060aOne can learn much from the truly great accomplishments of the human mind and spirit, those which are incomparable, transcendent, sublime. Including, I’ve found, much about oneself.

In the language of aesthetics, the sublime is “the quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual or artistic. The term specifically refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.” [See footnote.]

But not beyond our accomplishment. And not beyond our appreciation, for the sublime transports us viscerally, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually to a place of great wonderment. Of awe. It leads us to a capacious realization of the heights possible within the human experience. Of the pinnacles within our reach if only we pursue them.

Some accomplishments that attain the sublime are the product of spontaneous inspiration, or more likely of relentless exploration and trial by individuals who have the experience and perspicacity to allow such ideas to pierce the commonplace. I think, for instance, of Auguste Rodin and his rough but powerful statue Balzac, the great thinker standing far back and assessing—some say dominating—the world, his immense energy barely contained.

In Peter’s Parchment, The Beguilement of Brother Alphaios, while walking along a tree-lined street of well-kept brownstones, our protagonist encounters a full orchestral version of Rhapsody in Blue spilling from an open, early spring window. He pauses to hear it out. Ninety years since George Gershwin coaxed it from the ether, Rhapsody remains fresh and unmatchable, pulling one into a musical world completely unknown until this was written. Is its accomplishment beyond all possibility of (prior) calculation? Does it qualify as sublime?

Many expressions of the sublime require years, even decades of work, not only by individuals with a germinal idea, but whole communities and generations. St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome comes to mind as a prime example, both as a whole and in its many parts. It took one hundred twenty years to complete the structure and another two hundred for its masonry and art and sculpture. Nonetheless, it is remarkably coherent, a place of incomparable spaces and beauty. It shares the work of Bramante, Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Maderno, Bernini, Raphael and thousands more artists, architects, artisans and workmen. One need not be religious to appreciate in it the incomparable accomplishment of the aspiring human mind.

This post initiates an occasional series of examples of the sublime (at least as I understand the concept), largely in the worlds of art, architecture and music most familiar to me. If I think myself capable of it, I may explore some of the great ideas and inventions.   And perhaps the sublime in nature, for there is much of it.

Please join in. Offer examples of the sublime from your own experience and their effects on you. We may not always be able to meet the standard of the definition above, but even with our shortcomings, it should be an interesting journey.

Footnote: The definition of sublime used here is from Wikipedia, which I inherently distrust but sometimes find a useful starting place. Though Wikipedia does not provide a citation for this definition, it describes very well just how exceptional, how very far beyond the commonplace, even the excellent, is meant by the word.  The references to visceral and emotional responses are mine, for I believe them to be inherent to our understanding of the word.

Photo by J.S. Anderson. Chihuly Garden and Glass, Seattle, WA


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