Seeking the sublime: some brief considerations

“A terrible beauty is born”


I never saw the sun as big as it was when I was leaving Urumqi. Sitting by the aisle, I only caught a glimpse of it while the plane was maneuvering and, yet, it filled me with the strangest feeling of awe and unrest, a feeling I should be accustomed to by now, since I am somehow always looking for it. For me it’s a longing, a hunger that needs to be fulfilled. Shining on the runway, the trembling red sun both looked ominous and glorious. It was a terrible and yet splendid sight and, once again, I felt I could understood a certain shade of what is usually called sublime.

canyon tianshan
The Tianshan Grand Canyon, Xinjiang, China.

What is the sublime? Many philosophers in the course of history attempted to define it, highlighting its various facets, but I will stick to Kant (1724-1804) just because I can and he’s my personal fave. In the Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, Kant divided it into three categories: splendid, noble and terrifying sublime. The three elicit different responses – from a suffused sense of beauty, to awe and wonder, to dread and melancholy – in the person subjected to them, who responds accordingly to his/her natural disposition. In a way, the sublime is thus the pleasure derived from the tension perceived in front of an object that is not frightening, but may elicit a sense of unease and unrest because of its magnitude (I am aware of oversimplifications when I see them: philosophers out there, feel free to correct me!)

altipLooking down at the Po Valley, Veneto, Italy

For me, the sublime is the realisation of belonging to something of a terrible unexplained grandeur, inevitable and inescapable. It’s crushing, horrible and sweet. The vast wilderness of nature, the splendour of ancient ruins, the inescapable weight of modernity: all remind us of the inanity of our singular experience and of our individual lives and yet, at the same time, embrace us and never let go. It’s a feeling of soothing relief and utter dread, a light anxiety not really dissimilar from the tingling pleasure left in the wake of a dull ache. Inevitably connected to perceiving one’s mortality, the sublime firmly roots the finite human experience in its own limits and yet elevates it above them, showing that cosmic time and space do not comply with the human existence. Here lies the terrible beauty of the sublime: perceiving at once the finite and the indefinite and the impossibility to reconcile them in our minds. Terrible indeed.

selinunteGreek temple in Segesta, Sicily, Italy

– Death is the mother of beauty […]

– And what it beauty?

– Terror.

Donna Tartt, The Secret History

forte interrottoForte Interrotto in the Asiago plateau, Veneto, Italy.


The quote in the excerpt “A terrible beauty is born” comes from the poem Easter, 1916 by W. B. Yeats (1865-1939). The picture at the top of the page was taken in Pompei, Italy.

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