Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Sublime

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona
The aesthetic category of the sublime has interested me for some time. I have posted several times on the subject and also published an essay on Goethe and the sublime, which dealt with Goethe's earliest geological writings. In response to that essay, Glenn Most, a scholar from whose writings I have much profited, wrote me and asked why Bodmer did not appear in my references in that article. So, I plunged a bit deeper into the subject and investigated Bodmer's writings on the subject, which also led to an essay that appeared in the Goethe Yearbook. In both essays, mountains played a prominent role.

Goethe Girl in Monument Valley
Since that time I have encountered very different kinds of mountains from those that feature in European writings. For the second time I am visiting friends in northern Arizona. On the first visit two years ago we drove to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and I also had an opportunity to see the red sandstone formations in Sedona. This past week we made a whirlwind trip to Monument Valley and Natural Bridges in Utah and Canyon de Chelly and the Petrified Forest in Arizona. (900 miles: glad to get out of the car at the end.) My friends agreed that there is something "alien" about these formations, as in "outer space." It is true that some Indian tribes have lived in them or in their vicinity, but they cannot be cultivated or farmed in the sense of agricultural communities, in contrast to their domestication in most parts of Europe.

West Mitten Butte in Monument Valley
One is amazed at the grandeur of the Southwestern mountains, especially when they appear in groups. Their otherworldly character comes perhaps from their isolated and overpowering presence, as they tower over a "landscape" lacking any evidence of human cultivation. Some 18th-century theorists of the sublime asserted that mountains, oceans, and other large natural phenomena were evidence of divine creation. Evidently the Indians in this part of the world found them sacred, yet it is difficult to imagine Adam and Eve walking or working in this landscape or being "stewards" of this creation. The fact that you can't DO anything with these mountains contributes to their sense of being alien. Thus, in the 19th century Westerners felt no compunction about building railroads through them (e.g., through the Petrified Forest) or mining them.

In my next post I will discuss Goethe and the sublime.

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