Tuesday, 5 March 2013

On the 'sublime', or 19th century concepts of pain and pleasure

(Since I no longer have much time to collect and collate stuff into blog posts, this is a sort of fragmentary post.)
"Without all doubt, the torments which we may be made to suffer, are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasures...which the liveliest imagination...could enjoy."
Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1757

Let's talk about this idea briefly. This is the idea that the concept of pain is stronger than the concept of pleasure and has a stronger effect on our emotions and imagination. Here we assume the author discusses emotional pain and not physical pain, although he talks about 'danger' quite freely in the same context. Pain may be much more familiar to us because we get hurt all the time; it is a physical response linked very closely to an emotional feeling of 'torment'. So when we describe strong emotions of pain or heartbreak, we say 'it hurts' as in, the emotional pain is so strong it feels physical. Happiness is, like pain, intangible. We experience physical pleasure but happiness is very much an emotional response rather than a physical one.
I need to do more research into this 19th century viewpoint about emotion and torment. Reacting instinctively to it, though, I'd say as a person brought up in the 21st century I'm inclined to disagree with it. We can feel happiness just as acutely as pain, and sometimes it feels like happiness is the more strong because a rush of true happiness is rarer than a stab of pain.

The article(note the date; this is an 18th century perception of the Romantic idea of the 'sublime)  also mentions that fear is most acute when the thing is obscure:
To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary.
 This is perhaps true when we think about how we are more frightened in the dark; night seems to be a darker and more mysterious, perhaps even more frightening time. If you're thinking this is ridiculous in our modern age, consider how much scarier it is travelling home alone in the dark than in the daytime. This certainly also applies when we consider famous and very effective 20th century black-and-white horror movies where the villian appears only as a shadow over the wall or going up the stairs. We never see the monster and therefore are more afraid for it, perhaps because our own imagination creates something much more frightening than anything that could be onscreen(it is true that we know best what we're scared of, so maybe this is why the fear of the unseen works so well; we fill in the space with our worst fears, and when the thing becomes known or visible or tangible we are no longer so afraid).

The article is very interesting; there's also views on the concept of death which I want to discuss at a later date.

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