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Philosophy and Literature 28.1 (2004) 165-179

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Schopenhauer and the Sublime Pleasure of Tragedy

Birkbeck College
University of London

But, my friend, we have come too late.
Though the gods are living,
Over our heads they live, up in a different world.
—Friedrich Hölderlin, Selected Poems and Fragments

Despite a notable resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s, prompted chiefly by the French postmodernist Jean-Françoise Lyotard,1 the aesthetic of the sublime is largely absent from contemporary debate. Countered by the modern desire for base expressionism in art, sublimity is perhaps untimely again, and furthermore incongruous with an age in which, either epistemological skepticism or crude (exclusive) empiricism predominates.2 At best, it is viewed, not as a permanent structure of consciousness, but contextually as a disposition that peaked during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the philosophies of Burke, Kant, and Schopenhauer, the paintings of Friedrich, Turner, and Carus, and the music of Beethoven, Wagner, and later, Bruckner. Characterized by, to put it prosaically, the inability of the mind or the senses to grasp an object in its entirety, whether it be in size (mathematically) or in force (dynamically), the sublime lends itself well to the affirmation of an experience that contains in itself a sense of both awe and terror. This dynamic is thus embodied par excellence in the opposition between a finite individual existing, and the world of apparent and immediate infinity, both spatially and temporally, in which he exists.

As an aesthetic category, the sublime emerged in the first century [End Page 165] A.D. through the Greek writer Longinus. In his On the Sublime, we are told how rhetoric fills us "with a proud exaltation and a sense of vaulting joy, just as though we had ourselves produced what we heard."3 Although he established ideas that would remain central to discussions on the sublime—grand conceptions, inspired emotion, a zeal that borders on the violent, and above all a gravity of thought,4 Longinus's text is largely concerned with the rhetorical sublime and to a large extent excludes Nature, which both Burke and Kant would later hold as central to their particular philosophies.

Edmund Burke's seminal A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful of 1757 was celebrated for its contrast between the sublime and the beautiful. The sublime, Burke tells us is "whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror . . . it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling."5 While the beautiful is "a social quality; for where women and men, and not only they, but when other animals give us a sense of joy and pleasure in beholding them . . . they inspire us with sentiments of tenderness and affections towards their persons."6 The differences are rendered explicit when Burke, in a well-known passage, depicts the sublime as vast, rugged, negligent, gloomy, and great, and the beautiful as small, smooth, polished, light, and delicate.7

Implicit in Burke's inquiry is the notion that the sublime experience stretches the epistemological apprehension both sensibly and intelligibly. In Kant's account of the sublime, this idea is pivotal. For Kant the feeling of the sublime emerges when the senses fail to sufficiently apprehend an object. The subject's sense of individuation is therefore lost in the expansiveness or force of the object. Consider the Grand Canyon. In its spatial depth, we are both astounded and struck with a nervous exaltation; in its temporal presence, as an object where the lines of time have manifested themselves physically, we sense the sublimity of history unfold before us, but also realize the contingency of the present. The alchemical adage states as above, so below; and so too in the sublime: the finite and the infinite, terror and awe compound violently. The experience is such that the thought of throwing...


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