Thou art pervaded with that ceaseless motion, Thou art the path of that unresting sound- Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee I seem as in a trance sublime and strange To muse on my own separate fantasy, My own, my human mind, which passively Now renders and receives fast influencings, Holding an unremitting interchange With the clear universe of things around; One legion of wild thoughts, whose wandering wings Now float above thy darkness, and now rest Where that or thou art no unbidden guest, In the still cave of the witch Poesy, Seeking among the shadows that 'pass by Ghosts of all things that are, some shade of thee, Some phantom, some faint image; till the breast From which they fled recalls them, thou art there!
(From Mont Blanc: Lines Written In the Vale of Chamouni, lines 32-48, by Percy Shelley, 1816)
The definition and understanding of the sublime has changed constantly through time, always adapting to the unique circumstances and sensibilities of the present. The Romantic idea of the sublime, which I described in my previous post, can be explored in Edmund Burke's philosophical treatise, On the Sublime and Beautiful. Burke asserted that the sublime depends first on novelty: the excitement and interest of things new and unfamiliar to us. Yet he also argues that "things which engage us merely by their novelty cannot attach us for any length of time." Curiosity, the driving force behind our interest in novelty, "changes its object perpetually, [and] has an appetite which is very sharp, but very easily satisfied." Because of this, those novel things which initially attract our interest would quickly lose their power over us, and in fact the whole world would soon become normal and dull, if it weren't for the many things that are "adapted to affect the mind by means of other powers besides novelty in them, and of other passions besides curiosity in ourselves." This is where the sublime comes in: when the curiosity and interest of an object does not weaken with time, but rather grows in our minds, in a sense becoming more unfamiliar and unreachable the more we come in contact with it. This concept is the basis of the continual understanding of the sublime, surviving even as the world has changed dramatically.
In 1996, David E. Nye expressed this same concept in his book American Technological Sublime: "Even an innocent observer can only be certain of an object’s sublimity by continually reexperiencing it to see if it gains rather than loses force through deeper acquaintance." Nye relates this to modern technology and the preconceptions that come along with it. Today it is unlikely that anyone will come upon a natural object without any previous exposure, through photographs, descriptions and even video found in print media or on the internet. This brings up some question of whether the natural sublime, that overpowering and all-consuming sense of wonder found by Percy Shelley in Mont Blanc (as quoted above), can truly be found in today's world. Nye argues that, despite the thorough understanding and continual representations of nature that we find in the modern media, "the sublime object cannot be extirpated by expectations" (Nye, p. 15). He gives the example of the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens in 1980. This event was heavily publicized before, during, and after the actual eruption, and thousands of photos and videos were taken. Yet none of these could capture the true greatness of the event: "the witnesses to the eruption had an experience that was not only visual but also visceral. The ground shook. Lightning flashed out of the spreading cloud. There was thunder, and a sulfuric odor" (Nye). The sublime was not found in the human representations and recordings of the event, but in the actual thing, with all the elements coming together into one grand and all-powerful experience. No matter how many images and explanations of this eruption a person sees, unless they were actually there when it happened, they have not had an equally sublime experience.
With this in mind, we see how the Romantic, natural sublime retains its prevalence and power even in today's increasingly technologically advanced society. No matter how hard we try to replicate nature's grandness through photography and video, the kind of overpowering awe experienced by Percy Shelley at Mont Blanc can still only be experienced by visiting the mountain itself. This is not to say that new media cannot produce its own brand of the sublime - in fact this will be the topic of my next post, which will explore the new sublime made possible to us through modern technology.