By most accounts the Sublime is less sublime than it used to be. Its popular usage today is a quick lesson in our culture’s priorities writ small, ranging from the million-selling punk/pop/ska band Sublime to a porn site called the Sublime Directory, offering complete downloadable ecstasy with lots of “adult picture galleries.” Gone from the cultural scene are the primary 19th-century listings for Reason and the Imagination, not to mention the formative experiences of nature or a poet’s gothic scenes amid the Alps. Although there has been a resurgence of recent interest in the Sublime among poets and critics, it has also been considered at times to be reactionary. The traditional sublime suggests ideals like “transcendence,” which we now know to be, if we follow the theorists of our time, a hopelessly totalizing and monolithic concept, something like a cheap pine-scented air freshener that leaves the room smelling worse than when we began.

And yet these qualifications aside, at the heart of the sublime was and is a concern with vastness itself, traditionally, but not necessarily, experienced through place and the powerful forces that can overwhelm. Admittedly, the contemporary experience of nature can in part be reduced to cliché. The vastness of the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls has gone the way of tourist postcards and the favorite ‘50s honeymoon. Still, nature’s true terrors and vastness lie well beyond the powers of tourism and economic forces, as natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the Asian Tsunami all too horribly prove. Furthermore, the sublime is not to be confused with the beautiful. Both Kant and Burke associate the beautiful with a confirmation of already held beliefs; where the beautiful consoles with harmony, the sublime disturbs with terror. In fact, a website called Philosophical Dictionary defines the sublime this way:

“The aesthetic feeling aroused by experiences too overwhelming in scale to be appreciated as beautiful by the senses. The awe produced by standing on the brink of the Grand Canyon or the terror induced by witnessing a hurricane are properly said to be sublime.”

As an aesthetic experience, the sublime plays a dissonant chord, siding on a scale between excess and exile. Kant writes in the “Analytic of the Sublime” that “The transcendent . . . . is for the Imagination like an abyss in which [the imagination]fears to lose itself.” OK, we’re too postmodern to believe in strict transcendence, but what about the vast part? There is a lot in contemporary life and history that is hugely, vastly, beyond individual control. In the paradigm, the poet has a strong emotional response to some kind of power or authority. This overwhelming power is associated by the Romantics with nature, but couldn’t it also stem from another author figure, the international obliqueness of the butterfly effect, or the helplessness of the George Clooney character in Syriana to affect any change upon a vastly interconnected web of accident and evil in which agency, or even responsibility, are hopelessly outmoded notions? And if our experience of the vast and powerful has changed to include such labyrinthine ungraspables as global capitalism, the split atom, or complex and multiples sense of place, how has the sublime been revised and inherited among contemporary writers, or is the sublime so materially altered as to no longer be deserving of the name?

Of course, we live in a world that commodifies and commercializes the sites of ancient origin. What meaning lies in images when that packaging is less than benign? I’m thinking of M. Norbese Philip, a black poet who was born in the Caribbean but was educated in Canada, where she eventually settled. Her book of 1993 was entitled (rather unfortunately, I think) she tries her tongue, her silence softly breaks. She’s a poet whose awareness is burdened by a history explicitly designed to silence her. Moreover, she seems acutely aware of how sacred landscape is, by this time in history, a matter of appropriation, a subject she addresses in her poem called “African Majesty, from Grassland to Forest,” but which is also subtitled, significantly, as located in a museum, specifically, “The Barbara and Murray Frum Collection.”

Hot breath

the adorn of word
in meaning,
the mourn of loss
safe safety save

of man—
Berlin, London, Paris, New York,
revenge seeks the word
in a culture mined
to abstraction;
corbeaux circle
circles of plexiglass
circles of eyes
circles for the eyes—

For Philip, there is no easy access to the original place—African grassland and forest, majesty and memory—without facing it’s having been muted, museum’d, collected, displayed, dissected, art’d up, and stolen. There is also no mythic return to an imaginary time before the advent of history, that modernist dream more available say, to a powerful poet of another generation like Pablo Neruda (Heights of Macchu Picchu springs to mind). It is as if the vastness to be approached is no mere literal natural landscape so much as the engulfing weight of history’s erasures, its relentless undermining of self through culture, language, and in this case, slavery. How then does one speak of the sublime when the sacred is also a site of sacrilege?

Philip’s fragments enact a stumbling through the rubble left by the blasts of a particularly brutal collective history. It’s also as if race itself, with its cornerstone of “ancestor,” has now become the unrepresentable phantom that Kant once associated with the sublime, but it’s stripped here of the possibility of any redemptive backward- reaching act, apart from the poem as ritual itself. Within the currency of irony, the magic coin of the realm called “meaning” is part of what the poet mourns.

More next time on the sublime through the quasi “experimental” Harryette Mullen and the “post-avant” younger poet Srikanth Reddy.

Originally Published: February 13th, 2007

Pimone Triplett is the author of The Price of Light (Four Way Books, 2005) and Ruining the Picture (Triquarterly / Northwestern, 1998). She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa. Currently, she teaches at the University of Washington and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.