2. The Romantic Sublime

“But Gothic art is sublime. On entering a cathedral, I am filled with devotion and awe; I am lost to the actualities that surround me, and my whole being expands into the infinite; earth and air, nature and art, all swell up into eternity, and the only sensible expression left is, ‘that I am nothing!’”
Coleridge, ‘European Literature’

My reading for the best part of November has been the history of the sublime. It is integral that I understand where the concept has come from and how it has changed over the course of its lifetime. My main focus has been The Sublime by Philip Shaw, which offers a comprehensive overview of the concept’s evolution (and the ‘Sublime Problem’) from Dionysus Longinus in the first century CE to its postmodern incarnations. Shaw’s emphasis is on those theorists and philosophers who have written at length on the subject and contributed most influentially to the changing concept.

The ‘Sublime Problem’ is a reflection of the issue at the heart of the sublime: how to define something which, by definition, is undefinable. This seems the driving force behind the theory of the sublime and varying approaches are taken with regards to navigating it. Longinus’ predilections were for a rhetoric sublime; a form of righteous speech which elevated its listeners to heights of rapturous awe, but the noble and divine aspects of this are at odds with its reliance on the materialistic dependency of words. How can it be divine, unknown, sublime, if we can reduce it to components of language? Longinus counters this by suggesting that the sublime cannot be taught or instructed, preserving the mystery at the heart of the concept but failing to rationalise its origins or mechanics.

It is a paradox that will haunt the sublime for almost two thousand years. Is the source of the sublime divine, natural, or a product of the human mind? If it is the latter, is it a spiritual, psychological or biological experience? Burnet attempts to move away from the sublime’s slavish dependency on language, suggesting that the sublime stems instead from the natural world. Dennis expanded on this; for him, the natural sublime represents a manifestation of the vastness, the power and terror of God. Later theorists realised the importance of reflection and distance to experiencing the sublime, all the while debating the nature of the sublime as a constructed or inherent concept.

I could go on for pages but it is the Romantic sublime of the mid-to-late eighteen century that I want to briefly reference here. From my initial readings, it is clear that the Romantic sublime is closely related to horror/Gothic fiction, linked as they are by the time periods in which they appeared, the themes of the supernatural and the reliance of this sublime on art/literature as a means of being invoked. By this stage, theorists had deemed art as a platform or medium through which nature and mind could be consolidated, Schelling suggesting that art, or imagination, is an intuitive response to the sublime. Without doubt, this is the form of the sublime that I have already recognised in my reading. The themes of terror, the supernatural, old gods, vast castles, forests, storms and ancient rituals that constitute Gothic fiction imbue the grandeur, the otherworldliness, the unfathomable and the mystic associated with sublime. From our place as detached viewers/readers, experiencing these terrors from the safe distance of a book or canvas, we are in prime position to receive them and their sublime inferences.

It is not much, but it is a start, and confirmation, perhaps, that there might be some body and soul to my project. Longinus remarks that not everyone is receptive of the sublime, but I feel better for understanding more clearly my affinity for horror fiction; a question which has long weighed on my mind, as I am sure it does many horror writers. Often I have questioned my own role as a writer in this field, when my style or voice has not conformed to genre conventions. My protagonists do not seem so strange now for loving the wolves’ howls, or setting fire to their paintings, or eschewing home comforts for the cold tracks of the night-time forest. They too have sensed a meaning beyond that of thought or language, and chased after it through flames, animal song and the night.