Tuesday, July 14, 2020

On the (Pandemic) Sublime

I get easily overwhelmed these days.  Things are just too.  Days are too beautiful.  Other days are too windy.  I'm overwhelmed by the number of cases of COVID 19 worldwide; I'm overwhelmed even more by the number of deaths and the impacts these deaths have on those left behind.  I'm living inside grief for both humanity and the planet.

I'm overwhelmed by my good fortune:  how rich and meaningful my life is!  How wonderful the people and critters who have companioned me--from Bill and Veronica, to good friends like Katherine and Jeanne or the former creative writing student I now talk to every Tuesday night.  My nine cats, each with his or her own distinctive personality, each with his or her own generosity toward their bumbling human companion.  The world is wondrous and bloody terrifying, and I feel in the thick of it all.  I feel this strange, uncomfortable mix of acute joy and profound sadness that can't be resolved into something one-dimensional. 

The best and simplest example is a beautiful evening.  Bill and I will have finished carrying watering cans to the pots and boxes and hanging baskets and tomato plants, and I'm sitting on my old garden bench, which will get a new coat of paint when it dries out after last night's thunderstorm which gave us the longest rolls of thunder I've ever heard, ending in a stentorian boom--but that's another story, a sublime story.  Or another side of this story.  Back to the lovely evening, sitting on my garden bench.  Golden light is coming through the brake of trees on the west side of our back yard, and a breeze is moving the leaves slightly, revealing two realities.  There are transparent leaves infused with green light, but these change slightly as the evening breeze moves the shadows of other leaves across them.  Even in a quiet breeze, that thicket changes second by second.  Sitting in my shady back garden, I feel as if I'm inside an emerald, with its dozens of different facets offering different viewpoints.  I can almost feel cooler air falling; I'm intimately aware of the fact that my skin is my biggest organ and it's reveling in gentle change.  I can count the times the wren who has nested in one of my bird houses comes in and out to feed her brood.  I hear, if I listen quietly, the sparrows of course, but also a nuthatch and a couple of chickadees, and the purple finch who sings to me in the morning and the wren who is celebrating the capture of another bug for her insatiable brood.  And there's a robin, singing his evening song.  The sky is like the vault of Santa Sophia.  I'm awash in joy and sadness.  All this is so present and so transitory.  When I described this state of mind to my friend Michael Trussler, he said "You've discovered the sublime."  Now I trust Michael.  And I've read both Kant and Burke about the sublime.  But I hadn't put it together in quite this way.  Just in case you sometimes feel the same way, I'll see what I can do about that--though I don't promise a philosopher's disinterested reading of either text.  I've cherry-picked elements of the sublime that at least give a name to what I feel so profoundly and so continuously this summer.

Edmund Burke began our fascination with the sublime in his 1757 study, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.  In this study, Burke is concerned with "the passions," that feeling part of human experience, and the sublime is one of the supreme of these.  He starts quite boldly by writing that "Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects...is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling."  We are most terrified, of course, by the threat of pain or death.  But in order to experience the powerful passions of the sublime we must experience them "at certain distances, and with certain  modifications" so that they may be as "delightful as [anything] we every day experience."  Think horror movies or thrillers, if that's what you find horrifying and delightful.  In fact, it was Burke's ideas of the sublime that informed the Gothic novels of Mrs. Radcliffe (Mysteries of Udolpho) and Matthew Lewis (The Monk) and that Jane Austen mocked in Northanger Abbey.  Burke considers how terror, power, vastness, infinity, loudness, suddenness or even magnificence in architecture prompt feelings of the sublime.  Infinity, he tells us "has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect and truest test of the sublime," but he doesn't mean the kind of infinity we find on the prairies when we crest a slow hill and can see the earth falling away beneath us.  He is more likely to see it in the ocean.  If it's a stormy ocean, all the better. 

Burke introduces us to the powerful feelings we have about something we cannot comprehend, like infinity or ranges of mountains. It's helpful to think about the Latin roots of "comprehend":  "com," or "with," "prehendere" or "grasp."  If we translated "comprehend" as "I can't get my head around," we wouldn't be far off.  Also helpful is his idea that we experience the sublimity of things at a remove.  We're not right in the incomprehensible mountains or afloat on a raging sea.  Our response, in other words, is aestheticized.  It's also contradictory.  We feel both horror and pleasure. Or, in my example of a lovely evening, we feel pleasure in the present moment while we're aware of an immensity of inexorably changing time that also evokes sadness.

In 1764, only 7 years later, Immanuel Kant wrote Observations on Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime [sic]; then in 1790 wrote his magisterial Critique of Judgement.  I only know the latter text, so cannot tell you how the earlier one might have responded to Burke or might have differed from Kant's later theories.  But I can say that his approach is much different from Burke's, in the sense that for him the effects of the sublime come not from our feelings or passions, but from the thinking we do about our reactions.  (Just right for me; more than one friend has said "Kathleen, you think too much!")  When we see something beautiful, we are aware of its purposefulness, of the rightness of its form.  Think about a cactus that manifests the Fibonacci sequence, and how we feel wonder at its beautiful mathematical order.  Part of the pleasure we feel is that our brain seems perfectly made to apprehend (from old French for "lay hold of") beauty in the natural world or in the arts. "But in what we are wont to call sublime in nature...it is rather in its chaos, or in its wildest and most irregular disorder and desolation, provided it gives signs of magnitude and power, that nature chiefly excites the ideas of the sublime."  The sublime offers us something of a magnitude that cannot be comprehended, indeed, something that seems beyond comprehension.  For Kant, we think about the sublime, attempting to comprehend it as a whole.  In turn, that effort of thought, successful or not, is evidence of a  mind that transcends "every standard of the senses."  Kant is Burke for eggheads:  "This makes it evident that true sublimity must be sought only in the mind of the judging subject and not in the object of nature" that calls forth the reaction.

It's our effort to comprehend the incomprehensible that seems to be the source of the sublime.  How, sitting in my garden, I try to wrap my head around the unfolding of season after season, year after year--not that many left to me in all probability.  As I wrote in "On Turning Seventy," this "judging subject" that produces Kant's sublimity is every day more aware of limits and endings--things my mind struggles to take in but that only have meaning if I joyfully try to comprehend them.

There's a sublimity to our experience of the pandemic, as well.  It is as incomprehensible as a range of mountains or ideas of infinity, particularly as the number of cases and deaths continues to rise wildly.  I can neither comprehend nor apprehend each individual who has died, much less those left behind who grieve those deaths, and the enormity of this overwhelms me.  I certainly can't comprehend some of the stupidity--political and individual--that puts our economies, ahead of lives. 

But our reflections on this sublimity reveal some other realities.  Even the pollsters know that we have become more reflective during the pandemic, and that on some levels we are relieved to have time slowed down for us.  There is an awkward beauty to the fact that the pandemic has forced us to be aware of what matters:  family and relationships--the foundation, many psychologists will tell you, of the good life.  David Berry wrote an article in the Globe's opinion pages this weekend, arguing that we will feel nostalgia for the pandemic, the way people felt nostalgic about the depression and for much the same reason:  we are pulling together as a community and taking care of each other.  Each time we put on our mask or use sanitizer before entering a public space or go the right way down the grocery aisle, we are acting in the interests of our community.  There is also evidence that during this reflective time we have taken stock of our societies and have decided that they can and must be made more equitable, and that change is already occurring.  City counsels are adopting resolutions.  Others are using the need to reconfigure public space, taking it outdoors, as a means of improving disadvantaged neighbourhoods.  We are attempting to create something meaningful from this tragedy, but that doesn't counterbalance all the death and suffering.  Like the sublime, we can't contain or balance the complexity and contradiction;  we simply have to be with it.

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