Pursuing the Sublime in the Digital Age

by Samuel Coale (Author)
©2019 Monographs X, 128 Pages


Pursuing the Sublime in the Digital Age presents an historical and cultural overview of the sublime as personal experience and as described in fiction and culture. Samuel Coale offers insight into his interpretation of the sublime through analyses of philosophers and artists who have worked within romantic, modernist and postmodern traditions. His narrative is designed for use as a template through which readers can explore and examine their own sublime experiences, and will appeal to both the general public and cultural critics and scholars.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword
  • Chapter 1. Pursuing the Sublime in the Digital Age: An Introduction
  • Chapter 2. Enchantments of the Sublime
  • Chapter 3. A Short History of the Sublime
  • Chapter 4. The Special Role of Nature and the Romantic Sublime in American Culture
  • Chapter 5. Modernism’s Psychological Structures
  • Chapter 6. The Postmodern Sublime
  • Epilogue: A Summary of the Sublime(s)
  • Index

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In the “Wall Street Journal” of November 9, 2017, Andrew Stark, in his review, “Awe in Search of Understanding,” of the atheist Tim Crane’s The Meanings of Belief explains that the word “wonder” can be used in two ways, as something that can inspire awe and in the sense of wondering, the beginning of a quest for understanding:

Perhaps many of us—in moments when we are confronted with powerful beauty—experience an awe of the cosmos so intense that we perceive ourselves merging into it, a part of the whole. But it will probably be a fleeting moment …

He went on to examine the word

numinous [that] refers to the halo of impenetrable meaning we sense whenever we feel moved by nature … Einstein spoke of “something we cannot penetrate.” What is that ineffable “something”? It’s the conviction of an ultimate meaning … but not one that abides in an inaccessible world beyond … Instead it emerges, as a whole does from the sum of its parts, out of the sun and stars and sea and sierra … (A15)

I was struck by a shock of recognition. Stark’s comments spoke directly to the subject of this book. The sublime has always gripped me by its maddeningly elusive and seductive powers, and in broad, general terms Stark seems to have gotten it absolutely right. The pursuit exists. Wonder and awe entrance and beguile. This is one version of that endless and infinite process.

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An Introduction

Why is there something and not nothing? No one can answer that question, but many have recognized that “something” exists, whatever it ultimately is. William James wondered about “the ideal power with which we feel ourselves in connection … we can experience something [sic] larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace.”1 John Dewey asserted that “a bare event is not event at all; something [sic] happens …”2 John Locke agreed: “from eternity there has been something …”3 Thomas Jefferson with his Deistic leanings “insist[ed] on the ‘eternal pre-existence of something’ and identif[ied] that ‘something’ with ‘the world.’”4

The Romantics linked that something directly to nature. Richard Holmes on Shelley’s visit to the Alps in July, 1816, tells us that “he calls the visit ‘something close to a religious experience …’”5 John Dennis edges his way toward describing the romantic sublime when crossing the Alps: “The sense of all this [danger and beauty] produc’d different motions in me, viz. a delightful Horrour, a terrible Joy, and at the same time, that I was infinitely pleas’d, I trembled.”6 Wordsworth zeroed in on “a presence that disturbs me with the joy/ Of elevated thoughts … a sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused …”7 Even the pragmatist Richard Rorty admitted to experiencing “the Wordsworthian moments … in the woods … I had felt touched by ← 1 | 2 → something, numinous, something of ineffable importance, something really [sic] real.”8 Something shimmers in these sublime moments in connection with the natural world.

Can the concept of the sublime assist us in trying to decipher such moments? As Philip Shaw reminds us, the word “sublime” comes from the Latin “sublimus, a combination of sub (up to) and limin/limen (the lintel or threshold of a building) [and] as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘Set or raised aloft; high up.’”9 Perhaps Alfred North Whitehead in his attempt to define religion provides one of the better visions of the sublime as

the vision of something which stands beyond, behind and within the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.10

Concepts and definitions can, however, all too easily lead to and breed systems, which restrict, constrict and exclude, so we must always be wary of them. The sublime experience occurs beyond and outside of wholly explicit concepts that try to embody and explain it. As Schelling concluded,

As soon as man sets himself in opposition to the external world … he takes the first step towards philosophy. For with this separation reflection first begins. Henceforth he separates what nature has forever united: object from intuition, concept from image, and finally, by becoming his own object, he separates himself from himself …11

The sublime celebrates union and the merging of self and the world, so we must tread warily and carefully when trying to conceptualize it. It may underscore many organized religions, but it is different from them in being momentary, a virtually singular and solitary experience, and undogmatic, suggesting what Tim Crane calls the “religious impulse”12 with its belief in a transcendent and unseen order as it treats language as sacramental in the moment of its sudden incarnation in poetry, fiction and film.

Most of us, caught up in our latest literary critical projects, rarely have the time to pull back and survey our critical approaches from a distance. A recent book by Rita Feliski, The Limits of Critique (2015), brilliantly and provocatively tackles today’s critical assumptions such as the American acceptance of Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of suspicion. Certainly that has fueled my earlier work on conspiracy and paranoia and contemporary writers’ attempts both to ← 2 | 3 → undermine conspiracy theories as malicious with their bizarre connections, assumptions of causality, and search for scapegoats, and to subscribe to conspiracy as a seductive structure for fiction, employing its methods but leaving it open-ended in an attempt to expose its weird presuppositions and premises. In playing with fire, one can get burnt, but this is the challenge and high-wire act writers such as Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and Joan Didion must perform to achieve their precarious vision. There’s a risk in the combat between form and structure in this regard, laced with suspicion, dread, paranoid fantasies and radical doubt.

In exposing the hermeneutics of suspicion, Felski makes a very strong case for this being only one strand of contemporary criticism, however persuasive, with its deconstructive and poststructuralist underpinnings, upheld by skepticism and interrogation, and argues for a “hermeneutics of restoration,”13 not to replace it but to be considered as another critical approach to literary texts. This opens up the possibility that texts can offer revelation as much as disenchantment, that they can present more than codes to be deciphered and masks to hide ideological certainties and social complicities. Texts can conjure up genuine mysteries about the human condition as opposed to mere mystifications that hide Nietzschean nihilism, Freudian repressions and Marx’s economic hierarchies.

It’s this restorative approach that I hope to apply to sublime moments in poetry, fiction and some films. How are they constructed? How are they shaped? How can metaphor both try to seize and capture them, at the same time the writer recognizes that all representation remains implicitly limited, fragile and uncertain? Texts can, as Felski suggests, “be incandescent, extraordinary, sublime, utterly special.”14 No critic sacrifices her need to interpret and question, but this might not be the only thing she does. Literature can change perceptions, convert, transcend, delight and dazzle as much as it can cover up, evade and avoid.


X, 128
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. X, 128 pp.

Biographical notes

Samuel Coale (Author)

Samuel Coale teaches American Literature at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. He earned his Ph.D. at Brown University, and has received three Fulbrights and one NEH grant. His most recent books include The Entanglements of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Quirks of the Quantum: Postmodernism and Contemporary American Fiction.


Title: Pursuing the Sublime in the Digital Age
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140 pages