Accounts Of The Ineffable

August 10, 2020 / Karen Xie

The Sublime is undefinable — let’s define it.

I. On the Order of the Universe

You are but a speck of dust. No more than fractions of a quartz tick, blinks of a cosmic eye. A mote creature on a rock, hurtling through a vast expanse of open nothingness so many times larger than home, there’s no quantity to take it all in except … infinity. What are we to winds and waves? In the grandest scheme of things, in the order of the universe, we are nothing. The fate of the living is insignificant.

Did you feel that? That hum behind your left ear, the tingling in your spine? That is the whisper of the sublime. I speak not of the band, but of something more elusive and obscure — the most powerful emotion our mind is capable of. The sublime is an aesthetic, a quality of grandness, a reaction to contemplations such as that one. I’ve been reveling in these contemplations for the better part of my adult life, but I find my conclusions difficult to explain. The sublime is, in essence, ineffable. Philosophers and artists alike have delighted in this fact for ages, dedicating their crafts to defining the undefinable. I am no philosopher or artist, but here, I too will dedicate my craft to the sublime. With meager pen in hand, I want to unravel my truth. In the name of Romanticism, I will try my best.

II. On Overwhelming Expanses

You are standing at the edge of the American Grand Canyon and are seized by the sudden notion of your impermanence. With a flick and a shudder, you’re overwhelmed by your smallness.

Do I matter?

Earth herself took eons to craft this gaping monstrosity of amber, and here you stand, two decades old, witnessing it all with a glance. You have a sudden urge to shout. Echo.

Perhaps I should fling myself over the edge.

What then?

Those who gave the sublime its name referred to it in the context of nature. In the simplest of terms, it’s that stunned reaction to natural phenomena that exalts and exhilarates. Look up images of the sublime — you’ll find oil paintings of the ocean — the rocking, broiling, angry ocean, with cracks and crevices, gaping jaws, and crashing blacks. Why? Because the sublime isn’t so much that innocent awe as it is overwhelming terror. The sublime must be understood oxymoronically: delight tinged with disgust, admiration grounded in fear.

But it is perhaps kinder than that, also defined by a certain degree of safety from that terror — it is you standing behind a metal rail, watching those waves crash below and shivering at the thought of getting caught in them. It is calm contemplation in the face of threat. This power to not only disentangle ourselves from the world’s grasp, but also reflect on our place within that grasp, elevates the experience to the profound. The sublime is no longer just awe-inspiring — it is transcendental.

III. On the Window Seat of an Airplane

“I’ve just experienced this, this breath-taking, heart-aching, violin-swelling feeling, and I cannot tear my eyes from this two-by-one window frame. See, I was just watching the ground fall from us when I looked up and saw a fellow plane in the distance. Oh, it was tiny. So infinitesimally and inconsequentially small against the grandeur of the clouds. A mere toy to pluck out of the skies. Suddenly, I could not breathe…” (My iPhone’s Notes App, 2016)

I believe I’ve experienced the sublime, though I knew not of its identity at the time. All I knew was that I’d witnessed something tectonic, and my world shifted in response. I saw my own tiny window from the other side and, for the first time, felt the etching deepness of my human insignificance. In the same moment, I found myself marveling at that chunk of metal staying afloat against all odds — humanity holding its own amongst nature’s greatest. We made that. We did that. Despite our triviality, we are magnificent.

See, the sublime is visceral — it makes the mind swell. Moments such as these are essential to humanity “because they elevate our soul above its usual level … to measure ourselves against the apparent all-powerfulness of nature.” We feel at once with and without the world — simultaneously small yet powerful as centers of our own subjective experience. We are cognizing creators — and that is sublime in and of itself.

IV. On the Petite and the Petty

Suddenly, you might look at your everyday trials and find them inconsequential. The sublime surely demands them to be.

What’s the point? If the sublime is out there, why am I still here?

Interestingly, I believe that the sublime confers importance to the little things, converges the infinite and the infinitesimal. Yes, it first hit me as a grand revelation, halfway to the heavens, but since then, it has pinpointed the petite, brought magic to the mundane. It’s like — no, the cosmos doesn’t care if I pair this belt with these jeans, but in the sublimity of my own finite life, I can care. What are we to willows and woods but creatures imbued with petty choice and caprice? Red blouse? Socks and sandals? What’d you get on problem number two? Let’s go out tonight.

For me, this convergence is liberation. I giggle at squabbles between lovers, twirl in leaf vortexes on the sidewalk, and understand that I have no purpose but the purpose I plan for myself. Scooters are brilliant, white out is questionable, and I am made from molecules that were once in a pterodactyl. The sublime has gifted me with a different love for life. But of course, the sublime is subjective. It is, by definition, undefinable. I’ve delivered my all, but that simply will not do. Get out there. In the name of Romanticism, you must see it for yourself. ■

by: Karen Xie

layout: Kelsey Jones

photographer: Rachel Aquino

stylists: Sophia Werkenthin

hmuas: Amber Bray

models: Maggie Deaver

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