Manifest Destiny and the Sublime – Part 2: Reversing Perspectives

Having made the case for the connection between the sublime, fascism and imperialism in Arnold Fanck’s film SOS Eisberg, Lill-Ann Körber reverses perspectives and considers ‘sublime icebergs today’ in the Greenlandic film Nuummioq.

These icebergs do not fit the conventional sublime of overawing size and power, sought out by the German Bergfilm:

Neither majestic nor sublime; it is neither spectacular, nor an exquisite threat, nor a ubiquitous feature of the landscape, nor does it work as a symbol of anything beyond its practical value.

Lill-Ann Körber ‘”See the Crashing Masses of White Death…”: Greenland, Germany and the Sublime in the ‘BergfilmSOS Eisberg‘ in Scott MacKenzie and Anna Westerståhl (eds) Films on Ice: Cinemas of the Arctic, Edinburgh University Press, 2015, pp 148-160, p 159

Unlike the sublime terror and delight of vast ice cliffs, from the perspective given in the film, there is no transition from emotional turmoil to moral resolve.

Manifest destiny converts the terror of wide open spaces and of overwhelming nature into a communal effort: the violent occupation we encounter in imperialism. Whereas, in Nuummioq, the iceberg is ‘at most a marker of individual or collective memory and identity.’

There is no record of these original memories in the manifest destiny of incomers. Those signs must be erased to justify claims of superior culture and empty lands. In Bergfilme, villagers, valley dwellers and first peoples are hindrances or become part of the backdrop. Their past and identities are threats to new missions.

Commenting on Arnold Fanck’s films, Susan Sontag makes a connection to destiny and fascism: ‘Mountain climbing in Fanck’s films was a visually irresistible metaphor for unlimited aspiration towards the high mystic goal, both beautiful and terrifying, which was to become concrete in Führer-worship.’ Susan Sontag, Under the Sign of Saturn, New York, Writers and Readers, 1983 ‘Fascinating Fascism’ 73-105, p 76

In ‘Fascinating Fascism’ Sontag destroys fascist myths. The main one is the myth of artistic innocence that Leni Riefenstahl, the star of SOS Iceberg, built to defend her film-making, in The Blue Light, Triumph of the Will and Olympia, from accusations of fascism. For Sontag, ‘the Alpine fictions are tales of longing for high places, of the challenge and ordeal of the elemental, the primitive; they are about the vertigo before power, symbolized by the majesty and beauty of mountains.’ 86-7

Sontag’s argument extends to the claim that Riefenstahl’s late photography, in The Last of the Nuba, perpetuates the myth of the noble savage that serves fascist art: ‘What is distinctive about the fascist version of the old idea of the Noble Savage is its contempt for all that is reflective, critical and pluralistic.’ 89

As in manifest destiny, this myth imposes servitude:

Fascist aesthetics include but go far beyond the rather special celebration of the primitive to be found in the Last of the Nuba. More generally, they flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behaviour, extravagant effort, and the endurance of pain; they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; and the grouping of people/things around the all-powerful, hypnotic leader figure or force…

Susan Sontag, ‘Fascinating Fascism’ in Under the Sign of Saturn, New York, Writers and Readers, 1983, pp 73-105, p 91

Sontag draws on Siegfried Kracauer’s genealogy of Fanck’s Bergfilme, where mountaineering, disdain for other people and myths of higher destiny combine immaturity and enthusiasm:

Long before the first World War, groups of Munich students left the dull capital every weekend for the nearby Bavarian Alps, and there indulged their passion. Nothing seemed sweeter to them than the bare cold rock in the dim light of dawn. Full of Promethean promptings, they would climb up some dangerous “chimney,” then quietly smoke their pipes on the summit, and with infinite pride look down on what they called “valley-pigs” – those plebeian crowds who never made an effort to elevate themselves to lofty heights. Far from being plain sportsmen or impetuous lovers of majestic panoramas, these mountain climbers were devotees performing the rites of a cult. Their attitude amounted to a kind of heroic idealism which, through blindness to more substantial ideals, expended itself in tourist exploits.

Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: a Psychological History of the German Film, Princeton University Press, 2004 (1947) p 111

Even for politicians and writers who would consider themselves the very opposite of immature, the taste for the sublime, for destiny and for resoluteness is a form of historical and philosophical immaturity, deliberately ignoring sources and implications, as well as stark lessons from the past – lessons they will then go on to contribute to, through their own failures.

Körber’s references to Sontag and Kracauer support her change of perspective away from sublime enthusiasm and towards Sontag’s critical pluralism. The shift threatens exclusive and absolute versions of the sublime. Their myths crumble when perspectives are reversed.

From the incomers’ point of view, nature is sublime because of the discovery of extreme strangeness, and the terrifying threat of incomprehensible and uncontrolled novelty – ‘heart of darkness’. That colonial encounter with the new is not part of the deeper experience of indigenous peoples.

This is not to say that there is no sublime when perspectives are reversed. Instead, the sublime is different; for instance, in the terrors and delights of the erosion of memory and landscapes, where loss can also be an opening, or in the repeated rediscovery of strange diversity in familiar places.

How is this sublime, if it has no immensity, or grandeur, or awe before overwhelming power? The question comes from a mistaken definition of the sublime.

Part of a better definition is that the sublime has been a source of our highest values, where a mixed experience of repulsion and attraction generates a drive to new ideals, sometimes moral, sometimes existential, sometimes of despair and sometimes of hope. There is a sublime of mountains, but also in a lost memory found among broken artefacts and in creativity driven by abject rejection; as Julia Kristeva has taught us:

Not at all short of but always with and through perception and words, the sublime is a something added that expands us, overstrains us, and causes us to be both here, as dejects, and there, as others and sparkling. A divergence, an impossible bounding. Everything missed, joy—fascination. p12

A storm at sea is sublime, but so is the encounter with a perfect yet real shape we’ll strive to emulate, possess or destroy. There is a sublime of the poetic phrase or dissonant music, where they shock us into new experiences and possibilities for art and existence. There is a sublime of unexpected inner emptiness in a joyful crowd and a sublime of unforeseen profusion where we expected nothingness. There is sublimity in the vertigo of repulsion and incomprehension before an unconditional welcome.

The common thread is in a tension between a force pushing us away and one drawing us in. These forces induce emotional instability and a consequent search for sense in the dynamic event, accompanied by the desire to pursue and validate this meaningfulness beyond immediate experience. This is how the sublime generates new values.

Manifest destiny is only a way for the sublime to operate on us; a violent and unappealing way, but not an unusual one at all, historically or today.

Another part of the right definition is easy to miss when we consider icebergs and mountains. It is that the sublime is always manufactured.

Amidst ‘natural’ awe and terror, the sublime seems to be given not made. Yet the Bergfilme of mountaineers and films of the discovery of ‘new’ worlds stage the moment of the sublime. SOS Iceberg‘s sublime depends on shots of and from seaplanes; even the polar bears in the film were taken to Greenland from Hamburg zoo.

When preparing The Egalitarian Sublime, I became more aware of this construction of the sublime in the way the sublimity of space exploration depended on staging through colour, movement and music: the tints and backgrounds enabling the perception of the diversity of form and distances in the cosmos. In a later blog post, I will consider that sublimity in digital media, such as video games and Computer-Generated Imagery in film.

This awareness was reinforced in studying the new environmental sublime, developed by Emily Brady, where a specific sublime landscape, supposedly a natural source of values of environmental preservation, is already made through farming, deforestation, the management of water courses, lyrical words, art, well-planned walks, access to remote places, and the devaluation of a multitude of other places, from cities, to flatlands and swamps. Brady does not think art can match the natural sublime she uses to underpin her environmental arguments, but the very nature she champions is artful.

The sublime of the Lake District comes from the destruction of forests, sheep farming, mining, the taming of lakesides and watercourses, and the money and leisure it takes to be able to gaze upon and roam through rather than toil on the land.

Once we become aware that the sublime is always about constructing values from contingent rather than universal and necessary experiences, its political risks become more apparent. An egalitarian sublime must be pluralistic, self-destructive and secondary to critical democratic scrutiny: an anarchist sublime, not one in the service of power.

This lesson holds for the use of the sublime in arguments around climate change. It’s not that images of breaking icebergs, devastating weather events and bedraggled animals have no role to play. It’s that their use should always be subject to critical scutiny in a global democratic context. Each image is a construction, generating moral energy from exclusions, judgements about values, and dangerous senses of destiny and mission.