This elusive esthetic concept, which can be traced back to the pseudo-Longinus’ “Peri Hypsous” usually situated in the first century AD, often seems to partake of the prestige of its referents. The word beautiful, particularly as applied to women, can get you in trouble and at best makes you sound like a throwback to the 19th century; but call anything “sublime” and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s excrement on a statue of the Virgin or a supersize multimillion-dollar version of a balloon figure, you become marked by transcendence, or let’s just say cool. Thus my irritation at this talk, coupled with my great affection for beauty, has led me to distance myself from this concept, content to claim that those, beginning with Edmund Burke, who have opposed the sublime to the beautiful more or less as the masculine to the feminine—the one area within which the patriarchy still retains its unchallenged domination—misunderstand the sublimity of beauty itself. But this claim, although not incorrect, is clearly incomplete. Whatever one thinks of the apostles of sublimity, the concepts of the beautiful and the sublime must be articulated; to say that the beautiful is itself sublime does not tell us how to perform this articulation, nor what to do about the categories of the Burkean/Kantian sublime that have no clear relationship to the beautiful. This lacuna in originary esthetics must be repaired.
The most useful definition of the sublime is as the emotion/sensation that accompanies the experience of transcendence, or most simply, of the sacred, understood as the experience not merely of participating in but of generating transcendence, or in other words, recalling the originary event. The originary emotion that accompanied the invention/discovery of transcendence was one of relief from the possibility of mutual annihilation, coupled with reverence and resentment for the sacred central object that permitted this relief. An object of common appetite is suddenly inhabited by the “sublime” concentration of the community’s desire, and this effects our transition from animal to human.
Originary analysis allows us to understand both the privilege of the sublime with respect to the beautiful and its greater vulnerability to exploitation, both as a theoretical concept and in its practical manifestations. The originary central object must be in the first place an object of appetite; it is attractive in itself, and the originary configuration only enhances this attraction. But at the moment of the emission of the sign, we are aware of this attraction only as a source of interdiction; the center itself repels those who seek it. It is this first moment of human culture that provides the originary model of the sublime. The mimetic energy of the group, concentrated on the central object, is as if reflected back by this object upon the participants as a repelling force. As the experience of the moment of interdiction, the sublime is associated with the object’s potential for violence rather than its appetitive attractiveness.
Edmund Burke makes clear the relation between the sublime and the originary interdiction by describing its characteristic affect not as pleasure, which he associates with the beautiful, but what he calls delight, which he defines as the avoidance of pain. Needless to say, Burke does not attribute the source of this potential pain to a Girardian lynch mob, but our generative analysis merely makes more anthropologically parsimonious the fundamental affective relationship that Burke intuits.
Once the initial moment of interdiction establishes the sacrality of the central object, the participants can once again attend to it in its newly protected state to appreciate its attractive qualities. It is at this moment that we can speak of the origin of the beautiful. The sign in designating/representing the object stimulates an imaginary construction of it as desirable, one that in our familiar oscillatory model continually returns to the sign for reinforcement. This imaginary object need not be subject to interdiction, precisely because of its imaginary nature. This is the proper realm of the esthetic, where the oscillation between representation and imaginary pleasure excludes appetitive satisfaction.
Artworks of course provide no prospect of such satisfaction. If we take as the limiting case that of female beauty, it is here that we must recall that the original condition of the beautiful was the sublime interdiction of the object. To admire a woman’s beauty is to do so under this interdiction, and to call a woman beautiful is to acknowledge that her beauty is such that it appears to interdict sexual interaction, and consequently to appear as a sign of itself. That is, the interdictive aura a beautiful woman projects in person makes her appearance to us not so different from that of the iconography of the photographs, videos, etc., that reproduce her beauty.
But we should recall that in the originary case, the attention to the object’s appetitive qualities is at the same time a preparation for its assimilation in the sparagmos, and “natural beauty” is the sign of the appetitively desirable, sexual, alimentary, or other, which the beautiful sign cannot protect from eventual appropriation. And just as the originary sacred object itself becomes the object of the sparagmos, so a beautiful woman may well attract what might be called in a generative context attempts at “appropriation.”
Thus in the sublime moment the originary object defies appropriation not merely through the mediation of the other members of the group, but in itself; its sacred aura interdicts desire, and this effect will later be instantiated by the kind of “masculine” objects that would fail to attract it in the absence of other humans. The beautiful object, which derives from the moment at which the originary object’s appetitive qualities once more become visible, and which in the originary event prepares the sparagmos, is interdicted only by its formal separation from the life-world, which will later be figured by the proscenium arch or the frame of a painting.
Whereas in the originary event, the sublime and the beautiful are qualities of the same object at different moments, in the historical experience of humanity, terms such as sublime and beautiful come to be applied to sensations that depend on the reproduction of some aspect or “moment” of the originary event, so that these qualities become attached to “specialized” objects that respectively arouse sublime and beautiful experiences in general and not just at a specific moment in a process. This is the pattern of human culture in general; the “function” of the originary event is not simply to repeat itself indefinitely, but to permit the expansion of human activity to ever-new domains where the moments of the originary event achieve relative autonomy. Which, in the opposite sense, explains the usefulness of originary analysis, which provides a plausible means of retracing historical activities to their originary root.
Thus the notions of sublime and beautiful are archetypes of the expansion/extension of the sacred into the “cultural” of which Durkheim’s sacred-profane binary is the minimal point of departure. Once something we can call the sacred exists, it is inevitable, anthropologically if not logically, for the “sensation” thus produced to become independent of the specific configuration in which it was originally generated, and to become functional in regulating private as well as public experiences. Yet to recall as does pseudo-Longinus the connection between the “lofty” sentiment of the sacred and that produced by the artwork creates no implicit contrast with the “beautiful,” for the Greek kalon-kagathon [beautiful-and-good] differs from the modern notion of the beautiful as detached from other cultural values. The point of this treatise is not indeed to contrast the sublime with any other quality, but merely to promote sublimity, the experience of transcendence, as the criterion of esthetic judgment.
The modern notion of the sublime as opposed to the beautiful was inaugurated by Burke, but the fact that he opposes the concepts on the analogy of the sexes shows that it is not the opposition itself, which is already present in Sappho’s (lyric) preference for her feminine beloved over the masculine warriors of epic, but its extension from thematics to a typology of art-inspired experience that is new and significant. The choice of different archetypes as representatives of the sublime on the one hand and beauty on the other reflects the emergence of the scenic imagination as a new locus on which experience can be judged. The doubling of the relation to the scene of representation that I have described as characteristic of the neo- or post-classical era and that is visible in such phenomena as Shakespeare’s “plays-within-plays” allows the contents of the internal scene itself to be examined, in contrast to the objects that these contents represent.
Kant picks up and deepens Burke’s sublime-beautiful distinction. Kant’s beautiful, which, significantly, he deals with before the sublime, reveals the freedom of its (living) object to transcend its representations, in contrast to the kalon-kagathon for which representation is itself transcendent on the model of the Platonic Idea. To invent a typically Kantian example, in my “judgment of taste,” I feel that this tree, in the asymmetric movement of its branches, the warmth of its greenery, etc., etc., is beautiful “without a concept”: something in it goes beyond the mere word or Verstand-concept tree to touch me as a fellow free living thing. Yet “freedom” and even “life” are characteristics of the uncontrollability of a being and consequently of its potential for violence. No doubt we may not see this tree as actuating such a potential. This living freedom is turned instead toward nurturing, resentment is converted to love—something we quite reasonably associate with the feminine-maternal side of the gender divide. The sublime, in contrast, is openly threatening. But if Kant chooses to give the beautiful pride of place, it is because its exhibition of freedom, which includes the possibilities of both “genders,” is for him a more pertinent sign of transcendence than its potential violence. Indeed, despite the desultory organization of Burke’s treatise, his intuition concerning the relative significance of the sublime and the beautiful reflects a much clearer intuition of the role of the deferral of violence in the constitution of human society than Kant, at the expense of a lesser concern for the distinction between the real and the transcendental, which Kant pushes to its maximal limit within the metaphysical mindset of transparent propositional language.
Moving on to the romantic era, Victor Hugo’s sublime, as presented in his famous 1827 “Préface de Cromwell,” is never opposed to the beautiful in the manner of Burke; it is rather a modern modification, in contact and contrast with the grotesque, of the beautiful, which in turn is relegated to a category of classical art.
la muse moderne . . . sentira que tout dans la création n’est pas humainement beau, que le laid y existe à côté du beau, le difforme près du gracieux, le grotesque au revers du sublime, le mal avec le bien, l’ombre avec la lumière.
[the modern muse . . . will feel that not everything in creation is humanly beautiful, that the ugly exists next to the beautiful, the deformed/misshapen next to the graceful, the grotesque on the other side of the sublime, evil with good, shadow with light.]
le contact du difforme a donné au sublime moderne quelque chose de plus pur, de plus grand, de plus sublime enfin que le beau antique
[the contact with the deformed has given the modern sublime something purer, grander, in a word, more sublime than the ancient (ideal of) beauty]
Indeed, it is difficult to find a single mention of the term sublime in Hugo’s text where it is not accompanied within the space of a sentence at most by the word grotesque or one of its synonyms. Because the sublime is the antithesis of the grotesque, in Hugo’s antithetical esthetic, the grotesque is fated to dissolve in it, as Satan and Jesus merge in God’s light at the end of “Ce que dit la bouche d’ombre,” the longest poem of the Contemplations (book 6). Here the light must become so intense in order to absorb the grotesque that it loses the concrete form that is necessary to generate the sense of beauty. Similarly, the “sublime” moments of Hugo’s theater and novels inject into worldly situations a note of transcendence, generally in the form of a sacrificial gesture in which the character shows his willingness to sacrifice his life for his honor, thereby demonstrating the failure of the plot to contain the infinite subjectivity of its romantic characters.
In effect, in Hugo’s esthetic, finite form itself is identified with limitation and consequently with the grotesque; everything that was beautiful is absorbed into the sublime. And although unlike Burke, Hugo does not associate the sublime with deferred violence, its reconciliatory role, as in the poem just mentioned, is nonetheless essential. In the romantic esthetic, the nurturing form of the beautiful is insufficient to deal with the threat posed by the grotesque, which is itself best understood simply as a “moment” of the sublime. Even the feminine is absorbed into this dialectic; Hugo’s Lucretia Borgia is the ancestress of Nikita, Lara Croft, the Bride of Kill Bill, and the other violent heroines of our era. For despite Hugo’s lack of philosophical sophistication, we must recognize that it is his vision of the sublime and, by default, the beautiful that has dominated the modern and the postmodern esthetic.
If I retain a sympathy for the beautiful and a certain antipathy for the sublime, it is no doubt a product of my Bronx Romantic penchant for the lyric scene as the simplest and most personal model of the originary event. As I have already repeated perhaps too often, the lyric beloved is equally beautiful and sublime, since she is infinitely desirable and for that very reason forbidden to the poet. The lyric scene reproduces the originary configuration where a single central object conflates the qualities of sublime and beautiful. Just as the sublime vs beautiful opposition inaugurated by Burke emphasizes the difference between the objects that arouse these two forms of esthetic experience, taking an important step away from their originary unity even as he begins to view them in the light of the scenic imagination, so the lyric beloved combines both, with the specific nuance that although the sublime-interdictive was the primary necessity of the constitution of the lyric scene in the first place, the beautiful is much more clearly and insistently the attribute of the beloved herself.
For the lyric scene reproduces the originary scene with a different model of desire. Those who have attempted to make sexual rather than alimentary desire the motive of the originary scene run into various insuperable obstacles, the most obvious of which is that sexual activity is not normally collective, and lends itself to scenic concentration only with difficulty (thus an orgy normally involves a chaotic pairing-off rather than a concentration on a central scene, as the French term partouze–a take-off on partout=everywhere, makes clear). The lyric scene has only one participant on the periphery, even if the sublimity of his beloved reflects the implicit presence of the entire world to share his lover-poet’s admiration.
Clearly the world of lyric is vastly impoverished today. Of the poems I encounter in journals or online, I don’t remember the last one that could be called a love-poem, at least not a heterosexual love-poem. But I can’t imagine that once in a while some young fellow doesn’t write sonnets to his girlfriend, or vice versa. Someday I hope to run across a few.