Reader Lyn tells me that the search for “the sublime” (as mentioned in BDN #46) was an important motive for European travelers in days gone by. Wikipedia, in an article on “Sublime (philosophy)”, says that “the sublime is the quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual or artistic. The term especially refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.”
A number of philosophers have drawn a distinction between the sublime and the beautiful, making the point that beauty per se does not qualify as sublime. There needs to be a certain overwhelming aspect. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the so-called “Grand Tour” across the French Alps was calculated to provide a sublime experience. Joseph Addison did the journey in 1699 and commented that “the Alps fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror.”
As Alain de Botton has said, the desert can sometimes present itself as sublime by virtue of its vast emptiness, and I would certainly agree with that. For example the relentless series of parallel sandhills in the Simpson Desert strikes me as sublime, as does Uluru. The Outback sky often presents itself as sublime, not only in spectacular sunrises and sunsets, but also the array of stars on a moonless and cloudless night.
Another sublime experience for me was to see from the desert at night a wild dry electrical storm — totally mesmerising in its fiery power.