Beauty and Sublimity: A Cognitive Aesthetics of Literature and the Arts by Patrick Colm Hogan
The classic questions of philosophical aesthetics—how and why human beings find certain works of art beautiful or sublime—suffered from something of a hiatus in the twentieth century, but the study of beauty has seen a return in recent years, often calling on rapidly evolving research in cognitive science and neuroscience for assistance. Patrick Colm Hogan's Beauty and Sublimity: A Cognitive Aesthetics of Literature and the Arts is an important contribution to the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of cognitive aesthetics. The book makes a brave attempt to bring together insights from neuroscience, cognitive science, and literature to explain aesthetic response and justification.
Hogan's focus is on the minutiae of personal aesthetic response, which he identifies with the term "private beauty." He contrasts this concept with "public beauty," by which he means the ascription of aesthetic value by a society. This distinction helps Hogan steer clear of the political problems of beauty as well as organize most of the book. Out of the seven chapters, chapters 1 through 4 discuss how "private beauty" and "private sublimity" may or may not be induced in a person, and chapters 5 and 6 consider the relation between personal aesthetic responses and judgments of "public beauty." Chapter 7 turns to the question of what constitutes art with regard to the phenomena of beauty and sublimity, and finally, in the afterword, Hogan responds to what he calls the "aesthetic challenge" to the study of beauty, that is, the disinclination of avantgarde art and artists to have anything to do with beauty or sublimity other than to attack them.
One of the key goals of the book is to provide a "componential" account of aesthetic experience, such that "the greater the number and intensity of these components, the stronger the aesthetic experience" (p. 13). In chapter 1, Hogan discusses two information-processing components that have been prominent in recent cognitive studies on beauty: prototype approximation and nonhabitual pattern recognition. Humans tend to be more attracted to the prototype of [End Page 467] a thing (say a bird, animal, rectangle, or human face) than to things in the same category that are unlike the prototype. But an individual element is also at work here, in the form of the particular prototypes each of us forms and prefers, and these are driven at least partly by emotion: individual memories with their variable emotional forces influence prototype formation, predicting a certain divergence in aesthetic response. Hogan argues that a strong influence on prototype formation comes from the attachment system; he supplements his argument with an interesting rereading of Mrs. Dalloway, which he sees as exploring the various elements that contribute to the experience of beauty, especially emotional attachment. As for pattern recognition, Hogan draws on studies of music appreciation to suggest that both predictability and surprise play a role in aesthetic pleasure: we appreciate predictability in the parts of a musical score that are not focalized and nonanomalous surprises in the parts of the score that are.
The same combination of subjective and intersubjective factors is at work in the case of sublimity. Still drawing on Mrs. Dalloway, Hogan suggests that the experience of sublimity is associated with a feeling of existential loneliness, one that derives, ultimately, from attachment insecurity. (The experience of beauty, by contrast, is one that involves attachment security.) Hogan's understanding of attachment insecurity encompasses not just the transience of life and love—making tragedy, as is natural, a key locus of the sublime—but also the inaccessibility of "the other" and the possibility of "losing" one's own self. Sublimity can therefore be "ecstatic," where one loses oneself in union with one's beloved, or "stoical," where one grieves over the absence of a beloved (p. 120). Hogan's treatment of sublimity is distinctive for the importance he places on individual prototypes for the experience of sublimity, just as he does earlier for beauty: each individual's conception of the sublime is influenced by his or her social relations, moral character, and attachment relations, as well as spiritual tendencies, if any. (By way of illustration, Hogan offers in chapter 2 an impressively detailed account of his own personal conception of the sublime, informed by his experience of watching Cocktail, a recent Indian movie.)
That said, individual prototypes do not preclude Hogan from discussing the significant convergence in aesthetic appreciation across humanity. Hogan explains this convergence in compelling fashion: he analyzes drawings by Henri Matisse and a poem by Federico García Lorca to show that "the careful shaping of absence," with its invocation of feelings of inaccessibility, is a rich source of experiences of sublimity (p. 106). We fill in the ellipses in all works of textual or visual art with the help of our divergent prototypes, such that the final effect of experiencing beauty or sublimity is similar across the spectrum, despite differences across cultures and between individuals.
The other major theme of the work is aesthetic justification. Hogan spends considerable time and energy in chapters 4 and 5 showing how perceptions of public beauty might influence individual aesthetic judgment for both good [End Page 468] and bad, as seen in his experiences as a member of an editorial board and his nonconforming aesthetic response to Othello. In the light of this conflict between individual and public judgment, he considers the question of how one may or may not make a legitimate aesthetic argument in chapter 6. To this effect, he employs an interesting distinction between two sorts of aesthetic phenomena: problems and qualities on the one hand, and obstacles and enjoyment on the other. The former are aspects of the work itself, thus reasonably invoked in aesthetic debate, and the latter are aspects of one's particular aesthetic response to a work (p. 183). A legitimate aesthetic argument could use the problems and qualities of a work, not its obstacles or its enjoyment features, to help audiences reconsider their undervaluation or overvaluation of the work. Even then, as we so often experience, individual response may resist conversion.
The methodology that Hogan uses to fill in the lacunae of existing research in cognitive aesthetics may be considered idiosyncratic by some. Hogan draws from personal experiences of literature and film to fill in the blanks left by empirical research. This aspect of Hogan's methodology raises the inevitable question of what exactly the analysis of the aesthetic impact of these works of art is doing in the book. On the one hand, Hogan's analysis of his experiences of art is meant to supplement and extend his interpretation of empirical research. As he states toward the very beginning, one of his key assumptions is that "successful works of literature and art function much like elaborated thought experiments that can, in principle, contribute to our understanding of psychological and social processes" (p. 2). On the other hand, as one sees all through the book, Hogan derives his theory of beauty and sublimity in large part from these works of literature. One therefore senses a potentially dangerous circularity in this way of thinking: Hogan's methodology makes the reader wonder both if his analysis of artworks is not colored by his interpretation of empirical research and if his interpretation of empirical research is not colored by the content of the very artworks that supposedly demonstrate its viability. Hogan's choice of which artworks to discuss also becomes important in this regard—one cannot but ask how his explanation of the workings of beauty and sublimity might have been different had he chosen to focus on works of art that have different sensibilities than those featured in the book.
That said, the caliber of Hogan's interpretive work in both scientific and literary domains is superlative. Keeping in mind that so much research in cognitive aesthetics remains to be done, one has to admire Hogan's work for its intent and scope. The nature of the beast in this interdisciplinary discipline might be such that the scholar must both interpret and extrapolate extensively. For instance, the jury is still out, as Hogan notes, on why there must be two information-processing components for beauty when one might have done. We also await research that would differentiate between experiences of beauty and sublimity with and without the mediation of art, or explore the differences in aesthetic experience across the various arts. In the meanwhile, this multifaceted, inspired [End Page 469] treatment of aesthetic response introduces unique ways of understanding our responses to the beautiful and the sublime in art. [End Page 470]