Saturday, August 7, 2010

Postmodernism and the Sublime

From what pure wells
Of milky light, what soft o'erflowing urn,
Are all these lamps so fill'd? these friendly lamps,
For ever streaming o'er the azure deep
To point our path, and light us to our home.
How soft they slide along their lucid spheres!
And silent as the foot of time, fulfil
Their destin'd courses: Nature's self is hush'd
And, but a scatter'd leaf, which rustles thro'
The thick-wove foliage, not a sound is heard
To break the midnight air.

As I delve more and more into my research on the sublime in the 18th century, I occasionally find that the concept crops up in other contexts. This week I encountered it in a review of The Pregnant Widow, the new novel by Martin Amis, in The Weekly Standard. At one point the reviewer, David Gelernter, comes to talk about "sublimity," especially in connection with the beauty and power of nature. He contrasts sublimity, an emotion that leads to thoughts of God, "or at any rate of man's more-than-natural nature (frogs and chickens don't go into transports when contemplating waterfalls)" with the "hard and dry" environmentalism of the present day, which "tells us only how small man is, not how large he could be, and generates scalding steam clouds of apocalyptic press releases and naggings and scoldings in lieu of great literature." The above lines from "A Summer Evening's Meditation," by the poet Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825) -- the "lamps" in line 3 refer to the stars, "the living eyes of heaven" -- exemplify the great literature Gelernter might have had in mind.

It is true that sublimity (in contrast to the sublime style in writing) was first associated with natural wonders. Newton's discovery of the laws of the heavens seems to have directed people's eyes outward into the vaster reaches of nature and forced them to contemplate what in earlier ages they more or less ignored. And it is not surprising that they considered that these wonders were the work of the Almighty. Indeed, Barbauld's poem suggests as much. It continues:

But are they silent all? or is there not
A tongue in every star that talks with man,
And wooes him to be wise; nor wooes in vain;
This dead of midnight is the noon of thought,
And wisdom mounts her zenith with the stars.
At this still hour the self-collected soul
Turns inward, and beholds a stranger there
Of high descent, and more than mortal rank;
An embryo GOD; a spark of fire divine,
Which must burn on for ages, when the sun
(Fair transitory creature of a day!)
Has clos'd his golden eye, and wrapt in shades
Forgets his wonted journey thro' the east.

This is indeed splendid poetry, and it is difficult to imagine that anyone today would consider writing a poem expressing such sentiments. Gelernter attributes our loss of awe and wonder to the irony that characterizes the postmodernist attitude to life: been there, done that. When irony tyrannizes your thinking, he writes, you are detached from everything, passionate about nothing. Irony is the default reaction of the characters in Amis's novel, which takes place in 1970. The events it describes, however, remain "strikingly familiar today: feminism, victimism, contempt for the West and especially America, hostility to religion, indifference to art." This song seems tired, Gelernter writes, but those who "sing" it -- "intellectuals, academics, reporters, and the other culture leaders who have seats in the choir of Western civilization" -- have been at it for near on 5o years. Though they seem testy, they know no other song. They remain "stuck" in attitudes of their youth.

Of course, by the end of the 18th century, the sublime had been secularized, so to speak; God no longer spoke to men through his works but took up residence in "the gaps." Thinkers were well into the process of demystifying, desacralizing, debunking not only the divine realm but also the world of men and women by then. (Think Ludwig Feuerbach, whose Das Wesen des Christentums [1841] was translated by George Eliot as The Essence of Christianity.) I remember when I first read the German Romantic writers that I seemed to recognize in a flash a line of intellectual descent from Friedrich Schlegel (especially the Athenaeum Fragments) to Jacques Derrida. Irony of ironies, Schlegel became a Roman Catholic, taking refuge from the soulless world.

Bodmer and Breitinger, on whom my current research is focusing, lived and worked well before that time. Indeed, both seemed to have been very pious men. Bodmer, however, had been influenced by John Locke, especially by the importance Locke attributed to the senses in our encounters with the world. In his treatises Bodmer extolled poetry that evoked great emotions in us, especially through the proper use of figurative language. Thus, the sublime style in poetry. John Milton's Paradise Lost, which Bodmer translated into German, was his model of the sublime poet par excellence. Bodmer's emphasis on the subjective, emotional reaction to poetry, however, became part of the progress of sublimity as awe in the face of the wonders of creation to sublimity as a gauge of the darkness visible within ourselves.

Picture credits: The Wedgwood Museum Trust, Barlaston, Staffordshire (Barbauld); Richard Whitelock

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