The Cause of Sublimity (and its importance in a cheapening world)

The sublime emotion is an artistic phenomenon that has overwhelmed and eluded human comprehension throughout history, and it must be considered a constituent of what it is to be human – the sapphire of human experience. Trying to comprehend the thoughts and ideas that make up our identity must form a part of our enduring search to understand the human condition amidst the terrifying landscape of reality, and the understanding of the sublime thus assumes an importance that makes an enquiry worthwhile.

In reading Edmund Burke’s analytical discourse on “The Origins of our Ideas on the Sublime and the Beautiful”, the rationale behind Sublimity must be confronted – like all ideas, assimilated, developed or discarded. He proposes that terror is the chief cause of astonishment and awe, two primal emotions which develop in us to become the sublime, and proceeds to explain a long list of attributes that culminate in a sublime object, although I think this does little to further our understanding of it. Most of what he postulates can be held satisfactorily under the cold prism of reason, but I believe the real cause of this ephemeral flame of emotion can be rooted to a more artistic drive in human nature: the de-individuation of the individual, and the blissful annihilation of the self.

The pleasure of the sublime lies in the utter absorption of the individual’s consciousness into a subject of majesty and awe. The anxieties and afflictions of the self are forgotten in the face of something overwhelming and overpowering. The beauty of this feeling might seem to be something quite foreign in such a highly individualised a society as our own, but traces of communal instinct can be sensed in the intoxication of the crowds, the euphoria of conjoined emotion which we glimpse in the sports arena or the concert. This is something quite apart from the tyrannies of herd mentality; this is the primal joy of a unification of spirit. From the bacchic rituals of ancient Greece to the horror of modern-day rioting and the fascinating impulses of crowd behaviour, the desire to escape the self has haunted the history of cultured society – yet it is not always a negative influence. When tempered into a constructive form or understood alongside the higher virtues of culture, this unity can be the cause of the most passionate and most human emotions that we ever experience, and the fusion between this primal unification – a liberation from individuality – and transcendent beauty, a glimpse of something higher than ourselves, creates the overwhelming and almost spiritual power of Sublimity.

Vastness is a common cause of the sublime, but I do not think it would be wise to limit this experience to the power of the landscape. The destruction of the egoistic impulse can result from a being apotheosized or else transformed

into something quite above reality, or perhaps by an enchanting piece of art; the importance is that they are all utterly subjective experiences, and unless momentarily aligned with the mysterious web of personal experiences and memories that form each individual life, worthless – a difference between Sublimity and the almost-definable traits of beauty.

The importance of the sublime in our society is becoming increasingly apparent and pressing, because the sublime is one of the rawest, most powerful and most authentic emotions, and hence provides a rare glimpse into our primitive natures and the most visible reminder of our humanity in a world where most of what we experience has been blunted by the gentle paralysis of routine. The imitation of authentic emotion has become its own reality, and the shallow joys of instant entertainment have become the real emotions (today, love resembles the movies). An analysis into the origins of authentic emotion might serve to remind ourselves of the worth of life’s real experiences, and even if (as mine is) it is built only on the shaky grounds of introspection, it is hopefully a reminder that the sublime exists only just outside the confines of our urban neighbourhood, and only just outside the periphery of our comfortable every-day routine.

Contributed By Ben Gibbons

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