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About this book

This critical anthology examines the place of the sublime in the cultural history of the late eighteenth century and Romantic period. Traditionally, the sublime has been associated with impressive natural phenomena and has been identified as a narrow aesthetic or philosophical category. Cultures of the Sublime: Selected Readings, 1750-1830:

• recovers a broader context for engagements with, and writing about, the sublime
• offers a selection of texts from a wide range of ostensibly unrelated areas of knowledge which both generate and investigate sublime effects
• considers writings about mountains, money, crowds, the Gothic, the exotic and the human mind
• contextualises and supports the extracts with detailed editorial commentary.

Also featuring helpful suggestions for further reading, this is an ideal resource for anyone seeking a fresh, up-to-date assessment of the sublime.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
For most readers of eighteenth-century and romantic-period writing today, the sublime is effectively synonymous with dramatic natural phenomena, with mountains and oceans, storms and deserts, the so-called natural sublime. The natural sublime, in this context, is investigated primarily in philosophical treatments of aesthetics, and secondarily in creative arts. This anthology recovers a broader context for engagements with, and writing about, the sublime during the ‘long eighteenth century’, offering a selection of texts from a wide range of ostensibly unrelated areas of knowledge which both generate and investigate sublime effects. On the basis of this selection, we make two claims about the place of the sublime in the cultural history of the romantic period. First: that the ‘natural sublime’; was only one of a number of different species of sublimity present in British culture of the late eighteenth century and romantic period. Second: that these various popular constructions of the sublime played a more significant role in the cultural history of the romantic period than the substantial body of philosophical speculation about the nature and causes of sublime experience produced during the eighteenth century, what Peter de Bolla has called ‘the discourse on the sublime’.1
Cian Duffy, Peter Howell

1. Mountains

Abstract
The sublimity of mountainous terrain has long been a commonplace of both popular culture and writing about aesthetics. Such landscapes — in particular the Alps and the Italian volcanoes Vesuvius and Etna — became a major focus of writing about the sublime during the eighteenth century and romantic period. In Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory, Marjorie Hope Nicolson suggests that this intense interest in the so–called natural sublime resulted from the gradual transfer of the affective responses traditionally evoked by the idea of God to those natural phenomena which seemed most to partake of and to reflect the attributes of God: the grandeur of the natural sublime, in other words, became a figure for the grandeur of its supposed creator.1 Religious ideas certainly played a significant role in responses to the natural sublime during the period covered by this selection, both in the writings of those whose pious responses to the mountain sublime support Nicolson’;s claim (e.g. Bridges, Glover), and in the work of radical and liberal thinkers (e.g. Rousseau, De Stäel) who formulate the corollary hypothesis: that religious ideas originated in the reaction of primitive cultures to sublime natural phenomena beyond their comprehension.
Cian Duffy, Peter Howell

2. Money

Abstract
The modern discipline of political economy developed, during the period 1750–1830, out of a sustained enquiry into a range of issues surrounding value, commerce, credit and the sublime spectacle of Britain’;s ever-increasing national debt. It was not until the 1820s that political economy could be said to have become a discipline in its own right, distinct from other fields of enquiry. Hence the extracts included in this section come from the most diverse range of textual genres, including political pamphlets, newspaper articles, parliamentary debates, autobiographical memoirs, and even a self-help manual on investing in stock. This miscellaneous set of documents charts the progress of thinking about money, finance and commerce as responses to phenomena such as the increasing complexity of commercial and monetary systems, the alarming growth of government borrowing, and the material achievements brought about by economic growth. Since these phenomena were often construed by contemporary observers as sublime, the following extracts, taken as a whole, would suggest that the formulation of the modern discipline of political economy involved, at least in part, what can best be described as a discourse on the sublime.
Cian Duffy, Peter Howell

3. Mind

Abstract
As was the case with the study of political economy, the modern disciplines of psychiatry and psychology were in the process of being constituted during the period covered in this anthology (the term ‘psychiatry’; was coined in 1808 by the German doctor Johann Geil). Under the rubric of a new ‘science of mind’;, these disciplines developed out of the enquiry into the relationship between thought and sense perception by philosophers like John Locke (1632–1704) and David Hume (1711–76), whose Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) called for a ‘mental geography, or delineation of the distinct parts and powers of the mind’; (I, viii). The discourse on the sublime was an important early component of this new ’geography’; since the developing study of sublime effect was, in essence, the study of the interaction between the mind and the sublime object, or phenomenon. As the eighteenth century progresses, however, the relationship between the discourse on the sublime and the science of mind becomes more complex and multifaceted as writers across a range of genres and disciplines routinely use the tropes of the sublime to represent the ‘parts and powers’; of the mind, to borrow Hume’;s phrase. Hence, not only does the discourse on the sublime become part of the terminology of the new science of mind, but that science, in turn, contributes to the discourse on the sublime by generating a new model of the mind as sublime spectacle.
Cian Duffy, Peter Howell

4. Gothic

Abstract
Perhaps the best way of understanding the late eighteenth century’;s interpretation of, and infatuation with, the Gothic, is as a fascination with the hidden or obscure. The mystery of that which is just beyond view, either at the political or psychological level, draws the curious individual from their safe, stable existence, into a riskier world of fantasy, desire and fear, wagering that a return will be possible once the light of knowledge has been shone into the darkness. Such was the hunger of the reading public for Gothic culture’;s ability to articulate this kind of investigation, that most magazine issues were likely, by the end of the eighteenth century, to carry an example of the Gothic tale. This section presents extracts from a number of Gothic fragments, tales and longer works of fiction, that proliferated in the popular and literary press, demonstrating the attraction of Gothic writers and readers to experience usually hidden from view.
Cian Duffy, Peter Howell

5. Crowds

Abstract
In his important analysis of crowds, Elias Canetti links the experience of being part of a crowd to the sublime: ‘in the crowd,’; he writes, ‘the individual feels that he is transcending the limits of his own person’;.1 Eighteenth-century and romantic-period writing about the crowd reveals that being part of a mass of people can involve the loss of individuated identity, in a two-way process which parallels cotemporary models of the encounter with the sublime, and with the natural sublime in particular. This loss is both belittling for the individual, because of the mass of activity of people and minds all around, and also self-aggrandising, because the individual feels that they have become part of a greater whole. Observing or contemplating a crowd of which one is not a part can similarly be both frightening and exciting, awe-inspiring and exhilarating, as great numbers of humans become one mass, to threaten or inspire the onlooker, as befits the moment. Such experience can also elude representation, because its power and complexity transcends the normal experience of the individual.
Cian Duffy, Peter Howell

6. The Exotic

Abstract
Novelty is an important concept in a range of eighteenth-century discourses, including the ongoing enquiries into the causes of progress in the arts and sciences, and into the role of consumerism in promoting economic growth. Adam Smith’;s essay on ‘The History of Astronomy’, for example, links the encounter with the new or uncommon to the curiosity that prompts scientific enquiry, while Hume’;s essay ‘Of Commerce’; (see p. 50) connects national economic growth with a continuous desire for new commodities.1 In his 1712 ‘pleasures of the imagination’; essays, Joseph Addison had suggested that the encounter with the new or uncommon also plays a significant role in generating the emotional response associated with the sublime. As the eighteenth century progresses, the relationship between the uncommon and the discourse on the sublime becomes increasingly nuanced and specialised, developing, for example, into the romantic–period valorisation of originality in the creative arts (see Mind). A further key locus of interaction between the uncommon and the discourse on the sublime occurs in the increasing public fascination with the exotic.
Cian Duffy, Peter Howell
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