Monsters and the Sublime

Lately, in class, we have been exploring the nature of the monster – looking specifically at how monstrosity may function to represent alterity, deviancy or otherness, to reveal sinister or corrupt aspects of the unconscious, to blur the boundary between the real and unknown, to reflect individual, societal or evolutionary anxieties, or to, aesthetically, induce fear or create an atmosphere of strangeness.
However, despite these many potential forms and meanings, it is interesting to consider how monsters are unified (and uniformly made effective) through a shared connection to the sublime.

monster chain

Colloquially, the sublime is used as a synonym for the enjoyable (for instance, it is not uncommon to hear a person refer to a tasty meal as ‘sublime’). However, Edmund Burke makes an important distinction between the sublime and the beautiful by emphasizing that the sublime transcends straightforward aesthetic or sensual pleasures, dwelling instead in extremities of pain, terror, danger, darkness and expanse.

hamburger and waterfall

Burke emphasizes that “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime” (Burke 24). In addition, he observes that “to make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes” (Burke 40).

Considering our class’ recent discussions, it seems that our understanding of the monster is in agreement with this definition of the sublime; often posing a threat to physiological, psychological, social or aesthetic harmony, the monster is implicitly dangerous. Furthermore, the monster can be seen as meeting Burke’s requirement for obscurity. Slippery in definition, the monster occupies a sort of liminal space – a space in-between life and death, the known and unknown, the comprehensible and incomprehensible.

monster as edmund's sublime

If we consider monstrosity in this way – monstrosity as something sublime that creates an “overwhelming sense of awe or other high emotion through being vast or grand” (“Sublime”) – we may be able to gain insight into why the monster archetype is, inherently, so powerful. Perhaps the monster is successful at departing rich and diverse meaning in part because it is first able to arrest us through invoking this sense of awe. Perhaps before the monster is meaningful, it is sublime.

transcendent monster

Works Cited

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. 1759. New York: Dover, 2008. Print

“Sublime.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, October 2014. Web. 


3 thoughts on “Monsters and the Sublime”

  1. Really interesting idea! Looking at the connections between the monsters is very interesting, especially how they reach such power in stories. The comics are also great, the waterfall/hamburger one is hilarious.

  2. I find it interesting that most monsters in fiction fall under one of two opposing categories: sublime monsters that are terrifying because they exist in the extremes of human consciousness and sometimes a bit beyond into the unknown or monsters that are distinctly human in that they represent human values we all have but condone for a variety reasons. I suppose they both create fear but different kinds. Sublime monsters are unknowable in their scale which creates both a sense of wonder and fear. Human monsters are familiar to us so they lose their sense of awe but the idea of associating with a monster creates a fear of ourselves. It is weird to think we can be scared of both the known and the unknown.

    1. I agree with you, sometimes it seems the scariest monsters are in fact those that embody the base or sinister aspects of the human self. Thanks for your comment!

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