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America the Sublime?

November 5, 2010

There was a nineteenth-century pundit and philosopher called Edward Burke, who wrote a lot of more and less objectionable things; but today I want to talk about one of his earliest works, the essay On the Sublime and the Beautiful. Or possibly On the Beautiful and Sublime; I can never remember which way around it goes.

His political views were pretty vile, even for the time, and his more abstract work doesn’t escape untainted. The Sublime and the Beautiful is loaded down with unfortunate implications once he finishes defining the two terms and starts trying to give examples. The beautiful, he argues, is that which gives pleasure only; while the sublime is that which inspires awe or terror as well. Having made this important distinction, however, Burke promptly veers off into polemic territory: I can’t say whether his assertion that the feminine (in which he includes women en masse) is capable only of beauty rather than sublimity led to his positioning of beauty as the inferior thing, or vice versa; but either way, he abandons what was quite a promising theoretical concept for fairly bog-standard ranting, and ceases to be of interest.

The basic distinction he draws, though, is valuable and interesting. Based on Burke’s own definitions of the beautiful vs. the sublime, I think his interpretation of either as inferior is flawed. A condition of sublimity is that it should inspire terror – an emotion perhaps more intense than enjoyment but a lot less fun. Consequently, it is logical enough to position beauty and sublimity as representing two imperfect choices: the beautiful inspires less intense emotions but wholly pleasurable ones, whereas the sublime forces an experience both more intense and more unsettling. Either can be preferable, depending on the state of mind of the viewer. Perhaps the most familiar manifestation of this split is cultural products: those plays, books, films, and so on which are universally hailed as masterful insights into the human condition are not always the same ones people actually read for pleasure. Under Burke’s framework, the former are sublime, the latter beautiful.

Burke’s essay came into my head quite unexpectedly this morning on the train, on my way to class. I have a half-hour commute these days, which affords precious time for such activities as novel-writing, catching up on homework, and catching up on rest. Today I didn’t have the energy for either of the first two, so contented myself with looking out the window. Ten o’clock in the morning, a cold November day, dry but with the countryside still bearing the marks of recent rain – muddy tyre ruts, piles of squidged leaves, brooks running high. The sky was grey, but a bright, light grey with the sun shining through it. The fields were very green.

England is a small and, on the whole, hospitable country. Our mountains are small. Our rivers are small. Our summers are moderately warm, our winters moderately cold, and even the rain the English are known for complaining about isn’t actually all that bad; extreme weather, like extreme geography, is something that happens to other people.

We are, in other words, pretty low on the sublime side of things. This is not to say that there are not places in England that are sublime; there undoubtedly are; my personal nomination, for the sheer otherworldly, spine-tingling quality of it, is Stonehenge. But in general, the dominant mode is that of beauty: of evocative images that are beautiful whilst stirring no particular awe. Autumn leaves. Sunsets. Sleepy villages. York Minster’s towers silhouetted against the afternoon sky. London in an evening rainstorm, all slick surfaces and neon lights. (Cities are beautiful places, too.)

I think in some ways the idea of enjoying beauty – with appreciation but without the sometimes overpowering intensity one must commit to the sublime – is very English in its character, as well. That trade-off again: sacrificing intensity of experience to ensure a relative lack of nastiness. Compare, say, our political stage to those of some other notable world powers, and it seems positively sleepy.

Writing this, and trying to conceptualise narratives of national identity through this particular theoretical lens, has finally let me put my finger on the thing – one of the many things – that is so gorgeous about Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Whether the country is like that or not (and I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been) the builders of the American national myth, past and present, seem to have taken the other path to that chosen by England. The American national narrative as it percolates out to us in Europe is one, overwhelmingly, of intensity, of sheer intimidating scale – a huge, sprawling, hot-tempered country that has produced some of the best and some of the worst things to happen in the world since its foundation and shows (alarmingly/excitingly) few signs of slowing down, though some (excitingly/alarmingly) of exploding. Gaiman captures that feeling very well, distils it; again, I can’t speak for his factual accuracy, but he does seem to have captured a truth, even if it isn’t necessarily the truth.

I thought about poets, after that. The poet I most wholly associate with the USA, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Seamus, is Walt Whitman: a poet of huge ideas and huge sentences, moving outside of the poetic forms traditional at the time and writing material that walked the precipitous line between gloriously overdone and ludicrously so.

Whereas the undisputed poet of Englishness was John Betjeman, who wrote neatly rhymed, neatly fashioned little verses about the joys and the sorrows of middle England. Close behind him in conceptualising that poetic image of England come A. E. Housman and, now I think of it, Rupert Brooke – neither devoid of emotion (Housman’s poetry breaks the heart) but both of whom confined themselves to the small canvas. (I think Brooke’s most famous lines are strangely suggestive of that modesty: “There is some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England”. Not even a whole field; a corner.)

Is that the explanation for the transatlantic gulf, that England has, however accidentally, ended up choosing to be beautiful and understated, and America sublime and terrifying? I have no idea. But it’s an interesting theory, and it made me think, and that will do.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Seamus permalink
    November 6, 2010 2:47 am

    The efforts of Seamus! Aww yeah!

    Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of
    all poems,
    You shall possess the good of the earth and sun

    — Walt Whitman

    Do you know that the stucco is peeling?
    Do you know that the heart will stop?
    From those yellow Italianate arches
    Do you hear the plaster drop?

    — John Betjeman

    I think you might be onto something.

    By the way, if you haven’t recently, please go and read “The Licorice Fields at Pontefract” again. It’s a little, perfect love poem, tied intimately to the West Yorkshire countryside.

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