Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Travelling in the Land of the Sublime

Let us start with a definition.  Something that is sublime can be astoundingly beautiful or grand, or in another meaning it can be something that is outstanding or extreme.  My dictionary gives a third meaning viz., something of the highest moral or spiritual worth, in short something exalted.  Of the three definitions, it's the second one that grabs me as it, to my mind at least, can be grasped by all tourists in this world.  Something outstanding or extreme.  Well, let's take going on a trip to either the Arctic or Antarctic regions; climbing up the side of a volcano - one can make such trips up Vesuvius and Etna under the watchful eye of skilled guides; climbing any mountain at all give me personally a feeling of awe before the sublime; more obviously visiting the great waterfalls of the world - Niagara Falls or the Victoria Falls.  There are, needless to say, many other sublime places to go than the ones I have mentioned here.  Today people seem to like extremes - I have even met some people who say they love extreme sports.  Why I have gone with this particular meaning is because something that is astoundingly beautiful or grand may be more subjective.  What is astounding beauty anyway?  Something astoundingly grand or big we can get our heads around alright, but the first part of this definition is still rather too vague and subjective.  Yes, today, we know extremes when we meet them, whether in weather or in people.  So much by way of introduction.  Now let me return to my last entry on De Botton's travel book.

For his journey into the sublime De Botton travels to the Sinai Desert and he brings with him the works of two great figures from literature and the Bible respectively, namely Edmund Burke and Job.  Our author begins by quoting Pascal and how small he felt in comparison with the huge extent of infinite space, and then tells us that he set out to visit Sinai "in order to be made to feel small".  Hence immediately we are being led into a feeling of awe for the sublime, and hence my beginning with an appropriate definition of our word.

De Botton quotes Burke because he had disabused the common mind of the confusion of beauty with sublime.  For him they were not interchangeable words at all.  Sublimity, he said, had to do with a feeling of weakness before the strength and power of nature.  No meadow or patch of ground suffused in sun or bunch of daffodils could excite the feeling of sublimity; it would of course create a feeling of beauty in the onlooker. 

Then the question arises as to why we should seek the sublime?  Why should we want to have this experience of feeling weak and powerless and small?  De Botton informs us that Sinai gives way to "a featureless, baking gravel pan described by the Bedouins as 'El Tih', or the desert of the Wandering." (Op.cit., 161) and then, to my mind at least gives an insight into how the imaginative idea of a god or of God (my words here) might have arisen historically:

Because what is mightier than man has traditionally been called God; it does not seem unusual to start thinking of a deity in the Sinai.  The mountains and valleys spontaneously suggest that the planet was built by something other than our own hands, than a force greater than we could gather, long before we were born... (Ibid., 169)

And so the deity or God becomes associated with vast open spaces or sheer sublime encounters.  At this juncture De Botton begins to ponder the question of innocent suffering or evil in the world, a topic I have discussed many times in these pages so I won't delay on that particular topic here, except to point out that the author of the Biblical book of Job has God answer from the heights and depths of the planet - mountains and oceans - so that Job may experience his smallness and insignificance before the might and power of a God who created all.  De Botton becomes almost a little preachy here, but we forgive him because he enraptures us with the beauty of his prose and his passion for his ideas:

If we spend time in them [the vast spaces of nature], they may help us to accept more graciously the great unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust. (Ibid., 179)

Then our author brings us to Provence and, needless to say, his guide this time is the magnificent artist Vincent van Gogh.  This chapter was exceedingly moving and I was quite enraptured by it.  De Botton calls this experience that of eye opening art.  Artists teach us to renew or senses because they teach us to see the world anew; to see the smallest and most insignificant things in a new light.  They teach us to see small details which we miss; even big details which we overlook because we are so blind to beauty in our workaday world - so caught up as we are in our own little private worlds.  That's one of the functions of art, to my mind at least, to call us out from our own little private worlds and to engage with beauty (even sublimity when captured) beyond the walls of our small selves.  Here's an interesting fact about Van Gogh: for fifteen months up until May 1889 the artist produced approximately 200 paintings, 100 drawings and 200 letters - a period generally agreed to have been his greatest.  He had read voraciously the French authors Balzac, Flaubert, Zola and Maupassant and these writers opened his eyes to psychology and to society in general.  They had taught him to see in a certain way.  Now he was to teach the world to see the world anew from his own unique artist's perspective.

I am always quoting that no two people see the same thing in exactly the same way.  There are as many takes on the world as there are people it.  I also quote quite regularly the fact that we see the world not as it is but rather as we are.  We all bring our own optic to our own way of seeing.  How can we see except with our own eye?  Van Gogh felt that he had trained his eye to see what was essential to reality that many of the realists before him had omitted.  An artist must, as it were, choose to leave out this or that or to show this or that in his work :

Bad art might thus be defines as a series of bad choices about what to show and what to leave out.  And leaving the essential out was precisely Van Gogh's complaint against most of the artists who had painted southern France until his own day. (Ibid., 193)

This chapter is well worth reading many times over and I certainly have not grasped it all as I should wish.  I shall return to it later when I eventually get around to discussing aesthetics in these posts.

In the final chapters of this stimulating book De Botton travels to the London Docklands and revisits Madrid, Amsterdam and Barbados with the eye of a sketcher, this time in the company of John Ruskin, the famous Victorian art and literature critic.  What an exemplary guide Ruskin proves to be, too.  Ruskin believed, as he expressed it, that we can possess the beauty of places that we travel through.  Essentially we could do this by attempting to sketch what we see about us. De Botton reminds his viewers or readers that we should not at all be too concerned with how good or bad our sketches are.  Rather, what is important is that we teach ourselves how to look anew at things.  By sketching what we see in front of us, however badly or well, we train our eyes to see anew.  Ruskin often became distressed at how seldom people noticed details; at how people could walk through a whole market - he gives the example of Clare Market - and come out the other side not one bit wiser.  He used say to his students:  "Now, remember, gentlemen, that I have not been trying to teach you to draw, only to see." (Quoted ibid., 222)  Again this chapter is worth revisiting as I feel I have not done it too much justice.

I shall finish discussing this book with the following aphorism which an old teacher of mine never failed repeating: "There are none so blind as those that fail to see."  Let us try to see things anew this coming year.

Happy New Year to any readers of this piece out there.  May you all see your lives anew and consequently be revivified.

Above I have uploaded a copy of Vincent Van Gogh's painting Night Café. I was stunned by the amount of paintings he created. He was fascinated with everything, especially the landscape with his unique powerful cypresses. Hence I thought something difference from his brush might awaken something else in me. Why not the night café?

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