Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Trying to Catagorize the Sublime

Sublime upon sublime scarcely presents a contrast, and we need a little rest from everything, even the beautiful.
--Victor Hugo

Since I am attempting to form a (somewhat) cohesive work I feel obliged to begin to encapsulate it and summarize it on one page or post as much as possible.  Though I first want to mention that attempting to categorize the sublime, both within my posts and within this central organizational structure may be considered counter-sublime.  As I am now introducing you to my main subject, we should probably move on to that.

The Definition of the Sublime

The sublime.  If you are reasonably well read, or have another reason to have a large vocabulary, you probably already know its standard definition, which is where we will start.  It is (from the Oxford Dictionary):

• adjective (sublimer, sublimest)
1 of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe.
2 extreme or unparalleled: sublime confidence.

There is also a definition from chemistry:

  • verb Chemistry (with reference to a solid substance) change directly into vapour when heated, typically forming a solid deposit again on cooling.

— ORIGIN Latin sublimis, from sub- ‘up to’ + a second element perhaps related to limen ‘threshold’ or limus ‘oblique’.

The sublime is usually considered to evoke positive emotions and connotations in these definitions (except in chemistry, then it's just a process).  That is something that you lose when you go into the literary definition.  The sublime certainly can be positive, but it can also be negative.  For the sake of literature, the sublime can be considered any experience that transcends any attempt to describe it.

How the Sublime Pertains to Our Discussion

My project involves using examples of the poetry of Emily Dickinson and comparing it to media (in particular video).  In each example I am highlighting a particular element of the sublime.  My true main argument is perhaps a little more general.  The fact that we can find the sublime both in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and in movies, which are often public venues of entertainment, suggests that they are an essential part of the human experience.  That is why this project matters.  Even if you don't care for Emily Dickinson, or popular media, you still know what it is to be human, and the sublime is part of your existence.

Where our discussion has lead us so far: 

So far I have discussed a number of topics, they are in order of discussion:

First I have had some posts that were purely formative, in which I was discussing the process of research (though research never really stops), they are:

Literally a Literature Blog, Figuratively Speaking

Emily Dickinson Research Trends

Getting better all the ti-i-ime...

The Form of our Blog Projects

Then I begin to dig a little more deeply into my subject matter:

Emily Dickinson as the Precursor to the Dark Sublime
-In this post I discuss the Dark Sublime as it relates to another piece of literature, Heart of Darkness By Conrad, and a poem of Emily Dickinson's. I also examining the fact that Emily Dickinson is ariving at the Dark Sublime years before anyone else.

The Circular Sublime-This post discusses the opening scene of the movie Contact in context of an Emily Dickinson poem.  This particular example of the sublime focuses on cyclical nature, space, and humanities place in the universe.

Avatar Party - Avatar as a Sublime Experience?
-I don't have a specific Emily Dickinson poem that this post refers to, but I examine a few of the themes that you can find in the movie Avatar.

Sickness, Zombies, and the Sublime
-Sickness as a sublime experience, and also zombies as a manifestation on the modern fear of zombies.  I also bring this into an example of poetry from Emily Dickinson.

Religion and the Sublime

-A return to the movie Contact, this time exploring the issue of religion, faith, and sublime.  Then I examine Emily Dickinson's perspective on structured religion.

Emily Dickinson Conference-Not actually about a specific subject and the sublime.  There is an upcoming conference at Oxford University hosted by EDIS (Emily Dickinson International Society).  I just give a brief look at the subjects that they will be exploring.

Terror and Awe - A Return to the Early Sublime  - A return to some of the early historical aspects of the sublime as described by Edmund Burke.  Nature, disaster movies, and awe and terror.

Cohesion in Purpose - An attempt to make my blog a little more cohesive by pointing out what the value of the blogs that I have written is.

Reaching Out - Brief discussion of the sublimity of language.  Also my attempts to contact other people to comment and or discuss the ideas of this blog.

The Future? 

Here are a few elements that could be discussed in the future:

 -More specific Avatar examples in the context of Emily Dickinson.

 -Movie Criticism and the Sublime (I am currently reading through some books on Movie/Cinema Criticism so I am not sure if this will yet apply.)

 -Themes I find Emily Dickinson poems that are especially obvious to me, like the solitary/internal self, self vs society, nature,  gardening and flowers (I am sure I can make a sublime out of this somehow), Death, love, etc...  as long as I can find proper media examples.

-The movie What Dreams May Come as an example of sublime imagery.  It is also about love, heaven (particularly the psychology), internal landscapes, hell, madness, and grief and loss.  It is also a fantastic example of a movie that begins In medias res, or in the middle of things, as we skip back across his life to see his interactions with his children and wife, as we experience his story.

-Anything that people tell me I should discuss in more detail or cite as an example.  (So post comments people)

Andrew Morris

Added 06/17/2010:

I have been told a number of times that my definition of the sublime is still not clear enough.  While I am now tempted to steer them towards my blog on the sublimity of language, I feel I should attempt to do the subject greater justice.

I believe that my concept of the sublime is fairly simple.  It is any experience, feeling, or object that a person undergoes that raises emotions beyond the complete comprehension of that person.  A good definition comes from Edmund Burke, "In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it."  I should make it clear, however, that I do not subscribe to Burke's idea of the sublime as only being from terror and pain, and I consider any emotion that is heightened sufficiently can become overwhelming and become sublime.  I also do not limit it to emotional sublime.  It is possible for us as human beings to encounter experiences and objects that we cannot comprehend.  They may well have emotional overtones, but the stars in the sky and realization of that infinity, which I have had a few times is overpowering by itself.

I hope this makes things a little clearer, if not let me know and I will try again.


  1. I think the Victor Hugo quote is great, and the way you muse on how the very form of your post may or may not fit the quality of the sublime. It's a nice segue into your larger discussion.

    I think it's good you point to a definition of the sublime, although I think you could go even further with the definition. And I'm not sure why you don't define the word according to literary use, since that's how you'll be using it. When I looked at the OED, I noted these definitions that may be significant, and that are not all consistent. You'll have to choose which ones matter and explain why:

    1. Of lofty bearing or aspect; in a bad sense, haughty, proud. Chiefly poet. Used in 1596 by Edmund Spenser, as in the Fairie Queene: "The proud Souldan with presumpteous cheare, And countenance sublime and insolent."

    2. Of ideas, truths, subjects, etc.: Belonging to the highest regions of thought, reality, or human activity. Also occas. said of the thinker. Used in 1634 by Milton, "Thou hast nor Eare, nor Soul to apprehend The sublime notion, and high mystery."

    3. Of persons, their attributes, feelings, actions: Standing high above others by reason of nobility or grandeur of nature or character; of high intellectual, moral, or spiritual level. Passing into a term of high commendation: Supreme, perfect. Used by Anne Radcliffe in the Mysteries of Udolpho in 1794: "Emily's eyes filled with tears of admiration and sublime devotion. "

    4. colloq. with ironical force. As in, "He has a sublime sense of his own importance. This is a sublime piece of impertinence."

    5. Of language, style, or a writer: Expressing lofty ideas in a grand and elevated manner. Used by Coleridge in 1817: "The sublime Dante."

    6. Of things in nature and art: Affecting the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power; calculated to inspire awe, deep reverence, or lofty emotion, by reason of its beauty, vastness, or grandeur. Used in 1842: "The stars are sublime, yet there is no terror in the emotion they excite."

    AS A NOUN:

    7. in discourse or writing. Used by Tennyson in 1847: "Feigning pique at what she call'd The raillery, or grotesque, or false sublime."

    8. in nature and art. Used by Washington Irving in 1820: "Never need an American look beyond his own country for the sublime and beautiful of natural scenery."

    9. in human conduct, life, feeling, etc.Used by Edmund Burke in 1756: "Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, a source of the sublime."

    I don't know if you'll be able to get to the OED from this link, but I'll try it:

    In any event, you'll note that there are MANY possible definitions of the sublime, and you'll want to hone in on the ways you use it...Katherine, for instance, is using the sublime in a very focused way - looking at the Romantic Notion of it that was generated by a few prominent writers between about 1700 and 1750.

  2. Also, you suggest a few terms like "the counter-sublime," "the dark sublime," "the religious sublime," and I'm not sure whether they are part of a larger conversation about "the sublime," or whether you came up with those terms yourself.

  3. You should check out this article from The Englewood Review of Books - it talks about The Sublime, a book by Simon Morley, and has some great things to say about the contemporary/digital sublime.

  4. Also, since you're doing definitions, here's my post that dealt with some definitions of the sublime, it could be helpful:

    I like how in this post you're sort of taking a step back to organize your thoughts, intentions and the direction of the blog. It helps us see what you're doing more clearly, and I'm sure was helpful for yourself. I'm interested to see how you're going to connect Avatar to Emily Dickinson.

  5. Thanks for the comments everybody. I think that the definition that I am using is closest to 6 in Neal's list with one caveat, it does not have to be calculated to produce the sensation. Nature, for example, just can produce a feeling of awe and create things that seem indescribable.

  6. note that there is a lot more about #6 in the OED, and you wouldn't want to just use the little bit I've included here.