Making Peace with the Sublime

Anyone within a four foot radius of me the past two months can attest to my paralyzing fear of winter weather. Ashamed of this fear, I call out of work, make excuses to friends, stock up on milk and eggs, fill the bathtub with water to flush the toilets with just in case, and sleep with a flashlight next to my bed that I have piled high with several down comforters. The thought of being on the roads in snow and ice induces panic attacks complete with nausea, shortness of breath, and visions of my own demise. 

When I was young, I remember liking the snow. During the day I would be out playing with my sisters, building walls for our snow house, making snow angels, sliding down the snow slide my dad made for us one year. When the sun was out, I felt invincible.

But then night would fall, and I would sit in my bed watching the snow swirling in the lamplight from a street lamp behind our house, and the hair on the back of my neck would rise. I knew I was safe and warm in my parent’s house, but I also knew that beyond my window pane there was a force greater than me that could do me harm. The memory stands out as one of my earliest encounters with what I’ve come to know as the sublime.

Revived from antiquity by the British philosopher Edmund Burke, the idea behind the sublime is that the most powerful emotions humans experience are pain and fear, but when pain and fear are viewed from a safe distance, the experience can be thrilling.

Anyone who has faced ocean waves pounding the shore before a storm or stood before the open desert at night or driven home under the greenish sky of a coming tornado has probably felt this thrill. It is often when we are faced with the overpowering qualities of nature that we feel ourselves insignificant. We are reminded of our own frailty.

“The sublime is an encounter – pleasurable; intoxicating, even – with human weakness in the face of the strength, age and size of the universe.” says Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel. “A landscape could arouse the sublime only when it suggested power – a power greater than that of humans, and threatening to them.”

However, this need not paralyze us. And in my current state of distress, I have decided to turn to art to learn to be awed by the sublime and not frozen by it. Two pieces stand out since I recently encountered them at the opening of Turner to Cezanne: Masterpieces from the Davies Collection, National Museum Wales now on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Jean-François Millet, The Gust of Wind, 1871–73. Oil on canvas. National Museum of Wales; Miss Margaret S. Davies Bequest, 1963 (nmwa 2475). Courtesy American Federation of Arts.

The first is Jean-Francois Millet’s The Gust of Wind. It is a landscape being scraped by a gust of wind so powerful that an aged tree is being uprooted and anything without a deep root system is going to be blown away. In the midst of this destruction, we can see the tiny figure of a peasant ducking and running for cover. I love this work and while it is terrifying, I cannot help but feel that once nature’s purge is over, we will be left with something scrubbed clean and renewed.

Vincent van Gogh, Rain–Auvers, 1890. Oil on canvas. National Museum of Wales; Miss Gwendoline E. Davies Bequest, 1951 (nmwa 2463). Courtesy American Federation of Arts.

The second is Vincent van Gogh’s Rain-Auvers, depicted the countryside of Auvers-sur-Oise during a rain storm. The flat plains seem completely saturated and the slashes of rain seem to be coming out of the painting towards the viewer. And in the middle of the scene are several blackbirds who fly towards the viewer unaffected by the pelting rain. This painting is not as violent as Millet’s, but it provides another view of the sublime for me. There is powerlessness in the face of inevitability, but that powerlessness almost comes as a reprieve.

With these two paintings close by, I am attempting to face the snow that is currently falling with a sense of awe, not dread. Alain de Botton says, “Sublime places repeat in grand terms a lesson that ordinary life typically introduces viciously: that the universe is mightier than we are, that we are frail and temporary and have no alternative but to accept limitations on our will; that we must bow to necessities greater than ourselves.”

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