Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Sublime Thing, Like Space or Mathematics

From the Sublime to the Brooksiculous!

Richard Barthelmess contemplates whacking a policeman with a ukulele in D.W. Griffith's The Love Flower (1920). Via Fritzi.

David Brooks ("Big and Little Loves", May 31 2016) is interested in the concept of the sublime!

Ever since the days of ancient Greece, philosophers have distinguished between the beautiful and the sublime.
Sadly, no. According to my trusty Wikipedia, while an interest in the sublime goes back to classical antiquity, the dichotomy between beauty and sublimity as exclusive categories was invented in England, in the late 17th century, by John Dennis, who found himself, on a trip to Switzerland, struck by the contrast between his previous experience of the beauty of nature as a "delight that is consistent with reason" on the one hand, and on the other the spectacle of the Alps "mingled with Horrours, and sometimes almost with despair". And explicitly argued for the first time by Edmund Burke in his 1756 Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.

Brooks is working clearly on pure memories from something like 35 years ago, when he was first curating his self-image as the sort of interesting young man who has a favorite philosopher nobody else in the dorm has ever heard of, Burke, of course, and his lovely distinction between the dreadful revolutionary categorical continentals and the modest, conservative, whimsical, hobbity Englishmen of the 1790s. He wrestled, no doubt, through the first four or five pages of Burke's gnarly and unpleasant treatise on aesthetics—life was so hard in the days before Google!—for an only partly cribbed term paper, and what remains of it in his frazzled, weary brain has gotten divorced from Burke's name:

Beauty is what you experience when you look at a flower or a lovely face. It is contained, pleasurable, intimate and romantic. Sublime is what you feel when you look at a mountain range or a tornado. It involves awe, veneration, maybe even a touch of fear. A sublime thing, like space or mathematics, over-awes the natural human dimensions and reminds you that you are a small thing in a vast cosmos.
Like space or mathematics! Like bed-jars or foreign bacon! Though I think there's a good deal of leftist continental Kant in here too, if you want to follow this stuff up.

Recently neuroscientists have shown that the experiences of beauty and awe activate different parts of the brain.
He doesn't say which neuroscientists, but he must mean Tomohiro Ishizu and Semir Zeki of University College London, who have been researching the neurological correlates of aesthetic perception for some time now and whose "A neurobiological enquiry into the origins of our experience of the sublime and beautiful" came out in late 2014.

Superimposed functional maps to show brain areas whose activity correlates with the experience of visual beauty (Ishizu and Zeki, 2011) (green) and the ones in which activity correlates with experience of the sublime (this study, red). Activity in the body of the caudate nucleus (−9 −1 25) and in the medial obito-frontal cortex (mOFC) (−6 41 −11) correlates with the experience of visual beauty whereas activity in the head of the caudate, encroaching on anterior cingulate cortex, correlates with experience of the sublime (9 23 16). Both activations are presented using p < 0.001 uncorrected threshold.
Having introduced this very interesting subject, Brooks precipitately abandons it—probably too sublime for him, over-awing his natural human dimensions—in favor of something completely different that he asserts is the same:

The distinction between the beautiful and the sublime is the distinction between the intimate and the transcendent. This sort of distinction doesn’t just happen in aesthetics, but in life in general. We have big and little loves.
Do our big loves and little loves in life in general subsist in different brain regions too? It's hard to say, since they occur simultaneously in regard to the same objects, such as military service or God:

The soldiers who we honored on Memorial Day were animated by a big love — serving their country — and by a little one — protecting their buddies. Religious people experience a love of God that is both big and little.
Or maybe not:

In daily life we have big and little loves, too. The little loves, like for one’s children, one’s neighborhood or one’s garden, animate nurture, compassion and care. The big loves, like for America or the cause of global human rights, inspire courage and greatness. A little love is a shepherd protecting his flock. A great love is Martin Luther King Jr. leading his people.
Take out the compost, and don't forget to animate the nurture! And if Dr. King is here can Tocqueville be far behind?

The amount of big love in a society can rise and fall. Alexis de Tocqueville wondered if democracy would dampen Americans’ big love. “What worries me most,” he wrote, “is the danger that, amid all the constant trivial preoccupations of private life, ambition may lose both its force and its greatness, that human passions may grow gentler and at the same time baser, with the result that the progress of the body social may become daily quieter and less aspiring.”
You see where we're headed here. Just piling on favorite bits of rhetoric. Brooks has no idea at this point where he is or how he got there, but luckily the Whig bus whizzes by and he jumps on just in time. Tocqueville! The aspiring social body! Climb right in! He'll be home by cocktail time, sunk in the armchair of his nostalgia for an imaginary America in which conservatives had the ambition and compassion to be liberal, and liberals had the humility and respect to let the conservatives lead.

There will be complaints that both types of love are in short supply in our decadent times:

I’d say that in America today some of the little loves are fraying, and big love is almost a foreign language. Almost nobody speaks about the American project in the same ardent tones that were once routine.
I'd say if anything the tones are routine now, and that's why they don't sound ardent any more.

We will bemoan the pessimism that has overtaken the population, and the way our sense of mission has been "humbled by failures and passivity" (wait, I thought humbled was good for us?). If we would only be more successful and active, then we might be more optimistic.

Young people now want to join start-ups or NGOs, or eat locally grown foods, but I’m writing in defense of the big love that once inspired big projects, like NASA, the national railroads and the creation and maintenance of the postwar, American-led world order, with the free movement of people, goods and ideas.
Except the big projects that are in the Democratic platform, huh?

And "NGOs" aren't big enough love. Why would you join some two-bit outfit like Oxfam or Médecins Sans Frontières when you could be doing your big love at the Manhattan Institute writing baffling papers on sublime things like the unmarried childbirth statistics, though Brooks won't be able to follow you all the way there, being as how his human dimensions are so easily over-awed?

I'm more and more appalled by the decay of Brooks's ability to sustain a thought for 800 words, write a sentence that doesn't look like a lasagna sheet left in the cooking water too long, or have any idea that he hasn't had 600 times before, or the minimal self-awareness you'd think it would take to make it safely through a doorframe or put a marshmallow in your mouth. It's not really funny any more. Some kind of intervention is needed.

Update: Driftglass speculates on why Brooks hasn't taken his trip into the Heart of Whiteness yet—something wrong with the GPS doodad?—leaving him no choice but to rush home and recycle 13-year-old material.

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