The Homoerotic Truth of the Sublime: A Philography

Michael Angelo Tata

I Sticky Strings: Time Re-imagined as Honey Trap

[1] A very long time ago—in another life, really, if the Proustian sense of ex-temporality may be invoked—I wrote a piece about the metaphysical and sexual, perhaps meta-sexual, dynamics of the sublime for a doctoral course at the City University of Graduate Center taught by Alexander Carrera, a visiting professor from NYU who had taken it as his mission to carry us In Search of the Sublime, as the course title, itself a promissory travelogue from a traveling thinker-man, had it. Professor Carrera, whom I loved enough to immortalize in Doug McKenzie: Porn Star, an egotistically sublime and dangerously long narrative poem about a Los Angeles friend who made his cinematic début in a film with one of those resonant titles, like Cuckoo for Cocoa Cocks, Hispanic Panic or some such marvel of carnal multivalence, enjoyed my perspective, although he remarked perhaps not incorrectly that the pan-sexualization of all experience was Papa Freud's greatest trick on the modern world. What he meant, of course, was that my desire to ascribe any kind of sexual core to the aesthetic phenomenon of sublimity was perhaps a belated psychoanalytic vestige, and that I exhibited a kind of youthful maivaise foi in taking the ideas of Longinus, Edmund Burke, John Dennis, Nicolas Boileau, Immanuel Kant and, closer to the present, Gilles Deleuze, among others, and using the poetics of their language to expose a visceral throb at the center of that irreducible phenomenality we call "The Sublime"—for me, truly a bodily, somatic, realtime, relational this-ness rooted in, yet transcending, all things physical—, both in the sense of physiological embodiment, and also in the sense of that rogue discipline Theoretical Physics, with its actions and reactions, waves, particles and membranes, as these structures, models and metaphors continue to redefine the materiality and substantiality of that material world Madonna famously encouraged us to inhabit.

[2] Professor Carrera never knew he had made it into a poem about a one-time porn star with his own fluffer and a table at Spago which, by the way, was either published or not published, as the San Diego editor promising to include it in his volume under the rubric BORDERED SEXUALITIES never really gave me any kind of non-Schrödingerian answer as to its fate, nor did he know that I would take the ideas I developed under his auspices and present them at a Valentine's Day conference at Fordham University named What's Love Got to Do with It? a year later while wearing see-through Gaultier. The world of ideas is a fleeting one, sheer as French couture, and when people vanish from one's RADAR, it's often a challenge to resituate, re-world or resuscitate them, and so I was never able to convey to Professor Carrera the trajectory my little nucleus of ideas had taken. Post-Fordham, this paper would find its way across the country, in a garage in Palm Springs, California, in a home my husband and I called the Love Bungalow, stuffed into a box with multifarious writings that had been deposited over the years not according to any rhyme or reason, but simply via the frantic logic of bodies in motion accumulating, dispersing, sheltering. As with so much of my scribbles, which seemed to contain their own amnesia self-destructively, I wrote it, then forgot about it. Sort of: for, years later, when I was dividing up the research materials associated with my dissertation into two volumes and had nearly finished the first, it inveigled its way into an endnote in that book, Sublime Superficiality, something few people, if any, would ever examine, as it required the kind of devotion that one infrequently encounters in the Belles Lettres. Committed to the periphery even against my better interests, I did exhibit the tendency to take important concepts and squirrel them away in an aside, a parenthetical notation or an endnote, a character flaw I had no way to combat, an Achilles tendon or blind spot without which it which it would be impossible to compose in the first place, as writing for me is always something of a hallucinated invincibility founded upon a series of vulnerabilities. And as the basic structure of writing, the ways in which we present and consume it, are very much at stake in my own individual acts of textual compartmentalization, information is sculpted and showcased according to rules, conventions, functions that bespeak consensus, consensuality, even conviviality. Thus some material becomes a preface, while other is categorized as notational and placed in a rummage box at book's end: that's just the way it is, as pop songs reassure us all the time when they take on the ontology of the amorous.

[3] With regard to my case, Leanne Gilbertson, a particularly astute reviewer for Rhizomes who had, in the course of reading and analyzing me, come to the conclusion that it seemed like I wanted to say something decisive about the ways in which the sublime has been gendered in the West, in particular with respect to the aesthetic play Warhol authored and authorized according to a bizarrely negativized capability, calling into question notions of effort, effect and agency, summoned me to do something with an endnote containing the seed of a gendered, sexualized, corporeal aesthetics. For her, the endnote in which I mentioned the possibility of there being a fundamental homoerotic kernel to sublimity in terms of the metaphors used by early aestheticians to define and describe it, resonated, and she publicly asked the question of what I had to say in this unpublished and hence un-public, private bit of writing that had long since degenerated into a subconscious conversation with myself. In benevolently interrogating me as such, she opened me in a way I hadn't expected, exciting the book's first fan, Arthur Danto, who in a private email that will no longer remain private, commented, "I think you have built a platform that she has occupied, promising a new level of Warhol analysis. Congratulations!" What he meant was: this clever reviewer had found a way to ask new questions about Warhol based on her excavations of my own textual latencies, those meanings that always escape the author, who in the end masters only a small portion of that vast oceanic polysemy threatening every island of meaning with erosion and flooding, reclamation by the pulsing sea of semantic possibility whose seams are magma-ridden rifts where chemosynthetic polychaetes play among toxins interpreted as nutrients.

[4] And yet, as Derrida demonstrates brilliantly in The Double Session, that portion of Dissemination committed to tracing the Mallarméan line from text to extra-text/hors-texte via the impossible folds of a hymen unsuccessfully separating an inside from an outside or an innocence from an experienced-ness and the fleshy multiplication of grafts on the surface of a literary body that comes to be more Frankensteinian than human, a Jocelyn Wildenstein or Joan Rivers with a countenance only science could love:

There is writing without a book, in which, each time, at every moment, the marking tip proceeds without a past upon the virgin sheet; but there is also, simultaneously, an infinite number of booklets enclosing and fitting inside other booklets, which are only able to issue forth by grafting, sampling, quotations, epigraphs, references, etc. Literature voids itself in its limitlessness (223).

In the Mallarméan instance, a poem (Mimique) leads to a playbill/booklet (Pierrot Murderer of His Wife, 2nd Edition) leads to a performance (Paul Margueritte's Pierrot Murderer of His Wife) leads to a social tableau (Mime→brother→son→father→cousin→Mallarmé); in mine, a review unearths an endnote leading back to a piece of writing that needs to be exhumed so that the reviewer can be answered in the interest of a potential futurity or longevity. Again, Derrida is on it:

It would not be enough to compose an encyclopedic catalogue of grafts (approach grafting, detached scion grafting; whip grafts, splice grafts, saddle grafts, cleft grafts, bark grafts; bridge grafting, inarching, repair grafting, bracing; T-budding, shield budding, etc.); one must elaborate a systematic treatise on the textual graft. Among other things, this would help us understand the functioning of footnotes, for example, or epigraphs; and in what way, to the one who knows how to read, these are sometimes more important than the so-called principal or capital text. And when the capital text becomes a scion, one can no longer choose between the presence or absence of the title (203).

That about sums it up, right? Principal/capital text—itself moneybag in a game of equivalences and exchanges that might or might not lead to satisfaction—shakes up primogeniture, trading places with graft and scion, as son eclipses father, periphery invades center and the supplément, always Rousseauan and masturbatory, turns the equation (x-a)2 + (y-b)2 = r2 to its advantage. Text gives way to endnote, generating a buzz rattling the apiary.

[5] The skewed temporality of the movement at stake in this drafty, grafty écriture is important in that it is, in the thought of Johanna Drucker, a textual metalogics revealing the dark matter prefiguring an idea as it undergoes morphogenesis in a bubble where genotype and phenotype, genotext and phenotext, make a game of Heidegger's apophansis. The idea I originally presented and which I here re-present—in the Derridean sense, mimic in a kind of auto-Mimique in which I double myself, or rather double the doubled self present in Leanne's review—was quite simply that in classic aesthetics, the qualities affiliated with the sublime, for example, angularity, jaggedness, roughness, irregularity, are also descriptors associated with masculinity and maleness. The quintessential paradigm seemed to be: a male with features like angularity, jaggedness, etc., has a close encounter with a pulverizing entity which uncannily shares/duplicates/exaggerates his physical traits, making sublimity a relation of same to same, much as beauty marked an experience in which same confronted different, as the attending male consciousness whose physicality is not defined by smoothness, curvature or symmetry came into contact with those features in an external object only to box, frame or otherwise manage them via delectation. My intention was not to create a bifid or commence a bifurcation or even contribute to bilateral symmetry: in fact, even then I knew it was quite possible to retain the beautiful and the sublime as vertices on some kind of polygon rather than items on opposite sides of an abyss. Yet it did seem to me that the tension between the beautiful and the sublime defined so much of our—and I do mean "our"—aesthetics, calling for a kind of oppositionality (presence/absence) or digitality (0/1), and so I left other categories, like the picturesque, the arabesque, the ugly, the monstrous, the carnivalesque, even the ghetto-fabulous, out of the fray for the moment, focusing my attention on the attending male consciousness merely noticing his responsiveness and being so bold as to erect a philosophy upon these raw feels via a systematization of sensuality. Given that (1) the language in which his responsiveness is described shares a lexicon with sadomasochism, and (2) the sublime experience is ultimately one of disempowerment, transcendence and eradication, it seemed clear to me that something vital and—dare I say it?—constitutive was occurring at the moment of sublimity, as male battled male for domination of mind, imagination, reason, finally submitting to a greater power, pinned to its perversions with reckless abandon.

[6] Since exploring the possibilities of a sexualized and gendered sublimity, I have taken many of the ideas embedded in my initial investigation into new and far-out directions. Organizing my reflections on cybernetics, sublimity and the kinds of sexuality we experience in the wake of increased virtuality around the trope of the Orgasmotron found in the cult classic film Barbarella, I explored the various short-circuitings produced by the sublime's mathematical and dynamic excesses in a piece called "Cybersublimity after the Orgasmotron" in the Australian e-journal Nebula. Taking the idea of the desiring-machine further and placing it in the context of the kinds of wishes, productions and mechanizations in play in Warhol's creativity, I took a closer look at what it means to record, replay and embody information and data in light of retention and protention in "Warholian Machinehood I: Automatic Emptiness and Autopoiesis" and "Warholian Machinehood II: World Text as External Time Consciousness," the first of which also found a home at Nebula, and the second of which settled in a little nest called rhizomes. Finally, I returned to Burke's aesthetics, which I must admit I find indispensible and inevitable, as they lure me back in time after time in a kind of bad romance, for a piece committed to the anthropology and poetics of that ultra-contemporary creature, the Metrosexual, for a special forthcoming Rodopi edition dedicated to straight men and their cultures (Heterosexuality). Here I re-visited the divergences of the beautiful and the sublime in Burke's thought in light of the Metrosexual's alliance with beauty—a strange move, given Burke's feminization of beauty and masculinization of the sublime. In making this analysis, my intention was to come back to that fantastic catalogue of qualities Burke divvies up between the sexes and to see how that distribution fares within modern heterosexuality, with its manscaped surfaces and softened angularities. For me, these investigations all begin here, in the piece of writing Leanne elicited in what has become a thread that I hope will attract other participants as we work together to dissolve the neutral philosophical I that is the great donné of Aesthetic Theory in favor of an embodied and situated self whose facticity informs rather than detracts from what she or he is able to regard, interpret and posit in the Open Set of sensual speculation.

[7] I am not entirely sure what I think about these original ideas today upon which I have built 14 years later and living across the continent, my husband recently deceased and only the giant blue desert moon keeping me entertained. OK, that and the black widows. What I know, though, from reading Leanne's detailed review of my work, is that publishing it will begin a larger dialogue about postmodern play and aesthetic subjectivities which are always gendered, no matter how we try to pretend they are neutral, neutered, transparent (in other words, "universal," or male, as the critique goes). I do even now, in this other-time that is not the time of my original writing but which connects to it via the gossamer filament of the arachnoid, find that there is something mysterious about a male/male, same/same interaction defining how the sublime has been initially presented at the base of that still relatively youthful discipline we call Aesthetics. Leanne's concerns were simply that not everyone can engage in this ludic enterprise, calling into question how aesthetic phenomena are gendered in general. My hope is that as a quiddified relation and not mere object or thing, the sublime can be examined as an experience uniting two entities, at least one of which is cognizant of there being something called an "experience." Who gazes upon what? Can this gaze be returned? How does the relationality of that pair come to determine what counts as art (insider art), what gets re-routed to the folk art museum (outsider art), what gets rehabilitated as camp (trash art), and what disappears entirely into the invisibility and silence of trash, the true zone of ephemerality and oblivion where artifacts that are not art disembody and dissipate all around us at an incalculable rate? I am very grateful to Leanne for her bright scholarship, to Arthur Danto for his timely communication, to Rhizomes for allowing me to mime myself, and to Intertheory Press for giving me the opportunity to make my ideas about superficiality and sublimity public, saving them from the langue privée of hidden fascicles and unfurled dimensions that writers know all too well as they manage their own fate and fame in this post-authorial world where identity is so much in flux yet ownership of the incorporeal has only intensified.

Michael Angelo Tata
Palm Springs, California, 2012

II S/ubli M e

[8] Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, with its constant reiteration of the notion that the sublime turns upon pain and terror, begs the question of sado/masochism: while this may sound perhaps too extravagant a description of Burke's aesthetics—for example, is it anachronistic to apply a term such as sadomasochism to a figure from the 18th century? Is it a scandal to put Burke in the context of the pervert's economy? [1] What value could such a scandal have for a 20th-century audience? It is, in my estimation, not too far of a stretch to talk about Burkean aesthetics as founded upon principles of domination, submission and the erotic pleasure that accompanies the pair. If we wish to talk about Burke's sublime as being sadomasochistic, certain questions arise, among which looms large the one interrogative this paper takes as its task to explore: If the sublime is indeed sadomasochistic, then how is this sadomasochism—really a sado/masochism, given the lack of accord among psychoanalysts, theorists and practitioners about whether or not sadism and masochism form a composite or exist individually—to be gendered? In other words, if the sublime establishes an erotic relationship with the regardeur, if the experience of sublimity occurs between someone who observes and something which observes is not only aesthetic but also erotic, then how is this eroticism to be interpreted? As homoerotic? Hetero-erotic? Bi-erotic? [2] Or merely as some unsexed, impersonal force which overcomes? Since it is this final possibility which in the history of aesthetics has been the prevailing contention, I suggest reversing this trend and looking at the erotics of the sublime as being in at least some small way homoerotic; writers like Longinus, with his emphasis on Zeus' lightning bolt, or Burke, with his emphasis on the sublime's ability to enter and fill, make such a reading possible, even desirable. For in this context, men writing about the thunderbolt of the exquisite pleasure of pain become strange, curious, suspect: one comes to realize that the sublime is predominantly a male/male interaction, however "sublimated" that encounter may be, and one begins to wonder just how sexless, depersonalized, disembodied or neuter this exchange can be. [3] Furthermore, given that (1) the sublime is not the beautiful (Enquiry, Part III, Section I), and (2) women are beautiful (Part One, Section XVIII), one wonders if the sublime is a male phenomenon or quality, thus precluding the possibility of a heterosexual interaction and opening up the possibility of a sublime at once sadomasochistic and homoerotic.

[9] Edmund Burke was not the first person to render sublimity a sexual puzzle. Though the history of the sublime begins outside the realm of the racy in Longinus' attempt to do what Socrates and Plato in dialogues like Ion could not—that is, teach eloquence, instruct one how to elicit Zeus' thunderbolts—it becomes, in Nicholas Boileau's 1674 preface to his own translation of Longinus, something more physical, something increasingly embodied: the sublime is that which elevates us, transports us, is that which ravishes us. [4] With Longinus and Boileau, sublimity is primarily a literary or rhetorical experience, an effect of extraordinary texts: it will not metamorphose into the experience of nature until John Dennis and Edmund Burke, who will take the sublime off the page and place it in the world of proto-Romantic sensuality. [5] Boileau's description of the sublime as that which performs the dual function of entering and filling the proverbial "us" makes it clear that for the experience of sublimity to occur, one must be penetrated; or, in order to be elevated, transported, one must first be gotten into. The word "ravished" is terribly suggestive, perhaps overdetermining. Is the sublime a form of rape? Why this language of penetration? If the sublime is to be gendered female and not male in this context, then how are we to account for the fact that it is a woman who penetrates? And if sublimity is to be gendered male, then is the relationship between sublime object and regarding subject homoerotic or at least homosocial?

[10] John Dennis' version of sublimity picks up the strangeness of a phrase like "elevate, ravish and transport" and works it into the notion of terror which will become so critical to Burke's aesthetics; as with Boileau, the darkness of terror, of being entered, being moved, being moved by first being entered, is an embodied experience, not merely s literary one. In The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry (1701), he discusses the sublime in terms of enthusiasm, terror and rapture. In The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry (1704), he roots the sublime in enthusiastic terror; lastly (firstly?), his own account of crossing the Alps in a 1688 letter makes of his body and its various sensations—the list of adjectives used to describe the mountains is incredible; for example, in the October 21 entry, they are impending, dreadful, new amazing, craggy, misty, horrid, smooth, Beautiful, Severe, Wanton, delightful, terrible, stupendous, black, hoary—a vivid instance of what it is to experience the sublime firsthand. Although his more philosophical writings discuss sublimity as if it merely designated the experiential transaction that occurs between a text of high eloquence and the sensitive reader of such a text, his less formal writings, like the letter describing his own experience of the Alps, place sublimity within nature and make of sublimity the transaction that occurs between a terror-inducing natural phenomenon and the embodied mind whose own life is at risk in the dangerous experience of that terror. The October 21 entry—last because of its informality, first because of its temporal status—expresses the dangers Dennis subjects himself to in the pursuit of enthusiastic terror:

In the meantime we walk'd upon the brink, in a literal sense, of Destruction: one stumble, and both Life and Carcass had been at once destroy'd. The sense of all this produc'd very different motions in me, viz. a very delightful Horrour, a terrible Joy, and at the same time, that I was infinitely pleas'd, I trembled (380).

Objecting strongly to Longinus' idea "that loftiness is often without any passion at all" and insisting that it is only when the mind is impassioned, enthusiastic, that it is able to experience sublimity, Dennis complicates Longinus' mind-centered, cerebral, overly rational picture of sublimity by laying emphasis on the emotional state of the organism, whose passions respond to terror with enthusiasm, therein transporting the fear-ravished human to the far reaches of a pulverizing sublimity (Grounds, 37). [6]

[11] Though we might identify Boileau and Dennis as containing the rudiments of a sadomasochistic yet not necessarily homoerotic account of the sublime, it is Burke whose 1757 Philosophical Enquiry will turn the notion of transport and ravishment into a sexually loaded dynamism of the self contemplating terror and the death to which all terror is traceable in its pursuit of that pinnacle of all pleasures, the pseudo-experience of annihilation. [7] It is thus with Burke and not Dennis, Boileau or Longinus that the sublime takes a détour through sadomasochism, for with Burke it is not so much that we are penetrated against our will or transported to an elsewhere, but that we are filled, and precisely at that supreme moment at which our lives hang in the balance. Burke's terror differs from Dennis' in that Dennis' terror is in theory more rhetorical than natural, and also that Dennis' "absent terrible object" is much tamer than Burke's pleasures of annihilation; in other words, Burke takes the notion of the contemplated, terror-striking natural object that can be found in Dennis' aesthetics and traces its roots to the human impulse of self-preservation, a feat which highlights both the masochism of his subject, the fragile mortal regarding sublimity in nature, and the sadism of the object, whatever it is in nature that threatens to snuff out that fragile mortal regardeur. What is fascinating to note is that both Dennis and Burke identify religious experiences as the most sublime. For Dennis, it is "the idea of an angry god" which inspires the most terror (Grounds, 36); for Burke, our annihilation before the Godhead constitutes the religious equivalent to the "dread majesty" of despotism with its absolute power over life and death (139). These references to a higher being raise the issue of agency, for can there be a sadism if there is no sadist? When the sublime object in question is a text, then it is apparent that the operant agent is the one who produced that text; however, when the sublime moves off the page and onto the mountain, as it were, when it becomes an effect more natural than textual, then we are forced to ask ourselves who exactly the "subject" or author of nature is. For Dennis and Burke, both of whom are theistic, the subject/author of nature is God: it is He (note the importance of the pronoun) who annihilates, and it is His creations—the terrible mountain, for example—that threaten annihilation. The presence of a presumably male divinity who authors the terrors of nature and who activates our self-preserving impulse genders Dennis' and Burke's notions of the sublime, which become an interaction between males, with all the homoerotic baggage that such an interaction carries along with it, at least in our postmodernly naughty hearts and minds.

[12] One notion in Burke deserves special attention: suspension. In Part 2, Section 1, Burke notes that sublimity freezes all motion:

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its moments are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, not by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior aspects are admiration, reverence and respect (132).

While this paragraph is notable for a number of reasons, such as the description of the sublime object as that which fills us, the potential reference, albeit metaphorical, to monogamy (one sublime object at a time!) and the apparent agency of sublimity, which has the power to anticipate, second-guess and predict, its value for my elucidation of a sadomasochistic theme in the aesthetics of Edmund Burke is that it mentions suspension. Both Freud's Three Essays and Deleuze's Coldness and Cruelty connect sadomasochism to suspension: in Freud, it is the pervert's "lingering" which generates the fetish, while in Deleuze, it is Masoch's, and, by extension, the masochist's, "suspense" which turns the sadistic object into a fetish. In Deleuze's analysis, the cruelty of Wanda von Dunajew in Venus in Furs is not hers, but Severin's; unwilling to be a dominatrix from the novel's start, it is only by succumbing to his fantasies of being punished and of being rendered absolutely subservient to the crack of her whip, the heel of her boot, that she becomes the Venus of the Russian steppe who dominates him so effectively that he loses his taste for masochism altogether. [8] How much of a Severin is Burke? Is the fantasy-construction at the center of his aesthetics that of himself in the position of one who needs to be punished, who in fact demands it and can only be punished by fetishizing the sublime object, of erecting it into the punishing authority? Is there a wish for punishment in Burke? Even in Longinus, there is some trace of a wish for punishment, as it is Zeus' thunderbolt which performs the punitive function of reminding the dwellers of the sublunary world who has the power and who doesn't—or, to be Lacanian about the situation, who has the Phallus and who doesn't, who is it, who wields it, who wears it as a masque.

[13] According to Freud and Deleuze, it is only by suspending the object, by arresting its motion and lingering over it, that the masochist is able to experience sensual pleasure: thus the object is constituted as a fetish via suspension. Where Freud and Deleuze differ in this matter is in their ideas about what relationship obtains between the sadist and the masochist. For Freud, sadism and masochism comprise one "component instinct": the sadist and the masochist are one and the same person or, to phrase it more eloquently, he who understands how pleasure can be derived from pain will be equally comfortable inflicting that pain as receiving it. For Deleuze, however, there is no composite, no component, no "sadomasochism," only sadism and masochism as discrete units. The ideal couple is not the sadist and the masochist, but the masochist and the pseudo-sadist, or the sadist and the pseudo-masochist; departing from Freud, Deleuze argues that possessing insights into the pleasure-generating potential of pain in no way makes the inflictor of pain interchangeable with pain's receptor. Thus in the Wanda-Severin couple, Wanda is only a pseudo-sadist, and in a couple such as Président de Curval/Julie in de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, Julie is merely a pseudo-masochist.

[14] The implications that observations such as Freud's and Deleuze's have on the aesthetics of sublimity are manifold: Is Burke a pseudo-masochist, or is he both sadist and masochist simultaneously, a Severin? [9] Why does Burke need to be entered and filled like some metaphysical tank of gasoline or, more scabrously, like a mouth, anus or vagina? [10] What is most at stake for my purposes in making the sublime something that can be discussed in erotic language is the desire of the aesthete, be he Longinus, Boileau, Dennis, Burke or even Kant; why does the aesthete need the sublime? Why does he need it to be something that dominates him, punishes him for uncommitted crimes and original sins? The fear of punishment which structures Freud's Oedipal triangle recurs in the aesthetic realm of adult life as a constant wish for punishment meted out by the hands of a male authority figure; the sublimation of infantile sexuality which lurks just beneath the surface yet forever seeps out, forever floods its banks, marks the arena of aesthetics in which Longinus et al. are gladiators as deeply erotic and hence, deeply problematic. For how are we to construe the sexual dynamics of the sublime? And what hangs in the balance when we expostulate upon that erotics? One answer to the question is that the complex eroticism of sublimity, be it Richard Crashaw's fantasies of penetration by St. Teresa, Longinus' longing for Zeus' thunderbolt of Burke's desire to be entered, filled and suspended by a force which always bears reference to the male deity who authors nature's marvels, is an area which needs to be looked deeply into if we are to transcend the monotonous sexlessness which plagues so much aesthetic discourse and embrace the radical polymorphousness of the libido's uncanny cathexes as these necessitate and inform aesthetic sensation and thought.

New York City, 1998


Boileau, Nicolas. Œuvres Completes. Paris: French and European Publications, 1966.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Califia, Pat and Sweeney, Robin, Eds. The Second Coming: A Leatherdyke Reader. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 1996.

Crashaw, Richard. "The Flaming Heart," in Complete Poetry of Richard Crashaw. Ed. George Walton Williams. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1974.

Deleuze, Gilles. "Coldness and Cruelty," in Masochism. New York: Zone Books, 1991.

Dennis, John. The advancement and reformation of modern poetry, The grounds of criticism in poetry and select Letters. In The sublime: a reader in British eighteenth-century aesthetic theory. Ashfield, Andrew, and de Bolla, Peter, eds. London: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

De Sade, Marquis. The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings. Trans. Austryn Winehouse and Richard Seaver. New York: Grove Press, 1994.

Drucker, Johanna. SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Freud, Sigmund. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Edited and translated by James Strachey. New York: Basic Books, 1987.

Longinus. On Great Writing (On the Sublime). Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1957.

Goldberg, Jonathan, Ed. Queering the Renaissance. Raleigh-Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

Teresa of Avila. Interior Castle. Ed. And Trans. E Alliosn Peers. New York: Image Books, 1989.

Tata, Michael Angelo. "Bend It Like Bex, Flex It Like Barton: Contemporary Metrosexuality and the Pursuit of the Fabulous," in Heterosexuality, ed. Yasco Horsman; forthcoming from Rodopi Amsterdam/NY, as part of Thamyris/Intersecting: Place, Sex and Race series, 2012.

—. "Warholian Machinehood II: World Text as External Time Consciousness." Rhizomes 16, Summer 2008.

—. "Cybersublimity after the Orgasmotron." Nebula 4.3, September 2007.

—. "Warholian Machinehood I: Automatic Emptiness and Autopoiesis." Nebula 3,1, April 2006.

Von Sacher-Masoch, Leopold. Venus in Furs. In Masochism. New York: Zone Books, 1991.


[1] I mention the pervert as a reference to Freud's Three Essays, which posits sadomasochism as deviant and largely part and parcel of a world of perversions that runs the gamut from fetishism to homosexuality.

[2] Similar problems accompany the problem of devotional Christianity, which, in the lyric poetry of the 17th century, resulted in much attention being paid to Christ's suffering body by male poets such as Donne, Herbert and Crashaw. See Richard Rambuss, "Pleasure and Devotion: The Body of Jesus and Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric" in Queering the Renaissance (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), 253-279. For the related problem of gendering mysticism, see St. Teresa of Avila's The Interior Castle, translated and edited by E. Allison Peers (New York, Doubleday, 1989).

[3] Interestingly enough, the one notable exception to this masculinizing trend seems to be Longinus' example of Sappho's poetry as sublime. In this circumstance, it is the lesbian's thunderbolt which possesses us—and not just any lesbian, but poetry's most famous!

[4] "Il faut donc savoir que par le sublime, Longin n'entend pas ce que les orateurs appellant le style sublime, mais cet extraordinaire et ce merveilleux qui frappe dans le discours, et qui fait qu'un ouvrage enlève, ravit, transporte" (Boileau, 442).

[5] Burke will do this more fully than Dennis, which is not to deny the centrality of the word in Burke's aesthetics, as it is the medium of language which still best reflects and expresses sublimity. In this sense, Burke's literary sublimity is mimetic of the sublime as it is encountered in nature, not on a page or in the radiant literary imagination.

[6] Actually, for Dennis, the enthusiastic passions are six: admiration, terror, horror, joy, sadness and desire; however, as with Burke, sublimity turns upon pain and it is terror which determined sublimity (Grounds, 36).

[7] That Dennis and Burke lay such emphasis on such pseudo or "contemplated" experiences raises many questions about the actual ontology of sublimity, which at times appears to be little more than a textual effect or mnemonic trick. "Distance" is a problem here" but how close can one be to any terrible object and still be able to pronounce that object "sublime"? Do aesthetic judgments always occur at a remove? Can the experience of death, for example, be read as "divine" while we are dying or at the exact moment of our death? Or do we require the tamer S/M scenario, complete with safe words and contracts? For dangerous S/M scenarios which may or may not preclude sublimity, see Pat Califia's "A House Divided" Violence in the Lesbian S/M Community," in The Second Coming (Los Angeles, Alyson, 1996), 264-274.

[8] "I could not help smiling and, as I sank into a daydream, I suddenly saw before me the lovely creature clad in her ermine jacket, with the whip in her hand. I smiled to think of the woman I had loved so much, of the jacket that had so delighted me in the past; I smiled at the thought of the whip; and finally I smiled to think of my own suffering, and I said to myself: 'The treatment was cruel but radical, and the main thing is that I am cured'" (271). The truth of the matter is that Severin is not merely cured, but has himself become the sadist: "'Did I tell you that I wanted them soft-boiled?'" he shouted, with a violence that made the young woman quake with fear" (150). Now Severin is his own fantasy-construction, the sadist, one capable of dispensing cruelty to a person who does not wish to receive it (the pseudo-masochist).

[9] Freud's Severin, not Deleuze's.

[10] A poet like Richard Crashaw shows what it is like for the male to fantasize about being penetrated by the female, who now possesses the Phallus, perhaps by the type of miraculation known so many years later to Judge Schreber. See his poem "The Flaming Heart," in which he reverses the dialectic of Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa such that it is Teresa who possesses the arrow and the angel, a proxy for Crashaw, who is penetrated.