When I hear the word “sublime,” my mind instantly thinks of the 90s punk band. Obviously, this is not the “sublime” Edmund Burke was talking about in his interpretation. Sublime is a complex idea which takes on many different meanings in different times and places. The one Burke speaks of is almost a state of nirvana; a combination of amazement, terror, and bliss. These moments do not come by every day and they are different for each individual. It may happen looking out over the Grand Canyon or being in the middle of wilderness hearing the sounds of coyote calls or witnessing a shooting star in the dead of night. These occurrences are a rare sight and resound so deeply in a person’s memories; they are to be appreciated, feared, and awed at.
For me, this moment of sublime came at my favorite place in the entire world: Camp Seale Harris. After attending this camp for over ten years, I was being trained to become a counselor, referred to as “CIT’s” (counselor-in-training). One night the group of CIT’s took a walk around the camp for a time of reflection and appreciation. We were scattered along the walkway next to Lake Martin. We were instructed to be quiet and stay seated until our counselor came back for us. You could hear random shrieks as girls became terrified of a spider crawling on or towards them. After a minute or two, everyone became comfortable and situated themselves along the lake. I laid my head back in effort to take in the full effect of the scenery. The stars were unreal, something you never see in the city lights. They filled the entire sky and I could begin to pick out different shapes. The lake water created a gorgeous reflection of the stars as they came up and then receded off the shore line. After a moment, the background noise started to become more apparent; the constant grasshopper chirps, the occasional bird call, and what seemed to be a coyote calling…whether it was my imagination or not, I’ll never know. But the moment seemed so surreal. I felt so small in a world that held so much. It’s moments like this when I realize I hardly take the time to appreciate the natural beauty of Mother Nature. I began to think of my role in the world and the kind of impact I have on it. I realized I am a mere speck amongst everything, but I can make a difference and help preserve moments like this for generations to come.
Every person has a different experience involving sublime. Edmund Burke talks about sublime involving states of passion, terror, obscurity, power, vastness, infinity, magnificence, light, animal cries, etc. He states “the passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, 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. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it.” In essence, he is implying that when a person experiences a state of sublime they are so overwhelmed by its astonishing nature, they cannot comprehend anything outside of it; their mind is thrust deep into the moment and consumed.
There are countless examples of artists portraying a state of sublime. Take John Martin’s Assuaging of the Waters (1840). It serves as an excellent example as to how artists of the 1800’s took towards nature. The combination of the crashing waves, rocky peaks, and breathtaking illuminations illustrate the power, magnificence, and vastness Burke had described. The image contrasts the sense of humanity presented by the birds with the ultimate power Mother Nature possesses.
Sublime is not just illustrated in paintings, it comes in all forms of media. One of these examples lies in Herman Melville’s book Moby Dick. In this story the monster of a great white whale becomes the fascination of Captain Ahab. Not only does Moby Dick evoke a sense of terror and fear, but a sense of awe. The image below even suggests the concept of an animal’s cry that Burke had described. A surplus of myths and a protruding reputation captivates the sailors, yet when in the presence of the monstrous whale, they feverishly row away. Here, they experience a state of sublime.
In the history of art and entertainment, we find never-ending examples of sublime. The concept is so broad, yet to live in the moment is not an everyday experience. Astonishment is the highest degree in which sublime occurs, but also invokes admiration, reverence, and respect. Whether it been seen in a painting, heard in real life, or felt in the depths of our conscious, sublime has an enormous impact on each living person.