Mediation and the Sublime

[Quick editor’s note: For those of you who pay attention to my blog, this is my 200th post this year!]

This afternoon, I was listening to a lecture about the poetry of Emily Dickinson (What?! Don’t YOU do that on your lunch hour?) and I came across an interesting thought. The postmodern scholar Baudrillard speaks of the universe being mediated for us. Here’s an example: how many of us have been to Yosemite National Park? Not many, I wager. I lived in California for 30 years, and I have never visited this wonder of nature in the Sierras. The next question is this: how many of us have any thoughts about the place? Beautiful? Chilly? Full of bears? Polluted? Crowded? For me, those are the first thoughts come to mind. Our knowledge of a place, or an event, or a person, comes second hand, or is mediated. This term is appropriate, not only because there’s a go-between that filters most of our information, but that information, for all intents, is the media?

This is in sharp contrast to The Sublime. It’s a philosophical condition of wonder, and tension, or irreproducible astonishment at an object or idea. It might be described as a moment where you’d say “I have no words” and, due to your lack of words, you stop talking, and just wonder for awhile. This is not just me making up these terms, by the way. The Sublime is a well-established philosophical idea. We’re not talking about just good stuff, either. A sublime act may be a terrible one: the World Trade Center attacks, for example.

I’ve written about “little things” recently. I’ve even written about Emily Dickinson before. But that’s not really what I wanted to talk about yet. More on Dickinson, and a poem for y’all, later in this post. But right now, what interests me is the fact that we contemporary humans walk into almost every event prepared. Jaded? Maybe that’s a better word. Nothing surprises us anymore. Media(tion) has caused us all to view things askance. Things that may have amazed us, or shocked us, no longer give us that rawness.

Recently I was watching the TV sitcom The Middle (Well, I was listening to it. I seldom actually look at the TV). The family decided to go on a camping trip. The youngest son, Brick, was so engrossed in reading his nature guidebook, that he kept missing the actual bears, and mountains, and rivers around him. We find this funny, I think, because it’s us. We put our filters on and bears don’t shock us. We are no longer horrified by the news because we’ve sat through OJ Simpson murder trial, and Andrea Yates, who drowned her daughters in a lake. We’re fed a steady diet of horrific diseases via Grey’s Anatomy and House, and psychological problems through Dr Phil. Even our expectations of lifestyle are tainted by Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen. Or nature. Yosemite. Blah. Who cares? I’ve seen it, and stuff better than it, on TV.

My friend Don tells the story of watching The Godfather, in the cinema, in the early 1970s, and was horrified by the violence depicted in it. He’d never seen anything more shocking. Twenty years later, he had a videotaped version, and decided to show some people. He warned them “You’ll have never seen anything more violent.” His pals laughed throughout the film. They said it was cheesy. Not worth our time, and not violent at all. Had Don changed? I don’t think so. I think we have, as a culture, all been “mediated.” It’s become more stark. Sudden, jarring films like No Country For Old Men, Full Metal Jacket, or Reservoir Dogs do nothing. You’ll never hear the panicked shrieks of audiences who lined up to see Jaws. I’m sure you could add to the list.

When did you cry at a film because the sheer horror of the experience? I can name that one for me—it was Schindler’s List, which I saw in the theaters, and still haven’t found the heart to watch it a second time. I wonder if I’ll just repeat Don’s Godfather moment? I hope not.

I’m not an agent for less information. I’m simply stating that it’s more difficult than ever to appreciate something because it’s a sublime experience. When was the last time you listened to a song, and were swept away? Or bawled at a movie? Or were amazed by a walnut? When did you, in your worship, reach a moment of sublimity? Or, as the Righteous Brothers wail, have you lost that lovin’ feeling?

I try not to be “mediated.” It may be impossible these days. But I’ve got to start somewhere. I must recapture those moments of amazement, or horror, for my own, and not let them be filtered through another. I think that’s the soul of being human, and we’ve surrendered our privilege somehow.

Here’s the promised poem by Dickinson. Notice how she tries, and finally gives up, trying to interpret the bird. She’s blinded by her own humanness. Birds don’t “come down walks” or “let beetles pass”. They look at us as frightening and dangerous. When we don’t understand them, and they don’t understand us, there might be a meeting of the minds, but it’s better for the bird just to get the heck outta there before something awful happens. The bird, you see, operates in the state of the Now. They’re *always* in the sublime. I wouldn’t trade my life for that of a bird. I’m not a fan of raw angleworms, for one thing. But I guess, after a thousand words of mulling it through, we need mediation, or we can’t view the universe at all.


A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.

And then he drank a dew
From a convenient grass,
And then hopped sidewise to the wall
To let a beetle pass.

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all abroad,–
They looked like frightened beads, I thought;
He stirred his velvet head

Like one in danger; cautious;
I offered him a crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home

Than oars divide the ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or butterflies, off banks of noon,
Leap, splashless, as they swim.


4 thoughts on “Mediation and the Sublime”

  1. Schindler’s List was probably the last for me, too, and we saw that together, with Don, in the theatre in 1993. 18 years ago. I literally sobbed. I’m not a sobber, mind you. I tear-up, I may weep occasionally, but I seldom sob. I sat in my uncomfortable movie theatre seat, with my knees hugged to my chest, gasping for breath and tears streaming down my face through much of the film. I was audibly and visibly moved by that film, much to the annoyance of the audience members around me, I’m sure. I remember Don commenting afterwards that he was watching my reaction, but also the reaction of the other folks there, which was … meh; some, he said, even were laughing. Another example of your point regarding mediation: they just weren’t that shocked or moved by the inhumanity and violence that, to me, was unthinkable.
    I’ve actually stayed away from movies because I don’t *want* to be moved to that degree. Most notably, Sophie’s Choice. I was a teenager when it came out in the mid-80s(?), and I remember making the choice to not go see it. I knew the general plot and didn’t want to see it because I was afraid of how it would affect me. Once I became a mother, I knew I wouldn’t be able handle it, and in spite of my love of Meryl Streep, I can’t bring myself to Netflix it.

    @Sue – for the first few years of our marriage, we didn’t own a TV, mainly because we couldn’t afford one, nor could we afford the cable bill. Sure we missed out on some stuff (most notably, the first few seasons of Friends), but we learned that (1) we could have a perfectly enjoyable and entertaining time without it, (2) we didn’t really miss out on that much, and (3) without a TV to watch, it forced us to have actual conversations and get to know each other. Every time we’d go to my parents’ or brothers’ houses, I’d be shocked, and, to this day, am still annoyed that they have to have the TV running whenever they’re awake. It was an eye-opening experience that I highly recommend. We learned to only turn the TV on for the things we actually *want* to see. My kids have grown up with the attitude that it is *a* form of entertainment, but it is not their main pastime.


  2. This reminds me of a road trip I took with a couple of friends. We had just seen the movie Grand Canyon and on a whim decided to go TO the Grand Canyon. Honestly, I was not expecting much, just another pleasant view. Thankfully, I was wrong. When I looked down into that vast pit, I was blown away. Sadly, those experiences are few and far between.

    Great post!


  3. This kinda ties into my blog about how we need our senses. I agree with you about mediation, though. I’m considering “unplugging” for awhile. No TV, no internet (except to blog), no texting. The pace of life is slow here, but I keep making it faster with my electronics.


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