Sunday, July 21, 2013

Tocqueville on the origin of the Sublime

     "When skepticism [(le doute)] had depopulated heaven, and the progress of equality had reduced each individual to smaller and better-known proportions, the poets, not yet aware of what they could substitute for the great themes that were departing together with the aristocracy, turned their eyes to inanimate nature.  As they lost sight of gods and heroes, they set themselves to describe streams and mountains."

     Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America II (1840).I.xvii ("Of some sources of poetry among democratic nations"), trans. Henry Reeve, with revisions by Francis Bowen and Phillips Bradley ((New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), vol. 2, p. 73);  =II.I.xvii in Œuvres, ed. André Jardin (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade), II (De la démocratie en Amérique), ed. Jean-Claude Lamberti and James T. Schleifer (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1992), 585.
     Yet this "belongs only to a period of transition."  For
in the end democracy diverts the imagination from all that is external to man and fixes it on man alone.  Democratic nations may amuse themselves for a while with considering the productions of nature, but they are excited in reality only by a survey of themselves. . . .In Europe people talk a great deal of the wilds of America, but the Americans themselves never think about them; they are insensible to the wonders of inanimate nature and they may be said not to perceive the mighty forests that surround them till they fall beneath the hatchet.  Their eyes are fixed upon on another sight:  the American people views its own march across these wilds, draining swamps, turning the course of rivers, peopling solitudes, and subduing nature [(pp. 73 and 74)].
     How then to account for the resurgence of interest in the Sublime at the turn of the last century? 

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