The sublime experience post 1

John Martin, “The Great Day of His Wrath” (1851-3)

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

Some brief clarifications: Part of my research project is to study theory and art regarding the sublime, but the film will not attempt to follow their aesthetic “directions” or merely represent the specific ideas of those who have come before me. My survey of aesthetic theory is in order to understand what I’m getting into here — the history of thought on this matter, and potential conceptual hurdles —in other words, how to articulate just what it is I am trying to express here.

I’ve divided this project into four sections, here are some main tasks/goals of each:

I. Study of theory of the sublime
> mainly academic analysis — aesthetics theory &c.
> understand history of thought on this issue, important variations
> articulate the main ideas of this film w/r/t the sublime

II. Study of techniques for artistic expression of the sublime feeling
> basically, looking at a lot of art (various media), artists’ statements &c.
> attention to recurring themes, innovations, technical possibilities for filmic expression

III. Film planning
> writing & other creative pre-production, but also includes such tasks as camera tests and organizing people and locations

IV. Execute film
> shoot / edit short film. (…this is not quite so simple)

Significant degree of overlap across the above –especially planning the thing, a continuous process that creeps unavoidably through dreams, idle thoughts, the art I study, the things I read.

But for the time being I’m well into those first two parts of this research — reading various interpretations of “the sublime” from different writers. It’s going well so far, although my computer keeps crashing…

I started with a helpful anthology of writings on the subject — The Sublime ed. Simon Morley — a useful book of pieces both familiar and new to me, academic theory as well as statements and interviews from artists concerned with the subject. It’s all rather contemporary, the oldest piece being Barnett Newman’s “The Sublime Is Now” from 1948, and what I’ve noticed is the frequency of mentions of Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke. So I went back and read Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Kant’s Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764). And I’m now working my way through Kant’s later, longer work on the sublime, The Critique of Judgment (1790). It’s much more often cited than the former, and therefore, obviously, much longer and more difficult… and have been useful.

Something I keep running into in my research is the idea of suspension. Burke gets at this in the work previously mentioned:

THE PASSION caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. 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.

(Part II section 1, “Of the Passion Caused by the Sublime”)

…A suspension of the soul’s motions. Burke views the sublime as those things which force one to stop, to suspend daily indifferences and face something that cannot be overpowered. And in addition, Burke writes that the sublime excites terror, and a fear combined with “delight”  left from the suspension of a danger: when those terrible, overpowering ideas are at a remove, there is not only the fear related to self-preservation, but also “delight” when the danger is not so immediately threatening.  Jean-François Lyotard, in “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde,” (1984) summarizes Burke’s idea of the sublime as “kindled by the threat of nothing further happening.”

I picked up on related (but different) ideas of suspension from “The Sublime Offering” (1993) by Jean-Luc Nancy — the sublime as “the emotion of the subject at the limit…Sublime presentation is the feeling of this striving at the instant of rupture, the imagination still for an instant sensible to itself although no longer itself, in extreme tension and distension (‘overflowing’ or ‘abyss’)”. Nancy’s idea of the sublime seems to be an inescapable, self-contradicting problem that cannot be solved (or, overpowered). Tension resulting from trying to describe something which refuses description; and similar vibes from Lyotard’s idea of things “unpresentable.”

Curious to see how this may work its way into my film. And on a semi-related note…the word “terror” is often associated with the sublime feeling, but I am beginning to think “horror” might be more apt. Possibly will explain later.

“Sublime” is a cold and formal word, difficult to work with for the kind of film I am thinking about. It will do for discussions of the theory, but I think I will use a different name for it in practice. Might not be able to name the “unnamable,” but there has to be a closer word than the distant term I have now.