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Friday, October 26, 2007

Foto Friday: Sublime?

Bridalveil Fall as seen from Tunnel View in Yosemite. I believe that this post could be used to cure insomnia.

Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite, Aug. 1995Bridalveil Fall
Yosemite, Aug. 1995

In his essay, "Men Without Chests", C.S. Lewis illustrates his theme with an example about a waterfall. A couple of English teachers, writing in a children's textbook, had taken the poet Samuel Coleridge to task for something he'd written: Two tourists view a waterfall. One pronounces it "sublime". The other declares it is "pretty". Coleridge sides with the first tourist, and is disgusted by the second.

The textbook writers go on to say that what Coleridge really meant was that the waterfall made him feel sublime, and warn against confusing our feelings about a thing with properties of the thing itself.

Out of this thin thread Lewis weaves a shroud for humanity. No! he insists! The waterfall is sublime! To deny the sublimity of the waterfall is to reduce everything to the status of opinion. Taken to a really silly extreme, this will lead to men who are afraid to assert the intrinsic sublimity of waterfalls, or the truth of anything, at all, ever.

Sorry, perfesser. The waterfall is merely channeled water meeting a steep gradient in terrain. The "sublime" is the part the viewer contributes.

Now, I know that there will be those who jump up and down shouting, "But Lewis was right! Today we are afraid of asserting the truth of our own truths! The value of our own values!" Speak for yourselves, o hollow men.

I was wondering just what exactly Coleridge had said, and tried to google it up. But nearly every hit was referring to the Lewis essay. Except one.

Not the unabashed assertion of truths here. Try not to let your eyes roll completely out of your head as you read of the continual affront to women depicted as spectators at various events, forced to endure male companionship and even conversation.

Anyhow, here Luke Gibbons quotes from Coleridge's On the Principles of Genial Criticism:

Many years ago, the writer, [i.e. Coleridge -- AS] in company with an accidental party of travellers, was gazing on a cataract of great height, breadth, and impetuosity, the summit of which appeared to blend with the sky and the clouds, while the lower part was hidden in rocks and trees; and on his observing that it was, in the strictest sense of the word, a sublime object, a lady present assented with warmth to the remark, adding - 'Yes! And it is not only sublime, but beautiful and absolutely pretty!

I put it to you that "absolutely pretty" is no fitting judgment for the waterfall that Coleridge describes, and that he was merely lamenting the poverty of the woman's vocabulary. (And I assert this value judgment as fact, as Lewis would've wanted.) From that tiny seed did Lewis's hollow men grow, as well as Gibbons's assertion that the anecdote -- this is "clear" -- means that the female gaze is no match for the sublime, and must express itself in flippant and trivial terms.

There, now. Are you asleep yet?

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