Sublime moments: canary birds, a lamprey and Jean Francois Lyotard.

canary birds copy

When the ebullient Para Handy described a person, scene or object as ‘chust sublime’ he probably wasn’t thinking of Lyotard’s reworking of the Kantian sublime never mind the Critique of Judgement by Immanuel Kant himself.

I say ‘probably’ because one should never underestimate the Gael. I have not infrequently encountered seemingly bucolic crofters and fishermen whose level of intellectual sophistication would leave M. Lyotard gasping on his Gauloises. This is borne out by Gavin Maxwell in his ‘Ring of Bright Water’ (1960). He described his neighbour, Calum Murdo as ‘a Highlander living in remarkable isolation….yet having read most of the classics and to have voluble and well informed views on politics national and international.’ As the last Para Handy story appeared in the Glasgow Evening News in 1923 and Lyotard was not born until the following year it is probably safe to say that the Master Mariner did not know his work.

Lyotard noted that ‘the word sublime is common currency today to colloquial French to suggest surprise and admiration, somewhat like America’s ‘great’. And Para Handy’s description of his prize canary seems to echo the philosopher’s contention that common talk has given a meaning to the word that Kant never imagined.

But maybe Para Handy was not so far from Lyotard’s interpretation after all when he said (contemptuously) ‘Canaries…I have a canary yonder at home that would give you a sore heid to hear him singing. He’s chust sublime.’

Lyotard described the sublime as a mixture of pleasure and pain that defied rational comprehension– a bit like the migraine inducing bird song! He also reminded us this concept has ‘belonged to the most rigorous reflections on art’ for at least two hundred years despite the fact that these days the word seems to be used to describe any thing that is nice or attractive. In fact a sublime moment is more likely to be a name for a brand of chocolate than a considered judgement about an artwork.

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About pennimania

Artist, entomologist, grumbler.
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