Sunday, April 18, 2010

On the Sublime

Long partial to deserts, drawn to photographs of the American West (bits of tumbleweed blowing across a wasteland) and the names of the great deserts (Mojave, Kalahari, Taklamakan, Gobi), I booked a charter flight to the Israeli resort of Eilat and went to wander in the Sinai. On the plane journey over, I talked to a young Australian woman beside me, who was taking up a job as a lifeguard at the Eilat Hilton, and I read Pascal:

When I consider...the small space I occupy which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me [l’infinie immensité des espaces que j’ignore et qui m’ignorent], I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here?

- Pascal, Pensées, 68

Wordsworth urged us to travel through landscapes in order to feel emotions that may benefit our souls. I set out for the desert so as to be made to feel small. It is usually unpleasant to be made to feel small, whether by doormen in hotels or by comparison with heroes of great achievement. But there may be another and more satisfying way for a person to feel diminished. Intimations of this may be felt by any viewer who stands in front of Rocky Mountains, Landers Peak (1863) by Albert Bierstadt, An Avalanche in the Alps (1803) by Philip James de Loutherbourg or Chalk Cliffs on Rugen by Caspar David Friedrich. What do such barren, overwhelming spaces do for us?

Two days into my Sinai trip, the group of twelve that I have joined reaches a valley empty of life, without trees, grass, water or animals. Only boulders lie strewn across its sandstone floor, as though the stamping of a petulant giant had caused them to roll off the sides of the surrounding mountains. These mountains look like naked Alps, their nudity revealing geological origins normally concealed beneath coats of earth and pine forest. There are gashes and fissures that speak of the pressures of millennia, offering up cross sections through disproportionate expanses of time. The Earth’s tectonic plates have rippled granite as though it were linen. The mountains spread out in seeming infinity over the horizon until eventually the high plateau of the southern Sinai gives way to a featureless, baking gravel pan to which the Bedouins have given the name El Tih, or ‘the Desert of the Wandering’.

There are few emotions about places for which adequate single words exist; we are forced instead to make awkward piles of words to convey what we feel as we watch the light fade on an early autumn evening, or when we encounter a pool of perfectly still water in a clearing. But at the beginning of the eighteenth century, a word came to prominence by means of which it became possible to indicate a specific response towards precipices and glaciers, night skies and deserts. In their presence one was likely to experience, and count on being understood if one reported that one had felt, a sense of the sublime.

The word itself had originated around 200 AD., in a treatise ‘On the Sublime’ ascribed to the Greek author Longinus, but it had languished until a retranslation of the essay into English in 1712 sparked a renewed, intense interest among critics. While these writers often differed in their specific analyses of the word, their shared assumptions were striking. They grouped into a single category, by virtue of their size, emptiness or danger, a variety of hitherto unconnected landscapes, and argued that such places provoked an identifiable feeling that was both pleasurable and morally good. The value of landscapes would henceforth be decided not solely on the basis of formal aesthetic criteria (the harmony of colours, for example, or the arrangement of lines) or even economic or practical concerns, but rather according to the power of places to arouse the mind to sublimity.

Joseph Addison, in his ‘Essay on the Pleasures of the Imagination’, wrote of the ‘delightful stillness and amazement’ he felt before ‘the prospects of an open champian country, a vast uncultivated desert, huge heaps of mountains, high rocks and precipices and a wide expanse of waters’. Hildebrand Jacob, in an essay entitled ‘How the Mind Is Raised by the Sublime’, offered a list of the places and things that were most likely to invoke this prized feeling: oceans, either in calm or storm, the setting sun, precipices, caverns and Swiss mountains.

Travellers set off to investigate. In 1739, the poet Thomas Gray undertook a walking tour of the Alps, the first of many such self-conscious pursuits of the sublime, and afterwards reported, ‘In our little journey up to the Grande Chartreuse, I do not remember to have gone ten paces without an exclamation that there was no restraining. Not a precipice, not a torrent, not a cliff, but is pregnant with religion and poetry.’

The southern Sinai at dawn. What, then, is this feeling? It is generated by a valley created four hundred million years ago, by a granite mountain 2,300 meters high and by the erosion of millennia marked on the walls of a succession of steep canyons. Beside all these, man seems merely dust postponed: the sublime as an encounter—pleasurable; intoxicating, even—with human weakness in the face of the strength, age and size of the universe.

In my backpack, I am carrying a torch, a sun hat and Edmund Burke. At the age of twenty-four, after giving up his legal studies in London, Burke composed A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He was categorical: sublimity had to do with a feeling of weakness. Many landscapes were beautiful—meadows in spring, soft valleys, oak trees, banks of flowers (daisies especially)—but they were not sublime. ‘The ideas of the sublime and beautiful are frequently confounded,’ he complained. ‘Both are indiscriminately applied to things greatly differing and sometimes of natures directly opposite’—a trace of irritation on the part of the young philosopher with those who might have gasped at the Thames from Kew and called that sublime. A landscape could arouse the sublime only when it suggested power—a power greater than that of humans, and threatening to them. Sublime places embodied a defiance to man’s will. Burke illustrated his argument with an analogy about oxen and bulls: ‘An ox is a creature of vast strength; but he is an innocent creature, extremely serviceable, and not at all dangerous for which reason the idea of an ox is by no means grand. A bull is strong too; but his strength is of another kind; often very destructive....The idea of a bull is therefore great, and it has frequently a place in sublime descriptions, and elevating comparisons.’

There were oxlike landscapes, innocent and ‘not all dangerous’, pliable to human will; Burke had spent his youth in one such, at a quaker boarding school in the village of Ballitore in County Kildare, thirty miles southwest of Dublin: a landscape of farms, orchards, hedges, rivers and gardens. Then there were bull-like landscapes. The essayist enumerated their qualities: they were vast, empty, often dark and apparently infinite because of the uniformity and succession of their elements. The Sinai was among them.

But why the pleasure? Why seek out this feeling of smallness—delight in it, even? Why leave the comforts of Eilat, join a group of desert devotees and walk for miles with a heavy pack along the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba, all to reach a place of rocks and silence where one must shelter from the sun like a fugitive in the scant shadow of giant boulders? Why contemplate with exhilaration rather than despair beds of granite and baking gravel pans and a frozen lava of mountains extending into the distance until the peaks dissolve at the edge of a hard blue sky?
One answer is that not everything that is more powerful than us must always be hateful to us. What defies our will can provoke anger and resentment, but it may also arouse awe and respect. It depends on whether the obstacle appears noble in its defiance or squalid and insolent. We begrudge the defiance of the cocky doorman even as we honour that of the mist-shrouded mountain. We are humiliated by what is powerful and mean but awed by what is powerful and noble. To return to and extend Burke’s animal analogy, a bull may arouse a feeling of the sublime, whereas a piranha cannot. It seems a matter of motives: we interpret the piranha’s power as being vicious and predatory, and the bull’s as guileless and impersonal.

Even when we are not in deserts, the behaviour of others and our own flaws are prone to leave us feeling small. Humiliation is a perpetual risk in the world of men. It is not unusual for our will to be defied and our wishes frustrated. Sublime landscapes do not therefore introduce us to our inadequacy; rather, to touch on the crux of their appeal, they allow us to conceive of a familiar inadequacy in a new and more helpful way. Sublime places repeat in grand terms a lesson that ordinary life typically introduces viciously: that the universe is mightier than we are, that we are frail and temporary and have no alternative but to accept limitations on our will; that we must bow to necessities greater than ourselves.

This is the lesson written into the stones of the desert and the ice fields of the poles. So grandly is it written there that we may come away from such places not crushed but inspired by what lies beyond us, privileged to be subject to such majestic necessities. The sense of awe may even shade into a desire to worship.

Because what is mightier than man has traditionally been called God, it does not seem unusual to start thinking of a deity in the Sinai. The mountains and valleys spontaneously suggest that the planet was built by something other than our own hands, by a force greater than we could gather, long before we were born, and set to continue long after our extinction (something we may forget when there are flowers and fast-food restaurants by the roadside).

God is said to have spent much time in the Sinai, most notably two years in the central region, looking after a group of irascible Israelites who complained about the lack of food and had a weakness for foreign gods. ‘The Lord came from Sinai,’ said Moses shortly before his death (Deuteronomy 33:2). ‘And Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly,’ we are told by Exodus (19:18). ‘And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed and stood afar off. And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you...’ (Exodus 20:18—19).

But biblical history serves only to reinforce an impression that would have occurred anyway to a traveller encamped in the Sinai: an impression that some intentional being must have had a hand in this, something greater than man and with an intelligence that mere ‘nature’ does not possess—a ‘something’ for which the word God still seems, even to the secular mind, a far from unlikely appellation. The knowledge that natural rather than supernatural forces can also create beauty and an impression of power seems peculiarly ineffective when one stands before a sandstone valley rising towards what appears to be a giant altar, above which hangs a slender crescent moon.

Early writers on the sublime repeatedly connected sublime landscapes with religion:

• Joseph Addison, ‘On the Pleasures of the Imagination’ (1712): ‘A vast space naturally raises in my thoughts the idea of an Almighty Being.’

• Thomas Gray, Letters (1739): ‘There are certain scenes that would awe an atheist into belief without the help of any other argument.’

• Thomas Cole, ‘Essay on American Scenery’ (1835): ‘Amid those scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has never been lifted, the associations are of God the creator-they are his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into the contemplation of eternal things.’

• Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Nature’ (1836): ‘The noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apparition of God.’

It is no coincidence that the Western attraction to sublime landscapes developed at precisely the moment when traditional beliefs in God began to wane. It is as if these landscapes allowed travellers to experience transcendent feelings that they no longer felt in cities and the cultivated countryside. The landscapes offered them an emotional connection to a greater power even as they freed them of the need to subscribe to the more specific and now less plausible claims of biblical texts and organized religions.

The link between God and sublime landscapes is made most explicit in one book of the Bible. The circumstances are peculiar: God is asked by a righteous but desperate man to explain why his life has become full of suffering. And God answers him by bidding him to contemplate the deserts and the mountains, rivers and ice caps, oceans and skies. Seldom have sublime places been asked to bear the burden of such a weighty, urgent question.

At the beginning of the Book of Job, described by Edmund Burke as the most sublime book of the Old Testament, we learn that Job was a wealthy, devout man from the land of Uz. He had seven sons, three daughters, seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys. His wishes were obeyed, and his virtue was rewarded. Then one day disaster struck. The Sabaeans stole Job’s oxen and asses, lightning killed his sheep and the Chaldeans raided his camels. A hurricane blew in from the desert and wrecked the house of his eldest son, killing him and his siblings. Painful sores developed from the soles of Job’s feet to the top of his head, and, as he sat in the ashes of his house, he scratched them with a piece of broken pottery and wept.

Why had Job been so afflicted? His friends had the answer: he had sinned. Bildad the Shuhite told Job that his children could not have been killed by God unless they and Job himself had done wrong. ‘God will not reject a righteous man,’ said Bildad. Zophar the Naamathite ventured that God must have been generous in his treatment of Job: ‘Know therefore that God exacteth of thee less than thine iniquity deserveth.’

But Job could not accept these words. He called them ‘proverbs of ashes’ and ‘defenses of clay’. He had not been a bad man—so why had bad things happened to him?
It is one of the most acute questions asked of God in all the books of the Old Testament. And from a whirlwind in the desert, a furious God answers Job as follows:

Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?

Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.

Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou has understanding.

Who hath laid the measures thereof if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?...

By what way is the light parted, which scattereth the east wind upon the earth?

Who hath divided a watercourse for the overflowing of waters, or a way for the lightning of thunder?...

Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?

Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven? canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth?

Canst thou lift up thy voice to the clouds, that abundance of waters may cover thee?...

Hast thou an arm like God? or canst thou thunder with a voice like him?

Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and stretch her wings towards the south?

Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?

Asked to explain why Job has been made to suffer even though he has been good, God draws Job’s attention to the mighty phenomena of nature. Do not be surprised that things have not gone your way, he declares: the universe is greater than you. Do not be surprised that you do not understand why they have not gone your way, for you cannot fathom the logic of the universe. See how small you are next to the mountains. Accept what is bigger than you and what you do not understand. The world may appear illogical to you, but it does not follow that it is illogical per se. Our lives are not the measure of all things: consider sublime places for a reminder of human insignificance and frailty.

There is a strictly religious message here. God assures Job that he has a place in his heart, even if all events do not centre around him and may at times appear to run contrary to his interest. When divine wisdom eludes human understanding, the righteous, made aware of their limitations by the spectacle of sublime nature, must continue to trust in God’s plans for the universe.

But the religious answer to Job’s question does not invalidate the story for secular spirits. Sublime landscapes, through their grandeur and power, retain a symbolic role in bringing us to accept without bitterness or lamentation the obstacles that we cannot overcome and the events that we cannot make sense of. As the Old Testament God knew, it can be helpful to back up deflationary points about mankind with reference to the very elements in nature which physically surpass it—the mountains, the girdle of the earth, the deserts.

If the world seems unfair or beyond our understanding, sublime places suggest that it is not surprising that things should be thus. We are the playthings of the forces that laid out the oceans and chiselled the mountains. Sublime places gently move us to acknowledge limitations that we might otherwise encounter with anxiety or anger in the ordinary flow of events. It is not just nature that defies us. Human life is as overwhelming. But it is the vast spaces of nature that perhaps provide us with the finest, the most respectful reminder of all that exceeds us. If we spend time in them, they may help us to accept more graciously the great, unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust.

- Alain de Botton

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