Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.11.59 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.11.59

Timothy M. Costelloe (ed.), The Sublime: From Antiquity to the Present.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. xiii, 304.  ISBN 9780521143677.  $34.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Cressida Ryan, University of Oxford (

[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

Costelloe has put together this wide-ranging book of essays on the sublime in an attempt to demonstrate that the concept is not dead—that there is still merit in treating it both theoretically and in its relevance to the present day. Part 1 offers a philosophical history of the sublime. Part 2 contextualises the theoretical models, offering different disciplinary perspectives. The resulting fifteen chapters do justice to the overall aim. Many of the authors point out that their essays are works in progress, or open up new avenues for investigation. The book is therefore both a synthesising introduction to scholarship on the sublime (and by extension, the beautiful), and a call to readers to respond with new engagements of their own. The number of chapters means only brief comment on each is possible. This remains desirable given the density of the volume – each chapter is an important contribution.

Costelloe’s introduction does not summarise the contents of the book. Instead, Costelloe gives some background to the concept of the sublime, from its heritage in Longinus through major contributors such as Boileau to Monk. He distinguishes the sublime style from sublimity, a distinction that is made with varying power throughout the book, perhaps most clearly in ch. 14.

Malcolm Heath opens with a tour through Longinus, offering a good summary of sources and a discussion of terminological problems. Heath summarises a number of approaches to understanding Longinus, including the five sources of the sublime, the relationship of the sublime to the divine, and art versus nature. In considering how progress in nature is allowed (perhaps through art), he reminds us of the moral nature of the sublime, a theme picked up throughout the book.

Rodolphe Gasché contributes the only chapter to focus explicitly on beauty, thinking through Burke’s ‘double aesthetic’ in order to offer a rehabilitation of beauty. He takes different aspects of the sublime and gives a reading of comparables role for beauty, considering objects, rarity value, the sublime as a derivative feeling compared with beauty, and beauty’s place in three particular passions of sympathy, imitation and ambition. He concludes that beauty is fragile and hence subject to being overwhelmed, but that nonetheless it should not be neglected.

Melissa McBay Merritt focuses in ch. 3 solely on Kant, establishing a core focus for the rest of the book. She describes the sublime state of mind and Kant’s responses to Burke. She explains Kant’s differentiation between the mathematical and dynamic sublimes, grounding her discussion and exposition in the Critique of Judgement and enumerating some conceptual challenges. She explores the moral nature of Kant’s sublime and the relationship between morality and reason, considering some of the epistemological issues in the Kantian sublime, not least the relationship between the sensible and supersensible.

The rapid tour of European philosophy post-1700 starts in ch. 4, where Timothy Costelloe compares the role of the imagination in Shaftesbury, Reid, Addison and Reynolds. As with similarly structured chapters, each individual only gets a few pages, leading to some necessarily dense prose, held together by the common topic of the imagination. Costelloe concentrates on elucidating the differences between the sublime style and aesthetic, and considers topics such as art and nature, the role of greatness in the sublime, and different orders of beauty. A clear and well-structured essay, it helps contextualise many of the issues discussed throughout the book, reminding us of the central role of eighteenth-century Britain in this aesthetic movement.

In ch. 5, Rachel Zuckert compares another four eighteenth-century thinkers: Alexander Gerard, Lord Kames, Archibald Alison, and Dugald Stewart. She considers a specifically Scottish understanding of the sublime which she calls ‘associative’, in contrast to Burke and Kant. Putting terror at arm’s length as a secondary response, she discusses the sublime as a mental process, an imaginative engagement with more dreadful reality, in order for it to be able to evoke pleasurable feelings. She concludes by considering how they do not provide a unified account, but allow a pluralist, open-ended account of the sublime which may be too diffuse to be useful, again demonstrating some of the tensions in this subject.

Where history has frequently prioritised Boileau as a starting-point for thinking about the sublime, Éva Madeleine Martin argues in ch. 6 that Boileau consolidates and advances strands of thought already evident in French aesthetics. She traces a French ‘pre-history’ for the sublime, including Racine and Balzac. Though discussing Longinus, she concentrates on the relationship between sublimity and the development of different branches of Christian thought, and then on the place of sublimity in political rhetoric. She is particularly concerned with the relationship between the terms ‘merveilleux’, ‘meraviglioso’, ‘admiration’ and ‘ravissement’ and with the spatial reach of sublimity as something both humble and elevating.

Paul Guyer negotiates a post-Kantian sublime (ch. 7). He focuses on Schiller, Schelling, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche as responses to Kant, with more summary than discussion and no conclusion. Guyer concentrates on ideas of the subjective nature of the sublime and the role of the individual, moving from what he calls Kant’s apotheosis of the individual to Nietzsche’s dissolution of individual rationality. Along the way he incorporates comparisons of those philosophers’ views on the art / nature distinction, the roles of transcendence and reason in the sublime, and consequently the sublime as both aesthetic and cognitive.

We are brought speedily into the twentieth century by David B. Johnson in ch. 8, whose discussion of the postmodern sublime covers Lyotard, Deleuze, Kristeva and Jameson. The emphasis is far more on the dark side of the sublime. He again couches his discussion as a response to Kant, focussing on Darstellung, ‘the process through which the imagination presents sensible intuition to rational thought’. Johnson uses his four thinkers to offer four ways to undermine Kant, concentrating on conceptualising an unpresentable object, how important the sublime is, what its emotional baggage entails, and its relationship with art rather than nature.

Part 2 opens with John R. J. Eyck on the Dutch sublime (ch. 9), which he is keen to demonstrate is a real thing, and moreover one of intellectual and aesthetic value. The chapter is again couched in terms of a Kantian response, but looks at artists rather than philosophers, concentrating on Balthazar Huydecoper, Rhijnvis Feith, and Jacob Geel. He describes the Dutch sublime as ‘subtle’, and concludes with an insight into the value of studying practitioners, and the nature of intercultural interplay (as transplant not naturalisation).

Leaving Europe briefly, Chandos Michael Brown uses ch. 10 to set the sense of exploration across an unknown, vast, and terrifying landscape (America) as a sublime experience in contrast to European ideas and landscapes. His essay starts with a theoretical investigation of the ideological sublime, but moves to its application to landscape painting and various forms of literature, notably Thomas Cole.

In chapter 11, Emily Brady stops to consider the purpose of the book, writing engagingly about why the sublime has resurfaced as such an important concept now, that is, about its environmental significance. A historical argument suggests the sublime is no longer relevant in a world which has lost its sense of awe and wonder. Her metaphysical argument seeks to engage with the extent to which we have lost our metaphysical imagination. An anthropocentric argument considers the relational nature of the sublime (between man and nature) and how that works today. Brady finishes with the modern focus on ugliness and the sublime. The essay self-consciously opens up avenues of thought and promotes further investigation rather than setting down any theory.

Other chapters bring in aspects of religion, but in ch. 12 Andrew Chignell and Matthew C. Halteman make it the core topic, aiming for a theoretical and therefore generalised template of how religion works. They offer a fourfold taxonomy of theistic, spiritualistic, demythologistic, nontheistic sublimes. Before assessing each of these in turn, they set out their own preliminary understanding of the sublime, splitting the usual two phases (astonishment and pleasure) into three (bedazzlement, outstripping faculties, epiphany). They offer a fresh structure for thinking about the sublime, and tackle some key objections clearly in their discussion.

Given Burke’s prominence, surprisingly little of this book focuses on Britain, but Adam Potkay does offer a chapter (13) devoted to the British Romantic sublime. He differentiates how the Romantics conceived of the sublime from how critics think they did, and the key difference is the place of morality. Couching his work as a response to Thomas Weiskel, Potkay uses Akenside, Byron, Shelley and Wordsworth to argue for a relationship between transcendent and moral sublimes, grounded in Longinus.

Theodore Gracyk frames ch. 14 through a vivid narrative which tries to relate a Rothko painting with all its depth of colour to its shallow, minimised reproduction on a postcard. He analyses what constitutes the fine arts from the eighteenth century onwards, concerned as they are with whether art is concerned (merely) with the representation of nature, or whether it is a sublime form in its own right – and, if so, whether that sublimity is owned or provoked. Offering no easy answers, he considers art and music, Europe and America (the latter supposedly free from European aesthetic shackles), style and content, and the place of beauty as a corollary to the sublime. These are familiar topics, perhaps, but here are set in a wide-ranging, fast-paced and thought-provoking discussion of well-known examples (Longinus, Addison, Batteux, Turner, Burke, Kant, Hardy).

In ch. 15, Etlin reads the history of architecture through a sublime lens. He first sets down a theoretical background whereby the sense of the infinite in the sublime can be represented architecturally, using the concept of the psychophysical sublime, and German categories of Einfühlung and Raümgefühl to differentiate between sublime experiences. He integrates literary and architectural sublimes through topics such as the gigantomachy, with a careful choice of examples including the Domus Aurea, the Pantheon, the Mausoleum of Diocletian, the Orthodox Baptistery in Ravenna, the Mausoleum of Theodoric, Hagia Sophia, and both Giulio Romano’s Palazzo del Te, and Philibert Delorme’s Château d’Anet. He concludes with a reading of the Gothic as magical, and the magical as sublime.

In general, the chapters are all thoughtful views of the one central topic. There is almost no internal referencing through the book, however, and in such an interlinked topic one might have hoped that an editor would have enabled this. A rare example is Potkay in ch. 13, who links back well to Heath in ch. 2, and the general focus on Longinus in the closing chapters round the book up well. Reading this book cover to cover, one does build up an interesting layered picture of the sublime, with a good range of interrelated views. Almost every chapter covers three or more different theorists, or theories, of the sublime. Almost all engage with or respond to Kant and / or Burke. This sometimes leads to repetitive ground-laying, but does hold the book together. It may be more useful for those looking to get a grounding in a particular set of approaches or theories. In ch. 14, Gracyk comments on the sublime nature of writing about the sublime (see Pope on Longinus at Essay on Criticism 675-80). There are some very well-written pieces in this collection, particularly in Part 2, but many of the essays are perhaps not easily accessible to non-specialist readers. While most chapters are very clearly structured, many lack overt introductions, or more often conclusions, which makes it hard to summarise easily how each chapter has advanced one’s knowledge and understanding of the topic.

A collated bibliography was an ambitious project for a book of this scope, but the twenty pages at the end give a useful overall view of the topic. It will be of limited to use to anyone trying to plumb particular aspects of the sublime, but could offer some useful general starting points.

The production of the book is reasonably sound, with some room for improvement. The print is dense and not always easy to read. I noticed few typing errors per se, but both Costelloe’s introduction and ch. 6 (Martin) included errors in the Greek (lack of breathings, miswritten words), and there was a disorientating inconsistency over whether or when to italicise Latin phrases throughout. A number of images are included. Unfortunately, they are all black and white, and often not well enough produced to illustrate the points being made. Sometimes they feel superfluous (I’m not sure much is added to ch. 12 by the photograph of the nude Freedomites on p. 196, for example). Occasionally more images would help, such as in ch. 14, where rich descriptions are given and illustrations are criticised, but for some examples the inclusion of an image might clarify the point being made and reduce the need for overly descriptive writing.

Table of Contents

“The sublime: A Short Introduction to a Long History” – Timothy Costelloe 1-7
1 “Longinus and the Ancient Sublime” – Malcolm Heath 11-23
2 “- …And the Beautiful? Revisiting Edmund Burke’s 'Double Aesthetics'” – Rodolphe Gasché 24-36
3 “The Moral Source of the Kantian Sublime” – Melissa McBay Merritt 37-49
4 “Imagination and Internal Sense The Sublime in Shaftesbury, Reid, Addison, and Reynolds” – Timothy M. Costelloe 50-63.
5 “The Associative Sublime Gerard, Kames, Alison, and Stewart” – Rachel Zuckert 64-76
6 “The “Prehistory of the Sublime in Early Modern France An Interdisciplinary Perspective “- Éva Madeleine Martin 77-101
7 “The German Sublime After Kant” – Paul Guyer 102-117
8 “The Postmodern Sublime Presentation and Its Limits” – David B. Johnson 118-131
9 “The “Subtler” Sublime in Modern Dutch Aesthetics” – John R. J. Eyck 135-146
10 “The First American Sublime” – Chandos Michael Brown 147-170
11 “The Environmental Sublime” – Emily Brady 171-182
12 “Religion and the Sublime” – Andrew Chignell and Matthew C. Halteman 183-202
13 “The British Romantic Sublime” – Adam Potkay 203-216
14 “The Sublime and the Fine Arts” – Theodore Gracyk 217-229
15 “Architecture and the Sublime” – Richard A. Etlin 230-273
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