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The Sublime: Spirit and Matter

October 3, 2016

We encounter this week John Muir representing, and to use Lawrence Buell’s term, refracting the “sublime” in his essay “A Wind-Storm in the Forests.”

This is a keyword in the aesthetics of environment: the sublime as elevation, and thus applied to writing and style, as a high or elevated style. That’s one definition the OED provides through its etymology:

Etymology:  < (i) Middle French, French sublime (adjective) excellent, admirable, perfect (c1470 with reference to a thing, probably 1549 with reference to a person), (of a person) occupying a high rank or office (1540), (of a person or thing) rising up high, attaining a great height (1552), (of a thing) set or raised aloft (first attested later than in English: 1572), (of a muscle) superficial (1745 or earlier), (noun) the brain (1659; now obsolete), the grand and elevated style in discourse or writing (first attested later than in English: 1669), that quality in nature or art which inspires awe, reverence, or other high emotion (1690),

And we can associate this elevation, to be sure, with Emerson’s transcendental experience, becoming lifted up into the air as a “transparent eyeball.” This elevation generally has a connection to spirit, if not directly to spiritual traditions: the elevation inspires awe, even fear, in the display of majesty–of scale beyond the human. This is in Emerson. It is also there in a Bierstadt painting such as this one from 1870, “Storm in the Mountains”

But the sublime, shifting the word and focus slightly, at the same time that it reflects the elevation of spirit, also refracts downward, into the decomposition of matter. This is sublimation, presented in the OED in this way:

Chem. The action or process of converting a solid substance by heating directly into vapour without liquefaction or decomposition, the vapour resolidifying on cooling; an instance of this. Also more widely (esp. in later use): a process by which a substance undergoes a change of state from solid to gas (or vice versa) without passing through the liquid phase.

Have you experienced the “sublime” in your encounters with the environment, with the natural world? What has that meant?

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