The Emperor is No Novelist

Featured image is a meaningless aesthetic experience put down on paper by Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The emperor was sitting in his study one day, when he felt the stirring of the unconscious impulse of genius. Wasting no time, he dipped his quill in ink and moved it across the page, moving to a new page when the moment felt right. In short order, he had a stack of papers, filled with the work of his genius.

He called in his top adviser. “What do you make of this?” he asked, gesturing to the papers. His adviser looked through a few of the papers.

“Sir?” He replied, uncertain of what was expected of him.

“I have just completed this novel,” the emperor prompted, “I was wondering if I could get your honest opinion.”

The very last thing the adviser ever wanted to give was his honest opinion, least of all at that moment. “I’m not sure I understand…perhaps you could provide some more context?”

“Context!” The emperor snorted, “Of course you don’t have enough of that to share in my experience of creation. Would you like to go back and enter my mind, at the moment it occurred? Would you like to go through my life story as a whole, so that you can see how it might have resulted in such inspiration? But of course that is impossible.”

“So…”

“But fear not! Your aesthetic experience need not depend on my unconscious creative process whatsoever! Simply gaze at the pages. Do you not feel their beauty?”

“Ah…yes. Yes, I think I see now. Yes, they are truly moving, sir.”

“You’re not just saying so?”

“Have you ever known me to engage in empty flattery, your majesty?”

The emperor showed more and more people his work, and found that their reactions were similar. So, encouraged, he set up an exhibit, in which all of the individuals were displayed encased in glass.

Many came from all over the land the indulge in the aesthetic experience of the emperor’s work.

The exhibit was set up in the throne room, so the emperor could enjoy the sight of his subjects experiencing his work.

One day, he was pleased to see a mother had brought her child. The boy could not have been more than seven or eight years old.

“What is this?” He asked his mother.

“It’s the emperor’s book,” she explained. The boy stared at one particular page for a very long time. The emperor’s heart swelled with pride at the sight of a child working so hard to appreciate his creation.

“No it isn’t,” the boy finally said.

“What’s that?” his mother stammered, casting a nervous glance towards the emperor.

“It isn’t a book at all,” he said, “it’s just scribbles.” Silence filled the room. Everyone was half-staring, half-attempting to appear nonchalant.

“I told you it was a book, and it’s a book,” his mother whispered sternly.

“But there aren’t any words at all! You can’t read it!” he shouted.

“Be. Quiet!” she hissed. She looked up and saw the emperor staring down at them. “I apologize for his rudeness, your majesty,” she stammered, “perhaps he is simply too young to appreciate anything more demanding than vulgar storytelling.”

“Yes…perhaps so,” the emperor replied quietly. “That must be it,” he said to himself, long after everyone had left, and he was alone.

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Pleasurable, Exalted Terror

Edmund Burke wrote that “whatever is qualified to cause terror is a foundation capable of the sublime.” But instead of a category of aesthetics, in contemporary English the word is mainly used by the pretentious to flatter one another. It has thus lost much of the nuance that originated in Burke’s treatise On the Sublime and the Beautiful, in favor of yet another superlative for “good”.

Strictly speaking, something is sublime if it uses the infinite or incalculable to create an experience of beauty incorporating fear or overwhelming. For example, I reserve sublime to describe my first visit to the Niagara Falls, whose dramatic horseshoe of roaring waters transfixed me in a torrent of terror and tranquility.

Yet sublime does not have to refer to natural wonders or artistry. Indeed, many social phenomena can be sublime. Slavoj Žižek once argued that ideology related to the sublime, due to an influence over social reality that defied perception. Specifically, he claims ideologies require a “sublime object” that carries an irreproachable greatness, be it God, the King or the proletariat.

The general idea comes from Kant, who wrote that the sublime is a “formless object” representing our intrinsic inability to perceive vastness or complexity, thus elevating “nature beyond our reach as equivalent to a presentation of ideas.” In confronting such objects, we at once feel displeasure “arising from the inadequacy of imagination in the aesthetic estimation of magnitude” and a “simultaneous awakened pleasure, arising from this very judgement of the inadequacy of the greatest faculty of sense…”.

In ideological space, this inadequacy of imagination parallels the subject’s inability to articulate the nature of their deepest political commitments, which in turn creates a similar “awakened pleasure” in the knowledge that their cause defies a complete description.

In this sense, there is something strangely sublime surrounding the recent brutal interfaces between state and citizen in New York,  Mexico, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. To appreciate the scope and complexity behind these patterns of violence and protest is literally impossible. So out of necessity, our inadequate media elevates that which is beyond our reach to a coherent presentation of ideas. Indeed, it seems as if the news and social media act as a magnifying glass, concentrating public attention onto stochastically occurring tragedies until a spark creates ignition, giving producers the cue for the “national conversation” graphic along the lower third.

There are those that decry the news for being guilty of exploiting “sensationalism,” but this is a mistake. What is being constantly exploited is precisely our craving for the sublime. Indeed, the grotesque scenes of protest that play across our screens, straining eyes that alternate from face to crowd to face, are genuine objects of beauty. And this in turn explains why as a society we have never been more at peace, but also never more in terror. Pleasurable, exalted terror.

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