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17 July 2006

Turner & the Sublime

Read: Just bits and pieces of books on early modern theatre, actors, etc. Started Antony & Cleopatra.
Watched: An excellent Bollywood movie; I'll have to get back to you on the title.


Last week I had the very great blessing of spending a couple of hours in the Tate Britain museum. More hours would have been an even greater blessing, but what was given me was enough to sink me almost in wonder. I went to see the John William Waterhouse works, knowing that that museum owns six of his works—more than any other gallery. However, only two were available on display, the others being in storage or lent out. Yet I will not complain about even two Waterhouses. That’s two more than I’d seen live before. One was The Martyrdom of St. Eulalia, which seems to me different from, and of deeper feeling and meaning than, most of his works. Or at least the popular ones. And I saw The Lady of Shalott! The one in the boat. That was a rare privilege, but more on that below. There were Millais works—Ophelia!—Holman Hunt, Leighton (both of the Leightons, I think), Rosetti—Proserpina, ah me—and TEN ROOMS of works by Joseph William Mallord Turner. Not just broom-closet-sized rooms either, but your state-dining-room-sized chambers, with many paintings measuring well over ten feet in at least one direction. I guess I’m young enough to be still impressed by sheer size and numbers. But think of the work that man did! Room after room after room of enormous paintings, all (as far as my untrained eye can tell) of excellent quality, many masterpieces. And nearly every museum in the “western” world, be it ever so humble, has at least one. That man was dazzlingly prolific. The Tate rooms were very well organized, and quite moving. If you ever get a chance to go there, do! If you have been there, please tell us about it.

What struck me at once was the organization of the rooms by theme. That seemed a brilliant addition. The first room, the largest, was in a typical chronological format, with a time life of Turner’s life and world events presented on the wall above the paintings. That was super helpful. Then there was a landscape room, a seascape room, a “rural England” room, a room with works including either foreign settings or classical ruins or both—I don’t remember—collections of drawings and unfinished works and studies. But the second room along the main corridor was the one that brought me the flash of sehnsücht. This was entitled “Sublime Landscape”. The mere words made me gasp. There are a few words that do that, a few phrases of delight and longing. Anybody and “the Sublime” is just about enough to do it to me, but Turner and the Sublime? That pushes me over the edge.

Fishermen at Sea
Why? Well, it goes back to C. S. Lewis’s definitions and experiences of joy, of course. It’s partly delight by association; I love the poetry of the Sublime, I loved the course I took on that discourse last summer, I love the art of the period that toys with the idea, and I love Turner. But it’s more than that. There are many things I love and would go far to see/hear/read/eat/watch/enjoy, and yet they spark no deep seated thrill of delight and longing. Shakespeare is that way. I would go across oceans (hum, I guess I have, haven’t I?) to watch live Shakespeare well done. And it thrills me, the language gets into my brains and my blood and there runs its hot and heady course, but there are few lines that are “Sublime.” Shakespeare’s is a cognitive pleasure, a pleasure of craft and skill, like Bach, like Escher, like Schönberg. And yet… and yet…. “The dark backward and abysm of time” gives me the Sublime shiver, as does Hamlet himself in his “trappings and his suits of woe,” even before he begins to speak his melancholy and supernaturally-charged verse. So all this is just to say that I am no Edmund Burke, that I have not the mind for making fine distinctions, for limning razor-edged categories with this in—this out, or for closing in on sharp definitions of exclusion and decision. No, with me it is all a mad rush and swirl of delights, joy upon joy, pleasure and approval and admiration all mixed up together in poetry and painting and theatre and trees.

Hannibal crossing the alps in a snowstorm

But tells you little about the Turner display. Burke was not, however, apropos of nothing, for he was quoted in the Sublime room in the Tate. He said something like this:
Whatever in any sort excites the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, is in any sort terrible, or is conversant with terror, or is in any way analogous to the terrible, is sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling.

And there were also quotes from Addison’s The Spectator on the walls, to the effect that nature is not only lovely, she can also be terrible. The pictures on the walls were of nature in her terrible aspect: storms at sea, great tempest-tossed waves, lightning splitting the sky and the earth, whole sides of mountains shorn off and crashing into chasms below. I’ve put into this message little clip-arty versions, so you know what I’m talking about, but one needs to see the real thing. The size is part of it, the sheer overwhelming enormity of seven feet of canvas stretched across your vision, with the ocean roaring in all its imagined rage along the width of your sight. The texture of the brush-strokes is part of it, too, and there I think Burke would concur. It is not all smoothness and grace, as two-dimensional prints make us think. The very paint itself is rough and deep.

The Deluge
All this, which is much, and yet has not come near my point. What I find most fascinating about the “discourses of the Sublime” is their affinity with and aversion to the spiritual. As I wrote in a paper last summer, “Burke was striving to construct ‘a secular language for profound human experience…’ (from Adam Phillips intro. to Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry…). The discourses of the sublime and beautiful were carefully and intentionally not converging with religion. They attempted to construct a secular semiotics and semantics (from Isobel Armstrong’s lectures).” A mouthful of words. But the point is this.

I believe encounters with the Sublime are really and truly divine experiences, that is to say, little brushes with God’s power and beauty and might and terror. Though the Romantics were at great pains to dismiss God, I think that argues all the more for His work in what they saw. Burke, Wordsworth, et al, were trying to find new terminology, non-religious terminology, for what the mystics and martyrs and fathers of the church would have called visions, God’s presence, general revelation, heavenly ecstasy, glimpses of heaven, holy transport, and the like. Words notwithstanding, it is what it is. [Another time we should talk about words, what they do, what they cannot do, what power they have to change or call forth or represent—or not. Perhaps I will recant what here I have writ, about “words notwithstanding.”] But in those paintings, made by a man via with the talent of a sub-creator, depicting divinely-created nature in her mood most unfriendly to little man, I see the hand of God. Couch it in what words you will: the Sublime is still and always an encounter with the Deity.

3 comments:

Ariel said...

I really enjoyed this. What an excellent turn of phrase here:

"...with me it is all a mad rush and swirl of delights, joy upon joy, pleasure and approval and admiration all mixed up together in poetry and painting and theatre and trees."

I certainly relate. I like your conclusion too, that "the Sublime is still and always an encounter with the Deity." I think that these brushes with the sublime need to be "exegeted" if they are to finally point to Christ, however.

No doubt you, ala C.S. Lewis, would agree. Maybe the ability of words to expand upon (and identify meaning within) experience has a place here, as your last paragraph seemed to hint...

Iambic Admonit said...

Excellent, and careful observation, Ariel. Yes, I would agree that encounters with The Sublime fall into the category of "General Revelation" and are not enough, on their own, for salvation or even specific Christian understandings. Hence, bits of "special revelation"--The Word, the word, and our words--are necessary to make salutary truth known. I guess the vagueness of the Sublime is what makes it prime material for any kind of spirituality, especially the non-religous spirituality of the Romantics. Thanks for the impetus to clarify.

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