January 12: the delight of pain & danger
2012/01/12 § 2 Comments
On this day in 1729 Edmund Burke was born.
Burke (d. 9 July 1797) was a political theorist and Whig statesman from Dublin. Although he rarely held office, when he did have a chance at a podium he didn’t like to let go–his speeches were known to run nearly as long as the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy. Likewise, he intended that his single turn at aesthetic theory would have staying power; his one book on the topic is a keeper (get all 343 pages of an early edition of the publication here). A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful appeared in 1757, when Burke was all of twenty-eight years old. Although he did not invent the idea of the Sublime, he did pen one of the lasting definitions of this new aesthetic sensibility:
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure. When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful.
The Sublime was one of the most important insurrectionists in the period’s overthrow of Beauty as the ultimate end-all be-all aesthetic experience. Although she wasn’t completely deposed (like so many tyrants during the revolutionary 1700s, dethroned, beheaded, drawn, quartered, disemboweled, tarred, feathered and rode out of town on a rail—that would happen in the twentieth century), Beauty was knocked way off her pedestal as Romanticism rose up to give individual impressions and feelings the voice of authority for the first time ever.
Although the related movement of Picturesqueness would have greater application in architectural design, certain projects availed themselves of the Sublime treatment–although it was a rare project that could be enhanced by engendering feelings of terror and privation in its occupants. Still with us today, the Sublime rears its spooky head anytime you read a ghost story or watch a scary movie.
Probably the greatest architectural monument of the Sublime is pictured above. Fonthill Abbey was built in Wiltshire, England for writer William Thomas Beckford (1760-1844). Beckford had the great advantage of having inherited a fortune in his youth. It funded his writing (the most important product of which is Vathek, an Arabio-Gothick novel of 1782) and his crazy house, built by James Wyatt (1746-1813), who was really, otherwise, a serious Gothic architect. Fonthill was huge and crazy, all extreme proportion, giant scale and shadowy corridors, Burke’s characteristics that define the Sublime–obscurity, vastness, infinity, succession, uniformity–all present. In addition, Fonthill came with the really real danger of its 300 ft. tall tower collapsing, which it did three times, to great Sublime effect (unless, of course, you were a cook caught in the rubble, in which case you are excused from appreciating the Sublime experience in order to seek medical attention).
image: Fonthill Abbey, illustrated in John Rutter, Delineations of Fonthill Abbey, 1823 (from this source)