Crystallizing amidst the historical developments of the
eighteenth century, the Kantian category of the sublime aesthetically
encapsulates the unfurling of a modern subjectivity, a self-consciousness
that tends towards unprecedented heights of individualism, forms of autonomy
and legitimacy that signal both an advance in history as well as a development
riven with paradoxes. In its unfolding dynamic, the sublime reflects this
complex surge of self-affirming individuality; its internal components
can be construed as a semiotic expression of the release of humanity from
the tyrannies and parochialism of a feudal society, a promise of individual
freedom that is exalting yet terrifying in its attendant isolation. Indeed,
the acquisition of new prerogatives constrains modern subjectivity to
a continual reevaluation of identity. In default of the former `securities'
of the outer world (societal, religious and epistemological values), the
individual searches for them within his own parameters of rationality
Like the aesthetic category of the sublime, the modern subject is a bold
conqueror of the infinite reaches of virgin territories; but swathed in
the subjectivities of isolation, he sublimates the warm hearth of past
organic communities in the form of an imaginary world order designed to
slavishly endorse his every desire. Such is his indomitable need to restore
some semblance of community within the recesses of his imagination. An
accruing self-consciousness cleaves the modern subject into the fragments
of self and otherness; society proves mediocre and ill-suited to the growing
pangs of individual subjectivity. Unable to contemplate the outer world
coherently, the modern subject lapses into maudlin nostalgia for the restoration
of some prelapsarian unity.
Similarly, the sublime is a judgement bent on embracing the complexities
of the infinite; yet it is fraught with a hankering for some human collectivity.
Its warring mental faculties (understanding and imagination) produce an
inner disquiet where dissonance becomes its musical signature and disjuncture
its graphic signifier2.
Seeking a resolution, the Kantian sublime, like the modern subject, soars
alone beyond the home turf of the "sensible" world to the heights of the
supersensible, yet returns in its final moment of judgement to a ground
of collective human experience.
The point of this essay is to show that the quest for absolute autonomy
is unattainable, and that such impossibility is borne out by the very
paradoxical trajectory of the Kantian sublime, the symbol of modern individualism.
As Kant puts it, "to be sufficient for oneself, and consequently to have
no need of society, without at the same time being unsociable, ... is
something bordering on the sublime." (Kant, 116) But self-sufficiency
can never be fully consummated as a singlehanded epic feat without a final
return to the matrix of social belonging from which the modern subject
departs in his intransigent flight to liberty. Similarly, the sublime
is rooted in nature; its judgement depends on an object from nature --
which although inadequate for its representation, still enables it to
aspire to its moral destiny. As he lunges into the realm of infinitude,
the subject of sublimity can never quite relinquish his anchorage in the
terra firma of the sensible world. To illustrate this metaphorically,
I propose to look at the pivotal stages of this aesthetic category as
they manifest themselves in Maurice Sendak's children's story, Where
the Wild Things Are3.
This may seem a curious and mismatched juxtaposition: for it is not often
that the ethical loftiness, the cognitive obscurity, indeed, the dizzying
and cathartic force of the sublime are associated with the childish imagination.
The youthful mentality is overtly that of the naďve, closer in substance
to the sensibilities of the epic forms of literature which Georg Lukács
ascribed to the innocent beauty of the Greeks, and which blended harmoniously
with predetermined forms of the social imagination. (Cf. Lukács, 1978)
Yet, in the subversiveness and rebellious nature of the growing child,
one may nonetheless locate the quintessential structures of a sublimity,
namely a desired empowerment of human capability and self-sufficiency
which the modern subject embraces in his Promethean energy.
One of the hallmarks of the sublime is its narrative of transcendence.
Fictionalized, one might say that the unfolding patterns of the sublime
constitute the heroic saga of the faculties of the mind as they confront
the challenges of modern science. For man's venture into the farther reaches
of knowledge is never a leisurely cruise. The voyage is arduous and full
of upheaval. Religious certainties must be abandoned. Change is not only
thrilling but formidable. Born in a period which challenges encrusted
assumptions, the Kantian sublime reflects the ambivalence of its age:
it assumes that man is armed with rational power and can persist fearless
in his cognitive searchings; yet as science advances, religion is imperilled.
The attachment to old cosmologies must be foresaken. Perhaps then this
aesthetic category is the site in which that very cleavage between certainty
and uncertainty, between limit and limitlessness gives reason to pause.
In the sublime judgement, Kant's focus on the failures of human cognition
is scarcely fortuitous; it reminds us that confronted with an object of
immeasurable magnitude, human comprehension falters, as if it were taboo
to pass beyond a certain threshold of inquiry. Even the most adventurous
and dauntless of modern subjects must hold back. This is Kant's sobering
lesson: that infinitude cannot be fully circumscribed by science, at least
not without penalty. Yet there is consolation: the totality of the universe
can be seized through the heart, through moral feeling. Here our mental
limits appear at once humbling and ennobling. Such a paradox becomes pellucid
as we witness the odyssey of the Kantian sublime and recognize therein
the complex relationship which unfolds between reason and the imagination.
Recall that at the start of this journey of aesthetic consciousness, the
mind is faced with an object whose extraordinary magnitude strains and
baffles the mental faculties. How can a mortal, partial vision encompass
the panorama of a boundless universe? Grasping external reality in successive
or syntagmatic fashion, the understanding is happy to mathematically
describe the endless series of an incommensurable infinity. But the imagination
fails to operate exclusively thus. Indeed its cognitive character is paradigmatic,
demanding a certain synthesis of perceptions in order to make sense of
infinity. As the imagination and understanding find themselves at odds,
reason enters the scene to arbitrate the cognitive faculties: it imposes
a law of unity on the imagination and understanding, and like a gallant
knight, comes to rescue the mind from total cognitive failure.
If, in a first instance, the sublime constitutes a battle of mental faculties,
caught at an impasse before the representation of the supersensible, in
a second pivotal moment, the tension of the sublime is predicated on a
narrative of sacrifice and redemption. Here, reason acts as an imperious
and empowering agent that imposes a law of totality on the imagination.
Demanding that the imagination eclipse its sensible perception of material
phenomena, reason both penalizes the faculty of representation and saves
it in one thrust. The imagination must submit and forfeit its own capacity
to perceive its boundless object in "sensible" forms. To perceive infinity
with the naked eye would only frustrate reason's ultimate law -- the law
of the higher and larger ethical community that there should be total
unity in the representation of the infinite so that it can be grasped
as a coherent totality, not as meaningless excess.
The sacrifice of the imagination is part of its initiation rite, part
of its conversion to the religious principles of reason. Thus in a third
moment, thanks to reason's intervention, the imagination's perceptual
discomfiture is transmuted into a paradoxical pleasure; cognitive disarray
is turned into respect and awe. Enduring its own self-abnegation before
reason, the imagination's oedipal self-blinding results in a humble bow,
yet one exalted by religious belief. Bereft of its sensuous vision, the
imagination acquires an ever more acute insight, but with this has come
a giant leap of faith and a capitulation to the intersubjective community
of the moral law4.
This double dynamic reveals in one instance that the imagination is subjected
to reason's authority, compelled to conform to the robust conditions of
freedom, to an ascetic dismissal of sensible needs, and to a strict focus
on the subject's infinite moral destination. (Reason, in short, urges
the imagination to leap over the confounding mathematical "information"
afforded by the understanding, and thereby resolve all cognitive conflict.)
At the same time, reason encourages the imagination to rise above the
sensible world, and believe in a supersensible Idea, in a totality that
embraces infinity in one thrust. It is this totalising law of reason that
is strangely also a law of the heart -- a mental circumscription of God's
limitlessness -- indescribable, yet collectively felt and endorsed. Such
a boundary around infinitude defines the parameters of God's kingdom,
an exalted moral community into which the modern subject enters in his
ultimate hunger for inclusion and social embrace. Thus, despite his ascetic
departure from the material pleasures of society, and from the phenomenal
forms of the sensible world, the subject of sublimity cannot help but
return, albeit imperceptibly, into the fold of a human community. Reason's
need to circumscribe a boundary around infinitude is, consequently, not
just an attribution of meaning and coherence to an otherwise intractable
universe, it is also an inexorable form of self- integration into the
matrix of social relations and language that define a meaningful humanity5.
Where the Wild Things Are fleshes out some of the pivotal moments
of the sublime. It is the story of childish rebellion, the severance from
maternal bonds and the imagined vindication of a child's selfhood. As
such it provides an example of the sublime's uncompromising dissent from
the sphere of the sensible and the consequences of its search for absolute
autonomy. In a threefold process, it enacts fundamental stages of individuation:
1) a child's rupture with the social order and with pregiven semantic
forms, incurring his own marginalization and an upheaval in cognition
and feeling; 2) the child's attempt to redress this imbalance through
fantasy, through a subjectively reconstituted totality; 3) and finally,
his mature return on a higher level to the original social order.
The story begins at the apex of Max's contumacious acts. His mischievous
rebellion against the status quo of the domestic realm, and against the
power of maternal authority, are exhibited in the donning of a wolf suit.
With this symbolically subversive costume he plays the part of the spectre,
haunting and disrupting the household with his voodoo pranks. These are
his waking fantasies which prefigure another world through aesthetic and
theatrical performances. As he devilishly prances down the stairs, brandishing
a fork, Max is poised on executing a voodoo sacrifice of the Scotch Terrier.
It is a sacrifice announced by the dog's look-alike puppet, dangling lugubriously
from a clothes hanger as a warning of things to come. So too, the picture
by Max, hanging on the wall at the foot of the stairs, is but a projected
image of his future identity, soon to be mirrored in the silhouette of
the wild things.
Max's rupture with the "harmony" of the house is precipitated by his nocturnal
pranks, yet it is furthered when his mother calls him "wild thing" and
Max defensively vows to eat her up. At this juncture, the severance with
the family hearth, with the cosiness of mother's approval, is sealed,
heralding the first major moment of the sublime. For in calling him a
"wild thing," the mother leaves a cryptic semantic form for Max to decipher,
a perplexing object, surpassing all immediate understanding. Here lies
the project of the mathematical sublime in which the subject undertakes
to decode a terse and obscure meaning which cannot be grasped without
strenuous mental effort6.
Of course, the resonances of this title "wild thing" may be readily conjured
in the adult mind, notably a Jewish adult sensibility. The phrase "wild
thing" most likely originates from the Yiddish "wilde chaya," literally
wild animal, and metaphorically used as an affectionate admonishment,
comparable to the French "coquin" or the English "devil." But for the
young Max who must decode the remark and the filial breach that it incurs,
the accusation "wild thing" is as confounding as the duress that the mind
encounters in apprehending a representation of boundlessness. Relegated
to exile, to the status of an outcast who must forego his supper and speed
to bed, Max is disoriented by rejection. But as with the self-preservational
impulse of the sublime, he cannot tolerate nor submit to the status quo
and its social and semantic order. In a characteristically sublime defiance
of the authorities that wield power over him, Max laconically proclaims:
"I'll eat you up." His wry expression of dissent is semantically cryptic,
for he is now exiting the realm of everyday logic, flouting linguistic
norms, and exemplifying a triumphal self-assertion in the face of parental
It is this feistiness that prefigures Max's urge to pursue a phenomenological
odyssey, an odyssey which will eventually purge the name "wild thing"
of its injurious resonance.
The strange acts which Max performs in his waking fantasies are sketches
of an aesthetic world that subverts mundane realism, serving as the child's
outlet from ongoing submission to parental authority and encrusted social
conventions. His pranks become the occasion for him to engage in an aesthetic
feat of reversal; for through his creative impulse to sustain his difference
with untrammelled poise, Max will transmute his alienation from his domestic
enclave into a seemingly glorious self-sufficiency. His subversive play
becomes a wizardlike alchemy which will summon an imaginary fellowship
and momentarily dispel his lonely individualism. Yet such freedom is not
naturally given but must be achieved through some practical intervention
in which the child musters his own energies and imputes centrality to
his otherwise peripheral self. In character with this liberation from
parental surveillance, the child -- not unlike the modern subject -- ceases
to submit to the laws of an external force, institution or parental godhead.
Instead he gives the law to himself. The implicit reference here is to
the essential character of the aesthetic judgement (and specifically the
sublime judgement) which "gives the law to itself" insofar as it is a
reflective judgement which must produce its own universality by analogy
or inductively, rather than from any a priori principles, concepts
or preexisting models. The sublime -- unlike the beautiful which replicates
existing forms of harmony and purposiveness -- must generate its own form
or totality (an imagined embrace of the infinite) out of formlessness.
It therefore responds to its own governing impulses and not to any external
fiats of nature/or second nature (society). With a comparable autonomy,
Max annuls his subordinate position and delegitimized identity as "wild
thing," retrieving (albeit in aesthetic fashion only) the much imagined
and coveted status of epic hero.
The child's imaginings are the product of a discontent and injury felt
in the rejection that he experiences when his mother sends him to bed
"without any supper" at all. Since his independent projects cannot be
realized with legitimacy or endorsement under the laws of his parents'
abode, he must endeavour to consummate them elsewhere. Similarly, the
sublime judgement which confronts the disarming and perturbing magnitude
of a boundless object, bursts through the sphere of the sensible, moving
from the outer world to an inner kingdom of the mind8.
In Where the Wild Things Are, the shift from outer to inner is
signalled in Max's 'eviction' and loss of supper: a movement away from
the sensible sphere, and a sacrifice of sensuous need which is superseded
through an elevation or a turn to inner subjectivity, to the realm of
Max's imagination. Closing his eyes, Max dreams of another space.
*(I would like to express my sincere thanks to Maurice
Sendak for giving me permission to reproduce illustrations from his book
Where the Wild Things Are.)
For having been relegated to the prison of his room, his self-affirming
response is to transform the negativity of spatial confinement into the
magnificent infinity of the cosmos. This, indeed, is the force of his
imaginative impulse where his room becomes a forest, thick with vines
and prolific vegetation, increasing in proportion and acquiring the magnitude
of the entire universe. From rejection and solitude in the cramped space
of his room, Max's vision of plenitude and expanse emerge as antidotal
forces to his real eviction. His domain is now fully under his control;
his kingdom is no longer merely his immediate room, but a limitless cosmos
that overrides the parameters of the parental state to encompass the whole
of reality. In his aesthetic creativity, Max annuls his own confinement
and, by a tour de force, inserts the outer sphere into his own imaginings.
Now externality with its unknown energies and contingencies is mentally
harnessed and subjected to his will, to the immobilising powers of his
desire for dominance and control. For Max's mockworld is a totality that
is negatively determined, engendered through an inversion that compresses
objectivity and subsumes it under the force of his own individual desire.
In this manner, the walls of his room dissolve their own physical limits
and invisibly cannibalise infinity just as the sublime negates the form-bound
dimensions of the sensuous realm and engulfs the incommensurable magnitude
of an ineffable beyond.
The sense of power and mastery which Max yearns to possess does not only
arise from the insertion of the outer forces into his own mental grasp
-- a Copernican Revolution where unpredictability, danger and the unknown
are now placed under his subjective aegis. This desired self-determination
and its attendant imperiousness emerge when his mockworld acquires that
paradisiacal immediacy. In his oneness with his surroundings, amenities
drop at Max's behest like manna from heaven. Objectivity is at his disposal
as servants to a king; his wish is the command of all elements, and shortly
thereafter, of all wild things about him. Thus a luxuriating room opens
on to an ocean that tumbles by with a private boat tailored for Max; his
aesthetic travels transport him to another configuration of his imaginings
where he purges himself of submission, and of that chastised and misapprehended
urge to be wild and free. In his journey towards dignity and self-affirmation,
Max "sails off through night and day..." His passage is phenomenally a
crossing of time, but in reality, and in conformity with the laws of his
sublime imagination, it is an adventure that transpires through a mental
space, through a timeless time. For, as in the final consummation of the
sublime judgement, the shift from the sensible to the supersensible issues
out of the necessary sacrifice of the faculty of the imagination. The
mind's impulse towards sensuous vision is eclipsed as the imagination
surrenders its own perceptual powers. Seeing mere contradiction and infinite
regress within the sensible realm, it leaps into the metaphysics of belief,
suppressing material contingency and freezing temporality so that infinity
may be encompassed in a synoptic inner vision. The result is an imagined,
yet frozen totality, purified of unwanted contents and a simple contrary
of the flowing and unmastered world of nature9.
In Where the Wild Things Are this inner vision is allegorically
exemplified in Max's glorious destination, a place reached after epic
wrangles with dragons at sea (tussels reminiscent of the battle between
the imagination and reason)10
; it is a place where Max discovers his imperium. Indeed, upon his arrival
at the shore, "the wild things [roar] their terrible roars and [gnash]
their terrible teeth and [roll] their terrible eyes and [show] their terrible
claws." Like exuberant puppydogs in distorted guise, the wild things greet
him adoringly yet with trembling fear. It is this imagined collectivity
that enables Max to secure his dignity and celebrate it in a coronation
that eclipses all outward signs of resistance and contradiction.
His untrammelled rule is established through that very aesthetic oblivion
to time and materiality that typifies the sublime imagination when it
turns a blind eye to sensuous matter and discordance so as to comply with
reason's will to totality.
Max's autocratic rule, like that of sublime reason, is ensured by the
subservience and utter compliance of the wild things who are no more than
projections of Max's own ego. Ultimately silly in their seemingly terrifying
aspect, they exude the air of primitive simpletons. With heads disproportionately
large and galumping limbs, they hunger to welcome Max to their isle. These
creatures are only ridiculous emulations of Max's enacted severity and
assumed formidable terror, feeble duplications of his identity. And even
though elfish in his self-made wolf suit, Max is truly the most daunting
of all creatures. He has the capacity to dominate the wild things with
his petrifying stare, to command them to "be still," while looking into
all their yellow eyes till they crumble whimperingly into their humble
state of disarray and inner turmoil.
Like sublime reason which imperiously compels the imagination to sacrifice
its sensible vision, and to annihilate time (in Max's words, to be still),
Max vindicates his own self-hood through the submission of his subjects.
Having petrified them and humbled them, he then proceeds to rally them
back to his command, gathering their clamourings into a ritualistic dance,
a "wild" rumpus that becomes the celebration of pure dissent, a mischievousness
transmuted into an exalted communion which ultimately serves to dramatise
Max's "political" prowess. So too, sublime reason incurs the self-doubt
and cognitive distress of the imagination, only to raise it back to ethical
heights by coaxing it to envisage its own moral capability within the
supersensible community; here the imagination (like the wild things) is
urged to discover its own moral destiny, not only to be redeemed from
its own depths of cognitive confusion, but to fortify reason's sense of
Yet the totality achieved by the rumpus also marks the acme of Max's mockworld;
the aesthetics of his imagined community reach their summit of utter perfection.
One can no longer tell the dancer from the dance; all wild things are
in unison and harmony prevails. Language has been silenced and dialogue
muted into pure but ineffable consensus. At last an ennervating effect
is produced. The fraternity among the wild things becomes claustrophobic
and stifling, strangely insubstantial. Max's community of wild things
eventually becomes a homogeneous state which Thomas Weiskel, in his linguistic
analysis of the sublime, calls apocalyptic because it "abrogates temporality...
What threatens here is stasis, a kind of death by plenitude, which Wordsworth
(...) calls an 'abyss of idealism' and which destroys the seeking for
a signifier, the 'perpetual logic' in which alone the mind can continue
to live." (Weiskel, 26-27)
Thus the borders of Max's homogeneous medium, of his aesthetic island
where he consummates his power and control over an arbitrarily wrought
otherness -- the wild things -- begin to erode. For ultimately this imagined
community, like that of reason's ethical realm of the supersensible, is
constructed out of manipulated souls that dutifully comply with a totalitarian
law, and who are bereft of the contradictory impulses that constitute
natural life. Emptied of the substance that might seriously challenge
Max's imperium, or that of reason's will to totality, the wild things,
like the abnegated imagination, are but shadows of a veritable humanity.
Loneliness sets into this realm which is filled with imaginary things,
wild things that are no more than reflections of Max's childish yearnings
to be central and self-sufficient in his actions. But the paradox that
punctures Max's eminently defiant austerity is his inexplicable yearning
for something more sensuous than respect, for more than the dutiful and
compliant response that the sublime elicits in its judgemental force:
he also hankers for a warm, affective embrace which affords him the tenderness
of maternal nurturing. Suddenly, from "far away across the world, he smelled
good things to eat...": Here the irrepressible power of the sensible which
was sacrificed in the edification of Max's regal status and in the aesthetic
construction of his mock world, begins to penetrate the sphere of sublimity.
Where all contingency had formerly been cast aside, where food, social
bonding, and the matrix of human social relations were forfeited to secure
autonomy, the edifice of self-sufficiency now totters with doubt.
As embodiments of Max's unconscious, the wild things constitute the "savage"
and subversive force which his authoritarian superego seeks to suppress;
yet they are also reminders of his profound desire for maternal warmth.
Implicitly, Max is torn by an inner battle: either to depart or to remain
with his wild things, with those projected egos that beseech him to stay
on. Echoing his first words of dissent with their "We'll eat you up!"
they cry out: "We love you so!" Thus they provide the clue for adumbrating
the cryptic meaning of that phrase with which Max threatened to cannibalise
his mother. Here is the subtext of Max's otherwise feisty subversion:
the declaration, "I'll eat you up!" that underpinned Max's pained but
nonetheless assertive movement towards self-consolation and self-enhancement,
is but a covert cry of insatiable hunger for maternal love.
Meanwhile the desire to retain the respect of the wild things that he
had tamed is acute. Thus Max says "No!" and reasserts his autonomy once
more as the undaunted king who never surrenders to his subjects but remains
true to himself alone. Stepping back into his private boat, he sails across
the seas into the night of his very own room where temporality is melted
down into a spatial instant of childish reverie. Thus it is that his supper
remains ever hot, unscathed by the impact of real time. And in that discovery,
the gesture of maternal approval which Max had presumed lost -- but which
proved more powerful than the hubris of his sublime austerity -- is now
Like the sublime judgement which fosters its identity in sui generis fashion,
abandoning the matrices of tradition, custom and pregiven sensible forms,
Max pursues a solitary journey in his search for autonomy: he removes
himself from mother and home turf, displaying uncompromising self-sufficiency.
While this route is a necessary part of his personal odyssey, it is also
but a stage of individualism which must be transcended: it is a subjective
triumph that cannot be sustained permanently. Time would only commit it
to a lonely tyranny where subjective form rules unbridled over objective
matter. This is the turning point of epic individualism where Max and
sublime reason must jettison their absolutism lest their autonomy be hoist
with its own petard. Unable to remain cloistered in the sphere of their
imagined communities, they must return home, more mature yet equally desirous
of the nourishing social inclusion that a sensuous humanity affords. For
that is the medium through which individual legitimacy is won, now yielded
to the other, now reaped anew.
Like Max, the sublime exhibits both a movement away from the realm of
the sensible but also a return to a new incarnation of it in the form
of a sensus communis. It descends from the heights of mathematical
and ethical loftiness to a ground of sensible human experience; and this
is evidenced in the fact that the aesthetic judgement can only be validated
through the human community, through the recognition that is granted to
the actors of sublime endeavour. Thus, while the sublime judgement leaves
the realm of sensuous objectivity for the transcendent sphere of supersensibility,
it must, like Max, for its own complete realization, return, not to any
simple, sensuous matter, but to the affective domain of a collectively
affirmed self-consciousness, to the very medium that dialectically joins
the empirical and the transcendent in a common humanity. For
much the imagination is used to serve reason in the sublime, aesthetically
it remains a function of reflective judgement. As such, it must draw back
from the kinds of limitless goals that reason can project by itself. In
the sublime, therefore, the imagination presents our supersensible destination,
not only as morally transcending nature, but also as the human form of
nature in us. The judgement of the sublime has "its roots in human nature,"
and the imagination may project only within the limits of human possiblity.(Makkreel,
It is the faculty
of the imagination itself that reminds us of the limits of sublimity,
just as the wild things of Max's dream world prompt him to recall the
limits of his own autonomy and the maternal substrate of his imaginings:
the anchor to his human community and the vital link between the sensual
and the moral facets of his existence remain embodied in the loving approval