. Lewis as to the tripartite nature of antipathetic reactions to the powerful and/or the unknown, which he describes as "fear," "dread," and "awe"...However, antipathy is only half the story. 
Otto's book-long work THE IDEA OF THE HOLY went into more detail than Lewis' short essay, and Otto did, as I noted in the above essay, evolve the notion of the "mysterium fascinans" to parallel his fear-based idea of the "mysterium tremendum." Still, I would have to say that Otto did not do any better than Lewis in defining the parameters of the sympathetic affects: both seem firmly focused on the antipathetic ones.

Edmund Burke is more aware of the sympathetic affects, but he chooses to view them under the rubric of "pleasure," and he considers them appropriate to the experience of "the beautiful" rather than that of "the sublime." In Section Seven of the ENQUIRY's first part, Burke explicitly aligns the sublime with the experience, or at least, the possibility, of pain.

WHATEVER is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure. Without all doubt, the torments which we may be made to suffer are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasure which the most learned voluptuary could suggest, or than the liveliest imagination, and the most sound and exquisitely sensible body, could enjoy....When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience. The cause of this I shall endeavour to investigate hereafter.

Patently, as noted in my many essays on Kant's theory of the dynamic-sublime, the German philosopher accepted and recapitulated many of Burke's formulations-- though Kant proves less useful than Burke with respect to my project of formulating the combinatory-sublime.

Later, Part Two is devoted to the many stimuli that can bring on the sublime.  I'll pass over Burke's inclusion of discrete physical phenomena like "sounds and loudness" and "the cries of animals," valid as they might be on one level or another. I'm concerned here with the abstract qualities Burke invokes, which as are follows: Terror, Obscurity, Power, Privation, Vastness, Infinity, Difficulty, and Magnificence. "Difficulty," in fact, might have subsumed all of Burke's abstractions much better than "pain," for Burke is concerned with the ways in which the human subject responds to anything suggestive of resistance to human will, in marked contrast to the relaxation the subject experiences when one apprehends "the beautiful."

It is the last-named section, "Magnificence," from which I've quoted in this early meditation on the sublime, as well as the essay in which I defined the concept of the combinatory-sublime, also with reference to Burke's section on "magnificence."  In both of the above essays, I was struck by Burke's use of the term "richness and profusion of images" to describe the experience of the sublime with regard to his examples in "Magnificence." For me this described in large part the very appeal of marvelous imagery, as I noted with respect to Tolkien and his "endless combinations." But though I believe that I fully understand Burke's chain of associations, I can't agree that the profusion of images is primarily characterized by such antipathetic affects as "pain," or even "difficulty." It's true that the examples Burke names-- visionary passages from Shakespeare, Virgil and others-- are not characterized by ease of access: the subject who identifies with them will feel his own emotions overwhelmed-- but not in a way suggestive of pain. If anything, it is a pleasure closer to that of the "voluptuary" Burke mentions above; it is, as I said here, "wonder" more than "terror."

Burke, as I noted in ENQUIRY PART 2, was an early defender of the power of the human mind to formulate images that did not correspond to anything in common, observable reality. James T. Boulton, editor of my 1968 reprint from Notre Dame Press, credits Burke as being "in open revolt against neo-classical principles." Burke's opening section on the virtues of "novelty" is echoed by the section "Imitation" from Part One:

It is by imitation far more than by precept, that we learn everything; and what we learn thus, we acquire not only more effectually, but more pleasantly...When the object represented in poetry or painting is such as we could have no desire of seeing in the reality, then I may be sure that its power in poetry or painting is owing to the power of imitation, and to no cause operating in the thing itself. So it is with most of the pieces which the painters call still-life. In these a cottage, a dunghill, the meanest and most ordinary utensils of the kitchen, are capable of giving us pleasure. But when the object of the painting or poem is such as we should run to see if real, let it affect us with what odd sort of sense it will, we may rely upon it, that the power of the poem or picture is more owing to the nature of the thing itself than to the mere effect of imitation, or to a consideration of the skill of the imitator, however excellent. 

 "We should run to see if real" threw me for a moment: at first I thought he meant that if the thing was real, those who beheld it would run from it. But to maintain the parallel with the subject's disinterest in the objects of still life, Burke must have meant that if the poetry or painting depicted something novel, perhaps even outside the realm of nature, then people would run to see that novel thing if they heard about it, just to see if it was real.

This dichotomy also expresses the double-sided significance of Joseph Campbell's "supernormal sign stimuli:" to have their sublime effects, the stimulating signs must be something uncommon, yet somehow they must also share the mundane existence of those who observe them-- an existential conundrum I referenced somewhat in my essay MIRACLE MILES.

Still, it may be that Burke, being of his time, could not entirely escape the neoclassical influence of the eighteenth century, which may be why he tends to think of profusions of colorful imagery as painful and difficult rather than entrancing, as Tolkien does.

Nevertheless, Burke remains, as Boulton correctly says, the first major prophet of the sublime experience:

[Burke was] the principal exponent of the sublime as [being] at once an irrational and a violent aesthetic experience... Whereas in the early stages [with Longinus] the sublime is essentially a style of writing, with Burke it becomes a mode of aesthetic experience found in literature and far beyond it.
 He himself could not picture his "magnificence" as a sympathetic affect, leaving such affects to the realm of the less overwhelming world of "the beautiful." But even though Immanuel Kant proved the superior logician with respect to the sublime, Burke may have been Kant's superior in terms of the aesthetic instincts needed to apprehend this "irrational and violent" experience.

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