Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Sublime, by Chris Oravec

The Sublime and the Picturesque
If you've seen a photo by Ansel Adams, or a postcard from the Grand Canyon, then you've seen the Sublime. Communication that produces feelings of awe, wonder, overwhelming fear, or exaltation fuel our ideal of the West, particularly Western wilderness. The Sublime helped set aside our National Parks and other protected lands, an idea that some believe was the U.S.'s greatest gift to the world. The Sublime as apocalypse (best represented by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring) also generates feelings of anxiety, powerlessness, apathy and anger over such contemporary issues as chemical waste and global warming. As such, the Sublime is the formal and psychological basis of the Environmental Movement.

The Sublime as a concept started as early as the first century AD. Longinus, a Greek philosopher of Rhetoric, wrote that sublime effects came from great speeches, the deeds of great men, forces of Nature, and even such inspiring literature as Genesis' "In the Beginning. . . ." Consequently, the Sublime became a rhetorical trope, that is, a short oral or written formula that heightens our response to language. For example, JFK's phrase, "Ask not what your country can do for you. . . " is both memorable and motivating--and I would say, sublime. Until the late 18th century the Sublime remained in the background. Then the Romantics reintroduced Nature into Rhetoric, and "sublime" became a household word until approximately World War I. We don't use the term much today, though the Sublime is at work almost everywhere.

The Picturesque, or the Beautiful, set the parameters of the Sublime as visual communication. Paintings of pastoral scenery were modeled after stage sets, with prosceniums of dark trees, a lush valley or winding river leading from the foreground into the middle ground, and an airy background full of pink clouds. Then two historical events happened: the European Alps were reconceived as sublime, the product of a bountiful God rather than an evil Devil; and later, the U.S. discovered the Rocky Mountains. The Picturesque got bigger, with great contrasts and extremes, and pastoral milkmaids and cowherds gave way to mountainmen. Anywhere described or portrayed as "sublime" became a pretty wild place to be! When sublime pictures were placed on the desks of Congressmen in 1872, Yellowstone Park was created to preserve its natural wonders and serve as a "pleasuring ground for the people."

Thus rhetoricians and artists did the most with the term "sublime,' Geologists, paleontologists, archaeologists, geographers and other scientists, however, use the idea too. The first governmental and military surveys included cartographers, sketchers, and painters who cemented our ideas of what was worth seeing in the West. Lyell's geology fed directly into Darwin's notion of inconceivably long periods of time accompanied by incremental changes, a sublime idea for sure. John Muir takes the credit for the glacial theory of the formation of Yosemite Valley and also effected its preservation through sublime language. John McPhee's Basin and Range made us aware of the vast but empty stretches of Utah and Nevada. His book perhaps set the terms for controversy over atomic testing, waste storage, and military manouvers in the Nevada desert that continue to this day. Even this blog has space for a scenic picture or two that just happens to illustrate some geological principle. The ubiquity of the Sublime is just one more piece of evidence that communication, art and science are inseparable.

Chris Oravec