A few days ago in my Literary Criticism class (that’s “Lit Crit” to all us cool kids), we were discussing Longinus and his discourse on the sublime.
Longinus lived in the 1st century BCE [*Editorial aside: remember the good old days when we used BC and AD and Pluto was a planet? Now it’s all Common Era this, and dwarf planet that…but Pepperidge Farm remembers.]
Longinus may have been a Greek who was familiar with Jewish customs, or he may have been a Hellenized Jew (I, on the other hand, am a Hellenized Episcopalian, because I can consume my own body weight in feta cheese and kalamata olives), but no matter what his true origins were, Longinus wrote the Essay pictured above that is still inflicted on innocent people like myself inside stuffy, foul-smelling classrooms when the weather outside is ridiculously gorgeous and we really should all be at the pool.
As with anything academic, there are a zillion books and treatises and essays and dissertations on what Longinus actually meant by “the sublime,” but it’s summer, so we’re going with the short version: the sublime is a quality within a discourse that transports us, elevates us, into ekstasis. [Ekstasis is, of course, where we get the word “ecstasy” — that feeling of being lifted up, of being ‘outside ourselves.’]
The sublime isn’t a feeling that comes on gradually, through persuasion. It is a moment — a moment that creates a lasting impression on the memory. In that moment, a profound connection between the creator of the moment (the speaker or author, say) and the audience member (listener/reader/viewer) is created.
Need an example of the sublime?
Now that we’re clear on what the sublime is, and who does it best (see above), I want to get all kinds of nosy and know what you think is sublime.
My professor offered up two examples from his own life: one was a passage from a text that he thought was perfectly written, and one was the phrase “Excuse me, while I kiss the sky” as only Jimi Hendrix could sing it.
My classmates had different moments, pieces of poetry or music that spoke to them profoundly. I, of course, wanted to offer up the God Among Men, but I didn’t want to make my classmates feel bad for not having recognized the transcendent divinity of Duvall themselves, so I held my tongue. But inside, I was thinking, “The tenderness of Robert Duvall with Diane Lane. Duh!”
But of course, trying to talk to the uninformed about Robert Duvall is futile. Some people simply aren’t ready to accept what their minds can’t comprehend….
Back to the sublime.
I would agree that there is music that is transportive: the melody swelling up in The Moldau Symphony (Smetana, Moldau Symphony), the blending of voices in the Flower Duet (Sutherland & Horne, Flower Duet), Tom Morello tearing it up on The Ghost of Tom Joad (The Poet Laureate of Rock). These all, for me, contain moments of the sublime, in which that feeling of elevation is accompanied by goosebumps.
There are also arrangements of words that are somehow so perfect that, reading them, you can’t help but be moved: the Aaronic blessing (Tradition! Tradition), certain phrases from the Psalms, some of the rhetorical questions God hurls in the Book of Job…and the last stanza of a poem by a poet no one seems to know named Edwin Muir, a Scotsman of the 19th century.
The poem is called Transfiguration, and its theme is the separation from Christ that has occurred through sin. At the end of the poem, Muir looks forward to the parousia – the return of Christ to the world. Check this out:
But he will come again, it’s said, though not
Unwanted and unsummoned; for all things,
Beasts of the field, and woods, and rocks, and seas,
And all mankind from end to end of the earth
Will call him with one voice. In our own time,
Some say, or at a time when time is ripe.
Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified,
Christ the discrucified, his death undone,
His agony unmade, his cross dismantled—
Glad to be so—and the tormented wood
Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree
In a green springing corner of young Eden,
And Judas damned take his long journey backward
From darkness into light and be a child
Beside his mother’s knee, and the betrayal
Be quite undone and never more be done.
The imagery of this blows me away. Christ the uncrucified, his agony unmade and the wood from which the cross of the Crucifixion was crafted returning to its original state — a tree in a corner of Eden! That’s incredibly beautiful. And then, the lines that really gets me…”And Judas damned take his long journey backward/From darkness into light and be a child/Beside his mother’s knee, and the betrayal/Be quite undone and never more be done.”
There is something universal about this sentiment; something universal, and, to my mind, transportive. Something utterly sublime.
So there you have it. My list of A Few Things I Think Are Sublime, plus one that is so obvious to anyone who’s ever eaten at our house that I didn’t need to mention it:
- Robert Duvall.
- A hodgepodge of music.
- A poem by an obscure Scottish poet.
- The sound of my family and friends laughing so hard that they are in imminent danger of sliding off their chairs and aspirating their oysters.
But what do you think is sublime? Do tell!