What is the experience of the sublime? You are walking along and suddenly catch the sunset, and you are stopped in your tracks. You experience a peace, a reprieve from ordinary thoughts. What is happening here?
Here perception has latched onto an event that is not defined through the prism of social relationships and identities. Walking along you see houses (rich, poor, gawdy, sophisticated), people (pretty, ugly, tall, short, nice clothes, homeless), cars (Benz, Chevy). All the while you are comparing and contrasting yourself in relation to these objects and people. You move in a matrix of judgments defined by who can have access to what and who can’t; that guy can drive the Benz but you can’t, you can afford going into that restaurant but the person next to you can’t. The sunset breaks through this matrix as something that is equally available to all. Irrespective of your social standing, in looking at the sunset all are equal. It seems immune to the human world. A sign that we have not managed to capture and define everything within the matrix of our social interactions.
The sunset brings out our fundamental equality as people, what we have in common and not what sets some people apart from others. Not just an abstract sense of equality or sameness, like we are all mammals. But a brief but vivid sense of that equality, experienced as an event that is equally available to all. One experiences the beauty of the sunset not as someone with such and such a job, but as a human being, as even just an animal.
But what if I am blind and can’t see the sunset? Or if I am stuck in a cubicle all day, surrounded only by artifacts which reenforce the matrix of social standing? Can one still experience the sublime?
The blind person certainly can through the other senses. They might even capture somewhat the beauty of the sunset through an attunement to the social energy of the group looking at the sunset.
What of the cubicle situation? When one’s perception is flooded by human artifacts, is there a way to experience the sublime? One could put a beautiful painting in the cubicle. Or a picture of a painting. What if that is not available and the only objects one can see are mundane objects like desks, chairs, computers, all in the context of the mundane activity of pushing paper around to make a living?
How can one experience the sublime when all one can perceive are cultural artifacts, which on the surface if they reenforce anything, they reenforce precisely the social matrix which the sunset stands outside of? Trapped among artifacts, where is the room here for the sublime?
It is not possible as long as one depends on the perception itself to trigger the sublime. Well, is there any other way?
At the level of thinking, we often exprience thoughts the way we perceive objects: passively. Beyond the perceptual stream, there is a stream of consciousness. The flurry of thoughts and judgments. In fact, it is this mental flurry which undergirds the social matrix experience of perceptual objects. If it weren’t for this constant background mental buzz, our actual perceptual experience of any object is decoupled from the matrix of social relations. Not fully. Not ever fully. After all, no matter what, I exprience the stapler on my desk in the cubicle as a stapler, as a artifact created within the social world. But with the buzz of thoughts dimmed down, I can experience the stapler just as a stapler, not as the silly office object which is part of this silly cubicle which is part of my seemingly underwhelming life because I don’t seem to measure up to the social matrix standards. This narrative is rooted primarily in the buzz of thougths, not in the perception itself.
What the sunset does is it dislodges the link between perception and the buzz of thoughts, thereby enabling “a moment of clarity”. It is a dislodging which is experienced altogether passively, since it was the world which broke through the buzz of thoughts, and, as it were, shook me free of them. What did I do? I walked by and looked up. There it was, and I was freed in that moment. Then I put my head down, looked at the time, and continue on with the buzz of thougths encircling my perception again.
What if I am able to short circuit the buzz of thoughts myself instead of waiting for a glorious outside event to shake me out of it? Can I do that?
Are there, as it were, mental sunsets, modes of consciousness which arrest my attention, analogous to how the sunset arrested my attention, and freed me from the buzz of thoughts?
Ironically, awareness of the mental stream of consciousness it itself that mental sunset. Being aware of the mental buzz itself ruptures the buzz, and awakens the sense of the sublime. What now arrests one’s attention, standing beyond the buzz is consciousness of the mental buzz. Through that self-consciousness, the force of the buzz is subdued. Is that stapler a trivial object on a trivial desk? Being mindful of that stream of thought disrupts living into a world defined by that buzz, as if the triviality of the stapler was written into its very nature which one is merely perceiving. Awareness of the buzz detaches the buzz from the objects being percieved, and thereby makes the world itself shine as a space free of judgment. One then becomes the source of triggering the feeling of the sublime rather than experiencing the source as a fleeting thing in the world beyond one’s control.
One’s awareness of oneself can then be like a perpetual sunset within oneself which continually radiates the sublime.
Husserl said “Back to the things themselves” in ushering phenomenology. Yes, indeed. But it doesn’t need to be phenomenology as in hundreds of pages of descripton of one’s experiences. Phenomenology can be the activity of simply observing from within one’s mental life while “bracketing” the truth or falsity of those experiences. Practising phenomenology is awakening the ability to experience the sublime not just out in the world but within oneself.