exercise 1.4 – perspectives on the sublime

boys, cliffs, storms and a new translation of Beowulf

Is it reasonable to suggest that the sublime remains a gendered concept? Are we becoming more open to questioning previously held assumptions (unconscious) about whose view we are being asked to take?

– LPE Coursebook – p.48

We are asked to post our answers to this question to  an ongoing thread on the OCA forum. So, on 11th March, I posted this:

What could be a more masculine reaction to the sublime than to have yourself tied to the mast of a ship in a storm so you could do a painting of it? Apart perhaps from saying you had been tied to the mast of a ship like Turner may have? Or of going so close to the edge of a decent-sized cliff that your girlfriend screams, or your mum tells you to, ‘Come away from the edge – NOW!’?

Stuff that attempts some sort of mastery (used advisedly) over both one’s fear and of the parts of (external) nature which cause it…


I had more difficulty coming up with an idea of the what a feminine sublime would be like until a couple of days ago I heard an interview with Maria Davina Headley talking about her new translation of Beowulf on Radio 4’s Today (9th March, at 08.22 – 2 hours 22 mins in, if you go onto Sounds and do listen again in the next few weeks) .

In the poem, Beowulf kills the monster, Grendell and is then in turn killed by Grendell’s mother. She has been described by earlier (male) translators as an ogress, a hungry fiend, an ugly troll-lady, a swamp-thing from hell; Headley translates her ‘as a very capable, single mother […] looking for a fair revenge. She gets the blood price; she kills one person. So she does basically the thing you’re allowed to do in feudal law

She goes on: ‘I was thinking about the pain that is a consistant thread through human history, the pain that is of various kinds of unexpected events that suddenly take your society down’ (which is what happens when Beowulf, a king, is killed by Grendell’s mother, but in the interview is also compared to the arrival in town of a great plague, or indeed pandemic).

The key bit is at Beowulf’s funeral: ‘Suddenly a woman speaks without permission and she basically screams – she screams a lament for all the things she knows are coming: in my translation she says, “reaping, raping, feasts of blood – more of the same”

Because she has always lived in a culture that doesn’t necessarily let her have the floor but she has a story and a story of living in a culture in which the unifying theme is that we war, we war we war and that is how we get our status. The people who are not the warriors are often being used as objects … so the grief at the end is not only “have I already lived this?” – more is coming and its going to be even worse…’

So:  is that possibly it – the feminine sublime – giving voice and life to people and things which are often being used as objects and how they are required to live with stuff that the objectifiers try, but fail to control?

I think I have a problem with the sublime, so – finding a catalyst for this exercise and fearing it might slip away – I wrote this in a blurt, two days after listening to Headley being interviewed on Today (and re-listening on BBCSounds to fillet it for quotes) posting it almost immediately. I then went back through the disappointingly sparse response from others and settled on the post preceding mine. A phrase in it stood out for me:

So, bearing in mind Joy’s linking the patriarchally dominated nature of society in 19th century Europe, and the way that society focussed on the more individual and transcendental aspects of the sublime, would it be fair to say that all the other, previously marginalised takes the sublime, are now surfacing as hyphenated forms of it and that, therefore, the feminine sublime is one way of viewing these things from a different perspective to (or indeed viewing things which did not seem particularly relevant or worthy of notice by) the dominant, masculine form two hundred years ago? And that this could be seen as being analogous to the way European colonists (and Western American settlers) ignored/missed completely the fact that there were already people there, who thought of the land and their place within it, in a completely different, yet from their point of view, more valid, way?

And hopefully others will respond – to me, to Joy – in turn…

(One last, brief thought on this topic, before I hit the publish button: I do wonder whether my inability to envisage doing the sort of intensely personal, revealing and introspective work made by female photographers  – Elina Brotherus’ Annunciation/Carpe Fucking Diem is a good example of this, particularly the subjective landscapes that bookend the central fertility treatment section – is connected to my standing on the other side of this particular gendered divide. I’ll put this up on the forum too…)


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