Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

The Experience of Encountering the Sublime


Goble, Erika



Moving through the gallery, my eyes slide over the people and then to the paintings. To the left is a portrayal of a battle. I am drawn to the cavalry. Though still – frozen in time, the horses move in full charge. Their muscles straining against the reins; their feet clawing at one another; mouths biting. They snort, rear, clash. Faintly, there are battle cries. Guns firing. Men speared. The crackle of fire. Burnt gunpowder.


Abruptly, it ends. Someone steps in front of me, clicking his camera.


I move on.


In the Botticelli room, The Birth of Venus is instantly recognizable. As I stare up at her, my eyes slip from her face, across her hair, through the sea, to the wind and his lover. The soft, gentle breeze ruffles Venus’ hair brushing my skin.


Startled, I look away. How could that be?

Primavera enchants me. The beauty of the forest. The dance of the seasons. The sheer detail. Leaves, flowers begging to be plucked. As I reach for one, an alarm screams. Instantly, I pull back my hand, I retreat. Glancing from side to side, nervous that anyone should have seen me, I quickly leave the room.


As I wander further down the corridor, paintings rise on both sides. Unsure, I move quickly. I pass Caravaggio’s shield. As I round it, Medusa shrieks. A horrible screech emerging from her mouth as her severed head gushes blood. Despite looking away, the sound echoes in my ears. It fills my head, making it impossible to see. Horses above me gallop past; I fear being trodden. Dizzy, I grasp a nearby table for support. Closing my eyes, I breathe deeply, trying to compose myself, pulling myself together.


The moment begins to pass. Feeling a bit better, I glance up to a seascape. The painting is beautiful, entrancing. Oddly, in the lower corner, two legs thrash about in the water. As I look further, I feel myself pulled in. The sun shines. The water shimmers. Birds call overhead. So close, I feel the ocean spray. I plunge in head-first.


As I float in the murky depths, unsure of what has happened, a strange creature moves towards me. It is huge… compelling… Confused, I do nothing but float… waiting… It closes in…


(Anna collapses, striking her head on the table).

Thus Dario Argento opens his film, The Stendhal Syndrome, of Anna Manni’s strange experiences in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. First described by the French writer after whom it was named and for years called only the tourist disease, the Stendhal Syndrome was recognized as a medical condition in 1979. Though no formal numbers have been released, Dr. Graziella Magherini of the Santa Maria Nuovo Hospital in Florence has documented more than 100 cases of tourists admitted with the condition following an encounter with a work of art (notes 1, 2). Those afflicted experience dizziness, disorientation, prolonged elevated pulse, confusion, and extreme emotion. They become light-headed, often faint, and sometimes hallucinate. Is this due to the stress of travelling? (note 3) Or possibly the heat of an Italian summer? Or might it be due to the sheer magnitude of art that confronts one in Florence?


Argento’s film cuts between watching Anna’s experiences and seeing through her own eyes. Our looking partakes of her experience, which is very unique. Unexpectedly, she is overwhelmed by the art around her. Despite her reason, her objectivity, Anna is unable to view the paintings in the gallery at a distance. She cannot see them as objects. Instead, the paintings turn unusually vivid. They speak to her in an evocative way. Anna is not just captivated by the artful images, they seem to come alive. They move though remaining still. They whisper and scream though keeping silent. This experience is both beautiful and terrifying. It is sublime.

Sublime: the subject, the word, has largely fallen out of usage. Traditionally, the term was understood as the simultaneous experience of awe and terror, sometimes called enthusiastic terror (Dennis cited in Kirwan, 2005, p.6). In this fullest sense, however, the concept is now rarely used. Modern parlance finds the term sublime merely a synonym of beautiful, perfect, and wonderful; hyperbole for a pleasant experience. To speak of the sublime has become limited to discussions of Romanticism as if the experience were historically situated, limited to a particular artistic movement at a particular time. Has that which is called the sublime disappeared with the fading of its name, lost or relegated to the annals of history? What of the experience? Is it still capable of being encountered, if only rarely? Perhaps it is an experience that exists for which we have merely forgotten its name?


The word sublime derives from the Latin sublimus, meaning “uplifted, high, or lofty,” the compound of sub, “up under”, and limen, “lintel.” A lintel marks a threshold, and originates in limitaris, “that is on the border” (Online Etymological Dictionary). Encountering and contemplating the sublime can bring us to greater understandings. It can elevate us through pushing at our capacity of understanding (Kant, 1931) (note 4). It can lead to uplifting and lofty thoughts. Yet, the sublime can also bring us to the threshold, the border, and boundary of experience, of finitude, of comprehension, and of sanity. It can be an origin – one such as Bachelard describes when he writes “through this creativeness the imagining consciousness proves to be, very simply but very purely, an origin” (1964, p. xx) – and yet the sublime can also be an end.


The Sublime

A hiker clings to the edge of a cliff, 200 metres up, gazing at the magnificence of the world that has unfolded below her.


A tourist at the National Gallery walks trepidatiously under Louise Bourgeois’ Maman, staring at the giant spider crouching above her.


A young man flips through his aunt’s art book, stopping at a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. He glimpses heaven and hell.


A traveller stares out the taxi window. At first he didn’t see them, they were so big. The pyramids blot out the sky.


Each of the persons above may be encountering the sublime. If they are, then they are certain of it. And, yet, what is encountered? A view, a sculpture, a Bosch painting, the pyramids. But something else as well. Something has marked their encounter with these things, something has made them remarkable, unique, and vivid. Is it the emotion that these encounters evoke? Some scholars suggest the sublime is just that, an emotion – the combination of awe and terror – evoked by an object or experience. It has even been suggested that the sublime might be “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (Burke, 1757, p. 310).


Yet, if the sublime is an emotion, it is a strange one. For unlike other emotions, we do not contain the sublime within ourselves. Rarely do we say, “I feel sublime” (and when we do, it does not encompass the original meaning of the term). Nor do we say “I sublime the ocean,” as we would say “I love the ocean” or “I fear heights.” Rather, it is that “the ocean is sublime.” We sense, feel, or perceive the sublimity of the ocean and it is from the ocean that we seem to experience it. We perceive the sublime as originating in the object which provokes our response. In this way, the sublime is less an emotion we experience than a quality we perceive, a quality that inheres in an object, a quality residing in the object in the world.


Yet again, the sublime appears a strange quality possessed by objects, for one of its most salient features is its ephemerality. The sublime tends to disappear with increased familiarity. The tourist, hired by the gallery, may find that after daily encounters with Maman, the sculpture no longer compels that experience. The sublime has concealed itself.


So, can we still consider the sublime a quality, be it a transient quality, of an object in our world? Does the object, somehow, contain it? We readily say “the pyramids are sublime” and “that panoramic view is sublime.” But upon consideration, we must acknowledge that our language falls short of our actual experience. For was it the view that was sublime? Would it be as sublime if contained in a postcard? Or did the sublime inhere in the rare instant? The moment of clinging to the cliff beholding the world as one rarely does?


Shouldn’t we be able to tell from the accounts people give what constitutes the sublime? Each of the above stories are short though the memories vivid, even when recalled several years later. Each person describes the events leading up to their encounter – climbing the cliff, going to the gallery, flipping through the book, travelling from the airport – and yet the moment of the sublime is unspoken. The speakers stop, they can’t describe further. They are confronted with something which has an “ineffable yet awful meaningfulness” (Kirwan, p. 22). A gap lies in what is sayable about experiencing the sublime. Only the young man tried put it into words: “that was heaven and hell.”


And yet, might not all who know Bosch’s work ask, are not his paintings images of heaven and hell, paradise and damnation? To most, they are exactly that: images (note 5). In that moment, however, the young man seems to experience them differently, the images becoming the things themselves. They are heaven and hell, not mere representation. Is it the proximity of experience to depiction that enabled his articulation? Could this enable us to better understand the sublime? Or does this closeness only cloud our understanding further?

Heaven and hell. Awe and terror: the two conflicting, simultaneous qualities bound together in the experience of the sublime. And yet the experience is more than merely strong emotion, more than a painting evoking a feeling. In that instance, one experiences heaven, experiences hell. How may one understand that experience?


The Sublime as Awe and Terror

Encountering the sublime can be a terrifying experience. Moreover, unexpected. To look for the sublime appears futile; seldom can it be found when sought. Rather, the sublime can come upon us unexpectedly in our everyday world, from our everyday world, from things we have never encountered but which have existed for years amongst people. It is a strange phenomenon; not everyone experiences it, but when someone does, it can rupture existence, as Hadley recalls:

The string orchestra are dressed casually and colourfully. The atmosphere of the hall is very relaxed. Someone talks to the audience while the musicians wander onstage and get settled. They tune up. Then the concertmaster raises her bow, takes a deep breath and all the bows move to hit the strings.


That music is like a torrent of sound skipping my ears and going straight into my cells through the skin. My senses are obliterated – by the energy and purity of that art. It is the bite of a vampire. I stare straight ahead, towards the stage, but although I can see the players, the invasion of that music interferes with being able to recognize the sight as having any kind of meaning. Likewise I know I am there with friends, that they are sitting beside me, but their presence is reduced to an abstraction. The uncomfortable seat which has had me squirming in frustration – the rows too close together for my tall frame – no longer registers. I cry, helpless. I can’t move. Breathing hurts. I feel like my lungs will burst. I can’t contain that much beauty, but I have no defence against it. When the intermission comes, my friends get up and are chatting to each other. I try to tell them something is wrong, but I can’t speak. Something is wrong with them if they can stand and chat as if nothing has happened. That music: it has healed and hurt me at the same time.

The music of Shostakovich and Khachaturian, music that has been heard by millions, and yet Hadley is unexpectedly, violently moved by his experience of it. What begins as a fun outing with friends in a relaxed concert hall is transformed by this experience and all aspects of Hadley’s being become disrupted. His surroundings, his friends, even his chair, lose relevance when hearing this music. Hadley is not just “taken” by the music, as so often happens. He does not merely find it enchanting, nor does he “lose himself” in the music, forgetting about his friends and his chair. Encountering the sublime does not seem to “extinguish or remove actual experiences… of the surrounding real world,” as Ingarden describes aesthetic experience (1985, p. 310, original italics). Rather, art and the world may be experienced as never before. The experience can “break open an open place, in whose openness everything is other than usual” (Heidegger, 1971, p. 70). In the experience of the sublime, we are still in the world, but it is a world suddenly altered. Although Hadley sees the players, he no longer recognizes them. The once important discomfort caused by rows too close together – a source of frustration which had previously prevented Hadley from fully engaging with his surroundings – ceases to matter, becomes nothing of import compared to that music.


When we experience the sublime, we are in the world, our experience is of the world, but it is a world ruptured, a world terrifyingly unusual, terrifyingly disrupted, reordered. The world may become extremely vivid, as though our perception were suddenly distorted. Who has not stared at the night sky, admiring the infinite stars, only to suddenly recognize that it is physical space into which we are looking – infinite, empty space that never ends? The sky ceases to be a comforting blanket with its pin pricks of light and our eyes move forward through its depth, searching for an end but not finding it. Who has not felt the dizzying vertigo of that vast endlessness? and our own smallness in it? Indeed, this might be a glimpse of the sublime, which Kant describes as appearing absolutely great, “in comparison with which everything else is small,” (1931, p. 392).


In the face of that which appears absolutely great, we seem to stop. Hadley finds he cannot move during or after he hears the music. He cannot even speak. Burke said, “the passion caused by the great and sublime… when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror” (1757, p. 53). This change, this rupture, causing astonishment and horror, such as Hadley experiences, is not necessarily undesirable, for it combines with an essential change of being. This change of being may be similar to effect of the poetic image that Bachelard (1964) describes, which “possesses us entirely” and “through its exuberance, awaken[s] new depths…” (p. xviii-xix). Hadley continues:

After the concert, I was agitated, had no one to talk to. There was no way to put what had happened in perspective. I couldn’t stand to be with anyone because when the sound stopped, all my other senses came flooding back in a painfully heightened way. I walked, resenting everyone and everything because at that moment I wanted to sing so badly that I thought I would die.

The sublime is both awe-inspiring and awful. The word awe derives from the Proto-Indo-European aghes meaning “pain and grief” (Online Etymological Dictionary). Just as the feeling of awe partakes of pain and grief, the experience of the sublime is a coincidence of the beautiful and the dreadful that makes our world this as well.


And yet, while an encounter with the sublime may be unexpected and, to a degree, unwelcome – indeed astonishing and horrifying in its effect upon us – it may not be experienced as a form of failure or a curse placed upon us. Hadley did not “fail” in being unable to abstractly comprehend the music or really see the orchestra or breathe or move. He did not wish that it had not happened. Rather, fault lay with those who could stand and chat as if nothing had happened. Fault exists in not having experienced the sublime. Though terrible, to not have had the experience appears worse. And yet Hadley’s friends did experience the music; however, for them nothing but a concert had occurred. Their everydayness had stayed intact.


Art & the Sublime: Singular & Infinite

In our everyday experience, art is often approached as a representation and cultural artefact. In naming something art, we provide it with a status, context, and history that cues both our expectation of the work and our expectation of our experience of it. In this way, our experience of art is structured. We may find a certain artwork pretty, even beautiful, or dull, ugly, or boring. It might scandalize, make us feel awkward or uneasy, or simply banal. It could be an acknowledged classic or merely be the lesser work of an even lesser artist. It might even be a forgery, but the artwork is almost always preconceived by its audience before it is encountered. In this way, the art object can become obscured by the idea of art.


But what happens when a work of art is perceived in its full, uninterpreted presence? when it surprises, revealed in this unexpected way? How does one get at the singularity of that unique experience in words that are normally given to the demands of practicality, of communicating shared experience?


I once knew an art history professor who uprooted his family and moved them across the country so he could be closer to a work of art. He told how the first time he saw the art object he decided then and there that he would work at whatever institution owned the piece. When it was purchased by an obscure university in the middle of a dust bowl, he packed up his family and moved. Even though the piece was placed in storage, the professor was happy where he was, being where it was. Only months later, the piece was resold and he was never to see it again.


What did the art professor encounter that day when he saw that particular work of art? What made that piece, as opposed to any other, move him to such a degree that he would relocate himself, his entire family, across a country? Something in that encounter made it singular, unique, and of profound importance to a man who normally described his relationship with art as professional. With all of his professional qualifications, he couldn’t describe his experience with this particular artwork: You don’t get a sense of it from photographs. I can’t describe what it was like. The encounter was beyond his vocabulary and yet, we must ask, what in the experience of art can strike an art history professor dumb? Only something truly singular and unique, only something so unfamiliar, so uncommon, that language cannot contain it.


To be common is to be held or known by many. To be common is to be shared, to belong to all people, and to be of equal use or value to all (Oxford English Dictionary). When something is uncommon, it is rare, limited, and sometimes deemed special. The uncommon can give distinction. Uncommon things may be sought after, wanted, desired. The uncommon is different from the everyday. And just as the uncommon can be valued for that difference, so too can it be feared.

Desire and fear. Awe and terror. The sublime is truly an uncommon experience, so singular that a particular experience of it is incomparable with anything else. In the story, “The Aleph”, Jorge Luis Borges attempts to write of his sublime encounter with the mysterious Aleph, but laments:

I come now to the ineffable center of my tale; it is here that a writer’s hopelessness begins. Every language is an alphabet of symbols the employment of which assumes a past shared by its interlocutors. How can one transmit to others the infinite Aleph, which my timorous memory can scarcely contain? (1999, p. 282).

When the sublime is encountered, whether through the Aleph or through art, sharing the encounter seems impossible, neither the immediate experience nor later through words. Unlike that which we understand as “beauty”, the sublime is not an easily identified attribute of a work of art. Certain artworks are agreed upon as beautiful: when we see them we (for the most part) agree that they are beautiful to a greater or lesser degree. We can agree with another that something is beautiful or argue why it should not be considered so. This is not the case with the sublime. The sublime is individual. We may experience it when another does not, and not know why. Furthermore, the sublime has no likeness to some existent, to which we can relate. Though it is in the very nature of art “to be seen or heard and no attempt to define or analyse it, however valuable that may be afterwards as a way of taking stock of this experience, can ever stand in place of the direct perceptual experience” (Merleau-Ponty, 2004, p. 95), we do not seem able to even take stock of the sublime. No common, shared language exists to enable an understanding of it, despite even the attempt of the great author. In such cases, naming identifies, but does not reveal: the sublime remains unspeakable.


And yet the experience of the sublime may linger, the feeling remaining with someone long after the experience has ended. Jasper (whose account you will read later) explains: I can feel that feeling now, as I try to give verbal shape to my memories of the encounter, to inform my sense of what it means. This inability to express, to comprehend the sublime may so press at the confines of our rational abilities, even our timorous memories, that we may doubt whether we can contain it. In this way, the sublime appears to challenge us as beauty does not. This, for Kant, is a fundamental difference between the beautiful and the sublime:

Natural beauty… brings with it a purposiveness in its form by which the object seems to be, as it were, preadapted to our judgment, and thus constitutes in itself an object of satisfaction. On the other hand, that which excites in us, without any reasoning about it, but in the mere apprehension of it, the feeling of the sublime may appear, as regards its form, to violate purpose in respect of the judgment, to be unsuited to our presentative faculty, and as it were to do violence to the imagination; and yet it is judged to be only the more sublime (1931, p. 391).

Whereas beauty tends to suit our perception of it, the sublime can challenge our appraisal, even our ability to conceive of it.


It might be possible to say that the sublime is as unfathomable as it is unspeakable and incomparable. Even so, there is some sort of recognizable totality to it. In his description of the Aleph, Borges touches upon this:

I… saw the Aleph from everywhere at once, saw the earth in the Aleph, and the Aleph once more in the earth and the earth in the Aleph, saw my face and my viscera, saw your face, and I felt dizzy, and I wept, because my eyes had seen that secret, hypothetical object whose name has been usurped by men but which no man has ever truly looked upon; the inconceivable universe. (1999, p. 283-4).

Dienske (2002) says that “the inexpressible exists in the timelessness which is directly experienced in an atmosphere of infinity.” And within the experience of the sublime seems to lay the timeless, inconceivable universe. In its totality and infinity, in our ability to recognize this experience, our physical bodies and the world appear tied to and through the sublime. In our perception of but inability to articulate it, we perceive ourselves in it and it within ourselves. And this can indeed be dizzying. Though we are unable to comprehend it or to articulate it, in recognizing the sublime, we seem to be “grasping at infinity” (Payne Knight, 1805, p.329).


The Sublime as Monster: The Thing Presents Itself

How then can one understand that which presents itself as causing awe and terror, but remains ineffable and inconceivable? How does the sublime present itself in these encounters? Emma tells of her experience:

Having finally reached the top of the long, narrow stairwell, a door stands open to radiant pink light, a welcome contrast to the dark, grey stone. A small ledge circles the dome. I am eager and step into the light, turning to see the famous painting. The painting is huge, garishly coloured, and the bodies depicted are enormous despite having appeared so small from below. Various saints reach up and around the dome, the windows above lighting their actions.


Moving forward to look at the church below, my eyes slide down across the floor and up the opposite wall to the dome. In an instant I am sick, vertigo rushes over me. It seems as if the saints have suddenly raised their arms against me. I want to flee, to leave, to get back down to the safety of the floor of the church, to where everything was beautiful. I am stuck, the ledge too narrow for me to pass those ahead or behind me. I try to keep my eyes closed, but I am awash in the feeling of this thing in front of me.

Like Hadley, the moment of the sublime comes upon Emma suddenly, unexpectedly. It appears instantly; it rushes over her, flooding her perception. The mural, having been observed from below as beautiful, becomes hostile. The sublime, when it presents itself, can threaten. The sublime can be dangerous.


The sublime looks at us as Merleau-Ponty’s painter feels looked at by the visible (1964, p. 167) (note 6). Its being emanates from the thing itself. The sublime appears fully other, something undeniable. Emma’s response is to flee, closing her eyes, coaching her thoughts, in her recognition of its presence.


Emma tries to describe this presence: The mural is there. Hell opens up. The devil swallows sinners. The angel is Athena, angered. Athena is the goddess of war, the goddess of philosophy and wisdom. Athena counsels heroes. Yet, when displeased, her knowledge is dangerous and the result, violence. One account (given by Robert Graves) tells how the earth gave Athena Erichthonius (in form of a serpent) to raise. Having placed Erichthonius into a box, Athena entrusts him into the care of three sisters, exhorting them not to open the box until her return. Ignoring her command, they open the box and, upon seeing the snake, are driven insane, ultimately throwing themselves off the Acropolis. The sublime, like Athena herself, is a source of knowledge and yet it also suggests violence and contains the risk of insanity.


Like the box given the sisters, the possibility of the sublime exists in the art object presented to us. When it reveals itself, when we unwittingly open the box, it appears before us like a monster. A monster is a frightening mythical creature, something extraordinary or unnatural, or something of “vast or unwieldy proportions” (Oxford English Dictionary). The monster contains an element of the unknown. The sublime is, indeed, monstrous. It is terrifying, extraordinary, vast, unknown. In the past, cartographers drew monsters on their maps to indicate dangerous and unexplored regions of the world. Sea serpents, dragons, tigers, real and fantastic monsters of all sorts adorned the maps’ edges, marking the ends of the known world and the boundaries of human knowledge. Sailors were warned here be dragons. One was not to venture there. And yet, like the sisters wanting to open the box, wanting to discover what lay within, the draw of those unknown regions proved irresistible and new continents were discovered. The danger of the sublime, like the warnings given explorers, may not temper the magnetic attraction of its unspeakable knowledge.


The Sublime as Wonder

If the sublime offers the possibility of knowledge, how does it differ from wonder, the basis of classical philosophy? On purely conceptual grounds, this is problematic as the two are often used synonymously. Wonder is sometimes described as the emotion of the sublime (note 7). And yet, wonder is not merely an emotion. So we must ask: does wonder have sublime components? Or does the sublime contain elements of wonder? Is the experience of the sublime only the feeling of wonder? Or is it more? Or less?


As pure concepts, it might be possible to denote a difference between wonder and the sublime as Elliot Stone (2006) has done in his explication of Heidegger’s conception of wonder. In describing Heidegger’s conception of Bestaunten (the awesome), which is not true wonder but is sometimes confused with it, Elliot Stone explicitly connects the awesome with the sublime: “When experiencing something truly awesome, one cannot understand it, nor will one ever be able to understand it. This is what ‘sublimity’ means.” (p. 210). Furthermore, he articulates another difference in that the awesome is a result of the extraordinary and diminishes with familiarity, whereas wonder has neither quality.


However, this differentiation does little for understanding the lived experience of the sublime as opposed to that of wonder. How do the experiences differ, if at all? In his book Writing in the Dark, van Manen writes of a “transcendent incident of wonder” (2005, p. 5). He tells of driving home late one evening and seeing the aurora borealis. Pulling the car to the side of the highway, he and his family get out to observe the strange phenomenon. He writes:

It is at moments like this, when one is all surrounded by the stupendous starry sky and its immensely wondrous phenomenon of the aurora that I teeter at the edge of my agnosticism. Truly there must be something deeply meaningful in the universe around us. Gazing into the sky one may experience a strange sensation of being gazed at in return by something beyond oneself. It is as if one gazes into the mirror and in a moment of extreme reflexivity one experiences the reflection of one’s own gaze as uncannily strange: Who am I? What is my place in all this? Why are we here? But these are questions without answers. They call for a turning away of the eyes. (p. 6)

The similarities between this account and those previous are striking. With the sublime and wonder, something larger than ourselves, separate from us, appears before us. It comes upon us suddenly. We are held by it and it returns our gaze. And yet, is the gaze the same? Van Manen describes it as being uncannily strange. Something is uncanny when it is frighteningly familiar while being incredibly different. In the uncanny, we recognize something of ourselves in the object, while knowing that it is not of us. Perhaps this is what van Manen recognizes when he suddenly suspects that there is something deeply meaningful in the universe. A recognition of something of oneself that is not the self. He appears connected and within this experience. It causes him to ask the questions of the meaning of life. Strangely, this is both awe-inspiring and comforting.


This does not seem the case with the sublime. We do not see ourselves in it. In the moment of the sublime, the infinite, empty universe lies gaping before us. We could fall into it and… just disappear. It is truly other, strange, frightening, but not uncanny. There is no familiarity to its appearance, no likeness, no uncanny recognition. We have no part in it. We are only its witness, tied to it through our presence. And it offers no meaning, begs no answers. It is like the violent realization that there is no God. It offers only the desolation of meaninglessness. The wondrous is far more gentle – it includes us. We are of the world and we have a place in it. The sublime may only show us our temporality, the arbitrariness of our life, leaving only the permanence of the thing that excludes us.


The Sublime as Religious Experience

The sublime, unseen but experienced, appears to comes from and exist in our external world. When faced with it, it appears a monster, and threatens to overcome us, like a demon. Demon derives from the ancient Greek and was “a lesser god, guiding spirit, tutelary deity” (Online Etymological Dictionary), an intermediary between the gods and men (Oxford English Dictionary). When used in a compound word, such as eudaimonia (“the good life”), it implied one’s lot in life. In the medieval period, however, demons, like monsters, had a more paradoxical existence. They were a combination of the divine (proof of God’s existence) and of its negation (not his messengers, but tools of the Devil). Some scholars have interpreted this paradox as a violation of boundaries, the merging of upper and lower, divine and profane (Hennelly Jr., 2001, p. 73), the violation of categories we prefer to keep distinct. And our response to this violation is horror and fear, but also fascination.

Fascination and fear. Divine and profane. Awe and terror. The experience of the sublime does not seem of the world, and yet we experience it. Therefore, can it be understood as a form of religious experience? How does the sublime differ from religious ecstasy? The Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Bernini is a “beautiful” statue, one that may evoke an experience of the sublime. Yet the account from which the statue derives is one of religious ecstasy, an experience St. Teresa of Avila describes in her autobiography:

I saw an angel close to me, on my left side, in bodily form… He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful – his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire…


I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.


During the days that this lasted, I went about as if beside myself. I wished to see, or speak with, no one, but only to cherish my pain, which was to me a greater bliss than all created things could give me…” (excerpts from Parts 16,17, & 18, Chapter XXIX of her Autobiography, from St. Teresa of Jesus of the Order of Our Lady of Carmel: The Life, Relations, Maxims and Foundations Written by the Saint. p. 215-216.)

Like Anna, Hadley, and Emma, St. Teresa’s experience is unusual. It is bodily and all encompassing. It remains beyond words, is infinite in its being, and can be re-evoked in memory. It is also cherished after it is passed. At its core, like that of the sublime, the encounter encompasses dual, almost opposing feelings. Yet, whereas in the experience of the sublime, we feel awe and terror, St. Teresa undergoes acute pain combined with the exquisite pleasure of God’s love. St. Teresa experiences an all-encompassing joy in the presence of something larger, something beyond her.


But the sublime is less protective. God does not appear; the sublime leaves us alone, experiencing terror and awe in the face of its vast void.


The Sublime in Art as a Moment of Clarity: The Object Presents Itself

In the face of this void, how do we experience the art object, the apparent source of our experience of the sublime? Caitlin describes her experience:

The day is like the others. Writing endlessly, my mind floating – transmitting without pause or thought, the professor’s lengthy descriptions of the paintings we are studying – modern art. My eyes dance between two depths of field: the scrawl of notes on the desk and the distant projection screen. I glance up and down… up and down… up and down… – the slide changes – up and…


I stop.


My first thought comes as a smell. The copper-penny odour of blood. A smell from my childhood, packaging fresh meat from hunting, standing on a floor stained and sticky with spilt blood. The image, huge and looming in front of me is wet with it; the gore translated perfectly through projected light. My hand, moving seconds earlier, hovers motionless above the page. The image of blood and meat and figure – all of them emerging from the darkness of the canvas – is beautiful, horrible, and I cannot understand it. I feel the skin across my scalp crawl and tighten as my body reacts. I swallow with a mouth that is suddenly dry. It is too much to take in. The entire painting writhes with emotion. Distantly, it seems, I wonder at the strength of the artist. I want to paint like this. Raw. The amphitheatre and the shuffling of students have disappeared; my awareness focused entirely on the small space before the screen. I am amazed and in awe. I do not understand.

In the switch of a slide, Caitlin encounters a painting as she has never encountered one before. She is stopped from doing that which was previously so customary, so pressing. Like Caitlin’s mind, previously floating, we are often disconnected from our actions, disconnected from our bodies, and yet, when the sublime reveals itself, we may be brought to a sudden attention, a point of focused consciousness (note 8) never previously experienced. In being brought to this complete attention, is this the abandon[ment] of ourselves without reservations, the fully entering into the poetic space of the image, of which Bachelard (1964) writes? (note 9) Has this response been, in some way, demanded of us by the sublime? Unlike other demands made of people – the need to shovel the walk, cook dinner, or answer the telephone – we appear unable to turn away from the sublime. Demand comes from the Latin demandare, a compound word from de, meaning “completely”, and mandare, “to order” (Online Etymological Dictionary). Does the sublime order us so completely, command our attention so utterly, that we are unable ignore it? The experience of the sublime may be thought of as an ordering and reordering of our body, our attention, our world. In the face of this demand, our response appears primal, akin to a physical response, emerging from our very being, prior to thought, undeniable. We can be held by the sublime completely, and left helpless in the face of it.


In this helplessness, in the face of the sublime, we encounter the art object, the sublime’s source. The art object may resonate, yet “it is not an echo of the past. On the contrary: through the brilliance of [this] image, the distant past resounds with echoes” (Bachelard, 1964, p. xii). It may not remind, but bring forward. For Caitlin, her experience of the sublime dredges up a visceral memory of childhood. Likewise, the painting, done in oils, not physically present to her – she only sees a projected image of the painting – is brought forward. Cailtin smells it, feels it. (note 10) In his discussion of the effect, the performance, of the poetic image, Bachelard concedes that “it is hard to know at what depth these echoes will reverberate and die away” (p. xii). Might we understand the experience of the sublime as reverberations of the art object running deep within us?


The sublime, invisible, is felt through the art object. In experiencing art, we try to take it into ourselves, to make sense of it. We hear it, see it, move through and around it. We experience it and think about it, read it through our knowledge and expectations. When our experience is mediated by a prior representation or commentary, it is validated (Duro, 2007). But the sublime art object may be too immense to be encountered in this fashion; it may be too incomprehensible to be mediated. In the immensity and incomprehensibility of the sublime, the art object may manage to remain distinct from our attempts to ‘know’ it. By remaining other, it can prevent the ease of looking at it, accepting it, and moving on, as we often do with the other paintings, other images, other music. According to Duro (2007), a sense of separateness, a gap can open up between the viewer and their longed-for encounter, causing anxiety (p. 95). And yet, this anxiety-ridden experience can be a revelatory moment. Merleau-Ponty writes:

We encounter objects… that do not pass quickly before our eyes in the guise of objects we ‘know well’ but, on the contrary, hold our gaze, ask questions of it, convey to it in a bizarre fashion the very secret of their substance, the very mode of their material existence and which, so to speak, stand ‘bleeding’ before us. (2004, p. 93).

The art object through which we encounter the sublime may present itself, through the sublime, in a way never previously experienced. For Caitlin, it stands (literally) bleeding before her. Does the art object reveal the very secret of [its] substance? Not a secret, not a knowledge that can be spoken. But possibly one that is recognized. Possibly a knowledge, a truth, that artistic cognition enables, that Hegel recognizes as being immediate, intuitive, and inarticulable (Hahn, 1994). It may be that, when we experience the sublime, it is, in fact, the only time we ever truly see the art object.


The sublime can prevent us from assimilating this painting despite our most earnest attempts. In fact, it may change our relation to art so much so that it makes the other art objects, previously encountered, suddenly seem unnecessary. For in its incomprehensibility, the sublime can make the art object both beautiful and horrible. It can attract and repel, like the sheen of rotting meat. “The mind feels itself moved … quickly alternating attraction towards, and repulsion from, the same Object” (Kant, 1931 p. 394). Caitlin describes the painting as raw. We call something raw when it is uncooked, unprocessed, or not yet prepared for consumption (Oxford English Dictionary). Such an art object has not yet been altered to appeal to the palate. Such an object is not yet fit to be consumed. In the moment of the sublime, the artwork may slip beyond our expectation of art and presents itself fully, not only as art but also as itself, unaltered by human consciousness, by our practices of naming and identifying. It may present itself as it is, in all of its possibilities.


The painting that Caitlin encounters is raw not only in its clarity of presence, it is raw in another way as well. We can call something raw when it is still fresh, tender, and subject to possible pain or damage if disturbed, as in the case of a wound being raw or of having rubbed one’s hands raw through labour (Oxford English Dictionary). When something is raw, the flesh beneath the outer surface is exposed. Experiencing the sublime may make us feel raw and exposed. It may wound us, but it can also reveal our inner selves, our desires and fears. Caitlin admits she wants to paint like this, but wonders if she has the artist’s strength to be so raw, so revealing. In the experience of the sublime, the art object can take root in us (Bachelard, 1964 p. xix), making the necessity of the art object’s existence our own necessity. As Bachelard writes, “It becomes a new being in our language, expressing us by making us what it expresses; in other words, it is at once a becoming of expression, and a becoming of our being. Here expression creates being” (p. xix).


The Sublime in Art as a Watershed Moment of the Creative Being

The moment of the sublime is possibly a moment of becoming, a moment where, as Bachelard posits, “expression creates being” (1964, p. xix). The experience of the sublime can be powerful, all-encompassing, yet the moment of the sublime does not last forever. We will leave the gallery or the music will stop. For Caitlin, it was:

Without warning, the image flashes briefly white as the professor changes the slide – the sudden brightness interrupting my thoughts, now confused, as my consciousness returns into the present. It is like surfacing after diving, and I am momentarily disoriented.


I glance down at my blank page. A glowing afterimage of the painting stares back at me.

The sudden brightness interrupts Caitlin’s thoughts. Thoughts, so clear, so certain moments before, are now confused as she is forced to return into the present. Yet where had she been? Where does the sublime take us when we encounter it? When we experience the sublime, we can be ever-present of our surroundings (though they may cease to have significant meaning) and of the passage of time (though it may be filled with extreme sensation), yet our consciousness is altered. These accounts suggest that encountering the sublime provides a clarity, a certainty yet vulnerability in the face of the world. Was it this from which Caitlin surfaced, as if awakened from sleep, with the disappearance of the image? Did she return to the everyday with the flick of a switch? Though one can be pulled away from a painting, a sculpture, a piece of music, or a book, can one ever be pulled back from the sublime once it has revealed itself? (note 11) Ingarden writes of the phenomenon of return in the aesthetic experience of the art object, a change of attitude to that held prior to the experience (1985, p. 311). Yet is this return possible when the sublime is encountered through art? Or does the sublime leave some form of an after-image? While the intense moment of the experience may end, the sublime may not be gone. The sublime may be burned into us, continuing to stare at us, continuing its demand. It may be in this regard that the experience of the sublime differs from that of being captivated. Both take hold of us, both seize us. And yet, one is released from captivation, from captivity. One gains one’s freedom. The sublime is not so kind. Even when the object is gone, we are not released. Its image is carried within us, as if burnt into our retina.


What is this after-image, this subtle, invisible change that can occur when one encounters the sublime in art? The anecdotes provided by Caitlin, Emma, Hadley, even that of Borges, point to an answer, but it is in Jasper’s account that we find a possible answer:

There, is this looming mass, more than a building, but absolutely spectral nevertheless, what the Italians would call a Fata Morgana, a mirage; not of this world, precisely, but there, in the world, because there in the imagination as concretely as any person, place, or thing being bought and sold in those streets at the height of the season. It partakes both of the ugliness of the world and of my own sense of non-existence, or, rather, that hazy sense of flawed, fleeting existence that eats away at life; it is utterly strange, monstrous. But it is also like a double of this nearly ancient city itself, yet out of all proportion – an odd trick that I’d have attributed to a camera if it were taking place on paper, rather than right there in front of me. But unlike the city, it is outside time. It concentrates my sense of smallness, of ugliness, of decay, and mocks any pretence to beauty or fitness present in any other person or thing. It seems infinite in detail but beyond examination by the eye. My eye traveling over its surface is stricken with the same vertigo that I feel in the attempt to count the visible stars. I know this was not a mere by-product of my tiredness or an effect of my panicked flight from attention, for this structure is now the very structure of my attention: all things at once, but arranged in one way, that way, and standing aloof and above everything. There is this structure, there in the distance, and the crowds push to and fro, and the souvenirs are bought and sold, and I think of all the kinds of movement that must be going on right around it: much the same as what I see here; and I feel the petty frustrations of self rise up again, as if they mattered as much as anything. And that structure looms up like the bow of an impossible ship coming in to a port caught unawares, portending both safe returns and disaster.


Pigeons alight from its numberless facets more real than all the tourists filling the basilica with their camera flashes and politely awe-struck whispers, milling about with necks craned for a sight of the dome’s decorations; the pigeons circulate, cling to the building, sleep in its shade and use its surfaces without harming it. Horses work to bear overpaying tourists through the streets in quaint carriages, stand there in the square, indomitable in their acquiescence, in their patience against the day’s noisome toil; their noses in their feedbags, tails swishing, blinking and batting the flies buzzing about their ears, and just as satisfied to be watched, standing there, stroked by overawed children.


I am overcome with a dread of my own life’s inadequate shape, its formlessness and the incoherence of its moments; but this structure in turn works upon this feeling, moulding it, sculpting it (I can feel that feeling now, as I try to give verbal shape to my memories of the encounter, to inform my sense of what it means); and no sooner am I filled with dread than I am as if reorganized from within. And within and without the building itself, as that initial dread subsides, I feel a sense of freedom and simplicity; clarity as of the relation between the horse and the flies and the watching child; of a self, simple and consistent in being a contradictory thing.


I walk around and through that structure and feel its height and its depth, and a sense, too, of my own height and depth, our height and depth. I am ashamed to have ever doubted it.

Jasper’s account is elusive, far less concrete, than those of the others, and yet it may strangely capture the transformative nature of the sublime encountered through art. The sublime makes strange the objects of our world. Jasper calls the building, the source of his experience of the sublime, a Fata Morgana, a mirage, and an odd trick that he might have disbelieved had it not been in front of him. A mirage is a deceptive image of a distant object or something that appears real or possible but is not so (Oxford English Dictionary). The sublime can be like a mirage, it can bring the object of our regard ever so much closer to our experience, while accentuating the distance between us and it. It can make an object there, while simultaneously not there. The sublime may change the artwork from an everyday art object, experienced once and passed over, to something genuinely encountered, though it may remain incomprehensible to us. Likewise, the sublime may, itself, appear as true and yet remain an impossibility.


For Jasper to call the object a Fata Morgana, to call it a myth and a deception, points to the temporality of the sublime. Invariably with the sublime, the art object (though starting as only itself) will be assumed by us and our needs of it. The sublime can slip from our perception as we habituate to the object. “Habit rises like a flood of slime along the scale of [aesthetic] values and … it swallows all values” (Flusser, 2002, p. 53). By its becoming part of us, we risk the artwork becoming tamed. And in this process, the sublime, once so apparent (such an apparition), so present, so forceful and demanding, has seemingly disappeared, leaving only the memory, the feeling, the knowledge of what was once felt. At the same time, however, we are also left with a sense of no longer being the same.


The sublime is a spectre of the world, an image of a distant object, yet an image, an experience taken into ourselves. It is there, in the world, because there in the imagination as concretely as any person, place, or thing. Though of the world, the sublime exists outside, in, and through us. And for Jasper, it – the building and his experience of it – is utterly strange, monstrous. In medieval Europe, monsters were seen as evidence of the touch of God and lessons against sin, and as such were both revered and abhorred (Garland Thompson, 1996). They invoked awe and terror, reverence and revulsion. They were, themselves, sublime. And like the monsters of Europe, the sublime concentrates our sense of the ugliness of the world, our own non-existence (for what were monsters besides evidence of the existence of the divine? nothing human in themselves). The sublime can bring forth our own smallness, ugliness, decay. For we and the world, itself, are temporal, are dying, and the sublime can concentrate this knowledge. And when it does, it does not limit its scope to those who experience it or the objects that seem to induce it; the sublime mocks any pretence to beauty or fitness present in any other person or thing. The sublime may extend it scope, extend its effect on our vision, on our knowledge, to the entire world. As Heidegger writes of the awesome, in our experience of it, we are “imbued with the awareness of being excluded from what exists in the awesome” (1994, p.143). When we gaze through the sublime, in recognizing our temporality, we may know the futility of our life. We may feel our own lowness, our own insignificance. And when faced with this knowledge, we may be overcome with a dread of our own life’s inadequate shape, its formlessness and the incoherence of its moments. In the experience of the sublime, we can feel unworthy. The sublime can accentuate how much larger, more permanent, more important the art objects are than us. We can be brought to a feeling of genuine humility. (note 12) Compared to the sublime, to the art objects themselves, we appear nothing. “It is an exaltation beyond our own individuality, a feeling of the sublime” (Schopenhauer, 1958, p. 206).


And yet, no sooner are we filled with this dread than a fundamental shift of consciousness, of being, can occur. Jasper describes it as being reorganized from within, yet it occurs in tandem with a shift in the sense of the world itself. And within and without the building itself, as that initial dread subsides, I feel a sense of freedom and simplicity; clarity as of the relation between the horse and the flies and the watching child; of a self, simple and consistent in being a contradictory thing. In the moment of the sublime, in realizing our temporality, our own certain death and meaninglessness of life, we may simply come to be. In having no meaning, no predetermined order, the world may suddenly make sense – as it is, how it is, everything in relation to everything else. Like the art object which resists our interpretation, our own being comes into focused concentration – no past, no future – simply a self, simple and consistent in being a contradictory thing. In the terror of the sublime, we may find a peace, outside of petty constraints and concerns. We may experience Schopenhauer’s Most Sublime state, where in our experience of feebleness, helplessness, powerlessness, we are “free from, and foreign to, all willing and all needs, of the sublime” (1958, pp. 204, 205).


The moment of the sublime is a watershed moment of creative being. Like the Aleph, the first letter of the first al(e)phabet, the beginning of formal knowledge, the sublime can be a beginning. Jasper later tells:

The structure is now imposed on my awareness, informing it, a permanent disturbance, which no cityscape can subsume in its flow; the mirage is on the inside, and yet it stands out, in some way, as the true vehicle for that which I’d come to find.

Jasper has experienced the sublime and it now remains within him, continuing to form within him his experience of the world. Bachelard contends that “By living the poems we read, we have then the salutary experience of emerging” (1964, p. xxii). It appears that the sublime can change the way we encounter the world, not only in our initial encounter with the sublime, but subsequently as well. We may come to live the sublime artworks and, through living them, our being emerges. “The working of the work [of art] does not consist in the taking effect of a cause. It lies in a change, happening from out of the work, of the unconcealedness of what is, and this means, of Being” (Heidegger, 1971, p. 70). Jasper calls the sublime the true vehicle for that which he’d come to find. And yet, when we approach a work of art, for what are we looking? Not merely human creative expression, but something more. Art reveals human possibility. The experience of encountering the sublime through art is then a movement towards unconcealedness, a revealing, of our own creative being.



In the gallery, Anna Manni collapses. In her encounter with the sublime, she plunges into Pieter Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Like Anna Manni, when we encounter the sublime through art, we become Icarus, the explorer of the boundaries of language (Hagen & Hagen, 2004, p. 60), of understanding, and of experience. Like Icarus, the means of our experience of the sublime through art is given by another. We dare the heavens by taking flight, soaring in wonder to the heights of the sky. We are singed by the sun, and plunge in terror into the depths of the ocean. Ultimately, this experience may reflect what Dilworth sees as the “human position of suffering”, forsakenness (1991, p. 181). We are left in the waters alone, and we may drown. It is the “antidot[e] to human self-importance… while celebrat[ing] something deeply human” (Garvey, 2007, p.6). For when we experience the sublime through art, we make it wholly our own. It is a solitary journey, where we leave the comfort and certainty of our received notions of art. And like the ploughman, shepherd and angler, those around us may not see our fall or may find it incomprehensible, and they offer no solace.




1. The Jerusalem Syndrome, a similar condition, has been documented as affecting approximately 400 people annually.

2. I use the terms “art object” and “artwork” interchangeably, and include in my definition of art all forms (including visual, performance, literary, and auditory). I also rely on the essential nature of art, in general, to draw on work that does not specifically address the type of art experienced in the anecdotes. Rather, I adopt Heidegger’s stance that “all art, as the letting happen of the advent of the truth of what is, is, as such, essentially poetry” (1971, p. 70).

3. This is the explanation offered by Magherini.

4. Kant (1971) further explains, in experiencing the sublime “it is felt that we can comprehend in a whole of intuition the progressive apprehension, and at the same time we perceive the inadequacy of this faculty, unbounded in its progress, for grasping and using any fundamental measure available for the estimation of magnitude with the easiest application of understanding.” (p. 394).

5. Even if highly evocative and somewhat disturbing, they are encountered as images.

6. “The actions most proper to [a painter] – those gestures, those paths which he alone can trace and which will be revelations to others – to him they seem to emanate from the things themselves, like the patterns of the constellations. Inevitably the roles between him and the visible are reversed. That is why so many painters have said that things look at them.” (Merleau-Ponty, 1964, p. 167).

7. For example, Kant (2003) says that “the feeling of the noble sublime is quiet wonder,” while Fuller (2006) writes “that wonder, if even for the briefest time, expands our range of subjective richness is alone warrant for considering it among humanity’s most sublime emotions” (p. 380). Likewise “wonder is our response to the sublime dimension of life” (Merkle, 1978, p. 366) and wonder “is the emotion which corresponds to the sublime” (Roberts, 2005, ¶4).

8. The term consciousness derives from the same root as sublime (Online Etymological Dictionary).

9. “… the speaking subject exists in his entirety in a poetic image, because unless he abandons himself to it without reservations, he does not enter into the poetic space of the image” (Bachelard, 1964, p. xxiv).

10. It is interesting to consider this in relation to Ingarden’s conclusion that “the reality of an object isn’t… necessary for the accomplishment of an aesthetic experience” (1985, p.305).

11. “With poetry, the imagination takes its place on the margin, exactly where the function of unreality comes to charm or to disturb – always to awaken – the sleeping being lost in its automatisms.” (Bachelard, 1964, p. xxxi).

12. Humility comes from Latin meaning “lowness, insignificance” – the experience of the sublime evokes an authentic sense of humility.



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