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  • Sublime Barbarians in the Narrative of Empire; or, Longinus at Sea in the Waves

At first glance an idea that transcends history, the sublime has recently been interpreted historically and revived theoretically. 1 Critics have begun to tease out the political values woven into the sublime as well as to reconfigure it for a postmodern or feminist aesthetic. Working in dialogue with these projects, I will trace here a racial and imperial substructure of the sublime discoverable at its inception, in Longinus’s treatise Peri Hypsous (On the Sublime). In the Romantic period the idea of the sublime, while still racially inflected, undergoes a transformation as it becomes a key animating principle for newly racialized narratives of culture: it shapes a story whereby the embrace and subsumption of an ancient racial past propels England toward an imperial future. It is as the British empire faces the very limits such narratives of sublimity had promised to transcend that Virginia Woolf writes The Waves. In this novel Woolf labors to turn the narrative of the sublime inside-out without negating her own narrative’s investment in sublimity. The Waves thus offers fresh insight not only into the difficulties entailed in any recuperation of the sublime but also into how aesthetics form the inscape, especially the narratival inscape, of the imperial subject. [End Page 323]

To signal the direction of my argument, I want to begin by calling attention to the “as if” which generates the entire fictional cosmos of The Waves.

The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. . . . Gradually the dark bar on the horizon became clear as if the sediment in an old wine bottle had sunk. . . . Behind it, too, the sky cleared as if the white sediment there had sunk, or as if the arm of a woman couched beneath the horizon had raised a lamp. . . .

(7; emphasis added)

Immersed in this profusely figured world, the six characters in The Waves likewise speak perpetually in figures, sinking “down on the black plumes of sleep” or watching “walls and cupboards whiten and bend their yellow squares” (27). Woolf foregrounds the liminal realm occupied by the image, that border zone where subject meets object, and object all but eludes the grasp of the subject, save by the sublime mediation of the image, the “as if” of the figure. Woolf thus apparently adheres to a Romantic poetics of the sublime in which imagination and image function crucially to ground the human witness in a scene whose vastness or autonomous existence surpasses his or her grasp. Furthermore, in rendering her readers’ and characters’ encounter with this universe in a rarefied metaphorical language, Woolf would seem to follow Longinus’s principle that “figures are the natural allies of sublimity” (17.1).

But by calling attention to figure, by flaunting her narrative dependence on it, Woolf also violates one of Longinus’s most honored principles: that in sublime writing the “best figures” are those which “avoid being seen for what they are” (Longinus 38.3). Woolf exposes the figure to scrutiny by blithely replacing one “as if” with another so that a wine bottle might as well be a woman, and a sinking movement (sediment sunk) might as well be a rising one (lamp raised). Heaping her metaphors, she interferes with the sublime flight by which the writer makes the audience feel, in Longinus’s famous phrase, “as though it had itself produced what it has heard” (7.2). She denaturalizes the alliance between metaphor and sublimity. She foregrounds the plastic, utterly fictional nature of the world she is building even as she [End Page 324] describes the most natural or naturalized scene imaginable—the rising of the sun.

Why? Is Woolf a post-Romantic writer for whom the sublime is, in Thomas Weiskel’s phrase, “a moribund aesthetic” which can be invoked only ironically (6)? But what if one feels, as I do, that “sublime” in some unironic sense aptly describes the rhythmic, transporting lyricism of The Waves, which Woolf herself referred to as “mystical”? Perhaps instead The Waves is a candidate for Patricia Yaeger’s “female sublime...

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