Monday , June 17 2024

Thoughts on the Sublime

I thought I’d take a little detour from politics for a post or two. I recently took a holiday in the English Lake District, as many hundreds of people do every year – they can’t be blamed for doing so. The beautiful landscapes have inspired poets and thinkers since at least the 18th century, but many today walk through this place while forgetting that such places can be used to stimulate some of the most noble thoughts in humans. Without considering the philosophical questions these places can offer – what use can we say they have to human progress and thought? Today, I will be talking about the nature of “the sublime” and its association with aesthetics.


The Kirkstone Pass, Cumbria

Above is a photograph taken by myself of a mountain pass in the Lake District. It seems a pleasant enough photograph, but you might be surprised if I was to say “it’s sublime”. By today’s more general definition, something “sublime” is something amazing, impressive, or even just “very good”. But the true nature of the sublime is a philosophical concept, something which the thinkers of old spent decades codifying in their works. Perhaps the most important of these was Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful. Burke is more widely known as a political philosopher and the founding father of modern conservatism, but he was also an important contributor to natural philosophy. In his book, he presents an argument which postulates that the thing which is sublime is both beautiful and horrifying at the same time.

Look at the mountains in my photograph: see how the clouds hang low like a shroud over the peaks. Look at the sheer cliff-faces, grey with the sharp rock, and seemingly treacherous even from this distance. Most people who see this view would say it is “beautiful”, since what you see before you is nature at its most raw – there is no sign of human activity or dwelling, nothing is spoilt, and all appears calm. But should you walk on that mountaintop in the mist, you would not be able to see your hand in front of your face, let alone the path before you, and the danger of wandering off the edge of the cliff is very real. If you were walking below the sheer cliff, there is always the chance a stray rock may fall on you. This is what makes the image sublime: from the distance at which we observe the image, we are not at any risk ourselves: there are no clouds or rocks to take us off guard. From where I stood, it was truly beautiful, but if I had actually been on those mountains, the situation would have been much different – I would most likely have been terrified for my own wellbeing.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps – J. M. W. Turner

Above is another example of the sublime. We apply the same principles: in Turner’s painting, we see a violent snow storm ravage the sparsely spread army of Carthaginians. To the right, a black mountain looks while the helpless army watches as an even darker storm cloud swirls above their heads. It is a frightening scene – or at least, it would have been for the soldiers. We need not worry about such danger, since we are merely observing a painting. Instead, we can appreciate that horror, and the skill of the artist in conveying these feelings to us through his work. It is sublime.

For me the sublime is one of the most powerful forms of aesthetic. Not only does it present things which are beautiful, either naturally or through the conception of an artist, but it also allows for one of the most exciting forms of artistic expression: horror. The Gothic authors of the 18th and 19th centuries were inspired by the sublime, without which the horror subgenres of today would not have sprung. But you can hardly say that the movie Scream is sublime. For me, modern “horror” movies and novels like this are not even horror, merely cheap scares which prey on modern insecurities about murder, psychopathy, and sometimes the supernatural, but not in a tasteful way. Demonic possession of children and nuns and all kinds of perverse fantasies are a world apart from traditional “horror”. Novels like Dracula andFrankenstein, whilst seen today as classics and clichéd forms of modern horror culture, were written with specific artistic visions in mind. Stoker’s Dracula was inspired by a dream he had, and some have noticed an interesting piece of social commentary – that it takes the great “evils of the human world” (being, humorously, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher and a madman) to track down and defeat the evil that is Dracula. Shelley’sFrankenstein is a warning about the march of science, expressing many 19th century fears that scientists would try to reanimate corpses or construct monsters from the power of electricity in order to control and terrify the populace.

True horror is sublime, because whilst it is terrifying there is art behind it. Today, we forget these things, and focus on our next fix of adrenaline. You do not leave the cinema after watching a horror movie thinking “that was beautiful”, or “yes, that’s really got me thinking about society”, or “that was a work of art”. After viewing a Turner painting, visiting somewhere beautiful, or reading The Turn of the Screw, you just might.

This post was originally published by the author 19 September 2016

About Alex Illingworth

Alex Illingworth lives in Oxford where he pursues studies in philosophy and theology, having previously studied Classics. He has written extensively on conservatism, and on British politics, and is a co-founder of the conservative blog aimed at students: The Burkean. His debut book in political philosophy "Political Justice" is a forthcoming publication with Arktos Media.

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