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?