Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Reinventing the Sublime

Post-Romantic Literature and Theory


Steven Vine


Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2013

Hardcover. vii + 201 p. ISBN 978-1845191771. £55.00


Reviewed by Aurélie Thiria

Université de Picardie – Jules Verne (Amiens)



The introduction provides a very thorough summary of the theories of the sublime since the Enlightenment, describing the evolution of the theory from Burke to Kant. After the Burkian sublime located in the passions, and the Kantian sublime, on the side of rationality and imagination, Stephen Vine identifies the Romantic sublime (typically in Friedrich’s Wanderer) as both an “affirmation and reduction of the self [that] enacts a conflict between the primacy of the landscape and the human subject”. Quoting Weiskel and Hertz and their psychoanalytic take on the Wordsworthian sublime, Vine establishes that the sublime is constantly linked, in the lines of the poet, with a feeling of self-loss, a “pre-Oedipal pulverization of unity, identity, consistency”. This leads to a convincing demonstration of the agonistic dimension of the romantic sublime, since the ego, or the subject, faced with the sublime, tries to assert itself against the object that places it at risk, as exemplified by The Prelude’s persona and his “repression and denial of the power of history” (cf. Alan Liu’s analysis).

Contrary to Kant’s vision of European modernity as embodied in the republican enthusiasm of the spectators of the Revolution (“What is Enlightenment?”), Lyotard’s post-modern sublime “introduce[s] an ‘abyss’ into socio-political thought, into which modern and post-modern ideologies plunge […] political modernity delivers an experience of ‘terror’: the subordination of socio-political heterogeneity to ‘totality’”; a totality challenged, in turn, by the sublimity identified by Jürgen Habermas in the September 11, 2001 attacks. The event’s impact and trauma were indeed analysed by Slavoj Zizek as the collapse of the safe distance between reality and America’s fantasies of destruction as given shape by the movie industry, and Vine points to the interest of the following moment of indeterminacy when self-preservation or reinvention are two possible futures. “If the sublime can be read as a dialogue or struggle between self-assertion and self-loss, then the antithetical effects of the sublime – pain an pleasure, prostration and affirmation, annihilation and exaltation – make it an unstable drama in which powers and identities are inconclusively articulated, and in which individual and collective subjectivities are put in the process.” Defining the sublime as “the story of a human subject in process and in crisis”, Steven Vine announces from the start that the topic of the work is “the potential in the sublime for the reinvention rather than confirmation of identity”.

Part I, “Romantic totality” relies on the idea that imagination is, for the Romantics, the way to apprehend the totality hidden in sublimity. In chapter 1, “William Blake’s Materialities”, Vine asserts that “Inscribing time in matter, Blake’s material sublime […] installs itself in history”; it is a process of revelation, a “revelation of infinitude as an activity rather than an end”. Basing himself on Blake’s engravings he convincingly asserts that “the material is not sublimated, but the sublime installed in the material”. Fiercely advocating the primacy of line over colour, Blake “constructs a sublime of minute material discrimination”. The sublimity of the Blakean works resides in its resistance to systematisation and formalisation, “in the indeterminacy of its material inscription.” “Blake’s material sublime […] is lodged in the eventhood of the Blakean book itself.”

In Chapter 2, “Mary Shelley’s Bodies,” Vine also remarkably demonstrates the presence of a “feminist sublime” in Mary Shelley’s early works (Frankenstein, Matilda and The Last Man) that “reinscribes traumatically the bodiliness or materiality that the Kantian sublime represses”. Frankenstein’s monster “becomes the traumatic operator of a […] sublime that imposes the obduracy and resistance of a feminized corporeality upon the order of signs”. Yet it is above all Shelley’s monstress that interests Vine: “The sublime body of the monstress marks a perilous feminist sublime that – presenting the unpresentable of an uncontainable femininity – signifies the repressed or abjected story of Victor Frankenstein’s own monstrous patriarchal narrative”. About the incest at the heart of Matilda, Vine writes that “Mary Shelley critiques the patriarchal and sexual-political basis of an idealizing Romantic sublime by reinscribing its transcendences in and as paternal oppression”. Because the character of Matilda chooses melancholy as a refuge, “In its melancholy feminist sublime, Matilda removes itself from Romantic idealism by commemorating an unpresentable ‘Mother,’ and by resistlessly reducing to nothing what Percy Shelley in ‘Mont Blanc’ calls ‘the human mind’s imaginings’”. The Last Man Vine describes as “a Post-Revolutionary and post-Napoleonic text that both honours and mourns the Romantic project of social transformation” as it “inverts the idealism and progressivism of Victor in Frankenstein and of Woodville in Matilda, not gleefully but elegiacally”, interpreting the Plague as “Frankenstein’s monstress become animate”, “absolutely other to man, unmasterable”, generating “a sublime that signifies radical political change – a revolution, we could say, in the patriarchal order of things only in the negative language of absolute monstrosity”.

Chapter 3, “Thomas de Quincey’s Identifications” tackles both On Murder and the Confessions of an English Opium Eater. From the satirical essays, Vine retains that “De Quincey sees murder as an embodiment of the sublime as Kant conceives it – a phantasm of subjective ‘supremacy’ ”, yet he also underlines that the parody of the Kantian sublime to be found in the essays hints, nevertheless, at its very murderousness. Vine starts his discussion of the Confessions by pointing out that their structure “mimes the conflicting shape of Burke’s and Kant’s sublimes of ‘delightful’ horror” and ‘negative pleasure’”. He goes on to explain that

De Quincey, in the Confessions unpicks the sublime as a story of recovery, and deploys it in an abject narrative, in which the repressed or privative elements of the sublime scene acquire a power of ‘re-agency,’ or second life, in a belated, terrible, and traumatic return…. Converted into a subject of continual prostration and elevation, the opium-eater lives – and identifies with – the discontinuous rhythm of the aesthetic sublime, and enacts and performs without resolution its ambivalent, agonistic structure.

For Vine, “De Quincey’s texts disclose the dissonant character of sublime identification” which provides him with a transition towards his next idea: “if trauma is an otherness within the self that the self cannot identify with, in De Quincey, trauma is imposed not just by the oriental other, but by socio-political modernity”, the “chaos of historical change, agitation, precipitation, hurry”.

Part II, “Modernist Alterity” hinges on the direct heirs of the Romantic sublime and its demise. In chapter 4, “T.S. Eliot’s Intensities”, along with Weiskel and Arac, Vine refuses to see a complete break from the romantic sublime in the works of modernists such as Eliot or Lawrence. Rather, modernists tend to be stuck in the second phase of sublimity, that of “excess”. Lost in a fragmented world, Eliot’s personae suffer from shattered identities. Yet as his impersonal theory of poetry shuns the Romantic poetics of individualism and interiority, still, for Eliot, meaning is not lost, it is merely to be found elsewhere, an elsewhere which tends, unfortunately, to lie beyond words. For Vine, in Eliot’s poetry, “modernity’s symbolic destitution must be forced in the direction of absent transcendence through a poetics of intensity that stretches towards the metaphysical”, this is how he interprets the end of The Waste Land, which “open[s] up a ‘beyond’ where, against material excess, it seeks its ‘criterion of sublimity’”. 

Chapter 5, “Virginia Woolf’s Disjunctions : Mrs Dalloway”, defends the idea that the Woolfian sublime shares the same “double bind” as Burke’s sublime: the suspension of terror into delight, “a contest between the ideas of survival and annihilation”. Uninterested in what feminist critics have called Woolf’s “androgynous sublime”, Vine explains that in Mrs Dalloway Woolf “discovers the sublime not in the agon of the self”, but inside what she calls “the detestable social system”. About the impact of World War One in the novel, Vine convincingly argues that “Septimus [Smith] and millions like him become the effaced element of the social order’s self-preservation, the price that society pays for its survival”. On the other hand, “Clarissa [Dalloway] experiences a terrible fear in relation to Septimus’s death, but also the satisfaction of distancing herself from it – for, through Septimus’s death, she renews her commitment to life and her social world in a gesture of self-preserving aesthetic vision”. Yet, Vine emphasises the difference between Woolf’s vision and Clarissa Dalloway’s: Woolf’s point is to criticise the society in which she lived. “It is to take the measure of the sublime ‘blow’ that Septimus delivers to the social body, and of his call for a world that does not sacrifice him, or others like him, to its repressive self-continuation.”

Chapter 6 “Djuna Barnes’s Night Life : Nightwood,” demonstrates the presence in the novel of what Vine calls a “queer sublime”, through the nonconformist character of Robin Vote, “a figure of both sexual and social indeterminacy who lives a ‘night life’ during the day”, and whom Vines sees as “an avatar and embodiment of these challenges and changes” that were Europe’s and America’s in the 1920s. Vine thus interprets the triumph of the profane and the animal in the end: “Abjection and bestiality are reconfigured in Nightwood, though, in order to lodge the sublime within them – and to raise the ‘disqualified’ into the affirmed”.

Part III, “Postmodern Temporality”, deals with an era where the disruption of system and hierarchy have become the norm. Chapter 7, “Thomas Pynchon’s Entropy : The Crying of Lot 49” sees this novel as the triumph of Lyotard’s vision of the postmodern sublime (as opposed to Frederic Jameson’s) as “a figure of social dissensus and heterogeneity”. This is how Vine interprets the underground mailing system Tristero, and the sublime indetermination of its assimilation or dissension: “what matters is that Pynchon throws these questions into the future, into a history still to be determined”.

Chapter 8, “D.M. Thomas’s Anamnesis : The White Hotel,” focuses on the sublime as a way of trying to apprehend the Shoah. For Lyotard in The Differend, Auschwitz functions as the sign of a chasm between our “idea of humanity on the one hand and the reality of violence on the other”. In Thomas’s novel, Lisa Erdman, a Russian Jew of mixed parentage who is a mental patient suffering from hysteria, adopts a Freudian approach to “confront the reality of historical obliteration” in what recalls the language of the sublime. According to Vine, Thomas manages to “encode the unpresentable” in a chapter called “The Camp”, “a sublime vision that does not accord with history, but phrases a desire and a call for a different history. Depredation is rewritten in a symbolic working-through of terror”.

Chapter 9, “Toni Morrison’s Belatedness : Beloved” explains how “In her 1987 novel, Beloved, … Morrison offers a vision of the sublime that – while acknowledging it as a force of endangerment – shifts the sublime from being a drama of ideological or national self-confirmation into a poetics of temporal and historical transformation, an adventure in cultural renovation and reimaginings.” Recognising the incipit as the “sublime rupture” Morison meant for it to be, Vine quotes the author who wished for the reader to experience the feeling of disorientation and destabilisation experienced by slaves “snatched, yanked, thrown into an environment completely foreign”. “Morrison instates sublimity, then, as an encounter with the historically unmasterable and exorbitant – but she also presents the sublime as a ‘way of confronting’ historical horror, and of ‘making it possible to remember’”. Interpreting the silence that lies at the heart of the novel as an image for the “national amnesia” of the horrors of slavery, Vine convincingly argues that “it is Morrison’s ‘fidelity’ to the historical unpresentable that defines the sublime aesthetics of Beloved, for while her text strives to ‘rip the veil’ that is drawn over the unspeakable thoughts, ‘unspoken’ of the slave narratives, it also scrupulously embodies this unspeakable in the spectral, ghostly, unreadable figure of Beloved herself”. Vine sees Beloved as a sublime call “for the belated historical presentation of what has not been presented”.


Cercles © 2015

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.