Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Sublime, Again

In an essay written in 1746 Johann Jakob Bodmer distinguished between the sublime and our ordinary enjoyment of or delight in works of nature. Examples of the latter might be flowers or a rainbow or a running brook. One does not feel astonishment or marvel at such natural phenomena, writes Bodmer, although a reflective mind, aware of the beauty, greatness, and multiplicity of nature, is conscious of "the power and wisdom of their maker." The Creator, he continues, did not intend for us to live in a state of continuous enchantment or astonishment, however, but created nature to please and to instruct us. Of course, we all know folks (mostly in literature, I suspect) who exist in a state of rapture. Goethe's Werther lived on that plane, but Goethe himself came to reject Werther. As for works of art, they are of a lower order than nature's wonders. What is wondrous about them comes from being copies, the orginals of which (the Urbilder) are to be found in nature, and are valuable insofar as they resemble these.

If we look about the world, however, we discover works of nature and of man whose purpose does not seem to be to instruct or to delight, but that, instead, produce shock, terror, pity, and so on. Bodmer refers not simply to the usual sublime objects of 18th-century wonderment -- the Alps, the immensity of the starry skies above, the oceans -- but also certain great acts of humans. Most men, however, according to Bodmer, are not extraordinary and cannot be either good or evil in the highest degree. Every now and then, of course, one encounters people who depart from the ordinary rules and follow their own star, and one is amazed at their achievements.

I took notes on this treatise about a week ago, and, then, in the past two days, encountered two things, in the real world, that made me think about Bodmer's remarks.

The first was a very interesting documentary Rick and I watched, The Botany of Desire, based on a book by Michael Pollan. The film is about the relationship of humans to four "everyday plants": apples, tulips, cannabis, and potatoes. The idea is to link the natural history of the plant to human desires and to show the reciprocal relationship of plants and humans. The apple, for instance, originated in Kazakhstan, but has traveled around the world, playing an important role in the colonization of North America. Despite the efforts of Johnny Appleseed, very few of us get our apples straight from the orchard anymore or even from a local grower. Agro-business is the name of the game, and the result is what Pollan calls "monocultures": once there were dozens, maybe hundreds of varieties of apples, but nowadays the average American knows only two or three. Moreover, we can't really control nature only for our own purposes; for instance, overcultivated plants tend to fall prey to disease. Then, pesticides have to be introduced. Etc., etc.

Pollan's intention is to make people more aware of the things we take for granted, the ordinary beauties of nature of which Bodmer wrote. The subject has become much more complicated since the 18th century, but Pollan presents the subject in a very agreeable manner, not beating up on the giant conglomerates that bring flowers to our markets and French fries to our hungry mouths. The scenes of the motorized carts speeding through warehouses after the Aalsmeer Flower Auction, sending out millions of flowers from Holland into the world daily, are truly impressive. (Dare I say that there is something "sublime" about this modern achievement?) Likewise, the Idaho farmers Pollan features in his vignette on potatoes are a normal American family, with kids, parents, and a grandfather, the kind of people who might have once run a farm that provided for people 100 miles around but now run an operation that feeds the world: their potatoes go into French fries in Bangkok and Caracas. So, Pollan's documentary was reminding us about what we have lost, the ordinary wonders of the natural world that were "second nature" to people of Bodmer's era.

Yes, the business of feeding people around the world, raising standards of living and health everywhere have at the same time led to a disenchantment of the world. The Times Literary Supplement of January 15 reviews a collection of short stories by Xiaolu Guo, Lovers in the Age of Indifference. They are about people who live "alone or lonely in tower blocks, council estates and gated communities, ... resigned to lives encircled by a 'concrete horizon' and among 'obedient trees.'" No doubt only a few years before they couldn't wait to get out of the rice paddies, to leave villages where they toiled day in day out and yet could barely fill their stomaches, and to go to the city.

The new place is not the one of enchantment and wonder they imagined. Even worse, at least as Xiaolu Guo writes, there is not even any of the ordinary beauty in Beijing that one could, at least, come to take for granted. As a person whose subject is "world literature," I don't know enough about this Chinese writer to know whether she is writing from her own experience, or whether she is simply imitating Western thematic conventions, of which the deep sense of fatigue with modern life is a big one.

Michael Pollan feels that same fatigue, but he still has a sense of wonder about the world and has sought to make us feel it, too. If you want to see real fatigue among some very privileged people, it's worth watching the "Special Features" that accompanies the movie The Botany of Desire. It features a panel discussion with Pollan and four bloviating West Coast academic types, who don't know how good their lives are. It's always amusing to watch a tenured professor drone on about the downside of "consumer culture."

Now, to my second experience, this time with the sublime. I was walking through Central Park this afternoon. On my iPod, Bryn Terfel was singing from his album Simple Gifts. This man is a genius of a singer, really beyond the achievements of ordinary mortals. One of his songs was truly expressive of the feeling of the sublime described by 18th-century writers. Here are the words:

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the works thy hand hath made, I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul, my savior God, to thee: "How great thou art, how great thou art."

Some classical music reviewers have called Terfel's rendition "sentimental," even "campy," a judgment that speaks volumes for our modern loss of a belief in the greatness of, well, not only God but just about anything. So, as I wrote in an earlier post, we are reduced to finding a chocolate mousse "sublime."

Picture credits: Cheese Web; Royal Mandarin;

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