Victor Nuovo: The American Sublime
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series called “The Life of the Mind in America.”Perry Miller did not live to complete “The Life of the Mind in America.” Among the unwritten parts of his book was the introduction. From his manuscript notes, we know that he planned a grand opening, for he entitled the introduction: “The American Sublime.” He never wrote the introduction, but he left some clues about what he intended sufficient to reconstruct his meaning.
To begin with, “Sublime” is a term used to judge the value of a work of art. The two chief values in European aesthetic thought are Beautiful and Sublime. They are applied not only to works of art, visual or literary, but also to natural settings: a sunrise or sunset, cloud formations, or a landscape viewed from some prominent place, a hill- or mountain-top; high mountains, looking up or looking down; it can apply also to the vast territory of a nation. We all remember the hymn “America the Beautiful”:
“Oh Beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain
for purple mounted majesty above the fruited plain…”
Aesthetic judgments are not cold intellectual thoughts; they are reflective judgments about objects that powerfully affect our sensibilities. They are reservoirs of emotion. We call “Beautiful” things that are finite and well-formed and that cause us joy and delight — it received classic expression in the art of ancient Greece. In contrast, “Sublime” denotes things that partake of the infinite, they are so vast that no form can contain them; they evoke awe and wonder and a sense of power — the art of the Romantics gave it classic expression. In this respect, “America the Beautiful” is misnamed: Spacious skies and majestic mountains are sublime, not beautiful. For a quick example of what this means, one need only Google the paintings of Thomas Cole (1802-48), the founder of the celebrated Hudson River School: His scenes of the Hudson River Valley viewed from mountain tops are described as representations “the American Sublime.”
But Miller had in mind something vaster than territories and majestic landscapes; he imagined the American Sublime as something intangible, an idea that in itself was great beyond measure, capable to possess the mind and soul of a nation and all of its people, lifting them up from the cares and concerns of the everyday and causing them to forget their individual preoccupations and selfish motives. He imagined a moral idea endowed with transcendent power, able to inspire a multitude and transform it into one body, a nation; a powerful and ennobling idea that enabled greatness.
But “American Sublime” has been used as a symbol for a new nationalism; and we know from recent manifestations of it that nationalism and nationalist sentiments can be dangerous, cruel, and ugly; they breed violent sentiments; they are not magnanimous or inclusive; and while they provide a sense of identity to a group of individuals, this self-selected group imagines itself threatened by others not like themselves, unpossessed by their nationalist idea and undeserving of their political dreams; and this paranoia evokes fanaticism, hatred and gross cruelty. The fascist movements of the previous century prove that the danger is real, and only a fool would believe that what happened then couldn’t happen here and now.
To proceed on a proper course requires that we take a detour, and I beg the reader’s pardon if it seems that I am going far afield.
1776 was the year when this nation was founded. It was also when the philosopher David Hume (1711-76) died. His writings contain an antidote for dangerous ideas and a prescription for how refit and refine them, thus transforming them into edifying instruments of power.
In 1741 Hume published his “Essays, Moral and Political.” He began with an essay entitled “On the Delicacy of Taste and Passion.” A passionate disposition is innate in us all; it is a tendency towards sudden and spontaneous outbursts of feeling, among them zeal, and hate. Taste is a disposition that is acquired by observation, and by careful reflection on what is observed, by cultivation; it is a disposition informed and guided by reason, not hot but cool, although not cold and unfeeling; it is a deliberative and dispassionate temper, but also deeply sensitive even compassionate, and profoundly intuitive. It is not impulsive, but calm, deliberate, impartial, unprejudiced, controlled, and disciplined; a state of mind that is the intended product of education in the liberal arts. Taste is the ultimate goal of education, a goal that, in our time, I fear is no longer sought.
“The American Sublime” is an idea that can be contemplated only by a mind properly trained, disciplined so that it can put aside personal interest, a mind disinterested in self, the very opposite of the narcissist consumed by boorish envy and spitefulness, blind, even resentful, to all that is noble and just.
It is our misfortune that Perry Miller did not live to write his introduction, for it would have been more insightful and overall better than anything I could write. But once it gains access in one’s mind, one longs to give it expression.
A search for this idea, if it were pursued by a people, could rekindle the life of a nation and, in our case, become a means for us to escape the nightmarish pit of darkness into which our nation has fallen, our descent into hell. If so, it must be able to encompass us all. Its first effect is to fill us with a longing for truth, and justice, and all that is noble and good, a powerful idea, capable of ridding the nation of liars, deceivers, and hateful self-promoters; able to ennoble our aspirations, causing us to care for one another, and to strive for each other’s welfare; a nation endowed with care, compassion, and understanding; a people whose chief desire is truth, and justice, and the good and the well-being of all. Such is the idea that Perry Miller imagined, albeit tentatively; it remains for us to clarify it, and make it the ruling purpose of our existence.
In the next few essays, I will try to envisage and give expression to an idea of transcendent power and goodness that may serve as a prototype for American Sublime, an idea of absolute goodness, able to possess the minds of a people and bind them together, an idea of such power as to make a nation truly great. This may seem a visionary endeavor, but as it is written, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
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