On the Sublime

Word day, I guess. Sometimes I latch onto a word and roll it around in my brain, I don’t know, just to do it because it is a word.

In the current issue of Vanity Fair (yes, I subscribe, both to mock the rich and famous in the photographs of them at their soirees and their Hollywood mansions and Manhattan gatherings because soon enough we will all be dust, so ha to them, and also because it still does good investigative reporting, which alone is worth the price, although I do miss the days when Graydon Carter, previously editor of Spy, was editor), actually the Holiday issue, there is a nice long profile of Stephen Colbert. Admitting to the disorientation of the times we live in, Colbert admits: “I have often said that happy is overrated. I’ll take the sublime over the happy any day.”

The sublime.

What a word.

I know what it means—elevated, august, lofty, grand, outstanding, really really good—but because of the sound of it for some reason I associate it with relaxing on a pleasant sandy beach with warm tropical breezes, or just lying in the back yard looking up at the clouds.

Maybe those moments could, after all, be avenues to the sublime. I can see that.

But…“I’ll take the sublime over the happy any day.”

We all know how elusive happiness can be. You plan for it, it doesn’t happen. It surprises you and you are glad and then the moment fades. We can look back on things in our lives and feel happy about them in retrospect. Or is that joy that we feel? Maybe it’s joy. Joy…happiness…pretty much the same, I guess. One rooted in Latin, one in Greek. Except that the Declaration of Independence doesn’t say anything about the pursuit of joy; it’s the pursuit of happiness. A website I found (actually called thepursuiteofhappiness.com) reckons that Jefferson with that phrase was harking back to John Locke, who defined happiness “as an ability to achieve the greatest good free from any predetermined will or forced action.” Certainly that’s a bit more elevated or refined than the way we tend to use the word happiness today.

But…the sublime.

I think—and this is just me—that when we contemplate the sublime, we are moving past ourselves and entering a region worthy of our contemplation and thought and emotions, being induced thereby to join in appreciating the best of what is available to us because it offers us more than just ourselves. We can often be happy, but the sublime is something to reach for or appreciate on another level, even something we need to be worthy of. Maybe we need to work for it. Or maybe all we need do is be in awe.

I like classical music. Every time I listen to the third movement, the “Nocturne,” of Borodin’s Second String Quartet, I feel like I am lifting out of my body. Every time. For me, this is sublime. I am, for those minutes, part of something much more than simply myself. And reading good writing can do it for me, not take me out of my body but allow me to sit there for long moments in a kind of glow because I just partook of something truly fine, thought or a story put down so well that my mind and imagination were with it for that while, fully engaged in appreciation, because the experience was sublime.

I suspect that this is what Stephen Colbert is getting at.

I’m very glad he said what he did in the magazine profile. Gave me something to contemplate and move me past myself and closer to the sublime.

Which…I don’t think making fun of rich celebrities quite qualifies.

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