Great Books. The Top Ten – instalment 6. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

One of the books that really mattered during my studies was Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. I hardly wrote an essay without referring to it ever since I encountered the work the second year of my studies when I had to write an essay on the sublime according to Kant, Lyotard and… Burke. I was completely taken in by Burke’s description of those strong dark tendencies that make man fascinated with the misfortune of others – the more violent the greater the fascination and possible enjoyment of not being the one in the crossfire.

I have been using Burke’s theories on the sublime when writing on William Blake, Danish artist N.A. Abildgaard and Henry Fuseli – all perfect for Burke since they work in the decades after the first publication of the Enquiry in 1757 and since they use the sublime feeling as a vehicle in their art – darkness, pain, violence, precipices, horror, the unknown – all elements that according to Burke provoke a sublime feeling in the spectator. Being the spectator is essential since the  “good it isn’t me”-feeling makes the whole difference. If you are about to be swallowed by a monster, fall from a mountain top, be beheaded you are simply not in the mood to picture the sublimity of it all, but seen from the outside the monster is quite glorious with all those teeth, the mountain is awesome and the horror of the axe somewhat tickeling.

In Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare from 1782 darkness, the uncanny mare and horse’s head contrasted with the sleeping beauty make a perfect example of the sublime – she is definitely in danger (mentally of physically or whatevs), but it is quite thrilling at the same time. As long as I am not myself the girl, right?

The 1700s were all about the passions and the dark passions have always been more forceful and interesting than the lighter ones As Burkes writes: “In reality a  great clearness helps but little towards affecting the passions, as it is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever.

And I am enthusiastic about this perfect enlightenment piece of writing. He is really looking in to all the nooks of the human mind when it comes to this very special feeling. I never really used the part about the beautiful for much other than distinguishing the sublime and ugly from the beautiful. The beautiful being peaceful, smooth and delicate. Burke does it too anyway – compares the opposites to define the two concepts.

And then Burke is the author of a sentence that I believe many a student has tried to hide behind (and maybe also one or two professors…): ”A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.” I concur!


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