Review: The Sublime

9780521143677Timothy M. Costelloe, ed. The Sublime: From Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. xiii + 304 pp., £23.99/$34.99 paper.

In his introduction, Timothy M. Costelloe frames the essays that follow as an attempt to rehabilitate the notion of the Sublime, a notion which he believes has fallen into philosophical disrepute. It is not the experience itself, he argues, that has become obsolete, but our conceptualization of it.

The book, which is the fruit of a seminar held here in St. Andrews seven summers ago, is arranged in two parts. The first treats the Sublime “diachronically,” from its origins – in its locus classicus, Longinus’s Peri hupsous – as a rhetorical term denoting an elevated style; through its evolution as an aesthetic concept, distinct from Beauty, during the Enlightenment in the writings of Burke and Kant, and its heyday under the Romantics; to its revival in the writings of postmodernists. The second part of the book deals with the subject in national contexts (e.g. Dutch and American) or in relation to other disciplines (e.g. architecture and the fine arts).

Perhaps of greatest interest to readers of this blog will be the essay by Andrew Chigwell and Matthew Halteman, “Religion and the Sublime.” In what is one of the livelier passages in the volume, they translate the technical expression “That was sublime” into common speech: “That scared the bejeezus out of me and I have no idea what it means!”[p. 193] Wittingly or not, the Hibernicism in that sentence hints at the question they explore: the relationship, if any, between sublime experience – which, in its etymological sense, takes us to the limit of our understanding – and experience of the divine – which involves an inference of something or someone beyond that limit. Is the Sublime a quasi-secular concept or crypto-religious one, a “demythologized analogue of religious experience”[p. 197] or the “spilt religion” of Romanticism whose bright drops led C. S. Lewis “to the cup itself”? The authors’ “taxonomy” of different approaches to the question is thought-provoking, but their (in)conclusion, with the view of the art historian James Elkins that the term “sublime” is applicable only to “romantic and belated romantic art” and their acknowledgement of “underlying concern about the untheorizability”[p. 202] of the concept, seems to reinforce the very redundancy that the volume’s editor was arguing against.

Those interested in natural theology will find grist for their mill in this volume, but they may also find the going tough. That the book is so arduous a read is partly due to editorial choices, in particular the decision to combine small type with a large format. Presumably the format was adopted to accommodate reproductions of paintings in several of the articles, but the effect on the text is to give us what would amount to two or three pages in a normal book on one page. Mostly, however, it is attributable to the writing. Unlike Longinus, who in Pope’s famous phrase “is himself the great sublime he draws,” these essays do not exemplify the quality they seek to delineate, and many of them demonstrate (if we needed further demonstration) the ability of today’s academics to render the most promising subjects dull beyond endurance. It is right that new generations of scholars reflect on classic texts, and that they make their reflections available, but students coming to the subject fresh would do better to read Longinus, Burke, et al., for themselves first, and would most likely get more pleasure from doing so. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis: when a new book is published, read an old one.

Review by Simon Vaughan

Image Credit: Cambridge UP 

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1 Comment

  1. says: Travis Buchanan

    Great review, Simon, thank you. I wholeheartedly agree with your final few sentences especially.

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