Edmund Burke on Taste, the Sublime and the Beautiful

by Paul Mathers

ImageThis volume commences with an essay on Taste by Mr. Burke in which he argues that taste is not only objective, but something that one can cultivate. Burke presents an argument against looking at taste as subjective (“Well, if you don’t like it, it’s merely a matter of taste.”) Burke thinks that this is wrong. I do too. Burke thinks that good taste is an actual quantifiable thing. I do too.

His prescription is to cultivate judgment and sensibility. I think this follows. Low sensibility and poor judgment lead to bad taste. Burke turns it into a formula:

better judgment + better sensibility = better taste

I am usually suspicious of agreeing so completely with an author. Maybe it’s my modern cynicism, but I like to find objections even to the ideas that I like. I feel that this strengthens me. And, sitting on the park bench where I was reading, I thought of the embodiment of the argument: The Anti-Burke:

ImageJohn Waters has made a career out of bad taste. His films elevate the vulgar to an art. They tend to have a sense of abandon and delight. Waters seems to delight in the Libertine and transgressive  just as Burke delights in Order. It’s the age-old Dionysian versus Apollonian argument. One way of interpreting the history of humankind is the attractiveness of one when living deeply in the other. I know that, for me, a Burkean world seems like Utopia, as I now live in a town that has turned into a John Waters film. I am getting a little ahead of myself. We shall discuss this element of Burke in greater depth in the next piece, his reflections on the French Revolution.

My personal take is that Waters is expressing the impossibility of good taste in our time and culture, holding, as it were, a mirror up to the audience reflecting it in the least flattering light. It’s sort of an argument that Seth McFarland hosting the Oscars became an inevitability the moment that television decided to follow the dictates of advertisers rather than seeking the general amelioration of the general public. I think in the Waters universe, to cultivate taste in Burke’s sense would require isolationism.

And I’m all for that.

On the Sublime and Beautiful is a much longer piece. It deals with the two topics that the title would suggest, again, giving a near formula for them. I had my first moment of uncertainty with his arguments when he sets up the dichotomy that some believe that pain is the absence of pleasure and vice versa. Burke believes that pain and pleasure are strictly positively acting forces. I’m not so sure the truth doesn’t lie in a mixture of the two points of view, as the relief of pain can, in my experience, be quite pleasurable. But, as he bases the whole rest of the work on this foundation, I am willing to allow the argument for the purposes of moving forward.

One way in which this book has changed my life is that it has made me aware of my gross misuse of the word “sublime.” I had, in the past, employed it as a sort of synonym for “superb” or “exquisite.” This is not the case. Two Years Before The Mast is not sublime. It’s excellent. There are passages in that book about the Sublime: namely the description of an iceberg and the musings on a man falling overboard and disappearing forever into the sea. Burke places the Sublime as closer to the Awesome, the Dread, and the Terrible in the original senses of those words (not in the modern colloquial sense of “awesome.” One is not reduced to catatonia in light of the realization of their own insignificance upon eating a nominally above average hot dog). He gives examples: massive things, things that terrify, things of great power, danger, et al. In the section on the beautiful he does likewise.

I told Laurie upon finishing it that I could envision using this text (including the Taste essay) in an art class, a theology class, or a writing class. The first two were of particular interest to me. The marriage between religion and art in our time… well, it seems like they’re having a bit of a messy separation in which they are both custodial parents of the children, a situation which inspires very ill behavior in the children. I feel that the blame solely falls on religion. The weakness of our whorish religion has failed to inspire anything but the most mediocre of art in my lifetime at the very least. If you look to the past, this was not the case. Prescription: The Sublime and the Beautiful.

The saccharine, pedestrian, and repetitive nature of the arts that come from contemporary Western Christianity is a reflection of the shallowness of the current state of the Church. Burke holds the solution, but, as with any behavioral change, it will take resolution.

To speak more generally, I would recommend these pieces to anyone who desires to have a rich emotional life. Especially to anyone who desires to have a rich emotional experience with the arts and religion. Which I would recommend to everyone.