The sublime.

In one of my seminars last week, we watched Crossroads — not the Britney movie; a 1970s experimental documentary made entirely of footage of atomic bomb explosions. The professor asked us if we were familiar with the concept of the sublime in aesthetics and gave a rudimentary explanation, saying that most simply, it’s beauty so great in magnitude that it defies intellectualization, it exceeds language. You can’t communicate it, replicate it, imitate it. Then she said offhandedly, as though to a stranger in passing, “Imagine how frustrating that must be, to not be able to put your reaction into words!” And moved on.

Two things about this struck me. First, I was interested in how she managed to so aptly describe how I feel about everything we discuss in each of my seminars every single week through an explanation of the sublime. Secondly, I was moved by how unbelievably tragic this simplistic description of the sublime sounded. If the sublime can’t be intellectualized or put into words, then in a sense, an individual can never experience the sublime independently and then share that experience with others — except through art, I suppose. Maybe that’s why some visionary artists are so compelled to create images — maybe they feel like they need to find a way to communicate their experience. Maybe they’re just trying to diffuse the inherent tragedy of the sublime.

I think I deeply sympathize with that need.

December 2010

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