On the Sublime
In the First Century AD, Longinus wrote of the aesthetic he sought to identify:
[S]ublimity is a certain distinction and excellence in expression and... it is from no other source than this that the greatest poets and writers have derived their eminence and gained an immortality of renown.
Longinus was either overstating it here, in rooting our respect for all the greatest rhapsodes, old and new, in their ability to sing the sublime into being in their works; or he was cyclically defining as the greatest those who fit his preferred aesthetic. But if his hyperbole is a little unfair, it's not foolish; it would be far more foolish to underestimate the import of the sublime, the degree to which the fame of those rhapsodes rests on how responsive people are to that aesthetic. Hardly surpising, since the sublime is all about import.
By import I mean to distinguish a particular aspect of the meaning of an articulation, what it means to an audience as an action upon that audience, as opposed to, say, the aspect of meaning we term purpose -- what was meant by the articulation as the action of an agent. Neither of these should be confused with any notion of meaning that casts it as "content" with an articulation as its "vessel." The latter is a damnable metaphor that should be expunged from the discourse, the articulation itself the only substance there is.
[W]e see skill in invention, and due order and arrangement of matter, emerging as the hard-won result not of one thing nor of two, but of the whole texture of the composition, whereas sublimity flashing forth at the right moment scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt, and at once displays the power of the orator in all its plenitude.
The thunderbolt is, of course, the key image of Romanticism. In contrast with the orrery by which we might symbolise the structural integrity so crucial to Rationalism in its aesthetic of the logical, the thunderbolt signifies the dynamism of the ruptures at the heart of all strange fiction (in which I include not just the fantastic but the tragic and the comic.) It signifies the sense of disruption that goes with any challenge to suspension-of-disbelief, which is to say any testing of the baseline epistemic modality of "this did happen" adopted by the audience as a conceit. While we can talk of the other modalities introduced (e.g. "this could not happen" or "this must not happen") as forces of warp acting on the mimetic weft of the narrative, it is precisely to highlight the quality of disturbance that I cast these forces as forms, as what I call quirks, as if they were some strange exotic particle -- to emphasise their role as violations of stability.
The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport.
This is disingenuous. The rapture effected by an aesthetic of the sublime is often more persuasive than any rational argument in its direct exploitation and manipulation of the audience's sense of actualities, possibilities, ethical duties and emotional affinities/antipathies. We need only look at propaganda and advertising for evidence of this. But this may be a disservice to Longinus.
He has, therefore, passed the bounds of mere persuasion by the boldness of his conception. By a sort of natural law in all such matters we always attend to whatever possesses superior force; whence it is that we are drawn away from demonstration pure and simple to any startling image within whose dazzling brilliancy the argument lies concealed.
Perhaps "persuasion" is just a dubious word-choice and what is meant is more specifically the negotiation of the audience to a certain point of view by logically justifying it, but even if so, it's not wise to let this contrast of reason and rapture slide by unchallenged. If this is not "demonstration pure and simple," the concealed argument may be just as effective, if not more so. We should be wary of the sublime.
[S]ublimity and passion form an antidote and a wonderful help against the mistrust which attends upon the use of figures. The art which craftily employs them lies hid and escapes all future suspicion, when once it has been associated with beauty and sublimity.
That "transport" can be a train that one enters blithely unaware that it has a planned destination of concrete and ash.
The Nature of the Sublime
First and most important is the power of forming great conceptions, as we have elsewhere explained in our remarks on Xenophon. Secondly, there is vehement and inspired passion. These two components of the sublime are for the most part innate. Those which remain are partly the product of art. The due formation of figures deals with two sorts of figures, first those of thought and secondly those of expression. Next there is noble diction, which in turn comprises choice of words, and use of metaphors, and elaboration of language. The fifth cause of elevation--one which is the fitting conclusion of all that have preceded it--is dignified and elevated composition.
With the first two components, Longinus offers features of import -- conceptual grandeur and emotional intensity -- which are essentially the key characteristics of the sublime as described in terms of audience response. While these are fair as broad glosses on the sublime, it is not that useful to talk vaguely of the "size" of a notion or the "intensity" of the charge it is imbued with, not when the real questions are what precisely is meant by "size" and how exactly is that "intensity" carried? The question is not just what is the sublime but how does it work?
In the remaining three components, Longinus does point us to the language by which that import may be achieved: 1) rhetorical figures of thought and speech; 2) register as constructed by lexical choice, grammatic complexity and semiotic layering; 3) the pure poetics of rhythm and concord. But it is worthwhile teasing this apart a little, unbinding the different aspects of rhetorics lumped together in one component and separating out the semiotic layering (i.e. the use of metaphor and metonym) stuck in with the second. Because what we have is actually two distinct strategies, one largely independent of meaning as substance -- which is to say, notation -- and one entirely bound up in it.
With the qualities of tone, tenor and structural (poetic/rhetorical/grammatic) patterning, we are dealing with fundamentally formal features of language -- not the substance of the articulation but the mode of articulation. Even specific signifiers of mode -- e.g. the loftier terms of address that signal a heightened register -- might best be considered formal features in this context rather than substantive. All of this is, in a sense, the melody the song is sung to.
Are we not, then, to hold that composition (being a harmony of that language which is implanted by nature in man and which appeals not to the hearing only but to the soul itself), since it calls forth manifold shapes of words, thoughts, deeds, beauty, melody, all of them born at our birth and growing with our growth, and since by means of the blending and variation of its own tones it seeks to introduce into the minds of those who are present the emotion which affects the speaker and since it always brings the audience to share in it and by the building of phrase upon phrase raises a sublime and harmonious structure: are we not, I say, to hold that harmony by these selfsame means allures us and invariably disposes us to stateliness and dignity and elevation and every emotion which it contains within itself, gaining absolute mastery over our minds?
With semiotic layering and the rhetorical devices that use it however, what we're dealing with becomes substantive. While the use of figurative language in and of itself doubtless raises the register of an articulation just as grammatic complexity does, what matters more here is the way those notes function as notation, creating the notion, creating the import.
The False Sublime
There is nothing in the sphere of the sublime, that is so lowering as broken and agitated movement of language, such as is characteristic of pyrrhics and trochees and dichorees, which fall altogether to the level of dance-music. For all over-rhythmical writing is at once felt to be affected and finical and wholly lacking in passion owing to the monotony of its superficial polish. And the worst of it all is that, just as petty lays draw their hearer away from the point and compel his attention to themselves, so also overrhythmical style does not communicate the feeling of the words but simply the feeling of the rhythm.
Compare the absolute regularity of "The Song of Hiawatha" with "Tyger, Tyger." Where the former remains rigidly metrical, "Should you ask me, whence these stories? / Whence these legends and traditions, / With the odours of the forest, / With the dew and damp of meadows," it's easy to demonstrate how such rigidity would ruin the latter simply by introducing it, creating a travesty of Blake's verse: "Tyger! Tyger! burning brightly / In the forests, walking nightly, / What immortal hand or eye could / Frame thy fearful symmetry, dude?" While Blake's original uses trochees, it is the disruption of such that truly shapes the rhythm. The ploddingly functional "transparent" prose in many contemporary works within the strange fiction genres is perhaps the present-day equivalent. In terms of what murders the sublime however, it is a close competition between the trudging cadences and the stilted grandiosity to be found in dialogue or description.
In lofty passages we ought not to descend to sordid and contemptible language unless constrained by some overpowering necessity, but it is fitting that we should use words worthy of the subject and imitate nature the artificer of man, for she has not placed in full view our grosser parts or the means of purging our frame, but has hidden them away as far as was possible, and as Xenophon says has put their channels in the remotest background, so as not to sully the beauty of the entire creature.
Longinus's warning against bathos is a dangerous one for those who would take it too much to heart. If he is right to challenge Herodotus on the colloquial "the wind grew fagged" or the inadequate "unpleasant end," the same bathos can be achieved by straying too far in the opposite direction, to "the wind grew enervated" or "calamitous termination," say.
[W]e must consider whether some supposed examples have not simply the appearance of elevation with many idle accretions, so that when analysed they are found to be mere vanity--objects which a noble nature will rather despise than admire.
While never one to dismiss the formal features that make an articulation poetically/rhetorically effective, I'm inclined to think that we can best find the examples Longinus is talking of where the mannerisms are present but the figurative substance does not match the performance of importance with actual import. I would point here specifically to Longinus's later comments on periphrasis, "with its odour of empty talk and its swelling amplitude." Conversely, some phrases "graze the very edge of vulgarity, but they are saved from vulgarity by their expressiveness." This is not to say that an overblown articulation lacks some denotational insight, I stress, but to say it lacks connotational impact.
Altogether, tumidity seems particularly hard to avoid. The explanation is that all who aim at elevation are so anxious to escape the reproach of being weak and dry that they are carried, as by some strange law of nature, into the opposite extreme. They put their trust in the maxim that 'failure in a great attempt is at least a noble error'. But evil are the swellings, both in the body and in diction, which are inflated and unreal, and threaten us with the reverse of our aim; for nothing, say they, is drier than a man who has the dropsy.
Such a tumidity is the key complaint we usually have when, as described above, the trite is presented with the pomp of the sublime. And the mannerisms in many cases can no doubt be viewed as over-compensation, the literary equivalent of a bad actor putting the ham into Hamlet, declaiming a soliloquy in the most "theatrical" way. But Longinus is, I think, pointing here to a distinct flaw in the nature of the figurative substance itself, a grandiosity that fails to achieve the sublime by over-egging the pudding in terms of the actual notation. If the sublime is constructed from ruptures that must be grand and striking as a thunderbolt, such a failure might come, for example, simply by having one's Frankenstein's monster revealed by a flash of lightning one too many times in the narrative. Or actually struck by it as he stands outside Victor's window, creating an import of the absurd rather than the sublime.
While tumidity desires to transcend the limits of the sublime, the defect which is termed puerility is the direct antithesis of elevation, for it is utterly low and mean and in real truth the most ignoble vice of style. What, then, is this puerility? Clearly, a pedant's thoughts, which begin in learned trifling and end in frigidity. Men slip into this kind of error because, while they aim at the uncommon and elaborate and most of all at the attractive, they drift unawares into the tawdry and affected.
We are returned to the performance of importance here however, to the formal manner absent any real import through notation. For all that the pompous and pedantic see themselves as the Last Man and are often the most prone to scorn what they disdain as naive and infantile, there is nothing more puerile than the affectation of a maturity predicated on the immaturity of others. Bollocks to it. Again, to point specifically to a later comment of Longinus, "stately language is not to be used everywhere, since to invest petty affairs with great and high- sounding names would seem just like putting a full-sized tragic mask upon an infant boy." Perhaps the epic idiom would be a better reference than the tragic though, in contemporary terms.
A third, and closely allied, kind of defect in matters of passion is that which Theodorus used to call parenthyrsus. By this is meant unseasonable and empty passion, where no passion is required, or immoderate, where moderation is needed. For men are often carried away, as if by intoxication, into displays of emotion which are not caused by the nature of the subject, but are purely personal and wearisome. In consequence they seem to hearers who are in no wise affected to act in an ungainly way.
Import is an effect upon the audience, and sometimes the articulation simply fails to have that effect; not everything is relevant to everyone. Then again, those who see this or that passion as inappropriate, unnecessary or immoderate can be wearisome in their own right, it must be said. Where Romanticism tends to restrict itself to the conventional sublime, part of the project of (post)modernist writers was to subvert this, to find the unconventional sublime, the flash of lightning in the spark of a lighter held up to a cigarette. With Joyce or Calvino, Davenport or Whittemore, the aesthetic of the domestic is an aesthetic of the domestic sublime, in many respects, purposed at transporting the audience to a Moorish wall or a café, a Scandinavian meadow or a bridge, to a moment, precisely in order to make the mundane relevant to the audience in a rapture of import. Sometimes the drunken fool is Dionysus and we ought to drink with him, and join his dance.
[S]ome passions are found which are far removed from sublimity and are of a low order, such as pity, grief and fear.
I'm not convinced.
The Quirks of the Sublime
[T]here are many examples of the sublime which are independent of passion, such as the daring words of Homer with regard to the Aloadae, to take one out of numberless instances, "Yea, Ossa in fury they strove to upheave on Olympus on high, / With forest-clad Pelion above, that thence they might step to the sky." (Odyssey XI. 315-16, at Perseus.) And so of the words which follow with still greater force:-- "Ay, and the deed had they done." (Odyssey XI. 317.)
Where Longinus allows for an absence of passion in the sublime, his example is not persuasive. This tale of two giants heaping Mounts Ossa, Pelion and Olympus one atop the other in order to storm the Heavens -- which I can't help comparing to the SFX spectacle of Magneto in X-Men 3, ripping up the Golden Gate Bridge and using it to reach Alcatraz -- offers us a chimera, a breach of the laws of nature. Is this really independent of passion or is there a thrill to the audacity of the impossible feat? On a very simple level, when presented with an alethic quirk like this, something which "could not happen," there is a response of incredulity to be expected. That we do not stop reading at this testing of our suspension-of-disbelief is precisely because this is to a large extent what we are reading for, for that curious mixture of surprise and joy and fear and interest -- that thrill -- that comes with the disruption... or, more accurately, as the disruption.
Note that the line Longinus singles out as ramming the import of this figuration home -- the line which concretises the chimera by asserting that the Aloadae not only strove to do the impossible but actually carried it out, and which thereby creates credibility warp by bringing in the alethic modality of "could not happen" -- is essentially no more than an explicit statement that "this did happen". It would be hard to find an example of the quirk that better encapsulates the tension of alethic modalities at the heart of the technique.
But there is more than just a chimera here. That Longinus sees the use of this figuration as "daring" on the poet's part, and that Homer himself presents it as enacted "in fury," points us to three other quirks that can be identified in the deontic and boulomaic modalities of the import, which is to say in terms of how this figuration exploits the audience's sense of ethical duties and emotional affinities/antipathies.
This breach of the laws of nature is also a breach of the laws of God (or Zeus rather), the Aloadae transgressing the divine order itself in their raging assault on the Heavens. As such, the action is a rupturae, the narrative taking a modality of "must/should not happen" in its violation of moral orthodoxy. It is wrong. In context, in fact, it may be about as wrong as you can get in a culture that held outrage against the gods to be the gravest crime of all.
In so far as such an offence may invoke not just ethical condemnation but emotional abhorrance, indeed, the action constitutes a monstrum, with a "must/should not happen" modaity in the boulomaic rather than deontic sense. (It may be rarer, I think, to find the ruptura and monstrum dissociated than to find them bound together in this way, as a "ruptura monstrum.")
It is the presence of the third quirk, however, I think, that renders this action sublime rather than simply monstrous, for we can see in this the very stuff of power-fantasy -- the numen -- the complement of the monstrum that so often, and not-so-secretly, goes hand-in-hand with it. Whatever the breach of ethical duty, however deep the affect of outrage, such a grand action, such an astounding feat... surely there's a part of us revelling vicariously in the audacity of it, the daring. As it enacts a glory we desire, a power we thrill to imagine -- even if our basic wish is only to see it as spectacle -- the narrative takes a modality of "must/should happen." And the sublime is born.
This besides many other things, that Nature has appointed us men to be no base nor ignoble animals; but when she ushers us into life and into the vast universe as into some great assembly, to be as it were spectators of the mighty whole and the keenest aspirants for honour, forthwith she implants in our souls the unconquerable love of whatever is elevated and more divine than we.
However terrible the beauty, we still revere it, desire it.
The Strange and the Sublime
How transcendent also are the images in the Battle of the Gods:-- "Far round wide heaven and Olympus echoed his clarion of thunder;" (Iliad 21. 388, at Perseus). "And Hades, king of the realm of shadows, quaked thereunder. / And he sprang from his throne, and he cried aloud in the dread of his heart / Lest o'er him earth-shaker Poseidon should cleave the ground apart, / And revealed to Immortals and mortals should stand those awful abodes, / Those mansions ghastly and grim, abhorred of the very Gods." (Iliad 20. 61-65, at Perseus). You see, my friend, how the earth is torn from its foundations, Tartarus itself is laid bare, the whole world is upturned and parted asunder, and all things together--heaven and hell, things mortal and things immortal--share in the conflict and the perils of that battle! But although these things are awe-inspiring, yet from another point of view, if they be not taken allegorically, they are altogether impious, and violate our sense of what is fitting.
You see, my friend, how the narrative is torn from its baseline modality, imagination itself is laid bare, the very laws of nature are upturned and parted asunder, and all things together -- reality and unreality, things possible and impossible -- share in the conflict and the import of that text! This is the chimera.
But although these things inspire credibility warp, yet from another point of view, if they be not taken as fiction, they are altogether impious, and violate our sense of what is fitting. This is the monstrum.
But although these things are altogether impious, and violate our sense of what is fitting, yet from another point of view, how transcendant also are the images. This is the numen.
...the way in which Homer magnifies the higher powers: "And far as a man with his eyes through the sea-line haze may discern, / On a cliff as he sitteth and gazeth away o'er the wine-dark deep, / So far at a bound do the loud-neighing steeds of the Deathless leap." (Iliad 5. 770, at Perseus). He makes the vastness of the world the measure of their leap. The sublimity is so overpowering as naturally to prompt the exclamation that if the divine steeds were to leap thus twice in succession they would pass beyond the confines of the world.
Longinus equates as far as a man can see with the extent of the world itself, but he still nails the point. The confines of the world are: known science; known history; (meta)physics; logic. Anything that passes beyond these, even if it is in as simple an action as a horse's leap that exceeds any actual horse's ability, is an alethic quirk. The prompted exclamation is always, at heart, "This could not happen!" The boulomaic quirk -- the numen -- is born from that alethic quirk in a simple flip from denial to plea: "Oh, could this not happen?" A horse that can leap from a clifftop, through the sky, across the whole wide sea itself, to the horizon? I mean, how cool would that be?
Much superior to the passages respecting the Battle of the Gods are those which represent the divine nature as it really is--pure and great and undefiled; for example, what is said of Poseidon in a passage fully treated by many before ourselves:-- "Her far-stretching ridges, her forest-trees, quaked in dismay, / And her peaks, and the Trojans' town, and the ships of Achaia's array, / Beneath his immortal feet, as onward Poseidon strode. / Then over the surges he drave: leapt sporting before the God / Sea-beasts that uprose all round from the depths, for their king they knew, / And for rapture the sea was disparted, and onward the car-steeds flew." (Iliad 13. 18, at Perseus).
Trees quaking in dismay at the terrible beauty of the sublime. Such chimeric numina monstrum can be pointed at in the text, but it is probably as easy to point at them in the wide eyes of a child, listening attentively as the wonders are related.
The Sublime and the Strange
[G]reat natures in their decline are sometimes diverted into absurdity, as in the incident of the wine-skin and of the men who were fed like swine by Circe (whining porkers, as Zoilus called them), and of Zeus like a nestling nurtured by the doves, and of the hero who was without food for ten days upon the wreck, and of the incredible tale of the slaying of the suitors (Perseus, Odyssey 9. 182; 10.17; 10.237; 12.62; 12.447; 22.79.) For what else can we term these things than veritable dreams of Zeus? These observations with regard to the Odyssey should be made for another reason-- in order that you may know that the genius of great poets and prose-writers, as their passion declines, finds its final expression in the delineation of character. For such are the details which Homer gives, with an eye to characterisation, of life in the home of Odysseus; they form as it were a comedy of manners.
But the strange is not the sublime, not for Longinus. The chimera alone, the merely strange, is not necessarily sublime. The fantastic events of the Odyssey he sees as absurdity, as fancy, the "dreams of Zeus." For all its strangeness, this work is not sublime to him, but something else, born in a decline of passion with age, in a turning towards character and the aesthetic of the domestic. He might well be talking about the novelistic versus the romantic. We would do well to bear this in mind with regard to contemporary strange fiction, wherever critics blinker themselves and -- whether revering or reviling it as such -- class the strange fiction genres as essentially romance.
[I]n the Odyssey Homer may be likened to a sinking sun, whose grandeur remains without its intensity. He does not in the Odyssey maintain so high a pitch as in those poems of Ilium.
If Longinus in his sympathies seems a tad unfair on the Odyssey, he is right, at least, in pointing to a narrative saturated with credibility warp as nevertheless not necessarily sublime. His examples largely seem to me to lack any great numinous quality, more weird than wondrous. And with the swine-men maybe there's even a comic aspect that undercuts the monstrous, renders it merely grotesque. (It would be worthwhile picking this apart at some point, looking for textual mechanisms that defuse the monstrum in this way, render it absurd.) Only with the last example do we have a slaughter that strikes me as having that quality of terrible beauty, that air of awe, and I might be inclined to dispute it as a valid example for that reason, to say, no, this is sublime.
Maybe it's my own imagining of the myth more than anything else. The hooded stranger who arrives in mystery, picks up the bow and strings it, reveals himself -- as in a flash of lightning -- and exacts his vengeance. I see a numina monstrum in there. Where Longinus might see grandeur here without intensity, perhaps the import is lacking for him, and if this is so, his case is completely valid; the sublime is a construct of import, existing in the personal reading of the audience. But I sense the callowness of pure Romanticism in such a rejection of restraint -- as coded into Odysseus's hood, into his arrival in disguise, as a beggar. Where Longinus sees the sublime in God's grand proclamation, "Let there be light," I see it also in the silence beforehand.
Then Ajax, at his wits' end, cries: "Zeus, Father, yet save thou Achaia's sons from beneath the gloom, / And make clear day, and vouchsafe unto us with our eyes to see! / So it be but in light, destroy us! (Iliad 17. 645, at Perseus). That is the true attitude of an Ajax. He does not pray for life, for such a petition would have ill beseemed a hero. But since in the hopeless darkness he can turn his valour to no noble end, he chafes at his slackness in the fray and craves the boon of immediate light, resolved to find a death worthy of his bravery, even though Zeus should fight in the ranks against him.
The alethic quirk, it seems, is not even entirely necessary; in the previous examples it is clearly a foundation of the sublime, but Ajax's cry is no chimera, breaches no limits of possibility, creates no credibility warp. We might perhaps stretch and blur the strictures of logic to cover the cold calculus of survival, see in the hero's embrace of death a soft sutura, a breach of human nature's basic imperative to live. But it is the numen and staccatum in his action that define the import, the fact that he does exactly what beseems a hero -- what he should do -- and that the cry embodies this as a choice, an act of will -- what he would do.
And how much of a monstrum is there also in the death he is embracing? How much is such a heroic death monstrous precisely because it is numinous, and numinous because it is monstrous? If Ajax did not die so nobly he would not be so heroic as to render his death such a terrible loss. If the death of such a hero were not so terrible a loss, it would be not be such a beautiful thing for Ajax to choose this over ignominy. The rightness and wrongness of his death each depend upon the other.
Quirks of Tense and Person
If you introduce things which are past as present and now taking place, you will make your story no longer a narration but an actuality.
A change in tense from past to present is a shift in modality from "this did happen" to "this is happening."
In like manner the interchange of persons produces a vivid impression, and often makes the hearer feel that he is moving in the midst of perils:-- "Thou hadst said that with toil unspent, and all unwasted of limb, / They closed in the grapple of war, so fiercely they rushed to the fray;" (Iliad XV. 697, at Perseus)
Second person, where it is narrative of you rather than an address to you almost automatically invokes a modality of "this did not happen" in the audience. You know that you've said nothing of the sort, did not carry out the actions described.
There is further the case in which a writer, when relating something about a person, suddenly breaks off and converts himself into that selfsame person.
There is no reason that the fourth wall can't be broken in the other direction. To do so either way is to create a sutura, a breach of logic, a rupturing of the integrity of the system of narrative itself.
The Craft of the Sublime
Nor do we view the tiny flame of our own kindling (guarded in lasting purity as its light ever is) with greater awe than the celestial fires though they are often shrouded in darkness; nor do we deem it a greater marvel than the craters of Etna, whose eruptions throw up stones from its depths and great masses of rock, and at times pour forth rivers of that pure and unmixed subterranean fire.
Yeats's "terrible beauty" is Longinus's sublime, desire and dread fused in awe of events that "must and must not happen" or "should and should not happen". Where we look for the sublime, we will invariably find these numina monstra.
Uniting contradictions, she is, at one and the same time, hot and cold, in her senses and out of her mind, for she is either terrified or at the point of death. The effect desired is that not one passion only should be seen in her, but a concourse of the passions.
Longinus on Sappho nails the tension of modalities that is the key feature of the sublime.
It must needs be, therefore, that we shall find one source of the sublime in the systematic selection of the most important elements, and the power of forming, by their mutual combination, what may be called one body. The former process attracts the hearer by the choice of the ideas, the latter by the aggregation of those chosen.
It is simply good writing as much as anything to conjure one's quirks not in an event described with tedious plainness as if leisurely studied in the light of day, but in the fractured details revealed as by a thunderbolt for only a moment, resolving into a whole in the imaginative after-image.
In a general way the name of image or imagination is applied to every idea of the mind, in whatever form it presents itself, which gives birth to speech. But at the present day the word is predominantly used in cases where, carried away by enthusiasm and passion, you think you see what you describe, and you place it before the eyes of your hearers.
The sublime is always vivid.
Let one instance be quoted from among many:-- "And he burst on them like as a wave swift-rushing beneath black clouds, / Heaved huge by the winds, bursts down on a ship, and the wild foam shrouds / From the stem to the stern her hull, and the storm-blast's terrible breath / Roars in the sail, and the heart of the shipmen shuddereth / In fear, for that scantly upborne are they now from the clutches of death." (Iliad 15. 624-628, at Perseus).
The solidity of form is lost in the wild foam. In this thunderbolt of figuration there is no ship to speak of, no wooden deck, no ropes, no oars, only the roaring in the sails and the shuddering in hearts.
For just as those who are interrogated by others experience a sudden excitement and answer the inquiry incisively and with the utmost candour, so the figure of question and answer leads the hearer to suppose that each deliberate thought is struck out and uttered on the spur of the moment, and so beguiles his reason.
The sublime is always striving for immediacy.
'By attitude, by look, by voice, when he acts with insolence, when he acts like an enemy, when he smites with his fists, when he smites you like a slave.' By these words the orator produces the same effect as the assailant--he strikes the mind of the judges by the swift succession of blow on blow.
In such asyndeta and repetitions, the sublime is always on the attack.
Hyperbata, or inversions, must be placed under the same category. They are departures in the order of expressions or ideas from the natural sequence; and they bear, it may be said, the very stamp and impress of vehement emotion.
The sublime strives to be unexpected.
Where the words are singular, to make them plural is the mark of unlooked-for passion; and where they are plural, the rounding of a number of things into a fine-sounding singular is surprising owing to the converse change.
The thunderbolt sunders and fuses.
The Rhapsode and the Sublime
Cicero differs from Demosthenes in elevated passages. For the latter is characterised by sublimity which is for the most part rugged, Cicero by profusion. Our orator, owing to the fact that in his vehemence,--aye, and in his speed, power and intensity,--he can as it were consume by fire and carry away all before him, may be compared to a thunderbolt or flash of lightning. Cicero, on the other hand, it seems to me, after the manner of a widespread conflagration, rolls on with all-devouring flames, having within him an ample and abiding store of fire, distributed now at this point now at that, and fed by an unceasing succession.
I admit to my own prejudices as regards "amplification" versus "elevation," the grandiose versus the sublime; for me, the grandiose often collapses into the tumidty Longinus warns against as it becomes gauche. Speaking as someone familiar only with the films rather than the comics, Magneto picking up the entire Golden Gate Bridge in X-Men 3 seems too crudely spectaculist when held against similar scenes in the earlier movies, too showy. Surely, I think, McKellan's Magneto would raise every car, van and lorry from the bridge, shatter it to a powder of steel, and fuse that steel into a new bridge, into something more magnificent in its slender, shining subtlety than that mere lumpen mass of man's construction, ripped from the earth and dumped in its new position.
And it seems to me that there would not have been so fine a bloom of perfection on Plato's philosophical doctrines, and that he would not in many cases have found his way to poetical subject-matter and modes of expression, unless he had with all his heart and mind struggled with Homer for the primacy, entering the lists like a young champion matched against the man whom all admire, and showing perhaps too much love of contention and breaking a lance with him as it were, but deriving some profit from the contest none the less.
Emulation of the great rhapsodes becomes competition with the great rhapsodes. That this competition is couched in terms of valiant combat is, it seems to me, a marker of the heroic ideal that the sublime is bound to in Longinus and in Romanticism. This is why, I suspect, Longinus prefers the Iliad to the Odyssey, why he dismisses the slaying of the suitors. Odysseus in his wily disguise is the wanderer rather than the warrior, Odin rather than Thor.
[E]verywhere in the matter of sublimity it is true of him (to adopt Homer's words) that, "The tail of him scourgeth his ribs and his flanks to left and to right, / And he lasheth himself into frenzy, and spurreth him on to the fight." (Iliad 20.170, at Perseus)
So Longinus constructs his metaphor of Euripedes the man-of-words as Euripedes the man-of-war. It is an apt image given the nature of the aesthetic itself, but I have to admit I prefer Odysseus to Achilles. Partly it is this notion of the sublime returning to the domestic to shatter it, as in that moment when Odysseus reveals himself, less a man-of-war as he fires his arrows out into the crowd of suitors, more a terrorist or an exile returned, as Dionysus in Thebes. Partly it is the notion of the domestic as sublime -- the hooded man, a stranger in his own home, holding his own bow once again, at last. I do have some sympathy with the romance of Longinus's heroic ideal though, his notion of the rhapsode as raptor. Disruption is the essence of strange fiction, sublime or logical, absurd or domestic.
[I]t is the nature of the passions, in their vehement rush, to sweep and thrust everything before them, or rather to demand hazardous turns as altogether indispensable. They do not allow the hearer leisure to criticise the number of the metaphors because he is carried away by the fervour of the speaker.
So Caecilius says a passage should limit itself to two or three metaphors at most. I think I'm with Longinus here. Sometimes metaphors should be mixed. Molotov cocktails pack a tasty kick.
Labels: Literary Theory