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Conservative Radicalism in Edmund Burke’s ‘A Philosophical Inquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful’

A reissued classic of aesthetic theory asks, Can the body be a critic?

Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Sublime and Beautiful, reprinted in the Oxford World’s Classics series with a new introduction and notes by Paul Guyer, is one of aesthetic theory’s great essays. It’s also followed by the world’s longest Reddit comment — sexist, racist, confused, earnest, digestible, internally contradictory. In it’s ambition and confidence it has indeed fulfilled those ambitions.

Due, let’s say, to his own good sense, Burke published the canonical second edition of A Philosophical Inquiry in 1759, two years after the first. He added the “Introduction on Taste”, based around the alluringly misguided claim that “taste” is a fundamental characteristic of humanity. This is the most thorough explication around of the popular undergraduate hipster equivocation (which I have peddled in darker moments) that if two people had the same background, they would have the same taste, i.e. “You only get Emerson, Lake & Palmer if you understand the Russo-Romantic musical traditions to which they respond” (original emphasis).

Living in post-post society, we are beyond deeply beyond (or at least, we’d like to think we are) such skeptical claims like this. More than their universal declarations at a time when “mankind” extended precisely to the drawing-room door, Enlightenment philosophers were quite literally defined by a hard-on for “reason” as a total and controllable faculty. “The cause of a wrong Taste is a defect of judgment,” Burke says, pining after a scene of reasoning free from the vagaries of anything like human existence. Of course, he preempts us: “(A)lmost the only pleasure that men have in judging better than others, consists in a sort of conscious pride and superiority, which arises from thinking rightly,” which manages to both squash and elevate contemporary contests of artistic evaluation (see: Jonathan Franzen, PC Music, the kitsch-irony/subversion-hegemony nexus).

Burke is no Carl Wilson: his ambivalence runs deep. What’s so interesting about the “Introduction on Taste” is that he has no idea. “I despair of ever receiving the same degree of pleasure from the most excellent performances of genius which I felt [in infancy], from pieces which my present judgment regards as trifling and contemptible.” And yet, “it is probable that the standard of reasoning and Taste is the same in all human creatures.” It’s impossible to know what Burke is getting at, but watching him struggle between base pleasure (the pleasure we might find in, say, mass-culture productions) and critical evaluation is acutely painful for anyone who has even considered criticism as a calling. Which is to say, the “Introduction on Taste” is a meta-performance of the work of the critic, and in that is also pathetic.

What follows in the main text is considerably less ambivalent, and enormously less controlled. Burke intended to provide a unified theory of opposed aesthetic modes, the sublime and the beautiful; he ended up with something so much more haptic and sensual, it’s a wonder he bothered to quote poetry as evidence. He wrote the five-part main text at 27 or 28, not abnormally young for a British monographer at the time, but despite the essay’s influence and well-turned rhetoric, his argumentative inexperience shows.

He would later activate his already-legible conservatism into political commentary, first supporting the American Revolution and then decrying the French Revolution, but as a philosopher he contents himself with structuralist disingenuousness: there is no quality of the sublime nor the beautiful that cannot be broken down into constituent factors, no gradation of pleasure or pain that is unnameable. As I neared the end, the most pleasurable reading experience available was to watch Burke’s zany performance of comprehensiveness. Even as he registers lacuna after lacuna, attending to them as he can, his efforts dissolve into an argument without territory.

The insurmountable trouble, the salted earth he’s trying to till, is the human body itself. The beautiful and sublime, to Burke, are aesthetic reactions to the particularities of physical sensation. If the sensation is painful, the primary cause is sublime; if the reaction is pleasurable, the primary cause is beautiful. Thus, large things are sublime because, “the eye must traverse the vast space of such bodies with great quickness, and consequently the fine nerves and muscles destined to the motion of that part must be very much strained; and their great sensibility must make them highly affected by this straining.”

However, the inverse does not apply to beauty, as small things are perfectly capable of ugliness. He continues with various binaries: smooth/rough, sweet/bitter, soft/hard, and yes, the queasy white/black (for Burke this is more than connotation, it is explicitly racial) and masculine/feminine. (Lest we allow that this is merely the sexism of the 18th century, remember that Mary Wollstonecraft turned right around to call him on this nonsense.)

We might call it materialist, though that seems too affectively limited. Burke attempted to theorize a comprehensively physiological taxonomy of artistic response. His vision of the body as an absolute machine while at the same time a source of transcendent reason and judgment manifests here with legible anxiety, even if in the long view Aristotle troubled over the same question. And anyone who has tapped their foot to a dumb song. Call it physiology. Call it your body. It’s out of your control.

RATING 5 / 10