A post about a fortnight ago at Some Space to Think has me thinking about what tools a DM has to build a ‘personal’ game, as well as what ‘personal’ actually means in a gaming context. Of course, this means that what would, to normal people, be a discussion of role-playing tips and techniques has turned into a lengthy series of posts that might as well be called ‘justifying my BA in English literature.’
I promise that the next post will actually be about role-playing. Honest. But a little literary theory never hurt anybody, and it’s important to understanding what I want to talk about next time.
For someone who majored in English literature, I have a generally antagonistic relationship with literary theory. For example, I tend to frame my analysis of work based off of my knowledge of the time period the work was written. It makes me cranky when people insist that a Freudian analysis of an 1847 work is clearly what the author intended. Other things that make me cranky: anything written by Michel Foucault, deconstruction, New Criticism.
Panel 4 is pretty much how I got through college.
But the point of this article is not to rail against literary criticism, as much as I enjoy doing so. No, the point of this article is to discuss one of the backbones of Gothic literary theory: the sublime and the beautiful. Believe me when I say it’s taking all my willpower to resist speaking at length on the rise and development of the Gothic novel; how socio-political pressures in England influenced the typical Gothic setting; or the subversion/reinforcement of traditional gender roles in these novels. It’s really, really hard.
In modern times, the word sublime has taken on a connotation of something exquisite or transcendental. That’s not the definition Edmund Burke was going for when he wrote A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Burke drew on the original definition of sublime: a force of great magnitude that the mind has difficulty encapsulating. Infinity is an example of one such force. Darkness is another. Because our perception of these forces is limited, an emotional tension is created. On one side is our natural curiosity—we want to find out more about these mysterious forces. On the other side is our natural fear of the unknown, driven largely by our fear of death. Thus, the sublime is a force that compels us, but can also destroy us.
The beautiful, as Burke defines it, something that is well-made and aesthetically pleasing. A painting or sculpture can be beautiful. If I recall right, milk is also beautiful according to Burke.
On the other hand, maybe he was on to something.....
He goes on to say that the purpose of beautiful objects is to create pleasure, and also to calm the nerves, such as after encountering something sublime.
Burke also has a lot to say about pleasure and pain.
Fun fact: literary criticism is a lot more entertaining if you picture Pinhead reading it out loud to his fellow Cenobites. Just saying.
In fact, he spends more time talking about pleasure and pain than he does the sublime and the beautiful. Which is kind of odd, when you consider the title of his book. Both the sublime and the beautiful create pleasure, although through different means. The beautiful, as I mentioned earlier, drawing from the ‘passion of love’ (and not lust or desire, as Burke takes many pains to state), calms and soothes the soul of the viewer and creator. The sublime creates pleasure through a vicarious thrill—we are scared by it, but also relieved that it’s just a story or it couldn’t happen to me.
I’ve gone on for too long on a relatively minor work of literary criticism. And this is a very surface level description of Burke’s work. But it’s a good starting point for what I want to talk about next time. I might need to elaborate some more as I go on, but I’m hoping I’ve covered the most important parts of the work.
1) Things we don’t understand are scary
2) Milk is tasty
3) Literary Criticism is a load of dingo droppings
4) Things we find pretty calm us down
EDIT: A quote from my dearest darling husband: “Lies, a BA in English is never justified, only rationalized.” How true, how true….