I have become inordinately fond of the word ‘delight’ thanks in great part to the poet Ross Gay whose work is a balm these days. Unfortunately, the other word that I would like to discuss, great, has gotten trampled and squashed and overused by an executive who seems to lack all executive function. Great, as a word, just comes from the German word for big, gross, so every time that red-hatted imbecile violates the English language feel free to insert gross for great and let philosophy and religion have their important word back! Yup. Make America Gross Again. I am the grossest ________. Anything to help. You’re welcome.
So when we take delight in the greatness of things, of things beyond our imagination, things that we can barely fathom because, we are moving toward an experience of the sublime. Kant makes an explicit difference between that which we find beautiful, usually because of its form, and that which elicits an experience of sublime, something whose greatness lies well beyond the outer reaches of our imagination. Delighting in the tremendous, in the enormity, in the impossibility of total comprehension is a lovely pleasure still available and so much more nourishing than a box of hoarded pasta. The vastness is not necessarily connected to an emotion but it can follow channels of feeling to terror, to warm love, to cold numbness or even to giddy silliness. Some things are just funny.
Reading philosophy or physics can inspire this sublimity for some. My enormous new French synonym dictionary gives me a frisson of sublime. I will never be able to know all of those words. Looking down the long, long barrel of often orally transmitted yoga sutras and asanas and the Bhagavad Gita can also give my brain a delight in knowledge greatness and vastness. For others nature provides a connection to biological webs and time through her redwood forests, night skies or even the rapidly growing and blooming unmown parks of our European cities.
As I grow older I have begun to wonder if my discoveries are moving from the outer world to the inner world. A long time ago I saw a wonderful power of ten film with my Swiss godparents in Luzern. The film starts in the Plaza San Marco in Venise and then zooms out by powers of ten until the largest thing that humans have any inklings about. And then it zips back down to the Plaza and goes inside the world we know, microscoping by powers of ten until the smallest thing we have named. (IMAX Cosmic Voyage narrated by Morgan Freeman). The documentary was made before they discovered the Higgs-Boson particle but you know it’s in there somewhere.
As one of my students said, we are meat sacks, just watery cells traipsing around and hosting many, many microscopic beings. The flora and fauna of your intestines might have more to do with your mood and mental acuity than any intrinsic nature you think you have. The mere fact that this flesh can balance so much weight on two small surfaces and then propel these limbs through space is almost a miracle.
When I lived in Switzerland and studied so much phenomenology I was predisposed to have a very physical experience of the sublime. I couldn’t figure out, thanks for nothing Kant, if it was pulling me out of my body or putting me back in my body. I rode my bike to the top of Le Salève on a cold day, through dark fog, desperate to move and see some light or blue sky. It’s a long ridge, not really a mountain, and a curving road, very small, wanders along the top of it. As I rode along in the freezing damp mist which muffled everything, occasionally, for just a few meters, my pedaling would take me to a slight rise in the road and I would see the blue sky and a white blanket. But then the breeze and the tarmac would turn and my airplane view was gone and it was just me, dripping wet with condensation, lost in cold cloud. I couldn’t control or anticipate the breaks in fog. I had no idea where I was going and jacked up on all of that philosophy I felt, this is it, this is that inarticulable experience of the sublime. My words can’t do justice to the feelings that my imagination and body experienced. I delighted in the greatness of the world and the infinite tininess of my self moving at the border of sky and land. I was nothing and yet there I was, still feeling my hot breath, my damp sweater arms, my ability to move through space.
Here is a little taste of Kant: Hence it must be the aesthetic estimation of magnitude in which we get at once a feeling of the effort towards a comprehension that exceeds the faculty of imagination for mentally grasping the progressive apprehension in a whole of intuition, and, with it, a perception of the inadequacy of this faculty, which has no bounds to its progress, for taking in and using for the estimation of magnitude a fundamental measure that understanding could turn to account without the least trouble.
Excerpt from: “Kant’s Critiques: The Critique of Pure Reason; The Critique of Practical Reason; The Critique of Judgement” by Immanuel Kant. Scribd.
Magnitude is in the air, both in massive numbers and graphs but also in tininess, do you know how big a diameter of 120 nm is? Can you put your brain around that?
Now is the time to explore the sublime on a more microscopic level. Who am I ? What do I know? What is love? How is it possible that in just this one breath so much can be present, can be intuited, can continue? Let the sublime adventures continue!