Discussing the Sublime
June 10, 2010
The Sublime is of course a difficult thing to discuss in any medium. It is by definition that which dwells beyond discourse, and so tends to evaporate when pinned down.
(We should not however make the mistake of equating the Sublime solely with the unexplained. A perfectly explicable phenomenon- a mountain, for example, or a vast empty space wherein there is nothing to be explained- may yet be sublime. The Sublime dwells not in our knowledge of the thing (or lack thereof) but in our encounter with it. Its nature, that is, is phenomenological rather than epistemological.)
To return- the Sublime occurs where experience outstrips discourse, or at least that discourse where we are at home. Hence, attempts at description/depiction tend to be flowery and not especially enlightening, and analyses of the Sublime, while periodically interesting, remain ultimately unsatisfying. They can show us where it lives, but cannot deliver it to us, or us to it.
Most satisfying would be a discourse aimed at evoking the Sublime … but what is meant by this? Literally, to evoke is to call out, to call forth. It is speech as a potent act capable of manifesting something beyond itself, separate from the speech and the speaker, a third process that was not at work before the speaking. The “out” is relevant here, because what it evoked remains outside of us, present before us and undigested. It must remain so for its sublimity to persist.
Such a discourse would be presented with a paradoxical task- its success would depend upon the language/depiction/whathaveyou sabotaging itself at a certain point. Such a discourse would resemble an inviting road that ended abruptly at the edge of an impassable canyon, or better still, a boat designed to bear its passengers some distance into the ocean before breaking apart without warning. To arrive at such destination would not be the same as having never embarked to begin with.