Understanding Thomas Weiskel's The Romantic Sublime

Understanding Thomas Weiskel's The Romantic Sublime

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Understanding Thomas Weiskel's The Romantic Sublime

In order to understand Weiskel's argument on the sublime, it would be helpful to briefly review the influential treatises on the sublime by Longinus, Immanuel Kant and Edmund. Longinus understands the sublime as intrinsically related to linguistics, as being achieved mainly through language and literature. The "linguistic sublime" causes one to transcend oneself. When one perceives an experience as producing ecstasy, he asserts, that experience can be considered sublime. According to Longinus, this effect can be achieved through powerful rhetoric; he then examines the sublime nature of the rhetoric of many great writers, including Homer and Sappho. He also considers the sublime to exist in political oration, theorizing "those personages, presenting themselves to us and inflaming our ardor and as it were illumining our path, will carry our minds in a mysterious way to the high standards of subliminity which are within us" (84).

Longinus cautions, however, that writers who strive to achieve sublimity often fail, instead creating "expressions . . . which are not sublime but high-flown" (77). He further elaborates that it is nearly impossible for the common writer to achieve sublimity through rhetoric, stating that, "While tumidity desires to transcend the limits of the sublime, the defect which is termed puerility is the direct antithesis of elevation." Writers easily fall prey to this error, Longinus explains: "[W]hile they aim at the uncommon and elaborate and most of all at the attractive, they drift unawares into the tawdry and affected" (77).

Longinus' theory focuses mainly on a sublime that results from a thing or event that possesses some type of positive literary effect. For Longinus, one is "uplifted by the true sublime [ . . . ] filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard" (78). Edmund Burke, alternatively, makes a distinction between what is beautiful (and pleasant) and the sublime, concluding that an experience that might be considered terrible may instead inspire a peculiar sense of pleasure, a delight derived from terror. It is Burke's opinion that human experience with a negative connotation tends to stimulate the sublime.

Burke proposes that the sublime is "[w]hatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger . . . any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror" (36). Burke's sublime is achieved through a type of indirect or derived terror, in which one experiences pleasure in the face of pain or terror.

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However, Burke asserts that a certain distance must exist between the terror and oneself in order for the sublime to succeed. His explanation of an execution is telling; he writes of "the most sublime and effecting tragedy we have," explaining that even the "most favorite actors" and the "greatest efforts of poetry, painting and music" are readily superseded by a report that a "criminal of high rank is on the point of being executed" (43). But he cautions his reader as to the limits of the pain, asserting that the sublime can only exist when "we do not suffer any very acute pain, nor are exposed to any imminent danger of our [own] lives" (44). In order for the sublime to exist, the object or event instilling it must occur at a relatively safe distance, and one must retain the element of control (of the situation).

Burke feels that nature can constitute sublimity. He considers the element of landscape, and how the sublime can be represented therein. Burke states that in order for landscape to be sublime, it must possess a "greatness of dimension," quite similar to the nature and landscape of Wordsworth. He refers to "a rock or mountain of . . . altitude" and "a rugged and broken surface" (66) as having the power to inspire the sublime. Burke further explores the challenge of how one might interact with nature and whether or not the sublime can be experienced subjectively or objectively through various descriptive aspects, such as infinity, uniformity, difficulty, and magnificence (67-71).
Moving from Burke to Kant, the sublime comes to be represented more through that which it is not rather than that which it is. Inheriting Burke's instigation of separating the beautiful and sublime, Kant states that the beautiful "directly brings with it a feeling of furtherance of life . . . compatible with the play of the imagination," while the sublime is a "pleasure that arises only indirectly . . . by the feeling of a momentary checking of the vital powers" that lead to emotion, an earnest "exercise of the imagination" (83). Kant asserts that the sublime occurs via an excitement that cannot be rationalized, and is accompanied by apprehension, challenging our judgment and our faculties of presentation, doing "violence to the imagination" (83).

According to Kant, "any object of nature" cannot be called sublime, but only beautiful. The sublime for Kant evades representation. The "wildest and most irregular disorder and desolation" (84), when coupled with size and might, still only begins to approach the edge of the sublime. The common belief that the sublime can be perceived in nature is thus for Kant incorrect. Nature, when experienced externally, as when one views a landscape, is merely beautiful. The sublime, in contrast, can only be achieved internally, through the thought process, in which the mind struggles to transcend the limiting confines of imagination to comprehend the sublime, fails, and in that failure, finds something more powerful than the natural object being considered.

Such "formlessness" (85) is the closest one can come to achieving sublimity. The sublime simply cannot be found in nature, but rather only in one's ideas of nature. When one considers the magnitude and power of a cliff (often mentioned by Wordsworth), the imagination attempts to develop an image. But because the sublime cannot be represented, one cannot achieve through imagination an image that would even approach acceptability, so that the sublime in any positive form, according to Kant, cannot exist. In a fashion similar to Kant, Wordsworth explores how the mind works through its interpretations of the power, danger, and limitations he sets in his poetry and in his landscapes.

Tom Weiskel begins his discussion of the sublime by informing his reader that "the sublime began where the conventional systems, readings of landscape or text, broke down, and it found in that very collapse the foundation for another order of meaning" (22). The element of unattainability proffered by Kant plays a fundamental role in Weiskel's reasoning:

In Kant's view the 'representation' of such an object must collapse, and this failure yields the intuition of 'unattainability.' But reason's ideas (of the unconditioned, the totality, etc.) are also "unattainable" since they cannot be imagined or presented in sensible form [ . . . ] The imagination's inability to comprehend or represent the object comes to signify the imagination's relation to the ideas of reason. In the opposing case of the beautiful, the natural object itself comes to signify. In the sublime, a relation to the object-the negative relation of unattainability-becomes the signifier in the aesthetic order of meaning. (22-23)

Kant embraces a structure as a means of explaining the sublime (the struggle between the mind and the imagination); Weiskel believes in a different type of structure. He examines the sublime in terms of the relationship between the signifier (an object) and the signified (the mind), explaining that "discourse [is] ruptured by an excess of the signified" in which "meaning is overwhelmed by an overdetermination which in its extreme threatens a state of absolute metaphor" (20) where everything becomes like everything else. As the mind becomes overwhelmed with an object, discourse becomes disjointed and then inadequate as the mind endeavors to comprehend the object. Weiskel beautifully describes such an experience:

We are reading and suddenly we are caught up in a word (or any signifying segment), which seems to "contain" so much that there is nothing we cannot "read into" it. The word dissolves into the Word. Or we are suddenly fixated by a spot in the landscape which becomes an omphalos-a recurrent event in Wordsworth. (27)

Weiskel then examines the modal dichotomy of discourse, asserting that two modes of the sublime can be identified, each containing the "anxiety" and "opposed strategies of resolution" (27) necessary for its existence. In the first mode, the metaphorical sublime, the lack of determinate meaning of words and their relation to each other becomes so great that the sublime is achieved through a "breakdown of discourse by substitution" (28). Weiskel contrasts this explanation of the sublime with the traditional speculation that clings to the idea of a "correlative ideological unanimity" in which one can attribute a meaning of "just about anything" (28) to the infinite spaces one might theoretically encounter. His basis for this mode of the sublime is similar to that of Kant, and he calls it the "reader's" sublime (28), positing that, in "some sense all works of literature which tease us out of thought will participate momentarily in the 'reader's' sublime" (29).

The second mode of the sublime is termed by Weiskel as metonymical. He quotes a passage from Wordsworth's "Tinturn Abbey" to exemplify this mode. Wordsworth's poem overwhelms the reader with such meaning that he is forced to displace the "excess of signified into a dimension of contiguity which may be spatial or temporal" (29). Weiskel speaks of the gaps in thought that occur in "Tinturn Abbey," a flipping back and forth of the mind from past to present, between signified and signifier, that creates, in essence, the "poet's" sublime, as opposed to the reader's sublime. As such, Weiskel asserts the "disorder of contiguity" is so intense that the reader is simply unable to affect a continuity to his thought. The poet's sublime impacts the mind in such a way that displacement of thought occurs through a complete break or silence (contiguity disorder) that can only be perceived by the reader through inference from the narrative. In the reader's sublime, the mind uses substitution (similarity disorder) to bridge the breakdown of discourse

Weiskel remarks that Roman Jakobson has likened the contiguity disorder and similarity disorder with a "kind of temporary aphasia" (30) to an "event, prospect, or text [that] leaves the subject 'speechless'" (30). Weiskel later quotes a passage from Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence" in which he reviews the dis-consonance of the conversation between the narrator and the old man. In this example of "sublime aphasia" (30), speech fails, the landscape "slips away" (33), and a "field of associations" is brought into play, "so troubled" (33) that the contiguity disorder within the poem is never resolved. As one attempts to reconcile the gap between the word and the idea, one is so overwhelmed with the difficulty of the situation that it becomes sublime. This is the theory of the sublime as asserted by Thomas Weiskel.

Required Texts

W. Wordsworth and S.T. Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads. (1798, 1800, 1802) Ed. R.L. Brett & A.R. Jones. Routledge, 1992.

William Wordsworth, The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850. Eds. J. Wordsworth, M.H. Abrams & S. Gill. Norton, 1979.

William Wordsworth: The major Works. Ed. S. Gill. Oxford, 1984/2000

Thomas Hardy, The Woodlanders. Ed. D. Kramer. Oxford, 2001.

Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It. Chicago, 1989.

Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age; or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. Bantam Reprint, 2000
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