At any given moment, there is a far outer limit to what human beings can perceive and express. Think of Keats trying to convey the sense of unheard melodies. Or scores of mathematicians, over centuries, glimpsing but failing to find the proof for Fermat’s Last Theorem. Or any of us getting a glimmer of the vastness of the universe in the night sky but never even approaching a full comprehension of it. There is a name for the combined pleasure and pain we experience in such moments of extremity. It is called “the sublime”.
Beyond the Finite: The Sublime in Artand Science. Roald Hoffmann and Iain Boyd Whyte (editors), Oxford University Press
Some contemporary philosophers dismiss the very idea of the sublime. Either we know something or we don’t; intermediate glimmers and glimpses are simply congenial fictions. During the years when he struggled to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem, mathematician Andrew Wiles may well have felt moments of pain, but the reason would have been his frustration at bumping up against the boundary of what he knew, not the twinge of seeing beyond it. When, on 19 September 1994, he did find the key to what lay beyond—the proof’s missing piece—well, then, it no longer lay beyond. Since we can’t be on both sides of the outer limits of our understanding at the same time, the sublime, on this view, doesn’t really exist.
Click here to read full version of this article
©2011/ THE WALL STREET JOURNAL