antioch college logo

 

 

National Endowment for the Arts logo

 

Ohio Arts Council logo

 

: Fear of the Sublime :

an excerpt by Paul Velde


"Ah, the distinguished thing!" Supposedly the last words of Henry James, a sensibility wholly intact seems to have slipped out. We recognize the novelist in the flutter of earthly remains. Usually James's words are quoted with a prefatory "So this is it at last," leaving out the "Ah." Such armored lucidity might give even Yeats's horseman pause. But for James the headstone was still in the future, and the main course of an exquisite dining experience could just as easily have called forth, playfully, the same words. The "distinguished thing" is rather like a march down the aisle. They exude a highly cultivated sensibility, fastidious and unalterably personal, in an exclamatory state. If they fail the sublime, they nonetheless mark its vicinity, suggestive to the bitter end.

Like James, the sublime is a cultivated taste. Also like James, who as artist evokes a particularly musty version of the sublime ideal, it languishes stiffly in awe-inspiring, marvelous splendor.  Spared the numbing ubiquity of its near synonyms "awesome," and some decades ago "marvelous," sublime is the faded beauty of the thesaurus, or old maid, for whom nothing is ever good enough. Too subjective, or archaic, or simply vague, for the academy, yet with a pedigree too eminent to be dismissed, it is relegated to a classical no man's land, like muses, sacred springs, and that beauty not entirely in the eye of the beholder, so archaic as to be almost unrecognizable. The sublime often identified with beauty is so only incidentally, and in itself is actually inimical to beauty. Yet if muses, sacred springs, and epic heroism are risible matter in the classroom, beauty and the sublime are better known, if only in the breach, for flustered silence.



: back :