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Andrew Ashfield and Peter de Bolla, eds. The Sublime: A Reader in British Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN: 0-521-395453. Price: £40 ($59.95).

  • Nicola Trott

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  • Nicola Trott
    University of Glasgow

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For a 'Reader', this is not at first sight the most readable of books (perhaps the authors were too inward with their sublime hermeneutic?): a sporadically impenetrable Introduction at one end, and an absence of index at the other, might well put off the less determined. That would be a shame, since inbetween these obstacles lies a selection of texts whose unlooked-for variety and complexity allow the editors to make a number of significant claims. The first, and most important, achievement is the selection itself, which includes among its excerpts 'many [writings] never before printed in modern editions': in Part I, 'The Longinian Tradtion', we have gobbets from Dennis, Blackmore, Rereby, Jonathan Richardson, Stackhouse, Jacob, and Trapp; in Part II, devoted to 'early eighteenth-century English philosophical criticism', we find Addison, Shaftesbury, Needler, Akenside, Baillie, Hartley, Lowth, Johnson, Young, Burgh, Priestley, and Frances Reynolds; in Part III, Burke first appears, here among his fellow-Irishmen, Lawson and Usher; Parts IV and V continue this 'geo-cultural' arrangement, representing 'The Aberdonian Enlightenment' (Blackwell, Fordyce, Gerard, Duff, Reid, and Beattie) and 'Edinburgh and Glasgow' (a twinning of rival cities that Scots may find irksome, but which lets us now praise famous men, Hume, Blair, Kames, Smith, and Ferguson). Finally, Part VI journeys 'From the Picturesque to the Political' by way of Chambers, Price, Marshall, Godwin, Burke (here in his French Revolutionary incarnation), Wollstonecraft, and Helen Maria Williams. It is good to see famous women making an entrance at last, but rather surprising not to come across depositions from Gilpin or Payne Knight. Headnotes to each section (where the uninitiated reader will probably fare better than in the Introduction) offer a stimulating guide to the riches in store, and also footnote a range of the critical and scholarly work in the field. Further reading is suggested at the back of the volume, along with a list of sources for each of the authors selected (though it struck me that just a few biographical pointers, for the lesser known especially, would have been worthwhile).

The organization just outlined lends clarity and elegance to what is a highly complex and diverse concept. It has room for three familiar categories in the approach to the sublime, which variously turn the attention to 'the experiential', or the qualities of objects; 'the affect', or 'the mental effects' of such objects; and 'the discursive analytic', or the textual and theoretical means by which the sublime is produced. The sequence of excerpts, which is loosely chronological, tells a story of sorts, then, but the editors are rightly wary of 'invok[ing] a teleology'. Indeed, their anthology is governed by an anti-teleological thesis, and proposes nothing less than the overthrow of the long-established scholarly tradition which casts 'the British discussion as a kind of dress rehearsal for the full-fledged philosophical aesthetics of Immanuel Kant and his heirs'. It would be most interesting to hear the story of Kant's partial absorption being re-told from this native perspective; but since that is largely a nineteenth-century tale, it justly lies outside the editors' terms of reference. Their revisionist—and, it could be said, patriotic or at least Britannic—history finds its main bone of contention in the Kantian formula which 'understands the aesthetic realm as "disinterested"', and its main line of attack in the British tradition's 'consistent refusal to relinquish the interconnections between aesthetic judgments and ethical conduct'. Such a refusal brings forth a number of solutions to the problem that is posed by the fact that 'the sublime continuously runs beyond the bounds of human experience'—in Kames, 'the proposition that "ideal presence" in its furthest extension might become "ideal being"'; in Adam Smith, 'the position of the impartial spectator' as 'a site of experience we can never directly inhabit but which we take to be the guarantor for our own experience'. This 'reining-in of the subject' in the 'face of excessive or "limit" experiences' may well seem peculiarly British. But it is the 'fecundity of the British debate' that is most securely in view here, a diversity that necessarily proceeds from the assumption that 'the aesthetic cannot ... be understood as a separate realm'. Being on the contrary 'based in human experience and human nature', it is perpetually getting involved in all other available modes of writing and spheres of understanding, which it has no sooner 'infiltrate[d]' than it 'transforms both itself and the host discourse' to boot. As such, the sublime is uniquely qualified to represent the grand and liberating process of 'the enlightenment', by which the editors mean to refer to that 'general shift from a situation in which knowledge is grounded in religious belief to one in which a series of interlinked technical discourses determine, legislate and police specific forms of knowledge'. Altogether, readers of The sublime can rest happy in the knowledge that they are in expert hands.