Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Circular Sublime

I had mentioned previously that Emily Dickinson has a tendency to contradict her own portrayals of the sublime.  This is not unexpected.  The sublime is by its very nature supposed to be something that is incomprehensible and by writing (or using any other art) about it we attempt to capture what cannot be captured.  Perhaps the most astonishing thing is how often artists like Dickinson succeed.

I wanted to continue my exploration of the sublime in Dickinson's Poetry and in modern media by comparing it to the movie Contact, one of the few movies that I might argue is better than its book.  The opening sequence of the movie starts looking at the Earth with, what was at the time of the movies production, modern music.  Then the scene leaves the Earth behind going out through the solar system past the planets and then shows the Oort cloud and then Alpha Centauri, finally heading out of the Milky Way, and then many many galaxies, all the while going backwards in time through radio messages until it becomes silence.  Then all of that becomes a reflection in the eye of the main character as a girl.

I probably wouldn't even have thought about the importance of the soundtrack, other than for their value as a chronological marker if I hadn't currently been reading Aesthetics of Film as part of my research for this topic.  One of the subjects that it mentioned is most overlooked when doing an analysis of film is sound, so I decided to pay special attention to it.  At this point it is probably best to let you see the clip, if you want to do your own on-the-fly examination of how it makes you feel, feel free.

The overall impression that this clip portrays is one of the vastness of space and how small the world is in it.  Long before you leave even our solar system, Earth has vanished from view, and the sun in all of its glory fades away.  To match this, the remaining human element of our radio signals fades away into silence, again showing all that is human has no place out in space.  But then, after all has become just space, a hint of sound starts up again and the scene becomes a reflection in an eye.  By doing this it returns us solidly to the realm of Earth and earthly care, and in fact in the movie we become swept away in the affairs of the characters immediately after.  This also forms a cycle, it leaves earth and then returns.  And by returning so directly to the eye of a human being, it reminds us that we are watching a human construction, and perhaps, even argues that all the grand creation that we have seen up to this point has no meaning without mankind.

To illustrate a similar point in one of Emily Dickinson's poetry you can read:

The Life we have is very great.
The Life that we shall see
Surpasses it, we know, because
It is Infinity.
But when all Space has been beheld
And all Dominion shown
The smallest Human Heart's extent
Reduces it to none.

Notice that the sublimes of the human, life/time, and space are all expressed quickly in this piece.  The sublime which is supposed to be incomprehensibly large is compared to other sublime and one is subjugated to the other.  She not only has a counter-sublime in her matter of fact description of the sublime, but also in making the sublime have a size to compare.  Dickinson, like the scene from Contact, is argues that all of space and life only has meaning in the context of how it is human.

I had intended to say more about a later scene in Contact, but this article is getting a bit long, so I'll save it for later.

Feel free to comment or offer suggestions.

Andrew Morris

1 comment:

  1. Watching the introduction made me think think of expansion and paradigm shift - which I think are suggestive of the transient, ever-changing nature of the sublime - especially considering the radio sound waves scattering across space in an unpinable testament to cyclical and evolving human values.

    To this effect, Emily Dickinson wrote, "True reality exists in self-expansion founded on illumination-distribution". Maybe it would be a good idea to search into the joint natures of sublimity and reality which is a key element of Contact.