Rediscovering the sublime

A freelance Russian photographer, Alexander Petrosyan, recently displayed some pictures of St. Petersburg in English Russia, an online news and entertainment blog covering Russain-speaking countries. I must confess, I have always been a little fascinated by St. Petersburg, Russia’s gateway to Europe, so these pictures held a special interest to me by virtue of the subject matter alone.  The pictures were introduced as an alternate view of St. Petersburg, and truly, these were not the beautiful pictures one usually finds in tourist brochures.  Most of them depicted a rather seedy side of the city – deteriorating buildings, piles of debris, impoverished conditions.  Yet, the pictures were rich aesthetically – powerful even, and compelling, although you could not call them beautiful.

I looked at them once, but they left me with an uneasy feeling.  Shortly later, I returned to the pictures and viewed them more carefully in an effort to discover what was so strangely alluring about them.  It was then that I realized that each photo was composed around a redeeming feature. Each photo stood testimony in its own way to a certain resiliency of human spirit that existed even among the destruction of everything surrounding.  It reminded me of an essay I had read by the German author Freidrich Schiller, entitled Concerning the Sublime.   It was the first time that I had ever heard about the aesthetic concept known as the “sublime” and I found the essay very touching. Schiller defined the concept in terms of a contradiction between the physical (or sensuous) and the rational:

Reason and sensuality harmonize in the case of what is beautiful, and only on account of this harmony does it hold any charms for us . . .  In what is sublime, on the other hand, there is no harmony of reason and sensuousness and the spell that captivates our minds lies precisely in this contradiction.

-Friedrich Schiller, Concerning the Sublime

The pictures of St. Petersburg illustrate this contrast in sharp relief:  a single building remains, untouched among ruins, a lone main standing atop a mountain of debris, a baby carriage silhouetted against an ancient building, camaraderie around a fire as night falls in the city, a young child dwarfed by the the buildings surrounding him . . .

Nature gives us two genii to accompany us through life.  The one, sociable and comely, shortens our trouble-filled journey with its cheerful games, it eases the bonds of necessity for us, and in the midst of joy and levity it guides us to those dangerous places where we must act as pure spirits and lay aside everything corporeal, in other words, it leads us to the knowledge of truth and to the exercise of duty.  Here, it abandons us, since its realm is only the world of the senses and its earthly wings cannot carry it beyond this world.  But then another genius steps forward, a strong-armed genius, serious and silent, that carries us across the dizzying depth.  In the first of these genii one recognizes the feeling of the  beautiful, in the second the feeling of the sublime.

-Friedrich Schiller, Concerning the Sublime

In art, the feeling of the sublime brings us the tragic genre, in life, the experience of the sublime brings us wisdom.  For Schiller, an aesthetic education is necessary step on the way to morality. Through sublime art in particular, Schiller appears to be of the opinion that man is brought to recognize the independence of the cognitive drive from the drive to self-preservation.

For, since it is absolutely impossible for the same object to be related to us in two contradictory ways, it follows that the fact that we ourselves are related to the object in two contrasting ways, that two opposite natures must be united within us . . . by means of the feeling of the sublime, we experience that the state of our mind is not necessarily oriented to the state of our senses, that the laws of nature are not necessarily our laws as well, and that we have within us a self-sufficienct principle that is independent of all sensuous stirrings.

-Friedrich Schiller, Concerning the Sublime

I wonder though, if art alone can teach us this lesson.  Perhaps, instead, sublime art can only be understood in this way by those who lived long enough to experience loss.  Perhaps one must first struggle with a love forbidden by circumstances beyond control, plea for ones life in a sinking ship or a snow storm while traversing the alps, or lose someone dear.  Perhaps one must live the tragedy, and the meaning of the sublime can only be found in the struggle to cope.  If so – if the lesson of the sublime must be paid for by suffering – here lies an advantage for those sensitive souls able to pick up the lesson at an early age, before greater misfortune strikes.

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