Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]
Kant, Sendak, and the Limits of Modern Subjectivity
|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 and practice1.
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 effort. 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 judgement6. 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 mind7. 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.
(Click on the image to read credit/Cliquez sur l'image pour lire le crédit)
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 nature8.
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)9 ; 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 redemptive power.
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 restored.
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
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 from mummy.
| Previous article
Top / Début
Table of content / Table des matières
to first article/
Retour au premier article