The Beautiful and Sublime: Accepting Art As It Is

As we move toward looking at art and creation as the Romantics did, it would be helpful to look at Edmund Burke’s treatise A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Beautiful and Sublime. A Philosophical Inquiry put Burke on the radar with other contemporary philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and David Hume. Anyway, he wrote this treatise examining the beautiful and sublime–pretty much the how and why we enjoy both beautiful things and unpleasant things. We’re used to this idea, right? I mean we enjoy grabbing some delicious ice cream at Trowbridge’s, but we–not I!–also enjoy jumping off buildings while only attached by a cord. Here’s what Burke has to say in regard to the Beautiful and Sublime:

[The Sublime and Beautiful] are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure; and however they may vary afterwards from the direct nature of their causes, yet these causes keep up an eternal distinction between them, a distinction never to be forgotten by any whose business it is to affect the passions. In the infinite variety of natural combinations, we must expect to find the qualities of things the most remote imaginable from each other united in the same object. We must expect also to find combinations of the same kind in the works of art. (III.27)

Burke, like his contemporaries, writes a little verbose for our 21st century comprehension. In 21st century language, Burke would be saying, “The Sublime and Beautiful are pretty much opposites–one is caused by pain, the other by pleasure. Even though they’re almost complete opposites, sometimes a single object can evoke the reactions of both the Sublime and the Beautiful. And you won’t just find this in nature, obviously; art produces these effects, as well.”

For the purposes of this blog, we’ll be focusing on the Beautiful and Sublime of art, specifically of Literature.

If we’re going to accept the Aesthetic viewpoint of Literature, acquiring a sense of the Beautiful and Sublime is necessary to be able to accept all Literature as that which can and will evoke in the reader the emotions of the creator.

We easily accept that Literature that we readily call Beautiful. Reading Wordsworth’s pastoral poetry or Shakespeare’s sensual  sonnets engenders a feeling of pleasantness and calmness, that warm, passionate feeling in the heart. When we read something ugly, dirty, or challenging, our first reaction may be to put it down, but accepting the truth of the usefulness of the Beautiful as well as the Sublime requires readers to find the pleasure–if not just the pragmatic purpose–in Literature that exemplifies Sublime characteristics How else could we enjoy Literature like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment? Readers would have to put the novel down before the ending of the second chapter if they refused to accept the pleasure that the intense monomania and deep self-examination of Raskolnikov’s mind gives. In the end, though, there’s a payoff. Through experiencing the broken nature of Raskolnikov’s dying and depraved mind, the reader, along with Raskolnikov, joins Lazarus in his resurrection, a cleansing well worth enduring the intimate involvement in the mind of a killer.

It seems some are refusing this outlook and even taking one more step to censor Literature that makes them uncomfortable. NewSouth Books, based in Montgomery Alabama, published a combined volume of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer in which the “N-word” is replaced with “slave.” Now, there’s no use in playing blame games, and certainly the implications of this publication are manifold; the debate extends into many areas of criticism. I think, though, that our view of literature through the Aesthetic, using the idea of the accepting the Sublime weighs in on this debate.

With our current worldview, words that make another person of society an “other” are attacked–and, many times, rightfully so. The editor of this new edition, Alan Gribben (Twain scholar and professor at Auburn University in Montgomery), proposed this new edition so that the novels would be more readily accepted and taught in school literature classes. Unfortunately, as Twain Biographer Ron Powers agrees, the avoidance of this uncomfortable word destroys the kind of moment that educators should be looking for, a moment of teachability: “[Twain’s language] cries out for conversation between teachers and students. It cries out for context.”

Twain intended to evoke emotion with his use of language that marginalizes a group of people. To edit Twain’s language is to suppress his ability to convey emotion. Censoring Twain is a rejection of accepting art as it is. Society wouldn’t accept the drawing of a mustache on the Mona Lisa just because an expert of Michelangelo was uncomfortable with the ambiguity of the painting and wanted the gender decided once and for all. We accept the art as it is.

Should students no longer study Crime and Punishment because Dostoevsky uses a prostitute to bring a murderer to repentance?

This debate reaches deep into all sorts of novels and poetry, and of course, this isn’t the place for that argument to start, but I did find the debate to be applicable to the subject of the Beautiful and the Sublime. I would encourage you to research more on your own about the Twain debate and other problems of not accepting the Sublime.

Until next time, check out these Romantic poems that carry themes of the Beautiful and Sublime:


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