Saturday, November 21, 2015

Burke's Sublime as an aesthetic concept useful for radical environmentalism, unlike Kant's

Burke's concept of the sublime is necessarily connected with a certain concept of religion, a certain concept of politics and a certain concept of human flourishing.  What fascinates me first about Burke's conception of the sublime is the close connection he makes between it and the Book of Job as well as certain passages in the Psalms that describe God's power.  But why are the things described by God in his dialogue with Job considered to be sublime by Burke?  This is where things get interesting.  For Burke, only wild animals are sublime. Reading these things from the perspective of our own time, for example a time in which thousands of species are going extinct in the Amazon, we find here a delight in a fiercely independent wild animals.  It is, Burke (mis)quoting from the Bible, the horse who "swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage" that is sublime: it is the "gloomy forest" and the "howling wilderness" and the lions and tigers within that are sublime.  The useful horse is not sublime. Nothing natural employed for our benefit and pleasure are sublime. The things that are subject to our will are not sublime.  The contrast between Burke's concept of the sublime and that of Kant could not be greater here.  Kant believes that what is truly sublime is the recognition of our own power as against that of nature.  Burke is almost the opposite: it is recognition of nature's power as against our effort to control it.  I am reminded here of Stan Godlovitch's approach to the aesthetic of the natural environment.  It is said that Burke is misquoting the Bible, I suppose the King James version. Here are the King James passages Burke misquotes on the wild ass and the unicorn.  God here is speaking to Job and reminding him of what he cannot do, how powerless he is in relation to God.  However, I do not think that the differences between the original and Burke's version is important for our purpose since we are speaking now of Burke's concept of the sublime, not that of early Hebrew writers.  Here is the passage from Burke:

"The description of the wild ass, in Job, is worked up into no small sublimity, merely by insisting on his freedom, and his setting mankind at defiance; otherwise the description of such an animal could have had nothing noble in it. Who hath loosed (says he) the bands of the wild ass? whose house I have made the wilderness, and the barren land his dwellings. He scorneth the multitude of the city, neither regardeth he the voice of the driver. The range of the mountains is his pasture. The magnificent description of the unicorn and of leviathan, in the same book, is full of the same heightening circumstances: Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee? canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? wilt thou trust him because his strength is great?—Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook?—will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever? shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him? In short, wheresoever we find strength, and in what light soever we look upon power we shall all along observe the sublime the concomitant of terror, and contempt the attendant on a strength that is subservient and innoxious."

The key is not that we have God telling Job how powerful He is but how the wild ass insists on his freedom and is defiant of mankind. The unicorn and the leviathan also are unwilling to serve mankind. (God seems to represent this intense anti-human big for animal freedom.) The point is that the Burkean concept of the sublime, unlike the Kantian one could be an aesthetic idea or ideal useful for the radical environmentalist.  The radical environmentalist could say that they want not merely to preserve the beauties of nature but even more the Burkean sublime qualities of nature.  In a sense Burke gives (by way of his misquotes from the Bible) wild animals a voice against human dominance. 

This may also lead us to a different approach to Burke on God as well. Regardless of what Burke himself may have believed, the 18th century reader of his book could easily have been a deist, someone who believes in God, but not of the Christian sort, but rather a God roughly equivalent to nature itself.  Burke stresses violent natural phenomena in reference to our awe of God, for example by way of a quote from the Psalms:  "The earth shook (says the psalmist) the heavens also dropped at the presence of the Lord."  He thinks it interesting that even when God is using his power for good in turning rock into standing water we still experience awe. This event of turning rock into water is much like the natural event of an erupting volcano, except for it being for our benefit and being miraculous.   If God were nature and nature God then we find that both the natural and the miraculous in nature are sublime.  Is there then an equivalence between the power of the untamed ass and the power of nature itself?  Burke sees our awe in God/Nature as the high point of the sublime, speaking of a ladder of the sublime:  "we have traced power through its several gradations into the highest of all, where our imagination is finally lost; and we find terror quite throughout the progress, its inseparable companion, and growing along with it, as far as we can possibly trace it."  Of course this is also coupled, for Burke, with delight, perhaps also increasing as does the terror, leading to a kind of ecstasy of the sublime. 

A second point is that all of this could be seen as a deception or illusion and nonetheless powerful.  Burke writes of infinity that it is "the most genuine effect, and truest test of the sublime" and yet "there are scarce any things which can become the objects of our senses that are really, and in their own nature infinite."  He then says, "But the eye not being able to perceive the bounds of many things, they seem to be infinite, and they produce the same effects as if they were really so."  He goes on to discuss how the parts of some large object can continue indefinitely and hence can deceive us since the imagination has no check.  One does not have to be a Theist to benefit from Burke's idea of the sublime.

I also want to make one comment about Stonehenge and its rudeness.  This may in a way be connected to the previous comment.  It is not the disposition or ornament of Stonehenge that impresses us, says Burke.  It is our sense of the immense labor that it took to erect such a monument, and also the very rudeness of the stonework, which he believes to increase the sense of grandeur insofar as it "excludes the idea of art, and contrivance."  One could say that the sublime quality of Stonehenge is based, for Burke, on the very thing we find in the wild ass and the untamed unicorn: power, independence, artlessness.  Writing at roughly the same time as Rousseau, Burke is giving the name of an aesthetic quality, the sublime, itself associated ultimately with God and Nature and with "the infinite," to something totally other than what humanity produces with civilization.  This is not to deny that the creators of Stonehenge created a civilization of their own, but perhaps theirs was more respectful, even in awe of, the fierce independence of nature, than we post-Kantians.        

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