The Contemporary Abyss

James Tiptree, Jr – A Momentary Tastes of Being

One aspect of the notion of the sublime that hasn’t been explicitly mentioned in any of the books or articles that I have read is the idea of Futility. Malcolm Andrews says ‘For the sublime to be attractive as an experience (rather than simply painful in its terror), there needs to be some reassurance that, in the face of overwhelming power, the person is not in actual mortal danger’ (Andrews,1999: 134). This may be true of the observer of the art in question but should not necessarily apply to the subject of the art (if there is one of course). It is a means of making the fearful into something acceptable, a thrill without real danger.

The world is much smaller now than when artists such as Casper David Friedrich and JMW Turner were working. There are still plenty of dangers in the natural world but familiarity through photographs, travelogues and films reduces the fear. If one were to actually visit such places then of course the uncertainty and fear would still be there but it is much harder to illustrate and produce the same effect nowadays. Simon Morley writes of Edmund Burke describing the sublime as ‘the heightened and perversely exalted feeling we often get from being threatened by something beyond our control or understanding’. In times past this exalted feeling would be driven by religious experience; a feeling that is far less prevalent these days (in the western world at least) than two hundred years ago. David Bate says that an equivalent to this feeling in modern times is the ‘”horror“ genre: those novels, films etc.  – “thriller” – that seek to test the capacity of the viewing subject to tolerate more and more scenes of terror’ (Bate,2016:116). These mostly deal with the ‘known’; something that is explicable and understandable; there is some sort of resolution to bring the fear down to something we can cope with.

I want instead to talk about where there isn’t a satisfactory conclusion, the nature of the ‘fear’ element isn’t neutered but instead reveals something much more dangerous and fear-inducing. I’ve chosen to write about a science fiction short story by James Tiptree, Jr – “A Momentary Taste of Being” (Tiptree, 2014:275). As with a lot of science fiction the plot involves expeditions from earth in search of potential colony worlds. The story is written as a first person narrative, so we get to understand what is occurring from one person’s emotions and fears. Condensing this down to a few paragraphs is pointless here but the arc of the story revolves around the realisation that everything we knew about our place in the universe was false. The protagonist realises after contact with alien life that rather than organic individual beings, we are nothing but gametes, intergalactic sperm, and like all sperm it only needs one to be any use – the rest are all waste. Like all good books it is the quality of the writing that makes this work. The protagonist is left with the knowledge that we never will fully understand our proper place in the universe and there is nothing we can do about it. This is the sense of Futility that seems to me to be just as much what is meant by Sublime as any other definitions.



David Bate(2016): Photography: London: Bloomsbury Academic

Malcolm Andrews (1999): Landscape and Western Art: Hong Kong: Oxford University Press

James Tiptree, Jr(2014): Her Smoke Rose Up Forever:London:Gollancz

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