Friday, March 03, 2006

40 oz. to Freedom

It's that magical time of the year again when young college students turn their minds to the thoughts of far off and exotic destinations, shortlived romances, and consuming copious quantities of alcohol. That's right, spring break. And as much as I would like to consider myself a member of the aesthetic elite who need not engage in such hedonistic pleasure, I will admit that I too have my own plans that involve traveling from Tacoma to a distant place where a few drinks will most likely be consumed. However, I'm hoping to connect with the aesthetic experience while doing so due to the nature of my plans. The Canyonlands of Utah are my destination and, having never been there, I am hoping to view nature that is not only beautiful but sublime. And you were all wondering how the title of this post was relevant. Unfortunately since I haven't as of yet been there, it means that I will have to forgoe the pleasure of describing the landscape and refer to The Unicorn instead.
A point that struck me was when Marian commented to Effingham, "I hadn't expected such an extreme landscape. It takes getting used to. Sublime rather than beautiful, isn't it?" (Murdoch 84) What exactly is that distinction and where does it come from? The lands that surround Gaze Castle certainly seem to verge on the extreme with a treacherous bog, towering cliffs, an angry sea, and desolate plains all drawn out in garish colors. So is the sublime landscape one which is not precisely attractive, but rather shocking? Shocking not in the sense that it is replusive or startling, but more that it arrests the attention and captures the mind of the viewer. Sublime is an act that seems to require participation whereas beautiful invites observation and, at least according to our friend Kant, disinterest. Here is a question for anyone who reads this: the sublime is most often referred to in the context of landscapes (sweeping vistas, desolate glaciers, towering mountains, infinitely large deserts that remind us of our own humble size) but are there other experiences that could be called sublime? And if so, what qualifies them as such rather than as members of Scott's now well-read list of that which is aesthetically pleasing?
Examine Effingham's moment of lucid clarity that comes as a result of nearly dying in the bog: he first comments "How beautiful the bog looks in the sun. So many colours, reds and blues and yellows. I never knew it had so many colours." (Murdoch 170) Having experienced the bog first as an object of the sublime, he has transgressed it and in his survival is now able to see it differently. Perhaps it is the fear of the land that moves people to call it sublime. Either way, I hope to experience it first hand in a little over a week. But that right there makes me question my pending analysis of what I will see. Can it really be either sublime or beautiful if I have the expectations that it will garner such praise? In prematurely elevating it to such a pedestal all the while confining it to a pigeonhole of a definition, am I not destroying the possibilities? Only time will tell.


Blogger Sarah E. Smith said...

I don't think that you are destroying the possibility of seeing the Canyonlands as beautiful at all; in fact, your expectation that they will be beautiful may condition your mindset to actually see them as such.

As for the sublime, you never know what will happen on the trip. And to answer your question about it, I think that I have to believe that it can be in places other than landscape. I sometimes feel a thrill of powerlessness when I am reading - Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner comes to mind. Reading that poem was less the sense of excitement and selflessness (i.e. a sense of the beautiful) that comes from reading even Wordsworth's Prelude, which deals explicitly with the sublime. The Rime was so deceptively simple that, upon the third or fourth reading, when I started to realize more clearly what was going on, I was surprised and even a little terrified. So, yes, there is an element of surprise in the sublime - perhaps a kind of delayed-reaction aesthetic experience that conveys a kind of terror?

1:13 PM  
Blogger Dolen said...

Hmmm...interesting comments here. I'm also thinking of how "awe" fits into this. When I think of "awe" I do imagine a kind of terror. And wonder. And joy.

5:31 PM  

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