Friday, April 24, 2015

On Sublimity

In using the couple Beauty/Sublimity Hegel relies, of course, on Kant's 'Critique of Judgement', where Beauty and Sublimity are opposed along the semantic axis quality-quantity, shaped-shapeless, bounded-boundless: Beauty calms and comforts; Sublimity excites and agitates. 'Beauty' is the sentiment provoked when the supersensible Idea appears in the material, sensuous medium, in its harmonious formation - a sentiment of immediate harmony between Idea and the sensuous material of its expression; while the sentiment of Sublimity is attached to chaotic, terrifying limitless phenomena (rough sea, rocky mountains).

Above all, however, Beauty and Sublimity are opposed along the axis pleasure-displeasure: a view of Beauty offers us pleasure, while 'the object is received as sublime with a pleasure that is only possible through the moderation of displeasure'. In short, the Sublime is 'beyond the pleasure principle', it is a paradoxical pleasure procured by displeasure itself (the exact definition - one of the Lacanian definitions - of enjoyment [jouissance]). This means at the same time that the relation of Beauty to Sublimity coincides with the relation of immediacy to mediation - further proof that the Sublime must follow Beauty as a form of mediation of its immediacy. On closer examination, in what does this mediation proper to the Sublime consist? Let us quote the Kantian definition of the Sublime:
The Sublime may be described in this way: It is an object (of nature) the representation [Vorstellung] of which determines the mind to regard the elevation of nature beyond our reach as equivalent to a presentation [Darstellung] of Ideas
It is a definition which, so to speak, anticipates Lacan's determination of the sublime object in his seminar "The Ethics of Psychoanalysis" 'an object raised to the level of the (impossible-real) Thing'. That is to say, with Kant the Sublime designates the relation of an inner-worldly, empirical, sensuous object to Ding an sich to the transcendent, trans-phenomenal, unattainable Thing-in-itself. The paradox of the Sublime is as follows: in principle, the gap separating phenomenal, empirical objects of experience from the Thing-in-itself is unsurmountable - that is, no empirical object, no representation [Vorstellung] of it can adequately present [darstellen] the Thing (the suprasensible Idea); 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: it gives us displeasure because of the inadequancy to the Thing-Idea, but precisely through this inadequacy it gives us pleasure by indicating the true, incomperable greatness of the Thing, surpassing every possible phenomenal, empirical experience:
The feeling of the Sublime is, therefore, at once a feeling of displeasure, arising from the inadequacy of imagination in the aesthetic estimation of magnitude to attain to its estimation by reason, and a simultaneous awakened pleasure, arising from this very judgement of the inadequacy of the greatest faculty of sense being in accord with the ideas of reason, so far as the effort to attain to these is for us a law.
We can now see why it is precisely 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
-Slavoj Zizek, "The Sublime Object of Ideology"

3 comments:

Jen said...

Yes, pleasure and displeasure at the same time. :-)

-FJ said...

:)

FreeThinke said...

The St. Anne Prelude and Fugue for organ by J.S. Bach is an example of the sublime.

The second movement of Beethoven's final piano sonata, Opus 111, is quintessentially sublime.

So is Sir Christopher Wren's architecture of St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

So too is the novel Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.

So also are Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality and Blake's Auguries of Innocence.

And Jefferson' architectural Vision for the University of Virginia.