On the Sublime and Beautiful (1757)
When Burke began writing about the sublime, he offered a wonderful new delineation. It was his observation that while beauty comes from the appreciate of aesthetics, the sublime comes from our abject fears, especially our fears of things that can kill us. Terror, he said, is akin to pain in our minds. It anticipates it and so experiences a shadow of what pain is. I suppose one could say that in anticipation of death we experience a little bit of that death. Oh wait… someone did say that!
Cowards die many times before their deaths
The valiant never taste of death but once.
- William Shakespeare - Julius Ceasar (1599)
One day when I was in boot camp, our division went down to the pool area for swim training. There were a number of different things we were going to practice once we got wet, not the least of which was the invaluable skill of not drowning; but before we could press on to the details, we had to get in the water. The pool had a diving platform over the deep end. I couldn’t say exactly how high it was, though I’m certain that memory over time has increased the height by no small margin. Still, I clearly remember being intimidated at the first sight. It was big, no fooling around.
The instructors explained what was about to happen to us as we stripped into our bathing suits. The divisions were lined up heel to toe in that familiar Navy fashion, each recruits back pressing uncomfortably close to the chest behind him. We formed a long sinuous line around the pool and up to the long ladder of the platform. Someone had thought to turn out most of the lights in the building, turning the water into a strange black unknown. A spot light shined down on the tip of the platform, though, bathing it in a yellowish light that called out the dust more than illuminating anything interesting. We stood there, carefully focusing our eyes on nothing in particular. As one of the lucky guys with glasses, I found myself even more blind than usual, having had to leave them back on the pile of clothes to my side. My entire world was reduced to a sweat stained white t-shirt in front of me, and the hazy, bright heat of the lamp far overhead.
My nervousness started climbing up into my throat as I took each step on the ladder. Step, choke, step, choke. As I reached the top, things took on a whole new reality. The ground was different here. It was roughly textured, like grated asphalt or maybe one of those rocks people use to exfoliate. The platform felt solid enough, even though we were so high. There were more instructors up here too. They split our thin line into several, each as tightly grouped as before. I thought we looked like the heads of a hydra, reaching out over the water like gaping jaws.
Up ahead of me, four recruits stood in my line leading up to the illuminated edge. The one in front took a step forward until his feet were as far as they could go. To his sides, another five were in step with him. The line reminded me strikingly of gallows. A sharp command sounded out from an instructor too near to be anywhere but the platform, but seemingly invisible as he stood just outside of the light. “Go!” he shouted, and the men stepped forward into oblivion.
The giant hall was not made for normal acoustics. Sounds ricocheted off the metal walls again and again while each splash and command stretched on forever. The line pressed forward. My heart was thundering so loud that I thought it must be echoing off the walls too. We stepped forward. Another vague splash and the air was empty. The little group of men in front of me shortened dangerously while I tried to come to grips with what was about to happen.
I was instructed on what to do. I knew how to cross my arms, how to position my feet, and where my hands should rest. I knew that once I hit the water I would need to swim forward and find my group, buddy up and distribute the PFDs so we could all stay afloat. I knew somewhere in my mind that Navy Seals were lurking down below in the water, waiting for poorly conditioned recruits to kick when they shouldn’t, or splash too much. They were waiting like sharks in the water, there to teach us a lesson. Somewhere in all my thinking, a few more splashes were heard.
The last body in front of me disappeared into the darkness and left behind that bright spot light glaring into my eyes. I could see the edge of the platform. I could feel the rough stone on my feet, gripping. A command was uttered and I stepped up to the edge, my toes hanging off into the darkness. I didn’t look down; there was no point. I knew already that it would just be darkness and sounds.
In my head, my mind raced with thoughts, trying to catch up with what was happening. Things were moving too quickly. I wasn’t ready to go yet. My throat was solid and my chest weighed down with a heavy feeling I couldn’t understand. I could feel the breathing of the recruit behind me, and I wanted to step to the side, look around, catch my breath, ask for a minute, do anything.
My hands crossed, gripping my shirt and my nose. My feet stepped. I was falling. But no, that wasn’t right, I was still protesting, trying to find my place, to center my fear and deal with it. I needed to get it in check before I could…
The water was cold and it hit like the shock from an old wool blanket. I shot back up into the air and took a gasping breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding. It was over.
It took me a while to understand how my body could act on one set of signals from my brain while the rest was so overly concerned with meaningless things like fear. My arms and legs did what they were told to do. They did it without a pause, without doubt, and without error. They did it without the fear that was all pervasive in my mind.
When Burke talks about the sublime sense of terror, of feeling ones own mortality, I think he only halfway addresses the origins of that psychology. There is obviously a great meaning in the way our animal fears can plague us. We can be shaken to the core, go pale as a ghost, or just let our jaws drop. I don’t think that’s enough of the story, though. It doesn’t address that other part of us.
That night on the platform, I was told what to do, but I hadn’t been trained at it. It was no mere reflex of action. It was not a conditioning to follow orders when they came from that self-confident voice. It was a spark of control over the uncontrollable that had come to me through pain, practice, and the knowledge that fear was no longer useful. I find something of the sublime in that and wonder at its meaning and place in my future life. Will I have cause for it one day?