The sublime and the analogical


Words by Alex Ling

Bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks […] make our power of resistance of trifling moment in comparison with their might. But provided our own position is secure, their aspect is all the more attractive for its fearfulness; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the forces of the soul above the height of vulgar commonplace, and discover within us a power of resistance of quite another kind, which gives us courage to be able to measure ourselves against the seeming omnipotence of nature.[1]

1. Analogy
The history of Western philosophy is in many ways a long love affair with the art of metaphor. Of these cherished rhetorical devices, few have proven as enduring, as powerful, and as versatile, as that of mountain climbing. Struggle and perseverance, exploration and adventure, possibility and limitation, corporality and transcendence, significance and futility; the image of the (often solitary) climber attempting to scale an unforgiving peak is one that just keeps on giving.

Countless ‘great names’ of the Western canon have fallen back on this image to illustrate key aspects of their own intellectual project: Friedrich Nietzsche in expressing the ‘will to power’ in Thus Spoke Zarathustra; Jean-Paul Sartre in explaining his conception of human freedom in relation to “coefficient[s] of adversity”[2] in Being and Nothingness; V.I. Lenin in emphasising the need to avoid despondency in the face of crushing defeat in ‘On Ascending a High Mountain’. Even my own principal philosophical touchstone, Alain Badiou, immediately seized upon the same analogy—of slowly ascending a treacherous mountain—when recounting to me what philosophy ‘meant’ to him.

Yet for all its versatility, the metaphor of the tenacious climber has obvious limitations, first and foremost being the fact that it is, at best, little more than an analogical, or allegorical, device. And as Lenin (yes, that Lenin) is quick to point out, “an analogy is not proof. Every analogy is lame.”[3] Neither argument nor evidence, the point of the metaphor is simply to assist us in coming to terms with otherwise abstract or difficult ideas; it is, as Aristotle puts it in his Rhetoric, “the pleasantest means to enable new knowledge.”[4] Or in other words, the metaphor itself is not the ‘point’; rather, it is what helps us to arrive at the point.

That being said, there is, I think, at least one critical instance where the metaphor is the point—or at least, where the point can only be expressed figuratively. The case I have in mind here is that of the sublime. Needless to say, I don’t mean ‘sublime’ in the weak sense of the term, as for example when we use it to declare something to be ‘exceptionally good’ or ‘beautiful’ (as in “that meal was sublime,” or “what a sublime sunset”). Rather, I mean it in its full philosophical sense: as an experience of such overwhelming intensity that it renders reason itself inadequate (hence the need to resort to figuration).

2.  Sublimity
It is arguably because of its inherent resistance to reason, or the way “it short-circuits thinking with itself,”[5] that the concept of sublimity has repeatedly fallen in and out of favour since it was originally articulated by the first-century Greek theoretician Longinus. Even so, the idea has inspired thinkers as distinguished as Immanuel Kant and Jean-François Lyotard, and been championed by generations of artists, from the European Romantics to the modern avant-gardes. If the idea still resonates in the public consciousness today, however, this is foremost due to the account offered by Edmund Bourke in his extraordinary 1757 work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful.

As the title suggests, Bourke is at pains here to distinguish the concepts of ‘the beautiful’ and ‘the sublime’. Whereas ‘beauty’, for him, figures “that quality or those qualities in bodies by which they cause love, or some passion similar to it”[6] (hence its classical association with things like delicacy and gentleness), the sublime is contrarily founded on “whatever is qualified to cause terror,”[7] and in particular, on those things in nature—violent electric storms, thundering waterfalls, dark and foreboding forests—that cause terror by the potential threat they pose. In Bourke’s words:

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, or operates in a manner analogous to terror—is a source of the sublime.[8]

Of these threatening natural objects, the most terrifying—or at least, the one that Bourke calls upon most insistently—is that of the “immense mountain” face, whose towering height is for him only surpassed in effect by its depth, such that we are even “more struck at looking down from a precipice, than at looking up at an object of equal height.”[9] Needless to say, this intensification is a result of the increase in perceived danger, in so far as ‘looking down’ clearly invites a stronger and more immediate feeling of terror by raising the possibility of falling to one’s death.

Yet it is crucial to understand that terror in itself is neither the cause nor the outcome of the sublime. On the contrary, key to this experience is the idea that pain and danger exist only in potential, such that the form of terror produced is one which is paradoxically laced with a kind of extreme pleasure; a pleasure that turns on the idea of pain—or more specifically, on the removal of pain or danger. According to Bourke, this abstracted and compartmentalised ‘idea’ of pain and danger, critical to any experience of the sublime, inspires a very particular emotion in the experiencer: not terror but rather “delight”:

When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful […]. Whatever excites this delight, I call sublime.[10]

We really would be hard pressed to put things clearer than this: the sublime, made manifest through an encounter with something truly “terrible in nature,”[11] excites those ideas associated with self-preservation (principally pain and danger), but in holding these at a safe distance, transforms them into something singularly delightful. So it is not terror but delight—this peculiar sensation attendant to the removal of pain and danger—which figures the affect proper to the experience of sublimity. In a word, delight is truly the most sublime of emotions.

3. Expression
As a sensation that effectively precludes sense, the sublime poses a special problem for philosophical expression. For in falling “outside the horizons of presentation,”[12] hence outside the field of objective demonstration, it might only be expressed indirectly, through its subjective representation. This is one of the reasons why philosophical discussion of sublimity has historically tended toward the vast, awe-inspiring artworks of the late 18th and early 19th century: witness, for example, the extraordinary violence and power of the churning ocean in J.M.W. Turner’s The Shipwreck (1805), or the sheer immensity (both of the landscape and of the painting itself) of James Ward’s Gordale Scar (1812–14)—the latter, not incidentally, depicting the limestone cliffs around Malham Cove.

Evocative as these paintings may be, they remain nonetheless ‘artist’s impressions,’ second-order representations of the painter’s peculiar conception of sublimity—which we know is itself, strictly speaking, inconceivable—and not the experience itself. Moreover, as Bourke himself is well aware, the mimetic nature of (most) painting is itself inherently restricting, not least since it misses out on many of the “enlivening touches” which less “direct” forms of representation might grant it.[13]

Clearly imitative representation alone is insufficient to express the sublime. What is instead required is that we find some way, however limited and imperfect, to experience something of its experience. And the artform most apt to provide this—the one whose very interest to philosophy lies in large part in its ability to deliver “an expression of experience by experience”[14]—is not static, studied painting, but rather the immersive art of moving images: cinema.

4. Figuration
All of which leads us back to our initial image of the mountain climber, philosophy’s figure of choice when it comes to expressing the inexpressible. For it is, I suggest, precisely this “experience of experience” that Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s hugely successful 2018 film Free Solo allows us to glimpse. Simply put, in documenting Alex Honnold’s unroped solo ascent of El Capitan, Vasarhelyi and Chin’s film not only captures a truly exceptional physical and mental feat—arguably one of the greatest athletic achievements of our age—but at the same time provides us with a window onto an experience of real sublimity.

Indeed, so perfectly does the story of Honnold’s solo ascent encapsulate all of the principal aspects on which the sublime depends that we would be forgiven for supposing it to have been scripted by Bourke himself. Not only is the film structured around the very definition of an “immense vertical rock formation,” moreover, everything that Bourke identifies as central to evoking this experience is on full display: from those quintessential qualities of  “majesty, vastness, infinity, [and] greatness of scale,”[15] to the embrace of “darkness, solitude and silence,”[16]  and of course, the “surmounting of difficulties” through “intense exercise or labour.”[17]

Likewise, the sheer magnitude of the landscape finds its ‘natural’ complement in the similarly sublime “last extreme of littleness,”[18] Vasarhelyi and Chin taking care to offset the many shots of the towering vertical walls of Yosemite Valley (replete with roaring waterfalls, etc.) by focusing in tightly on the individual crystals and minerals composing their slick granite faces. This interplay of the infinite and the infinitesimal is most memorably encapsulated in the sequences comprising the ‘Freeblast Slab’ pitch, where extreme close-ups of Honnold’s insecure hand and foot placements are juxtaposed with long shots that alternatively struggle to contain the enormous face of El Capitan (too vast to be satisfactorily captured by the camera) and the valley floor below (a distant green blur in the background).

Needless to say, all of these potentially sublime elements, together with their attendant feelings of fear and terror, are only amplified—exponentially so—by the nature of Honnold’s ascent, or by the way that he chooses to confront all of this, in every sense of the word, solo. After all, this is what distinguishes his achievement from previous ascents, marking it out as both singular and sublime. Namely, the simple yet simultaneously incomprehensible fact that, in embracing the threat posed by El Capitan’s 3000-foot granite face, Honnold succeeds in transforming what should be an experience of abject terror into one of supreme confidence, perfect self-awareness, and almost irrepressible joy.

This, to return finally to our original concerns with philosophical expression, is also what a film like Free Solo has to offer philosophy: not only an opportunity to revitalise the metaphor of the mountain climber as figuring the limits of intellection, but a chance moreover to experience some of the experience of sublimity. Of course, like the concept itself, this experience is necessarily alloyed and allayed, indirect and incomplete; an experience experienced at multiple removes—through the camera, through the film crew’s own experience, through the many artifices (some opportunistic, some obligatory) which adhere as much to its form (‘popular documentary’) as to the medium itself (the cinema).

Still, it is, undeniably, a real experience, one that gives us a sense of having encountered, from an appropriately safe distance, something truly extraordinary. Indeed, it might even leave us feeling some of what Honnold himself repeatedly tells us he feels on completing his sublime ascent (in a formulation that would doubtless meet with Bourke’s approval), namely, “so delighted.”

[1] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. James Meredith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007): 91.

[2] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes (New York, 1956): 482.

[3] V.I. Lenin, Collected Works: Vol 33, ed. & trans. David Skvirsky and George Hanna (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965): 205.

[4] Aristotle, ‘Rhetoric,’ The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014): 1410b12 (trans. modified).  

[5] Jean-François Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1994): 54.

[6] Edmund Bourke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (London: Routledge, 2008): 91.

[7] Bourke, Sublime and Beautiful, 129.

[8] Bourke, Sublime and Beautiful, 39.

[9] Bourke, Sublime and Beautiful, 72.

[10] Bourke, Sublime and Beautiful, 51 (emphasis in original).

[11] Bourke, Sublime and Beautiful, 69.

[12] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986): 79.

[13] Bourke, Sublime and Beautiful, 172. I say “most” painting since, in the interest of space, I’m clearly passing over 19th and 20th century avant-garde art, in particular abstract and non-objective painting, and its own powerful claims to sublimity.

[14] Vivian Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992): 3.

[15] Tracy Bashkoff, ‘Introduction,’ On the Sublime (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2001): 23.

[16] Bourke, Sublime and Beautiful, 70.

[17] Bourke, Sublime and Beautiful, 133 (emphasis in original).

[18] Bourke, Sublime and Beautiful, 72.

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