The Burkean Sublime

I think of sublime as something that invokes a sense of awe.

In the 18th century Edmund Burke wrote about the philosophy about taste and gave sublimity a unique spin that became quite popular with writers of Gothic and Romantic literature.

The sublime, for Burke, was inextricably interwoven with fear.

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

So, the sublime is the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling, and what sparks that emotion is anything that:

  • excites ideas of pain,
  • excites ideas of danger,
  • is in any way terrible,
  • is conversant with terrible subjects,
  • operates in a manner analagous to terror.

For Burke the sublime equals pain, danger, and terror, and these feelings are the strongest human emotions. The emotion of pain is stronger than the emotion of pleasure.

Burke also argues that once one gains some distance from terror there is an ineluctable delight to be had.

“When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delighful, as we every day experience.”

And this is the seed of Gothic/Horror/Terror fiction according to Burke. As long as we can have some distance from the experience, pain, danger, fear, and terror can be delightful. And the success of these types of stories is rooted in their ability to engage the most deeply felt human emotions.

Burke, for those unfamiliar with the name, has long stood as one of the intellectual founders of modern conversative political theory. You may remember from some US history class that Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, defending the French Revolution, was written as a response to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, condemning the revolution.

Originally, this post contained a long meditation about the connection between conservative political ideology and horror. It quickly became unwieldy and riddled with qualifiers and confusion. I decided I needed more background info before I could write cogently about the connection between horror and conservativism.

To that end I’m starting with The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart by Noel Carroll (review). Carroll addresses this concept specifically. More later!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.