- The Pressures of Merely Sublimating
The American academy rediscovered the theoretical force of sublimity about fifteen years ago, mainly through three post-Freudian efforts—Thomas Weiskel’s The Romantic Sublime (1976), Harold Bloom’s “Emerson and Whitman: The American Sublime” (in Poetry and Repression ), and an influential series of essays by Neil Hertz, written over a period of years and eventually collected in The End of the Line: Essays in Psychoanalysis and the Sublime (1985). The emphases of these critics differ, but as Rob Wilson observes at the outset of his own revisionary study, the lowest common denominator of sublimation for all is its participation in an Oedipal “ego-quest,” an individual “struggle for strong selfhood” (8). Since the mid-seventies, however, criticism so devotedly post-Freudian has become more difficult to find. It is a commonplace to assume that individualistically psychological work too easily slights the sociohistorical forces that sustain and restrain the psyche and its potential for genius. In Wilson’s words, “to oedipalize the sublime—as is the dominant mode of Weiskel, Bloom, and Hertz—is to dehistoricize its implied workings” (12).
Yet, in spite of this, the notion of the sublime has lost no currency. In American Sublime, as elsewhere, the sublime outlives the Freudian matrix of its academic rediscovery to the extent that its description of an outer linguistic limit assists explorations of radical otherness and of power. Wilson states that his book is concerned principally with the ideological convenience of the sublime and that he therefore intends his “genealogy” in the Foucauldian sense, as a “historical knowledge of struggles” (14); in practice, American Sublime reorders primarily literary-historical genealogy. Both of these genealogical enterprises are more questionable on grounds of predictability than of controversy; the advantages of an eclectic Postmodern reading of the American sublime are plain to see. But American Sublime does not come close to achieving these aims, in part because the desiderata seem so obviously agreeable that Wilson hardly feels the need to fulfill them.
The first third of American Sublime is composed of three introductions (an “Introduction,” an introductory first chapter entitled “An American Sublime,” and a second chapter entitled “Preliminary Minutiae”), which range from Emerson to Language Poetry to set forth the argument which later, overlapping chapters restate. The “decreative” nature of the American sublime throughout American literary history “voids history and nature of prior presences” (4) in order to cast the reconstruction of the continent as an original, thus more innocent, construction. American emptiness, itself fictive, can then be read as an invitation to produce still more fictions. Wilson also asserts that discussions of the American sublime too often retain a version of poetic genealogy that elevates Bloom’s favorite relentless individualists. The “scenario of the American sublime argued” in 1980s criticism, as Wilson sees it, still begins with Emerson, then moves on to “generate a hugely incarnational son (Whitman), and a fiercely deconstructive daughter (Dickinson), and to filter this power-influx into increasingly self-defensive voices of ‘countersublimity’” (8). Wilson proposes to modify this poetic lineage by attending to Emerson’s lesser-known precursors and by carrying his argument through Modernism—represented here by the work of Wallace Stevens—into contemporaneity with chapters on the “Postmodern” and the “Nuclear” sublime1; Whitman appears in this scheme as “not so much the cause as the effect . . . of this collective will to the American sublime” (10). Throughout, American Sublime suspends the question of the structure of the sublime while stressing its political usefulness (or its “cash-value,” as Wilson calls it): American poets found in the idea of the sublime a ready-made language for the American will to power.
According to the literary-historical narrative which comprises the latter two-thirds of Wilson’s book, Bradstreet introduced the sublime to American literature through the Puritan meditative tradition, which licensed sensual and poetic transport when it “serve[d] the rapture of conversion” (75). Livingston then harnessed the sublime to “an emerging Whig ideology of liberation, on Lockean and Miltonic grounds, evoking the sublime not just as natural but as social...