The Subpar Sublime


Lately I’ve been a little fixated on the idea of “The Sublime”, terror equally intertwined with beauty. This idea seems to keep popping up in various classes and conversations, in art history class we examine its presence in paintings of shipwrecks and ominous churches, and while doing work in English class I happened upon it in a book of literary terms. I bet this can be explained by the frequency illusion, a cognitive bias where something recently learned about starts appearing in one’s day to day life more and more, generally as a result of being more on the lookout for it, but for the purpose of adding some excitement to my life I’m imagining that it could be something more.

Either way, I’ve been thinking about “The Sublime” in my life, mainly the lack of it. I certainly have moments of joy, but seldom do I find myself unsettled by their magnitude. I’ve begun to worry that I’m not experiencing real high power happiness, or that my brain isn’t as fancy an organic machine as I had hoped.

I’ve stood on some pretty high rooftops, I’ve looked out at the ocean, I enjoy doing these sorts of things, but don’t find myself absolutely overwhelmed by them. Maybe I have too many explanations for things that were once inexplicable? Words to attach to what used to be deemed the ineffable. Or perhaps being able to watch those youtube videos that compare the scale of the smallest building block of existence to the greatest star has desensitized me to the miniature mammoths of our world?

Another theory I’ve thought up, is that today’s modern human is too eager to seek out pleasure to be absolutely overcome with it. I’m not arguing that hedonism is something of the new age, but I do think it’s possible that we’ve begun to represent ourselves too much as lightning rods for any passing through thrills and have become quickly jaded, or even shunned, by them. You hear about poets of the past, like William Blake, having heavenly visions that were beyond his volition. Now that writers are waiting around for similar divine inspiration it doesn’t feel as inclined to visit us.

I’m sure I have felt the sublime, I’m sure I will feel it again. Maybe today just isn’t a particularly sublime day and I’ve convinced myself that the rest of my life is fated to lack it as well? In the meantime I’ll try and keep enjoying the small and tame pleasures of life. Not everything has to be some kind of rodeo with absolute beauty and terror.

2 Replies to “The Subpar Sublime”

  1. The idea of the sublime is fascinating, to me at least, because it seems on the surface inherently paradoxical–how can the most beautiful also be the most terrifying? But it’s precisely these coexisting qualities which seems to give the idea of the sublime its mysterious allure.
    I do think there is something to what you say about people seeking out pleasure too much, and perhaps the desire people have for pleasure and satisfaction is what makes the sublime so difficult to find. It seems like a moment of terror and beauty is not something that’s going to readily put itself out there for anyone seeking simple pleasure. (Not that seeking pleasure is bad, but the idea of the sublime seems more multi-faceted than it does straightforward.)

    1. Yeah, isn’t it a crazy idea?! I guess I wish I could experience it more often but perhaps the point is that encounters with it must be few and far between or it isn’t so sublime.

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