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The emotional experience of the sublime
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The emotional experience of the sublime

I Introduction

The literature on the venerable aesthetic category of the sublime often provides us with lists of sublime phenomena — mountains, storms, deserts, volcanoes, oceans, the starry sky, and so on. But it has long been recognized that what matters is the experience of such objects. We then find that one of the most consistent claims about this experience is that it involves an element of fear. Meanwhile, the recognition of the sublime as a category of aesthetic appreciation implies that attraction, admiration or pleasure is also present.1

However, there is also a sense of fear and attraction when we watch car chases or fights. Neither of these is an occasion for the sublime so much as a visceral sort of excitement.2 As such, I will argue that it is not quite fear, but something that often manifests itself as fear that can be located in our experiences of the sublime. I call this a feeling [End Page 125] of self-negation. This feeling, which comes in a few varieties, may be less physiologically intense than everyday instances of fear. But it has a certain psychological profundity that coheres well with our intuitions concerning the sublime.

Meanwhile, claiming that sublime objects arouse feelings of self-negation rather than simple fear makes our attraction to these objects no less problematic. Note that while it is plausible that our sense of beauty is evolutionarily adaptive, since it attracts us to objects or environments conducive to survival or healthy offspring,3 the same could not easily be said of the sublime. Mountains, storms, the starry night and so on are in general not conducive to survival. On the contrary, it is quite appropriate that we find these phenomena fearful, horrifying or even monstrous and that we avoid them as much as possible. So to feel any sense of attraction for these phenomena is puzzling.

The goal of this paper then is to provide a plausible account of our emotional experience of the sublime, explaining how the feelings involved are aroused and combined. Clearly this will relate to the more general issue of negative emotions in aesthetic contexts. But given that the dual emotional response is one of the most widely noted features of the sublime experience, we should anticipate something distinctive about it that underlines the distinctiveness of this aesthetic category; something that helps us to understand what our lists of sublime objects have in common. So the most desirable account is not one in which the emotional response to the sublime is identical to our response to horror films, but one in which our emotional responses are intimately bound up with the qualities that distinguish sublime objects.4 Indeed, a direct connection between perceiving the properties of the object and both the feelings of self-negation as well as those of attraction seems available. I shall ultimately favour an account in which our negative feelings are largely the result of imagined physical interactions with the sublime object and where our positive feelings are largely due to imagined possession of qualities analogous to those possessed by the sublime object [End Page 126] (though I will also allow for other, less universal, sources of positive affect).

II Self-Negation

The briefest perusal of the literature on the sublime suffices to realise the prevalence of appeals to fear. In the earliest 18th century accounts, John Dennis talks of 'enthusiastic terror' and Joseph Addison of an 'an agreeable kind of horror'; both men's descriptions of the sublime were inspired by the Alps.5 Later writers consistently follow suit in this respect if not in others. We find the claim in philosophers as diverse as Shaftesbury, Usher, Burke, Kant, Schiller, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, as well as romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge,6 the latter providing a memorable description of an experience of the sublime while climbing in the Lake District.7 The claim has also been preserved [End Page 127] by recent analytic philosophers such as Malcolm Budd, Philip Fisher and James Kirwan, amongst others.8

Yet although we might accept that fear is a typical element of our response to the sublime...