Schiller and the Political Sublime: Two Perspectives
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Criticism 44.2 (2002) 121-138



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Schiller and the Political Sublime:
Two Perspectives

Charles H. Hinnant


In a late essay, "Postscript to Terror and the Sublime," Jean FranÀ'Àois Lyotard declared that "as for a politics of the sublime, there is no such thing. It could only be terror. But there is an aesthetics of the sublime in politics." 1 Lyotard's confidence in his ability to distinguish the sublime from terror, aesthetics from politics, is a trait that he shares with post-Longinian theorists of the aesthetic ideology of sublimity. Edmund Burke showed no hesitation in arguing not only that the sublime is governed above all by the emotion of terror but also that terror becomes sublime only "when it does not press too close." 2 Friedrich Schiller likewise emphasized that "the sublime object must, of course, be frightening, but it may not incite actual fear." 3 What is striking about these observations is that they take for granted the fact that sublime pleasure is oriented toward unpleasant, dangerous, even death-dealing experiences. Nothing sets terror apart from the sublime, it seems, except the simple fact that a sense of material security keeps it at a manageable distance. This is where the difficulty begins: have the implications of the passage from politics to aesthetics, from terror to the sublime received adequate scrutiny? Instead of seeing the sublime experience as an indirect result of our reflection upon our personal safety, might we not do better to ask what objects have to be altered, modified, or withdrawn in order for the imagination to be able to recuperate a sense of its own power, to be able to take delight in phenomena that it might otherwise find too threatening? Does the experience of the sublime involve some kind of necessary political censorship? Or are there different possible solutions to the dangers posed to the imagination by phenomena it finds itself incapable of controlling? This is a matter which, all in all, has received little commentary. By examining the different ways in which the sublime has been constructed we can come to a fuller understanding of the political unconscious of the aesthetics of terror—what has to be suppressed in order for us to achieve active mastery over it rather than allowing ourselves to be passively overcome by it. [End Page 121]

In a pair of essays, "On the Sublime: Toward the Further Development of Some Kantian Ideas" (1793) and "On the Sublime" (1801, composed between 1794 and 1796), Schiller is one theorist who worked out strikingly different approaches to the paradox of pleasure and pain. Separated by his shift from an admiring to a critical attitude toward the French Revolution after the Reign of Terror, these essays provide ideal test cases for a study of the political issues posed by the relation between terror and the sublime. In the past twenty years, as their interest in aesthetics has increased, philosophers and literary critics have focused on the sublime in order to recast their broader understanding of the relationships among art, literature, and history. 4 The two essays by Schiller can provide an ideal site for this kind of investigation because in them the different political compromises, adjustments, and suppressions that are possible if the sublime is to maintain its distance from terror are especially evident.

Both essays take as their point of departure Kant's hypothesis concerning the sublime in The Critique of Judgment (1790). Contending that the sublime is an "outrage" to the imagination, overwhelming it, Kant distinguishes between a "mathematically" and a "dynamically" sublime, according to whether the imagination is related to "the faculty of cognition or to that of desire." 5 The mathematically sublime is that which is "absolutely great" or that "in comparison with which all else is small" (Kant, 94, 97). The dynamically sublime is experienced when we recognize our helplessness, for example, before the terrible physical power of nature but, nonetheless, "discover within us a power of resistance of quite another kind" (111). It goes without saying that the dynamically sublime can no longer be equated merely with our...


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