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Friday, March 10, 2006

The difference between the beautiful and the sublime

By Scott McLemee

For a long time, the difference between the sublime and the beautiful seemed like a minor topic in aesthetic theory – even something of a period piece. It had been interesting enough in the 18th century for Edmund Burke to pen a treatise on it in 1756. (That was well before the Jacobins really gave him some distinctions to worry about.) And in 1764, Immanuel Kant, too, devoted a short book to the sublime and the beautiful.

It must have seemed like a nice change of pace from, say, theorising about earthquakes – one of Kant's major concerns in the wake of the one that hit Lisbon in November 1755, killing tens of thousands of people. In a series of booklets, Kant speculated that pockets of subterranean gas bubbled up, from time to time, shaking the earth. (This was wrong, as it turned out, but a good guess.) Later, Kant would put aside his pamphleteering and hunker down to his three massive Critiques .

And so the difference between the sublime and the beautiful had its big moment – only to fade, overtaken by more pressing business. Then, oddly enough, it all started coming back into focus within the past 25 years or so. Philosophers, political theorists, and literary people started arguing about the sublime and the beautiful again.

Why? And what is the difference, to begin with?

First, let's start with the beautiful. This is the more common variety of aesthetic experience; indeed, for most people, it is what “aesthetic experience” really means. When we describe something as beautiful, that usually means that we experience it as harmonious, balanced, ordered, perfect. A sunset, a seashell, a sonata – each is, in its own way, beautiful. And it isn't just that the parts of the beautiful object fit together in some gratifying way. The experience of beauty also implies a kind of harmony between the mind and the world. Beauty is, as St.Thomas Aquinas puts it, “that which pleases in the very apprehension of it.”

The sublime, by contrast, is much less comforting – to put it mildly. Examples of the sublime would include seeing a mountain, hearing the roar of the ocean in a storm, and trying to imagine just how big the universe must be. To call something sublime means that it is, in effect, just too vast or powerful to take in fully. It tests the limits of your ability to feel, to understand, to make sense of the world. At the same time, it does not obliterate consciousness so much as make you aware of both its capacities and its limits.

The sublime offers a kind of pleasure. But it is also somewhat painful. An element of machismo is often involved in preferring the sublime to the beautiful. It's rather like the daredevil thrill of looking into the mouth of volcano, rather than at a cabinet of porcelain figurines. But there's also something philosophically compelling about the sublime. It involves trying to conceive the (almost?) inconceivable. It was this element of the sublime that appealed to postmodernist philosophers such as Jean-François Lyotard when they revived the discussion in the 1980s.

Why, in the final years of the twentieth century, did this suddenly become such an intriguing subject? And why is it still with us?

There are several possible answers, but I'm going to emphasise just one of them. In the eighteenth century, the sublime emerged as a way to discuss the mind-blowing effect of certain natural phenomena. But we need it now to deal with a far more agonising problem – namely, the virtual impossibility of imagining our present human capacity for destructive violence.

Kant wrote his treatise on the subject in the wake of the disaster in Lisbon. Now when we revisit the sublime, it is always with a dim awareness that nature has no monopoly on the power to destroy twenty thousand people in a morning.

(Scott McLemee is an essayist and book critic living in Washington DC.)


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