Philosophy of the Sublime as Theory and Experience
Edmund Burke's On the Sublime and Beautiful is analyzed relative to real-life experiences, determining the sublime as deriving from sensations of pain or danger. Examples regarding the sexes propose aspects of self-preservation beyond Burke's original meaning, exhibiting pleasure in experiences involving revelation or destination. Sight and sound are demonstrated as eliciting the sublime, however, only when attended by aspects of thought, e.g., memory and reflective judgment. The writings of Émile Zola are introduced to suggest the same sensual phenomena might not necessarily cause sublimity in different individuals, even the same individual, but vary according to cognitive disposition, i.e., temperament.
Writing On the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke tells us the ideas most capable of making an impression are those related to self-preservation and society. Such ideas are bound to our passions. Passions belonging to self-preservation turn on pain or danger.1 Those belonging to society do as well, although in this work, Burke dwells exclusively on pain. Because he tells us the king of terrors is death, we might infer pain is inferior to danger, the latter more formidable. We experience delight in both when they are remote and do not affect us. But this delight, or indeed pleasure of any kind, is less powerful in terms of passion. Possibly for this reason Burke declines to qualify delight or pleasure as a source of the sublime.
As to passions related to society, such as pain, Burke speaks of the sexes; also of man in relation to his fellow man, the animal kingdom, and the [End Page 71] inanimate world.2 When speaking of the sexes, he refers specifically to "generation." This he treats as distinct from self-preservation, whose ideas of pain, sickness, and death Burke readily associates with the sublime, for reasons already mentioned. Understanding the sublime within the context of the sexes requires a different analysis. For here, admittedly, "generation" entails feelings of the "highest pleasure of sense." But it is not sexual pleasure that elicits the sublime.3 Nor is it love, requited. Burke instead dwells upon the forsaken lover, the lover who speaks of pleasures past, hopes unfulfilled, or desires thwarted. The sublime is to be found, quoting Shakespeare, in "love's labors lost." Let us see whether this might truly be so, and whether there is something more, besides.
I begin by offering the story of man's unrequited love for a woman. The man is not William Butler Yeats and the woman is not Maud Gonne. Nor is it the story of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Madame Basile, my story being about persons of our time. And yet, as with many stories of love unrequited, there is an uncanny resemblance. By using the word "unrequited," I am necessarily saying love's sentiment was not mutual. And for those uncertain as to anything further, I will also add there was no sex. But I am not saying the man did not have hopes in this regard. Here is the example.
A man awoke one morning in contemplation of a woman he had met many years earlier in a distant city. Their chance meeting occurred only once.4 Yet, despite this meager interaction was the blossoming of love. You might say it was not real love, that the man was merely foolish. But he would remonstrate it was true love, the most honest he might feel. Lust may possibly have been there, but only as a wind among the reeds, a mere soupçon if you will. The man admits to this only if asked, and I took the opportunity of asking since it is a matter to which Burke alludes. The woman was attractive. She was desirable. Until he was able to know her, it was not her intellect that seduced him. But let us explore further to recognize our man's lust turned little on gratification and more on preservation. For there is an ulterior sense to this word Burke seems not to have considered. True, we are speaking of the protagonist's own life and well-being, but there was an element of something more and something eternal. Unmarried and in his forties, our man still harbored hopes of matrimony and children. And the reason for this, like the trembling of a veil, was a matter of familial continuity.
Standing at his mother's grave soon after his long journey home, our hero concluded what he felt was providence; a definite impression there was something especial about this woman and that he should pursue [End Page 72] her. Believing this, he commenced to sending letters. He wrote a first missive on the advent of going abroad. He in fact wrote many long letters from many foreign lands, hoping to make an impression. He was puerile in this regard, not trusting to words alone. Hence from Kaduna he told his life's story. From Melbourne he described a beautiful vista where the ocean touched the sky. He employed this imagery hoping to predict a rendezvous. Envisioning a speaking tour on aesthetics, he proposed sending an airline ticket so they might meet one fine evening along the Avenue de la Paix. It mattered not if this were practical or even reasonable, for in his naïve and ingénue manner, he had every hope in believing their courtship might blossom. The letter was sent in a moment of supreme exhilaration. He was then in Baltimore. But later he would write from Bujambura, Kigali, Antibes, and Swansea.
Over time, six long years, he poured out his heart to her. Then, after all these letters—the foolish ones at first that spoke with recklessness, the latter ones more level-headed and modified in tone—the dream he dreamed of fairyland commenced to vanish. It was apparent in the final year. For our intrepid lover realized that no matter what he wrote, no matter how many letters expressing every last vicissitude and most passionate of feelings, the woman was but a citadel, unmoved. Not that at first he minded. He was slowly building his case. He had been working against a skepticism, and, after all, Rome wasn't built in a day. But well after believing he'd conveyed the archive of his life, his personal history and ambitions, his love for her and why she might love him too, the worm turned and the tea leaves were legible to all who might witness. Not for words written but for the fact she remained on the pedestal where he had placed her, a Galatea never come to life. Our hero, long suffering, who now insisted only on the pleasures he had hoped to enjoy or the perfection anticipated, was at last forced to reality. Writing from Swansea in the sixth year, he bid her adieu. The love still burned, if only as an ember, but he had now grown older, rapidly it seemed, to where he might no longer sustain his fatuous desires.
Two years passed in relative calm. Then, one morning, the morning to which I alluded at the start of this narrative, our protagonist experienced an apotheosis. It began as a dream. The dream whispered of the beautiful woman he once considered his beloved. These whispers, unconscious musings, soon evanesced to become a conscious memory of efforts to win her. And as he was consumed by this painful nostalgia, the sound of morning birds and distant traffic wove themselves into his reflections. Unhappy thoughts melded with bittersweet sounds to [End Page 73] produce a melancholy sadness. If before only a dull pain, here at last was a vivid realization of loss irretrievable. For despite grotesque fate, the idealization prevailed; the idealization of a woman through whom there might have been some better destiny.5
But if I were to end here, I would be mistaken. For I suggested there was no pleasure, and perhaps this is not altogether true. Let us realize why. There was pain in the recollection, but in the collusion of impressions surrounding the recollection there was a kind of exultation. Because the man would tell you he had had such recollections previously, but their occurrence on this occasion was special. The realization combined memory with sound—incidental yet congruous sounds of uncanny meaning. The meaning was continuum—eternity of nature, eternity of Man—the accident of these sounds appearing providential. You may say the sounds were not accidental, but I will tell you they were by virtue they were not always there, nor in combination. The birds sang by season and were just returning from winter. The distant traffic was always there, but atmospheric conditions allowing those sounds were inconstant. Sometimes the distant traffic wasn't audible. Until recently, the birds were not present. The fact both were audible on this particular morning was something unusual. So all three phenomena, to include the recollection, were something special.6
Our protagonist's feeling of the sublime derived from a painful memory combined with congruous sense elements that heightened the experience to the level of the extraordinary. But it was also the pleasurable experience of profiting by something visionary, a message of destination. And perhaps this really isn't so absurd after all, for we are told the sublime involves a sort of mental movement, and Kant tells us our capacity for conceiving the sublime "indicates a mental faculty that far surpasses every standard of sense," a manifestation he calls the "supersensible."7 The man experienced two sense perceptions. But he also benefited from antecedent perceptions stored in memory. The former derived from the sounds of his environment. The latter entailed the recollection of a beautiful woman. All became integrated. The integration produced an overarching pain, yes, but there was a strong element of pleasure in having this pain attended by revelation—of destination. Now this is different from Burke's view that the sublime derives from a feeling of pain only, but I nevertheless and humbly offer it as an instance of contradistinction. And so I propose by this example something at variance with Burke, and ask apology of my more studious readers if all the while seeming too contradictious. [End Page 74]
I shall continue this study of the sublime by examining another experience, one involving contemplations of the dead. I hasten to say we are not speaking of Henry James and his long, lonely rambles in a Cambridge cemetery, nor John Galsworthy's Ashurst and the maid beneath the mound. Despite there may be those who wish to impose an analogy, such wishes are misplaced.8 Rather, we are again speaking of an experience from modern times; an event precipitated by a visit to one's alma mater on the eve of reunion. The attendee to this reunion, I shall call him "Henry," arrived early, before tea at the headmaster's. And as our protagonist wanted to spend a little time out of doors beforehand, he decided to perambulate through one of the nearby cemeteries. He did this not to lie dreaming on a favorite tombstone, as George Gordon Byron was wont to do at Harrow, but to walk among them pensively, pondering the stones' inscriptions. In so doing, he thought of the many persons buried there, of husbands and wives side by side, of individuals buried alone.
Given the coming reunion, the gathering of old classmates, our protagonist's emotions were not what they normally were. They were appreciably heightened. And I want you to remember this point, as a matter for discussion later. He had not returned to his alma mater in over a score and three-quarter years. Everything of his surroundings took on a quality of the chimerical. The impression of the inscriptions, the sad reflection upon the immortalized union of man and woman, their offspring either dead or now very old, forced him to contemplate what Emerson calls the "subtle chain of countless rings," the unending cycle of life and death. As Henry was of a literary turn, he ruminated upon Our Town by Thornton Wilder, Cavalcade by Noёl Coward, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips! by James Hilton, the first of these an obliged reading at the very school he was now visiting. All attested to an evolution of humanity, a progression, a scheme of life his parents obeyed but he had not. And you are correct if you perceive a correlation with our previous story, for we are again witness to Burke's idea of the sexes, only now as a concept involving persons who have never met. For here there was no forsaken lover. Thwarted love was not part of the equation. No pleasure was enjoyed, nor any anticipated. Henry's sorrows were not those of a lover. His worries were not for his health, nor about dying. What gripped him in this place and at this moment were horrors for the unavoidable consequence of life without family.
True, it was not a new realization. But it was here brought into focus by viewing the tombstones and contemplating life's finality. In walking [End Page 75] among the graves, Henry was brought face to face with myriad testimonies as to a more meaningful path of life, forcing him to compare with what was missing in his own. The pain of this comparison, the horror of inevitable finality, engendered a powerful passion. This passion, need I say it, was a manifestation of the sublime. For yes, Burke is correct in saying the sublime can derive from pain and danger. He is also correct in saying these horrors are among the most powerful of emotions. But there is again something more. As our protagonist sat on his bench of desolation, he was seeing through the immediate to an understanding of the ultimate, experiencing, as with the protagonist of our previous story, a sense of destination—an intimation of the eternal. For we do know the eternal—or what is infinite in a temporal way—is something Kant ascribes to the sublime for being absolutely great, and Burke, too, associates for its quality of delightful horror. Henry, of course, was imputing this eternal in a personal way—through his own finite life—and was beset by melancholy. But joy also. For he could not get away from the feeling he was privileged by some form of revelation. And for those who doubt, Henry believed it to be the real and true thing.
I wish to tarry here a moment to say I am not alone in challenging Burke as to whether the sublime can be pleasurable. The philosopher George Santayana, in The Sense of Beauty, tells us what we objectify in the sublime is an act necessarily pleasant, otherwise it would be something we should wish to avoid.9 In truth, he sees this pleasure as deriving from self-assertion against great evils. And Immanuel Kant describes the pleasure of the sublime in similar terms, e.g., the discovery of "a faculty of resistance" (CJ, p. 75). So my assertion there is pleasure in the sublime is not unusual. What might be unusual is the suggestion this pleasure can derive from a feeling of revelation, or what in Henry's case might more properly be called an epiphany.10
But let us now continue with our hero. As in the previous case, only one of his five senses seemed active. The other senses appeared noncontributory: the warmth of late spring, the fragrance of fresh blooms, the overall hush and quiet, all seemingly neutral in their impressions. Or perhaps these impressions were subliminal. And here I have employed a curious word. "Subliminal" having the same root as "sublime," we might consider the relation. Webster's apprises us the "subliminal" is something "below the threshold of consciousness or apprehension."11 Given Henry's senses were alive to the stimuli of touch, smell, and sound, perhaps he could not recall these because their intensity was below some threshold. He would therefore not be conscious of impressions that were all [End Page 76] the while meaningful.12 Certain studies in psychology indeed attempt to suggest "what the conscious mind can't recognize, the heart may know."13 So we may want to consider whether subliminal stimuli were part of the result after all.
In addition, we are mindful of Kant's notion of the "supersensible"—hypothetically, a sense that is sensitive to what the other senses are not—to include what is subliminal to these senses. What we do know is that Henry's one conscious sense, the sense of sight, involved multiple perceived objects. These were experienced in series rather than in parallel. This would appear significant even though Henry was at a loss to indicate at what point his feeling of the sublime came to him. Was it in viewing the first grave? The second? The tenth? He could not say. Our first observer told us he felt the sublime instantaneously, or nearly so, whereas Henry admits his experience came as a consequence of accumulated stimuli over time. This may show, to the degree sense stimuli are necessary, that a certain quantitative threshold is required.14 Whether this threshold is achieved exclusively from sense stimulus obvious to the one who is sensing, or in combination with sense stimulus which is not, remains unanswered.
In this story, we again have an example of the sublime coming from an integration of sensual data conjoined with ideas preexisting in the mind, although here those ideas are notions of purpose absent any focus on particular persons. As before, the purpose is "generation"—a conviction regarding self-preservation, begging a more thorough definition than what has been given us by Burke. For the horror recognized not so much the life and health of the protagonist, but an extension of self in the matter of progeny. Burke appears correct that danger is more formidable than pain, for Henry's sadness was primarily a contemplation of some unpleasant future, but there was also a joy in the privilege of thought that ensued (i.e., epiphany), Kant's idea of the "supersensible" a phenomenon to be examined in my next and final story.15
Before going further, however, I think we should take note of one additional item. For in speaking of Henry's experience, I mentioned his emotions were not what they normally were, that they were appreciably heightened. This phenomenon signals an importance beyond the obvious. We all have our best and worst moments. We sometimes feel alacrity in our thoughts, and sometimes not. If we abuse ourselves by consuming alcohol or overeating, if we fail to exercise or are overwrought by too many worries, the periods of "not" can be much more than otherwise. And I would claim that at such times it is less probable [End Page 77] a given stimulus can prompt the sublime. Said another way, given the same set of objects available for sense perception, it is less likely that those perceptions, when combined with memory and judged via cognitive activity, will produce the same results when the mind is alert, sensitive, and sedulous, than when it is not.
The famous leader of the naturalist movement, Émile Zola, for all his mathematical and scientific imagery, noted something along these lines when speaking of the artist. In Le roman experimental he proposed that a work of art is always "a bit of nature seen through a temperament."16 And I believe the uniqueness of this observation, its recognition of transient states of mind, is rather important to our discussion. Henry's experience of the sublime was facilitated by a propitious state of mind, i.e., a conducive temperament. Had he indulged in a gluttonous meal, had the protagonist of our first story celebrated with drinks and merrymaking the evening prior to his dream, the probability of a sublime experience might have been diminished. The fact that they were both older men, active and not sedentary, prone to moderation and less inclined to excess, were factors in their favor.
In my final example, I shall get away from matters of self-preservation and the sexes to address something of Burke's ideas on Man and the inanimate world. In so doing, I hasten to point out an affection associated with one's fellow man, e.g., the product of his labor, as well as the ideas or sentiments these products might induce. This shall now be a personal experience, having nothing to do with the opposite sex, nor sex at all. And you may skip this example altogether if not of a disposition adequately titillated. In persevering, however, the reader will understand that while I admire John Ruskin's Stones of Venice or Arthur Wing Pinero's The Enchanted Cottage for what they say about a given architecture and how it might speak to us when we are in its presence, their influence is slight by comparison to the purely empirical nature of my recollection of a particular room in a particular structure, the former Kenilworth House at Bal Harbour.
Perhaps I should say a few words about this structure before we begin. The Kenilworth House was what we Americans call a "condominium." Except for the fact it was not really a house at all but more like the Kenilworth Hotel, which once stood next to it. The edifice was certainly not ornate like the Palazzo Cavalli in Venice, rather more like the Mallet- Stevens house in Paris. A building of some eight stories, it possessed a symmetry of windows and solidity of concrete of unanimous white. Such uniformity of color was variegated by one additional color only, [End Page 78] a dark green vertically applied to an anomalous corner at the front, and centrally located on the ocean side to the rear. At the base of this more pleasing use of green was an entryway from a palm-studded patio surrounding a large swimming pool—this entrance conveying directly into a sitting room that preserved some mystery despite being public.17
In speaking of this room I am mindful of what Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in his Confessions when describing a little song about Thyrsis and why he wanted to leave it to memory and not write to the Paris music shops for copies.18 Memory, dear in the way it creates its own images, can often be spoiled by too exacting a knowledge, so I shall avoid photos—though I do have them—in what I shall recall. Too, the writing of this, however desirous I am of setting down my memories, is fraught with great difficulty. Here I share what Flaubert complained regarding Madame Bovary, although for reasons this is personal and not fiction.
To begin, my father used to bring me to the Kenilworth when I was in my kindergarten years. The fact he worked at the hotel and not the house did not prevent my ramblings there. Not only was it proximate but an enticing pathway connected the two. Earliest memory suggests what first persuaded me next door was the acquaintance of an elderly couple at their cabana by the ocean. This is because in addition to the alluring pathway, the Kenilworth boasted an uninterrupted beachfront. One day when I was playing near the ocean, they expressed concern I might be pulled out by the tides, never to return. After that, I visited them quite often.
Normally I was restricted from entering the house or hotel for fear I might disturb the residents. But there were exceptions. Mr. Kirkabee, the general manager, had his residence in the house. In this residence, his son maintained an extraordinary collection of military models. Cast in metal and beautifully painted, they were the most exquisite I had ever seen. Observing one he was showing to his father at poolside one day, I expressed a boyish desire to see the collection and was invited to their apartment. This, I believe, is what brought me into the house the very first time. If not for this, I might never have entered. Looking back, I find it curious to recall how the Kirkabee apartment impressed me for its elegance. I really shouldn't have known about such matters, but memory tells me it was of exceptional taste. It came closest perhaps to what Oscar Wilde describes regarding the residence of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright.19 By contrast, the house sitting room I was obliged to pass through before ascending to the third floor impressed me almost not [End Page 79] at all. Neither did I linger, nor tarry, or even notice the room in any way. What a difference when later I would return.
When I did return to the Kenilworth House three decades later, I did not come seeking this or any other particular room, only the building as an edifice, or perhaps an adumbration. By then there was no one who might recognize me except the doorman, remembering me only through my father. On this occasion and thereafter, he allowed my entry on the qui vive. For the rules about visitors were what they had always been, nothing of the past making for exception. For this reason I again took the stairs rather than the elevator, descending to a familiar corridor leading to a particular door that, even before opening, hinted at the room in question. My intentions were to again use it as a passageway, but no.
My first view upon entering evoked an extraordinary sentiment. Perhaps because I recognized this room in a new way. Not for utility but for itself. Like Wilde felt about art. For indeed, something about its appearance appealed to me. And soon I felt something more. This something more went beyond surfaces to something from the past, an intimation of all persons who had lived in this building or who had ever passed this way. My prior experience of this room allowed me to feel welcome. All the more that I came to pay homage. Homage for the myriad recollections this room inspired, and indeed, served as temple for. It was like a museum. Or perhaps a tomb.20 The stillness permitted I might focus on all that surrounded me, the simplicity of surface liberating me to contemplate other sensations. For example, the flood of memories! The overall effect was something beautiful in the manner Emerson suggests in not one ornament being added for ornament.21 For true beauty takes us out of surfaces to the foundations of things. In this case, those foundations went beyond steel, brick, and mortar to the accumulated presence of persons who, like me, had lingered here to imbue its material depths with the spirit of our existence.
The simplicity of the room should be explained. It was not altogether plain. Despite what little there was of furniture, it contained an abundance of books. These stood on wooden shelves painted blue green of an unusual hue. I recall perusing the pages of Silas Marner and Memoirs of Casanova, but could not concentrate. It was the room that demanded attention. I was fascinated, for example, by the highly polished floor. Though merely linoleum, it had the appearance of marble. Here might Arthur Godfrey have entertained guests. Here might have sung the McGuire Sisters.22 All was clean and fresh looking as if from a Busby Berkeley musical. [End Page 80]
The oddity of this room—its simplicity of surface underscored by a multiplicity of impressions—aroused my wonder. But also feelings of the supernatural. For what I naturally hesitated to say about "other sensations" I shall now speak of by telling I was not alone. I sensed a presence—a presence that could not be seen, heard, nor felt in any physical way but which seemed to exist, nonetheless. You may dismiss this if you like. I do not make the statement casually. My story about the sublime does not depend on whether the statement is true, only whether I believe what I am telling, and the elevated emotion behind that belief.23 I experienced something extraordinary, something beyond the normal senses, although never, even now, was I cognizant of an intelligible message. What I do know: a message was there. It embodied many things, but in ways my senses were inadequate to discern. Whether understanding or not, whether true or not, the experience induced an emotional state I qualify as sublime. Here I am reminded how Ruskin revealed architecture does speak, although not in the way he supposed.24 The way was in a new language, or moreover, an old one falling below a necessary threshold. Here is where I might take up what could not be pursued in the case of Henry, the effect of the subliminal.
At first blush, it appears my experience of the sublime may be attributable to Kant's idea of the "supersensible," an ability to discern what is subliminal to the known senses. Else it is a sort of sixth sense capable of detecting what is incomprehensible to those senses. We might begin by asking whether the message was subliminal. How did I sense what I propose were spirits? People report seeing ghosts all the time. They report hearing them speak, and detecting faint odors.25 But these are cases where sense data are not subliminal though indeed discernable. What I experienced was not overt. My ghosts kept silent. They exuded no odors. Nevertheless, certain impressions suggested their presence.
Why must I insist? Any "reasonable" person might offer I was under the spell of autohypnosis. But let us ask what this means. That imagination was in play? That I was laboring under the influence of fanciful, previous tales? Both ideas are certainly possible. But the matter does not end there. What brought the influence of those tales into existence at this time? Why this particular room? Its relative darkness, stillness, and quiet? These circumstances are conventional. Perhaps the architecture of the room? After all, I did begin by offering this as an example of Burke's idea of our relations with our fellow man (e.g., the product of their labors) and the "inanimate world." And here I believe I come closer to the truth, although not in ways that are in perfect alignment [End Page 81] with Burke.26 What I believe spoke to me, not subliminally but in a language all its own, was my knowledge of this room from an earlier time, my experience of life related to its existence, and most profoundly, the spirit of the room due to persons who once, and possibly still, possessed it. This, I interpret as sense data of a different species, put into words here, although difficult for the fact that the usual senses are all that can easily be described. My sense was of an aura, something ephemeral, not detectable by any of the known senses, and so I must dismiss the idea of the subliminal and state that the "supersensible," if a correct concept, involves a separate sense unto itself.
Whether speaking of one sense or several, I think it important to clarify what is sensed is not the thing that is sublime. Kant is very clear on this. For he would tell us, "Nothing … which can be an object of the senses, is … to be called sublime." It is rather something to be found "only in our Ideas" (CJ, p. 66). And we have seen this in our two examples. The graves were not sublime, nor the recollection of the maiden and the sounds that accompanied this recollection. These visions and sounds were merely stimuli, sensory data transmitted to the cognitive faculties in the brain where they were represented as ideas. The ideas were integrated and there was always some degree of memory added from earlier experience. An aspect of our judgment merely assesses the beauty of a thing, its value or desirability, whereas Kant seems to be telling us the sublime is attained as a state of mind in consequence of a more complex judgment, one that is concerned with Ideas of Reason.
In view of this, it would not seem to matter whether we make use of sight alone, or sight conjoined with sound, touch, smell, or taste. The senses are indeed necessary, but only as a starting point. The existence of the supersensible faculty appears to be something we feel. Its existence may not be real or may only appear to exist when the real Idea is attained despite our limited ability for certain physical appreciations. Something about our Reason's claim for absolute totality—the real Idea—excites our feeling of the supersensible. Once the sense perceptions appear to the mind as ideas, it is our Judgment that takes over in making use of the objects perceived by the senses. It is this "making use" by our Judgment, the "the state of mind produced by a certain representation with which the reflective Judgment is occupied" to which Kant attributes feelings of the sublime (CJ, p. 66).
I would now like to examine whether Kant is correct in what he tells us about the role of reflective judgment. For it would appear that without reflective judgment there can be no sublimity. Is this true? There is no [End Page 82] question our Judgment is involved in making use of objects perceived by the senses. We might rather question the sequence. In regard to my experience, I can testify as to a number of representations. These were of two categories: an impression of the room's attributes, and the occurrence of various memories. Those memories were of disparate things such as playing on the beach hunting hermit crabs, participating in Easter egg hunts, or watching seaplanes with their trailing pennants. Unlike earlier examples, here are specific memories to be explored as to whether and how they added particular value.27 At the time, I had no clear impression of an overarching Idea. If I were judging, I obtained no answers and reached no conclusions. The specific memories seemed trite and incongruous. As to the room, it conveyed a feeling of depth, even though its visible attributes were minimal. This would suggest I were indeed judging, although I was unaware at the time. Foremost was my feeling of something extraordinary. My reflective judgment, or so it appeared, came progressively afterward.
In making these observations, I find some degree of confirmation in the writings of Alexandre Dumas fils, who, in his preface to Le fils naturel (1858), says he is "someone who passes by, who regards, who sees, who feels, who reflects, who hopes and who says or writes down whatever strikes him in the form which is the clearest, the quickest, the most suitable for what he wishes to say" (TT, p. 273). This description clearly shows Dumas believes the act of reflection follows that of feeling. In the case of Richard Wagner, we are given to believe he discounts the role of judgment altogether. Théodore de Wyzewa, one of the founders of the Revue wagnérienne, recapitulating Wagner's idea on the integration of the arts, writes, "The soul first receives Sensations, which it organizes into Notions, which mixed with other and more powerful Sensations give way to Emotions" (p. 287). This sequence suggests powerful emotions, which sublime experience is author to, might be generated purely by a process of sensations. So I am tempted to say, given my own experience, reflective Judgment plays little or no role in the actualization of the sublime.
Contemplating the matter further, however, I am led to believe Dumas is mistaken and Wagner too summary. And my own earlier observation suffers from ignorance of the inobvious. A significant part of reflective Judgment may be subconscious. Nor does Kant say reflective Judgment must conclude upon a thing (a "certain representation") in order to induce sublime feeling. He does say, however, that reflective Judgment must be active. Although uncertain whether the sublime is attained in [End Page 83] consequence of "complex judgment," one that is concerned with Ideas of Reason, I am persuaded to believe there must be a form of preliminary Judgment regarding objects of the senses and items of memory by way of establishing their value. For without such establishment, there would be little or no impression of such data upon the cognitive faculty necessary to a determination of "powerful" emotions indicative of the sublime. Valueless data, of whatever quantity, could not achieve that end. Hence, I conclude a degree of a priori judgment was necessary to assign value to the room. And also to memory. The combination of these lesser and more valuable impulses represented a force of memory and a force of sense perception stimulating a feeling of the sublime.28 For the feeling was powerful, as indeed it is even now, possessed of a telltale pain but also a joy in sensing the supernatural as offering some privileged message.
I have heretofore blithely accepted Kant's "supersensible" as something sensible: a sense beyond the normal senses. But I believe I must now reject this term. For the senses, as we know, are merely a means of apprehension, having nothing to do with the comprehension or analysis of what is perceived. Kant indeed infers a sort of sixth sense—an ability to ingest (but not digest) stimuli apart from what is seen, heard, felt, tasted, or breathed, and even if such a sense existed, it would be of no use unless a cognitive ability existed to interpret the sensed information and make it available for purposes of impression. I believe this superior cognitive ability is what Kant truly wishes to express. I therefore recommend "supercognitive" versus "supersensible" as a more appropriate descriptor, and state such a faculty may or may not exist despite whether there truly is a sixth sense requiring this faculty. The first interpretation assumes supercognitive activity may be needed to recognize and interpret sixth sense data critical to the sublime experience. The second interpretation recognizes supercognitive activity as an extra but usual cognition that occurs when interpreting stimuli from traditional sensory sources. With both interpretations, an important element of cognition's "super" quality is the integration of sense data with the memory of experience, doing so in such a way, or to such a degree, as to produce an extraordinary response. This supercognitive activity allows us to achieve a threshold for sublime experience, judgment being necessary to the determination of the quality of sense data and memory.
I began this disquisition by referring to Burke's idea of the sublime deriving from sensations of pain or danger. In the first two examples, I spoke of passions related to society, notably the sexes, whereas in the [End Page 84] final example I spoke of man in relation to his fellow man by way of architecture. The examples with regard to the sexes proposed aspects of self-preservation going beyond Burke's original meaning, e.g., procreation, a concept to which Burke ascribes only pleasure. I have attempted to show, however, that not the act but its hypothetical fruits convey pain when those fruits, posterity, have been thwarted. All the while, examples of the sexes do show Burke correct in suggesting danger superior to pain but incorrect when excluding the possibility of pleasure in matters involving revelation.
Whereas the first example demonstrated the sense of sound as eliciting feelings of the sublime, the second demonstrated sight as its point of origin. Both cases, however, were attended by some aspect of memory. Kant's idea of the "supersensible" was first considered "a going beyond" the traditional senses by sensing what is subliminal to those senses. However, the third example concluded the word "supersensible" to be a misnomer. If a sense, it was likely independent, but more important, would nevertheless require a corresponding cognitive faculty. A new descriptor, "supercognitive," was therefore recommended as more appropriate. This third example recognized the sublime necessarily depends on a degree of judgment that assigns value to sense and memory data. In view of this, and despite what I believed I personally experienced, Kant's idea of the sublime arising from reflective Judgment was concluded as essentially correct. Nevertheless, ideas from Émile Zola were introduced to suggest the same sensual phenomena might not necessarily cause sublimity in different individuals, or even the same individual, but vary according to cognitive disposition, i.e., temperament. I proposed a number of factors suggesting how similar sense and memory stimulus may or may not motivate sublime experience according to the observer's lifestyle.
1. Edmund Burke, The Sublime and Beautiful (New York: P. F. Collier and Son, 1909), pp. 46–47; hereafter abbreviated SB.
2. Ideas being inanimate, Burke suggests what Immanuel Kant would perceive as the sublime's exclusive realm.
3. Tolstoy would later tell us, in a way Burke only infers, beauty is that which pleases devoid of personal advantage, e.g., without arousing lust. See Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (London: Penguin Classics, 1995), pp. 31, 33.
4. The reader, thinking this improbable, might also dismiss the account of Mr. Bernstein (played by Everett Sloane) in Orson Wells's Citizen Kane (RKO, 1941), who recounts seeing a woman in a white dress on a ferry for a brief moment fifty years earlier. Not a day went by that he did not think of her.
5. The moral world order described by Otto Ludwig in "Shakespeares Kunst" speaks of the tragic as that "ever-necessary nexus of guilt out of passion and of suffering out of guilt." Cited in Marvin Carlson, Theories of the Theatre (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 260; hereafter abbreviated TT. Here was unrequited passion and suffering despite guilt.
6. We might know from authors such as John Galsworthy that sounds alone can indeed produce beauty, though not necessarily the sublime, as when he speaks of his character Frank Ashurst stampeded by beauty when listening to the songs of the cuckoos and the blackbirds, and the laughter of the yaffles, in an orchard somewhere between Brent and Chagford; all the while in the passion and pursuit of a woman he loved (John Galsworthy, "The Apple Tree," in Great Modern Short Stories, ed. Grant Overton [New York: Random House, 1930], p. 147).
7. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard (Mineola: Dover Philosophical Classics, 2005), p. xiv; hereafter abbreviated CJ.
8. See Henry James, The Portable Henry James, ed M. D. Zabel (New York: Viking Press, 1951), p. 623. I have already cited the tale by John Galsworthy (see pp. 185–89).
9. George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1896), p. 240. Santayana tells us that feelings of the sublime come from the relation between our conception of great evils and the self-assertion of our souls. This "glorious joy of self-assertion" furnishes a transcendent element of worth—a positive pleasure—that balances and annuls any expression of pain in the presence of an uncontrollable world.
10. My first example speaks of feelings in consequence of atypical phenomena not always present, while the second addresses a reaction to something more permanent that can be revisited at will. Hence the feeling of the sublime in the second instance might be considered more an epiphany than a revelation. Epiphany is here taken as a moment of sudden understanding, or a flash of insight; one example is the final scene of Federico Fellini's La Strada, where Zampanò, looking heavenward, comprehends his love for Gelsomina.
11. David B. Guralnik, ed., Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), p. 1418.
12. Alternatively, the intensity may have been at or above a necessary threshold, but the cognitive processes nevertheless judged them to have little or no value. This idea of the quality of sense data hints at the role of reflective judgment prior to experiencing the sublime, to be discussed in the final example.
13. David G. Myers, Psychology (New York: Worth, 1998), pp. 149–50. Or, as Blaise Pascal once observed, "The heart has its reasons which reason does not know."
14. This leaves to the side, although perhaps more important, the question of the quality of a given stimulus, both within the same sensory realm and between one sense and another. In the case at hand, I am speaking of sight. In the previous case it was sound. And yet some insist our sense of smell is the most provocative. The degree of sense stimulus from any of the sense organs necessary to the sublime begs an objective definition of what constitutes sublime feeling to begin, such as a quantity and quality of sense stimulus, a degree and kind of cognitive activity.
15. The rectitude of Burke's suggestion that danger is superior to pain might also be argued with regard to my first example, where love's labors lost might equally be seen as having future implications.
16. Émile Zola, Oeuvres completes (Paris: 1927–29), cited in TT, p. 275.
17. Residents of the Kenilworth House will know that, prior to 1973, the swimming pool had been a putting green.
18. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions (London: Penguin, 1953), p. 23.
19. See Oscar Wilde, "Pen, Pencil and Poison," The Soul of Man under Socialism and Selected Critical Prose (London: Penguin Classics, 2001), p. 197.
20. Burke would tell us, in his section on "Light in Building," that management of light is an important matter in architecture where "edifices calculated to produce an idea of the sublime" ought to be "dark and gloomy." But he also speaks of the striking effect of making an object as different as possible from the objects "with which we have been immediately conversant." See SB, p. 71.
21. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures (New York: The Library of America, 1983), p. 1103.
22. Arthur Godfrey, famous for his career in early television, was part owner of the Kenilworth Hotel and maintained an apartment at the Kenilworth House. Phyllis McGuire and sisters Christine and Dorothy were featured performers on his TV series Arthur Godfrey and His Friends. It is supposed they visited the Kenilworth House as guests.
23. As this proposes to be a philosophical paper, allow me to point out that one of America's most respected philosophers, William James, indulges such matters by discussing the work of Edmund Gurney, a member of the Society for Psychical Research in London. Gurney undertook a census of some twenty-five thousand persons of various countries on the subject of whether, when in good health and awake, such persons ever heard a voice, saw a form, or felt a touch for which no material presence could account. At the time, about one adult in ten in England claimed to have had such an experience. The census in America gave similar results. James gave credence to these testimonies, asking only that more data be collected. See William James, "What Psychical Research Has Accomplished," The Will to Believe (Cambridge: John Wilson and Son, 1897), pp. 311–13.
24. This idea of Ruskin's presupposes the art of the architect. Opposed to this, however, is an idea expressed in the film It Happened on Fifth Avenue, in which the character Aloysius T. "Mack" McKeever (Victor Moore) says, "A house, any house, is only what its occupants make it." It Happened on Fifth Avenue, dir. Roy Del Ruth (Los Angeles: Allied Artists, 1947).
25. Carroll C. Calkins, ed., Mysteries of the Unexplained (Pleasantville: Reader's Digest, 1992). See the chapter "Spectral Incursions," p. 166. The editor does tell of spectral beings who never appear "but make their presence felt."
26. Burke, in SB, speaks of magnitude and magnificence as causing sublime feeling, which is not the case here.
27. I am here getting at the quality of sense data.
28. One might readily compare this with amplitude and frequency of an electronic signal, where the amplitude expresses a quality of impulse (significance of memory and/or sense data), and the frequency expresses a quantity of impulse (number of memories and/or sense data per unit time).