From the Mountain to the Sea

This text was originally published by The Culture We Deserve.

It’s a little like this: there are lines in the air next to your head, next to your glance zones for the detention of your eyes, your smell, your taste, that is to say you’re going around with your limits outside and you can’t get beyond that limit when you think you’ve caught anything fully, just like an iceberg the thing has a small piece outside and shows it to you, and the enormous rest of it is beyond your limits and that’s why the Titanic went down.

Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch, 1963

Around 2008, the contemporary art world was obsessed with ‘the sublime’. As critical paradigms go, it was a fertile one: what is art for if not pondering nature’s awe-inspiring yet unrepresentable majesty and monumentality? Critics compared looking at Damien Hirst’s shark to being inside Paradise Lost. Photographers like Edward Burtynsky were credited with keeping the mystical-pictorial tradition vital for the 21st century. Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog reigned supreme. 

But this critical sensibility was all gone by the time the Titan submersible sank in June and, to steal a quip from Karlheinz Stockhausen, became 2023’s greatest work of art. For all the media frenzy in reporting Titanic film director James Cameron’s hunch about the fate of the expedition, nobody paused to wonder at its promise of an experience like no other. We learned about the failings of the Safety of Life at Sea treaty but not once asked why people routinely risk their lives in search of truth at the bottom of oceans and the top of mountains. The way the story was reported marks a fundamental change in how we approach the incomprehensible. It also heralds the abolition of nature as an authority on natural knowledge. 

The sublime is an artefact of the unknowable. In Kantian terms, it is a category of experience at the rational limits of our senses. Hirst’s title for his 1991 shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, points to one such obvious limit. And until recently, we understood that there were some parts of the natural world which we could only comprehend by proxy. What human epistemic categories, for example, could describe the feeling a climber experiences on reaching an ice-covered peak? What does the ocean do to the minds of the lone sailors who chase records trying to cross it? What does it mean to see the Earth from orbit? And what is it about these natural phenomena that draws countless adventurers to them, often to statistically likely death?

This is the stuff of Constable’s haunting seascapes and Tarkovsky’s tinnitus-inducing Solaris. The paintings, novels, and even photographs of perplexing scenes, altered states, and unexplainable power are the sublime: they are at once depictions of reality and projections of man’s attempt to become one with it. The sublime is an act of mediation which for centuries was the best, if not only, means of understanding parts of the world. Today, we have TikTok to pretend that we have already been everywhere and seen everything and that it wasn’t all that. To vicariously follow the adventures of any of the dozens of sailors “crossing the ocean solo” on YouTube, perversely, involves no imagination at all.

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