Zenfolio | Matt Mathews | On the Beautiful and the Sublime

On the Beautiful and the Sublime

February 13, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Boulders in the Surf, Montana de Oro State Park, Calif.

Boulders in the Surf, 2017


I cannot photograph sound.

And yet, twice in the past year I have desired to do so. In January of last year, following a snow storm in the Sierra Nevadas, I journeyed up to Yosemite to photograph. I began my circuit of the Valley with a stop at Bridal Veil Falls. The footpath to the base of the falls was covered in several inches of treacherous ice. Most of the few visitors in the park who bothered to stop chose to forego the walk and view the falls from the safety of the parking lot. As I gingerly worked my way up to the base of the falls, I heard peals of thunder overhead. But the skies were blue. It was not thunder. It was the sound of large sheets of ice high above the falls cracking, breaking loose, and smashing against rocks on their way over the cataract. This strange, thunderous sound echoed sharply over the whole of Yosemite Valley.

And just a few mornings ago, I stood atop a rocky shelf along an isolated stretch of untamed Pacific coastline at Montaña de Oro State Park. It was a foggy morning, and again I heard the sound of thunder that was not thunder. It was the sound of large, submerged boulders on the shoreline being lifted and tossed violently against one another by the fierce waves of  high tide.

There is something unsettling and eerily fascinating about this thunder of ice, rocks, and water. Immanuel Kant and the Romantic thinkers and artists of the nineteenth century would likely have categorized these encounters as experiences of the sublime. The sublime, they insisted, is different from the beautiful. The beautiful refers to things on a human scale -- small, delicate, pretty, and manageable by the mind. Experiences of beauty evoke an immediate sense of satisfaction and unalloyed pleasure as one perceived the presence of symmetry, form, and balance. Beauty awakens a sense of being at-home in the world. Beauty consoles, comforts, and reassures. The mind is up to the task of beauty.

Experiences of the sublime are different, insisted Kant and the Romantics. We experience the sublime when we are confronted and overwhelmed by the vast, unbounded, primal forces of the universe. When we experience the sublime, we are radically disoriented. We feel swallowed up by the vastness of cosmic forces and sense acutely our smallness and vulnerability in the grand scheme of things. For Kant, it was the vastness of "the starry sky above" that evoked a sense of the sublime. The power of ocean tides and echoing peals of thunder have the same effect.  These experiences of boundlessness, displace and dislocate us, disrupting our cognitive powers. When they do, they evoke something other than a simple, direct sense of pleasure and at-homeness in the world. Instead, they pull us affectively in multiple, contrary directions all at once. [1]

Rudolf Otto, while writing about "the holy," might just as easily have been writing about the sublime. Otto characterized a holy object as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans. [2] Holy things are mysterious, "wholly other" things that confound the mind and evoke a sense of fear and fascination at the same time. We are drawn irresistibly across treacherous terrain to the cracking ice and jumbling boulders even as we pull back with caution and fear at their danger and disregard for us. The thunder of rocks, water, and ice calls out to us to come closer for a better look even as we know that with one misstep these elemental forces can kill us. To feel these countervailing impulses at once is a mark of the sublime.

This distinction between the beautiful and the sublime is not without its problems. Repeating the gender essentialism of patriarchy, for example, nineteenth-century thinkers identified beauty with the feminine and the sublime with the masculine. And while it was not their intention to diminish the significance of the beautiful in the interest of the sublime, such was often the effect in practice when the distinction became gendered. Patriarchy demands beautiful but subordinate women rather than sublime ones. The former please and serve men, while the latter threaten to undo them. [3]

And yet, despite the problematic overlay of patriarchy and gender essentialism, one senses an authentic insight here into some kinds of aesthetically charged experiences. Tangled and muddled by gender politics as this distinction is, we do, in fact, have these experiences of the sublime, and they are different from other experiences of beautiful things.

Such experiences of the sublime are powerfully formative. They shake us awake from the slumber of our grasping egocentrism. We discover that we are not the center, force, and fulcrum of the universe. We sense our smallness and vulnerability again, and paradoxically it is liberating. They free us from the compulsive drive to control reality, from the fear that drives us into the arms of false messiahs who promise to make us great again.

I cannot photograph the thunder of water, rock, and ice, and that fact is a palpable reminder that I am not the measure or even measurer of all things. But perhaps a photograph such as Boulders in the Surf can crudely and clumsily bear witness, even if only obliquely, to the sublime, to the fact that "we are saved in the end by the things that ignore us." [4]



1. For a brief overview of the distinction between the beautiful and sublime in Kant and Romanticism, see Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 82-6.

2. Rudolf Otto,  The Idea of the Holy. Trans. John W. Harvey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923; 2nd ed., 1950 [Das Heilige, 1917].

3. For a more comprehensive critique of the distinction between beauty and the sublime, see Scarry, On Beauty, 82-6.

4. Anthony de Mello, One Minute Wisdom. Quoted in Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 57.



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