Monday, March 14, 2011

Earthquakes and the Sublime

I had thought of posting on earthquakes after the one that took place in New Zealand in late February. Goethe relates an episode in his autobiography concerning the reaction in the 18th century to the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which destroyed most of the center of the city and also produced a tsunami. Maybe it was because the churches were crowded that morning for the All Saints Day mass that so many Enlightenment thinkers questioned why God would allow such a terrible catastrophe -- as if catastrophes hadn't been going on for millennia. Though Goethe was only six years old at the time, he later wrote of this feeling: "God, the Creator and Sustainer of heaven and hearth, whom the First Article of Faith had portrayed as so wise and merciful, had allowed the just to suffer the same as the unjust, thus in no way proving to fatherly.In vain the young mind sough to come to grips with such observations, but this was all the less possible because even sages and scholars could not agree on how to interpret the phenomenon" (Peter Boerner translation).

Let me turn to Bodmer. I don't know what his reactions to the 1755 quake were, but he did write about the effect of catastrophic events on human emotions. In 1741 he published his Critische Betrachtungen über die poetischen Gemälde der Dichter (Critical observations on the poetic "paintings" of poets). In it he analyzes the three sources of our reaction to events in the "material realm," meaning the world in which we live and have our existence. These sources are the beautiful (das Schöne), the great (das Große), and the violent (das Ungestüme). In the presence of the beautiful we feel delight. The great or grandeur in nature produces astonishment, followed by "a delightful Stillness and Amazement in the Soul." That last quote is from Joseph Addison, whom Bodmer is pretty much following here.

Bodmer seems to have rejected Addison's third source, Novelty. In fact, he says in Crit. Betr. that what is new or novel does not have its grounds in the material world but in our emotions. It is a combination of elements of which we have not heretofore taken notice but with which we are otherwise familiar. Instead, his third source is the violent, which represents danger and fills the soul with terror and fear. Bodmer was writing of the effects on our emotions of poetry and art, in particular of descriptions of war or of the storms that assailed Aneas as he made his way to Italy, and not of real life.

Addison also discussed the effects of poetry on the imagination, but he thought that nature had a stronger effect on us than did works of art. Thus, his initial examples come from the natural world, and the pleasures we derive from the observation of the Beautiful, the Great, or the New in nature are what he calls "primary." Those produced by art are the secondary pleasures of the imagination. Bodmer, however, despite living surrounded by the Alps his entire life, seems not to have factored them, or indeed any other natural phenomena, into his reflections on the Great in nature, even though he quotes Addison's description of Greatness, namely, that the "Mind of Man naturally hates every thing that looks like a Restraint upon it," and thus such prospects as "an open Chamian Country, a vast unculitvated Desart, ... a wide Expanse of Waters," and so on give an "Image of Liberty."

Longinus had described the feeling produced by the sublime as one almost of tyranny: one was overcome with powerful emotion in the presence of greatness. Bodmer's category of the violent suggests such a passivity of the person experiencing a crushing event, be it war or a natural disaster like the present earthquake in Japan. Unlike in the case of the Beautiful or the Great, one is not free in relation to violence. Bodmer seems to have straightened this confusion out in his last writing on the sublime, in 1746, in which he confined the sublime to the free acts of humans. Terrible catastrophes are not sublime. They are simply terrible or, if man-created, evil.

The scenes of Japan after this earthquake are ones of devastation, almost like the scenes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atom bombs fell on those cities. A similar event in our own time, also caused by the hand of men, are the attacks on 9/11. At the time the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen made the terrible remark that the attacks were "the greatest work of art ever." Stockhausen seemed not to understand the difference between art and life, which certainly Bodmer did. I was struck, however, by his succeeding comment, in reply to a journalist asking him if he was equating crime and art: "It is a crime," he said, "because the people were not agreed. They didn't go to the 'concert." That is clear. And no one gave them notice that they might pass away [draufgehen]." It is certainly the case that, when such events strike, that one has no freedom.

Since I lived in Japan for several years, I have been very absorbed by the news, which has led to these reflections on the sublime. It strikes me that the sublime is never a terrible catastrophe, certainly not the mass murder that took place on 9/11 (or, on a small scale but just as evil, the recent massacre of settlers in Israel). The sublime is all the processes, activities, and so on that make civilization possible, including the buildings that were destroyed on 9/11 as well as the tremendous material damage in Japan in recent days. One can't help but think how fragile existence is, yet, when the apocalypse has passed, most people pick up and build up their lives again. And, as in Lisbon in the 18th century, the "international community" has reached out to help the Japanese, including these dogs who came from Los Angeles with their handlers.

Picture credits: Hiroto Sekiguchi: dapd; Matt Dunham

No comments: