When I did an image-search for “sublime,” literally all I got for 16 pages were promo pics of the band Sublime, and this plate of enchiladas:
Sorry guys: I don’t think we can talk about Longinus without talking about fascism. Which is to say, I don’t think we can talk about the sublime without talking about the dangers of the sublime.
Because the sublime is dangerous, almost by definition.* Throughout the history of the sublime, its thinkers have faced the choice either to accept this danger, or (the more common option) try to diffuse or recuperate the danger in some way.
The danger is there from the beginning, although Longinus doesn’t seem to recognize it. Or, better: for Longinus, it is not yet a danger.
We don’t know that much about Longinus. There’s a general scholarly consensus that he lived in either the first or the third century, and that his name either was, or was not, Longinus. (There’s enough disagreement about this last point that many scholars call him “Pseudo-Longinus.” I’ll stick with “Longinus,” mainly because “Pseudo-Longinus” sounds even sillier than “Longinus.”)
The only work we know of by Longinus is On the Sublime.
For Longinus, the sublime is primarily a rhetorical effect. Most of On the Sublime reads like a primer on “excellence in style.” He spends a lot of time talking about stylistic mistakes such as bombast, frigidity, etc, with examples of writers or orators who’ve done things incorrectly. These kinds of mistakes, he argues, can mar the effect of the sublime.
What is that effect? It’s kind of a rhetorical trump card. Or no: A-bomb. Or…
To believe or not is usually in our own power; but the Sublime, acting with an imperious and irresistible force, sways every reader whether he will or no…a sublime thought, if happily timed, illumines an entire subject with the vividness of a lightning-flash, and exhibits the whole power of the orator in a moment of time (section I).
The sublime “does not convince the reason of the reader, but takes him out of himself,” it “confounds our judgment, and eclipses that which is merely reasonable or agreeable.”
It skips our reason entirely, and causes us to believe via a kind of brute rhetorical force.
Sounds terrifying, really. Sounds like the nightmare-version of what Plato was worried the poets were going to do to the Republic.
I’m not going to put a picture of Hitler in this post. I already feel bad enough that I’m mentioning him in the first place.
Though the sublime, as rhetorical effect, bypasses or overwhelms its audience’s reason, Longinus does not see this as a problem, the way Plato would. Why not? Because among the conditions he lists for a speaker to access the sublime, the first, and most important, is “a certain lofty cast of mind.”
Sublimity is, in fact, “the image of greatness of soul.”
“True eloquence can be found only in those whose spirit is generous and aspiring.”
Only great souls can use the sublime, overwhelming their audiences’ reason for purposes of greatness.
Oh, thank God.
Except that greatness of soul, for Longinus, includes some ideas that we wouldn’t subscribe to. Or that I hope that we wouldn’t subscribe to. Not if said “great souls” were wandering around the present day.**
The example of a great soul that Longinus gives is Alexander, who conquered most of the known world:
It is only natural that their words should be full of sublimity whose thoughts are full of majesty. Hence sublime thoughts belong properly to the loftiest minds. Such was the reply of Alexander to his general Parmenio, when the latter had observed, ‘Were I Alexander, I should have been satisfied’; ‘And I, were I Parmenio’… (section IX)
I don’t want to sound snide about this. But what we’re talking about is a pretty fundamental difference in value systems. Among the virtues of Longinus and his contemporaries, even among the most well-educated and refined, brute force played a significant role.
Look at what they did to Cicero’s hands. Look at what they did to his tongue.
What we are talking about here is what the 20th-century philosopher Walter Benjamin refers to as “the introduction of aesthetics into political life.” When Marinetti claims that “War is beautiful because it establishes man’s domination over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks” it is clear that “beauty” is here used in the valorative sense (that is, beauty in this case just means “aesthetic + good”); the aesthetic realm that Marinetti is in, here, describing the pleasures of war, is the sublime.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine convincing a people to go to war for the sake of beauty. Beauty, properly speaking, doesn’t shake us the way the sublime does. It doesn’t “eclipse our judgment,” it doesn’t “sway every reader”(/listener/viewer), whether they will it or no. Beauty, with its attention to detail, its concern for balance, its fundamental tension between form and material, in fact gets along quite well with our reason. Beauty is playful, but it’s not overwhelming.
On the Sublime effectively disappears from Western culture for around fifteen centuries, between the time of its writing and the sixteenth century. The text is rediscovered just in time for the Enlightenment. It’s hard not to want to see this in terms of the “return of the repressed”: an essay on how to defeat reason reappears at the moment of the emergence of capital-R Reason.
For Longinus, the danger of the sublime was not a danger, because only “great souls” had access to the sublime as a form of rhetoric. The fact that the sublime has the potential to overwhelm reason doesn’t matter, since the endpoint, in any case, is virtue.
For Kant, the sublime represents a danger, specifically in its potential to overwhelm reason. He responds by reasserting the power of reason to short-circuit the dark, irrational, overwhelming moment of the sublime—and claims, in a nice bit of Enlightenment co-opting, that this short-circuiting is, itself, the sublime pleasure.
For Benjamin, the danger is no longer simply (simply?) the philosophical danger that the sublime represents against reason, but the aesthetization of politics in the form of National Socialism. That is, the danger is of people willing to kill, and die, for “that which does not convince their reason, but takes them out of themselves.”
It is worth noting that among the laws the Nazis introduced into Germany was a ban on art criticism.
It is worth noting that Joseph Goebbels referred to “we who shape modern German politics” as “an artistic people, entrusted with the great responsibility of forming out of the raw materials of the masses a solid, well-wrought structure of a Volk.”
*Is beauty dangerous? I’m not sure. Certainly beauty is much more rational than the sublime. Beauty might have more of death in it than the sublime—death as known quantity, as measurable. Death from the outside.
I’m thinking of what a world scrubbed clean of the sublime would be like. A world that completed the Enlightenment project of making the world rational. It seems that in this case the sublime, the irrational, would reemerge, on an even larger scale—something like what is referred to occasionally as the “technological sublime.”
I’ll argue later on that Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is, at its base, a blueprint for scrubbing the world clean of sublimity. For now I’ll note that the constant multiplication of reproductions, which Benjamin views as a de-sublimizing force, ends in what we now call the “postmodern sublime.”
**Of course, they are, unfortunately.