Wednesday, 7 July 2010

a version of the sublime

"We might begin with the hypothesis that the encounter with literary greatness - the so-called rhetorical sublime - is structurally cognate with the transcendence, gentle or terrible, excited in the encounter with landscape, the "natural" sublime...our hypothesis commits us to a search for a structure beneath the vast epiphenomena of the sublime.

It is not, however, possible to write completely exoterically. Philology teaches, or used to teach, that the history of ideas is a history of metaphors made and remade; so, too, the history of criticism. It is difficult to be wholly clear about the logical status of the metaphorical moment we seek. The conflict subsumed in a major metaphor may only be inferred, but to take the metaphor for the lived reality is to neglect the presentness of the past, the fact that it too was once a moment of origin, an instant before the metaphor crystallized. Or was it? The image of thinker or poet standing as a third term in triangular opposition to discourse (language), on the one hand, and experience (sensation and its unconscious derivatives), on the other, has an impossibly abstract look. It may be that the original moment is always just next to us, but it cannot be definitively specified or pinned in a temporal sequence, except hypothetically. For the historian, the moment of macro- or micro-origin is usually a retrospective construction designed both to secure and to assuage a necessary alienation from the past. Throughout the analytical tradition the sublime moment tends to have a typical or fictional status. The dialectic of continuity and originality can only be resolved in a fiction of some kind, and it may be that the origin, like a screen memory, is a compromise between what we cannot fail to know and what we need to believe - the latter usually a mystery to ourselves. We write, in short, about modernism from within some version of it."

The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence, Thomas Weiskel (John Hopkins University Press, 1976, pp. 11-12)

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