A Young Person's Guide to the Pathological Sublime


Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

So, what is this thing, the Pathological Sublime? Many, if not most, Boing Boing readers who have done the grad-school death march will be familiar with the sublime, a durable philosophical meme that, arguably, dates back to the Greeks but is more typically associated, in academic circles, with Edmund Burke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. The invaluable Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism helpfully defines the sublime as:

a sense of wonder or awe (colored by fear, according to English theorists), which is created by the experience of grandness or 'vastness'; and in some cases writing on the sublime comes close to being nothing more than a list of objects said to produce the effect in question: mountains, oceans, Milton, an angry deity, etc. At its most sophisticated, however, 18th-century reflection on the sublime shows a new interest in aesthetic psychology, with attention shifting away from the sublime object and onto the response of the reading or perceiving subject.

The Dictionary goes on to note that this tactical interest in the psychological reverberations of the sublime was in some ways a reaction against neo-classical virtues such as order, symmetry, and The Beautiful, with which it (the sublime) is often counterpoised.

(This cultural dynamic replayed itself in the postmodern era, when critics such as Jean-Francois Lyotard rebooted the sublime as a corrective to the instrumental rationalism of modernism. Personally, when I need to destabilize "repressive totalities," I reach for a Bombay martini, the reliable culprit behind many of "Poppy" Bush's snarling rants to the startled press corps on Air Force One, according to several Bush family bios.)

 Wikipedia Commons 5 5B Caspar David Friedrich 032-1

In time, the sublime came to be associated with Romanticism, especially German Romanticism. The 19th century German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich is the poster boy for brooding, fog-haunted sublimity. His "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog" (1818) is a textbook example of the human psyche overwhelmed by the illimitable vastness and awful grandeur of nature, whose monumental scale and mysterious workings and, more to the point, utterly alien lack of purpose (teleologically speaking, at least) or meaning (in any human sense, anyway) combined to make the viewer's sense of self dwindle suddenly to a guttering spark, alone in the cosmos. (Paul Bowles anatomizes this phenomenon with his usual surgical skill in a marvelous little reverie called "The Baptism of Solitude".)

But the go-to guy for the sublime, as we know think of it, was the 18th century conservative politician and philosopher Edmund Burke. In A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756), Burke drove a wedge between the accepted definition of the sublime and prevailing notions of beauty, arguing that, in our psychological experience of sublime nature, delight and terror---a sort of epistemic vertigo, in which our sense of our place in the order of things is unsettled---commingle disconcertingly. "The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature...is astonishment," wrote Burke, in A Philosophical Inquiry. "And astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror."

Pardon my grad-school seminar. But I had to tell you these things, by way of background, to make sense of the Pathological Sublime. Back in the late '90s, while researching an essay on "Formaldehyde Photography and the New Grotesque" for my book The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink, I was thinking about the fervent cult following that had sprung up, like toadstools in the cultural unconscious, around the morbid photos of Joel-Peter Witkin. I was thinking, too, about the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, and its growing status as a must-destination for medical-goth tourists---Hannibal Lecter's idea of family fun. Felicitously, the Mütter's beloved (and now late and much-lamented) curator Gretchen Worden faxed me what I would come to regard as the skeleton key to the deeper meanings of these subcultural phenomena, in the form of a brief, unsigned essay from the May 21, 1845 issue of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal.

Worden was emphatic in her belief that the author of the anonymous essay was none other than Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., a thought leader in the medical community of his day as well as a celebrated wit, poet, popular essayist for Harper's, and author of the best-selling collection of squibs and vignettes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858). The evidence seems to be on her side: certainly, the droll style is vintage Holmes. It's a deliciously bizarre little bon-bon, well worth searching out. (Lawrence Weschler reproduces the "marvelous unsigned item," virtually in its entirety, in the endnotes to his book Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, about the Museum of Jurassic Technology.)

Titled "Illustrations of Tumors among the Chinese," the item in question is a droll, tongue-in-cheek (?) review, by a doctor addressing the medical men who made up the journal's readership, of an exhibition of oil paintings of Chinese patients with skin diseases, many of them characterized by grotesque tumors. The author exhorts "worshippers of morbid anatomy" to savor the perverse pleasures of these startling images. The fact that "these monstrous diseased growths are very serious things to our poor fellow-creatures of the Celestial empire" doesn't inhibit the writer's artistic appreciation of another man's afflictions. (Edward Said, White Courtesy Phone: cringing at the author's genteel colonialism, the contemporary reader reminds himself that Holmes---granting that Holmes is the author---was writing in the Victorian age, when the Great White Male's self-satisfied perch atop the Social Darwinian ladder was plain for all to see, received anthropological wisdom well-supported by craniometric fact and cultural achievement.) Transposing the Burkean sublime into the key of pathological anatomy, the author writes, "The truth is, the practiced eye kindles at the sight of any very remarkable excrescence, as the traveler's does at that of lofty mountains or colossal edifices."

Holmes has done a fascinating thing, here, shifting the philosophical gaze from wild nature (storm-tossed seas, vertiginous chasms, Olympian mountains) to the human, specifically the human body (and by implication its mysterious interior, a lead pursued by the photographer Max Aguilera-Hellweg in The Sacred Heart, a gasp-inducing book of images from operating rooms, such as Hellweg's photo of a ribcage jimmied open to expose a heart beating in a slurry of gore, the body exhaling its heat from the newly opened crevice like the corporeal equivalent of a hydrothermal vent). Holmes pushes the envelope of Burke's horror into what for Burke would have been regions of unimaginable strangeness: the abject flesh of the pathological (and, by extension, teratological) body. A transport of aesthetic rapture that is equal parts horror and wonder, the Pathological Sublime is inspired by dark matter that holds beauty and repulsion in perfect, quivering tension. Refusing the moral gaze, the Pathological Sublime surrenders to the spell, at once aesthetic, psychological, and philosophical, of the fascinating (a word whose etymological roots are instructive: from the Latin fascinatus, "bewitch, enchant"), no matter the moral or ethical cost.

Holmes's insights have proven invaluable in my thinking about what makes "worshippers of morbid anatomy" tick---why so many of us fall prey to the uncanny seductions of La Specola's obstetric Venuses and the wax moulages of pathological conditions on display at museums such as the Mütter. It's also helping me wrestle with questions like: When do we avert our eyes in horror, and when do we reserve the right to stare, in a world where any morning's forwarded e-mail can bring us face-to-face with terrorist trailers for real-life beheadings or worse, images that once seen will replay themselves forever in the multiplex of the mind, scarring us in ways we don't yet understand? Where does aesthetics end and ethics begin? (Sontag had some thoughts on this in Regarding the Pain of Others, but her moral ponderousness, her ever-present sense of her own gravitas, crushes flat the subversive glee in Thinking Bad Thoughts and Looking at Forbidden Things that I believe is essential to free thought.) What are the long-term effects, in individual as well as societal terms, of gawking at the atrocity exhibition?

Recently, while rolling these ideas around in my head, I decided, on a whim, to try to track down the paintings in Holmes's review. Incredibly, I believe I've located the very images whose virtues he extolled; I believe, as well, that I'm the first scholar to have done so. Tucked away in the basement of Yale University's Historical Medical Library are the archives of the Reverend Dr. Peter Parker, a Yale graduate and the first American surgeon to practice in China. A medical missionary, Parker established the first American hospital in Guangzhou and, while there, commissioned the Chinese artist Lam Qua to paint a series of before-and-after portraits of patients suffering from tumors, which Parker surgically removed. We know, from Stephen Rachman's illuminating essay, "Curiosity and Cure: Peter Parker's patients, Lam Qua's portraits," that Parker was in Boston in 1841, lecturing to "an enthusiastic audience gathered at a special meeting of the Boston Medical Association"---a presentation Parker illustrated with the Victorian equivalent of PowerPoint: a series of photorealistically accurate paintings of patients with unspeakable tumors, and of those same sufferers delivered from their agonies by Parker's deft scalpel. I believe Holmes was in the audience at one of Parker's lectures, and that the brief, untitled review in the Journal is his response to Lam Qua's astonishing images, "hand-painted dream photographs" (Dali) of pathologist's nightmares.

Rachman argues that the Parker paintings drew crowds of medical men---for purely professional reasons, ostensibly, although Holmes's little essay debunks that notion neatly---at "a time when Americans began to participate on a mass scale in the business of curiosity" through P.T. Barnum's American Museum in New York City, dime museums in other metropolises, and carnival midways in small towns. Even now, he argues, the paintings "remain 'curiosities,' uncontrolled growths like the tumors they present, artifacts that startle tact and science rather than promote scientific and cultural order." He cites, in support of his argument, a telling "bit of undated doggerel" found inside one of the cabinets containing the rarely exhibited paintings:

Peter Parker's pickled paintings
Cause of nausea, chills & faintings;
Peter Parker's putrid portraits,
Cause of ladies' loosened corsets;
Peter Parker's purple patients,
Causing some to upchuck rations.
Peter Parker's priceless pictures:
Goiters, fractures, strains and strictures.
Peter Parker's pics prepare you
For the ills that flesh is heir to.

I give you the Pathological Sublime.

Top: Peter Parker Collection, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University. All rights reserved; reproduced under Fair Use provision of copyright law.

Second: "The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog" (1818), Caspar David Friedrich. Collection: Kunsthalle, Hamburg. Reproduced under the Fair Use provision of copyright law.

Third: From Morbid Anatomy.com. Reproduced under Fair Use provision of copyright law.


  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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.”

  9. 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 :)

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

  11. 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!

  12. #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.

  13. 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.

  14. @16: Right, The Atlantic Monthly, not Harper’s. Another in an increasingly frequent series of Senior Moments. Nice catch. Thanks for keeping me honest.

  15. 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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