The Beautiful and the Sublime

by on Thursday, 24 May 2012 Comments

Man is an aesthetic animal. He takes interest and pleasure in the contemplation and appreciation of other men, living beings, objects, thoughts, shows, music, landscapes that strike his imagination, his memory and all his senses. He makes such appreciation a driving force of his inner life, which becomes infused by greater meaning through the exercise of his aesthetic faculties. The fact of appreciating beauty, and to be able to take time so as to let oneself be transformed by the contemplation of it also provides one with spiritual nourishment and insights. The transforming power of beauty has been recognized and celebrated in many forms throughout ages and cultures; but it is rooted into the capacity to take time out for silence and attentiveness. Therefore beauty is a fragile power, the appreciation of which is to be nurtured from one generation to another. And we have also to recognize that beauty is not purely immemorial: some forms of beauty will speak more to our senses and our understanding according to the age and milieu we live in.

But what is “beauty’” after all? Greek philosophers, and many thinkers after them, have generally drawn some kind of distinction between two kinds of aesthetic emotions, which can be roughly labeled as the “Beautiful” and the “Sublime.” “Beautiful” somehow refers to an aesthetic pleasure provoked by the understanding and mastery of the thing with which we relate: we appreciate the beauty of a musical piece because we realize how skillfully it has been composed, and we can compare it with other works; we admire the craftsmanship in the painting, the jewelry or the vase that is offered to our appreciation; we celebrate the beauty of the face of the loved one according to some aesthetic standard (the Romantic, the Modern, the Classical…) that have become intelligible to us through education, and travels. This is why it is sometimes so difficult to appreciate artworks that come from a culture utterly alien to ours.

The Sublime is an emotion awakened by a sense of mystery, by the sudden realization that we cannot master or understand how this particular thought, artwork or landscape has come to the light of the day. The emotion we experience has not been produced by the pleasure of recognizing aesthetic canons that we have learnt to master and appreciate, but rather by the overwhelming impression that the object we contemplate produces on our senses. The “Sublime” has to do with shock and sometimes with terror, with the struggle between life and death, with the primal forces that work within our inner being and around us. Somehow, “Beauty’ is deeply human, while the “Sublime’ confronts us to what is beyond and behind us: the Animal from which we come from, and the Divine in which we aspire to be transformed.

The whole spectrum of our aesthetic emotion speaks of the different strata that compose our humaneness – the strive for reason, and the one to go beyond or behind reason; the pride we take in being humans entrusted with the task of dominating nature; our potent and unconscious recollection of the fact that we come from the breast of the very nature that we colonize, and our aspiration towards the Divine who made us what we are and still who calls us to trespass the boundary of our selves.

 

Drawing by Bendu

 

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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