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126 Canadian Review of American Studies Linda Munk. The TrivialSublime: Vieology and American Poetics. New York: St. Martin's, 1992. Pp. viii + 196. Although advertised as a study of the sublime, Linda Munk's The Trivial Sublime does not engage the criticism-I am thinking of the writings of JeanFran ~ois Lyotard, Thomas Weiskel, Neil Hertz, and Harold Bloom-that has recently crystallized around the sublime. Indeed, her readings of Emerson, Melville , Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, O'Connor, and Johnathan Edwards often fail to mention the sublime at all. She begins her study-recalling Melville in Moby Dick-with a section called "Trivial Ex-tracts," a cento of quotations associating the trivial sublime with humilitas-sublimitas and microcosm-macrocosm paradoxes. The "trivial sublime," however, is never explicitly formulated. This is unfortunate, because it is a suggestive topic, and seems a welcome antidote to orthodox associations of the sublime with the vast and expansive. But these are idle speculations. Munk's book is not so much a study on the sublime as a very sensitive sounding of theological wordplay in American literature . Munk's method consists of lighting upon a "keyword" that, through its etymological resonances, unlocks latent allusions and layers of meaning. In her opening chapter, for example, Munk examines Emerson's notion of kenosis as a paradoxical self-emptying or outpouring of divine fullness. According to Emerson's "kenotic model," the humble is sublime: "the earth and the fullness thereof is divine thought incarnate" (25). In her reading of Billy Budd, Munk argues that "the mark of Billy's ignorant, unfallen condition is the impossibility of recognizing the pun" (42). He is therefore susceptible to the insinuations and doubletalk of the satanic Claggart. This is not a new interpretation, but Mun.k's attention to etymological detail (Satan as "accuser" and "charger") allows her to tease out hidden subtleties. Her next chapter, on the Song of Songs and Whitman's "Song of Myself," is the least compelling of the readings. Against allegorical interpretations muting the eroticism of the Song of Songs, she contends that Whitman "insists upon restoring the physical and literal sense" (77). Although detecting echoes of the Song of Songs in Whitman, Munk fails to establish authorial intent, that is, a deliberate, revisionary design motivating Whitman's allusions. Munk's chapter on Dickinson is her strongest. According to Munk, Dickinson 's poetry explores and redeems the miraculous force of religious language, returning it to its "garden of primary meanings" (106). It is here, too, that Munk comes closest to proposing a relationship between etymology and the Book Reviews 127 trivial sublime: "If words can indeed be directed back to their source, and if that source ... is the mind of God, then etymology would be a sacred exercise" (106). The trivial sublime seems pendent, then, on religious or idealist attitudes: the trivial is sublime insofar as it incarnates some underlying origin or order. One may wonder whether it might not be possible to demystify this transcendental machinery and formulate a trivial sublime rooted in the sublimity of triviality itself. Indeed, I am reminded of a passage in George Eliot's Middlemarch : "lfwe had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grown and squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.'' Not by seeing through to some underlying truth (lo that sublimity embodied in the humble), but by celebrating the act of seeing, it would be possible to rescue the sublime from hierarchical higMow, sacred/profane oppositions. Munk's chapter of Frost's "Design" involvesa mediation on "non-violent" and "violent" puns: the former, "underwritten by the creating Word of God" (117), are able to break through the closed cycle of "violent" self-referentiality. This argument, besides begging the question, advances a rather dogmatic ethicolinguistic thesis. Much stronger is her chapter on O'Connor's "The Displaced Person"; here, Munk argues that typology, and not traditional allegorical approach , is best able to account for the story's nuances. In her final chapter, Munk contends that Edwards's appeal to the Rabbinic concept of the shekinah (the presence of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 126-128
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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