A Young Person's Guide to the Pathological Sublime


18 Responses to “A Young Person's Guide to the Pathological Sublime”

  1. Emily (koenji calling) says:

    Oh Mr. Dery, as though your essays weren’t beautiful enough in print now you have to go and spread joy to my reader too. Thank you :)

  2. Beanolini says:

    #4, haineux:

    In the room were some books, and one of the books showed pictures of diseases of the mouth.

    Years later, I still won’t look.

    I was similarly exposed to Gresham’s “Colour Atlas of Forensic Pathology” at an early age, and experienced a number of unpleasant physical reactions. Incidentally, Gresham is rather scornful about Damien Hirst’s use of pathological imagery.

    My pet theory on the attraction of monstrous pathology is that it has the same mechanism as (much) comedy; the setting of expectation followed by subversion of that expectation. In this case the expectation is of a body image within the range normally experienced- the pathology presents a gross distortion of that expectation.

  3. blueelm says:

    Hey! This is beyond the pale… something relevant to my own research on boingboing. Thank you sir.

  4. mdh says:

    I’ve always seen it as the moment when you forget anyone else exists, and you just are.

  5. Fred Bush says:

    Not often that BoingBoing intersects with my lit education. I too took an entire class on the sublime back in the day.

    A wonderful essay. Thank you!

  6. nosehat says:

    Thanks for the interesting essay and source material. Freakshows do raise questions about one’s own identity that are very much like the disruptions of the sublime.

    Paul Youngquist’s Monstrosities would probably be of interest to you as well.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Personally, when I need to destabilize “repressive totalities,” I reach for a Bombay martini

    Psilocybin works too. Plus, the bush family hates those pesky psychedelics so it’s like sticking one to the man!

  8. haineux says:

    When I was a child, we stayed at a motel somewhere, during one of those car-based vacations. In the room were some books, and one of the books showed pictures of diseases of the mouth.

    Years later, I still won’t look.

  9. Tdawwg says:

    Nice image of the eye “kindl[ing]” before the pathological sublime. I’m wondering if that’s just in the sense of “becomes interested,” or was the author trying to say that sublime objects actually affect our eyes differently? Is “kindles” a way of physiologically talking about how the eye perceives sublime, weird, grotesque, etc. objects?

    No “arguably” about sublimity’s Greek pedigree: Longinus in the third century CE wrote the Peri hypsos (About the Sublime, or, literally, About the Stuff that Goes Over). Burke read Longinus, etc.

    You say you’re the first to discover the Parker images, but the site linked to cites other scholars as having worked on and prepared the images. Was this at your instigation? Or are you the first person to write about these images, having found them? Or something else? Not to overly question you, but the causation of this was a bit unclear to me.

    Tiny correction: to fascinate more properly comes from the Latin verb fascinare: “to enchant.” Fascinatus is adjectival and would be properly “bewitched, enchanted, fascinated.” The correlation with fasces (“A bundle of rods bound up with an axe in the middle and its blade projecting. These rods were carried by lictors before the superior magistrates at Rome as an emblem of their power.” [OED]) is obvious, and, of course, with Fascism, which point has been made at length by the to-you-morally-ponderous (!) Susan Sontag in her essay “Fascinating Fascism.”

    I’m sort of wondering what you think about the question you pose

    What are the long-term affects, in individual as well as societal terms, of gawking at the atrocity exhibition?

    which is a very important question. (It’s “effects,” BTW: another quibble.) Cognitive scientists might be able to supply answers to what happens to us as individuals, but it would be good to hear from you what you think these effects might be. Certainly a curious (if not sublime) mixture of dispassionate spectacle gazing, revulsion, attraction, empathy, etc.

    Rich stuff.

  10. Day Vexx says:

    Speaking as someone with an actual phobia of deformities, I’m going to say that I find nothing “sublime” about the subject. I get where you’re going with it– I’m just not along for that particular ride.

    My version is something more like attempting to focus my hearing on any of the billion or so roaring insects surrounding me in my yard on an otherwise-still evening.

  11. addexm says:

    That was one of the most self-indulgent things I’ve ever read on the internet.

    Not wholly uninteresting, but self-indulgent nevertheless.

    Maybe I’m just in a bad mood…but dammit!

  12. Strange Quark Star says:

    Wow, just a few hours ago I read Bruce Sterling’s The Beautiful and The Sublime and got exposed for the first time to this subject.
    And now this interesting post! What a day.

  13. Rich Keller says:

    This is one of those Apollinian versus Dionyssian things again? I was thinking that if we didn’t live in a world of straight lines and flat planes, the “sublime” would be less terrifying and more majestic. I think we’re out of tune with the natural world and we get kind of freaked out by natural beauty. Natural monsters, or deformities, transfix us, too. I wouldn’t call this fascination sublimation, though. Sublimation takes you outside of yourself, like dry ice going right from solid to vapor. Deformity just makes me think, “there but for the grace of genetic lottery go I.”

  14. mr.skeleton says:


  15. M. Dery says:

    @16: Right, The Atlantic Monthly, not Harper’s. Another in an increasingly frequent series of Senior Moments. Nice catch. Thanks for keeping me honest.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Sorry to nitpick, but Boston history is a hobby of mine and I believe Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. wrote for The Atlantic Monthly (he named the periodical), not Harper’s.

  17. Anonymous says:

    An exceptional post by a seemingly exceptional guest writer.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Rather late to the fair, but the paintings at Yale are almost certainly not the copies that Holmes saw. Harvard’s rare medical library, The Countway has its own copies of the Lam Qua portraits. They are not in as good condition as Yale’s in some cases. But the provenance accords with with the exhibit that Holmes wrote about in 1845. They were given to Harvard by Robert Hooper (Clover Hooper’ father, the wife of Henry Adams) and they have a copy of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal containing the article in question that indicates Holmes’s authorship. Nice article on the pathological sublime. Best,

    Steve Rachman

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