Siobhan Lyons asks where we can find the sublime in the modern world.
Imagine watching a storm at sea. Imagine standing on a towering, vertiginous mountain peak. ‘The sublime’ refers to an experience of magnificence that nearly, but not quite, invokes fear. Does the sublime still exist in the twenty-first century? Or have we become desensitised to the very concept in a post-nature, mediated world?
A concept widely discussed by philosophers from Burke to Kant, Schopenhauer to Hegel, in recent years its linguistic potency seems to have become diluted through misuse of the term, as ‘sublime’ has been used increasingly to refer to something that is simply beautiful. But the sublime, distinguished from beauty, carries with it more negative connotations of awe, terror, even the threat of death, often at the hands of a savage natural world. As the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard writes, “compared to the pleasure of the beautiful, the pleasure of the sublime is (so to speak) negative… It involves a recoil, as if thinking came up against what precisely attracts it” (The Postmodern Condition, 1994, p.68). But as we continue to endlessly colonise the natural world, becoming more comfortable with the image and the spectacle, the sublime experience itself appears fragile.
As Matthew Flisfeder says, the sublime “exists outside language: words fail!” (The Symbolic, the Sublime, and Slavoj Žižek’s Theory of Film, 2012, p.123). Andrew Slade goes further: “These [artistic] presentations seek an idiom to articulate the impossible, the unpresentable” (Lyotard, Beckett, Duras, and the Postmodern Sublime, 2007, p.14). The concept of the unrepresentability of the sublime has its origins in Immanuel Kant. For Kant, the mathematical sublime refers to the imagination’s capacity, through reason’s superiority, to comprehend the magnitude of something empirically great or even infinite that would otherwise lie beyond comprehension. He writes: “Because there is in our imagination a striving to advance to the infinite, while in our reason there lies a claim to absolute totality… the very inadequacy of our faculty for estimating the magnitude of the things in the sensible world awakens the feeling of a supersensible faculty in us” (Critique of the Power of Judgement, 1790, p.134). Kant argues that the source of the sublime is never an object or a painting, say, but is our mental representation of what he calls the thing-in-itself (ding an sich, which is his name for the world as it exists beyond experience). So this experience can be known only in the intellect – that is, beyond pure sensation. “We express ourselves on the whole incorrectly if we call some object of nature sublime…” he writes: “We can say no more than that the object serves for the presentation of a sublimity that can be found in the mind; for what is properly sublime cannot be contained in any sensible form, but concerns only ideas of [abstract] reason” (p.129).
For Slavoj Žižek, this presents the paradox of the sublime – that in our experience of the sublime, we are able to experience the thing-in-itself – the world as it exists independent of our experience. Through its very impossibility it is made possible. As Žižek notes:
“In principle, the gap separating the phenomenal, empirical objects of experience from the Thing-in-itself is insurmountable – that is, no empirical object, no representation of it, can adequately present the Thing; but the Sublime is an object in which we can experience this very impossibility, this permanent failure of the representation to reach after the Thing. Thus, by means of the very failure of representation, we can have a presentiment of the true dimension of the Thing… This is also why an object evoking in us the feeling of Sublimity gives us simultaneous pleasure and displeasure: its gives us displeasure because of its inadequacy to the Thing-Idea, but precisely through this inadequacy it gives us pleasure by indicating the true, incomparable greatness of the Thing, surpassing every possible phenomenal, empirical experience… [It is] nature in its most chaotic, boundless, terrifying dimension which is best qualified to awaken in us the feeling of the Sublime: here, where the aesthetic imagination is strained to its utmost, where all finite determinations dissolve themselves, the failure appears at its purest”
(The Sublime Object of Ideology, 1989, p.203).
We are meant to be more intelligent and aware of the universe than our predecessors. But if we are more aware than ever, and as Kant contends, reason is linked to the sublime, why are we having fewer sublime experiences? Logically, we ought to be having more.
Perhaps the sublime may then be better located in a profound sense of the incomprehensibility of the world’s vastness. This idea is found in Edmund Burke’s conception of the sublime, in which the sublime is generated through obscurity and ignorance. As he writes: “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions… The ideas of eternity, and infinity, are among the most affecting we have” (The Sublime: A Reader in British Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Theory, 1996, p.135). It is my sheer ignorance of the machinations of the world, from the stars to gravity, that produces in me some sense of the sublime, rather than my knowledge of these things.
A defining image of the sublime is Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer over a Sea of Fog (1818), depicting the titular nomad atop a deep abyss. In his book Reinventing the Sublime (2014), Steven Vine analyses the painting, which, he says, tells us something useful about the Kantian sublime:
“While, in one sense, the solitary figure dominates the scene and dwarfs the rising mountains and plummeting trees with his body, in another sense he is diminished and reduced by the landscape – standing minute, precarious and vulnerable above an abyss into which, with one false step or slip of the rock, he might plunge to annihilation.” (p.2).
Our relationship with nature is, indeed, ambiguous.
The Cinematic Sublime
The notion that nature could provide sublime experience was prominent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; but a direct experience of nature was replaced in the twentieth century by technology. Particularly in twenty-first century cinema, the sublime functions in place of the Thing-in-itself as one of Žižek’s paradoxical representations of that which cannot be represented. Many recent films have focused on the human in the harsh wilderness, including The Revenant (2015), The Grey (2011), Wild (2014), and Into the Wild (2007). More often than not (spoiler alert) these films culminate in the death of the protagonist; although both The Revenant and The Grey feature more ambiguous endings about the fate of the main character up against the odds of the natural world. Despite the popularity of the survival film, of the beautiful tyranny of the natural world, some theorists suggest that sources of the sublime in nature are becoming rarer. As Temenuga Trifonova notes: “Nature proves less and less likely to provide us with sublime experiences – the disappearance of savage landscapes leaving only Deep Space as the Sublime’s last refuge” (The Cinematic Sublime, 2016). The spate of deep space films in recent years is evidence of this, including Interstellar (2014), Gravity (2013), Moon (2009), and The Martian (2015). Indeed, when we witness the collision of planets or a fierce dust storm on Mars, it is as frightening and compelling as anything on Earth and takes us out of the domain of our own world.
Pushing even further, past the celestial sublime, is the ‘apocalyptic sublime’, seen in movies from Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001) to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). Melancholia has garnered particular attention for its hauntingly beautiful portrayal of a world ending, said to perfectly accommodate the concept of the sublime. For instance, Margaret Pomeranz from the Australian TV show At the Movies claimed that Melancholia is “a sublimely beautiful film that begins with a ten minute sequence of astonishing images of horses falling, of a bride being weighed down by vegetation clinging to her wedding dress, of a woman carrying a child through what seems to be quicksand to the strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde” (2011). Similarly, film critic A.O. Scott describes the film as “an excursion from the sad to the sublime by way of the preposterous… it nonetheless leaves behind a glow of aesthetic satisfaction” (New York Times, 2011). On the other hand, for Joshua Gunn and David E. Beard in ‘On the Apocalyptic Sublime’ (2009), the apocalyptic sublime relies on ‘non-linear temporality’ – the narrative jumping around in time. This fits the surreal experience of Donnie Darko as he time travels and hallucinates the world nearing its end.
The apocalyptic sublime accords well with Lyotard’s concept of the sublime. For Lyotard, the sublime is “a sudden blazing, and without future” (The Postmodern Condition, p.55, my emphasis). The lead characters in both the films mentioned, Donnie and Justine, are without future, and accept the end of the world; Justine impassively accepts it, while Donnie laughs maniacally moments before he sacrifices himself, supposedly to save the world from annihilation. In these ways they come to their own respective understandings of the machinations of the universe, comprehending the incomprehensible – so fulfilling Kant’s estimation of the sublime.
In both survival and apocalyptic films, the sublime appears to involve an encounter with death. Donnie is quite literally crushed by a falling jet engine, while Justine is killed along with everyone else when the planet Melancholia collides with the Earth, in a dizzying yet moving display of carnage, light and terror. Melancholia is perhaps the ultimate estimation of the sublime here, rendering it through the utter destruction of the Earth, suggesting that the sublime cannot be found most purely in the world, but at the world’s end.
Although these films represent the sublime, Patrick Fuery suggests that the medium of cinema is itself a sublime experience because it submits us to an experience of the world which we do not control:
“Here, then, is our first proposition of sublime terror and cinema: that our engagement with ‘reality’ (be it objective, textually construed, cinematic, psychical, and so on) is mediated, but in this mediation is the underlying terror of losing the capacity to be the active agent in the processes of perception and interpretation.”
(Terror and the Cinematic Sublime, 2013, pp.183-184)
Can we claim then that the sublime is now rendered purely imaginatively? One may think of the phenomenon of post-Avatar depression in 2009, when James Cameron’s CGI-infested film left such an impression on some viewers that they were despondent about returning to the real world after seeing the graphic delights of the imaginary world of Pandora. Have we exhausted the natural world of its sublime capabilities? Can we no longer rely on our own imaginations to the point that only a Hollywood director’s will suffice?
2016 was the centenary of the American national park. As David Quammen notes in ‘How National Parks Tell Our Story – And Show Who We Are’ (National Geographic, January 2016, p.31): “Our national parks… inspire active curiosity as well as passive awe. They help us imagine what the American landscape and its resident creatures looked like before railroads and automobiles and motels existed. Repeat: They help us imagine.”
Yet several theorists have recently discussed the nature of the sublime in a culture in which image and spectacle reign and nature per se has become less important. Clare Martin asks: “If the sublime was natural in the eighteenth century and technological in the twentieth century, how might the post-natural’s synthesis of nature and technology create a new aesthetic tradition, new conditions for the sublime?” (‘Uncanny Nature: The Post-Natural Sublime’, 2011). In her article, ‘The Twenty-First Century Sublime’ (2014), Amy Scott argues that conceptions of the sublime constantly shift to fit new ideas of how the natural world suits society, noting that “the sublime has been reconfigured in the postmodern era as a means of naturalizing the presence of technology within the contemporary landscape.” Jos de Mul similarly links the contemporary sublime with technology: “Have our sense of awe and terror been transferred to factories, war machines, and the unknowable, infinite possibilities suggested by computers and genetic engineering?… Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the main site for the ambiguous experience of the sublime has gradually shifted from nature to technology… Our current period is viewed as the age of secularization. God is retreating from nature and nature is gradually becoming ‘disenchanted’ in the process” (‘The Technological Sublime’, 2011).
Such arguments seem to suggest that secularization and an awe inspired by pure nature cannot co-exist and that the sublime is reserved for religion. Have we so exhausted the world through economic, social, and touristic over-use, that any promise of the sublime is reserved only for cinematic and mediated experiences? Philosopher Siegfried Kracauer certainly thinks so. In The Mass Ornament (1995), he explores how the notion of the wilderness is increasingly slipping away: “This relativising of the exotic goes hand in hand with its banishment from reality – so that sooner or later the romantically inclined will have to agitate for the establishment of fenced-in nature preserves, isolated fairy-tale realms in which people will still be able to hope for experiences that today even Calcutta is hardly able to provide” (p.66). This, perhaps, is why the cinema has proved a popular alternative source of the sublime.
There is clearly a problem with this dynamic away from nature and towards technology – one that appears to have little resolution. But in years to come we may see a dramatic reversal of this formula. Perhaps we will tire of the technological prominence of the contemporary age and find solace once again in open nature. Or perhaps it’s something that can be found internally, without the catalyst either of the natural world or of technology.
Because the sublime is a subjective experience, it’s difficult to argue whether or not it can exist in a given way. It functions a bit like the Matrix: nobody can be told what it is, you have to see it for yourself. But recent films tell us that we are still interested in the natural environment, as well as the extraterrestrial environment, as much as we are in awe-inspiring architecture.
However, whether the sublime is achieved by gazing up at redwoods or skyscrapers seems beside the point. Given that the sublime is a subjective experience, arguably it cannot be located in any one place. This suggests that we have not exhausted its potential yet.
© Dr Siobhan Lyons 2019
Siobhan Lyons is a writer and media scholar who earned her PhD from Macquarie University.