Sublimation and the sublime

  • March 20, 2012

Celebration is a paradoxical thing, created by a dynamic interplay between anticipation and fulfilment, longing and inconsummation, the ordinary and the special, work and play. Life and love must be celebrated within a certain fast-feast rhythm. Seasons of play most profitably follow seasons of work, seasons of consummation are heightened by seasons of longing, and seasons of intimacy grow out of seasons of solitude. Presence depends upon absence, intimacy upon solitude, play upon work. Even God rested only after working for six days!

We struggle with this today. Many of our feasts fall flat because there hasn’t been a previous fast. In times past, there was generally a long fast leading up to a feast and then a joyous celebration followed. Today, we’ve reversed that.

Take Christmas. The season of Advent, in effect, kicks off the Christmas celebration. The parties start, the decorations and lights go up and Christmas music begins to play. When Christmas arrives, we are already satiated with the delights of the season, tired, saturated with all things Christmas, ready to move on. By Christmas Day, we’re ready to go back to ordinary life. The season used to last until February. Now, realistically, it’s over on Dec. 25.

That hasn’t always been the case. Traditionally the build-up was towards the feast, celebration came afterwards. Today the feast is first, the fast comes after. We are poorer for that. Without a previous fast there isn’t much sublimity in the feast.

A colleague of mine likes to say that our society knows how to anticipate an event, but not how to sustain it. That’s only partially true. It’s so much that we do not know how to sustain something; we don’t know how to properly anticipate it. We mix the anticipation with the celebration itself because we find it hard to live in inconsummation and unfulfilled tension without moving towards resolving it. Longing and fasting are not our strong points, neither is feasting. Because we can’t build properly towards a feast, we can’t celebrate it properly either.

Celebration survives on paradox. To feast, we must first fast: to come to true consummation, we must first live in chastity; and to taste specialness, we must first have a sense of what’s ordinary. When fasting, inconsummation and the ordinary rhythm of life are short-circuited, fatigue of the spirit, boredom and disappointment replace celebration and we are left with the empty feeling: “That’s all?” But that’s because we have short-circuited a process. Something can only be sublime if, first, there is some sublimation.

I am old enough to have known another time. Like our own, that time too had its faults, but it also had some strengths. One of its strengths was its belief, a lived belief, that feasting depends upon prior fasting and that the sublime demands a prior sublimation. I have clear memories of the Lenten seasons of my childhood. How strict that season was then! Fast and renunciation: no weddings, no dances, few parties, few drinks, desserts only on Sundays and generally less of everything that constitutes specialness and celebration. Churches were draped in purple. The colours were dark and the mood was penitential, but the feast that followed, Easter, was indeed special.

Perhaps this is mostly nostalgia speaking. After all, I was young then, naive and deprived, and able to meet Easter and other celebrations with a hungrier spirit. That may be, but the specialness that surrounded feasts has died for another reason, namely, we do not anticipate them properly any more. We short-circuit fasting, inconsummation and the prerequisite longing. Simply put, how can Christmas be special when we arrive at Dec. 25 exhausted from weeks of Christmas parties? How can Easter be special when we’ve treated Lent just like any other season? How, indeed, can anything be sublime when we have lost our capacity for sublimation?

Today the absence of genuine specialness and enjoyment within our lives is due in a large part to the breakdown of this rhythm. In a word, Christmas is no longer special because we’ve celebrated it during Advent, weddings are no longer special because we’ve already slept with the bride and experiences of all kinds are often flat and unable to excite us because we had them prematurely. Premature experience is bad simply because it is premature, no other reason. To celebrate Christmas during Advent, to celebrate Easter without first fasting, to short-circuit longing in any area, is, like sleeping with the bride before the wedding, a fault in chastity. All premature experience has the effect of draining us of great enthusiasm and great expectations (which can only be built up through sublimation, tension and painful waiting).

It’s Lent. If we use this season to fast, to intensify longing, to raise our psychic temperatures and to learn what kinds of gestation can develop within the crucible of chastity, then the feast that follows will have a chance of being sublime.