the sublime and other people

Early last month, I posted a little poem in celebration of a deep snowfall. I was hardly the first. People appreciate natural phenomena, find ways to represent aspects of what they see, and share the results. We have done this, I suppose, for at least 64,000 years, since the oldest cave paintings we know.

In some cases, an explicit goal is to thank a benevolent power for the gift. For instance, I love how Gerard Manley Hopkins detects a Divine Father behind all “dappled things“–like “skies of couple-colour” or “a brinded cow.” “Praise Him,” says Hopkins. Unfortunately, I cannot share that type of explanation.

For others, the theme is the objective beauty of nature, understood as impersonal but perfect. “The hills / Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,—the vales / Stretching in pensive quietness between …” I must admit that I am struck by the subjectivity of such judgments. Our dog appreciates, but I don’t think he is much taken by distant vistas of snow on sagging branches. Smelly fire hydrants are closer to his sublime. A nest of cockroaches has as much objective complexity and order as a snow-covered forest, but most of us human beings (although not all of us) would recoil from it. Nature gives us pure drifts of fresh snow, but also muddy slush and freezing rain. These examples cause me to doubt that beauty lies in nature.

Another response is that we are constituted to enjoy things like snowy views, and this is a wonderfully good fact about us. Just as we may lament our human proclivities to violence, despair, and cruelty, so we can celebrate our ability to savor what we find sublime. And not only celebrate it, but actively cultivate this appreciation and share it with other people through the representations that we create. In that case, the beauty is essentially in us, but it is really there, and that is a reason for gratitude.

I don’t know whether human beings are automatically constituted to enjoy a snowscape. Perhaps we are, but our responses could vary by personality and culture. I am sure that my own appreciation is something learned. I do not simply see the snow; I see it with things already in my mind, like Christmas decorations, paper snowflakes on second-grade bulletin boards, Ezra Jack Keats’ A Snowy Day, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Hunters in the Snow,” Han-shan’s Cold Mountain lyrics, Robert Frost’s ”lovely, dark and deep” woods, Hiroshige’s woodblock prints of wintry Japan, Rosemary Clooney with Bing Crosby. In short, I have been taught to appreciate a winter wonderland, a marshmallow world, and a whipped cream day. Some of these influences probably detract, but they were meant well, which is how I would defend “Hush.”

It’s sometimes said that when Petrarch climbed Mont Ventoux (in Provence) in 1336–simply to enjoy and describe the view–he was the first European ever to do such a thing. Clearly, some people outside of Europe had loved mountain views long before Petrarch. I find it plausible that certain communities of people appreciate vistas, while others do not. And some of us may have learned the sublimity of landscapes from a chain of people originally inspired by Petrarch, although he was surely influenced by the classical sources that he knew so well. We all see what we have learned to see.

To me, this debt to other human beings only deepens the sublime. Nature was not created for us; it just is. And we were not created to enjoy it, although–very fortunately–we do. But our fellow human beings have deliberately shared their appreciation and heightened our own, which means that we are the beneficiaries of benevolent intelligence after all. Praise them.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.