The temporality of the sublime: an idea suggested by some lines in the Prelude

Quick note: When I moved into my current apartment in November, I got the keys about a week early and was able to be here before my official move in date to clean the place and buy a few things. This is essentially what I'm doing in this online space at the moment. I do plan to "introduce" myself more officially and lay out some of my ideas for this blog. But I'm also being pulled ahead by other work and other thoughts that I'd like to put here. Also, I haven't formally wrapped things up at my previous blog, though I know that the next post I make there will be my last. Perhaps there's a value in dispensing with some of those formalities anyway, in not making so many promises, setting up too many identities, and simply letting the writing set something up. So, on with the show.

I wrote out the following in a .doc file that's supposed to be dedicated to my notes on Wordsworth's Prelude. But I quickly moved on to some more "meta" reflections and realized that I needed to save some of them elsewhere, both to preserve the focus (such as it is) of my notes and to establish a separate archive for broader reflections. Enjoy, but cite.

“Oh, when I have hung
Above the raven’s nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill-sustained, and almost, as it seemed,
Suspended by the blast that blew amain,
Shouldering the naked crag, oh, at that time,
While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ears…” (Prelude 1.341-49).

What if the sublime is never accessible to a single consciousness at a single point in time, but is constituted through an act of recollection, in which two time bound consciousnesses come together? It’s memory, yes, but also not that simple—it requires that the adult look back on the child without attempting to lodge the sublime there. I’m not being clear. To go from a different direction. It seems that Wordsworth is able to get closer to the representation of the sublime than he’s really supposed to. The passage I’ve quoted above is a good example of how he can do that. The image is one of sublime peril—it doesn’t quite come out in the delivery, which is calm, but the more we think about the image, the more we can see that it’s a child quite literally putting his life in peril. That in itself is not sublime, since Kant tells us that nothing can be fully sublime if you fear for your life. The tone of the passage is controlled by the adult poet, reflecting on the situation. We know that the child survives because he has grown up to be able to reflect upon and write about this situation—so the fear for one’s life is not present in the consciousness and present of the writing of the scene. However, this site is not an occasion for the sublime either, since the other side of Kant—at least the way I read him—is that of overwhelming force—you have to take the danger as far as it can go, you have to project and in a sense give yourself up to overwhelming force. The paradox of Kant’s dynamical sublime is thus that the “safe place” necessary to the sublime is also what prevents the realization of the sublime. WW seems to attempt to resolve this conflict through a very specific mode of recollection: we take the peril and unknowingness from the child’s perspective and the safety from the adult writers—thus, the sublime (if it can be said to take place, and this question must always remain open in discussions of the sublime—this, to me is the point of Lyotard’s asking the “is it happening?” question in “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde”) takes place in this collision or collusion of the two consciousnesses, without ever being able to inhabit or decide them. Neither gets priority, and, for this reason, the sublime moment itself remains inaccessible and just beyond representation—it only “works” to the extent that words can be said to put these two moments into motion—the words on the page are a kind of gutter experience.

My structuring of this experience (and it doesn’t really have to be a child/adult divide either, though this is helpful as a preliminary discussion because it makes the differences more obvious) comes out of my attempt to explain the difference between Dickens’ representation of childhood experience in David Copperfield (1850) and de Quincey’s in Suspiria De Profundis. I’m still turning over the idea in the latter that “it is not the child who speaks”—for de Quincey, the child takes in experiences that he, as an adult, interprets later on. The structure in DC is much different—despite the fact that we know the conceit of the novel is an adult David Copperfield reflecting on his life, with the exception of only a handful of proleptic interventions, Dickens skillfully, but subtly, remains within the knowledge and perceptions of his narrator at whatever age he’s narrating. (This is a good example of a situation in which we need to rigorously distinguish the narrator and the focalizor.) the “Brooks of Sheffield” joke in the early chapters is a good example of how Dickens pulls this off; we also get this effect in Dickens’ judicious use of the present tense throughout the novel. Thus, in David Copperfield, it is always the child who speaks. So to speak. And this is why, though I do enjoy DC, it can never be a work of sublimity in the way that I think Suspiria (and the earlier and better-known Confessions of An English Opium-Eater) is. DC operates, more or less, on a continuous march of temporality, with anticipations that function as exceptions that prove the rule; de Quincey’s work—and, I think, WW’s Prelude—offers a ruptured and ultimately more flexible temporality that leaves room for the occasion of the sublime. (It is my intention to start speaking less and less of the sublime as such and more and more of the sublime occasion.) I should say, however, is that I don’t think this is the only way to work/write around/for the sublime—this is not, for instance, the methodology of Coleridge, which depends more on the troping of suspension. Of course, it's the image of suspension that first arrested me on these lines of Wordsworth's--a good example of the need to be attentive to slippages and overlaps.

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