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The Sublime, Romanticism and the Gothic Cosmic Horror

The Sublime, Romanticism and the Gothic Cosmic Horror
© Photograph by Annie Bertram

The notion of the sublime originated in the first century C.E., but the treatise in which it was introduced — by a Sicilian Jew named Cecilius — has been lost, and the earliest surviving work on the subject is a slightly later essay by Longinus (first century C.E.).

Although Longinus had a considerable influence on sixteenth and seventeenth-century Italian aesthetic theory, the notion remained esoteric elsewhere in Europe, where a very different kind of aesthetic theory developed, which not only remained centred on the notions of beauty, order, and harmony but also conceived their artistic reproduction in naturalistic terms.

Alexander Baumgarten, who popularized the term “aesthetics” in its modern meaning, was a follower of Gottfried Leibniz, and his summary Aesthetika (1750–1758) makes much of the Leibniz’s representation of literature as a mode of cognition aspiring to “perceptual clarity.” In consequence, Baumgarten’s theory focuses attention on matters of order, pattern, and symmetry.

Although Leibniz’s philosophical consideration of “possible worlds” allowed that works of art might contain worlds markedly different from the world of experience, he had argued in his Theodicy (1710) that ours must be the best of all possible worlds (a supposition ruthlessly parodied by Voltaire in the character of Doctor Pangloss in Candide). In consequence of this argument, Baumgarten argued that the highest ideal of artistic “secondary creation” must be to produce simulacra of the world of experience rather than to venture into the innately inferior practice of “heterocosmic” creativity.

In spite of the popularity of Voltaire’s mockery of the Leibnizian argument, Baumgarten’s stress on naturalistic representation — especially insofar as it detected and celebrated beauty and harmony — fit in very well with the dominant trend in contemporary literature. It did not, however, go entirely unopposed.

In Britain, Mark Akenside produced a poetic celebration of ‘The Pleasures of the Imagination’ (1744), which was wholeheartedly committed to the cause of heterocosmic creativity. Akenside’s reputation as a poet soon went into a sharp decline, but his ideas were taken up, refined, and further extrapolated by Edmund Burke’s ‘Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’ (1757), which reintroduced the notion of the sublime into English aesthetic theory.

Burke’s aesthetic theory was rooted in the emotions rather than the Leibnizian notion of perceptual “clarity.” Instead of construing beauty in terms of symmetry and organisation he connects it with loving emotions. The sublime, on the other hand, he derives from the fundamental emotion of “astonishment.” According to Burke, sublimity is associated with danger, power, vacuity, darkness, solitude, silence, vastness, potential, difficulty, and colour — and it always has an element of horror.

Although this is not disconsonant with Longinus’s account of the sublime, Burke’s particular emphasis on the horrific component was new. Superficially, at least, it was also rather surprising, in that he associated it with the additional powers of insight lent to the rapt contemplation of nature by contemporary natural philosophy. He was not alone in this; many of his contemporaries found the revelations of scientific Enlightenment innately horrific, although others considered their response more akin to exaltation.

This division of opinion was very obvious in literary reflections of scientific progress, particular those responsive to the conception of the universe developed by Sir Isaac Newton, whose infinite scope, lack of any definable centre and mechanical regularity contrasted very strongly with the narrowly confined, geocentric, and divinely organized Aristotelian cosmos that had long been accepted into the dogmas of orthodox Christian faith.

Although early accounts of the heliocentric solar system had only slightly displaced the center of the universe, without having much effect on the conception of the peripheral realm of the “fixed stars,” eighteenth-century extrapolations of Newton’s cosmos took aboard the awareness that our sun was, after all, merely one star among many, and that even the entire sidereal system of which it was an inconspicuous element might be one among many.

Two years before Burke published his thesis, Immanuel Kant had published ‘Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels’ (1755; trans. as ‘Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens’), which included the contention that the Milky Way is merely one lenticular aggregation of stars among a sequence of “island universes” — a notion that had already obtained some empirical support from William Herschel’s studies of nebulae.

Herschel’s observations — which had led him to conclude that the Milky Way consisted of some 300 million stars, most of them invisible, arranged in a lens-shaped system measuring some 8,000 light-years by 1,500.

The first measurements of stellar parallax, published in 1838–1840, fitted neatly enough into the vastness of this imagined scale. The imaginative impact of these measurements was considerable; Edward Young’s ‘The Complaint; or, Night Thoughts’ (1742–1745) observed that “At once it quite engulfs all human thought; / ’Tis comprehension’s absolute defeat” before relieving the sense of sublime astonishment with a residue of pride in being able to conceive of such things: “How glorious, then, appears the mind of man, / When in it all the stars, and planets, roll!”

This kind of ambivalence is clearly reflected in much subsequent fiction. Fiction enthusiastic about the discoveries of science tended to focus on the element of exaltation, while fiction sympathetic to the mythological imagery that science seemed to be devastating and displacing was more likely to concentrate on the horrific, but the most interesting effect was on writers who retained the ambivalence within themselves and their work.

Burke’s aesthetic theory became a key influence on the English Romantic Movement, several of whose key figures were keenly interested in science — Samuel Taylor Coleridge had been tutored by the proto-anthropologist J. F. Blumenbach, and Percy Shelley by the proto-meteorologist Adam Walker.

The roots of Romanticism were various; its rebellion against a perceived “Classicism” took several different forms, of which the most prominent in retrospect are its nostalgic interest in the fantastic and the folkloristic, and its championship of the spontaneity of psychological and aesthetic responses against the imposed order and discipline of formal representation.

What philosophers like Walker contributed to the movement was, however, the notion that the world of ordinary sensory experience and mundane time calculation and social interaction was merely a network of appearances, behind which lay the arcane realities of cosmology, physics, and geological time.

Walker, by virtue of his meteorological interests, was particularly fascinated by the notion of “atmospheric electricity,” and the notion that electricity might provide the key to the phenomenon of life was very fashionable in the late eighteenth-century, garishly reflected in the medical theories of such fashionable quacks as James Graham and Anton Mesmer.

Such ideas were a distinctly subsidiary component of Romantic aesthetics, overshadowed and almost overwhelmed by other components. The passage quoted from Young’s ‘Night Thoughts’ is a momentary digression from that poem’s chief concerns, which are much more intimate, and the Romantic poets who extrapolated the mission of the graveyard school were similarly preoccupied, first and foremost, with mediations on mortality.

In the same way, the school of Gothic horror fiction which was one of Romanticism’s two chief extensions into prose fiction — the other being what the German Romantics called Kunstmarchen, or “art fairy tale” — is primarily preoccupied with death and darkness, and only peripherally concerned with the further reaches of Burkeian sublimity. Even so, Romanticism was fertile ground for the development of a kind of cosmic horror that was not merely supernatural but possessed of a newly exaggerated sensation of sublimity in its attitude — a sublimity that derives from, although it is not usually explicitly associated with, the imagery of the new cosmos of post-Newtonian science.

This kind of attitude can be found in some atypical Gothic novels — most obviously William Beckford’s ‘Vathek’ (1786) and Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1818) — and in such poems as Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1798) and Percy Shelley’s ‘Queen Mab’ (1813), but the work in which the sensibility that subsequently came to be central to “cosmic horror” is most elaborately and explicitly developed in Thomas De Quincey’s ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’ (1821), in a key passage that attempts to define the altered state consciousness induced by opium, in which “a theatre seemed suddenly opened and lighted up within my brain, which presented nightly spectacles of more than earthly splendour.”

Having described the primary effects of an increase in “the creative state of the eye,” De Quincey notes that his sense of space and time were “powerfully affected” by opium: “Space swelled, and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity. This, however, did not disturb me so much as the vast expansion of time: I sometimes seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night; nay, sometimes had feelings representative of a millennium passed in that time, or, however, of a duration far beyond the limits of any human experience.”

He also notes the effect that opium appears to have on the phenomenon of memory, which lead him to draw the conclusion that nothing ever is or ever can be entirely forgotten. No matter what veils are employed by the conscious mind to conceal or bury memories, he asserts, they can always be withdrawn in the correct state of mind to reveal the hidden memory in all its awful clarity.

The role played by opium in De Quincey’s account of the perfection of sublime sensibility is a crucial one, echoed in many subsequent literary accounts of cosmic horror. It is a central tenet of the argument that everyday consciousness is blind — conveniently if not willfully — and that it requires some extraordinary intervention to reveal the reality behind appearances (or, in Kantian terms, the noumenal world beyond the phenomenal one).

The everyday mind working through the five senses, and the imagination to which it gives rise, cannot comprehend the true implication of the infinity of cosmic space and the depth of cosmic time, nor the extremes of anxiety and melancholy inevitably associated with their perception — which are, in De Quincey’s estimation, “wholly incommunicable by words.”

The entire tradition of cosmic horror fiction can be regarded as a heroic but doomed attempt to rise to that challenge: to communicate the uncommunicable, by suggesting — in the absence of any possibility of explicit description — the sheer enormity of the revelation that would be vouchsafed to us, were we ever granted permission to see and conceive of the world as it really is, rather than as it appears to our senses: deflated, diminished, and domesticated. It is for this reason that “the cosmic horror,” conceived as an entity, is by far the most elusive of all the icons of horror fiction, almost definable by its indescribability. Its presence can be felt, but only the merest glimpses an ever be caught of its form. Its description and definition can be tentatively approached in various ways — one may observe that it is daemonic rather than demonic, and that it is more akin to the alien than the traditionally supernatural — but can never be completed or clarified.

Discussion of “the comic horror” is, in consequence, bound to consist primarily of a series of contrasts, incessantly stating what it is not — because what it is remains intrinsically beyond the reach of ordinary experience, potentially accessible only by means of some hypothetical transcendental experience. Even hallucinogenic drugs give no more than a hint of the possibility; De Quincey’s highly idiosyncratic response to opium proved unrepeatable by many others who followed his example.

Coleridge, who solicited — and obtained — various different hallucinogenic drugs from the botanist Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society, never managed to complete the interrupted “Kubla Khan,” let alone discover further imaginary worlds that he could explore and describe in detail. Subsequent literary representations of hallucinatory experience bear no more resemblance to actual experiences of that kind than literary dreams do to actual dreams; the literary mind inevitably pursues meaning, even in mazy experiences whose procedure is destructive of meaning.

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