In Pursuit of the Sublime
[Don’t Mess with the Magician-Part 2]
The artist’s spiritual nature is embedded in his work. It either touches something fundamental in the soul of the individual artist and connects it with the viewer’s or it does not. If successful, a spiritual connection may elevate them to the rarely achieved realms of the radiant and sublime.
Imagine! Pictured above is Ian McKellen as King Lear along with the fool. Shakespeare and the two actors are artists striving, with every possible ounce of energy, to capture you with their art in a spiritual embrace.
Just think! Each artist is reaching deep down inside himself. Of course, he finds his own life and experience to bring his King Lear to you. But perhaps he finds more than that. What else might he find? Within his subconscious he might find some surprises.
Why do we perform Shakespeare’s plays four centuries after he wrote them? Perhaps here’s a reason. To start, let’s ask this playwright what he finds when he delves into the deep. He finds archetypes, those templates which so richly illustrate human nature and experience since the beginning of time. I like to think of them as part of humankind’s library. And so, Shakespeare plays with them like the finest ivory keys which produce the grandest symphonies of the human race.
Lear himself is the archetype of the grand king and the foolhardy old man. Together, they make his descent into madness nearly inevitable.
Rest assured, Ian McKellen and the fool, as great actors, are also reaching down and finding their own surprises. Bringing them to the surface, they hope to capture and arrest you in a spiritual embrace.
Is that spiritual connection or embrace essential for the work to be considered not just aesthetically pleasing art but Great, Radiant or Sublime Art?
If so, how does an artist strive for such Art or, better still, achieve it? Whom should we ask?
How about JOSEPH CAMPBELL the renowned mythologist and my muse. In his book, MYTHIC WORLDS/MYTHIC WORDS, he wrote a great deal about the Irish novelist, JAMES JOYCE and his ideas.
If you’re like me, you might visualize this creative process as an adventure on a step ladder to make a spiritual connection. You want to climb from the merely good or not-bad all the way up to the sublime. WOW! Or maybe not. Maybe you just want to find new and different ways of thinking and conversing about art, literature and story-telling. So how can an artist create such a spiritual connection? For what goals should she aim?
Here’s Campbell on the topic of aesthetic experience and the rhythm of beauty. https://vimeo.com/89773884
The Rhythm of Beauty: According to Campbell, Joyce speaks of WHOLENESS, HARMONY and RADIANCE in a work of art. He calls these three qualities together, the rhythm of beauty.
Joyce was mainly concerned about how to distinguish Great from merely Good art and what set Radiant or Sublime art apart. Surely there are special qualities differentiating them.
Each one of these seems to indicate a step up toward great art—a step closer to that possible spiritual connection between artist and viewer. If an artist strives for these qualities, he might just achieve greatness in his art.
According to Joyce, as viewers, we must look at the work of art as a whole and explore the relationship of all its parts to one another. If all the parts relate to one another to cause an effect, they may achieve that rhythm of beauty.
When Joyce speaks of the aesthetic experience, he says that you see the work of art as a whole and if the parts of the whole create a rhythm of beauty, there you have created radiance.
Where does harmony fit in? It sounds as if the interrelation between the various parts is harmonious, then we have achieved that rhythm of beauty. We can achieve that harmony through aesthetics [composition, use of colour and light all put together to create a certain wholeness].
This is fascinating! Joyce claims that there are many clearly defined stages such as harmony and wholeness. And yet, in his own writing, he has broken all the rules, thereby creating something very new in literature–stream of consciousness. But let’s carry on. Apparently it’s true. Rules are made to be broken.
If you’d like to hear more about Joyce, try this link. http://maryemartintrilogies.com/joseph-campbell-james-joyce-and-art/
But then there is aesthetic arrest and Radiance. I think Campbell would say that if the work of art has a transcendent effect upon us, then it is radiant.
I love the way Campbell creates for us the experience of aesthetic arrest
“It’s like walking down Fifth Avenue aware of all the hustle and bustle, the vibe of New York of the urban world and then walking into St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, with its atmosphere of beauty and grandeur. A certain quiet immediately descends upon you and you are in an entirely different state/place/space. That is aesthetic arrest. A certain quiet immediately descends upon you and you are in an entirely different state/place/space. You have transcended the day to day world and ended up elsewhere. That is aesthetic arrest.”
What caused it? The wonderful architecture of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Just think of the sweep and grandeur of its neo-Gothic harmony. Does it possess that radiance?
What about the SUBLIME?
To be sublime, the work of art, must diminish the ego [making you feel really small] by elevating you to a transcendent state and holding you there in arrest. The rhythm of beauty and the enchantment of the heart. It’s like seeing the divine light which Dante describes upon seeing Beatrice.
We often experience the sublime when we see a vast desert, mountain or ocean—something physically overpowering.
Additionally, Campbell says the art should be reminding us of what is grave and constant in our lives and in our suffering which is, of course, our mortality.
It should deal with the mystery of death and to that I would also add the mystery of life, for what greater mystery can there be than either life or death.
If the artist is successful in making us think and feel about this, then he may well have created the sublime experience.
We might experience something similar in the presence of something frightening or otherworldly, which we cannot explain. It’s definitely odd sense which may be accompanied by physical symptoms. You tremble ever so slightly, feel your chest tighten, or want to sit down.
If the artist is successful in making us think and feel this way, then he may well have created the sublime experience.
Here’s someone else to ask. Harold Bloom is an esteemed literary critic and professor of literature at Yale. For him, any sublime work of art has in it an element of the very strange and beautiful which arrests the reader.
He writes about the author who magically penetrates the mind and spirit of the reader and expands his consciousness to create a very intimate relationship with that reader. Certainly the spiritual connection.
If the writer is truly great, he will creep into your mind with artfully crafted words and mental images to enlarge your consciousness of possibilities and probabilities.
Perhaps ambiguity is a hallmark OF GREAT ART. It should have many potential meanings which the writer invites the reader to explore. It should activate the reader’s mind and spirit to explore all sorts of possibilities.
It seems clear that the artist has to establish this reciprocal relationship with the reader so that he or she participates in the story. It can become a great conversation.
When we try to describe the sublime, we often conjure the feelings we might have when contemplating a vast desert or mountain. We feel terribly small and in the presence of some unknown force. The strangeness of this sense created [familiar yet unfamiliar/ known/unknown] may give us this sublime moment. Maybe it’s the realization that there is something “out there” which we do not know or understand and maybe somehow, deep down, we fear.
If you’d like to hear more of Bloom on Shakespeare, just click here. https://youtu.be/FFxjTx8HeGA
Touching the Collective Unconscious in Dreams
Sometime ago, I listened to a first time mother describe the whole process of giving birth. I found her comments led me to several thoughts.
She said that it wasn’t at all like what she had expected. Yes—she’d been prepared for pain and struggle and exhaustion but with proper breathing etc. she would manage well.
But—as soon as she felt the first pang, she thought “I know what this is. I’ve felt it before. In fact, it was almost like a déjà vu experience. It was like an impersonal force had taken her over. “I felt it was out of my hands and control.” It was like all birth pangs experienced by every woman who has ever lived. It had a universal character.
It was as if she had inherited the experience. From her story, I began to wonder if somehow she had drawn on that collective unconscious within all of us. This is similar to the experience I touched on when mentioning Ian McKellen and his portrayal of King Lear–reaching down into the deep.
What if an artist could tap into such depths and convey those perceptions and feelings to his or her viewer? Something so deep in the collective unconscious that it expressed the experience of all humankind? Perhaps that would be a sublime myth.
These are all very interesting ideas. But are they any help at all to the writer or other artist who aspires to “good” if not “great”? Let’s look at the creative process and the poor writer slaving over his computer.
Wonderful! I had a dream last night. I was in a desert and there was a hot, almost burning wind on my face. My head pounds and it’s so hot I can scarcely breathe. The hot air nearly sears my lungs. I had to close my eyes because of the brilliant sun.
When I opened my eyes, I saw a tiny black figure in the distance, the size of an ant. But as it grows larger, I grow fearful.
But closer up, I see he is immaculately dressed in an Edwardian suit of clothes but seems neither affected by the heat or the distance.
I shout and wave at him but he doesn’t hear me and continues to stride purposefully right past me without any notice. When I blink, he is gone.
Is that a sublime experience for literature?
The setting is vast and frightening. A man, seemingly in another dimension, appears and disappears. I have no explanation. It is very odd, ambiguous and strange.
But is it sublime? Hard to say. Depends on the writer. Can he create images, settings, characters and events which provoke the reader into considering the imponderables and activate the mind and spirit of the reader?
I believe it was the writer, Robertson Davies, who commented that anyone can assemble the ingredients for a wonderful gourmet feast at the kitchen table. But it takes a great chef/artist to produce the meal the ingredients promise.
So, what do we have after this exploration by step-ladder? As a reader or gallery goer we have ways of looking at and thinking about art of any kind. We can form a thoughtful opinion which may make our reading and viewing more enjoyable. It may give us a basis for further thoughts about art.
If you are an artist, we now have directions to take and goals to set. It seems odd to aspire to writing like Dostoyevsky. After all, why would you want to do that? You want to write like you. What about painting like Leonardo Da Vinci or Jackson Pollack or Rothko? No, surely you’d want to paint like you. Otherwise you won’t ever hit the radiant. But this is a guide to what is GREAT, Radiant and Sublime and maybe some thoughts about how to get there. Why not start with shooting for “good” because now we have some measuring sticks?
If you’d like to read the first post in this series Don’t Mess with the Magician, just click here. http://maryemartintrilogies.com/dont-mess-with-the-magician/
With any luck, I’ve provoked some thoughts from you. Please take a moment to write in the comment box.
Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the recently released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing. Although all novels are available virtually anywhere online, you’ll find them easily at Amazon below in the carousels below.