Subliming Out

There may be no sublime – at least, we can’t say or know there is without contradicting the very idea of the sublime. All we can do is make things that have come to represent the sublime or that remind us of what the sublime is supposed to be.

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“Many writers and artists were once of the opinion that the sublime was impossible to grasp; but that didn’t stop them from writing and discussing it intensely for over a century. The sublime was seen as rooted in intense passions like horror, fear, or terror in the face of objects, events, or spaces that were vast, infinite, powerful, massive, mysterious, or deadly. Things like the vastness of nature, the power of storms or avalanches, untamed wilderness, the open sea, epic battles, even God, were all seen as sublime.

“The problem of the sublime was eventually linked to more general philosophical and artistic problems of grappling with the known and the unknowable, the imaginable and the unimaginable, the representable and the unrepresentable.

“In principle the sublime cannot be described or depicted. If the sublime could actually be experienced by simply gazing into a painting, the relationship of the sublime to the painting would be a figurative one at best: the painting is some kind of feeble substitute for this profound experience. Of course, the other possibility is that all paintings and writings and pronouncements about the sublime – including its ungraspable nature – are self-contradictory. There may be no sublime – at least, we can’t say or know there is without contradicting the very idea of the sublime. All we can do is make things that have come to represent the sublime or that remind us of what the sublime is supposed to be. We are left with what many scholars refer to as a “visual rhetoric” of the sublime – a mediated visual language that stands between us and “all that.”

The Beautiful Unknowable

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