Tracking the arguments of Milton’s prose has been compared to watching a man jump up and down in place in an ecstasy of impotent rage. However hard Milton tries, however passionately he presses, he never gets anywhere, forever stuck in search of the knock-out blow he never manages to deliver. The reason is that, at bottom, Milton has only one thing to say, endlessly repeated in different words: his unshakeable conviction of the rightness of his cause, and his equally unshakeable conviction that his adversaries could not fail to see it if they would only open their eyes. The argument is thus always the same, as is Milton’s fury at his adversaries’ willful failure to grasp it.
It strikes me that this is also a good picture of what talking about the sublime is like. As we will see more specifically later, it is important that the sublime has a history: having a history turns out in fact to be characteristic of it in a way it does not in the cognate cases of the beautiful or the true. For one thing, talk of the sublime is notoriously dateable, tracing back to the late antiquity of pseudo-Longinus’ Peri hypsous, to be born again with Nicolas Boileau’s Traité du sublime of 1674. Moreover, in the radically modern sense that comes into focus just when the modern theory of the sublime reaches a critical watershed in the transition from the Kantian Enlightenment to the Romantic age, history itself is at once a distinctive product and a powerful medium of sublimity. History indeed, as moderns understand it, is a concept which is not only sublime in its own right but one that demands a prior position, a location in mental space, the sublime maps out for it. Still, whenever we find ourselves talking about the sublime, it is as though we had never talked about anything else. More pointedly, it is as though we ought never to have talked about anything else, so compulsory does the topic feel. The result is that, exactly like Miltonic argument, talk of the sublime never gets anywhere. It is not just that it constantly circles back to the same place, the topos or locus in pseudo-Longinus to which Boileau returns in reviving the debate. The underlying argument is always the same; we simply rephrase it in search of the knock-out blow that constantly eludes us.
My goal in the following essay is to suggest that there is in fact a way forward and that, to secure it, it suffices to ask why it has proved so hard to find. What is there about the sublime that leaves us jumping up and down in place? My answer is, the sublime itself. I have in mind here a saying left us by a philosopher who was himself something of an adept of the sublime and so, like all such, a hostage to it, Ludwig Wittgenstein. The face the sublime wore for him was philosophy’s—more properly, and from the standpoint of the diagnosis undertaken here, more symptomatically, it was the face presented by the limits of philosophy. Wittgenstein took these limits to coincide now with those of the world, now with those of our language about the world, and now with those of such thought as language makes possible. But in each case the crucial thing was the fact of limits as such, and the puzzle this poses: in order to think about the world or language or thought itself, we would have to stand on both sides of the limits it describes, which we can’t. Wittgenstein said that philosophy’s aim is “[t]o shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” (103) Like Wittgenstein’s fly, making his version of the Platonic myth of the cave more potent than the original, we are blinded by the transparency of the trap to the fact that, hard as we look, nothing is actually hidden: the way to get out is simply to use the way in. I will argue that the way forward with the sublime is to take the way back out; and what will enable me to make this case is the pedagogical theme the present collection addresses.
According to Kant, a distinctive feature of judgments of the sublime is that they need no “deduction,” that is, no transcendental justification of the claim to objective universality and truth they share with the experience of beauty (Critique of Judgment, 141-42). Like “judgments of taste,” whose province is the beautiful, the experience of the sublime is self-announcing in that the judgment we form and the phenomenon that occasions it are coterminous. A flower, landscape, or sunset is beautiful only insofar as the “liking” of which beauty is the predicate finds it so or, playing on the verbal root of Kant’s term for “liking,” Wohlgefallen, only insofar as it happens to fall out that way. Similarly, the might of a waterfall or storm at sea, the magnitude of the pyramids or eternity, or the act of heroic self-sacrifice a soldier performs in going coolly about his duty in the face of violent death (121-22) are sublime only insofar as some witness sees them in that light. The feeling such spectacles evoke (or at least appear to evoke) constitutes them in their sublimity as being sublime even though, in themselves, they are nothing of the sort.
However, unlike judgments of taste, the experience of the sublime is self-ratifying as well: the “mere exposition” of the thing does double duty as the proof of its universal validity and reach. To be sure, in a conscientious logical kink typical of Kant, though judgments of the sublime need no justification, the fact that they need none does. Accordingly, he not only adduces the fact but goes on to “derive” it by drawing a distinction (another typically Kantian move) between the faculties to which the beautiful and sublime respectively appeal (142-43). If judgments of taste require a deduction, it is because they are about the things to which they attach the predicate of beauty. Despite the constitutive role mere pleasure plays in the experience, the beautiful appeals to concepts of the understanding whose business is knowledge rather than pleasure. This is true even if the judgments involved are condemned to remain merely “reflective,” setting concepts in a state of free and so indeterminate “play” to which there can be no logical end. The appeal to the understanding persists, moreover, even if it is a matter of empirical record that no two respondents are bound to agree, as in fact they regularly and visibly do not. By contrast, the experience of the sublime appeals to the faculty of moral (practical) reason. As such, it has—and, what is more, can have—no objective correlative. Though mediated by an external occasion, its true object is not the occasion as such but what the occasion brings to awareness in the form of a contingent experience, namely, the supersensible ground of experience itself. More specifically, it spotlights the moral ground of experience in practical reason and the moral vocation this enjoins in defiance of knowledge and pleasure alike. As Kant puts it in the “general comment,” where he recapitulates his views about aesthetic reflective judgments in advance of the work of deduction immediately to follow, “The beautiful prepares us for loving something, even nature, without interest; the sublime, for esteeming it even against our interest (of sense)” (127).
To put the case in a way designed to bring out still further conditioning features, in judgments of taste, an act of objective predication occurs in that it is the flower, the landscape, the sunset that we judge to be beautiful. The liking involved thereby fastens on the properties of the thing itself (though not of course of the thing in itself) even if those properties cannot account for the judgment we make. In the sublime, however, where the phenomenal trigger is typically characterized by its formlessness, its monstrous boundlessness, or its absolute transcendence of our powers of understanding and sensuous imagination, we are left only with the feeling as such. The sublime defines itself in the process not only as subjective but as self-referential in that it is about our feeling and what it portends both in and for the person who feels it. The feeling thus accomplishes its own justification because its true basis is moral rather than cognitive. As in the case of the categorical imperative, it is at once “synthetic” in that it arises a posteriori, on the strength of an actual (and so contingent) empirical experience, and “analytic” (and so a priori) in that the judgment triggered in this way contains its predicates within itself, independent of the contingent event that precipitates it. It thereby yields the holy grail of Kantian thought, the “synthetic a priori”: a thing run across in the course of spontaneous natural experience—something moreover of which we would have no knowledge without such experience—that nonetheless exhibits the character of necessary truth (153-54). And what makes this possible is that, just as in the case of the categorical imperative, the Bestimmung or objective determination of the content of the act of judgment doubles as a Stimmung, a higher calling that, in revealing the moral vocation at the basis of rational being, determines (bestimmt) our response (see especially § 27, “On the Quality of the Liking in Our Judging of the Sublime,” 114-17, and the “General Comment on the Exposition of Aesthetic Reflective Judgments,” 126-40).
This enables us to clarify Kant’s claim about the lack of a need for a deduction. If the judgment of the sublime can do without justification, it is not just because it is uniquely self-ratifying; he has already given it in resolving the antinomy of moral judgment. The fruit of this resolution is the categorical imperative, of which the sublime turns out to be not simply the empirical expression but what the discussion of beauty as the “symbol of morality” would call the hypotypotic embodiment, granting it the force of direct material manifestation (225-28). The task the Critique of Practical Reason sets itself is to show how the natural pursuit of happiness can be squared with the counter-natural call to virtue by showing how the existence of moral causes in the natural world can be squared with the inherently a-moral laws that govern natural phenomena. The result is the natural supernaturalism exhibited in the sublime.
But, at another level, the absence of a deduction speaks to a peculiarity of the discourse of the sublime as a whole both in Kant and in those who, for a variety of reasons, challenge his version of the thing. Unlike the feeling of the beautiful, which is always explicitly seen to fall under the net of empirical skepticism, the sublime is invariably naturalized as a token of the ineffable yet inalienable substrate of experience itself. In a specifically Kantian register, we would say that we could not be the creatures we are and not feel (or at any rate not be capable of feeling) the call of the sublime, just as we could not be the creatures we are and not feel the tug of the categorical imperative. This at once reflects and confirms our innate freedom, expressed in our unconditional self-legislating (and so “autonomous”) commitment to the “highest good.” The objective universality of the sublime thus inheres to our feeling itself, just because it takes root in the conditions of specifically moral feeling that gives feeling per se cognitive weight. The crucial thing, however, is less the fact Kant alleges than the structure involved: what Louis Althusser would call the “topology” thanks to which the phenomenon we meet at the surface of experience, as its manifest content, refers back to the underlying depth that determines its latent content conceived as an “absent cause.” The key is thus the substrate and the metaphysical perspective it accommodates even when, as already in Kant himself, the writer tries to say otherwise. More precisely, the key is just metaphysics and the stubborn afterlife the sublime grants it through the structure of feeling sublimity deploys even for declared enemies of the metaphysical view.
To see how this works, we turn to the pedagogical question the editor has set. As Kant concedes, echoing the skeptical Hume (“Of the Standard of Taste”) even as he tries to beat him at his own game, the beautiful is subject to interminable because undecidable debate. We do try (we cannot help ourselves) to educate taste and, by doing so, to establish some sort of canon or standard that would ratify judgments and so end debate by adjudicating rival claims. Yet even the most cursory review of the empirical (historical, ethnographic) evidence reminds us that, framed in these terms, that is, as a matter of canons, standards, or rules of the sort debate posits, the effort is bound to fail. As Kant himself colorfully puts it, directly paraphrasing Hume’s own transposition of a thought in Pope, “although . . . critics can reason more plausibly than cooks, they still share the same fate” (149). No one savors the same thing even though all use the same word for it because the measures employed are necessarily subjective, in constant relativist flux from moment to moment, culture to culture, person to person. Whence, however, Kant’s saving antinomy of taste and the dodge through the “sensus communis” its resolution at once demands and makes possible (143-62 for the basic ground rules; 210-220 for the antinomy itself, together with its resolution and explanatory comments). Though what sets our sensuous apparatus humming may be different in every case, the humming is something all of us feel, and take pleasure in, because all of us have a sensuous apparatus, however attuned; and whatever seems to align the faculty of sensuous apprehension with the concepts of the understanding, reconciling pleasure and cognition or, as Kant more soberly puts it, setting “the imagination in its freedom” in harmony with “the understanding in its lawfulness” (151; Kant’s emphasis) produces a sensation we like. It is accordingly in the very nature of aesthetic judgment (and, for all his skepticism, Hume agrees) to suppose some sort of standard, because it supposes what the parallel case of the “judgment of sense” (a liking for the taste of sherry, for example, or a fondness for the color blue) does not: a claim to universal assent, and so to the existence of necessary and objective grounds capable of certifying that claim. The result is, precisely, that we argue even though the issue can never be decided one way or the other.
By contrast, in the case of the sublime, we never argue. Though interpretations of what it portends may differ, the occasioning fact does not; nor does our judgment that something is set stirring that transcends the ordinary limits of purely natural experience. However the sublime is defined, it presents what looks like the radical “face of the Other,” breaking in from beyond the narrow horizons of ordinary life. In this sense the discourse of the sublime proves dogmatic in a way its contribution to the critical turn philosophy has taken since Kant would not lead us to expect. Where sublimity is concerned, you either see it or you don’t; and if you don’t, it is because, like the proverbially phlegmatic Dutch who served as a topical whipping boy at the time, you are either too stupid to perceive it or in a philistine state of denial, stopping your ears to a call you cannot fail to hear without sacrificing your status as a genuine human being. To this extent, unlike the beautiful, the object of a liking of which everyone is conscious, however crude or philistine they may be, a circumstance attested by the fact that there is no person, culture, or period that fails to express it in some way or another, the sublime demands a pedagogy. You have to be taught to feel it; or better, you have to be taught that you already feel it even if, like Molière’s prose-speaking Monsieur Jourdain, you never realized it before.
Talk about the sublime thus leads to talk about pedagogy, because there would be no sublime without one. But this points to a further, deeper link between the two themes. If the sublime and pedagogical matters go hand in hand, it is because the sublime is a pedagogy in its own right; and the circular fruit is just the sort of état d’âme, the state of soul or feeling, that helps the sublime make sense. The sublime is exactly comparable in this to La Rochefoucauld’s conception of “love” as opposed to the appetite for sex for which love serves as an alibi: it is an emotion people would not feel, still less want to or even imagine they could feel, if they had not heard others talk about it.
The pedagogical office the sublime performs suggests another reason why Kant adduces no deduction, and so another sense in which the sublime is self-ratifying. Any attempt to formulate an antinomy of the sublime would not only be redundant; it would be a pseudo-antinomy because, properly understood, it states no determinate thesis. A claim to feel the sublime thus involves no counter-thesis of the kind a claim that something is beautiful meets. As we have seen, either you feel it or you don’t. But if you feel it, and the moment you feel it, you know it for what it is, namely, for what it means: the moral vocation to which it bears witness. The sublime’s inherent moral valence is important, however, less because it underscores how far the feeling itself is the point than because of what this intimates: the sublime is learned, and to that extent not only circular but factitious. More exactly, it is what English-speakers of Hume’s generation would have called “specious,” a fair, favorable, and above all flattering appearance (“species”) whose very appeal to inchoate feeling ought to send up warning flags.
The sublime’s speciousness illuminates the ambivalence evoked by the text that started it all and that, in starting it, indeed by the mere fact of making a start, helps explain at once the intermittence and contingency the sublime is meant to overcome—features bound up with the fact that while, as even Hume admits, beauty is always with us, the sublime is not. Consider the subtle taint of scandal that surrounds the Peri hypsous. For all the authority with which it has been episodically invested, everything about the book is ambiguous, murky, suspect, not least the identity of its author. There is something ill-omened (if also appropriate) in the name we are invited to give in our ongoing uncertainty as to the true one: pseudo-Longinus, creator of what can all too readily come to look like the pseudo-science of a pseudo-object whose sole claim to exist is our subjective conviction of its reality.
On the one hand, the Peri hypsous pays tribute to, gives an account of, and, at intervals, supplies a model for what the author himself calls “greatness” (hypsos). It is already worth noting that, like its look-alike, the Greek physis (nature) in Heidegger (Introduction to Metaphysics 11-17), this term is subject to the distorting vagaries of interpretive translation. This yields both the Latin sublimitas from which our own Romance-inflected word derives and the German Erhabene (or “the elevated”) and its Hegelian spinoff, Aufhebung (usually translated as “sublation,” and also meaning “suspension,” but with a root meaning of “raising up” or “uplifting”). Though these are, in Latin, English, or German, the only terms by which pseudo-Longinus’ Greek can be rendered, their bearing on what the Peri hypsous talks about is not as clear as we tend to take for granted. As again later in Boileau, whose chief contemporary exemplars are the dramatic poets Corneille and Racine, pseudo-Longinus’ focus is fundamentally literary. If then pseudo-Longinus discusses “greatness” rather than the kind of natural phenomena to which later commentators are drawn from the eighteenth century on, it is because the sublimity in question is precisely the distinctively human kind that great writing manifests. But it is also noteworthy that, as Neil Hertz and Jonathan Lamb have argued with special pertinacity, the context in which pseudo-Longinus teaches us how to master the rhetorical techniques that, in producing literary greatness, grant mastery over the thoughts and feelings of an audience is the specifically political realm of public debate. The second point in fact explains the first: what makes literary greatness worth learning is the role it plays in helping us achieve the nakedly political kind.
In any event, however Longinian “greatness” is parsed, our attention is drawn to works of literature, or rather to certain moments in those works, where we encounter something “more than merely human”—something as it were radically unethical in that it escapes the limits of the polis and the constraining ethos, the sense at once of right conduct and plausible human character, with which the polis is imbued. The feeling of the sublime is thus prompted by the emergence of something unheralded, unconditional, undetermined that in turn testifies to something “more than merely human” in ourselves to the precise extent that we find ourselves responding to it (Longinus 48-49). We meet words that silence ordinary judgment and the natural skepticism this enjoins, and yet that, in silencing it, bring us face to face with a dimension whose authority is attested just by the silence to which we are reduced—by the fact that we can only point and wonder, bowing our heads in mute assent.
On the other hand, however, the text that draws this picture of the sublime is not itself a work of the kind it cites: it is a sophist manual, a rhetorical how-to book intent less on teaching truth, in the manner of the Platonic adversary whose gospel it ironically enlists in the sophistic cause by quoting examples from it, than on teaching an art capable (among other things) of enabling us to dispense with truth, persuading even against the truth for the sake of a lie—whence the moral paradoxes with which the discourse of the sublime has been fraught from the moment our sophist invented it. Consider, for instance, not only the testimony of the citations from Plato or, placed side by side with these, from Homer, embodiment of the tradition Plato set out to supplant, but that of the fiat lux of the Jews: a rhetorical coup de force or hammer blow that opens a book whose monolithic claim to universal authority the pagan pseudo-Longinus could not have credited (14). The discourse of the sublime has thus been two-faced from the outset, a faithless profession of faith in rhetoric’s power to induce belief in its own invincible powers of make-believe. We meet the same ambiguity in Boileau’s revival of the theory of the sublime, initiating the tradition of which we are ourselves the direct inheritors. In asserting the quasi-divine character of poetic inspiration, Boileau praises a kind of verse utterly unlike the sort of thing he himself tended to write. Is there indeed a poet less sublime than this cynical opportunist whose carefully calibrated satires were designed to make peace with the status quo of which he positioned himself as the slavish servant? Both pseudo-Longinus and Boileau accordingly lend inadvertent credence to a point Edmund Burke is led to make (how consciously or deliberately it is impossible to say) in insisting on linking the sublime not only to the infliction of the kind of pain of which the hated Revolution in France later becomes the best example, but to obscurity (Philosophical Enquiry 54-59). The sublime is a lurking shadow we cannot quite make out, liable to disappear the moment somebody turns the lights back on.
All of this helps us get a handle on the sense of jumping up and down in place with which I began. The sublime is at bottom make-believe. It is not just that, unlike beauty, which is always with us, we have proved entirely capable of doing without it for long periods of time—all the way from the late antiquity of pseudo-Longinus to the classical France of Boileau. It is a confidence trick whose lack of intrinsic substance is indexed by the tortuous lengths to which we have had to go to avoid giving it up. Here we can make a point frequently noted yet never quite digested: the invariably conditional character of talk of the sublime. For one thing, underscoring an insight Jacques Derrida develops at Kant’s expense, the experience depends on the adoption of a specific point of view (Vérité en peinture 44-94). To see a mountain as sublime, you have to stand far away enough to see it whole, yet not so far away that its scale gets lost in the distance: the cherished exhibition of boundlessness depends on setting bounds. Similarly, to see a storm at sea as sublime, you have to stand safely on the shore: seen from a struggling mariner’s point of view, it would seem not sublime but merely frightening. For all its apparent immediacy and spontaneity, and the tremendous moral weight it derives therefrom, the sublime needs an enabling frame in the absence of which nothing happens.
However, to press harder than Derrida does, the point is not just that the sublime is conditioned by a specific physical standpoint; it depends on (because it is itself entirely mediated by) an act of contemplation cut off from any possibility of direct physical involvement. The sublime is not just something you observe from a certain distance; more fundamentally, it is something you look upon and, above all, something you look upon rather than participate in. It is in fact an act of contemplation to the exclusion of practical engagement—whence the underlying force of Kant’s example of the dutiful warrior, or that of the famous photograph of the man facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square. Spectacles like these are and can only be sublime for us, as witnesses: whatever the protagonists themselves may feel, assuming they feel anything beyond the pure sense of moral compulsion that makes them stand their ground in defiance of the threat of violent death, it is not their own sublimity.
But the phenomenon of the sublime is conditional in yet another way: people only start feeling it, or at any rate only start claiming they feel it, in moments of generalized crisis of faith. If, considered in a widescreen historical perspective, sublimity turns out to be strikingly intermittent, it is because it punctuates periods of belief with periods of uneasy unbelief. There is no need for the sublime conceived as a special theme of contemplation, and so as a potential object of theoretical investigation, when people have faith in gods: the place it occupies is already spoken for by feelings of awe and wonder, of Kierkegaardian “fear and trembling,” for which the sublime is a substitute. The sublime is the ersatz face of a god who does not exist, an idolatry in search of an idol in times of loss of faith. Kant’s awareness of this fact leads him to temper the hypotypotic effect noted earlier by reminding us that the “cognition of God” the sublime seems to promise “is merely symbolic” (22), a product of anthropomorphic analogy that says nothing about God’s nature or even existence. Kant’s commitment to the doctrine of sublimity’s powers of witness needs therefore to be set beside the suspicion voiced when he remarks that “[p]erhaps the most sublime passage in the Jewish Law is the commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven or on earth, or under the earth” (135). An interest in the sublime is attended by the constant risk of idolatrous hypostasis, not only turning empty words into lofty substances but substituting pseudo-entities like these for the kind of lowly quotidian things about which useful talk is actually possible.
All of which explains what seems so unseemly (not to say creepy) in the recent vogue for talk of God, religion, and faith in writers like Gianni Vattimo (Belief), Slavoj Žižek (On Belief and The Puppet and the Dwarf), and Giorgio Agamben (Time That Remains), cultural critics who have made a name for themselves not only by talking of the sublime, but by exposing the superstitious delusions and bad faith that infest other people’s talk. It is not just that you cannot have it both ways, performing a rigorously secular critique one day and then turning to apologetics the next. The fact of starting with the one makes the other impersonally abstract in a way that defeats the whole point of belief and the moral claim it makes; and it does so precisely by projecting all of these things into the dimension of the sublime. A similar tendency to leap into the sublime as into a kind of abyss also troubles me in a writer whose commitment to the divine is by contrast explicit from the start, Emmanuel Lévinas. In locating the source of our at once moral and spiritual responsibility in an uppercase Other first authentically encountered beyond the far horizon of perceptible Being, Lévinas suppresses what makes responsibility matter: the thick and complex moral grain of everyday life. And what indeed can our essential responsibility to God, the good, and, most especially, to other people mean if we only genuinely experience it on some sort of transcendental rebound, divorced from the admittedly hum-drum and all too easily routinized “givenness” of those the Golden Rule nonetheless chooses to call, not an other, still less the Other, but simply others, and even neighbors?
To be sure, the history of the sublime, especially since Kant first gave it a systematic because conscientiously critical form, is the history of the attacks to which it has been exposed from a variety of quarters, including at times some of the writers just mentioned. Already, in Hegel, what Kant describes as the sublime is re-described as the displaced expression of the historical process Kantian idealism sets out to circumvent. True, as Hegel conceives it, history assumes an idealist cast of its own. What makes events happen, giving them the momentum of irreversible change, turns out to be the work of conscious self-actualization by which absolute Mind or Spirit takes up the task of bringing history to an end (in the sense of terminus) by granting it an end (as final cause). Still, it remains Spirit’s dialectical destiny as well as transcendental mission to move toward self-actualizing consciousness through its transactions with the external world it negates and the historical evolution negation sets in train. Hegel’s idealist historicization of the Kantian scheme accordingly opens the door for the Marxist critique of the “aesthetic ideology” of which Kant and Hegel alike are iconic representatives. In asserting history’s priority over our self-defeating efforts to comprehend it, Hegel teaches Marx to rewrite his work as the mystified reflex of the purely material forces that drive history from below and of the emergent world-consciousness (the truth is the whole indeed) by which the bourgeois individual is conditioned, transcended, and dissolved as a mere historical phase. The Marxist critique in turn helps provoke its counter in Nietzsche’s Will-to-Power and the ironical “genealogies” for which it supplies the Dionysiac engine: sardonic just-so stories that cut the ground out from beneath both the self-deceiving high-mindedness that Kant and Hegel embody and the ignoble ressentiment, the whining rancorous resentment that is its deformed nihilistic (for which Nietzsche also reads Marxist) twin.
Or take Freud’s most distinctive contribution to aesthetics, the “uncanny.” Inspired in part by the as it were transcendental mode of skepticism with which Nietzsche replaces the less presumptuous because prudently experimental kind that Kant inherited from Hume, Freud invents an ironic just-so story of his own: the Œdipal “family romance” that distils the neo-tragic plot of so much nineteenth-century fiction and drama (Brooks). Like the sublime, of which it is besides a close historical cousin as well as empirical look-alike, the uncanny is the figure of both repression and return—of the violent disjunctions repression at once denies (as “sublimation”) and reproduces in the form of legible symptoms of which the repetition compulsion and the death drive are characteristic types. As Žižek pointed out some time ago, the sublime itself thereby returns as wearing the face of the unconscious as such, made real in exactly the same way as Kant’s categorical imperative (Sublime Opbject; also see Hertz). And so it has continued ever since: in the radical “unconcealment” of Heideggerian Being; in the Lacanian Gaze and the traumatic induction into the realm of the Symbolic its emergence signals; in Derridean “iteration” with its simultaneously Freudian and Heideggerian vocation for death; in François Lyotard’s dislocating confrontation with the “post-modern condition,” demolishing the “master narratives” imposed on the feral sprawl of intractable change; or in Paul de Man’s generalization of the “permanent parabasis” inscribed in Hegel’s bête noire, the “so-called Romantic irony,” and the perpetual “fall” into inauthentic “intersubjectivity” that Romantic irony triggers (“Rhetoric of Temporality”).
Yet a feature of such attacks is that they are invariably conducted from the standpoint of the topology Althusser fingers. The fruit of the successive critiques to which the sublime has been exposed is less to break its spell than to rename its principle, with the shifting moral and affective valences the renaming entails. The history of the sublime is a history of sublimation and return on the model, precisely, of the return of the repressed or of Heideggerian unconcealment. The sublime is accordingly what comes back, a ghostly revenant whose spectral persistence negates the historical time of intermittence, chance, and change even when it claims history as its source. It belongs to the family of phenomena of which it is so often asserted that they are “always already there,” pinpointing in turn what, to paraphrase Hegel, we should call the cunning of the sublime: it recreates itself in such a way as to haunt the thoughts of skeptics as readily as those of true believers. To say that the sublime is nothing but repression and repetition, Being and its unconcealment, ideology and the traumas of the unconscious, writing and the mortal iterations of “the trace,” or, going all the way back to the Peri hypsous, rhetoric and the undecidable play of tropic difference, winds up reinstating the metaphysical authority it appears to subvert. The tug, the call, remains, even in the state of ruin that has been a privileged site of the sublime almost from the first.
The reader will expect at this point a marshaling of probative examples taken from the primary corpus of making rather than that of theoretical commentary. Many such come to mind, and most poignantly perhaps that of the incidence of the sublime in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—a text I regularly teach in the context of murder-mystery plots that are themselves signal hothouses of sublimity. It is remarkable to note that the sublime is systematically associated in Shelley’s novel with the strategy of avoidance and denial by which Victor Frankenstein turns his eyes away both from the moral claim his unhappy Creature makes on him and from the vengeful task the Creature winds up performing as the agent of Victor’s own unconscious wishes. Whenever Victor communes with natural sublimity, the Creature does something terrible offstage, the clearest instance coming in the episode in which Victor chooses to spend his wedding night out under the stars in a boat on the lake while the Creature strangles his bride, Elizabeth—the point being less that, anticipating Freud, the sublime arises here as a figure of the unconscious than what the theory of the unconscious suppresses: the moral authority of lowly ethos, of mere commonplace humanity, and the concomitant demand for simple justice that Victor refuses to honor. However, for the sake of economy, I will focus on just one example, the lesson taught by what I do not hesitate to call the most sublime thing Walter Benjamin ever wrote, the parable of the chess-playing automaton that opens the “Theses on the Philosophy of History”:
The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a counter-move. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called “historical materialism” is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight. (253)
At one level, the parable can be read as a private allegory avenging a personal insult. It is in the cryptic nature of the historical project made known to him in the original version of Benjamin’s “Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire” that it should have provoked the notorious impatience voiced in Theodor Adorno’s letter of 10 November 1938, explaining its rejection by the Institute for Social Research to which Benjamin had submitted it for publication. Though Adorno found the essay suggestive, he deplored the lack of the kind of encompassing theoretical framework needed to give its content the “concretion” and intelligibility dialectical historiography demands. Offering not an argument but a series of mosaic fragments loosely arranged in symbolically charged “constellations” of historical odds and ends and textual citations, Benjamin’s essay struck Adorno as woefully “abstract” precisely because the fragments of which it was composed were cut off from the mediating socio-historical matrix that conditions what they are, how they came to be, and so what they mean. Shrewdly linking the text’s theoretical underdevelopment to his correspondent’s crypto-Kabbalistic sensibility, Adorno writes,
The theological motif of calling things by their names tends to turn into a wide-eyed presentation of mere facts. If one wished to put it harshly, one would say that your study is located at the crossroads of magic and positivism. That spot is bewitched. Only theory could break the spell—your own resolute, whole-somely speculative theory. (Benjamin, Aesthetics 129-130, with minor changes)
In response to these complaints, the “Theses” will now provide the theory Adorno wants. The point of departure, however, is not a preliminary statement of the theory itself, but just the sort of lapidary fragment Adorno mistrusts. All we get is the story of the device and the swindle it turned out to be.
But of course what gives the fragment its angry thrust, thereby not only avenging Benjamin’s wounded pride but also foreshadowing, if not the theory, then the space the essay will map out for it and the mode of writing it will defend, is the portrait of “historical materialism” with which the fable ends. The parable’s automaton is a Critical Theorist and, just like its model in Marxist thought, it is designed to prove not only that it wins, but that it wins because it is an automaton. Victory is assured by the apparent elimination of the human player, the living subject of historical experience. Victory is thus presented as a mindless reflex of the deterministic necessity that historical materialism appoints. But if the automaton wins, the real reason is that it cheats: victory is achieved by the all-too-human agency of the ignoble hunchback concealed inside. The parable calls the hunchback “theology.” To this extent it echoes the classic denunciation of Marxist scientism that, notably in Adorno himself, Critical Theory also endorses. If historical materialism passes for the infallible science of history its exponents claim the dialectic makes it, it is because it masks the metaphysics sustaining the sublimely trans-historical posture that the supporting notion of science presumes. True, at the tip of Benjamin’s pen, theology is by no means an unequivocally pejorative term; one of its functions here is in fact to announce the messianic Angel that emerges later in the essay (257-58). If theology nevertheless remains a “wizened” figure obliged to hide its shameful misshapenness, it is because, browbeaten by a materialist outlook he takes to be unanswerable, Benjamin fails to keep the faith materialism itself unconsciously espouses.
Yet in calling the hunchback “theology” and sneering at his grotesquely wizened shape, Benjamin disfigures his own underlying insight. It is after all possible to see Benjamin’s hunchback less as personified Theory than as the mere lowercase person whose form theory usurps. More precisely, he is the protagonist of what Benjamin elsewhere (“The Storyteller”) mourns as the specifically human mode of experience lost with the demotic art of storytelling that the modern world of commodity capitalism and mechanized warfare has destroyed. Seen in this light, the hunchback is the guileful little guy, the child, apprentice, peasant, or humble artisan whose survival traditional storytelling helped secure by teaching the art of crafty prevarication in the face of overwhelming force. In turning the parable into an allegorical exposure of the dialectical wizard concealed behind the curtain of charlatanry, Benjamin misses the story’s Oz-like potential. As Dorothy learns, “There’s no place like home,” not because the solution to political injustice is to kiss the rod of the status quo, but because, the promise of flight over the rainbow of the socialist utopia notwithstanding, there’s no place other than home. It all comes back to experience, but to experience conceived less as a shameful limit or a lifeless puppet dancing on hidden strings than as the resource we share with our neighbors in the vernacular here and now.
As everything in the history of the world since Kant impresses on us, there are big things out there—forces it is hard to resist and horrors we need to confess if also hopes we would be sorry to relinquish. But the thing about big things is that they are in the end just that: things as available to experience and as inherently amenable to manipulation as any other. Which is why, if there is a hero to the story this essay tells, it is David Hume. It is a remarkable fact, but a fact nonetheless, that of all the great contributors to the birth of the modern aesthetic way in the Enlightenment, Hume is the only one who had nothing to say about the sublime. True, he does use the word from time to time, as when, in speaking in “Of the Standard of Taste” of the “intemperate zeal for particular modes of worship” exhibited by the religious dramas of classical France, he calls the murderously fanatical high priest Joad of Racine’s Athalie “sublime” with a mordant irony that needs no scare quotes to make itself felt (248). It is also true that, in the posthumous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, something like the sublime creeps in from time to time in Demea and Cleanthes’s efforts to prove the existence of God “from design” on the strength of the spectacular might and order of the natural universe. And the energetic freedom with which Philo generates skeptical arguments and conceits in defense of open-ended experimental worldliness approaches a positively Shaftesburian pitch of enthuasiasm—only think of the “great vegetable” (87), the self-engendering cosmic mushroom, which he proposes to counter insistence on design. Yet the sublime as such and by name is conspicuous by its absence from any philosophical utterance Hume can be said to have made in his own person.
The reason for this absence will by now be obvious. If we are taught anything by the “experimental method” Hume designed to unravel the Laocoön-like serpentine knots in which he found philosophy entangled, it is that philosophy goes astray the moment it turns to metaphysics. If then he had nothing to say about the sublime, it is because the sublime just is metaphysics and so the enemy of experience and the sense of demotic humanity experience affords: it is not for nothing that the only critical authority “Of the Standard of Taste” he cites by name is Sancho Panza. The price for this concession may well be abandonment of the peculiar messianic promise the sublime contrives to keep alive. But if the alternative is the surrender of humanity the sublime demands in exchange, the price is perhaps worth paying.
And yet can we dispense with the sublime so easily, and is dispensing with it quite the moral Hume’s silence draws? On 7 July 1776, the pious James Boswell visited the notoriously atheistical Scottish sage to see what character he would sustain on his death bed (Extremes 11-15). To Boswell’s dismay and even fright, causing nightmares that haunted him for months afterwards, his host appeared to accept the prospect of imminent “annihilation” with perfect equanimity. Boswell was clearly struck by what he saw as terrible in the spectacle—so terrible as to shake his faith in the consolations of orthodox religion. But he was just as struck by something sublime in the scene even if he was as unwilling to confess it as Hume was averse to making a fuss. Boswell’s subsequent account of the visit accordingly provides a fitting pendant to Adam Smith’s memorial of Hume’s death in a public letter to the publisher William Strahan, not only preempting pious rumors of a death-bed conversion but underscoring precisely the sublimity of the serene good humor with which his friend embraced approaching dissolution (Hume, Essays xliii-xlix).
We meet here with the intimation of a kind of immortality grounded in Hume’s cheerful consciousness of how absolute mortality is. As Smith tells it, the story offers the portrait (more properly, the death mask or effigy) of a purely rational mind all the more nobly deserving of a certain afterlife in memory for holding fast to its sense of reality to the end. Still, to grasp what is genuinely sublime here demands calculating the potential for irony. It is entirely possible, for instance, that Hume was playacting: Dr. Johnson certainly insisted that he was when Boswell recounted the scene to him (Extremes 155). It is then only on the assumption that Hume was sincere, dying as cheerfully as Smith claims he did, that we find something to admire, something that moves us and that, in doing so, leaves us in the state of open-ended reflection Kant identifies with the aesthetic in each of its great modes.
But we need to note a second point on which irony may fasten here: the sublimity Smith conveys trades on the hypotypotic exhibition of the topology Althusser describes. Smith’s picture of the dying Hume is the moral expression of the “invisible hand” of the marketplace, a force whose mysterious benevolence is a match for that of the orthodox God Boswell was so anxious to see Hume acknowledge. The version of the sublime in evidence in this episode is accordingly tied to the emergent capitalist ideology whose protagonist is the liberal individual. The clear-eyed candor with which Hume faced death becomes the exemplary proxy for Smith’s vision of political economy just insofar as it takes a mind like this to comprehend a free market’s operations as the absent cause of the “wealth of nations.” Smith thus slips unawares into the imaginary as readily as Boswell does. We would all like to think that we could die in the way Hume did, and so be worthy of remembrance after death, especially if, like Hume, in dying this way, we turn out to stand on what Smith shows to be the winning side of history. In imagining our end, we cross a limit that cannot be crossed, activating in the process the structure that, following Freud, Lacan calls life in the future perfect: life lived in the light (or shadow) of the ideal identity I will finally have achieved once I reveal myself to be the person I like to imagine I am (“Zeitlich-Entwicklungsgeschichte,” esp. 180-182).
It occurs to me, however, that the potential for irony is part of the package, integral to the balance Hume at least appears to have struck. What is sublime in the spectacle of the dying sage is the effort to accommodate irony without making a de Manian meal of it. Such is the substance of a remark Jane Austen’s Mr. Bennett makes. Presented in a letter from Mr. Collins with what Lizzie’s father takes to be the fantastical news of his daughter’s engagement to Mr. D’Arcy, he rhetorically asks: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and to laugh at them in turn?” (272). But it is likewise the substance of what most interested Kierkegaard: the perspective of life after the famous leap of faith—the life whose absurd ordinariness and contingency inspire, far more than faith itself, the fear and trembling we feel on the brink. Kierkegaard’s is after all a Socratic Christ whose gift is the down-to-earth taste for irony he shares with someone like Hume. Seen against this background, the model we should imitate is not that of the Knight of the Infinite whose heroically self-dramatizing excesses The Concept of Irony mocks in the philosophical person of Hegel, but rather that of the Knight of Faith. Though Kierkegaard goes on to discuss the story of the binding of Isaac as his key example, his energetic insistence on denying Abraham’s sacrifice any tragic or noble overtones reminds us that, when he first appears, the Knight of Faith is a nobody. Kierkegaard portrays him in fact as looking like nothing so much as some petty state functionary, “a pen-pusher who has lost his soul to Italian bookkeeping.” His normal manner, moreover, shows him to belong “entirely to the world; no bourgeois philistine could belong to it more”; and as he makes his way back from a Sunday outing to church, it pleases him to imagine “that his wife surely will have a special hot meal for him when he comes home—for example, roast lamb’s head with vegetables” (Fear and Trembling 38-41), even though his penurious circumstances make such a feast unlikely.
It is not enough, in short, to avoid the sub-human level of the kind of phlegmatic insensibility for which the world has no outside, no transcendent other capable of redeeming our fallenness. We must also avoid the in-human extravagance to which, from post-Kantian Romanticism down to the post-modern present, our longing for something more has exposed us. Like the Knight of Faith, or the Humean sage, we achieve such greatness as we are capable of only so long as we remain “solid all the way through,” avoiding the kind of flight into the imaginary that is the Knight of the Absolute’s stock in trade. It is surely the case that there is no one way to do this: Kierkegaard’s faith is as subject to ironic second thoughts as Hume’s steady faithlessness; nor do the moral, social, or historical contexts in which the call to sublimity makes itself intermittently heard stand still, providing a fixed horizon of the sort the sublime consistently promises. But then, as Kierkegaard describes it, the leap of faith is not, as Kant’s example encourages us to picture it, a leap into the void or an abyss. It is a dance step the whole art of which consists of coming gracefully back to earth.
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