Monday, October 24, 2011

The Sublime Reader

I don't think I will ever completely understand what Longinus has to say about sublimity, but hopefully through my confusion I can shed some light on some key ideas. My freshman year of college, I took ENG-W 170, which is the 131 alternative for those of you who did the overachieving thing and took 131 in high school. We talked a lot about the sublime in nature (the class focused on wilderness in literature). My understanding of the sublime back then was just something that a human could not completely comprehend. An endless valley, a gigantic mountain, the ocean floor. No matter how much you stare, you can't quite form a coherent thought. You can only feel awe. That might be why Longinus confuses me to no end. He seems so sure of his notion of the sublime, when up until now I thought that the sublime was, by definition, undefinable.

I'll try to provide an example. I keep using mountains as examples of the sublime, and I'll keep doing it here. Before I do, I'll quote Longinus: "Though nature is on the whole a law unto herself in matters of emotion and elevation, she is not a random force and does not work altogether without method" (347). Nature is not a "random force," and yet it can be sublime? If you look at Mt. Everest, for example (don't get too caught up on the specifics--I've never seen Mt. Everest) what do you experience? Quite possibly, that mountain is sublime to you. However, what if there was (and there could have been for all I know) a tribe of mountain people who lived on mountain tops for generations? They ate there (yes, they ate rocks), slept there, and raised their children to do the same. They stared at the same stupid mountain for their entire lives. So then, would that mountain be sublime? To me, yes. To the mountain people? I would guess not.

Longinus is talking about writing, of course, but it seems to apply both ways. I'm still clueless as to what exactly makes a text sublime, even with Longinus's examples and steps to achieve sublimity, because I keep coming to the conclusion that sublimity is completely dependent on the reader. So then, if I pretended that Longinus would agree with me in saying that the reader determines sublimity, I wonder how he would say a reader would go about doing that. Longinus says, "Sublimity is a kind of eminence or excellence of discourse" (347). This is preceded by him telling his friend, "Your education dispenses me from any long preliminary definition" (347), so I assume this isn't the only thing Longinus thought about sublimity, but it makes me ask, Is a written work sublime if the reader thinks it excellent? Then I would have to define excellent, and, honestly, I can't. It's relative as well. I am forced one again to go back to my original definition of the sublime by saying that a reader must experience some sort of awe in order for there to be sublimity. That is, the reader must be unable to fully comprehend the "excellence" of the discourse.

Longinus helps me to elaborate that point later in his essay. He says, "It is our nature to be elevated and exalted by true sublimity. Filled with joy and pride, we come to believe we have created what we have only heard" (255). Words like "elevated" and "exalted" make me believe that there is a change in the reader when the reader experiences the sublime. Perhaps that is the point of sublimity. Sublimity furthers understanding by pushing the boundaries of one's previous understanding. And, since everyone's original (before the sublime experience) will be different, the possibility of sublimity must vary from person to person.

1 comment:

  1. Jaylyn, by the end of your post, I don't believe you are clueless at all. I think you have actually discovered a way out of your own dilemma: Longinus doesn't seem to argue that sublimity is in a text, does he? He doesn't even necessarily argue that sublimity can be a property of a text? If it is something other than a property, or a characteristic, or an object, then it is most likely some kind of interaction (or reaction) that Longinus says writers achieve in their audiences. So, yes, there is some expectation that the sublime is dependent upon other factors in the discourse. I guess our next question is: How much?


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