The “sublime” notion

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.


About dazzlerplus

Writing about the things that interest me helps me to discover what I think. One of my loves is the Australian Outback, and I travel out there often, and when possible take friends with me.
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5 Responses to The “sublime” notion

  1. Pompeii epic says:

    The visit to sublime locations as part of the European tour is captured in Henry James’ novel “Washington Square”. I no longer have a copy to quote the bit but here the sublime also conveyed a sense of danger, due not just to the vast grandeur and isolation of the location but to the puny insignificance of our human strength and resources. My outback sublime was the vast dark cold sky peopled by so so many stars.

  2. Jo says:

    Gosh, all the high-brow philosophy of siblime beauty might be a bit much for a girl from the bush but I thought I would share one of the things that fits the description of “greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation” given by Lyn above.
    Returning home from a few days interstate last night and climbing gratefully into my own bed (almost a sublime experience in itself) I looked out the window at the Southern Cross and realised that whenever I wake at night I know roughly what time it is depending on the position of the stars outside. The different positions of the Southern Cross at night always fills me with wonder about our universe but sometimes it takes a trip away to make you appreciate what you have at home.

    • I’m with you Jo. I’m in the bush and with Spring in the air, our resident tawny frogmouths are positioning themselves to make their nest and the fireflies are lighting up the dusk.
      I stood in my front yard yesterday and thought how beautiful life is.

  3. dazzlerplus says:

    The Polish Foreign Minister, Radek Sikorski, yesterday made a speech in Berlin about the continuing financial crisis affecting the European Union. In the process, he used the word “sublime” — at least in the English translation of his speech — in more or less the same sense that has been discussed here. He ended his speech with these words:

    “We are standing on the edge of a precipice. This is the scariest moment of my ministerial life but therefore also the most sublime. Future generations will judge us by what we do, or fail to do. Whether we lay the foundations for decades of greatness, or shirk our responsibility and acquiesce in decline.”

  4. Hermine Clouser says:

    Check out Sublime Point Lookout, Mt Ousley Pass on the way to Wollongong via the non coastal highway. From memory there is a verse of the Psalms etched in stone there. The combination of a beautiful view and a dangerous precipice is exemplified here. I am thankful to my parents who sixty years ago trudged the bush for scenic beauty, dutch immigrants astounded at the generous expanses!

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