Longinus and the Sublime


Great article on the contemporary sublime.

I have been looking at the origins of the sublime, Longinus and his rhetorical sublime. First known proponent of a treatise on the sublime, Peri Tou Hupsou, dating back to 1st century A.D, (although neither author nor the date of writing is considered a historical certainty), discusses oratory techniques, referring to the sublime as the “unforgettable, irresistible and most importantly (…) thought provoking” (Lyotard, 1984: 36) figure of speech, which sensationally interrupts or disrupts the discourse. In Nicolas Boileau- Despreaux’s  translation of the treatise (1674), Longinus “announces that to attain the sublime effect ‘there is no better figure of speech than one which is completely hidden’ (…) it sometimes even takes the form of outright silence” (Lyotard, 1984: 37). We know in our own linguistic paraphrasing that ‘silence speaks volumes’. It is in the silent realm, therefore, that our perception of the sublime can be found and we can ‘hear the sound of our own voice’ in an interior mapping of our fears and their consequences:

Silence indicates inevitable gaps in our comprehension, gaps that should be respected, rather than bridged (…) the sublime is a name for one kind of gap. Auschwitz indicates another of these gaps. Both the sublime and Auschwitz form unspeakable points of discourse, disruptions in the course of our sentence, that should be respected as such (Renne Van de Vall, ‘Silent Visions- Lyotard on the Sublime’, The Contemporary Sublime, Sensibilities of Transcendence and Shock, Art and Design, Volume 10, no.1/2, edited by Nicola Hodges, Jan-Feb, 1995, pp. 70

The sublime experience depends on our inclusion in a metaphorical “push of question and answer exchanges”, as Longinus termed it, “generated when the past is thrust into the present” (Cliff McMahon referencing A.O. Prickard’s translation ‘Longinus on the Sublime’, Oxford University Press, 1926, pp.13-49, in The Sublime is How,  ibid above). Longinus’ concept was one of cognition. If it is true that: ‘landscape can exist as a reflection on the inner walls of the mind, or as a projection of the inner state without’ (Bill Viola, 1995), then is the contemporary sublime a cognition of our communal terror of the finite nature of future landscapes? As David Blayney Brown asks (2004), “Is this because we sense a great change coming? Do we want memories or reminders before disaster strikes?” In a contemporary sublime, our participation is no longer conditional on a safe distancing, but is a recoginition of our own memeto mori, a memorial to the memory of a time when our landscapes were to be marvelled at, rationalized and which are fading fast.

These are the ideas I am trying to work with in my landscape installation pieces. While the notion of impermanence and permanence, and memory impregnates all my work.

In relation to this the work of Mariele Neudecker’s Unrecallable Now, at Spike Island in Bristol (1998) and Noemie Goudal’s Les Amantes, (Cascade) (2009) which is currently being shown at the Saatchi Gallery as part of the Out of Focus, contemporary photography exhibition, deal with issues of the contemporary sublime, subverting the parameters:

Naomi Goudal

Mariele Neudecker