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aesthetics - ambivalence - beauty - gothic novel - Grand Tour - grotesque - horror - Immanuel Kant - 1750s - 1760s - monstrous - nature - romanticism - sensibility - ugliness

The Alps, photo Jan Chciuk-Celt

Landscape with Tobias and the Angel (ca. 1660-73) - Salvator Rosa

Vesuvius in Eruption (1817) - J.M.W. Turner



The sublime (from the Latin sublimis (exalted)), refers in aesthetics to the quality of transcendent greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual or artistic. The term especially references a greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation or measurement.

The first study of the value of the sublime is the treatise ascribed to Longinus: On the Sublime. Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant both investigated the subject (compare Burke’s Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful, 1756) and both distinguished the sublime from the beautiful. Later writers tend to include the sublime in the beautiful.

For Immanuel Kant, the sublime represented a feeling derived from aesthetic judgment, in which we realize the limits of our human nature: that is, we realize we cannot conceive of something because it is part of the noumenal realm. Much like being next to a brick wall, we know the wall is there and that, presumably, there is something inaccessible on the other side. For Kant, the thrill we get from this realization is true sublimity; the realization that we cannot fully comprehend our own nature.

The Romantics were essentially preoccupied by the sublime and especially by the sublime in Nature.

It is a frequently exploited theme in the paintings of John Constable and William Turner, who tried to reach and grasp the essence of the sublime through experimentation. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sublime_%28philosophy%29 [Jun 2005]

The sublime and the gothic novel
The classic Gothic novel is Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). As in other Gothic novels, the notion of the sublime is central. Eighteenth-century aesthetic theory held that the sublime and the beautiful were juxtaposed. The sublime was awful (awe-inspiring) and terrifying while the beautiful was calm and reassuring. The characters and landscapes of the Gothic rest almost entirely within the sublime, with the heroine the great exception. The “beautiful” heroine’s susceptibility to supernatural elements, integral to these novels, both celebrates and problematizes what came to be seen as hyper-sensibility. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novel#18th_century [Jun 2005]

19th-century literary criticism and the sublime
The British Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century brought new aesthetic ideas to the study of literature, including the idea that the object of literature did not always have to be beautiful, noble, or perfect, but that literature itself could elevate a common subject to the level of the sublime. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_criticism [Jun 005]

The monstrous and the sublime during the enlightenment
[t]he monstrous was an important concept on aesthetics during the enlightenment, often closely associated with the wondrous and the sublime. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monster [Jun 2005]

see also: sublime - aesthetics - beauty - gothic novel - Immanuel Kant - monstrous - sensibility

A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) - Edmund Burke

A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) - Edmund Burke [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
The above edition is from 1773
image sourced here.

A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful is a 1757 treatise on aesthetics, written by Edmund Burke. It attracted the attention of prominent Continental thinkers such as Denis Diderot and Immanuel Kant. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Philosophical_Inquiry_into_the_Origin_of_Our_Ideas_of_the_Sublime_and_Beautiful [Sept 2005]

Book Description
An eloquent and sometimes even erotic book, the Philosophical Enquiry was long dismissed as a piece of mere juvenilia. However, Burke's analysis of the relationship between emotion, beauty, and art form is now recognized as not only an important and influential work of aesthetic theory, but also one of the first major works in European literature on the Sublime, a subject that has fascinated thinkers from Kant and Coleridge to the philosophers and critics of today. --via Amazon.com

See also: beauty - 1750s - aesthetics

Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764) - Immanuel Kant

Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764) - Immanuel Kant [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Kant and the sublime
The philosophical concept of the sublime, as described by philosopher Immanuel Kant in the Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, took inspiration in part from attempts to comprehend the enormity of the Lisbon quake and tsunami. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsunami#1755_-_Lisbon.2C_Portugal [Jun 2005]

Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen) is a 1764 book by Immanuel Kant.

The first complete translation into English since 1799 was recently published. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Observations_on_the_Feeling_of_the_Beautiful_and_Sublime [Jun 2005]

9/11 and Immanuel Kant

Nearly everyone in the world knows and has some deeply held, personal response to what happened in New York City and Washington, D. C., on September 11, 2001. The extraordinary sight of wide-bodied Boeing airplanes speeding like bullets down Manhattan Island at near the speed of sound, a mere 500-800 feet above the busy streets, then smashing into the city’s tallest buildings, eventually reducing them to rubble—these sublime acts of terror stunned the world. In a sense, we witnessed two types of the sublime as defined by Kant, the terrifying and the splendid. The terrifying arises from the great power and speed of these projectiles carrying helpless, unknowing passengers, and the dreadful toll in lost lives; the splendid results from the magnificence of the airplanes and the remarkable, gargantuan architecture of the twin towers. Most of us knew the experience not from being there or from descriptions, but from representation—through the lenses of cameras that captured so much of what happened that day. Those who watched live television witnessed in fearfulness and wonder as the spectacle unfolded. How even to speak of this catastrophe, to write about it? With great care, even reticence, perhaps, as the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen soon discovered. His comments on the terrorist attacks to reporters for the German press agency DPA were widely reported. The New York Times (September 19, 2001) carried the translation: “What happened there is—they all have to rearrange their brains now—is the greatest work of art ever. . . That characters can bring about in one act what we in music cannot dream of, that people practice madly for 10 years, completely, fanatically, for a concert and then died. That is the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos. . . I could not do that. Against that, we composers are nothing.” Stockhausen realized immediately the consequence of what he had said and begged his interviewers not to report it. But of course they did. As a result, the composer saw two concerts of his music cancelled “out of feeling for the political culture of the city and the federal republic,” according to Christina Weiss, Hamburg commissioner of culture. Stockhausen left Hamburg “in distress.” What he voiced was the unspeakable before the indescribable; the sublime element was, in a sense, the unnamable, as in St. Augustine’s avowal that god is celestial, ineffable, and unnamable. But this was not god in his sublime terribilità; here was the devil as destroyer. -- What Kind of Tears? 9/11 and the Sublime (Vernon Hyde Minor, 2001) via http://www.bilkent.edu.tr/~jast/Number14/Minor.htm [Sept 2005]


A mixed emotion of reverence, respect, dread, and wonder inspired by authority, genius, great beauty, sublimity, or might: We felt awe when contemplating the works of Bach. The observers were in awe of the destructive power of the new weapon. --AHD

Shaftesbury: Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711) - Lord Shaftesbury

Shaftesbury: Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711) - Lord Shaftesbury [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Book Description
Shaftesbury's Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times was published in 1711. It ranges widely over ethics, aesthetics, religion, the arts (painting, literature, architecture, gardening), and ancient and modern history, and aims at nothing less than a new ideal of the gentleman. Together with Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Addison and Steele's Spectator, it is a text of fundamental importance for understanding the thought and culture of Enlightenment Europe. This volume presents a new edition of the text together with an introduction, explanatory notes and a guide to further reading. --via Amazon.com

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (February 26, 1671 – February 4, 1713), was an English politician, philosopher and writer. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Ashley-Cooper%2C_3rd_Earl_of_Shaftesbury [Jan 2006]

The sublime
The development of the concept of the sublime as an aesthetic quality distinct from beauty was first brought into prominence in the eighteenth century in the writings of Anthony Ashley Cooper (third earl of Shaftesbury) and John Dennis, in expressing an appreciation of the fearful and irregular forms of external nature, and Joseph Addison’s synthesis of Cooper’s and Dennis’ concepts of the sublime in his The Spectator, and later the Pleasures of the Imagination. All three Englishmen had, within the span of several years, made the journey across the Alps and commented in their writings of the horrors and harmony of the experience, expressing a contrast of aesthetic qualities. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sublime_%28philosophy%29#Eighteenth_Century [Jan 2006]

See also: 1710s - aesthetics - sublime - sensibility - UK - taste

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