From ‘Je ne sais quoi’ to Delightful Horror
Traditionally the Greek rhetorical treatise Peri hupsous  is taken as the starting point for the history of the sublime. The text was written in the first century A.D. but until approximately one hundred years ago it was incorrectly attributed to Cassius Longinus, an orator from the third century A.D. The anonymous author, however, is still referred to as Longinus or Pseudo-Longinus. For centuries this treatise remained unknown until the Italian humanist Francesco Robortello published the editio princeps in Basel in 1554. Soon Longinus’s work was enjoying great popularity and the treatise was seen as an important poetical source for the knowledge of literature from Antiquity, at least as important as Aristotle’s Poetics and Horace’s Ars poetica. Longinus’s popularity culminated in 1674 when the French classicist Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux produced a French translation and commentary on the text. Boileau stayed reasonably faithful to the original intent of the treatise: he sees the sublime as a rhetorical effect, something marvellous in the text, a ‘je ne sais quoi’, in Boileau’s well-known formula, ‘the extraordinary and the marvellous that resonates from within the discourse, and which enables a work to carry us off, delight, and transport us’, by which the reader is taken beyond his or her everyday ability to comprehend. Longinus does not try so much to persuade his readers as to overwhelm them. Similarly, it is Boileau’s ambition not so much to gratify the senses of the reader as to dumbfound them. Subsequent generations gravitated primarily towards this emotional component; the rhetorical aspect of the sublime gradually moved towards the background, but without disappearing altogether.
In the early eighteenth century the concept was picked up by a number of English Enlightenment thinkers, amongst whom John Dennis and Joseph Addison. In 1712 Addison published a series of articles in the Spectator on ‘The Pleasures of the Imagination’ in which he examined the difference between the beautiful and the great. In Addison’s writings the terminology is still somewhat different, but in these texts a distinction is made for the first time between what today we call the beautiful and the sublime. Even in Longinus’s treatise it was not always clear whether or not the sublime should be seen as the superlative degree of the beautiful. The difference between the beautiful and the sublime can be seen as an eighteenth-century invention. This distinction was rigorously maintained in what was to become one of the most important eighteenth-century texts in the field of aesthetics: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful by Edmund Burke (1757).
Burke’s Enquiry fits into the British sensationalist-empiricist tradition of philosophers such as Hume and Locke. It is no wonder then that Burke bases his theory on people’s emotional response to well-defined stimuli. At the most basic level, according to Burke, there are only two distinct feelings that are aroused when we perceive objects: pain and pleasure. These feelings are antithetical rather than complementary. Therefore when pain subsides this does by no means automatically lead to pleasure. However, as Burke acknowledges, when the cause of pain is removed, this undeniably results in the pain being alleviated and in a certain sense, this positive feeling is related to pleasure. Burke calls this relative pleasure ‘delight’. It is in this context that he situates the sublime.
When our lives are in danger, we experience a strong feeling of pain or fear (which are seen as variations of the same feeling). Objects or situations that arouse the idea of pain and suggest danger can be sources of the sublime, writes Burke. However, a certain distance is necessary: the dangerous object must instil fear but at the same time a sense that one is not really in danger. It is the idea of pain and the suggestion of danger that push the fear towards a feeling of delight. It is this delightful horror that Burke calls sublime. Elements which according to Burke can contribute to the stirring of this sublime feeling are darkness, the suggestion of power and force, emptiness, silence, the suggestion of infinity, etc. In short, everything that seems to go beyond our immediate cognitive powers, everything that seems to overwhelm us, everything that presents a threat of physical pain. The sublime has moved a long way from Longinus’s characterization of it as a rhetorical effect. Now it seems to have become an experience of nature: it is no longer about the great idea or the profound inspiration of an orator, but rather about the (almost physical) reaction of the observer. The sublime is therefore no longer simply a textual effect. The emotional was always an important component of the sublime, but with Burke the shift that started in the early eighteenth century with Dennis and Addison is complete: the sublime is a feeling. Furthermore, it is not so much a feeling as a mixed feeling. Herein lies precisely the difference with the beautiful: whilst the beautiful is still associated with a simple feeling of pleasure, the sublime is a feeling of delight combined with fear, and it is for this exact reason that it is such an alarmingly strong feeling. It makes us face our own mortality, yet at the same time we feel relieved because death (for now at least) can be kept at bay. Because the sublime has a place in an overarching philosophy, this sublime could be called a philosophical sublime or – because of the importance of natural phenomena such as storms or desolate mountains – a natural sublime, along with the essentially rhetorical sublime of Longinus and Boileau.
In Burke’s wake, from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards, a vast number of English, German and French works on the sublime appeared. These often included attempts to reconcile the rhetorical tradition of Longinus with the natural one of Burke. Interestingly it is mostly this type of text that was translated into Dutch in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. Perhaps the most important of these translations is the Theorie der schoone kunsten en wetenschappen (Theory of the fine arts and sciences) (2 volumes, 1778-1780) by Hiëronymus van Alphen. This version of the 1767 handbook by Friedrich Justus Riedel, in which there is an elaborate discussion of the sublime, is the first systematic study of aesthetics in Dutch. In addition, there are translations of texts by the Scottish philosophers James Beattie and Hugh Blair and, earlier on, of Moses Mendelssohn’s Betrachtungen über das Erhabene und das Naive in den schönen Wissenschaften (1758). The latter translation, by Rijklof Michaël van Goens, sparked a debate in 1775-1776 on the cultural decline which the translator thought was taking place in the Netherlands.