The sublime experience, post 2

Project: to articulate and express the sublime feeling via experimental short film. Abstract here.

Gustave Doré’s illustration of Dante’s Paradiso, canto 31.

Last post I wrote about the theme of suspension in various writing on the sublime and discussed Edmund Burke’s 1757 Philosophical Inquiry &c. Burke’s idea of the sublime is a little inconsistent in my view — he describes various emotional responses to the sublime as well as its aesthetics, but it’s not entirely clear what “the sublime” is. It is initially an emotion:

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.

(Part I section 7, “Of the Sublime”)

That is, a “terrible” thing is a source of the sublime; the sublime itself is “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” But often it’s unclear whether Burke is referring to an emotional response, an aesthetic quality of art, or a quality of real objects (outside of art; e.g. in phrases like “the passion caused by the great and sublime in nature,” in part II section 1).

This problem is not limited to Burke. According to Riding and Llewellyn over at Tate:

“‘the sublime’ is many things: a judgement, a feeling, a state of mind and a kind of response to art or nature. The origins of the word in English are curious. It derives from a conjunction of two Latin terms, the preposition sub, meaning below or up to and the noun limen, meaning limit, boundary or threshold. Limen is also the word for ‘lintel’, the heavy wooden or stone beam that holds the weight of a wall up above a doorway or a window. This sense of striving or pushing upwards against an overbearing force is an important connotation for the word sublime…”

As far as I can tell, most ideas related to the sublime have to do with power; the sublime makes powerless any who confront it. Burke writes that darkness is sublime; darkness prevents one from seeing. Things incomprehensibly vast (such as great mountains, or the depths of time) strike one into psychological submission to their insurmountable vastness. Terror, the sensation probably most associated  with the sublime, results from the threat of something more powerful than oneself. The sublime emotion has to do with inescapable limits, constraints; total powerlessness.

Switching topics: one way artists (especially painters) have aimed at conveying something sublime is by sheer scale: massive landscapes &c. (James Ward’s Gordale Scar (1812-1814), over 3 x 4 m in size, is one the Tate site mentions frequently). I can’t help but think of the massive size of cinema screens, and how undoubtedly part of our larger-than-life impressions of movie stars come from watching their forty-foot-high projections move about on screen. Same goes for cinematic views of landscapes: it’s more impressive to see something like Lawrence of Arabia in a theater than on your laptop.

This is one of the challenges I’ll have to work around — probably, most people who see my experimental film will see it on a computer or something.A far cry from IMAX. So for this project, literal vastness is out of the question. I’ll have to devise some other way of expressing that.