Reflections on Edmund Burke’s “Philosophical Enquiry”

Are the literary and visual arts in the midst of a Gothic revival?  Twilight in print and on the screen, two Sleeping Beauty films at pretty much the same time, Lemony Snicket and Harry Potter and umpteen other children’s and adult series.  And less than a decade ago Damon and Ledger as the Brothers Grimm and I seem to remember a novelist named Rice.  But . . .

Is it real Gothic or just a pale (and sparkling) imitation?

I’m in the slow, savouring, wonderfully dark and delightful process of re-reading Matthew “Monk” Lewis’ exquisitely tortuous The Monk (first published 1796) and I feel compelled to say, no, the modern crop of “Gothic” doesn’t measure up to the originals, Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, Beckford’s Vathek, the inimitable novels of Radcliffe, Shelley’s Frankenstein and that other Shelley’s Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, Stoker’s Dracula and, the pinnacle of Gothic creation, Lewis’  The Monk.

A little book written by a young man two and a half centuries ago has helped me come to realize the two main reasons Modern “Gothic” doesn’t rise to the level of the classics.  The first is that the authors of the new Gothic have, for the most part, not read and absorbed Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.  The second is that no one in the audience has read Burke either.  Very few readers or viewers today have any understanding of the meaning of “Sublime” in the Gothic context.  And I would wager a firkin of good claret that this lack of understanding of the sublime is a wall cutting off most readers of today from a full and happy appreciation of not only classic Gothic fiction but also from a real understanding of the work of the Romantics and even much of Victorian literature.  Today we don’t feel the sublime, and the sublime is what literature and art was all about from the middle of the 18th century to perhaps the First World War, when sublimity was shattered, perhaps for good.

Burke’s youthful work (he was 28 in 1757 when the Enquiry was published) is such a tour de force that it is itself an example of the sublime almost as much as was Lewis’ production of The Monk before he’d finished his twentieth year.  That either work could be produced by such youth is awe inspiring, and even a little frightening.  This awe and fright – Burke would call it Terror — is one side, a portion of this thing our ancestors termed “sublime”.  The other portion is what Burke called “Delight”.  The Sublime is that which stirs in our mind and body a delightful terror. Terror is “the common stock of everything that is sublime” he writes in Part 2, Section V. This terror is not sparkling vampires before whom we willingly suspend disbelief – rather it is Lucifer himself, before whom we are unable to suspend an unquestioning belief.

As I read Burke I can’t help but ask myself “is Burke’s ‘sublime’ not similar to Eliade’s ‘Terror of History’?”  As much as I have been influenced by Eliade’s writings, I’ve never myself felt the terror he describes as being a necessary after effect of the rejection of the divine.  I wonder as I read Burke “Is the sublime not lost to/transcended by the Modern World?  We contemplate the Pale Blue Dot and we feel wonder and delight, but not Terror, surely.”  And when I read Burke’s contrasting of the wild animal (sublime) with the domestic I wonder if science has not by now domesticated the universe.  Are we anymore able to experience the sublime?  As much as I enjoy and appreciate The Monk, I am as unable to feel it’s sublimity as I am unable to feel Eliade’s Terror of History.  All the world has been domesticated.  In Part 3, Section IV, Burke praises the new English gardens which with their mock wildness have begun in his time to replace the formal, ordered French gardens as the aesthetic standard.  I wonder whether we have made the world as a whole into a very formal garden where everything is ordered and predictable, and even wonder has something familiar about it.  I simply don’t think we experience Burke’s terror anymore.

Burke is, of course, flailing about in what from our point of view is a vacuum.  Neuroscience today stands at a point so firm and far removed from Burke that, although the Enquiry is fundamentally an essay in neuroscience, he has – can have – little to tell us about how our brains function.  But, the important thing for us about Burke is that he tells us how minds worked in the eighteenth century.  I remember the lamentation as an undergraduate:  Freud was used to interpret art and then artists started to produce to match Freud’s theories and then ordinary people started thinking according to Freud’s theories and so Freud was proven right.  It has happened with any powerful or popular psychological or literary or artistic theory. Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House entertainingly and frighteningly showed the fact of theory crushing art and then becoming the art itself, but sadly few seem to have noticed.  And so, that most horrid of literary expressions persists:  The Artist’s Statement.  And it happened in Burke’s time, it seems.  The sublime was the It Girl of the time.  Find her!  Hold her!  Let me get a picture!  What does she mean for us?  Burke, in his Philosophical Enquiry tried to pin her down. Whether he set the standard or grasped the concept that was developing in the artistic consciousnesses of the period, his book is a key to understanding and appreciating so much of what came after, although it may be quite impossible any longer for us truly to experience the delightful terror of the sublime.

One comment on “Reflections on Edmund Burke’s “Philosophical Enquiry”

  1. […] All is elaborate, Baroque and strangely beautiful decay and transformation.  Sublime. […]

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