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The two sublimes, fourth time around: Response to Roger Rothman

ByALLAN STOEKL

Roger Rothman’s essay on the “Two Sublimes of Surrealism” is less about surrealism per se than it is about the perennial recurrence of the problem of the sublime, in particular, the two sublimes analyzed by Kant in the Critique of Judgment: the mathematical and the dynamical. The larger conclusion one can draw from Rothman’s essay is that the modern critical tradition in France is condemned-or privileged?—to repeat the Kantian distinction. This repetition goes beyond the apparent dissimilarities between the older “surrealist” approach and the newer “post-structuralist” one. Deleuze and Derrida do not supplant Breton and Bataille but repeat them in a different register. Perhaps we, too, are fated to repeat the dynamical/mathematical opposition; what will be new is not the general structure of the opposition, but the set of concerns with which that opposition is inflected. As Derrida might remind us, we do not simply escape the opposition, but repeat it, parody it, simulate it with a difference. But which difference? In the many approaches inspired by Kant’s analysis of the sublime, it has been

insufficiently recognized that Kant was writing primarily about rationality and the power of the human mind, rather than the sublime per se. If anything was sublime, “absolutely large,” it was not nature and the human imagination overwhelmed by it, but the power of human reason to comprehend and go beyond nature’s scale. Concerning the mathematical and dynamical sublimes, Kant writes:

[In the mathematical sublime] we … found, in our power of reason, a different and nonsensible standard that has this infinity [of “the magnitude of nature’s domain”] itself under it as a unit; and since in contrast to this standard everything in nature is small, we found in our mind a superiority over nature itself in its immensity. In the same way, though the irresistibility of nature’s might makes us, considered as natural beings, recognize our physical impotence [the dynamical sublime], it reveals in us at the same time an ability to judge ourselves independent of nature, and reveals in us a superiority over nature that is the basis of a self preservation quite different in kind from the one that can be assailed and endangered by nature outside us.