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The Sublime

The sublime

What does the experience of the sublime reveal about humanity? Is it just a flight of artistic imagination, or does it point to something real?

Sunetra Gupta

Science and the sublime

‘It’s that sense of approaching a truth, a realisation that will disperse something in me, that will unsettle me. The comprehension that we are in fact capable of having these huge realisations: ones that actually overwhelm us, and make us feel that we are understanding something that we perhaps shouldn’t.’


Science and the sublime

David: What makes something beautiful?

SG: What makes something beautiful is actually quite ineluctable. It is a feeling. It is something that I feel on encountering beauty. But, of course, there’s a whole range of this feeling which is why people have tried to separate beauty from the sublime, or from the picturesque. So there is the merely pretty as opposed to the beauty that actually approaches terror. One of my favourite poets is… well, one of my favourite pieces of poetry is The Duino Elegies and I’ve been rereading them recently. And the connection between beauty and terror is, I think, why they mean so much to me. Because he talks about beauty as terror… just about bearable.

David: He says ‘every angel is terrifying’.

SG: Every angel is terrifying. And beauty is terror that we are only just able to bear. And that’s the kind of beauty I experience when I’m looking at doing science or when I’m writing a novel. That’s the beauty that I really crave. There’s also other kinds of beauty, like in gardening, or…

David: But what makes a beauty terrifying for you?

SG: So, I’ve been thinking about that a little bit, and I think it’s that sense of approaching a truth – and I’m using the word ‘truth’ here a little bit loosely right now – approaching a realisation that will disperse something in me, that will unsettle me.

David: Change you?

SG: Change me, yes. And this notion of coming... I think it’s the terror that Rilke was talking about. The idea, the fact, the comprehension that we are in fact capable of having these huge realisations, ones that actually overwhelm us and make us feel that we are understanding something that we perhaps shouldn’t understand, that we shouldn’t go there. This idea of ‘where angels fear to tread’, I think that’s where the terror lies. And you come close to it when you understand something in mathematics, which, I mean, I haven’t been doing physics or mathematics for a very long time, but I do remember that feeling of beauty and the edge of terror.

David: Is it a sense that you’re approaching a truth which is bigger than you are…?

SG: So vast.

David: …and older than you are?

SG: Yes.

David: Because so many metaphors of understanding are to do with the hand ‒ like ‘I’ve grasped that’, or ‘I shall hammer this into shape’. And then there’s another kind of knowledge where you… it’s that word: ‘understanding’. You just stand under it, like you stand under the nave of a cathedral, and you can glimpse up and get a sense of the shape. But you know it’s vaster than you, and much older.

SG: Yes. Yes, that’s it.

David: Have you had that feeling in your work sometimes?

Ard: I’ve never thought about it that way, but I think I have, now that you mention it. It’s something about that truth being so beautiful and pure, and you sometimes feel almost impure before it. It’s a strange kind of thing. Terrifying is interesting. I never thought about it that way.

SG: And maybe, actually, when we do encounter these truths, what we experience is both: both the sense of standing near that precipice, or in that cathedral, but also something of the ‘I have grasped it’. So part of us is probably also experiencing a satisfaction of grasping it, and then the rest of us is edging towards that precipice.

David: One of the things I found fascinating when we were talking about the sense of a truth bigger than we are, and was there already, so older, is that it’s so close to how people describe encounters with the religious ‒ that you’re in the presence of a power that’s older than you are and greater than you are, that knows things that you don’t and was there before you. So it has all of the same qualities, and I wonder if that’s why for scientists who several centuries ago were Christian, they fit together, because it’s the same encounter with something older, bigger, more powerful. Does that…?

Ard: Yes, that’s interesting.

SG: I think it’s the religious sentiment.

David: In science?

SG: In science. But the religious sentiment is, to me, what’s interesting about religion. Because it does have…

Ard: This kind of transcendence.

David: And so there’s the possibility of having that same set of experiences which the religious person would have…

SG: Yes, I think so.

David: For them, they would speak about approaching God, but for the scientist, they’d say approaching a truth. But it’s the same; it would feel the same.

SG: The same sentiment.

David: It would be the same inside experience.

Ard: Or related.

David: Or related.

Ard: Yes.

David: Does that work for you? Because Ard is religious and I’m not. (I’m just making this up.) Is that possible from where you sit, or does it just sound like flowery language?

Ard: No, I hadn’t really thought about it quite like that before. But I do think when you discover something… So, there are quite a few scientists who are religious, and they’ll typically say, ‘Well, my experience of discovering something scientific is not that different from my religious experience. It’s something… I’m finding, something that’s bigger than me that I’m touching.’ And for them, and for people like myself, it points towards our religious sense. It points towards God.

Ben Okri

Experiencing the sublime

‘I think the sublime points at this sense of something greater than us that we didn't make. But it also points to something in us that is greater than what we normally feel, that we haven't shaped.’



David: We we've talked to people about the difference between the beautiful and the sublime. What do you think the sublime points at? That feeling of the sublime?

BO: I think the sublime points at this sense of something greater than us that we didn't make. But it also points to something in us that is greater than what we normally feel, that we haven't shaped. So it's like an hour glass in a way: so the sublime is both that which inspires it, as that which is the feeling of that inspiration.

And that's why the idea of the sublime is so important and why it enlarges us and why it temporises us. At best we're six by two and a half, but the sublime really makes you feel like an inward cathedral. The sublime really brings to the feeling of being human something much greater than being human. That's what's extraordinary about it.

David: Have you felt it?

BO: Yes, I felt it at Niagara Falls. I felt it at the foot of mountains. I've felt it with books. I've felt it with night skies.

Ard: And do you think there's something when we respond to the sublime that sometimes makes us afraid? Is terror or fear a part of it?

BO: Yes, there's definitely terror as an aspect of the sublime. All truly great things have an age of terror to them. That's where the idea of Pan came from. You could be in the mountains and you have this Pan feeling. That's where panic comes from. You have this Pan feeling. I had it the other day. I was in the mountains up in South Wolds. I was walking up. There was nobody there. There was absolutely nobody, and I was like, ‘Ah, lovely day.’ I was climbing and then suddenly the immensity of that landscape, the emptiness of it, was terrifying; it was threatening. Why? Nothing was going to happen to me, but suddenly I bolted. I literally ran and there was nothing to run away from. Yes, there is an edge of terror and I don't know what that terror is.

David: Have you ever felt it in your own creation, where you've felt that something you're creating has touched on it or?

BO: You're asking me to wander into very indelicate area.

David: Okay.

BO: But yeah, the sense of the sublime is something I constantly work with

Semir Zeki

Defining the sublime

'No, I think they are not making it up. I think they are being very serious and we take them very seriously. They are really impressive in dividing sublimity from beauty. It’s a very interesting conceptual subdivision which not everybody would have made.'



Ard: What is the sublime?

SZ: Give me a second and I’ll tell you. What is the sublime? The definition of it is as interesting as anything else about it: beauty from horror; awe mixed with horror. Or pleasure from displeasure, which is Kant’s definition. It is something which philosophers have considered to be entirely a construct of the mind. So you get Emmanuel Kant saying that to be able to think of infinity as a whole surpasses any standard of sense.

I mean, you cannot sense infinity, you’ve got to think about it. And during the English Enlightenment, in the 18th century, it became, sort of, the awe and the horror, and the beauty of it was seen in natural landscapes: Mont Blanc and Everest and these sea storms, and things like that.

So these were things that you could, sort of, contemplate. They were awesome and therefore beautiful, but they were also things which were terrifying. However, it’s different from the terror that you might feel if somebody were to come at you with a knife.

I was, however, expecting to see some activation in the medial orbitofrontal cortex here, with the experience of the sublime.

David: So it would be beautiful?

SZ: Yes. These experiments were very similar to the experiments on beauty, except that people looked at Mont Blanc and Everest and Mount Fuji and stuff like that.

David: Right.

SZ: And then the pattern of activity was slightly different. There was no activity here.

David: So on that picture, where was the beauty part that lit up previously?

SZ: It would be here.

David: Right. So it didn’t light up at all?

SZ: It didn’t light up at all.

David: Was that a surprise?

SZ: Yes, this was a bit of a surprise to me. I was expecting to see some activity there, but apparently not. And, in a way, the language begins to make sense, because the definition of sublimity is distinct from the definition of beauty. You see, beauty is, as Edmund Burke said: it’s small; it’s comprehensible; it’s assimilable. The Sublime is vast, it’s awesome, and it makes you feel small. It’s a very, very different experience. And they emphasise, and philosophers did, it was more a construction of the mind.

With the experience of the sublime you’ve got another system that’s active when you see something beautiful. But the big difference between the two is that there is no activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex.

David: The philosophers and the art historians will talk about the sublime and say it’s awesome and it invokes terror and it’s all very flowery, and you are tempted to think they are just making it up because they’re very clever chaps who have a lot of time on their hands.

SZ: No, no, no. I think they are not making it up. I think they are being very serious and we take them very seriously, and in fact, they are right. First of all, and this is not evident, they are really impressive in dividing sublimity from beauty. It’s a very interesting conceptual subdivision which not everybody would have made.

And secondly, this distinction finds a difference in terms of brain activity. And thirdly, yes, you’re right, there are parts of the brain which are active when fear, or at least dangerous situations are there.

David: Right.

SZ: So this is the area here which is active during the experience of beauty and shown in green. You can see there’s no red there, which means it was not active during the experience of the sublime. The experience of the sublime led to activity here which actually refers to the nucleus inside the brain. For example, this region here, the inferior medial frontal gyrus has been strongly implicated in emotional experiences, and the experience of the sublime is an emotional experience. So it is there. You’ve got also areas which are deactivated, which are not visible on this but will be visible on this.

David: So they’re supressed, you mean?

SZ: Yes, activity in them is supressed. For example, the superior frontal gyrus and then the singlet area which is here, alright?

David: And what does that say?

SZ: Well, these are areas which have been implicated in self-awareness, and they are referential with a respect to yourself, with respect to the outside world.

David: Ah, right.

SZ: Not by us, but by other people. And, and in a sense, it is interesting that they’ve been deactive. You’d get rather lost in this enormity of the experience.

David: So when you’re experiencing the sublime, the bit of your brain that says, this is me in the world, gets supressed?

SZ: I’m not sure it gets suppressed. I mean, it’s interesting that there’s deactivation in an area which is involved in a self-referential part of your brain and your position in the world. So you feel, I suppose, slightly diminished.

David: Which is, of course, exactly what people say when they talk about the sublime.

SZ: Yes, yes, yes.

David: So the map of activation and deactivation you see does actually correlate with how all these philosophers have been describing the experience.

SZ: Yes, and, I think one of the reasons why we went into the study of the sublime is because it is described, as in Kant, as an experience which transcends the standard of sense. And when you have infinity – infinity is sublime and it’s indescribable in sensory terms, in cognitive terms. So, as I say, there’s nothing here that can contradict anything the philosophers have said.

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