Monday, November 30, 2009

Schopenhauer's Sublime and Night of the Living Dead!

For Schopenhauer, the sense of the sublime is attained by the aesthetic contemplation of an object that is inherently hostile to one’s will (or to human will in general). While the beautiful can be enjoyed in terms of perceptive knowledge without even the consideration of one’s will, the sublime requires a struggle of the subject to separate oneself from the concerns of the will. The subject recognizes the threat to the will but consciously ignores the relation of the object to the will. By detaching oneself from the desires of the will, the subject is able to achieve a level of aesthetic contemplation of an object that normally appears terrible to the will. This includes anything in which the will could feel a threat (and sensory pleasure could be obtained), from a desolate desert to a raging storm. This state of aesthetic contemplation is described as a “quiet comprehension,” which doesn't sound wholly unlike the state of a moviegoer in a theater!
The experience of viewing George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead(1968) evokes a sense of the sublime with its apocalyptic atmosphere and unadulterated gore. Of course, most people now can see this film and laugh at its dialogue and somewhat melodramatic acting, but at the time of its release, audience members were shocked. Schopenhauer would account for this in his explanation of a certain type of reaction to an overwhelming feeling of the sublime in which one realizes that the object exists only as our own idea.
The film’s story follows a handful of people trapped in a farmhouse during a zombie siege. Over the course of the night, all but one of the characters die, and the survivor is shot in the morning by a group of vigilantes who mistake him for a zombie. The use of handheld cameras and natural lighting makes the film seem almost like a documentary, and this combines with the ultimately tragic plot to create a general sense of despair. The sense of hopelessness evoked by these elements is exactly what Schopenhauer would describe as hostile to the will. The conflicted characters trapped in the house demonstrate the anxiety that the subject experiences when the hostility to the will becomes an actual threat to one’s well-being, but the film viewer is able to contemplate this sensory knowledge without worrying about the dangers of the zombie outbreak. The almost total collapse of society as we know it offers an overwhelming hostility to human will as a whole, and this is exactly the type of object of contemplation that would be able to induce a sense of the sublime.
Here is a clip that demonstrates the sublime (albeit with bad quality, no thanks to youtube) on a more specific level; close shots of zombies eating intestines! With the concept of the gore film hardly five years old (all praise Herschell Gordon Lewis for his creation of the splatter film! But that’s for a different paper…), audiences were blown away by such explicit shots. Watching someone get ripped open and have their insides eaten by humanoid-type monsters is obviously offensive to the will, but if one is able to separate oneself from the relation to the will, one is able to fully appreciate the sensory knowledge and achieve the sublime.

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