Western aesthetics has made a lot of a supposed distinction between “the beautiful” and “the sublime”: “sublime” referring to things like high mountains and the starry night that make us feel awe, make us feel small in a good way. Indian rasa theory would likely refer to this feeling as adbhūta rasa, the taste of wonder. I love awe-inspiring natural phenomena – Bryce Canyon, Todra Gorge – and I find the term “sublime” helpful to describe them. But I’ve long found myself mildly puzzled by the distinction. It seems obvious to me that mountains and gorges are beautiful – their sublimity is one variety, one kind, one species, of beauty. Yet writers on “the sublime” tend to treat it as something different from beauty. Why?
I’ve found a good answer to this question in a marvelous old book by Marjorie Hope Nicolson, entitled Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory. I turned to this book out of curiosity about a related but slightly different phenomenon: the many generations of people who thought mountains were not beautiful. In premodern England at least, it turns out that it was commonplace to view mountains as ugly, as “warts” or “tumours”, deformities of nature. In a world where the goodness of God’s creation was assumed, writers often did not view mountains’ majesty as evidence of God’s own majesty, but rather felt the need to justify why a good and loving God would deign to create such excrescences. Why was that?Continue reading