I want to say it was Stephen Fry who argued that John Keats might have gone on to become the next William Shakespeare had he lived a bit longer, though it may have in fact have been Christopher Hitchens. It’s odd not knowing the origin of that quote, because I get those two mixed up rarely—then again, the accent and a general contempt for belief in any sort of divine being are traits common to both these men, so I’ll cut myself some slack. It is an interesting statement when taken from afar, because at first I’m willing to agree with it. Upon reflection, however, I feel that this is in fact a real disservice to John Keats as a poet, for while Shakespeare is a standard that I think many writers should aspire to (or at least would appreciate as a lovely comparison), I think Keats as a writer managed in his own way to attain his own identity. Continue reading Shields and Urns and Beauty and Misery: What Wonders Were the Greeks
This week, I was inspired by Arden’s posts of “brief cuts” from her dissertation to go back through ideas I’ve had in courses but have set aside for the time being. I stumbled onto one nugget of research that I found for a class on “Romanticism and Thing Theory,” taught by Prof. Jill Heydt-Stevenson in 2014, in which we were asked every week to identify a “thing” in the texts assigned and dig up historical research on it. Personally, I found the assignment fascinating as a way to learn more about some of the obscure cultural shorthand on the Romantic period (seriously, who knew there were so many different kinds of carriages?). For Mary Hays’s The Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), I looked into classifications of lightning to better understand one pivotal scene between Emma and Augustus.
First, let me say that I’d love some constructive feedback on this post. This is a sort of companion piece to my last post, in which I examined Coleridge’s influence on J. R. R. Tolkien’s conception of the imagination and its pivotal role in the creation of fantastic literature. But my long-term plan for my dissertation entails developing a critical theory of fantastic fiction (a loaded term in and of itself, I realize) from Longinus’s conception of the sublime as it relates to language and rhetoric, Romantic ideas about the imagination, and higher-order “big picture” ideas about the role of fantasy from Tolkien and, to a lesser extent, C. S. Lewis. Continue reading Eucatastrophe in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
In my last post, I previewed my newest introductory-level literature course, “Reading Romanticism Today,” where my freshman writing students and I have just wrapped up a unit on “Nature and the Sublime.” As Seth Wilson recently reminded us, the concept of the “sublime” can be a wily one to pin down, even for (or maybe, especially for) scholars who study authors that were themselves fascinated by this aesthetic and philosophical notion.
For the purpose of this course, we’ve been exploring the “sublime” by mashing together some of Romanticism’s greatest hits—Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”—with contemporary media pieces, such as a recent documentary on the Cosmos hosted by astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson (discussed in September’s post). The paper assignment that culminated this unit asked students to find their own example of the sublime in an artwork they would choose from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The pieces could be from any historical moment, but each one had to connect to a Romantic poem. Here, I offer some of the students’ fascinating finds: Continue reading Reading Romanticism Today: Artistry of the Sublime
Any scholar in any discipline with even a passing familiarity with the Romantic era knows how central the idea of the sublime is to Romantic thought. But exactly what is the sublime? The sense of awe and terror that overwhelmed Percy Shelley’s mind and spirit upon first looking at Mont Blanc? Wordsworth’s epiphany of cosmic truth upon his return to Tintern Abbey? Any number of wondrous and terrible events that befell Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner on his adventures? Well, yes and no. For these are merely descriptions of sublime events, and do not in themselves provide any sort of qualitative definition. Before reading Robert Doran’s sweeping and erudite study, I’m not sure I could have answered this question. To be honest, I still don’t know if I can answer it satisfactorily, since by its nature the sublime has a way of both transcending and subverting things. But Robert Doran’s The Theory of the Sublime from Longinus to Kant at least provides a rich and detailed map of the the subject, and even if the map isn’t exactly the territory it’s still invaluable to a scholar of Romantic ideology. Continue reading Review: The Theory of the Sublime from Longinus to Kant by Robert Doran
It’s probably not a good first impression upon my new reader to admit that I did not actually re-read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner before I began this first post. I promise it was not out of apathy or laziness. You see, I’ve read the Mariner’s Tale at least ten times in my life, at least four times for school, the other times because my
teachers had instilled in me the beauty and power found within this strange and wonderful poem. This confidence in the material, really my own working knowledge of the poem, allows me to focus instead upon a work of art that has played a significant role in my appreciation of the work. Continue reading Of Images, Sublime, and the Necessity of Keeping Crossbows Off Ships
One major aspect of Romanticism that draws me to it over and over is the deep and ever intense experience of we feel at the vast and powerful places in our landscapes that leave us feeling in awe of nature and – perhaps – at the whim of it. This quality is called the sublime, and is a feeling of some perpetual study in aesthetics and, whether it be spiritual or artistic, I find myself returning to works over and over that tangle with the immensity of nature.
The Sublimity of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a sublime film. Tracing the evolution of humanity from prehistoric hominids to space age explorers immersed in Cold War politics, the film considers the telos or final aim of the human: a sentient computer. In terms of plot and thematically the film is sublime indeed, but especially when it’s big. Kubrick’s movie comes back to the theater this week as part of Seattle’s first Science Fiction Film Festival, using a 70mm print, which basically means the resolution is higher than a standard 35mm print. But 70mm film was/is used to shoot very few films, and the Cinerama, where 2001 will be screened, is one of only three theaters in the world with the capacity to project one. For everyone else, the DVD will have to suffice (at least you get the extras!). While I always thought aesthetic theories of the sublime had much to contribute to a conversation about Kubrick’s futuristic journey, is a big screen really a prerequisite for such a discourse?
It doesn’t hurt.
Kubrick’s film opens with “The Dawn of Man.” A group of apes scavenge for sustenance, fighting with other clans of apes for a nearby waterhole. By today’s standards, the apes resemble homo erectus, bipeds prior to the use of tools. The stage in their development is important because one morning, Moon-Watcher (as he’s called in the script), awakes to find a large, black, symmetrical object: the monolith. Geometrical form, par excellence. Following from the encounter, Moon-Watcher creates what amounts to the first tool, thus inaugurating the next step in human evolution. Moon-Watcher sees a bone and anticipates its use as a weapon. The film presents viewers with a radical notion, that an external object determines brain capacity. In other words, the encounter with the monolith animates Moon-Watcher’s imagination, but as the German Enlightenment philosopher Kant would say, the monolith itself does nothing.
For Kant, writing on aesthetics in his Critique of Judgment (Berlin, 1790)—a foundational text for studies on the sublime—sublime experience occurs only in the mind.[i] A sublime experience follows from the “might” exhibited in nature causing a feeling of “respect” in the viewer. A truly sublime effect turns its subject into a “brave” and “noble” character with a newfound sense of moral purpose (§§28-9.99-106). However, Kant disavows any purpose within the sublime object itself. If it’s an ocean it’s only an ocean; if it’s a volcano it’s only a volcano (§29.110).[ii] So according to Kant, the monolith could be anything because, for the human, it is the mind that determines the object.
From the inauguration of the first tool, time is compressed. Kubrick now jumps almost two million years into the future as the camera follows Moon-Watcher’s hurled weapon through the air. In a vicissitudinous cut Kubrick links two tools at the limits of technology: From Early Pleistocene bone to a twenty first-century military vessel orbiting earth. The gesture forces us to ask, what’s the difference? As Adrian Mackenzie might say, the bone is local while the spaceship is global.[iii] But how local are bones? Like the monolith, these objects seem to traverse time and geographic location. Furthermore, despite the apparent innocuousness of the film, the accompanying evil (or banality) of the monolith reveals itself in that imagination’s inauguration ushers in weapons of war—first and foremost.
For film’s third section, Kubrick introduces a different kind of sublimity. If the military spaceship doubles as Moon-Watcher’s bone, the monolith’s double is the HAL 9000 computer. Faceless and seemingly indifferent, HAL is “the most reliable computer ever made.” On their mission to Jupiter, the crew is comprised of HAL, scientists in hibernation, as well as two conscious scientists, Dr. Poole and Dr. Bowman. Next to his human counterparts, HAL appears fragmented without an actual body, restricted by the cameras determining his sight. On the other hand, HAL acts as the ship’s nervous system; that is to say, he is totally mobile, ubiquitous, and dubiously inescapable. If the sublime requires safe distance, as it did for Edmund Burke in 1757, HAL creates the illusion of distance, while in fact he is closer than anything else.[iv] Kubrick zeroes in on a sublime object that cannot be measured in terms of physical distance. The object is remote in appearance but near in personality, distant in body but near in omnipresence. In this sense Burke is wrong while Kant and Kubrick are right: measuring, identifying, and containing the sublime says nothing about sublimity.
Maybe a good reviewer would explain the film’s end, but in the spirit of the sublime I will not enact that violence. To be fair, the end should be experienced on the big screen, which is why, should the opportunity arise, any fan of the sublime or science fiction ought to see the film in the theater. But what does one gain from bigness? If in the end we admit that size alters experience, have we not undone the whole point of this article? To admit that proportion is part of the sublime experience is only to admit exactly what these various thinkers ultimately gesture toward: the sublime cannot be contained within a single criterion or tedious criteria.
The Seattle Science Fiction Film Festival runs from 4/19 to 5/2. Among others, films include Metropolis, Dune, Barbarella (of course), but sadly not Bladerunner.
[i] Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. J.H. Bernard. New York: Hafner Press, 1951. Print.
[ii] On this point see Paul de Man’s “Kant’s Materialism” in Aesthetic Ideology. Ed. Andrzej Warminski. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. Print.
[iii] For an interesting commentary on the limits of technology, comparing Paleolithic hand-axes to thermal nuclear devices (57-86), see Adrian Mackenzie’s Transductions: Bodies and Machines at Speed. London: Continuum, 2002. Print.
[iv] Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Ed. James T. Boulton. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1958.