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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Twenty-first Century Sublime

by Steve Neumann

Energy is the only life and is from the Body, and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy. 

William Blake, Proverbs of Hell

The sublime ain’t what it used to be. The word used to designate those human experiences that were best described by words like exalted, elevated, majestic, magnificent, glorious — a sampling from my Merriam-Webster dictionary. In times past, the feeling for the sublime was evoked by the myriad phenomena of nature: mountains, oceans, landscape vistas, atmospheric cataclysms, large exotic animals, etc. But where is our feeling for the sublime today? Surely many of us still find it in the aforementioned phenomena, but our modern wonderment at nature may have become somewhat tempered by the ubiquity of scientific explanations. 

So it seems to me that our feeling for the sublime, if it is to happen at all, will have to come more and more from culture. Of what does our twenty-first century culture consist? For the majority of Americans, at least, culture is primarily the products of, and engagement with, the entertainment industry: popular music, movies, television, etc. [1] In the following sections, I want to examine certain aspects and permutations of the sublime, one example of where I’ve personally found it in popular culture, and what a positive relationship to a newly-conceived notion of the sublime might look like for us. 

I. The Sublime 

In contrast to our experience of beauty, which includes a pronounced element of pleasure, our experience of sublimity also involves a significant feeling of fear. And whereas pleasure is associated with familiarity, desirability, predictability, etc., fear carries connotations of risk, uncertainty, and aversion. 

The sense of fear normally arises due to the dangerousness of the object evoking it: for instance, we can easily drown in the vast, tumultuous ocean; and that great white shark circling us can easily tear us to pieces. In other words, we are both drawn to the otherness of the shark — where our sense of curiosity, or the anticipated satisfaction of that curiosity, elicits a feeling of pleasure — and repelled by the mortal peril its enormous jaws and razor-fine teeth represent for us. The danger involved is a danger to our continued bodily existence, which plays into the “flight” part of our fight-or-flight instinct. 

In addition to the rational fear of impending physical harm noted above, and the irrational fear of the unknown that a sublime object or experience presents us with, there is another type of fear that can be perceived, though perhaps at a near-subconscious level: the loss of our sense of Self; and this is a psychological fear, which manifests itself as a less imminent and intense version of the physical fear. Though, within a naturalistic worldview, the duality of the physical / psychological is, at bottom, the same fear: the fear of nonexistence. And what I mean by the “loss of our sense of self” is not that which is identified as the goal of the spiritual practices of Hinduism or Buddhism, but that Self which is experienced as inopportunely nullified after having experienced itself favorably as a more or less stable and unified entity up until that point.

Innumerable poems, myths and spiritual memoirs have all delivered a common yet curious message with regard to the sublime: the incorrigible indifference, the intractable independence, irritates us like a grain of sand in the craw of an oyster. And if the human being persists in contemplating the sublime object, eventually she may reach a point where her own sense of coherence is thrown into doubt. She comes to understand, or is forced to understand, that she is not the center of the universe; and that, not only has the universe likely existed for an infinity before her, it will likely continue existing for an infinity after her. And while she may possess a good comprehension of her own embodied boundaries and limitations, her lack of comprehension of the apparent boundlessness of the universe unsettles her, at least initially. 

In the relevant spiritual disciplines, this state of being is intentionally sought out; and once it is achieved there may be an overwhelming sense of resignation and peace. But the effect of a fortuitous encounter with the sublime tends to elicit more existential dread than Nirvana-like equanimity. I think this is mainly because our family environment, our educational system, our social milieu, the larger popular culture — all of them collude to erect in each individual a cogent, consistent and persistent identity; in other words, a strong sense of Self. Society has a vested interest in having its members being stable and (relatively) predictable selves. 

II. The Sublimation of the Sublime

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche describes what he considered the defining two aspects of classical Greek culture: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The latter is represented as the kind of “will to life” Schopenhauer described: a blind, incessantly groping, irrational will; whereas the former aspect is the form-giving tendency that seeks to create a harmony out of the chaos. Nietzsche argued that Classical Greek culture was born of the conflict of these two opposing forces. What does this have to do with the sublime? I propose that the Dionysian “will to life” itself can be experienced has a sublime phenomenon; and what’s more, that the perpetual clash of the Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies in and around us offers us an opportunity to sublimate the sublime.

Most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, realize that what we call our will, whether free or not, is in constant motion. I’m not talking about our “willpower”; I’m talking in a more general sense here. As an example, anyone who has tried to practice mindfulness meditation immediately realizes how nearly impossible it is to focus on only one thing without the constant chatter of the mind forcing itself into one’s awareness. The human mind is restless, a cheeky monkey; even when unconscious in a sleeping state our mind is active. Whether we are engaged in our work, trying to pay attention to our partner or family, or even when driving — our mind involuntarily wanders. So we don’t control our will in the way we believe we do. In a sense, it controls us. It’s not my intention here to get into the endlessly forked path of human agency and philosophy of mind — that would take us too far afield of the main topic of this post. But hopefully I gave you an idea of the nature of the will I’m talking about. 

This Dionysian will, being something we don’t control, can therefore be acknowledged as something other, and as something other working through us. And it’s the combination of this feeling of otherness (and the proximity of this otherness) and lack of control that disquiets us. And though I described this will as a “will to life,” I think a more accurate description is Nietzsche’s phrase “will to power,” where power is understood as expansion, incorporation — in a word, growth — and not mere domination of the weaker by the stronger. 

The Dionysian will, possessing a persistent independence and indifference, can then be conceived of as a sublime object, akin to the great white shark I mentioned previously. And if we conceive of the Dionysian will as a will to power as defined above, it contains the duality of pleasure and fear that is characteristic of our response to sublime phenomena: it simultaneously attracts and repels us. On the one hand, we begin to be vaguely uneasy about the source and intentions of this will; while on the other hand we are delighted by the feeling of power and excited by the possibilities that power represents. 

If the Dionysian will is the Energy that William Blake speaks of in the epigram to this post, then the Apollonian tendency in us is our ability to reason. Essentially, it’s the age-old dichotomy of Reason vs. Impulse. But it’s the integration of the Apollonian and Dionysian in us that is the goal of the sublimation of the sublime. I’m using the term “sublimation” in what I believe to be Nietzsche’s sense: human reason arranging and employing the chaos of impulses in a way that gives the human being an unaccustomed power over herself, and not an extirpation of the impulses. The Dionysian provides the flow of life and the Apollonian provides the direction, like water through a sluiceway. Energy may be the essence of life, with the potential for both creation and destruction, while Reason is the defining, limiting and containing boundary of that force. Energy is the splitting of an atom; Reason is the nuclear reactor. So it’s the wise exploitation of this partnership that redeems life for us. 

When we truly experience the sublime, our sense of weakness and vulnerability is brought into stark relief. We realize how impotent we really are, how small, how insignificant in the big picture of things. Additionally, for those of us who have extricated ourselves from a religio-moral interpretation of the world, our previous values seem insufficient or even worthless. This is the experience of nihilism, as defined by Nietzsche:

Thus the belief in the absolute immorality of nature, in [aimlessness] and meaninglessness, is the psychologically necessary affect once the belief in God and an essentially moral order becomes untenable. Nihilism appears at this point, not that the displeasure at existence has become greater than before but because one has come to mistrust any “meaning” in suffering, indeed in existence. One interpretation has collapsed; but because it was considered the interpretation it now seems as if there were no meaning at all in existence, as if everything were in vain.

The Will to Power, section 55

The vital question, therefore, is: how does one overcome this nihilism? How do we now redeem life? According to Nietzsche, the Greeks had their art of tragedy, where the Greek spectator was able to viscerally experience the turbulent vicissitudes of life brought about by the Dionysian will, but within the shielding structure of the performance of the tragedy on stage. A rough analogy might be witnessing the awesome power of an atomic bomb from a safe distance. But what do we moderns have? We still have tragedy, I suppose, in our plays, films and TV shows; but it lacks the requisite profundity. Or is it that we have become sort of desensitized to the healing effects of tragedy through the sterilized ubiquity of the tragic art form in our entertainment industry? And is the sublime today more akin to shallow beauty, or even a cheap hedonism?  

If we take culture to consist primarily of the sum of the plastic arts, visual arts and music; and if we consider the sublimation of the sublime to be the prime means of putting the power of redemption back in our earthly hands, then we must make a concerted effort to recognize, accept and exploit the relevant aspects that can elevate life for us if we are to experience an enduring sense of triumphant living, of living heroically as vulnerable embodied beings in a natural world. We simply have to stand in a different relation to culture. It is this desire to have a positive relationship to the sublime that animates Religious Naturalism:

... Religious Naturalism (spiritual naturalism) includes the idea of a sound emotional life... We sense and appreciate an essence, a grandeur and a magnificence in Nature, in which we take great joy. We are awed by its vastness and complexity. We revere these qualities but do not worship them. Nature is the interrelated conditions and processes for our emergence as living and thinking beings. We respect this context and are committed to an environmental ethic that honors it. 

I generally chafe at the idea of organized movements, so I don’t identify myself as a Religious Naturalist. But it’s this notion of participation mystique that is similar to Nietzsche’s conception of what the Greek spectator experienced while watching the Greek tragedies. While I stated before that when one contemplates a sublime object one feels the foundation of one’s being tremble and shake, this losing oneself in the appreciation of the magnificence of the sublime can also paradoxically serve to bolster the feeling of synthetic unity with the natural world that Religious Naturalists and others seek. 

It’s the emotional response here that is decisive. We tend to experience both positive (pleasure) and negative (fear) emotions in the face of the sublime. Concurrently, the continual cycle of the Apollonian / Dionysian clash also produces a mixture of emotions, where the Dionysian will may be judged negatively because of the strife it tends to cause, while the Apollonian shaping may be judged positively since it brings order to the chaos. But it’s the distinguishing characteristic of this sublime interplay that, when harnessed, creates the difference between merely living and living powerfully. The idea of sublimating the sublime is the greatest stimulus of life par excellence.

III. The Music of the Sublime

I’ve been drawn to the sublime since before I knew what it was. From a young age, I was very in tune with the natural world, constantly outside exploring in all seasons. Though I was of course impressed by natural phenomena like mountains, oceans and storms, I was particularly drawn to birds, especially birds of prey. But I’ve found the sublime, as I’ve defined it in this post, in a most unlikely place: the music of Led Zeppelin, and specifically in their live performances. I’ve been fortunate enough to have access to dozens of their live shows when they were at the height of their power. I’ve been listening to them for about twenty-five years now; it’s the element of the sublime in their performances that sustains that interest. 

I realize it may seem improbable or difficult to understand or even identify what in their performances was “sublime,” so let me give a little background. The founder of the group, and the genius behind the music, Jimmy Page, has always been notoriously press-shy; but there are some tidbits of insight into his artistic philosophy that can be gleaned from the few interviews that are out there. An art school student, he often talked about Led Zeppelin’s music in terms of “light and shade.” As the famous rock journalist, Cameron Crowe recounts:

At Page’s home, [Page and Plant] explored each other’s tastes by playing favorite records — everything from Buddy Guy to the Incredible String Band to Muddy Waters and Elvis. Then Page broke out an odd choice. It was Joan Baez’s dramatic version of the ballad, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” Page outlined a plan for a band that could play a song like that. “I’d like to play it heavy,” he said, “but with a lot of light and shade.”

And Robert Plant recently opined: “So for every big, strong, flamboyant moment, there would be, within it and around it, some kind of subtlety that set us apart.” Here’s Plant describing the genesis of what is arguably the most recognizable song in rock n’ roll history, “Stairway to Heaven”:

“Yeah, I just sat next to Pagey while he was playing it through. It was done very quickly. It took a little working out, but it was a very fluid, unnaturally easy track. It was almost as if–uh-oh–it just had to be gotten out at that time. There was something pushing it, saying ‘you guys are okay, but if you want to do something timeless, here’s a wedding song for you.”

In addition to Plant describing the preternatural feeling of necessity in creating that song, he also exemplifies the Dionysian will working through the artist when he says things like “I can’t stand to see the grass grow under any artist’s feet, I want them to constantly create and recreate.” 

While the band’s studio recordings exhibit the yin-yang light and shade dynamic that drove its members, their live performances were alchemical crucibles of experimental improvisation. The relentless nature of the Dionysian will was on nightly display. They never played the same song in exactly the same way. To be fair, sometimes this experimentalism went awry — whether it was due to drug use or the rigors of their exhausting touring schedule, who knows. But most of the time it worked, and it worked gloriously. 

What’s abundantly evident in the best of these performances, and what excites me the most, is the dynamic battle between the lavishly fecund Dionysian creativity constantly bumping up against the Apollonian structure of each song. It’s visceral, and you can feel it play out as it threatens to burst apart at one moment only to coalesce in the next. It’s like a herd of wild animals scattering anarchically over the plains, only to be reigned in again into a coordinated whole. And the vitality and fluidity of the improvisation between the four elements of the band — the drums, bass, guitar and vocals — generates a discordia concors that lifts it out of the context of a mere musical performance and into a novel cultural experience of the sublime. Page describes it thusly:

The motto of the group is definitely ‘ever onward.’ If there ever is to be a total analysis, it’s that. The fact is that it’s like a chemical fusion… there’s so much ESP involved in it. It sounds pretentious, but it’s true. That’s just what it is. When there are three people playing on stage, instrumentally, and I’m in the middle of a staccato thing, and [Bonham] just for some unknown reasons happens to be there doing the same beats on the snare drum… that sort of thing is definitely a form of trans-state… it is sort of communication on that other plane.

IV. The Twenty-first Century Sublime

In a way, what has traditionally been called “spirit” can be re-conceived as being born of the conflict between the Dionysian will to power and the Apollonian desire for structure and harmony: wholehearted engagement with this conflict moves one beyond mere bodily demands and concerns and propels one into a transfigured state of being. So the encounter with the sublime doesn’t have to be merely an experience that happens to us; it can be the defining experience of our lives, discoverable in our common culture, and can fortify and redeem life by allowing us to live creatively in auspicious consonance with the inevitable adversities of that life. 


[1] For simplicity’s sake, I am also including “social technologies” like social media, online gaming, and the Internet in my conception of culture.


  1. Many years ago I read Richard Dawkins' Unweaving the Rainbow, where he calls his spiritual-like relationship with nature the "Appetite for Wonder" and says that scientists are motivated by a spirit of wonder similar to poets and artists. (Maybe I'm too much of a crass materialist to be as elevated as he is.)

    1. Haha. Well, "spirituality" does tend to be a dirty word in materialist circles. I guess I don't like to use it, either, but I've yet to come up with a better word. "Appetite for Wonder" is OK, but that seems to specific or limiting to me.

    2. Looks like this is also going to be the title of his autobiography (An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, volume 1 to be published September 24, 2013).

      I think 'happy' is the best word to substitute for 'spiritual', as far as I go.

  2. Sublime

    Have you looked outside the box?
    If you are still searching for the sublime,
    Look no further than One's true self.
    For the truth of One is the truth of All,
    And nothing is more heavenly than Everything.

    'Man is the measure of All things' an old Greek once said,
    And there in lies the flaw.
    Outside the measured finite boxes of science and religion,
    The uncertain walls we have been told to believe and live in,
    Is the immeasurable infinite Universe,
    Is the self-evident truth, the Oneness, equality, freedom,
    The Absolute!

    Be sublime!
    Be the Universe!
    Just Be!


  3. For what it's worth, I was once a drummer in a swing era band. If you're at all good, you begin to anticipate what each player will do next, and you do your own next thing accordingly. It was not the same as the jazz improvisation that evolved from swing, but in many ways it was better. The audience learns to anticipate what all of you will do as well, and more to the point, to also hope that you will do it, and then be very happy that you did.
    The best ever drummer at this was Krupa. The best singer, maybe Peggy Lee. The best band, probably Artie Shaw. In my best opinion.

    1. I love when musicians - as a band, a unit - experiment and improvise. Even when they wreck it royally every now and then, the anticipation that they'll nail it the next time keeps me coming back.

    2. I beleive there is some research showing that our enjoyment of music is related to both our anticipation of, and our experience of the resolution of tension between consonance and disonance.

      A child is pleased by the simple resolution in nursery rhymes, but a trained ear requires more complexity.

  4. Sorry, Steve, but I simply disagree with a primary talking point of yours, that "the sublime" contains fear.

    It MAY contain fear, but does it necessarily? By definition?

    Absolutely not.

    I consider the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony sublime without a single ounce of fear.

    1. That's OK, Gadfly - you're only living up to your name!

      In this post I was focussing on one aspect - possibly the most traditionally-conceived aspect - of the sublime.

      I suppose we could come up with a taxonomy of experiences related to the sublime. But I would classify the music of Beethoven more as "beauty" than sublime, given how I define the sublime in this post.

      Maybe there's a fine line between beauty and the sublime...

  5. I think great music can cause you to feel the emotional message of fear without actually causing you to act on it. Similar to the feeling you may have hoped to get at a horror movie, or a tragic opera. Or sometimes at a Greek tragedy. Where I come from we call it chicken skin.

    1. I think that's key, and I suppose it's related to Aristotle's notion of catharsis. But my understanding of catharsis is an expunging or a purging of the negative feelings; whereas in the best music or tragedies or whatever, the negative feelings are still there, but *sublimated* in a way that the spectator experiences the full range of experience, for lack of a better word.

      I've also heard it referred to as "gooseflesh."

    2. I don't think disonance (fear) is 'sublimated' in the 'best' music. Rather, I think it alternates between resolution and the promise of resolution. Like that space where the chaos seeker and the great shaper are communicating, merging, then finding some distance but never so far as to loose contact.

    3. Catharsis is an antiquated idea that is rejected by psychology today. Listening to sad music or watching a tragedy or horror film does not provide catharsis. Experiencing intense feelings like fear, terror or anger does not "purge" them from your system. Feelings are not humors nor a substance that needs to be cleansed out of our bodies.

      Allowing oneself to get angry or afraid only rehearses you for that behavior in the future. So if someone tells you "It's ok to get angry, you need to get it out of your system" you might as well worry that taking someone's photo is stealing their soul because they are both as misinformed about how humans work.

      Emotions are behaviors not substances so I think that any conception of emotions that treats them as if they were anything else is pseudoscience bordering on animism.

      If you feel depressed listening to sad music only enables you to continue to feel sad. It does nothing to address the underlying cause and only serves to reinforce negative behavior. There are ways to combat depression or anger but continuing to behave angrily or depressed isn't one of them.

    4. Despite the etymology, I don't think "sublime" as an aesthetic feeling is that closely related to Aristotle's "sublimation."

    5. And, per Filippo, Steve, I have to ask: Did Burke as well as Nietzsche influence this essay? I find it totally non-shocking that fear as part of the sublime would be a conservative commonplace.

    6. Brenda angrily replies that the release of anger has given her no pleasure.

    7. Anger? I was angry? So.... you know my feelings better than I do? Please, in the future do not presume to tell me what I feel. You do not know me and do not have the right to tell me how I do or do not feel.

      Emotions are not "water behind the damn" which need to be released now and then. They are not an impersonal force needing to be cleansed from our system. Thinking that way is like thinking that fasting (or colonic enemas, which are popular nowadays) purges the body of toxins. They do no such thing. That is just atavistic thinking.

      Emotions are behaviors, nothing more, nothing less. You cannot purge them or cleanse them. They do not take you over or overcome you. They are not impersonal substances nor external forces. You choose to be angry or sad, happy or glad and you can choose not to be also. Your behaviors and the feelings you feel are completely under your control and you are responsible for how you feel. No one can make you feel anything. No one can make you angry or feel joy. You and only you are in command of who you are and what you do.

      You are radically free.

    8. "No one can make you feel anything." Please don't feel angry but that is exactly opposite to the accepted facts. But of course you don't have to accept that.

    9. Reading between the lines I am guessing you've made previous attempts to argue your special view of things to no avail.

    10. "Please don't feel angry but that is exactly opposite to the accepted facts."

      Nope. The only thing that anyone can give me is information. How I choose to respond to that information is my business and under my control. This is textbook psychology. People cannot *make* other people feel things.

      Anger is a choice. Fear is a choice.

    11. You seem unaware however that other people can cause you to choose, and can fairly well predict what that choice will be. That may be a bit abstract for the literal minded to grasp, but if you didn't get it, it's not because you chose not to get it.

    12. I notice that you've changed the subject from emotions to actions. You should focus on just one thing at a time. It's easier that way. Still, no, other people cannot cause me to do anything I don't wish to. I always have a choice and there is nothing anyone can do to remove that choice. At the extreme I can always choose death.

      Also, the ability to predict is not the same as the ability to control. Even if I grant you others can predict my actions, I don't but if I did that would still not amount to an ability to make me do something I don't wish to.

      So..... to sum up, in this thread on the sublime: (1) I am unsure of how useful the idea is. Modern psychology does not bother itself with it.... I think... for precisely that reason. It has no use today in understanding people but I'm open to being wrong about that. (2) Catharsis on the other hand is a thoroughly discredited concept that belongs with Aristotle's equally misguided ideas about causation. And finally (3) people continue to hold pre-scientific ideas about emotions. Folk psychology is just as inaccurate as folk physics.

    13. @Brenda

      I tend to agree with you about the psychological aspects of this question. I also think that catharsis is an obsolete concept. Also I agree that the worst horror movies available don't have anything to do with the sublime (whatever it is) and are probably dangerous for children.

      I also feel that you have been unfairly treated by some participants to this forum. You deserve an apology. So here I apologize to you.

      As for myself, I have concentrated on the historical and political aspects of the question, having just accidentally read Burke's work on the sublime. I did it because it was quoted by Cory Robin's “The Reactionary Mind.”

    14. "I notice that you've changed the subject from emotions to actions."
      Apparently no-one has told you that our emotions are the subconscious predictive thought processes that use feelings to signal our more consciously decisive thought processes as to how we should act in response.
      Your psychology book that told you otherwise is out of date. (Try reading Damasio, although he's admittedly a Behavioral Neurobiologist.)
      Or did you think that feelings come directly to our consciousness from what you feel. And even if they did, what would their purpose be if not to cause responses?

    15. "Apparently no-one has told you that our emotions are the subconscious predictive thought processes that use feelings to signal our more consciously decisive thought processes as to how we should act in response."

      Emotions are action urges but they are not themselves actions. I suppose they are the kinds of things that could be put into words. I'm not sure how that changes what I've said before re: "the only thing other people can give me is information".

    16. @ Filippo Neri - "You deserve an apology."

      I do? To be honest I can't think of anything I have to take offense to. I'm just trying to explain myself and then we get really off topic.

      I like Massimo and the podcast. Actually I think Julia is pretty awesome too. It took me a long time to decide to comment. I'm just a lay person. But I do have some pretty strong beliefs.

  6. The Sublime is very different from the Beautiful. The Beautiful gives you an uplifting feeling. The Sublime gives you PTSD.

    The sublime can really only be achieved by the arbitrary and terrifying application of tremendous power. This was the thesis of Edmund Burke in “On the Sublime and Beautiful.” Anticipating Fascist aesthetics, Burke calls the sublime “delightful horror.” The sublime is the sensation we experience in the face of extreme pain, danger or terror. Burke was really ahead of his time, since he was writing almost a century before Nietzsche.

    I got the Burke citation from Cory Robin's “The Reactionary Mind.” It is well worth reading. The Harvard Classics Kindle edition of Burke's works is $2.00, also well worth reading.

    Many neocons want war as a way to achieve the sublime. National security and even the American Empire are simply excuses. (This is also a thesis of the book by Cory Robin.) My idea of what Burke meant by the sublime is arbitrary and mysterious power, applied capriciously. It is supposed to terrify both the people it is applied to and the people administering it. What I am really saying is that the sublime is to be found - today - in drone warfare.

    [Of course, I am not a fan of the sublime. I much prefer the beautiful in its purest manifestations: music and mathematics. But I have to admit that the intensity of the feelings produced by music and math are nothing compared to the primal instincts stimulated by the sublime. Unfortunately, I am not a super-man. As a mater of fact, I am getting tired of endless citations from the works of Nietzsche.]

    1. That is interesting and not how I would have thought of the sublime.

      I know people who seem addicted to fear. They need exposure to more dangerous situations over time to trigger the same response so they create those experiences. It seems to me like an out of control positive feedback cycle that dulls the senses to subtlety. Like a beta cell in diabetes that is no longer responsive.

      If this is the sublime I want no part of it. I favor resolution over sublimation.

    2. I agree. I was just reporting my reading of Edmund Burke. He relates beauty to pleasure, sublimity to pain. His main intuition is that great power should be sublime, rather than beautiful.

      It is also interesting that he considers pain and death really sublime only if seen from a distance. If you are too close, then they stop being delightful. Hence my (provocative) connection of drone warfare with the sublime.

      Note also that the neocons, who search for the sublime in war, never volunteer themselves or their children for war. War is sublime only if seen from a distance.

    3. As with Steve Neumann's definition, simply wrong. Totally disagree with your definition, and reject the idea that it's anywhere near a "canonical" definition.

    4. @Gadfly

      I agree with you, actually. Note that I was not giving my definition of the sublime. I was just reporting on my reading of Burke's “On the Sublime and Beautiful.”

      Burke is important, because he is a primary source of modern conservative "thought." Because of this, Burke's definition is canonical for many conservative "thinkers."

      I also have problems with Steve's definition. I must have misled you with my inappropriately ironic style.

      I also love Beethoven's 7th symphony and favor a sunny, fear-free reading of the second movement.

    5. OK, I'm with you now, Filippo. And, shock me, that conservative thinkers would trot "fear" into a definition of the sublime.

      Totally agreed on the 7th/second movement. Period instruments orchestras and modern HIP conductors make sure not to play it too slow, even if it falls in the "slow movement slot." It's written as "allegretto," after all, not "allegretto moderato."

  7. Agree with Gadfly. For me, music and nature are the primary sources of sublimity (?), and for music, fear as an element seems absurd. For nature (i.e. the feeling "this is vast, I am small") the term fear doesn't sound quite right, either (but I'll defer to a psychologist here ;-) )


  8. Steve's questionable at best, in not only my opinion but others', definition of "sublime" is only one reason this post/essay does ... well, does little more than bupkis for me. (That said, the Burkean angle further diminishes my low high regard for just the "fear" angle.)

    First, I'm not a Nietzschean. Interesting that Steve says he rejects systems himself, yet structures the whole post largely on Nietzsche, who was a system-builder of sorts, the last gasp of late Hegelianism.

    I definitely don't personally buy into the Dionysian vs. Apollonian idea. That's in part because catharsis may be overrated, but also, because it is, itself, a Hegelian idea ... while at the same time, Nietzsche never fully discusses what the synthesis is. Other than the superman.

    Also, modern ideas of subselves, which in turn have brought into question ideas about free will in general, undercut Nietzsche that way.

    1. Gadfly -

      I don't reject systems per se - but I generally eschew "movements." There's a big difference there. However, structuring a post around one thinker or one topic isn't building a system. To my mind, a "system" starts from a set of premises that can't be, or aren't, questioned. One of the main reasons I have such a strong affinity for Nietzsche is his skepticism. He leaves no stone unquestioned, so to speak. But I don't agree with him on everything.

      And I don't think of catharsis as a legitimate concept, psychological or otherwise, either; I was mentioning it in contrast to sublimation, specifically in Nietzsche's sense. Again, this is one area where I agree with him. I've been ordering my life in this way since before I encountered the idea in Nietzsche; but, again, one of the reasons I'm drawn to his thought is because I find a lot of experiences identified in his writing that I didn't really have a name for before.

      It is unfortunate that Nietzsche lost his mental capacities before he could really flesh out his ideas. But your use of the term "superman" - itself an outdated concept with regard to Nietzsche - tells me you might not have a clear idea of what he did in fact think of it.

      Also, I'm not sure what you mean by "subselves"; can you elaborate? To my lights, contemporary ideas about free will, selves and consciousness seem to bear out some of his initial insights...

    2. Instead of looking to Nietzsche for an understanding of the biological mechanism of fear, you might want to see what Damasio (the Spinoza guy) has to say about it. As I recall, he differentiates the feeling of fear from the emotion that ordinarily causes it. So that you don't need to be afraid to feel what it's like to be afraid.
      And I note that those who so blithely deny that they have felt fear from listening to any music have neglected to advise us that they've never felt fear from any other source of entertainment either.

    3. It is too easy to use Nietzsche's eventual descent into madness as an excuse to pick and choose what his "real" philosophy was. Besides, as I have tried to point-out with my observations on Burke, the idea of a connection of the sublime with fear long predates Nietzsche.

    4. Steve, I was referring to subselves in the sense that Dan Dennett and other philosophers of mind/cognitive philosophers use the term. That is, that a unitary "I" may be somewhat "looser" ... if even fully existent ... than older philosophies believe.

      Because I believe that a unitary self is partially a fiction, I use Doug Hofstadter's great Zen-borrowed word and say "mu" to the whole idea of free will "versus" determinism. I also charge that people who defend some semi-traditional version of free will, including Massimo, are still laboring under at least vestigal religious influences.


      I only wish that more people, including more professional philosophers, would come to this conclusion. Daniel Wegner has articulated it pretty well. Unfortunately, Dennett refuses to accept that rejecting a Cartesian theater and Cartesian central self, logically entails rejecting a Cartesian free willer, too. (Thank doorknob I've long moved past Dennett.)

      Filippo, agreed on the pick-and-choose. To riff on that and Steve, I don't think Nietzsche ever fully transcended the Hegelianism, or at least the young Hegelianism, in which he started.

  9. I am not sure what utility there is in the concept of the sublime. Is the view from the top of a mountain range sublime because it is beautiful or is it sublime because I risked my life getting there? In the case of a photo I did not risk anything so... I can only experience the sublime directly through my own personal experiences?

    There is a sense of vicarious participation in viewing a photo I suppose but that is never going to compare to actually being there and climbing the mountain. On the other hand it can come pretty close to the real thing.

    Guillaume Nery base jumping at Dean's Blue Hole

    I'm not sure what the concpet of the sublime adds to that. From his perspective there is the satisfaction of a physical achievement in the face of possible death. For me there is "thank god it isn't me". But then... I *don't* feel quite the same about say watching a horror movie. I don't feel uplifted in the way that I do watching Guillaume Nery.

    I have friends who "enjoy", if that is the right word, watching those bad horror movies. You know the ones I mean. I don't care for them. I also know that the reason they watch those kinds of movies probably has more to do with their being survivors of horrific abuse. (I could tell stories that would curl your hair.) But I don't think they are experiencing the sublime. All they are doing is re-abusing themselves. Perhaps with the addition that they have control over the experience this time. They can turn off the video any time.

    I don't know. I'm unsure how helpful the concept of the sublime is.

    1. "I also know that the reason they watch those kinds of movies probably has more to do with their being survivors of horrific abuse. -- But I don't think they are experiencing the sublime."
      My children and their friends love horror movies - they call them "scary" which I presume means fearful. They like the supremely scary best, of course - sublime not being in their vocabulary.
      None of them have experienced horrific abuse. And I could be wrong, but the people I know that have claimed to have experienced and survived it don't care to go to horror movies at all.

    2. Yes, well... we should all know by now that personal anecdotes are not evidence. So... I'm just sayin'... my experience is different and perhaps wider... it just seems to me that of the many survivors I have known there does tend to be an attraction to violent imagery or to reenacting the original trauma in a more controlled setting as a way of feeling in control over something that was formerly very much not in one's control.

      If that is sublimation... and I'm not sure it is... then that is a very poor solution. It works... for a time but it ultimately fails to solve the underlying problem. It can also have diminishing returns... which can lead to risky behaviors.

      I just don't see any need for the sublime if it means something other than awe or great beauty. I've got plenty of that thank you very much.

    3. Apparently personal anecdotes aren't evidence unless they're yours. Although since you like to think that your experience is wider, you seem to be basing your conclusions on the repetitive behaviors of one set of discombobulated humans and no others.

    4. "Apparently personal anecdotes aren't evidence unless they're yours."

      Oh no, you misunderstand. I am not making a strong claim. I did say "probably" ya know. I'm just hypothesizing based on my own personal experience. I'm open to being wrong. I don't know if there is any surveys on the matter. It does seem to me based on my admittedly limited (but not inconsequential) experience that survivors tend to gravitate towards horror movies and also to the BDSM scene as a means to dealing with their past.

      And my point is that it is a poor means to coping. It probably does work for a while but true healing is better.

      It may be that is the origin of the concept of the sublime. In pre-scientific times people still needed a way of coping with psychological dysfunction. Re-experiencing the original trauma through various means probably served some utility.

      But..... I have my doubts as to it's utility any more. It's 75 degrees here in Minnesota for the first time in six months. I'm going to take my bike out for a spin around the lake and maybe stop for a glass of Fat Tire ale and a fish taco while watching the sun set over the lake. Is that sublime? I don't think so, but it sure is pretty sweet.

  10. Wikipedia, re angst, meaning dread or anxiety:
    "In Existentialist philosophy the term "angst" carries a specific conceptual meaning. The use of the term was first attributed to Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855). In The Concept of Anxiety (also known as The Concept of Dread, depending on the translation), Kierkegaard used the word Angest (in common Danish, angst, meaning "dread" or "anxiety") to describe a profound and deep-seated condition in human beings. Where animals are guided solely by instinct, said Kierkegaard, human beings enjoy a freedom of choice that we find both appealing and terrifying. Kierkegaard's concept of angst reappeared in the works of existentialist philosophers who followed, such as Friedrich Nietsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, each of whom developed the idea further in individual ways. While Kierkegaard's angst referred mainly to ambiguous feelings about moral freedom within a religious personal belief system, later existentialists discussed conflicts of personal principles, cultural norms, and existential despair.
    Existential angst makes its appearance in classical musical composition in the early twentieth century as a result of both philosophical developments and as a reflection of the war-torn times. Notable composers whose works are often linked with the concept include Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss (operas Elektra and Salome), Claude-Achille Debussy (opera Pelleas et Melisande, ballet Jeux, other works), Jean Sibelius (especially the Fourth Symphony), Arnold Schoenberg (A Survivor from Warsaw, other works), Alban Berg, Francis Poulenc (opera Dialogues of the Carmelites), Dmitri Shostakovich (opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, symphonies and chamber music), Bela Bartok (opera Bluebeard's Castle, other works), and Krzysztof Penderecki (especially Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima)."
    The first synonym shown in my thesaurus for angst is fear.

  11. Would like to see in a recipe: "The crust underneath the key lime filling is sublime."

    1. You'd have to have a lot of crust to write the recipe.

  12. Very enjoyable and educational post - As I recall, Zeppelin's commitment to Eastern spirituality extended beyond their lyrics to their diet - Thai food only.

    Sublime seems to be a quirky word, like quality, where one is forced to name the things in this world that are NOT sublime or of high quality, and then expect those choices to be defensible. Not sure I understand the meaning of either word except in common usage

  13. @Baron

    I totally agree that angst (and fear) are part of reality and so are components of great works of art – including music. What I object to is the conservative nonsense about fear being a necessary ingredient of the sublime.

    So maybe, we agree. If not, this has still been a great discussion. I really enjoyed your post about angst in music and also Gadfly discussing the performance practices of Beethoven's 7th.


    Despite some reservations about the all-Nietzsche-all-the-time format, I want to compliment you for your original discussion of “The Twenty-first Century Sublime.” I cannot stress enough how much I appreciate your work. Really, I mean it!

    1. I will give a final example of the conservative view of the sublime by quoting Edmund Burke arguing that what makes power sublime is its ability to hurt:

      “That power derives all its sublimity from the terror with which it is generally accompanied, will appear evidently from its effect in the very few cases, in which it may be possible to strip a considerable degree of strength of its ability to hurt. When you do this, you spoil it of everything sublime, and it immediately becomes contemptible.”

      This was written in 1756, before the French Revolution: the conservative infatuation with the sublimity of terrifying power was a spontaneous rejection to the Enlightenment and preceded the excesses of the Jacobins.

  14. OK, we'll try to get away from all the Nietzsche-talk if that's going to muddle things.

    To be clear, I'll put in bullet-point format *my* view of the sublime experience:

    1. It contains an element of "fear", but not necessarily fear of physical harm; however, I would still characterize as sublime an experience a co-worker friend of mine had: she was swimming with dolphins while on vacation and was simultaneously exhilarated by and fearful of them.

    2. The "fear" can come from the encounter with "otherness", which is, at bottom, a fear of the "unknown", but not necessarily a fear of imminent physical danger. Many poets, musicians, etc., have described this feeling of something "working through" them - I don't countenance anything supernatural here, but the experience of something working through one can be enough to unsettle one (assuming one has the sensitivity or predisposition for honest introspection).

    3. In connection with 2 above, one's sense of self is questioned, let's say; where the self "is a fragile-yet-robust bundle of psychosomatic functions in constant-yet-coherent flux", to quote my review of Baggini's The Ego Trick. The feeling of one's self disintegrating, or at least its integrity being shaken a bit, is a fearful experience.

    4. The "will" I speak of, though I've co-opted Nietzsche's term, is something I've experienced. It's the inexorability, combined with a significant level of intractability, of this will that unsettles me.

    5. While I may still experience the sublime in nature in some measure, I have to admit to myself (and I'm sort of extrapolating my specific experience to others' experience) that my increasing knowledge (via reading the expository writing of scientists) of the workings of nature, combined with the deluge throughout my lifetime of second-rate "tragedies" in the entertainment industry, has desensitized me somewhat to the sublime and how a human being can adequately deal with that experience. However, since I've also experienced the sublime in places like Led Zeppelin's live performances, as well as certain aspects of my own inner experience; and since I've instinctively sought to bring my own acutely-felt dissonance/multiplicity into a coherent harmony, I've been arguing (to myself as much as anyone) that the "sublimation" of sublime experiences themselves is what is needed to live fully and powerfully. Simply experiencing the sublime isn't enough for me to fully embrace life, to feel as though I'm living as fully and powerfully as I can. But I'm using "sublimation" here not really in the psychoanalytic sense but in the sense of allowing the traditionally (and unfairly) maligned drives of my nature to have play in the overall economy of my life, to exploit the physical and "mental" energy they provide - assuming I can harness them in a socially-acceptable way. So far so good, I think!

    Hopefully that clears up my view a little bit. Perhaps I didn't do as good a job as I would have liked in the original post.

  15. Steve, great post. You might find Rudolf Otto's Idea of the Holy to be nicely congruent with your meditations on fear and the sublime.

  16. Schopenhauer describes the sublime thusly:

    [] in the undismayed beholder, the two-fold nature of his consciousness reaches the highest degree of distinctness. He perceives himself, on the one hand, as an individual, as the frail phenomenon of will, which the slightest touch of these forces can utterly destroy, helpless against powerful nature, dependent, the victim of chance, a vanishing nothing in the presence of stupendous might; and, on the other hand, as the eternal, peaceful, knowing subject, the condition of the object, and, therefore, the supporter of this whole world; the terrific strife of nature only his idea; the subject itself free and apart from all desires and necessities, in the quiet comprehension of the Ideas. This is the complete impression of the sublime. Here he obtains a glimpse of a power beyond all comparison superior to the individual, threatening it with annihilation.

    In modern psychological terms, dissociation.

    1. Steve,

      Off topic here -- but, I happened to accidentally get a large version of the picture that is underneath the headline of this article. It was much more impressive in the large size, and I imagine the real painting is even better. Can you tell me the name of the painting? I don't recognize it.


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