Aesthetics and ascetics of an ecological sublime

Willard Priest Greenwood, Purdue University


My dissertation surveys the varying responses to and representations of the natural world in the fiction of William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy and the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Pattiann Rogers, and Jorie Graham. By examining the disassociation between the traditionally related concepts of the sublime and Nature, I have developed a theory of an ecological sublime. I will analyze essential dichotomies of sublimity such as God and Nature; beauty and terror, finitude and infinity; the unquantifiable emotional effects of an artwork and the limits of aesthetic expression. To examine the dynamics of artistic abstraction of the natural world, I have borrowed and modified Nietzsche's definition of asceticism, a tendency that favors the process of artistic abstraction over the actual world. If an intuitive link between an artwork and its subject does not exist, then an artwork expresses a disassociation between our surroundings and our selves. I hope to show that the natural world juxtaposed with such aspects of contemporary culture actually has the possibility to intensify the significance of human existence in relation to the non-human world. In developing a theory of an ecological sublime, it is necessary to consider the two main modes of the sublime: the effect of virtuosity in representation and what aesthetic limits are inherent in such representation. This project begins with—but does not have its origins in—the reaction to rapid and vast changes in the natural world. The sublime, with its connotations of aesthetic limits and excesses is an apt term for analyzing the infinite connections within a natural system. Therefore, the concept of an ecological sublime refers to elements in an artwork that attempt to represent living or non-living entities within a natural system. Defining the concept will also help to gauge the emotional and psychological response to such artistic representations of Nature. ^




Major Professor: Wendy Stallard Flory, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Literature, American

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