Sublime Balance

          Hybrid sensations are always better because you get the best of both worlds. Seriously, sweet and sour sauce is superior to a condiment containing just one of the two flavors because balance is always best. And sublimity is exactly the same. If you think about it, the mind-blowing sensation of simultaneous exultation and elation always comes from a paradox because confusion is a key element to the feeling—that’s why we need to include the terror with the comfort, the low with the high.

          There’s nothing more trite than a yen-yang (they always remind me of regrettable tattoos from the nineties) but sometimes clichés fit too perfectly to ignore. That circular, swirly little symbol sums it all up by mixing the dark and light just as it’s supposed to be; that’s why this John Dennis fellow seems to understand the sublime better than Longinus. If you have just a monstrous peak without the balancing valley, you’re talking about bliss, not the sublime, and if you have only the negative without the equaling positive, it’s just abysmal black. Zoltan Cora might not write interesting papers (even though he has the coolest name of all time), but his point is valid: Dennis took an objective look at the genre and realized that the romantic focus on positive feelings was half-assed at best, and a disservice was being done to the notion by focusing on it so myopically. And it was important for all those smart people from the seventeen-hundreds to move away from literature and rhetoric to look at “the lightning itself” because in so doing, they focused on the source of the sublime as opposed to just the written descriptions of it; that’s how something is truly understood.

          Secondly, as per the discussion prompt, the value of a lofty idea is its staying power. Simple things and concepts are dismissed as trivial because our brains figure them out and discard them as meaningless, regardless of how clever they might be. But the confusion feels like a loose end, or some sort of weird, esoteric little key that needs to be found so we can move on. And when we find it, the confusion remains for a moment, mixing a little with the satisfaction of solving something, and the heady balance of both feelings leads to the sublime. It’s pretty perfect stuff, and I love it.


          Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize win is infuriating given the reality that writers like Margaret Atwood are still walking around. I saw that man in concert a few years back and he stood at the mic to mumble the same stuff that made him famous decades ago, back when that type of stuff was new, relevant, less cliché. A huge owl, grey and real, flew in while Dylan was “singing” and landed up in the eaves; the crowd applauded for that bird more earnestly than they did for Dylan because the original vagabond, the unwashed phenomenon, looked so lackluster after all these years. And his tired words are the same, when written on paper, because they mattered once but don’t fit in now. That man missed the change he was looking for but we’re still giving him awards for it; awards he cherishes so much that he no-shows to the ceremony and plagiarizes the speech he sends in after the fact.  

          How dare we treat relevant art—art like Atwood’s—that way? Frankly, we did the same thing for Obama. For the record, I voted for that man twice and I’m a huge fan, but given the countless drone strikes and civilian casualties that came as collateral damage during his tenure, I wonder occasionally at the impetus behind his own Nobel win. That medal is being strung around necks to send messages now instead of awarding artistic contributions, and it cheapens the recipients’ work that came before, the work that was worthy of award. Hell, I’d hate to put words in Atwood’s mouth because hers are already so much better than my own, but she seems to agree with me in this video. So, given my task this week to write about contemporary works of sublimity, I’m choosing to write about Atwood because if people don’t stand up and point at her writing, she might pass before most of us realize that we’re living in the same time as one of this world’s most sublime artists.

          True, people are noticing her work nowadays thanks to those creepy women in little-red-riding-hood cloaks on Hulu, but that’s just not good enough because she has given us more than that. I don’t want this to sound hyperbolic, but when it comes to dystopian works that can teach us about our mistakes before we make them, Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” belongs at the top of the list, right above both Huxley and Orwell; her prescient work really is that good. And the reason for this is Atwood’s mastery of the sublime. Her passages are overwhelming and exalting simultaneously and that’s what defines the tenet. Here, read this:

           “What did his father look like? Snowman can’t get a fix on it. Jimmy’s mother persists as a clear image, full colour, with a glossy white paper frame around her like a Polaroid, but he can recall his father only in details: the Adam’s apple going up and down when he swallowed, the ears backlit against the kitchen window, the left hand lying on the table, cut off by the shirt cuff. His father is a sort of pastiche. Maybe Jimmy could never get far enough away from him to see all the parts at once.”

          Get it? Do you see the sublimity? I’m not going to comment on Atwood’s stylistic qualities because her ability to transcend pedestrian prose has nothing to do with her mechanics—Atwood is sublime because she writes about truth and emotion and deep things that don’t usually dawn on laypeople. Her words are profound and simple at once, and that’s where the explosion comes from. If you’re too close to a person, of course they’ll look like a pastiche because your piecemeal perception of him or her is nothing more than an imitation of who he or she really is. We build in our minds portraits of the people around us by piecing together events and images and perceptions clouded by our own bias, and then those people stop looking real because our rendering of them is anything but real. That’s some deep, sublime shit, and Atwood threw it into her book like a backhanded afterthought; that’s the sort of sublimity a master can engender. That’s the type of perfection that deserves a Nobel Prize.

The Sublime

          I lied to you. I told you that I was done using this blog for classwork and I said that I’d go back to posting my usual nonsense once the heady summer months arrived. Yet hear I am, writing for a rhetorical analysis class centered on the sublime, hoping that these assignments don’t shun your wishes. But before I get into it, I have an update: a New York based literary agency actually requested the complete manuscript I completed over the winter break. Now, I’m writing professionally for two different companies and someone in New York took my query seriously enough to shoot me an email asking for more—this is the furthest I’ve come on this odd quest to write for a living and the purgatory of it all is crushing.

          You see, I don’t want to jinx it. I don’t want to tell people that an agency is reading my book because the odds of making the next cut are too comical to mention; I don’t want to face all the hypothetical people I’ve told about this breakthrough if that agency tells me “no” because the failure in my words and the empathy on their faces might be too much to take. I’ve known a few women who waited to tell family and friends about a pregnancy because the possibility of a miscarriage loomed in their mind like a dark fear—I know a book is nothing compared to a new life, but I can relate. I only want people to know if I’ve made it; I don’t want people to know that I might make it just so they can find out I didn’t. And in the interim, I want to curl up on my closet floor in the fetal position; I want to rock back and forth while humming the National Anthem; I want to distract myself until the answer comes in so I can know what’s real and what’s delusional. But what I want doesn’t matter, so I’ll just do this assignment and wait for the news like a grownup.

          For this week, my professor wants me to reflect on my “first impressions about the sublime as a concept” as it relates to the introduction in Robert Doran’s most recent book, The Theory of the Sublime from Longinus to Kant. So, here we go…


          I understand what “sublime” means just like I know what “cheese” is. It’s pretty simple stuff. To sublimate matter, you use science (or wizardry, I guess) to turn a solid into a gas and then back into a solid. Hell, with a frying pan and a freezer, you could sublimate water if you wanted to. But figuratively, the sublime deals with exhalation and elevation as it relates to our minds. Every time you’ve seen something or thought of something that “blew your mind,” you were dealing with the sublime. Doran sums this up as “the paradoxical experience of being at once overwhelmed and exalted.”

          However, I have two issues with Doran’s quote. First, there’s nothing paradoxical about it. Humans are small things, stupid things, when juxtaposed against existence, and it’s exactly this feeling of being small that feels so wondrous when we encounter that which we can’t comprehend mentally. That’s what wonder is made out of. So of course the humbling sublimity of mind-blowing experiences is going to overwhelm and exult us simultaneously because that’s the way things work. It’s only paradoxical if you don’t get it.

          Secondly, given that I’m a writer McWriterton from Writerville, my next issue should be pretty axiomatic: Doran should’ve said “exulted” instead of “exalted.” The former is a verb and Doran’s choice is an adjective. The sublime does something to us when we see it. There’s action involved. It puts us down where we belong because we’re insignificant when compared to the sublime. Granted, it makes us feel exalted, but only because the sublime exults us via its overwhelming nature; focusing on the way something makes us feel is arrogant because it detracts from the thing itself. We’ll never understand the sublime if we focus on ourselves or our narrow interpretation of that wondrous external force because doing so shoves subjectivity where it doesn’t belong. Sublimity really is “one of the most important and consequential concepts in modern thought,” as Doran puts it, and we need to treat it that way.

          Something sublime is simply something too incredible to understand or imagine with our primate brains, and it’s shocking when we see it with our eyes. Basically, sublime things are things that’re greater than us, plain and simple, and we can’t quantify these things because our minds aren’t powerful enough to crunch the numbers. The only way we can comprehend these things is through a feeling and an emotion: sublimity. Get it?