Let me document my suggestion that modernist poetics tends to give a privileged position to what has traditionally been known as the sublime by adducing two examples from rather disparate traditions. Martin Heidegger's ontological poetics can reasonably be viewed as a renewal of the aesthetics of the sublime -- although Heidegger never uses the term sublime, so far as I know -- and is explicitly hostile to the limitations of aesthetics, conceived as an autonomous study of a certain kind of experience. Harold Bloom does recur to the Romantic terminology of sublimity in his attempt to construct a poetics which will focus on the Freudian and Nietzchean themes of power and repression. Heidegger is interested in the Ur-sprung of the work of art, that is, the original leap or thrust by means of which it opens up a new sense of the world; this is experienced as shock or displacement and as a threat to what is so far established. Such displacement, combined with Heidegger's concern with death, which occupies a central place in his hermeneutics, is sufficient to demonstrate the parallels between his poetics and the classical theory of the sublime. Heidegger's basic revision of the classical theory is his historicizing of it so that the sublime is not simply the monstrous, novel, or shocking but is construed as the appearance of such qualities in a new epoch which is sent to us by Being. In a commentary on some lines of Holderlin ("…poetically man dwells ..."), Heidegger discusses the problem of measure and the measureless, a theme which occurs in accounts of the sublime. In Holderlin's lines, says Heidegger, God is the measure for man and yet God is unknown. But how can that which is unknown serve as a measure? Poet and thinker seem to agree that God is known by appearing "as the one who remains unknown," just as Kant de-scribes the search for measure inspired by the mathematically infinite as leading to an awareness of the moral self, whose law of duty pro-vokes a sense of awe (Achtung) but which is mysteriously unknowable to each of us, despite it being our own deepest nature. Holderlin had suggested that God was "manifest like the sky." Here one thinks of Kant's "starry skies above and the moral law within." The measure, Heidegger continues, "consists in the way in which the god who re-mains unknown, is revealed as such by the sky. God's appearance through the sky consists in a disclosing that lets us see what conceals itself, but lets us see it not by seeking to wrest what is concealed out of its concealedness but only by guarding the concealed in its self-concealment. Thus the unknown god appears as the unknown by way of the sky's manifestness."

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Copyright © 1985 The Johns Hopkins University Press. This article first appeared in New Literary History 16, no. 2 (1985): 213-35. doi:10.2307/468744.

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