On New Year’s Eve, my best friend and I went to a bonfire. We’ve done this for the past couple of years: You’re supposed to throw a note or representation of some unwanted aspect of the old year into the flames.
But this year the wind was up, and the bonfire roared, sweeping toward delightedly shrieking little kids as the wind changed, sending up great trumpets of fire, outsized orchids, fierce and beautiful and dangerous. This year the bonfire felt less tame than usual. It burnt a broad swath in the grass, and sent sparks showering toward the woods at the edge of the field.
This year the bonfire was especially sublime.
Our culture pays too little attention to the beautiful. We prefer to talk in terms of the useful or the efficient; maybe, sometimes, the ethical. Contemporary Catholic culture is famously sentimental and debased, contented with boring hymns and saccharine holy cards. But if we fail to acknowledge our deep hunger for beauty, we are even worse at recognizing and honoring the sublime.
It’s just about impossible to talk about the sublime without reference to Edmund Burke’s rakish essay, “A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful,” although we shouldn’t end there. Burke says that the beautiful is lovable, smooth, adorable; we might also say harmonious and charming without losing the sense of his argument. Beauty needs us: “Beauty in distress is much the most affecting beauty.” It is soft and “amiable.”
The great virtues turn principally on dangers, punishments, and troubles, and are exercised rather in preventing the worst mischiefs, than in dispensing favours; and are therefore not lovely though highly venerable. The subordinate turn on reliefs, gratifications, and indulgences; and are therefore more lovely, though inferior in dignity. Those persons who creep into the hearts of most people, who are chosen as the companions of their softer hours, and their reliefs from care and anxiety, are never persons of shining qualities or strong virtues. It is rather the soft green of the soul on which we rest our eyes, that are fatigued with beholding more glaring objects.
Burke’s beautiful is not St. Augustine’s “Beauty ever ancient, ever new.” Beauty, in this understanding, is found in those objects and people we can cherish; and therefore in those we can master.
The sublime, by contrast, inheres in what masters us. Harold Bloom titled his chapter on Emily Dickinson in The Western Canon “Blanks, Transports, the Dark”; these are words associated with the sublime. Burke writes of the “delightful horror” of the sublime; the “dread majesty” of it. The sublime is the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud; it is the biblical wisdom that begins in fear of the Lord. It is the shocking contrast of tempest and silence experienced by Elijah when he heard the “still, small voice” speaking from the heart of the whirlwind.
But it would be a mistake to map the Burkean sublime too quickly onto a Christian sublime. In the Christian worldview, sublimity is like cheap lipstick — or the ashes of Ash Wednesday: It gets all over everything.
In a Fallen creation, every aspect of our world is soaked in the redemptive blood of Christ. In a world where miracles happen, a plain loaf of bread might be about to become a sheaf of roses; or, for that matter, the Body and Blood of Christ. In fact, as promised in the Magnificat, the humblest and lowliest things and people of the world were exalted at the Incarnation. God rode a donkey, and the twisted nails of the Cross became highly prized relics. Can anything be fluffier, cuter, littler, and less threatening than a lamb? And yet even William Blake’s “Little Lamb . . . [in] Softest clothing woolly bright” should, to those who venerate the Lamb of God, have a lot in common with Blake’s bright-burning tiger.
Christianity changes our view of beauty, with beauty itself becoming shot through with the sublime, like iron ore in rock. Compare Burke on women’s beauty — which “almost always carries with it an idea of weakness and imperfection. Women are very sensible of this; for which reason, they learn to lisp, to totter in their walk, to counterfeit weakness, and even sickness” — with the Song of Songs’ bride, “as terrible as an army with banners.”
And Christianity changes the relationship of sublimity and humiliation. Few people are as unthreatening as the humiliated, from a secular point of view. And yet, from a Christian point of view, few people are closer to Jesus’ own humiliating Passion and death. In Francis Spufford’s fascinating polar-exploration book I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, he quotes one of Burke’s critics, Richard Payne Knight:
If . . . [Burke] had walked up St. James’s street without his breeches, it would have occasioned great and universal astonishment; and if he had, at the same time, carried a loaded blunderbuss in his hands, the astonishment would have been mixed with no small portion of terror: but I do not believe that the united effects of these two powerful passions would have produced any sentiment or sensation approaching the sublime, even in the breasts of those who had the strongest sense of self-preservation, and the quickest sensibility of danger.
From the Burkean point of view, of course the gun-toting underpants man couldn’t be sublime. But what if the author of this scene weren’t Edmund Burke, but Flannery O’Connor? What if the unclad man was not a deranged Burke wielding a blunderbuss, but an ecstatic Francis enraptured by Christ? We sometimes focus so much on the holiness of our holy fools that we forget how foolish they can look; how ridiculous, how humiliated. We forget not only the horror but the absurdity of the Cross. And if our own Christianity never leads to our humiliation, how can we claim to follow the Crucified?
In Peter S. Beagle’s fantasy novel The Last Unicorn, the unicorn wanders the world unrecognized; men have lost the ability to see her, and when she approaches them, most see only a dusty white mare. We should reawaken ourselves to the sublime for our own sake, because our hearts long to be shaken, even to be broken. We should reawaken ourselves to the sublime because, without sublimity, Christianity degenerates into middle-class morality and worship of the comfortable self.
And we should reawaken ourselves to the sublime because — and this may be the point most obviously relevant to combating the shallowness of contemporary ethics and culture — an encounter with the sublime can teach us the white-hot passion of submission. To be awed, astonished, thunderstruck is to prostrate oneself before what is greater than oneself. There is a fierce, ravished joy in submitting to what is sublime; it is rapture in the oldest sense of the word, as well as the contemporary.