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  • サブライム Saburaimu/Sublime
  • Alan Tansman (bio)

How can we follow the movement of a word across time and place if that word’s power depends less on its semantic content than on the images it sets into motion, images that have an affective appeal and evoke an aesthetic experience that is beyond the reach of cognition and narrative representation? “Sublime” is just such a word. Entering Japanese literary and philosophical discussions in the 1890s through German and British Romanticism, it was left almost as it was, rendered as saburaimu, even though equivalents were available in the classical aesthetic vocabulary. Native aesthetic terms were ignored in the 1890s, only to be called upon in the 1930s by purveyors of political propaganda, for whom the sublime effects of such native words served as the amorphous but nonetheless powerfully binding agent of a fascist social imaginary. If, in the 1890s, early in Japan’s modernity, the experience of the saburaimu produced an affective aesthetic moment forging the births of both an intensely felt interior self as well as a self-denouncing socialized self, in the 1930s classical renderings of “sublime” suggested a will-less binding to a tradition whose bonds were to be felt but not understood. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the word itself was absent but the feeling of sublimity provided a language for leftist, anti-militarist critique.

I use “sublime” here to indicate not only evocations of the unnamable, but also the wish for it, in texts that not merely described sublimity but also attempted to harness its affective appeal in order to change people. To quote one of the sublime’s foundational theorists, Edmund Burke, “I know of nothing Sublime which is not some modification of power.”1 The tradition of theorizing the sublime in the West stretches back to Longinus and moves through Burke and Kant in the eighteenth century, to recent critics like Neil Hertz, who understands the sublime and its evocations to be a process of containing the powerful emotion felt by those who experience it. For Burke (as for Kant), and for their lineage, the aesthetic of the sublime has a political dimension: it can socialize the [End Page 99] individual into political quiescence, or lead, as has often been argued, to the “irrationalist, fascist politics” of a Martin Heidegger.2

The turn from aesthetic experience to political commitment is what Hertz calls the “sublime turn.” I will be looking at this turn in three Japanese historical moments. In the first, the 1890s, sublimity offered the possibility of both self-individuation and self-sacrifice; in the second, the 1930s, it more narrowly offered only the opportunity for self-abnegation. In the third, the late 1950s and early 1960s, the sublime bound the politics of the anti-nuclear left to the silent suffering of the victims of Hiroshima. In each of these cases sublimity stood in for other words that it either energized or repressed. These were its shadow words.

The word “sublime” arrived in Japan in the 1890s and became a central part of the poetic and existential projects of important writers and intellectuals, but soon after ceased circulating because it was a word that represented an affective experience beyond the capacity of the imagination to fully grasp and beyond the limits of language to express. It was a word whose meaning was best expressed by leaving the word itself behind. Though it did continue to move through arcane academic discussions, its force was most fully felt in the traces it left as it traveled through literary texts and then into the realm of ideology and politics. To follow the word, then, means paying attention to it not as it represented a concept to be elucidated, but rather in artistic forms and patterns that evoked what the word designated: affective aesthetic moments evoking what lies beyond cognitive understanding. To follow the movement of the sublime, then, means following it as a style of thought and representation, embodied in forms that move, and that have, in Henri Focillon’s words, “a mobile life in a changing world.”3

By style, I mean the movement of forms that have left their meanings behind as they move...


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pp. 99-108
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