sublime moments penelope matheson

Penelope Matheson


♦ Sublime moments: canary birds, a lamprey and Jean Francois Lyotard 


When the ebullient Para Handy1 (The eponymous hero of Neil Munro’s short stories) described a person, scene or object as ‘chust sublime’ he probably2 wasn’t thinking of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s reworking of the Kantian sublime never mind the Critique of Judgement by Immanuel Kant himself.


Lyotard noted that ‘the word sublime is common currency today to colloquial French to suggest surprise and admiration, somewhat like America’s ‘great’.3 And Para Handy’s description of his prize canary seems to echo the philosopher’s contention that common talk has given a meaning to the word that Kant never imagined.


But maybe Para Handy was not so far from Lyotard’s interpretation after all when he said (contemptuously) ‘Canaries…I have a canary yonder at home that would give you a sore heid to hear him singing. He’s chust sublime.’4



Lyotard described the sublime as a mixture of pleasure and pain that defied rational comprehension– a bit like the migraine inducing bird song! He also (rather waspishly) reminded us that this concept has ‘belonged to the most rigorous reflections on art ’5 for at least two hundred years despite the fact that these days the word seems to be used to describe any thing that is nice or attractive. In fact a sublime moment is more likely to be a name for a brand of chocolate than a considered judgement about an artwork.


In the past, the sublime was used to describe objects that evoked a feeling of awe (the word awesome has now come to have another meaning too – but that is a whole other paper). Immanuel Kant considered huge, violent or formless objects such as a mountain, a storm or our idea of God to be worthy of description sublime; huge experiences that seemed to defy comprehension. Kant’s problem was that the overwhelming sensation was not without pleasure – and that in some way we could understand it by using reason. He argued that the sublime ‘cannot be contained in any sensible form but concerns only ideas of reason.6


However, nowadays most of us think we know far too much to be overwhelmed by a mere mountain or a storm. After all, the Discovery channel7 is just a click away. It maybe that God induced sublimity is still up for grabs but personally I would rather find my sublime moments in art.


Jean Francois Lyotard found the sublime in postmodern avant-garde art. He described postmodern artists as seeking to ‘present the unpresentable’.8 Lyotard used the work of Barnett Newman as a perfect example of avant-garde art because Newman consciously tries to ‘achieve the sublime in his paintings, and Lyotard believed he achieved this by making people feel that something profound and important is going on in his works, but without having a clue what that something was.’9


A close friend of Newman, Thomas Hesse, suggested that this might be compared to the Makon or Hamakon of Jewish tradition – the site or place which is one of the names given to the Lord.10 There is a concept in the Kabbala called the Tzim-Tzum – an ‘empty space’ in which spiritual and physical worlds and ultimately, free will can exist and this is why God is often referred to as ‘Hamakon’ or the space.


This does seem to accord with some of Kant’s theories about the sublime. However, Lyotard was honest enough to admit that he did not completely understand the concept of the Hamakon.


Neither do I, but I am rather partial to the word TzimTzum .


It maybe though, that the sublime is not just confined to such rarefied concerns as art or the idea of God. I think I have found an instance in a children’s book – Fox in Socks by the incomparable Dr Seuss.11 Towards the end of the book come these immortal lines.


‘Lets have a little talk about tweetle beetles….

What do you know about tweetle beetles? Well….

When tweetle beetles fight,

It’s called a tweetle beetle battle.

And when they battle in a puddle,

it’s a tweetle beetle puddle battle.


AND when tweetle beetles battle with paddles in a puddle,

they call it a tweetle beetle puddle paddle battle.




When beetles battle beetles in a puddle paddle battle

and the beetle battle puddle is a puddle in a bottle….

….they call this a tweetle beetle bottle puddle paddle bottle muddle.




When beetles fight these battles  in a bottle with their paddles and the bottle’s on a poodle and the poodles eating noodles…

…. they call this a muddle puddle tweetle poodle beetle noodle bottle paddle battle.’


I don’t know anyone who can read this aloud without almost crying with laughter and frustration. There is certainly a mixture of pleasure and pain; and it seems that it is no accident. It probably comes as no surprise that this book has been the subject of the most rigorous linguistic deconstruction. One student is creating a Transformational-Generative Diagram on the sentence ‘When beetles battle beetles in  a puddle paddle battle and the beetle battle puddle is a puddle in a bottle they call this a tweetle beetle bottle puddle battle muddle.’12 And another debates whether Dr Seuss had got his syntax wrong by mistake or had deliberately set out to ‘create a cross-serial dependency with tweetle, beetle, poodle, and noodle just for fun.’13


I think the answer is clear – the good doctor was invoking the sublime.


I had another small but perfect sublime moment in the D’Arcy Thompson Museum – the precious gleaming jewel in the dark heart of the Carnellie building which used to house the now defunct Zoology department of Dundee University. Among the many impressive natural history specimens is a sea lamprey from the Baltic which hangs, stewing in its own juice so to speak, in a beautiful Victorian bell jar. Most of its soft tissues have long since dissolved but the terrible jawless mouth with its serrated rows of backward facing teeth remains exposed in a ghastly rictus. It looks as if it is screaming unheard in its glass prison.14 It gave me a deliciously uneasy sensation.


Sublime moments are everywhere if you know where to find them.15



[1] The eponymous hero of Neil Munro’s short stories

[2] I say ‘probably’ because one should never underestimate the Gael. I have not infrequently encountered seemingly bucolic crofters and fishermen whose level of intellectual sophistication would leave M. Lyotard gasping on his Gauloises.  This is borne out by Gavin Maxwell in his ‘Ring of Bright Water’ (1960). He described his neighbour, Calum Murdo as ‘a Highlander living in remarkable isolation…. yet having read most of the classics and to have voluble and well informed views on politics national and international.’ p32. As the last Para Handy story appeared in the Glasgow Evening News in 1923 and Lyotard was not born until the following year it is probably safe to say that the Master Mariner did not know his work. However, that does not rule out a knowledge of Kant and other thinkers who have considered the problem; the Highland scholar pegging away in the kitchen by the light of Tilley lamp is more than a romantic notion.

[3] Lyotard, Jean Francois, ‘The Sublime and the Avant-Garde.’ The Inhuman, p92

[4] Munro, Neil, ‘The Prize Canary’, The Vital Spark, p5

[5] Lyotard, ibid, p92

[6] Kant, Immanuel, The Critique of Judgement, 179

[7] A documentary TV channel available in over 409 million households worldwide.

[8] Lyotard, Jean-Francois, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. 1985

[9] Woodward, Ashley, Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Lyotard

[10] Lyotard, J.F The Inhuman, p86

[11] Seuss, Dr, Fox in Socks, 1965

[12] ‘Ryleemus’.

[13] Neal, Literalminded blog as above. (NB the use of the Oxford comma here is not mine. I do not approve of them )

[14] See footnote 18, Pleionexia Revisited.

[15] This compels me to mention (somewhat against my will) that I am reminded of the Pet Shop Boys’ 1985 opus ‘Opportunities’ – (there’s a lot if you know where to find them)’. Just like sublime moments then.


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Lyotard. J.F, The Inhuman, 1988.

Lyotard, J.F, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, 1979

Lyotard, J.F, ‘Presenting the Unpresentable; the Sublime.’ Artforum 1982

Matheson, Penelope, ‘Pleionexia Revisited’ 2014

Maxwell, Gavin, Ring of Bright Water, Longmans, Green & Co, 1960

Munro, Neil, The Vital Spark, (from the Para Handy omnibus) Birlinn Ltd, 1992

Seuss, Dr, Fox in Socks, Random House, 1965

Van Hoogstraten, Samuel, Introduction to the Academy of Painting, or the Visible World, Rotterdam, 1678

Woodward, Ashley,



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I’m a recent graduate of the MFASP course at DJCAD. Previously I was out to grass on a remote croft in Colbost, north west Skye. I spend a lot of time breeding, photographing and, incidentally, occasionally sleeping with caterpillars.


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