The Sublimity of Nothing

Imposing rocks, eternal mountains, stagnant, and agitated waters, torrents, tranquil seas, seas in fury, sites varied to infinity, Greek, Roman, Gothic constructions; sky, distances, calms, stormy weather, serene weather, lighting at different times of the day, tempests, shipwrecks, deplorable situations, victims and pathetic scenes of every kind; day, night, natural and artificial lighting, disparate or fused effects of these lights, are all effects and aspects of nature that can arise the sublime. It is of interest to note that the Burkean catalogue of the things that cause the sentiment of the Sublime, as described above, is going to be of great importance for the argument, which is going to be discussed; Beauty and the Sublime together. According to Kant, Beauty and Sublimity are opposed along the semantic axes “quality-quantity, shaped-shapeless, bounded-boundless: Beauty calms and comforts; Sublimity excites and agitates.”1 With this born in mind, or in other words based on Kant’s judgements, Reyner Banham in his book “Scenes in America Deserta” came to the following conclusion:

Can it be the sudden recognition of the remaining term of that eighteenth century aesthetic trilogy? If it cannot be picturesque, because unpictured; nor sublime, because not awesome nor terrifying; can it be the Beautiful?2

But how can the desert not be Sublime? Even if the desert fails to be terrible, it certainly does not fail to be characterized as awesome. The paradox of the Sublime, its dual meaning and the way we, as subjects, perceive the world, need to be thoroughly analyzed, as Burke’s judgements alone can not provide a convincing answer to the question of Beauty and the Sublime belonging to a single set of ideas.


The sublime may be described in this way: It is an object (of nature) the representation of which determines the mind to regard the elevation of nature beyond our reach as equivalent to a presentation of ideas.3

As Zizek points out, the whole movement that brings forth the feeling of the Sublime “concerns only our subjective reflection external to the Thing, not the Thing-in-itself”. The Thing, in this case the desert, cannot be directly experienced using such human faculties as conceptualization or perception according to Kant, who calls it the trans-phenomenal Thing, but it “represents the way we as finite subjects caught in the limits of our phenomenal experience, can mark in a negative mode the dimension of it.”4 But the desert does not elevate Banham’s imagination nor it makes his mind exhibit those cases that cause the sublime. His aesthetic estimation and judgement that the desert is simply the Beautiful, is a result of his visual preparation and the adequacy of his imagination, which is not easily elevated. What he calls Natural Beauty was in fact nothing more than an iconography, a set of forms, relationships learned through an exposure to art. Great artists had preceded Banham, “codifying the landscape into patterns that he would recognize not as sublime anymore but as naturally beautiful.”5 His phenomenal experience is aroused by a strong feeling of identification; the “rounded of form and glazed with desert varnish mountains” of the desert sometimes resemble the sublime “landscapes of sculptor Henry Moore”.6


We must return in a little more detail to the term of the Sublime in nature and what can cause the feeling of awe or terror. The sublime according to a dictionary is defined as an emotion of an inspiring deep veneration or awe, or, as an uplifting emotion caused by the objects beauty, nobility, grandeur or immensity. As Edmund Burke analyzes in his “Philosophical Enquiry”:

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.7 … The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror… Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence and respect.8

But before we go any further on Burke’s definition, it is important to trace the origin of the word and its true meaning. The word sublime is most frequently used as an adjective and is synonymous with grave, elevated, exalted, grandness, and vastness. As described in the “encyclopedia of Aesthetics”, it comes from the Latin sublimis, derived from sub (displacement toward the high) and limis or limus (direction of gaze or type of ascension non-orthogonal to the ground, oblique, askew). Similarly, the Greek ὕψος (hypsos), which commonly means height, takes on the figurative meaning of climax in Longinus’s treatise “On the Sublime” or “Περί ὕψους” (peri hypsous). “Several languages”, says Burke, “bear a strong testimony to the affinity of these ideas. They frequently use the same word, to signify indiffently the modes of astonishment or admiration and those of terror. Θάμβος is in Greek, either ‘fear’ or ‘wonder’; δεινός is ‘terrible’ or ‘respectable’; δέος is ‘to reverence’ or ‘to fear’.”9


At this point it is of interest to demonstrate that every experience must have two sides, as Sigmund Freud stresses in his essay “On the antithetical meanings of primal words”, inspired by Karl Abel’s identically titled piece.

The essential relativity of all knowledge, thought or consciousness cannot but show itself in language. If everything that we can know is viewed as a transition from something else, every experience must have two sides; and either every name must have a double meaning, or else for every meaning there must be two names.10

Freud’s essay is the attempt to show that “the original antithetical meaning of words exhibits the ready-made mechanism which is exploited for various purposes by slips of the tongue that result in the opposite being said of what was consciously intended”.11 Abel’s paradigms of such primal words and the origins of them can provide us with a greater understanding of the world before its distribution or at the time man invented speech. What we understand is that everything indicates an opposition. Words like cleave or cleven (Middle English) would mean both to split and stick. The Latin altus mean both high and deep, and the German Boden [garret or ground] still means the highest as well as the lowest thing. In the Egyptian language as well, “there are a fair number of words with two meanings, one of which is the exact opposite of the other.” These objections clearly present that “everything on this planet is relative and has an independent existence only in so far as it is differentiated in respect of its relations to other things…”12


This proves to a certain degree why the Greek adverb ὕψι (hypsi) apart from ‘high’ also meant ‘in the open sea’. Thus, in the same sense, the sublime can relate to any kind of extension in either height, length or depth; it is a matter of vastness in the general sense. As Burke points out again:

Greatness of dimension is a powerful cause of the sublime. This is too evident, and the observation too common, to need any illustration; it is not so common, to consider in what ways greatness of dimension, vastness of extent, or quantity, has the most striking effect… 13

The sublime is brought on by a confrontation with the surprising or the unknown, with objects of experience extending beyond an individual’s reach.14 Nature in its most chaotic, vast, terrifying dimension is best qualified to awaken in us the sentiment of the Sublime.

Is not true the bulk and breadth are primary and essential qualities of the sublime in landscape? And is it not the sublime that we feel in immensity and mystery? If so, perhaps we have partial explanation of our love for sky and sea and desert waste. There are the great elements. We do not see, we hardly know if their boundaries are limited; we only feel their immensity, their mystery, and their beauty.15

The sea, according to Burke’s exact prescriptions, is a rugged and broken surface, an apparent infinity and most of all, a vast disorder, terrible, irresistibly powerful and obscure. Since the sea possesses the attribute of greatness, obscurity and power, it is therefore sublime; can the mind be ever filled with any thing so great as the ocean itself? The scene of a level plain of vast extent on land may be almost as extensive as a prospect of the ocean, but it can never be boundless in the same sense. Although the desert has defined limits and is in fact measurable, perspective is always erratic; the desert full of deceptions lures men into false assumptions. As Van Dyke explains:

Bodies fail to detach themselves one from another, foreshortening is abnormal, the planes of landscapes are flattened out of shape or telescoped, objects are huddled together or superimposed one upon another… No wonder amid this distortion of the natural, this wreck of perspective, that distance is such a proverbially unknown quantity.16

This effect, commonly known as mirage, happens in very hot and very high deserts, where oxygen deprivation combined with dehydration produces “hallucinations, dislocations of vision, intoxications of the sight and exaltations of perception.”17 We can now see why it is precisely nature that can arise the Sublime: “here, where the aesthetic imagination is strained to its utmost, where all finite determinations dissolve themselves, the failure appears as its purest.” The sublime, says Zizek, is therefore “the paradox of an object which, in the very field of representation, provides a view, in a negative way, of the dimension of what is unpresentable.”18


Nature is a diagram consisting of a flat foreground and a system of vertical backgrounds; it is the relation between the vertical and the horizontal; “the mountain and the plain” as Banham would say. The sublime even though it resides in greatness of dimension toward any direction, it is mostly associated with the dimension of height or what belongs to the vertical. As Burke states, among of the extensions length strikes the least since “a hundred yards of even ground will never work such an effect as a tower an hundred yards high, or a rock or mountain of that altitude.”19 Hence, a perpendicular it is said to have more power in the formation of the sublime, than an inclined plane. And depth, Burke continues, is grander than height. We know that even Mount Everest, which is the world’s highest mountain peak, when measured from sea level to its summit it is 8,848 meters tall. And the Mariana Trench in the western North Pacific Ocean is the deepest point in the world, reaching a depth of 10,911 meters, while the world’s tallest man-made structure is 829.8 meters tall. But, “the desert does not stand up and defy puny mankind in giant gestures against the sky; and does not threaten to fall on travellers and crush them; nor does it provide much in the way of mighty chasms into which they might plunge to their doom.”20 The sublime in the desert as it was highlighted above is not associated with every large lump of rock sticking up above the earth’s crust, but it resides in the thousands and sometimes millions of square miles areas of waste. The Mojave Desert, which is not one of the greatest deserts in the world sizewise, is more than 200,000 meters in length, and let’s not even consider the greatness of other deserts or the ocean. The dimensions are of course not analogous and unable to be compared and the feeling in each case completely different. When it comes to the dimension of height there is always a confrontation with the object causing the sublime, but when being in the middle of nowhere the feeling is quite unsimilar. Out of any scale, with nothing to relate to, the desert and the ocean can only make one feel smaller and smaller, unable to locate oneself in the unbounded space.


So, what is there but a strip of sky and another strip of sand or water? But there is a simplicity about large masses – simplicity in breadth, space, distance – that is inviting and ennobling. And there is something restful about the horizontal line.21

The horizon (or skyline) is the apparent line that separates earth from sky. The word horizon derives from the Greek ὁρίζων κύκλος horizōn (kyklos), ‘separating circle’, from the verb ὁρίζω (horizō), ‘to divide, to separate’, and that from ὅρος (oros), ‘boundary, border, limit’. The line of the horizon is the only apparent boundary in the vastness of the desert and the ocean, the only limitation. What is so restful about a straight line, which is and always has been a limit? Is the history of human knowledge about the cosmos of any use in order to understand this set of principles? The first object of human contemplation in the world was the sky, and heavenly things must have been the first sublime things and the first divine objects of observation. The world in antiquity was divided into three kingdoms or regions; heaven, earth and the lower world or underworld were three separate regions or levels with certain limits. The house of the Greek gods was believed to be located on the top of the mountain Olympos, the last locus that earth interferes with the sky. The earth, according to Giambattista Vico, was associated with the guarding of the boundaries by the theological poets of antiquity, and hence it was called terra from the Latin word territorium.22 The other world positioned on the vertical axis is the underworld. The deities of the lower world, imagined by the poets, was that of water; “Plato supposed that the abyss of waters was in the center of the earth.” But according to Homer, in the contest of the gods, Pluto starts to fear that Neptune may open the earth with an earthquake and expose the lower world to the eyes of men. So, “finally”, says Vico, “the underworld was taken to be the plains and the valleys (as opposed to the lofty heaven set on the mountain tops) where the scattered vagrants remained in their infamous promiscuity.”23 According to the order of the natural theogony, heaven, or the mountain tops, was inhabited by the gods, man along with the heroes resided at the foothills close to the sea and the dead lived in the underworld or the far plain and valleys. The vertical, the height and the depth of that world belong to divine forces thus they are capable of raising the feeling of the Sublime. This was the world distribution for a while, but then man started to question the purpose of nature, tried to explain the natural phenomena and “first became aware of weight, then of measure, and only very slowly of number, in which reason finally came to rest.”24 The way man perceived the world in the past relied on cosmological theories or teleological judgements, which were not adequate in order to exhaust the world.

When man came to understand that the earth and the sky were spherical in form, and that from every point of the circumference there is a slope towards every other, and that the ocean bathes the land on every shore, and that the whole of things is adorned with countless varied and diverse sensible forms…25

Reaching the point where man is aware of natural phenomena, it is safe to assume that the distribution of the world to horizontal and vertical makes sense only in the context of a clearly measurable gravity field. Both horizontality and verticality are local concepts since a plane is horizontal only at the chosen point. Horizontal planes at two separate points are not parallel; they intersect. The earth’s crust and what stands above it become the x (abscissa) and the y (ordinate) of the two-dimensional Cartesian coordinate system. However, as explained above, the sublime in nature comes before the distribution of the horizontal and the vertical, before man became aware of weight, measure and numbers. It is enough then to recognize here that the way we perceive the world is simply a matter of gravity. And in the 1980’s when Banham was writing this book, the non-gravitational field was already there in movies, novels, media and in the pop art of the 1970’s for which Banham was so fond of. A great example of this is displayed in Kubric’s film 2001: A space Odyssey, where the lack of gravity in the spacecraft results to the elimination of the horizontal and vertical system. After watching scenes like these the horizon seems the most restful, comforting thing in the world. Our judgements thus are always relative to the objects that are being judged. The object of the desert is not the same as a tall mountain or building or the unbounded space, thus our judgement should be accordingly different.


Do we need a teleological judgement perhaps? If nature serves man through a chain of other purposive relations then a question arises: how does the desert serve man? The Desert acts as a proof that either there is no ultimate purpose in nature or if there is then it is an alternative one; pleasure. Then, we can claim that Beauty for Banham is causal, because it has a cause and an effect, even if it is pleasure in both cases. His definition of beauty does not involve any of the qualities that Burke or Kant describe, just the fact that in some ways it is reposeful, because of the restful horizon. His judgement could be in fact teleological.

For the better or worse, I am too old, too visually sophisticated, too well- read in too many literatures ever to be able to believe, naively or securely, that beauty just is.26

Desert’s or Nature purpose for him is visual pleasure, although pleasure is not only an effect of Beauty but of the Sublime too. As Kant first suggested:

The feeling of the Sublime is, therefore, at once a feeling of displeasure, arising from the inadequacy of imagination in the aesthetic estimation of magnitude to attain to its estimation by reason, and a simultaneously awakened pleasure, arising from this very judgement of the inadequacy of the greatest faculty of sense being in accord with ideas of reason, so far as the effort to attain to these is for us a law.27 

In other words the Sublime gives us pleasure “through the mediation of displeasure.” 28 Different as they are in many ways, Beauty and the Sublime can be reconciled again in terms of a teleological judgement; they can fragmentary coexist. It is not anymore the one way or the other; the desert can be Beautiful and it can be Sublime as well. But even if this is the case, we still need to stress that every judgement, as Kant explained, is a subjective reflection external to the object. In the Critique of Judgment, Kant presents the sublime as an emotion that places human beings in the fundamental conflict between infinity (Unendlichkeit) and finitude (Endlichkeit), between representation and that which exceeds it. The desert as phenomenologically infinite is the object or the Thing that empowers even the position that the sentiment of the sublime has placed the subject. The sublime is no longer an empirical object indicating the dimension of the Thing, a priori idea or experience but, as Zizek emphasizes, it is “an object that occupies the place, replaces, fills out the empty place of the Thing as the void, as the pure Nothing of absolute negativity – the Sublime is an object whose positive body is just an embodiment of Nothing.”29


1. Slavoj Zizek, “The Sublime Object of Ideology”, Verso, 1989, p. 202

2. Peter Reyner Banham, “Scenes in America Deserta”, Gibbs M. Smith, 1982, p. 218

3. Immanuel Kant, “Critique of Judgement”, Oxford University Press 1952, 1790, p. 119

4. Zizek, “The Sublime Object of Ideology”, p. 213

5. Banham, “Scenes in America Deserta”, p. 213

6. Ibid, p. 145 7. Edmund Burke, “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”, Oxford University Press 1990, 1757, PART I, SECTION VII, Of the Sublime, p. 36

8. Burke, PART II, SECTION I, Of the passion caused by the SUBLIME, p. 53

9. Burke, PART II, SECTION II, TERROR, p. 54

10. Sigmund Freud, “The antithetical meaning of primal words”, 1910, “The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud”, Vol. 11, Hogarth Press, 1955, p. 159

11. Ibid, p. 161

12. Ibid, p. 156-158


14.“ThesublimefromLonginustoMontesquieu”byBaldineSaintGirons,MichaelKelly,Encyclopediaof Aesthetics, Oxford University Press, 1998, vol. 3, p. 327

15. John C. Van Dyke, “The desert”, Forgotten Books 2010, 1901, p. 107

16. Ibid, p. 113

17. Banham, “Scenes in America Deserta”, p. 63

18. Zizek, “The Sublime Object of Ideology”, p. 203


20. Banham, “Scenes in America Deserta”, p. 221

21. Van Dyke, “The desert”, p.18-19

22. Giambattista Vico, “The new Science of Giambattista Vico, 1725, trans. Bergin and Fisch, Cornell University Press, 1948, p. 244

23. Ibid, p. 242

24. Ibid, p. 241

25. Ibid, p. 245

26. Banham, “Scenes in America Deserta”, p. 210

27. Kant, “Critique of Judgement”, p. 106

28. Zizek, “The Sublime Object of Ideology”, p. 202

29. Ibid, p. 206


Cover Image – JMW Turner – Vesuvius in Eruption (1817 – Tate Gallery, London)

This entry was posted in 2012. Bookmark the permalink.