In Pursuit of the Sublime
It took years to find the right word for what I felt when, one fall morning, walking our children to school in Aberdeen, I passed by a garden in which there were small flowers of the most intense deep blues I had ever seen. The feeling they evoked occurred inside my chest, like a fullness, but also like a longing, a joy, but also an emptiness. Later Debbie said, “Oh, the Johnny Jump Ups, that’s what you saw.” But it was impossible in my mind to connect something so near to ultimate being with so common a name.
This wasn’t the last time, nor was it the first, that I had this feeling, but it was the time that set me on a journey, to find the right word for what I felt. I found it, eventually, in an essay about the nineteenth century painter J. M. W. Turner, the artist who, beside Mark Rothko, has influenced me more than any other. The word I was looking for was “sublime.” Specifically, in fact, it is referred to as “The Sublime.”
During the nineteenth century in the rise of Romanticism in literature and art in Europe, and related to the philosophical thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson, artists and intellectuals wearied by the sterile preoccupations of Rationalism turned their imaginations toward nature in search of the Nature hidden within nature. They were in pursuit of “The Sublime,” that momentary, transformational brush with transcendence that reminds us of the hidden depths of existence beyond the scope of human reason.
In her essay on Emerson, poet Mary Oliver describes this quest:
“All the world is taken in through the eye, to reach the soul, where it becomes more, representative of a realm deeper than appearances; a realm ideal and sublime, the deep stillness that is, whose whole proclamation is the silence and the lack of material instance in which, patiently and radiantly, the universe exists.”*
This appearance that quickens the heart has been noted for centuries in secular literature, and it corresponds to certain mystical experiences more common in religious history. In the twentieth century, C. S. Lewis gave the experience of The Sublime an especially imaginative treatment in his autobiographical book, “Surprised by Joy,” in which he wrote about a longing (‘joy’) that even unrequited nourishes the soul. Like St. Augustine’s often quoted passage about the emptiness in our souls that hungers for God, but which is also more satisfying than any other feeling, the sense of The Sublime has the power to keep drawing us “further up and deeper in,” to borrow another phrase from Lewis.
There are paintings that do this, that draw us back again and again, just to bathe in their presence, passages of music and poetry to which we return to feel that otherness, that heartbeat of the universe. In the first movement of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony the world itself seems to rise in every passage, yearning, stirring, striving, longing toward fulfillment with a groaning that does have a voice.
And, of course, there are those glimpses of the eternal in and through nature, as Emerson and Oliver and countless others have written about, those occasions when Nature looks back at us and compels feelings and responses from us: Those blues on a fall morning that vibrate with eternity and deserve to be named for Aphrodite and not some Johnny come jumping. Those moments of predawn I experienced one morning last spring when mists clung to the foothills in the mountains of North Carolina, which mysteriously appeared in the painting above which I intended to be a seascape.
*Mary Oliver, “Upstream” (Penguin, 2016), 71.