From the sublime… On Beauty, Eloquence, Grit and Resilience


… to 1977.

The filth and the fury… Never mind the bollocksed grey seventies, the two glorious summers of 76 and 77 did not sate my teenage angst. Sex and Pistol were frightening a whole nation and bringing it to its knees. Little did we know that the bastions of the establishment: the church, media, army, police and politics were getting up to no good behind their net curtains, we just opposed them because there was the sniff of something rotten in the State of the UK. And it wasn’t Johnny. In 1977 many teenagers were becoming no-good boyos and girlos just through a little choice made in a record shop. Saturday Night Fever? No. Bat out of Hell? No. Abba? Hell no. The one band that did it for sheer visceral excitement were the dangerously dayglo Jamie Reeded Pistols with punk’s finest explosion. I caught a glimpse of something greater, later to be joined by the Clash and Janie Jones, as the beginning of the first few bars of Holidays in the Sun ripped out of the speakers of my record player, I was exhilarated. This was not beautiful but my God it overwhelmed me. A moment caught in time. You had to be there. And you had to be me. This Gothic vision, the memory, better than the music no doubt, sums up, for me what great art can do. It can overwhelm. To capture that moment well as only a pseud can do, words can’t capture the feeling. No feelings.

When I took a group of students from the Czech Republic to the National Gallery and we wandered into a room and they caught their first glimpse of Van Gogh’s sunflowers, two of them burst into tears. The flowers are not beautiful, they are dying, at that moment the exhilaration of colour, of fading glory of what once was, this decay catches us unawares and we surrender. Though now, seen everywhere, the sunflowers pass us by, another commercialised image to join the Rock n Roll swindled repetition of heard it, seen it all before… God give me more… something new… old… borrowed… blue…

Edmund Burke wrote about beauty and the sublime, he had controversial ideas as to what the difference between the two might be. The twenty-three year old Burke writes about a beautiful woman, in such a way that later he was attacked by Mary Wollstonecraft for his stereotyping of women as weak and feeble. This is not what interests me here though, it is his idea as to the sublime that excites. For Burke the beautiful attracts us and the sublime intimidates. Both rest in passion, beauty in love, the sublime in self-preservation. Awe, terror and fear inspired by enormity, infinity and indistinctness mark the experience of the sublime. As Jesse Norman writes in his book on Burke: “When humans encounter the sublime directly, be it in an earthquake or a snake, they naturally turn away and seek refuge. But when they encounter it indirectly or at a distance, as in a work of art or in imagination, they can be amazed and delighted. They can be astonished, or aroused to action, by language, poetry and rhetoric.”  Awe inspiring, exalted, cheapened by the overuse of the word awesome, the sublime gives us a gothic pretence of the heroic. Be heroic, in life, in art, and in what we ask of our students.

The authentic.

As Odysseus approached the Sirens he asked his men to tie him to the mast of the boat so that he may experience the Siren call, alluring and deadly, he wanted to hear what ever it was that lured many to languish or shipwreck on the rocks that surrounded the island. Tempted though he was he had, like every great teacher who organises an outward bound course, thought the risk assessment through beforehand and his men, with wax plugs in their ears so they couldn’t hear, rowed fast past the island leading them all to safety but he had heard their sublime voices…

The apocryphal story of JMW Turner tied to a mast of the steam ship ‘Ariel’ during a snow storm at night owes much to this tale. If only it were true, maybe it was. I like to think it was, because it appeals to this romantic tale. I want to say how his paintings were far more eloquent, if I am allowed, far more because of this experience. His pictures, however, can inspire awe, as can a film of his life.

But nature: the wild, the tempest, “A plague upon this howling!” Our experience of our environment can bring us moments when we are attracted by our fear or wonder to experience our humanity in all its strength and fragility at the same time. Outside in a storm like Lear madly raging:

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ungrateful man!”

Ellen MacArthur as she sailed solo around the world gave regular updates, many moments inspire, this one is sublime: “Never in my life before have I experienced such beauty, and fear at the same time. Ten icebergs so far today …”

And this is it. By giving children a well rounded education, one where art, literature, music, poetry, rhetoric, study, debate, and authentic experience of going that bit further – up a mountain or down into a cave, cycling a bit further than before, hoisting the mainsail, conducting a  science experiment where dissecting a dead animal causes all sorts of reactions, anything that can take a child towards a sublime experience is where we can see how awe and fear can manifest itself with beauty: this is where eloquence, grit and resilience lie.

Listen to the siren call and dance outside in the rain.

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