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  • Fables of the Sublime: Kant, Schiller, Kleist
  • Eric Baker (bio)

Ob Mensch, ob Pferd ist nicht mehr so wichtig, wenn nur die Last vom Rücken genommen ist.

— Walter Benjamin


Can there be a fable of the sublime? The question leads directly to another: What, if any, is the relationship between sublimity and “Bildung,” or “Erziehung”? What, if anything at all, would the moral of such a fable be? With regard to Kant’s third Critique, we can, at least at this level of generality, give an unambiguous response to both questions: no, and nothing, respectively. And yet: yes, and everything. There can be no fable of the sublime, because the essence of sublimity lies in the necessary failure of any attempt at its positive objectification or representation. And where there is no possibility of formal representation, where there is no “Bild,” there can be little hope of “Bildung.” Everything depends on this failure of the symbolic: the very possibility of human community (of a very peculiar, anticipatory temporal structure) beyond the reign and reins of natural law, based on the principle of freedom.

This seemingly contradictory economy of gain through loss is anticipated in the concluding section of the second Critique, which, due to its general familiarity, may serve to introduce the problematic of aesthetic judgment. “Zwei Dinge,” writes Kant, [End Page 524]

erfüllen das Gemüt mit immer neuer und zunehmender Bewunderung und Ehrfurcht, je öfter und anhaltender sich das Nachdenken damit beschäftigt: Der bestirnte Himmel über mir, und das moralische Gesetz in mir. 1

Two “things—a somewhat disturbing choice of words to characterize the “starry heavens” and the “moral law,” neither of which can be taken as objects in any unqualified sense. But is Kant really talking about objects here at all? It seems clear that these two “things” are, in fact, two different relations, one “in,” the other “über,” related in turn to one another by a common point of reference, “mir.” Nor is it simply a matter of two relations, awe-inspiring each in its own right. What counts is rather the peculiar economy constituted by the combination of both:

Der erstere Anblick einer zahllosen Weltenmenge vernichtet gleichsam meine Wichtigkeit, als eines tierischen Geschöpfs, [...]. Der zweite erhebt dagegen meinen Wert, als einer Intelligenz, unendlich, durch meine Persönlichkeit, in welcher das moralische Gesetz mir ein von der Tierheit und selbst von der ganzen Sinnenwelt unabhängiges Leben offenbart, [...].

(KpV, ibid.)

It is precisely the utter lack of adequation between what is infinitely “über mir” and the innermost interiority of the moral law “in mir” that destroys the value of the finite, bodily self, leading to an “unabhängiges Leben,” in which the value of the intelligible person is infinitely heightened. Human being is thus situated at a boundary, an absolute divergence and discontinuity between what is inside—the moral law—and what is outside—the starry heavens—of “mir.” The Kritik der Urteilskraft is, in many repects, nothing but an extended commentary on the structure of this passage from “Vernichtung” to “Offenbarung,” from nothing to Being.

It should therefore come as no surprise when the example returns in the third Critique, in the final section of the “Dynamic-Sublime of Nature”:

Wenn man also den Anblick des bestirnten Himmels erhaben nennt, so muß man der Beurteilung desselben nicht Begriffe von Welten, von vernünftigen Wesen bewohnt, und nun die hellen Punkte, womit wir den Raum über uns erfüllt sehen, als ihre Sonnen, in sehr zweckmäßig für sie [End Page 525] gestellten Kreisen bewegt, zum Grunde legen, sondern bloß, wie man ihn sieht, als ein weites Gewölbe, was alles befaßt; [...]. 2

There is much to say about this passage, but for our purposes here, it will suffice to point towards something not to be found in the starry heavens of the second Critique. The passage features one “Anblick,” but two ways of orienting oneself toward it: we can lend to it a purpose (“zweckmäßig [...] zum Grunde legen”) as its underlying structure, or we can see it as sheer spectacle, as an all-encompassing vault, “bloß, wie man ihn sieht, [...] wie die Dichter es tun” (KrV...

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pp. 524-536
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