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Notes and Fragments WEISKEL'S SUBLIME AND THE IMPASSE OF KNOWLEDGE by Laura Quinney Since the publication of Thomas Weiskel's The Romantic Sublime in 1976, scholars of the sublime, in America at any rate, have taken their cue from the demystifying character ofWeiskel's analysis.1 Before Weiskel the most ambitious twentieth-century account of the sublime was Samuel Monk's largely descriptive work The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories inEighteenth-CenturyEngland.2 With the advent ofsemiotic and psychoanalytic approaches in the late sixties and early seventies, studies of the sublime shifted into a more critical mode. Neil Hertz had taken a skeptical tack in his early essay "A Reading of Longinus," but it was with Weiskel's book that the possibilities of demystifying die sublime were first explored fully.3 Weiskel's treatment is comprehensive , covering all the English Romantic poets as well as Burke and Kant. His thinking is sophisticated, incisive, and often inspired; though The Romantic Sublime was published nearly twenty years ago, it remains an admirable and influential work. In some respects it has never been superseded. Most major American scholars of the sublime—de Man, Knapp, and de Bolla, among others—have adopted the skeptical mode of Weiskel and Hertz.4 But die demystifying approach Weiskel's book helped to pioneer, while it has led to powerful argument, has certain limitations. Weiskel's precocious effort to "desublimate" the sublime shows diese limitations clearly, and it is die purpose of this essay to explore them. In die course of exposing the sublime as a mystified notion, and separating the naive believers from the canny skeptics, Weiskel also Philosophy and Literature, © 1994, 18: 309-319 310Philosophy and Literature separates intellectual insight from aesthetic capacity, and thus he uncritically reiterates die old Romantic dialectic of knowledge and power. The figure of Wordsworth plays a central role in establishing these oppositions. Weiskel portrays Wordsworth as the most successful poet of the sublime—the most successful, and tiierefore the most beguiled. In his remarkable concluding chapter, Weiskel locates the source of Wordsworth's powerful "liminal sublime" in a kind of intellectual regression. Wordswortii refuses the whole Symbolic order, the ghastly product of the Oedipus complex, for that order spells die deatii or disappearance of the signified, and die end of an imaginatively fruitful narcissism. Wordswortii retreats from the Symbolic to the Imaginary radier than endure tiiis threat to poetic life. And he is well rewarded for his dodge, since as a consequence the images of his memory thrill with the fascination of the ineffable. The Prelude gains its momentum from the project of memory; but the rich opacity and mysterious beckoning of memory's images are in a sense contrived. They spring out of a sublimation, the images colored widi the intensity of the signification Wordswortii has repudiated. Wordswortii sacrifices insight and intellectual progress for imaginative power. This is a strictly ambivalent exchange, as Weiskel makes clear in his conclusion; Wordsworth's rejection of the Oedipus complex and of the descent into the Symbolic Order, is "purely illusory, a fiction," but "the fiction is a necessary and saving one; it founds die self and secures the possibility—the chance for a self-conviction—of originality" (p. 203). Wordswortii's poetic success arises from his acceptance of an illusion, a "saving fiction" both enviable and degraded. This selfdelusion is essential to the poetic flourishing of the sublime, and only Wordsworth had the odd insensitivity to maintain it. Weiskel contrasts faith in the efficacy and excellence of sublimation with skeptical insight into its origin and end—its origin in mystification, and its end in alienation from the phenomenal world. The faith of Wordswortii's egotistical sublime is that imaginative perception provides die highest and paradoxically truest form of perception. It is easy enough to see how such a faith could provide hope and energy, and tiius could be compromised by wish-fulfillment in its generation, and direatened by extinction in its analysis. But what lies behind Weiskel's opposition of faith and insight is the old dichotomy—or series of interrelated dichotomies—that date back at least to Romanticism. Weiskel admits that his opposition of fruitful illusion and dessicating realism...


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pp. 309-319
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