Defining the sublime

Merely defining and identifying sublimity is an “enterprise” Longinus himself identifies as “arduous.” In writing On the Sublime, however, Longinus took upon himself the herculean tasks of defining what the sublime is and providing those who would evoke it in their own artistic or literary productions with the knowledge of how this can be accomplished. That he applied considerable ability and erudition to his treatment of the sublime is beyond doubt. Whether he was able to fully accomplish either task, however, is debatable.

Longinus comes very close to offering a precise definition of the sublime in part VII of his work. There, he says that “the effect” of the sublime is “to dispose the soul to high thoughts” and “leave in the mind more food for reflection than the words seem to convey.” Even with these guides in mind, however, Longinus is forced to resort to the perception and state of the audience as the ultimate judge of what is or is not sublime. He says, for example, that “our soul is uplifted by the true sublime; it takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.” In an effort to overcome the idea that the sublime is entirely subjective, which idea might arise from this recourse to individual feeling, Longinus goes on to add that “those examples of sublimity” are “fine and genuine which please all and everybody.” Sublimity, then, must be defined as a feeling, something that each individual must ultimately experience for himself or herself, but which each individual who partakes of a certain piece of art experiences. The sublime, then, is simultaneously individual and universal, and therefore nearly impossible to define precisely.

From this, Longinus continues to identify five components of a sublime work. According to Longinus, the first two of these five components are “the power of forming great conceptions” and “vehement and inspired passion.” These two components he identifies as “innate,” in contrast to the other three which he identifies as “partly the product of art.” These remaining three Longinus lists as “the due formation of figures,” “noble diction,” and “dignified and elevated composition.” It is tempting to see this list of components as a kind of recipe. These are the ingredients and they need only be added together in the right proportions to produce a work which might evoke the feeling of the sublime as Longinus describes it. Longinus, however, preempts such a view of his list by identifying the “common foundation” of all of these components as “the gift of discourse, which is indispensable.” The ability to write in such a style, to properly mix these components and produce a suitably sublime concoction, then, is a matter of chance, fate, or providence. Whichever of these three one prefers to designate as the giver, what is certain is that the ability is a gift rather than the product of intention and volition.

On both counts, defining what the sublime is and identifying the means by which it is evoked, Longinus gives some alluring detail but finally snatches away the prize. In the end, even a mind like that of Longinus seems unable to offer any definitive definition of the sublime and how it can be evoked. In fact, the closest he comes to offering such finality is in defining what is low and allowing the sublime to stand in contrast to that.

In part XLI, Longinus offers a clear description of a work of music that is low and outside “the sphere of the sublime.” There, he criticizes music in which the rhythm is so predictable as to allow the listeners to “stamp their feet in time with the speaker.” “In like manner,” he says, “those words are destitute of sublimity which” are too simple, too short, or do not fit together well enough. In this short paragraph, Longinus describes, from his perch nearly two millennia ago, nearly all modern popular music. In fact, his description of low music can be applied equally as well to most modern books, television, and movies, in which simple words, uncomplicated sentences, and themes lacking entirely in complexity and ambiguity combine to produce a plethora of entirely predictable, flaccid, and often identical endings.

It is remarkably difficult to explain the difference between high and low culture to an audience, which includes most modern Americans, which has known almost only the low and cannot understand or appreciate the distinction between high and low, much less why one should be deemed superior to the other. Longinus struggled to explain this to a very different audience 2000 years ago, and it seems it can only be more difficult to do so today. Like Longinus, anyone today who wishes to make such a case must ultimately prove it through reference to experience. There is a distinct difference between reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and reading any given book at all from the “Romance” section of a bookstore. The latter might temporarily incite the reader’s lusts but will quickly be laid aside and forgotten about. The former will be a source of reflection, joy, terror, doubt, assurance, and interest for the attentive reader for perhaps an entire lifetime. Similarly, there is a distinct difference between listening to Handel’s Messiah and nearly anything at all that is played on most radio stations in the United States. There are many popular songs that are recalled as the song that defined a summer or a particular holiday. Most will be forgotten almost entirely after just a few months or years. Works like Messiah, however, are fittingly remembered as among the best pieces of music that mankind has ever produced in all of its history. The difference between works that are sublime and that are not, as well as what the sublime itself is, may be difficult to define precisely, yet the experience of any of these is more than sufficient evidence that there is an important distinction that must be made.

1 Longinus, On the Sublime, VI, p. 4.
2 VII.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 VIII.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 XLI.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.

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