An Attempt to Describe the Experience of Historical Sublimity

Or, The Tradition of All Dead Generations Weighs Like a Nightmare on the Brains of the Living, but it's Kind of Cool

Working from Kant's concept of Darstellung, late 20th century philosophers like Deleuze and Jameson posit sublimity as a breakdown of the imagination's ability to present a representation of an object that is intrinsically ungraspable. Premodern philosophers, living in the historical epoch which they did, saw this experience as a religious or spiritual one. Lyotard's conception of Modernist sublimity is an encounter with the limits of reason, which allows us to experience a moment of externality to the human condition and rationality itself. For Jameson, in postmodernity these experiences have been replaced with an encounter with the immensity and freneticness of postmodern culture, in which our own insignificance and mutability is laid bare in a somewhat horrific yet sublime way. I am able to relate to all of these conceptions of the sublime, but perhaps due to my own interests in history, geography, and class struggle, experience another form even more powerfully, which I call to myself the Historical Sublime.

I first became conscious of this experience, the ultimately failed attempt to reckon with the imcomprehensible massiveness of history, standing on the steps below the stone facade of the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, where the massive Neoclassical columns ordered by King Frederick William IV of Prussia were still pocked with bullet and shrapnel holes from the Red Army's final push into Berlin in 1945. The Prussian nationalist affinity for the ancient mediterranean world, the countless laborers who worked and likely died quarrying and shaping stone, the accumulation of thousands of cultural artifacts from around an empire and the world, the grip of fascism, the bitter street-by-street firefights of 20th century warfare, Cold War Berlin in all its poured concrete efficiency, this immense historical artifact proved indescribable and ungraspable, in a way that years later I can only approximate. Living in the american southeast, this sort of weighty historical accumulation is a less common experience; due to the reality of genocide, settler history can only gesture at what came before the early 18th century. It's not out of the question though, and I brush against it consistantly walking the woods of the Piedmont. The particular creek valley near my house where the Occaneechee settlement of Adshusheer, never uncovered by Anglo archeologists, provided a economic nexus between the people of the eastern plains and those of the upper piedmont passed through centuries of human care from somewhere around the 6th century, then through cycles of early capitalist boom and bust, the only remnants of which being collapsed mill dams, plow furrows poking through beech leaves, and rutted roadbeds. Just as the economic system which shaped this valley for centuries before settler contact has eroded from human sight, the yeoman farmer system of the early settlers was liquidated by the crises of 1892 and 1929, the farmers moving into town to work in the textile or tobacco mills. In the face of the unapproachable enormity of their historical artifacts, I can only think: what will we leave, and what judgements will our ancestors make, or be unable to formulate?