Of Mountains and Media: Versions of the Sublime

A few years ago I got a chance to see Marc Handelman’s Archive for a Mountain in person, and it got me thinking about the category of the sublime in a new way. The conceit of the work is straightforward–Handelman assembled into a single book every piece of data he could find about the Untersberg–but the product is impressive. Weighing in at a hefty 740 archival-quality pages of maps, images, brochures, essays, scanned microfilm, screenshots of Wikipedia entries, and more, the book has an excessive materiality of its own. But it also—in the way it inevitably provokes us to imagine even more material that might have been included—foregrounds the incredible constrictions that are necessarily imposed upon any subject in the process of representation, even in those renderings that we are tempted to label exhaustive or comprehensive. Its gesture towards a kind of vast and awe-inspiring archival noumenal that exists beyond the capacity of any single human or technological interface to represent it (as well as its mapping of this limit onto such a traditional representative of sublime Nature) seems distinct to me from other contemporary notions of the sublime, and actually seems to hearken back to the original problematic of the eighteenth-century sublime: how to represent a mountain?

The Tate Gallery has put together a wonderful “online research publication” called The Art of the Sublime, which collects a very impressive series of essays on the history of the sublime. In addition to informative takes on the many historic sublimes of the Romantic, Victorian, and Modernist eras, I especially enjoyed the more speculative essays on the contemporary sublime, including a thought provoking essay by Eugénie Shinkle on the technological sublime and the banal temporality of video games. The problem of the sublimity evoked by Handelman’s Archive, however, seems simpler and yet somehow more fundamental than the contemporary Marxist and post-human versions of the technological sublime that Shinkle assesses.

I’ve recently become fascinated with the whole genre of Bergfilme that were produced in Germany in the 1920s, and the most famous of these movies—Der Heilige Berg, or, The Holy Mountain—actually serves as great test case for exploring different notions of the sublime. In the way that the American western might be said to be characterized—thematically as well as formally—by a kind of depth-canceling stoicism, the Bergfilme that I’ve seen are united in the abstracted, almost Sophoclean loftiness of the script, the acting, and the mise en scéne. In addition to Der Heilige Berg’s clear engagement with the more traditionally sublime imagery of powerful storms and jagged alpine scenery, the Tate publication helped me identify other, more historically specific strains of sublimity, including the sublimity of privation, and the melodramatic sublime.

In watching the film, however–I watched Kino’s DVD of a refurbished print–what perhaps strikes the contemporary viewer most forcefully is the stunning beauty of the technology with which the film was shot, as well as director Arnold Fanck’s willingness to push that technology beyond its effective limits. The film was shot on location over the course of several years, and occasionally the usually crystalline clarity of the cinematography breaks down in the extreme conditions of production: at the beginning of the climactic sequence, footage of a storm broiling up from the valley is marked by the surface warp of the film-strip; later in the same sequence, shooting on a tiny ledge in the dark of night and in howling wind, the camera’s focus can’t quite capture the luminously ice-encrusted face of Luis Trenker as he angrily confronts his climbing partner.

At one point in the storm, an intertitle reads “Nature unleashed!” right before the lead actress (a young Leni Riefenstahl) is engulfed by an avalanche that obliterates all visual detail from the shot, exposing the film completely.

In the case of both Archive for a Mountain and The Holy Mountain, what is represented simply exceeds the capacity of the medium for representation; in Kant’s terms, the medium apprehends more than it can comprehend:

“In receiving a quantum into the Imagination by intuition, in order to be able to use it for a measure or as a unit for the estimation of magnitude by means of numbers, there are two operations of the Imagination involved: apprehension (apprehensio) and comprehension (comprehensio aesthetica). As to apprehension there is no difficulty, for it can go on ad infinitum; but comprehension becomes harder the further apprehension advances, and soon attains to its maximum, viz. the aesthetically greatest fundamental measure for the estimation of magnitude. For when apprehension has gone so far that the partial representations of sensuous intuition at first apprehended begin to vanish in the Imagination, whilst this ever proceeds to the apprehension of others, then it loses as much on the one side as it gains on the other; and in comprehension there is a maximum beyond which it cannot go.”*

Where Kant seemed to require a colossal perceptum to drive his apprehension to the vanishing point between sensuous intuition and the Imagination, a work like Handelman’s suggests that all percepta in some sense exceed the possibility of their representation, and that therefore the sublime is somehow fundamental to mediation itself.

In an inverse of Clement Greenberg’s argument about medium specificity, then, we could potentially differentiate media according to their individual sublimes, but the more interesting question is how any representation should avoid succumbing to the awe of the sublime. Whether in film, or poetry, or scholarly writing, how to move dialectically from a naïve realism to the problematic of sublime mediation and then back again to something else–to a humane or ethical realism that orients representation in relation to an articulated good?


*Immanuel Kant, Kant’s Critique of Judgement. Trans. J.H. Bernard (2nd ed. revised). London: Macmillan, 1914. [link]

One thought on “Of Mountains and Media: Versions of the Sublime”

  1. I really appreciate the way you discuss how media can only go so far as to reflect the sublime. It’s an interesting discussion or rather, a difficult struggle. Thanks so much for sharing Archive for a Mountain.

Comments are closed.