Monday, June 14, 2010

Terror and Awe - A Return to the Early Sublime

WHATEVER is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.
--Edmund Burke (1729–1797)

I went camping over some of the weekend with two of my brothers, Scott and John, as well as John's son, John.  This weekend was not an especially good one for camping, it rained and rained etc...  It did however, cause me to look at the beauty of the mists over the mountains, and the clouds, and the valley stretched out below.  In many aspects it returned me to some of the early historical aspects of the sublime.  The sublime was seen as a kind of terrible awe, usually in relation to nature.  While I do not claim that my camping trip was really enough to fill me with horror or pain, it did cause me to think about how we use it in our culture.

The disaster movie takes this terrible awe and makes it the center of the action.  Any number of scenes in a disaster movie may not even show the characters at all.  Instead they are filled with destruction and awe, and often they are nature scenes where nature's power has become overwhelming.  In the 18th century when this idea of the sublime as a terrible force, or rather a transcendent experience as the result of terror, nature was coming into the fore in preparation for the Romantic Period.  However, the sublime tends to be exaggerated in modern media, so that we get the zombie movie which I discussed previously.

-Spoiler Alert- Movie Knowing

We also get movies like Knowing.  Knowing, while somewhat odd in its treatment of aliens and biblical allusions is actually a good example of the disaster movie.  We have the warning signs, which are ignored or only appear until it is too late, etc...  We have a central figure(s) which we follow and who usually survive the disasters (because we need a human perspective on the dangers).  We have salvation from the danger by some means, a shelter, an ark, aliens, etc...  We also usually see or know about the scientists who are making the discovery and rescue from the disaster.  These are all tropes of the disaster genre.  The way that I feel Knowing elevates this theme is that both the characters and the audience don't know what is going on.  In fact, for much of the movie we do not know that it is a disaster movie.  It starts out much like a thriller or drama and builds all the way to its apocalyptic conclusion.  In the last scene even the Earth (or at least the surface) is destroyed.

Notice the way that the scene builds this terror and awe.  First we have a characteristic of the sublime that Edmund Burke describes in On the Sublime and the Terrible, that is "When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful."  In other words, distance.  We achieve a certain amount of this simply by not actually being present and only watching it, and usually this is sufficient.  In this ending scene, however, the main character (played by Nicholas Cage) dies along with his family.  To achieve an additional separation there is music, and it replaces the other sounds completely (at least at first) creating a feeling of distance between the imagery and the sound.  I had mentioned previously that sound was mentioned in Aesthetics of Film as one of the most overlooked artistic aspects of a movie, but I would argue it is also very effective when used properly.

While Emily Dickinson doesn't have aliens coming down to save mankind from a global disaster, she still could capture the power of nature.  For example:

AN AWFUL tempest mashed the air,
The clouds were gaunt and few;
A black, as of a spectre’s cloak,
Hid heaven and earth from view.

The word mashed is very powerful here.  The word mash implies a tension and destruction, even as it applies to something intangible like air.  The word awful is especially interesting as it goes back to the very definition of the sublime as it simultaneously means both horrible and to be filled with awe or wonderment.  This stanza also makes reference to dark imagery with the "gaunt" clouds and the "spectre's cloak."  The stanza ends with a reminder of the power of nature, as it started with the mashing of the air.  The tempest (which also has darker connotations than simply storm) hides "heaven and earth," reminding us of the scope of natures power.

Andrew Morris

This article is part of a continuing theme on Emily Dickinson, modern media, and the sublime, if you would like to know more read here.


  1. I think Edmund Burke's statement is interesting, where he describes the "sublime" as "productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling." It makes me wonder what happens after the point at which the mind is capable of feeling - the point at which horror, terror, or transcendence create numbness, emptiness, or inability to process in a human mind. It's interesting to think that perhaps at a certain point the mind might flip off like a switch, tripped like a circuit breaker that was overloaded. What do you make of the analogy? Is it useful in the context of the sublime?

  2. I think that we encounter what we are incapable of understanding all the time. How many bits of sand on a beach, how many atoms in your body, can we even comprehend what those mean. However, the sublime is something that intrudes upon us in a larger way so that the mind has to try to deal with it. However our minds are very resilient, unlike a computer or circuit breaker, when presented with more than we are capable of processing the mind simply makes what it can out of it and leaves the rest.

    I think we run into problems is when we are unable to let something go that we are not capable of dealing with. Psychiatrists talk about people blocking out memories of unbelievable traumatic events. This is because the mind seems to have a way to deal with overloads, either to change the way the input is interpreted (to crazy), or remove the input (block out the memory). That being said, I think that our minds are astonishingly good at dealing with a world in which a great deal is unexplainable.

    As an analogy it is interesting, but not sure that I will be able to use it. Might be interesting to explore a little psychology though.