Chasing the Literary Sublime

I’ve just finished reading Ulysses in one of my classes. As a group, we struggled and wrestled and plodded through the dense text in a month, coming to class only to realize that a mere three hours a week was barely enough to scratch the surface of the segment we had read. Ulysses—and Joyce’s writing in general—has a well-earned reputation for being, well, inscrutable. Virginia Woolf, Joyce’s contemporary, wrote of the novel: “I finished ‘Ulysses’ and think it is a mis-fire. Genius it has, I think; but of the inferior water. The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense. A first-rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky; startling; doing stunts.”[1] And perhaps she has a point here—though Woolf is not entirely innocent of being startling or doing stunts in her own work.

My process of reading Ulysses consisted of far more than merely following words on a page. Rather, I unashamedly used nearly every tool available to me: online chapter guides, various Google and Wikipedia searches, a Librivox audio recording on 1.5 speed, a set of academic lectures on Audible, and my fellow classmates. When I finished the novel, pushing through the last two chapters in one six-hour stint, I felt like I needed a week-long hibernation. Reading Ulysses was difficult and frustrating and funny and tragic and grotesque and beautiful and incredibly rewarding—I understand why it is so widely considered a masterpiece.

To me, reading Ulysses was a worthy endeavor, but I’m well aware that not everyone agrees. I remember one particular class that I taught last semester, in which I introduced Modernism and Joyce’s writing to the class. One student asked resentfully, “Is this really good, though? If what Joyce is writing is so difficult that no one can understand it—if he doesn’t want to be understood—is he even a good writer?”

This was not the first time I’ve fielded this question, especially directed at modernist literature. For the record, I think that student has a valid point regarding experimentation and difficulty for the sake of pretention and gatekeeping. And there’s the equally valid point that these massive novels are typically written by privileged white men. I don’t mean to impose a hierarchy here. I’m not claiming that Ulysses holds more value than A Room of One’s Own or Persuasion because of its relative impenetrability, or even that reading challenging works is always enjoyable or worthwhile. I’m also not denying the pleasure I derive from a good “beach read”—in fact, I usually follow up particularly difficult “classics” with a quick celebrity memoir or pulpy YA novel.

Still, I’ve realized that my desire to work through these massive, dense tomes has increased in the last few years. Last year I finished Infinite Jest. The year before that, I participated in a summer book club called “Prose before Bros” that formed around the common goal of finishing Middlemarch. And this affinity does not only apply to books, though I think as a literature student I’m naturally more inclined toward the verbal arts. Last year, my Image Theory course watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, and then a few months ago I finally saw Tree of Life. I left both movies with a similar feeling to what I felt at the end of these much-lauded novels: exhaustion, satisfaction, and a desire to return soon. I also had a similar feeling standing in front of Chagall’s stained glass windows, Picasso’s cubist works, and the brief minutes I had in the Sistine Chapel as a senior in high school—even despite my shameful lack of art history knowledge.

This desire comes down to more than the accomplished feeling of checking the work off my to-read list, more than understanding pop culture references, and even more than the bragging rights (though of course all are undeniable payoffs). Rather, there’s something thrilling to me about not getting it. Something about basking in an aesthetic work that I cannot fully understand, the details I cannot hold in my head at once. I like clinging to what little meaning I can make on my own, as well as the hope that I’ll one day have the space and ability to grasp a little more. For me, there’s something compelling about the struggle itself: the feeling of being drowned in a beautiful text, or overwhelmed by a text much smarter than I am or could ever hope to be. I have a deep appreciation for texts that require my full attentive faculties, that refuse to let me slack off. I like treading up the metaphorical mountain, knowing that at the end of the day, even after extensive effort, my mastery will be minimal—but it will be something.

In articulating this, I’m reminded of the concept of the sublime. In the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke describes the sublime as:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. … When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience.[2]

Burke argues that the sublime should incite a little fear in us, a little terror of pain or danger at the sights our mind cannot fully conceive. It is a “delightful horror” in the face of the infinite. While Burke talks about the sublime found in nature—the mountains, the ocean, the stars in the sky—I think I derive the same “delightful horror” when I begin one of these lauded, enigmatic novels. They are products of the sublime, and I find myself relentlessly chasing them down.

In any case, summer is approaching and I will soon decide which work of sublimity, which vast mountain I should climb next: The Brothers Karamazov? Moby Dick? Don Quixote? Gravity’s Rainbow? Any recommendations? Let me know.

This post was written by Morgan Lewis, Humanities Center Intern.

[1] Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie, vol. 3, Hogarth Press, 1984.

[2] Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. London: Printed for J. Dodsley, 1767.


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